Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

Help Wanted

Posted by on Sunday, January 16th, 2022 in Minister, News

Watch the sermon here:

Hespeler, 16 January 2022 © Scott McAndless
Malachi 3:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, James 5:1-6, John 2:1-11

The servants had known for some time that this wedding was going to be a disaster. They knew better than anybody how much wine your average Galilean crowd could consume at a wedding feast. And they knew that the people who planned this affair had simply not bought enough. And they wanted the wedding to be a success just as much as anybody else. So, they had gone to the chief steward and explained the whole problem to him.

A Condescending Steward

But he just patted their hands and said, “Oh, you poor ignorant servants wouldn’t understand all the intricacies of planning a wedding. Just leave all the planning to professional stewards like me. Don’t you worry, I have it all in hand and I’m certainly not going to let anything go wrong at this wedding. If you all just work hard and do what you’re told and don’t bother me with any details like where the wine is going to come from, I am sure everything will be fine.”

But still, they couldn’t help but worry. They knew very well who would get blamed and yelled at and maybe even struck when the wine did inevitably run out. So, a couple of the servants, in desperation, even went to the bridegroom to raise the issue with him. But he just told them that, if they had any issues, they should raise them with the chief steward and not trouble him with little things like this.

When the bridegroom and the chief steward met up to discuss it a bit later, you can bet that they griped and complained to each other about how hard it is to get good and competent help. “You know,” the steward intoned, “these unskilled labourers just seem to think that they know everything when they really just should be deferring to the smart people like us. They’re really lucky that we even give them work to do and actually feed them.”

The Servants do their Best

When the party finally started, the servants worked so hard to make it a success in whatever ways were in their power. They made sure that the guests were as contented as they could be without necessarily constantly filling up their wine cups. They tried to distract them with sweet figs and dates. They directed their attention towards the various entertainments that had been arranged. And, yes, they watered down the wine as much as they dared. They did this not only to stretch it out as far as possible, but also in order to be sure that no one was too drunk when the inevitable eventually happened and people learned that there was no more wine. These were the kinds of tricks that servants had been using for generations just to survive a somewhat cruel way of life.

Then the moment came. One of them would have to go and tell the steward there was no more wine. They knew from long experience what would ensue – how the steward would blame the servants for stealing the wine or perhaps drinking it behind his back. He would demand to know why no one had warned him about this problem. What’s more, he would be sure to ask the question loudly and in front of all the guests so that they would know exactly who to blame for this debacle.

A New Plan

But just as the servant was steeling himself to go, one of the others tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to a woman on the other side of the room.

Jesus at the wedding in Cana
The Wedding at Cana

“I know her,” she said, “she comes from the next town over – a little place called Nazareth. She is known as a kind person. I think she must be related to the bride in some way, because she’s not really the kind of prestigious guest who would normally be invited to an affair like this. I think she was married to a carpenter or a builder or something and that he died a few years ago. But maybe, as a lowly carpenter’s wife, she might have a little more understanding for our situation. Let me go talk to her and see if she has any ideas.”

Many have heard the next part of the story – how the servant went to the woman to explain the problem and she called over her son. The son seemed to be a little bit annoyed with his mother then, perhaps displeased because she was pushing him to act before his time. But, after that hesitation, he seemed to be all in. He pulled the servants into a little conspiratorial huddle and explained what they were going to do.

A Little Respect Shown

The servants were honestly kind of thrilled at the way that the man spoke to them. He seemed to understand better than anyone else they’d met all day how hard they had been working and how they felt as if the success or failure of this whole affair was squarely upon their shoulders, despite how little support they’d been given. Most of all, he acknowledged that they knew what was needed better than anyone else. But they were still kind of shocked (though in an amused way) at the plan he came up with.

He directed them towards the six huge stone water jars that had been left in the servants’ kitchen and told them to fill them with water. They were certainly puzzled by this. These jars were generally used by the big important guests who liked to make a show of observing the rites of purification. Imagine their amusement therefore when he told them to fill the wine bottles from them and take them to the chief steward to taste.

And you can bet that they laughed and laughed as they peeked around the door and watched the look on that man’s face as some of the best wine that had ever tasted hit his educated palate and he had no clue where it had all come from. But they knew!

Andy’s Assignment

Help Wanted Sign

Today’s sermon is different. It is the result of what happened when I put the right to order a sermon on a specific topic into the auction last fall. The winning bid was made by Andy Cann and so he told me what I needed to preach about today. And Andy seems to have a special gift for putting his finger on some of the hottest topics of the day. Andy told me to write a sermon based on a picture of a help wanted sign. He thought that I should preach about what is perhaps the most visible symbol of the employment crisis we are dealing with at this very moment in our society.

The Great Resignation

You have probably heard the alarming reports. Many employers in many sectors are having a very hard time getting workers. The fast-food industry seems to be particularly hard hit and many establishments are running short shifts for shortened hours. Employers are complaining that nobody wants to work anymore.

At the same time, we seem to have a huge groundswell of workers who are beginning to express how tired they are of working full-time and yet are not being able to afford to live in the cities where they work. They are complaining about mistreatment by management, and many seem to be deciding but they’re just not going to put up with it anymore.

So, we are living through what is being called the Great Resignation which may be a good thing for some workers who are leaving for better jobs and better-balanced lives, but at the same time it seems like it might lead to a general collapse of industries that rely on low wage workers. And, yes, there is certain threat of inflation bound up in all of that.

And, in many ways all of that is perfectly symbolized in our days by the help wanted sign. So, thank you, Andy, for giving me an opportunity to preach about one of the hottest and most controversial social topics of our time. I’m sure it’ll all go fine, and I won’t get into any trouble.

Is there a Biblical Perspective?

So, I guess the question is, what does the Bible say about these thorny employment issues of our time. Now, I know what some people would say about the Bible’s position on these things. There are lots of people who just take it for granted that the Bible comes down hard on the side of extreme unbridled capitalism. You may be able to find a few specific verses that, when you pull them out of context, seem to imply that, but I do believe that the overall concern of the Bible points to another perspective.

What the Wedding Story Suggests

That is why I wanted to try and retell for you the story of the wedding in Cana from the point of view of the servants. The odd thing about that story in the Gospel of John is that you are actually able to read it from the point of view of the servers.

The gospel writer specifically underlines that perspective at one point when he says, “But, of course, the servants who had drawn out the water knew.” He goes out of his way to highlight the fact that they, and they alone, were the ones who were in on what it was that Jesus was doing. And once you realize that the gospel writer is interested in their perspective, you see that they are actually the key to the whole story. They must have been the ones who went to Jesus’ mother in the first place because she sent Jesus to them. They are the ones who are ultimately behind the divine solution to everything that went wrong at that wedding feast.

The Bible’s Concern for Workers

But this is not a perspective that you find only in this gospel story. Again and again, as you go through the Bible, you see a very real concern for the welfare and care of the people who actually do the work that keeps the economy and the society going because they matter. There is a Biblical concern that they be paid fair wages. The prophet Malachi, for example, says this about God’s concern: “I will be swift to bear witness against… those who oppress the hired workers in their wage.”

The message that is consistently presented in the Bible is that, if you mistreat workers and if they cannot afford to live on what you pay them, there will be dire consequences and judgment. I would argue that this is exactly the kind of thing we are seeing happen in our society with various sectors of the economy actually teetering on the brink of collapse because there are not enough people doing the work.

We Need to be Concerned

This is particularly ominous, of course, in the healthcare sector where the front-line workers, who we called heroes not so long ago, have been struggling to maintain staffing levels because of years of poor treatment, underpayment and lack of support for the people who do that work. That is actually pretty good representation of what the Bible would call judgment for poor treatment. And we are all dealing with those consequences right now. So, yes, the Bible does care about the workers and how they are treated, and we would do well to pay attention to that concern.

At the same time, some might ask, what about the needs of the job creators and those whose investments also make society and the economy go. It is true that these people also have a role. I do not think that the Bible misses the value that such people bring to society. And yet, at the same time, when these people become so enamored with their wealth that they forget the needs of the people, the Bible certainly doesn’t hesitate to criticize them.

Criticizing the Wealthy

I often think of a passage from the Letter of James these days. I honestly feel that if I were to post these words and direct them at people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos on Twitter, I would find myself the target of their abuse and might even end up being banned from Twitter altogether.

But this is what is what James writes: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter.”

Finding a Better Balance

Now, again I do not feel as if the point of that passage is to abuse the rich or to suggest that they have nothing to bring to our society. Of course they do. But it certainly is saying that when things get severely out of balance, when we get ourselves in a situation where, as a result of a major crisis such as a pandemic, the richest people in the world somehow managed to see their wealth grow at an enormous pace while the people who are actually working on the front lines of the crisis see themselves falling further and further behind, that is something that needs to be called out. That is what I see James doing.

There is a crisis in employment today. Balances are shifting and I do hope and pray that, even if there is a difficult time of adjustment, this will lead us all to a place in society where we can find a better balance between taking care of the investors and owners and giving real respect for those who do the work.

I believe Jesus had that respect and he showed it at that wedding in Cana. I do hope and pray that we lead the way in showing that same kind of respect for all the workers that we meet. You probably have no idea how much good you can do just by being kind and appreciative and respectful to the workers that you encounter. They deserve it. We can be a part of the change that needs to happen.


The wedding party turned out to be very memorable indeed. The servants had been run off of their feet for the rest of the time, but there was such a spirit of fun and wonder that they didn’t really mind. They were glad to be part of it. There was so much wine to go around that everyone got as much as they desired and more. And it was so good (and so potent) that everyone was in the best of moods.

But the best part, as far as the servants were concerned, was that they were the only ones that knew where the wine was coming from. Only they could go back again and again to those massive

stone jars to continue to serve the people.

So, anyways, the people had a great time and the servants had fun too. But at the end of the night the servants gathered back into the kitchen and took stock of things. Now there had been six stone jars each one able to contain up to 120 litres or, if you prefer, 30 gallons. And they had filled them all to the brim.

Three Pots Left

The people at the party had certainly done their very best, but even they could not drain over 720 litres of the best quality wine. So, at the end of the night, the servants still had three full pots of the best wine anyone had ever tasted. The question was, what would they do with it? What would they do with this finest quality wine that only they knew where it was?

They debated telling the chief steward about it, for, like, ten whole seconds. Then they turned to a debate on how much they could get on the open market. After all, they said to one another, the steward did instruct them not to bother him with little details like where the wine came from.

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The Samaritan Problem

Posted by on Sunday, January 9th, 2022 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 9 January 2021 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (Click to Read)

The church is facing an unprecedented crisis, one that absolutely threatens its very existence. And the leaders have all come together to figure out how they are going to deal with it. You see, there was a time not all that long ago when the church and its message was considered to be socially acceptable. I mean, maybe not everybody agreed with everything that the church was doing but, at least they saw the people in a good light.

But now, all of a sudden, that seems to be changing. Why, just recently there was a church leader that a bunch of people tried to cancel because they found his views to be offensive. And, as a result, a lot of the believers have been spooked. They are not so sure anymore that they can really trust the institution of the church and they have set out to try and establish and live out their Christian faith on their own terms.

Deconstructing Faith

They are, to use a word that has become popular lately, deconstructing their faith. They are kind of tearing it apart and examining every part of it to try and decide what they can do without and what, if anything, is worth keeping. They are then reassembling their faith in a new way and in a new place. Some of them have figured out how to live out that faith in innovative ways, without all of the structures that had traditionally been there. Some are calling this an emergent way of being the church

But the really odd thing is that this strange, jury-rigged faith actually seems to be connecting to the people that they have encountered. Somehow, despite the lack of traditional structures and different ways of doing things, the message about Christ and his love and amazing grace is still getting through to people. So, this emergent church has been seeing some growth

The Leaders are Concerned

But the traditional leaders of the church are concerned. They have remained where they have been and so all of this innovation and growth has taken place without their leadership and sanction. They are justifiably concerned that it will lead to the faith going way off track. So, they have gotten together to talk about what they should do. For a while, they do give a lot of consideration to how they might be able to shut all of this down. Maybe they should be putting out statements that deconstruction is going to get people condemned to hell or that these emergent type churches aren’t real churches. Maybe one of them, one who commands true respect, should go out and rebuke these people for their free thinking and innovation.

There is so much at stake that the arguments rage late into the afternoon. But then, tired of arguing, they decide to take a different approach. They pause for prayer and open their hearts to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And that is how they ultimately come up with a very different kind of plan. They decide that two of the most important leaders in the entire church, Peter and John, will go out and they will lay their hands on the believers in Samaria so that the Holy Spirit may clearly be seen as part of the work that they are doing out there.

Acts and the Growth of the Church

At the very beginning of the Book of Acts, the author who, by the way, is the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, tells us exactly how the story he’s going to tell is going to unfold. He puts his summary of the plot of the book on the lips of Jesus just before he ascends into heaven. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;” Jesus says, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

So, in the writer’s mind, these steps in the growth of the church and the expansion of its impact from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and beyond were inevitable. It was bound to be a story of continual triumph and success. But it is kind of easy to look on such events in hindsight and see them that way. It was likely a little different to actually live through them. In fact, if you read between the lines, it is pretty clear that the early church actually experienced these transitions as crises and problems to solve.

We certainly see that clearly when the church makes the jump to “the ends of the earth,” especially through the ministry and preaching of the Apostle Paul. In fact, the church nearly tore itself apart as it dealt with the very difficult questions that Paul’s ministry raised – questions about the keeping of the law, circumcision and the eating of blood and animals sacrificed to other gods.

The Samaritan Problem

And there is no doubt that the early church saw the transition into Samaria as similarly problematic. You can understand why. Jews and Samaritans generally did not agree about anything, especially when it came to religious matters. They had different scriptures and different ways of worshiping even if the Jews grudgingly admitted that they actually worshipped the same God.

So, there is no question that the leadership in Jerusalem, who, according to Luke, was left behind in Jerusalem following the “cancellation” of Stephen the martyr, was very concerned about what the Samaritans might do if they were allowed to co-opt the Christian faith. It is certainly very likely that the apostles in Jerusalem debated excluding the Samaritans from the young church or putting some severe restrictions on them. They certainly would have hesitated to allow them to just live out the faith in the way that suited them most.

Receiving the Holy Spirit

That is why what the apostles actually did is so important. We are told that they sent Peter and John, two of the most important leaders in the church, to Samaria so that the Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit. Now, the giving of the Holy Spirit is a very important matter in the Book of Acts. The author of this book makes a great deal about the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit throughout his story.

The gift of the Holy Spirit, often accompanied by signs and marvels such as speaking in strange tongues, always accompanies any important transition in the life of the church. It is there on the day of Pentecost when the apostles are given their leadership and authority. It is there when Peter first takes the gospel to a Gentile family.

The gift of the Holy Spirit obviously means many things.  It is about power and ecstasy and about bringing the entire community of the church together. It is a sign of the power of the gospel to change people’s lives. But above all, it is what gives the believers the power and authority to work out the faith in their context. Because they have the Spirit, Christians can confidently interpret the scriptures and the sayings of Jesus and they have the power to determine for themselves how they are going to live out these truths.

Troublesome Transitions

So, in many ways, the Samaritan problem was one of the first really big challenges that the apostolic leadership of the church had to face. The question was whether they were going to hold onto that power to define and control the way the faith was lived out or if they were going to allow others to share in that power. They had all kinds of reasons not to do what they did. I’m sure it would have seemed much safer to them at the time. But, because they did the right thing and decided that the gift of the Holy Spirit could be shared even with Samaritans, the church was able to enter into a brand-new phase of growth that was beginning of truly changing the world.

Now, as I say, because the writer of the Book of Acts sees all of this with hindsight, he just assumes that it was all inevitable. Of course, that was what the church was going to do. But my experience with the church is that we rarely have that much ease in dealing with these kinds of transitions as we live through them. Oh no, we gripe and we complain and we blame people when they start approaching the life of faith in new or innovative ways. We try to do whatever we can to shut it down. Above all, we do not want to give it our blessing.

Examples from our History

Persecution of Anabaptists

Even a light summary of the history of the church will show you that. How many Christian groups down through the centuries have been persecuted and criminalized just for wanting to live out their faith in different ways? The Lutherans were rejected and persecuted by the Catholics for insisting on salvation by faith alone. The Mennonites believed that their faith would not allow them to fight in wars and they were killed or sent into exile because of it. The Anabaptists wanted to celebrate baptisms a little bit differently from other Christians, and so the Presbyterians decided that they should be punished by being drowned. The list goes on and on. But it is really significant that, in the Book of Acts when faced with the Samaritan problem, we are told that the apostles did otherwise.

The Present Crisis

All of this is extremely relevant to the church at this moment in time. I think that the church may be facing yet another Samaritan problem. There are all kinds of reasons why people are no longer approaching the Christian faith as they once did. I’m sure you are aware of many of these trends.

For one thing, we find ourselves living in an age where people are just not very trustful of institutions in general. And so respect for the church as an institution in society has definitely been on the decline. Of course, many have simply abandoned the church entirely, while others have sought to develop their own non-institutional or even anti-institutional Christian practice. The church certainly often experiences this as a threat.

Abuse and Intolerance

There is also no question that the church has been fundamentally damaged by endless stories of abuse. We have come to understand that incidences of abuse of power and authority, of sexual and physical assault are all too common in the church. People have suffered as a result and experienced a great deal of trauma. All of this has certainly made them call into question the very organization of a church, and the theology and teaching that supports it, that seem to allow these kinds of things to continue to happen.

Others have come to the place where the traditional answers the churches have given to the tough questions of life no longer work for them. They are tired of the rejection by some Christians of scientific truths, of the mistreatment of people who do not fit into strict gender or sexuality roles. They have grown tired of the thinly veiled racism that they have encountered. These kinds of things are behind what might be called the deconstruction movement which ends with some rejecting the faith entirely, while others attempt to hold onto certain parts of it as they reconstruct a faith that works for them.

Accelerated by the Pandemic

These are forces that have been at work for some time now. But many of the effects have been accelerated by the strange situation we have been living through for the past two years. The world has just changed too much too quickly. It has changed politically, socially and economically and so people cannot just be content with how we’ve always done things. It is not that people have given up on faith in general. Yes, some have, but that is not the biggest issue. It is that they have learned to work out their faith in new ways and without needing to rely on institutional supports (like buildings and authority systems and schedules) that were once considered so essential.

What will be our Response?

And so, it seems, the church today is dealing with yet another Samaritan problem. Are we going to fight against this, rail against innovation and different ways of being Christians in the world? Are we going to insist that, in order to be considered good Christians, that they conform to our ideas of how it has to be done? If so, it is quite possible that the church might get left behind in Jerusalem while the real growth is taking place out there in Samaria.

But what if we were to do what those early Apostles did and acknowledge that the Christian faith that is emerging actually does have the Holy Spirit working within it? What if we were to lay our hands upon what God has frankly already been doing out there in Samaria and actually seek to support it, even at the risk of it costing in terms of what we once considered to be our essential institutional supports for the church? I believe that this might be the most important question the church is facing in our time, and I pray that we are open to the leadership of the Holy Spirit as we seek to answer it.

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The Beginning and the Logos

Posted by on Sunday, January 2nd, 2022 in Minister, News

Watch the sermon video here:

Hespeler, 2 January 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 147:12-20, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18 (click to read)

If you are familiar with the passage that begins the Bible, you know that it tells the story of the creation of the world as we know it. God starts out, “in the beginning” with something referred to as the heavens and the earth. And here’s the first thing you need to know about that phrase. The ancient Hebrews did not have a word for what we call the universe. The only way they had a speaking of everything that existed was by referring to everything that they could see, the heavens (which were always plural, by the way) and the earth. That was how they spoke about the whole universe

So, in Genesis, God basically begins with everything that exists. But that everything that exists seems to be in a bit of disarray. We are told that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” And I don’t know if you have ever encountered “a formless void,” but it doesn’t sound to me like something that you would want to run into in a dark alley.

The Elemental Formless Void

Have you ever been in that place in your life when you’ve lost something or someone that means absolutely everything to you? Do you remember how it felt, how utterly empty everything felt in that moment? You felt as if there was a hole inside you that was so big that all the tears in the world would never fill it. Well, that is maybe a helpful way to think about what is meant by a formless void. Except, I imagine, the very worst emotions you felt in that moment did get a little bit easier to manage as time went by, even if you still carry them with you. But this formless void that existed at the beginning of all things, there is something enduring about it for it is in the very structure of the universe itself. And the churning waters that it contains within it, they seem dangerous and full of chaos.

And there is a profound truth in that. It is saying that there is an inclination that is built into the very structure of the universe towards emptiness, towards darkness, chaos and loss. And I know that sounds a little bit bleak, but I really don’t think there’s any denying it. Left to itself, that is where the universe goes. In fact, this is even a truth that has been recognized by science. There is a law in the science of thermodynamics, the study of relationship between various kinds of energy, that states that in any closed system will eventually tend towards entropy. Entropy is basically a fancy word for a formless void. And the universe is the ultimate closed system. So, even science agrees that the universe tends towards a formless void.

Other Similar Creation Stories

So, that is where we start at the beginning of the Bible. But let me encourage you not to despair because the story that follows is the story about what God has done about that. Up until this point in the Bible’s creation story, there is actually very little that is different between the story of creation in Genesis and the creation myths you would have found in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. They all begin with an opening picture of a formless void and chaotic waters. Some of the ancient myths even go so far as to picture the pre-existing chaos as a great monster that threatens the very idea of existence itself. That is certainly a very memorable image, but it is still saying basically the same thing as Genesis.

But it is at this point where you start to see the Bible story diverge from the mythologies of other people. In most of these other stories, what happens next is that some hero god comes along and attacks the chaos monster in order to destroy it in a great primeval battle. In other words, we get even more chaos and entropy unleashed to defeat the original chaos and entropy.

Marduk battles the chaos monster Tiamat in Babylonian mythology

The Spoken Word Brings Order

But the really different and interesting thing about the Bible story is that God takes a very different approach. What happens in Genesis? God speaks. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” It is the divine spoken word that has the power to bring light into the oppressive darkness. Even more important, the divine word is able to bring order to the primeval chaos as God sorts the light from the darkness and goes on to put everything – the water, the land, the various species of animals and so on each in their proper place.

That is a powerful idea, isn’t it? The notion that by speaking and naming what we see in the world, we banish the chaos and the formless void that is always threatening. And the ancient Hebrews were not the only ones to understand this important truth. The ancient Greeks also understood it and expressed it in their own way.

An Idea from Greek Philosophy

They also understood that the universe was ordered and brought into being by a word. They called it, using their own language, the logos. And logos is a Greek word that can be translated as word, but it always meant more than what we mean by word. It meant speech, but it also meant discourse and reason. In the fifth century BC, the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus declared that the logos was the foundational principle of the universe, the ultimate source of all knowledge and order. So, in a way, the ancient Greeks and ancient Hebrews agreed that the universe as we know it was called into being by a word.

The Gospel of John Brings it all Together

And you need to understand that all of that was in the background when the writer of the Gospel of John took his pen in hand to begin to write, in the Greek language, his account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He began with the words, “In the beginning,” because he knew that that would make all of his readers think of the beginning of the creation story in Genesis and everything that went with the story, including the aching emptiness at the heart of the primeval formless void.

But then he goes on from there to say what was in the beginning – the logos. Yes, I know that it is translated in our Bibles as the Word. But it matters a great deal that the Greek word that he used was logos. With that one word, he managed to do something truly extraordinary. He evoked approximately 400 years of Greek thinking and philosophy on the nature of the universe, existence and being.

The Beginning and the Logos

So, with the first six words of his gospel, this writer manages to bring together the entire Hebrew and the entire Greek understanding of the universe and the place of humanity within it and put it all together. And he expects all of his readers to make all of those connections. He wants you to think of that great formless void at the beginning of all things and at the centre of the universe.

Not Just Cosmology

But he doesn’t only want you to think of it in the sense of a theoretical tendency towards entropy as defined by the science of thermodynamics. I mean, sure, it is that. But where that formless void touches us most deeply is on a personal level. It is found in that deep-seated fear of the chaos and the darkness that I think we all recognize lurks somewhere out there in the universe for all of us. It lurks in the emptiness that we feel deep inside over the trauma or loss we have experienced. We want to know what will save us from that.

And the gospel writer’s answer to that question is the same answer that the Greek philosophers gave: the logos. It is the power of reason and discourse and the spoken word that gives order to that chaos. He even speaks of how it responds to the darkness we sometimes feel within in very specific terms. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

He Speaks to our Elemental Struggles

And so it is that, in these few words, we have a response to some of the most basic needs and fears that we struggle with. In the face of our fear of the formless void, the gospel writer calls us to consider how God brought order and meaning out of the primordial emptiness by speaking but a few words. In response to our dread of the chaos that seems to want to overtake this world and everything in it, he shows us the organizing principle of Greek philosophy, this idea that the logos allows us to organize the world and make sense of it.

And I think that these are very helpful answers and yet, at the same time, I think there is something missing. Because here is the problem, when you are really struggling with the existential dread that sometimes seizes us in this world, it is all well and good for someone to come to you and speak of a creator who intended that this world would be good and that you would do well in it. And it is all very well and good for someone to come and speak to you of noble philosophical concepts that give theoretical answers to the questions that sometimes overwhelm your life.

But are these things really enough when you are truly struggling? Not necessarily. They might be helpful concepts. They might be intellectually stimulating and have a logic that brings you to soothing conclusions, but that may not be enough.

We Need More than an Intellectual Answer

That may not be enough, because feelings like dread and fear and despair strike us at a level that goes much deeper than our intellect or our logical mind. These are things that affect us at some of the deepest levels of our being. That is why you cannot just reason somebody out of a depression. That is why, if you tell someone who is irrationally afraid of the dark that they have no logical reason to be afraid, it doesn’t actually help them. We need more than an intellectual understanding of the work of the creator and an explanation of philosophical principles if we are going to navigate some of the hardest things about life in this world.

And so it is that the gospel writer gives us more than just ideas and logic. He goes on to say some truly remarkable things about the logos. The first truly remarkable thing he says comes in verse one: “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So here we discover that the logos is not merely the spoken word or the principle that aids God in the creation but is actually indistinguishable from the Creator. This is comforting because it means that God’s does not battle the darkness and chaos of this world as a kind of hobby, but rather because it is absolutely essential to God’s nature. For God to abandon us in the face of the formless void would actually be for God to abandon God’s self.

An Unexpected Twist

But the really surprising twist that comes in this passage arrives in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” This verse changes the course of the entire passage and takes it in a direction that is very different from the course of both Hebrew theology and Greek philosophy. We are no longer just speaking about a spoken word or a philosophical principle. We are speaking about how all of this becomes flesh, becomes one of us. And that is, of course, what the early Christians experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. And it did not necessarily make sense in terms of previous teachings or philosophies. But they knew that they had experienced something truly unique in Jesus.

Christ is the Answer

For here is the wonderful truth that is given to the people of God in Jesus. Yes, we do live our lives in the fear of the formless void. We live in the shadow of the chaos that threatens to overtake us at any moment because that is the nature of the universe. But Christ has shown us something else. Christ has shown us not only that God overcomes the darkness and the chaos, but that he is that victorious God and allows us to experience that victory in him.

It is Christ who comes alongside us to personally comfort us when we are struggling with the darkness and fear. It is Christ who, in his person, offers us meaning and purpose when the universe attempts to take those things away from us. Because he comes in the flesh, Jesus can struggle with all of those things – the fear, the darkness and that howling sense of emptiness – and can actually understand and sympathize with what it is that we feel. That is the power of the logos made flesh.

This opening prologue of the Gospel of John is a passage that pushes theology and philosophy into new territory. But don’t just think that this is about intellectual concepts of the nature of God and the universe. This is about God connecting with you exactly where you are and in the midst of the struggles of what seems to be a dark and threatening universe. It is about Jesus lightening the darkness that sometimes threatens to overwhelm you. That is what the Evangelist does for us with only six words.

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Mary, Joseph and the Boxing Day Sale

Posted by on Sunday, December 26th, 2021 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 26 December 2021 © Scott McAndless
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52 (click to read)

Now, every year the parents would participate in the annual Boxing Day sales. They would pack the whole family into the van and head out together with all of the aunts and uncles to the big box stores. And, in the year when the boy was about twelve years old, they did so as usual. Their anticipation of the big day had been growing for weeks as they watched for the various ads that had been appearing on the internet and on television. It looked as if there were going to be some truly memorable savings this year.

Joseph had had an eye on a brand-new flat screen TV that he knew would fit just perfectly in the den. If he could just manage to get there for the door crasher special at one store, he might be able to get a Samsung at a price so unbelievable that it was like he was losing money if he didn’t buy it. Mary was looking to update her wardrobe and also wanted some new appliances for the kitchen. But, in order to hit all of the right sales at the right time, their actions would have to be very carefully coordinated.

The Day Begins

It was still dark when they arrived in the parking lot, but they could already see the long lines of customers waiting for the doors to open. The anticipation was palpable and there was so much tension that it seemed like a fistfight might just break out at any moment. The extended family pulled together in a huddle. “Okay,” Joseph said, “you all know what sales and bargains you are looking for, so just go and get in the right lines and get your elbows up and grab that merchandise! We’ll meet up back here in about seven hours and tally up all our loot. Everyone got their credit cards? Alright, let’s go!

Everyone raced off so quickly that they didn’t even notice that the twelve-year-old was left standing there alone. I guess that they all just assumed that he had gone with somebody else. The young boy stood there for a few moments shaking his head before wandering off.

The Spoils

When the family had all gathered later (and it was more like eight hours later by the time they had all arrived) they were all talking excitedly about all the bargains that they had found. Some were also having a few second thoughts as they considered what the credit card bill was going to look like in January. Joseph, for his part, was staring dubiously at the huge cardboard box that stood at the back end of his van. Somehow it might not be quite as easy to fit in as he had thought.

Eventually all of the excited talk died down and the family decided that they should leave the parking lot and meet up for a late, late breakfast at Denny’s. Mary and Joseph weren’t particularly worried when they noticed that they didn’t quite have the full complement of kids in the back of the van. They just figured that one of the kids must have caught a ride with Uncle Jake or Grandpa. So it was only once everyone had arrived at the restaurant and they paused to do a proper headcount that they realized that the twelve-year-old was not with them.

A Frantic Search

As you can imagine, things got pretty frantic after that. Mary and Joseph hopped in the van and raced back to all of the stores that they had visited, and they searched in every nook and cranny. They went to the toy departments, to the electronics and even the boys clothing department. They described the boy to everyone that they met, but it seemed as if no one had seen him. They were getting really scared.

Eventually they realized that they just needed to calm down a bit so that they could think. So, they pulled off the road and into a church parking lot. They sat there for a moment trying to do some deep breathing, and then they looked up at a little display that the church had put up on its lawn.

The Nativity Scene

It was just your typical nativity scene, nothing special. The church had obviously been using the same figures for years now and they were looking worn and aged. The whole thing looked a bit shabby when compared to the bright and shining displays that they had been dealing with all day. And, of course, now that Christmas was over, the church had turned off the flood lights that had once made the scene much more visible. That’s probably why it took a while for Mary and Joseph to realize that there was one extra figure in the scene that didn’t quite belong. Yes, quietly staring at the centre of the display was their young son.

“When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’”

A Twelve-Year-Old’s Wisdom

But their son just looked up at them and said, “Wasn’t it just a couple of days ago when you told me that this person…” (He gestured towards the child in the manger) “…this person was the greatest who had ever lived? But somehow, I noticed that there aren’t any flat screen TVs or Food Ninjas in that stable. In fact, it seems pretty clear that they didn’t have any of the so-called good things in life that you’ve been running after all day.

I mean, on one level I get it. I do enjoy my toys and my games and I love the new phone that I got for Christmas. But it was only a couple of days ago when you told me that this child, the one in the manger, that he and everything that he stood for was worth more than all the possessions in the world. I was just a little amazed at how quickly everybody seemed to forget that today. I was just here sitting and thinking that it might be nice if we could remember it a little bit longer.

A Jarring Transition

There is a rather jarring transition between verse 40 and verse 41 of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. From the beginning of the chapter up until verse 40, we have the story of the birth and infancy of Jesus. And, of course, you are all pretty familiar with that story. It is full of signs and wonders. There is an angel appearing to shepherds and then being joined by heavenly choirs. And when the shepherds come to see the child who is lying in the manger, they tell the story of what they have experienced and everyone is filled with wonder and amazement.

And one point in particular is underlined. Mary, Jesus’ mother, gets it. After the shepherds leave, we are told that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” And one of the things that she must have pondered would have been God’s odd choice to reveal such important information to a lowly band of shepherds.

Encounters in the Temple

We have also been told about what happened when Mary and Joseph took the child to the temple when he was only about a week old and how they met two prophets there who said some pretty amazing things about their baby. One of them, Simeon, in particular spoke directly to Mary and said, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

So, just in case, you know, the whole story told by the shepherds didn’t quite get through to her, you’re really can’t get more explicit when it comes to promise and warning than that. So, very clearly, Mary has had a whole lot to hold onto and ponder, and that’s without even getting into her own personal experience with an angel visitor in chapter one.

So, when we get to the end of verse 40, Jesus’ parents really have this whole thing figured out. Or at least Mary does. The Gospel of Luke actually doesn’t say anything about Joseph hearing or understanding any of it, so, maybe he did or maybe he didn’t. But at the very least, you would think that all that they have just been through should leave an impression.

All is Forgotten

But then we get to verse 41 and all of a sudden all of that seems to have been forgotten. And I realize, of course, that it is twelve years later. But it is just odd that, when we next see the holy family, they are behaving just like any other Jewish family. They go down, together with a large group of extended family and neighbours, to Jerusalem for the most important festival of the year.

The Passover is a celebration of the time when God saved the people of Israel from horrible slavery in Egypt. So, it is obviously an important spiritual occasion that they want to be part of. There is also some serious foreshadowing going on as far as the Gospel is concerned because we all know what happens when Jesus goes to Jerusalem for Passover at the end of this book.

Not Just a Religious Occasion

But don’t think for a moment that the family only had religion on their mind when they went. Nazareth was a nowhere town – a place where nothing happened and that trade goods rarely reached. So, they probably were overwhelmed by the big city and all of its allures – the markets, the entertainment and music and spectacle. People came to Passover from all over the known world, so just seeing the people from everywhere would have been overwhelming.

So, yes, the hicks from Galilee were having a big time down in Jerusalem and while their attention was diverted by the big city lights, their son went missing. Of course, this is a nightmare for any parents. And maybe it is not too surprising in their case.

They were clearly living in a small town where everybody looked out for everyone else’s kids. They lived in the community where they could just assume that their neighbours or relatives would look after their son if they weren’t around. You can hardly blame them if they don’t know how to deal with the very different kinds of dangers in a big city. No, we cannot fault Mary and Joseph for going down to Jerusalem or for losing track of their son.

What Jesus Blames them for

But Jesus does blame them for one thing. He blames them for searching. “He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me?” I know that seems weird because, of course, that is what a parent is going to do when a child is lost. But what Jesus seems to be saying is that they shouldn’t have needed to search. They already had all the information they needed to know where Jesus would be.

But here is the really damning thing we are told about Jesus’ parents: “But they did not understand what he said to them.” They didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. And isn’t that kind of amazing? I mean, after everything that they had seen twelve years ago, everything they had been through, they should have known something. Jesus says to them, Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Or that phrase could also be translated as “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s work?”

What Have we Forgotten?

Yes, the damning thing was that, in twelve short years, they seem to have forgotten what Jesus was supposed to be here for, what he meant and what he stood for. It seems unbelievable that they could, but they did.

But maybe it is not so unbelievable. I mean, we forget it so much quicker than that. We sing “Good Christians all rejoice,” but in days we are giving into despair and hopelessness. It is like we never really believed it. We sing “Let every heart prepare him room,” yet do we neglect to prepare room for him to truly change our own heart? Most of all, we sing, “Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis Gloria,” and yet we do not allow him to rule over our own lives, much less than the world.

If what we have just celebrated is true, it really does change how we look at everything. It gives us a different perspective on what is valuable and what matters. It may have taken Mary and Joseph twelve years to forget, but are we going to let it go in a matter of days? I pray that we don’t.

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When Elizabeth Heard Mary’s Greeting

Posted by on Sunday, December 19th, 2021 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 19 December 2021 © Scott McAndless
Micah 5:2-5, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55 (click to read)

Zechariah had always been a good husband. He had been devoted and loving. And he had stuck by her in the good times and in the bad. Even when she endured the disgrace… (And, yes, that is how she thought of it, disgrace. That is what some of the other women said of her as well.) – she had endured the disgrace of being childless, he and he alone did not blame her or treat her as any less than a valued wife.

An Uncommunicative Husband

But Zechariah had one flaw. He had never been one for talking, and certainly not for sharing his feelings. Nor had he been the kind of person that she could share her feelings with. You know, men. They just don't know how to communicate. They can often be quite useless in that way.

And that had been before the incident in the temple, the incident that still had not yet been adequately explained to Elizabeth. All she knew was that, after he had completed his temple service, he came home and she greeted him with all her usual affection, but he didn’t say a single word. Nothing! She hadn’t a clue what was going on. She had thought that he was uncommunicative before, but this was kind of crazy.

The Only Explanation

It was only after several days that he seemed to have had an idea. He found a wax tablet and a sharp stylus, scribbled a few lines and gave it to her. Even with the written word, Zechariah was still very taciturn. Elizabeth couldn’t read it, of course. Few women could read. So, she took it to one of his brother priests and he read it for her. It said, “You shall have a son. We will name him John. Drink no wine or strong drink.” That was it.

It wasn’t much in the way of explanation. But it seemed as if that was all that Elizabeth was going to get. She accepted that it was true, as unbelievable as it was, because she knew that her husband would not joke about a matter like that. But it still didn’t seem real. She might believe it with her head, but how could she believe it in her heart? She said it aloud, trying to convince herself as much as anyone else “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” But she was still not sure she believed it.

Elizabeth’s Doubt

When her body began to change, she recognized that something was going on, but how could she truly believe that she was expecting after having been disappointed so many times before? That is the real problem that people have when they struggle with infertility. They’ve gone through that monthly cycle of hoping against hope only to have that hope crushed so many times that it becomes so much easier just not to hope anymore. And maybe these changes in her body were actually a bad sign. She was getting very old after all. Could these not just be the signs she was finally getting too old for it even to be a possibility?

Hoping for the Quickening

There was one thing that she had always heard from other mothers, though. They had always told her that there had been one thing that had made it all real for them. It was something called the quickening. They had promised her that when she finally felt her child moving within her, it would be a wondrous event and she would finally know for sure that a baby lived within her. So, with great trepidation and fear, Elizabeth waited to feel something. Every day she didn’t feel it was a day of agony. And then, when she actually did begin to feel something, something like little flutters or bubbles, they were so small and fleeting that they just weren’t enough to convince her that anything was real.

And so, even if she was well into her fifth month on the day when her cousin Mary from Nazareth in Galilee came by to visit, Elizabeth was not really in a very good place. She was getting no support from her husband. I mean, I know it wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t communicative this time. But still, she couldn’t help but feel abandoned. And she was filled with doubt and fears. She was having a hard time hoping.

An Unannounced Visit

And here’s the other thing you need to understand about her visit from Mary: this was not an age of lightning communication. Mary had not been able to call or text to say that she was coming. The Roman Empire did not have a civilian postal service. The only way for someone like Mary to visit a relative who lived in another town was to drop in unannounced.

So, Elizabeth had absolutely no idea who was about to walk through her door. Nor is there any indication that she had been given any information about what had been going on with Mary who had just received her own message from an angel that she was going to have her own very remarkable child. Apparently, Mary just set out to see her cousin right away when she heard, from the angel (and, no, it had not been posted on Facebook) that Elizabeth was also expecting.

Everything Changes in a Moment

Elizabeth had no clue what was going on when, in the middle of the day, she heard the door to the house open followed by the voice of her well-loved cousin Mary calling out to her. And in that moment, as she heard that familiar voice, many things happened. First, and most important of all, the child moved within her. And this was no flutter. This was no indistinct movement that her doubting mind could just dismiss. No, her son leapt within her and immediately banished from her mind all doubt, all fear and all anxiety about whether she was really expecting. The flood of joy and relief was overwhelming.

At the same moment, she was also filled with an assurance that there was something about Mary. It wasn’t just that her beloved cousin was there, it was that something was happening in her. She had only heard one word of greeting. But in that word, Elizabeth had recognized the same joy that she was feeling about the life that was growing within her.

How she knew that her son within her was telling her that there would be something truly extraordinary about Mary’s child, is a little bit harder to explain. But, given all of the knowledge, relief and joy that were flooding through her in that moment of time, maybe it’s not all that surprising that she was also completely certain that her child had made a revelation to her. And that was when she cried out, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

What Christmas is for

And, for me, that is what Christmas is all about. It is not about shopping or gifts. It is not about eating huge amounts of food. It is about what happens to Elizabeth there. It is about people finding a reason to hope. It is about people being surprised by relief and by joy, especially when those things meet them in the very thing that they are struggling with.

But here is the thing that particularly strikes me about this story of Mary and Elizabeth this year. I suppose you might say that it is God who gifts Elizabeth with all of these wonderful things, but it is surely no coincidence that this happens at the very moment when she is visited by her relative who has come from a distance to visit her.

That seems important, maybe especially this year as many people look forward to gathering over the holidays with their extended families – gathering with people who they may not have seen for a very long time, not even last Christmas, because of this blasted pandemic. Wouldn’t you love to see all of our family gatherings filled with such feelings of hope, joy and comfort? I certainly would.

Families are Complicated

And yet I am also keenly aware that it might not be quite so simple as that. I know that there are many for whom family gatherings are anything but edifying. They dread going back to those people because they know all of the old arguments will be dredged up. They know that Mom or Aunt Sally or Uncle Fred just has this way of getting under their skin and making them feel bad about the life choices that they have made, the ones that they’re actually normally pretty good with. They know that Cousin George is going to say something racist or that is some wild political conspiracy theory that is going to make everybody cringe, but that nobody’s going to call him on it.

I mean, I know that every family is different, and these are just examples of the kinds of things that go on, but I would wager that there are a lot of families out there that have these dynamics that do make people feel more dread than joy at the prospect of family gatherings.

And that’s just in an ordinary year. I am afraid, with all of the stress that we’ve been going through, that the potential for that kind of stuff is really going to be ramped up this year. There are some people who might be on a hair trigger when it comes to interactions with families. A lot of people might feel as if they are walking on eggshells. And that’s even before you get into those very fraught discussions about inviting or disinviting people who are unvaccinated or who you cannot rely on to wear masks. Yes, as I look forward to family gatherings this season, there could just be an emotional minefield out there. And we’re all heading towards it.

An Advent Challenge

But here is a challenge for you this Advent. I know that you do not have any control over the stress of this season or the stress that you might be carrying because of all that’s been going on. You certainly don’t have any control over the stress that other people are feeling. You also have no control over what other people do as a result of the burdens they carry. But I’ll tell you what you do have control over. You have control over what you do and how you respond. And you can commit yourself right now to going into any encounters with those important people in your life, your family, during this holiday season with a spirit of grace and kindness.

I’m not accusing anyone of anything but, is it possible that sometimes, when your family gathers, you are the one who reminds people of old arguments and disagreements? Can you sometimes be the person who just has to put down somebody else’s accomplishments in order to feel good about your own? Or maybe you’re just that person who has a way of getting under somebody else’s skin, of being judgmental or even mean. Do you sometimes share opinions that you know no one else wants to hear?

None of us are perfect and I would suggest that each one of us, maybe even in just a small way, contributes to the dysfunction that sometimes happens when families gather. Well, first of all, you could just decide not to do that this year – not to be part of the dysfunction.

Be Like Mary

But even more than that, what if you went into all of those encounters this year with a determination to be what Mary was to Elizabeth, the bearer of a blessing. You could do your best to respond to someone who seems determined to take you down a peg by honouring them and lifting them up because, guess what, they’ve had a pretty lousy year too. What if you were to respond to what feels like judgment with a little bit of unconditional love?

The more I look at this story of Mary and Elizabeth, what I see is Mary, her heart full of joy and love and promise, walking in on her cousin and being completely unaware of all of the agony and doubt and questions that Elizabeth has been struggling with. And with a word, she transforms the entire situation into an encounter with pure joy. I honestly believe that that can be you this Christmas, if, with God’s power and the help of the Holy Spirit, you take on the challenge that Mary offers to us.

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What then should we do?

Posted by on Sunday, December 12th, 2021 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 12 December 2021 © Scott McAndless – Advent 3
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18 (Click to read)

Can I make a confession to you? Every time I read out the story of the preaching of John the Baptist from the Gospel of Luke, I do a double take. Something doesn’t seem quite right. The thing that trips me up is the little summary of the preaching of John that Luke tags on the end of it: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

This is, pretty clearly, the gospel writer’s take on what John was doing. It isn’t found anywhere else in the gospel record and doesn’t appear to be an oral tradition. This is basically Luke looking at the whole message of the Baptist and saying, yes, this sounds like a whole lot of good news. But I have to ask, what about what John has just said sounds like good news to you?

Seems Like Pretty Bad News

He has just spent his time calling the people who, in good faith, have come out to listen to him a “brood of vipers!” He’s been talking about the “wrath to come” and warning that it’s going to be hard to escape. He says, “the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Ouch!

He’s been talking about how the people will be sorted from one another like the wheat is separated from the chaff by a winnowing fork and he is saying that a good number of people are about to be burned up in the fire! You know, not really your average good news report. So I do kind of wince every time I read that. It makes me wonder if Luke is trying to be ironic.

Advent is Also Like that

But, as I think about it, maybe my problem with Luke’s summary of the message of John is the same problem that I have with the season of Advent. In many ways, Advent seems to be a very ironic season in the life of the church. These are the uplifting themes that we run through every Advent: hope, love, peace and joy. Because, in our society, it is considered to be part of the Christmas season we also tend to focus on heartwarming stories and hopeful ideals. What’s more, because we simply cannot wait, we usually go ahead and start singing Christmas carols with all the nostalgia and good feelings that come with them. Advent feels like a good news season.

But have you read the passages of scripture we usually read in the church during this season? It is all full of disaster, destruction and all of the elements of John the Baptist’s speech. It is a season of apocalyptic fire and floods, pestilence and persecution. That is because Advent is not supposed to be about preparing for Christmas. As far as the church is concerned, we do not spend this season anticipating the coming of the Son of God born in a manger but rather the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds with glory at the end of all things.

Puff Pieces

But there are two kinds of good news. There is the kind of good news that is basically just puff pieces. These are stories that are meant to distract and divert. They focus on the positive aspect of some person or event without even acknowledging that they might have a negative side. There is a lot of that kind of news around Christmas time as the media pitches in to get everyone in the right mood so that they will go out and do a lot of shopping. And that’s all well and good, we do sometimes need a break from being serious. But I would argue that good news is supposed to be something more than just looking at the bright side of everything. Because, if that’s all it is, it is really just a practice of denialism.

Truly Good News

I would suggest that truly good news has to be able to grapple with the dark side of life, not just the bright side. And that’s what I do see John the Baptist struggling with in this passage. It is also what I see the church struggling with during this season of the year and that is a good thing.

When the people come out to John, he doesn’t sugar-coat the situation to them. He demands that they come to terms with what is really going on in the world. If he were preaching today, for example, he would demand that we face problems like the homelessness crisis, the opioid epidemic and the climate crisis. In fact, I have no doubt that John would be, let’s just say, very forceful in his presentation of these problems and threats. But, as inflammatory as John’s language might be, and I do mean literally inflammatory, there is one thing that makes it good news.

John has an Answer

The people who’ve come out to see him ask him, “What then should we do?” And the good news is that he has an answer. You see, when you have a crisis or a problem that you can’t do anything about, that’s nothing but bad news. But, if you can do something, that changes your perspective about everything. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to have the ability to totally resolve or fix what is wrong. That is a mistake that people often make and it leads to despair and often to nothing being done at all.

For example, people look at a huge problem like global climate change and they say, “Anything that I do personally is going to be such a small drop in the bucket, I might as well not even try.” That’s the kind of attitude that leads to a lot of disillusionment. But I think it is important to remember that, even if you do not have the means or the influence to actually fix what is wrong, if you do take the right action, you can be part of the solution and that makes all the difference in your attitude. It allows you to hold onto hope.

So, John does give to the people examples of the right kind of actions that they can take. And, interestingly enough, he’s able to recognize that different people are in different positions and that might require different kinds of actions in order to be effective. So, let’s take a look at the specific actions that John does encourage people to take.

To the Soldiers

He speaks to the soldiers. Now, it is not entirely clear who these soldiers are. They might be Roman legionary troops, though it would seem rather strange for members of a foreign occupying force to come out to see a figure like John. It is maybe more likely that they are members of a local militia force. But whoever they are, it is pretty clear what they represent.

They are the official defenders of the system according to which the entire world works. They are the ones who ensure that the wealthy keep their wealth while the poor stay in their place. They are the ones who wield the violence that exploits the people for the benefit of the powerful. And, of course, they really don’t have much choice in that matter. Wherever their sympathies may lie, they have to follow orders.

So, what does the Baptist say to them? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Think about what this means. These are people who are totally caught up in a system of exploitation. They are the defenders of the system itself. And yet, John is challenging them to take a stand and not personally take part in that systemic exploitation – at least not to use it for their own purposes. He is encouraging them, in whatever small ways they can, to undermine the system from within.

To the Tax Collectors

He gives the same advice to the tax-collectors who came to him. Now nothing, in the ancient Roman Empire was more riddled with corruption and exploitation than the tax system. This was because it was designed to work that way. Tax collectors were not government employees but rather independent contractors who bid to get the gig. They weren’t actually paid and the only way they could earn their living was by squeezing extra money out of the people. So, from top to bottom, the entire system was riddled with individuals who were all squeezing the people under them for whatever they could get. The people at the bottom – the actual taxpayers – were often squeezed far beyond what they could bear.

So, when John says to them that they should, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you,” he is actually asking a great deal. He is basically asking them to forgo the only source of income or profit that they have. The message seems to be that, when you are caught in a corrupt and exploitative system, anything you do to personally step out of that system can be a powerful and transformative statement.

To the People

So John speaks to the soldiers and the tax collectors. He has one more answer that seems to be directed to the people in general. To them he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” This is perhaps the hardest one to hear, especially as it is directed at everyone so that nobody can say it doesn’t apply to them. This answer attacks the basic, underlying system that undergirds the very structure of society and that makes it possible for some people to have a superabundance of things while others don’t have enough to get by.

And the point of this is not to villainize or guilt the people of this world who have done well for themselves. If you have been successful in this life as a result of your talent and hard work, good for you. John is not attacking you. What he is targeting is the system that allows such wild inequity between those who have and those who have not. And the reason why that happens has much more to do with how everything has been structured in our society than it does with the acts of individuals.

The Individual Versus the System

John understands that an individual cannot change the system. But he does say that, if you have the means to and you want to be part of the solution instead of the problem, well then, you need to start to look at the possessions you have in a very different way. You need to start to see how they can be of service to those who are in the greatest need instead of just asking what they can do to make your life more comfortable.

This, then, is where I see the genius of John the Baptist’s good news message. He recognizes the corrupt and problematic systems that are at work in this world and that create misery and evil. He sees the corrupt political systems, financial systems and economic systems. And he recognizes that all of us, depending on the position we play in life, are part of these corrupt systems. We can’t help that. And we certainly can’t change them on our own. But he begins to put out there a dream of groups of people who decide to do things differently, who opt out of these systems in the ways that they can, and he suggests that they are the ones who will actually change the world.

The good news is that we are not powerless in the face of the evil and dysfunction of this world. We have a part to play in God’s work for its redemption. The good news is that as individuals we have little power to change anything. But if we all do it together, we can radically remake the systems of this world.

A Challenge

Which brings us, finally, to our challenge for this third Sunday of Advent. I think all of us, maybe especially in the chaos of recent months, have been in the place of those people who came out to John the Baptist in the wilderness. We don’t need him to tell us that the world is in a bit of a mess. We have all seen it. No, we come looking for some good news. And the good news he gives us is there something that we can do. We can choose together not to live according to the corrupt and evil systems of this world. And that is something that will have impact when we do it all together.

And that’s actually what the purpose of the church is. It is this thing that allows us to do it all together. My challenge for you this week is to take some action to be a part of what this congregation is doing to challenge the dysfunctional systems of this world. We are doing our best to address the inequality in our city by providing food through the food bank on a week by week basis. Can you do something to support or encourage that?

We are doing what we can to reach out to families who are finding that they don’t have enough tunics or cloaks or other pieces of clothing. And we are enabling a way to get that clothing from those who have enough to spare to those who don’t have enough. That is what Hope Clothing is. What can you do this week to support that endeavour?

Share What we Can Do

Above all, we are trying to model in this church a way of living out what John was asking those people who came to him to do. Do we do that perfectly? No. But the closer we stay to what John was asking for and what Jesus was calling for from his disciples, the more we are part of the solution instead of the problem.

So, do you know what you can do this week to help that along? You can share what we are doing in this church with someone else. Tell them, share a link or video on social media, reach out to someone and share with them the difference that the good news has made in your life. Be a part of the solution, not the problem.

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To Those Who Sit in Darkness

Posted by on Sunday, December 5th, 2021 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 5 December 2021 © Scott McAndless – Advent 2
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6 (click to read)

In my line of work, as you can imagine, I will often come into contact with people who are going through rough times – who, to use the phrase that we read together this morning from the Gospel of Luke, “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Sometimes they tell me their stories or show me what they are going through in other ways. That is actually a great privilege, though it can be a hard one to bear. And often what they share with me is quite private and I honour their trust in me by keeping those things private.

So I won’t give you any examples of this with any identifying details, but I am going to tell you that I have observed something. There has been more of that over the last several months. More people have been sitting in darkness that is deeper and more impenetrable. And the shadow of death, it has grown larger, gloomier and more oppressive. I mean, that just something that we seem to be dealing with these days.

What Some are Struggling with

Every story is different, and the challenges are unique to every individual’s life, but let me tell you some of the things that I have seen in non-identifying ways. The social isolation of recent months has been hard for some to bear. They are just lonely, and everyone has found their own ways to deal with that. Some have quietly slipped into depression, and I know that some have essentially been self medicating. That might mean, for example, that they’ve been drinking more or using other prescription or non-prescription products. Others have managed to cope by developing other habits – indulgent eating, gambling or just about any other activity that might be distracting them from the pain that they feel.

And I want to be clear here, I do not believe that anybody should feel ashamed of doing what they need to do to get by during a difficult time. I’m not here to condemn anyone for the strategies that they may have used to do so. But this crisis has gone on longer than most others that we have faced which has meant that people have been coping for longer. And many have reached the point where their coping mechanisms are becoming destructive either to themselves or to the people that they love. And the problem is, once you enter into that kind of cycle, it can be very hard to escape.

Too Much Grief

Another thing that has been happening is that there has been an enormous amount of loss. People have died and more of them have died than we had become used to. Others have lost things that had deep meaning to them, the kinds of things that told them who they were and gave them a sense of meaning. People have lost jobs and businesses. They have seen people they love move away or they have lost them in other ways.

And, yes, grief and loss are, and always have been, an essential part of life. But something about this season has been particularly hard for some people to bear. The grief and loss have been piling up so quickly that some have not been able to process it. We have also often not been able to grieve our losses in the ways that we would have liked. And I suspect that all of this has meant that many people are carrying around something like a huge backpack filled with grief that they’re not quite sure what to do with. And it is like a great burden that some have been carrying so long that they’ve almost forgotten that it is weighing down their every step and every movement.

Other Issues

These are but some of the ways in which people have been sitting in the darkness. I’ve certainly known others who struggle with illness, either in themselves or in someone they love. And of course, there have also been enormous economic struggles as many families have had a hard time feeding their children and keeping them in clothes. What’s more, I suspect that many of us scarcely even grasp the enormity of the housing problems that have emerged as people have been simply priced out of shelter.

Alongside all that, often making it worse, we are dealing with a pandemic of misinformation. I know this is something that you have all encountered. Do you remember when conspiracy theories were just this amusing thing that some people got into. They would turn it into this little hobby where they liked to talk about the Kennedy assassination or whether or not Paul McCartney was really dead. It was harmless and amusing.

But we now find ourselves living in an age where conspiracy theories are dangerous and destructive. And I know that some of us can get very angry with people who become obsessed with anti-vax or anti-mask or with ridiculous political theories that are based on nothing. I understand this, of course, because a lot of this is having some very dangerous effects.

But I’ve got to say that I’m learning to feel a bit of compassion for the people who get caught up in this kind of thinking. I think they are living in a particular kind of darkness where they cannot trust institutions or political leaders or health officials. And often, when you talk to them, there are actually some good reasons for that mistrust. So, I would actually count the people who are caught up in such things among the victims of the darkness. And, honestly, that kind of makes it all even more frightening.

Zechariah Breaks his Silence

And on this day, the Second Sunday of Advent which is the Sunday of peace, I declare to you that we are being given a challenge that is absolutely tailored to this present moment. This morning we read the song of Zechariah the priest. Ever since the angel first came to him to announce that, against all expectations, he and his wife were going to have a son, he has been struck dumb. This is because he had asked for a sign that it would all come true, given that it was so impossible for him and his wife, Elizabeth, to have a child at such an advanced age. The sign given, or perhaps it was a punishment, was that he was rendered unable to speak.

But now, now that the child has been born and been given a name, Zechariah’s tongue has finally been loosed and he bursts forth in this amazing song. And in this alone there is a message for our time. All this time, Zechariah has silently held onto a word of promise. It is a promise for him and for Elizabeth, the fulfillment of a dream that they have long held close. For their own personal darkness has been their inability to have a child.

But clearly, during all that time of silence, Zechariah has had a chance to think.  And he has come to realize that what is good news for him and his wife, must be good news for more than just them. For what good is it if he and Elizabeth are freed from their darkness but others continue to sit in it? And so, Zechariah begins to speak a promise for all.

Breaking our Silence

And that is exactly where all of us need to be during this Advent season. There is a temptation in the Christian church today to think of the good news only in terms of what is good news to ourselves. People want to embrace the idea that God has saved them, has given them the hope of life beyond death and restored their own personal relationship with God. Christianity has largely become an individualistic religion within our individualistic society. How many Christians only think of it in terms of what is in it for them? But Zechariah has learned the folly of such thinking and the joy that he has found in the promises of God must burst forth from him and be shared with other people as well.

And so, during this difficult Advent season when many are sitting in the darkness, our tongues must be loosed as well. If the good news that we have heard about Jesus is for ourselves alone, then I am afraid that it is not truly good news. And I don’t mean to say by that that we need to go out and impose a gospel message onto others. This is not about pressuring anybody to listen to gospel stories or messages. And I certainly don’t think it means that we need to go out and condemn people for their sin or threaten them with hellfire. That is not what Zechariah does.

But, at the same time, silence is no longer an option in this troubled world. If you have found a reason to hope or even just a reason to hold on in difficult times, you have a responsibility to let others know, especially those who are sitting in darkness. And I believe that that is what Zechariah does.

God’s Commitment

He celebrates God’s commitment to be with the whole people of Israel and to save them during the darkest and most difficult times – a God who “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” That is the God that we must remember and who can give comfort to these sitting in darkness. For it is a God who never forgets the ones who are lost or alone.

A Child of Hope

And then he finally arrives at his reflection on this child of his that has just been born. Any time a new child is born, it is a sign of hope. Because every new child has unlimited potential. Who knows what this child might go on to do? She might grow up to find a way to defeat a particularly pernicious kind of cancer. He might grow up to be the one to broker a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. She might discover the technology that gives us near limitless green energy.

And so, Zechariah looks at his newly born, newly named child and declares his potential. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And of course, that is a prophecy particularly concerning John. He is the one who is to prepare the way for all that Jesus is going to accomplish. But it is also a statement about what has been put into motion by the coming of John and by the coming of Jesus. “The dawn from on high will break upon us,” is not merely a statement about what John is going to do. It is a statement about what God is doing at this moment in time for a world where many sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Following in John’s Path

And so, we also are the ones who are called to give light. That is why my challenge for you this Advent is simply to walk in the footsteps of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Just as they reached out to many who were sitting in darkness, that is your task this season. And, no, I’m not saying that it’s all on you individually. You are not going to drag all of the people out of the darkness and into the light. But my challenge to you is to find a way to do it for somebody this week.

What you can do

Do you know someone who is struggling with their finances? How could you practice generosity to them this week? I think that would cause the dawn to break for them. Do you know someone who is struggling with illness or disease? You don’t have to go to them with some magic word that is going to suddenly make them well. That’s not your job. But, maybe, you can just go to them. You can sit with them for a while in their struggles. You would be amazed at the difference it can make just to have a person with you when you are sitting in the darkness. And that person can be you this week.

Do you know someone who is caught up in destructive life patterns? Don’t think that you could go to them and tell them to straighten up and that’s going to fix them. It usually doesn’t work like that. But maybe you could go and listen to them and try and understand what it is that is causing them to behave in self-destructive ways. A little bit of understanding can go a long way in terms of bringing people light when they are sitting in the darkness.

And I’ll bet you know someone who’s been caught up in some ridiculous conspiracy theory. I know you’ve figured out by now that it really doesn’t help anything to argue with them about it. It never does. In fact, it will probably only make them more committed to their conspiracy. But do you know what they might need? They might need somebody who can help them see what it is they are really afraid of. They might need someone who is still actually willing to sit with them and just talk about other things.

Go to Those Who Sit in Darkness

I’m not saying that bringing light to those who sit in the darkness is easy. It’s one of the hardest things you ever could do. But, by God’s grace, you can do it. Sure, you don’t have it in you to fix everything that’s wrong in another person. Only God has that kind of power. But I think that John and Jesus discovered that when you are willing to go to people who are sitting in the darkness and love them as they are, you might just have the incredible privilege of being present when God does begin to allow the dawn to break for them.

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Posted by on Sunday, November 28th, 2021 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 28 November, 2021 © Scott McAndless – Advent 1
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Over the past couple of years, a new word has entered into the common vocabulary. But more than that, it has entered into the common experience. That word is doomscrolling. The word is new enough that it doesn’t yet have an entry in the dictionary, but it is generally defined as “the act of spending an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of negative news.” (Wikipedia) It has become a common term because we seem to be living in times when it is so easy to pull out your phone and open up a news feed and jump from one extremely depressing piece of news to the next.

An Endless Diet of Bad News

You jump from a story on the latest Covid numbers to a story about police killing an indigenous woman. You jump from the latest dire prediction about global warming to a story of devastating flooding on the West Coast. You jump from a story of the latest protest in Wisconsin to pictures of men giving Nazi salutes and shouting “Jews will not replace us.”

It has become all too easy to get locked into an endless loop of bad news and I think that many of us have found ourselves in exactly that loop too often over the last couple of years. And even as we approach the festive season, it doesn’t seem to be letting up as news feeds are dominated by reports of how supply chain issues are going to spoil everyone’s Christmas, that is if we even have Christmas what with all the Covid fears. In fact, that all seems to be ramping up with all the anxiety over a new variant.

Not All the Media’s Fault

I know that some will blame the media for all of this – saying that they should show us more good news than bad. There is something to that, of course. It is true that the media has been privileging the news that stirs the most negative emotions because they know that will get the greatest engagement which means money for them. It is also true that social media companies have been using algorithms that intentionally present us with the news articles that are going to get us all riled up. But I don’t think we can only blame it on the media. The reality is that there are many signs in the world today that things are not well and that they could all be getting a whole lot worse.

Not Good for us

I don’t think that I need to tell you that all of this doomscrolling isn’t particularly good for us. This endless cycle has been like a great weight on the hearts of many people. It is a cause of depression and anxiety. And we have certainly seen how many have attempted to treat their weighed down hearts in destructive ways by resorting to addictive behaviour and substance abuse. Others seek to distract themselves from what they are feeling by living in indulgent ways that only end up hurting themselves and the people they love. Of course, there are also some people who have sought to defend themselves from all of this by completely cutting themselves off from the news so they don’t have to deal with it. They just scroll from one cute cat video to another. But that doesn’t seem to be a particularly healthy response either.

We might well hope for people to not feel so bad, but I hardly want to blame people for their emotions. The truth of the matter is that we are living in disturbing times. And, if that is true, the question is how should we deal with it? In particular, as people of faith, what is a proper response?

A Gospel for Doomscrollers

In many ways, the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke is a Gospel for doomscrollers. Jesus lays out before his disciples a series of signs, and they are signs of doom. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

And, yes, I kind of feel as if I have read all of those things on my news feed in the last couple of months – especially the parts about confusion and distress among the nations and people fainting from fear. Jesus is saying that these things are not just bad news, they are signs. They are signs that indicate something important about the fate of the world.

Jesus Warns Us

And what Jesus is saying in this passage is not that we need to just put away our phones and pretend that all of this stuff isn’t happening, as tempting as that might be. He encourages his disciples and us to be aware of what the signs of our time are. But he does say something that is very important for the kind of times that we find ourselves living in today. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

Jesus is literally warning us against the very dangerous effects of doomscrolling. He is recognizing how easy it is to have your heart weighed down by an unrelenting stream of bad news. He even speaks of the ways in which people can respond to the resulting depression and anxiety “with dissipation and drunkenness.” That is to say that people self-medicate with addictive lifestyles and self-destructive behaviour.

But it is one thing to be warned of the dangers of doomscrolling. I think we’re all aware of that on some level. But the question remains, how do we do that? How do we stop our hearts from being weighed down? Well, I would like to share a few pieces of advice for you today that might help you to do that, some directly from this passage in the Gospel of Luke and some from other places.

It is Hard for Us to Avoid

One of the problems we are dealing with is definitely something that was not a feature of the life for people in Jesus’ time. They were living in a world where the average person often did not even have the means to be aware of some of the terrible things that were going on in the world. They didn’t get reports on the latest earthquake in Turkey or atrocity committed by the emperor in Rome. It took some effort for them to get the news, which is why Jesus makes the point of telling them to be aware of the signs that are taking place in the world around them.

But we live in a very different world where obtaining news and information is so easy that it almost happens without us being aware of it. I mean, you just sit down for a few minutes and take out your phone and open some social media app and the news feed on that thing has been specifically designed to present you with a news report that’s going to hook you in and then an algorithm is going to kick in but make sure that you then swipe to the another story and then another until, before you know it, you have wasted maybe hours in a day doomscrolling. It takes almost no effort on our part to be totally aware of all of the bad things that are happening.

Being Careful about Our Consumption

So, for us today, we actually have to put in the effort to make sure that our hearts are not weighed down by all of that. So it helps for us to be very intentional about how and when we consume the news. It helps us to be aware of how Facebook and Twitter and other apps are feeding that news to us.

That doesn’t mean that you have to just turn it off, but maybe you should schedule your own consumption of the news. Maybe don’t do it just before bed, for example, because that may not be conducive to a good night’s sleep. There are also steps that you can take to take control of your newsfeed, by choosing to read stories from what you consider to be reliable sources. And don’t be afraid to engage your critical mind and apply it to whatever you hear or read.

That is part of the answer, but another part is that you also need to work time into your day when you do focus on other things. There is a passage in the letter to the Philippians that I believe every one of us needs to memorize or put it up on our wall where we’re going to see it at the beginning of every day. It is Philippians 4:8: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

I definitely feel that one of the ways in which we can prevent the news of the dire events of our times from weighing down our hearts is by intentionally building into our days opportunities to do exactly what it says in Philippians. Make the time to think on such things. Journal about what is true and honourable. Meditate on what is pure and pleasing. Contemplate things that are commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.

Having the Right Perspective

So that is part of what we must do to make sure our hearts are not weighed down. But there is another part of the answer to the problem in this passage that we read from the Gospel of Luke. It invites us to adopt a certain perspective on the disturbing events that may be taking place in the world around us. Jesus invites us to consider something that everyone would have been familiar with in that world. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”

You see, in the Mediterranean climate, the fig tree is one of the last trees to bud and put out leaves in the spring. We actually have a tree like that in our backyard. I’ve been told it’s called a Russian Laurel, but whatever it is, it is very slow to put out leaves in the spring. So much so that every year I get worried. I watch all of the other trees in the neighborhood put out all their leaves and I look at our tree and its branches are still bare and I start to think, well, it’s finally happened, the tree has finally died. And then, finally, only when I am past despair, the buds form and the tree creates this beautiful canopy that shelters our backyard all through the summer.

Leaves as Signs

So Jesus is actually inviting us to consider that emotional roller coaster of waiting for the last tree to bud. He’s saying that, as we look around at the world we are often tempted to despair at all the things that are happening and to think that this is finally it and the tree is going to die because the leaves haven’t come out. I will admit that it has been tempting to feel that way looking at events of late.

But Jesus is actually saying that the leaves are coming and that promise is that summer is coming. The leaves are actually all of these terrible signs that he is talking about – the signs of the times. They are the disasters, the wars and rumours of wars, the apocalyptic fires and floods. But Jesus is actually inviting us to look at them as the late budding leaves, the sign that summer is coming. “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Turn your Expectations Upside Down

 And I know that that doesn’t seem to make much sense. It seems like the logical thing to do is to look at these events and see them only as signs that everything is about to get a whole lot worse. But Jesus, as he often did, is inviting us to turn our expectations upside down.

And what is the reason why we can look at all of the things that are happening and still find hope? Only one thing. Only our faith that God has a handle on what is going on in this world and that God has a plan to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom. That faith and that perspective is the only thing that can make us look at some of the troubling things that are happening in our world and understand that our God is allowing them to happen because they are like those late leaves on a fig tree, they are the sign that we are almost there, and that God will faithfully fulfill the plan.

It is troubling to look around at the events of our times and realize that they are signs about the state of our world. And, of course, when we see these things, they need to stir us to action, prompt us to make changes and renew our commitment to a just and better world. What we must not let them do, however, is weigh our hearts down. We are the followers of the Prince of Peace and the King of Hope and as we cling to that truth, our hearts will be enabled to soar above the trouble of these difficult times.

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Are You the King of the Jews

Posted by on Sunday, November 21st, 2021 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 21 November 2021 © Scott McAndless – Reign of Christ
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4-8, John 18:33-37

This Sunday, the last Sunday in the church year, is traditionally called Christ the King Sunday. Or some people prefer to avoid that explicitly masculine language and say Reign of Christ Sunday. But, whatever you call it, it is pretty clear what the day is all about. It is all about how great our guy is. It is about how Jesus is better, stronger, faster and cooler than any other ruler out there. And that’s our guy.

And you don’t have to look very far in the scriptures to find Jesus presented in those terms. We have, for example, that passage from the Book of Daniel that Christians have long claimed as a description of the Christ: “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” The same kind of imagery is taken up in the Book of Revelation which speaks of, “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Some Hesitations

And, on the one hand, I am all for that. I am so glad to be on team Jesus and know that we are the winning team because Jesus is the one who gets to rule over all. I certainly agree that no one deserves to rule any more than him. And yet, at the same time, I can’t help but feel a few niggling hesitations in the back of my mind.

A Crusader warrior wearing a cross

After all, isn’t that the kind of thinking that has gotten the Christian church into a fair bit of trouble down through the centuries. It was the kind of thinking that inspired the medieval Crusaders who sought to extend the rule of Jesus and his church over the peoples of the Near East with extreme violence whether they wanted it or not.

The same idea drove the Conquistadors who first invaded this hemisphere and did it in the name of King Jesus. They, driven by this idea that Jesus must rule over all the nations of the earth, committed horrible things, wiping out and enslaving entire nations of people. Those are but a couple of horrible examples and they make me wonder, is that what it means to claim Christ as our king?

A Better Way to Think of it?

It is enough, at least, to make me want to look elsewhere in the Bible to ask if there might not be a more nuanced way to look at what it means to call Jesus our King. The passage we read this morning from the Gospel of John discusses the issue, but it certainly approaches it very differently. It is in the form of a conversation between two fascinating figures: Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate. And the thing that particularly fascinates me about this conversation is that it consists of Pilate asking Jesus a series of questions about his kingship. And in every case, Pilate doesn’t quite seem to get a straight answer. I’m not saying that Jesus’ answers are evasive because I don’t think they are, but they are also not really clear either.

Eavesdropping on a Private Conversation

The other odd thing about it, of course, is that it appears to be a private conversation between two individuals. Jesus certainly did not have the opportunity to pass on the content of such a conversation, at least not before his death. And there is no reason to think that Pilate should have told anyone about what was said either. So, we must ask, how did the gospel writer even know what was said? The answer, obviously, is that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Somehow, God told him what it was that needed to be said at that moment.

But, I have noticed something. This is actually something that happens a lot in the Bible where we get a report on something that was said or done and there were no actual witnesses. And it seems that when the Holy Spirit does reveal what was going on in those kinds of situations, what we are told is always of deep theological importance. It is almost as if the Holy Spirit is more interested in getting theological points across than in just making sure that we know exactly what happened and what was said.

Pilate’s First Question

So, I would invite you to look very closely at this conversation between Jesus and Pilate. In particular, pay attention to those questions that Pilate asks because, I think, if you can answer them for yourself, you may get a whole lot closer to understanding what it really means to call Jesus your king.

The first question Pilate asks is, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And I would note, first of all, that that is a very safe angle to approach the whole question of the kingship of Jesus from. Because, of course, whatever else he is, Pilate is not a Jew. Pilate is Roman who knows very well who holds authority over him. In fact, as procurator of Judea, he has a very well-defined chain of command and answers directly to the emperor. So, very clearly, Pilate begins to examine the question of the kingship of Jesus with a secure knowledge that any kingship Jesus has doesn’t apply to him.

Christ’s Kingship as it Applies to Others

And I honestly feel as if that is as far as many Christians get in their understanding of the kingship of Jesus. They want to acknowledge Jesus as king, but when they think of where the kingly authority of Jesus applies, they’d rather just think of how it applies to other people. After all, was not that the kingship of Jesus that the Crusaders and the Conquistadors were trying to establish? They fought for and even gave their lives for the goal of trying to make Jesus the king of other people – of Middle Easterners and of the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere. And, of course, what that generally amounted to was them imposing the power of European monarchs and rulers upon those people.

But I don’t think that it’s just Christians in those extreme situations who have done that. I think all of us, at least at times, are tempted to think of the kingship of Jesus only in terms of what that means for other people. We want to use it to impose certain kinds of morality upon society or to do things like impose rigid gender roles or laws and measures that only benefit people like us. It is certainly a very safe way to think of the kingship because we don’t need to change anything in ourselves, and we can actually use it to force changes onto others that suit us.

But, you see, such a safe concept of kingship will never survive an actual encounter with the living Christ. And so Jesus immediately pushes back at Pilate’s question. “Does this question come from you or have others told you about me?” he wants to know. You see, Jesus is not going to allow us to simply hold that question of his rule over our lives at a distance. He doesn’t care what other people may have told us about what his kingship means. There is something about Jesus that forces us, the more we come into contact with him, into asking what it means to us and on our own terms.

Pilate’s Second Question

And so, that brings us to Pilate’s second question. “Do you think I am a Jew? And I love the way that question is translated in the Good News Bible. Pilate seems so defensive. He started out so certain that, whatever it was, Jesus’ kingship had absolutely nothing to do with him. And yet, with only a few words, Jesus has already got him questioning that. He is still trying to laugh it off, but he is already wondering whether at least Jesus might think he does have some kingly claim over him.

What does Jesus’ Answer Mean?

A scroll bearing Jesus' answer to Pilate.

This leads to what is perhaps the most important thing that Jesus says about his rule. “My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here!” I know that this has often been taken to mean that the kingdom that Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with this world – that it is only concerned with getting people out of this world and into heaven, but I don’t think that that is what I hear Jesus saying. Jesus is here talking about how his kingdom works and saying that it does not operate according to the methods of this world which are the methods of violence and “might makes right.”

So no, Jesus’ followers in this world are not called on to fight to establish his rule – the Crusaders and Conquistadores definitely got that one wrong – but that does not mean that Christ’s rule has nothing to do with this world. If Christ is King, that really does demand something of Pilate in this world even as it demands something of you and of me.

Pilate’s Third Question

And that brings us to Pilate’s final question, “Are you a king, then?” With this question, Pilate finally gets around to the foundational question. There are now no guardrails, no built-in safety barriers. He is now considering the possibility, not that Jesus is somebody else’s king, not that it matters only to Jews, but that it might just matter to him.

And that is where Jesus will finally bring us all, to the realization that who he is is actually supposed to make a difference in our daily lives. And Jesus makes that clear with his answer. “You say that I am a king.” It doesn’t matter what other people say. Whatever you force them to say or do in the name of Jesus, will ultimately come to nothing because that kingdom cannot be forced upon anybody because it’s not a kingdom of this world in that way. All that matters is what you say and what it changes about your life.

My Troubles with the Day

This Sunday, the last Sunday in the church’s year, has been called Christ the King Sunday for a very long time. And for most of that time, the church celebrated it as something that was largely imposed on other people. It was about the Crusaders and the Conquistadors. It was about missionaries travelling to far distant lands to bring the people that lived in those strange places under the rule of Christ.

And with that missionary endeavour, went the forces of colonialism which was all about bringing them under European control and about “civilizing” them in a way that did not honour the civilizations that they had built over the millennia. It was rather about them adopting our cultural values and morals. It didn’t really have very much to do with the King Jesus who was talking that day with Pontius Pilate just a little bit before he was condemned to death.

For that reason, I’ve always had a little bit of trouble with Christ the King Sunday. And I have the same problem with it even if you call it Reign of Christ Sunday. But I present before you today the three questions that the Gospel of John tells us Pilate asked of Jesus in that private conversation. They are not there for the sake of the Roman procurator. What he finally decided about the rule of Christ and how it applied to him doesn’t matter to anybody but him.

The Questions are for You

Those questions are there for you. And they are especially there for you if you have always thought of the reign of Christ in terms of what that means for other people. If all it means to you is that everybody in our society needs to defer to Jesus – for example, if you think the rule of Christ means that the rest of our society needs to shut down and close everything on Sundays so that people don’t have anything else to do but go to church, you may have the wrong concept of Christ the King. If you think it’s okay to mock or discriminate against people because they are not Christian, you probably have the wrong concept of Christ the King. If you think that Christians have the right to tell everyone else how to live their lives just because they are followers of Christ, you probably have the wrong concept of Christ the King.

John wants you to ask of him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Do you think I am a Jew?”  And “Are you a king, then?” He doesn’t care what you think other people need to do, he needs to know what difference it makes in your life today that Christ is the king. He needs to see it being lived out in the way that you care about others, how you welcome the strangers and how you honour people for who they are. His kingdom is not of this world, not in the sense that we use the power of this world to impose it on anybody. It is a kingdom of love and care and only that can actually transform this world.

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Wars and Rumours of Wars

Posted by on Sunday, November 14th, 2021 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 14 November 2021 © Scott McAndless
Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

I was in a discussion recently about the passage we read this morning – the passage where Jesus starts talking about all of these things that are going to happen. Much of what Jesus says in this part of the Gospel of Mark, after all, took place within about forty years of him saying it. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and one stone was hardly left on top of another. The rest of the city of Jerusalem did not come off much better.

How did Jesus Know?

So, I was talking about Jesus saying all of this with someone and the question that came up was how did Jesus know that all of this was going to happen. Yes, I know that it is a given in the Christian church and according to our doctrine that Jesus was not just an ordinary person – that had a unique nature and the ability to see things that others cannot. And surely Jesus could have made use of such supernatural power to see events that would happen 40 years after his crucifixion.

But the question was whether Jesus really needed such powers to predict the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its temple. My idea was that no, he didn’t. All he needed was an analytic mind. All he needed to do was look at the situation on the ground right at that moment – to see the tension between the Jews and the Roman occupying forces and the insurrectionists who were starting to organize – in order to see that this was all going to boil over sooner or later. And, when it did boil over, there was absolutely no question who was going to win and who was going to lose. There was no way that Jerusalem could possibly hold out against the Romans!

His Prediction about War

Wars and Rumours of Wars

So yeah, there really was a lot about what Jesus was saying that any smart person could have seen coming. And that certainly seems to be as true for what Jesus says about war too. “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Because, if you want to make a prediction that know will come true, that has got to be one of the safest. In any era, any century, any decade in the history of humanity, if you say, “there will be wars and rumours of wars, and nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” people will be amazed at your perfect prescience about the future.

So, when Jesus predicts wars, he is definitely on safe ground. But I am particularly intrigued by what he says about war. Because Jesus actually seems to be giving a warning about our attitude towards war. He warns us not to make too much of it.

He says, “Do not be alarmed,” when you see such things. And then later he adds, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” This is rather surprising when you think of it. When there is a war, and especially when you are caught up in the middle of one, the experience seems to absorb almost everything. The war and what happens and who wins and who loses seem to mean absolutely everything.

Branding World War I

This is especially true when you think about how wars are branded and how they are sold to the people who will fight in them. There you see very clearly that we don’t see war as “but the beginning of the birth pangs,” but rather as the one huge event that is supposed to fix everything.

Think, for example, of the war that we call World War I. Is that what it was called at the time, the first in a series of global conflagrations? Of course not! Nor was it called the war that was kind of inevitable once the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria had been assassinated setting a chain of events in motion that led to Germany invading Belgium which triggered a bunch of alliances that obliged everybody to declare war against everybody else. Did they call it that? No. What did they call it? They called it “The War to End all Wars.”

It was, in other words, a war that was supposed to solve everything. Brave young lads from so many countries around the world were persuaded to put their lives on the line and fight for the most noble goal of making sure that there would never be any more wars ever.

And here is a spoiler alert for you (just in case you don’t know how that particular war turned out): it didn’t work. World War I was not the last war ever. In fact, in many ways, the way it ended and the treaty that the nations signed carried within it the seeds of the next great global conflagration. That war was sold as being the great solution to everything. It was a promise that was big and bold and beautiful that the world would be changed for the good. It was very much like the biblical promise of an end times that the disciples were asking Jesus about that day. That’s how we like to talk about war, but Jesus is telling us that it is a mistake to expect such things from war.

Branding Other Wars

That is not just true of the First World War either. Think of the other great conflagrations of our lifetimes and how successful they were at accomplishing the grand goals that they promised. It is true that the Second World War did succeed in its goal of putting an end to the truly evil and frightening fascism that had come to power in Germany, Italy and Japan, but that war seems to be, in some ways, a bit of an exception. I would also note, looking around me today, that it doesn’t seem as if the threat of fascism has disappeared from the face of the Earth entirely.

But think of the other conflicts that have taken place. A war fought in Korea and another in Vietnam had the very clear goal of stopping the dominoes of Communism from falling across Asia. They certainly didn’t stop the dominoes from falling in those countries anyways. And remember when the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and there were people proclaiming that, because we had won that conflict, it was the end of history – nothing else of any significance would ever happen. How did that turn out?

And I hardly dare mention the noble goals that took us into Afghanistan. Not only were we going to destroy the Taliban and all that they stood for, but we were going to be part of planting a vibrant and free democracy in the middle of the Near Eastern world. And that was supposed to be a real game-changer. I think we are all aware of how horribly that turned out, especially for the people of Afghanistan.

War may be Inevitable

I don’t think that Jesus was saying that there is no place for war. On the contrary, Jesus was saying that it is often inevitable. Try as you might, and we need to try as hard as we possibly can, we will find that it is simply unavoidable sometimes. And when it is inevitable, we are greatly blessed by and eternally indebted to those who step forward and put their lives on the line to fight and to protect. And they may even be persuaded to do that because they believe everything that they are being promised that is going to accomplish – they go to end all wars or to set up a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

But it won’t Solve Everything

But here is where Jesus’ caution may be helpful to us. For example, one of the things that has made the end of the war in Afghanistan so distressing was just the thought of all of the blood and the lives and the broken bodies that were spent for the goal of creating a free and democratic society in that country. You can certainly understand the bitterness of those who gave so much to accomplish such things there to see an end result that basically just returned that is no better than what the country was before and so much worse in many ways. But I think that Jesus may be telling us that we should not have been expecting so much from wars in the first place. They are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” after all.

What Will?

But I guess the really important question we need to ask is, if war isn’t going to do it, what will bring about the birth of a better world? There are no easy answers to that question, of course, though I think if we can get past the idea of solving all of our problems by having nation rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, we will likely be further down the road to a better world.

What this whole chapter in the Gospel of Mark is saying, of course, is that God is committed to the creation of a renewed and better world, particularly symbolized by the “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (v. 26) In some ways, therefore, our task seems to be to wait for God to bring it about. But I think we should be careful not to confuse this call to wait with any sense that there is nothing for us to do or that we have no role to play in the vision that God has for that better world.

Very Active Waiting

No, when Jesus says wait, he has something very active in mind. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (vv. 32,33) So we are to be alert which doesn’t just mean that we are watching but that we are ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. But that raises the question, what sort of action are we supposed to be ready to spring into? Because I don’t think, based on what Jesus says about war and how it doesn’t actually resolve everything, that we are supposed to be constantly ready to fight and use violence to achieve even the most noble of goals.

The idea seems to be this. God is committed to this world – committed to saving it, committed to renewing it. But that doesn’t mean that God wants to do it all alone. In infinite graciousness, God has decided to give us the opportunity to be coworkers in this great task. That means that God will offer to each one of us, things to do, ways to help. God will give to one over here the opportunity to act as a peacemaker. God will give to another over there the chance to stand up and peacefully oppose some great injustice. Another, perhaps with just some small act of kindness or mercy, will advance the program. We may never know in advance where our part to play may be, that is why being constantly prepared is so important.

Halverson’s Blessing

There was once a preacher named Richard Halverson who understood this perhaps better than anybody else. He used to end each worship service by making the following promise to the people of his congregation. “You go nowhere by accident,” he would say. “Wherever you go, God is sending you. Wherever you are, God has put you there. God has a purpose in your being right where you are. Christ, who indwells you by the power of his Spirit, wants to do something in and through you. Believe this and go in his grace, his love, his power. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

That, more than anything, captures the sense of waiting and being prepared that Jesus was really talking about. It is indeed a sense of living in constant expectation that God is about to inaugurate God’s kingdom. But it is not brought about by nation rising up against nation or kingdom against kingdom. It is not always going to come in a great light shining from one end of the sky to the other. Most of us will realize it by being quietly prepared to spring into action whenever God lays before us an opportunity to live out the kingdom of God before our friends and neighbours and the whole world.

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