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The flame shall not consume you, for God is with you.

I’d like to take you to a scene that probably played out in a house somewhere near us over the holidays.

John and Marie are first time parents of a two-year-old toddler, Jeremy. Jeremy never stops exploring and moving.   Over the holidays his parents decide to light a fire in their fireplace for the first time since Jeremy was born. They meant to buy a fire screen but never got around to it, but anyway they are just going to light a fire log and they will be sitting right there on the old blue couch in their small cozy living room. It will be safe. They won’t take their eyes off Jeremy.

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Watch out!  Keep away from the fire!

Jeremy stares intently as the match is lit and the fire log comes to life. He stares – unusually still – at the flames. He reaches his hand out to the fire and his mother cautions – Hot. Don’t touch! He pulls his hand back but his eyes don’t leave the flames. Watch out! – She says – Keep away from the fire. After a moment he sits down on the carpet with his toys and loses interest in the dancing flame. John and Marie sit close together on the blue couch. Their love for each other and their son fills the room like a warm, cozy hug. They exchange a glance that speaks about love and gratitude … and a little exhaustion. In that split second Jeremy stands up and puts his whole chubby hand into the flame.

His mother sees him and grabs him back, shouting “No. Hot! Don’t touch! Little Jeremy starts to cry. The father runs to get some cold water for his little burned hand. His mother holds wailing Jeremy in a tight hug, her heart racing. There is shouting and crying. But soon the crisis passes and on examination, Jeremy’s hand is barely red – he must have snatched it back from the fire very quickly. The sobbing stops and his parents hold Jeremy close on the blue couch and surround him in a huge hug, holding him tight to their hearts. They know that today he has learned about fire, but they also know that his life will be filled with other fires, other pain, and they hug him even more closely as if to protect him against the troubles that life will bring. They wish that their love would always keep him safe, but in their hearts they know they will not be able to protect him from the firestorms of life.

John the Baptist brings us a different image of fire.

We find ourselves on the banks of the river Jordan with John. People have walked for miles to hear John the Baptist preach about repentance. He is urgently calling on them to repent, to turn their lives around because the Messiah is coming.

He brings us a frightening image of fire: the Messiah will “gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” You see, in those times the grain stalks were threshed – beaten – on a threshing floor outdoors, to break the wheat kernels off the stalks. Then they would take a winnowing fork – like a pitchfork – and toss the stalks up into the air. The wind would blow off the “chaff” – the lightweight leaves and stalks, while the heavy kernels of grain would fall to the floor. The chaff, the dried stems and leaves, was no good for anything and it would be burned.

John’s message is that the people who do not turn their lives around, who continue to live sinful and ungodly lives, are like the chaff, no good for anything, and will be burned with “unquenchable fire.”

The problem is … fire is all around us. We are sure to be burned by life. Our broken world is filled with wickedness, cruelty and grief. Our own lives are filled with challenges and trouble. We are human and we sin – we forget to pray, get swept up in our own lives and don’t help others, act wrongly, hurt people. We feel overwhelmed with the injustices and pain of the world and don’t act… and tragedy also comes unbidden to our doorstep – sickness, death, illness, loss.

Often life can feel like we are not just putting our hand into the fire, but that we are passing right through a firestorm. We struggle to fulfill our baptismal promises. We don’t live up to our own expectations, or we are afraid that we don’t live up to God’s high standards. We fear that we are not good enough, not Godly enough. Perhaps in our heart we are afraid that we will be the chaff that gets burned.

But there is hope … Let us go back for a moment to the river Jordan. After all the people were baptized, Jesus comes forward and is baptized. And then he prays. Perhaps one by one the people in the crowd realize who he is, or feel that something is different about him. They surely fall silent and awestruck as the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. And into that awed silence, into that hush, words of blessing sound from heaven:

You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Well pleased. “well pleased” may have an air of faint praise about it, like “quite good,” but the phrase also means ”in you I have taken delight.” Taken delight! God the father delights in Jesus the son!   The father loves Jesus in the way a parent loves a child. Can you imagine the father taking Jesus into his arms just as the parents took Jeremy into theirs? Arms filled with love and hope … but also a sense of foreboding, knowing the path Jesus must follow leads to death on the cross. Just as Jeremy’s parents know that their son will have to face the firestorms of life.

And just as Jeremy’s parents delight in their beloved son, just as God the father delights in his beloved son Jesus, God delights in us, God delights in you! God is holding us even now in an unbreakable hug. God is with us when we walk through the firestorms of life.

And unlike Jeremy’s parents, who are only human after all, God will never leave us. There is always room on the blue couch by the fire for us to be surrounded by a hug of God’s love. And if we stray into the fire, or as we walk through the firestorms of life, God is always with us.

When we make wrong decisions, or don’t act as we should, and or tragedy comes unbidden to our doorstep, God is with us. When we struggle to do the right thing, to keep the promises we made at baptism, God is with us. God loves us even if we feel that we have failed. Even if we find we can’t even love our self, God still delights in us. We are always, always precious, beloved children of God!

In our first reading, Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel, but his words offer reassurance for us today.

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and imagine you are sitting in Jeremy’s cozy living room by the warm fire, on that old blue couch. You have worries and pain, guilt and fears, and all the troubles that human life brings. With your eyes closed, take a deep breath.  Feel God’s hug of unconditional love as you listen to his words:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

When you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

And the flame shall not consume you.

Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured,

And I love you.

Do not fear, for I am with you.

Do not fear. I am with you. (Is 43:1-7 excerpts)

 

Text: Luke 3:15-22, Isaiah 43:1-7

 

 

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You brood of vipers!

 

A couple of weeks ago I walked up a beautiful walkway to a gorgeous house in our area. The grey slate flagstones were perfectly level, the garden groomed, not a stray leaf or a yellow spot on the perfectly manicured lawn. Beside the solid oak door stood two large urns artistically filled with holiday greenery. In the driveway there was an Audi and a Mercedes SUV. I was going door to door with my kids collecting food for our community food drive.

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Many people gave generously to the community food drive.

Good, I thought, this family is blessed with abundance, and will be able to spare some food for the food bank. They had received a flyer the week before, so I anticipated a good reaction. I pressed the doorbell and put on my best smile.

A rather handsome and well dressed man opened the door with his young daughter. She was snacking on cheerios in a pink plastic bowl, and behind them I could see breakfast foods set on a gray granite topped island in an immaculate white kitchen.

“Hi,” I said, “we are collecting food for the Leaside community food drive. Do you have anything to donate?” I exchanged a cheerful smile with his daughter, munching her cheerios.

“No,” he replied, “we don’t have any food.”

I looked at him a little quizzically. I glanced at his child, eating her cheerios, at the kitchen island behind him filled with breakfast.

“No, we don’t have any food in the house,” he repeated.

I kept my smile on my face, and said “thanks, have a good day”. He closed the door with a thud.

As I walked away I was filled with indignation. Obviously he had food in the house. To lie right in front of his child! Surely he had a can of tuna or some pasta in one of his cupboards! Such selfishness! I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and turn him around and say – look – you do have food. Why don’t you share some of your abundance? What is wrong with you!!! Think of others. Do good. Turn around and look at your kitchen man!

Of course I was polite and smiled and didn’t say anything like this out loud. And truly, maybe there was something going on in that house at that moment that I don’t know about.

On the other hand, in our gospel reading today, John the Baptist doesn’t pull any punches. His soul is on fire with indignation. He is fearlessly angry and accusatory.

People have traveled miles in the wilderness – many of them on foot – to repent and be baptized by John. They have come to see this renowned prophet, to be part of something extraordinary that is happening by the banks of the river Jordan. And instead of being happy to see them, John accuses them:

“You brood of vipers!”

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“Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”

John is outraged, fearless, speaking truth without any filter. He doesn’t care one bit if he offends the upstanding citizens in the crowd.

It must have felt like a slap on the face to them, perhaps especially to the Pharisees and soldiers and upstanding citizens who would never normally be accused in this rude way. He points an accusatory finger at them:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. … every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Harsh words. John suspects the crowd’s motives in being there. He is telling them it is not enough to come and say they are sorry and be baptized – they have to actually repent, to change their lives. To turn around.

Now the word repentance here is the Greek word metanoia. It means a change of mind, a conversion, reform of life, in effect a “turning around”. John is calling on the people to turn around, repent, and reform their lives.

He compares the people to fruit trees – trees that bear good fruit are kept, but trees that do not bear fruit are cut down and burned. It is not hard to understand his message –people need to act differently, doing good works, sharing, being honest and compassionate, not just voice their repentance, they have to turn around their lives and bear good fruit. Otherwise – and this is harsh – the says they will be cut down and burned. John certainly knows how to get our attention!

He even saves a special warning for the complacent in the crowd – the ones who are thinking he doesn’t really mean them, the ones who think their religious practices are beyond reproach. That is what he means when he talks about one who claim to have Abraham as their ancestor. He makes sure they understand that it is not enough to follow the religious rules, to smugly pray and walk about self-righteously like the Pharisees – all must love God and their neighbour. No one escapes John’s accusations.

John’s exhortation – his strong language – is meant to wake them up. He is preparing them for the coming of the Messiah. “Get ready!” he is saying, “turn around! Look at what you are doing!”

The good news is that his demands are not complicated:

  1. Share your abundance: whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise
  1. Be honest – Tax collectors only collect what is due, don’t take a cut
  1. Be ethical – do not extort money, soldiers, be satisfied with your wages

He is not asking the crowd to join him in living in the desert. He is simply calling them to acts of equity and kindness. He is not asking them to live in poverty, just to share their abundance.

John’s demands are urgent because he knows the Messiah is coming soon – there is no time to lose!

For us today, John’s message still make us uncomfortable – it is intended to make us turn around and look at our lives. How many of us have passed a homeless person without making eye contact or giving a coin?  How many of us have been rude to someone at the door? How many of us have not given generously to the toy drive or not the the food bank. How many of us have angrily judged someone who did not give, just as I did at that door? I stand accused just as much as the man with his daughter and her pink bowl of cherrios. We all stand accused by John the Baptist.

This doesn’t seem like a joyful message, does it? Where on earth is the joy in John’s accusation? It makes me feel unworthy and inadequate, like I am missing the mark – what about you?

So here’s the joy. John is preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah. That is the good news. We are entering a new world where we are called into relationship with God, called to partner with God in making the world anew. To our joyful relief, we are not alone in our struggle to love our neighbour and share our possessions – Jesus is always alongside us, encouraging us, forgiving us and giving us the courage to keep trying. Jesus loves us unconditionally– even if we close the door on the person asking for food or fall short of John’s demanding standards. That is something to be joyful about!

Christmas isn’t just about an innocent baby in a manger. It is about rejoicing that Christ comes to live among us, to be in relationship with us. It is a time of awe and celebration. It is a time to take stock of God’s abundance in our lives, to share our gifts with others, to give thanks for friends and family, for peace and love even in our bruised and broken world. It is a time to feel our hearts swell with pride and generosity as Syrian refugees arrive in our wonderful country to begin new lives. A time to turn around and look at our abundance and give thanks, and out of that gratitude share with those around us.

God gives us his only son that we may be renewed, that we may be a resurrection people, renewed in his love, forgiven and embraced. The good news is that God loves us, even when we mess up, even when we lie or behave selfishly. Even when we don’t turn around and reach into the kitchen for food to donate to someone at the door.

Yet when we do turn around in our lives, there is so much cause for rejoicing, even among the challenges we all face.   Joy is all around us – in the faces of children, music, gathering together. Joy is like an underground spring that wells up within us – and if we let it, joy will overflow out of our lives and into the lives of others.

The Spirit acts within our hearts to inspire acts of generosity. Perhaps the Spirit is leading you to donating to our sponsorship of a refugee family … though, perhaps like me, you haven’t gotten quite got around to writing that cheque. If John the Baptist were here I think he would be pointing his finger at me and saying “the time is now”!

So let us turn around – repent – and prepare for the coming of Christ again into our lives. And let us rejoice that God sends his son to us in an act of great love.

Text: Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax 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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear histhreshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I have been reflecting on this text by Teresa of Avila, a 16th century nun who was a mystic and a writer.

 

collage of hands and a cross

We are God’s hands in the world.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

 

The image is my collage expressing the idea that we are God’s hands in the world.

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What are you expecting for Christmas?  Presents, a family meal?  A sad lonely day missing loved ones?  What about God coming to visit in person?  I bet you are not expecting that!

This video tells the story from a delightfully different perspective.

God comes to share our humanity, to live as one of us.  To share our very human joys and suffering, born to a peasant woman.  And God visits us every day in ordinary people, in our daily interactions.  Look out for him.  Be awake.

 

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Sun breaking through dark ines.

God’s light shines in darkness.

This was meant to be a post about gratitude, about God’s work in the world.  The first in a series leading up to Christmas, shining light on love and hope in a world that is too often mired in cruelty, greed, despair and evil.

But as I scrolled through my emails this evening one dropped like a bomb onto my screen.  The subject line was “sad news.”  Someone’s relative – a young man in his twenties – has taken his own life.   You are probably familiar with the tragic story line.  A young person living away from home, reached a depth of hopelessness and despair that made death seem like the only alternative.  A family in shock and denial.

Where is God in this senseless loss of life?  How can I write about gratitude and hope in the world now?  How does God let this happen?

All I know is that God walks alongside us in our grief and despair, that God cries out and suffers with us, that God will carry this family in its terrible grief as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  God’s love will surround them unawares, even if they rail at God or deny his very existence.  God’s love will shine through family, friends and neighbours who will hold and support them, feed them and listen until they can begin to live again.  Their lives will never be the same, but God’s light will gradually penetrate and one day they will feel hope again.

So maybe this post is about God’s work in the world after all, and what I am trying to express in clumsy words is my gratitude for hope even in the face of tragedy, and my faith in God’s love for us even in our deepest despair.

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Crucify him!

Sculpture of Jesus with the cross in the Chapel of the Flagellation, on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

Sculpture of Jesus with the cross in the Chapel of the Flagellation, on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

“Crucify him! Crucify him!” I shouted with the crowd.  People surged forward towards the Roman soldiers holding Jesus, crying “crucify him!” – whipping the crowd into a standing frenzy. We were the crowd in Jerusalem, and we wanted blood.

How easily my teenage self stepped into the part, swept up into the spectacle, something like a scene of out of Lord of the Flies!

It was many years ago, but the scene is fresh in my memory.  A Passion Play in an open air stone amplitheatre in Florida.  Surrounded by palm trees, a warm breeze, dark sky studded with stars, actors dressed in first century costumes and sandals. Jesus whipped and bleeding.

The actor were quietly intermingled with the audience, so that we all became the crowd. We shouted, chanted, we wept, we rejoiced. But what I remember most is shouting “crucify him!”

Then Jesus crucified in a flash of brilliant bright light suddenly extinguished, dropping us into black night with a clap of thunder.

Each time I read the passion I re-live that night. My gut remembers being horrified at what I was shouting, frightened at how easily I was swept along with the crowd demanding blood. I hope, I pray, that I would have the courage to do the right thing and stand up against the mob in real life.

But if there was danger and violence, if I was truly afraid, I think it is more likely that I would step away.  Maybe I would say a silent prayer and disappear into the shadows, just like most of the disciples.

And, in my apologetic silence, would I be whispering “crucify him” all over again?

Seeker

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I remember the feeling of awe that took my breath away when I was pregnant, realising that a new life was growing within me.

The realisation that we began in our mother’s womb – each of us a small miracle of creation, grown from a single, microscopic cell into a human being … beings with hearts to feel, and minds to think and hands to act.

And before the miracle of our own creation, our mothers began in their mother’s wombs, and our grandmothers and great grandmothers – generation after generation.

Each mother witnessed a miracle of creation, a miracle of giving birth to new life – connecting us directly to the very beginning of time.

And so also has each living thing – each tree, each plant, fish, bird, animal – grown from its parent, and its grandparents, generation after generation, each a miracle of creation, back to the very beginning of time.

Each of us live, every day, in this miraculous world, anchored to our past by countless, countless miracles of creation.

And we are entrusted with a formidable, sacred task –  to perpetuate the miracle of creation.  To care for our earth so that every living thing can continue to bring about new life, connecting us all – together – to the very beginning of time.

Seeker

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