Pay Greater Attention

(Hebrews 1:13-2:4; Luke 1:1-25) – J G White
11 am, 1st Sun of Advent, Dec 1, 2019 – UBC Digby

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? It is pointless to spend time and energy on this cliche question. The first chapter of the book of Hebrews is worth our time and energy – and tells us a bit about angels. Verse fourteen says, “Are not all of them spirits in the divine service, sent for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” 

A good reminder, on the first day of December, when figures and pictures of supposed angels are everywhere: and usually female in appearance. Meanwhile, those in the Bible have names like Gabriel, Michael, Satan. The opening chapter of Hebrews tells us that even good angels, divine communicators, are far surpassed by Jesus, the Messiah. He is far superior. 

“Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard,” Hebrews chapter two begins: “so that we do not drift away from it.” Tis the season to pay careful attention to the story of Christ coming into the world. So many of us in this room know the story quite well, and it means much to us. The impact upon you may be great. But we still need this time each year, to refresh our memory, and even learn some new things about Jesus and us. Apparently, it is possible to drift away from what we’ve heard.

Not today, but later this month, our Choir will ask these questions, in song: (Pamela Stewart, 2011)
If angels filled the skies tonight,
would I hear them sing?
Would tomorrow find me saying 
it was all a dream?

Would I leave my bed and go 
outside to hear their song?
Would I go on sleeping
until the morning dawned?

Would I miss the miracle?
Would I see the King?
Or would my life be so consumed
with ordinary things? 

Beyond the miracle of angelic visions in front of us, there are many divine messengers to meet us. Some unexplainable and powerful things happen to us that turn life around. Other messages from God are quite ordinary, but point us in a good direction. 

A few things are pointed out right here in Hebrews 2:3&4. Our great salvation was declared at first through the Lord, it says. Direct from God, in Jesus. He brought a message, but He also is the message, the content, the thing He declares. He is the way, the truth, and the life

Our primary source in history and literature is, of course, the Gospels in the Bible. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Might be about 160 paper pages in your Bible. And the whole of the New Testament is our source for the next way the news of God comes to us: the men and women who walked with Jesus. Hebrews 2 calls them those who heard Him.  

So, we keep reading the stories. The histories. The poetries. The prophecies. Maggie read for us today the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. He sets out an ‘orderly account’ of things, for posterity. Well, Dr. Luke says he put this book together for dear Theophilus – a name that means ‘lover of God.’ Many lovers of God have read Luke, over and over. Just as we do in December. You’ve seen the post on social media, with the suggestion to read one chapter of Luke each day of December. Luke has 24 chapters – you will end on December 24th with one version of the story of Jesus – the Gospel – just in time for Christmas.  

So we have already read some of the Jesus story we don’t often read in December, that is not about Jesus so much as it is about his cousin to be born just before him – John. We’ve known the Christmas Bible stories since we were children? Read them again as adults, and read the whole story, see a bigger picture.

Even noticing how children take in the Christmas story can be instructive to us, the parents and elders. 

In his humorous novel, Good News for North Haven, Michal Lindvall tells of life in a little church in a little, fictional town in the midwest. When it is time for the children’s Christmas pageant, the old, traditional drama gets a few changes when some ‘young mothers’ take over the production.  

Mary and Joseph were to walk on as the narrator read, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem… to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” At least this is what the Narrator was supposed to read. It was what the Narrator had read at the rehearsal. But a few hours before the performance, one of the young mothers had observed that none of the children could much understand King James English, so they voted, in their ongoing mood of revolutionary fervor, to switch to the Good News translation… “What kid knows what ‘great with child’ means?” they asked. 

So, as Mary and Joseph entered, the Narrator read, “Joseph went to register with Mary who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant.”

As that last word echoed from the Narrator through the PA system in to the full church, our little Joseph, hearing it, froze in his tracks, gave Mary an incredulous look, peered out at the congregation, and said, “Pregnant? What do you mean, pregnant?”

Amid the laughter of the congregation, the pastor’s wife said to her husband, “You know, that may well be just what Joseph actually said.” (pp. 27-27)

Read the stories again, for the first time. 

A third thing that declares what salvation is to us – a list of things really – comes out in Hebrews 2:4. God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by various gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to His will. 

Would I miss the miracle? Would I miss the opportunity? Would I not be touched by some gracious action by someone near me?

If a stranger knocked upon my door
tonight in deepest need,
in my life would there be room 
for anyone but me?

Would I hear the voice of God 
within a Baby’s cry?
Would I open up my heart
and welcome Him inside?

Welcome to December. Welcome to Advent. Pay greater attention, with me, to Jesus. The whole story of Jesus. Pay careful attention to the Spirit of Jesus among us this year.

Prophet, Priest, & King

(Amos 7:7-15; Hebrews 1:1-4) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, July 14, 2019 – UBC Digby

You remember Charlie Farquharson? Comedic alter-ego of Canadian entertainer, Don Harron. In his book, Olde Charlie Farquharson’s Testament, the last words are these: “A profit is sumbuddy gets up on a high place, looks down on everybuddy elts. No matter what ther name is, everyone of them profits seems to tell the peeple the same thing: YER DOIN’ IT ALL RONG!!” (p. 158)

There are plenty of times that people of faith have needed to hear that. We could say that religions, like ours, do one of several things for us. Perhaps we get a message – some truths or warnings about life now and in the future. We get a Prophet, in other words. 

Or, we get some spiritual ‘magic’ done – some rituals are done by an expert to make things right for us. We get a Priest, in other words. 

Or, we get rules for life and the universe – and someone to enforce those rules and show some control.  We get a King or Lord, in other words.  

In day to day life, there can be conflict between the people who are prophetic, and the people who are priestley, and the people who rule. So it has always been and often been. Today’s story from the little book called Amos, is such a story: of a prophet, a priest, and a king.  

A Prophet. Did you look at this book? Amos?  Only about seven pages long – so it can be hard to find. The words the prophet speaks pack a punch. And today, we heard one part that actually tells a bit of a story about prophet Amos. Amos was a man from the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom, Judah. He worked in the fig orchards, tending the sycamore fig trees. Like the tree Zacheus would one day climb. 

Amos got called upon – by God – to prophecy in the northern kingdom, Israel. About 800 years before Jesus. Amos gives severe warnings to the prosperous nation. At this point in their history, even though the Jews are divided into two kingdoms, they are more prosperous and control more land than any time in their history, before or after. And the prosperous upper crust are giving the poor people of their land barely a crust of bread to survive on. 

What’s the word of the Lord from Amos to them?

Hear this, you cows of Bashan… who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’ The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away… (4:1)

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. (5:21)

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:24)

Prophets have this way, often, of sneaking up on you, and then hitting you right between the eyes.  Frederick Beuchener wrote, The prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tipsiness no one was ever comfortable.  With a total lack of tack they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them. They were the terror of kings and priests. (Wishful Thinking, 1973, pp. 74-75)

Who speaks this way today? You might know a few. I thought immediately of some songwriters, actually. Like the late Fred Kaan. One of his great lyrics from the 70s was put to wonderful music by Ron Klusmeier in 2000.  ‘Come, O Holy Spirit.” Sounds sedate and serious enough. Sounds soft and gentle. Most Holy Spirit songs are. Listen to Kaan’s words:  

Come, O Holy Spirit,
set the Church on fire;
strike it as the lightning
hits a posing spire.
Burn away the structures
and consume the sham
of our holy systems:
Come, in Jesus’ name!

Blow away the cobwebs
of our stubborn past.
Come, send flying from us
myths unfit to last.
Wind of change, refresh us
and disturb our calm;
teach us what true love is,
take our hearts by storm.

Do you still believe in prophecy? Do you hear it?

A Priest. Amos gets in trouble for his holy warnings. His sermons get reported to the King of Israel by one of the main priests of the land, Amaziah, Priest of Bethel. Bethel: you remember that town, eh?  Just, oh, 20 km north of Jerusalem. Where Abraham set up an altar. Where Jacob dreamed of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Where there was a school of prophets in the days of Elijah.  

Bethel had its ups and downs as a town of spiritual significance. For a lot of its life it was a place of pilgrimage and worship. Sometimes of non-Jewish deities. In those days of the divided kingdoms, Bethel was part of Israel in the north, and was a shrine of pagan worship. Amaziah was the chief priest of the place. Prophet Amos takes the people to task for their idolatry – serving something that is not almighty God.   

Three thousand years later, we are here, and don’t quite have priests. We preach a priesthood of all believers. Each of you a priest, with a ministry of prayer and reconciliation to your fellow women and men. We make use of our tools of prayer & laying on of hands, meditation & scripture, confession & forgiveness, worship & fellowship. Dare we go astray, what would a prophet say about our ministry?

A King. OK, back 2,800 years again – to Amos, and Amaziah, and the King of Israel, Jeroboam. Jereboam the Second. He’s not what we’d call one of the better kings of Israel. Even though Israel got to its greatest power and wealth ever under his rule. He made Israel great! Greater than ever before, in size. 

But, as a reading of Amos’ book would show us, the northern kingdom grew also under Jeroboam to be more unjust, immoral, self-indulgent, and all mixed up in religion. The aristocrats and people of power had their heyday. And the masses suffered.

So today, we heard Amos’ prophesy that ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’ (A 7:11) A greedy king and a privileged people fall, and will fall hard. Well, this was treason, on the lips of the prophet! ‘Go away, you prophet, and never speak around here again!’ Amos is told. 

No, Amos stays, and repeats his message: the downfall of the ruler and his realm is sure.

Our Bible has many stories of the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful leaders: prophets, priests, and kings. These roles rise and fall through history. The preachers and their long sermons are sometimes prominent. The priests and their holy worship services sometimes take the forefront. The rulers with their leading & their battles take centre stage at other times. 

We live amid our own prophets, and priests, and prime ministers today. Yet we are disciples of One who is all three of these. Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord, is our Prophet, Priest, and King.  

The Book of Hebrews begins, saying: 
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. This was written down almost 2000 years ago. Is it still true? God speaks to us through Christ? YES. Jesus is our greatest Prophet.

He is also our ‘Great High Priest.’ Jesus’ ministry is about connecting us with Holy God. As Hebrews 1 briefly says, When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.  This New Testament book goes on at length about the priestly sacrificial system of the Hebrew religion, and where Jesus takes it. He takes it over, completes it, finishes the work. His priesthood ends sacrifices – He sacrifices Himself, for us. End of story.

And Jesus is the King. The introduction to the book of Hebrews says God takes Jesus, whom …he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 

To know Jesus is to know God, King of the universe. It is no small thing to know the King of the Universe. Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If you know me, you know the Father.’ (John 14)

So we have Jesus to offer to our world, today. We have communication from God – the Prophet. We have spiritual reconciliation and healing – the Priest. We have a good Power in control – the King.  

Pay attention to this Jesus you take with you into your world, day by day. He is a big deal!

Creative Relations

(Genesis 11 – 2:3; Hebrews 1:1-4) J G White

Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017, UBC Digby

This afternoon Sharon and I head to Truro for an annual seminar on spirituality and new thinking. On two occasions there in past years, I have had the pleasure of hearing Sister M. T. Winter, a feminist theologian and author. We here know her best, perhaps, as a songwriter – Joy Is Like the Rain, I Cannot Come to the Banquet, Spirit of God.

M. T. asks, in her 2009 book, Paraxodology,

What would it be like if we approached every new acquaintance as if we had met before?  As if we had something in common. As if we were related.  As if we were already friends.  Can you imagine what this would do for planetary peace?  There would be no point in building walls along our nation’s borders when the walls within us that keep people out are finally coming down.  (p. 165)

At the heart of Faith, our Faith, is relationship.  We are relations to one another.  And to all of creation.  And to God.  Hence the old language of God the Father and Jesus our Friend and Brother.  Hence, the beautiful picture of One God as Three Persons.  Yes, the Holy Spirit is one of the Persons, not an It, but a Him (or Her). God is Three; God is Relationship: good, beautiful, perfect relationship. God is love.

All the broken relationships call out for the healing and reconciling God gives.  Our broken relationship with the earth and all living things. Our broken relationships with people: lately, I have been longing for healing among some folk I know who have become enemies of each other.     Our broken relationships with the Divine.  The Good News is that the Holy One takes the big steps to reconcile with us: the story of Jesus brings us back.  

I looked for a short story to celebrate our God who is the very model & source of good relations & conversation.

Cynthia Bourgeault, of the Center for Action and Contemplation, in New Mexico, shares this illustration of communication and fellowship with God.

(https://cac.org/the-tea-cupboard-2017-03-13/)

…Let me offer you a story that was told to me by my longtime friend and teacher, the Abkhazian dervish elder Murat Yagan.

In the years immediately following World War II, Murat recounts, he spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey. There he became friends with an elderly couple. Life had been good to them, but their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to work in Istanbul.

One day when Murat visited them, the old couple were bursting with pride, eager to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just shipped from Istanbul. It was indeed a handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had already arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go through such an expense to send them a tea cupboard? And if the purpose of this piece of furniture was storage, why were there no drawers? “Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?” Murat asked. They were sure.

But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just before taking his leave, he said, “Do you mind if I have a look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned the backside around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set.

That “tea cupboard,” of course, was intended to connect the couple to their son. But unaware of its real contents, they were simply using it to display their china.

Bourgeault concludes: what if inside the Trinity is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of reality (visible and invisible), allow us to navigate our way through many of the doctrinal and ethical logjams of our time, and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic framework that would truly unlock their power?

It is simply a matter of turning the tea cabinet around and looking inside. I know that there is indeed a ham radio concealed inside this Trinitarian tea cupboard. At a time when spiritual imagination and boldness are at an all-time low and the Christian church hovers at the edge of demise, perhaps now more than ever the time is ripe to remove the packing board from this tea cupboard and release its contents.

Look deeply into God.  The Trinity is not afar off, but is very close.  Remember – every day this week, every morning, noon and night – that the Saviour is communicating, in every language you can hear and see and smell and touch.  God is cheering us on, in every one of our prayers, every flower blossoming before our eyes, every scripture we read.  The connection can seem hidden, but it is there.  There is a Spirit who is bringing your spirit to birth, in every chapter of this life.   AMEN.