December 27, 2013

Jesus Christ Is the Real Saviour (Christmas 1 on Union Island)

The world Jesus was born into was in desperate need of a saviour. The people were militarily oppressed by the Roman armies that had taken away their status as a nation. They were religiously oppressed by the Temple Priests and Pharisees who had reduced their faith in God to burdensome rituals. Their only hope was that God would intervene in history and save them from spiritual oppression and fear of death.

1.    Matthew is helping us understand the connection between Jesus and Old Testament prophecies of the coming Saviour.
The Hebrews had a long history of God intervening to rescue or save them from enemies. All of these stories are about individuals:
·         Noah is saved from the Flood.
·         Abraham is saved from obscurity and called to found a nation.
·         Jacob saves the people from famine.
·         Moses saves the people from slavery.

None of these experiences of being saved is very long-term. It is never long before the people forget their history and fall away from their dependence on and obedience to God. So starting with Isaiah and Hosea we are told of a special Saviour.

December 21, 2013

The Birth of Jesus is Like a Light Coming Into the Darkness

(Teaching notes for Christmas on Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines)

John is trying to explain the significance of Jesus birth. This is one of the most important events in human history. We measure time from Anno Domini – the year of the birth of Jesus. This is AD 2013. John begins with an explanation that would be clear to people familiar with Greek Philosophy. Their idea of God was wisdom which Greeks described as The Word. Once he has their attention John moves on to connect the birth of Jesus to being like a light coming into the world. Let us get a grasp of what John means by light coming into the world before we move on to look at the meaning of Jesus birth.

1.    Isaiah reminds of what it was like to live in darkness
He uses the image of a “yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders and the rod of their oppressor” (9.4) This prophecy was written down either just before or after the Hebrew people were taken into Captivity by the Babylonians in modern day Iraq. The Hebrew people were punished by God for 80 years. They lost their freedom. They lost their sense of God being with them. For the first time in hundreds of years they felt abandoned by God. They had lost their hope in the future. They were like many people in our time who have lost their faith in God and who have never had a personal experience of God working in their lives. This describes the situation that Jesus was born into. The old religious customs were maintained by the priests. Most people had some sort of religious life. But many had given up on waiting for the promised Messiah. Like many of us they only had the distant history of relationship of the Hebrew people with God. Most did not have any personal experience of God. It was only the poor and desperate that continued to cry out to God for help. And they were not disappointed.

2.    The people walking in darkness would see a great light. (9.2)

December 19, 2013

Love Calls Us All to Have Faith (Advent 4)

The story of the birth of Jesus is a love story. It is not the usual mushy, sentimental romantic kind of love story we think of when we think of a man and woman in love. It is a divine love story that describes a kind of love that is harder, more challenging and requires serious risk and commitment. God is reaching out to Joseph and Mary in love. God is going to love them enough to trust them with Himself in human form. This challenges Joseph and Mary to respond to Gods' love reaching out to them in faith. It challenges all of us to also respond in faith to the love of God we see in the birth of Jesus.

1. Love called Joseph to have faith
Joseph was in a very difficult situation. He was legally engaged to marry Mary. They were in that special time before marriage when families used to check each other out and the couple decides if this is really the right thing to do. I saw an example of this in 2007 when serving the Dinka Anglican Fellowship in Calgary. The two Dinka weddings we celebrated were the outcome of years of checking out families back in the Southern Sudan.
  • Hebrew families would watch the couple very closely to ensure they had no opportunities to have a sexual relationship.
  • Pregnancy outside of marriage was considered a big disgrace. In fact the penalty was death by stoning. So Joseph was thinking about sending Mary away somewhere safe where she could have the baby.
  •  The visit of the angel upsets this plan and challenges Joseph to have faith that this was part of a divine plan. Joseph was challenged to place the future of his family completely in the hands of God. Nobody would believe he was not the father.

Most people in our time do not believe that the Holy Spirit, not Joseph was the father of Jesus. At Christmas we share in the faith of Joseph that God could trust humans with the birth of His son.
2. Love of God calls us to the obedience of faith

Serving God Is Perfect Liberation

(Homily notes for a Novena service, Advent 2013 by Fr. John Gishler in St. Vincent)

The question I was assigned is “Do you believe that the deepest meaning of the liberation of a person lies within the service of God.” It is tempting to say yes and sit down – but there are two other sub-questions:
  • What about those who do not?
  • What is your message to them?
 So the short simple answers to the three questions are:
·        Yes,
·        They are toast and
·        Turn or burn.

Let me try and answer these questions in a little more Biblical and loving way.

1. Serving God liberates us from slavery to self

December 13, 2013

What Are You Looking For? (Advent 3)

The word "Advent" is from the Latin verb "veno" to come and the prefix "ad" which means before. We are focusing on how to prepare before Jesus comes to us personally in our own time. In the Gospel Reading (Matthew 11.2-11) Jesus is using the visit of the disciples of John the Baptist to explain what it was people were looking for in John the Baptist. He uses this to explain who He is. Jesus is clearly claiming to be the long awaited Messiah John was pointing to. You can not prepare to meet Jesus if you do not know what or who you are looking for.

1. Jesus asks if they were looking for a reed blowing in the wind?
Jesus is teaching about John and Himself by explaining what John was not. A reed is weak and is blown about by the wind. John the Baptist was the opposite. John was strong and unchanging in his message. It takes courage to step out of a comfortable life and call people to repent.
  • John was very serious about his faith. He was very angry at the way in which the religious leaders of his time had distorted the Hebrew faith. He went out to find the authentic God himself.
  • When God spoke to him he responded and made the sacrifices required. Jesus describes him as the greatest of the prophets because of his faithfulness.
  • Then Jesus says something astounding. He tells the people that even though John is great spiritually, the least spiritual person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John. Jesus is not speculating. Jesus is stating a fact. How does He know this? Jesus knows this because he has been there Himself. This is an indirect but clear claim to be the long expected Messiah. It is spoken in coded language but it is not ambiguous.
 2. Jesus asks the people if they went out to see a king?
Again Jesus is teaching about John and Himself by explaining what John was not. A king is wealthy and powerful and lives in luxury and comfort surrounded by admirers. In contrast John was poor, had no political power and lived alone in a very hostile environment. Why?
  • John wanted solitude. John wanted to be alone with God and pray. He wanted to avoid distractions. He wanted to get away from the polluted spiritual atmosphere of Jerusalem.
  • John wanted to live in a spiritual kingdom - an authentic spiritual kingdom. This is why he needed to get away from the crowds of people who were not really seeking a spiritual life.
  • This is also why other people, who were seeking an authentic spiritual life, came out to see him. These people also knew that they could not find an authentic spiritual experience of God in the city.
  •  The Good news is that they knew what they were looking for and that they found it.
 3. Do you know what you are looking for?
If you do not know what you are looking for you may not recognize Jesus when He comes to you as the Holy Spirit. The people in that particular crowd would have known what they were looking for. They were looking for a Messiah who would do the marvelous things prophesied by Isaiah 800 years earlier. They were looking for someone who would change peoples' lives as dramatically as pouring water in the desert, opening the eyes of the blind, curing leprosy and raising the dead.
  • Notice how Jesus communicates to the crowd and to John in prison in code. He never says He is the Messiah. That would cause a riot, attract the wrong people and get Him crucified.
  • When the disciples of John ask Him if He is the expected Messiah, Jesus lays out His answer in code. He instructs them to tell John what has happened. The good new is being preached to the poor. The eyes of the blind are being opened. People are being cured of leprosy. The dead are being raised. This is actually much clearer and more verifiable that a simple "yes".
 So what are you looking for?
Many people are not seriously looking for Jesus at all. Others may be looking for him in the wrong places. Many people underestimate Jesus. They may see Him very vaguely as a sort of Santa Clause who somehow takes away their sins and gets them into Heaven.
  • When you study the Bible you get a much different idea of what to look for when Jesus comes into your life.
  • If you feel guilt and shame because you have separated yourself from God by rebellion and sin, Jesus is the one who will take your guilt and shame to the Cross, forgive you and restore you to right-relationship with God
  • If your life has been a struggle for acceptance and attention you may find Jesus is the one who overwhelms you with love.
  • If you have been terribly wounded by life you are looking for the one who heals you.
  • If you have been abusive and selfish in your relationships you should look for Jesus as the one who weeps at the pain you have caused until you repent and weep with Him.
  • The experience of personally meeting Jesus is painful but transforming. Isaiah described how radical this will be long ago - "… the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped…Water will gush forth in the wilderness…" (Isaiah 35.5-7)
 Know what you are looking for –

 it will be an authentic personal experience of the Holy Spirit and lead you through the pain of repentance, forgiveness and healing to a life of love, joy and peace

December 7, 2013

Baptisms of Repentance, The Holy Spirit and Fire Give Us Hope

(Father John and Lucille are temporarily serving in the Anglican Diocese of the Windward Islands, on the Island of St. Vincent)

The story of John the Baptist is the basis for our teaching on what people must do to become serious Christians and have hope. Hope is what frees people from fear and enables them to love God, themselves and others. The readings for this Sunday include teaching on the three different types of baptism that we all move through as we grow in hope and in our spiritual lives. The first strep is the baptism of repentance which prepares us for the second Baptism of the Holy Spirit. As the Spirit comes into us and teaches us we are being prepared for the third baptism, the baptism of the fire of love. As we progress in our spiritual lives we find ourselves cycling back through these baptisms as we discover deeper levels of sin in ourselves and need more teaching.In all of this we are growing in our hope that God loves us and will bring us eventually to eternal spiritual life in His Kingdom.

1. The First Baptism is Repentance
John the Baptist gives us a very clear picture of what baptism is. It is not about joining the church as the people he is baptizing were probably all practicing Jews. In fact that raises the question of why would people who were already part of a religion want to be baptized. Why were they at the Jordan instead of at their local Synagogue? The answer is given in how John responds to the Sadducees and Pharisees when they show up. He calls them "Vipers"- snakes. The modern equivalent would be clergy who were over focused on the detailes of ritual and doctrine. John call them "snakes” because they  do not really love God and are not really caring for God’s people.
  • John tells them they must "produce fruit in keeping with repentance." (Matthew 3.8) The message is that knowing religious doctrine and keeping religious ritual is not good enough.
  • What is required is evidence, or fruit of repentance. Repentance means being sorry for what you have done or failed to do.
  • What the Sadducees and Pharisees were trying to do was earn their right relationship with God by right knowledge or right behaviour. Many people in our time believe they can be in right relationship with God by being a good person.
  • This is not what the Bible teaches. In fact this is the opposite of the message of John the Baptist. We all need to go through self-examination and repentance as our first baptism or first step in spiritual growth.

2. Our second baptism is in the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit can not live in a garbage dump. This is the second baptism because people have to go through the spiritual cleansing of repentance before the Holy Spirit can live in and activate their personal spirit. This is the gift that Jesus promises to everyone who puts their trust in Him.
  • Many people have this gift but are not aware of it because nobody has taught them this. Often the Holy Spirit is lying dormant inside us because we are not paying attention, not reading our Bibles and not having a daily quite time. But when we do pray and listen we discover our spiritual gifts
  • The Isaiah reading (11.2) teaches us this can be the "Spirit of wisdom and understanding…knowledge and the fear of the Lord." This is very important. The same Spirit that inspired the people who wrote the Bible can come to us and help us understand what it means for us in our particular lives.
  • The bad news is that there is also a counterfeit or false spirit that is easy to mistake for the Holy Spirit. The spiritual world is currently a battleground where our discernment is tested.
  • The good news is that we can move beyond a legalistic understanding of the Bible to a wisdom understanding. As we are quiet in our prayer time wonderful ideas and words sometimes just appear in our heads. It is often, but not always, the Holy Spirit teaching us. This is the second baptism that prepared us for the third baptism.

3. Our third baptism is in the fire of love
Just as our repentance baptism is symbolized by the washing of water, our third baptism is symbolized by the burning up of fire. What is burnt up in the fire is the remaining parts of our selfishness and pride.The Holy Spirit is what many people think of as conscience. This is the little voice in the back of your head that warns you when you are doing something foolish.As we are filled more and more by the Holy Spirit we experience the love of God burning inside us giving us hope.

This fire of the love of God burns up our selfish fear and gives us the hope we need to live a life of love with the fruit of love.