Born in a cave


Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

If you have ever been to a service of benediction of the blessed sacrament, then you will IMG_0327have seen one of these. This is called a monstrance. Now this one is rather modest, but they can be quite large and they are usually gilt with precious metal and expensive stones. A monstrance is designed to catch your eye and grab your attention, but what is at its heart, the point to which your attention is drawn during the service is a little piece of bread, held inside this little chamber. Despite all of the gold and gilding, the part of the monstrance that is actually holy and worthy of our adoration is the very simple wafer, it doesn’t look like much (and most of you know that it doesn’t taste like much), but when blessed by our Lord, it becomes his body, his very life, given for us and given to us. We may surround the sacrament with all sorts of costly adornment, but that which has true value is really the simplest thing touched by God.


A Christian Church can be a monstrance of sorts. The holiest thing in this building is the bread and wine that is held in the tabernacle on the altar. It is the focal point of this building. It is what all the gilding and the architecture draws your eye too. It is to that bread and wine in the tabernacle that we genuflect. The chalice may be far more expensive than the altar wine, but in the end it is the wine that becomes holy. Bread is such a common and inexpensive thing that plenty of restaurants give it to you for free, and we think nothing of skipping it or leaving it untouched, but here it is given the highest dignity, here it is adored. Maybe that’s why the fancy tools are helpful: they do at least catch our attention, and make us notice something that we might otherwise be inclined to ignore. We may build great churches and decorate them lavishly, but at their heart the thing that makes them holy is something that God has done with something very common. The gold may catch our eye, but God lives in the bread.


Tonight, on the other side of the world people will gather in one of the greatest churches ever built. It isn’t great because of its size, which isn’t particularly large, nor is it great because of its beauty, which frankly isn’t that remarkable. No, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the oldest churches in the world, is great because of what lies in its heart. Situated underneath the high altar is an ancient cave. It doesn’t look much like a cave anymore, it has been decorated and embellished through the centuries, but here and there you get glimpses of the bare rock and you remember that once this was just a common cliff dwelling. What makes this cave so special, is not what men and women have done to it or built around it, the decorations are just there to grab our attention; what makes this cave holy is what God has done with it. God has taken something quite common, and done something amazing.


Now you may be wondering: “what is all this talk about a cave? Wasn’t Jesus born in a stable? Didn’t we just sing about ‘a lowly cattle shed’? What about the manger?”


Well if you travel in the middle east, one of the things you learn quickly is that there are a lot more rocks there than trees. There are caves everywhere and caves would have been commonly used to shelter livestock. Plenty of people lived in them as well, and why wouldn’t they? It only made sense. Our hymns and our nativity scenes aren’t wrong; they just don’t give us the full picture. But there in that common cave in the Bethlehem hillside, people have been gathering since there very first centuries after our saviour’s death to tell the story of his birth and what God did in that humble place. The Roman emperor Hadrian thought that he could put an end to the worship of Christ in that place. He had the cave covered over and even had a pagan temple built on top of it, in the hope that people would forget, but they didn’t. Years later, when Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine came to explore the sites associated with the life of our Lord, the local Christians led her to this temple. Hadrian wanted his temple to erase the memory of where Jesus was born, but ironically it just helped to mark the spot. The Christians hadn’t forgotten.


And then when the pagan temple was cleared away, there beneath it was the holy cave and off in one little corner, in the warmest part of the cave, a little trough cut into the stone for feeding the animals; a manger. This was the site; an unimpressive little cave, where God had performed his great miracle. Helena had a great church built over the site, decorated with rich mosaics, some of which you can still see today, but sadly most of her church would be lost to fire, only to be rebuilt by another Roman emperor, Justinian. Although Justinian’s church is still standing, it is the church we know today, what makes it holy is not it’s age or its decoration; what makes it holy is that small cave beneath it and the memory of what God did in that place.


On the floor of that cave is a silver star, to mark the place of Jesus’s birth. A whole war was fought once when someone stole that star, but it needn’t have been. How easy it is for us to forget that it isn’t the star that is actually holy; it’s the rock beneath it; just like this monstrance isn’t actually holy, only the bread within it. The decorations and the churches, they can be helpful in getting our attention, but ultimately they should always be pointing to what God has done and is doing in the world. God can take something so simple as a common cave or a little piece of bread, and he can fill it with his life. From the poorest shepherd to the greatest emperor, we are all saved and made holy by something that God has done.


Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his magnificent book on the life of Christ wrote:

 “Because he was born in a cave, all who wish to see him must stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who bend their egos and enter, find that they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a babe on his mother’s lap, with the world poised on his fingers.”


If you want to see the Church of the Nativity, you will have to stoop…the main door is only 4 feet high; but it is the humble in spirit, those that can stoop in their souls, that will actually see Jesus.


I love Christmas, but at its heart it isn’t about what we do in the world; it is about what God has done. I love churches: the decorations, the vestments, the hymns, the incense, the candles, all of it, but not because they demonstrate what humans can accomplish. No, I love those things because they continually point my distracted mind back toward Jesus, and they remind me that no human in the grandest church or palace, will ever accomplish what he did in the tiniest cave; no artisan will ever craft from the finest gold, something more precious than he created from the simplest bread.

A Little Good News


Sermon for Advent II, December 10th, 2017




In 1983 Canadian singer Anne Murray recorded a song called “A Little Good News.” You may remember the song, it topped the charts for several weeks and it even won a Grammy. I have to admit that I have a hard time listening to this song without getting a bit tearful. The song begins with the following verse:


I rolled out this morning…kids had the morning news show on
Bryant Gumbel was talking about the fighting in Lebanon
Some senator was squawking about the bad economy
It’s gonna get worse you see we need a change in policy

There’s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band
One more sad story’s one more than I can stand
Just once, how I’d like to see the headline say
Not much to print today can’t find nothing bad to say



Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town
Nobody OD’d, nobody burned a single building down
Nobody fired a shot in anger…nobody had to die in vain
We sure could use a little good news today


That song tugs on my heart so much, because even though it is well over 30 years since it was written, it is just as relevant now as it was then, maybe even more so. I’m not sure what Bryant Gumble is doing these days, but otherwise the song could have been written yesterday. We live in a world of constant news. Every minute of the day we have this constant onslaught of people telling us what is wrong with the world. Fighting, wars, scandals, abusive men, politicians lying, murders, natural disasters…it never stops. It is overwhelming, and if you feel that you have just heard one more sad story than you can stand, then know that you are not alone. People have been feeling that way for a long time.


When we find the news overwhelming, I think it is worthwhile to take a step back, look at history and recognize how little of the news we are hearing is actually new. Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other for what is wrong with the country. That’s not news. A politician got caught having an affair or telling a lie. That’s not news. There is racism in this world. Not news. A bunch of influential men are being called out for abusing their power to make sexual advances…call it sinful, call it shameful, and by all means call for an end to it, but don’t call it news. It’s not news. There is nothing new about sin. There is nothing new about hatred, or murder or war or corruption. These things are old, old news. The brokenness of our world is old news and we are not the first people to find it overwhelming.


Anne Murray was singing 30 years ago, but she just as easily could have been singing 100, 200 or even 2000 years ago. Read some of the Psalms sometime and you will see that people have been singing about the brokenness of the world for a very long time. And like Anne, people have been hoping for something different. Despite the fact that bad news sells, deep in our hearts we long for good news.


When people hear the word “Gospel” they are usually inclined to think of one of two things: a type of church music, or a book about the life of Jesus. When we think about “the gospels” we think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the stories about Jesus and the collections of his teachings that we read with great ceremony in church every week. They are the beginning of the New Testament in our bibles and they are the bedrock of our lives as Christians. But the word “Gospel” doesn’t mean “book” or “writings,” the word “gospel” means “good news.”


Our gospel reading this morning is Mark 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the Good News, of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” This isn’t just a story, this is news. Good news. This isn’t a chronicle of everything bad that is happening in the world, that is old news. The presence of evil in the world isn’t really news at all, but this story that Mark wants to tell you is news, and it is good news.


But unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark’s story doesn’t begin in a manger. Mark’s story begins in a river, the Jordan river. The gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with the birth of Jesus, but the gospel of Mark, which we think was the first gospel written, begins with John the Baptist standing in the Jordan river preaching about repentance and forgiveness. Why were all those people thronging to hear what this man John had to say? Mark tells us that people from all the countryside and all Jerusalem went out to hear him. Why were they so eager to jump in the water? Was it because John told them that they were sinners or was it because they already knew they were sinners and John was offering them hope of something new?


I wasn’t there, but I think those people gathered on the shores of the Jordan listening to John preach were just as overwhelmed by their world as we are with ours. Maybe they didn’t have 24 hour news, but they had plenty of oppression, murder, violence, corruption and well…sin. Sin was old news to them, just as it is to us. John’s primary message was not that humans are sinful, they already knew that. John’s real message was that God is coming, coming into the world to save us from our sin. That is what makes him so compelling. That is what makes his preaching good news. God has heard our cries. God has recognized that we are weak, inconstant like the grass and that we have not the power to save ourselves. God knows that we are broken and have made a mess out of this world. God knows and he is going to do something about it. God is about to do something new and we are invited to be a part of it. That is good news.


In Peter’s letter this morning he says that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” What I love about that Anne Murray song is that she asks you to imagine what it would be like if you turned on the news and were overwhelmed by how much people loved each other and how beautiful life can be. Can you imagine what that would be like? Living in a world where righteousness was at home? That is what I think those people at the Jordan river were longing for and dreaming about. They wanted a little good news and that is what John was offering them. He was proclaiming that God was coming to do something new in the world and they could choose to be a part of it.


We may not be able to save ourselves, but we can prepare ourselves for the savior. We can admit that the world is this way because we have made it so. We may complain about all the negative news, but we sure spend a lot of time buying it and watching it, so at some point we have to face the fact that our desires and our actions are frequently in conflict. But of course, that is old news. I’m willing to bet that you already know deep down that you have done things in your life that have hurt others, hurt yourself or damaged the world we live in. You may not want to talk about it or admit it openly, but you probably know it. That’s not news.


What is news is that God is doing something about it. God’s son is offering us forgiveness of sins. He is alive and at work in the world; his grace is performing miracles and helping us to accomplish things we could never do on our own and most importantly, he is inviting us to live in a new world where righteousness is at home and where we are overwhelmed by love, not by evil. It will happen in his time, not our time, but it will happen. What a glorious hope we have.


Listening to the news can be overwhelming. It can be a painful reminder of just how much the world needs a savior; but we are Christians. We are a people that have been entrusted with the gospel, with the good news and the good news is this: we have a savior. Now let us share that news with a world that desperately needs to hear it.


When the miracle occurs, the reward is heavenly…


Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, December 3rd, 2017


Caramel Cake. It is a taste of heaven, but if you have ever tried to make one then you probably know what a test of patience they are. The cake is basic enough, but let’s be honest, it’s just a vehicle for the icing, and the icing is tricky. If you want to go home and try this, good luck to you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Here is what happens with caramel icing: you mix your sugar, and butter and evaporated milk together in a saucepan, get it all dissolved and melted, put it on the heat and then you wait. But this isn’t the type of waiting where you can set your timer and walk away, take a nap or catch up on a few television shows. Caramel icing will not be treated so casually. You have to stay there with it, watching it intently. You have to look for the gradual signs of browning, evidence that the miracle of caramelization is taking place. You give it a regular stir, you smell it, you look for changes in color and consistency, but mostly you wait attentively, because you don’t know the precise moment when the caramel will appear.


To walk away or get distracted is to risk absolute ruin. To rely solely upon the approximate time given you in the recipe is folly, because the miracle of caramelization is bound to no man’s schedule. It could take an hour, it could take an hour and a half, maybe more. If you think that you can beat the process by turning the heat up, think again. You’ll be testing your smoke detector before you know it. No, with caramel icing, one must actively watch and wait, keeping your eyes open to the miracle that is about to occur, knowing that the effort will eventually produce a heavenly reward.


It’s not just caramel cake of course, any type of caramel requires similar vigilance. It’s not just sweets either; if you have ever tried to make a dark roux for a gumbo, it’s the same process. It’s the same miracle. Timers are of little use. Shortcuts are usually a waste of time. Even the virtue of patience is not enough. A pot roast takes patience, but then you can more or less forget about it until it is done. You throw the right ingredients into your crock pot and then go on about your life. Caramel requires more than patience, it requires attention. It isn’t just a matter of waiting; it is waiting with your eyes open, knowing that at any moment you may be called to act or respond.


Attention is a valuable thing. There is probably a reason that we use the expression “to pay attention” because attention, on some level is costly. Like time, there is only so much of it that we have to give, so we would be wise to be careful about where we spend it, or what we give our attention too. You may not think that a caramel cake is worth your time and attention. You’d be wrong, but that’s your business. Maybe a sticky, delicious cake isn’t your thing, but you should at least ask yourself: “what is worthy of my attention?”


Here we are at the First Sunday of Advent when the church turns its eyes, its attention, not yet toward our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, but first to that future day when our Lord will return in glory. We are looking to “the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead” as our collect this morning invites us to pray.


C.S. Lewis once pointed out in an essay that when Jesus spoke about his return he made three things clear: 1. That he certainly would return. 2. That no one would know the day or time and 3. That therefore one has to be always prepared and ready. And Lewis pointed out that it’s the third point, the “therefore” part that is really important. God wants our attention. He wants us to live our lives with our eyes opened to what he is doing in the world and with hearts that are ready to respond to him at any moment. God isn’t just trying to catch us unaware…if he wanted to do that he just wouldn’t have told us he was coming at all. What God wants is for us to pay attention. He isn’t going to let us know the date and time of his arrival, because God wants to be a part of all of our days, not just the last few.


Advent is such an important season, there to remind us that Christ is our future as well as our past. Now I’m not one of those Advent purists that refuses to acknowledge Christmas, let anyone have fun in December or even decorate before Christmas Eve, but if I want to truly appreciate Christ coming into the world on December the 25th, then I need to pay attention to the ways in which he may be breaking into my world every other day of the year. In other words, I need to be able to live in a perpetual Advent, always keeping a watchful eye out for what God is doing, always prepared to respond to him. Having a real relationship with God, means paying attention to him all the time. You can’t just say “wake me when he gets here.”


It would be great if our spiritual life was like a pot roast: just throw in the right ingredients in the beginning, go on with your life and come home to a delicious feast at some point in the future. I know that that is how many people see religion. But from our Lord’s words in the gospel though, I am led to believe that it is probably more like that caramel cake: something that requires vigilance and attention, with eyes that are open to signs of change and hands that are ready to respond. Yes, it does require more work, it requires more attention, which is costly, but when the miracle occurs, the reward is heavenly.


For your edification and viewing pleasure you may listen to the above mentioned C.S. Lewis essay here: