New Years Day 2016

Sermon Jan.1 2017


        Today is not only the first day of a new year , but is also the first Sunday of the new year,the time when some things come to an end and others are just beginning.

        This is a time when everyone is given an opportunity to give up bad habits, temporarily for some and permanently for some. Others use this time of year to make changes in their lifestyle. Whatever you think or do at this time of year, it is a special occasion for everyone to make a fresh start. Not necessarily a new start, but at least a turning point in order to correct past mistakes, or take a new direction.

        Today is also celebrated in some churches as Epiphany Sunday. The day of Epiphany is actually the 6th of January but some churches choose the closest Sunday to the sixth and others use the first Sunday of the new year. An epiphany is a sudden understanding of something that previously didn't make sense to you, or something you realize that you had gotten wrong before, or maybe something you had been told but didn't understand.




        I have had two turning points or epiphanies in my relationship with God. The first at a very early age; I was only five years old at the time, but if you had asked me I would have said five and a half. At that age a half a year is important. A lot of things were important then as there are now, and there are a lot of things we don’t understand any better now than we did then. Our version of  reality changes as our understanding grows.

        I stood in an open doorway of a small farmhouse looking out at a stormy night and thinking about what I had just been told, “there is no such thing as a boogie man and even if there were, God is out there with Jesus and all the angels. They are there to protect us”. I knew all about God, I even knew what He looked like.  I had seen pictures of Him in Sunday School. He was an old man with a beard and he sat in a great big chair looking angry and we were supposed to be afraid of him.

        As I stood there watching the storm clouds, one of them seemed to reach out and touch me. I felt a shiver start at the base of my spine and quickly run up my back until I felt it at the top of my neck. Then my five and a half year old brain exploded and I knew! I did not just think! I did not just believe! I knew! And what I knew terrified me. I felt like I had been let in on a terrible secret, that I had to keep to myself. I was on my own, and until I could make sense of it all it would have to stay a secret.

        God was not an angry old man somewhere “up in heaven”! God was right here, right now,God was the wind, God was the clouds, God was the darkness, God was the coming storm, God was all about love. God was everything and everywhere all at once. God was not a vengeful old man, God just WAS! I did not really understand, but I knew.

        What I didn't know was that I was not the first one to make this discovery. As a matter of fact when I recently started to study the history of Christianity, people were questioning things right from the beginning. Jesus did not start a new religion and that was never his intention. His purpose was the same as all the prophets God sent many times over the centuries; to get the people to change and go back to what God wanted for them.  

        Martin Luther did not start a new church; his purpose was the same as Jesus; to bring the people back to behaving as God intended, and neither did a lot of the the other great leaders of the last two millennium. If you pay attention to what most of these people had to say it will become obvious that their purpose was to bring people back to what Jesus really taught. It seems that rather than listen to what Jesus had to say people concentrated solely on his crucifixion , and his words were relegated to send place. It was the followers of all the great leaders who found it easier to throw out all the old ways and start over with their own ideas. Even king Henry did not really start a new church. He simply usurped the pope,  declared himself the head of the church, and changed the name.

        My second turning point was in my mid teens and was linked to our gospel reading for today. It is a parable told by Jesus, one of many he told in conjunction with his teaching. As far as I can find it is the only parable that is repeated almost verbatim in all three of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I have only heard one sermon preached about this parable and that was when I was about fifteen years old and I cannot remember a thing about it. Probably because I was not really listening, my teenage mind was running away with thoughts of my own.

        The sermon that day was based on the parable Jesus told of the wicked tenants of a vineyard, as recorded in Matthew chapter 21: Mark chapter 12: and in Luke chapter 20. All three texts tell exactly the same story, an unusual occurrence for Bible stories. There are usually some significant differences in the way the gospel writers tell these stories.

        My favourite place to find God has always been outside in the dark, and that day was no different. I lay on my back outdoors late on that warm Sunday evening thinking about that parable and listening to the sound of country silence broken only by the occasional howl of a wolf or the yap of a coyote. The northern lights were just starting to create a display of unbelievable beauty. If you have not seen the northern lights close up you have really missed the wonder of God in action.

        Thinking of the way Jesus spoke in parables whenever he wanted to make a point made me wonder if the reason we have trouble understanding the bible is because a lot of the bible is one big parable. This would explain the differences in the details of some of the bible stories that are told in more than one place. The parable of today’s gospel lesson is one exception, The details are identical. Let me read it once more, this time from Mark's gospel


Mark 12

        The Parable of the Wicked Tenants


Then he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard.

        But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son.

        Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

        I found this parable different from all of Jesus' other parables.  Most of his parables could be interpreted as examples, riddles, or challenges, but to me this parable has a different interpretation, that of a warning. I felt there was definitely something different, and I thought it must have special meaning, otherwise why did Matthew, Mark and Luke all repeat the words of Jesus almost verbatim, instead of using their own words like they usually did. Laying there in the dark I translated that parable into words that I understood.


        "Once there was a god who had created a special world of his own. He created all kinds of animals and birds and sea creatures. He planted all sorts of beautiful flowers and plants for food for his animals. Then he created humans and put them in his world as tenants. They were free to do as they pleased in his world in exchange for being caretakers to protect and look after everything. When they failed to live up to their obligations he sent prophets to remind them. Over the centuries he had to send many prophets all to no avail.

        The humans took the god’s world and everything in it solely for their own convenience. They abused the Prophets and ignored their warnings. Finally in desperation the god who owned the world and all that was in it said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” Instead of respecting the son they murdered him in a very brutal way. What do you think the god would do then?"

        But God did not destroy his wicked tenants! I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why! It did not make sense to me. He had already destroyed most of mankind before with a flood. What was different this time? What could possibly make the god relent and spare the murderers from the punishment they deserved? Why did Jesus tell this particular parable, and what does it really mean? Most of Jesus' parables had a moral object lesson that was not too difficult to recognize even if there were other possibilities as to meaning, but this one is a little different. All the gospel writers felt it was so important that they all told the same story with the exact same details.

        I struggled with this knowledge for many years trying to make sense of what I knew as compared to what I was being taught in Sunday School. According to the church my parents attended, humans were sinful and disobedient, and had to be punished. Rather than destroy mankind completely God sent his son Jesus to earth to be punished and die in our place. This was called substitutionary  atonement. It was a theory proposed by an Irish bishop in the year 1095 and took two years of study by the Vatican council before being approved by the Pope in 1097. That Jesus died trying to save us from our sins has always been acknowledged, but not until then, as a substitute for our own punishment and death.

        The very idea that the loving God I knew would deliberately arrange the brutal murder of his only Son as some kind of twisted sacrifice, is one concept I have never been able to accept. But I repeat, what could possibly make the god relent and spare his son's murderers from the punishment they deserved? I can think of only one thing. What father could deny his dying son his last deathbed request; "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?"

        I am a long way from knowing all the answers, and I  never will, but in the meantime I am satisfied not knowing. God will provide us with the answers we need to know when God feels we need to know.