Just after 4:00 am, April 29, 1903, a mountain fell upon an unsuspecting town in the Alberta Rockies.1 The town of Frank Alberta was buried under about 100 million tons of limestone that day. There were a few survivors and around seventy dead. Growing up not far from Frank, I have often driven the highway through the middle of the slide. Decades later in the 1960's it still looked like a moonscape. A piece 2100 feet by 3,000 feet by 500 feet thick had broken off Turtle mountain and tumbled into the valley below. The town was there because Turtle Mountain had rich seams of coal and was being actively mined at the time of the slide. The Blackfeet nation did not like to . . .
Just after 4:00 am, April 29, 1903, a mountain fell upon an unsuspecting town in the Alberta Rockies.1 The town of Frank Alberta was buried under about 100 million tons of limestone that day. There were a few survivors and around seventy dead. Growing up not far from Frank, I have often driven the highway through the middle of the slide. Decades later in the 1960's it still looked like a moonscape. A piece 2100 feet by 3,000 feet by 500 feet thick had broken off Turtle mountain and tumbled into the valley below. The town was there because Turtle Mountain had rich seams of coal and was being actively mined at the time of the slide. The Blackfeet nation did not like to go near the mountain as they called it "the mountain that walks". In fact the miners counted on regular tremors to knock loose seams of coal, making the work easier. There was so much evidence of geological instability, that now we would wonder why there would be a mine in that mountain or a town at its feet. How can people be so blind to the signs of danger?
In Luke's gospel we read about John the Baptizer. John was about as fine an example of tell it like is as you will find. Jesus said he was at the top of the heap in the line of prophets. There were none better.
John preached out in the open country near the Jordan river where he also baptized those who came to him. Jews were not baptized. This was reserved for gentile converts to Judaism. The symbolism for Jews, was that they had to make as complete a change as a gentile convert. Jewishness by birth meant nothing in the new kingdom of God.
What's more he told that very thing to anyone who would listen. He especially made it a point to tell the religious leaders how far out of line they were:
He said to the people that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and don't say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Now that is fiery preaching! I wonder how many contemporary preachers would talk to their listeners that way.
The problem that John is addressing is the temptation we have to believe we are recipients of God's grace because we are special or we have done something to deserve it.
These folks believed that being born into the faith was enough. They were children of Abraham. God had a covenant with Abraham, so in a way, God owed it to them to honor the covenant with nothing being required on their part.
John dismisses that argument saying God could produce children of Abraham from desert stones, and by implication be no worse off for the results.
What God is looking for in John's time and in fact in any time are people who produce the fruit of a changed life.
Psalm 51 says God will not reject a humble and repentant heart. (Ps. 51:17)
It begins with an attitude and leads to a lifestyle.
The winds of change are beginning to blow.
God sent John because a huge event is about to happen.
That event is Jesus, and nothing is going to be the same afterward.
This happened and the effects are plain to see.
Jesus changed history.
Not only that, but the Jewish nation was headed for an imminent crisis with Rome. All of the structures that these people counted on would be gone within a generation. But the work of Jesus planted at almost the exact same time would spread like a wild fire throughout the entire world. Jesus' words and claims are as powerful now as the first day he spoke in Capernaum.
That's also what we celebrate at Advent.
Jesus coming into the world was the best possible news for some.
We read the words of Zephaniah:
Sing, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your judgments, He has cast out your enemy. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; You shall see disaster no more. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: "Do not fear; Zion, let not your hands be weak. The LORD your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing."
He will rejoice over you with gladness
He will quiet you with his love.
He will rejoice over you with singing
At Advent we remember that the God who sent those words came to us not just with words, but in human flesh.
In Jesus, we meet the God of eternity. We see the hands that sustain us; we look into the eyes that know us; we hear from the heart that loves and created us.
For Mary of Magdala, and blind Bartimaues, and Zacchaeus and Mary and Martha and Lazarus and so many others, Jesus was life and hope and peace and joy--all the things we celebrate at Advent.
For others like Herod, Pilate, Judas, Caiaphas among others, he was calamity.
Make no mistake: Jesus is a dividing of the waters and a dividing of the ways.
John didn't soft sell the impact that Jesus would have on our world. His coming was and is a crisis.
When you meet him, nothing can be the same.
Some in our world try to take the sharp edge off what it means to confront Jesus, and make him wonderful but innocuous. We even do that if we can. We say, "surely Jesus would understand if I do this or that."
But John says, bring the fruits of repentance.
Repentance means a change of mind. Changing our mind from wanting what we want and going out to get it, to asking what God wants of us, and going out to do it.
The people John was preaching to thought they were pretty much in with God because they were descendants of Abraham.
We might think we are pretty in with God because we are Presbyterians, or that we are basically good folks, or that we have been faithful church members most of our lives.
John reminded them that God could make children of Abraham out of stones.
In the Ottawa river, just upstream of downtown, is a park and in the shallow waters near the park, a local man has built perhaps twenty or so inuksuks. An inuksuk is a Dene2 sculpture made of flat rocks and piled up to look like the figure of a man.
I could imagine John standing by my side as I looked at the works of art there in the river...."Harold, remember God could make a better preacher than you out of those inuksuks. He could make a better counselor out of the poorest inuksuk."
I am aware that God could easily replace me with a talking donkey or a pile of stones. But I wonder why He doesn't.
I think its because a pile of stones could easily be turned into a better minister than I am any day. But God is looking for the greater miracle. The one He doesn't command.
He is looking for me to turn my heart of flesh to Him in love and gratitude and respect.
This is our ultimate Christmas gift.
A humble and contrite heart, God will never reject.
He won't reject a thankful heart either.
Stephen King says that when he was hit by a reckless driver while walking along a country road, he lay in the ditch thinking how little good all his fame and wealth did him at that moment. He needed help and his Mastercard was of no use. He also said he was reminded lying there in broken glass and blood that he needed to show more gratitude to those whom he really loved.3
And Jesus Jesus stands before us and we cannot ignore the evidence that something is going to happen. Some might ignore rumblings from an overshadowing mountain. Some have to their peril.
Some might ignore the signs of love offered to them every day. Some have to their sorrow.
But some like Stephen King are given a second chance.
And this is the best news. Today is a new opportunity to embrace the Advent of Jesus into your life. To remember he loves you, in spite of it all, not because of it all. To be humble before him and to give him your heart.
And to hear him when he says to you:
I will rejoice over you with gladness
I will quiet you with my love.
I will rejoice over you with singing
I am the singer and the song.
Let us pray:
Jesus you sing over us and we have joy at your song.
We offer you our hearts full of joy and love for you.
Accept this as our gift to you this day.
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia
1. The Frank slide is a dramatic and awesome story of disaster, survival, luck and heroism.
2. The Dene or Inuit people of the north have their own distinctive art. The inuksuk is distinctively theirs.
The inuksuk is a representation of a man and was meant to mark a path where someone had traveled.
3. A story for Advent 3 from Preachingtoday.com
Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1977
Malcolm Tolbert, Luke, The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, Broadman Press, 1970
Glendon E. Harris, Lectern Resource, multiple old back issues--one of my greatest treasures.