No longer subject to the kingdom of death.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  So too, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Romans 6:9, 11

Death no longer has dominion over him. 

The Son of God, who shared our human nature in every way except sin, is no longer subject to the kingdom of death, the kingdom which claims the power of pain and decay over everything in this fallen world.

The good news that Jesus preached can be summed up in the simple-yet-earth-shattering truth that God himself broke into this dominion of death to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, and did what was necessary to offer us citizenship, to adopt us as sons and daughters of the one who sits on the everlasting throne.

In this fallen world, in the kingdom of death, one thing is certain: everything dies; everything wastes away; everything winds up more scarred, calloused, bruised, wrinkled, and broken than it started out.  John tells us that even the ruler of the kingdom of death knows that he himself will be destroyed – and that’s the point: to bring everything to destruction rather than glory.

Christ proclaimed another Kingdom – the Kingdom where everything in this fallen world is turned on it’s head.  The Kingdom where the latter state is better than the first, where, by grace, we learn to let go more of the dirt and dust, more of the pain and hurt as we mature by faith; the Kingdom where scars and callouses are healed and become signs of God’s glory working in us; the Kingdom where true justice is found not in revenge, not by making things fair, but by letting go, as the one willing offering of the innocent Lamb of God covers all the strivings and failings and best intentions of those who were subject to a twisted kingdom whose goal was death and destruction.

Death no longer has dominion over him. 
So, too, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus

We know that no servant can obey two masters. 

We cannot let there be light while we try to hold on to the darkness.  We cannot learn to live and let ourselves be healed and allow God to make us better and better than we were when we began if we choose to decay, if we choose to heap up scars and callouses, if we choose to cling to worldly wisdom gained through a life of pain, if we choose to cling to, if we choose to value that which, at best, grows old and wrinkled, becomes swollen and inflamed, and goes down into the dust of the grave.

We cannot be subject to the kingdom of death and the Kingdom of God; by your words and actions, and all the way down to the core of your being, you will love one and hate the other; when it matters, a choice will be made.

The Good News of the empty tomb, the Good News of a whipped, beaten, mocked, pierced, and spit-upon man walking and talking with those he loves, with each scar now a glorious sign of God’s power to turn the very worst the world has to offer into life and light; the good news in all of that is that we, too, can be made subjects of that kingdom.  Though we’re still within the borders of this kingdom of death, we can be granted citizenship, armed to live as rebels against the world, the flesh, and the devil – even against death itself – equipped by the Holy Spirit to simultaneously get better and worse with age: that God at work in those who are united to Christ in his death and resurrection takes whatever pain, hurt, and decay the world throws at us for our destruction and turns it into His glory, accomplishing His perfect purpose for us in spite of the failings of the flesh, preparing us for life that transforms us from glory to glory in the presence of God.

But we cannot be subject to both kingdoms.  We love one and hate the other. 
We can only serve one, and must rebel against the other.  Each lays claim to our all.

If we trust in God some of the time; if we trust in God’s power as a last resort, only when money and willpower and science and doctors fail – don’t worry, God’s power is sufficient – if we only trust some of the time, we’ve chosen to cling to the dominion of death.

If we live a life of forgiving others, of giving second chances, and third chances, and seventh chances, and seventy times seventh chances, but hold back forgiveness from that one person who did that one thing we could never forgive – don’t worry, God’s mercy is boundless – but, if there’s something you won’t forgive, you’ve chosen to cling to the dominion of death.

If you’ll offer your time or talent or treasure or commitment to the service of the Kingdom of God, but only when it doesn’t conflict with your existing commitment of money or time or energy to things that rust and decay, to things that grow wrinkled and die, then it’s already clear where your allegiance truly lies.

My friends, we must follow Christ, who came to offer citizenship in the Kingdom of God, who came to equip us to live as rebels in this fallen world.

We must follow Him; it’s not a box of envelopes or knowing when to stand or sit or what words to say; we must follow the one who walked out of the grave because he would not be subject to it!  We must follow the one who let go of worldly ambition or wealth and power because he knew it would only chain us down to a dying world.  We must follow the one who let go of revenge for past wrongs, because he knows it only shackles us to the past.  We must follow the one who offered it all, knowing that, in the Kingdom of God, loss is gain, mercy leads to glory, and even the grave itself is the path to victory.

This day, this glorious day proclaims that, if we cling to something that is passing away; we too will pass away.  This glorious day proclaims that if we cling to pain or hurt or wrong inflicted to us, we will live and die in that pain.  But… if we cling to the one who overcame death and the grave, if we cling to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where all things, even death on a cross, work together for the good of those who belong to the Author of Life itself, then, my friends, death no longer has dominion over us, either.  We, too, can go through life knowing that even scars proclaim his glory, and even after this failing dominion of death does it’s worse, we too will rise from the tomb to live in the presence of God forevermore. 

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!

The New Covenant: A forward-looking hope.

As we’ve journeyed through Lent, we’ve been reminded of God’s faithfulness, His goodness, and His mercy through the covenants – the sure and certain promises – He has made with His people.  From Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and ultimately through the one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of the Lamb of God, He has shown us what it means to be faithful, to continue reaching out in love, not because we’ve earned or somehow deserved it, but because we were created for a free and loving relationship with Him, and He’s always ready to honour that: all we have to do is turn to Him in faith.

In today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34) we hear familiar language about the New Covenant.  This covenant is the core of our faith, with the promise of forgiven sin, the promise of sharing no longer in the sinful life of the first man, Adam, but partaking – really entering into and sharing in the eternal life of Jesus, the first-born of the new creation who leads to eternal life.  This covenant is central to our life together: it’s the reason we’re gathered, and it’s the message that we’re called to bring to the world; and Holy Week – beginning next Sunday – the holiest, most involved, and most visible part of the Christian year is our annual opportunity to enter into that story, to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness, to remind ourselves of the great price of our salvation, and to equip and inspire us to do what God has commanded every generation: to spread the good news, to tell the old, old story, and to teach it to our neighbours, our children, and our children’s children.

We’re Christians – we are the people of the new covenant in Christ: this is our story, this is our song, and our job is to proclaim it all the day long.

But… looking at God’s words to Jeremiah, I think there’s something about that Covenant that we all-too-easily miss.

A Future Promise

“This is the covenant that I will make:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and teach his brother saying “Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Sometimes, I think, we get in the habit of thinking that God’s promises are all in the past, that God’s done all he is going to do, and our job is to figure it out, to make the best of it, to make it work and try to remain faithful until he calls us home.

But, while it’s true that the New Covenant began at supper on the night before Jesus was offered as the sacrifice for the sins of the world, while it’s true that the price was paid once and for all, the New Covenant isn’t “done”, it isn’t in the past.  Rather, it’s still unfolding now, and as we look at those words from Jeremiah, it remains our hope for a yet-more-glorious future.

As we’ve seen in the other covenants this Lent, each covenant begins with God’s promise – His promise to bless his people, to lead them and guide them, to be their God if they will be His people; and each comes with responsibilities, with work to be done.

In the covenant to Noah, God gave the authority to create and maintain a just society, protecting the weak and innocent by punishing those who do wrong; Abraham and his descendants were promised the glorious opportunity to bring the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth, and a promised land to dwell in the very presence of God, requiring their commitment and faithfulness;  through Moses, freedom from bondage and sin was promised as God used the Law to instruct his people in righteousness, in knowing right from wrong, teaching them to live as God desires; and it’s in Jesus that the path to eternal life is opened, all it takes, as we heard in the Gospel today (John 12:20-33), is that we stop clinging to the broken ways of this sinful life, and instead take up our cross and follow Christ.  “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him”.

It’s glorious – that’s our living hope – but there’s even more to the story!

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

God promises through Jeremiah that, when the New Covenant begun in Christ is fulfilled, the law will be written on our hearts, we will be God’s people, and there will be no more need to spread the good news, because everyone – everyone – will know God.  Like, really know God; Paul says that now we see in a mirror dimly, but once that veil is lifted from our faces, we’ll see and know God clearly, even as God already knows all there is to know about us.

But what does it mean that the law will be written on our hearts?

That’s an important question – because God’s certainly not saying that we’re going to have the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy memorized! 

If you remember back to the covenant with Moses, the law isn’t just about things that are clean or unclean, details about how to live and how to worship; it has a great, over-arching purpose.  The purpose of the law isn’t in the details – the purpose of the law is to show us God’s character, and to demonstrate our absolute and utter need for a saviour who can do what we can never do for ourselves.

God’s promise is that, through the New Covenant, his people would finally know him – not just know about him, but know his very character, and carry that around inside them, right down in their hearts, in the very life flowing through their veins.  God’s promise is that we will finally know, right in the core of our being, that God is God and we are not, that we need a gracious and merciful saviour who offers us a place as sons and daughters of the King, not because we deserve it or have any right to it at all, but because we were created for his glory, a glory shown forth as we accept his mercy and share in the eternal life and relationship of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Law – the knowledge of God’s character and our own need for a merciful saviour – will be written, engraved, not on tablets of stone, not on scrolls or the holy pages of scripture, but in the very hearts of those who are united to Christ in his sacrifice, clothed with his righteousness, and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.

What a glorious promise.  …and what a fitting end to the story of our salvation.

The Reprise of Genesis

If you remember back to Genesis, Adam and Eve had all that they needed, they even knew God, walking and talking with Him in the cool of the day in a place where everything they needed was provided, everything had been declared ‘good’, and where God was glorified. 

They knew God.  They had everything they needed. But there was one thing that would upset it all; one thing they could not touch.  It’s absolutely fascinating: Genesis 2 says the tree of life was there – they were free to eat from that if they wanted, God wanted them to live forever; they could eat from the tree of life, it was only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they could not touch.

You see, all was fine while they walked with God, and all they knew was the goodness and mercy of a loving Father.  They walked with God, they knew his character, reflected as his image imprinted upon them.  But the knowledge of good and evil is a dangerous thing: without the law, how do you know which is which.  And worse still, without the law proclaiming our need for a saviour, reminding us that the serpent’s lie is a lie, that no, we cannot make ourselves like God, that we creatures depend on the mercy and grace of a loving Creator; without the law, the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, will lead us astray.

God couldn’t bear the thought of humanity living forever with that twisted and broken outlook, and that’s why Genesis 3 tells us that God drove Adam and Eve from the presence of the garden, to keep them from eating from the tree of life.

But God’s plan doesn’t change – how could it, his Word is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He still wants to walk with us, to dwell with us, for us to live forever with him where he provides for all our needs; as the Book of Revelation proclaims, he still wants us to eat from the tree of life.  But, to do that, we first needed his law – we first need his loving character and our need for a merciful saviour – written on our hearts.

My friends, Jesus paid the price of our salvation on the Cross on Good Friday, but that’s not the end of the New Covenant.  The good news is that the Cross is literally just the beginning!

Day by day, moment by moment, as we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit to repent and return whenever we slip off the path of life, our very hearts are being retrained; we learn, one day at a time, to give up loving the things of this world – Jesus actually puts it even stronger, we learn to hate the things of this world, and our hearts learn to know more fully who God is, and to acknowledge more fully, each and every day, just how much we need a saviour.

The promise of the New Covenant is that, beginning with Good Friday, we can learn to take up our cross and walk with God once more, a journey that begins now, and appears to cost us everything, but with each step, brings us closer to knowing God, trusting more fully in him, and, clothed in his righteousness alone, living with him forever together with all the others, from every language, people, and nation who know the Lord, where the knowledge of the need for a saviour and trust in him alone means that all iniquity is forgiven, and sin itself is remembered no more.

This is our living hope – it begins with the power of the cross, and transforms us from the inside out as we become enabled to reflect God’s glory.  And the message is so simple that it’s sometimes hard to believe: all we have to do is repent, return, and follow Jesus – simply walk in his footsteps, not worry about the changes and chances of this life, and learn to trust in Him alone.  And we can, because his covenants are sure, he is faithful, he always keeps his word, and the one who created us for life with him, and who started a good work in you and in me, will see it through to completion, by his grace, and for his glory.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The Covenant with all Creation

Genesis 9:1-17

Throughout the season of Lent this year, our lessons speak of God’s faithfulness, and they do that in a particular way: each Sunday this Lent, our readings look at the covenants God has made with people, the promises God has made which establish a real and lasting relationship between the Creator and those He created in His Image and for His glory.

So this Lent, in this season of repentance and hitting the reset button on our lives, as each of us is called to renewed trust in God, to a renewed commitment to prayer and study of God’s Word, and a renewed zeal to live out our faith in the world, we get to be refreshed each Sunday with the glorious message that, in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our faithlessness, in spite of all the ways we’ve turned aside from trusting in the Lord, God remains faithful, through it all.

What’s a Covenant?

So the next five weeks leading to Holy Week and Easter, we’re looking at Covenants in scripture… but the first question is simply, “what’s a covenant”?  What is is?

In scripture, a covenant is more than a contract; a covenant is more than a transaction where each party gets something in exchange for a payment of equal value.  A covenant establishes a relationship; a covenant is a promise that binds the one making it, it’s not just a promise, but a sure and certain statement of intent that changes forever how the two parties relate to one another.

Sometimes covenants work both ways, where two people make a covenant with each other at the same time, while other times, like in God’s covenant with Noah that we read today, it’s a promise that requires nothing in return.

The Heartbroken God.

And that’s the incredible thing in what we read today.  After Adam and Eve chose pride and disobedience over trust, we know they were cast out of paradise, and it’s the beginning of life as we know it, a life of labour and toil, work and pain, struggling to provide for our needs until we finally die and our bodies return to the dust. 

But, lest we think things are bad now, the Bible tells us that, for those first humans, things were unbelievably worse.  Genesis 6 says that people only chose evil, all the time; people only followed what was best for themselves, regardless of the consequences, and even the God-given, life-producing relationships between men and women were broken to the point that a wife was something to be taken at will.  That love, that trust, that sense of belonging and desire for relationship for which we were created was all but gone.  And then that incredible verse, Genesis 6:6, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on earth, and his heart was deeply troubled”.

It’s incredible – left to our own devices, left to labour and toil to survive, left to reproduce and fill the earth by ourselves, we become so self-serving that the almighty Creator himself regrets having even made a creature in his own Image, he regrets making a creature capable of knowing right from wrong, yet who chooses what is wrong for selfish gain.

And so we know what happens.  God, in essence, says ‘I know they chose to trust in themselves rather than the great I AM; but I can’t let them go on like this, it’s heartbreaking’, the Lord’s heart is deeply troubled.

So the Lord hits reset.  The Lord executes righteous judgment, letting those who trusted in themselves in life fend for themselves in death; and he finds one family, Noah and his three sons and their wives, who were not consumed with evil and selfishness, not killing each other for selfish gain, but faithfully doing the work God had given Adam and Eve at the start: being fruitful, taming the wild earth, and being faithful to their spouse.[1]

That’s the context, that’s the situation leading up to God’s covenant, not just with Noah, but with all creation.  We chose to trust in ourselves rather than God, but the result is so devastating, so heartbreaking, that God in his mercy just cannot watch it play out.

The Covenant with Creation

So, God starts over, not because of his failing, but because our failing is just more than he, in his mercy, is willing to bear.  And God does an amazing thing; an amazing thing that we’re going to see time and time again throughout Lent, and which each of us – if we’re willing to look – can see in our own lives.  God, though He doesn’t have to, though we certainly have done nothing to deserve it, chooses us even though we rejected him.

Noah’s family was the most righteous on earth, but let’s be clear – he didn’t earn God’s favour because he was perfect.  Remember, once he’s off the ark the first order of business was to plan some vines, make a big batch of wine, and pass out drunk and naked.  (Not a model we should emulate!) 

No, we don’t earn God’s covenant faithfulness; rather God makes a binding promise on himself because of his love and mercy.

And so God says to Noah, to your descendants, to all humanity, and to every bird, every animal, every creeping insect, every living creature on earth: I’m making a promise with you, not because you earned it, but because I am a merciful God, heartbroken at the evil humanity had chosen. 

And God’s promise, his covenant that he swore never to break, came in three parts. 

Now, when you think about Noah, you probably think about the promise not to use a flood to wipe people out again, but in reality, that’s only a small part, that’s like the appendix at the end!

No, God’s covenant with all creation through Noah is this:

First, humans now have the authority to kill and eat animals. (9:2-3).  Up until now, God had only provided plants for people.  In verse 2 that we read this morning, God causes animals to fear people, but gives those same animals for food.  Where, up until now, the only option was to break the ground, till the soil, sweat and labour to raise plants for food, God promised that we could benefit from the life that He provides to animals.  Though we chose to go it alone, though we chose ourselves instead of God, God will not only provide animals, but allow us to use them for our benefit.

Second, God, the righteous judge, gives humanity a share of his authority to judge wickedness and create a just society.  And it begins with stopping murder; one of the hallmarks of broken society before God intervened.  God declares in his covenant that we have the right to punish murderers, to use the Image of God imprinted on each of us to judge those who destroy the Image of God in another person; and with that comes a responsibility: God promises that he will demand an accounting from each person.

And then the last part isn’t just about the flood; it’s much bigger than that.  God promises at the end of chapter 8 that, though we don’t deserve it, though we tried to trust in ourselves, He would bless all creation with his provision.  Regardless of whether we’re good or evil, whether we serve God or ourselves, God makes an oath that He will continue to reach out in love, providing the essentials of life: He’ll provide the seasons, He’ll provide harvests and food beyond what we make with our own efforts, and He’ll ensure that the sun rises and sets every day, on the good as well as the wicked.

A Generous God.

Now, if we step back and look at the big picture, how incredible is this covenant? 

Humanity rejected God.  We said we’d go it alone.  Then we proceeded to steal and kill and turn marriage into a weapon to the point where God himself regretted making us.  But though we rejected him, though we continue to reject him, he freely offered of his goodness, he freely offered to continue to reach out, to continue to provide, for the Almighty God to become vulnerable enough to be openly rejected, just so we would have the opportunity to turn to him, to trust him, to enter into a relationship with him. 

And put that in the context of Jesus, the Son of God Almighty being born as one of us, being tempted, suffering rejection, and being willing to die on the cross, not because we did anything to deserve it, but because God’s heart is broken by the mess we make when we try to trust in ourselves, and he reaches out in love, time and time again, to make a way for us to return to the paradise of eternal life with him.

My friends, this is the good news.  This is the good news we’re called to share: that though we don’t deserve it, though we continue to reject Him, God reaches out to every person under the sun, calling us home, calling us back into relationship with him.

Though we’re unfaithful, God keeps his promises.  Let’s share that good news with a world that so desperately needs to hear it. 

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] If righteousness (Gen. 7:1) is contextual as part of God’s unfolding revelation, the commandments God has set to this point are to be fruitful and multiply, to become united with the spouse, to subdue the earth, and not to murder.

Present in the Moment; Waiting on the Lord.

Even youths will faint and be weary… but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength… they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint! 
Isaiah 40:31

Those words from Isaiah 40 are meant to be for us a source of comfort, an encouragement to trust in the Lord as the source of our strength.  At a time when many, if not most of us are not just “weary” but exhausted, longing to see family down South, waiting in hope to get back to the things we enjoy, and, to be honest, longing to see temperatures in the thirties, not the negative thirties, we might easily miss the great honesty in these words spoken by the prophet Isaiah.

As catchy as that last phrase of this morning’s lesson is – “they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” – it could easily sound like wishful thinking, or a call to try a little harder to keep running the race.

But the great hope that I see in that passage is this: it calls us to acknowledge, straight-up, that we will get weary; we absolutely will fall exhausted; no matter what, we are powerless. 

Now, I know that might not sound like a great message of hope, but stick with me! 

When the world tells us to be a little stronger, to hold on a little longer, to try a little harder, and to stay positive, at the end of the day, the message is to look inside yourself for the strength you need.  Maybe that’s a positive message for some, but my experience pastoring people through this pandemic is that we’re all learning that we don’t have the power within ourselves to help or heal ourselves. 

If you’re at a point where you’re realizing, maybe in a bigger way than ever before, that you don’t have the strength to stay positive, look on the bright side, and pull yourself through the weariness and exhaustion, you’re certainly not alone… and the good news is that this shouldn’t be news to anyone – and certainly isn’t news to God. 

This passage this morning proclaims the deep, inescapable truth that we all will grow weary, that we all will fall exhausted, even the strongest.  Even rulers: “scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely have they taken root, when God blows upon them and they wither”, only to be carried off like dust in the wind. 

In a world that tells us to be strong and stay positive, the good news of God is the opposite: acknowledge your weakness.  Don’t rely on your strength, because it won’t last.  Don’t rely on your plans for tomorrow, your big plans to invest all your energy in the next promotion or the next job, or the new house, or the big plans for retirement.  Don’t live for the future; be present in the moment, and wait for the Lord and his strength.

Strengthened for Service

In this morning’s Gospel we heard of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, sick in bed with a fever.  Hardly a position of power or strength, and as we all have to learn when our bodies get sick, the more we try to power through an illness, the less likely we are to heal – physical illness just proves the point that we need to rest, and wait on the Lord to renew our strength.

So Peter’s mother-in-law is there in bed, and what do we see happen?  Well, right off the bat, they bring it to Jesus.  It’s a small detail, but one worth noticing.  A few verses earlier, Jesus starts teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, and he’s attracting quite a crowd.  It says his fame is growing throughout the region, and people are attracted to the way he teaches with authority.  People are being healed; there’s real momentum building, to the point that the entire city wants to see Jesus for themselves.  So what should happen next?  There should be a big rally, or maybe a big debate for Jesus to deliver some smack-down arguments against the oppressors, right?  There should be some opportunity for this growing body of supporters to be mobilized, right?  Isn’t this the time to ride the wave to spread the message, right?


A fisherman’s mother-in-law has a fever.  That’s what matters.

It’s remarkable; here, the first time we hear of a growing following in the Lord’s ministry, as the entire city wants to hear him, as we hear of great healings of major illnesses, of evil spirits cast out, Jesus not only takes an interest in one older lady who is sick in bed, that becomes the next focal point in the Gospel, handed down through the ages.  We don’t know squat about the numerous healings of various diseases: but what matters as part of the good news to pass on to each generation is that Jesus takes notice of a poor senior laying on her bed, feeling under the weather.

And, notice too, that Peter doesn’t dip out for a minute to mix her a hot toddy or pick up a bottle of whatever fever elixir was sold in the market.  She’s not feeling well, so they bring it to Jesus “at once”; not as a last resort, not once the other remedies have failed.

How often do we try to fix something ourselves, with our own strength, before we wait on the Lord’s strength?  Now, of course we should use the gifts of medicine and science that God has provided, but how much time and energy to we waste trying to fix things, trying harder and harder as the situation gets worse and worse, rather than simply acknowledging that we’re powerless, that we need to trust in God?

So Jesus turns aside from the crowd, from any sensible human vision for how he should build on this momentum he’s gained, and goes to see this woman, sick in bed.  He raises her up, and what does she find?  This little old lady has her strength renewed!  She can run and not be weary, she can walk and not faint, she can put on the kettle and pull out a few biscuits, and all of a sudden she’s the one serving Jesus!  Is she doing that in her own strength?  No!  In the strength he provided.  She’s be strengthened for service, and all to the glory of God!

And while she’s tidying up the tea and biscuits, the can of kippers, whatever it was she served, now it’s her house that plays host to the healing of the entire neighbourhood!  It’s not her strength, it’s not even her action – all she did was serve dinner.  But once she has learned to rely on the Lord’s strength, once she’s been strengthened for service, we become the host for God to spread that healing and strength to others.  It’s absolutely amazing.

Now What?

So imagine the situation – there’s this growing following from the synagogue, they took this detour to see a sick lady lying on her couch, and now the entire city is outside the door, with miraculous healings coming left and right.  What’s the plan?  What should we do next?  How do we keep this momentum going?  How should the disciples push this movement forward to bring a revolution across Israel?

I imagine the disciples are up talking, maybe even debating and arguing well into the night, debating the next steps that they should suggest to Jesus.

…but what does Jesus do? 

He slips out quietly, in the middle of the night, gets away from the clammer of the city, and finds a quiet place to pray.

So often we spend our time and energy predicting the future, whether it’s a growing problem that we’re trying to solve, or it’s a victory or success that we’re hoping will bring us in the direction we want to go.  But we can’t predict the future.  We can’t rely on our strength or health or job or relationships or the economy or our peace, security, and prosperity from one moment to the next.  And that’s the good news: we’re to acknowledge our powerlessness, and live in the moment, relying on God, who will renew our strength here and now, not to face tomorrow’s problems, but to redeem today.

…And then morning comes, I imagine Peter’s mother-in-law is up making coffee and pancakes for the guys, who are all excitedly discussing how they should manage the crowds at today’s repeat performance… and then they look around.  Where’s Jesus?  Where’d he go?  Mark says they hunted for him, running around town, until they find him out in a deserted place, away from the crowds.

‘My Lord, my Lord, come on, everyone is looking for you!  It’s going to be a great day!  Look how the momentum is building, they’re coming from all over! Today’s going to be awesome!  And next week, we’ll fill the arena!’

But Jesus, the Son of God, knows full well that we need to live and love in the moment; the Almighty Lord who knew our sins before we were even born, chooses, wills, to love us and reach out to us in each moment, in spite of that.  The Lord Himself knows, and wants us to know the blessedness of waiting on the Lord, relying on God’s strength and provision in the moment, trusting God to provide enough for today, and to provide for tomorrow when tomorrow comes.

…and Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, ‘Thanks Peter, I know they’re searching for me.  But we need to keep the main thing the main thing.  We have a message to proclaim.  Yes, that was a big crowd last night, but don’t get distracted; it’s time for us to move on.’

Living in the moment

We’re exhausted, we feel faint, we’re realizing just how futile it is to plan for tomorrow.  The good news is that God knows.  The good news is that our strength does fail.  The solution isn’t to work a little harder or ‘hang in there’, it’s to acknowledge our weariness, even if it’s something small like a fever, and bring it to God at once.

And, when we can offer our weakness, our failings, our concerns to God in the moment, as we learn to wait on the Lord, He will carry us through!

…but, sometimes, before we can hand things over to God, we too need to retreat to a deserted place.  Sometimes we need to escape the noise of the moment, and find a space to name those struggles and concerns. 

The truth is that we’re all exhausted, our whole society is exhausted by this pandemic.  That’s something we can and should admit.  The other side of that, is that weariness, exhaustion, even pain and loss look different for each of us, so that retreat to a deserted place needs to allow us the opportunity to discover exactly what it is that needs to be handed over to God – you can’t hand it over to God if you can’t grasp what “it” is!

And so, as we learn to live in the moment, as we learn to wait for the Lord, I’m suggesting that we, as a church, take some time to imitate Jesus, to retreat to a deserted place and offer our present struggles to God. 

I’m providing each of you with a little guide, based on an ancient practice called the Examen.  It’s an old Christian practice that invites us to be mindful of our challenges, our joys, and our hopes.  [DOWNLOAD GUIDE HERE]

We need to be present in the moment, and this moment is certainly one that’s teaching us to rely on God and his strength.  God knows you’re weary, God knows you’re exhausted, God knows you’re unsettled and maybe a bit anxious, and frustrated with not knowing what tomorrow or next week or next month will bring.  God knows, and He’s inviting you to trust in him, not tomorrow, but today, to rely on His strength in this moment.

Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. 

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Thanks to my friends at Resurrection Anglican Church (Austin, TX) for giving permission to share the Examen exercise!

Sacrifices to Idols: Honouring God with our Lips and in our Lives

One of the catchy quotes often thrown around in Christian circles is a phrase falsely attributed to St. Francis.  It goes like this: “Christians must preach the Gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.”

While that’s sometimes used as an excuse to attempt to share the good news silently – a dangerous justification to keep our mouths closed or talk ourselves out of why each and every one of us has been given the job to tell others about the hope and healing and assurance and power that comes from faith in Jesus – it touches on an important, even central aspect of our lives as followers of Jesus.

Each of us who has been baptized is a part of the Body of Christ.  That means that, wherever we are, whether it’s at home, or at work, or in the store, or lounging around the house, or having a beer and playing a game of crib with a buddy, or sitting around having a bit of a gossip – I mean, ‘catching up’ – with the girls, our task, your task, is to literally bring Christ’s presence to that situation.  That’s your job.  Some of us do it well, some of us need to improve, some of us do it consistently, or with one group of friends but not another, but one thing is certain: that’s the job you’ve been given.

We know and we believe that God isn’t far off, unaware or unconcerned with our daily routines and struggles.  Jesus says in the Gospels that God is aware of every bird that falls, and notices each and every time a hair falls out of your head.  Really, the whole message of Christmas is that God became human so that he would join to himself the full range of human experience, redeeming not just the good bits, but all of it – making himself present in everything from the carpenter’s workshop to the ruler’s palace, and everything in between.

Part of saying we are his body reflects our core belief that we don’t just come into this building to encounter Jesus for an hour on Sunday, but that our mission – your mission – is to carry Christ’s presence out into the world, doing that both with our lips and in our lives.  That’s our job. 

Food Sacrificed to Idols

Now, we’re not the first ones to struggle with that; each week we confess together those words and deeds “left undone”, not to let ourselves off the hook, but to acknowledge together that it’s an area where we need God’s help to improve.

If we turn back to our epistle lesson today, we see St. Paul addressing this issue of preaching the Gospel, of bringing the presence of Christ into the world through our lives.

Of course, having food sacrificed to idols isn’t part of our experience, so it requires a little bit of unpacking to get the gist of this important message.

In the Greek and Roman cities in which Paul was planting and supporting the Church, the prevailing culture had built temples to the various gods who represented human interests – like Zeus or Jupiter who represented kingship, Ares or Mars who represented war, conquest, and bloodlust, or Venus who represented passion and fertility.  The expectation was that one would make a sacrifice to these gods for fear that they would retaliate and let your army lose in war, or cause you to be infertile, or cause your city to be overrun by enemies.  Many of these temples functioned as brothels, with young women and young boys sold into their service as slaves. Now, obviously, these statues weren’t going to eat the meat sacrificed to them, so big side-business sprung up: you’d bring in sheep and goats and pigs and cattle, slaughter them in the temple in the name of whichever idol was housed there, and then you hauled the carcass out back, where there just so happened to be a butcher shop that always had a fresh supply and good deals on meat.[1]   

Now, of course, Christians did not participate in the temple rituals.  When you know the one true God, when you see the power of the Risen Lord  in your life and acknowledge his generosity in providing for your needs and offering hope and wholeness, no, you can’t just go along with the crowd and pretend to worship or put your trust in a statue made by human hands.  And, of course, this came at great cost – it was at these rituals that a lot of the town’s business was conducted on the side, so you lost on our business and income, and at various points in history when temple sacrifices were demanded by the government to show support for the emperor or the army, you could be punished and many Christians died because they refused to bow down before a statue and call it their god. 

But, the question arose: well, what about the butcher shop?  No, a Christian can’t worship the idol… but where will I get my steak?  Can a Christian go out back and pick up a nice cut of beef from the temple butcher?  After all, if we know the statue isn’t really a god at all, what harm is there is benefitting from someone else’s idolatry; I don’t struggle with worshipping statues, I know it’s only in Jesus – only in God made man to sanctify humanity – that we can be saved from sin and death, so what harm if I go on living like everyone else is living?

But here’s the thing: your job, my job, is to make the Lord’s presence known, both with our lips and in our lives.  We believe that when any baptized Christian goes somewhere, we’re bringing Jesus with us. 

It’s not a question of rule-following; after all, right living, trying hard to be a decent person is really neither here nor there when it comes to our salvation: no amount of rule-following or right living will ever be enough to escape death.  Rather, as Paul points out, the question is this: does me doing this help or hinder the message I’ve been given to share?  Does the way I live my life help my words and deeds together show that there is abundant life in God; that in Jesus we can be forgiven even for those things for which we can’t forgive ourselves; that there is healing; that there is freedom – true freedom, not to do whatever we want, but freedom from being pushed this direction or that by desires or impulses; that there is blessed assurance and true peace as we learn God’s eternal plan and let go of the anxiety about what tomorrow will bring. 

It’s about being mindful, because as those called to love our neighbours as ourselves, there is harm in benefitting from another person’s foolishness or bad decisions, not that we are to make up another person’s mind for them or take responsibility for their actions, but how can we speak words of healing, freedom, and peace if our lives don’t back them up?  Rather, like St. Paul, as much as I enjoy a good steak, if that steak supports a pagan temple full of child prostitutes, then I should be quick and willing to give it up so that it doesn’t get in the way of the message we’ve all be given to share.

Today’s Idols

Now, you might be thinking: what does this have to do with us today?  It’s not like Kaeser’s or Northern has a temple to Jupiter out back, at least not last time I checked.

But I want to suggest that we’re no less idolatrous today than the 1st century Greeks; if anything, at least they were honest about it.  Our idols don’t live in polished marble temples, but there’s no less problematic.  We make idols out of lots of things, but most of all, we make idols out of our image, idols built out of pride and pretense.

If anything, the church allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way, and now we’re paying the price. The common person out there knows absolutely nothing about abundant life and peace and joy and freedom in Christ.  No, our image – at least in some part because of us – is that church is dour and boring, that it’s full of people trying hard to be self-righteous, people who are anxious about maintaining a lengthy and impossible list of commandments, gathered to congratulate ourselves on how good we are: in short, the exact opposite of the message of forgiveness, freedom, mercy, hope, and peace that we are sent to proclaim!

No, rather, if we have blessed assurance, if we have a sure and certain hope that yes, while each and every person has missed the mark of obedience to God– man, woman, married, single, common-law, gay, straight, white, indigenous, and whatever other identity we pridefully cling to – all of us have hope only in the forgiveness offered by Jesus, that all of us have fallen short and need God’s help to find blessedness in imitating Christ more and more each day, that’s a message that frees us from trying to show how much we have it together, how composed and well-put-together we are, and instead gives us the freedom to proclaim Jesus as our only source of hope and strength.  

That wonderful change in my life that’s been wrought since Jesus came into my heart should be one that the world can see from a mile away and causes them to say “I want that too!”.  I want that joy, I want that ability to forgive as I’ve been forgiven, I want that peace, I want that freedom from trying to prove myself that comes from simply acknowledging the full extent of our faults and our total dependence on grace. 

That’s the message we’re sent to proclaim with our lives.  Not a list of good deeds, but a life freed from trusting in ourselves or our image or anything but God.  A life freed to be present in the moment, to be truly thankful and make the most out of every little blessing that God sends our way, and a life that brings Christ’s presence out into the world, learning to be always ready to open your lips and be willing to simply name the reason for the hope that is in you – blessed assurance, Jesus is mine; God is faithful, great is his faithfulness; and he’s changing me, purifying the things I could never change on my own, to make me share more fully in his risen life.

Bottom Line

We’re sent to proclaim the gospel, both with our lips and in our lives. 
Be mindful of your choices – don’t serve whatever idols we find in our lives.  Keeping your mouth shut about your struggles, about your own dependence on God and the help of others only serves the idol of self-image, and it’s a far bigger stumbling block than a piece of meat; those idols of self-image, whenever we pretend that we have it all together, whenever we act as though the church is a place one is born into rather than a hospital for sinners, we set out that stumbling block, preventing our friends and neighbours from hearing and seeing that forgiveness, hope, and mercy are available for them, too. 

Let’s be a church where people see and hearthe wonderful change that God has made in our lives; let’s be a people who tell the hope of the Gospel with our lips and in our lives in such a way that people see, and glorify God saying, “I want that too!”.

To God be the Glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Yes, an over-simplification of the temple economy. 

Hearing God’s Voice in the Noise

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I believe the pre-assigned lessons – chosen years in advance – are a real gift: they keep me from picking my favourite passages or using the pulpit to say what I want to hear.

This is one of those weeks. 

If it were up to me, there’s so much happening in the world that needs our prayerful attention.  Have you watched the news?  It’s mind-boggling.  There’s now twice as many US troops in Washington DC than there doing peacekeeping in Afghanistan and Iraq combined; Ontario’s gone back into lockdown; Pfizer has pushed back Canada’s vaccine delivery schedule; there’s Covid showing up in the sewage in Hay River, and no one knows where it’s coming from; and in the midst of all that, we’re called to be faithful in our mission to reach Fort Smith with the merciful love of God in Christ Jesus.  So many things we could focus on, so many directions we could go, and honestly, so many opportunities for me to offer my opinion, to throw my voice into the already confused mix of noise we hear every day.

But, you know what?  Last week, as I went to work on your behalf as a minister of the gospel, whether in my office, or offering pastoral care by text, or at Celebrate Recovery, or making my rounds at Northern Lights, 4 times last week I was asked the same question: “Does God speak to people?”  “How do I know if God’s telling me something?”

…and then, Wednesday morning, I sat at my desk to see what the lessons were for today.  And what did I find?  The voice of the Lord calling to the prophet Samuel, and Samuel missing it.  And what’s it paired with?  Jesus himself calling Philip to follow him. 

Thanks be to God, He does speak to us, and can even use lessons chosen 40 years ago to answer the questions people are asking, right here, right now.

Hearing God’s Voice

So first, I think we need to be clear: what does it mean to hear God’s voice? What are we talking about here? 

Well, I’ll say that there certainly are faithful Christians who speak about hearing God’s voice in an audible way, an actual voice.  I’m not one who has had that experience, but of course, if God is almighty and all-powerful in any real way, there’s no reason He couldn’t choose to operate that way, but it’s not the typical way God speaks to his people.  Sure, there are exceptions: St. Paul was knocked off his horse when he saw a bright light and heard the voice of the Risen Christ; God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, and again at the Transfiguration on the mountain.  Yet, even in those exceptional situations, we’re told that the bystanders didn’t hear an audible voice – they heard a sound like thunder.

No, rather than a booming voice from heaven, the consistent teaching in scripture is quite the opposite: did God speak in the earthquake, the whirlwind, or the fire?  No – his voice was in the still, small voice.[1]  When God spoke to Joseph to confirm that Mary’s child was the Son of God, he was resting on his bed.  Throughout the Psalms, we read that the Lord “visits us on our beds” as we remember and meditate on God in the quiet hours of the day.[2]  Job speaks of God’s faithfulness in speaking when we’re at rest, though we fail to perceive it.[3] And, in today’s lesson from Samuel, the young prophet first hears the Lord’s voice while he’s at rest, lying awake on his bed.

There’s an obvious connection there, and it’s not that they were dreaming. 

If we’re going to be attentive to God’s voice, we have to be at rest.

Be Still and Know…

What is it that Psalm 46 says?  ‘Work yourself into a fluster, and know that I am God?’  ‘Scroll the news headlines non-stop and know that I am God?’  ‘Cook up endless plans to solve all the problems of the world and the church and your family, and know that I am God?’  No.  “Be still and know that I am God.”

Very practically, how often do we find ourselves in a fluster or outright overwhelmed – and sometimes for very good, legitimate reasons – and, under our breath, we mutter “God help me”, but then what do we do?  We let our minds race, as we occupy ourselves with things that are beyond our control.  We know we’re overwhelmed, and yet our instinct is to do the very thing that makes it worse: rather than stepping back, letting things settle, finding a solid place to stand so we no longer feel like we’re spinning out of control, what do we do?  When we already know we’re not in control, our instinct is to cook up plans to control the situation.  That’s literally insane, yet it’s our natural response. 

No, consistently throughout scripture, God’s voice isn’t one of many competing for our focus or attention.  God doesn’t present himself as one option among the several that we’ve cooked up.  At no point, not only in scripture, but also in the long history of the Church, has God’s voice been one of several valid options to be decided by making a pro and con list. 

God’s voice is heard when we make the decision to step back and rest.  God’s voice is heard when we realize that all our anxious attempts to “figure it out” is part of the problem, not the solution.  Rather, if we want to hear God’s voice, we need to find rest – no, more than that, we need to consciously choose rest, we need to choose to be still, acknowledging that more anxious wondering will never, ever make an anxious situation less anxious.  Choose to rest.  Choose to be still.  Choose to be attentive.

And, to be clear, this isn’t just another self-help plan.  We believe God doesn’t need to thunder his voice from heaven precisely because he has put his Spirit in our hearts (2 Cor 1:22).  James, in his epistle, puts it this way: “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”, rather, “humbly accept the word of God already planted in your hearts” (1:19-21).   

If we’re going to ask God to help us, if we’re going to ask God to give us direction, then, without a doubt, the first step is to step back, to rest, to let ourselves be still, and to be attentive.

That means shutting off the phone and the TV and sitting or lying down, rather than trying to forge ahead on your own power.  Maybe that means going for a walk, not to “think things through”, but to clear your head.  Sometimes it means removing yourself for a while from a stressful situation that makes rest impossible.  Since the pandemic began, I’ve been getting requests from people to open the church for prayer and reflection.  Sometimes it’s just to get out of the house, sometimes it’s just to find somewhere quiet, sometimes it’s an actual felt need to be in God’s presence in His house.  And, you know what?  When you get that idea in your head, I can almost guarantee that it’s a little direction from God.  Anytime I’m home, I’m happy to open the door for someone to come in and pray; if I’m not home, any of the lay leaders or either of the wardens, and to be honest, quite a few others have keys.  God’s house isn’t here for an hour on Sundays – it’s here to be a sanctuary from the weary world, and, whether it’s here or on a walk or in a comfy chair, if we want to hear God’s voice, we need to be still and know that He is God.

Be ready to listen.

But, it’s important to add that there’s more to hearing God’s voice than just being quiet.  This might sound silly, but it’s crucial: if I’m wanting to hear God’s voice, I have to realize that I’m not God.

What do I mean by that?  Simply, the point of the rest, the point of the quiet isn’t so that I can scheme a solution to my problem.  As Christians, we have to accept that we don’t have the power within ourselves to help ourselves.  We don’t.  That’s the most important lesson for us to learn as we follow Jesus and become more like him every day.

It’s no good for us to ask God for help, and then sit down to evaluate the three options that we’ve cooked up.  Sure, there’s some wisdom in all sorts of worldly decision-making strategies, but we have to acknowledge that God’s perspective is not our own, and that’s a good thing.  “The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight”, Paul writes to the Corinthians, “for the Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile”.[4] 

Practically, that means that when we are at rest, when we’ve chosen to be attentive, we can’t assume that God’s will for us will meet our expectations, or that it will be in line with our gut instincts, or that it will be the next ‘logical step’.  Remember, God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts[5] – and that’s a very good thing, if our ways aren’t getting us anywhere, and our thoughts are a swirling bundle of anxiety!

In fact, there have been dozens of times in my life when, faced with an impossible situation or a difficult decision, having chosen to put aside the anxiety, to rest and to pray, a new option emerges.  And do you know what my first reaction is?  “Hmm, that can’t be right”. 

Reach out to the person who cursed me out?  Suggest that an accomplished leader twice my age needs help with an undiagnosed mental illness?  Tell my boss that the expensive strategic plan that was a year in the making is all based on a lie?  Answer the most ridiculous job ad I had ever seen, and leave a dream job to move to the North? 

Honestly… my first response is very often “hmm, that can’t be right”.

But how can we know if we’re hearing God’s voice?  Thankfully, God tells us that too: we’re to test it.  If we think we have the solution, the way forward, there are two checks that we can run.  First, do we see that response echoed in the life and ministry of Christ?  It’s not just ‘what would Jesus do’, but also, is this in keeping with who Jesus is, because we believe God is shaping all of us into the image of his Son.  In John’s first epistle, he puts it simply: “by this you will know the Spirit of God: if it confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh [to live and die as one of us, to heal the sick, to offer himself as a sacrifice for many], than it’s from God.”[6]  Otherwise, it’s not. 

And the other check is connected to that one: what does God say in his word?  This is where the church comes in, especially for those who are still learning the scriptures.  If we take as fact that God will not contradict himself, than that means picking and choosing Bible verses can’t be a free-for-all; we have to read it as a consistent whole.  God’s not going to tell you to do something that make you less like Jesus.

Come and See.

And finally, after we’re chosen to rest, after we’ve opened our minds to hearing that there’s more to the story, and other ways forward besides our own, there’s one other crucial part: we need to be ready to open our eyes.  To really open them.

In the Gospel today, Jesus called Philip, who agreed to follow him.  Philip was speaking to his friend Nathaniel, telling him that their prayers had been answered.  And what was Nathaniel’s response?  To question it.  ‘Sure, I’ve been hoping and praying for the Messiah, but from Nazareth?  Nazareth is a hole, it’s a dump.  No way the Son of God is even stepping foot there, let alone actually being from there!’  Nathaniel’s been praying for years, and here’s the answer, but his response is ‘hmm, that can’t be right!’. 

But what does Philip say?  Does he engage him on an endless back-and-forth debate based on their perceptions and assumptions?  No.  He says “come and see”.

At some point, if we’re really willing to hear God’s voice, we have to stop questioning and instead open our eyes to the evidence. 

The truth is that God isn’t just at work in our hearts and minds.  God is at work in the world.  Our minds can deceive us.  At some point, we have to get out of our anxious minds and actually see what God is doing in the world – and I can say from experience that it’s hardly ever in the headlines.

When John’s disciples came to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus’ response was simply ‘what have you seen and heard?’.  Are lives being healed?  Are the outcasts being cleansed and welcomed in?  Are people being given new life?  Are those who have nothing being offered the hope of the good news?’[7]  Let the evidence speak for itself – it’s not about what diseases they had, or what they had done, or where they had failed before: rather, what is God doing, right here?

If the way forward offers mercy, gives new life, gives hope, promotes justice, and gives everyone involved the opportunity to be more like Christ, then the evidence all points to that being of God.

Speak, O Lord…

God still speaks, and we need to hear his voice now as much as ever.  His voice isn’t silent, but at the end of the day, we need to be willing to hear it.  We need to step back, and find rest;  we need to remember that we’re not God, and we don’t have all the answers; and we need to be ready to test our thoughts and our attitudes, ready to open our eyes to see the evidence of God’s presence.

May God give us grace to simply say, with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19:11-15

[2] Psalm 16:7, 17:3, 63:6

[3] Job 33:14-18

[4] 1 Corinthians 3:19-20

[5] Isaiah 55:8-9

[6] 1 John 4:2-5

[7] Luke 7:22

Guilt, Shame, and the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a man, about my own age, who had been serving as a Pentecostal preacher since the age of 16.  His inquiring mind, his love of scripture, and his yearning to be united to the Body of Christ across time and space led him to Anglicanism, and he was being trained to serve as a US Army chaplain.  One morning at chapel we had heard Acts 19 read, as we have here this morning.  On the walk across campus to breakfast, he ran to catch up. 

“Padre”, he called out, “I got it figured out”. 
“Oh, what have you got figured out now?”.
“I figured out why so many good, church-going folks know all the right answers, know how to pray, know how to read their Bibles, but can’t bring themselves to just trust it, to just live by it, you know?”

“Padre, sure they were baptized, but they were like those disciples in Ephesus.  You can ask them anything, they can tell you the Creed, they can tell you what Jesus taught about forgiveness and sacrifice, but you ask them “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, and they’re gonna answer just like those disciples: “no sir, we have no even heard that there is a Holy Spirit to be received”.

I think he was on to something.

I am a child of God.

We’ve been speaking about what it means to be a child of God, that glorious truth that, though we aren’t born God’s children by nature, we’re all invited to become God’s children by adoption. 

Last time we spoke about what that means: that when God adopts us out of the broken system of this fallen world, he wants to re-shape us as we patiently (and sometimes painfully) unlearn the self-preservation and defensiveness we’ve picked up along the way; we picked them up as coping mechanisms, but all they accomplish is to cut us off, to drive us further and further away from others, and deeper and deeper into our own little world, where all we can see are the walls we have built with our own pain and pride.  The deepest desire of our loving, perfect Heavenly Father is for us to learn what it means to be his child, to learn to be held, to learn to speak the truth, giving praise to the one to whom it’s due, and being quick to repent when we miss the mark, and to finally learn what it is to be loved, not because of what you do or what you’ve accomplished or what you’ve done, but simply because of who you’ve become: a child of God through faith in Jesus.

And, of course, the way that adoption is done, the outward sign of the spiritual grace of that is given, is baptism, which takes us to our lessons today.

Water and the Holy Spirit

Now it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t invent the general idea of baptism, a ritual washing to mark a turning from sin and a fresh start.  No, after all, it’s one of those perfectly natural signs: water washes away dirt, so it’s the perfect symbol for washing away the dirt we cannot see.

That’s the idea of a ritual bath found across religions and cultures, and it’s also the idea of ritual cleansing in the Old Testament, and the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached.  And don’t get me wrong, repentance and the decision to start fresh is definitely a good thing.

But there’s a problem: unless we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, unless we allow God the Spirit to take up residence in us, to make us His temple, to guide and direct us as we trust – one day at a time, one step at a time – that we can put down our defenses and our instincts, that we can stop clinging to pride and pain, that we can let go of the things that define us and learn to answer instead to the new name we received at our adoption; unless we’re willing to do that, unless we’re willing to accept that new identity, all the ritual washing in the world has one fatal flaw: if we’re trusting in ourselves, then when we come up out of the water, we’re trusting in the same one who failed before.  You can do it a hundred times, you could do it every day, but what changes, if we refuse to let go of the pain, pride, and self-preservation that defines the children of this broken world?

And that’s where Christian baptism changes everything.

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, Paul asked?
“No, we didn’t even know that there is a Holy Spirit!”.

And that changes everything.

Guilt or Shame?

We drag a lot of dead weight around with us, so much that the world convinces us that it’s a good thing: we’ll call it ‘experience’ or ‘lessons learned’, as we drag a lifetime of pain, guilt, and shame around, weighing down each new opportunity or new relationship with all the “lessons” of the past, and then wondering why we’re so tired, why new opportunities and new beginnings turn out the same way the last ones did.

And I think here is the time to make an important distinction: we’re not just carrying the pain of the past; we’re not just carrying the guilt for what we’ve done or left undone; there’s another heavier load, much harder to shake: shame.

The good news of the Gospel makes it very clear that guilt and shame aren’t the same thing.  They’re very different loads, and unless we’re willing to lay them both down, we’re choosing to go it on our own rather than living into the new identity we have as a new creation, forgiven and loved in spite of our past failings, in spite of our current struggles; forgiven and loved not because of what I’ve accomplished, but because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and Christ in me is the hope of glory. 

Let’s be clear: as Christians, we believe guilt is a gift.  Yes, you heard that right.  Guilt, the knowledge or understanding that a thought, a word, an action, or silence, or inaction fell short of what was expected as those who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love your neighbour as yourself, is indeed a gift.  Guilt is that understanding, that acknowledgement that “yeah, I missed the mark there.”  Guilt tells us that we need to repent and be forgiven, to hear the message “your sins have been taken away; go and sin no more”, that next time we’re in that situation, now we know we ought to act differently.

Guilt, in that sense, is wonderfully productive.  It gives us our bearings as we learn patiently to model our lives after Christ, and when we fail – and we will – to repent and return to God.

But, in our everyday speech, we confuse guilt and shame – and it’s deadly.

Shame is a lie.  Shame is deception, leading us further from the truth.  And it sounds like this: shame tells us not to focus on the thing we did or said or didn’t do; no, shame tells us to focus on the one who failed.  Guilt says “you lashed out in anger, you need to apologize”.  Shame says, “what sort of person can’t even control their own emotions?”  Shame says, “you’re a hypocrite”.  Shame says, “what sort of a sister are you?  Why even bother, you failed before, you’ll fail again”.

It’s familiar, but it’s an ancient lie.  God says ‘I love you and I want to be with you, I’ve given you these boundaries for your protection’, and right off the bat the serpent says, ‘huh, I think he’s holding something back, don’t you?’.  And there, right in the first pages of scripture, yes there’s guilt – no question, Adam and Eve did the one thing they were told not to do, there’s guilt and there’s consequences.  But then what happens?  Do they repent, do they return to the Lord humbly and admit their failing?

No – it’s the start of the pattern that plagues us all to this day. What’d they do?  They ran and hid.  And how did they feel?  For the first time, they felt ashamed.  And that shame caused them to try and put up a wall, to clothe themselves with something to cover their true identity; the shame caused them to run from the one who loved them and who would continue to love them and continue to provide for them and who promised to save them from their sin, all because the shame told them the lie that they needed to run and hide rather than repent and return.

Shame is always destructive.  And it’s what makes this broken world go around.  In every generation, we learn shame from our parents, as we learn not just to obey, but to fear hearing that we’re a disappointment.  In school, at work, shame is the quickest and easiest way to put someone in their place and keep them there.  Shame is so darn effective precisely because it takes the focus off of what we’ve done, and shifts the spotlight instead on who we are: “what kind of person, sister, brother, son, daughter would fail like you’ve failed?”  Shame says your worth is defined by your failings.

Have you received The Holy Spirit?

And this is where Paul’s question to those disciples, those students of Jesus, is so important.

We’re all called to repent, to acknowledge our faults and confess them to God and to one another.  And that’s hard enough – shame makes us wants to hide and put on another layer to cover it up.  But, if we confess that failing, shame is there once more, that annoying voice in the back of your mind: “hmm, you’ve confessed that one before, haven’t you?  Didn’t work last time.  Won’t work this time; you’re a failure.”

And, you know what?  If we’re being honest, if we’re talking about our own identity as a person bounced around in a broken world, maybe the shame’s right.

Except, in Christ, we are a new creation.  We are given a new name, a new identity, we’ve been made children of God by adoption.  That Father lovingly and patiently reaches out – but it’s up to us if we’ll finally accept our new home, our new family, or if, in spite of being adopted, in spite of all the love and hope and encouragement given to us, we’ll stubbornly continue to bear the weight, the bumps and bruises and scars, of who we used to be, back when self-preservation and pride were the layers we put on to hide our shame.

But the great solution to shame is found right there in the baptismal promises.  Think about it: will you repent and return?  Will you love your neighbour as yourself?  Will you trust in God?  What’s the response?  Not “I will”.  No.  The whole point is that I’m no longer on my own, I’m learning to be loved and to trust in one who won’t let me down.  What’s the response?  I will, with God’s help.

In baptism we don’t just symbolically wash away our failings.  No, we are a new creation, made a son or daughter of God, and God the Holy Spirit comes to dwell with and in us. 

Whatever we’ve done, whatever our struggles, whatever the real hurt or pain or scars that we bear, the same God who wanted to be present with Adam and Eve at creation comes to be present with us, making us, even our crippled and wrinkled bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit. 

Does it change our guilt when we fail?  No – in fact, it should make us all the more aware, urging us towards love of God and neighbour.  But, if we can just accept that gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, the lie of shame begins to melt away.

Shame says “What kind of a person would do that”.  The Spirit says you are a child of God, that even while we were yet sinners, Christ died to save you from your sin.

Shame says, “you’re a failure”.  The Spirit says to rejoice even in our failings, because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and God the Father will work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

Shame says, “who do you think you are?  You deserve the pain”.  The Spirit says you are loved; Christ calls out “come to me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.  And deep within our broken, bruised, and scarred bodies, the Spirit cries out – ‘God is faithful!  You are a temple of the Holy Spirit!  You are a child of God.  What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but what we do know is that, by God’s grace, we shall be like Christ, and we shall see him as he is.  (1 John 3:1-2).

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

God is faithful – He’s sent us his free gift.  Our task is just to accept it, and begin, perhaps for the first time, listening to that voice of truth. 

To God be the glory, now and forever more.

Children by Adoption: learning to be loved.

God the Father destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.

I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This morning we hear once again this important, even central idea that we are adopted as God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ, expressed in the waters of baptism and the desire to live a new life following the commandments of God, and following the path of Christ, our Saviour.

It’s such an important idea that the Church in its’ wisdom has had us hear the first chapter of John’s gospel no less than 3 times – 4 if you include morning prayer – in just the past 3 weeks.  I think that should tell us that it’s worth unpacking, that there’s more here than meets the eye.

Who are God’s Children?

The first thing these lessons make clear is, admittedly, a little uncomfortable for us to think about.  It’s certainly not one of those warm, comfortable words that we like to live by, and it’s probably not the sort of thing you want to adopt for a church motto, but that doesn’t make it any less true, or any less important for understanding our mission and ministry in the world.  That uncomfortable truth that we’re faced with in these lessons is that, in spite of popular sentiments left over from the 60s, we are not all God’s children.

And let’s be clear – this is not about judging anyone, and we must be quick to acknowledge that only God can know the sincerity of a person’s faith.  But it really confuses the good news of the Gospel – in fact, the whole of scripture just doesn’t make sense – if we’ve picked up that non-Christian notion that everybody, by default, is a child of God. 

God the Father is the source of all life, the maker of all things in heaven and earth; but scripture teaches that when we are born, we are his creatures, made in his Image and for his glory; but you and I are not born sons and daughters of God.  No, he makes us, like a potter makes a vessel out of clay, like an artist pouring their love into a painting, we’re told he knits us together in the womb. 

And this is important.  No, not just important: this is central to who we are as the Church, called to work in the world.

If people were born “children of God”, if we were all God’s children, we wouldn’t need a Saviour who offers for us to share in his eternal life; we wouldn’t need a loving guide who offers to lead the way and share his resurrection power with us, we’d already know the way and have the power – and if you look at the world around us, it’s pretty clear we don’t know the way, we don’t have the power within us to choose what’s right… we don’t even have the power on our own to give up the thoughts and actions and habits that we want to stop.  If we were all born children of God, we would not need to decide to follow Jesus, baptism would serve no purpose, we would not need nourishment from God’s word and sacraments, we would not need to learn the life of prayer – we’d have it all by birth.

And most of all, this confusion – this lie – that we are all God’s children means that there is no good news to share; it’s the lie that tells us that we already have all the power we need within us, if we’re born as children of God, or the universe, or whatever higher power people like to talk about.  And if we buy into that, if we let ourselves think that our wandering neighbours, our anxious children, our hurting friends already have the fullness of God’s power within them, then either this god is extraordinarily weak, or we just need to try a little harder: and that’s the biggest, more dangerous lie that is consuming our society, chewing people up and spitting them out, exhausted, bitter, angry, and calloused.

So we say: No!  There’s more to life than this.  We aren’t born with all we need to succeed; we can’t place our hope in ourselves, neither in life nor death.  You and I and our children and our neighbours aren’t born children of God.  The good news is that we are invited to become children of God. 

“The true light, which enlightens everyone… was in the world; yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”; children who were not born by blood or the will of the flesh or of man – not children by nature – but by the will of God, by adoption.

And the whole point of adoption is to become that which you were not. 

You had one heritage, you had one identity, you had one inheritance, if it was one at all.  But the whole point of adoption is that you have become something new; you are made part of something bigger than yourself, you have a new identity, a new home, a new inheritance; you have a new relationship – a secure and enduring one – that gives you the rights of a son or daughter, not a guest.

Living as Adopted Children

If we believe in Jesus, if we’ve been baptized and have confessed our faith, then God is faithful, He has adopted us and will adopt as many as turn to Him.

The challenge, then, is for us to live as those adopted sons and daughters.

As many of you know, my family has been involved in foster care most of my adult life.  My parents had the blessing of working especially with young children who were coming out of group homes to be placed for adoption.

And it’s absolutely amazing, shocking even, how even a young mind learns to relate to the world around them.  A toddler is absolutely dependent on an adult for just about everything; in a healthy family, they learn long before they can talk that they can count on their family; they learn, in a healthy family, to feel safe and secure, as that bond to parents and siblings becomes the strength in which they explore and relate to the world.

And as vitally important as foster care is, it doesn’t take much for our minds to adapt, to try and become self-sufficient.  I remember one boy, raised in rented wing of an old hotel in Newfoundland by workers on 8-hour shifts, who had finally been paired with his forever family, when he came to live with mom and dad to adapt to life in a home.  If he was hurt or scared, he didn’t cry, at 4 years old he had learned to suck it up.  The word “love”, let alone the expression of that, the giving of yourself for the good of another person and the hope and longing to see them grow and thrive, simply wasn’t part of his vocabulary – it’s not a word that shift workers use.  The comfort of being held, or the joy of being tickled on the floor, were brand new ideas, that, after just a few years in the system built for his benefit, had to be slowly and carefully taught from scratch.  And, one thing I will never forget, is the real shock that he could count on the same person being there when he woke up; Dad worked offshore, and it took real time to learn that, just because you couldn’t see a person, they weren’t gone, and they still loved you and cared for you. 

My friends, we aren’t born as children of God.  That’s a lie.

God adopts us as his children, invites us to call him Our Father, if we accept his offer.

But we’re like those children in foster care.

The world has taught us to be self-sufficient.  The world has taught us that no one cares when you cry, so suck it up.  The world has taught us to cling tightly to the little that we have.  We have a hard time believing that love could be so lasting, that forgiveness could be so free.  We haven’t learned what it is to be held when we’re hurting.  We haven’t learned what it is to rest in the joy of a loving father.  We haven’t learned to trust that, though we can’t see someone, that bond of love endures… and if they say they love you and they’re coming back, they mean it.

We are God’s children by adoption, and as you see written on everything I print for this church, it’s not enough just to worship on Sunday.  We need to Heal all those wounds of self-sufficiency, we need to heal our relationships, we have to learn what it means to trust and to love and to be loved, not as wanderers bounced around the broken system of this world, but welcomed to your forever family as a beloved son or daughter. 

And once we start to heal, we need to Grow, as we learn what it means to grow into the image and likeness Christ, as we learn how to be a good brother or sister to those who are still hurting. 

And then, by God’s grace, we’re invited into the family business with a full share.  We become those sent to Reach Out with the invitation that yes, whoever is thirsty, whoever is hungry, whoever is weary or worn and sad is also invited to become a son or daughter of God, to become our brother or sister by adoption; all it takes is receiving Christ by faith, entering the fellowship of the faithful, and taking that first step on the lifelong journey to worship, heal, grow, and reach out as we learn what it means to be loved by God.

My brothers and sisters, as we take seriously God’s invitation to welcome us by adoption, let’s take seriously the need to share this good news with others.  No, our neighbours, our friends, our children don’t have within themselves all the power they need to be all they can be.  No, trying a little harder will never be good enough.  What they need – what all of us need – is to learn what it means to be held by the God who never forsakes us, to trust in the one who will never abandon us, to take off our armour, lay down our baggage, and learn what it is to be loved by the one who loved us first.

We are not all God’s children… but we all can be God’s children. 

And that’s good news.

God pitches his tent among us.

If there’s one thing for us to remember in this season of Advent, this season of “coming”, it’s this: the Lord will establish his Kingdom.

We often get caught up or even led astray with all sorts of ideas or perceptions or philosophies about God.  I think some of us, perhaps those who have seen and felt humanity at its worst, those who know real hardship and pain, just can’t imagine a God so merciful, a God so supremely generous that He would reach out, time and time again, to share His eternal life with messy, messed-up people like us. 

Too many of us know well the pain and even anger that goes with being betrayed by those who should have been closest to us, and our instinct is to build a wall, to cut ourselves off, and we just can’t imagine a God so faithful, so steadfast and unchanging that He would keep reaching out, that he would lay aside all the glory of heaven to come and be among us, knowing full well that even we, who claim to be his followers and friends, would betray and deny Him.

And yet, that is our message; that is the Gospel truth: the Lord will establish his Kingdom.  The Almighty Lord – who lacks nothing – desires to share his abundant life with people like you and me.  The Almighty Lord – who creates with nothing more than a word – wills to fill his Kingdom not with perfect angelic beings, but with fallen, broken people like us, perfectly restored and adopted as His sons and daughters, heirs of eternal life.

That’s the entirety of the story – cover to cover – though we seem to want nothing more than to turn our backs on the rightful King and proclaim ourselves as lord and master of our own lives; though we take whatever gifts he sends and stubbornly claim them as our own; though we ourselves are utterly and wholly dependant on the mercy of the one who laid aside his glory to suffer on our behalf, but we stubbornly refuse to offer mercy even to those nearest and dearest to us, yet the Lord will establish his Kingdom – and wants us to share in it with Him!

God in a Tent

One of the great scripture readings of Christmas is that weird and wonderful reading from the opening of John’s Gospel.  Every year, it’s the reading assigned for Christmas Day, and then for the last 102 years it’s been the last reading at the service of Lessons and Carols, and then it comes back again as the Gospel on the second Sunday after Christmas – that’s 3 times in 10 days!  You know the one I’m talking about: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God”.  It goes on to say that God came to his own, “and the world was made by him, but the world would not receive him; but as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God.”  And you know how that reading ends: “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”.

That’s the whole message of Christmas, the first Advent, the first coming of Christ.  The Greek original says that he, the Eternal Word through whom all things were made “tabernacled”, he “pitched his tent” among us.    God pitched his tent.

That’s the glory of the gospel.  It’s not that we have to aspire to clean ourselves up enough, to make ourselves presentable enough to climb up to the Lord’s holy mountain.  No.  God shared our flesh and came down from on high.  We could never make the climb up, so the king of glory pitched his tent… here.  With people like us.  He left the unceasing worship of angels so that he could share our hunger and our thirst, so that he could share our pain, and share our burdens.  God is not far off; He pitches his tent, he moves in, right here with us.[1]

…but people have a hard time accepting that.

In 2nd Samuel we see just how backward we get it.[2] 

The amazing reality of God choosing Israel to be his people was that God desired to be with them!  From the time God appeared to Moses, the message was that God’s presence would be among them, mighty to save.  As God’s chosen people wandered through the wilderness – as we wander through the wilderness – God wasn’t far away, but his very presence and glory moved from camp to camp with them in the tent, the tabernacle.  The God of Heaven took up dwelling in a tent, to be near those whom He had chosen, and who had chosen to follow Him.

But by the time of King David, the king isn’t living in a tent anymore.  David’s built himself an impressive fortress; a strong, sturdy building he can depend on, with a wall around it to fend off any threats.  And what’s the human instinct?  The great message of God is that He desires to be near us, present with his people… but as soon as we can, we want to ship God off to a “better” dwelling place.  God wants to be with us, near us, part of the everyday life of his people; but we want to lock him up in a temple.  It’s more fitting, we say; “see” said the king, “I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent”; but what are we really saying?  Sure, I used to depend on God when I was in a tent in the wilderness, but now that I can count on what I’ve built up, now that I have these strong walls up around me, the presence of God is a bit of an eyesore; let’s get God out of everyday life and box Him up somewhere a little more seemly.

…and we even convince ourselves it’s for God’s glory!

It happens to the best of us – like the embarrassment we might feel when someone who was down and out, at the end of their rope, overcomes incredible odds and speaks boldly about how God lifted them out of addiction and despair: “yes dear, that’s nice, but let’s not get carried away”. 

And yet: even when His chosen people try to box Him up, what does God do? 
He becomes flesh and pitches his tent. 

The Lord is establishing his Kingdom.

An Invitation

God is not deterred by our stubbornness, even though we can’t even imagine being that forgiving, as those who would rather build walls to cut ourselves off and grip tightly onto the chains that hold us down.

That’s the beauty of God in a tent – when we run away, when we wander off into the wilderness, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God pitches His tent.  We never have to find God; he pursues us.  We just have to stop running.

As the Lord wills to establish his Kingdom, for us to be a part of that, all we have to do is claim him as Lord and King.  It’s not about special words to say; it’s about taking ourselves off the throne, quitting this foolish running away and building of walls that so many waste their life on, and simply surrender.  Let the God who pursues you claim you as his own. 

The coming of Christ – whenever that might be – or our own meeting Christ in our own of death is only a thing to be feared if we’re still running away.  If we surrender, claim him as Lord, allow Him to claim the throne, and accept his presence right here with us, right here in the mess and pain of life, we have nothing to fear; we can finally find rest, we can finally have the peace that passes understanding.

“How can this be?”

The Lord will establish his Kingdom; and he wants us to be a part of that.  But He won’t force us.  It doesn’t work that way.  If we refuse, He’ll keep reaching out, over and over again, but it’s like so much in life; you can have all the help in the world available to you, but you have to want to be helped before it’ll do you any good.

And lets be clear: surrendering is scary stuff.

Think of Mary in today’s Gospel lesson:[3] a young girl, scared speechless as God’s plan is revealed.  Her first response is like our own: how can this even be true?  It’s impossible! 

Yet, yet, God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers; he doesn’t expect us to find the strength to carry out his plan.  All He expects from us is a simple “Here I am”. 

It seems impossible that God could do what he has planned; it seems impossible that he could want us, it seems absolutely impossible that he would want to share in the very pain and hurt that we try so hard to run away from.  But, the God who pitches his tent, the God who pursues us just wants us to stop running and say, simply, “here I am; you caught me, I’m yours”.

And that’s when we find more than we could ask or imagine.  That’s when we’re healed and nursed back to health after our time in the wilderness.  That’s when we’re taught to extend forgiveness and mercy, even as we ourselves learn to receive the forgiveness offered to us.  And that’s when we’re able to accept God’s presence in our own messy lives, and finally start to live for his glory.

The Lord will establish his Kingdom, and he wants to start with you and me.

Let’s stop running.  Surrender.  And this Christmas, let’s accept the coming of the one who became flesh and dwelt among us; the one who came into the world he made, though the world did not receive him; yet, if we will receive him, he will give us the power to become the sons and daughters of God, and heirs of eternal life.

[1] Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14 as “he moved into our neighbourhood”.

[2] 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

[3] Luke 1:26-38

Choose to rejoice!

Rejoice in the Lord always!  And again, I say: Rejoice!

We find ourselves here today at the mid-point of Advent, heading into the longest and darkest nights of the year, just as the weather is dropping off – the windchill was -37o when I put the dog out to do her business this morning – and at a time when, for many, the stress of the Christmas season is mounting.  This year in particular, we’re all exhausted, really exhausted from this marathon year of social distancing and cancelled events, adding a new and different sense of waiting to this Advent season, as we prepare for a simpler, quieter, and yes, perhaps even lonelier Christmas than most. 

And in the midst of all that, the Church down through the ages chooses this Sunday to cry “Rejoice!” out through the darkness. 

It’s a reminder we all need to hear sometimes, isn’t it?

There’s a lot of words that can be used to describe the Christian life: we’re blessed, we’re forgiven.  We’re called to go forth in Christ’s name.  We’re equipped by the Holy Spirit to face the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  We’re generous, we trust in God rather than money or strength.  We’re obedient and, when we’re not, we’re repentant.  And, above all, we strive to be people who, in every aspect of our life, are willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

But, if we’re being faithful to scripture, one of the words that we simply can’t ignore is “joy”.  Joy fills the pages of scripture!  ‘Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands: serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song!’ (Psalm 100).  “The joy of the Lord” – the Lord’s own joy – “is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (Psalm 42).  Isaiah writes, “shout aloud and sing for joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel” (12:6).  Paul writes “the God of hope fills you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). 

…but it doesn’t end there.  We’re not talking about brief flashes of happiness, a joy that comes and goes with the weather.  No!  This is a joy that goes much deeper than our present circumstances, our little successes or victories or mountain-top experiences.  God’s plan for us is that we would have a life marked by joy, in spite of whatever fleeting situation we find ourselves in.  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you on my account”, says the Lord; when that happens, ‘rejoice and be glad… they’re treating you as they treated the prophets before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12).  Or James, beginning his letter to the Church, decides to start with this great opening line: “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).  Just imagine the glory of knowing that sort of deep and unwavering joy, that when we face trials, when we face the wounds and hurts and hang-ups of this broken world, when we face struggles and illness and broken relationships and seasons of pain and exhaustion, we’re so sure that our only hope is Christ, we’re so sure the “weeping lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning”, we’re so sure that our hope is built on nothing less than the sure foundation which is Jesus Christ, we’re so sure that even though I walk through the dark valley and the shadow of death itself, the Lord is with me and will fill my cup to overflowing (Psalm 23), that no matter what unimaginable and unspeakable struggle we face, the Lord will work all things together for good for those who fear him and are called according to his name (Romans 8:28), so that, no matter what we face, we face it with joy.  Just imagine.

But here’s the thing:  It’s not just your imagination. 

Our message for the world – no, even more than that – the Church’s message for you today is to rejoice and be glad.  The “good news” is good news.  The Lord will free the oppressed, he will bind up the broken-hearted, he will comfort those who mourn, he will release those bound as prisoners to whatever chains we find ourselves in, and he will put things right: he will display his glory, he will rebuild the ancient ruins, he will drive out those who oppress and steal and profit from the pain of others, and he will deliver justice, the true justice where all who try to stand on their own strength will be exposed, but those who put on the free garment of salvation, the free robe of righteousness, will be welcomed in to the feast.

Comfort, Comfort Ye

Throughout Advent we hear, from both Isaiah and John the Baptist, the call to joyful repentance.  And we have to remember that it is good news.

I think life trains us to get it backwards.  Even if, deep down, we know better, we’re led to believe that repentance is failure.  Saying “sorry” is a last resort.  Admitting guilt is something we only do after we’re tried all the other excuses.  Our broken instincts would even have us throw away relationships before admitting defeat; think about it – how many times have you thought “well maybe I was wrong, but I’m not going to give him, I’m not going to give her, the satisfaction of hearing me say it”.  We’d rather block someone out than repent. 

…but here’s the surprising part.  We’re not really blocking them out.  When we refuse to repent, we’re blocking ourselves out, we’re cutting ourselves off from the joy that should be ours as those who take comfort knowing that the only reliable foundation, the only sure and certain hope, the only one who can stand when the world is crumbling is the one through whom it was made, Jesus Christ the Lord.

In Advent each year we hear “comfort, comfort ye my people”, the Lord is building a highway, right?  What’s he doing to the valleys? Lifting them up. What’s he doing to the hills?  Knocking them down.  What’s he doing to the rough places?  Making them a plain.

Now, that all sounds nice enough, but think about that metaphor.  This isn’t a kid playing in a sandbox.  No, the message of the prophets – the message of the Church – is clear: the Lord is coming with all the might of his kingdom to reconnect the city that has been cut off. It’s a massive earth-moving project.  The very things we think are immovable – high mountains and deep valleys – are going to be tamed.  Think about that – “comfort, my people”, there’s a highway coming through; that mountain that cuts us off from the rest of the world?  We’re going to blast it down.  That deep, dark valley, that one where you have to be careful about getting too close to the edge because you might fall over the cliff as the ground beneath you gives way?  That one where we’ve tried to build bridges, but the rushing water carries them away?  He’s going to fill it in.

This is major, major work. 

And we’re to take comfort in that massive – and entirely free – project.  We’re to rejoice that he’s going to tear down that mountain, he’s going to tear down what we thought were the strongest highpoints of the world around us, and as he tears it down, he’s going to use that rubble to fill in the chasm that we could never cross. 

…but that’s only comforting if we’re willing to climb down from whatever high places we’ve perched ourselves on.  That same message of comfort for those in the rough places, waiting for the valley to be filled in, is, at the same time, a dire warning for those stubbornly standing on the mountain, isn’t it?

It’s the same thing with the message of freedom for captives and release for those who are bounds in chains of guilt or shame.  It’s the most incredible tidings of comfort and joy to those crying out for release; but that same message is an incredible warning to those of us who are holding those chains around the hands, feet, and necks of others as we refuse to forgive the wrongs they have done and stop dragging those chains along with us.

Where’s the Joy?

Rejoice in the Lord always.

This is good news.  No, this is the good news!  It doesn’t get any better!

And we’re to be people of joy – joy, no matter what sin we’ve finally asked to be forgiven, no matter what struggle we’ve finally handed over to Jesus, no matter what deep hurt and pain done to us that we’ve finally said we’re willing to forgive.

Joy is a mark of Christian life.

…but what if you’re not feeling it?  What if you’re not seeing the joy in your life?

This is something we easily get wrong.  We confuse joy and happiness.

If we go back to the scriptures, there’s something we need to notice.  In all those verses, there’s something in common.  Not one of them says “I’m joyful because I’m happy about my present situation”. 

No.  Joy is an attitude.  Rejoicing is an action.  It’s not something that happens to us. 

Scripture doesn’t say, “I’m rejoicing right now because I’m experiencing something that gives me joy”.  This isn’t Marie Kondo picking up items around your house and deciding if they give you joy or not.

No. My favourite shirt or a picture of my grandparents isn’t going to give me joy that sees me through pain and affliction.  No, we choose joy.  We choose joy when we decide to see things through  God’s big picture rather than our little obstructed view.  We choose joy when we put our hope in that one and only sure and certain cornerstone, that sure foundation on which we can stand on level ground, Jesus our Lord.

…how else can we say “consider it joy when you’re persecuted”?  How else can we say “blessed are those who mourn”?  How else can we say “rejoice when you suffer”? 

It’s not joy because you’re persecuted.  It’s not blessedness because you mourn.  It’s not rejoicing because you’re suffering. 

It’s choosing to live in the sure and certain hope that, no matter what this life throws at you, you belong to God; you share in the risen life of Christ; your sins – though they are many – have been washed away, and no matter what comes our way: trials, temptation, pain, sickness, life, death, height, depth, nor any other thing in all creation can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

…But it is a choice.

We don’t need to find joy to start rejoicing.  But when we start rejoicing, we’ll find joy.

Remember the man whose son was dying when he came to Jesus?  He cried out “Lord, I believe… help my unbelief”.  Remember ‘doubting Thomas’?  If he was just waiting for proof, we don’t know, he might still be waiting.  But he asked for proof, and those who ask receive.

My friends, joy is a mark of a Christian life.  But if we’re waiting to find some joy, I’m afraid we’re going to be waiting a long time.  No… instead, we need to make a choice. 

“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my bitterness.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my anger.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… take away my pain.”

Take comfort, for the Lord is coming.  Take comfort, for the Lord will set things right, and will work all things together for good.  Take comfort – and, in all things, again I say: rejoice!