He calls us his friends.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Over the past few months we’ve spoken quite a bit about duty and commitment and sacrifice.  We’ve walked through the covenants as opportunities for God’s people to accept and reflect back the love and faithfulness that God shows to us.  We’ve looked at the incredible awesomeness that is God’s will and desire to save us from our sins, as Jesus, the Lamb who was slain from before the foundation of the world, offered himself freely as a sacrifice to cover the sins of the whole world.  And then we’ve turned our focus to the absolutely necessary – but extraordinarily difficult – message about the desire and sacrifices that true love requires.

In all of this, it’s clear that God loved us first, that He reached out his hands of mercy long before we were ready to accept it.  For that alone, God is certainly worthy of our praise.

But, as much as God deserves our worship, as much as we know that – when he comes again – every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, today we hear our Lord say something absolutely incredible: yes, He’s the Lord of all creation; yes, He alone is worthy of all worship; yes, He’s the one who has conquered the power of death, and has opened the pathway to abundant life, but, he says, “no longer do I call you servants… I have called you friends”.

Jesus calls us his friends.  Jesus wants to be your friend.

Friends or Neighbours?

Now, to be completely honest, “friend” really isn’t a category that gets much attention in theology.  If anything, what we hear most often is to down-play the importance of friendship: we’re reminded, time and time again, that we’re not just to love and serve and care for our friends and family, but our neighbours.  Our love, our desire for a yet-more-glorious future isn’t limited to those we like, but extends to strangers and even those we might consider enemies, those who work against us and what we have planned.  As followers of Jesus we all know that the entirety of what God commands is summed up in the love of God and the love of our neighbour; we all know that serving the person across the street or across town is an act of faith, whether it’s a simple act of kindness, whether it’s a second or third or seventy-seventh chance offered in grace, or whether it’s being ready to offer that simple word of hope and mercy when you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck or get that little twinge in your gut that it’s time to speak up.

We all know that love carries obligations.  But then, after Jesus teaches us about love, and as he prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice, He calls us his friends.

And the difference, of course, between friends and neighbours is what brings them together.

My neighbour, your neighbour, those to whom you owe a duty to love as much as your love your own life, is anyone who crosses your path.  Anyone within your sphere of influence is your neighbour: the good, the bad, and the ugly; those whom you would choose, and those who, let’s say, give you an opportunity to exercise grace.

But friendship… friends are those we want to be with, those we want to share our lives with, those whose presence we enjoy, with whom we look forward to chatting, to sharing the ups and downs of life, those we can’t wait to call when we get good news, and those whose burdens we would gladly bear in their time of need.

And, though He’s worthy of all worship, though He’s Lord of all creation, though angels and the host of heaven bow down in worship before him, Jesus wants to be your friend.  Think about that.

Obligation or Desire?

One fundamental truth proclaimed by scripture, cover to cover, is that God doesn’t want us to serve him out of obligation.  True, there is no one or nothing else worthy of worship, and certainly the Lord and the Holy Spirit working through the Church have provided certain ways of worshipping that are beneficial.  But as soon as our worship or our service or our offering becomes something we have to do, rather than something we earnestly desire to do, it loses its’ value.  God knows the heart, and it’s the attitude of the heart that matters.

And so Jesus calls his followers his friends.  Yes, we believe every person will stand before Christ, and every person will have to acknowledge that our deeds, the fruit of the life we lived fell short of the glory of God.  But, in the most incredible way, the judge on the throne wants to be our friend.  He told his friends how these cases play out, that the only hope is to plead guilty and ask for mercy.  And then, the whole point of Pentecost is that he sent the Holy Spirit to be our advocate to guide us along the path.  It’s absolutely incredible, it’s a plan we could never write ourselves: we actually do have friends in high places.  Jesus wants to be your friend.

What a friend we have in Jesus.

The thing is, though, that friendship can’t be one-sided.  It has to work both ways, doesn’t it?

I have to be honest: I have a hard time making friends.  Sure, I do my best to honour, serve, and love my neighbours, and my door is always open to walk alongside whoever pops in.  But, deep down, I’m an introvert, and any fellow introverts in the room will probably agree that friendship is sometimes hard work.  Taking the time to share joys and concerns, even just taking the time to call and have a chat after a game of phone tag can sometimes feel like a bit of a chore.  But, as one who has lived in 3 countries and whose friends move around even more than I do, the cost – the sacrifices – of friendship are worth it.  Nothing can replace that handful of people who I know I can pick up the phone and share my life with, with whom I can pick up where I left off, even if I never did return their last email, and who know I’ll do the same for them.  In a lot of ways, honestly, it’s that handful of friends, those few strong relationships, that allow me to bear the ups and downs of loving my neighbour.

And the absolutely amazing thing is that Jesus wants to be one of those friends.

It’s not enough that the Lord of all Creation says that you have value, that out of all the things in the vast universe, you matter, personally.  But more than that, the Lord of it all wants to be your friend.

He wants to be one who you chat with not to get something done, but just for the sake of chatting; one who you know you can just pick up where you left off, even if you forgot to return that last call or message.  He wants to be one who can listen when you need to get something off your chest, who can be there when you need to vent, and like any real friend, who can just be there at those times when there just aren’t words to say.

Jesus wants to be your friend. 

And like everything, God always makes the first move.  He’s made the offer, he’s made the invitation to sit and chat.  He already calls you his friend.  But, have you done the same?

You’ve heard me speak a dozen times about the importance of taking even just a few minutes each day in prayer and Bible reading.  No matter how busy you are, every one of us has at least 10 quiet minutes that we can carve out of our day.  (Many of you do that already; if you don’t, the time to start is now!) And maybe it seems daunting, maybe we don’t know where to start.  But the whole story of Pentecost is that God sent the Holy Spirit to guide you.  Jesus, the Lord of Heaven and the righteous and merciful judge wants to be your friend, so simply open up and chat.  Read a psalm, read one of the lessons assigned for morning prayer, read Our Daily Bread, read something so you spend a few minutes listening to what God says in his Word, and then simply say what’s on your mind, like you’d say to your friend.  It might just be “Lord, today’s great.  I’m feeling useful.  I did good and made a little difference.  I’m so glad I had the opportunity.”  (yes, that’s a prayer – it doesn’t have to be fancy!).  It might be “I’m frustrated.  None of this is working out.  I’m sick of wasting my time”.  (Yes, that’s a prayer too!).  And, it might be “I’m broken. I’m tired. This hurts.” 

Jesus wants to be your friend.  He wants to be the one you can trust in, the one you can lean on.  He wants to be your friend in high places, encouraging you to see the big picture and to trust in that yet-more-glorious future for which you were created.

But friendship means making time to be together, not because you have to, but because you want to. 

Jesus said, “you did not choose me, but I chose you.”  He considers you his friend; so today, this week, have a chat, pick up where you left off, or maybe get to know him for the first time.  He’s a friend like no other!

To God be the glory!  Amen.

Languishing, Growth, and Direction

“I am the vine; you are the branches.” John 15:5a

As this pandemic wears on, all of us – in one way or another – are feeling the effects.  For many of us, the anxiety or fear of March 2020 has faded, having gone through cycles of frustration and tiredness, having set mental goals for when this would be over, only to have them come and go, and now finding ourselves knowing that, yes, this will one day be over, but not wanting to get our hopes up. 

On a conference call this past week, I was introduced to the term that some mental health professionals are now using to describe where we are.  We’re not in crisis mode anymore, but we’re certainly not flourishing or moving forward.  The term, I’m told, is “languishing”.  Languishing.  Now, I said to myself when I heard it, “that sounds kind of dire… and maybe a bit dramatic.”  But when you look it up in the dictionary, it fits.  “Languishing” means, simply, “to lose or lack vitality, to grow weak, to suffer from remaining in an unpleasant situation”.  I, for one, find it helpful to have a word to describe that sense of “blah” that so many of us are feeling.

The Branch is Invigorated by the Vine

Today’s gospel is a familiar one: we’ve all heard since Sunday School that Christ is the vine and we are the branches; we’re to abide in him so that we can bear fruit.  But as I read this lesson with the fresh – or maybe tired – eyes of our current situation, something jumped out at me for the first time.  The branch only has one job.  The branch is to be invigorated by the vine. That’s it. Think about it: the branch has no roots of it’s own, it can’t pick itself up to find a better source of water.  If you’ve ever tried to train a vine – whether it’s grapes or peas and beans or an ivy on a trellis – you know that the branches can sometimes have a mind of their own, and need to be gently bent back in the direction that they should go.  But, really, the branch’s job – all it has to do to thrive – is to receive what it needs from the vine – to be invigorated by the vine – and to trust the gentle hand of the gardener.

And that jumped out at me this week.  Jesus doesn’t say, ‘get your act together, figure out some plan to multiply 10 or 50 or 100 times’.  He doesn’t say, ‘get creative and come up with a scheme to bear fruit’.  What does he say?  Four times in today’s short lesson, Jesus repeats again and again exactly how it is that we are to bear fruit: abide in me.

The work of the branch is simply to be invigorated by the vine.

It’s the vine that is connected to those life-giving roots, that supply of fresh and life-giving water.  As the branch sends out feelers, looking for something to grasp on to, the branch needs only to trust the gentle correction of the gardener.  You see, that’s the remarkable thing in what Jesus is saying today: all the branch has to do is be invigorated, accept the life flowing from the roots of the vine, to be content to simply abide in the abundant life that the vine provides.

So what does that look like?  In this season of languishing, what does it look like to be invigorated as a branch on the Lord’s vine?

The Invigorated Life

I think our lesson from Acts today provides a fabulous example of the invigorated life, a life, a way of being that receives it’s vigor, receives it’s vitality, receives it’s drive from abiding in what God provides.

We heard this morning the wonderful account of Philip, who noticed a politician reading the Bible and engaged him in conversation that led to the glorious question: “why can’t I be baptized, too?”, as another branch was added to the vine that day.

I think the first obvious lesson about a life that receives it’s vigor and drive from the abundant life that Jesus provides is simply about the energy that the branches receive.

It says in our lesson that an angel said “rise and go toward the south, to that road through the desert”.  And then that key, short sentence: “and he rose and went”.  If we’re abiding in the vine, if we’re well-connected and receiving what the vine provides, we’ll have the energy to do what is expected.

And, I have to say, that’s something I believe is universally true.  There are so many things in life that suck out our energy and leave us drained; but the actions, the conversations, even the sacrifices that bear fruit aren’t like that, they’re life-giving.  There’s plenty of days I feel ‘done in’ by the demands of every-day life: laundry, picking kids up, dropping kids off, a never-ending pile of dishes.  There’s plenty of days I’d like to haul on my pyjama pants, grab my book or put on whatever I’m watching on Netflix, pour up a glass of wine or a beer, and ‘refresh myself’ by lounging on the couch.  And, to be honest, I get that feeling on Wednesdays after supper, with Celebrate Recovery scheduled for 8pm.  But, when this church started Celebrate Recovery, it was made clear through prayer that it was a direction that God wanted us to go, it was where God was telling us to “rise and go”.  And, you know what?  No matter how tired or ‘ready to relax’ I might be on Wednesday nights, when I let myself be energized by the vine, when I trust the direction the gardener is gently directing me, that work becomes life-giving.  I leave 9:30 or quarter-to-ten on Wednesday night more energized, more ‘vigorous’ than I went in.  Even when we’re tired and ‘languishing’, we’ll know if what we’re doing is fruitful, because we’ll find ourselves invigorated, energized by the vine with deep roots and abundant water.

Now, as Philip follows that road south, he overhears a powerful politician reading aloud, as people did in those days.  And, amazingly, the Spirit of God says “go over and jump up with him!”.  Do you ever get those?  Ridiculous promptings to do something out of the ordinary, but which is going to make a difference in someone else’s life?  Let me tell you, that’s part of the invigorated life that God provides if we simply abide in Christ.  I’ve never actually heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, though there are some people who say they do; I know for me, when God’s giving me an opportunity, when I know that an idea or a conversation isn’t my own, I get a little tingle on the back of my neck.  It could be the smallest thing: I pass someone in the store who I know is having a hard time, I say “hi, how ya doin’?”, they say, “living the dream” or “oh, one day at a time”, and I’ll be ready to take the next step towards the milk when I’ll feel a little tingle on the back of my neck, an invitation to let the person know that, if they ever need to talk, my door is open; or to offer to add them to our prayer list.  To abide in Christ, to receive the life and energy and fruitful vitality that the vine provides – and, practically, to do the work of bearing fruit and adding more children of God to the Body of Christ – it’s really just a matter of accepting what Jesus offers: when we have a life-giving opportunity, go for it; when we have that feeling, to talk, or act, or offer, to make that one extra step outside our comfort zone, just do it; it may well be that the feeling you have is the hand of the gardener gently guiding you in the direction where you’ll bear the most fruit.

Vines are a long-term investment.

I want to leave you with one other observation this morning.  At least for me, even with all the great things we’re doing, this sense of ‘languishing’ as we’re 14-months into a pandemic doesn’t leave me feeling very fruitful.  Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done a lot of great work together, but it’s harder to see in a time when we’re not allowed to gather all the harvest in to one room to fellowship together.

But, I noticed this week for the first time, that Jesus intentionally uses the image of a vine and a vinedresser here.  He’s not talking about a harvest of wheat or carrots or zucchini; he’s not talking here about something that you plant in Spring and dig up in Fall.  Branches on vines aren’t an annual crop – they’re a long-term investment, they’re something to be tended year after year, decade after decade.  Some of the best vineyards have vines with roots going back over a century, carefully tended, fertilized some years, pruned other years, often with new shoots lovingly grafted in along the way.

A vinedresser would tell you that each season is unique: the flavour of the vintage varies year to year, but as much as the vinedresser wants a good harvest each season, He’s equally concerned with the long-term health of the vineyard.  Because the final product in that bottle of wine isn’t the fruit of a single branch of grapes, the final product is the sum total of the whole vineyard together.

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, each of us: yet, we’re to be invigorated by the vine to be fruitful together.  When it’s time for a gentle pruning or push in the right direction, we’re being changed from glory into glory not so that you or I bear fruit, but so that we bear fruit.  It will take all of us, abiding in Christ, receiving the energy and direction He provides, if we’re to bear fruit as the hands, feet, and voice of God here in Fort Smith.

So this week, when you find yourself “languishing”, as I know I will, take the Lord at his invitation.  Simply abide in him; take those life-giving opportunities that He offers; when you feel the gardener’s gentle hand – and you will, if you look for it – follow in the direction He’s guiding.  And together – even in a difficult season – we can trust that God’s long-term investment in us will indeed be fruitful.

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

Do Love: Priority, Desire, Sacrifice

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” 1 John 3:16a

Love is a common theme for the Christian life.  The scriptures are brimming with instructions to love one another, to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. 

Yet, as so often happens, when something becomes “common”, when something becomes routine or expected, before we know it we find ourselves sharing common misunderstandings; sometimes we need to step back and unpack those ideas that appear simple and which we’ve taken for granted, and when we do, we usually find there’s a lot more there than we thought.

Love is an action.

If I asked you “what is love?” – to give a definition of love – what would you come up with?  Think about that just for a second: what is love?

It’s a good exercise, taking something that is common and just assumed, and unpacking it to see if there’s more to the story. 

For most adults, if we were pressed into coming up with a definition of love, we’d waffle around with a few ideas and probably land somewhere in the realm of “a feeling of deep affection”, but, anyone who loves or has been loved would be quick to add “…but that definition doesn’t quite do it”.  What is love?

If I asked the kids, though, do you know what we’d get?  “Love is when Mom hugs me and makes me feel better when I cut my finger.”  “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”.  One kid – you can probably guess which one – told me “love is when you play on my Minecraft server with me, because I love Minecraft”.

But, you know what?  As limited as those children’s definitions might be, they understand something that almost every adult definition of love fundamentally misses: love is an action.

And this isn’t some lofty church idea: our language tells us that love isn’t a feeling or an emotion; love is a verb, an action word.  Think about it: we say “I love you”, or “you love me”.  We don’t say “I happy you” or “you sad me” – those are feelings; our language lets us say “I love you” because ‘love’ is a verb, an action word. 

The kids are right, you know: to love someone or something isn’t to feel something about them, though affection certainly has something to do with it.  Love isn’t a feeling we exchange.  To love is to do something; if love isn’t an action, we’ve slipped into a misunderstanding that is everywhere in our society today.

How to ‘do’ love.

So, if love is an action word – not a feeling or emotion – then how do we do it? 

Like any action, there are clear, definite, purposeful steps required: if it’s walking, I have to get up off my butt, pick a direction, lift up one foot, swing it forward, put it down, and repeat over and over, one step at a time, until my walk is done.  If the action is cleaning, I have to find a mess, get some cleaner, and put in some elbow grease.  …believe me, if walking or cleaning were just feelings, I’d be a whole lot healthier and my house would be a whole lot tidier!  But they’re actions, and so is love, so there are definite steps required to do that action.

I want to suggest that there are three components, three parts required to “do” love.  The action of love requires, first, making something your priority.  Second, to do love requires a desire.  And third, to make love happen requires sacrifice.  Priority.  Desire.  Sacrifice. 


First: Priority.  We all know words are cheap.  It’s easy to say something, to throw a few words out there.  But actions speak louder than words not least because they require effort.  Or, to put it as St. James does, “faith without works is dead”.  There’s no life or lasting value to be found in merely saying, thinking, or feeling something without the effort to follow through to the best of our ability. 

To love someone or something – to take the action of loving them – means making them a priority in your life, and showing that in your actions.

It’s amazing: the kids know this, even if they don’t have the words for it.  “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”.  All of us adults would know from experience that, when Saturday afternoon rolls around after all week with both parents working, there are a dozen high-priority things that need to be done around the house.  Laundry to be washed, groceries to be picked up, a squeaky door to be fixed, a flat tire on a bike that needs to be fixed, online banking to be done – the endless list that goes with being responsible for a household.

But if love is more than a feeling – which it has be to – then the first thing love requires is Priority.  Loving you, loving my family, loving my neighbour, loving God means, first, prioritizing the one who is loved.  The kid knows that Mom or Dad is busy, but the kid sees that they are loved when they are bumped ahead of bills or laundry or things around the house, even for half-an-hour.  The first step in the action of love is priority.


The next step, I want to suggest, is desire.  Now, when I say desire, I mean it in it’s broadest sense: love as an action requires a strong want or wish for something to happen.

Or, in other words, love requires a goal being worked towards, to love someone or something is to want it to become the best it can be, to picture that person as the best that they can be, and to want to get there together.

It’s not enough – it’s not really love – just to prioritize something.  If I prioritize someone or something because it makes me feel good, or I get something from it, that’s not love (that’s pleasure – another action word).  Love requires prioritizing someone because of the hope, the deep desire you have for their yet-more-glorious future.  If I love my wife just because she makes me laugh – or if I love God because He’s good to me, that really isn’t love; love is looking forward to being better together, having the hope for what you and them together can become, and desiring, deeply and strongly wanting it to happen.

Love as a verb, as an action, first takes priority and then desire for that more glorious future.


And then the action of love requires sacrifice.  It takes offering yourself to take the steps necessary to make that future a reality.

This is where the modern misunderstanding of love as an emotion throws us off the rails. 

It’s one thing for me to say “I like my dog, I should take her for a walk”.  I can even have that good desire for my dog’s future, that good desire for her to have a good life, for her – and me – to be fit and to enjoy that wonderful time out in the sun, out in the beauty of God’s creation, rejuvenated by the fresh air.  I can have the desire to be a good and responsible dog owner, to want to be in the sort of relationship you see on TV where the happy dog runs to the door with its tail wagging, leash in its mouth, asking to go for a walk together. 

I can think highly of my dog, prioritizing her; I can want to be a good dog owner who takes her for walks… but does that priority or desire produce any action?  No.

No, the priority and desire require follow-through with sacrifice.

Now, sacrifice takes different forms.  Some are very costly, and the greatest love that can ever be shown, scripture says, is the laying down – the sacrifice – of life itself.  But all love requires sacrifice, and not as a one-time thing.  The action of love, the action of loving someone or something, requires sacrifice.

And this is where we so often go wrong. 

You know 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” read at almost every wedding?  For your homework this week, give that a read… but recognize that each of those descriptions of love is actually a description of sacrifice.  “Love is patient, love is kind; it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, … it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”  You know the list; but these aren’t feelings – they’re costly sacrifices, steps to be taken for one who is prioritized and for whom you have the hope of a more glorious future.  Patience is a sacrifice; kindness is a sacrifice; putting aside pride, biting your tongue when you have every right to be angry, giving second chances if and when the person recognizes they were wrong and turns from it: those aren’t feelings.  That’s what it takes to do love.  It might be as simple as a parent patiently trying to be interested in Minecraft on a rare day off; or it might be as humbling as helping a parent or an ailing spouse get to the bathroom and then get dressed again when they can no longer do it for themselves, but one thing is sure: it’s only love if we set that priority, have that desire, and work towards it with sacrifice.

On these two commandments…

Love is costly.  Love is involved.  Love is an action.  And yet, all of the commandments of God are summarized in these two greatest commandments (say it with me): you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

So, let’s ask ourselves: do you love God?

Is God a priority, not just on Sunday, but every day that He gives you, and every night that He lets you sleep in safety and peace?  Is God your desire – do you desire a better future together with God, is that a goal that defines your life?  And then sacrifice: do you, will you take the steps to patiently, humbly make that love an action: as “the love chapter” says, love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres until the end.  If love is an action, do you love God?

And then, the other side of that commandment, and perhaps the more challenging of the two.  Do I love my neighbour?  And my neighbour isn’t just my family or my friends, but every single person made in God’s Image whom God has placed in my path; those who drive me nuts, those with whom I disagree on just about everything imaginable, and those who are just plain rude and make me feel like dirt.  Do I love them?

It’s not a feeling.  And let me tell you, that’s a good thing!  Because we all have plenty of people we don’t feel happy to be around.

But do I love my neighbour?  Whoever they are, good or bad, kind and generous people, or rude and ignorant people, do I love them?  Do I prioritize them? Huh.  Because that’s what God expects… will I put that rude man who doesn’t know how to speak to anyone ahead of myself and my own desires?  Talk is cheap.  And I can say all the words there are, but if I have not love, I’m a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Do I desire my neighbour to have a yet-more-glorious future?  Do I want them to know true love, do I want them to experience true hope and mercy and forgiveness, do I want them to know God and to live with me forever, do I want them to be better for having known and lived alongside me, such as I am.  Think of the rudest, most grating neighbour you know.  Do you want him or her to know mercy?  Do you want them to know love, to be cleaned up by the grace of God just as we will be, and to spend eternity redeemed with you?  Because, if that’s not your desire for even your rudest neighbour, then no matter what we might tell ourselves, God says no, we don’t yet know love.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, love requires sacrifice.  Are you willing to take the steps so that your neighbour can have that yet-more-glorious future, both in this life, and in the life to come.

My friends, this is why the church isn’t a voluntary organization.  If anyone ever told you that Christians volunteer their time to teach Sunday School, or help at the food bank, or help people with their taxes and paperwork, or to teach young moms to cook for their families, or to visit those who are sick or alone, or to make the church building clean and ready to welcome those who come in, or to greet our brothers and sisters as they gather, they’re wrong.  Those are not good deeds, and they’re not optional.  They’re the sacrifices that love requires.

If you say you love your neighbour, but you won’t fill his belly; if you say you love your neighbour but you won’t share her pain and do your part to life them out of despair and set them on the path to glory, then we’re nothing but a noisy cymbal.

Love is action.

My friends, lets make this a church where everyone learns to love God, and learns to love their neighbour as themselves: not thinking good thoughts or feeling happy feelings about God and our neighbour, but making God and our neighbour a priority every day; having that earnest desire for a better future with God, and wanting our neighbours to share that hope; and then making the sacrifices that true love requires.  That’s a church that will grow, that’s a church that will change the world around us; but it’s got to start with love, and it’s got to start with each one of us, loving God, and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

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

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.