What does He expect?

He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

As we continue through these Sundays after Epiphany, we ought to be reminded that one of our primary tasks as Christians is to be an epiphany for those around us – God not only invites us, but wants to use us to reveal Himself to our friends and neighbours.  And that revelation, our task of bringing the message of God in Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, is something we’re all expected to do, both in word and in deed; really, one of the questions we should ask ourselves before, during, and after every interaction with another person is, “are my words, are my actions, revealing God’s truth right now?  Are they showing God’s mercy?”  That’s our task, whether we’re having small talk at the grocery store or whether we’re hearing a bit of juicy gossip; are my words revealing God’s truth and mercy, even when I’m arguing about garbage disposal fees over at town hall?

We are to be epiphanies to those around us.

And, as we heard a couple of weeks back, the work God is doing is to make us as polished arrows in his quiver; arrows made to follow the pattern of Jesus, arrows that are able to fly straight and true and hit the target set in front of them.

After all, sin, as we know, is “missing the mark”, falling short of the target.  And the work of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, is to pick us up when we repent and ask for another shot, as we’re slowly bent back into shape so that we can fly as we were intended.

So this morning, that brings us to the question of how.

We’re to be an epiphany, we’re to hit the target set by Christ, but how do we do that?  What does that look like?

The surprisingly simple response:

A beautifully simple answer comes to us this morning from the prophet Micah, chapter 6.  Micah is speaking to the people of God who, once again, have misunderstood their task.  The people came to worship, they sang the good old hymns, they recited the prayers, they brought the right offerings just as their parents and their teachers taught them, but in spite of doing all the right stuff, there was a problem.  Their religion wasn’t working.  The God-given religion intended to put things right between humankind and God, the God-given religion intended to be a light so that all the nations of the earth would be drawn in to experience God’s glory, wasn’t doing what it was intended to do.

In Micah chapter 6, the prophet lays out the case against the people.  The Lord God kept his side of the bargain, his end of the covenant: he freed his people from Egypt, he led them into the promised land, he protected them when their enemies plotted against them.  Yet, while his people kept the outward demands of the law, their obedience ended there; the law, the discipline which was supposed to shape their hearts and minds so that they could be polished arrows in God’s quiver wasn’t working because their obedience was limited to the outward physical actions, it wasn’t allowed to sink in.

Now, it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap that many Christians have fallen into over the ages.  Some Christians, some great Christian minds, have looked back and said, “oh, the problem is that they were being outwardly obedient; God doesn’t care about the outside, he cares about the heart”.

And, I mean, I suppose that’s a nice thought; except that the whole of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, totally disagree.  Nowhere are we taught that we’re to toss away outward actions in favour of a purely mental or “spiritual” religion – quite the opposite, it’s our bodies, not our minds or hearts, that are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we don’t believe in the resurrection of the mind, but of the whole person, body included.  “Heaven”, the New Jerusalem where Christ is even now preparing us a home, is described as a city, with streets, and doors, and rivers, and trees, and tasty fruit on those trees. 

God made us, body and soul, and the whole point of the empty tomb at Easter is that our bodies, this physical world, matters.  After all, God made it and declared it good, and is restoring it so it will be made perfect.

The problem is not that God’s people were engaged in their God-given physical acts of worship; the problem is that they were stubbornly going through the motions without their outward obedience shaping their hearts and minds into the people God desired them to be, a people that revealed himself to the world, in thought, word, and deed.

It’s about alignment

True obedience means that both the outward and the inward are aligned.Like the arrow, being repaired and re-worked to hit its target, the whole thing needs to be aligned for the arrow to stay on course.  And when your trajectory, when your journey, is spread out in front of you, even the smallest change in that alignment is going to have a huge impact on where you land.

Let me tell you a little story.  The other night, Kristina and I went out to play a round of darts.  Now neither of us are darts champions by any stretch, and she’s much better than I am, but it’s all in good fun.  I gave her the little case of darts, hers have a French flag on the flight, mine have the good old Union Jack.  We went in to play, and somehow, two of mine fell out in the van on the way.  It was cold, and our coats were off, so instead of going out to get them, I borrowed some darts, and the first thing I noticed is that they were way lighter.  And, you know what?  It doesn’t take much to change your trajectory.  We started playing – I hit the wall, one ended up on the floor. 

It doesn’t take much, even a small change, can change how that arrow flies. 

Even a small change on our part can be used by God in incredible ways.

So how, exactly do we conform ourselves to that pattern set by Christ? 

In Micah we read, “he has shown you, O Mortal, what is good.
What does the Lord require? 
to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”.

Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.

Now let’s be clear – these aren’t three boxes to check: it’s not about doing some just actions, enjoying the thought of mercifulness, and staying humble and kind. 

Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly are not actions, but the trajectory, the course, that we’re on.  Those describe our journey, our race to run, our flight toward the target.

And the problem and challenge is that, if we do one or two of those, without doing all three, we’ll miss the mark.

Examples of this are easy to find.  Even in the Church today, there are those who work tirelessly for justice in our society and strive to show mercy to those on the margins, but if that’s done without humility, if that’s done without the recognition that we’re all sinners in need of that mercy, then it misses the mark.

If you’re humbly preaching the message of God’s mercy, but you leave out the justice that God requires – if you leave out right and wrong, and repentance – then it misses the mark.

If you’re the humblest person in the world, and like the people to whom Micah wrote, you do all the right and just actions, but in your heart you refuse to show mercy, to really, truly forgive as you’ve been forgiven, then in spite of everything looking right on the outside, it misses the mark.

As we recited together this morning in the Psalm, who can actually stand in the heavenly city, who can actually stand in the dwelling place of God?

The one who leads a blameless life and does what is right; who speaks the truth and means it; the one who loves his neighbour, yet rejects those who are wicked and honours those who fear the Lord; those who give their money regardless of if they’ll get something in return; one who keeps his promises.  One who is on a trajectory, on a path, on a journey through life that is defined by just actions, a love of mercy, and humble obedience to God.

The vision:

And, what would happen if we managed to do this?  What would happen if God’s people to whom Micah wrote were, by God’s grace, able to live as God required?

Well, in short, they would live as God intended – not for their own sake, but as a revelation, an epiphany to the world: they would be a light to enlighten the nations, drawing the world to God.

If we lived as God intended – act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God – then, in short, we would look different.  We would look different from the world around us.  We would be a people, a church, that stood out, that attracted attention, like a city on a hill, or a lamp in a dark room.

If we lived this way, not as boxes to check, not saying “two out of three ain’t bad”, but combining justice, mercy, and humility, then we would be a Church, a community, that reflected the Beatitudes, we would be a community where those whom the world despises – the poor, the meek, those who mourn, those hungering for righteousness, the pure, those striving for peace, those who are persecuted – are not despised, but are known to be blessed, not just because they have favour with God, but because the Church, the Body of Christ, is gathered around them, blessing them, carrying their burdens.

What does the Lord require?

He wants you to be an epiphany.  He’s shaping and re-shaping you to hit the mark.  And he wants us to fly the course marked by justice, mercy, and humble obedience.

And… like those darts.  It might take some practice, but even the smallest change you make today can totally change where your arrow ends up. 

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

Accepting God’s Healing

2 Kings 5:1-14
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and you will be healed”.

“Go out into all the world, cure the sick and say “the Kingdom of God has come near”.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”

“Go in peace, your faith has made you well”.

Healing is a major theme in the scriptures and in our lessons today.  From the earliest writings of the Old Testament, we see that God is the source of health and wellness.  The prophets, as we heard today in the story of Naaman who was healed of his leprosy, were ministers of God’s healing power under the Old Covenant.

In sending Jesus Christ, the power of God became all the more evident as a full three-quarters of the Gospel record is various accounts of Our Lord’s healing power over body and soul: he heals by touch, he heals by speaking a word of power – “get up and walk”, and he even heals the hemorrhaging woman who merely touches the hem of his cloak as he passes by. 

Healing is a major theme in the scriptures, and, a topic with a great diversity of opinion in the Church today.

On the one extreme, we’ve all seen those enormously wealthy TV pastors who want us to believe that God instantly and miraculously heals the body of every person that they touch.  (Though, I must say, I’m not sure how our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel fit with all of that – you know, his strict instruction to go and heal the sick, but carry no purse or bag or fancy shoes or private jet, and not making a big fuss or meeting people in the town square to make a name for yourself).

On the other extreme, for the more reserved among us, we may find ourselves thinking of God as a last resort, a last ditch effort only after everything else has failed.  We try to help ourselves, we enlist the help of doctors and travel to find the best care available, at some point we’ll ask the Church to pray, and only after we’ve exhausted all available options, perhaps you’ll hear people say “well, it’s in God’s hands now” (as though it wasn’t in his hands all along!).

Healing is a difficult subject, not least because it is a personal subject.  All of us, at some point, have known someone sick and in need of a miracle, perhaps for whom that miracle never came. 

And in light of that, it’s important for us to think about healing.

The first claim that we make as Christians is that God is the source of all healing, not just the miracles that break the mold.

Healing, of course, comes in three forms.  Natural healing – our body’s wonderful ability to fix itself when we get a cut, or to use white blood cells to fight off a cold – is itself a gift from God.  Everything “natural” is because, as we proclaim, it is God who created heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible.

Medical healing, the healing that comes through the sciences, is also a gift from God. The wisdom and the ability to study the laws of nature and produce effective cures and treatments is itself part of God’s plan in making us share in his creative image; while the world in which we live is fallen, corrupted by sin, and subject to death and decay, it was God’s will from the beginning that we would study and subdue the earth, that we could reap the benefits of medicine, hopefully leaving the earth better than we found it for each generation that comes after.

And then God is the source of that third kind of healing, miraculous healing, those healings that, by definition, defy the laws of the natural world, and for which science and medicine have no answer: the fast-growing tumor that turns on itself and shrinks; the stroke victim who awakes from a coma with no detectable damage.  These miracles, this form of healing, is the rarest of the ways that God heals, and, we believe and scripture tells us that, when these miracles happen, it’s rarely – if ever – for the direct benefit of the person who was healed; rather, as Jesus says in multiple places, these things have been done that the world might see and believe; miracles are done for the glory of God.

The Source of Healing

As we think about healing, it’s absolutely essential that we remember that God is the source of all healing powers, and even your body’s ability to heal a cut or fight off the sniffles is God’s gift as we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

And there’s a big lesson in that for all of us.  If God is the source of all healing, that means that we are not.

In the Old Testament lesson today, we had Naaman, the commander of the army, who was in need of healing for a serious skin condition.

To anyone on the outside, Naaman was someone with everything he could ever need.  He lived in a great house, with great pasture lands and huge flocks, he had servants to do his bidding, and a great army at his command.  By all accounts, he was a powerful man, someone who could get what he wanted.

But, in spite of all this earthly power and wealth, in spite of all the people and lands that he controlled, his own health was the thing that remained outside of his control. 

He went to see the prophet, and what did he bring?

Did he go, humbly seeing the assistance of the Lord’s servant?  No, he went with 1100 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold coins, together with 10 new suits of clothes to buy his healing.

He set out, believing that these great worldly gifts would buy the Lord’s favor.  And what happens?

Well, the prophet doesn’t even come out to greet this great celebrity of a man.  He doesn’t accept his gifts.  He simply sends a young servant who says, go wash in the river seven times and you’ll be healed.

The point, in all of that, is that we are not the source of our own healing.  We don’t buy it.  We can’t earn it.

No matter how great we are, no matter how respected we are, no matter how powerful or wealthy, none of that earthly power can add even one day to our lives apart from the grace of God.

And, while I’d suggest that we aren’t as proud as Naaman, we’re guilty of the same sort of over-reaching self-reliance when we forget God in our own sickness. 

When we put our trust in medicine and doctors, but leave God as our last resort, we’re really doing the same thing as Naaman, who trusted in silver and gold.  We’re saying, well, I live in a great country with access to medical care and a pharmacy down the road, I’ll trust in that to make me better.

When really, we’re called to acknowledge that God is the source of all healing.  That God made the body, God made the immune system, God made the laws of science and nature, and it’s God who numbers our days and who is lord of the living and the dead.  We can trust our doctors because God is the source of all healing.

When we don’t get what we seek

And then, sometimes, we pray for healing, and it doesn’t come.

Perhaps we pray fervently, we gather the church around in prayer, trusting only in God, but the illness doesn’t go away.

This is difficult, it’s heartbreaking; it causes some people to question what they believe.

And, in times like these, it’s important for us to remember the deep truth that we are not just souls wrapped up in a fleshly tent.  Our body, our mind, our spirit are not separate entities, but God created each of us as a body, with a mind, animated by our spirit, all perfectly united to make up a person.

And healing, true healing, is a matter not just of the body, but for the whole person.

Modern medicine has come to this realization, a realization that the Church has preached since time immemorial: that it’s not enough just to treat the body.

If we patch up someone’s body, but don’t heal the illness of their mind and the sickness of the soul, sure we might extend their life, but we haven’t improved the quality of their life.

By the same token, doctors now realize that some illnesses aren’t caused by bacteria or viruses, but are physical illnesses caused by depression, anxiety, or stress.

When the Church asks God for healing, we have to realize that there is always more to this life than meets the eye.  We see the physical.  But, St. Paul tells us, we see and know only in part, only a dim reflection of reality. 

God sees us as we really are – body, mind, spirit, united – and, God sees us as we shall be, eternally.

For all of us, the guarantee is that this body, at some point, will breathe its last; and then, by faith we believe, at the last day those who are in Christ will receive renewed bodies, bodies in which the scars of this corrupted world are removed, in which want, and hunger, and pain are no more. 

And, while we can’t yet see on the other side of the thin veil between life and death, we firmly trust that God, who sees the end game and knows the heart, does what is truly best for us.

And, as scripture tells us, sometimes that means that the regular course of the rules of nature, cells growing and dying, bodies wearing out, are opportunities for the mind and spirit to grow into the image of God.  Or, as the Bible says, “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope that will not put us to shame.”

Trust: not a last resort

Jesus didn’t say “follow me and your life will be easy”.  Jesus didn’t say “call on me when you’ve exhausted the other options, and I’ll swoop in to save you”.

Jesus didn’t say “follow me and the rules of nature will on longer apply.”

He says “take up your cross and follow me”.  He says, “unless you give up your life, you will lose it”.

And, He says “I am the light of the world”.  Believing in him doesn’t pluck you out of the world with its sickness and death, but he does say “you’ll never walk in darkness”.  The Lord says “Fear not, for I am with you.  I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my hand”.  He will never leave you nor forsake you, he is with you always, even to the end of the age, healing not just the body, but healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds.

Our Lord is the source of all healing, healing that we cannot buy or earn, but which is a gift to God’s glory and our benefit.  He is the one who numbered the hairs of your head, who knows your heart and sees you not just as you really are, but as you shall be, and he says “I’m preparing a place for you.”

And, if he’s preparing a place for us, then, as he works through the changes and chances of this life, as he takes the realities of this natural life and the consequences of our actions and the actions of others and works all things together for good for those who serve him, then that means he’s also working through our illness, preparing us for that place.

Our job is to trust in God first, for he is the source of all good gifts.  Our job is to trust that Jesus is Lord, and that he will direct our path, and that he is preparing us to live with him in glory.  And our job is to trust that with him all things are possible, not just the healing of this mortal body, but the things that matter eternally – even the forgiveness of sins and our eternal life.

To God be the glory.  Amen.

Farewell Recital & Hymn Festival

I had the rare privilege of planning my own going-away party for the Nashotah House community on Tuesday night (…if you know me at all, you know that was a great gift in and of itself!).

I’m so thankful for these 8 years and the many kind words this week, but the secret I didn’t tell anyone was that their gift to me were these incredible recordings of the church joyfully shouting the world’s best hymns with me at the organ and a great brass quartet at my side. Have a listen. What a gift!