Why do we call today “good”.

Why do we call today ‘good’?

In the midst of desolation and despair; in the midst of betrayal and abandonment; in the midst of utter darkness closing in on an innocent young man: why do we call today ‘good’?

Many have offered their answer: is it Jesus being punished for our sins, as though God required punishment?  Is it Jesus offering himself in a deal with the devil, as though God owed Satan anything? 

These answers all fall short because they fail to line up with scripture.  No, fundamentally, this day is ‘good’ because on this day, God fulfilled his promise.

The Son of Man will crush the Serpent’s Head.

On the very day that disobedience, and thus death, entered the world, God cursed the devil, saying “cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals” (Genesis 3:14), but with that ancient curse, God made his first promise to humanity. 

God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers.”  Yes, the serpent, those deceiving jaws trying to swallow up creation in death will indeed strike at our heels.  That’s the story of the rest of scripture, and it’s our own story, as we spend our lives in a broken, bent, and fallen world, surrounded by deceiving jaws and venomous bites, hell bent on leading us to curse God and embrace death and despair.

But, we forget that first promise of God: God said yes, Satan, and the rebellious forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil, “you will strike his heel”; but… just wait.  

The son of man, “he will crush your head”, O deceiving serpent.  (Genesis 3:15).

Today is “good” because today is the day that God fulfilled that promise.

There was no other good enough.

As scripture teaches us, humankind could never triumph over death.  Sure, we live our lives with sin biting at our heels, but there’s a more fundamental problem: it’s not just that we all find ourselves disobedient, self-centred, self-absorbed, prideful, bent inward, and quick to abandon our God-given duty. 

Even if you or I managed to be perfectly obedient to God, we’d still have a problem: we’ve inherited the curse.  That serpent’s venom first flowing in Adam and Eve, turning their hearts to stone, turning their hands to evil, puffing-up their heads to see themselves as not needing God; that same venom was passed down to you and to me.  As the psalmist put it, “I’m not really a man; I’ve been a sinner since my mother’s womb”.

You see, escaping despair and death isn’t about being “good”, about checking the right boxes, about performing well, about earning a place.  No being “good” means being free from the curse of sin.  And, simply, there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.  It would take a new, a fresh humanity: God Himself creating a new, unstained, uncursed flesh; a fresh start, or, as the Bible says, a “second Adam”, a new man, born without the serpent’s venom coursing around in his veins. 

That’s the miracle of Christmas – a fresh start, a new Adam, the promised Messiah of God, born humbly to live and die as one of us.

But why is today “good”?  Because today is the day that God fulfilled that first promise.  That first Good Friday was really and truly the day when, once and for all, the Son of Man crushed the serpent’s head.

Sin biting at His heels.

Just moments ago, we heard Jesus, hanging stripped, bloodied, and beaten on the cross; the Incarnate second Person of the Trinity, God-in-the-flesh cry out in desperation and dereliction “My God… why have you forsaken me”.

It’s a shocking statement, God Himself feeling abandoned.

But we have to remember that, last night, at table with his bumbling, cowardly disciples, the only one since Adam and Eve to ever be born free from sin’s curse, freely accepted that weight.  And why?  Out of unimaginable love.

He said: “this is my blood… the blood of the new covenant… given for the remission of sin”.

Think about that: He who knew no sin, willingly saying, “My Father loves them; I love them; I’m sending my Spirit to dwell in them: I will bear their curse”.

Parents – I know you’ve been there.  You see your child hurting, and you say, “I wish I could deal with this, not them; I don’t want them to bear this pain alone”. 

Christ was the one and only person free from the curse, so he was the one and only who could make the offer.  And then, in that moment, as he prepared to die, the weight of every sin was laid on his shoulders.  Every sin.  The curse, the shame, the guilt of every man, woman, and child, in each and every moment.  The weight of every disease, the devastation of every earthquake, fire, and flood in this broken world.  All poured upon humanity’s fresh start, as God, the one who knows no sin, feels the desolation and utter separation not of one man’s sin, but of every evil thought, every evil deed, and every broken aspect of a world whose very nature is turned against God.

And just when it looks like evil has won;
just when it looks like those ravening, hissing jaws are closing in on the Son of God;
we hear those beautiful words.

“It is finished”.

It is finished.  No, not Jesus’ life. 
No, the promise has been fulfilled.  “It is done”.  God has kept his promise. 

Just when you thought the serpent was going to claim another victim:
No.  “It is finished”.  The Son of Man has crushed the serpent’s head.

We call today “good” because God kept his promise.
We call today “good”, because this is the day that everything changed.

Or has it?

Jesus broke down the gate of hell; Jesus loosed the chains of death; Jesus opened the path to eternal life. 

But you and I, more likely than not, are going to leave today, just as we came.  Bearing the same weight, and guilt, and shame. 

But we call today “good” because it doesn’t have to be that way.

We feel weighed down, we feel trapped, we feel chained in… but we call today “good” because Jesus removed the weight, broke down the wall, and loosed the chains.

He opened the path, and said “Come”. 

But most of us choose to sit. 

Most of us sit in the dark corner of sin’s prison, looking at the chains of shame on our hands and our feet, carrying a heavy load of guilt that keeps us from ever looking up… even though we don’t have to.  We sit in the dark corner of prison, not realizing that the wall’s been broken down.  We look at the chains of shame, not realizing that they’re not attached to anything, and, in Christ, we’re free to let them go.  We feel the weight of the world, not realizing that we’re the ones holding on the straps, not the other way around.

We call today “good” because God fulfilled his promise.

We call today “good” because sin, shame, guilt, and the fear of the grave have been defeated as the Son of Man crushed the serpent’s head.

But it’s only “good” if we get up, drop that weight, let go of those chains, and follow Christ up and out of the pits of despair that have become far too comfortable.

Today is truly “good”… but, it comes to each of us as a question:
Will you let this be good news for you? 
Will you share in Christ’s victory, and follow him out of the pit of despair?

Or have we become too comfortable to even realize the freedom that has been offered?

Who is Jesus, and why it matters.

Not too long ago – earlier last week, in fact – I asked a group of Christian people “who is Jesus”?

The answers were good: He’s the Son of God; He’s the Saviour of the world; He’s the Lamb of God who died for our sins; He’s fully man but also fully God; He came to teach us how to live and to show us God’s mercy.

And I found myself saying “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”… those are all really great answers.  They’re all 100% true, they’re all essential beliefs for Christians in every time and every place.  But there’s one aspect of who Jesus is that I believe Christians often overlook, and that leads us to having a lopsided understanding of the Bible.

All of those answers: Son of God, Lamb of God, Fully man but fully God, and all the others are entirely true, but would have been a total surprise to any of God’s people in the Old Testament.  No, rather, as we read through the Old Testament, God’s faithful people are full of expectation, but it’s all tied to God’s promises.

Throughout the Old Testament, who are they waiting for? 

The Messiah – the anointed one who will fulfil the promises of God.

They’re waiting for fulfilment of the promises: through Moses, God promised that another messenger – greater than the other prophets – would come, a messenger who knew God face to face.[1] 
God’s people were waiting for that messenger greater than Moses.

God had promised to David that one of his offspring would sit on a throne that could never pass away, drawing in all the nations of the earth.[2] 
God’s people were waiting for the Son of David who would have an eternal throne.

God had promised to Abraham that, through his offspring, all the nations of the world would be blessed through obedience;[3] but as we know all too well, humanity’s skill is disobedience, and with a few exceptions along the way, by and large Israel hasn’t done a good job of blessing all those around them. 
God’s people were waiting for one who would reveal His glory to the world

But first and foremost, what is that first ever promise that God makes in scripture?  That oldest promise – a solution to the mess that Adam and Eve have made for all people?

Genesis 3:15: “The offspring of woman will crush the serpents head”… not unlike John 3:15: “that everyone who believes may have eternal life”.

Jesus is the Son of God, He is the great Teacher, He is the Saviour.  But, [as we find ourselves reading about the baby of Bethlehem in the midst of Lent,] the essential point from the perspective of the Old Testament is that Jesus is the fulfilment of all of God’s promises.

The turning point of all history.

As we read the Old Testament, you can fell the tension building.  When will these promised things happen?

But this is the climax of The Story, and my friends, it’s also the climax of all of human history.  The coming of Jesus, the eternal Word of God taking on our humanity, God-with-us in the flesh changes everything.  Seriously – there’s good reason we mark history as “before the coming of Christ” and “after the coming of Christ”, and we’d do well to remember that the coming of God in the flesh, God breaking into the midst of our fallen world to fulfil what we could never fulfil ourselves, really does change everything about the world and our place in it.

What do I mean?

God with us.

In the beginning, the intention was that we would walk with God.  Not some spiritual nonsense or happy feelings, but that we would walk and talk with God, we would enjoy His company face to face, that we would know Him as He knows us, and in doing so, all our needs would be fulfilled because we’d be hanging out with the literal Creator of everything.  All we had to do was trust Him.

But they didn’t.  So there was a divide.  Death entered the world.

Now don’t think of death as a random punishment; it’s not.  It’s simply the consequence for choosing to walk away from the Source of Life.[5]

And that was the beginning of the end, right there in the third chapter, on those first few pages of your Bible.  They chose to walk away from the Source of Life itself.

And because God is the very opposite of everything death is about – God and people simply couldn’t be in the same place anymore.  It’s not that God didn’t want them there – He wanted them there so much that the rest of scripture is about how He did that! 

It’s just that there are some things you can’t force and you can’t fake.  You can’t force love, you can’t force trust; and it does no good to fake them either.

Now, as we know, God didn’t abandon his people. God is continually reaching out to them, continually breaking into the mess of the world, continually calling people out to be part of His plan.  When people actually get close to God, amazing things happen!  Miracles and healings, prosperity and peace; Moses’ face lit up light a lightbulb compared to the dark world around him!

But even Moses couldn’t see God face-to-face, because he was infected by death.  That serpent’s venom was handed down from generation to generation, and there was no way humanity could escape it.[6]

This is the problem.  This is why humanity can’t ever carry out God’s plans or fulfil those biggest promises as the years go by.  From our birth in a fallen world, we’re all sharing the same human condition, separated from the presence of God.

But as Bishop Ed Salmon used to say when he was up to his elbows in grease, fiddling around inside the engine of the old cars in his driveway, “the only way to fix a broken system is to get in there and get your hands dirty”.

That’s what the birth of Jesus is all about.  Have you ever thought of it in those terms?

The Son of God born in a manger in Bethlehem, living as one of us, and being rejected, pierced, hung on a cross, and laid in the dust of the grave is God rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, breaking into a fallen world to fix what we could never fix on our own. 

Hebrews puts it better: “Because the children of God share in flesh and blood, the Lord himself partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death”.  A flesh and blood problem needed a flesh and blood solution.

And so, this week, and as we head toward Holy Week and Easter, I invite you to think afresh about the work of Jesus.  As we read through the life of Christ, I invite you to see God rolling up His sleeves and doing what we can’t do for ourselves. 

And as we frame it all in the lofty words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, I want you to reflect on the sort of love that shows.  Love that will strip off all the majesty of Heaven so that he could become the lowest of the low, as once again God uses those whom the world rejects to fulfil his promises.

And as you read the gospels, I want you to do your very best to connect it all back to Genesis.

In the beginning God wanted to walk and talk and live with men and women, but they rejected Him.  In Jesus, God walked and talked and lived with men and women, making himself so vulnerable, free to be rejected once more.

And then grapple with the fact that, our faith and our belief is that God comes among us again and again, in His Word, in the bread and wine – the flesh and blood solution to our flesh and blood problem – that we will share today, and indeed He comes any time two or three are gathered in this messy world to talk about our faith in Him.  This Lent, grapple with the fact that God, through the Messiah who fulfils all of His promises, wants to walk and talk and live with us, and reaches out, even today, even though you and I are free to reject him. 

…But then remember this faithful promise, also made by the one who keeps all his promises “… to all who do receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God”.  He keeps all of his promises – and for that we say ‘to God be the glory’, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 34:10-12; Hebrews 3:1-6

[2] 1 Kings 9:5; Jeremiah 33:17-26;

[3] Genesis 22:18

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

[5] Feel free to tell me that I’m undermining the wrath of God, but don’t worry: I certainly believe that judgment is real. I don’t, however, subscribe to any atonement theory that sees God as a jilted lover seeking revenge for Adam and Eve’s sin; rather, as a loving Father who is full of justice, there are consequences for their disobedience.  God’s righteous anger which burns against fallen humanity must be at their actions and decisions, since He ultimately and simultaneously loves them enough to send His only Son to save them.

[6] Though I’m focusing on the result (captivity and slavery to death) rather than the act of original sin, I do believe this to be a faithful rendering of the Augustinian idea of a seminal defect: that concupiscence and death are passed on in the “DNA” of humanity, which is precisely why a virgin birth is necessary: God injects an original, incorrupt line of human nature back into the human race.

God’s Plan for Trauma-Informed Reconstruction:

A Time of Reconstruction

All this week, I’ve been reflecting and meditating on this idea of rebuilding. 

I firmly believe that we find ourselves, here today, in a period of God-given reconstruction.  If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve realized that you need some renovations in your personal life.

Certainly, our church is in a period of rebuilding.

But it’s bigger than that.

Because, as much as televangelists and old-fashioned revivals might tell us different, faith isn’t just a personal matter. 

For God’s people, amazingly returned to the promised land with all that they need having been provided, it’s not just houses or city walls that need to be rebuilt.  The entire community needs rebuilding; the way people think, the way people care, the way people relate to one another all needs to be built up out of the rubble.

That was true in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and I firmly believe it’s true today.

Thanks be to God: we don’t have the physical destruction that requires physical rebuilding.  But let’s be honest: we, as a community, as a nation, have been beaten down.

We see the light at the end of the Covid tunnel, and what do we find?  All of our systems are broken.  Government isn’t working; social services isn’t working; health care, education, the economy – it isn’t working as it should.  It needs rebuilding; and not just patching, like rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

But I believe we need to acknowledge, together, the toll these last few years of our lives have taken on us.  If it’s not too painful, think back through these past few years.  Every time we begin to feel there’s a reprieve from Covid, our society has been faced with something else.  Civil injustice and racism brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement; the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools; protests, blockades, and now a war; and still in this country thousands on reserves go without safe drinking water, though it doesn’t even make the news.

In our own community we’ve lost friends.  For long periods we’ve been unable to gather to grieve together, as we’re now realizing just how very different Fort Smith looks today compared to this time in 2020. 

And now, in the same week that we’re adjusting to loosened restrictions, our own community finds itself dealing with absolutely senseless violence, as a family grieves, and police continue to comb our streets.

Nobody’s in the mood for rebuilding.  We’re tired and worn down.  This never-ending series of events has taken its toll. 

But for me, one thing is clear: we can’t just “keep on truckin’”.  When the path you’re on is leading nowhere good, the answer isn’t to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The truth is that all of us have experienced a chronic low-grade trauma. 

If we had experienced all of this at once, we’d be utterly broken.  But, as often happens with chronic traumatic experiences, the damage is done a bit at a time.  On the one hand that makes it manageable, or at least sort-of.  We learn to adapt with the terrible situations a little bit at a time.  The down side, however, is that we end up accepting the situation as “normal”; as a coping mechanism, we end up lowering the bar for what it feels like to be healthy and happy with each new traumatic experience. Finally our bodies and our spirits and our hearts are telling us that something is terribly wrong, but our minds are trying to convince us that the situation we’re in is “normal”.

We, our church, our community, our nation, needs to acknowledge the mess we’re in; and we don’t need to patch things up… we need to rebuild.

God’s Plan for Trauma-Informed Reconstruction:

Thanks be to God, scripture gives us a plan for trauma-informed reconstruction. It took science a thousand years to finally realize that trauma has an effect on the human person, but, not surprisingly, we read about it back in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah!

Now, I know what you might be thinking: after all that we’ve been through, we don’t have the energy to rebuild! 

But this is what we can learn from Ezra and Nehemiah.  You’ll remember that the people were divided.  They returned to Jerusalem in a heap of rubble, and the youth celebrated at the opportunity to rebuild, while the elders wept at all that had been lost.  This division became a barrier to moving forward, because everyone was concerned with their own interests. 

But God’s solution was for people to see the bigger picture, to see themselves as one family, one body, where the stronger support the weaker, where one shares memories to encourage the other, and where all realize that they need the other: that, in spite of the disagreements or weakness or sadness or pain, they are better together than they could ever be on their own.

And finally, once they are united, we see what I believe is a biblical pattern for moving forward through the pain and trauma we’ve all experienced in the past two years.

1. Do what you can do.

When Nehemiah set out to rebuild the walls, he ordered everyone to start carrying stones.  But what did he quickly realize?  Not everyone is called to do the same work.

Some were energized, strong, tired of being idle, and finding themselves in trouble because they didn’t have enough to do.  They needed to get to work.

But, through no fault of their own, others weren’t able to carry stones.  They were anxious, as rumors of wars circled around them; they were weakened by years of exile and division.  They became the defenders of the community. 

Now, what sort of defenders do we need in our rebuilding?  We need those who watch out for us, ensuring we’re taking care of ourselves.  We need those who can offer a word of encouragement, or just put on a pot of tea and share the sort of personal contact we all need to re-learn after two years of low-grade trauma.

But that’s huge: like the people of Israel, in our own rebuilding, we need to learn that it’s ok for different people to be called to be involved in different ways, as long as we’re supporting one another, following where Jesus leads..  Some move bricks, some care for and watch out for those who are moving bricks; all together, God uses his people to rebuild their community.

2. Read the Bible.

I’m struck in today’s lesson just how seriously they take the word of God.  Before the exile God sent prophet after prophet, but no one cared.  At best they smiled and nodded, they said ‘I’m spiritual, not religious: I like to have my Baal statue and my Ashtoreth pole, since there’s many paths to God’.  It wasn’t until their society collapsed that God’s people realized that they weren’t taking him seriously.

As we rebuild our personal lives, and this church, and this community and our great nation, we need to be serious about the Bible. 

Not to beat people over the head with it.  Certainly not.  But to submit ourselves to it. To acknowledge that it’s primary message is that I’m wrong, I need God, I can’t do it on my own, and that our one and only hope in life and death is that we are not alone but belong to God.  That’s our message.  And yes, that sort of dependence is utter foolishness to many in the world around us… until it isn’t.  Until it finally clicks, when their eyes are opened and they see how the last thing we really need is any sort of independence or progress on the road that we’ve been on.  What we need is to trust in the one who keeps his promises, who can do more than we can ask or imagine when we put our trust in Him.

3. Tune out those seeking their own good.

This is a tough one.  Remember when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls?  The governors of the surrounding nations sent him letter after letter, they would send messengers and drop by unannounced… to do what? 

To discourage.

Why were they set on discouraging God’s people?  Because they were profiting from the mess the world was in. 

This is a big one.  Part of trusting in God, in being serious about his Word, is learning to tune out those who are seeking their own good, those who are exerting their own power and control instead of learning to rely on God. 

Nehemiah, it says, simply ignored the letters.  That’s easier said than done, isn’t it!

But part of the work of rebuilding means learning that, if something is really true, we don’t need to justify it, or argue about it.  We can simply rely on that which is true, and let those discouraging voices wear themselves out. 

Again, this is where it’s important to have those defenders – those people in the family of the church who are encouraging and supporting and making a cup of tea for those who need it!

4. Be Doers of the Word

Finally, as we learn from the Letter of James, we need to be doers of the word, not just hearers.  The work of rebuilding our church; the work of rebuilding our community and our society means that we hear God’s Word and then do it.

We hear our need of repentance, so we repent.

We hear our own need for forgiveness, so we offer it to others, lavishly and with patience.

We hear the message – not that we’ve got it all together, but that we need to bind the broken, to build up those who feel beat down, and to call the world into a relationship with God and ourselves, so that all the nations can be blessed through us.  So we do it. 

For some of us, that means getting serious about the calling that God has on your life for ministry; as more than one person in this congregation is discerning a call to training and a greater ministry in the community.  But, for most of us, that means being serious about #1 – doing what you can do.  If you can’t do the heavy lifting, encourage those who can.  If the only load you can carry right now is to boil the kettle, pick up the phone, and invite someone over for a chat, do what you can do.  You never know, the person who looks busiest might really be longing for that invitation, and in need of some friendship and support themselves!

A Time of Rebuilding

Our world, our society, our church: we’re all in a time of rebuilding.

We need to acknowledge the trauma we’ve experienced.  We need to push back against lowering the bar of what is healthy, not to place demands on others, but to work together to rebuild a community that is supportive for us all, from the ground up.

God will build his Church.  He can heal our land.

For we know he keeps his promises.  With him all things are possible, and if we trust him, he’ll accomplish in us, weak as we are, far more than we can ask or imagine. 
To God be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.

Note: With our bishop’s permission, we’ve set aside the Lectionary for this year and have been reading through The Story, a 31-chapter abridgment of the entire Bible aimed at increasing our awareness of God’s grand story of salvation found when we read Genesis – Revelation as a single proclamation of God’s love for us and his plan for the redemption of the World. Today’s readings at home were from Ezra 7, Nehemiah 1-2, 4, 6-8. We also read Psalm 147, James 1:22-25, and John 2:13-22.

“God works in mysterious ways”… and other half-truths to avoid in the story of Queen Esther.

Our journey through the Old Testament and the history of God’s chosen people brings us today to the story of Queen Esther. 

As we’ve read the Old Testament, we’ve seen a number of repeating themes.  We’ve seen that the consequence for disobedience is to be sent away from God’s presence; but at the same time we’ve seen, over and over, that the only thing required to return is the bold admission that “I’ve missed the mark, I’m too weak to do this on my own; God, I need your help”.  And, we’ve seen over and over, whenever a person admits their own weakness in a situation, God is ready and willing to reach out and lift them up with his mighty hand.  After all, we know that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.[1]

In the story of Esther we see again that if we’re faithful, God will make a way where there seems to be no way.

Or, let’s put it this way: Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that present incredible Opportunities.  Circumstances. Divine Coincidences. Opportunities.

Esther’s Situation

In case you’ve forgotten the story of Queen Esther – or didn’t get a chance to read it yet this weekend – let’s catch ourselves up.

God had led his people into the Promised Land, but over a period of 800 years, they decided they would rather go it alone than fulfil their mission to live out the revelation of Almighty God in the world.  So God sent them out of the land, sending a foreign king to lead them into exile. That generation responded by taking their faith and mission seriously: they heeded the words of the prophets, they taught their children the Word of God, and then the king allowed them to return and rebuild Jerusalem.  Not everyone could leave – some had taken on too much debt and found themselves enslaved; some had been given government jobs, and the king wanted them in the capital rather than on the outskirts of the empire; and some were bound up in the sadness and messiness of life: like Esther, a teenage girl whose parents died, leaving her as an orphan with no legal standing or protection in those days.

Esther’s cousin, a Jewish man named Mordecai, from the family of King Saul, was a civil servant – perhaps some sort of scribe who writes up and reviews contracts, who stands outside the palace gates to work with people as they come to conduct their business.  He took her in and provided for the girl.

Now King Xerxes of the Persian Empire was known for his parties.  We know from history that his empire stretched from Egypt to India, from Saudi Arabia all the way up to Uzbekistan.  And he invited all the governors to his capital in modern day Iran to have a six-month-long party.  One day he called his beautiful wife to come out and put on a show for the governors, but she refused, so he threw her out of the palace (that’s another topic for another day).  So his officials suggested they hold a mandatory beauty pageant to pick another wife.  That’s where Esther comes into the story – she’s pretty, so she’s forced to take part.

Now, one of the King’s officials, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemy King Agag of the Amalekites, comes up with a plan.  He suggests that the whole empire would be better if the worshippers of the Almighty God of Israel were killed off, because those people refuse to bow down to other gods – though, secretly, he’s just upset that Mordecai, a descendant of the Jewish royal family, won’t bow down to him in the street. 

The King says “ok”, rolls some dice, does some math, and says, “alright, nine months from now, anyone who wants to kill a Jewish man and take his goods is free to do so”.  It’s a day of legalized murder and looting. 

And, to make a long story short, Esther happens to be in the right place at the right time to intervene.  She boldly decides to risk everything to confront the king, and as a result, the Jews throughout the empire are able to defend themselves; and in a major twist, the official who cooked up this whole plot is impaled on the pole he had made to hang the Israelites on, and Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, is promoted to be governor over the capital.

Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” which present Incredible Opportunities.

Now there are lots who would look at this story and say, “wow, it’s all part of God’s plan”.  Or… “yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways”.  Or, worst of all, my pet peeve: “see, everything happens for a reason”.

That all sounds nice.  Some might even think it sounds religious, but resist temptation!  The worst temptations of all are those that are almost true. 

We have to react strongly against that kind of ridiculous half-truth that we can only fall into if we don’t know the Word of God.

Yes God has a plan, but come on, no, we do not believe being born into exile and orphaned as a child and forced to dance for an old man in a perverse teen beauty pageant is God’s way of doing things. 

You see – that’s the incredible danger of those ridiculously over-simplified statements.  We risk making God the author or cause of human sin. 

Yes, God has a plan: “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11), but God’s plan is not that a girl’s parents have to die so she can dance around in a harem for a lustful old man.  That’s ridiculous.  And, worse still, if we say that this is part of God’s plan, it’s blasphemy, because now we’re saying that God is the cause of that horrible human sin.

Or, how often do we say “the Lord works in mysterious ways”?  But where is that in scripture?  Nowhere!  You can search the Bible in your pew from cover to cover, but it’s not in there.  Why?  Because it’s a lie! 

The work of God is to reveal Himself, not to shroud himself in mystery.  God says “my ways are not your ways, my thoughts are higher than your thoughts”[2], yes, but God says “call to me and I will answer you, and I will show you the great and mighty things which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).  God said right back in Deuteronomy 29, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever”[3].  God does things that are mind-blowing: as he says through the prophet, “look among the nations; wonder and be astounded.  For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told”, and none of us can pretend to understand the height and breadth and depth of the mind of God,[4] but let’s be clear: God is in the business of revealing himself.  If something is mysterious, scripture says, it’s because we haven’t sought the will of God.  Think about that: when we spin that familiar lie “the Lord works in mysterious ways”, what we’re really saying is “I haven’t read the Word of God or said my prayers, so I don’t understand what God has been doing”.  But we should be clear on that: God is doing in Esther what he’s always been doing: turning human evil into good and drawing us back to himself.

Worst of all, there are those who would look at the story of Esther and say “everything happens for a reason”.  Gross.  Yuck.  What terrible heresy.  Because no, God’s perfect and eternal will does certainly not include young orphans being forced to join harems.  Let’s be perfectly clear on that.

Combat the easy lies with the Truth

We need to resist those tempting, religious-sounding lies that swirl around us, but we can only do so when we know God’s truth.

Human circumstances lead to divine coincidences that produce incredible opportunities.

God didn’t want Israel to disobey and go into exile.  God didn’t want the world to be full of murder and greed and jealousy and lust and exploitation and abuse.  The world wants to blame God for those things, but only because we’re trying to avoid admitting that humanity puts itself in this mess, as every little decision not to love your neighbour as yourself produces ripples that echo out over generations, like rocks thrown into a pond on a still day.

We can’t blame God for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we have to open our eyes to see that “coincidences” in the present are divine. 

See how easily we’re tempted to mix that up? 

We want to blame God for the past but not see him at work in the present.  But really, we need to see human brokenness in the past, but accept that God is working in the present.  God didn’t want Israel to sin and go into exile, but now that they’re here, Mordecai has an opportunity.  God didn’t want Esther to be forced into a harem, but now that she’s here, God creates an opportunity.

God doesn’t want our community to be chock full with people with insecure housing situations who are kicked out of their houses when they test positive and are forced to find a couch to bunk so there are a dozen positive people sharing a two-bedroom house, without groceries, and without money, and with a government that turns a blind eye when low-income people get Covid.  God doesn’t want that, but he’s at work in the “coincidences”.  He’s at work in the fact that we’ve been faithful, that when the phone rings at the church because the social workers say there’s nothing they can do, the Church of God is ready to deliver a food hamper as our Lord commanded, whether it’s 6 in the morning on Thursday or 8 o’clock on Friday night.

Why this matters

My Friends, let’s not fall into the trap of accidentally saying – or worse, believing – that God wanted the awful situations that humans find themselves in.

Let’s be clear: humanity is to blame for the mess we’re in, but God is at work in the present, in each moment, ready and willing to work each mess together for good, as soon as we admit that we’re in over our heads, that we can’t do it on our own, that we need the help that only he can give.

Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that lead to Incredible Opportunities.

We all have messy circumstances in our lives.  I challenge you to see every coincidence as a “God-incidence”, a God-given opportunity for a fork in the road, a God-given opportunity to say, with Esther, “here I am: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I need your help, and I will put my trust in you”.

Does the Lord ever fail those who put their whole trust in him?  No.
Does the mercy of the Lord ever fail?  No.
Does the Lord work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose?  Yes.

My friends, that’s the gospel.  That’s the good news you’ve been given to proclaim. 
May God give us the grace to fulfil our mission.  Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:9

[2] Isaiah 55:8-9

[3] Deuteronomy 29:29

[4] Habakkuk 1:5; Romans 8:28

The Faithful Remnant trusting the King

The lessons this morning are certainly heavy: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way.”[1]  And then the Lord’s declaration that the covenant made with Moses will pass away “for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord”.[2]  And then that stern phrase from Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”.[3]


And if you read Chapter 16 in The Story, you see why: after almost three centuries and 39 kings of God’s chosen people choosing to ignore God and go their own way, of people trying to come up with their own convenient solutions, of people going right back to the words of the serpent in the Garden and saying “did God really say that?  We won’t actually die if we disobey” …finally, God says: “ok”.

Think about that one.  I have to say, that was an earth-shattering revelation for me.

Some people – indeed, some whole denominations – like to talk about the wrath of God, about judgement and things like that.  And many of us, reading along in The Story, have a hard time reading through this downward spiral, as those whom God has given so much end up with so little.  

But what is the wrath of God?  As you read it, what do you think?  Does God inflict punishments on his people, does God cook up plans to show his wrath, to get his revenge?

No.  Not at all (though the punishments are no less real).

The wrath of God is when God finally says “ok”.  God’s judgment, those events in scripture that we might glance at and call “punishments”, really aren’t punishments that God inflicts at all, are they?  These punishments that God’s people finally have to endure are the things that they themselves have chosen.  As you read through scripture, Genesis to Revelation, we find, time and time again, that the wrath of God is nothing more than our patient, loving, forgiving, and merciful Heavenly Father finally saying
“I gave you free will; I’m not going to force you; I will let you have it your way”.

That changes things, doesn’t it. 

Three centuries, 39 kings, countless wars, altars to worship power and money and sex built in every town, and a total disregard for the promises made to keep the covenant and teach it to their children in order to remain safe and secure with the blessings of the promised land: and finally, God says “ok.  I won’t force you.  You can do it your way”. 

And there we have it; God lets Israel go it’s own way, and in a mere matter of weeks, the Kingdom of Israel is no more.  The tribes of Israel are broken up and scattered, so that only Judah, little Benjamin, and a few members of the priestly tribe of Levi are left.

Did God inflict this upon them for their disobedience?  The answer is “no”.

What God did was say “fine, ok, I won’t force you, you can do it your way”. 

That’s all it took.  God didn’t inflict this; he allowed the people to choose it.

And did you know that’s what the Church believes about judgment in our own day, too?  God doesn’t ever inflict judgment; but, because he honours the free will he gave us, he allows us to choose it by rejecting Him as Lord.[4] 

How did we get here?

For the Kingdom of Israel, we can pinpoint where this path started.  In fact, the prophet Samuel warned them – quite sternly – about the many dangers of the path they were choosing.  This all began when they said “we don’t want God for our king; we want a human king instead”.  Or, in other words, “we don’t want to trust in someone beyond our understanding; I want to trust in someone who looks like me, who thinks like me, who I can see”.

This whole path started because they didn’t want God to be king. 

And, on the one hand, it makes sense: it’s hard to argue with God.

God says “trust me, and let’s do the impossible together”.  And we say, “but we’re outnumbered; or we’re weak; or we’re facing an ocean that we cannot cross; or there’s a storm and we’re being rocked around in this little boat; or we’re tired and hungry and can’t wrap our minds around what you’re asking us to do”.  And God says, “yes, all of that, but trust me”. 

And I completely understand why they wanted a human king: because it’s hard to argue with God. 

It’s so much easier to have a human leader; to have someone to argue with, to have someone whose faults you can point out, whose logic you can challenge, to have someone you can either rely on because they’ve earned your trust, or walk away for some good human reason, and not feel bad about it.

It’s so much easier to have a human leader, because then we can come up with good, rational reasons not to trust them.

But if God is our king, and he says “trust me”, then we have to face the fact that the only real reason not to follow him is, well, because I don’t want to.  There’s no good reason we can ever give to justify why we argue and refuse to follow God except “I don’t want to”. 

And that means, when there are consequences for the path we’ve chosen, there’s no one to blame it on, either.  God didn’t inflict it, he just said “ok, I’ll let you do it your way”.  Israel has no one to blame for the kingdom falling and the lost tribes being wiped off the face of the earth but themselves.  And we, when we refuse to let God be our king, have no one to blame for the consequences but ourselves. 

So I get it: I understand why Israel wanted a king; because it’s easier to argue with a person than to admit that, ultimately, we just don’t want to trust God to do the impossible.

But there’s good news here, too.

We know, in this story, there was a faithful remnant.  There were a faithful few who, through the years, said “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. 

When God said “trust in me, let’s do the impossible” they said “well, I don’t see how: I don’t have much faith, I’m weak, I’m outnumbered, I don’t really understand how this whole covenant works, like how my faith and my good works have to go together, yet it relies on God’s gift; no, I don’t really understand much of this at all, but, I’ll trust in you.”  That faithful remnant trusts in God, and lets God be the king, even though that means there’s no one to argue with.

And we see in that faithful remnant this eternal truth: God never breaks a promise.

If God says “I will bless the nations through you”, He will. 

If God says “Be strong and courageous, I will go with you, I will never leave you nor forsake you”, He will. (Deut. 4:31; 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Isaiah 41:10-13)

If God says “I’ll go with you and watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land”, He will. (Genesis 28:15).

If God says “I will work all things together for the good of those who love me, who have been called according to my purpose”, He will. (Romans 8:28).

If God says “in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your requests to me; and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds”, He will. (Philippians 4:6-7).

But, at the same time, God knows our weakness.

The people struggled having God as their king.  The people struggled having a king that was so completely beyond their understanding; a king they couldn’t see; a king they couldn’t comprehend.

God knows that.  So does God hold that against them?  Does God say, “get your act together, salvation depends on you finding the Ark of the Covenant, and accepting the invisible God as your political leader?”

No.  Not at all.

When the people said “we want a human king”, God said “this isn’t going to end well, but I gave you free will and I won’t force you to be obedient, so ok”.

But what else did God have in store?

God, because He’s God, had already planned, from before the foundation of the earth, that He would come in the flesh; that God would walk amongst people for our sake, so that we can have a king whom we can look up to; a king who we can be sure knows and has experienced our human weaknesses; Jesus, my king and my God, who is one of us, who is an example, in whose footsteps I can walk; and when God says “trust me”, and I say “I don’t know what that looks like”, God says “look to Jesus.  Be like him, more and more each day, and when you mess up, say you’re sorry and start again, but I know the human heart needs a human example, so here: my only Son is your example.”

And God says, “now, trust me, let’s do the impossible”.

We either say “my God and my King, I don’t see what you’re doing, I don’t see how you’re going to work this together for good, but I will trust you”.

Or, we find ourselves in a situation where, however we go about it, whatever excuses or rational arguments we make, God’s response is “well, this isn’t going to end well, but I won’t force you, so… ok”.

God doesn’t inflict judgment. 
What we call judgment is when God finally says “fine, you can do it your way”.

Friends: we live in crazy times.  Uncertain times.  But no crazier and certainly no more uncertain than what we’ve been reading in the Story.  So my prayer, for you and for me, is that we would be that faithful remnant, that we would be those willing to say “God, I don’t understand what you’re up to, but you can be my king.  I will trust you.  Now… let’s do the impossible together.”

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

[1] Isaiah 53:6-11

[2] Hebrews 8:7-9

[3] Matthew 10:32-36, 40-41

[4] I am not suggesting a silly idea that people want to be in hell (like they would choose it in response to a desire to be there), or that God somehow sits back and watches world events.  Rather, when we reject God as Lord, when we reject the blessings that are offered, it means we choose the alternative de facto, because there is no alternative middle-ground that is free of consequence.  The consequences of going our own way are severe, as shown in the terrible history of the destruction of Israel and the later exile.

Messages and Honest Messengers

As we get back into The Story this morning, we find ourselves with the theme of messages and messengers.

You’ll remember that God chose his people, not for their own sake, but so that all the nations of earth could come to know the one true God; that Israel should be a light to enlighten the nations, a city on a hill with lamps burning brightly to draw in all those who are lost and wandering.

God gave them that opportunity, to be part of his amazing plan.

But, you’ll remember, they wavered back and forth.  They’d trust for a bit, they’d rely on God to get them through some incredibly difficult situation, but then they’d slam on the brakes. 

They’d trust in God to do the impossible, but they’d give up trusting as soon as they could: He’d lead them through a famine, but they’d not trust him in the regular seasons of planting and harvest; He’d lead them through the raging waters, but they wouldn’t trust him to provide food the next day; He’d defend them and fight for them when they were hugely outnumbered by a well-trained army, but they won’t trust him with the everyday faithfulness of learning to love their neighbours as themselves.

And so the great nation of  Israel brought together under King David was divided.  And to be clear, it was no accident: it was God’s doing as he sought to wake his people up and draw them back to himself. 

It’s brutal to read: they cry out to God in the hard times, but once things start to get easy, they forget God again; and so God removes his blessing, and they find themselves facing hard times again and wondering where to turn. 

But here’s the incredible part: even when God removes his blessing and protection, God never abandons them.  Even when they’ve become so deaf to God’s still, small voice, God will send human messengers to speak those challenging words and call his people back.

Now, here’s the question.  Do you think God still does that today?

We live in a time that looks a lot like Israel under King Ahab.  We trust in money, we’re distracted by the big stories of things beyond our borders rather than caring for those at home; we prize the fulfilment of the individual over creating a community that seeks the common good, and while we don’t call them Ashtoreth or Baal anymore, we’re a very much living in a time that worships beauty and power.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 95% of our neighbours only think of God when tragedy strikes, or when they take his name in vain in anger: seriously, if you added up the attendance at all three churches in town this morning, all three of us together make up less than 5% of Fort Smith.

It’s not unlike Israel in the days of Elijah, when only 7000 – just a tiny fraction of the population – were found to be trusting in God.

And yet, the message of it all is that God sends that faithful few to call his people back; God doesn’t abandon his people, even if we do experience the painful consequences of years of going our own way and trusting in our own plans, and giving in to that need to slam on the brakes before each new act of faithfulness.

But again, here’s the big question: Do you think God still sends messengers to call his people back?


Being a church member has changed.

40 years ago, you could sit on the sidelines, knowing there were a faithful few who would step up to do the work of ministry; to do the work of learning to lead, of learning to meet people where they are, of learning to trust God to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know how to do.

But those days are over.  There is no place on the sidelines, because we are the faithful few who are left. 

My friends, whether or not we signed up for it, we are like Elijah: look around, think through your family, friends, and neighbours.  Who will the Lord send to call his people back? 

Elijah said “I’m the only one left”; and isn’t that true in your circle of friends, too? 

And no, it’s not something we would ever sign up for – certainly Elijah didn’t either – but think about it: who else would God call to minister to that circle of friends? You’re already perfectly positioned for the task.

The Work of a Prophet

There’s a lot of confusion about prophecy.  The general understanding of most people is that a prophet is a fortune-teller, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The work of a prophet is to call people back to God, and to do so by both their words and the example of their own life.

And it is real work, though it looks different for each person.  Like I said, the days of a place on the sidelines are gone, there’s no comfortable pews left to sit on.  If we look at our reading from First John this morning, we’ll see that the key word there is “walk”; we can’t just sit in the light, but we will be called to move forward in faith, even if we can’t work out where the next step might land us.  It’s one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting that God will work all things together for good, in spite of our fears.

And central with that is the second half of that little reading: we must not “deceive ourselves”, but are called to be honest and quick to confess those times when we’ve been proud or scared or self-reliant or maybe just a little too comfortable (and I’ll be the first to admit that I have fallen into those categories too!).

…now I know what you might be thinking.    That’s nice… but I’m worn out.

Yes!  Amen.  Hallelujah.  Let’s be honest about that.  I’d say we’re not really worn out, but we are worn down.  This has gone on long enough, and if you honestly stop and look around this little congregation, these faithful few, it’s heartbreaking: how many families in this room don’t have some real burden to bear? 

And I’m willing to bet that, any family that you look at and can’t name their burden, it’s not because they don’t have one.

We are worn down.

But, my friends, there’s good news there too, also because we find ourselves in a position much like the prophet Elijah.

Do you remember from your reading this weekend?

Elijah was worn down.  He had delivered his message, and now he feared for his life.

What did he do next?

Did he say some spiritual-sounding words?  Did he give himself a little pep talk?  Did he tell himself to suck it up, put on a happy face, and pretend everything is alright?

No, not at all!  What did he do?

He got away from the noise, he went to be alone with God, and he was honest.  Brutally honest.  He poured out his heart.  He said “Lord, I’m fed up; I’m done with this; I wish I would die.” 

But God met him where he was.  And, miraculously, God gave him the rest and refreshment he needed.  Seriously, re-read it when you go home: God gave him not one, but two naps, and when he woke up, there was a fresh loaf of bread waiting for him to eat. 

And then God told him the truth: no, Elijah, these are not easy times.  And yes, what I’m asking you to do is hard.  I’ll go with you, but I need you to walk forward in faith, one step at a time; we can’t sit where we are, because I have a plan: that my people will be a light to enlighten the nations, that all people would have the opportunity to trust in the one true God, and I want you to be part of that plan.

God has blessed this church – but not for our sake.

God has blessed each of us – but not for our sake.

God has blessed us to be a blessing, for I’m willing to bet, as you look at your neighbours, as we look at our town, we’ll find ourselves in the place of Elijah: “Lord, I’m the only one left who knows you.”

But God is in the business of revealing himself.  All we have to do is trust him, to be faithful in each opportunity, to be honest with ourselves and with God, and to be willing to follow, even when we’re not sure where that next step will lead.

One thing is sure: God has called us according to his purpose, and he will never abandon those who walk by faith rather than by sight.

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

The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

My friends, I want you to think seriously about this covenant. 

You’ve made these vows before, dozens of times, but it’s important we don’t take them lightly.

These are vows that you’re making before God and his Church, and we really are the faithful remnant, as the three churches in this town are a tiny fraction of Fort Smith.  And God’s plan is that we invite our neighbours in. 

So take a moment to read these vows before I ask you to renew them, especially that third one that has proven so difficult for the church through the decades: “will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?”.

Read them now, and if you’re willing to make them, please remain standing. 

The Christmas Message: Don’t Be Afraid.

Christmas is many things to many people.  This is a time for celebration, a joyful time of giving and receiving, with happy music playing in the stores, kids too excited to go to sleep, and meals shared with friends and family.  Of course, for some, the realities of life dampen the joy of Christmas, especially for those separated from loved ones, or those struggling to make sense of changes in their lives, or who find themselves without food, warmth, and shelter.  And, even as we embrace the joy of Christmas, as a parent I can attest to the stress of it all: kids out of school, trying to find childcare, then gifts to be wrapped, houses to be cleaned, laundry to be done, and, when it’s all over, bills to be paid.

Christmas, for many, is quite a production; even in a pandemic we hold ourselves to a high standard.

Yet, as great as the gifts and food and celebrations are, the message at the heart of this holy season is something much more basic, a message that cuts right to the core of who we are and what we do.

And there were shepherds in the fields – normal, everyday, hard-working people, with mouths to feed and family drama, going about their business – and suddenly an angel, a messenger from the Lord appears to them.  And what is the message? Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid.  And why?  Because this baby who has been born, this promised one, Emmanuel, God-with-us, changes everything.

“Don’t Be Afraid”

That’s the fundamental message that gets lost behind all the traditions and preparations of this season: do not be afraid.

Now, I’m sure most of us haven’t had the experience of being terrified by a bright talking light sent from God, but the truth is that all of us have things that scare us. 

The Shepherds, I’m sure, were anxious like any of us about their families, their bills, and their work. 

There’s much that get us worried, and sometimes we feel like we’re juggling so many things that our lives might come crashing down at any moment.  Sometimes we find that we’ve built such a façade, we’ve built such an image for ourselves, that we find ourselves isolated or even feeling like you don’t even know who you are anymore.  Sometimes we feel like we’re hanging on by a thread, hoping and waiting for things to get better.

And underneath the lights and the tinsel and the gifts is that simple message of infinite hope: do not be afraid

And it’s important, too, that we hear the message properly.  It’s not “have courage”, it’s not “be brave”, it’s not “suck it up and quit whining”.  It’s not a dismissive “think happy thoughts” or “put it out of your mind”.  No, it’s “don’t be afraid” because God is here, he understands, and he wants to be with you.  It’s “don’t be afraid” because, although our problems and struggles and stress are real, by the grace of God, he will give real and lasting peace peace to those who invite him in.

God in our mess.

The beautiful message at the heart of Christmas is not about picture-perfect nativity sets and pristine houses hosting happy parties where everyone smiles and gets along.

In fact, it’s the opposite. 

It’s that God wants to be with us, in, and in spite of, our mess.

He could have chosen a beautiful palace, but he knew what he was doing when he chose a smelly cattle stall.  He could have had a family that appeared to have it all together, but God chose an unwed mother engaged to a carpenter, a family so poor they couldn’t even afford a lamb to offer in the temple.  He could have revealed himself to the powerful and respected leaders, but he chose to reveal himself to uneducated farmhands, forgotten on the outskirts of a tiny town.

This is a God who says in the Christmas story, “I love you so much that I want to share your pain”.  A God who wants you to know that he understands what it is to celebrate, and what it is to mourn, or to feel rejected, and to hope for a better tomorrow.

God near us.

I don’t know what your image of God is like.  Some picture Him as a distant observer, keeping score, weighing good against bad; some, if we’re honest, don’t give him much thought as we run through the rat-race of life, where there’s always something else that needs to be done, something else that needs our attention.

But the message of Christmas is that God doesn’t want to be far off; he wants to be here with us; and, if we invite him in, his presence makes even the stable a place fit for a king.

This Christmas, I invite you to take a break – make time for a break – and, as part of your joyful celebrations, take to heart the message of the angel: “do not be afraid”, “stop worrying”, and accept the gift of his peace, the peace that comes from trusting in God.

God doesn’t need the polished veneers or the happy masks we so often put on.  God, the Church, and the world around us could all do without our strivings to present ourselves as people whose lives and relationships are all well put together.  The great wonder of Christmas is that he meets us where we are, and invites us to follow where he leads.

Shepherds don’t get invited to palaces.  So, the King of Heaven is content with a stable if that’s what it takes to reach them.

Whatever you’re going through – whatever stress you’re carrying, whatever questions you have about your value, the message of Christmas is that God thinks you’re worth it, and, to receive his peace, all you have to do is invite him in.

And, maybe, like that innkeeper, the best you can really offer him right now is the shed out back, but that’s enough: he’ll take it, and make it something beautiful, and as everything else comes into focus, we learn, once again, what really matters.

Don’t be afraid.  Like the shepherds, come with an open heart and mind, and worship the God who loves you so much that he’ll meet you where you are.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

No pause button on faithfulness.

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

I want to speak briefly this morning on this human tendency to go so far, to make so much progress, and then to swing back in the other direction.

We’ve seen it again and again as we’ve read through The Story together this fall.  God will provide for his people – but then we turn away.  God will call for his people to return – and we do, but then we fail to pass the message on to others.  God will appear and save his people with great might, and send his Word to guide and direct – but it’s astonishing, isn’t it: as we read through the pages of scripture, we scratch our heads and say “why?”.  “Why do they keep going their own way?  Why do they so quickly forget what God has done, or the work he’s given them to do?”

How is it that, after God finally unites Israel and gives them victory over their enemies under the great King David, that unity only lasts for a single generation?  How is it that King Solomon, even with all the wisdom he had been given to help others, could fall so far from following God’s law?  How is it that, once Solomon dies, God’s chosen nation splinters into bits, as they abandon this beautiful temple chosen by God and instead worship all sorts of idols on every mountain and in every forest; as the one who made himself king of Israel goes out and, of all things, makes two golden calves and says “these are your gods who brought you out of Egypt”… we want to say “no!  Go back and read the next chapter of Exodus… this doesn’t end well!”.

Why do we have this back-and-forth, back-and-forth in the story of God’s people?

Spring-Loaded Human Nature

There’s a phrase used throughout Christian teaching to explain this: it’s the idea that, because we are born in a world of sin, we are bent in on ourselves.[1] 

We were created to be bent outward, for God’s Image, God’s Light, God’s Love to shine onto us as we reflect it back, for God’s glory.  But, because of sin, our natural position is to be bent inwards; instead of reflecting God, we end up staring at ourselves, focusing only on our own reflection – what’s best for me and what I want for myself.

But it’s not just like we’re bent, like a crumpled pop can.  I think it’s better to say that we’re “spring loaded”.

God’s work in our lives is to gently unfold us, to pry us out of that curved-in position, so that we can be what we were intended to be.  But, it’s like there’s springs drawing us back.   While God is faithful, He also wants our cooperation; he won’t save us against our will.  So, while he does the work of unfolding us, of gently bending us outward to reflect his glory, the truth of scripture shows us that, when we pull away from God, that spring action built into our sinful nature snaps us back into that bent position, so all we can see is a reflection of our own selves, our own desires, and our own perspective.

That’s what we’re seeing in the Story this week: God works through his people, but when they pull away, they snap back into the position they were before.

And that, my friends, is why things like faithfulness and unity and marriage and fellowship and discipleship take real work.  We like to think that, when we fall away; when we pull back from following where God is leading, we just stay in place, like hitting pause so we can pick up where we left off when we get around to it.

But we forget that we’re spring-loaded, don’t we?

As we see in scripture – every time a person pulls away from God, we snap back into that self-centered, isolated perspective… and, again, as we’ve read this fall, people rarely notice until they’ve found themselves in a real mess!

A Call to Constant Faithfulness

And so, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, as we celebrate the one who has shown us his mercy and the strength of his arm; who brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry but sends away those who trust in themselves: let’s remember that these are all things that God will do when we walk with him and trust as he gently but surely unfolds us, bends us outward, so that we no longer see our own reflection, but instead shine God’s Image back out to the world.

But let’s be honest – let’s remember that it takes work to be part of that, simply because we must overcome that spring-action of our souls.  Unity takes work, whether we’re talking about a congregation, or Christians across denominations, or whether we’re talking about families and marriages.  Discipleship and growth into the people that God wants us to be takes effort and some real perseverance as we trust him for whatever our lives look like each day, because the truth is we can’t hit pause on our lives.

And so, I invite us all to think this week, in the lead-up to Christmas, about what it means for God to take the lead – to be in charge – as he unfolds us, opens our eyes to a perspective bigger than our own, and opens us up to reflect his glory to those who haven’t yet come to know the Father who loves them. 

And, knowing by example how quickly we can snap back into old ways, let’s be quick to notice when we’ve ‘snapped’, and instead of hiding, run back to God as quickly as we can, knowing that he’s faithful, that he keeps his promises, and – for some reason we may never fully understand – he’s invited ordinary, bent-up people like you and me to be part of his plan to give hope to a world that so desperately needs it.

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

[1] The term I’m referring to is “incurvatus in se”.  It draws on Paul (Romans 7:15-19) and was picked up by St. Augustine.  Luther popularized the phrase in his Lectures on Romans: “Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, is so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”

Seeking God’s Wisdom

A famous author once described the Christian life as “a long obedience in the same direction”.[1]  And I have to say it’s one of my favourite descriptions of what it means to be a disciple, to be an apprentice who follows Jesus as master and Lord.

Last week we spoke about the journey through the valley of the shadow of death.  How, in King David’s life, we see that God doesn’t promise a shortcut around the valley; no, what God promises is so much better: He promises that he himself will go with us.  Not that we will avoid the ups and downs of life in this broken world, but that we will have his presence through it all.

“A long obedience in the same direction”.  I really think it’s a fabulous description.

As we read through chapter 13 of The Story this week, we hear the story of King Solomon, and we see there the opportunity for this sort of long obedience; and if we stop to think about it, I think you’ll see that each person’s journey of faith has a similar overall shape as the story of Israel – and that’s no accident.

  • From humble beginnings, God quietly called Abraham to step out in faith. 
  • In Joseph, God had prepared a way to provide for his people. 
  • Through Moses God revealed himself in power and might;
  • and then in the days of Joshua, God defended his people against their enemies. 
  • Then, from the time of Samson right up to King David, God called his people to trust him, and when they were willing, strengthened and empowered them to do the work that God wanted done;
  • and now, having been found faithful – which, of course, includes repenting and returning when they go astray – under King Solomon they enjoy the peace that only God can give; they’re given wisdom and direction from God’s Word and by the Holy Spirit speaking through the community of the faithful, and are called to a steadfast life of obedience and faith, so they may remain at peace with God.

Don’t our own lives follow a similar pattern? 

  • Most of us have a humble beginning to our Christian life, as we learn to see God’s provision for our lives. 
  • Many Christians can look back and see one or two ‘Moses moments’ when we can see or feel God’s presence in a miraculous way – maybe in an answered prayer, or when things work together for good in a way that could never be a mere coincidence. 
  • Many of us can look back and recognize a time when, like Israel, we had two paths ahead of us; a time when we could trust in ourselves and do what was easy to get ahead, or, we could make the decision to do what was right, even if there were consequences.  Maybe you can remember one of those “choose this day whom you will serve” moments.

But the reality is that the bulk of the Christian life is not found in those dramatic moments.  No, most of the journey of faith is, thankfully more peaceful, less dramatic, but no less a journey of faith: it’s each and every day choosing to faithfully move forward, one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting in God as we learn to live “a long obedience in the same direction”.

Steadfastness and Solomon

King Solomon is a fascinating example.  He rules at a time when Israel experiences peace and prosperity like they never have before.  God appeared to him in a vision and said “ask me for what you want”;[2] and, having been born and raised after David repented and returned to God for committing adultery and murder, Solomon grew up knowing the Law of God.  He grew up knowing the importance of honesty and good judgment, and he knew the promise that God had made to David – that it’s only through obedience that his earthly throne would endure. 

God asked “what do you want?”.  And what did Solomon ask for? 

Wisdom. He wanted God to open his eyes to distinguish right from wrong.

(There’s a fabulous connection here back to Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, but I’ll save that one for Bible Study!)

But think about it: if God appeared to you today and said “ask me for whatever you want”, what would you ask for?

If we’re being honest, I know there have been times in my life when I would have asked God for that quick shortcut; when I would have asked God for a quick way around whatever was in my way, whatever hurt or problem had become front-and-centre at the time. 

But what a lesson we learn from Solomon – ‘I want your wisdom; I know there’s no shortcut: life is going to have ups and downs, there’s going to be temptations, there’s going to be trials.  I want you to go with me, I want you to show me right from wrong, I want you to help me stay on the right path.’

There aren’t any shortcuts – because our faith isn’t about checking the right boxes or undergoing the right rituals or heaping up the right deeds.  Our faith is a long obedience in the same direction; just as Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and called his disciples to follow him, fully aware of the trials that lay ahead, our faith is a matter of choosing to place our trust in Jesus, the Son of God, and then following where he leads, not for any short-term solutions, but to be in it for the long haul; it’s a matter of answering God’s call to draw us to himself, repenting and turning in that direction, and setting a course to follow where he leads.[3]

Advent and Adventures Ahead

If we can remember that the season of Advent is not a preparation for Christmas, but is a preparation for Christ’s coming again, I think we’ll appreciate the importance of this ‘long obedience’.

Just like Israel’s story – Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon – is echoed in our own journeys of faith, it’s also echoed in the life of the Church (which should be no surprise, for God is the same: yesterday, today, and forever).

  • Christ came with the humblest of beginnings in Bethlehem;
  • like God revealing himself in the Exodus, Jesus revealed his power in mighty works;
  • and then like God knocking down the walls of Jericho, Christ destroyed the gates of death on that first Easter. 
  • And he calls us to follow him, to trust, to go forward doing the work we’ve been given to do.  We know he will come again some wondrous day in glory to judge the living and the dead… and until then, we’ve been called to a long obedience in the same direction.

And so the preparation for that coming – our Advent preparation – is to step back, pull out our map (the scriptures), and make sure we’re following where he leads.   

If God asked you today “what do you want from me?”, would we ask for a shortcut?  Or would we ask for a fuller awareness of his presence, for an increase of faith, that we may walk boldly forward, trusting in the one who provides for his people, the one who takes the lowly and meek and empowers them to do incredible works for his glory and the increase of his kingdom. 

This Advent, may God give us grace to be steadfast in faith, to live out that long obedience in the same direction, trusting in his power, and giving him the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] This quote comes from the French atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886), translated by Helen Zimmern, section 188) – yes, it’s the same philosopher who famously proclaimed “God is dead”.  He intended it as a complaint about Christianity, as he was writing about how faith makes humanity worse by encouraging the weak to carry on by teaching compassion as a virtue – as though that were a bad thing!  Not surprisingly, what this atheist wrote for evil, here God uses his quote for good.

[2] 1 Kings 3:5-9

[3] C.S. Lewis’ idea of trajectories is big here.  A small change of direction at the start of a journey across the Atlantic has a dramatic effect when drawn out over time; so much more when it’s drawn out over a lifetime and eternity.  And, likewise, when we find ourselves off course, continuing in the wrong direction is never the solution; but no matter how off course we’ve gone, we can always re-orient ourselves and set a new trajectory as long as there is breath in our lungs.

What is faithfulness?

The story of King David always strikes me as heartbreaking.  On one side, it’s a story of absolutely inspiring faith: a shepherd boy with a slingshot who sends the opposing army running, in the name of God.  A man who is willing to wait for God to work things out rather than cooking up his own plans to unite the kingdom of Israel.  A man who accepts when God’s answer to his prayer is “no”.

But David – this great example of faith – had a hard life.  Think about that: King David is an example of what it means to have faith in God… but at the same time, no one would suggest that we should live as he lived.  After all, this great example of faith found himself burning up with lust to the point of murder, and his adultery became a public scandal.  Sure he had a palace, but this no fairy-tale, and there’s certainly no happily ever after. 

David’s life was thoroughly human.  He was kept from reaching his early potential by Saul’s jealousy.  He faced 7 years of a political smear campaign by his rival.  He knew that unspeakable pain of a parent who loses a child.  And a few years later, he knows the distress and anguish of a parent whose child rebels against them, as his son Absolom works to tear down everything his father had built.  And after all that, David’s closest friend and advisor is the one who kills his son, as David grieves as one who had never made amends for that broken relationship.

David’s story is heartbreaking.  And it breaks my heart because David’s story is like so many stories.

What is faithfulness?

David’s story should challenge us.  How can it be that one of the great examples of faithfulness lived a life that none of us should emulate?  How can that be?

This is where so many have missed the point.

So many open scripture looking for an instruction manual on how to live: do this, don’t do that, earn your way to heaven. But that’s not what it’s all about.  There’s no hope in that twisted half-gospel.

The message of scripture – and the hope that we share – is this: it is not about what we do; it’s about who we are

God is not a “what”, a thing for us to grasp or understand.  God is a who – a living being with whom we can have a relationship.  Faithfulness is not a list of what you’ve done; faithfulness is about how you answer the question “who am I?”.

That’s where David is an example to us: he honestly tried to do right, but it didn’t always work out, and sometimes it failed disastrously.  But “God doesn’t look at the measure of a man”, God looks at the heart.  God doesn’t weigh out what you’ve done, good versus bad – and that’s good news, because the truth is that none of us would make the cut if we had to earn God’s love.

No, God looks at who you are.  Are you a person who seeks to love God and neighbour but who realizes you do fall short and always need God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, or are you a person who will stand before God and say “I’ve got this: give me what I’ve earned.”

You see, that’s the big difference between King Saul and King David.  King Saul trusted in himself – he was king, he believed he won the battles: he earned this throne, and it wasn’t for God or anyone else to take away. 

But David was a man of faith.  He knew that, even in the face of incredible, heartbreaking pain, everything we have is a gift, and no matter how bad the situation, it will always be better if we return to God and beg for mercy than if we turns our backs and go our own way. 

Now, does that mean it was easy?  No – because we don’t believe in magic.  Life is messy, decisions have consequences, and at the end of the day, God’s promise is not that we will be happy and healthy and wealthy in this broken world.  God forbid.  Anyone content with this broken world has their eyes closed to the pain of those around them.

No —God doesn’t promise that life will be easy for those who have faith.

But he promises something far greater.

As David wrote: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me; your rod and your staff guide and comfort me”.

God’s Presence with us

Life is hard.  Families are hard.  Sickness is hard.  Losing friends, and watching kids walk away is hard.  Acknowledging our own brokenness is hard.

And it’s normal to wish we could go around the valley, or build a bridge over it, and sometimes people just give up and sit, stuck, afraid of the thought of moving forward.

But the path to life leads through the valley.  And as much as we might wish it was otherwise, God doesn’t say “I’ve got a shortcut”. 

But what he does say is so much more amazing: He says, “I know you have to walk through this valley… but I will go with you. 

…Will you go with me?”

That’s the incredible truth we proclaim. 

God doesn’t say “stay positive, think happy thoughts”.  God doesn’t say “do me a favour and I might show you a shortcut”. 

No, God says “I will never leave you nor forsake you”.  Will you walk with me?

And it’s not about what we do – not that actions don’t matter, but because we all fall short.  It’s about who we are.  Are you one who says “God, I need your help.  I’m mad, I’m sad, I can’t do this on my own: walk with me”.  Or, are you one who says “leave me alone, I’ll go my own way”.

God looks at the heart.  And the incredible thing is that God knows we’re going to get stuck.  He knows we’re going to get distracted as we go through the valley.  He knows we’re going to make some wrong turns; that we’re going to get upset and yell and wish there was another way.  He knows… and he’s still willing to walk with us.  No matter how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction, He doesn’t run ahead.  No, he turns back to reach out and help us.

This Advent, let’s remember that’s the story of Christmas we’re here to proclaim.  God loves us so much that he’s willing to share our mess.  He wants to show us that he knows our heartbreak; that he knows what it is to face jealousy and lies, to know the hardship of broken families, to know the pain of grief and sickness.  God even knows David’s pain as he watches his own son die because of the brokenness of this world. 

And yet God’s message is “I want to be with you.  Will you walk with me?”

And, my friends, there’s no way around the valley – I often wish there was.    But God knows that what awaits on the other side is far more glorious than we can even imagine.  He will wipe away every tear, death will be defeated, and pain will be no more. 

But we’ve got move forward to get there.  And, as we see in David, it’s not a journey that we can ever do alone.  But God himself is standing right beside you, ready to lead you and comfort you, ready to let you take off whatever weight is on your back, and carry it for you so you can look up and see the light.

God says, “I will be with you”.  Will you be the person who says “I’ll go it alone”, or will you be the person, no matter what you’ve done before, who says “Lord, I need you – walk with me.”

Almighty God, we need your presence in the darkness of this world.  We can’t face the journey alone.  Stir our hearts to cast our cares upon you, to be still and know that you are God, and to know that – whatever pain we face – it will be well, because you are alive and you go with us.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.