Forgiveness requires Follow Through

“when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it… but when the wicked turn away from their wickedness and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life”.[1]

Forgiveness is a familiar theme.  Indeed, the whole message of the Gospel is that the Church is a Kingdom of second chances: you can’t be born into it, you can’t work your way into it, and none of us deserve to be here – all of us are forgiven by the free gift of God, and our God-given mission is to invite others to receive that gift as well.

Along with that, the central point holding the entire Christian understanding of forgiveness together is an idea so simple that many of us learned to recite it by heart as youngsters: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

The prayer that Christ himself taught us has us ask God to forgive us to the extent that we are people willing to forgive others.  The point is simple and clear: it does no good for the human soul to “collect up” – as it were – the grace and forgiveness of God, if we refuse to let go of the past hurts and wrongs and disappointments that crowd out the abundant, healed life that God wills for those who follow him.

It’s like an old guy who smoked a pack-a-day his whole life and whose lungs have given out.  Sure, the doctor has an endless supply of pure oxygen that can flow in as breath of fresh air, giving a new lease on life, with all the renewed energy and joy that comes from that weight on the chest being removed.  …but, you can’t have – you can’t receive – that life-giving supply of fresh air while you’re standing out by the door puffing on your beloved cigarette.  In fact, what would happen if that rich, life-giving, pure oxygen came into contact with that slow-smouldering end of your smoke?

The two are incompatible.  You try to hold on to both, and you end up in an awful state.

The same is true with forgiveness – we simply cannot fully receive the mercy of God for our failings while we refuse to let go of the anger, hurt, shame, and disappointment caused by the failings of others.  The two are simply incompatible.

“Fine.  I’m sorry.  Can I go now?”

You have to forgive others for your soul to be in a state to receive forgiveness.  Now we could leave it there and call it a day, but the reality is that it’s not enough to just say “I forgive you”.  We have to mean it.  We have to follow through.

So, the other day, two very energetic children are sitting in the living room after school; one is building a circuit, the other is dressing up Barbies.  All is going well until someone starts screaming… somehow – though apparently no one started it – a wire got pulled out of the circuit that was being built, and a doll was thrown into the corner behind the chair, and a certain young electrician is yelling that his sister needs to go away and can never come back to the living room ever again because she ruins everything ever.

Once things calm down, and the Barbie has been rescued, you know what happens next: it’s time for everyone to say they’re sorry.

But you know yourself: how do you think that goes?  Do the kids sit and reflect deeply for a few minutes on their actions before saying, unprompted, “yes, I realize that I over-reacted, and that we were really both at fault, but I should have been the bigger person and walked away instead of yelling and throwing… will you please forgive me?”

Ha! No… that’s not how it goes.  Both kids sit there, arms folded, pouts on their face, not looking at each other.  One grunts out “I’m sorry”.  The other huffs and almost yells “FINE.  I’m sorry too, ok?  Can I go now?” 

Here’s the thing – it’s probably been a while since you’ve thrown your sister’s Barbies (at least I hope so), but adults and kids really aren’t that different when it comes to offering forgiveness.

Sure, we say the words; but do we follow through?  We say “it’s ok, don’t worry about it”, but do we really lay down the hurt and the anger?  Do we really stop worrying about it?

Actions vs. Intentions

In our Gospel lesson today (Matthew 21:28-31), Jesus tells us a parable about how God sees and understands human actions versus human intentions.

Two sons are with their father who runs the family farm.  The dad tells them that there’s chores to be done that day.  The first son gets huffy and puffy, talks back, says “no way, I’m not doing it; I don’t care what you say, I’m not listening to you”, and stomps away.  The other son – I picture him with a big grin on his face – says, “oh, don’t worry dad, I’m the good son… I’ll get the chores done”, and goes on his way.

But what happens?  The guy who blew up and stormed off calms down, comes to his senses, and goes to the field and does what needs to be done, while the one who actually said he would do it ends up over in his friends’ basement playing Xbox… or, you know, whatever teenagers did back then.

The point Jesus makes is this: the words don’t matter without the actions to follow through.  The first son – though he disobeyed and broke one of the commandments in the process – was the one who actually did his Father’s will. 

And the same is true with forgiveness.  Saying you forgive someone really doesn’t matter a whole lot if you’re going to walk away with anger, pain, hurt, and bitterness in your heart.  Like that second son, the words were empty, they were cheap, and at the end of the day, what did they accomplish?  The work didn’t get done, but worse than that, those empty words strained the relationship between that son and his father; because of those empty words, that son now has to make excuses, and sooner or later, he’s stuck in a web of lies to maintain that grinning outward façade, while inside he’s weighed down with anxiety and the deep reality that he knows his own word is worthless.

Meanwhile, sure it wasn’t pretty when the first guy blew up, said what shouldn’t be said, and stomped away.  But once the heat of the moment had passed, he settled down, came to his senses, and did what needed to be done.  That loving, merciful father ended the day pleased with him in spite of the blow-up along the way, because the work was done, the trust was restored, and that son learned something along the way about obedience.

The weight of sin

As a people of second chances, as those whose own ability to receive forgiveness depends on our willingness to let go of the pain caused by others, we have to be willing to follow through.

We come to the Lord for forgiveness, and he tells us to lay down the heavy burdens that we’ve been carrying.  But, so often, we lay them down, but don’t undo the straps that held them on; to quote the psalms, we don’t cut those cords of death that entangle us.

Sure, we laid them down.  We say the words: “have mercy upon us most merciful Father…”, but then when the time comes to leave, we drag those burdens back home with us like a weight attached to our ankles.

The words were empty.  The words were cheap. 

The one who does the will of the Father is the one who follows through; the one who lays down their burdens – and leaves them there; the one who acknowledges and names the real hurt and pain caused by others, but can then, by the grace of God, let it go, and follow through with forgiveness.  Even if, sometimes, like that first son, we’ve spoken our mind and stomped off, it’s better we do that and then truly forgive than fall into the trap of saying the right words while carrying the bitterness in our hearts.

If we do that, we’re like the old smoker, puffing on a cigarette with a bottle of oxygen waiting at our feet. 

Or, as we read this morning: if the righteous, those who call upon the name of the Lord, the scribes and teachers of the Law, those who say the right words, commit iniquity, they shall die; they will meet destruction.

But if the wicked, no matter what they’ve done, even the tax collectors and prostitutes don’t just say the words, but follow through and do what is lawful and right, the Lord says it is those who enter the Kingdom.

Lets leave here this morning with our burdens left here before the Cross. Lets leave here this morning without the cords of death around our ankles, tying us to, and holding us back with past hurt and pain. 

And may God give us the grace to be people who follow through.  Amen.


[1] Ezekiel 18:26-27

What if it tastes like Toothpaste and Orange Juice?

The Prophet Jeremiah said: Your words were found and I ate them, and they became to me a joy and the delight of my heart… Jeremiah 15:16

Throughout scripture, cover to cover, we learn that God’s word is to be on our lips and in our hearts.  We are people who are to speak the Good News and guard our tongues against speaking words of deceit or slander – after all, ‘the tongue is a double-edged sword’[1] and – as we heard last week – it’s what goes out of the mouth, not what comes in, that defiles us.[2] 

No, that the Word of God should be on our lips is certainly no surprise.  As one of the most famous prayers from the prayerbook puts it, our task is to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”[3] the truth of God as revealed in the pages of scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit at work in the Church.

But – it might shock you to find out – that on at least three occasions in scripture, the prophets, the messengers of God, took this literally.  Yes, three times in scripture, someone eats the Bible.[4]

The prophet Ezekiel chows down on the word of God;[5] John the Divine is told in a vision to eat a scroll, and it turns his stomach;[6] and then in today’s Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah munches on and swallows up the Word of God written out on a sheet of goatskin.

Now before we get any ideas, this was not one of those “go and do likewise” sort of moments.  No, this is a symbolic action[7] meant to help us visualize and enter into the lessons God has for his people, much as the light spreading outward from a single candle in a dark church on Christmas Eve speaks the truth of our hope in the darkness of this world more deeply than any sermon, or praying alone in a darkened and silent church on the night before Good Friday allows us to really recognize the sacrifice of the cross.

The point is this: all the instruction about having the truth on our lips, about speaking the truth, about loosing our lips to praise, about opening our mouth to sing a new song of the Lord’s faithfulness, about our lips never failing to recite what the Lord has done, are not just happy thoughts or motivational words on a pretty plaque hung on your wall.  No – God’s Word is not just something to think about; no, it’s meant to sustain us.  God’s Word – the Truth we proclaim – is something to live by, something to guard us, guide us, keep us, and feed us through the ups and downs of life.

You Are What You Eat

I’ve always said that one of the central points of Christianity is, simply, “you are what you eat”.  It was through eating that which wasn’t ours that humanity first tasted the fruit of disobedience.  It’s through looking back through our journey through the lone and dreary wilderness that we taste and see that the Lord is good, and happy are those who put their trust in Him.  Christ invites us to join him as sons and daughters of God adopted in the waters of baptism and cleansed in his one perfect offering on the cross, but to do that – to share in his risen life, to remain part of his body, to become like him – we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in the sacrament he gave us.  And, we are a people who feed on the truth of the Gospel. 

And this is where those symbolic actions of the prophets are important.  The Word of God was never intended to be knowledge safely stored in a book, learned once in Sunday School or Confirmation Class, or studied in the hallowed halls of seminaries, and then put back on the shelf.  The Word of God was never meant to be displayed – covers closed – on a coffee table or next to your bed.  No, these aren’t just words to live by, they’re words to live on; as the prophets show us, they’re meant to be consumed – one translation even says “devoured” – to give us the energy, the direction, the substance we need to move forward; like the manna in the wilderness, like the gifts from the Lord’s Table, the Word of God is our daily bread. 

Like an athlete fueling up for a race, we’ve been given a banquet of truth and hope and good news to fuel up as we face the road ahead each day.  As we read today in Romans, we’re to rejoice in hope, and be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  Add that to turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies, and caring for those in need, and that’s quite a tall order, especially if we find ourselves scavenging and scrounging just to find enough hope to get out of bed in the morning, as we have some days lately in our house.

But God never intended for us to scavenge and scrounge within ourselves to drum up some hope or peace.  He’s laid out a banquet; he’s given us our daily bread; he’s invited us to pull up a chair and feast on his Word… but, just like the prophets, God doesn’t force feed us; it’s on us to open up, take it in, enjoy the sweetness, chew on the tough parts, and let that God-given diet of even a few verses of His Word transform us from the inside out, like our daily vitamins and glucosamine pills that transform us, that loosen up our stiff joints as we prepare to run the race ahead.

I ate it… and it turned my stomach sour.

You are what you eat, and we are to inwardly digest and live on the truth of God’s Word.  But there’s one other warning we see in the example of the prophets who took this image all the way and munched on their Bibles.

John chewed on the scriptures, but found very quickly that it turned his stomach sour.

Now, let’s be clear, that’s not a defect in the word of God.  No, no matter how good and nourishing the meal, the are just some things that cannot go together.

It’s happened to all of us – you brush your teeth, so you can present yourself to the world all fresh and minty clean, and then you pour up a refreshing glass of orange juice.  Now it could be the finest, freshly squeezed orange juice in the world, but if you drink it after brushing your teeth… ugh, I cringe just thinking about it.

The same goes for scripture – it’s often hard to swallow when we’ve been trying to freshen ourselves up in the eyes of the world.  But, like lots of good medicine, there’s no benefit if it sits in a bottle on the shelf; sometimes we have to get over the taste and let it work from the inside out.

Someone asked me this week, “how have you managed to keep going in the pandemic?  It seems like you have so much energy, and I just feel like sitting on the couch in my pyjamas.”

“Well,” I said, “don’t be fooled.  “I’ve spent plenty of time on the couch… and have the pandemic gut and chin to show for it”.

But – and I say this with all seriousness, and not just because I’m the priest – when I drag my butt off the couch and come to the church to say morning prayer – yes, a couple times even with pyjamas under my cassock – I find my daily bread.  Every day, without fail, there’ll be a lesson, or a phrase, or maybe just a word I hadn’t noticed before, that gives me energy, that gives me hope to rejoice in, that gives me strength to persevere, that gives me the trust I need to be patient, and to allow God to guard me, guide me, keep me, and feed me.

…and then I come home, and I don’t want to do anything.  Some days I’ll get stuck scrolling Facebook; some days I’ll make the mistake of turning on the news and wind up depressed; some days I’ll stare out the window and wonder why the clock has stopped moving and time is going so slow.  But, sooner or later, the story, the phrase, that word will bubble up from within and encourage me, and suddenly I’m given the hope that I lack, the energy to run the race, and the patience I need to keep myself out of trouble.

Feed your enemy, and offer them something to drink.

God’s Word is our daily bread.  And I want to draw your attention to one more thing we heard this morning.  From Romans (12:20-21): “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Do you think this is just about a slice of bread or a plate of cookies?

If someone drives us nuts – if someone goes out of their way to embarrass us, or put us down, or make us feel worthless, or is just stubbornly in our way, we’re to have the word of God on our lips, we’re to rejoice in hope and speak the truth in love, even when it’s hard to swallow.  That’s because, even for our worst enemies, our task by the grace of God, is to lead them to the living water that is Jesus Christ, who pardons us, provides for us, and guides us on, all the days of this (crazy) journey set out before us.

My friends – let’s be people who feed on the word of God… just not literally; after all, self-serve food is prohibited.


[1] See James 3:9-10

[2] Matthew 15:1-20

[3] The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent written by Abp. Thomas Cranmer in 1549 and contained in every Book of Common Prayer since.

[4] Ok… not an actual modern-day Bible, but a scroll containing biblical text…

[5] Ezekiel 3

[6] Revelation 10:8-11

[7] In Biblical Studies we would call this a “prophetic sign-act”, a non-verbal dramatic action to visualize the message they brought to the people.

We aren’t the dirt.

“A sower went out to sow”.

Anyone who has spent any time in the church at all will be familiar with the parable of the sower.  It’s a beloved parable, not least because it’s one of just a handful of parables where Jesus goes back and explains what he meant – a great gift that guides us in interpreting the other parables of scripture.  And, it helps because the farming image comes back again in the letters of Paul: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth; only God can wrap the full potential and beauty of a strong, fruitful plant into such a small package.

The sower is a wonderful image because it’s so down-to-earth, so simple.  Seeds are planted, some are eaten by birds, some spring up before others but are scorched because their roots can’t reach water, some are choked out by weeds, some grow and produce a mighty harvest of grain.

They’re familiar words.

But sometimes, familiarity gets in the way.  Sometimes we become so familiar with what we think something says that we actually miss something important.  Just as a prophet isn’t welcome in their hometown, or the hardest thing we can do is try to speak the truth to our own families, familiarity can cloud the message.  So I invite you this morning to look at this parable with fresh eyes.

What’s up with that sower?

One of the obvious questions with this misunderstood parable is “what is that sower doing?”.  Seriously, what sort of a farmer wastes seed like that?  If we stop to think about it, most of those seeds never had a chance from the start. 

You know I’ve got a garden planted behind the Rectory.  When I bought my carrot seeds, I borrowed a roto-tiller and tilled a deep bed, mixing in some rich black dirt; I raked it out to make sure the water wouldn’t wash the seeds away; I planted those little carrot seeds in a neat row, and sure enough, almost every one of them sprang up and is now a leafy stalk with a little tasty orange root growing by the day in that soft, well-prepared soil.

But, come on – if I bought that carrot seed but just started wandering around throwing them here and there, no one would think I’m being generous.  You’d think I’m foolish, even wasteful.  If I threw carrot seed in the parking lot, you’d think I’ve lost my head; if I threw carrot seed on the grassy front lawn, you’d think I’m insane.  Those seeds never had a chance!

…And there’s the big misunderstanding so many of us bring, even without thinking about it, to this parable.

For many of us, yes, we understand that God is unceasingly generous and merciful, but at the end of the day, we see God as a bit of a foolish farmer, wasting seed.  After all, we say to ourselves, we’re just the dirt in this story: it’s not the dirt’s fault that no one tended it, or that it was full of rocks or thorns.  Perhaps, as we see people snatched away or scorched or choked by the cares of the world, we think “well, that’s just how it is; God scatters the seed, but sometimes he doesn’t give any growth.  He’s a generous farmer scattering seed, but sometimes the soil just isn’t ready.” 

But, right off the bat, something there should smell fishy: anytime our understanding of God’s merciful desire to adopt us as his sons and daughters takes us off the hook, we can be guaranteed that we’ve missed the point.

And the same is true here.

If we step back, if we peel back the years of comfortable sermons we’ve heard on the topic, if we look at the actual words of Christ, one thing should jump out at us: at no point does it say that God is the farmer; at no point does it say that God owns the soil, that it’s His fault the soil was left rocky, or shallow, or full of weeds.  God, in the parable, is just the sower – the hired hand scattering seed on the land allotted to the farmer.

If God isn’t the Farmer, who is?

Sowing seeds in Jesus’ day wasn’t like our backyard gardens or our commercial farmers today.  Planting seeds in neat rows is a modern invention, impossible without modern tools.  No, rather it was the farmer’s job to wait for that first heavy rain of the Middle Eastern spring, then, as quickly as possible while the moisture was still on that hard crusty, sun-baked top layer, hitch up the oxen to the plow, and plow up the soft soil underneath.  The seeds from last year’s harvest were stored in the large granaries owned by the king or the wealthy land-owners, and once the farmer had done the back-breaking work of overturning that hard soil, removing the rocks and weeds, then a sower would come behind with the bags of seed borrowed from the storehouse of the king.  Seed was broadcast – thrown evenly from one border of the farmer’s field to the other.  And then, the farmer was to plow the field again to bury the seed, dragging branches behind the plow as a rake to smooth out the ground.  For every bag of seed borrowed to the farmer, the farmer owed that much seed and a portion of the harvest back to the king’s storehouse at harvest.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, in this parable, God is the sower.  The sower’s job is to take the good seed from the king’s storehouse and scatter that seed evenly from one edge of the allotted field to the other.

And, in spite of how we might be used to hearing this parable, at no point does it say that we are the soil.  After all, soil is just, well, dirt… you can’t expect much from dirt… and certainly not a relationship or a lifetime of discipleship.

No, my friends.  We are the farmer, the one responsible for the dirt.  We’re the one to whom a field has been allotted, and which the king expects we will tend.  It’s our responsibility to have the ground plowed and the rocks removed, to have the thorns weeded out, and to have the soil of our own lives ready for when the sower comes with the good seed from the king’s storehouse.  The Sower – Christ – is doing as he was commanded: scattering the seed evenly from one corner of the field to the other.  It’s the farmer’s job – it’s our job – to have that thick, sun-baked crust broken and ready to receive the seed.  It’s our job to go back through our own fields and plough the seed under so that they’ll have deep roots.  It’s our job to make sure the field has been weeded so the sprouts aren’t choked by thorns. 

That’s the extent of God’s patience and mercy, and his desire in giving us free will to freely choose to become his sons and daughters: Christ will faithfully scatter the good seed, again and again, year after year, season after season, in the hopes that we will have chosen not to sit idle, or to let our field grow in with weeds, or to stumble around drunk with bellies filled on another’s harvest, but that we will have our field ready.  Because, when the time comes for harvest – and that time is coming – we will need to give an account for the seed that has been lent to us.  The time comes when we must pay it back, with a portion of the harvest, into the king’s storehouse.

All that to say, when we look at ourselves, when we look at the fields allotted to our family members who have gone astray, when we look at those around us whose fields are as dry and dense as a well-worn path, or overgrown with weeds, we’re not to shrug and say, “oh well, I guess God didn’t give the growth”.  No, the seeds from the king’s storehouse are always ready to sprout.  With God all things are possible… after all, haven’t you ever seen a little evergreen tree sprouting horizontally out of the side of a cliff?  Seriously, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places.

But we’re never to take ourselves off the hook.  God invites us into relationship with him.  God offers us the opportunity, season after season, to let that seed take root.  But, as the farmers that we are, responsible to tend and keep and have dominion over the soil we’ve been given, it’s on us to cooperate.  It’s on us to have our soil ready to plant, to bury the seeds deep in the furrows of our hearts, and to tend the field, knowing full well that we are the ones responsible to repay, to make account for, to offer back a portion of the seeds we’ve been given.The Good News.

The bad news, as we read this parable with fresh eyes, is that we’re not off the hook.  We’re not the dirt.  As farmers, it’s up to us to prepare and tend our own field, for which we will give account.  That’s the reality: we can’t blame the lack of growth on anyone else; after all, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places if it’s given a chance.

That’s the bad news.  But the good news is that, while God won’t force us, he does have a plan to help each farmer prepare that soil.  When you were baptized, when you were confirmed, when you renewed those vows, you accepted God’s call to be a labourer in his vineyard; that call to come alongside another, to step into their field, to help them prepare and tend the soil.  That’s what Paul means when he says one planted, another watered; it’s our task, as those sent forth by God’s Spirit, as those whose seeds are already sprouted and have taken root, to step into another’s field and help them clear the weeds, to help them break the boulders, to wake them from their slumber when that spring rain of the Holy Spirit is falling on their field and the time has come to prepare the soil for planting, to get down in the dirt in our mission field and work to prepare even space for one of the Lord’s good seeds to take root – even on the side of a cliff – to produce fruit, knowing that each stalk produces hundreds of seeds, as our rocky fields become fertile, fruitful land bearing much fruit for the king as we learn, year after year, to be better stewards, better farmers, better able to share our God-given knowledge and experience with those struggling around us.

My friends, as we look to the year ahead, a year where everything as we know it will look different, this is a call to action: once we know our seeds have sprouted, once we’ve tended our own field, watering it with the daily dew of prayer, and weeding it with daily study of God’s Word, we have work to do: God is scattering seed all around.  I’ve seen seeds taking root in the most unlikely of places.  Some are waiting to be planted, while the ravens pick away at them.  Others have found receptive soil because of this pandemic, but unless those seeds are lovingly plowed under to grow deep roots, the plants will shrivel. 

We’re the farmers.  We’re the labourers in Christ’s mission field.  The seeds have been scattered.  Let’s get to work, for harvest always comes sooner than we expect.

Notes:

My exegesis follows that of Cyril of Alexandria (from Matthaus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche, in ACCS, Manlio Simonetti, ed.), and John Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew as found in Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.

Repressed Questions and an Unknown God.

Our Father… Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Fort Smith, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Today we come to the end of our walk through First Peter, a journey that has highlighted how we ought to live if we take seriously what it means to be members of God’s family. 

It’s God’s explicit desire that anyone bold enough to call Him their Father would bring that heavenly lifestyle to bear in the world around us; that he would empower us to make our own town – here and now – a little more like heaven as we, his sons and daughters by adoption, serve him in thought, word, and deed.

And that’s nothing easy: it requires us to be willing to undergo a total change, for those perishable, even rotten parts of our human nature to be transformed into the image and likeness of the Risen Christ.  We have to be willing to live as Jesus; willing to give up our pride, to give up our own best interests, to give up revenge or proving ourselves right: living instead so that all we’re known for are the good works and mercy shown at our hands. 

And, as we heard last week, this is not an individual project.  Living into the new life of Christ, carrying out God’s will here as in heaven, is not something that you or I can do by our own effort.  The Good News is that we don’t have to pretend to be strong and mighty. We can be ourselves: we can be small, we can be vulnerable, we don’t have to worry about leaving a legacy, because our strength and our worth isn’t in our small selves; our strength comes from being cemented together and grounded firmly on the foundation that cannot be moved: Jesus Christ, the Cornerstone.

With all that in mind, today, we see why it is that God wants us to live this way; we come to see the master plan – what it is that God intends to do with us, members of his family willing to live as he intends.

Good Intentions: An Altar in Athens

This plan is nothing new – in fact, it looks a lot like what we read in Acts.[1]

It’s a wonderful scene: St. Paul, having journeyed to the great, ancient city of Athens, notices how enlightened the people are, with everyone concerned with religion, politics, and philosophy. 

But then he notices something that strikes him: these modern, open-minded, educated people have, alongside their traditional religion, their temples, their synagogues, and their university debate halls, something most curious: a temple to unknown gods.

In the name of being progressive, of embracing the best bits of ideas brought from all over, the ancient myths of the heroes and gods of Greece had become a hodge-podge, a cafeteria-style religion where you choose what suits your taste, where you choose to take bits and pieces of whatever teachers happen to resonate with you, but are left knowing that your choices may or not be the “right” ones.  So, just in case, you hedge your bets: you throw in a little offering to the unknown gods just in case it turns out you were wrong.[2]

Paul, arriving in Athens, found a highly developed, modern, peaceful, democratic society with a fatal flaw: in the name of sophistication, in the name of open-mindedness, they had given up any sort of coherent, wholistic, logical system of belief and had instead developed nothing more than a choose-your-own-adventure set of superstitions. 

This modern society, in the name of progress, accidentally went backwards: they had a common language to discuss science, politics, and the economy, but lost the ability to discuss the things that, deep down, matter so much more to each of us: the questions of life and love, the nature of thought and emotions, and the questions of why we’re here, and what shall become of us hereafter.

That was the issue facing the Church 1900 years ago: their world had become a hodge-podge of well-intentioned religious superstitions that, added together, made little sense at all.

And Peter, writing to the Church living in that secular society, tells us simply: “do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.  Always be ready to give anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in you – but do so with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear…”[3]

Do not fear what they fear. 

Yes, at it’s root, all superstition is grounded in fear.  Now, it might not be heart-pounding terror – and that’s part of the problem.  When we’re terrified, shaken to the core, people – more often than not – are able to identify the cause, and do something about it.  No, superstition comes from that sort of weak, but constant anxiety, the sort of deep unsettledness that causes even the most brilliant minds to retreat and avoid the very things they want most.

You see, altars to an unknown god are no first-century problem.

With the best of intentions, we’ve built a society where each of us has to build our own altars.  In the name of enlightenment, in the name of progress, we’ve unhinged and unanchored religious ideas from any sense of logic and reason, and we’ve created such a hodge-podge of beliefs that those within the same family can no longer even encourage or build each other up, because no two people agree on what they hold to be true.

And, when push comes to shove, we resort to nothing more than superstition.

In terms of science, in terms of medicine, in terms of technology, we live in the most advanced time the world has ever seen.  Literacy is at an all-time high, and all the world’s information is a few clicks away on the phone in your pocket.

But, we’re anxious.  Deep down, our world is searching for answers.  For all our knowledge, we’re less able than ever to answer any of the big questions.  What’s the purpose of family?  Why do we have this desire for love and relationships?  What is the purpose of life?  What is the value in life?  What is the ‘common good’, and why would we seek it?  Why is life worth living if I’m not feeling happy?  What’s the point?

For every simple, scientific, mechanical question we’ve answered about the world around us, we’ve been asked to ignore the deeper questions that allow us to ground our life on a firm foundation.

If love is just a chemical reaction in the brain, then why does it hurt so much when a loved one is lost?

If memory is just electrons in brain tissue, then why can we be moved to tears by a favourite song, or even a familiar smell?

If the purpose of our species is self-preservation, then why would so many doctors, nurses, police officers, soldiers, social workers, and volunteers put their lives at risk every day for the sake of the weakest and least profitable among us?

If the purpose of life is survival of the fittest, then why is true joy found in the service and company of others?

Repressing the Deep Questions

We, like them, in the name of being enlightened, in the name of progress, have given up the very logic and reason that allows us to answer even a child’s most basic questions – let alone our own.

Our friends and neighbours, and sadly even some in the church, have such a mish-mash of beliefs that, when we need stability the most, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of foggy, half-hearted superstition on even the most basic matters.

I think friends with a young family who suddenly lost a pet.  Their little girl wanted to know what happened to their beloved kitty after she died.

Having nothing but a mixed plate of cafeteria religions, and having been trained like most in our society to bury these deep, anxiety-causing questions in the deepest part of our being, the mom did as she’d been taught: she did a quick Google search. 

She found a convenient option: she told her little girl about a rainbow bridge reaching into the sky, where pets are happy forever.

The girl’s father, when the girl went to him separately, went another direction: he went to a cheap, easy mis-interpretation of Buddhism and said that their cat was already re-born as another kitten to make another family happy.

Confusing for the child, but all well and good, and the anxieties and deep questions buried deep under the surface once again… until a few years later when the grandmother dies. 

“Where’s Nan?”

At moments like these those deep, repressed questions rush to the surface, and the anxiety becomes so overwhelming that so many in our society no longer even have the language to voice the reality of their grief.  So little of the language of the deep questions of life has been passed on, that it takes a trained counsellor just to fish the questions out, let alone begin the search for answers.

“Where’s Nan?” the very bright 12-year-old asks.

Obviously she didn’t walk over a rainbow bridge to be with Fluffy.  Is she reborn already into a new baby to make another family happy?

A well-meaning aunt steps in and offers the religion of The Lion King movie: “she’s gone to be among the stars, and every time you look up, she’s there looking down.”

“…but”, says the bright girl, “the stars are balls of hydrogen gas lightyears away… that doesn’t make sense.”

…and she’s right.  It doesn’t.

Neither leg to stand on.

All around us are well-meaning temples to an unknown god.  All around us are people who’ve been led to believe that the most enlightened thing they can do is to simply abandon the deep questions; bury them, and focus instead on the far easier questions of what is found through a telescope and under a microscope.

But we see the effects even now: a society that has no language to discuss the common good; a society that has no language, no venue to discuss the value of human life relative to the security of our economies.  Societies that have no way to discuss that my freedoms – and my retirement portfolio – depend on other people being willing to do work that I’m not willing to do, under conditions that I would no accept.

And the hidden effects are even worse, precisely because we cannot speak of them: people stressed, deeply anxious because they do want to get back to normal, and they are willing to take some calculated risks, but they aren’t willing to endanger anybody else… and we have no shared language to discuss what is right.

The Bold, Gentle Task

This is nothing new – in fact, it’s very old.

And our task is the same as those first Christians: we’re to proclaim the truth.

And it isn’t good enough to offer just a bit of truth.  That’s the problem we’re in. 

God didn’t send Jesus to offer us a smattering of happy thoughts and good advice. 

He has revealed, in his Word and by the Holy Spirit, a coherent system of belief and practice: a life of faith that is at once logical – that is, word-based – and reasonable – engaging our gifts of reason and thought.

He has given us the Spirit of Truth[4], to see and know the way, the truth, and the life laid out before us, as a lamp for our feet and a light to our path. 

And if we’re doing God’s will, here and now, as we will in heaven, then our task, like Paul in Athens, is to come alongside those who have caught glimpses, shadows, and reflections of that light, and gently and respectfully take them from the warmed-over smattering of leftover cafeteria-style ideas and invite them instead to a feast – to a banquet table overflowing with the finest food and the richest wine, and which offers the language to ask those deepest questions, and the opportunity to find rest, as the never-ending meal is digested over a lifetime with patience and faithfulness… and we become what we eat.

With gentleness and respect, your work is to give an answer to those muttering deep questions at the altars of unknown gods.

But for that to happen, you yourself need to be confident in the truth.  For us to do God’s will together, you need to know what we believe.  You and I need to throw out the half-hearted leftovers, and know why it was Jesus came as one of us, why he had to die, why bad things happen to good people; to know that prayer works, and to have experienced that God still heals; to know that all that we have comes from God, that strength comes in humble service, and that true life is only found in admitting defeat, asking for mercy, and allowing yourself to become part of the Body of Christ.

Then, and only then, will we fulfil our pledge that God’s will would be done… in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.


[1] Acts 17:22-31

[2] Archeological evidence points to temples and altars to “foreign and unknown gods”, and refences in Greek literature point to sacrifices “to nameless gods” or “to the appropriate god”, essentially prayers addressed to whom it may concern.

[3] 1 Peter 3:14-16

[4] See John 14:17

The Transfiguration: Unbridled Power and Consuming Flame

Exodus 24:21-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Our Gospel lesson today invites us to follow with Peter, James, and John to the top of a high mountain, for what, on the surface, is perhaps one of the weirdest events recorded in the New Testament.

We’re familiar with healings – God demonstrating his power in Jesus over the brokenness and disorder of this fallen world.

We’re familiar with mighty miracles – Jesus calming storms, as nature itself remembers the voice that spoke at creation.

But today, on the top of a high mountain, something different happens.  Jesus, it says, is transfigured before them.  Jesus is changed or, literally, in the Greek, Jesus undergoes metamorphosis before their very eyes, as his face becomes bright as the mid-day sun, his clothes become dazzling bright, and Moses and Elijah, the prophets of long ago, appear with him, in conversation as three old friends.

It’s a situation unlike anything else we’ve read… or is it?

A surprisingly familiar situation

While this mountain-top experience may be difficult to wrap our heads around on first glance, and many a preacher has created all sorts of theories about why or how this happened, if we acknowledge – as we have throughout this season of Epiphany – that God is, fundamentally, in the business of revealing himself to the world, then perhaps we can bring these gospel events into focus.

And, together with that, I believe this is one of those occasions where one of the richest gifts of Anglicanism to the Church shines through – our basic belief, though we sometimes forget it, that God has given us the entire scriptures, and that it’s not acceptable to mine out the scriptural jewels that support our arguments, but that, simply put, the best tool to interpret scripture is scripture itself.

So, we read, after faithfully leaving their worldly occupations and committing to follow Jesus, and just a few verses after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we’re told in Matthew 16:21 that Jesus begins to teach his followers about the way of the Cross – that the Glory of God is revealed not in worldly power, but in “denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him”.

And then, some time passes.  But not just any amount of time — according to today’s lesson, six days pass.  This is now the seventh day; a point that should ring a bell and pique the attention of any faithful Jew or Christian well-versed in scripture.  After all, it was the seventh day, after the work of Creation had been accomplished, that God declared holy, and on which God revealed the intended glory of his creation: a peaceful garden that provided for all who lived in it, and in which humanity and all of nature were united in his presence.

But, for anyone who knows the Old Testament, this isn’t the first mountain-top experience on the seventh day.  As we heard today in Exodus 24, after God had led his chosen people into the desert, teaching them to trust in him for their daily bread, and teaching them not to serve themselves, but to be a people of justice and mercy, it was the Lord who said to Moses, “come up to me on the mountain”.

Moses, obedient, went up the mountain. 

And, as we heard today, he was there 6 days.  And then, on the seventh day, from within a bright cloud upon the top of the mountain, God revealed Himself to Moses.  And what was revealed?  Well, the next 7 chapters of Exodus told God’s chosen people how they were to worship, and the details of how they were to build and worship in God’s House.  The house, the tabernacle, which, the Book of Hebrews tells us, is a copy of the heavenly sanctuary.[1] 

Moses, after six days, heard the voice of God in the brightness of the cloud on a mountain, and, we read this morning, he stayed on that mountain forty days and forty nights, receiving the Lord’s instruction, His message to be delivered to the people, and ultimately, the message, the light to enlighten the nations of the world.

But, if we know our Bibles, we know that as good as those 40 days were for Moses, they didn’t go so well for those whom he was supposed to lead. 

They, like many of us, think 40 days is a long time to wait for something; sure, God gave us literally everything we have, and sure, with him a thousand years is like the twinkling of an eye, but to commit to be faithful for a whole 40 days?  I don’t know…  So what did they do?  Well, they gathered up as much shiny gold as they could find – gold, after all, they had worked hard for – and made an idol that they could worship instead, and proclaimed a great festival to celebrate the work of their own hands.

Finally, after Moses goes back down the mountain to clean up that mess, God invites Moses up to the mountain once again, and Moses sees God’s glory revealed.  And, we’re told, that in the eyes of those wayward followers, those who had forgotten God’s goodness so quickly, those who were so quick to bow down and worship their own possessions, the skin of Moses’ face appeared to be bright like the sun, to the point that they were afraid to even come near him.

Now, fast-forward to the Gospel.  The disciples, after six days, go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and a bright cloud surrounds them.  Jesus, the light of the world, the source of life that enlightens every person, the light that pierces the darkness, is revealed to those who, while still sinful men, have denied themselves and have committed to following him.

And the light is dazzling.  The various Greek versions in the Gospels point to just how bright this was – it’s brighter than they had words to describe.  Not just a brightness that makes you squint, but a brightness that knocks you backward. 

One preacher[2] said the best analogy for us today is that it’s like the brightness of an arc welder, if you’ve ever seen one welder at work.  It’s the brightness of pure, unbridled energy; energy that, for those who are prepared with the proper equipment, can join mighty metals, building machines that literally move mountains.  But, brightness that, for those unprepared, without the proper mask, will actually burn your eyes; in Exodus, it’s that brightness described as a consuming fire – enormous power and energy that does wonders for those who are ready, but burns up those who approach unprepared.

And what happens in this cloud?  Well, we see that the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the God who is outside of time and holds time itself in his hand, reveals that the eternal Word, the eternal voice of God, the Word that was God, and through whom all things were made, is Jesus.

Moses and Elijah, the great giver of God’s covenant, and the great prophet who revealed God’s promised future return, appear with Jesus, talking, chatting, as old friends.  It’s here that those who follow Jesus see God’s glory, and see that Jesus is the very Word of God from the Beginning.

And, from the cloud itself, comes again the great Epiphany: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”.  And, as God’s glory is revealed, as they see that inescapable power and light that either works wonders or utterly consumes, they hear the eternal message, the sound that has gone out to all lands says, simply: “listen to him”.

Listen to him.

Our God is in the business of revealing Himself.

God wants you to be part of that, revealing Himself to the world around you though word and deed.

The incredible truth of the Gospel is that God wants to show you his glory – he wants to show you his great mercy, his incredible power to heal and to save.

But he won’t do it unless we follow him up the mountain.  And it’s a good thing, too.  All of us – every person – will one day see the glory of God.  If we’re prepared, if we’ve followed his lead along the narrow mountain path, if we acknowledge that all our strength and health and the blessings of this life are gifts to be used in his service, then we encounter his glory as the remarkable, dazzling, life-giving power that it is, and like the disciples who fell down to worship, Jesus reaches out his hand and invites us to stand in his presence.  But, for those who stay in the dust on the broad, easy plains below the mountain, those who rely on their own strength, who bow down to their own wealth or pride, that same glory of God isn’t life-giving, but all-consuming, just as the experience of an arc welder depends on whether or not you’re prepared.

We’re invited up the mountain.

Jesus invites us to experience his glory up on the mountain, the glory of his resurrection power revealed on the Cross on Good Friday and in Easter’s empty tomb.

But, first, we need to be willing to follow.

Just 40 days of obedience in the desert was too much for those whom God had rescued from slavery in a foreign land.  40 days of patient faithfulness was too much, as they molded an idol of gold.

Jesus calls you to follow him all the days of your life.

And as we learn that together, the Church invites you to 40 days of repentance and obedience, just 40 days of Lent, 40 days of preparation to experience the glory of God at Easter.

One day we’ll all see that glory face to face. 

Will we be ready?  Do we have what it takes to deny ourselves and follow Him?

Or is even 40 days just too long to lay aside the idols and excuses we have made?

May God have mercy on us all.  Amen.


[1] Hebrews 8

[2] The analogy is my own.

Resistance in the face of Rebellion

Paul writes, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom … so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God”.

My friends: we’re in the midst of a war.

We’re in the midst of a civil war.

It’s not a new war; it’s the same rebellion that has been brewing since the dawn of time, since that first time that men and women thought that they knew better than God Himself, and like rebels throwing out the rightful king, tried to replace his authority with our own.

We’re in the midst of a war.

Isaiah, one of the messengers of the rightful king, sent behind enemy lines to proclaim the truth and call the rebels back to repentance, said this very clearly this morning:

“Cry out”, he said, “do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to my people their rebellion, announce where they have missed the mark.”

You see, deep down at the heart of all our troubles, all the injustice, all the pain, the grand drama proclaimed by the scriptures all comes back to a simple point: we rebelled against the rightful king, and now find ourselves in rebel occupied territory; and God, the rightful king, patiently sends messengers to win us over to the truth, so that when he comes in glory to reclaim his throne, he finds us ready and willing to proclaim him king and share in the glory of his reign.

At the heart of our problems, at the heart of human suffering, is our rebellion; at the heart is our proclamation that we, not God, should be the masters of our lives.

And, as we’ve heard these past few weeks, God, the rightful king, has actually made the expectations pretty simple, so simple perhaps that we have a hard time accepting them.  As we heard last week, what does God require of us?  Does he want you to claw your way to the top?  Does he want you to worry and stress about tomorrow?  Does he want you to store up riches so you can trust in your wealth?  No!  You know what the Lord requires: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Does God have some complicated secret plan for our lives that we need to somehow discover?  No!  There’s one plan: to follow Jesus, to become Christ-like, to faithfully follow that path that hits the target, and when we go off course, to repent and try again.

We’re in the midst of a civil war.

And sometimes, it’s important for us to be reminded of that.

We need to be reminded because, throughout all of history, rebellions and civil wars all have one thing in common: they depend on misinformation.  Or, to use the up-to-date term, every civil war, including humanity’s age-old rebellion against God, is absolutely dependant on fake news.

Think about it: right back to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, it’s misinformation, propaganda that sparks the rebellion.  “Don’t worry”, was the lie, “there aren’t really any consequences for tasting that one single tree that you were specifically told not to touch”.

Isaiah, too, is sent with his message to correct false reports and misinformation. The people had bought into the rebel propaganda: just go through these motions and all will be well.  But outward expressions are only effective if they reflect inward change. As Isaiah says, what’s the point of putting on sackcloth as a sign of humility if you’re going to strike your neighbour and, in your humility, trample down those who are oppressed?

No, throughout history, the messengers of God have been sent, in the midst of this rebellion, to remind us of the truth.

St. Paul, throughout his epistles, makes this point clearly:  worldly wisdom, “the wisdom of this age”, is an insufficient response to faith.  Worldly wisdom, the propaganda on which our world attempts to run itself, says that says that you need to work harder, to prove yourself, to seek revenge when someone does you wrong; worldly wisdom says that we need to keep up with our neighbours, and, at the end of the day, this rat race is all that there is, so eat, drink, and be merry, no matter who gets hurt in the process.

But, in the wisdom of God, true strength is made perfect in weakness.  In the wisdom of God, the strongest love is found in one who would lay down their life for another. 

God demonstrated his ultimate, unmatched power by taking on our flesh and destroying death itself, and then freely offering the same to us: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness in the eyes of the world, though we all know, deep down, that real power can’t be built on pride in relation to others.  Power that depends on keeping others weak isn’t true power at all.

We’re in the midst of a civil war, and we, St. Paul says, are those tasked with counteracting the misinformation of our age.

The Resistance

As many of us have been reading through Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, this idea of a civil war is one of his central images woven throughout the book.

As Christians, we find ourselves in enemy-occupied territory, as the world around us has gone along with the age-old rebellion against God.  And in the words of Lewis, our task is to be the loyal underground resistance, preparing the way for when the rightful king reclaims his throne.

Lewis was writing during World War II, and he uses the image of the French Resistance.  France was invaded by Nazi forces and, for any number of reasons that ultimately boil down to pride and promises of power, France surrendered and let Nazi rule reign. 

But, even as that happened, the Allies had a plan to drive back those forces. And a crucial part of that plan was the Resistance: normal, everyday people, living everyday lives, who were willing to hold on to the truth in the face of the propaganda and lies; people who were willing to work behind the scenes, freeing prisoners, providing food to the hungry; people who were willing to take risks in order to sabotage the destructive plans of the oppressors; people who were willing to work carefully so that, when the forces of freedom landed, they found faithful friends who had prepared the way for them. 

Now, it’s just an image, not to glorify a brutal human conflict. 

But if it’s true that our conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil is an epic rebellion against the rightful King, and that the powers of this world are those who have gone along with the propaganda and lies, then it’s a great image nonetheless.

Our work as the Body of Christ is to be the Resistance. 

We, like the prophets and apostles, are to speak the truth in love, confidently contradicting the propaganda of the powerful.  But, like the Resistance, we’re to speak the truth knowing, like St. Paul, that no amount of public debate or worldly philosophy is going to make sense to those who have bought into the worldly conception of power: it’s not loud debates, but a humble, steadfast life of justice and mercy that wins ground and proves the truth of our cause.

And, like the Resistance, we’re to sabotage the ways of the world.  Where the world teaches us to serve ourselves, we’re to sacrificially serve the needy.  Where the world teaches us to seek revenge, we’re to show mercy.   Where the world lives as though what you see is what you get, we’re to live with the confidence that we were created for more; that we were created, by God’s grace, to live with him, forever, and that the trajectory we set in this life – whether we’re following toward the target set by Christ, or whether we’ve set our own rebellious course – that trajectory set now leads us to our destination when the rightful king takes his throne, welcomed by those on his side, while the rebels are driven away.

You are salt and light.

This is a civil war, a rebellion, in a broken world.

And we, the Resistance, are to be salt and light.

But lest we be caught up in our modern world, let’s remember that salt isn’t primarily about flavour.  You don’t have to go back far – if you asked our grandparents and great-grandparents about the purpose of salt, the answer isn’t about flavour, but preservation.

Salt keeps your meat from spoiling.  Salt dries and pickles your produce to keep it over winter. 

We, the Body of Christ, are the salt of the earth: our mission, during this rebellion against God and his truth, is to keep it from spoiling.

And we’re the light of the world, a city on a hill: a signal fire defiantly burning in the night, showing the rightful King that we’re here, that we’re ready; and as we live, as our faith produces good works, that light invites those around us to join our side, to turn from the prideful propaganda, and lay down their rebel arms.

For, as Isaiah said, when this conflict is ended, when the Lord reclaims the throne and welcomes those who prepared the way, he’ll rebuild what was lost: paradise will be restored, and as the temples of greed and power tumble, the ancient ruins of justice and mercy will be rebuilt, and we, the faithful resistance, will be called the repairers of the breach, and the restorers of the city.

We’re in the midst of a civil war, a rebellion built on misinformation and pride.  We’re gathered here to be strengthened by God’s grace, to receive our marching orders.  The question is: will we have the faith to carry out our mission, to confidently contradict the prideful propaganda around us?  Will we have the faith this week to sabotage the works of injustice and oppression? 

We are the salt and the light: and, by God’s grace, this mission depends on us.

To God be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.

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.

The Potter and the Clay

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.
The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
(Jerimiah 18:3-4)

“You are the potter; I am the clay”.

This is, no doubt, one of the more familiar images we have to describe our relationship to God, his patience with us, and his fearful-but-wonderful ability to re-shape us and re-fashion us for his service.

It’s a beautiful image that has been used again and again in hymns and songs, especially in the last 50 years, as we sang just a few minutes ago.

Yet, if we’re going to allow ourselves to learn from the wisdom handed down to us in the scriptures as interpreted by the Church, we have to be careful; we have to be careful not to let romanticism or cozy sentimentality cloud our understanding of these powerful words.

In our lesson from Jeremiah chapter 18 we have a powerful image, but if we’re to understand it, we have to be careful not to let our modern circumstances get in the way.

Jeremiah is called by God to visit a potter’s workshop, where God, by his Spirit, gives him a word of caution to speak to a people who have forgotten their covenant with God – a people who have done the rites and rituals required of them, but whose actions and attitudes don’t match their words; it would be like someone who is baptized, who has promised to turn away from evil, to proclaim the good news of forgiveness in Jesus by word and example, and to love your neighbour as yourself, but whose life doesn’t match those lofty words.

It’s in this context that we find the image of the potter and the clay.

And it’s important, too, that we take a second and allow the image to sink in.

Maybe you, like me, have had a chance to visit a pottery studio.  In our day, potters are artists, specializing in vases and ornamental work; the studio I visited was pristine – beautiful art on the walls, a nice area where you could stand and watch the potter working at the wheel, while the finished pieces baked behind the glass of a kiln at the back.

But, we have to be careful not to let our own experience cloud the message.

The potter in Jeremiah’s day is not an artist, but a tradesperson working to keep a city functioning, and the product is not something beautiful to admire on a shelf, but the everyday stuff that makes life possible – clay jars to store flour and oil to preserve the harvest so that the people survive the winter; pots for cooking soups and stews to stretch you meat and vegetables to feed a family; even chamber pots and, in Jeremiah’s day, ceramic pipes to direct waste into the sewer.

This is no beautiful, romantic image of an artist in a pristine art gallery.

The potter works tirelessly under the heat of the Mediterranean sun; it’s sweaty work, mixing the mud and turning the wheel by hand; the potter is covered head to toe in sticky clay, as the workshop attached to his house is filled with the bitter smoke of the fire in the kiln, as he lives and works in the industrial part of town, alongside the slaughterhouse, the butcher, and the tanner. 

God with us.

And this, my friends, is the image of God that Jeremiah gives us.

Yes, God is Almighty; yes, he alone is above all kings and powers, and worthy of all worship; but, in spite of that, our God gets his hands dirty. Our God is not limited to the palace, though he’s a great king, but is found in the dirty workshop on the outskirts of town, intimately involved in fashioning the everyday, commonplace vessels needed for everyday life in the city of God.

This is no artist working in a rarefied, gleaming gallery; this is a skilled craftsman who makes what is needed for the city to thrive.

You are the potter, I am the clay.

It’s important, too, that we remember what that means.

While much of Christianity in the last century has focused, perhaps overly so, on us as individuals, the clay is again a powerful image to remind us of our relationship with God.

You see, at no point does the potter need the clay’s permission to remould it.

Think about that for a second.

While it runs counter to the individualism and freedom that we so often enjoy, what potter looks at the clay and says, “is it alright if I mould you today?”. 

Imagine your neighbour buys some lumber to build a fence, and you look out, and there they are, picking up each piece, holding it close to their face, and asking, “is it alright if I cut a few inches off to make you fit?”, or “would you to stand upright, or would you rather be a horizontal beam?”.

That’s ridiculous! 

But that’s also the point that is being made in Jeremiah.

Verse 6: “Can I not do with you” – my covenant people – “just as this potter has done?  Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand”.

No, the potter, a skilled and careful master at their trade, takes the lump of clay and sets out to turn it, to mould it, to shape it into something useful; the potter’s desire is to take that raw clay and give it a purpose.

The potter takes what the world looks at as dirt, but the potter knows its value. and skillfully, lovingly, brings that value to the surface as it is shaped to do the work that the potter intends.

And, in these terms, in this context, the image of the clay and the potter takes on a different light. 

Uncooperative Clay

In Jeremiah, we’re told that the clay is not cooperating with what the potter has in mind.  The potter set to work, but they clay was spoiled – as the clay is moulded, it dries out, it cracks, it won’t hold its shape.

But the potter isn’t wasteful; the potter doesn’t throw tantrums because of the wasted effort.

The potter, calmly, as a skilled master, simply pushes the spoiled clay back into a ball, washes it, pours on water to make it malleable again, and reworks it, again and again, until the clay takes the shape that the potter intends.

You are the potter, I am the clay.

If that’s true, then God is – even now – shaping you and me into a vessel that serves a purpose in his Kingdom.

He doesn’t need our permission, and our loving, patient God is working on every one of us, every person made in his image, whom he loves, and for whom he is willing to leave his throne and get his hands dirty.

Our call, though, as the Lord said to Jeremiah, is to cooperate as he shapes us by his hand.

Israel was given the covenant which was intended bless them, but, in the days of Jeremiah, they had forgotten that their obedience wasn’t just about rites and rituals, but about their actions and attitudes; the clay was drying out and wouldn’t keep its shape.

Our New Testament lessons today call us to cooperate, making the hard decisions asked of us under the New Covenant. 

To make the decision to put pride aside, and to welcome back those who have wronged us as a brother or sister.  The decision to prioritize and to trust in God, and to realize that, so often, we take the blessings that God has given us – family, talents, possessions – and turn those blessings into idols, or allow them to become badges of pride, as though one lump of clay sitting on the potter’s wheel could look down at another, when both are a work in progress.

The Cost of Discipleship

Our call is to cooperate – “to count the cost”, realizing that whenever we let go of those blessings that we have idolized – whether it’s the wealth and power to build a tower, or whether it’s the wholesome, God-given blessings of family – whenever we let go of our grip on what God has given us, we’ll find that we’re able to really receive the peace of Christ, to receive forgiveness for the past failings that we’ve been clinging to, and to find that – to our amazement – the potter is never done with us; when we’re broken down, when we’re worn out, he doesn’t throw us away, but reshapes us and gives us a purpose in his Kingdom. 

Our call is to count the cost and be a disciple.  When we’re worn out, when we’re exhausted, when we’re dried up, trying to resist the potter’s hands, we hear the call of Jesus to give up everything – mother, father, family, and even life itself.  And that sounds crazy.  But, you see, when we’re resisting the hands of the potter, it feels like to give in, to let God reshape us, will cost us everything. 

But, in the hands of the potter, cooperation with the will of God doesn’t cost us anything except our pride.

Let us pray:

Have thine own way, Lord.
You are the potter, and I am the clay.
Mould me, and make me after your will;
Fill me with your Spirit,
Till all shall see Christ:
only, always living in me.  Amen.