There’s a gap in God’s story (and we’re in it!)

Well, after 31 weeks, today we come to the end of our walk through the Bible.  Since September, we’ve gone all the way from Genesis now to wrap things up in Revelation.

I won’t speak for everyone, but I know many of us have found this not just ‘worthwhile’, but completely eye-opening.  I’ve been reading and studying the Bible a long time, but I wish someone had given me a gift like this years ago – the gift of not getting lost in the weeds, but zooming out to see the big picture; the perspective-changing, mind-blowing gift of seeing how Adam, Eve, and the serpent connect to Moses lifting up the snake on the pole, and Jesus being lifted up on the cross; the gift of seeing how creation, the flood, Moses floating down the river in a basket, and the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan all relate to your own baptism; the gift of seeing why it was necessary for God to give the Law even though He knew we couldn’t keep it, and how the whole point of the new covenant is that God says “I will do it for you, you just need to trust me”; the life-changing, overarching gift of coming to see that, no, bad things don’t “happen for a reason”, but God can and will use the bad things of a broken world to bring about incredible good; the gift of learning that God does keep his promises, He does finish what He starts, whether that’s with us or in spite of us, and the quicker that we admit that He’s God, the quicker He can heal us, open our eyes to see ourselves as the beloved children that He wants us to be, and then offer ourselves to bring that good news to a hurting world.

What a gift. 

And it’s one of those things you won’t unlearn.  Once you’ve seen how the story fits together, how each character in the Bible has a part to play in God’s big plan, I think you can’t go back – and that’s a good thing.  It’s not a book of superheroes, but it’s also not a dry instruction manual: it’s a story; it’s a story of great love, of betrayal, of broken trust, but also of healing, and restoration, and victory over darkness.  And it’s eternal – it’s God inviting ordinary, broken, hurting people like you and me to trust Him, to learn to be apprentices of his son, to let the Holy Spirit move in and fix in us what we could never fix ourselves, and then to find ourselves doing things we wouldn’t ever dream of.

And the best part is that the story isn’t over.

There’s an incredible gap between chapter 30 and chapter 31, and it’s important we don’t miss it.  We’re living in that gap – the same Spirit who led the apostles to shake the world upside down, the same power that rose Jesus from the dead, the same Almighty God who can turn shipwrecks and imprisonments into victories, is at work in you and me, inviting us, in the same way that He invited Abraham and Moses and Ruth and Esther and the rest, to have our names written into the story. 

Think about that: the only thing that separates you from any one of these characters is time and place.  They’re ordinary men and women, caught up in the pain and circumstances of a broken world, facing doubts, carrying burdens, working through struggles and feelings of inadequacy, many with a past that haunts them, or with a point in their lives that made them want to give up.  Everyone in the story shares that struggle – even Jesus, because that’s what we mean when we say “he was made man”. 

But God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  His plan to break the curse, to restore humanity, to let us dwell in his presence and share in his glorious life is just as true for you today as it was for anyone we read in these pages.

And the invitation is just as real, too.

And have you noticed… the people around you are saying yes!

Look at our little church.  Look at the work we’ve done, not in our strength, but in our weakness!  You’d never imagine that this little group of people – less than 2% of our town – would be able to touch so many lives in so many ways.  We’ve got people who have never led a program before, and wouldn’t have ever dreamed of it, saying yes to God – “with God’s help”, I can lead GriefShare.  Listen to that: with God’s help, I can offer healing to those who are hurting!

With God’s help, I can be a lay leader, I can tell my story and help to lead my congregation.  We’ve got not one but two lay leaders who never dreamt of doing what they’re doing, but who said “ok… with God’s help, I can do it!”.

Over this summer you’re going to launch an ad campaign for Alpha; you’re going to run Alpha during a season without a Rector, and it’s going to be great!  And you’re not going to do it for yourselves – you already know the story.  You’re going to do it for your friends and neighbours and the strangers down the street, and you’re going to go beyond your comfort zone and you’re going to invite them in… why?  Because you’ve learned that it’s not about your strength or your words; it’s about trusting God through your weakness, and learning to simply say “ok… with God’s help, I can”.

I mean, seriously: a few of us were talking one day last fall about how to welcome seniors in, since the senior’s room in the rec centre is closed… and then what happened?  God said “here you go, do you trust me?” as the federal government handed over $23,000 to do a monthly seniors’ program.  Absolutely crazy, never in our wildest dreams.  But God invites us, and all we have to say is “ok… with God’s help, we can”.

We’ve learned – and are learning – to trust.  We’re not rich, but when’s the last time somebody stood at this lectern to worry about money.  No – we’re learning that God provides even more than we need, as long as we trust him to do it.  It’s like the manna in the wilderness, if we trust God to provide what we need for the moment, He will, but if we try to hoard it so we don’t need to trust anymore, it dries up. 

We’re learning to trust.  Going without a rector is hard, and we’re certainly sad to go, but we’re not going to worry about it – there’s no point!  We know God’s going to finish what He starts, so God will raise up people and equip them with the gifts we need.  We’re trusting, not worrying: and God provides.  Just this week, we got confirmation that we have a theological student coming as our full-time intern for July and August, and though I can’t share any details yet, there’s already a good application from an experienced priest who feels called to serve here.

You see, there’s a big gap between chapter 30 – the end of Paul’s life, and chapter 31.  And we’re living in that gap.

Each and every day God calls you individually and together as a church to be part of this incredible story that is still being written.

We know how the story ends.  It hasn’t happened yet, but the same God who kept His word and who empowered ordinary people to do the impossible has said it’s His plan.  We know God’s plan to dwell in paradise with redeemed humanity will be accomplished.

And, not to be harsh, but we should realize at this point that God’s plan doesn’t depend on me or you.  It doesn’t depend on St. John’s.  God will finish what He started with or without us.  But, He invites us to be part of it.  He says “do you trust me?  …Let’s do this!  Come, be part of my story.”

So the only question is whether we say “Lord, that’s crazy, I’m not qualified, I don’t have the answers… but, “I will, with God’s help”.

Or whether we say “no thanks”, and become one of those who stand in the way; whether God accomplishes his plan in spite of us.

My friends, the serpent’s head is crushed.  Death and the grave will be thrown away.  The curse will be ended, and humanity will finally be set free to reflect God’s glory instead of being bent inward on ourselves.  We will, one day, maybe soon, maybe long after we rest with our ancestors, be gathered before God to hear those wonderful words “well done, my good and faithful servant”, and welcomed into the land of love, peace, joy, and light that God had planned from the beginning.  You and I, if we’re willing, will live with all the redeemed in the light of God’s presence, with access to the tree of life itself.

But for now, we’re living in the gap in the Story.  And the characters, unlikely as it may seem, are me and you.

Will we be part of God’s story?  Let’s say yes.  Let’s continue to trust, more than we’ve ever trusted before.  Because you never know – it could be that, a couple generations from now, the story of this little church in this little town is the story that other Christians read for inspiration.  We know God uses the littlest and the least… but first, we have to say “yes”.

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

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.

Radical Generosity: I choose to see you as my equal.

James writes: “What good is it, my friends, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed or hungry, and you say “go in peace, be warm and filled”, without giving them what they need, what good is that?”

Today’s Lessons: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

We’ve all heard and know that faith without works is dead – it’s not enough to believe that Jesus is Lord, to believe that we’re all made in the Image of God and that we have a story of freedom and mercy to bring to all the world, if we’re not going to turn that into real action.

We all know that.

But have you ever thought about the fact that works aren’t just physical things we do: they’re not just deeds done – like feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, or offering a word of encouragement or a listening ear when someone is lost and lonely.  Works are more than that.  There’s a reason that, when we confess our sins, we’re taught to ask for forgiveness not just for things done or left undone, or for the words we’ve said: no, we ask forgiveness for thoughts, words, and deeds.

The big idea for today is that, as much as faith without works is dead, one of those necessary works is changing how we think about and see each other.

God’s Generous Perspective

We all know that God is good and God is generous.  He provides for all people – the good and the bad, the faithful and the self-righteous.  What does anyone of us have that doesn’t boil down to a gift from God?

But as we read in today’s lessons, one of the great gifts of God that we rarely think about is the gift of his generous perspective.  God’s gifts to us aren’t just stuff or talents or health and strength; one of the greatest gifts he gives us is the way he chooses to see us.

In Proverbs today, we’re reminded that, unlike the way the world works, God doesn’t see rich or poor. As James teaches, God doesn’t see well-dressed or shabby, and he doesn’t see worldly power or the many distinctions we make between people.  Jesus shows us today in the Gospel that he doesn’t respect the boundaries we set up about race or language or inequality.

No: the great gift of God’s perspective is that He looks past all of that.  He looks at us, in the moment, as men and women made in His Image, and looks only to see if we’re reflecting that Image back.  He looks past all the distinctions and divisions we make to see if we’ve unpacked – or at least opened – that gift of faith, and whether we’re allowing his love, mercy, joy, peace, and abundant life to shine, reflected back – to His Glory, and for all the world to see.

Reflecting God’s Glory

Now, we’ve spoken before about the fact that we are created to reflect the glory of God.

But it’s important for us to remember that isn’t just about the warm, fuzzy ideas of reflecting God’s love and light.  Faith without works is dead, but one of those works is choosing to look at others as God looks at us, the work of choosing to share God’s perspective both for ourselves and for those around us.  And let me say: that’s a far more difficult task than donating some time, talent, or treasure.  Learning to share God’s perspective is the life-long task of allowing your mind to be transformed, renewed by being an apprentice, a disciple, of Christ Jesus.

Radical Generosity?

It’s easy for us to limit generosity.  The world thinks only of charity, giving from what you have to someone who has less, whether it’s a millionaire generously building a wing on a hospital with their name written over the door, or someone making a donation to support the food bank or PWRDF.  But like so many other things, God’s definition goes deeper, and asks more of us.

Now don’t get me wrong – that charitable sort of generosity is great.  In fact, James says it’s essential.  You can’t get emptier words than looking at a hungry person and saying “oh, feel full!  Think happy thoughts!  Don’t be hungry any more” and walking away! 

But, at the same time, we all know giving great gifts doesn’t mean you have a generous spirit.

So as James says, yes, we’re to fill and clothe those in need, but reflecting God’s generosity means we’re also going to look at them from God’s perspective.

Whether rich or poor, regardless of any of those distinctions or lines we draw based on   race, or gender, or addictions, or whether they’re unemployed, or whether they live in housing, or struggling against a mental illness, or fighting the demons of childhood trauma and broken families, or whether we disagree with how they raise their kids, or even whether they smell and just don’t appear to take pride in what they’ve been given, or even if they’ve earned a reputation for taking advantage of the system – regardless of all of that, God’s perspective is to look at that person and say “yeah, I know what you’ve done, but I love you, and I want you to be my child; I’ll always give you another chance as long as you live – take it, don’t trust yourself, trust in me”.

That’s God’s radical generosity.  And that’s the sort of incredibly hard work, without which our faith is simply dead, little more than empty words saying “be well, be full, be happy”.

Are we willing to look past all those lines that we draw and reflect God’s generous perspective back to a world that divides and enslaves and weighs people down?

Faith in Practice

Faith without works is dead, but the matter of putting faith into action is always a hard one.  God’s not saying “go, be taken advantage of”; after all, it was Jesus who said we’re to be shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves!  And we all know Jesus was making a point when he told the rich young man to sell everything if he wanted to be a disciple: it wasn’t that his stuff kept him from the Kingdom of God, it was the fact that his heart was attached, weighed down by that stuff.

But the point is, when it comes to reflecting God’s generosity, putting faith into action it’s not a matter of just writing a cheque, buying a meal, or spending an hour chatting with one who is sick or lonely. 

God generously looks at each person and says “I love you as much as I love my own Son; I want you to be my child”, so we’re to look at each person – no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what they did[1] – and change our thinking, to do that work of looking at that person and thinking “I want you to be my brother or sister”, of seeing that person, in whatever condition they might be, and honestly saying to yourself “I would love nothing better than if this person, right here, would come to church, put their faith in God, and be my brother or sister in Christ, so we can work together, learn to live together, and bear one-another’s burdens”.

That’s radical generosity.  Anyone – even the most selfish – can put in a few dollars for the Christmas food and toy drive.  But God’s generosity, the one we’re called to share, is to allow your mind to be transformed so that your honest desire is to welcome that hungry, or lonely, or annoying, or lazy, or sly, or mean person into your family of faith, trusting that God can do the same work of forgiving, healing, and changing their heart as he’s done for each of us.

What does the law of God require?

That you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and that you love your neighbour as yourself.

– The Summary of the Law

Yes, that’s our faith.  But the trick is turning faith into action, adopting the perspective, allowing your mind to be trained to think “I don’t see rich or poor.  I don’t see you as powerful, or unemployed. I don’t see you as anything greater or less than my equal, and as God looks at me, I’m going to choose to love you as myself.”

It’s a tall order.  But that’s the kind of faith-in-action that changes lives, and changes communities, and changes the world.  That’s the kind of radical generosity that God is calling us to live.  My God give us his grace to say “ok, here I am, I’m willing, send me.” 

[1] Yes, I guess that is a Backstreet Boys reference.  It just happened… sorry, I grew up in the 90s!

God in a box? The problem of perspective.

As human beings, one of our biggest skills is putting things into boxes.

No, I don’t mean physically packing things away in boxes.  But one of the things that sets us apart from animals, one of the ways we show this God-given gift of reason is our ability to categorize things, to understand what something does, and to give it a proper place.

If you give a dog a nice big ham bone after Sunday dinner, that dog has no problem taking that juicy, dripping bone and running to her soft bed or, if you’re not watching, taking that wet bone up on the couch.  And if your dog gets wet, he has no problem shaking that water off wherever he is, throwing that water in every direction.  People are different – at least we can be; we’re built to organize and categorize our lives.  We have one room for cooking, another area for eating, one room for showering, and unlike that dog, we had better dry off before tracking that water through the hall back to the bedroom!

That ability to distinguish between things, to compare and contrast things that have no obvious connection in nature is part of the Image of God given to us. 

Yet, as we read today in the book of Kings, we have to acknowledge the limits of our ability to categorize things, to put things in neat little boxes.  We have to remember that our experience is limited by our experience, that our perspective is limited by the position in which we find ourselves, and our ability to imagine what is possible is limited by the weakness of our own power to change the world around us.

God in a box.

All of us know in our heads that God is present everywhere.  ‘Where can I go to escape your presence?  If I go to the highest mountain or the deepest depths of the sea, even if I go to the grave, you are there.’ (Psalm 139). 

And maybe you’ve never thought of it this way before, but as we’ll see this year as we read The Story together, God’s singular desire is for us to live with Him; all of scripture is God showing the lengths to which the Trinity will go to bring us into their life and presence. 

But as we come to our Old Testament lesson today, we see God being put into a box.

Now, throughout the history of God’s people, He’s been with them, revealed in different ways at different times.  In dreams and visions, in the visitation of angels; the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire that led from captivity to freedom, as a smoky cloud of power and presence that hovered over the Ark of the Covenant in the tent of meeting as Israel wandered the wilderness.  But now, having come to peace in the promised land, King David had been hard at work building up the city of Jerusalem, erecting strong walls and gates, and a lofty palace to rival the homes of neighbouring kingdoms.  And then he asks the question: is it right that I, the king, live in a palace, while God is worshipped in a tent? (2 Samuel 7:2).  God refuses to let David build the house of God, because he had shed too much human blood in battle; instead, God appoints Solomon, David’s son, to build the temple where God’s presence would reside.

Solomon does that.  Construction takes 7 years.  It’s an big structure, even by modern standards.  The holy of holies – the dwelling place of God – is at the centre, a windowless box with 40-foot ceilings, surrounded by an inner courtyard for sacrifice and thanksgiving, and an enormous outer courtyard for teaching and worship and public festivals. 

But here’s the amazing thing: God, who is present everywhere, whom the heavens and the earth cannot contain, actually moves in.  God’s desire for us to live with him is so great that the Creator will move into – take up residence in – the creation.

The question, though, is why does God do that?

Did God need a house?  Was he lacking in wood and marble, in silver and gold, in incense and offerings?  No, not at all. 

God takes up residence in the temple, just as he takes up residence here, in this holy house of worship, for our sake.  God knows we were created with the gift and curiosity to try and understand the world – after all, that’s God’s Image in us.  God chooses to be present and worshipped in visible, physical ways because he knows we have trouble perceiving what we cannot see; he knows that our perspective is limited to what is right there, in front of our eyes.

You may have heard it preached before that the good news of the new covenant is that God is not contained in a temple far away in Jerusalem.  And that’s true – God is not contained in any box made by human hands.  But the amazing truth we read in scripture is that God is willing to take up residence among us. 

God is not a philosophy; God is not a feeling; God is not a theology or rules or a set of right answers to rhyme off.  God is alive; God is someone we can know; God wants us to live with him, and he’s willing to do what it takes to make that happen – even taking up residence within four walls if that’s what it takes for us to experience the reality of His presence.

The Problem of Perspective

But even God moving in and being really present in a house in each neighbourhood is not enough for many to see and accept his presence.

Remember back in the Garden of Eden?  The temptation offered by the serpent wasn’t to disobey God – that’s not enticing at all.  The temptation that got Eve to eat that fruit was the temptation to trust her own perspective.  That’s enticing.  The serpent didn’t say “go ahead, disobey God!”.  The serpent said “that fruit looks nice, doesn’t it?”  “Looks like a good fruit, don’t you think?”  “God said it would kill you, but it doesn’t look like it would kill you, does it?”  “Maybe it’s so good, God just doesn’t want you to have it”. 

The temptation that led to sin invading the world was the temptation to limit the truth to our own perspective.  The temptation to think that we have all the facts instead of trusting that God knows the big picture and, even when it doesn’t make much sense to us, He is working things together for the good of those who love him.

God took up residence in Solomon’s temple, to be the crowning glory of His people, now established in the promised land.  God moved into those four walls, not that they contained him, but so that his people would have a place to come to be assured of his presence; just as we have a bedroom for sleeping and a kitchen for eating, so too the faithful would have a place of prayer, a place where, each year, each month, each week, they could gather, choose to see things from God’s perspective, repent of all the times we did and said or acted – or made excuses – based on our own perspectives, and in that place know the truth that God wants us to live with him so much that he makes himself present even in our messy, complicated lives.

But the temptation to trust our own perspective is always there, the temptation to falsely believe that our understanding, our point of view is the full story, rather than trusting in God’s big picture.

It’s an attractive temptation, and closer to home than we like to admit.  In the Gospel today, Jesus says that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood abides in him.  At the last supper Jesus says ‘this bread is my body; this cup is my blood; when you gather, do this to recall my covenant with you’.  Once again, God’s desire is to be with us in a tangible way, for us to know he is present with us around the table in the act of taking our daily bread.  But how much ink and energy has been wasted; how much blood and how many lives were lost in the wars at the Reformation because we look from our perspectives and say “how can God fit in a piece of bread?”.

But the point of the temple or the Eucharist was never to contain God, to mark his limits.  It’s the total opposite; if we see it from God’s perspective, the point is that God loves you so much that he wants to live in these four walls for you to come and visit; he wants to sit with you at the table; and he wants to take up residence in you, to guide and direct and comfort you from the inside out.

Discipleship and “Checking Boxes”

I’ve had lots of conversations lately about the day-to-day actions of our faith.  Since that discipleship training day back in June, a number of you have been experimenting with morning or evening prayer, with spending a few minutes reading scripture each day, or taking on a new role in outreach and caring for one another, or even reframing your care for those around you as an act of obedience to the Lord.

As we prepare to embark on a parish-wide year of bible reading with The Story, it’s important for us to remember that, when we see things from God’s perspective, even little actions will have ripple effect far bigger than we can imagine from our point of view.

Solomon preaches at the dedication of the temple that if a foreigner – that is, someone outside of God’s covenant – even turns toward God’s house, God will hear and act.  If one of the faithful – you or I – comes to seek God’s mercy and comfort, it is given. 

Now think about that.  A stranger, walking down the other side of the street, depressed and anxious on the way to work, hears the bell at 8am, sees the church and says “if there’s even a God, I need help.”  That’s an act of faith – yes, a tiny one – but it’s one that God hears as he continues his work of helping her to align her will with his.

It’s just as Paul tells us today to do the work of putting on the armour of faith.  Not fall into it, not wake up and magically find yourself fully dressed, but do the action, put it on.  Wear the truth, strap on righteousness, know the peace that comes from being ready to trust God’s big picture rather than your own perspective, and faithfully pick up the gift of faith as it is strengthened by the Spirit dwelling in you and the Word of God going into your eyes and ears each day.

My friends, God can’t be contained in a box… or a temple, or a church, or a set of rules, or a piece of bread, or a theology book, or a plan for discipleship.  But God wills to dwell with us in real and visible ways.  We’re not checking boxes or doing empty rituals; we’re taking God at his word!  When he says “gather in my presence”, gather in his presence.  When he says “read my Word”, let’s do it.  When he says “if you serve one of the least of these, you’ve served me”, let’s serve him.  When he says “repent, and agree to see things as they really are”, confess and change your way. When he says “go out and invite them in”, let’s roll out the welcome mat, and when he says “trust me, I’m with you always”, let’s learn to take him at his word, even when we can’t – no, especially when we can’t see what he’s doing, or where he’s leading, or what he has in store.  It’s in those moments, standing on the promises of God, that we truly learn that God’s will is to be with us here and now, so that we can be with Him forever.

To God be the glory.  Amen.

The dangerous lie of self-reliance

We live in a world based on personal choices.  Our society is based on the freedom to choose: we can decide what we want to be when we grow up, and work towards it; we can choose who we want to marry; more than ever before, we can choose where we want to live, as families are spread out across the world; we can choose our leaders at the ballot box; we can choose which church we attend, or not to attend at all.  Modern society is founded on the idea of choice.  Even when it comes to controversial topics, the virtue we hear spread far and wide is the ‘virtue’ of minding your own business.

Now don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of benefits that come from our freedom to make decisions.  As Kristina and I celebrate 10 years of marriage this week, I’m reminded that even 60 years ago, our marriage would have been practically impossible: she was raised a Roman Catholic, and I’m an Anglican; it’s not that long ago in Newfoundland that the idea of ‘intermarriage’ would have been completely unthinkable.  Or, even my freedom to answer God’s call to ministry: it wasn’t that long ago that the son of a fisherman simply couldn’t choose to attend university, let alone find himself kneeling before a bishop to present himself for ordination.  There’s a lot of good that comes with the ability to choose.

But there’s a flipside to that, one that we rarely think about.

As “mind your business” has been drilled into us by the world, we’ve learned along the way that my life is my business.  We’ve learned that, just as we’re free to make choices, we’re supposed to depend on ourselves to carry them out.  And, when things don’t work out, what are we taught to do?  Forge ahead, making lemonade out of lemons.

The flipside of the freedom to choose is the lie that life is meant to be every person for themselves.

Building one another up.

One of the most radical – and, sadly, under-emphasized – ideas of Christianity is that it’s not each to his own, come hell or high water.  The radical truth that we proclaim is that your efforts won’t secure your success; that it isn’t up to us to pull ourselves up and dust ourselves off; that the most important choice we can make is to surrender our supposed freedom to the Lord and accept the shared life of the Body of Christ.

But it’s a hard lesson, isn’t it? The best choice we can ever make is to stop relying on ourselves alone.

This lie of self-reliance, the flip-side of everyone having to mind their own business, is truly heartbreaking.  If our eyes are open, we see the effects even here in our little church.

Every week… no, closer to every day that I walk around town ‘in uniform’, I run into hurting people who come straight out and say “oh, you’re the minister?  I can’t come to church until I get my life back together”, or, “you wouldn’t want someone like me in your church”.

It’s gut-wrenching.  There’s all sorts of explanations, but a big part of it is the lie that we have to put ourselves back together.  It’s the downside of a world that tells us to “mind your own business”.

Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself: what’s the instinct when you’ve had a bad week, when something embarrassing or sensitive has happened, or when word gets out that your marriage is in a rough place, or money is too tight, or you had too much to drink and made a fool of yourself, or it turns out that your child isn’t a model of good character?  Our instinct – taught over and over again by a society built on self-sufficiency – is to hide away.

At those very moments when God has provided the Church, the Body of Christ, and instructed us very plainly that we are to carry one another’s burdens, not just to rejoice with those who rejoice, but to weep with those who are hurting and, when someone finds themselves beat up and lying in the ditch of life, to bind them up and nurse them back to health. The twin lies of minding your own business and relying on no one but yourself lead us to reject the fellowship and ministry of the Church… at least, we say, until we straighten ourselves out first.

As we read this morning in Ephesians, the message of the Gospel is the exact opposite, almost uncomfortably so.

“walk… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” (It’s as if Paul knows it’s going to be messy!)  “… There is one body and one Spirit…” and the work of the ministry that we offer to each other isn’t from a place of ‘having it all together’.  No, what does Paul write?  He says that on our own, we’re immature, “tossed two and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” and by craftiness and deceit.[1] 

On the one hand: ouch!  That’s pretty harsh, especially as those raised to fend for ourselves: Paul says we’re immature and easily tossed around.  But if we can get away from that lie of self-reliance, we’ll find that the message of the Gospel, that God’s plan, is for us to be knit together, a family where every person – broken though we may be – has a place and the opportunity to both build one-another up and to be built up by the ministry of God through others.

Just look at that last line from today’s epistle: “when each part is working properly” – joined to Christ, the head – it “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love”.

Do we build ourselves up?  Do we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?  Does the person lying beaten in the ditch have to clean himself up first and take a shower before the Samaritan can bring him to hospital?  Does the family carrying the burdens of life need to get their act together before they come to  my office?  Does the drunk on the bench at the four-way need to get sober before she’s welcome at a recovery meeting?  No!

Sure, it’s insulting, but Paul’s pretty clear: you can’t build yourself up, you’ll only be tossed about and blown around by lies.  What we need is to come together, all of us as imperfect followers of Jesus, and the result is that we’ll all be built up together, better than we could ever be alone.

It takes that harsh realization that yes, all I once held dear, and everything I’ve tried, everything I’ve built my life upon, at worst it backfired; at best, it’s going to be worthless because I can’t take it with me.  It takes the bold move to go against everything the world teaches, and instead of putting on a brave face and listing the things that make you a “good person”, admitting that the greatest thing you can do is make the choice to surrender, to proclaim not yourself – successes and failures – but proclaim the love of Jesus, and to say together with all the Body that Christ alone is the sure foundation, our only strength and stay amid the waves and winds of life.

Just imagine if word got out that the Church was the place to go when life is rough, not the place to hide away from until you get your life together or make yourself “good enough”.  Just imagine if word got out that the Church was a hospital for sinners, where our business isn’t “minding your business”, but carrying one another, lifting one another up, working together as apprentices of Jesus our Master, as we are built up together.

It’s a choice.

As great as it is to live in a world of choices, a world where we can choose to be what we want to be, it means we have to be honest about the shocking message of the Gospel. 

More than ever before, we’re told to seek what makes us happy; we’re told to find fulfilment and to find our purpose; to be mindful and seek our well-being, to satisfy that inner hunger.  We’re not unlike that crowd in the Gospel, who had their bellies filled with loaves and fishes, so they showed up the next day looking to get their bellies filled again.[2]

But the choice of turning to Jesus, the choice of coming into the embrace of the Church isn’t one of choosing what fills you up or makes you feel good.  It’s the stunning act of saying “yes, I’m free to choose; I’m free to go it alone.  But, I choose to come as I am – not as I hope to be, I choose to surrender, I choose to give up chasing what fills me up or makes me happy, and instead I offer myself as a servant, to begin the work of being built up by the Body of Christ, as I also let myself be used by Christ to build up others.

That’s the key to growing into maturity as followers of Jesus, of becoming all that God wants us to be to do the work he has given us to do.  And, in a world of choices, yes it starts with a choice: the earth-shattering, life-changing choice to stop going it alone, to admit that, yes, as harsh as it sounds, left to my own devices, I will be blown around by the lies of the world, so I choose the sure foundation that is faith in Jesus.

Relying on ourselves and following our bellies will leave us tossed about and empty.  But whoever turns to Jesus will never hunger or thirst, and will find themselves built into something greater than we could ever ask or imagine. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] Ephesians 4:1-16

[2] Luke 6:24-35

Sleeping through a storm.

And Jesus was in the stern of the boat, asleep on a cushion.  Mark 4:38

Today we learn what trust looks like from God’s perspective.

This is an amazing scene.  Jesus has been travelling the countryside with his disciples, teaching in parables, healing the sick, bringing hope and mercy to those who are lost.  All along the way, we’re told, he goes into greater detail with the Twelve, sitting quietly with them in the morning or evening and answering their questions about how the parables apply to life.  And then, one night after teaching about faith – you’ll remember the parable from last week, about the gardener who spread his seeds and then did what?  …went to bed, and got up, and faithfully went about his day, and went to bed again, and kept on faithfully going about his days until one day, without him knowing how or even really when, the seed of faith had sprouted.

So it’s evening, Jesus has just shared this last parable, and then he says “guys, it’s time for us to go to the other side of the lake”.  The ‘lake’ we’re talking about here is the Sea of Galilee, 13 km across, the same lake where Peter and Andrew and James and John had fished for years.  So they hop in a sail boat and head out into the dark night, along with the other boats also catching the evening wind as it changes direction. 

So there they are, bobbing about in a little lboat on the dark waters when the gentle breeze becomes a mighty storm, so big that the waves are crashing up over the side, as they start to notice the water gathering around their sandals.  And having just been taught about faith, what do the disciples do?  They freak out.  They’re anxious.  I imagine them calling to each other, passing around buckets or basins.  Having grown up around opinionated fishermen, I imagine them calling to each other in pretty salty language about whether or not they should turn back.  We know it wasn’t their boat, so I imagine Andrew or John, one of the guys who had called in a favour from an old fishing buddy, worrying how they’re going to pay for the damage to the boat since Jesus already had them give up fishing, so it’s not like they were earning any income.

The wind is howling, the waves are crashing as chilly water creeps up over their feet, they’re yelling, they’re worried, they’re scared and probably fighting amongst themselves. 

…and where was Jesus?

Mark 4, verse 38: “and Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion”.

(Isn’t this fun?  The Bible is full of surprises!)

Now this might seem a little shocking.  It might even seem offensive, or wrong when we first think about it.  Our Lord’s closest friends aren’t just anxious – they’re fearful.  They’re scared to death: they yell at Jesus, “don’t you care that we’re going to die?!”  They’re scurrying about, talking about turning around, wondering about the damage that could be done, maybe even wishing that Jesus would get off his cushion and give them a hand bailing out the boat.

What’s going on here – in their moment of life and death anxiety, hearts pounding, wind howling, waves crashing, the Lord’s asleep! 

I think the disciples’ question is a fair one: does Jesus not care that they’re perishing?  It’s like the Israelites in the desert with Moses: “have you brought us here to die?  There were plenty of graves back where we came from!”

Yet, even through all these difficult questions, this is where we find an incredible lesson.

Faith is a gift; it’s not something we can drum up within ourselves. Like the gardener, our task is to faithfully rise and go about our day while God gives the growth.

But trust… well, that’s a different story.

Trusting God in the Storm.

Trust isn’t a gift – it’s something that must be exercised, it’s something that increases with use, just as we know that being found trustworthy with something small results in being entrusted with more.

Are the disciples’ worries and concerns and fears legitimate?  If you’re out at sea in a sailboat at night in a windstorm, you don’t have a lifeboat or any lifejackets, and your boat is taking on water, is it fair to be worried?  Yes.  The concerns are all legitimate.

But this is where trust comes in.

Whose idea was it to get into the boat this night?  Was it Peter?  Andrew?  Matthew?  No, Jesus set the course.  Jesus knew the starting point, he set the destination, and he knew the way to get there.

And, did Jesus send them off alone to fend for themselves?  No.  Now, you might say it doesn’t look like he’s very actively involved – he’s asleep on a cushion, after all.  But the question can’t be “do I see exactly how God is involved in this situation?”.  No, the question of faith is simply “is Jesus with me?”.  The same Jesus who said that when we go forth on his mission, he is with us always.  The same Jesus who said that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he’s in their midst.  So maybe you can’t see what he’s doing – maybe it looks like Jesus is taking a nap – but is Jesus in the boat?  Yes.

So, out on the dark, stormy sea, is it right for those disciples to take action, to grab buckets, to bail out the water?  Yes, absolutely. 

Is it right for them to call out to Jesus and say ‘Lord, we need you!’.  Yes. 

Is it right for them to say ‘maybe we should turn back.’  ‘Maybe the cost is too high, who will fix the boat if this doesn’t work’.  Is it right for them to say ‘I can’t see a way out of this, this will be the death of me.’  No. 

Even when the storms are swirling around us, that’s where trust teaches us to draw the line.  My friends, hear this –

            If Jesus sets the course
            and Jesus is in the boat
            we will make it to our destination.

It’s far better to be in the raging storm with Jesus, following faithfully where he leads, headed with him and with our brothers and sisters towards the destination that our mission requires, than home, safe asleep in our beds, but going nowhere.

It’s an odd sort of encouragement, isn’t it?

How much easier it would be if, by having Jesus in the boat, we could just avoid the storms altogether.  But that’s not how it works. 

Jesus didn’t create the storm – the storm is just part of life in this fallen world, and we know Jesus didn’t purposefully make a storm come up to teach them a lesson or any other pious foolishness; after all, Jesus rebukes the storm – he wouldn’t rebuke it if it was doing what He wanted. 

But I believe Jesus knew the storm was there, he knew it was coming.  But can the storms of life separate us from the plans God has, from the destination to which he’s asking us to follow?  No, never. 

Jesus set the course.
Jesus is in the boat.
They’re going to make it to their destination.

But it requires trust.  Here’s the hard lesson: it’s not the storm that’s going to keep them from their destination.  The one who created wind and waves is with them, and He’s at peace.  The only thing going to keep them from their destination is if they give in to their fears. 

If they say “I know Jesus wanted to cross over, but this was a bad idea, lets go back”, they might try to blame it on the storm, but the decision to turn back was theirs.

If they say “I know He can walk on water; I know he can heal the sick and feed the hungry and raise the dead, but I’m scared, I’m running around franticly, and he won’t run around franticly with me”, we might blame it on the storm, but the decision to turn back is ours.

Rather, the question we can ask is: “are we going where Jesus leads?”  Did He set the course, or was this my plan?  If it’s my plan, turn back! 

The question we can ask is, simply, “is Jesus with us?”.  Am I going my own way?  Do I have the body of Christ, my brothers and sisters, carrying this burden, facing this storm with me?  Have I invited my brothers or sisters in Christ to walk with me, knowing that when two or three are together, Jesus is there; or, am I trying to face this alone, with no room for Jesus or anyone else?  If the only one you can trust is yourself, then yes, turn back.

You see, trust is knowing that the one who set the destination and is going with you on the way will complete the good work that has begun.  He will guard us, guide us, keep us, and feed us; he will guide the future as he has the past – because, really, no matter how anxiously we flail about, who else can be our helper?  If the waves are going to crash through the side of your boat, your little bucket isn’t worth trusting in.  Our only hope – in life and in death – is that we are not our own, but belong to God; and if we’re in the boat that he chose, on the course that he set, and he’s journeying with us, we don’t need to fear the storm.

Not just forgetting fear.

But this is not just about ignoring the storm, or bottling up our fears.  We are disciples.  We are the apprentices learning from our Master. 
And what is the goal of the Christian life?  The imitation of Christ.

“Jesus awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

As we grow into the image and likeness of Christ, as our anxious mind is transformed by following God’s will, as our hard hearts are replaced with tender hearts of flesh, we not only trust God’s destination, but we, too, will learn to be at peace – maybe even able to sleep through! – the storms life throws at us.  Even more, when we trust the course He has set and are sure of his presence with us, we will learn, with Christ, to simply echo his voice which settles the storm and brings peace.

Have you met those people?  People facing incredible hardship, real pain, maybe even those for whom the dark clouds of death are closing in.  Yet, through a life of faith, they’re not afraid.  They know that Jesus set the course they’re following; they know that Jesus is with them; they trust they’ll make it safely to their destination, and that, my friends, opens the door to the peace that passes all understanding – peace that makes no human sense, apart from the sure and certain faith that God will complete the good work that he has started.

And Jesus was asleep on a cushion.  Should we fear?  No.  Put your trust in God, and remember:

If Jesus sets the course
and Jesus is in the boat
we will make it to our destination.

Languishing, Growth, and Direction

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

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

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

The Branch is Invigorated by the Vine

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

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

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

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

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

The Invigorated Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vines are a long-term investment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Present in the Moment; Waiting on the Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strengthened for Service

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Now What?

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

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

…but what does Jesus do? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in the moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. 

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

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

Hearing God’s Voice in the Noise

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

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

This is one of those weeks. 

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

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

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

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

Hearing God’s Voice

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

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

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

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

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

Be Still and Know…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be ready to listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come and See.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speak, O Lord…

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

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

[1] 1 Kings 19:11-15

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

[3] Job 33:14-18

[4] 1 Corinthians 3:19-20

[5] Isaiah 55:8-9

[6] 1 John 4:2-5

[7] Luke 7:22

Guilt, Shame, and the Holy Spirit.

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

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

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

I think he was on to something.

I am a child of God.

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

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

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

Water and the Holy Spirit

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

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

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

And that’s where Christian baptism changes everything.

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

And that changes everything.

Guilt or Shame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you received The Holy Spirit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

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

To God be the glory, now and forever more.