Repressed Questions and an Unknown God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Intentions: An Altar in Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not fear what they fear. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repressing the Deep Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Nan?”

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

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

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

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

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

…and she’s right.  It doesn’t.

Neither leg to stand on.

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

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

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

The Bold, Gentle Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Acts 17:22-31

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

[3] 1 Peter 3:14-16

[4] See John 14:17

The Transfiguration: Unbridled Power and Consuming Flame

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

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

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

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

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

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

A surprisingly familiar situation

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

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

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

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

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

Moses, obedient, went up the mountain. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to him.

Our God is in the business of revealing Himself.

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

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

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

We’re invited up the mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May God have mercy on us all.  Amen.


[1] Hebrews 8

[2] The analogy is my own.

Resistance in the face of Rebellion

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

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

We’re in the midst of a civil war.

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

We’re in the midst of a war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re in the midst of a civil war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are salt and light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To God be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.

What does He expect?

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

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

We are to be epiphanies to those around us.

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

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

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

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

The surprisingly simple response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about alignment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vision:

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

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

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

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

What does the Lord require?

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

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

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

The Potter and the Clay

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

“You are the potter; I am the clay”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God with us.

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

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

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

You are the potter, I am the clay.

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

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

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

Think about that for a second.

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

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

That’s ridiculous! 

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

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

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

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

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

Uncooperative Clay

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

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

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

You are the potter, I am the clay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of Discipleship

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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