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.