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.

Saints: Called to do the Impossible*

On this day the Church throughout the world celebrates the saints of God.  While we know from scripture that all of us – every baptized believer – is called to be a saint, set apart and equipped for the service of God, on this day we take encouragement in those who have gone before, those who are now at rest and who have joined that great cloud of spectators, praising God and cheering us on as they eagerly await the time when God will make all things new.

Of course, the Church remembers hundreds of saints throughout the year. If you have one of the lovely church calendars, you see that, most days, there’s the name there of someone who, while certainly not perfect, served God faithfully, repented when they missed the mark, and left a legacy of faithful service for the Church to follow.  (In fact, if you haven’t done it before, I encourage you to Google those names; every one of them is an encouragement, as each of them shows us an example of what it means to follow Jesus in the midst of a messy, broken world.)

But this feast of All Saints makes the point that it’s not just the recognized heroes of the faith who are part of that great cloud of witnesses.  No, the vast majority of the saints of God are ordinary people like you and me who sought to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and flowing out from that, loved their neighbour as themselves.  The great news of this day is that it’s not just Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that are at rest, praising God and cheering us on; no, every faithful Christian: that caring, Christian Grade 2 teacher who patiently spent the time to set you on the right path; that faithful, cheerful old man who always made time to speak to you, to let you know that you mattered, and to give you a word of encouragement; that stranger, in your life for mere moments, whose actions showed you God’s love and mercy at the exact moment you needed it – though they had no idea the impact it made; even that faithful, prayerful great aunt, raised in the depression, who kept her tables covered in plastic,  lovingly covered every chair to protect the fabric, and insisted that you always use a coaster, who taught the whole family, by example, to really know that every single thing you have is a blessing from God: all of them are saints at rest. 

Today we celebrate, and focus in on the examples and encouragement they are to us who are still running our race, and we thank God for those who, in every age, show us what it means to live by grace and to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

How do we follow their example?

First, let me offer this brief statement.

Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible,
not to earn a reward,
but to imitate Christ
with their abundant, over-flowing life.

Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible. 
And we are all called to be saints.

I think it’s important, especially in extraordinary times like these, to be clear about this. 

As we know, this pandemic isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon that we started running without even knowing where the finish line might be.  Are we nearing the end?  Are we only half way?  What surprises lie around the next corner?  We just don’t know.

Some have the instinct, the gut reaction to feel the adrenaline pumping and jump into action, caring for those around them; some have the instinct to retreat and conserve emotional and physical energy, not knowing what the future holds.  But listen to this: as Christians, as those called to be saints, we are called to do what is humanly impossible.

Jesus said “give all that you have and follow me”, and the disciples, like the rich man, got depressed and said ‘Lord, are you sure?  That’s a hard saying.  What’s the point?  Who can even be saved?’  But Jesus looked at them, calling them away from focusing on their own weakness, and said “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.[1]

The saints aren’t those who have mustered up all their own strength to serve God. 

The saints aren’t those who are ‘trying their best’ or ‘giving their all’ in a difficult situation.

No, the saints recognize, right off the bat, that the task in front of them is absolutely impossible. 
The saints are those who know, right from the outset, that there’s no way I can do this. 

The saints are those who see what needs to be done, who sees the road laid out before them, and instead of taking a deep breath and giving it their best, they know, they even embrace, deep down, that ‘with man, this job, this task is going to be impossible; so it can’t be me, it’ll have to be God working in me, for with God, all things are possible.’

So much of the Christian life is simply and absolutely impossible on our own.  It’s not natural for the poor to feel blessed, for the meek to inherit the earth, for those who seek righteousness to be satisfied in an unjust world, for those who are persecuted to rejoice and be glad.[2]  With man these are impossible.  You’d wear yourself out trying, and wind up bitter, anxious, and depressed.  It’s only with God’s help that we can follow in Christ’s footsteps.

And, you know what my friends?  Thanks be to God, we’re doing the impossible!

Let’s be honest: we’re a small church filled with grey heads and little kids.  This time last year, we had just started our Kids’ Club and Community Dinners, and a lot of those parents who were reaching out were asking “where’s the Anglican Church?”.  Young people, parents living in this small town had never even noticed that we were here.

And now – in a pandemic – we’re doing the impossible. Bellies are filled.  Walls of isolation and despair are broken down.  Mountains of crippling debt that keep people enslaved are cast down as they access the money they are due.  People are finding the support they need.  People are finding hope in a time when it’s easy to give up.

The Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible – because it’s not us. 

Seriously, we’re having trouble meeting our budget.  We can’t feed the poor, we can’t free people from debt.  For us, that’s impossible.  But with God – all things are possible.

You know, that’s something I wish I could tell more people, but those who aren’t Christians just don’t get it.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear “wow, I don’t know how you do it.  Where do you get the time?  Do you ever sleep?  I barely have energy to get out of bed”.  But learning to be a saint isn’t about being a hero, or pretending to be perfect.  It’s not about drumming up energy and drive and purpose within ourselves.  It’s the exact opposite.  God presents an opportunity and we say, “I don’t think we can do that”; but if it’s God’s will, he will make a way, and before you know it we are doing the impossible. 

The Saints are called to do what is humanly impossible…

…but not to earn a reward.

All of the saints throughout the history of the Church point to this one reality: they – and we – don’t love God and neighbour to earn God’s blessing or the hope of heaven.  No, we just don’t have it in us to earn God’s favour; the second we start doing good, our pride kicks in, and suddenly we’re not serving others, but ourselves.[3]

No, as we read this morning, the saints at rest aren’t singing and chanting “we did it, we did it”.  Not at all.  It’s the opposite.  The saints are singing and cheering “salvation belongs to God.”[4] It was impossible, but God did it!  To God be the glory, great things he has done, and thanks be to God, he even let someone like me be part of his plan.

We don’t do it to earn a reward…
…but to imitate Christ

Jesus said to all the saints: “take up your cross and follow me”, “if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it; if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it.” 

It’s only as we lay down our dependence on ourselves, as we lay down our worries and anxieties – and even our hope and dreams – about tomorrow, and commit to simply live faithfully here and now, we find that the cross – the burden that demands our everything – is so much lighter than the load we were carrying before. 

The saints don’t do the impossible because of their heroic strength or courage or self-lessness.  God does the impossible through them simply because they’re willing to follow in the footsteps of Christ. 

Even our tiny-but-growing church can produce great things if we’re willing to just follow where he leads, instead of trying to predict the future or direct the path ourselves.  We know, and can trust, that whatever we do for our neighbours in Jesus’ name – a meal, mitts for cold hands, an encouraging word, an invitation to come and see what God is doing – is done for Christ, serving him to his glory. 

And, as we serve God that way, as saints doing what is humanly impossible, not to earn a reward, but to imitate Christ, we find that our who life takes on a different shape.

God didn’t say “serve me, try really hard, and fall into bed, wiped out at the end of the day”.  No, that’s the world’s message.

Jesus came to bring abundant life; the message of the Gospel is that our cups can run over, as God’s love for us spills over into our love of God spill, and that spills over into love of our neighbours.  The “blessedness” of the beatitudes, the freedom from hunger and thirst and the weariness of the heat of the day isn’t just something that awaits us when we die.  No, the saints learn that, as we imitate Christ in worship and giving and serving, we find ourselves with more, not less. 

In my own life, on the busiest days, the days with the least time, the more I stop and pray, the less I have to be anxious about… and it all gets done, to God’s glory. 

When I’m tired and want a break, when I offered my tired self to God instead of dwelling on whatever real complaint I might have, I find rest, and might even find the energy to get away, get outside, and get some fresh air.

And, when I know there’s simply nothing more I can do, that it’s impossible for me to help those around me, and instead of trying my hardest, instead of cooking up a solution, I simply offer myself to God’s service, suddenly, God does the impossible.

With God, all things are possible.

In these absolutely tiring, anxiety-causing times, we praise God for the example of those who have gone before us.  None of us have walked this path before.  But, thanks be to God, countless saints have served God through plague and pestilence, and have given themselves, allowed themselves to be used to God’s glory in times far worse than these.

It’s my prayer that, through this, generations will learn anew what it means to trust in God, to simply give up trying our best, to give up trying to earn God’s love, and simply follow Christ and let God use us to do more than we could ask or imagine.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.  Amen.


[1] Matthew 19:23-37

[2] Matthew 5:1-12

[3] Article XIII of the 39 Articles of Religion

[4] Revelation 7:10

Love the Lord first. Go all in. Love isn’t scarce; God provides.

Speak to all the congregation of God’s chosen people and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Leviticus 19:1

You shall be holy.

One of the eye-opening moments we had while studying the scriptures last Tuesday evening was realizing that, as far as the Bible is concerned, we are saints.

That’s worth saying again: according to the Word of God, we – you and me, right here, right now, are the saints of God.

Time and time again the scriptures make the point that there are no rankings among those who follow Jesus; after all, what point would that be if the first will be last and the last will be first?  No, all of us – whether we’ve learned through a life of careful discipleship to live and speak and act in imitation of our Lord, or whether we’re more prone to miss the mark, stumble, and accept our Lord’s outstretched hand of forgiveness once again – all of us are called by the same name: saints.

And that’s an important, even crucial point.  No matter how successful you’ve been at following Jesus last week; no matter how many times you did or didn’t remember to give thanks for what God has given you; no matter how many times you did or didn’t take a few minutes out of your day to read and hear God’s Word; no matter how many times you did or didn’t put someone in need ahead of your own best interests; no matter how many times you did or didn’t offer forgiveness and release yourself and your brother or sister from the weight and bitterness of their sin; no matter how many times you did or didn’t open your mouth to speak the Good News of new life in Jesus, and go to make disciples of all nations – no matter how we did with that, there’s no escaping this one point: all of us have the same job description in God’s eyes. 
We are saints.

To the Saints of God:

The word “saints” simply means “holy ones”, and the Word of God is clear: that’s the only option, the only position available for those who have been baptized.  While we’ve made all sorts of excuses through the years, and have come up with all sorts of reasons why only some followers of Jesus are called to be holy – the Mother Theresa’s of the world – the truly remarkable, and downright frightening reality is that, in the eyes of God, none of those human excuses hold any water.  As a baptized member of the Church, God looks at me and sees Alex, his child, called to be a saint.

God looks at you.  God looks at _____ and sees his child, whom he has called to be a saint.  He looks at _____ and sees his child, called to be a saint.  God looks at each of us, just as one day we will stand before God, and he sees one whom he has called to be a saint.

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel” – not just the leaders, not just the most devoted, not just the elders, all the congregation, “and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

God, in his awesome mercy, makes no distinctions when he makes us part of his family; and this is where the scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: the Lord looks at us as those who are called to be his holy ones… and how have we done with that? 

This is why, once all our excuses are stripped away, we can proclaim without reservation that all – even the most ‘saintly’ among us – have fallen short of the glory of God; that all of us – even the most ‘saintly’ – need the mercy of God; that none of us, no matter how hard we try, can ever earn a place in the Kingdom of God apart from complete and total dependence on Jesus: the only way is to follow where he leads.

You shall be holy.

The Lord sees us, and has called us to be, his saints, his holy ones
But what does it mean to be holy?

Holiness means, simply, “set apart”.  The call to be holy is the call to be, simply, set apart.  This building is holy – it is set apart for the worship of God, for fellowship, and the equipping of the saints for our mission in the world.  This holy table is holy because it is set apart – that means it isn’t used like other tables, to fill our bellies, or as a place to hold our coffee while we chat; it’s set apart for the glory of God; it’s holy

The Bibles in our pews and in our homes are holy – at least I hope they are – because they are set apart from the other books on our shelves.  No, it’s not about their location, that they should be kept somewhere special; not at all.  But the Bible is holy, or at least it should be, because of how we read it.  Other books we read once and then put down, but the Bible is set apart – we’re called to read it daily.  Other books we read to hear the thoughts of human authors, but the Bible is set apart, we read it as God’s word to us, with the prayer that it will shape our thoughts, words, and actions.

So what does it mean that God expects you to be holy? 
What does it mean for us to be set apart?

If we are set apart as those who give glory to God it means that we no longer live for ourselves, but for God.  Now that’s a tall order; so tall an order that people through the ages have done well in dreaming up excuses for why only some are called to live that way, as we imagine all the ways we can try to get ourselves off the hook by separating the ‘professional’ Christians from the lay people, or putting the elite followers of Jesus on a pedestal to try and excuse ourselves for just being ‘average’ disciples.

No, there’s a lot more to that first and greatest commandment than meets the eye. 
If we’re to be holy as God is holy, it starts by loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  It demands my all.

We can’t be half-holy.  Think about it: something can’t be sort-of set apart.  It’s either set apart, or it isn’t. 

That’s the fundamental teaching of Jesus, summarizing all the Law and the Prophets.  We have to learn to love God first, and to do it whole-heartedly and single-mindedly. 

If we love God first, if we love the one who Created all that is, who desires our redemption, who reaches out to us in mercy, and who is himself the source of love, then a good and holy love of our family, friends, neighbours, and even our enemies will flow out of that.  But if we love God with anything less than our all, then we aren’t set apart.  Remember, there’s no such thing as half-holy; if I love God, but love myself more, or I love my freedom, or my own desires, or my ability to provide for my family and bring happiness to others around me, if I love anything more than God, then my heart, soul, and mind aren’t holy

I think, often, we’re afraid to go all the way.  It could be trusting God, it could be finally forgiving someone who has hurt us, it could be letting go of a habit or attitude that has become comfortable like an old friend.  We’re afraid that if we actually go for it, we’ll lose control and won’t be able to get it back.  But, God has already called you to be one who has gone all the way – one who is set apart, one who is holy. 

God says ‘love me first’, not that we become no fun, or we become so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good; not that we become like some of those crotchety caricatures of self-righteousness that have sometimes been seen as ‘saintly’ as an excuse for why the rest of us don’t live that way. 

Sometimes I think we’re afraid that if we go all-in, we’ll no longer have enough love or enough time or enough energy for the things that already matter to us.  We say, I barely have time or energy for what I have to do now, how can I possibly add another relationship, another concern, another daily task of reading and praying to that list?

But, God says love me first, and love me completely, all in. 

And, contrary to all our fears, we find we then share in that overflowing, never-ending source of love itself.  All our concerns that keep us from loving God fully assume that love is scarce, that we only have so much to go around.  And that’s true, if we’re trying to drum it up within ourselves; but God’s plan for you to be holy is the opposite; if we finally go for it, we find ourselves tapped in to the source itself.

…and it’s only then that the second part of that commandment is truly possible.  It’s only then, when we’ve put all our anxiety and reservations aside and have put God first, and have set ourselves apart for his glory, that we can ever truly love our neighbours as ourselves.

As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of love, we can’t imagine wasting it on our enemies.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of mercy, we could never imagine wasting it on those who have hurt us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of wealth, we could never imagine giving joyfully to anyone in need, even those who would take advantage of us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of energy, we can barely imagine getting through the day and making time to say a few prayers, let alone giving up our lives to his service.

But if we allow ourselves to be set apart, if we allow ourselves to be as God calls us to be, we suddenly find that He supplies what we need; He makes the way; He makes us holy as we learn to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind.

You see, that’s the other misconception with holiness. 

Holiness isn’t something we earn; holiness isn’t something we do, or try with all our might to produce within ourselves.

“Be holy” simply means “be set apart”. 

Let yourself be set apart for God’s purposes.  Learn, by grace, to go all-in and love God first, with all the love we think we can drum up.  And, as we do that, as we allow ourselves to be set apart, it produces holiness, and God provides.

Suddenly the love of neighbour isn’t a chore; as we grow into the likeness of Christ, we learn that holding that grudge only binds us to that past sin, and we learn to forgive; before we know it, we can’t imagine why we ever thought love, or time, or energy was a scarce thing to be hoarded, because we’re tapped into the source of it all, just as God desired.

My friends: God says that you and I are saints.  That’s your job description.  This week, let that sink in. Have we let ourselves be set apart, or are we trying to be half-holy, holding something back, lest we run out?

This week, or perhaps even this morning, in this holy place, at this holy table, as we eat this holy food for a holy people, lets be holy; let’s go all in, finally hold nothing back, and love God with all that we have.  I guarantee, because God promises, that we’ll taste and see that the Lord is good, and be happy and blessed as all those are who trust in him.

 Saints of God: be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.  Amen.

Forgiveness requires Follow Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.  I’m sorry.  Can I go now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actions vs. Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

The weight of sin

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

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

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

The words were empty.  The words were cheap. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Ezekiel 18:26-27

What if it tastes like Toothpaste and Orange Juice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are What You Eat

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

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

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

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

I ate it… and it turned my stomach sour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feed your enemy, and offer them something to drink.

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

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

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

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


[1] See James 3:9-10

[2] Matthew 15:1-20

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

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

[5] Ezekiel 3

[6] Revelation 10:8-11

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

We aren’t the dirt.

“A sower went out to sow”.

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

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

They’re familiar words.

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

What’s up with that sower?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the same is true here.

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

If God isn’t the Farmer, who is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

Repressed Questions and an Unknown God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Intentions: An Altar in Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not fear what they fear. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repressing the Deep Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Nan?”

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

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

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

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

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

…and she’s right.  It doesn’t.

Neither leg to stand on.

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

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

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

The Bold, Gentle Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Acts 17:22-31

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

[3] 1 Peter 3:14-16

[4] See John 14:17

The Transfiguration: Unbridled Power and Consuming Flame

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

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

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

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

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

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

A surprisingly familiar situation

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

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

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

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

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

Moses, obedient, went up the mountain. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to him.

Our God is in the business of revealing Himself.

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

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

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

We’re invited up the mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May God have mercy on us all.  Amen.


[1] Hebrews 8

[2] The analogy is my own.

Resistance in the face of Rebellion

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

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

We’re in the midst of a civil war.

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

We’re in the midst of a war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re in the midst of a civil war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are salt and light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To God be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.