“God works in mysterious ways”… and other half-truths to avoid in the story of Queen Esther.

Our journey through the Old Testament and the history of God’s chosen people brings us today to the story of Queen Esther. 

As we’ve read the Old Testament, we’ve seen a number of repeating themes.  We’ve seen that the consequence for disobedience is to be sent away from God’s presence; but at the same time we’ve seen, over and over, that the only thing required to return is the bold admission that “I’ve missed the mark, I’m too weak to do this on my own; God, I need your help”.  And, we’ve seen over and over, whenever a person admits their own weakness in a situation, God is ready and willing to reach out and lift them up with his mighty hand.  After all, we know that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.[1]

In the story of Esther we see again that if we’re faithful, God will make a way where there seems to be no way.

Or, let’s put it this way: Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that present incredible Opportunities.  Circumstances. Divine Coincidences. Opportunities.

Esther’s Situation

In case you’ve forgotten the story of Queen Esther – or didn’t get a chance to read it yet this weekend – let’s catch ourselves up.

God had led his people into the Promised Land, but over a period of 800 years, they decided they would rather go it alone than fulfil their mission to live out the revelation of Almighty God in the world.  So God sent them out of the land, sending a foreign king to lead them into exile. That generation responded by taking their faith and mission seriously: they heeded the words of the prophets, they taught their children the Word of God, and then the king allowed them to return and rebuild Jerusalem.  Not everyone could leave – some had taken on too much debt and found themselves enslaved; some had been given government jobs, and the king wanted them in the capital rather than on the outskirts of the empire; and some were bound up in the sadness and messiness of life: like Esther, a teenage girl whose parents died, leaving her as an orphan with no legal standing or protection in those days.

Esther’s cousin, a Jewish man named Mordecai, from the family of King Saul, was a civil servant – perhaps some sort of scribe who writes up and reviews contracts, who stands outside the palace gates to work with people as they come to conduct their business.  He took her in and provided for the girl.

Now King Xerxes of the Persian Empire was known for his parties.  We know from history that his empire stretched from Egypt to India, from Saudi Arabia all the way up to Uzbekistan.  And he invited all the governors to his capital in modern day Iran to have a six-month-long party.  One day he called his beautiful wife to come out and put on a show for the governors, but she refused, so he threw her out of the palace (that’s another topic for another day).  So his officials suggested they hold a mandatory beauty pageant to pick another wife.  That’s where Esther comes into the story – she’s pretty, so she’s forced to take part.

Now, one of the King’s officials, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemy King Agag of the Amalekites, comes up with a plan.  He suggests that the whole empire would be better if the worshippers of the Almighty God of Israel were killed off, because those people refuse to bow down to other gods – though, secretly, he’s just upset that Mordecai, a descendant of the Jewish royal family, won’t bow down to him in the street. 

The King says “ok”, rolls some dice, does some math, and says, “alright, nine months from now, anyone who wants to kill a Jewish man and take his goods is free to do so”.  It’s a day of legalized murder and looting. 

And, to make a long story short, Esther happens to be in the right place at the right time to intervene.  She boldly decides to risk everything to confront the king, and as a result, the Jews throughout the empire are able to defend themselves; and in a major twist, the official who cooked up this whole plot is impaled on the pole he had made to hang the Israelites on, and Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, is promoted to be governor over the capital.

Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” which present Incredible Opportunities.

Now there are lots who would look at this story and say, “wow, it’s all part of God’s plan”.  Or… “yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways”.  Or, worst of all, my pet peeve: “see, everything happens for a reason”.

That all sounds nice.  Some might even think it sounds religious, but resist temptation!  The worst temptations of all are those that are almost true. 

We have to react strongly against that kind of ridiculous half-truth that we can only fall into if we don’t know the Word of God.

Yes God has a plan, but come on, no, we do not believe being born into exile and orphaned as a child and forced to dance for an old man in a perverse teen beauty pageant is God’s way of doing things. 

You see – that’s the incredible danger of those ridiculously over-simplified statements.  We risk making God the author or cause of human sin. 

Yes, God has a plan: “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11), but God’s plan is not that a girl’s parents have to die so she can dance around in a harem for a lustful old man.  That’s ridiculous.  And, worse still, if we say that this is part of God’s plan, it’s blasphemy, because now we’re saying that God is the cause of that horrible human sin.

Or, how often do we say “the Lord works in mysterious ways”?  But where is that in scripture?  Nowhere!  You can search the Bible in your pew from cover to cover, but it’s not in there.  Why?  Because it’s a lie! 

The work of God is to reveal Himself, not to shroud himself in mystery.  God says “my ways are not your ways, my thoughts are higher than your thoughts”[2], yes, but God says “call to me and I will answer you, and I will show you the great and mighty things which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).  God said right back in Deuteronomy 29, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever”[3].  God does things that are mind-blowing: as he says through the prophet, “look among the nations; wonder and be astounded.  For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told”, and none of us can pretend to understand the height and breadth and depth of the mind of God,[4] but let’s be clear: God is in the business of revealing himself.  If something is mysterious, scripture says, it’s because we haven’t sought the will of God.  Think about that: when we spin that familiar lie “the Lord works in mysterious ways”, what we’re really saying is “I haven’t read the Word of God or said my prayers, so I don’t understand what God has been doing”.  But we should be clear on that: God is doing in Esther what he’s always been doing: turning human evil into good and drawing us back to himself.

Worst of all, there are those who would look at the story of Esther and say “everything happens for a reason”.  Gross.  Yuck.  What terrible heresy.  Because no, God’s perfect and eternal will does certainly not include young orphans being forced to join harems.  Let’s be perfectly clear on that.

Combat the easy lies with the Truth

We need to resist those tempting, religious-sounding lies that swirl around us, but we can only do so when we know God’s truth.

Human circumstances lead to divine coincidences that produce incredible opportunities.

God didn’t want Israel to disobey and go into exile.  God didn’t want the world to be full of murder and greed and jealousy and lust and exploitation and abuse.  The world wants to blame God for those things, but only because we’re trying to avoid admitting that humanity puts itself in this mess, as every little decision not to love your neighbour as yourself produces ripples that echo out over generations, like rocks thrown into a pond on a still day.

We can’t blame God for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we have to open our eyes to see that “coincidences” in the present are divine. 

See how easily we’re tempted to mix that up? 

We want to blame God for the past but not see him at work in the present.  But really, we need to see human brokenness in the past, but accept that God is working in the present.  God didn’t want Israel to sin and go into exile, but now that they’re here, Mordecai has an opportunity.  God didn’t want Esther to be forced into a harem, but now that she’s here, God creates an opportunity.

God doesn’t want our community to be chock full with people with insecure housing situations who are kicked out of their houses when they test positive and are forced to find a couch to bunk so there are a dozen positive people sharing a two-bedroom house, without groceries, and without money, and with a government that turns a blind eye when low-income people get Covid.  God doesn’t want that, but he’s at work in the “coincidences”.  He’s at work in the fact that we’ve been faithful, that when the phone rings at the church because the social workers say there’s nothing they can do, the Church of God is ready to deliver a food hamper as our Lord commanded, whether it’s 6 in the morning on Thursday or 8 o’clock on Friday night.

Why this matters

My Friends, let’s not fall into the trap of accidentally saying – or worse, believing – that God wanted the awful situations that humans find themselves in.

Let’s be clear: humanity is to blame for the mess we’re in, but God is at work in the present, in each moment, ready and willing to work each mess together for good, as soon as we admit that we’re in over our heads, that we can’t do it on our own, that we need the help that only he can give.

Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that lead to Incredible Opportunities.

We all have messy circumstances in our lives.  I challenge you to see every coincidence as a “God-incidence”, a God-given opportunity for a fork in the road, a God-given opportunity to say, with Esther, “here I am: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I need your help, and I will put my trust in you”.

Does the Lord ever fail those who put their whole trust in him?  No.
Does the mercy of the Lord ever fail?  No.
Does the Lord work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose?  Yes.

My friends, that’s the gospel.  That’s the good news you’ve been given to proclaim. 
May God give us the grace to fulfil our mission.  Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:9

[2] Isaiah 55:8-9

[3] Deuteronomy 29:29

[4] Habakkuk 1:5; Romans 8:28

No pause button on faithfulness.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I want to speak briefly this morning on this human tendency to go so far, to make so much progress, and then to swing back in the other direction.

We’ve seen it again and again as we’ve read through The Story together this fall.  God will provide for his people – but then we turn away.  God will call for his people to return – and we do, but then we fail to pass the message on to others.  God will appear and save his people with great might, and send his Word to guide and direct – but it’s astonishing, isn’t it: as we read through the pages of scripture, we scratch our heads and say “why?”.  “Why do they keep going their own way?  Why do they so quickly forget what God has done, or the work he’s given them to do?”

How is it that, after God finally unites Israel and gives them victory over their enemies under the great King David, that unity only lasts for a single generation?  How is it that King Solomon, even with all the wisdom he had been given to help others, could fall so far from following God’s law?  How is it that, once Solomon dies, God’s chosen nation splinters into bits, as they abandon this beautiful temple chosen by God and instead worship all sorts of idols on every mountain and in every forest; as the one who made himself king of Israel goes out and, of all things, makes two golden calves and says “these are your gods who brought you out of Egypt”… we want to say “no!  Go back and read the next chapter of Exodus… this doesn’t end well!”.

Why do we have this back-and-forth, back-and-forth in the story of God’s people?

Spring-Loaded Human Nature

There’s a phrase used throughout Christian teaching to explain this: it’s the idea that, because we are born in a world of sin, we are bent in on ourselves.[1] 

We were created to be bent outward, for God’s Image, God’s Light, God’s Love to shine onto us as we reflect it back, for God’s glory.  But, because of sin, our natural position is to be bent inwards; instead of reflecting God, we end up staring at ourselves, focusing only on our own reflection – what’s best for me and what I want for myself.

But it’s not just like we’re bent, like a crumpled pop can.  I think it’s better to say that we’re “spring loaded”.

God’s work in our lives is to gently unfold us, to pry us out of that curved-in position, so that we can be what we were intended to be.  But, it’s like there’s springs drawing us back.   While God is faithful, He also wants our cooperation; he won’t save us against our will.  So, while he does the work of unfolding us, of gently bending us outward to reflect his glory, the truth of scripture shows us that, when we pull away from God, that spring action built into our sinful nature snaps us back into that bent position, so all we can see is a reflection of our own selves, our own desires, and our own perspective.

That’s what we’re seeing in the Story this week: God works through his people, but when they pull away, they snap back into the position they were before.

And that, my friends, is why things like faithfulness and unity and marriage and fellowship and discipleship take real work.  We like to think that, when we fall away; when we pull back from following where God is leading, we just stay in place, like hitting pause so we can pick up where we left off when we get around to it.

But we forget that we’re spring-loaded, don’t we?

As we see in scripture – every time a person pulls away from God, we snap back into that self-centered, isolated perspective… and, again, as we’ve read this fall, people rarely notice until they’ve found themselves in a real mess!

A Call to Constant Faithfulness

And so, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, as we celebrate the one who has shown us his mercy and the strength of his arm; who brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry but sends away those who trust in themselves: let’s remember that these are all things that God will do when we walk with him and trust as he gently but surely unfolds us, bends us outward, so that we no longer see our own reflection, but instead shine God’s Image back out to the world.

But let’s be honest – let’s remember that it takes work to be part of that, simply because we must overcome that spring-action of our souls.  Unity takes work, whether we’re talking about a congregation, or Christians across denominations, or whether we’re talking about families and marriages.  Discipleship and growth into the people that God wants us to be takes effort and some real perseverance as we trust him for whatever our lives look like each day, because the truth is we can’t hit pause on our lives.

And so, I invite us all to think this week, in the lead-up to Christmas, about what it means for God to take the lead – to be in charge – as he unfolds us, opens our eyes to a perspective bigger than our own, and opens us up to reflect his glory to those who haven’t yet come to know the Father who loves them. 

And, knowing by example how quickly we can snap back into old ways, let’s be quick to notice when we’ve ‘snapped’, and instead of hiding, run back to God as quickly as we can, knowing that he’s faithful, that he keeps his promises, and – for some reason we may never fully understand – he’s invited ordinary, bent-up people like you and me to be part of his plan to give hope to a world that so desperately needs it.

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

[1] The term I’m referring to is “incurvatus in se”.  It draws on Paul (Romans 7:15-19) and was picked up by St. Augustine.  Luther popularized the phrase in his Lectures on Romans: “Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, is so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”

What is faithfulness?

The story of King David always strikes me as heartbreaking.  On one side, it’s a story of absolutely inspiring faith: a shepherd boy with a slingshot who sends the opposing army running, in the name of God.  A man who is willing to wait for God to work things out rather than cooking up his own plans to unite the kingdom of Israel.  A man who accepts when God’s answer to his prayer is “no”.

But David – this great example of faith – had a hard life.  Think about that: King David is an example of what it means to have faith in God… but at the same time, no one would suggest that we should live as he lived.  After all, this great example of faith found himself burning up with lust to the point of murder, and his adultery became a public scandal.  Sure he had a palace, but this no fairy-tale, and there’s certainly no happily ever after. 

David’s life was thoroughly human.  He was kept from reaching his early potential by Saul’s jealousy.  He faced 7 years of a political smear campaign by his rival.  He knew that unspeakable pain of a parent who loses a child.  And a few years later, he knows the distress and anguish of a parent whose child rebels against them, as his son Absolom works to tear down everything his father had built.  And after all that, David’s closest friend and advisor is the one who kills his son, as David grieves as one who had never made amends for that broken relationship.

David’s story is heartbreaking.  And it breaks my heart because David’s story is like so many stories.

What is faithfulness?

David’s story should challenge us.  How can it be that one of the great examples of faithfulness lived a life that none of us should emulate?  How can that be?

This is where so many have missed the point.

So many open scripture looking for an instruction manual on how to live: do this, don’t do that, earn your way to heaven. But that’s not what it’s all about.  There’s no hope in that twisted half-gospel.

The message of scripture – and the hope that we share – is this: it is not about what we do; it’s about who we are

God is not a “what”, a thing for us to grasp or understand.  God is a who – a living being with whom we can have a relationship.  Faithfulness is not a list of what you’ve done; faithfulness is about how you answer the question “who am I?”.

That’s where David is an example to us: he honestly tried to do right, but it didn’t always work out, and sometimes it failed disastrously.  But “God doesn’t look at the measure of a man”, God looks at the heart.  God doesn’t weigh out what you’ve done, good versus bad – and that’s good news, because the truth is that none of us would make the cut if we had to earn God’s love.

No, God looks at who you are.  Are you a person who seeks to love God and neighbour but who realizes you do fall short and always need God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, or are you a person who will stand before God and say “I’ve got this: give me what I’ve earned.”

You see, that’s the big difference between King Saul and King David.  King Saul trusted in himself – he was king, he believed he won the battles: he earned this throne, and it wasn’t for God or anyone else to take away. 

But David was a man of faith.  He knew that, even in the face of incredible, heartbreaking pain, everything we have is a gift, and no matter how bad the situation, it will always be better if we return to God and beg for mercy than if we turns our backs and go our own way. 

Now, does that mean it was easy?  No – because we don’t believe in magic.  Life is messy, decisions have consequences, and at the end of the day, God’s promise is not that we will be happy and healthy and wealthy in this broken world.  God forbid.  Anyone content with this broken world has their eyes closed to the pain of those around them.

No —God doesn’t promise that life will be easy for those who have faith.

But he promises something far greater.

As David wrote: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me; your rod and your staff guide and comfort me”.

God’s Presence with us

Life is hard.  Families are hard.  Sickness is hard.  Losing friends, and watching kids walk away is hard.  Acknowledging our own brokenness is hard.

And it’s normal to wish we could go around the valley, or build a bridge over it, and sometimes people just give up and sit, stuck, afraid of the thought of moving forward.

But the path to life leads through the valley.  And as much as we might wish it was otherwise, God doesn’t say “I’ve got a shortcut”. 

But what he does say is so much more amazing: He says, “I know you have to walk through this valley… but I will go with you. 

…Will you go with me?”

That’s the incredible truth we proclaim. 

God doesn’t say “stay positive, think happy thoughts”.  God doesn’t say “do me a favour and I might show you a shortcut”. 

No, God says “I will never leave you nor forsake you”.  Will you walk with me?

And it’s not about what we do – not that actions don’t matter, but because we all fall short.  It’s about who we are.  Are you one who says “God, I need your help.  I’m mad, I’m sad, I can’t do this on my own: walk with me”.  Or, are you one who says “leave me alone, I’ll go my own way”.

God looks at the heart.  And the incredible thing is that God knows we’re going to get stuck.  He knows we’re going to get distracted as we go through the valley.  He knows we’re going to make some wrong turns; that we’re going to get upset and yell and wish there was another way.  He knows… and he’s still willing to walk with us.  No matter how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction, He doesn’t run ahead.  No, he turns back to reach out and help us.

This Advent, let’s remember that’s the story of Christmas we’re here to proclaim.  God loves us so much that he’s willing to share our mess.  He wants to show us that he knows our heartbreak; that he knows what it is to face jealousy and lies, to know the hardship of broken families, to know the pain of grief and sickness.  God even knows David’s pain as he watches his own son die because of the brokenness of this world. 

And yet God’s message is “I want to be with you.  Will you walk with me?”

And, my friends, there’s no way around the valley – I often wish there was.    But God knows that what awaits on the other side is far more glorious than we can even imagine.  He will wipe away every tear, death will be defeated, and pain will be no more. 

But we’ve got move forward to get there.  And, as we see in David, it’s not a journey that we can ever do alone.  But God himself is standing right beside you, ready to lead you and comfort you, ready to let you take off whatever weight is on your back, and carry it for you so you can look up and see the light.

God says, “I will be with you”.  Will you be the person who says “I’ll go it alone”, or will you be the person, no matter what you’ve done before, who says “Lord, I need you – walk with me.”

Almighty God, we need your presence in the darkness of this world.  We can’t face the journey alone.  Stir our hearts to cast our cares upon you, to be still and know that you are God, and to know that – whatever pain we face – it will be well, because you are alive and you go with us.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Vocation: What are you building?

The Story chapter 3
Genesis 37:2-8
Hebrews 11:17-22, 39-40
John 14:1-3, 18-20

Once upon a time, there were 3 stone masons.  They were working side-by-side, doing the exact same work, with the hot summer sun beating down upon their backs, and their heads swarmed with flies.

You ask the first one: “what are you doing?” 

            “Laying bricks in the burning sun.”  And that’s true.

You ask the second one: “what are you doing?”

            “I’m building a strong wall, to protect against the elements.”  And that’s true, too.

You ask the third one of these same men, standing side by side, doing the same work, “what are you doing?”

            He replies, “I’m building a cathedral to the glory of God.”  And he is.

As you’ve read this weekend the tangled story of Joseph, I want us to think about our vocation, and how we live to God’s glory in the world.

Vocation in the Story of Joseph

We’ve been raised to think of “vocation” as ‘what you do for a living’.  But that’s only partially true.  Up until the late 1800s, vocation was an entirely religious word, and I think the Church would do well to keep that in mind. 

 “Vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare”, which means “to call”.  It’s the word used throughout Church history to speak of those who are called to any work or ministry for God, done in, with, and through the Church as the community of the faithful, whether that’s preaching the Gospel, raising kids, or washing dishes and waiting on tables. 

Every person, made in the Image of God, is called – has a vocation – to live to God’s glory in the world. 

And the point of saying that everyone from the business person or landlord to the cashier or retiree has a vocation is this: vocation isn’t about what is done, it’s about how you do it.

Vocation is about perspective.  It’s about being willing to trust in the Master Builder’s plan; even when, as the hot sun beats down on our backs, it looks like all we’re doing is laying bricks.  It’s a statement of faith that, though I may not live to see it, and though there are real, painful, and lasting consequences for greed and impatience and pride in the world, yet God will keep his promises. 

A Matter of Intention

The key phrase for me in all of Chapter 3 came right at the end.  It’s Genesis 50, verses 19-20.  Joseph, who was sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, now finds himself as a prince over Egypt, second only to the Pharoah on the throne.  And those same jealous brothers are now fearful that, as a final act in his old age, Joseph will get his revenge.  Just as Joseph dreamed as a boy, now his brothers bow down before him, offering themselves as slaves to the one they sold as a slave.  But what does Joseph say?

“Don’t be afraid…  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…, to accomplish the saving of many lives.  Don’t be afraid”.

It’s a delicate message, and we have to balance it carefully.  No, everything doesn’t happen for a reason.  That’s ridiculous. 

  • Did God intend for Abraham’s offspring to be dysfunctional?  No.
  • Did God intend for brothers to be jealous of each other? No.
  • Did God intend for the Ishmaelites – whom you now know to be Joseph’s cousins, as Ishmael and Issac both came from Abraham – to be slave traders and purchase the son of their second cousin?  Not at all.
  • Did God intend for Potiphar’s wife to be a lustful, adulterous liar?  Certainly not.
  • Did God intend for there to be a drought?  No, you remember that, at the beginning, God intended for people to live in a perfect relationship with Creation providing food freely from the ground.

The message isn’t “everything happens for a reason”.  The only ‘reason’ behind any of this is sin!

No, the message is this: what the world, the flesh, and the devil intended for evil, God intends for good.  Or, we can take heart in what Paul writes to the Romans: No, the world is not as it ought to be, “but God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”(8:28)

We all share that calling, that vocation.  But how do we live it?

Joseph as an example.

I want to suggest that in Joseph we see three ways we are called in a broken and twisted world; three ways to live with God’s big plan as our perspective, to trust that we are building cathedrals, not just laying bricks.

First: we must be willing to do the work we’ve been given to do.

Now, let me be very careful.  I’m not saying “bloom where you’re planted”.  That’s another religious-sounding phrase used to keep Christians from using their gifts.

I’m saying the opposite.

When God has given you a gift, you have to assume it’s not for your sake.  Many parts, one body, right?  Joseph had the gift of the Holy Spirit to be a prophet, yet he was born into a family of wandering shepherds. 

Joseph could have had an easy, happy life, tending flocks, moving the herd from pasture to pasture, all he had to do was keep his mouth shut.  It would have been an easier life… at least until the famine came.  And then just imagine the guilt and shame that would have come, as Joseph watched his family starve and he knew he was receiving visions from God, but chose to keep them to himself. 

No, we must do the work we’ve been given to do.

There’s no such thing as unemployment in the kingdom of God.  There’s only under-employment, not using our gifts; being happy laying bricks, being happy as a slave in the field when God has planted a vision of his bigger plan, and has called us to work towards that vision of a redeemed humanity.

Not that we all need to be rulers of Egypt.  Washing the dishes and making your loved ones a meal can be great if it’s done to the glory of God.  But each of us are invited to be part of God’s Upper Story, the unfolding of his great plan, and we need to share that vision, share that understanding of how each action plays out in our lives day-to-day.

And, in that, we learn from Joseph that we must have character. 

Everyone around Joseph was lying.  There was jealousy, there was adultery.  There’s the heartbreaking story of God’s chosen patriarch, Jacob, living a life weighed down by grief as 11 of his sons conspired against their father, unwilling to come clean about what happened that day in that field.

But Joseph showed integrity – and we should note, he even showed integrity when it made no sense, when any reasonable person would say “just keep your mouth shut”, he wasn’t willing to compromise, even when it cost him dearly.  And, because of that, we hear that God was with him, whether as a slave, or thrown in prison, or as ruler of Egypt.

And finally, Joseph reminds us that sometimes we have to run away.

I’ll remind you that standing firm in the wrong place is the opposite of the Christian life.  Yes, we’re to stand firm in faith, but the life of repentance is a whole life of turning around, of changing direction, of realizing you’re not where you should be.

It’s nice to cling to those couple of verses that tell us to stand firm… but how many more times does scripture tell us to flee what is wrong?  When Joseph realized what Potiphar’s wife had in mind, it was like a Bugs Bunny cartoon – he took off so fast that his cloak fell off!

Joseph knew he was created in the Image of God, to reflect God’s glory, to inherit God’s promises to redeem a fallen world, and he was ready to change course and run the opposite direction – even if it meant prison time – rather than compromise his own beliefs and integrity.

What are we building?

My friends, what are you building?

Are we going about our days, labouring, toiling, wearing ourselves down laying bricks?  Or, have we caught the vision for what God is doing in the big picture?

I can guarantee that the experience and the blessing of even the most unpleasant tasks will be entirely different when you come to see that, yes, you are part of God’s big plan.

You may never see it.  You may never see my grandkids freed from addiction and broken relationships.  You may never live to see that broken home restored, you may never see how that one word of truth or honesty spoken in the checkout line at Kaeser’s might be a word from God that changes a family for generations to come. 

But, if I recognize that, yesterday, today, and forever, our God is in the business of reaching out, that even now, Jesus is building a mansion with many rooms for you and for me, that big-picture perspective unlocks your vocation here and now. 

What the world intends for evil, God intends for good.  And he invites you to be a part of that, and all for his glory.  May God give us grace to serve him faithfully in the world.  Amen.

The Covenant with all Creation

Genesis 9:1-17

Throughout the season of Lent this year, our lessons speak of God’s faithfulness, and they do that in a particular way: each Sunday this Lent, our readings look at the covenants God has made with people, the promises God has made which establish a real and lasting relationship between the Creator and those He created in His Image and for His glory.

So this Lent, in this season of repentance and hitting the reset button on our lives, as each of us is called to renewed trust in God, to a renewed commitment to prayer and study of God’s Word, and a renewed zeal to live out our faith in the world, we get to be refreshed each Sunday with the glorious message that, in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our faithlessness, in spite of all the ways we’ve turned aside from trusting in the Lord, God remains faithful, through it all.

What’s a Covenant?

So the next five weeks leading to Holy Week and Easter, we’re looking at Covenants in scripture… but the first question is simply, “what’s a covenant”?  What is is?

In scripture, a covenant is more than a contract; a covenant is more than a transaction where each party gets something in exchange for a payment of equal value.  A covenant establishes a relationship; a covenant is a promise that binds the one making it, it’s not just a promise, but a sure and certain statement of intent that changes forever how the two parties relate to one another.

Sometimes covenants work both ways, where two people make a covenant with each other at the same time, while other times, like in God’s covenant with Noah that we read today, it’s a promise that requires nothing in return.

The Heartbroken God.

And that’s the incredible thing in what we read today.  After Adam and Eve chose pride and disobedience over trust, we know they were cast out of paradise, and it’s the beginning of life as we know it, a life of labour and toil, work and pain, struggling to provide for our needs until we finally die and our bodies return to the dust. 

But, lest we think things are bad now, the Bible tells us that, for those first humans, things were unbelievably worse.  Genesis 6 says that people only chose evil, all the time; people only followed what was best for themselves, regardless of the consequences, and even the God-given, life-producing relationships between men and women were broken to the point that a wife was something to be taken at will.  That love, that trust, that sense of belonging and desire for relationship for which we were created was all but gone.  And then that incredible verse, Genesis 6:6, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on earth, and his heart was deeply troubled”.

It’s incredible – left to our own devices, left to labour and toil to survive, left to reproduce and fill the earth by ourselves, we become so self-serving that the almighty Creator himself regrets having even made a creature in his own Image, he regrets making a creature capable of knowing right from wrong, yet who chooses what is wrong for selfish gain.

And so we know what happens.  God, in essence, says ‘I know they chose to trust in themselves rather than the great I AM; but I can’t let them go on like this, it’s heartbreaking’, the Lord’s heart is deeply troubled.

So the Lord hits reset.  The Lord executes righteous judgment, letting those who trusted in themselves in life fend for themselves in death; and he finds one family, Noah and his three sons and their wives, who were not consumed with evil and selfishness, not killing each other for selfish gain, but faithfully doing the work God had given Adam and Eve at the start: being fruitful, taming the wild earth, and being faithful to their spouse.[1]

That’s the context, that’s the situation leading up to God’s covenant, not just with Noah, but with all creation.  We chose to trust in ourselves rather than God, but the result is so devastating, so heartbreaking, that God in his mercy just cannot watch it play out.

The Covenant with Creation

So, God starts over, not because of his failing, but because our failing is just more than he, in his mercy, is willing to bear.  And God does an amazing thing; an amazing thing that we’re going to see time and time again throughout Lent, and which each of us – if we’re willing to look – can see in our own lives.  God, though He doesn’t have to, though we certainly have done nothing to deserve it, chooses us even though we rejected him.

Noah’s family was the most righteous on earth, but let’s be clear – he didn’t earn God’s favour because he was perfect.  Remember, once he’s off the ark the first order of business was to plan some vines, make a big batch of wine, and pass out drunk and naked.  (Not a model we should emulate!) 

No, we don’t earn God’s covenant faithfulness; rather God makes a binding promise on himself because of his love and mercy.

And so God says to Noah, to your descendants, to all humanity, and to every bird, every animal, every creeping insect, every living creature on earth: I’m making a promise with you, not because you earned it, but because I am a merciful God, heartbroken at the evil humanity had chosen. 

And God’s promise, his covenant that he swore never to break, came in three parts. 

Now, when you think about Noah, you probably think about the promise not to use a flood to wipe people out again, but in reality, that’s only a small part, that’s like the appendix at the end!

No, God’s covenant with all creation through Noah is this:

First, humans now have the authority to kill and eat animals. (9:2-3).  Up until now, God had only provided plants for people.  In verse 2 that we read this morning, God causes animals to fear people, but gives those same animals for food.  Where, up until now, the only option was to break the ground, till the soil, sweat and labour to raise plants for food, God promised that we could benefit from the life that He provides to animals.  Though we chose to go it alone, though we chose ourselves instead of God, God will not only provide animals, but allow us to use them for our benefit.

Second, God, the righteous judge, gives humanity a share of his authority to judge wickedness and create a just society.  And it begins with stopping murder; one of the hallmarks of broken society before God intervened.  God declares in his covenant that we have the right to punish murderers, to use the Image of God imprinted on each of us to judge those who destroy the Image of God in another person; and with that comes a responsibility: God promises that he will demand an accounting from each person.

And then the last part isn’t just about the flood; it’s much bigger than that.  God promises at the end of chapter 8 that, though we don’t deserve it, though we tried to trust in ourselves, He would bless all creation with his provision.  Regardless of whether we’re good or evil, whether we serve God or ourselves, God makes an oath that He will continue to reach out in love, providing the essentials of life: He’ll provide the seasons, He’ll provide harvests and food beyond what we make with our own efforts, and He’ll ensure that the sun rises and sets every day, on the good as well as the wicked.

A Generous God.

Now, if we step back and look at the big picture, how incredible is this covenant? 

Humanity rejected God.  We said we’d go it alone.  Then we proceeded to steal and kill and turn marriage into a weapon to the point where God himself regretted making us.  But though we rejected him, though we continue to reject him, he freely offered of his goodness, he freely offered to continue to reach out, to continue to provide, for the Almighty God to become vulnerable enough to be openly rejected, just so we would have the opportunity to turn to him, to trust him, to enter into a relationship with him. 

And put that in the context of Jesus, the Son of God Almighty being born as one of us, being tempted, suffering rejection, and being willing to die on the cross, not because we did anything to deserve it, but because God’s heart is broken by the mess we make when we try to trust in ourselves, and he reaches out in love, time and time again, to make a way for us to return to the paradise of eternal life with him.

My friends, this is the good news.  This is the good news we’re called to share: that though we don’t deserve it, though we continue to reject Him, God reaches out to every person under the sun, calling us home, calling us back into relationship with him.

Though we’re unfaithful, God keeps his promises.  Let’s share that good news with a world that so desperately needs to hear it. 

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

[1] If righteousness (Gen. 7:1) is contextual as part of God’s unfolding revelation, the commandments God has set to this point are to be fruitful and multiply, to become united with the spouse, to subdue the earth, and not to murder.

Who is on the Lord’s side?

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out.  Ezekiel 34:11

Today the Church throughout the world is called to remember, celebrate, and live into the fact that, no matter how things may appear in the world around us, Christ is the King.[1]

And, of course, all of us know – we sing or hum along with glorious words that proclaim that Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is the Lord and King of all creation.  All of us know, and recite each week in the Creed, that Christ will come in his glory, and that he will bring with him the undeniable Kingdom which he taught us to pray would come, “on earth, as it is in heaven”, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father.

But this celebration is important because it reminds us that our faith is not wishful thinking, or a fairy tale, or a distant hope that Christ will come someday, long after we’re gone.

No, my friends, the reality is that right now, even as we sit here, even as human politicians struggle to win against an invisible germ, even as the best-laid economic plans and financial empires corrode and waste away, even as this world seems to get itself caught up in one struggle after another as kingdoms and philosophies rise and wane, even as the dark and cold join together with the darker and colder experiences of isolation, shame, anxiety, and addiction, yet – yet – even now, as we speak, Christ is on the throne.  Like watchmen on the towers before dawn, we know that the Son of Man and his angels will come in his glory, and as the rightful King comes, the false powers of darkness will scatter before his path, only to be gathered up, convicted of their treason, and condemned, excluded from sharing in the glory of that restored kingdom of mercy, grace, and peace.

That’s what we believe.  Not that Christ will one day be King.  No.  Right here, right now, in spite of how it may look to those who have bought into the rhetoric of the occupying forces, in spite of how it may look when we fail to realize that all our present struggles are the death throes of a world that has rebelliously attempted to rule itself, in spite of the pain, grief, poverty, weakness, death and decay experienced by we who are caught up, and born into this great rebellion against our Creator,it does not change the fact that the Lord is King, God is on the throne right now, and we know that the palaces and headquarters of those clinging to power will simply pass away when He returns in power and declares “it is finished”, as the same voice that spoke the spark of the Big Bang speaks once more, with echoes that reverberate through all of space and time.

That’s what we mean when we say “Christ is King”.  In spite of how it looks to us born and raised in enemy-occupied territory, the rightful king is even now making preparations just across the horizon, and will return to claim the throne.

The Shepherd King

Our readings today speak of this glorious return – but only if we allow ourselves to read them as they were written.  If you look with me to Ezekiel 34 or Matthew 25, we hear of Christ’s return with the familiar imagery of a shepherd and sheep.

But we need to be careful – the comforts of modern life, coupled with stained glass images and the cute images of Christmas pageant shepherds in bathrobes herding cotton-ball sheep actually gets in the way of understanding the great message God is giving us in his word.

There’s more to shepherding than lounging in a field, whistling or playing some nice Celtic tunes on a pennywhistle in the lovely, lush, green countryside.

Shepherding is messy work.  Sheep, left to their own devices, are dirty, smelly animals.  Sheep are led by their bellies – they’ll go where there’s food and, without even lifting their heads, they’ll take step after step in the direction of something to fill their bellies, not even noticing the thorns or mud or pits around them.  And here’s the remarkable thing – as far back as 8000 years ago, with sheep being bred for farming, they were bred – created – to produce wool; wild mountain rams and ewes didn’t need a shepherd to shear them, but once they were moved to the pastures and bred to produce thicker and thicker wool, they needed a shepherd.  Sheep, left to their own devices, will die.  Their fleece will grow and grow and grow until it is so matted together that it cuts off circulation to their legs and they become weak and crippled.  And sheep, if confined to an area, will eat the grass right down to the root, destroying the very thing that they depend on.

Let’s be clear – it’s no compliment when scripture, dozens of times, compares us to sheep!  But it’s accurate: left to our own devices we’ll follow our appetites to our own destruction; we’ll use and abuse the good things meant to sustain us until they’re gone, or our lack of self-control has turned a blessing into a curse; and following our instincts, our fleece – the wool we pull over our own eyes – will grow and grow until it is matted and crusted together to the point that it cuts off our lifeblood and we become weakened and crippled, and there is literally nothing that we, as sheep, can do to shear ourselves, since we were bred – we were created – to have a Shepherd.

If we’re reading the scriptures clearly, we find that we’re sheep locked in a land dispute.  We belong to the Good Shepherd, the one who owns the flocks on a thousand hills, as the Psalms say.  But, because of disobedience, because of treason, the land doesn’t recognize it’s rightful King.  But he’s not one to write us off – He will seek us out, He will rescue us, he will judge between the sheep, fattening the ones who were down-trodden and lean, while casting out the ones who were headstrong and butted their way to the top of the flock.  And, all those who are ready to hear his voice will be welcomed into the good pasture they were created to inherit.  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.

Where are we now?

Christ, the Word who spoke at creation, is the rightful King, but we were born into this disputed, rebellious territory.  What does that mean for us?

Well, the other aspect of this day that celebrates the Reign of Christ is that we proclaim our allegiance to the King, not the occupying forces of the world around us.

In Baptism, and again at Confirmation, and again every time we repent and return to the Lord, we take the Oath of Citizenship of the Kingdom of God, as we become dual citizens or, as Paul says, resident aliens, as those living in the world, but not belonging to, not pledging any allegiance to it.

And though we live in the world, we know the rightful King will come over the horizon, and we who have pledged our allegiance are called to be the Resistance, preparing the way, sabotaging worldly powers of greed, injustice, and corruption at every opportunity, and willing to serve – even lay down our lives – to spread the news of the conquering King, so that, when He comes in glory, he finds citizens ready to welcome Him as Lord as the supposed glory of this world is cast out.

Like the French Resistance under the occupying forces of the Hitler’s Third Reich, our task as those who remain loyal to the rightful ruler is to stand firm, to proclaim and broadcast the message of hope and freedom, to sabotage the enemies’ actions, and to make our friends and neighbours ready to join us on that day when the liberating forces come in their glory.

…And we say, “Lord, how do we do that?”  Matthew 25:31-46

And the King answers – if there’s an empty belly, fill it.  If there’s a parched mouth, offer a drink from your overflowing cup, so that loosened tongue can proclaim God’s praise.  If a stranger is lost and bewildered by the ways of the world, welcome them in.  If the world has eaten someone up and spat them out, naked and afraid, clothe them with grace and dignity in my name.  If the sin of the world has weakened a sickened soul, lovingly nurse them back to health and wholeness.  And if the world catches on and oppresses someone in Christ’s name, visit and support them.  And any services rendered to the very least of these will be accounted as service to the King himself.

Who is on the Lord’s side?

Christ is King.  He reigns even now, though the darkness, grief, and sin of this occupied territory are still grasping at illusions of power.  And we, who have pledged allegiance to the King are called to be his messengers, the resistance, earnestly and eagerly making way for his Kingdom to come and his Will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

And so the question is, when he comes, and the rebellious forces of the world are rounded up, where will we be?  Will we stand with the Lord and his angels as those who assisted in the effort, as those who prepared the way, who stood firm, and conquered in the fight?

Or will we be accounted as those who colluded with the enemy, those who profited from the occupying forces of greed, injustice, and the illusion of power?

Those on the Lord’s side are welcomed in as the world against which we struggled is gloriously restored as the dwelling place of God’s presence.

Those on the world’s side will be cast away like the corrupt world which they loved so much.

Christ is the King.  This morning, this week, ask yourself – whose side am I on?  If our lives profit from worldly power, we betray ourselves as those who claimed Christ in Baptism.  No, rather, every action, every thought, every moment of every day should be an act of resistance, an act of sabotage as we seek to overthrow hunger, oppression, greed, anxiety, and the illusions of control as we prepare for Christ’s Kingdom to come.

May God strengthen us for that task.  May God convict us and call us to repent when we’ve sat quietly by.  And to God alone be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

[1] This goes right back to the heart of this Feast, first added to the calendar by Roman Catholics in the early 1900s in response to increasing secularism.

29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25.

The lessons today sure are dark, aren’t they? 

In Matthew 25 we’re told very clearly that the Lord will return and expect an accounting of what he’s entrusted to us, and the strong rebuke that just chugging along, holding our own, giving back what we’ve received doesn’t cut it.  “No”, the master says, “you should have at least put it in a savings account so there’d be a little interest!”.

Just think about that.  God expects that whatever he gives us will not just be well-cared for; no, He expects it to grow!

And if we have our perspective right, as hard as it might be, it really only makes sense.

If we say that everything we have is from God – our health, our strength, our lives born into a land of peace and prosperity, perhaps that means that they aren’t ours to use as we’d like.   No. Why were we created?

If I asked that question at the 10am service, we’d hear a wonderful chorus of little voices respond: “God created us male and female in his own image to glorify him!”

We’re created to glorify God.  If God created us with that purpose, then the gifts he gives us, the opportunities and strengths and blessings he gives us must also be for His glory. 

And so the strong words in the Gospel today make it clear: perhaps the word “gift” as we’ve come to understand it in these days really misses the point, and perhaps even trips us up as we think about God’s blessings.  In our world of comfort and overabundance, a gift is something over-the-top, something that we can tuck away for a luxury or something fun – to buy that third pair of dress boots, or that extra watch, or that new side-by-side, or that new Xbox.  That’s how we think about gifts.  As we approach Christmas, I’d bet most of us as already thinking about what to get that special someone; something they’d really appreciate but would never get for themselves.

But if we think back even 100 years, that’s not how the average person thought about gifts.  No, gifts were something that you didn’t earn or necessarily even deserve, but which you could use to improve your life.  A warm sweater to work through the winter months; a new set of shoes for the family; a first suit and tie for the first son to move from the farm to take a job in the city; a new sewing machine so a mother can clothe her family; a graduation gift to pay for that first semester of nursing school or teacher’s college; some money to help with the down-payment on an old truck or boat or plane to start a business to feed your young family.  They’re gifts… with a purpose.

Yes, times have changed – but the way we think about gifts has changed too.  When we hear “gift”, we think “luxury”.  But, for most of human history, when you say “gift”, you mean investment.

An investment in the future of the person receiving the gift.
That little something above what they earned that has the potential to change their future, to make them something better than they could be on their own.

And the lessons today, while certainly dark, take on a new light when we approach them with the right perspective.

We are created for God’s glory, and the gifts that God gives aren’t 21st-century acts of luxury; no, God’s gifts, whether we’re talking about health or wealth or peace, or the spiritual gifts like compassion, mercy, hospitality, leadership, the ability to teach or serve, are more like what we would call investments.

God gives us something we haven’t earned, but which has the potential to make our own lives, and the lives of our families and communities better than they could have been otherwise.  It’s that sort of a gift.  God’s gifts are given with a purpose – the same purpose for which we were created – to give Him glory.  They’re an investment which makes the Lord proud to see them bear fruit.

God’s Return on Investment

We read in Matthew – and throughout God’s Word – that the Master will return and ask for an accounting of what the servants have done with the investments God made. 

And the big change of mindset here is that we really can’t think of whatever God has given us as a gift like the birthday card from great-aunt Susan with $50 to spend however we like. 

If that were the case, we could let ourselves off the hook quite easily.  If the $50 was ours to use however we wanted, then we could go to the store, spend $45 on a new pair of gloves, throw the $5 change into the collection bin for the Christmas Toy and Food Drive and say “wow, I’m generous today.  There’s my good deed done”.

But God doesn’t give gifts like that.  God makes investments.  And God expects not just 100% of the investment back – no, He expects it back with interest!

It’s more like this: a student gets $5000 in financial aid – that’s an investment.  And the choice is: do I use it to pay my tuition, my rent, a food and clothes for my kids, or do I buy that new TV, put a down payment on a new ski-doo, and run up a few nice tabs at the bar? 

See, it’s not enough just to pay back the $5000, because that wasn’t it’s purpose.  It was an investment; that $5000, if used properly, gets you your trade, turns into a new career, that translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars and a new future for your family. 

Those are the sorts of investments I believe Jesus is talking about in Matthew, and that’s the sort of understanding that shapes everything we believe and teach about blessings and giving and generosity and trust in God.  Not only does God expect 100% to be used to his glory – He’s looking for the interest.  And if we’re faithful in little, what does scripture say?  We’ll find ourselves entrusted with much.  But if we can’t be faithful with small things, God will call in someone else to do the work, and the little we had will be given elsewhere.

God’s not looking for a little generosity or a few good deeds – he’s looking for a good return on investment; he’s looking for us to be people through whom the world sees his light, for which we say “to God be the glory!”.

Christ’s Return?

I think that right understanding of God’s gifts – God’s investments – also changes how we understand his coming to hold us to account.

If great-aunt Susan gave us $50 to spend however we wanted, then no, it wouldn’t be fair for her to show up and question how you spent it. 

But when a generous investor shows up to check on their investment – that’s a different story.  They made that gift to get us where we could never get ourselves, so that we could accomplish something; and we should want to honour them; as we read in Hebrews, we should earnestly desire to hear “well done”.

The thing is, we’re told in 1st Thessalonians that we need to be ready to give an account at all times.  “Like a thief in the night”, or “like a pregnant woman going into labour”, you don’t know when you’ll be asked to give an account, and when it’s time, you can’t put it off.

This is a challenge for all of us.

When we were living down in the states, whenever Dad was coming to visit, one of the first things on my agenda for the day before I picked him up from the airport was to clean out the car. 

Growing up, he always had a clean car.  As a teenager, he certainly expected me to keep the car clean.  And though, as an adult, he never said “I hope your car is clean”, I knew it was something important to him, something that made him proud, so it was something I wanted to do, to have a clean car and a clean house… at least for that first day he was there!

Now, I was lucky – it took 2-3 flights and a day of travel, so I always knew when he was coming.

But now he lives down the road!  I guess we could say that now he shows up like a thief in the night or labour pains!!  The truth is, there’s no pretending that the van is always clean, or that, a lot of nights, we fall in bed with dishes still in the sink. 

And it’s the same message from scripture – we have to realize that, when God calls us to account for how we honoured his investment, there’s no hiding, there’s no warning so we can spruce things up.  When God says He wants our all, it means we have to think about how we’re giving him glory in every minute – not fooling ourselves into thinking that he’s impressed by the leftover minutes we might put toward good deeds. 

We need to give him glory when we’re at work, when we’re talking with our friends, when we’re biting our tongues to keep from spreading rumors or letting someone have a piece of our mind, when we’re relaxing and taking time for Sabbath rest, and even when we’re feasting with good food and good wine with those whom we love.  In every moment, we need to be ready to give an account not for the dregs, but for 100% — plus the interest God desires.

And that’s a tall order.

But the good news is that God is merciful.  If we try to hide, if we try to puff ourselves up, we know that’s not going to end well.  If we sluff it off like those characters in that first lesson from Zephaniah who said “don’t worry about it!  God doesn’t help us, God won’t hurt us”, then we are in for a rude awakening.

But if we confess our faults, God is merciful.

…last night I was cooking dinner for the whole family, 9 of us.  Dad came up, and sure enough, as I was at the stove, there were some dishes in the sink.

But you know what, he jumped in, he came alongside me, and he washed them as I cooked.

And you know what God does when we’re seeking to give him honour, to bring him a gracious return on his investment?  He comes alongside us in our weaknesses – in fact, his strength is made perfect in our weakness – and he multiplies his blessings, as those who are faithful in little suddenly find ourselves supported by Him as we learn to be faithful with much.

“Holding our own” is burying the investment in the ground.

My brothers and sisters, as this church looks at our ministry in our community, the message is clear:  it’s not enough to just keep going, to dig our inheritance out of the ground and hand it back to God as we found it.  No, God expects more – He expects interest paid to His glory from what He’s given St. John’s!

The good news is that, if we open the little treasure chest of opportunities and potential that is ours, and instead of burying it in the ground, or holding on tight, we invest it in the thousands of souls around us who aren’t living to God’s glory, you know what we’ll find?  Our merciful Father will come alongside us, he’ll give his strength for our many weaknesses, and before we know it, right before our eyes, we’ll find that once we’ve been faithful with a little, he’ll entrust us with more, and he’ll empower us to use it to his glory.

Let’s go all in – the field is ripe, and the time for the investment of our time and energy is now… for we never know when we’ll be called to give an account. 

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

Is anyone sick? Call the presbyters, pray, and anoint in the Name of the Lord.

One of the core messages of the gospel is healing: God’s law to love him fully and to love our neighbours as ourselves is itself a plan to heal our relationships, to heal the wounds of sin that separate us from God.  The Prophets speak of the Kingdom of God as a place of healing, with nations streaming in to see the glory of God, finding healing for what ails them.[1]  Throughout the Gospels, our Lord displays the mighty power of God and teaches us to understand God’s will through dozens of healing miracles, and those examples of healing continue through the apostles and through the Church, even to our own day, as God continues to heal, as he continues to make a way where there seems to be no way; doing what we thought was impossible; reminding us that, just when we think we have it all figured out, we couldn’t be further from the truth.

Healing of the whole human person – body and spirit together – is central to our faith.  Indeed, our faith in the resurrection – our hope of eternal life – is not that we would be freed from our creaky, cranky old bodies, but that they would be made new, and be able to reflect the Image of God, no longer subject to pain or hunger or exhaustion, but being perfectly satisfied by union with the source of life itself.

And, though we’re not great at expressing it, faith in the healing power of God is – and must be – one of the marks or signs of the Church.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, wherever two or three are truly gathered in the Name of the Lord, we should expect to find healing: if we’re the Church, if we’re the Body of Christ, if Christ is here as we know he is, then part of the evidence of that are lives that experience freedom from the despair of pain and suffering, bodies and souls that reflect the glory of God here and now.[2]

…but, then again, in a time when it seems the only ones talking about healing by faith are the multi-millionaire preachers asking for money on TV, and at a time when – by God’s grace – we’re able to understand and treat physical and mental illness better than ever before, what is the place of healing in the Church?

Why do we pray?

About 5 years ago, I was leading a discussion on this very topic with a group of students who were preparing for ordained ministry; we were discussing how each discovery of science and medicine further reinforces just how awesome and powerful God is, if only we can stop trying to make God in our own image and accept Him as He’s revealed Himself in the scriptures through the Church as wiser and more gracious than we could ever imagine.

And then, one of the students, who had become really quiet and looked pretty distraught, finally piped up.  “Fr. Alex”, he said.  “I believe it, I really do.  But there’s one part that I just don’t get, and I’ve never told anybody, because if the bishop found out, I guess I’d never be ordained”.

…uh-oh, I thought, what are we in for now?

“If God is merciful and good, if God really wants to work all things together for good for those who love him, if Jesus wants to draw the world to himself to share in his risen life, then why do we need to pray?  If God’s so good, why do I need to convince him to do something?”

(That, my friends, is why clergy need to go to seminary, to ask those deep questions before they find themselves in a pulpit, or worse, at your bedside!)

But it’s a fair question, perhaps one that you’ve asked yourself one way or another. 
If God is so good, why do I have to convince him to help me?

Right off the bat, though, I’d suggest that question shows that we haven’t appreciated just how great God’s love for us really is.

If we’ve made God in our own image, if we follow our society’s vague idea of an old king set apart on a distant throne, we end up with an image of prayer in which we are the poor peasants who must cry out and beg for the king’s mercy.  But, read your Bible cover to cover; not once will you see God described that way.  That’s simply not what we believe.

No, in the one prayer that Jesus Himself taught us, how do we, poor, struggling, often-disobedient mortals address the almighty Creator of heaven and earth?  How do we?

Our Father.  But, even that translation has become too formal over the years.  Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and St. Paul refer to the Father as abba – “dad”.

It’s a purely human invention to imagine prayer as begging a distant King to hear the cries of a poor peasant – and no wonder prayer becomes such an unpleasant experience if it’s approached that way. 

No, Jesus teaches us not to plead with a distant king, but to speak, to share with his dad, who has adopted us as his own.  Prayer isn’t a dry, lofty ritual; the God who makes himself present in bread and wine invites us to pull up a chair at the great thanksgiving feast and commune – meaning to “talk over” or “discuss” – with him.

Prayer is the furthest thing from convincing God, as if we had any power or ability to plead our cause before the Almighty.  No, it’s so much more – prayer is our opportunity to pull up a chair at the kitchen table, where a loving dad offers you your lunch – your food for the journey – and asks you, patiently, ‘my son, my daughter, how is your day?’

Tell me what’s on your mind.  Get it off your chest. 

And as we name our concerns, as we cast off our burdens, as we thank our loving dad for being there having the food ready, even when we were late, or wandered off and didn’t come home at all, do you know what happens?  We commune – that talking things over – goes both ways.

If we’re waiting for a grand messenger from a lofty palace to come with the king’s message, we’ll miss it – because, when we pray to our dad who has adopted us as brothers and sisters in Christ, he speaks directly to us, in that still small voice.

And, just as prayer isn’t us attempting to convince Him, God’s response to us isn’t just a set of “approved” or “denied” stamps.  No, the amazing part of prayer – throughout scripture – is that, as we pray, as we simply speak to God, He reveals his will. 

As we simply name our concerns to our loving father, his quiet response allows us to see things as he does; problems are put into perspective; the frustrating failings of another person become our own opportunities for mercy; the life-shattering news that shatters every plan we had for our lives, the hopes and dreams that fall apart, become opportunities to learn to trust; and, as we learn to trust, as we learn to live one day at a time, as we learn to recognize every breath in this weary world as a blessed gift, as we learn to live for his glory as faithful, loving children, not begging, not wishing for things to go back to how they were, not clinging to yesterday, not trying to earn a favour, but simply trusting in the goodness of God, we find that our prayers are answered in the way that are best for us, as through that conversation, through that communing – that chatting, that talking over, that communion – with God, we learn to understand his will.

What about Healing?

If prayer isn’t about convincing God of anything, then why should we consider taking the church up on it’s offer of healing prayer?

In short, whenever any of us brothers and sisters in Christ are sick, we should request the healing prayer of the church simply because our father tells us that we should, in his word.

In the Epistle of James, we’re told, straight-out:

Be patient, then, brothers, and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. … Is anyone among you sick?  Let them call the presbyters of the church [that is, priests and elders] to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person whole; the Lord will raise them up.  If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.[3]

James 5:8; 14-16

We don’t anoint with oil or ask for healing prayer as a last resort; we don’t do it as an extra boost of spiritual power; we certainly don’t do it as an alternative to medical treatment, since all healing and knowledge and science are gifts from God for our benefit.

No, we simply do this because God says we should; and obeying his word is one of the ways we demonstrate, and live into, our trust in Him.

Think about it – how often do we pray about, chat with our loving dad about our health, our physical and mental and deep spiritual concerns, perhaps hoping for a miracle or some grand display of power.  Yet, he has already said, right there, in black and white, for us all to read, when Christians are sick – yeah you take your medicine, yes we remain patient, yes the Body of Christ, the Church comes around the sick person and helps you do the things that you’re not well enough to do yourself, but what does God say we are to do?  Call the priest and ask for prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.  As far as interpreting the will of God goes, it literally couldn’t be more straight forward, spelled out in three simple steps: call the priest, ask for prayer, and anointing in the name of the Lord.

We must be careful, as we pray for healing, not to reject God’s plan because it seems too easy or too simplistic.  Remember Naaman, the great general who sought healing from God, and was told to bathe in the Jordan 7 times, but wasn’t going to go because it was too easy; he’d rather have a prophet come and say some words or wave his hands.  Remember those whom Jesus healed, for whom the healing came in a simple: ‘get up’ or ‘go show yourselves to the priests’, and the healing came as they obeyed.

If we’re going to pray for our own healing, we must also be ready to obey the simple response that God has given: ok, now call the priest, ask for prayer, and be anointed.

What happens when we’re anointed?

Once we’ve been anointed, what happens?  Does that then convince God to heal us? 

No, and if we think that, we’ve missed the point about what it means to have a loving dad who wants to discuss, chat, commune with us about our journey.

Rather, anointing is the outward and visible, physical sign of our willingness to obey. 

Like baptism and repentance, we can say we’re following Jesus, but the first thing he tells us to do is to be baptized and repent of our sins – so if you haven’t done those things, you can say you’re following Jesus, but your actions don’t match up with your words.

It’s the same thing with healing.  If we say we’re trusting God for healing, then our actions have to show that.  If we’re praying for healing of body or soul, we must also do as God directs. 

So this morning, we’ll have that opportunity to simply do what God says.  After the Prayers, as Isabel leads us in song, any who are praying for their own healing – it could be physical, it could be spiritual, it could be the healing of an anxious or burdened mind – come to the end of your pew, and I will come around and do as our Lord directs. 

We do so not to earn any favour with God, but simply to be obedient, to put our faith into action, to show God – but also to show ourselves – that we are ready and willing to listen. 

Are any of you sick?

Call the priests and elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The Lord will raise them up.   To God be the Glory.

[1] Isaiah 58:8, Ezekiel 47:12

[2] An application of 2 Corinthians 3:15-4:1

[3] James 5: 8; 14-16

You can’t earn Blessings, but it takes Faithfulness to keep them.

The lessons today – from Isaiah, the Gospel, and even our Psalm – all speak in the parable of a vineyard planted by God.  In all three versions, it is God who has done the work of clearing the brush, tilling the soil, and building the fence and a watchtower to keep out the wild animals.  It’s God who has dug out the huge wine vat for a plump, juicy harvest, and it’s God who has chosen and carefully planted the vines.

In all three versions of this parable, God has done all the work to plant his crop.  In Isaiah, the Lord even says straight-out, “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done?”.  Really, the only thing left to do is for the grapes to just grow.

God has given those grapes all that they need and more.  Their task, their work, is to simply fulfil their purpose; their task is to grow into what God intended them to be in their very nature. 

God’s desire is that, when the harvest comes, those sweet, luscious grapes will come together in that place he has prepared, and sprinkled with the leaven – the yeast – of the Holy Spirit, the wedding feast of the lamb will be supplied with the very finest wine imaginable, so much that every cup is running over.

That’s God’s plan.  That’s their purpose.  All the grapes need to do is grow.

A Lesson on Blessings

These parables tell us a lot about God, his purpose for humanity, and our hope of eternal life lived to his glory.  But today I want to focus on what these parables tell us about blessings: what it means for us to acknowledge that we’ve been blessed by God, and what impact that should have as we grow between now and the harvest, in God’s good time.

As we look at scripture, holding all of the Bible together as one narrative, one grand story of God’s redemption of the world, as our Anglican Articles of Religion expect us to do, I see two big statements that we can make about God’s blessings:

            You can’t earn it.
            But it requires faithfulness to keep it. 

You can’t earn it.

In spite of the many would-be preachers who have made themselves rich by telling people what they want to hear, if we hold scripture together as the Word of God, there is no way anyone can wind up believing that we earn God’s blessings.

Sure, you could pick and choose a few verses here and there and publish it as a trendy self-help book and make yourself millions of dollars while deceiving millions of lost and searching people in the process; but the whole message of these parables, of God’s calling of Israel, of Christ’s death and resurrection, and even Creation itself is simply that God has given freely.  God has blessed, God has given us so much first, not because of anything we’ve done to deserve it. 

Those tenants working the vineyard didn’t earn it or cause it to be built.  God built it for himself, so that his feast would be well-supplied. 

No, rather, the great message of scripture is that God gave those tenants a chance not because they deserved or earned it, but because he is generous by nature.  God is so recklessly generous – at least from a human perspective – because he wants us to choose him, love him, and serve him freely. If we could earn or buy God’s blessing, we’d no longer love him for who he is; it’d be like the kid who makes a few quick friends only because he has the newest and fanciest stuff. 

We can’t earn God’s blessing.  He gave the first gift – bringing us into being.

But – and this is important – we are then entrusted with whatever he has given us.

While we believe the inequality between people is the direct result of our disobedience of God, and we believe and trust that, one day, sickness, pain, disease, and decay will be done away, each of us has the task of being faithful with what we’ve been given.

Some have been given much – some, it seems, have more than what they need, and everything they touch turns to gold; some have been given little – born into awful situations weighed down by the ways those around them have missed the mark, and having to learn the hard way that the purpose of life isn’t to get ahead, but to lean on one another and carry one another’s burdens.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, those tenants had been given much.  If God had given them a wooded plot of empty land in Spring, he wouldn’t have expected much of a harvest come Fall; just clearing the brush and building the fence would have been great work in the right direction.  And, as we read elsewhere, those who have been faithful with small things will be entrusted with more.

But those tenants had been given all that they needed, so the Lord had every right to expect a full and plentiful harvest.  Yet, in the biggest twist yet, those selfish tenants not only failed to hand over the produce; they had totally forgotten that it was a gift in the first place.  They had totally forgotten whose field it was, and how it got there.

Sure, in the short term, we might say they were right.  They were the ones getting up at dawn and working the field until sunset all summer.  They did the work.

But they didn’t cut the brush.  They didn’t till the ground.  They didn’t haul away the rocks.  They didn’t dig the posts and make the fence.  They didn’t put in the wine press or build the watchtower.  That was a gift, that was a blessing that they had been entrusted with.  But they forgot; they were so focused on themselves, that they simply forgot where it all came from.

You can’t earn God’s blessing.  But it requires faithfulness to keep it.

Those tenants wouldn’t acknowledge the gift that they had been given.  Even when the Master’s Son came, they plotted to kill him rather than hand over what was due.

Jesus said “now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. (Matt. 21:41-42)

The Bible acknowledges, time and time again, that the wicked and greedy appear to prosper, at least from our perspective.  The Psalms are full of rich and wonderful laments about how it appears that evil people get ahead because they rely on each other and the traps they have set for the working person; yet, since everyone alive has received the gift and blessing of God, they too will be called to give an account of how they used it, whether to bless others, or to puff themselves up, forgetting what they received as a gift.

Living Faithfully

Our task then, is to acknowledge the blessings we’ve received, and then to live faithfully, presenting to God the fruit of our labour at harvest time, whatever that fruit might be: whether it’s using our skills and talents to grow the Kingdom of God, whether it’s using our time and energy to free up others to do that work, and all of us together using the fruit of our labour – that’s money, in modern terms – to provide food to the poor, to give people access to the help and support they need, and to support the local church and it’s work as the visible dwelling place of God in our land, calling in all who need the mercy, hope, healing, and peace of God which passes understanding.

But faithfulness is about more than what we do with the harvest.  It’s also about what we do along the way.

St. Paul in Philippians tells us to keep our eyes on the prize. 

We know we’ve received God’s good gifts.  We know he’s blessed us greatly.

But the Master didn’t plant a vineyard for the sake of having a vineyard.
This isn’t a make-work project.

A vineyard has a purpose.  You build a vineyard because you want wine.  And God’s purpose is to have lots of it: after all, he’s preparing an eternal feast.

So while, on the one hand, we have to be careful not to forget that what we have is a gift from God, at the same time, it’s not enough to say “this is a gift from God” and then sit on our butts.  The Master’s still coming to collect the harvest.

No, St. Paul says, we need to keep our eyes on the prize.  We need to run the race faithfully.  “I press on”, St. Paul says – we press on working the vineyard.

“This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

You can’t earn God’s blessing.  But it requires faithfulness to keep God’s blessing.

There’s great news here. 

We’ve all been blessed differently.  Some seem to have much, some seem to have little.  But we’re not to be faced backwards, comparing gifts and blessings.  We’re to be facing forward, toward the goal, being faithful with what we have.

That’s going to look different for each person.

If our eyes are off the prize, we’ll get stuck, distracted, saying, “look, their vineyard’s so much nicer than mine”, or, “ha, their vineyard’s a mess, they don’t know if they’re coming or going”.

But don’t get distracted.  Look forward.  Move forward.  Remember that what has gone before is a blessing, and our task is to be faithful with it here and now, for there’s work to be done.

And, you know what?  That’s when things start to happen.

If we’ve been faithful with little, we’ll be entrusted with more.  Don’t get distracted, don’t look around, don’t look back, but look ahead. 

And before you know it, the little church is growing; the small balance sheet is entrusted with more; the impact grows as this little vineyard is producing enough fruit to spill over and bless the community, and before you know it, acknowledging the blessings of God, and being firmly committed to the journey ahead, we present to God a harvest bigger and fuller and juicier than we ever imagined, knowing full well that He gave the blessings, He gave the growth, and if we press forward and remain faithful, He will say to us “well done, my good and faithful servants”.

My friends, this little vineyard is really something.  Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.  Let’s run the race faithfully, always moving forward.  Because God has blessed us, we’ve been faithful, and this growing church will be entrusted with more.

To God be the glory, great things he has done.  Amen.

God’s Revolutionary Plan

“I have made you a watchman”, says the Lord, “whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” … “if you do not speak the warning, their blood will be on your hands… if you warn them, and they ignore the message, the fault is on them.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

Last week we saw, very dramatically, that God’s will is for his people to be nourished and sustained by the Word of God.  It’s his will that we should feast and ‘fill up’ on the truth that God has revealed in scripture, and not just bits and pieces that we remember from Sunday School, or a hazy understanding of the overarching themes filtered down through an unchurched society; rather as the prophets very dramatically showed us last week when we saw them literally eating, munching on the Word of God making the point that the teaching and reading of the Bible, handed down through the Church, is meant to be our daily bread, our food for the journey.

After all, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3 / Matt. 4:4)… or, as I like to say, one of the key points of Christianity is, simply, “you are what you eat”.  If we want to become Christ-like, if we want to be those whose mouths proclaim the good news of forgiveness, of love, of peace, of second chances and purpose, then we have to first be filled with those messages, those promises from God.

The readings appointed for today pick up on that theme: that our purpose is not just to believe in God, come to church on Sunday, drop in an envelope to pay the minister and keep the lights on, and leave to go about our business until next week.

No, the message of the Church is much more radical than that. 

The faith we proclaim is that the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit have been poured out on all who believe, just as Jesus promised.  It’s no longer reserved for the professional ministers – that was true in the Old Testament, when the Spirit of God was reserved for prophets, priests, and kings; from Pentecost on, God has sent his Holy Spirit to empower every baptized person for the work of proclaiming the good news.  Or, to put it another way, the reason the Church doesn’t appoint “prophets”, and, very practically, the reason that our service books or church documents don’t use the outdated term “minister” for clergy is that, fundamentally, we believe that if you’ve been baptized, and if baptism brings with it the gift of the Holy Spirit, then each and every one of us here is on the hook as a messenger of God; each and every one of us here has been empowered by the same Spirit that empowered Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel to share the good news, to point people back to God, back to the one who loves them and is waiting with open arms to forgive them, to teach them what it is not to trust in your own strength, and to adopt them as sons and daughters of our heavenly king.

God’s plan at Pentecost was that people would no longer travel hundreds of miles to find one of his appointed messengers; rather, with every Christian called to that task, the whole world would have the opportunity to hear.

God’s plan was that, rather than sending a weird guy eating locusts and wearing camel skin to bring hope to Fort Smith, there would be, and there are right now, a hundred or more active, baptized, followers of Jesus, all empowered by the same Spirit who empowered the prophets of old, all given the task of bringing God’s message to those who are right here.

It’s a great plan.  Why have one prophet, why have one messenger, when you can have a hundred or more, even in a small town like this.  On paper, the plan is brilliant: if one prophet could turn the hearts of kings and rulers, just imagine what a hundred could do! 

…except, those prophets, those messengers, are people like me and you sitting here today, together with our faithful brothers and sisters at the other churches in town. 

It’s a great and awesome plan to bring mercy and forgiveness and hope to the world, but, if we’re honest, we haven’t been great at doing our part.

Messengers given a choice

Now, as we know from scripture, God wants us to love him freely, so even when he calls and empowers and appoints someone to do a task, there’s always a choice to be made; it’s not in God’s nature to use us against our will.

The same is true here: when God called prophets, like we read in Ezekiel this morning, there was an option given.  The messenger could choose to deliver the message, or not; that’s the choice.

But, like everything in life, one thing always leads to another, and choices – no matter how simple or private they seem – always have consequences that are far-reaching. 

The choice given to the messenger of God was no different: you can deliver the message and, no matter how it’s received – whether they accept it and take that first step to turn to the Lord, or whether they outright reject it and laugh in your face – the messenger has done their job.  Or, to put it in the dire terms we heard today: if you did your part and delivered the message, their decision to reject it is on them.

But, on the flip side of that, if you refuse to deliver the message – which you’re free to do, after all, God doesn’t force us – it just means that we’ve chosen to accept the consequences: Ezekiel 33:8, “if you do not speak to them…”, they’ll go on living their lives, but when they die, “I will hold you accountable for their blood”.

Now, that’s the kind of statement that should get our attention.

God’s plan is that, across whatever denominations of churches there are, there would be hundreds of opportunities, each and every day, for our own friends and neighbours to run into someone who is sustained and nourished by our daily bread, and on whose lips is the good news of hope and mercy and the joy that comes from no longer trusting in your own strength, and learning to rely on a loving saviour.

It’s great news, and an awesome plan to share it.  But, as always, it’s our choice.  We can choose to keep the message to ourselves… it just means that, one day, when our journey has ended, when we are called to give account for the good things and opportunities entrusted to us, when the opportunities we had to give someone just the smallest word of hope, or to let them know that they are loved, or that we’re in this together as children of God, or that you’ll pray for them, or that you know a church that would be happy to welcome them, or a priest that would be happy to chat with them; as God reveals all the dozens or hundreds of people that He has put in your path, the terrifying choice is ours – do we hear “well done, my good and faithful servant”, or do we say, “you sent me but I wouldn’t go; I am accountable for their blood.”

A wake-up call

Sometimes I think the church, and especially clergy, forget that our business is a matter of life and death.  We’re not sent out to be nice and unobjectionable, our mission isn’t to run programs to keep our social calendars full. 

We’re part of God’s plan to go from having one prophet for a hundred miles to having a hundred messengers in every nook and cranny and corner of the earth.  It’s that reality that needs to colour everything we do: when we pack hampers for new college students, it’s not because we’re nice people – it’s because our God-given task is to love the stranger and foreigner, to let them know that they are loved, that they are welcomed, that no matter what they’ve done or where they are in their journey, the Church, the Body of Christ, is reaching out with those same arms of forgiveness and love that would embrace the wood of the Cross; when we help low-income families do their taxes, it’s not because we’re nice people with nothing better to do – it’s because our God-given task is to relieve the plight of the poor, to let them know that they are loved and that, no matter what choices they, or their parents, or our parents made that put them in the situation they’re in, there is forgiveness, there is mercy, and there is hope when we learn to stop trusting in ourselves, and to put our trust in Jesus.

My friends, we have opportunities to be God’s messengers presented to us every day.

How we missed those opportunities yesterday doesn’t need to hold us back; if we acknowledge that we missed the mark and ask for forgiveness, God remembers it no more, he wipes it from our account;[1] and we need to let it go too. 

Instead, as we wake each morning, take our daily bread, and ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, we treat each day as a new opportunity to be those messengers we are called to be.

And let’s be clear… no one’s suggesting that we should be ranting on street corners.  If that was God’s plan, Pentecost wouldn’t have happened; God could have kept sending prophets in camel skin, eating locusts… or even eating their Bibles.

No, what God wants is an army of ordinary people; a mighty throng of humble servants, those willing to open our mouths at those times when you know you should say something; those times when the hair stands on the back of your neck and you know, somehow, deep down, that you’re supposed to let this person know that they are loved, that they don’t need to worry, they don’t need to try so hard, that surrendering and learning to follow Jesus is the first step in overcoming the things that weigh us down.

It’s nothing more than living honourably, loving our neighbour, putting aside the works of darkness, and getting to work, for night is coming,[2] and when the opportunity comes to deliver God’s message, choosing to simply deliver it, rather than being accountable for the consequences of keeping it to ourselves; knowing that, by God’s grace, we might be the faceless, unknown messenger,[3] who sparks something that changes generations of darkness and addiction and despair in that family, all because we were faithful and spoke a little word of hope or mercy in that moment.

Just remember: God’s plan to send ordinary, shy, quirky people like you and me is completely revolutionary.  We know that where two or three are gathered, Christ is in our midst.[4]  Jesus wasn’t in a building when he said that, so we shouldn’t limit that promise to these four walls.  If two or three, or twenty-five, or a hundred of us are united to be God’s humble messengers in our town, you know what?  Christ will be here, in our midst.  And that, my friends, is the sort of thing that changes a church, that changes a community, and, by God’s grace, can change the world.

The choice is ours – let’s speak up.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

[1] Don’t worry, I’m not advocating a juridical or accountancy-based soteriology.  “Being held accountable” is the image in Ezekiel 33.

[2] Romans 13:8-14

[3] Messenger: in Greek “angelon”, from which we get “angel”!

[4] Matthew 18:19-20