Why do we call today “good”.

Why do we call today ‘good’?

In the midst of desolation and despair; in the midst of betrayal and abandonment; in the midst of utter darkness closing in on an innocent young man: why do we call today ‘good’?

Many have offered their answer: is it Jesus being punished for our sins, as though God required punishment?  Is it Jesus offering himself in a deal with the devil, as though God owed Satan anything? 

These answers all fall short because they fail to line up with scripture.  No, fundamentally, this day is ‘good’ because on this day, God fulfilled his promise.

The Son of Man will crush the Serpent’s Head.

On the very day that disobedience, and thus death, entered the world, God cursed the devil, saying “cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals” (Genesis 3:14), but with that ancient curse, God made his first promise to humanity. 

God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers.”  Yes, the serpent, those deceiving jaws trying to swallow up creation in death will indeed strike at our heels.  That’s the story of the rest of scripture, and it’s our own story, as we spend our lives in a broken, bent, and fallen world, surrounded by deceiving jaws and venomous bites, hell bent on leading us to curse God and embrace death and despair.

But, we forget that first promise of God: God said yes, Satan, and the rebellious forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil, “you will strike his heel”; but… just wait.  

The son of man, “he will crush your head”, O deceiving serpent.  (Genesis 3:15).

Today is “good” because today is the day that God fulfilled that promise.

There was no other good enough.

As scripture teaches us, humankind could never triumph over death.  Sure, we live our lives with sin biting at our heels, but there’s a more fundamental problem: it’s not just that we all find ourselves disobedient, self-centred, self-absorbed, prideful, bent inward, and quick to abandon our God-given duty. 

Even if you or I managed to be perfectly obedient to God, we’d still have a problem: we’ve inherited the curse.  That serpent’s venom first flowing in Adam and Eve, turning their hearts to stone, turning their hands to evil, puffing-up their heads to see themselves as not needing God; that same venom was passed down to you and to me.  As the psalmist put it, “I’m not really a man; I’ve been a sinner since my mother’s womb”.

You see, escaping despair and death isn’t about being “good”, about checking the right boxes, about performing well, about earning a place.  No being “good” means being free from the curse of sin.  And, simply, there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.  It would take a new, a fresh humanity: God Himself creating a new, unstained, uncursed flesh; a fresh start, or, as the Bible says, a “second Adam”, a new man, born without the serpent’s venom coursing around in his veins. 

That’s the miracle of Christmas – a fresh start, a new Adam, the promised Messiah of God, born humbly to live and die as one of us.

But why is today “good”?  Because today is the day that God fulfilled that first promise.  That first Good Friday was really and truly the day when, once and for all, the Son of Man crushed the serpent’s head.

Sin biting at His heels.

Just moments ago, we heard Jesus, hanging stripped, bloodied, and beaten on the cross; the Incarnate second Person of the Trinity, God-in-the-flesh cry out in desperation and dereliction “My God… why have you forsaken me”.

It’s a shocking statement, God Himself feeling abandoned.

But we have to remember that, last night, at table with his bumbling, cowardly disciples, the only one since Adam and Eve to ever be born free from sin’s curse, freely accepted that weight.  And why?  Out of unimaginable love.

He said: “this is my blood… the blood of the new covenant… given for the remission of sin”.

Think about that: He who knew no sin, willingly saying, “My Father loves them; I love them; I’m sending my Spirit to dwell in them: I will bear their curse”.

Parents – I know you’ve been there.  You see your child hurting, and you say, “I wish I could deal with this, not them; I don’t want them to bear this pain alone”. 

Christ was the one and only person free from the curse, so he was the one and only who could make the offer.  And then, in that moment, as he prepared to die, the weight of every sin was laid on his shoulders.  Every sin.  The curse, the shame, the guilt of every man, woman, and child, in each and every moment.  The weight of every disease, the devastation of every earthquake, fire, and flood in this broken world.  All poured upon humanity’s fresh start, as God, the one who knows no sin, feels the desolation and utter separation not of one man’s sin, but of every evil thought, every evil deed, and every broken aspect of a world whose very nature is turned against God.

And just when it looks like evil has won;
just when it looks like those ravening, hissing jaws are closing in on the Son of God;
we hear those beautiful words.

“It is finished”.

It is finished.  No, not Jesus’ life. 
No, the promise has been fulfilled.  “It is done”.  God has kept his promise. 

Just when you thought the serpent was going to claim another victim:
No.  “It is finished”.  The Son of Man has crushed the serpent’s head.

We call today “good” because God kept his promise.
We call today “good”, because this is the day that everything changed.

Or has it?

Jesus broke down the gate of hell; Jesus loosed the chains of death; Jesus opened the path to eternal life. 

But you and I, more likely than not, are going to leave today, just as we came.  Bearing the same weight, and guilt, and shame. 

But we call today “good” because it doesn’t have to be that way.

We feel weighed down, we feel trapped, we feel chained in… but we call today “good” because Jesus removed the weight, broke down the wall, and loosed the chains.

He opened the path, and said “Come”. 

But most of us choose to sit. 

Most of us sit in the dark corner of sin’s prison, looking at the chains of shame on our hands and our feet, carrying a heavy load of guilt that keeps us from ever looking up… even though we don’t have to.  We sit in the dark corner of prison, not realizing that the wall’s been broken down.  We look at the chains of shame, not realizing that they’re not attached to anything, and, in Christ, we’re free to let them go.  We feel the weight of the world, not realizing that we’re the ones holding on the straps, not the other way around.

We call today “good” because God fulfilled his promise.

We call today “good” because sin, shame, guilt, and the fear of the grave have been defeated as the Son of Man crushed the serpent’s head.

But it’s only “good” if we get up, drop that weight, let go of those chains, and follow Christ up and out of the pits of despair that have become far too comfortable.

Today is truly “good”… but, it comes to each of us as a question:
Will you let this be good news for you? 
Will you share in Christ’s victory, and follow him out of the pit of despair?

Or have we become too comfortable to even realize the freedom that has been offered?

Do Love: Priority, Desire, Sacrifice

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” 1 John 3:16a

Love is a common theme for the Christian life.  The scriptures are brimming with instructions to love one another, to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. 

Yet, as so often happens, when something becomes “common”, when something becomes routine or expected, before we know it we find ourselves sharing common misunderstandings; sometimes we need to step back and unpack those ideas that appear simple and which we’ve taken for granted, and when we do, we usually find there’s a lot more there than we thought.

Love is an action.

If I asked you “what is love?” – to give a definition of love – what would you come up with?  Think about that just for a second: what is love?

It’s a good exercise, taking something that is common and just assumed, and unpacking it to see if there’s more to the story. 

For most adults, if we were pressed into coming up with a definition of love, we’d waffle around with a few ideas and probably land somewhere in the realm of “a feeling of deep affection”, but, anyone who loves or has been loved would be quick to add “…but that definition doesn’t quite do it”.  What is love?

If I asked the kids, though, do you know what we’d get?  “Love is when Mom hugs me and makes me feel better when I cut my finger.”  “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”.  One kid – you can probably guess which one – told me “love is when you play on my Minecraft server with me, because I love Minecraft”.

But, you know what?  As limited as those children’s definitions might be, they understand something that almost every adult definition of love fundamentally misses: love is an action.

And this isn’t some lofty church idea: our language tells us that love isn’t a feeling or an emotion; love is a verb, an action word.  Think about it: we say “I love you”, or “you love me”.  We don’t say “I happy you” or “you sad me” – those are feelings; our language lets us say “I love you” because ‘love’ is a verb, an action word. 

The kids are right, you know: to love someone or something isn’t to feel something about them, though affection certainly has something to do with it.  Love isn’t a feeling we exchange.  To love is to do something; if love isn’t an action, we’ve slipped into a misunderstanding that is everywhere in our society today.

How to ‘do’ love.

So, if love is an action word – not a feeling or emotion – then how do we do it? 

Like any action, there are clear, definite, purposeful steps required: if it’s walking, I have to get up off my butt, pick a direction, lift up one foot, swing it forward, put it down, and repeat over and over, one step at a time, until my walk is done.  If the action is cleaning, I have to find a mess, get some cleaner, and put in some elbow grease.  …believe me, if walking or cleaning were just feelings, I’d be a whole lot healthier and my house would be a whole lot tidier!  But they’re actions, and so is love, so there are definite steps required to do that action.

I want to suggest that there are three components, three parts required to “do” love.  The action of love requires, first, making something your priority.  Second, to do love requires a desire.  And third, to make love happen requires sacrifice.  Priority.  Desire.  Sacrifice. 


First: Priority.  We all know words are cheap.  It’s easy to say something, to throw a few words out there.  But actions speak louder than words not least because they require effort.  Or, to put it as St. James does, “faith without works is dead”.  There’s no life or lasting value to be found in merely saying, thinking, or feeling something without the effort to follow through to the best of our ability. 

To love someone or something – to take the action of loving them – means making them a priority in your life, and showing that in your actions.

It’s amazing: the kids know this, even if they don’t have the words for it.  “Love is when me and Dad made cookies together for Mommy”.  All of us adults would know from experience that, when Saturday afternoon rolls around after all week with both parents working, there are a dozen high-priority things that need to be done around the house.  Laundry to be washed, groceries to be picked up, a squeaky door to be fixed, a flat tire on a bike that needs to be fixed, online banking to be done – the endless list that goes with being responsible for a household.

But if love is more than a feeling – which it has be to – then the first thing love requires is Priority.  Loving you, loving my family, loving my neighbour, loving God means, first, prioritizing the one who is loved.  The kid knows that Mom or Dad is busy, but the kid sees that they are loved when they are bumped ahead of bills or laundry or things around the house, even for half-an-hour.  The first step in the action of love is priority.


The next step, I want to suggest, is desire.  Now, when I say desire, I mean it in it’s broadest sense: love as an action requires a strong want or wish for something to happen.

Or, in other words, love requires a goal being worked towards, to love someone or something is to want it to become the best it can be, to picture that person as the best that they can be, and to want to get there together.

It’s not enough – it’s not really love – just to prioritize something.  If I prioritize someone or something because it makes me feel good, or I get something from it, that’s not love (that’s pleasure – another action word).  Love requires prioritizing someone because of the hope, the deep desire you have for their yet-more-glorious future.  If I love my wife just because she makes me laugh – or if I love God because He’s good to me, that really isn’t love; love is looking forward to being better together, having the hope for what you and them together can become, and desiring, deeply and strongly wanting it to happen.

Love as a verb, as an action, first takes priority and then desire for that more glorious future.


And then the action of love requires sacrifice.  It takes offering yourself to take the steps necessary to make that future a reality.

This is where the modern misunderstanding of love as an emotion throws us off the rails. 

It’s one thing for me to say “I like my dog, I should take her for a walk”.  I can even have that good desire for my dog’s future, that good desire for her to have a good life, for her – and me – to be fit and to enjoy that wonderful time out in the sun, out in the beauty of God’s creation, rejuvenated by the fresh air.  I can have the desire to be a good and responsible dog owner, to want to be in the sort of relationship you see on TV where the happy dog runs to the door with its tail wagging, leash in its mouth, asking to go for a walk together. 

I can think highly of my dog, prioritizing her; I can want to be a good dog owner who takes her for walks… but does that priority or desire produce any action?  No.

No, the priority and desire require follow-through with sacrifice.

Now, sacrifice takes different forms.  Some are very costly, and the greatest love that can ever be shown, scripture says, is the laying down – the sacrifice – of life itself.  But all love requires sacrifice, and not as a one-time thing.  The action of love, the action of loving someone or something, requires sacrifice.

And this is where we so often go wrong. 

You know 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” read at almost every wedding?  For your homework this week, give that a read… but recognize that each of those descriptions of love is actually a description of sacrifice.  “Love is patient, love is kind; it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, … it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”  You know the list; but these aren’t feelings – they’re costly sacrifices, steps to be taken for one who is prioritized and for whom you have the hope of a more glorious future.  Patience is a sacrifice; kindness is a sacrifice; putting aside pride, biting your tongue when you have every right to be angry, giving second chances if and when the person recognizes they were wrong and turns from it: those aren’t feelings.  That’s what it takes to do love.  It might be as simple as a parent patiently trying to be interested in Minecraft on a rare day off; or it might be as humbling as helping a parent or an ailing spouse get to the bathroom and then get dressed again when they can no longer do it for themselves, but one thing is sure: it’s only love if we set that priority, have that desire, and work towards it with sacrifice.

On these two commandments…

Love is costly.  Love is involved.  Love is an action.  And yet, all of the commandments of God are summarized in these two greatest commandments (say it with me): you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

So, let’s ask ourselves: do you love God?

Is God a priority, not just on Sunday, but every day that He gives you, and every night that He lets you sleep in safety and peace?  Is God your desire – do you desire a better future together with God, is that a goal that defines your life?  And then sacrifice: do you, will you take the steps to patiently, humbly make that love an action: as “the love chapter” says, love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres until the end.  If love is an action, do you love God?

And then, the other side of that commandment, and perhaps the more challenging of the two.  Do I love my neighbour?  And my neighbour isn’t just my family or my friends, but every single person made in God’s Image whom God has placed in my path; those who drive me nuts, those with whom I disagree on just about everything imaginable, and those who are just plain rude and make me feel like dirt.  Do I love them?

It’s not a feeling.  And let me tell you, that’s a good thing!  Because we all have plenty of people we don’t feel happy to be around.

But do I love my neighbour?  Whoever they are, good or bad, kind and generous people, or rude and ignorant people, do I love them?  Do I prioritize them? Huh.  Because that’s what God expects… will I put that rude man who doesn’t know how to speak to anyone ahead of myself and my own desires?  Talk is cheap.  And I can say all the words there are, but if I have not love, I’m a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Do I desire my neighbour to have a yet-more-glorious future?  Do I want them to know true love, do I want them to experience true hope and mercy and forgiveness, do I want them to know God and to live with me forever, do I want them to be better for having known and lived alongside me, such as I am.  Think of the rudest, most grating neighbour you know.  Do you want him or her to know mercy?  Do you want them to know love, to be cleaned up by the grace of God just as we will be, and to spend eternity redeemed with you?  Because, if that’s not your desire for even your rudest neighbour, then no matter what we might tell ourselves, God says no, we don’t yet know love.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, love requires sacrifice.  Are you willing to take the steps so that your neighbour can have that yet-more-glorious future, both in this life, and in the life to come.

My friends, this is why the church isn’t a voluntary organization.  If anyone ever told you that Christians volunteer their time to teach Sunday School, or help at the food bank, or help people with their taxes and paperwork, or to teach young moms to cook for their families, or to visit those who are sick or alone, or to make the church building clean and ready to welcome those who come in, or to greet our brothers and sisters as they gather, they’re wrong.  Those are not good deeds, and they’re not optional.  They’re the sacrifices that love requires.

If you say you love your neighbour, but you won’t fill his belly; if you say you love your neighbour but you won’t share her pain and do your part to life them out of despair and set them on the path to glory, then we’re nothing but a noisy cymbal.

Love is action.

My friends, lets make this a church where everyone learns to love God, and learns to love their neighbour as themselves: not thinking good thoughts or feeling happy feelings about God and our neighbour, but making God and our neighbour a priority every day; having that earnest desire for a better future with God, and wanting our neighbours to share that hope; and then making the sacrifices that true love requires.  That’s a church that will grow, that’s a church that will change the world around us; but it’s got to start with love, and it’s got to start with each one of us, loving God, and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

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

A Living Sacrifice overcomes the Gates of Death.

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice”. Romans 12:1

Last week we heard that crucial part of the good news that the world, and even many in the church, get backwards: we don’t come to church because we’re good people who have our lives together.  No, the good news – as surprising as it sounds – is that none of us are good enough to claim any right to stand in God’s holy house; the good news is that, though we can never do anything or be good enough to deserve it, God gives us his mercy, that little spark of holiness that begins the life-long process of transforming us from the inside out.  Or, to put it another way, none of us deserve to even gather up the crumbs under the Lord’s table like the dogs in their masters’ house; yet, not because of what we’ve done, but because of his great mercy, he clothes us, cleans us up, and invites us to join him at the table as his guests.

This week, we’re presented with another of the great truths of the good news that, all-too-often, has been understood backwards: Romans chapter 12, verses 1-2, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Sacrifice?  No thank you.

There’s no doubt about it, the call on our lives is a call to sacrifice, a call to take up our cross and follow Christ.  But what exactly does that mean?  What should that look like?

Right off the bat, any call to sacrifice is a call away from the instincts we’ve picked up from a fallen world built around self-preservation and pride, built around making a name for ourselves and earning the respect, or admiration, or perhaps if we’re honest, earning the envy of those around us.

Certainly, “sacrifice” just sounds not just pointless, but downright pitiful to those who have built their lives on trying to get ahead, on trying to make themselves good enough one way or another.

And yes, as we confess our failings and start fresh each day aiming at the target that is the example of Jesus, there are real sacrifices to be made: as we take that leap and finally trust the God who says “I want you to trust me, not your bank account, so give up 10% of what comes in”, there are things to be given up while we learn the freedom that comes with no longer being focused on the dollar; when we take that leap and finally trust the God who says “I made you in my image so that you can have good judgment and make a difference, so take back the control you’ve given to a bottle, or your cigarettes, or the pointless scrolling on your phone, or whatever you’ve used to distract you from what needs to be done”, there’s real sacrifice, and often real pain, that comes with making those changes; when we finally listen to the God who says “vengeance is mine, I will repay”, and “only I know a person’s heart, so turn the other cheek and trust in me”, when we finally lay down the anger and bitterness and revenge and pride that makes so much of the world go around, it’s there we find some of the biggest sacrifices, as we put out those silent fires that have burned within us and learn instead to find peace within. Yes, those are real sacrifices – and, guaranteed, as we crucify those unhealthy ways of life, those false religions, those false gods, there’s real work and even real pain as we learn to live in the imitation of Christ, as that heart of stone slowly warms to a heart of flesh, and we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

But here’s where the world gets it wrong.

The sacrifices of God give life, rather than take it away.

The world hears “sacrifice” and thinks “that’ll cost you”. 

The world hears “sacrifice” and thinks that you give something up only to end up poorer and more pitiful than you were before.

The world hears “blessed are the poor, blessed are the humble and meek” and instantly twists it to imagine that God desires us to be helpless, mindless sheep, weak and easily taken advantage of.  Someone told me as much, just a month ago, when we were chatting about why he quit coming to church years ago – he thinks church should help you think positively and feel good about all that you’ve accomplished, he wants a church that tells you to stand tall and be proud of what you’ve done, but all the talk of humility, of being a follower rather than a leader, is like letting the world pass you by, and “that just won’t get you anywhere”, he said.

A living sacrifice?

The world has heard bits and pieces of the Lord’s call to sacrifice, but the twisted message they’ve heard is hardly one worth getting up and getting dressed on Sunday morning to hear.   

And, sadder still, too many congregations for too many years have only reinforced that twisted message, as churches everywhere allowed ourselves to ‘put on our Sunday best’, to pretend that we’ve got it all together, as too many congregations gathered only to focus inward, while the world outside saw a locked building whose doors are rarely open, and whose members are neither equipped to reach out as the hands of the body of Christ, nor prepared to speak up as the voice of that body in the world.

The appeal to you, my brothers and sisters, by the mercy of God, is to present your selves, your souls, and bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

A living sacrifice… and that makes all the difference.

The world has more than its fair share of sacrificial lambs.  The prideful ways of the world know all about sacrificing people to get ahead.  In every age, countries send their young to the slaughter for a few kilometers of land, or to defend their honour.  Our own pension funds sacrifice local jobs and entire communities to get ahead by moving work overseas.  Sadly and inescapably, actual human lives, sons and daughters, in Bangladesh and Pakistan have been sacrificed for the clothes on our backs, while at home, lives are sacrificed every day as drugs, human trafficking, and violence are allowed to run free on the back streets of our cities.

The world thinks it knows all about sacrifice – and, every time, people end up dead.

Death’s battle is lost. 

But here’s where the world gets it wrong: yes, the life of following Jesus begins with surrendering our attempts at pride, with dying to self.

But God’s will isn’t to take our sacrifice, say “thank you very much”, and then let us lay there.  That couldn’t be more wrong.  We’re called not to be a sacrificial lamb – the price of death has been paid, once and for all, on the cross; no, we’re to be living sacrifices… and that makes all the difference.

Yes, we’re called to give up the lives we thought we had, to work through the pain in removing whatever it was that was driving us: trust in money, trust in our strength, slavery to work or something to take the pain away, or a life fueled by anger or bitterness or self-pity.  But as that life dies away, as that sacrifice is made, we find ourselves made more alive than we ever were before.  And it just gets better.  We’re not called to make a change and stay put – to sing “I have decided to follow Jesus” one day and be done with it.  No, unlike the ways of this world, we’re called to be daily renewed, daily transformed as our minds learn what it means not to be run by the ways of the world, but to be conformed to the will of God, to see things as God sees them, and to learn our place in the universal Church, the Body of Christ sent with a job to do in the world.

God takes our sacrifice, mercifully carries us through the pain as we die to our old ways of life, and infuses us with life like we’ve never had it before.  And that life isn’t just for our own benefit, as though God wanted to put his saints on display.  No, we’re given a life full of purpose.  We, the Church, are built up so that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

And that, my friends, is all about reaching out, going outside our walls.

It’s funny how that verse has so often been preached and read backwards.  I’ve known entire congregations who live on the defensive.  It’s as though Jesus said, I’ll build my church, and I expect it to stand here, with the powers of darkness knocking on the door trying to knock it down.

It’s the other way around: the church, the body of Christ, is on the offensive; it’s the powers of death that are scrambling in defense.  After all – have you ever known a gate to be attacking someone?  No, it’s darkness, death, and the grave that have locked their gate, defending their would-be kingdom in a losing battle.  And those gates of Hades, the gates of death and the grave will not prevail against us, the Church, when we come knocking: indeed, that’s the whole message of Easter – death closed it’s awful jaws on the body of Christ, but Christ broke free, he loosed the chains, he released those imprisoned inside, and he trampled down death by death itself – and now he wants to accept our sacrifices, not just to die to the ways of the world, but to share in that risen life, and not just for ourselves, but that we can join him, that we can be his hands and feet and voice, not to sit safely inside a fortress, but to go out and knock on the gates of death, to release the prisoners and captives, as the powers of this world, and even death itself, trembles when it sees us coming in the Name of the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

That’s the living sacrifice you are called to share. 

Yes, make those hard decisions to turn around.  Yes, take whatever fleeting, passing, worldly thing you have put your trust in, or whatever you have used to numb the pain, and put it on the cross and let it die, but then find out what it actually means to be truly alive.  Let you mind be changed – transformed – as you learn to see things as God sees them.  And then, confident as only those who are truly alive can be, get to work, as we reach out to those around us who are imprisoned by the choices they’ve made, and rattle those gates, for they simply will not prevail against the Body of Christ, truly alive.

That’s the good news.  That’s a living sacrifice.  And that’s what the Lord asks of us. 

May he give us the grace to take up our cross, share in his life, and get to work.


Worship: Is God worth it?

One of the great opportunities we have in these unprecedented times is to ask, “what lessons should we be learning?”.

There are lessons to be learned just about everywhere: how to strengthen our health system, how to better care for the elderly, how to make low-paying jobs worth more than the emergency response benefit, and how to respond to the brutality and injustice shown to other people made in the image of God.

And, as people in whom the Spirit of God is at work, we must also ask “what is God saying to the church in this time?”.  We know from his word that God always works some ultimate and eternal good out of even the most dire human circumstances, as long as we love him and follow where he leads.[1]

While God no doubt has many lessons for us, one jumps out at me this morning: why do we worship?

Struggling to Connect

For a lot of us, Sunday mornings had been a comfortable routine for as long as we can remember: familiar songs, familiar words, a well-worn pew in a beloved building dedicated to the glory of God and the worship of the church, familiar faces and the warm welcome of people – brothers and sisters – you know would be there for you, to celebrate with you when you’re happy, and to lift you up when you’re weak.

And, of course, we’ve done the best we can: by the grace of God we’ve managed to stay connected on Sunday mornings, to stay connected by phone and now dropping in on one another all week long.  We’ve kept calm and carried on; we’ve made do as best we could.  And, thanks be to God, we’ve become more visible and more involved in our community than we have in years, with more parishioners volunteering in new and different ministries every day of the week.  We’ve had people digging in and learning to study the Bible as a message that applies to our lives today, and we’ve had people asking hard questions and inviting God’s gift of healing into their lives, not just for their bodies, but doing the greater work of healing the memories that hold us down.

It one way, the pandemic has been good  – this is our moment, and we’re stepping up, boldly, in the name of Christ.

But, if I’m being honest, Sunday mornings have been hard, and I say that as a priest whose work is the worship of the church. 

It was one thing when the weather was icy and cold, but if I’m being honest, the idea of talking to a camera, or even setting up church on the lawn, just doesn’t “do it” for me.  I can only imagine what it’s like on the other side, watching on a screen in your living room, or batting away flies outside under the sun.  If I’m honest, one of the thoughts that crosses my mind is, “I don’t get much out of this”… and I’m sure I’m not alone.

It’s ok for us to admit how we’re feeling: God is truth, and He knows the secrets of our hearts anyway.  But once we name our perception, our task as disciples, as students and apprentices of Jesus, is to learn to see things as God does.

What is worship?

I think all of us naturally think about worship as something for us.  We come to be fed, we come to learn, we come to feel the support of our church family.  We come to sing uplifting songs.  We come looking for something familiar, something stable when the world is spinning, something that will fill us up to face the week ahead.

In short, we come to worship because of what worship gives me.

So then, when I don’t feel like I’m getting anything out of it, it’s easy and even natural for me to excuse myself and choose something that feels more beneficial instead.

Indeed, an entire generation has done that, as churches everywhere have grey heads and young families, but very few in the middle, usually because they “got more” out of some other option for Sunday morning.

But in this time of revaluating everything, if we stop and listen to God’s word and the faith of his church, we learn a hard lesson: worship isn’t about us.

If I get fed, if I learn something, if I come away refreshed and ready to face the week ahead, those are added bonuses: but they’re not the point. 

Worship, rightly understood, is only every about God – he is the one and only worthy of all worship, he alone is worthy of praise, and he not only deserves but commands that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and not just once in our lives and not just when we feel we need him, but that He would lay claim on one day each and every week as we proclaim the resurrection, eat the bread of heaven, and tell one another the old, old story, for the cares and concerns of the world cause us to forget so soon.

Even the word “worship” is all about God.  It means “to ascribe worth”, to declare that the thing we worship is worth our time and our talent and our treasure.[2]  Worship has nothing to do with how I feel or what I get out of it – in fact, any time my thoughts or my excuses circle back to me, I can be assured that I’ve been held captive by the sin of pride, as I’ve allowed my understanding of the world to have me and my feelings at the centre. 

Worship is not something we do or something that feeds us; worship is what we give.  Our task, as God’s people, is to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; to bring and offering and come into his courts; to bow down before him not for what he has done for us, but simply because He is God and we are not; He is powerful and we are weak; He is merciful, and we stand in need of mercy before the one who knows the deepest secrets of our hearts.[3]

It’s a hard message, especially if we’ve been doing it backwards most of our lives.  But I believe it’s also a wake-up call.

A Biblical Understanding

Worship becomes so much clearer if we turn from our familiar patterns and look with fresh eyes at what God says in his word.[4]

In Abraham taking his son Isaac – a story that should rightly challenge us and raise all sorts of questions – we see the realities of worship laid bare.

God called Abraham to worship him upon the mountain of the Lord; to present himself along with his son – the son Abraham had longed for in his old age, the son who literally represented everything Abraham had in the world, and his entire hope for the future. 

It’s truly painful to read – I can’t even imagine the grief in Abraham’s heart as he brought all of his hopes and dreams, bound up in the person he loved more than anything else in the world, and carried to the Lord.

But, Abraham said, “we will go over there, and we will worship”.

That’s Abraham’s act of worship – no uplifting songs, no fuzzy words of comfort, no goal of being filled up for the week ahead.  Rather, simply and only because God is God, Abraham shows us what it means when we say “I surrender all”.

Abraham says (in his actions) ‘I will worship, I will give God the honour and glory due his name, even though it looks like it will cost me everything. I will worship, not because of what God gives me in return, but I will ascribe God’s worth simply because God is worth it.’

And, of course, we know God doesn’t desire burnt offerings; as we see with Abraham, the only sacrifice truly acceptable to the LORD is the one that the Lord provides. But that’s the point: if God is worth it, if God is who we say he is, then worship is nothing short of our being willing to give him everything we have, and more than that, everything we love

I can guarantee that nothing about Abraham’s walk to worship that morning made him feel good; it certainly wasn’t what he wanted to be doing.  But the call to worship is just that: a weekly reminder that “I surrender all” really means surrendering all; to weekly take ourselves off the pedestals we build and return to the Lord, not for our benefit, but simply because God is worth our time and our effort; to weekly remind ourselves that God alone has been our help in ages past, and in spite of the work of our hands, he alone will be our hope in years to come.

What about worship?

So, if you’re like me, and Sunday morning on a screen, or on the lawn just doesn’t do it for you, or even if the thought of returning to the church building without any singing or greeting one another doesn’t seem like something we’d get much out of, it’s good for us to name that. 

We should name how we’re feeling, but then we need to call it like it is.

We aren’t Christians because we enjoy church services.  We’re Christians because we said “I surrender all”, and God said “come, my child, and feast at my table”, and then “go, make disciples of all nations”.

We need to confess our frustration, and remind ourselves, time and time again that we worship simply because God is worth it.  As Paul said in Romans, we come obedient to the command of God, and present ourselves – surrender ourselves, laying ourselves down as willing servants before a gracious master.[5]

Of all the lessons to learn from COVID, this is a lesson that we – the Church – have needed to learn for generations, and it only continues to show God’s wisdom that he could use something as awful as a pandemic to help us see how the sin of pride and individualism has even infected what we do on Sunday morning.

The reality is, whether we’re online or on the lawn, whether we’re back in church or away at the cabin, worship isn’t something we do for our benefit.  Whether we’re in our pews, on vacation, or watching in your pyjamas with your morning coffee, God commands us to keep the Lord’s day, gathering with even one or two others to proclaim his greatness, to offer ourselves and all that he’s given us, and to tell the old, old story to our children, to the world, and to ourselves, for we forget.

By the grace of God, sometimes it builds us up.  Sometimes we leave re-charged.  And sometimes, let’s be honest, it’s a chore, especially toting young children along on a sunny day after a stressful week.  But whether it’s in the pews, online, on the lawn, or by yourself with your Bible and a prayerbook for 15 minutes at your campsite in the woods, when it comes to worship there should only ever be one question: is God worth it?

…And it’s only after we say “yes” that we realize the great blessings he has in store for all who follow him.

Looking for help structuring worship at home or on Sundays away from church during these strange times? Check these out!

Home Prayers (PDF) from the Book of Alternative Services

Forms of Prayer to be Used in Families (PDF) from the Book of Common Prayer

[1] Romans 8:26-30

[2] For a helpful discussion, see John Piper at Desiring God.

[3] Psalm 96

[4] Genesis 22:1-14

[5] Romans 6:12-23

Remembrance: A Call to Duty

925 years ago, the Church, entangled with kingdoms and governments, called for crusaders, saying it was a Christian man’s duty to fight for the name of God in the Middle East.  About 2 million died.

401 years ago, the Thirty Years’ War erupted in Europe, a war between Catholics and Protestants.  Each church and country declaring that it was a man’s duty to fight for their understanding of God.  About 5 million died from fighting and famine.

105 years ago, clergy in pulpits across this country proclaimed that it was a person’s Christian duty to defend the global empire that secured our prosperity, as the “war to end all wars” erupted, and some 24 million combatants and civilians lost their lives, and 214,000 Canadians – then over 2.5% of our population – were killed or wounded.

80 years ago, once again, the Church declared that it was a person’s duty to take up arms, not in the name of God or Empire, but for the cause of “Freedom”, as a full 10% of Canadians entered the armed forces, as upwards of 100 million people worldwide lost their lives directly or indirectly in that war.

Then, as we entered the Cold War, opinions changed.  The Church, and society at large, was unsure of its position, until, around 1985, when the churches of North America generally agreed a Christian’s duty was, as we recited last week in our Baptismal Vows, a duty to “strive for justice and peace among all people”, while “persevering in resisting evil”.  Tens of thousands of Canadians still answered their country’s call to serve in Korea, then the Gulf, then Yugoslavia and Somalia, returning home broken and bruised, but now without the heroes’ welcome or widespread support that helped their parents’ generation return from World War II.

And, the story continues, as our country and her allies deployed again to the Middle East, and even today, our Armed Forces list 33 ongoing peacekeeping and other operations at home, in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

There’s no question.  War is a difficult and complex matter.  And there’s also no question, as we look back, that whenever the church forgets its purpose and identity and simply becomes a shadow or echo of the state, our fallen humanity, our temptations to pride and greed lead us, over and over again, down the dangerous path of thinking that God is on our side, as though we were the ones with the eternal plan.  We forget so quickly that the good news is the opposite: that God calls and invites us to be on His side.

Why we Remember

On this Remembrance Sunday, the Church calls us to gather with several intentions. 

First, as the People of God have done since Issac told Jacob about God’s Covenant with Abraham, we gather to recite the story of how we got here; a story that includes both great blessings at God’s hand, as well as great atrocities in the name of ‘empire’ as certain regiments were deemed less valuable based on their heritage, and sent to their doom. 

As the prophets of old recounted both the good and the bad to call God’s people to obedience, it’s our duty to remember the good and the bad, as we look back and see that there is no “war to end all wars”, and until Christ returns, no amount of deterrence or rational debate can save a distraught people from following the rantings and calls to war of a crazed leader.  We gather to remember our story.

Second, we remember not just our history, but the great sacrifices of those who gave so much.  And perhaps we serve their memories best if we don’t romanticize it too much.  They were brave, they were courageous, they fought for the cause of freedom against oppression and evil.  But they were also curious, in search of adventure, excited to leave their small quiet town and see the world; young men and women – even boys lying about their age – who, serving their country, traded youth for the horrors of war, as many never came home, and all came home changed, wounded by the physical and psychological scars of warring humanity.

And, having remembered our story and having recalled the sacrifice of those who died, thirdly, this is a day of prayer.  This is a day of longing, as we pray that these sacrifices will not be repeated.

Church and State:
‘Already’ and ‘Not Yet’

War, it seems, is an inevitable fact of life in our fallen world.  And it is good and right for us to honour those who serve, protect, and defend us from threats foreign and domestic.  As we are taught by the scriptures, the worldly authorities are a part of the God-given order – even though crowns and thrones may perish and kingdoms rise and wane.

And if there’s a lesson a Christian today can learn from the long, sad history of the church and state as strange bedfellows in support of war, it’s that the Christian position, the Gospel position, our position, doesn’t fit well in any worldly camp.  In no way can the Body of Christ justify marching out in the name of worldly empires: after all, we must remember that our conflict is not against flesh and blood – our fellow humanity; no, our conflict is against evil and the spiritual forces of wickedness.

At the same time, we neglect our Gospel call to be a city on a hill, a light to enlighten the nations, and to be the messengers of peace if we bury our heads in the sand; and our task to bring the Good News of peace in Christ to the ends of the earth means that we, like those first apostles, must find ourselves on the dangerous frontlines between justice and injustice, between peace and the evils of war.

And there’s an important theological idea that explains this difficult position in which we find ourselves.  It’s summarized in three simple words: already… not yet.

As we proclaimed last week, Christ has already defeated death and the grave… but we are not yet able to see that defeat on this side of the veil between time and eternity.

God has already built that kingdom where swords and weapons of war are beaten into plows to provide for the needy, that land where lion and lamb, men and women, slave and free, of all races and languages and nations live peaceably side by side, where wars and rumours of wars are no more… but we are not yet there to experience it.

We, here today, are by baptism already made full members of the Kingdom of God, that one true kingdom that endures while all the others, like every nation in history, rises and falls, as one day, even our own great nation will pass away.  But, we are not yet present in that Kingdom, and as such are called to live as resident aliens in this land, subject to its laws, and active in its society.

And that Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, of which you and I are already citizens, has a crucial difference.

In this world, the call comes to serve our country, for patriotism: to serve our fatherland, to serve and protect the crown, the structures, the institutions, and the government.

But the Kingdom of God doesn’t ask for patriotism.  Patriotism is for the kingdoms of this world.

…In junior high English class, we read the classic poem “Dulce et Decorum Est pro patria mori” – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country; what the poet and World War I veteran William Owen described as “the old lie”, preached from pulpits as young men shipped off to war.

But the message of the Lamb of God, our Lord, is this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  But, my friends, it doesn’t stop there, for this is no airy-fairy love; this isn’t about positive thinking or happy thoughts.  For he continues, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”.[1]

This is no catch phrase.

No, the very Kingdom of God – the new Jerusalem, the new Heaven and the new Earth, that country where the lion and the lamb lie side by side – is built around, founded upon, the man who laid down his life for his friends – even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our eternal hope, our very faith, is founded on the one who willingly, without compulsion, entered a battle that was not his own – but which would never be won without him – so that those who were oppressed by the forces of evil could know the freedom of justice and peace.

And, if we are to be included ourselves, then “friends” isn’t just those with whom we like to spend time; the word there is companions, associates, those who choose to be on the same side.

Greater love has no one than this.

Our Duty

So, even in 2019, with church and society having learned so much about the horrors of war, we as Christians are called to duty.

Not to fight for the name of the God of Peace, as though that’s what God desires. 
Not to fight for the prideful divisions that keep the church divided in ministry and witnesses.
Not to fight for empire, or even for the political ideals of freedom or democracy, as every empire one day passes away.

Our duty, as those already citizens of the Kingdom of God, is to love this hurting world so much that we are willing to lay down our life, in imitation of our Lord.

Our duty, as those blessed with God’s provision, is not to hoard what we have been given, but to sow from our freedom and bounty so that others, even those under oppression in foreign lands, may reap what we’ve sown.  That, as we read in the Gospel, when that great harvest comes, we may all rejoice together in what the Lord has done.[2]

So, this day, let us commit ourselves to remember: to remember the great story, the honourable and the horrific, that has brought us to this day, and let us pledge never to forget God’s goodness to us through it all.

Let us commit to remember those men and women, from every walk of life, who sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy; those freedoms that, if we’re not careful, we and those who come after us can so easily take for granted.

And, as those citizens of the Kingdom of God, living – for now – as foreigners in this world and, by God’s grace, as citizens of this great land of Canada, let us long for our promised peace, yearning for an end to our divisions, and living as those who, when called, would take up our cross and bear it to the end for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

Will you persevere in resisting evil…?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people…?

To which we responded: I will, with God’s help.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget.

[1] John 15:12-13

[2] John 4:31-38