Longing for the Justice, Praying with Persistence

Sermon preached at Wolfville Baptist Church, Sunday, Oct. 20th, 2019.

Grocholski_Praying_Jew

Grocholski, The Praying Jew, 1892.

It is a privilege to be here with you this morning.

It is also a great privilege to be able to have my friend and colleague, Melody Maxwell, leading the service with me. The irony should not be lost on us all that while she is “interning” here for her ordination, she is a great teacher to all of us. Not only the students, but I myself have learned much from her.

I am the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College up the hill from you, I have been there now just over a year. My wife and five boys have absolutely loved settling into life in the Annapolis valley.

I can’t decide which I like better the people or the food. Its harvest time – you know that is a very really struggle. I had to ask myself recently whether I wanted to go out and see friends or stay in and enjoy a caramel apple pie from Sterlings. The struggle is real.

Perhaps I don’t have to choose most times. It was over delicious food with great people that I came to be speaking here by the way. Pastor Scott had my family over for dinner and as we talked and ate – Scott and I obvious geeked out and talked about theology – he asked me to come speak while he was away.

The scripture that the lectionary presented for us today – in other words I did not choose this scripture, it was the scripture of today in the lectionary, the reading plan a lot of churches in their daily reading – it is one that I think is deeply needed for our world today, for our church today, or us, right here, right now.

Luke chapter 18:1-8: ‘Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”’

1. What is Prayer?

Why pray? What is prayer?

It is a question that a certain Court of Appeal had to ask as it would have it in British Columbia in 1980. A man accused of arson sat before the court, and as the court deliberated on the evidence as to whether this man did in fact burn down a building, the man, distraught, bowed his head and whispered a prayer. However, in bowing his head, he accidentally leaned into the microphone in front of him, to which the whole court heard him pray, “Oh God, let me get away w this just this once.”

The judge initially discounted this as evidence because a prayer was something private, a conversation between a person and their god, and therefore could not be used. This decision was revoked upon appeal as illegitimate, and so, well, lets just say our boy the arsonist had his prayer answered, just not the answer he wanted.

What is prayer?A court had to think about that and so often we don’t think about what it is. Prayer is talking to God. Prayer is acknowledging God, thanking him, praising him, confessing to him, even listening to him.

Nearly all religions have prayer in it. Ancient Greek religion and philosophy at the time of the New Testament spoke about prayer, with an interesting difference. The Greek believed prayer was important.

Similar to many Christians, they believed prayer helped you become a better person. It is a old proverb that often we pray hoping to change God only to find God has changed us in the process. That is very true.

But the ancient Greeks didn’t believe you could convince the gods to do anything on your behalf. Why? The gods were up there and we were down here. The gods really were not all that concerned about humans and imploring them based on some grand moral cause was seen as pointless because the gods there not moral. They were selfish and aloof. If anything you prayed because if you did not pray, then the gods might be offended at your lack of devotion.

Prayer in the ancient world was like paying a phone bill for a phone that does not work out of fear that if you don’t pay that they will take away your heat and hydro as well.

The Hebrew people, the people of the Old Testament, believed something different. God was a God of love, of redemption, a God that made this world out of his sheer generosity, and is intimately involved with it. Prayer was able to do something, it was able to be answered because God was a relational God, promising to make right what has gone wrong. Our God makes and cares, reveals and listens, relates and rescues.

There is an old philosophical problem that if God knows all things, why would you need to ask him what you need and if he is in deed good, would he be doing that anyway? The only answer to this we see in the implicit logic of Scripture is that God longs for relationship, God will to relate to us, to act with us, and not just by himself.

God did not make himself to be the battery of a clock work universe with you and me as mindless, involuntary cogs and gears. No, the world – we are are invited to be something more like God’s dance partners, invited to dance to the music of redemption, and this dance takes relationship, communication, free will, and vulnerability.

Just as there simply cannot be any good relationship without time spent with one another, without communication, without listening to another, there simply cannot be a Christian life without prayer. Prayer is to faith what communication is to love, and so, prayer is as vital to the Christian as breath is to living.

Jesus reminds us of the need to pray always. 1 Thes. 5:16 says to “pray without ceasing.” Why? Because at every moment God is with you; God is near you; God loves you.

Our God is God Immanuel, God with us. He has stepped into history, the eternal one into time, the infinite one into finite space, and he became flesh, in Jesus he took on our form, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” says Paul, (God had bound himself to our fate to say, “I will come through for you for I have literally put skin in this game”), and so he has shown that there is no barrier or distance between us and him.

God is the very root of our being, the very spark that gives us life, the energy that gives us vitality, the air that gives us breath. He knows us perfectly, and yet he wants to hear from us. He does not want to be a spectator to your life, but an active part. He is what causes our hearts to beat, and yet he is gentle enough to knock and ask to be invited it.

P. T. Forsyth once said, the greatest answer to prayer is prayer itself. What he meant is that God answers prayer, but the fact of prayer of this kind speaks of the beautiful reality that God listens and loves, a God who is with us and for us.

I know this from pastoring. It was often my privilege to lead a person in their first prayer. Often I would have coffee with someone that I met in the community and I could explain to them that God loves them and that God was always waiting to listen to their cares in prayer, they just needed to voice them. Often the prayers were wonderfully simply, “Um, hey God, its me Josh…um, you’re great. I need help. Thanks in advance…bye.” It’s funny but we sometimes we have over complicated prayer and made it too formal. I love a prayer that is intentionally worded to speak to my heart, but I know God sees that prayer is just as beautiful.

Do you know you can talk to God at any moment? Do you know you can tell him anything? God is the kind of God that delights in hearing what is on your heart. Tell him.

2. Sometimes we can lose heart

Jesus tells us to continue to pray and not lose heart. Is he saying that we need to pray in order to not lose heart? That prayer teaches us to hope as we acknowledge God, remind ourselves of who Christ is and what he has done?

As I have said, it is true, we often come to prayer longing for change in the world or in God perhaps, all to find that God is using prayer to change you: to have a heart of hope, to have a character more confirmed to his, to be comforted by his presence.

Or, and I think this is the more likely reading, is he saying that as the disciples continue, they will pray for many things in a world that is dark they may get discouraged? Have you every prayed for something, something you knew had to be good and if God is good he should obviously want to do this good thing?

Perhaps you prayed for a clear path in the midst of confusion and complexity, all to find that the option that you thought that seem like God’s best option for your life was not what ended up being the case.

I know of a couple that felt called to be missionaries in another country. They were educated, they raised money, they learned new languages and sold their home. Yet when they arrived in their new place of ministry one of their children got fatally ill, and they had to come home permanently, shocked with grief and having to adjust to a life they never foresaw, they wondered how could this be in God’s plan for them as opposed to being out on the mission field? The path seemed so clear, the option obvious.

Perhaps you have prayed for a spouse to change or a marriage to mend.

Perhaps you prayed for a friend or family member struggling with cancer. All to see the cancer slowly over take them.

When I was in college, both my parents died of cancer. My mom had been battling breast cancer since I was in high school, then suddenly my father got pancreatic cancer my third year of college, and he died five months after that, two weeks after I graduated. My mother two years after that, after the cancer that we though she had beaten came back suddenly.

I know God heals in miracles. I have seen what I can only explain as miracles, and yet I don’t know why my parents died where others lived.

Perhaps you have gone through something similar.

Perhaps you have looked at this world, this broken world, and you have prayed for healing and peace and reconciliation and liberation, as I have, all to feel like this world is growing darker.

As we hear of shootings and crises in immigration, news of economic strive that our churches are all feeling the pinch of, or of global warming or the latest dire news about the Kurds, fighting for their lives and loosing their homes, all messages delivered to us in our newsfeed accompanied by articles and memes spouting a new hate, a new irrationality, a new indifference and apathy that has caused me sometimes to wonder in prayer, “Where are you God in all this? Why aren’t things getting better?”

It is easy to look at this world and lose heart. It is easy to pray and feel discouraged.

3. The Parable of Persistence

Jesus knows this. And so, he is telling his disciples, who will face persecution, who will face the oppression and tyranny of the Roman Empire. This disciples will see many of their family members disown them, many of their friends get martyred, all to come to martyrdom themselves, most of the disciples executed for their faith in Jesus. Jesus knew that they are going to see things that would discourage them.

Jesus knows his disciples will pray, they will pray for things that they knew were good, and yet they will see things happen that are disheartening. Jesus knows this.

Jesus does something unexpected, odd even, but brilliant here, he comes into that hopelessness and gives us an analogy in this parable that reminds us that there is hope, that there is always hope. He gives us to the situation of a widow who keeps coming to a cruel judge for justice.

The persistence of the widow – someone with little power or wealth or status, nothing in her but the God-given will to see something better – succeeds where there is no reason for her to succeed other than by her persistence.

The judge, cruel but also apathetic, so apathetic that in the face of persistence, he allows justice as a path of least resistance, in order to not get worn out. Evil is its own demise.

This parable has taken place many times over in the pages of history. People of little power or status or wealth, succeed against all odds, against terrible apathy and evil, why? Perhaps nothing other than persistence, that we can see God behind.

Look to history, we see Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg, brought in arrested before inquisitors, having to escape for his life, writing books hidden away in a tower, all by his persistence he sparked the reformation, what some have called the most powerful social movement of the last half millennia.

We see examples like the persistence of William Wilberforce, who against the wickedness of the slave trade with all its corrupt wealth, was able to write and persist and convince the English world of the evil of slavery.

Look at Emily Stowe, a Christian Quaker, the first female physician and first advocate of women’s suffrage in Canada. Facing sexism, she persisted in advancing her ideas creating the first associations for advancing women in education, in difference professions, and in arguing for the right to vote. She persisted!

Look at Gandhi in India, a person who used hunger strikes and the forms of non-violent resistance, leading a movement against the British who subjugated India and so he successfully persisted in seeing India become independent and free. In the face of imperial power, he won hearts without shedding a drop of blood.

Look at Martin Luther King, in the face of the racist bigotry of segregation, King used again nothing other than non-violence, intellect, faith and persistence in his civil rights campaigns. While he was attacked, stabbed, threatened and eventually assassinated, through his efforts the apathetic heart of President Johnson was moved and the whole American people with him.

King once said that “the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

And I can name many more, whether Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu, or perhaps today we see the example of Greta Thunberg.

Jesus chooses a parable, it is a situation his disciples will know. They will live this parable.

Jesus is perhaps saying, remember that change is possible, a new world is possible, and that is why we can keep praying.

While the disciples did not see the end of persecution nor did they get to live out their lives in quiet, dying in peace, they did see justice: they saw the kingdom coming; they saw the Gospel proclaimed; they saw the Spirit moving; they saw hearts changed.

In all these instances and many more, while history has its darkness, its valleys, it also has its peaks, its beacons of light, its triumphs. Do not forget them! And do not forgot that with God all things are possible!

Why is change possible? Because God is not a tyrant like the unjust ruler, and if a despot can be moved, there is nothing with God who loves us and cares for us that can’t be moved.

How can God not want the best for us if he is the God that died for us?

How can we not have hope when the forces of evil could not keep our Lord Jesus Christ buried in the tomb?

How can we not persist when we see his Spirit moving?

4. Will we be found faithful?

So the text says,’7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”’

Perhaps sometimes we pray: “God solve all this sickness and poverty and war and ignorance. Do something about it!” And God says, “I am going to do something about it: I am going to send you.”

God surprises us some days with unexpected miracles, other days he tells us that we have everything we need already.

We pray longing for the kingdom, but we also praying knowing as Jesus says just a few verses earlier: the kingdom of God is among us. It is within us.

Sometimes we pray for the hand of God to intervene; Sometimes God reminds us that we are his hands and feet. We are his body.

When we pray for the end of poverty, God stirs us towards generosity.
When we pray for the end of war, God moves in us reconciliation.
When we pray for healing, God gives us compassion.
When we pray for liberation, God gives us persistence.

If you are wondering today why  the path of the world has taken a step back,  when you cry out to God longing for the kingdom, for justice, can you consider the possibility that the God is calling you to step forward?

Here is another odd truth: you are the widow of this parable. The widow was a person, as I said, without status, wealth, or power. You can say to yourself I am not strong enough, not smart enough, not financially stable enough, too young, too old, to make a difference. Yet God can use you to be the difference we long for in this world!

Do not lose heart, persist in prayer.

The question I want to leave you with then is Jesus’ Wolfville Baptist Church, will Jesus find you faithful? Will he find us faithful?

Will he find us speaking honesty in a world that does not want truth.
Will he find us being humble in a world of arrogance.
Will he find us being loving in a world that has stopped caring.
Will he find us being generous in a world of greed.
Will he find us being gentle in a world of violence.
Will he find us being just in a world that is cruel.

Will he find us confronting the powers of darkness by the light of his Holy Spirit?

Will he find us being faithful?

Let us take up that invitation today right now, and let’s pray with persistence…

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All for Jesus

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Mark 8:27-38:

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[h] 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

This passage challenges us to be the church God has called us to be in so many ways. Here we see who Jesus is, therefore who we are as followers of Christ, and what the way of Jesus is all about.

Jesus is our why for being who we are; Jesus is our how for being who we are; Jesus is our everything.

Let’s mediate on this story for a few minutes. Notice its subtleties, notice all the things God’s spirit has to say to use through it today…

1. Jesus Is Our Why

So Jesus asks the disciples: Who do you say that I am?

Some thought he was John the Baptist, who has recently been killed by Herod, but when Herod found out that there was a man working wonders in the wilderness, he was afraid that God had resurrected John the Baptist. Others thought Jesus was Elijah returned, the figure that would herald the coming messiah. Thus not the messiah, but the herald of the messiah.

Both would be flattering descriptions for Jesus to be likened to, but both fall short.
We also live in a day where there are lots of people saying who Jesus was. Jesus is just a Jewish prophet, a provocative philosopher, or lesser: the invention of the disciples or later tradition, a mere symbol of spiritual truths. These are all good things, but they too fall short.

Who did Peter say he was? “You are the messiah” Matthews Gospel expands Mark’s short and pithy narrative and says “You are the son of the living God.” As I was thinking about this, I had a moment of pause. We don’t talk that way do we? If someone asked you if you believed in Jesus, you might say, “He is my personal lord and saviour” or “he is my God, redeemer and friend.” None of these answers are wrong, but I don’t remember the last time I hard someone say, “He is the messiah.”

And yet for Peter to say this, it means he understands the man in front of him to be the culmination and fulfillment of thousands of years of yearning. As the people sinned, where carried off into exile, returned, rebuilt the temple, and still fell to idolatry, still witnessed empires sweep in and oppress them – the memory of Israel preserves this longing for God’s kingdom, a longing for true justice to be restored on earth, for the poor to be lifted up, for the humble to be exalted, for the people to be healed of their sin for the inside out. All of this to be through the messiah, God’s anointed, the king of Israel who will bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth.

You see in forgetting to acknowledge with that important title, messiah, we have given ourselves over to modest hopes. Jesus is my personal lord and saviour, but his way does not effect my job or my relationships. Jesus is my salvation, but he just does not have any relevance for how I think politically. Jesus is my lord, but I don’t want him to interrupt my comfortable middle-class way of life.

We often make Jesus the saviour of our soul, not the messiah for this broken world.

For Peter this means, in Jesus Christ was not just someone he had an idea about in his head or merely the name for why he was confident he had an afterlife. Jesus Christ was the subject of all his hopes and aspirations, politically, socially, personally, spirituality – all of it. When we acknowledge this, we have to then say, Jesus what would it be like if your lordship was made visible in every aspect of my life, in every aspect of my town, in every aspect of my province and country.

When we turn on the news and hear of starvation and strife and war, when we listen and here of poverty and drugs, or we learn of struggling families and the great void and emptiness that inflicts so many of our lives. Does your heart yearn? Do you long for healing in our world? When we do we long for Jesus the messiah once again.
As we celebrate, do we also anticipate. As we remember this morning, can we also hope?
As we remember the faithfulness of the Spirit in our past, trust the Spirit to light a fire deep inside us, to help us to hunger again for the way of Jesus, to thirst again for the Gospel.

Who do you say that I am? This is the question not just for the disciples but for us, for all people. This is the question that defines everything. This is the question that defines eternity? Who do you say that I am? Who is Jesus to you?

In order for us as a church to celebrate where we have come and where we are going, we have to re-ask this question: Who is Jesus Christ to us? Is this question front and centre?
If Jesus is not our why, if he is not the reason for everything we are and do, we simply do not have a church.

2. Jesus Is Our How

Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone. He does this several times in the Gospel of Mark. He silences the unclean spirit in the synagogue and he silences those he heals as well. Why does he do that?

Jesus silences people because he does not want to be proclaimed the messiah for military reasons. He does not want to appear as another messianic hopeful, inciting violence against the Romans. He silences these early pronouncements because he is not looking for praise. He is a humble messiah.

Jesus also wants his identity to be fully understood through his cross and resurrection.
Or else you misunderstand Jesus. The cross is Jesus Christ and therefore God in focus. If you want to know what God is like in Jesus Christ, look at the cross.

See what happens to Peter. Peter wants a messiah, but not the way of the cross. He sees Jesus as the messiah – all his hopes and aspiration in him, but then Jesus says, “by the way, me saying these things, means the pharisees are going to have me executed. The people will reject me, but this will be part of the Father’s plan of salvation.”

Jesus tells him the plan, but Peter can’t handle it. Wait, you mean you are not going to conquer and kill all those Romans? You want us to love our enemies? You mean I am not going to be rich and powerful at the end of all this when you come into your kingdoms? You mean I have to become a servant? Wait – you are actually saying the path to salvation is through rejection, execution, crucifixion, death…? This is the example you are setting?

That’s not what I signed up for. That can’t be!

The text says that Peter actually went so far as to rebuke him, as if what Jesus was saying was wrong and Jesus need to repent to be in accordance with Peter’s way of seeing things. That sounds ridiculous but how often do we do that? God that is not what I signed up for! God, the Christian life is supposed to be easy! God, salvation was supposed to me things simpler! God, prayer was supposed to mean I get what I want! Or God, church was supposed to always be blissful and happy! God you need to change this or else. I didn’t sign up for this! This is not my plan for you!

We do that sometimes don’t we? Some of us don’t say it with words, not directly, but we say that with our hearts. We often have no problem believing in Jesus, but then we have to follow Jesus. We love the notion of salvation; we don’t want the cross. Neither did Peter.

But today we must reaffirm that Jesus way is our way. Is obedience and compassion, honesty and humility,  service and sacrifice our way, or is our way the way of the world?: Convenience, indifference, power and comfort?

If Jesus is not our how than we simply do not have good news to share.

I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury before coming here. Sudbury area was a very needy community. The church was surrounded by low income apartments. As I was told by one wise pastor when I came: Sudbury is not an un-churched town it is a de-churched down. It is a town with many who have been hurt by pastors, priests, churches that did not respond with Christ-like love.

I found that particularly of the poor of the city. They were treated as worthless. I put it out that if anyone needed a ride to the food bank I would drive them and if they wanted a coffee after I was more than willing.

Doing this taught me in whole different and new ways how the Gospel must be shared with Christ’s way.

One time two guys got into an argument as I was sitting with them for coffee. The fight sprung out of an argument about who does Snoop Dog look like. Apparently both guys had been using new meds and that made both of them snappy. One jump up and started yelling at the other. They got in each other’s faces as I sat there dumb-founded. The manager quickly yelled at them to leave, and outside, they quickly became apologetic with the manager. The manager came in and looked at me, “So I hear you are their pastor.”

“By the grace of God, yes, I am,” I said. Then I pleaded with the manager to give the guys a break. I came out to find them standing there ashamed. I told them they had to apologize, but I did manage to talk the manager out of banning them.

I think a moment like that was when most pastors would have said, “I am done. This is too much hassle. This is not safe, and there has to be easier sheep to save.” But this moment I realized was an opportunity.

That moment of being there with them, earned me the opportunity to listen to their story as one that did not give up on them.  As I listened I heard terrible stories of abuse and neglect. I also found that many of the individuals did believe in God, but the God they had in their brains, told to them by many churches in the area, was that God’s grace had run out, and that meant that God was just like their absent fathers.

It was so often my pleasure to say to them, “How can God not love you? God in Jesus Christ died for any and all the punishment you think you deserve. God bore all the darkness you have ever faced; how could he be the kind of God that would give up on you?”

These words, I can tell you have given hope to people in suicidal despair.
I believe and know they are the only words that can.

3. Jesus Must Be Our Everything

How do we live out Jesus today and in the future?

The story takes place in Caesarea Philippi. Many times the Evangelists mention the place of something, there is often a significance to it. For instance in Luke, it is not coincidence that salvation is brought to the home of Zaccheaus, who lives in Jericho, the city whose history represents the victory of God’s people over the Canaanites, but also the slaughter of many. Here Jesus, the new Joshua, defeats the new Jericho, not with violence, but mercy.

Earlier in Mark, Jesus casts out a demon in the land of the Garesenes. Here the demon’s name was Legion, the name of the Roman army. This land was a place where the Jews fought Rome and lost. Mentioning it that way implies that Jesus is here to truly defeat the oppressors of God’s people, but also, the true enemy of God’s people is not Rome, it is a demonic darkness in the human heart that only the authority of Jesus can cast out.

So, what is unique about Caesarea Philippi? The name says it. Caesarea Philippi was a temple town devoted to Caesar, named after him, and in it was pagan temples devoted to the Roman gods, particularly the god, Pan. When the disciples ask Jesus who he is, they know where they are and what it means when Jesus answers. They are in occupied territory. They are surrounded with the reminder that their world had a different lord.

Our home setting is not that different: We live in occupied territory here in secularized Canada. We see the traces remaining of Christianity, some of it we are trying to keep hold of, other parts we need to just let go of, but surrounding us is a culture, sometimes quite overt other times quite subtle, that holds its allegiance to something else.

We may think we are sophisticated enough to not by into those ancient Gods like Pan or Zeus, but that is really not the case. Our world worships gods – gods of wealth, power, war, fear, goddesses of vanity, popularity, consumerism – yes, our world has its gods, we just call them by different names.

The temples of our days are different: Where are they? I have seen something simply to worship in shopping malls, in front of televisions or cell phone screens, at sporting events.

Someone told me they don’t believe in organized religion because organized religion makes people violent. Ignoring the fact that there are pacifist religion and how sloppy a statement that was in general, I said, pointing out they were wearing a NHL jersey. You do realized at the last Stanley Cup riots broke out causing the injury of dozens of people? And yet you still believe in organized sports?

His response: “Pff…We’re all human, you can’t blame a sport on the actions of a few bad people.” Exactly. To be human is to be religious, even if you don’t believe in anything remotely spiritual or supernatural. The question is will be focus our convictions, rituals, experiences, and deep longings on things that drive us towards humility, love, and peace, or things that will fill us with a meaninglessness that results in arrogance and violence?

We very much have gods today. We very much have worship and temples and religions in secular Canada, we just call them by different names.

What do we do when our world and the very structure of society is becoming dismissive to faith? Churches feel the pinch as people have less time and money, the Christian way being seen as backwards or just strange.

Some have lamented the loss of Christianized Canada, and there is much to lament, but we do know something for sure: in a culture where it is less easy to be a Christian we have to be more intentional in choose Jesus as our everything.

While we do not welcome the loss of Christian values, we do welcome any opportunity to walk faithfully and unreservedly with Jesus Christ.

For us there is really just one simple path: that is to follow Jesus. This path might look difference in the future than what it did in the past. The future might me we have to learn to trust Jesus in a whole new way.

What ever way Christ calls, we know it will take sacrifice. This is not our burden; this is our privileged; this is our way.

Jesus reaffirms that there cannot be any belief in Jesus without discipleship, without dying to self, without making Jesus our everything.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

You see the cross is Jesus Christ paying our ransom for sin. He paid this ransom with living in complete obedience to the Father, even to the point of becoming last, humiliated, death on a cross. It is becoming last he was exalted to first in the resurrection, defeated death, despair, disobedience, all the darkness of sin.
And he invites us to this path.  Commentator Ched Myers points out that if the disciples were ready to follow Jesus way, there should have been 12 more crosses, but they declined the honour.

As the disciples realized so do we today. We have so often fail to live out the path Jesus sets before us.  All we can do is what the disciples did. When they saw the resurrected Jesus, they could only trust his mercy. And that is the God we are celebrating today: Jesus died our death to offer his life. There is no sin he did not die for and therefore no opportunity of salvation he is unwilling to give. So, while we so often fail, God in his grace never gives up. He invites us to trust him with our everything today.

We must live as the missionary to Ecuador Jim Elliot once said when going to the indigenous tribes there meant certain death, “He is no fool to give up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot loose. ” Jim Elliot went to Ecuador, ministered among the tribal people there and was sadly caught by a raid of violent neighbouring tribes people and lost his life. The world might look at that and thing he was careless with his life, that he lost everything. But in the final day, when we all stand before the risen lord, we must ask ourselves what true success and true failure really is.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Or as the British Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “If Jesus is not everything to you he is nothing to you.”

Today, brothers and sister, I want to ask you afresh as we remember what God has done: Is Jesus your everything? Is Jesus the reason we exist as a church? Is Jesus our only hope and passion, joy and pursuit? Are we willing to dedicate our lives to him again today? Nothing held back? Is the way of the cross the only path we are willing follow? If so, one the day of the Lord’s return, on the day that our faith is made sight, there on the day of the restoration of all things, we will know that the way of the cross is worth it.

Benediction:

Then today may you know that Jesus is the messiah, son of the living God. He has shown us the way; he has conquered sin; his kingdom is coming, and his will will be done.

As you are willing to give up everything to the one who has already given his all to you, may you know afresh the assurance of his immeasurable grace.

May you go from here, renewed in Christ’s love to live the way of Jesus Christ with hope for this broken world.

Let’s pray.

Prayer: God Listens, Partners, and even Surprises

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“Three Camaldolese Monks in Ecstatic Prayer” (circa. 1710-1740)

Acadia Divinity College, Simpson Lecture Prayer Breakfast, at Manning Memorial Chapel
Tuesday, February 12, 2019. 

Steve McMullin has invited me to offer thoughts for this years prayer breakfast. He told me to keep it “practical and inspiration.” I can tell you that after a big plate of bacon and eggs, I don’t really know what is going to come out of me. You might have to settle for vague and semi-coherent!

Someone asked what I was talking on for the prayer breakfast. I paused and looked at them: “Umm…I am going to talk about prayer.” Am I being unoriginal? I suppose I could have talked about the meaning of breakfast, but that probably would not have been as practical or inspirational.

There are many great passages on prayer, but I found myself drawn to these words in thinking about the subject this morning: 1 John 5:13-15 writes, 

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

Stated right at the end of the First Letter of John, like many epistles with powerful theological treatments at the beginning, the closer is often simple words of wisdom for everyday life. John begins his epistle with explaining how God is light and how Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. He treats difficult topics like apostasy and apostolic discernment. He gives his beautiful explanation of how God is love, but he reserves his final words of advice to remind his congregation about the necessities of prayer. 

I think that is a fitting reminder for today as we listen to all the wisdom Dr. Theissen has to show us, all the sophisticated ways we can be more effective pastors and leaders, understanding our communities. There is so much data and effective strategy and wisdom to be learned here in these few days. 

But lets just take a moment, as John does, to remind ourselves of the simple fundamentals: we need to pray. We need to ask God, what does this mean? How do we act on this? How do we follow Jesus? How is God’s Spirit addressing us? Where is God’s Spirit sending us?

For five years I served as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. It is a small aging church. Through my time there, it should be no surprise to you that I realized just how integral prayer was to pastoring. 

It should also be no surprise during times of trying to do it all on my own or merely going about my day forgetting to centre myself in prayer that day, that it effected what I did negatively. 

Of course the opposite was also true, the times where I was in deepest prayer, those were often the times that I saw God act. I am sure God was and is always acting, but it was prayer that helped me see it. 

I would like to tell three stories of realizing the necessity of prayer in pastor. The first shows that God is a God that listens to us, comforts us, gives his presence as provision to us. The second shows that he invites us to partner with him in realizing his kingdom. And the final story shows us that God is faithful to meet small needs, that God also is capable of wonderful surprises that we are to expect.  

He listens. He partners, and he even surprises. 

1. God Listens

As you can imagine, pastoring a church with a number of elderly people meant I often made visitations to the nourishing home. One lady in our congregation had surgery, and was placed in long term care. As we visited her, one of the deacons of my church and I, she instructed us that we should visit the lady down the hall. 

So, she phoned her, and the lady was up for us visiting. As we walked down the hall, I suspected this would be a difficult turn in an otherwise mundane pastoral visit. 

We stepped into a room with this middle-aged lady. I tried not to stare. Bedridden, her limbs were terribly, inhumanly swollen. “Come in, don’t be alarmed,” she said with a beaming, bright smile. I was surprised. She was in wonderful spirits. 

We inquired what her condition was. She had a rare lymphatic infection, that has left her bedridden, functionally paralyzed. Every day, day in and day out, she had to receive a steady drip of strong antibiotics. But also, steadily, day by day, the infection grew immune to the antibiotics. The very thing that was saving her, was also the very thing slowly killing her. Day by day the inflection slowly but surely was winning. 

And yet, to my amazement, I have never met a happier person. 

She proceeded to tell me that at the beginning, she was bitter and resentful. She prayed angrily that she would be healed, and of course, while she still does pray for that now, something changed in her disposition. 

“What changed?” I asked. 

“I realized that Jesus was enough. Everyday, I get to thank God for another day, and I know he is with me. He listens to me and is my friend. That is enough for me.”

She told me that she saw her condition as a calling to be Jesus’ presence here in the nursing home, to the nurses and other patients, who in her mind needed hope and healing more than her. 

I think this helps us understand a bit of what John is saying when he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

This person knew the gift of eternal life. She knew the gift of his presence. While she still prayed for healing, that was enough. 

Whenever I am tempted to ask, “Does prayer actually work?,” I am reminded of a quote that P. T. Forsyth once said, “The greatest answer to prayer is first and foremost prayer itself.” 

Before we can fret about getting anything through prayer, we have to cherish the gift that prayer is. We have to cherish the fact that God is listening, that the first and greatest gift is eternal life, in how Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave. 

In Jesus Christ, all our prayers are already answered. Jesus is enough. 

2. God Partners

So why do we trouble God to ask for more? When we rest in Jesus we know we can because he is generous. When we know he is generous, we also confess that everything we have and are comes from him, so we ask in acknowledgement of him. We ask because we cannot do and be anything other than what God in his generosity gives. As God is at liberty to give in the abundance of his generosity, we ask because we know we are free in relationship to ask. 

So, I am reminded that John tells us, “…that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” What is God’s will? 

During my doctoral studies, I was the co-ordinator of a soul kitchen called the Gathering Spot at Walmer Road Baptist Church in Toronto, off of Blood and Bathurst if you know the area. 

It was an odd job. I applied to it because it was near the University of Toronto, where I did my studies, and I really just needed the money, and I wanted something ministry related. I got more than I bargained for. 

At that point in my faith, I was going through a disorienting time. Pastors can go through disorienting times. We don’t like to admit that to our congregations, but we do. As some of you know both my parents died while I was in seminary, and I was still processing that as I was trying to grasp my calling in ministry and in academia. Grief effects us all different, and looking back at that, I remember feeling for several years, numb inside

I don’t think I ever stopped praying or stopped believing in praying, but let me just say that it certainly just did not feel like prayer was doing much. Your soul just felt dried up inside. 

Well, my perspective changed working at the Gathering Spot. It changed as I was surrounded one night a week, by people whose problems in life vastly exceeded my own. 

I felt moved to pray, not sure what this whole prayer thing was anymore, but praying nevertheless because I cared about these people. 

You see a scary underside of humanity, the realities of poverty, of the dehumanizing despair of homelessness. People would come off the streets and wanting a meal, needing services of various kinds.

My prayers took on a different fervour. Mostly because I wasn’t praying for me anymore. 

I have learned that service moves us for prayer, and prayer moves us to service. 

I remember one bitter cold night in January. We had a large crowd that night and the food went quick. But just as we were finishing, a guy showed up out of the cold. “Is there any more left? Sorry I had trouble finding this place.” 

We scrounged up as much as we could. He ate quickly, and I sat with him. I heard a little bit of his story, about how he lost his job and so he was recently evicted from his apartment. 

He had to leave because he wanted to get to the shelter before it got too late. But he asked me to pray for him. I did. “God please get him to a shelter.” I wanted to go with him, but I knew I had to stay there at the kitchen till closing. I also had to get the bus home to Bradford, or else I would be stuck too. I prayed with him and he left. 

I thought of nothing else as I rode home on the bus that night. And I just kept praying. 

I got home late, and I sat in my warm town house in Bradford, think and praying about him. 

I heard the next morning that 30 people froze to death that night on the streets of Toronto.

I don’t think I ever prayed so passionately in my life that night, and the only thing I could resolve to do in the light of that is to say that if I see someone in need, and if I pray for their well being, we have to consider that perhaps God has moved us to pray for that person because he is moving us to do something for that person. 

Why? Because as John says in the passage previous to ours this morning. God is love. God’s will is love. God is light and in him there is no darkness. 

Mother Theresa once said God wills no one to be poor, it is our will that keeps others poor. 

The question then is whether we will partner with God in obedience to his will, not ours. 

I told you that story to tell you this one: Several years later, as I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury, we ran a community meal at one of the low-income residences a few blocks from the church. One person, a young guy came to our Christmas service. He just kind of look like he had a dark cloud over him. 

Turns out that dark cloud was serve mental illness. One night, after giving a lecture at Thorneloe University, where I also taught, I came back home, ready to relax and get some sleep. I got a text from him. “Pastor, help me. I have been evicted. I went off my meds, and they kicked me out. It was stupid. I know. The shelter is full.”

I can tell you I was tempted to ignore that text. I was tempted to say, “Hope everything works out. I’m praying for you.” But I knew I just couldn’t live with myself if I did. So, I prayed, “God help me to help this man.” 

So, I grabbed my coat, and met up with him at a Tim Hortons. We drove from Hotel to Hotel, trying to find something. I could tell he was taking his meds again, but he really was not in a good place still. 

Hotel after hotel was either too expensive, or they took one look at him and made some excuse. I asked him whether he had any friends that he could couch surf for a few nights. He didn’t have any friends. No family in the area. Nothing. 

It is the fundamental truth that many people are homeless well before they don’t have a roof over their head. People are homeless before they are houseless. 

I thought to myself, “What if we don’t find anything? It is getting late. Should I just bring him back to my house to stay the night?” He really did not sound safe or in a good state of mind. In fact, he seriously turned to me and wondering, if he just went out and committed a small crime, he would at least get so stay in a prison where it is warm. He had been to jail as a young man, and I told he wasn’t going to take that way out. 

Finally we found an inn above a small pub that was not too expensive, and we went with that. The next day, I was able to arrange a bus ticket for him to get to where he did have some folks that agreed to take him in.

As we pray, God partners. We partner with him, in conformity with his will, and he claims us as his own and uses us. St. Theresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses.

We pray for our prayers to be answered, and sometimes God can turn that back to us and commission us to be that answer.

If ever you pray to God, “God I pray someone would do something about crime or poverty or sickness or whatever.” Be prepared that that someone could be you. 

3. God Surprises

I say God surprises because while that last point is true – God chooses to use us – so is the simple fact that God also goes beyond us. 

God is powerful, but he chooses to partner with people. Humans are free and Christians are Christ’s hands and feet, but that does not mean God does not act. God acts in wonderful and surprising ways. 

Notice I have described three ways God answers prayer: by giving comforting presence, by commission us to act out his will, and also acting beyond us. We would be wise to know that to say that God answers prayer is not too say that God is predictable. And that is why I say God surprises. 

In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low income housing development. 

Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt. 

I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews. 

He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him, and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got. 

One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank I would take them. This was my usually Tuesday noontime routine. The food bank was at the other end of the town and often the food bank packages were heavy, and often people had mobility issues. So, I put out a sign at one of the low income apartments that if anyone needed a ride, i would help. Word spread and there was about a dozen or so I would regularly meet up with. 

I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything. 

I turned to him in the car, and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered, could nevertheless hear an uplifting scripture spoken over them on a daily basis. 

While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door. 

I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life. 

He did a stint in the hospital, but after he got out, I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him. 

I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this. 

He turned to me, and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything. 

I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?

I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.” 

My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment. 

A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”

“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed up. In a dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”

“Spencer I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist.”

God surprised me that day. It is because what John says, “we know that he hears us.”

God listens, God partners, God surprises. 

And of course, as God is faithful to save from sin, to give comforting presence, to commission for courageous service, and to show up in all sorts of unexpected ways, God is also, I fundamentally believe, there for you. He has not forgotten you or your family. God has not forsaken his pastors, his chaplains, or his church. 

His will is love, life, and light, says John, pleasing and perfect. And we will know this as we ask, as we follow, as we wait on him – all by prayer. Can not do this any other way. 

What are your needs? What are your church’s needs? What our your community’s needs? Are they small? Are they big? Do you sometimes think they are too big? Perhaps sometimes you think they are too small. 

Whatever they are, John says, to pray for we have confidence in him. 

Pray about it anyway. Pray boldly. Pray persistently. Pray to the point that you think you are praying foolishly and wildly, because then it is a very likely possibility that you are praying in line with God’s will for us all: the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Now, let’s turn to God in prayer…

“What Do You Want to Be Known For?” My Final Sermon at First Baptist Church of Sudbury

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What do you want to be known for?

Interestingly you can take courses online on how to be known for things. They are called personal branding courses. They are marketed to business people, and the theory is just as a company should be known for a motto and a certain style, so you should be too. The course essentially gets people to think in simple terms:

Because I am x, I am known for doing y.  Or Since I do y, I am x. Answer that yourself. Think about it.

What do you want to be known for? What does First Baptist want to be known for? It is something I have thought about this week.

A few people have asked me, “Now that it is your last sermon, you get to say whatever you want, because you are leaving.” Like I can now air out a list of grievances that I have kept to myself for five years, like this is Seinfeld’s Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it.” [Spoken in Jerry Stiller’s voice, of course].

I have to admit, I really don’t have grievances or axes to grind or anything of that sort.

As I looked through the scriptures, I came to 1 Cor. 2, which actually had Paul reporting to the Corinthians what he resolved to do and be when he was with them, and therefore, I think, what he wanted to be known for.

I think it is the right answer. It is the answer that we should all strive for. He writes:

“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2

I have resolved to know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul wants above all else to be known for the Gospel. I do not want my last sermon to be about me (although I will tell a story or two). As I planned out my final sermon, I have resolved to center it on the most important thing I can be about and First Baptist can be about: who Jesus is, the Gospel.

The Gospel is our salvation, our purpose, our unity, our joy and hope.

1. The Gospel is Our Salvation

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 7-10)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,” (2 Tim. 2:8)

I admit, 1 John 4 is probably my favourite chapter in the Bible. I had to mention it on my last sermon! God is love because God was found in the person and work of Jesus. That is our Gospel.

Our Gospel is that God is love. God is our creator. He made the world out of his generosity.  He has made every human being in his image and likeness, as his children even though we, as prodigal sons and daughters, have failed to realize him as our Father.

We worship a God that made us, loves us, and will not see any of his creation be lost. We do not worship a God that only loves some of his creation or only seeks to save some of his creation, but a God the loves perfectly without limitation.

We know God is love because God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love in one being. Before the world began, before creation and sin, God is love.

God came in Jesus Christ, in human form, in sinful flesh, to show the loving solidarity of God with all sinful humanity, and the restoration of God’s people in him.

God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, died a cursed death, the death of a sinner for all sinners, to show us sinners, he has died our death. It is the mystery of our faith that constantly baffles me: God in Christ loved us more than his very bodily self. God is that kind of self-less love.

God our Father raised Jesus from the dead to show a love that is victorious and powerful. As Jesus has taken on our flesh, now in Jesus, we all have the hope that the very worst of this world, the very things that have stolen us away from his love – these things do not have the final say.

As my friend, Brad Jersak was saying this week, “God is love. God is not love but also just or holy or wrathful. God is love period.”

God’s love is holy because it is pure. God is infinite because his love is immeasurable. God’s love is powerful because it is unfailing. God’s love is just because he is in equal measure merciful. God’s love is capable of anger because God’s love passionately cries out to a world gone astray, hoping that we would change and come back to him.

We understand all of God through Jesus. We understand all of God through Jesus’ cross. If there is an idea of God that contradicts the display of a God who would willing give up his very life for us because of his great love for us, we simply have departed from the God of the Gospel.

God’s love is not simple or sentimental, it is complex and mysterious, surprising even uncomfortable, but it always comes back to love. It is always understood through love.

If we can define God in any way other than love, as I have found, we will inevitably find ourselves without a Gospel that offers salvation to us sinners.

We stand on the Gospel that God is love. If God is not a God of consistently personal, perfect, and powerful love, we simply do not have a Gospel. Period.

One pastor told me that preaching is the fine art of being a broken record. If I have been a broken record these past five years, I have also learned that this truth is so counter-intuitive to our limited, sin-soaked minds, that we have to constantly remember it, re-hear it, re-tell it, and re-live it.

Otherwise we simply forget it. Never forget this, First Baptist Church.

2. The Gospel is Our Purpose

“To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).

The Apostle Paul writes this to the Philippians saying life for him is serving Jesus, walking with Jesus, being willing to die for Jesus, death being nothing in comparison to having Jesus.

When you know what you are about, you have purpose, nothing else matters.

Funny story: I know a person that put that as their high school year book blurb, and the school called the police because they were worried he was suicidal.

We ended up going to college together. He is now a pastor in BC. He is not suicidal, he just believes in something this world does not understand. Although he probably has gone a little nuts since he has a big batch of kids like I do. As long as I have known him, he has lived with purpose.

When we rest in Jesus Christ, when we draw close to him, when we resolve to know nothing but his Gospel, we are captivated by the beauty of what he is, and we want to live that love out to others. That is our purpose: We live to see what the Gospel can do in us and others. That is what gets me up in the morning (other than screaming babies).

Sharing the Gospel can take on implicit and explicit ways. I have gotten to share the Gospel on Sunday mornings, at weddings, at funerals, in times of blessing and in times of tragedy. I have gotten to share the Gospel over coffee and over board games, on the street and in my office. I am always surprised at when people say they are reluctant to share their faith since they are worried about a negative reaction. When we set out to live and speak good news for others, saying and doing something good to them and for them – without an agenda of trying to force them to become a Christian or come to our church or believe this or that, but simply being there for them, to listen, to give hope, and share ourselves, my experience has been overwhelming positive.

Yes, a lot say no thanks. A lot say they want to but there is no follow through. It does require patience.

I think of our McCourt meals and taking people to the food bank on Tuesdays. This simple an act of service and fellowship has openned doors for me to sit and pray with dozens of people, many of whom as shut ins are too sick to come to church, but are precisely the kind of people that God has a special heart for. Or others are people that face terrible mental illness. Many times I have gotten the privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to be the first person that sees them as a person of value and worth, and when they ask, “why do you do this for people?” I get to tell them why.

Sometimes sharing the Gospel is quite explicit and decisive, other times it is a simple act of kindness or service.

Or it can be planting a community garden to promote community and food healthy food in our community. That lead to Alexander Kuthy to start coming here. Remember Alex? He sadly passed away a little while ago, but he shared his testimony with us. An irreligious man that hated the church growing up because a priest tried to sexually assault him. He lived most of his life completely unconcerned with God until he had an accident and he said, “All of a sudden I was aware that I needed God.” Alex would stroll into my office and chat with me. In five years, I can probably count on my one hand how many appointments I had at my office that were actually booked in advance. That’s just fine, my life is far more interesting for it. Alex lived with a new purpose. You saw that in him. He said he lived all his life for himself, now he was making up time living for God. He believed in devoting his life to “spreading peace” as he said it often.

I hope everyone goes home, reads some scripture, meditates, and prays upon it, and asked themselves, “What is my purpose? Is my purpose living the Gospel, completely without reservation? Is my reason for being alive walking in God’s love, worshiping in God’s love, showing others God’s love?”

If it is and the person next to you agrees, that is the church, brothers and sisters. That is what we are doing here together.

3. The Gospel is Our Unity

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

It is such a simple phrase. Jesus is lord, and salvation is in trusting that work of the resurrection. Jesus is our unity. We so often make it Jesus plus a hold lot of other stuff, or Jesus can only mean the way I relate to Jesus.

I have spoken before that I was raised with a very fundamentalist faith. My grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, and that is what formed me growing up. Fundamentalism is a lot of things. While many come by it sincerely, as I did, at its very worst, it is an arrogance that all my thoughts and interpretations are the right and infallible ones. It is often obsessed with control and certainty and simple pat answers; that affective sense of certainty in essence shields the reality that since most fundamentalists do not believe God loves all people perfectly, there is a deep sense that God might actually not love them either, unless they do and think a certain way. It is also oddly then obsessed with very specific and convoluted doctrines, whether about creation, the Bible, the atonement, how Jesus will return, you name it, and perfectionist behavior, usually obsessed with sexuality above any other sin. Each doctrine or behavior is then turned into a litmus test of who is truly a Christian and who is not, disregarding the historic creeds of our faith and that our communities must embody grace. It also sees everyone who believes differently and acts differently as dumb, delusional, or dangerous.

I know this not because I look down on fundamentalists, but because I used to think that way. I really did not know any other way to be honest.

I have learned the simple biblical truth that, as James McClendon has put it, “Fundamentalism just isn’t fundamental enough.”

When I came to First Baptist, I did see something different. First Baptist, like many other historic First Baptist Churches in North America, has a long history, enduring all the movements over the last century. Some of our members have been in this church for over 50 years. It has learned to endure diversity. Many of the First Baptist Church family when I came had lived together as a community for so many years they just resolved to keep being a family together, no matter what.

Being committed to being historically Baptist we have upheld the liberty of the conscience of members of this church to interpret the Bible for ourselves in community as our denomination on the whole upholds that our churches are autonomous yet partner together for the Gospel.

For the last five years I have marveled at just how diverse First Baptist is, the different faith backgrounds and experiences, the different doctrines and ideas of faith and how they have functioned in people’s lives, and the sincere commitments to keep learning the Bible together.

That is rare. It is difficult to live out, but it is refreshing in this divided world we live in.

It has been oddly refreshing to lead a Bible study hearing all these perspectives come out, and sometimes quite heatedly, but then have a recognition that we are all sincerely trying to follow Jesus together, and he is our unity.

First Baptist is a diverse place, we all don’t think the same, and we have to reckon with all our diverse backgrounds and experiences and ideas, whether on theology, politics, or on what color the carpet should be.

But if Jesus is our unity, we are bound by blood as family.

As we do this within our walls, we have a vital witness outside our walls. The Gospel has been our unity with all the other churches here in Garson and Coniston. I don’t think you realize the high regard we are held in by the other churches. And it has been an honor working with so many excellent pastors and priests.

One of the most powerful moments in my years here was when we gathered for worship with St. John’s, Trinity United, and the Anglican churches.

I remember the second ecumenical service I participated in here, we went to St. John’s. That year the liturgy called for each person to pair off with a person from another church, and come to a font of water, dip your fingers in it and make the sign of the cross over the other person’s head, asking forgiveness for the sins we have done against each other.

I have never seen the Spirit move so powerfully. People broke down crying in repentance and hugged right there.

That moment was not of ourselves. That was the Spirit moving as we, Christians from very diverse traditions, simply came together to worship Jesus.

The Gospel, the simple Gospel, is our unity. Nothing else should be or can be.

4. The Gospel is Our Hope

“But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Heb. 3:6)

When you are able to be there and see our God working. It is the best thing in the world.

While pastoring can be quite difficult, it is propelled along by the conviction that God never gives up hope on people and neither do we.

One more story: Some of you remember Jered. He does not live around here anymore. A troubled young man, who had been in and out of prison, with so much chaos in him you could immediately tell just from hearing him talk.

The chaos and pain with him was so bad, he once told me he resolved to stop believing in anything because his mind was so unreliable he just had had enough. If you can imagine living like that and being at that point?

I remember coming home that day shook-up by his words. “How can the Gospel reach someone that unstable?” I thought. How can our Gospel mean anything if it can’t bring hope to someone like him?

A few days later, I remember seeing him at the residence.  He came up to me: “Spencer, I had a really difficult night. I was in a really dark place…Then he showed up.”

“Who?” I asked. Jered just pointed upwards. “He did. I can’t be an atheist anymore,” he said. God showed up for him in a time of need, far beyond what I or anyone is capable of. In that dark moment God appeared and told him he had worth and that he was loved and that there was hope.

That is the hope of our faith. God does not give up on people. He has not given up on me; he has not given up hope on you; therefore he will not give up hope on anyone. He simply will not give up on this broken world.

Because of this – this good news – we live with purpose, with unity, with joy and hope.

Let us pray…

Benediction:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

Psalm 84: Dwelling Place

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How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty!

When Meagan and I were first married, we lived in Holland Landing, just about an hour north of Toronto. Holland Landing was a farming community that at one point had a community of radical Quakers. Quakers are a Christian fraction that believes less in the scriptures per se and certainly no traditions of any kind (which I don’t think is actually possible), choosing instead to prioritize the raw experience of the Holy Spirit. They got their name from sitting in silence meditating till they quaked with the Spirit.

Their church, depicted here, is a temple, which is now a historic site. I toured it one day with some friends. It was beautiful inside because they intentionally designed the interior like heaven. The building has three levels like how heaven is symbolically described in the Bible. Inside there is a rainbow shaped staircase going to the very top, representing Jacob’s ladder. The sanctuary has no pulpit, just a center where the Bible was placed. Everyone sits in a square with everyone equal. The windows on all sides let in an enormous, moving amount of light in the morning, filling the room as your eyes are drawn upwards to the top of the ceiling.

It is a deliberate attempt to symbolically create this sense of heaven on earth, God’s dwelling.

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I grew up in Stoney Creek. Hamilton has the mountainous escarpment going through it, which then moves straight up all the way to Manitoulin. One point, formed by glaciers, is a bowl shaped small canyon. It is called the Devil’s Punchbowl. Legend has it that it got its name from someone dying there by suicide. That’s just a legend though. At the top of the punchbowl is a look out with a cross. This cross you can see from most of East Hamilton, and always gave me a sense of hope. I remember hiking around up and down the Devil’s punch bowl as a kid, and it always felt eerie. Looking up at the bowl from its base gives you this uneasy looming feel, while looking down at the bowl from the look out with the cross was serene. The place for me was a kind of religious place, representing God’s presence in the world.

The cross at the top of the punch bowl felt like a lasting reminder of God’s victory over the devil.

hagia sophia

My wife before we were married went on a missions trip to Turkey with her college friends. They stayed in southern Turkey and worked at a mission, teaching English and assisting the missionaries there. They got some time to tour the country and went to Istanbul. Istanbul was at one point the capital of the Roman Empire, after Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to there. In doing so, he commissioned this massive cathedral. When Muslims eventually conquered Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. Now it is a tourism site. One of the architectural masterpieces of the ancient world, the Hagia Sophia uses its golden domes, widows, and candle chandeliers to bring light in and give this heavenly sense to the room. Look up and all you see is golden light coming down on you. It’s beautiful isn’t it?

Falls

I grew up 45 minutes from Niagara Falls. One thing we did often as a family was to go and tour the Falls. We would go on the Maid of the Mist, which was a boat that went right up to the edge of the bottom of the waterfall. The roar of water was intense. Whether at its base or just looking at it from the other side, the sound was moving. Some people described it like the voice of God: commanding, rumbling, powerful. This spectacle of nature remind people of the power of God.

 

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On my wife and I’s honeymoon we went to Europe.

My favorite day was touring Rome. We went to the Vatican. I remember walking into St. Peter’s Basilica and looking around. The walls are encrusted in artwork and monuments to great saints of the Church. When you get to the center altar and look up, no picture can do this sanctuary justice. It is so large you can fit 4 statues of liberty inside this dome comfortably. The little specks in the distance were people look down from a second level balcony. The room is so large and beautiful, you cannot help but feel moved with its splendor.

These are all places that people have descried as heavenly, reminders of God dwelling in the world.

However, these are in the end just man-made buildings and the creation, not the creator.

God has chosen to dwell on earth, to make his dwelling place here, in a place more beautiful than St. Peter’s basilica, more powerful than Niagara Falls: God has chosen to dwell in our hearts.

While the saints of the Old Testament met in a temple, because Jesus is the Word made flesh, because he sent his Spirit, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, our hearts are spaces of God’s beautiful dwelling.

The theme of dwelling place is what we are going to meditate on.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.

1. God dwells with us.

As we have been talking about, this Psalms longs to worship God in the temple, a place where ancient Israelites knew God’s presence dwelt.

The Israelite temple was built around 960 BC by King Solomon. Solomon in his wisdom and wealth set out to make a proper temple for God. The temple was a magnificent achievement of the ancient world. It had three sections. The deepest section was the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant was placed. The floors and ceilings were lined with approximately 20 tonnes of gold.

The Temple was meant to speak of the symbolism of the splendor and majesty of God.

But this Temple was inevitably destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians and the people were carried off into exile. A replica was made by Ezra after the exiles returned.

About 500 years later, Jesus shows up and says that he is the new temple. Through him, people will be able to worship in spirit and in truth. As John 1 says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

How lovely is your dwelling place: that dwelling place is Jesus.

Jesus is our King, our God, the Lord Almighty. It says that as he died on a cross for our sins, the barrier to the Holy of Holies in the Temple broke asunder. There is no barrier between God and man. God has taken our sins away and is now with us. God’s dwelling is now with us, in us, always for us.

40 days after he rose from the grave, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles to begin the church.

Where does God dwell? We see his beauty in mountains and waterfalls, in temples and buildings, but the truth is God dwells with us, in our hearts. He is with us in his Spirit.

He is in our hearts as we trust and accept him. He is in our midst when we worship and praise him. He is around us as we love one another.

God’s dwelling place is you. God’s dwelling place is us. God is dwelling with us right here, right now. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, there I will be.”

That is all a church is. It is us. Don’t forget that. It is not this building.

A church is the people, the community, the people of God, who have taken time to dwell with each other to remember God dwells with us.

In our modern age it is important to remember that the church is not the building, the church is not the organization on paper. The church is God’s people. These other things are just an organized effort that we do as a community to help worship together and advance the Gospel together. They are important, but not the center point.

But the other side of it is that I can’t be a church by myself. Sure God is with me when I am by myself, but if God is love, he is most intensely present not in solitude by myself but in service to each other. That is why we have “church.” God is present to us when we get together with others different from ourselves and learn to love as he loves us.

In Jesus God dwells with us, not through a temple anymore, not a building, but in our hearts, in each other, through each other.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you…

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage…

2. Do you take time to enjoy God’s dwelling with us?

Blessing is that sense of joy knowing God approves of us and loves us. It is his reward and embrace.

While the ancient people heard this to refer those that made the trek to the temple, in the Spirit we hear this another way.

We can take this to mean today that we are blessed when we take time to remember God is with us. We are blessed when we sing to God, listen to his word, fellowship with other Christians.

We are blessed when we tune into God in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We are blessed when we take time to see God in each other. We are blessed when we love others and see God active in that.

I know singing to God charges me up. I know just sitting and having a word of prayer renews my strength. Those are their own blessing. They are right there for us to do. God gives us all these means for enjoying him. The question is will be take advantage of them?

It says blessed are those whose strength is in God, whose hearts our own pilgrimage.

Is your heart on pilgrimage? Have you resolved that there is nothing more satisfying, more strengthening than knowing God’s presence? Have you resolve to seek nothing but God’s truth and have your resolves to seek that truth using nothing but God’s strength? Because you will never find God by your own strength. It is only by God’s grace, let me tell you.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

3. When God dwells with us, we bring God to others.

What is the Valley of Baka? Well Baka means “weeping” so this is the valley of weeping. It was also called the valley of Hinnon or “Gehenna.” Gehenna is used as a metaphor for hell in the New Testament.

The valley of Baca or Gehenna was a place pagans would sacrifice their children in the fire. King Josiah tried to stop these detestable sacrifices by burning their alters there in turn, as a kind of ironic judgment. Then the prophet Jeremiah warned the people that if they kept sacrificing children in the flames in Gehenna, the whole city would burn and be like the fires of Gehenna. Sure enough, the Babylonian army came and leveled the city, burning it to the ground. The whole land looked like a charred wasteland. Jesus takes this warning up again in the Gospels and says if we don’t follow God’s ways, something like what happened in Gehenna will happen to us. Hell after we die is something like this place of burning punishment. In fact, the area of Gehenna, a valley going all the way to the dead sea where Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed in burning brimstone was called the Lake of Fire. So, the Book of Revelation picks up on this imagery when it warns us of the dangers of refusing to follow God.

So, this valley has a rich and powerful history, as biblical history and memory continues. But for right now, the valley of Baca or Gehenna was a place of death, a burn wasteland, full of ash and carrion.

Any pilgrim going from their town to the temple to worship God would have to pass by this place of death and judgment, reminding them of what can happen if they refused to acknowledge God and follow pagan ways.

These are places that we think of as places of the absence of God.

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Think of the desolation from the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This desolation you could think of as a place of the absence of God, places of death and destruction. Although these were not created by God’s judgment on the Japanese but by our sins as the Allied forces, mostly the Americans but us as well, who were quite comfortable killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives in order to stop a war, in the ultimate ends-justify-the-means logic.

Or one closer to home is look at the regeneration that has happened around us due to the reforestation projects. Sudbury terrain has turned from a wasteland to beautiful forest.

slag dump

The Psalmist names this geographic symbol of a place of God’s absence and then says that those whose hearts are close to God are like healing streams to places of desolation. They are like streams that refresh and regenerate and restore.

Through the biblical narrative the imagery for hell, the places that the prophets use to warn us about our consequences of sin, also are captured with symbols of restoration. Ezekiel describes the waters of the temple replenishing the dead sea back to life. Revelation depicts the waters of flowing outside the gates of the city. And here, Baka, the valley of weeping, is turned into springs of life.

Those that walk with God turn hell on earth into heaven on earth, and that is the deep heart of God.

Let me ask you: Are you a healing presence to those around you? Are you bringing hope to others around you.

When you walk into a difficult situation, is it your natural inclination to just pass it by, walk away, don’t bother? Or do you feel called to help, heal, comfort, speak truth in places of deception, forgiveness in places of hate, hope in places of despair?

Do you turn valleys of Baka into Mounts of Zion? Lakes of fire into streams of Eden? Do you bring heaven to into places of hell on earth?

When God dwells with us, we bring God to others.

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, God of Jacob.
Look on our shield, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.

The psalmist longs for their prayer to be heard. And their prayer is for God to raise up the king, the anointed messiah, to be the protector of the people, bringing them back to God, bringing back justices and righteousness and mercy.

In the line of the human kings of Israel, that hope failed. God’s people were not meant to place their hope in human strength. But God filled this Scripture in sending Jesus, a descendant of king David, to be the perfect messiah, the perfect anointed one.

10 Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.

4. To have nothing but God is to have more than to have everything except God.

In our world today, we face very real and powerful and persistent forces that want to choke us off in our faith.

We are far more likely to worry about our finances than to worry about our faith.

The rat race of life can keep us from prayer and pursuing God’s will for our lives. Even something as good as our families can quickly become an excuse to forget about meeting together as a church.

All the worries of wealth, the stress about work and time, the obligations of friends and family, school, sports, and whatever else. God is easily forgotten.

Jesus warns us, what profit is there if we gain the whole world but forfeit our souls?

It is the same truth as this Psalm. What is really worthwhile: working more and more to get that promotion or that next achievement and in doing so forget about God?

Better is one day in God’s presence than thousands elsewhere. Better is just a few moments resting in his love than a whole lifetime wasted trying to win in this world.

I’d rather be a door keeper in the house of God: If we had the choice between kings and billionaires in this world, this life, and being peasants in the kingdom of heaven…

To have nothing but God is to have more than to have everything except God.

Or as Jesus said, “What profits a person if they gain the whole world but forfeits their soul?”

We as Christians all know this, but the question is will we start to live it.

12 Lord Almighty,
blessed is the one who trusts in you.

Let’s pray recommitting ourselves to trust in this

The God Who Sees You: Hagar’s Story for Mother’s Day Sermon 2018

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If there was a job description for being a mom, what do you think it would sound like? Frankly it would sound like the worst job in the world.

Hours? 24-7. Evenings and weekends, travel costs not reimbursed.

Skills? advanced communication, cooking, janitorial capabilities, basic first aid, tutoring skills, etc. etc.

Pay? None..actually, you pay to have this job!

Benefits? No dental, no medical. Yet the intangible benefits are beyond worth.

Parenthood and motherhood specifically is one of the most difficult, longest, toughest callings a person can have in this life. It is a calling that is essential to there being human life. It is a unique relationship.

The sound “m-” is nearly universal of language. The name for mother in almost every language on earth has the sound “m-” in it, which leaves some linguists to suspect that ma might be a word, that relationship, that is semi-hardwired into our brains at birth.

We sometimes say that children have a special place in the mother’s heart. It is actually scientific fact that mother carry a part of their children in them. “Microchimerism” is the recently discovered phenomenon that mothers after birth still have fetal cells – cells of their babies – inside their bodies, for years after. These cells circulate through the mother’s body much in the same way red blood cells do. They have been suspected of having a mild healing effect on the mother. There you go, science says it!

This bond is so essential, it often means we take that fact for granted. It is true. We take our mothers for granted.

By analogy it is similar how we take God’s love in a similar sense for granted. We just assume it will always be there.

When we do that, we fail to understand the depth and extend of what that love is and means: what our mothers do for us and how that is one of the first and greatest gifts God has given us humans. This gift of this parental bound that is so precious.

We take our moms for granted. We take love in all is powerful and precious forms for granted.

It was my wife and I’s 9th anniversary last week. In 9 years, can’t believe all the stuff we have been through. Twins to top it! Twins have meant a lot of sleepless nights for Meagan with tough days trying to wrestle three other kids with two you can’t really put down.

In nine years, I continue to grow in admiration for my wife. How tough she is, how caring and hard working. I told her this knowing she would have to be with the twins in the nursery. See she is still working! I have to admit that I don’t appreciate my wife enough.  I don’t know if I ever will appreciate all the ways she makes our families life better.

Husbands I imagine you might feel the same.

And there are moms in this congregation that probably feel like they are taken for granted: undervalued and underappreciated and overworked and overtired.

Today we are going to look at on overlooked mother in the Bible. It is a story with two mothers in it, in competition, actually. It is a messy and at some points sad story, but there is something beautiful about it that way because it shows God in the midst of life, in the midst of what we go through, that God does not forget or neglect what any of us go through, especially mothers.

There is a special, unique, place in God’s heart for those that have the love of a mother.

1. Hagar’s Story, the First Part

So go to Genesis 16. This is the story of Hagar. Her story is a sub-plot of the greater story of Abraham, the patriarch of our faith.

So, the story begins with Abram, before he was named Abraham. God had promised Abram the blessing of offspring, land, protection, and reknown. He was blessed in order to be a blessing to all humanity. That is the Christian calling right there. But, all of that does not sound very comforting when you are nearly 100 years old and don’t have a son.

Abram is a good man, but imperfect. In this culture, it was very common to divorce your wife if you two could not have kids, and it seems to be because Sarai is infertile. So, Abram refuse to divorce Sarai, they hold to their wedding vows for richer or for poorer, but they get frustrated, as you can imagine.

Abram and his wife Sarai decide to take the future into their hands.

Sarai implores her slave girl to be Abram’s lover, a surrogate mother. This is a culture where polygamy and slavery was prevalent. Polygamy is something the New Testament clamps down on, probably because of what happens in this story.

As I said, this is actually a story about two mothers, Sarai and Hagar, but we are going to track with Hagar for what her story has to show us. Both show the frustrations and messiness of life, however.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

You can detect the desperation in her voice, can’t you? This is the same woman that also lied about her marital status with Abram earlier in order to get him favor with rich and powerful leaders. She is used to sacrificing her dignity. But, this time it is way too far. It is a desperation that is causing her to lose trust in God. It is a sacrifice that is not hers to make.

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

Can you imagine how awkward this could have been for Hagar? Again this is a time when women are treated like property and here is a poor slave girl that is essentially told to be the wife of Abraham and bear him a son. This would have been a great opportunity, economically speaking, but was it her choice? You begin to see the plight of this poor girl.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

Now, this makes Hagar sound conceited, but according to Mesopotamian customs at the time, if you had more than one wife, one wife could not enslave another. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that this is a bad idea, especially when a slave girl like Hagar is now able to claim that she is the mother of the heir to the entire household. If she is a bit puffed up, its obvious why. This person has gone from being a nobody to somebody, the mother of the heir is also the slave to the wife that did not produce an heir. Do you see how tangled the situation is?

Notice again, Abram’s next mistake, he avoids stepping in and making peace:

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

She abused Hagar and Abram like so many know about it and did nothing. So, this young pregnant girl ran.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”

This is difficult advice. The angel recommends a path that while it is not adviceable to any abused person today, it will be effective at winning Sarai over and thus allowing her baby to be born and cared for.

How many mothers work terrible jobs or endure terrible circumstances just to provide for their families? Sometimes this is the only option.

 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” {She is given Abram’s promise, God has included her in his plan]

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,[a]
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”

The blessing is two edged. She is now the mother of a great nation, but God knows this nations will have its problems. This is describing the harsh and militant way of life the Ishmaelite Bedouin live, often at loggerheads with Israel.

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “[El-Roi] You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

2. Hagar’s Story, the Second Part

The story continues. It says that when Abram was 99 years old God appeared again to Abram and made a covenant with him. He changes Abram’s name to Abraham. From “Exalted Father” to “Father of Many.” God again promised Abraham an heir through Sarai, renaming her Sarah. After this a bunch more happens, and the story picks up in Chapter 21.

Sarah has a son, she calls him Isaac which means laughter. You can tell these is so much joy in her words, but the celebration is bitter sweet.

Another son means Ishmael is not the heir anymore. Hagar has lost her rank.

Ishmael is on the verge of being a teenager (there is some ambiguity as to how many years have in fact passed), and one day it appears that Ishmael teased young Isaac.

The competition between Sarah and Hagar that was dormant for a decade resurfaces and Sarah urges Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Abraham again concedes and seems to get a message from God that they will be okay.

So, he sends them out of the camp.

But without much water, Hagar and Ishmael started to die of heat exhaustion in the desert.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

That is a round about way of saying that God came through for Hagar.

This is a story in the midst of life.

The people in this story a deeply imperfect. Abraham seems like a patriarch that is easily swayed. Sarah is desperate, competitive, then conceded. Hagar swings from arrogance to abused.

Mothers competing to make sure their children have the best in life. Their kids security is their security. We all understand that. God understands what a mother goes through.

According to statistics it is getting hard to be a mom these days.

Today, 40% of women who have children under the age of 18 are the primary breadwinners in their family. In 1960, that figure was only 11%! And while 92% of mothers were married in 1960, today only 69% are married.

This means in many cases, moms today are working harder and still their job at home remains the same.

And mothering is heard work: The average mother will have changed approximately 7,300 diapers by the time her baby turns two years old.

Parent life can be stressful: worrying about money and work; worrying about kids school. Are they playing with the right kids? Are they getting good grades? Do I help him with his homework enough? Are we having enough family time? Is my marriage working?

I have not met a single mother today that does not subject herself to grueling, unfair expectations. The judgment and worry, this picture in their heads of being super mom, the worry that they just aren’t good enough.

How Hagar’s Story is Our Story and Hagar’s God is Our God…

This is where this story – this ancient story from a time very distant from ours, from a culture very different from ours, from customs very different – ends up having something to say that is true of our God then as now.

First: Pregnant Hagar, alone, on the run, at the end of her rope, has God appear to her. She does not know what to call this God, so she calls him, El-roi, the God who sees me.

Our God sees what you are going through. Our God understands the struggles that you endure. Our God knows every little sacrifice you make, every thankless deed of goodness and kindness. He feels the same long-suffering love, because that is the same love he has for all of us. Our God sees you.

Second, Our God is a God who keeps his promises, who comes through in the end, who does not fail.

Hagar, who was forced to leave her home, her security and status, all for the safety of her son again, when she is near death and the situation is so hopeless, she lays her child down at a distance because she cannot bear to see him die before her, God in the last moment, shows up again.

He reveals a well for them to drink and revitalize themselves. He comes through on his promise of bring them to safety. The story ends with Ishmael becoming an archer, which is the ancient equivalent of having your son become doctor or something.

Hagar was not Abraham’s first and chosen wife. She was not in the covenant. We will tackle what election means in a few weeks. And this is the remarkable thing. Abraham did a foolish thing having a child with Hagar. He did not trust God, neither did Sarah. When it all went South and Abraham again did not do what was right, God still came through. God in his grace blessed Hagar.

Even though Isaac would be the chosen one from whom Israel and the church would come, God chose in his surprising grace to also bless Ishmael.

God blesses un-expectantly and over-abundantly. He comes through in the end.

The sign outside of our church says the prayers of our mothers are still being answered.

I have often said, I think one of the many cool things we will see in heaven is how our prayers all got answered. And we know our mothers pray long and hard for us.

They pray that we would be healthy. They pray that we would make good choices. They pray that we will succeed in life and find happiness. Our mothers of faith pray that we will come to know the lord.

Can we trust again that God is the God that comes through? He answers prayer. He keeps his promises. He does not always answer them right away or answer them the way we expect. But he does answer them.

Our God is the God that sees us. He is with us not against us. He gave of his life, in the Son, to save us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He will provide, sustain, empower, heal, restore, redeem, and vindicate for he is our father and we our his children.

Let’s pray…

The Psalm of Vengeance and How I Learned to Forgive My Mother’s Abuser

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The passage we are going to reflect on today is not your typical Bible passage. It is apart of the group of Psalms called the Imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms are angry sounding and vengeful.

Why is this in the Bible? What is God trying to tell us in these? These are the questions we are going to take up today.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

As we have been saying, the Psalms retell the story of God’s people. The earlier Psalms speak of the life of David the first king. Later ones lament the failure of human kingship, looking to God as the true King.

This one, located towards the end of the Psalms was written around the time of the exile. God’s people were oppressed, enslaved, carried off into exile while their homes are burned. Their children were slaughtered and their neighbors, like the Edomites, the brothers of Israel, cheered on the Babylonians as they pillaged.

Israel watched the brutal Babylonian army murder their children by dashing them against rocks. Then the Babylonians mock them telling them to sing songs of Zion.

This is a song of a people that have been hurt, frustrated, demeaned, and are in terrible despair. As the Israelites consider what happened to them, they cry out for vengeance, for God to do to the Edomites and the Babylonians what they did to them: dash their children against rocks.

The bitterness in their words is bone-chilling.

How can a Psalm of such anger and vengeance and brutality be in the Bible? Is this giving us license to be angry and vengeful?

I would not normally preach on passage so dark and easily misunderstood, but in doing a series on the Psalms and getting people to read through the Psalms, these Imprecatory Psalms inevitable come up. People come to me saying, “Pastor I love praying through the Psalms, but what about this one?” And they don’t know what to do with it.

In fact, I know a person who read one of these passage, and were so disturbed and scared that it turned her off of reading the Bible for many years.

Many of us have similar experiences reading other parts of Scripture. Why are they in there? How can they be in there? What could God possibly be trying to say in these words?

Does God want vengeance like this? Vengeance does not sound like the heart of God, so why is this in the Bible?

Well, I suspect that this passage does have something to say about God, but before I walk you thought that, can we just admit that sometimes the Bible is not easy to understand?

I talk to some Christians that think the Bible is always clear on everything. That all you have to do is pray, crack your knuckles and the answer will just pop into your head. To which I want to ask: Are we reading the same book? Yes, there are lots of passages that are beautifully clear, but others that are not.

Listening to any voice in any relationship takes work. You cannot passively listen to your wife while the TV is on. Trust me, it does not work. You have to work to listen. Same goes with God and listening to him in the Bible.

Brian Zahnd once said the Bible is like a vast terrain with mountains and valleys. All the land is God’s Word, but if you get stuck in a valley, you can’t see what is going on. If you look from one of the peaks of the mountains, you see the whole land clearly. The Gospels’ are the peaks. John 3:16 is a peak. This passage can be a valley.

As we will see, this is just one of many passages that we need to read through Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of scripture. Jesus is the summit of Scripture.

Another way of saying it is that we believe that all Scripture is inspired and thus able to teach us salvation and righteousness. Yes, but that does not mean all Scripture is inspired the same way and teaches us our salvation the same way either.

This Psalm teaches us something profound about God and profound about ourselves, just not in the same way other passage of the Bible do that.

John Calvin called the Psalms the “mirror of the soul.” One purpose of the Psalms is to help us express what is in our souls, help us realize what we got going on inside.

The Psalms are unique in that they are the Word of God by first being our words to God.

This Psalm helps us be honest with ourselves. In being honest with ourselves, naming what is going on within us, we can then be honest with God. God is listening.

1. God is listening

Do believers ever feel crushed with hurt? These do. Do believers feel like their faith has been shattered? These did. Can believers feel incredible pain, frustration, even bitter anger over it? Yes they can. Does that make them evil? No. It makes them human.

This might sound obvious but the only way we relate to God is in our humanity, full honesty, laid bare.

The Jews in this passage are angry because they just lost their homes. Their land was conquered. Their safety and security was gone. Their temple was destroyed, so their way of related to God was compromised. And they had to watched their own children get killed.

Here they cry out to God in all the anger they are feeling.

This psalm does not condone anger, but does say God is listening to us when we are angry.

We worship God Immanuel, God with us. God with us, finding us, listening to us, wherever we are at, including times of anguish.

God does not wait to be with us after we get over our hurt; he meets us in our hurt.

The question is not whether it is appropriate to pray this way, longing for vengeance, but rather it is appropriate to share what is on your heart with God, no matter where you are.

Let me reassure you: Where you are at, what ever you are feeling, God is listening. God never stopped listening.

This Psalm, like all the other Psalms, invites us to share what is on our heart with God, allowing all of our lives to be seen from God’s standpoint. Don’t be ashamed of your emotions. That does not help. They are real and need to be dealt with. Voice them, tell them, express them.

Angry at others? Tell God. Angry at God? Tell him that too. He is listening.

He listened to the anger in Israel’s heart. He is listening to you now.

I am reminded of a time when I coordinated a soup kitchen in Toronto. There was an man that came in. He had a lot of problems. Homeless and alcoholic, his life was completely self-destructive.  So, I asked around: What is this guy’s story?

The man had been abused terribly. One other coordinator of a drop in a few blocks from ours told this story:

During an open mic night, where anyone could come up and offer a prayer for the community, this man decided to come forward. People prayed blessing on their communities and thanked God and praised Jesus. People were surprised to see him come up.

As this man took the mic, he began to scream curse words at God for what had happened to him, cursing all the people that had hurt him.

“Did you stop him?” I asked. “No, we let him say his piece like everyone else,” said my colleague. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because, Spencer, at the end of the day, this was still a prayer, it was directed at God, and I have to believe that God was listening. He had something to get off his chest.”

There was a noticeable change in this man after his blow up. I think in order for that man to start healing, he had to name his hurt in all the raw anger it entailed, which he did not know how to process.

God loves the hurt and the broken, and for that reason, I have to believe God was listening to that angry rant of a prayer. Not because there was something moral about that prayer, but because God listens to us.

What are your hurts? How has someone hurt you? Can you remember the most angry you have ever been in your life?

If you remember how you feel in that moment, you probably aren’t too far off from the anger of this Psalm.

God knows what you utter in the bitterness of your soul. You can either keep it in, feel shame and have it destroy you, or let it out, and begin healing.

2. When we realize that God is listening, we entrust God with our anger

Expressing our hurts to God means placing our hurt in his hands.

As several commentators have pointed out, venting our anger to God disarms our anger towards others. When we vent it at God, we restrain our vengeance towards others.

Thus, it is not so much what Psalm 137 is saying – for many of us its language is not our language of hurt – it is what is able to do in us. It permits us to release our anger to the true Judge.

Notice in Psalm 137, the Psalmist does not ever imply that he wants to take vengeance.

When we do this we find that when we place our anger at others in his hands, we are freed from our anger to even do good to our enemies. Consider Romans 12:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

When we entrust our anger to God, we focus on God. Which means we are able to focus on his goodness again. Notice, for Israel who prayed these Psalms, the next few Psalms move from vengeance to focusing on love. The prayer continues.The process continues.

When we pray though our anger, we are able to heal our anger.

This is where the next stage of healing happens. When we entrust our anger with God, we turn to God and his goodness. When we entrust God with our vengeance, we have to turn to God and ask, what does justice look like for God, not us.

3. When we trust God with our justice, we realize God’s justice is mercy

Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The end is important. Jesus has been talking about the true character of God: God is perfect. How? Not in punishment, but love, not is moral indignation, but mercy.  God is not perfect in vengeance, but perfect in mercy.

“If Justice is an eye for an eye, the whole world will end up blind,” says Martin Luther King.

Are we willing to see?

From Sinai to Zion, from Zion to Golgotha, the Bible is trying to teach us that God’s justice is not retribution, not even restitution, but restoration.

How does God repay his enemies? When we turn to God for justice, we realize we have done wrong. We are all sinners. We all deserve punishment, and yet God has chosen to bear that judgment on himself.

When God’s people prays in vengeful anger to kill the children of the those that kill theirs, God offers his only son to stop the cycle of violence.

When we are angry and in despair, this Psalm allows us to vent our anger knowing God always listens.

When we realize God is listening, we start focusing on God and trusting him with our anger, restraining our wrath.

When we trust God with our vengeance, we then have to ask, what is justice like for God? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” But how did God in his sovereignty choose to repay?

He repaid the death of his son with forgiveness.

God listened to the hurt Israelites. He listens to all of us in our anger. But did he obliterate the Babylonians? Babylon did eventually fall, but that was just God saying, “Have it your way,” and letting history run its course. Sin is often its own punishment. No. he did not bash their babies against rocks. In Jesus he died for them.

God’s plan was not vengeance but reconciliation.

Far from racial genocide, God’s plan was for one day Babylonian and Jew (and us, Gentiles, too) to embrace as family in Jesus Christ.

That is God’s plan in our broken hurting world. He listens then he heals.

God is listen to the hurt of Syrian refugees, who have watched their homes get bombed.

God is listening to the cries of children who work in sweat shops.

God is listening to the cries of enslaved sex workers

He is listening to the worries of cancer patients

He is listening to the broken, hurt, disenfranchised, abandoned…

He is listening to you. Whatever it is that you are going through. He is listening to you.

When we realize he is listening, we become open to how he is working in us.

That brings us to now.

Who has hurt you? Who makes your blood boil? Who in your life has done things that the only think you can think of that they deserve is punishment?

Can you vent that anger to God?

Have you been discouraged. Have you experienced a moment where life just stopped making sense, and your only response is anger and confusion.

Can we realize that God is listening?

You might not think that this process works, but trust me it does.

I have spoken before about how my mother was abused. Not physically, but emotionally.

She remarried a man with a mal-formed conscience. He would verbally threaten her and demean her to get his way. He was a big man, and very intimidating. I remember being down in my room as a kid in high school, listening to the arguing. I heard his voice boom from the ceiling in my basement room:

“You’re just a stupid woman, Susan.”

“Don’t you dare, or I’ll break your arm.”

When my mother developed cancer, and he began holding money away from her, so that she would not use it on medical needs. He was banking on her dying and him being “taken care of” after she was gone.

My mom eventually split from him. It was difficult and police were called on occasion.

I hated my step-father. I used to fantasize about beating him up. I used to pray, “God give him what he deserves.” Of course, I had a few ideas about what he deserved.

Years when on. I learned from my step-father’s brother, that he had been abused. He had been treated the worst out of all the siblings by a father that was a bigot just like what he was now. After that, I did not see my step-father in the same way. It humanized him, and I remember praying, “God just stop him from hurting other people. Help him to realized what he has done and change.”

The last I saw my step-father was at my mother’s funeral. He came into the visitation, and my family and I kicked up a fuss. We did not want him there, and we wanted the funeral attendant to remove him. But, I believe it was my sister that said, “Just let him morn and go.” We realized we would be doing something terribly indecent if we refused a person to morn. We watched him come to the casket, give flowers that simply said, “Thank-you for all the good memories,” and he left.  I never saw him after that.

I realized that day that he did love my mother, albeit with a broken distorted love. I also realized that to include him in the funeral was just a small but very significant act of forgiving him, choosing to end the cycle of hurt and anger, embracing peace. I remember praying after that, “God bless him. Care for him. Heal him….and heal me too.” For me to say that prayer, authentically, began with my praying those original vengeful prayers. It took ten years or so. Healing takes time. God had a few things to teach me. God was listening to all of those, answering those prayers. I trust he still is. But that answer I think is not what I wanted originally, thank goodness.

i suspect it is like what Jesus told the disciples who betrayed him: “Peace to you.”

“Peace to you, Spencer”

And so,

Peace to you, Dave, where ever you are.