Sermon preached on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Billtown Baptist Church, NS.
On Thursday, a new national holiday will be observed: the Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day to remember indigenous peoples and the tragic events that happened to indigenous children in the residential schools.
In June of this year, while we were all trying to get by from the pandemic, we learned of an atrocity that, for many of us, made our problems seem so small. The unmarked graves containing 215 remains of indigenous children were found in Kamloops, BC. Others have been discovered.
While this shocked many of us, indigenous communities have been fighting for awareness of what took place in these schools for decades. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 3 200 remains. They listed the names on a long red banner, and it was revealed in October of last year. Here is a picture of it, and as you can see, it goes around the room and out. It is so large. That’s how many. If you saw this as I did, I remember falling back in my chair, overwhelmed with the magnitude of this massacre.
These schools operated for over 150 years, the final ones being shut down in the 1990s. That means it is estimated that about 150 000 indigenous children went through these schools. The survivors face terrible mental health difficulties from these experiences. They estimate that the death toll to be somewhere around 5 000 children. In other words, there are many more graves yet to be discovered.
There were 137 of these schools throughout Canada run by churches. Most were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United, but there were Baptist ones as well.
How do we wrap our heads around the fact that our nation, our churches, participated in something so cruel? How do we process the fact that these schools were operating in plain sight for over a century? It was not a conspiracy of a few individuals. There were reports, visits by other clergy, politicians, and townspeople. People knew. It was an act of systemic racism and genocide because it took many people, many laws and administrators, a whole culture of prejudice to do it. What words can we muster to talk about something so unspeakable?
I am going to suggest to you that we need to talk about God’s wrath. We cannot help but think about God’s anger, for if we don’t, the possibility that God is okay with these things, people doing these things to others, the alternative is worse: it makes God look uncaring and apathetic.
Many of us, however, have a toxic understanding of God’s wrath inherited from our fundamentalist upbringings. I am going to suggest to you that if we think rightly about the figures of hell and the fact God’s wrath actually flows from God’s love, we have a way of grasping this formidable failure of Christian morality. And yet, there is hope; there is hope for redemption and reconciliation.
In order to do that, I am going to read a text of bitter medicine. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 7:1-11, 17-20, 30-34 (abridged for time):
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord…
17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. 19 Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt? 20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched…
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31 And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
What I have read to you is one of the most important judgment passages in the whole Bible. It is Jeremiah’s judgment sermon on Jerusalem that he delivers in the temple.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet” because he was called by God to give the people the worst news in the whole Old Testament: Because of the sins of the people, Jerusalem will fall.
What could have led them to that point?
Jeremiah, in this temple sermon, says why. The people have become so lax in their walk with God that they turned to idols: the gods Baal, Molech, and Ishtar, whose title was the queen of heaven and was celebrated with ceremonial cakes that Jeremiah mentions.
Idolatry in the ancient world was really an attempt to barter with the gods, to get power and prosperity out of them, forgetting God is the only true God.
The way of God is a sharp rebuke of this: God is already on our side; we now just need to follow his way if we want good things in our lives because the right way is the best way. Goodness begets goodness, and God’s justice is good for everyone. We can’t manipulate God out of doing the right thing. We can’t butter him up with long prayers or church services. God simply says, repent and do good.
Justice is always hard work, especially compared to idols that offer a seductive bargain: if you give this to Baal or Molech, then you will be blessed without having to be a blessing to others. It sounds so much easier.
But the allure of idolatry is fatal: if you are trying to convince false gods of our delusions to do good to you, what is enough? Do you sacrifice more crops? Do you sacrifice more animals, even the ones you need to make it through till next harvest? Do you slash your body and bleed in the act of devotion like the prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah? Or do you go even further and sacrifice the very thing, the very person you place hope for the future in, your own child, whom you love and care for?
This is what the people did. The idolatrous religions of Canaan demanded you sacrifice your child in the flames. With the growing worry of a new superpower in the east, the Babylonians, the Jews, after they prayed in the temple, took their children secretly outside the city to the valley. It is here, in the valley of Topheth, the valley of Hinnom, that the people did something unthinkable, a crime so terrible, God calls it an abomination. And he says that if the people tolerate the sacrifice of children in the flames, Jerusalem will have an ironically similar fate. Jerusalem will burn.
The people responded mocking Jeremiah: “We are God’s people. Jerusalem is where the temple is. That will never happen. God is on our side. We’re safe.”
The king, Zedekiah, ignores Jeremiah, and in his arrogance, breaks his alliance with Babylon, siding with Egypt, thinking God would protect him. After Jeremiah warns the king not to do this, God’s judgment was simply God saying, “Alright, have it your way.” The same callous hearts that sacrificed children was the same that sealed Jerusalem’s fate. Sin is its own punishment.
The brutal armies of Babylon came and laid siege. As the defences broke, the city was burned, and the people were pulled out of their homes, tortured, and killed. The corpses were set ablaze and left smouldering in the valley.
Jeremiah’s prophecy stated that there would be so much carrion and bitumen produced by the fire that he calls it a permanent, unquenchable fire.
In fact, writers like Philo and Josephus 600 years later speak about how the effects of the flames were still visible in the valley. The scorched soil, Philo says, permanently had sulphur in it, a lasting reminder of the inescapable inferno.
1. Places Reveal
In indigenous spirituality, their culture is not a written culture but an oral culture. For them, places are revelatory, for the land holds memory; the land tells a story, stories that are told and retold down through the generations. In that regard, their culture is closer to ancient Israel than ours, and perhaps we can understand our Bible better if we are willing to learn from them that places reveal things.
When my family and I were on vacation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we stayed at cottages owned by an indigenous family in the unceded village of Wikwemikong. Each day we would explore a different part of the island. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking trails, waterfalls, as well as villages with little cafés and shops. One day we drove into Wikwemikong. We were looking for a hiking trail, and as we drove just outside the village, there stood these eerie ruins.
This was the site of one of the residential schools. This was the old building of the Wikwemikong Residential school that operated from 1840 to 1963.
I read an account of these schools by a woman named Ida Embry. She tells of how every fall she would be forced to go to this school, her and her sister. The children were beaten severely with a thick leather strap for things such as simple as trying to talk to another in their native language. The children were referred to by number, not name. The curriculum openly taught them to despise their parents in an attempt to rid them of indigenous thinking.
Why did these schools exist? The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, was one of the first initiators of the schools and said the schools needed to cut off contact between the child and their family in order to get rid of the “savage” in them. He believed this was his Christian duty to Christianize the world. These actions are a part of a long history of Christian imperialism and colonialism, where Christians felt it was their responsibility to take indigenous land from them and impose a Christian order onto their society no matter the cost. Put another way: it did not matter the sacrifice.
The people of Jeremiah’s time sacrificed children in the flames of the valley of Topheth to idols in order to gain divine favour. I am going to suggest to you that Canadian society has engaged in its own child sacrifice. Only the children were not Canadian children, nor was the land ours to do it on.
But they were sacrificed to idols. These were sacrifices to the idols of power, empire and colonization, cultural superiority and racism, idols that led Christians to believe their faith automatically made them the good no matter what they did, and that the mission of the Gospel could be accomplished by doing very things Jesus was categorically against.
Part of me wondered, why didn’t they level this evil place to the ground? But, this place stood as a reminder. Places reveal if we listen.
I have known a few survivors of these schools. I got to know them in Toronto, where I was the coordinator of a soup kitchen, as well as in Sudbury, where I pastored for five years.
The stories these children of God have told me have kept me up at night. The crimes of these schools are so terrible we don’t even want to think about them. They are so jarring; they are an existential threat to who we think we are as Christians and Canadians, what we believe about ourselves, and our responsibility to each other.
Are Christians always the good guys of history? No, not always. Is it possible that Christians can use the Bible and their beliefs to motivate horrific acts of hate? Yes, we have.
I am going to suggest to you, however, that if we don’t dwell in these painful places, repent, and learn what is necessary to rectify these injustices, we will never display a faithful witness in Canada fully. But more than that, we will never learn to love in a way God wants us to, to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the victims of our foolish beliefs. The God of Scripture loves the forgotten of this world and us also too much to let us get away with this.
We forgot about those unmarked graves. God did not. Those schools, those graves, are our Topheth. Putting it that way is certainly startling, but we must understand something else:
2. God’s Anger Intends to Heal
I apologize if you came this morning with the expectation of a cheerful sermon, but let’s think about these things more today because I have realized that when we understand God’s anger correctly, God is trying to heal us, not hurt us.
What is Topheth? It has many names in the Bible: the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Here it is called Topheth. It is a valley that stretches outside the city down to the Dead Sea, which also had a nickname that is a part of this land of judgment: the Lake of Fire. Perhaps you recognize that one from the Book of Revelation.
As I said, the effects of these moments of judgments on Jerusalem linger to this day, and that is why the fire was called the “unquenchable flame” or the “eternal fire.” When we understand the geographic figure of Topheth, of the valley of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, we also understand what God is doing a bit better with what Christians have called hell.
The word, “hell,” is a European term that does not do a very good job at translating nearly a dozen places of judgment in the Bible. The doctrine of hell has been really one of the most misunderstood and abused ideas in the church. I will suggest to you it is because we have forgotten that it comes out of this history of the land.
I remember as a boy coming home from church being shaken by a sermon a pastor preached that if you don’t stay on the straight and narrow path, I will go to hell for eternity. I remember crying that night, terrified that I just would not be good enough, terrified of the thought friends and family or anyone could be trapped there.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. Perhaps you are like many modern Christians that just choose to ignore hell. Some of us are content to say, God is love, and therefore God never gets angry, and when we come to a passage of the Bible that says differently, we more or less just skip it and go on our merry way.
Many of us are content to think of hell as a place under the ground ruled by cartoonish devils dressed in red and with horns and pitchforks. It looks a lot more like European mythology than Hebrew memory. Many of us modern people are content to think of this version of hell in the same way we think of unicorns or leprechauns.
I did this for a time, but I just could not get around how Jesus uses this language. Jesus uses this figure of Topheth and Gehenna to warn people.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that when we refuse to reconcile with others, we are in danger of going into Gehenna.
Jesus also says that when we refuse to deal with sin, it would be better to cut off our arms or eyes that cause us to stumble than have our whole bodies go into the unquenchable fire (that’s language from Jeremiah’s Topheth).
The fact that these scriptures exist and are even statements of Jesus breaks through our assumptions about what love is and what judgment means. Love is not about turning a blind eye to how we harm others, but neither is judgment about God giving up hope on us.
I never understood why Jesus, who has died for the sins of the whole world, who is perfect and has self-sacrificial love towards sinners, who reflects the heart of God, who Paul tells us, “desires all people to be saved” – I could never understand why Jesus gives these warnings. Not sweet, gentle, never hurt a fly, Jesus?
Then I became a father. As you already know, Meagan and I have five very busy boys. Being a dad is really the greatest privilege and responsibility one can really have. It is your job to do what is best for them and try to stir them towards the best future. But we all know we can’t control our kids, and sometimes our kids make terrible decisions. Sometimes this fact is exasperating, and it makes us, parents, angry. Angry because we love them so much. I can tell you the things that make me the angriest as a parent is when my kids hurt each other and don’t care. It is in those moments, as parents, we plead for our kids to stop. We word our warnings in the strongest possible terms in some hope our kids will take the consequences of their actions seriously.
One time my one son was about to hit their brother, and I said, “You do that, and you are dead meat.”
Another time they were really rude to one another, and I said, “You keep acting like this, and I am just going to take away TV forever.”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child? These are called hyperboles. A hyperbole is a statement purposely worded so strong it will grab the other person’s attention. Jesus uses hyperboles all the time. God’s wrath is his outcry so loud and so strong that God hopes it will break through our stubbornness and apathy.
Let me suggest to you that the images of hell work something like this. What seems to be happening here is that these memories from Jeremiah’s day, of fire, permeant, and unavoidable destruction, become pictures of the end, and God uses these to warn the people about the course they are on.
He does this, sadly, because we so often use heaven and salvation as a big cop-out. We tell ourselves that God loves us so much he will fix all that when we get to heaven. I don’t have to do what is right; God forgives me; I’m good. When that happens, God, like in the Book of Revelations, holds up this moment of the valley of Topheth (which in that book is called the lake of fire) and says, one way or another, you will have to deal with this. I love you too much to just let you avoid it. If you don’t deal with this evil, this sickness in our soul, what makes you think you can participate in the fullness of eternal life I have for you?
3. But Hope is Real
God’s judgment is often those moments God steps back and allows us to feel and see the consequences of our decisions. When we fixate on these moments, however, we are tempted to believe God gives up hope on us, that God has chosen some to be saved and others not, or that God does not actually love all people and want to save them. But the prophet Jeremiah says this in his book, Lamentations, chapter 3:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness…
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
Notice that Jeremiah warns the people with the figures of unquenchable fire but also comforts them, saying God’s love never fails, and ultimately God rejects no one. No one is cast off by the Lord forever. It even says that when he does bring punishment, he does so reluctantly, unwillingly. The prophet Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in punishment. The prophet Isaiah actually depicts God as weeping as he judges the people, feeling their pain. That sounds a lot more like a loving father trying with everything he’s got to turn his children from hurting themselves and each other towards something better.
The images of Topheth, Gehenna, and the Lake of Fire are God mirroring our brutality back at us. But make no mistake, God is not brutal or pleased with torture, nor does he give up hope in us or ever stop loving us. Isaiah depicts God’s judgment fire like it is the fire that purifies polluted ore into precious metal. Malachi imagines the fire judgment of God burning the sickness of sin away like a strong soap cleansing infection.
We often fixate on these dire warnings, but these warnings must always be coupled with the promises of restoration: We can’t understand redemption without both.
Jesus uses these punishment images of Gehenna, but we must never forget that Jesus went on then and accepted Gehenna’s punishment on our behalf.
With these warnings, how do we know there is hope for us with these atrocities in Canada’s past? We can have confidence because God in Jesus Christ was the child of God sacrificed for our sin. He was deemed expendable by the religious authorities, who wanted to keep their power. He was arrested, taken, beaten, and brought outside the city, to a place in the valley of Topheth, a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death.
It is there that God counted the murder of his son as a sacrifice for the sins of those murdering him. He died praying for forgiveness for the very people who killed him.
If we have any doubt that God loves sinners, even when we have done the very worst of things, we can look at Jesus and know, he has gladly taken the hells we have made, the ones we are trapped in, and he chooses to bear them on the cross.
But that does not mean we get off the hook for the wrongs done in our world, in our history, and in our society. It does something different. It says there is hope that we can overcome them. The God of second chances forgives us and is now giving us opportunities to make it right, to learn and to repent, to heal and to restore: others and ourselves.
If there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by resurrection light, there is no wrong of the past that cannot be amended with God’s forgiving, reconciling future. But God gives us a choice: confront the hells we have made, unmake them with God’s gracious help, or the hells we have made for others will become our own.
But there is always hope because our God is a God of hope, a God that was pierced with the nails of hopelessness itself on the cross so that all the graves that Death and Sin have scarred God’s earth with might one day be emptied into Jesus’ eternal life.
Jeremiah reflects on the valley of Topheth later in his book, in the light of God’s promises to one day save his people, give them a new covenant, and place the law of love in their hearts, renewing them, and he says this in Jeremiah 31: 38-40:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord… The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes… shall be holy to the Lord.”
One day, these places of brutality and judgment will be healed and holy. The places of our greatest failures can be sites of forgiveness.
Let me suggest to you that if these graves of the residential schools are Canada’s Topheth, the hells we have made, it is a place of warning if we forget what happened there. But it will also be a place of hope if we remember the stories these places tell. It will be where we must look for how to repent fully, authentically, where God is sending us to carry out the work of reconciliation, where we as the church in Canada will find a new sense of Christ’s hope, a hope he has for us all.
If we treat these graves of these precious children as holy, letting their family’s laments be our laments, their battles for justice be our battles too, letting go of the idols of power and self-preservation, the arrogance that the face of Christ can only be found in faces that look like ours, these mentalities that centuries of Christians have held on to before us, to our own determent and destruction, if we do this – if we do this, God promises we will see glimpses of nothing short of heaven on earth, holy ground, the inbreaking of what Peter called the hope of the restoration of all things.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump
God give us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the mind of Christ to comprehend your word today.
In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a vision of God on his throne, and it is at a precarious time in the nation’s history. The beginning of the passage says: “It was the year king Uzziah died.” It was a time of political instability, the death of the king, the prospect of a new king, the vulnerability of the change of power.
We see some political instability of our own day, are we not? Just a little! I drive down the road, and it is not just the leaves that are changing colours. Lawns are decorated with that person’s favourite colour, whether red, blue, orange, green, and now we see a few purples as well.
The Prime Minister has called a snap election during a watershed moment in Canada’s history: the time that the pandemic still rages in some provinces, while in ones like ours, it is still here but curbed heavily. Canada asks: what now? Where do we go from here? What will the next few months look like? The next few years? Who will lead us through them?
The chessboard is assembled, but what are the biggest stakes in this game?
Is it getting the economy back up to normal (can it get back to what it was before)? Is it keeping the restrictions up to save lives? Are human rights on the line with vaccine passports? Is it the environment and building a green economy? Is it safe drinking water for indigenous communities? Each one of these questions is asked with particular fears behind them.
Our TVs, computers, and phone screens are injected with campaign ads and articles sporting people’s preferred candidates. The mud-slinging and back-biting has begun, not that it ever stopped. We have become aware of how social media has fundamentally changed our everyday lives and so has fundamentally remade how we think politically. This has come with a dark side. Rumbling from the depths of chatrooms, Twitter, and Facebook groups have come messages that bear deep senses of hate, frustration, disgust, resentment.
People are angry and desperate. We like to think of ourselves as Canadians as peaceful, orderly, and reasonable people, but moments of violence have irrupted along the campaign trail as radicals have thrown rocks at the Prime Minister going to his bus.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg as our world seems to be exploding with division: fear and hate, misinformation, and blame.
Conflict and tragedy are becoming our everyday reality. The stakes are high, and it feels like the world is collectively holding its breath for the next tragedy.
Where do we look in the midst of this instability?
Do we look to ourselves? Do we look to a particular candidate? Do we look to a particular party? Who do we put our hope in?
In the year that King Uzziah died, [in the time of deep uncertainty] I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne [He saw the true king]; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim [the majestic other-worldly powers], each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with [the] smoke [of worship].
1. If Jesus is King, did we look to him first?
In times of political instability, we cannot look to ourselves; we must look first to the Lord, ruler of heaven and earth.
This world cannot contain him. This world’s politics cannot define him. This world’s corruption cannot restrict him. He is a God unmatched, unblemished, unlimited. He is the threefold Holy, holy holy, Lord God Almighty.
We have forgotten what holiness means. It is not just a personal thing; it is a political thing.
God in Jesus Christ is holy-Other than our ways, our ideas, and therefore our politics.
But if God is king, make no mistake; no king or president or prime minister can claim the authority of God. No politician can claim messianic status.
If God is king, no kingdom, no nation, no political party can claim that they represent the kingdom. As Clarence Jordan once said, the kingdom is always at hand but never in hand.
If God is king, while God is patient with our imperfections, we must be wary of any attempts to deliver the kingdom by hook or crook. Christ’s kingdom comes Christ’s way. The Commander of heaven’s armies hires no mercenaries.
If God is king, this means all kings of this earth, all presidents or prime ministers, any leader of any community, corporation, tribe or nation, must realize God is the only true king, and if their rule does not look like the kingdom of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, they will have to answer to him.
And if God is king, and we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, then we must often live as Peter says to his congregation: as strangers living in a foreign land, like a family that can’t be defined by a nation’s political allegiances.
We can look up and say that the kingdom of heaven is near, that this is our way, and in it, we are free to live differently.
The kingdom of God does not pull us back into the political status quo; it prophetically calls us forward.
It does not call us to political isolation or retreat. It is a holiness in the midst of the world that seeks a new way. Will we look for this new way? But I will tell you, the simple fact is we as Christians, as the church in Canada, so often we haven’t.
2. If Jesus is our King, have we been loyal to him?
One day at women’s coffee hour at First Baptist Church of Sudbury, where I pastored, I observed the fact that Christians are not altogether uniform on how to think politically. On Wednesday morning, the ladies of the church would get together for coffee and knit or do crosswords, or some of them became fans of doing those adult colouring books. Anyways, I would often work on the sanctuary computer, which was behind a curtain to the side of this room. One morning they did forget I was there.
In casual conversation, one lady expressed disappointment over “her boy, Justin,” in how he handled the Student Summer Jobs funding debacle. “Your boy?” Another lady said in disgust, “how can a Christian vote for a liberal?”
“Well,” said the first, “when I came to Canada from the Caribbean, the conservative party wanted to deport my family and me because they thought we would bring crime into the country and we would steal Canadian jobs or go on welfare. Pierre Trudeau protected my family, and so that is why his son is my boy.”
The other lady was a bit flabbergasted; she then turned to the lady beside her to attempt to gather some peer pressure: “Can you believe her?”
The third lady, a bit struck, said, “Yes. Indeed, I can’t see how anyone could support the liberals or conservatives. I have been a member of the NDP my whole life. My parents helped form the NDP with Tommy Douglas because they fought for labour rights for the miners of Sudbury. I just don’t understand how people can’t see that socialism best reflects the kingdom of God.”
Again, lady number two had this awkward moment of putting her foot in her mouth. The conversation quickly devolved into an awkward silence and a quick change of subject as these kinds of discussions often go. Many of us have had moments like that. And many of us are surprised we still have moments like that. We are astonished to find believers believing different things. “You think that? You support that person?” What do we do with that?
Notice a few things in this little event: (1) All three women were thoroughly partisan. Their minds were made up a long time ago, and it was not going to change. (2) All three simply could not believe the other’s view. There was an overt refusal of empathy and fallibility. (3) Their solution or lack thereof was to stop talking about it.
Perhaps in that moment of discussing or rather awkwardly discovering their political differences, I think they forgot the most important thing: their unity in Jesus Christ.
They were sisters in Christ. They were a part of a kingdom much bigger than any political party. His kingdom calls us to treat each other like family, even when we disagree, and that is a different kind of politic.
In our current political situation, it should not surprise us to see that Christians of different strips have influenced and participated in all the political parties in some way: the conservative appeal to traditional values and economic pragmatism, the liberals appeal to human rights and equity, the NDP’s appeal to the values instilled by Social Gospel Baptists like Tommy Douglas. And so on. On my Facebook, I have pastor friends of mine each running in all the major parties. They have all come to these values with a particular Christian emphasis. That does not mean they are all equally right. It does mean we have to have a moment of pause when we assume our views are the best, and everyone else is dumb, delusional, and dangerous.
The biggest thing that worries me in this election is not which candidate gets in; although I have my strong views on that, it is the fact that Christians no longer how to love people that are different, not even other Christians. The outrage of politics has overpowered Christian humility, patience, and honesty, and if that is the case, the church in Canada has already lost regardless of who votes for what.
That is why we must consistently and constantly recall our hearts and minds to the fact that Jesus is still king.
In the Gospels, James and John, sons of Zebedee, asked Jesus, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” We want power, Jesus. Jesus’ reply: “You don’t know what you are asking.”
He says, and I paraphrase: If you want to drink of glory, the cup you drink is my crucifixion. He says,
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 42-45)
This cherished scripture about the nature of the cross ransoming us from sin, we forget, is the answer to a political question: How do I get power and glory, Jesus? How do I get my way?
Jesus’ answer: You won’t that way. That is not my way; my way is the cross.
The Son of Man, the one who rightfully deserves all the power and honour, the crowns of every kingdom, all the riches of all the wealthy, became a servant healing the forgotten of this world, serving those that deserted him and forgiving those that murdered him by dying on a cross fully obedient to the Father, a death of shame and humiliation, and counted it on our behalf. God in Christ is first because he made himself last.
Whatever our political convictions are, they must flow from his reality.
We have to ask ourselves if our ways are in line with this kind of humility, this kind of honesty, this kind of peacefulness, this kind of service, sacrifice and solidarity?
In other words, if we as Christians go to the ballot boxes and say to ourselves, “Who is the politician that will give me the most?” That simply is not Christ’s attitude.
If we go to the ballot trying to ensure the church stays powerful and prominent, our witness to a watching world will simply be that we are just as power-hungry as all the other political factions out there. We don’t offer anything different.
But that is so often what we have done. And if we have traded this kingdom and this king for any other politician, party, or platform, our words can only be Isaiah’s:
“Woe to us! We, the church, are ruined! For We are people of unclean lips, and we live among a people of unclean lips, for our eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
So then, what can we do?
But then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it, he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Your sins are atoned for. I don’t know why, but we worship a God that when humanity murdered Christ on the cross, he forgave. He answered our worse with his very best. He died our death to offer us his life. When we fail him terribly, his character is grace immeasurably.
I don’t understand it. It goes against everything this limited mind thinks should be the case. I know I stand condemned in judgment, but to my surprise, his judgment is love.
It seems inconceivable; it seems too impractical; it seems too unpolitical, but that is how God runs his kingdom. Grace is God’s policy.
But all I can know is if I am lost in sin, Christ has found me. I am ruined, and he atoned for me.
Jesus has cleansed us, and he is not done with us. He is doing something else: he commissions us.
3. If Jesus is King, Let’s Keep Following His Way
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
The church is called to Isaiah’s commission here: to truth, love, and hope.
The church is called to prophetic truthfulness that this world does not understand. If the political candidate or party you follow has done wrong or made a mistake, don’t be so urgent to see your version of justice come that you forget that God’s kingdom never comes by people who refuse to repent, confess the truth and own their mistakes.
No political ideal is so important that it allows us to take a shortcut and bypass Jesus’ way.
You might find that if you do that, you won’t fit in. People just won’t get what you’re saying. They don’t want to listen. That is the way Isaiah had to go and us too.
In a world of half-truths, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us! We will speak the truth.”
Second, we must speak the truth in love. Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop that guided South Africa out of apartheid, led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when people told him that clergy couldn’t be political, he just responded and said, “Of course, I can. We must. We are called to love our neighbour.”
Who is my neighbour? Is my neighbour white or black, an immigrant or indigenous, is a senior or an unborn baby, is my neighbour a Muslim, a gay person, rich or poor, criminal or law-abiding or any other difference that we have treated differently?
Is it just one or another? No! All of them. I don’t get to choose. All are made in the image and likeness of God, all are children of our Father, all by God’s word have inherent dignity and worth, none more worthy than the other.
Some Christians I know refuse to vote because the system is too broken. That is their right, but I would say that we can’t forget the power of a vote, the possibilities, even small ones, that a good politician can help those least fortunate in our world.
I have to remind that cynical part of me that if I love my neighbour, I must press on thinking and conversing and voting and acting. Other people way less privileged than myself depend on it.
In a world of hate and exclusion, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us! We care about our neighbours.”
Then Isaiah said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste…until the Lord sends everyone far away…Even if a tenth part remains in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. But the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
“How long, O Lord?” For Isaiah, this question has a tinge of “It’s going to get better, right? If I do this, then this will fix things, right?” God’s answer is not comfortable, but it is the truth. Isaiah’s day is different from ours, but the principle is the same: He is prophesying of the coming exile, and that is not what we are facing. However, so often, we say to God, “God, I’ll do this, now you do that. God, if I do this, then things will get better, right?”
Our choices matter, and so this election matters. But will it solve everything? We all know that it won’t.
How long, O Lord? How long do we have to do this? Will things get better? The real question before us today is this: even if things keep getting worse first, will we still choose Christ?
God says to Isaiah that amongst the desolation, a holy seed is planted: We know that as we walk into the uncertainty of the future, we carry this hope within our hearts:
Christ had died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
In a world of despair and apathy, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us, Lord! No matter what, we will go!”
Today, after church, think well about the issues. Discuss how to get involved, how to live change, how we can care for the least in our communities. Tomorrow, go out and vote. The day after, remember Jesus is still king, and no matter what, we are going to keep following him.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)
Here is another thing about living in Canada. We are obsessed with identifying with our countries of origin.
My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Dutch immigrant. My grandmother on my dad’s side was from Georgia. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a fourth generation Canadian, whose family came over from Scotland over a century ago. My grandmother on my mom’s side was, I believe, born in Canada, but her family was polish immigrants that moved from Poland to England then to Canada.
Yet, for some reason when people ask me, where does your family come from, I say, “I’m Dutch-Canadian.” My last name is “Boersma,” which means “farmer” in Friesian Dutch. I can’t speak that language. I have never been to the Netherlands, let alone to the province of Friesland. I can really only claim this ethnicity in a minimal way at best.
This year my wife and I got the long form census from the government. Personally, I was very excited to get it. I want to be represented in the statistics. Then my wife filled it out without me. I felt cheated. Anyways. If I were to fill that out, I would say: Ethnicity: White or Dutch or something like that; Citizenship: Canadian; Religion: Christian.
This is how our secular-cultural mindset has taught us to think. Religion is just something that effects this small area of your life. It is compartmentalized. It is something that goes on in your head. It only relates to one aspect of your identity.
That is not how the Bible sees it.
There is something powerful about what Peter is saying here. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
According to Scripture here how would we fill out the census?
What is your citizenship? I am a citizen of God’s holy nation, the kingdom of heaven.
What is your ethnicity? I am a descendant of Abraham. I am a member of his chosen people.
What is your religion? See questions (a) and (b).
What Peter is saying here is that because of the work of the cross, we are not just one religion. We are a new nation, a new people, a new ethnicity, a new family.
There is a fascinating dynamic in the Sikh religion that I think Christians could take a lesson from. When Sikhism as a religion broke off from Hinduism and Islam (it is essentially a kind of hybrid of the two), the began to forge their own identity.
Now if you know anything about Hinduism, it had a strong insistence on the caste system. You were born into a family associated with a particular profession of varying importance: At the top were nobles and priests, then soldiers, then various working classes. These classes were highly prejudicial. If you were born a farmer, you had to be a farmer, and you had to marry a farmer’s daughter. You could not become a priest or marry a priest’s daughter. Of course, priests entailed a level of respect that farmers did not get.
The Sihk religious leaders saw the oppression of the Hindu leaders over the people and tried to liberate their people from the caste system. They believed, similar to Christians, that all people are equal under God. In an effort to do so, they started removing their last names, which indicated what caste you were from, and replaced it all with the same last name. So, today, all Sikh men have the last name Singh (which means “lion”) and all women have the last name Kaur (which means “princess”).
Kind of neat in my opinion. I am not suggesting we all change our last names, but think about it this way:
What if on my driver’s license it did not say, “Spencer Boersma,” but rather “Spencer Redeemed-by-Christ,” (hyphenated of course), or “Spencer Christian.” Or something like that.
It would reiterate that our identity in Christ stands first and foremost.
In Revelation, Christians who preserve, it says, will have the divine name on their foreheads. That is a way of saying those that follow God are at one with his identity; they are extensions of his being, one with him.
Think about our identity that way.
Before I understand myself as Spencer Boersma, I understand that I am at one with the God who calls himself the I Am that I Am.
Before I understand myself as human, I understand myself as God’s creation.
Before I understand myself as male, cis-gendered, I understand myself as one with Christ.
Before I understand myself as White, Dutch, and all the other ethnicities a descend from, I understand myself as a child of the promises of Abraham, incorporated by faith not by works.
Before I understand myself as Canadian, I understand that I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
In an early church letter, the Letter to Diognetus, Christians were described this way. “Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”
Every homeland, a foreign land, and every strange land, a homeland. That is how Christians live.
When you realize that you are first and foremost a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, you take the good parts of our culture and your leave the rest behind. You are ready to do anything, go anywhere, and be anything for the sake of Christ.
My wife and I, on our honeymoon, did a Mediterranean cruise. We saw Malta, Naples and Pompei, Rome and the Vatican, Florence and Pisa, and finally Cannes, France.
Florence was a gorgeous city. We toured the city’s cathedrals, and through the streets we saw statue after statue, all by walking along very picturesque cobble stone roads.
We came to the city center where the Duomo was. This is a massive cathedral constructed by the same architect that did the St. Peter’s Basilica. The baptismal chapel on the one end of the Duomo has gold gates, called the “Gates of Paradise,” lined with plates of biblical artwork.
I remember thinking, we really don’t have stuff like that in Canada. We don’t have the depth of history like a place like Florence does.
The tour took a break and so I want to the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, one of the other people on the tour started talking to me. Apparently it was acceptable to talk to others in a bathroom in his culture.
“Are you enjoying the tour?”
“Yes, the gates were awesome,” I said.
“You’re an American, yes?” he asked.
Of course, I replied, “No, I’m Canadian.”
To which he replied with one of the most insulting things you could say to a Canadian in that instance: “Oh, same thing!”
If this was hockey, the gloves would have come off!
So, I turn to him and asked, “Your ascent – its Irish, isn’t it?”
“No, I am from London.”
To which I replied, “Oh, same thing!”
Now, since then, that story has caused me to reflect on what it is to be a Canadian. What does it mean to be a Canadian? Are we, as John Wing joked, “Unarmed Americans with healthcare”?
This is not as obvious a question as it sounds. Yes, I was born in the area in between the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans, North of America and South of Greenland, but that does not tell us much about what it means to be a Canadian. That’s geography. However that may tell us something or two.
“Canada [geographically] is like an old cow. The West feeds it. Ontario and Quebec milk it. And you can well imagine what it’s doing in the Maritimes.” – Tommy Douglas
My apologies to all the Maritimers in the room.
Anyways, what I am talking about is being a “true Canadian.” Is there such a thing?
Do Canadians have a particular culture? We love hockey. We love camping. Outdoor sports in general. Everyone in this room knows what it is like to walk out of your house in the winter and breathe in -45 degree Celsius air.
Canadian food: Maple Syrup, bacon, Nanaimo bars, poutine with globs of gravy and cheese curds, beaver tails, etc.
We like to drink unhealthy amounts of coffee, double double. We get our milk in liter plastic bags, not jugs.
Our money is all sorts of goofy colors, and for some reason, the Canadian mint is slowly turning all our bills into progressively larger coins. The 5 and 10 dollar coins are coming, people. What then? I think eventually we will have 20 dollar coins the size of frisbees and eventually 100 coins the size of manhole covers!
We have iconic figures like beavers, moose, the Canada goose. We are apparently really proud of our wildlife!
We sort of go to those kinds of things in order to understand ourselves, but those kinds of things are pretty surface level and outward. That does not tell us a whole lot about us. Hopefully there is more to us than that.
The fact that we have receded into those kinds of cutesy notions of who we are shows what the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan said decades ago:
“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”
McLuhan was the man that stated, “The medium is the message.” Canada had these brilliant culture philosophers like George Grant and Northrop Frye that no one really remembers today. It’s kind of sad.
Anyways, we are a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, not a culture but a set of cultures, and that leads us to feel a sense like we don’t have a uniform set of values. We often don’t feel like we know who we are deep down as Canadians.
However, interestingly enough, while many Canadians are unaware of it, there is a bizarre consensus in Canada on values.
In college I read the book, Fire and Ice: Canada, the United States, and the Myth of Converging Values. It was a bit of an eye opener. Canada, according to sociologist Michael Adams, is becoming very different from its American counterparts. We are similar to Americans, but as far as values goes, the presence of America to the South of us as caused us to be increasingly different form them on lots of stuff.
That is one way of saying who we are, isn’t it? Canadians are not Americans. Whoever we are, we ain’t that. We are proudly not that.
We always define ourselves in terms our brothers and sisters to the south. Pierre Trudeau once likened North America to a bed where Canada was a beaver trying to sleep next to a raging Elephant (the US).
And while Americans assume they have a more uniform melting pot kind of culture and Canada has a multi-cultural, diverse culture, Canada is actually far more uniform from sea to sea than the US. That’s ironic.
In values of Authority vs. Individuality and Survival vs. Fulfillment, American regions are very diverse: the Deep South is strongly Authority-Survival, South Atlantic is Individuality-Survival. Some states were closer to Authority-Fulfillment while others closer to Individuality-Fulfillment. Meanwhile, all Canadian provinces fell within the Individuality-Fulfillment quadrant.
What does that mean? Here are some of his statistics: Only 20% of Canadians attend church weekly versus 42% for Americans. Only 18% of Canadians feel that the father must be Master of the house versus 49% for Americans. 71% of Canadians felt that a couple living together were family versus 49% for Americans. Only 25% of Canadians were prepared to take great risks versus 38% of Americans. Only 17% of Canadians feel a widely advertised product is probably good versus 44% of Americans
Adam’s said, and I think this sums it up well: Americans would be more likely to brag about a new car; Canadians more likely to brag about the trip they went on.
Adams feels that “an initially conservative society like Canada has ended up producing an autonomous, inner-directed, flexible, tolerant and socially liberal people. On the other hand, “an initially liberal society like the US has ended up producing a people who are materialistic, outer-directed, intolerant and socially conservative.”
Now, here is the important question for today. Does that make our culture the right one?
According to the news, people from both American and Britain have been googling “How to move to Canada” at record rates, but I think that is short-sighted.
I don’t think anyone of them is necessarily bad or good. I see things like and things I am concerned about in those statistics. Sure there are cultures that have strong education or have less crime or promote religion. However that can all have good aspects and bad aspects.
Of course, if we said that Canada’s culture was the best, we would be saying that out of bias, and we would also be failing to cultural arrogance, which is not good.
The fact is that you can take your culture in a good way or a bad way. You can’t blame your culture for stuff you know is wrong. Any culture has upsides and downsides. The point is to be aware of it. There will be extremes. Culture is not necessary a thing to be opposed in faith, but is something to be understood critically, placing our faith and discernment first. We need to celebrate the good and work at eliminated the bad.
Christians have usually two dangerous responses to our cultural identities:
(1) Isolation: Churches that Retreat from Culture
This is very common of fundamentalist churches. Our culture is bad, impure, evil, so lets huddle in our faith bunker where it is safe.
Churches that get isolated don’t use the goodness the Spirit of God has planted in the culture to use to communicate the Gospel. Paul knew this when he spoke to the people at Mars Hill.
There is no such thing as a culture-less church. No church is free from culture. God did not intend it that way. The Bible was written within a culture of its own, but the Word of God speaks to all cultures. The church should be working to promote the best of culture. The point is discerning the good from the bad.
It is not weather we will have a Canadian culture within us or not, the question is will we be aware of it and response appropriately.
Canadians are more skeptical about consumerism and war, and more hospitable to immigrants. That’s good. I think Jesus was too!
Canadians are individuals that value strong relationships over institutions and programs. That is something we can work with.
Canadians might be skeptical about religion, but they are open to talking about justice, spirituality, ideals, and values. In a round about way, that sounds religious!
Lots of people want to lament that our culture is becoming less Christian. That is true in one way, but that does not mean the Spirit has stopped working in our culture to make opportunities for the Gospel.
(2) Accommodation: Churches Claim All Culture for their Own
The worst example of this in history is when Emperor Constantine in the third century made Christianity the state religion. To be Roman was to be Christian. To be Christian was to be Roman. Roman law was ordained by God. The church went to war against Rome’s enemies.
We saw horrific examples of this in Nazi Germany where the state church proclaimed Hitler to be chosen by God to bring glory back to Germany.
We see the same in the British Empire. Where the Anglican Church sanctioned colonialism. The British colonized half the world and now complain about immigrants taking their identity!
We see this also in America today, sadly. American wars for oil have become evangelical crusades against Muslims. The American motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is preached as gospel in some churches.
We Canadians can do the same.
I think ours is a culture of apathy and skepticism. We have allergic reactions to organized anything, except organized sports. We have trouble committing to community. We are terribly afraid of offending people with the truth. We are individualists that don’t know who we are and don’t want you to tell us.
That comes out in our religion.
We say stuff like, “I believe Jesus in my Lord and Saviour, but that is just my personal opinion.” (A joke often made by the ethicist, Stan Hauerwas).
We are multi-cultural, which is great. But also we have allowed tolerance to go a bit too far. There are two kinds of tolerance, by the way. One kind says, “You are different from me, so please help me understand you, and let me make a space for you, so that we can have peace.” That’s good.
There is bad tolerance that says, “I don’t know you, I don’t care, you stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours. If we bump into each other at Foodland, lets have a shallow conversation about the weather or local sports team, but not anything meaningful, let along religious.”
We are terribly afraid of speaking truth and very afraid to commit to organization and community. That fear has caused us to shrink back from opportunities to encourage people with the Gospel. We are so afraid of offending people that we miss opportunities to encourage.
When we think about our nationality, we have to be critical. We are called to be “in the world and not of the world”
We need to understand that there is good and bad in our culture. We need discernment to that we do not fall into nationalism. Being Canadian can be a good thing, but not necessarily.
This is why we look to how we are apart of another nation: the kingdom of heaven…