The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to comeIsaiah 2:1-4 (NRSV)
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
All the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways
And that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
Last Saturday, 33 missiles and drone strikes rained down on the people of Ukraine, destroying essential infrastructure, and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power as the weather starts to go cold.
This is just one more moment in a conflict that officially began several years ago with the annexing of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and since then, the conflict has simply not stopped, leading up to the invasion by Russia in February.
Up until the invasion, it was reported that 14 000 people had died in the conflict, but now the explosion of fighting with the invasion is seeing a death toll exponentially higher. The numbers are difficult to determine as both Ukraine and Russia are doctoring their numbers for the purposes of morale, but the best estimates suggest that somewhere between 7 000- 30 000 Ukrainian civilians have died, 60 000 Ukrainian soldiers have died, and possibly 90 000 Russian soldiers have been killed. So somewhere near 200 000 people have died and several times that injured, not to mention 13 million people have lost their homes. Those numbers, when I read them, left me speechless.
And sadly, this war does not seem to have an end in sight. Canada and other western powers have been sending resources, whether financial or military, to Ukraine, as well as imposing sanctions on Russia, which seems to be helping¾and I firmly believe these are good things, just as I deeply sympathize with Ukrainians who are simply defending their homes against a force that seeks their personal and cultural destruction.
And yet, an important detail in this conflict is often ignored by the secular west: this is a war being done by Russia, which believes it is a Christian nation, perhaps even a restored Christian empire, and it believes that the church and the state are one, its culture and its faith are one, and that these things ought to be defended and advanced using military force if threatened. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Moscow has called this a holy war, sanctified by God to advance the ways of Orthodoxy in a world that has embraced the evils of western tolerance. And so, as we lament a death toll that nears 200 000 lives, this is met with a unique anguish for us Christians that those who are doing this claim Jesus on their side.
Whether this is the defence of the innocent or the justification of invasion, the world feels pulled towards war; its seductive allure to total war, whose end is destruction, whether the annihilation of the Russian forces, the annihilation of the Ukrainian forces and people, and in the end, perhaps, the termination of both. There is something about these numbers that make us long: Is another way possible?
Martin Luther King, Jr. once reflected on this possibility:
“War, as horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But I now believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Pilgrimage into Non-Violence,” in Strength to Love, pg. 161
So, how are Christians to think about war? We can’t ignore this question as we live safely in Canada. With tensions mounting between the Western powers and Russia as well as China, many are saying we could be seeing the stirrings of what will be another global conflict within our lifetime.
We do not know what will happen, but one way or another, we have to ask some simple but difficult questions: Whose side is Jesus on? What is Jesus’ way? What hope do we have?
1. A Different Allegiance
The narrative of the Bible is not a story where God’s redemption drops out of the sky unaffected by time but meets us in the midst of things within our complex web of relationships and histories, stirring us little by little towards God’s kingdom.
And so, it should not surprise us to find that when we look at the pages of Scripture, we find war, but not only that, God’s people going to war by God’s command.
And if you have ever read through the Bible, you will come to some passages that might shock you. There are passages in the Old Testament that command the killing of the Canaanites, the nation that lived in the land before Israel. The reasons for these passages in the Bible (passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua) sound frighteningly similar to the reasons the leaders of the church in Russia are saying they invaded Ukraine: the war is to punish the sin of those in the land, the war is to make sure God’s people are secure, the war is to stop the advancement of evil ways and keep God’s people pure, and so on and so forth.
These passages have been cited in our own history as well. Centuries ago, European settlers believed they were a new Israel coming to America, a new promised land, and because of that, its inhabitants, the indigenous peoples with their perceived pagan ways, needed to be exterminated if they did not convert.
Reading these passages should, hopefully, causes us to ask: is this all there is to this story? To read these passages as straightforwardly pertaining to today, as if that is where God wanted to leave our perception of him, where God leaves us in the drama of salvation, is to miss what we might call a long arc toward peacemaking in the biblical narrative.
It began with God meeting a desperate people in an ancient world that believed in things like tribal holy war, and these laws reflect a gentle push towards something better than the status quo.
We see this in all kinds of issues: the treatment of women, marriage, slaves, children, wealth, etc. If you have ever thought a certain passage of the Bible on these topics taught things that seemed regressive, potentially harmful, even oppressive, ask yourself what this look law looks like in comparison to what was being practiced in its time, and you will see what my Bible professors call, “a redemptive-movement,” glimpses of how God is nudging God’s people little by little towards the ends that God desires.
The whole of the biblical narrative is a travail moving from the subservience of women to equality, from slavery to emancipation, from exclusion to solidarity, from brutality to charity, and so also, from war to peacemaking.
And it seems that while God is gentle in instructing this redemption, we see little break-outs, seed moments, and events where the kingdom of God shines through with particular clarity.
It can look like Deborah in the book of Judges, a woman called by the Spirit of God in a time when women were seen with little worth to be a prophet and judge over all of Israel.
It might look like the love poetry in Song of Songs, where the bride and groom are described with a mutuality in marriage that defies the curse of Eve: “I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.”
It can look like laws in the Old Testament, like the laws of Jubilee, where every 50 years, all debts would be forgiven, all slaves would be set free, and all land wealth would be redistributed.
Or it can be a moment like when the commander of Israel, Joshua, is sitting ready with his armies in invade Jericho, and he sees a mysterious angelic man, and he asks him, “whose side are you on? Are you one ours or theirs?” And this man says, “I am the commander of the armies of heaven, but I am on neither side” (Josh. 5:14).
This is but one moment that plants a seed that suggests God is beyond our earthly allegiances, whether they are political, ethnic, financial, or even religious, what we label as Christian allegiance. Whose side is God on? When we seek to pull God onto our side to justify our community, our causes, and our conflicts, God is quick to say, “I am on no one’s side.”
Isaiah’s vision is another moment, written in a time of mounting tension between the superpowers, and it envisions many nations coming to Jerusalem to the house of God. They come to a God that seems like the God of a different nation, a God not of their nation, and yet, they assemble in Jerusalem, welcomed as if they are not strangers as if this nation is the place of the gathering of many nations, a people out of many peoples, and here they unlearn the ways of war.
Whose side is God on? God is on everyone’s side. God is not the God of one nation but all nations, not one people but all people.
This calls us to a fundamentally different allegiance as the people of God, who know and trust this truth. We are citizens of heaven, first and foremost.
This did not stop the early Christians from still being Romans or Greeks or anything like that, nor does it stop us from being Canadians, but it does orient us to say we do not participate in these earthly allegiances if they are set against our allegiance to the kingdom of heaven.
And when we realize this, we have to ask ourselves, whose side are we on? Are we on the side of the powerful, the rich, the apathetic, the status quo or are we on the side whom God has declared his special favour: the weak, the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the lowly, the captive? Whose side will we choose to be on?
Whose side are we on when our nation says we need to invade these people in order to keep us safe and secure? But perhaps that question is not for us in Canada today: Maybe it might look like this: Whose side are we on when innocent people are being killed and need our help, millions of refugees have lost their homes and are showing up at our doorstep? Will we turn a blind eye and say, “Sorry, but helping will cost us too much. We have to look after ourselves”? Whose side will we be on?
But let’s go further: what if our nation says we need to forget about the rights of indigenous people or the rights of foreign workers because it means too much for Canadian prosperity to treat them fairly? Whose side will we be on, then?
Whose side are we on when our nation uses its military presence to protect its grip over the economies of the Caribbean, its mining interests over the inhabitants of South America or the Congo? Canada has a very respectable military, but it is not perfect. And those things don’t tend to make the news because it so readily goes against the narrative that we Canadians tell ourselves, we are the peacemakers, the good guys, and our nation does not oppress anyone. That is not quite true. When it comes to confronting the truth about ourselves, again, whose side are we on?
2. A Different Way
What our allegiance is will determine a different way. Isaiah says that “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” What is this way, this word, God is instructing us toward?
As we have been seeing, there is a process that is working itself out in the biblical narrative, where God meets humanity where they are at, in the midst of tension and conflict, and slowly teaches them redemption, wooing them towards reconciliation, little by little.
And yet, this narrative comes to a kind of summit or apex moment in the coming of Jesus Christ, who came proclaiming what God’s kingdom is about: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.” Where Joshua and David came and defeated Israel’s enemies, this new Joshua, this new Son of David, this Messiah came and gave a different teaching:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:43-45
This Messiah waged a war of a different sort, not against people but against sin, fought not with weapons but with grace. And as the story of the Gospels show, the world, even God’s own people, did not want peace.
One writer said that we simply cannot have peace until we understand that peace will always feel like it costs us more than war. And Jesus’ preaching started costing a few people some things: their power and reputation. And so, religious leaders orchestrated the murder of the Messiah.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, soldiers came with Judas to get him in the Garden, where he was praying. One disciple, eager to defend the Messiah, a worthy reason for violence if there ever was one, takes a blade and strikes one of the soldiers. Yet, Jesus turns to heal the soldier on the spot of his own arrest and rebukes the disciple: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.”
Then, Jesus was taken, tried, tortured, and hung on a cross to be executed. And it is here, in the darkness of the cross, that the word of God shines most clear. Jesus prays, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
The heart of the Bible is the message that at this moment when we treated God as our enemy, when we killed God’s very son, God was saving us.
The cross is how God treats his enemies. Thank God!
3. A Different Hope
Yet, if the cross is how God treats his enemies, if we are saved by the cross, if we are called to take up the cross as well, the cross is also how we treat our enemies.
And so, if this is our allegiance, if this is our way, we will have a very different hope. Isaiah names this hope. One that day…
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
There is an old joke that, despite being a joke, names how we so often misunderstand Christian hope. It goes like this:
One day a man feels troubled and goes to church. He comes in and hears the preacher proclaim, “Step aside, and let the good Lord fight your battles.” He finds this inspiring. Just then, a gust of wind blows, pushing open the preacher’s coat to expose that he had a pistol holstered in his coat. The man is taken aback by it. After the service, he goes up to the preacher, “Pastor, you said step aside and let God fight our battles.”
“Yes,” said the preacher.
“Well, then, why are you carrying a gun?” the man asked.
The preacher looked at him like he had said something silly, “Of course, I carry a gun! That’s to hold them off until he gets here!”
I think that is actually a lot of people’s view of Christian hope: “God will fix that one day; until then, we can’t do anything about it. God will bring peace one day; until then, we are stuck killing each other. Oh, well.”
Put another way: our drive to annihilate our enemy is driven by a kind of worldly hopelessness. I have no hope left for my enemy, no hope for their redemption, so I need to take history into my hands as its judge.
That is not how we understand Christian hope. If God promises the restoration of all things, our hope is that God invites us to participate in this reality in a fuller way every moment, in anticipation of what God will one day do.
In fact, this is how the early church understood Isaiah chapter 2. Here is what Justin Martyr said,
“And that this [he is referring to Isaiah chapter 2 here] did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God, they proclaimed to every race of people that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the world about God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie or deceive our examiners, and willingly die confessing Christ.”Justin Martyr, First Apology, 1:175-6
If our allegiance is that God loves all people, this fundamentally prevents us from quickly saying I am on your side and dead set against them, much less choosing the sides of power and privilege.
If our way is shown in Jesus’ loving for his enemies, our way has to see in our enemy someone God has died for, with love that matches the love that saves us.
And if our hope is that God will judge all people and restore all things, this also prevents me from needing to repay evil with evil. As Romans 12 says, hope frees us to overcome evil with good. We do this because we trust that this is how the story of human history, God’s story with us, will end.
Walter Wink, the biblical scholar the worked to overcome racial segregation in the apartheid in Africa, once said that being a Christian was the art of resisting evil without becoming evil ourselves.
This does not mean we give up helping those that need help and opposing those who harm the innocent; it does not mean we jump to easy conclusions and give up that moral wrestling that has to negotiate those difficult moments where self-defence and protecting others, where force and harm are in play, where the tragedies of violence still happen. But it does change how, why, where, and for whom we act.
What does this look like? I am not going to offer a quick answer here. There isn’t one. However, let me conclude with this: The El Salvadorian archbishop and martyr, Oscar Romero, was told by some he needed to embrace violence and revolution if the people of his nation would be liberated from their oppressive and corrupt government. Violence was the only way to bring peace. Romero, a message he died for, said this, echoing Isaiah 2:
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.“Oscar Romero, from The Violence of Love
While we live in a complicated world where militaries and police forces surely have their role to play in maintaining order when an enemy threatens us, however, do we get pulled into that seductive spiral towards total war, the grim realities of which history repeats over and over, or do we see a different possibility–light breaking in, by which, however that might look, we are inspired to do the hard work of “unlearning the ways of war”?
Happy Belated Canada Day, everyone. When I originally signed up to speak with you a few weeks back, my obvious thought for a sermon was to speak on faith and our nation, seeing that it was right after Canada Day. I had that sermon ready to go.
But the events of this week south of the border have been on my heart and mind. It is an oddly Canadian thing to feel connected to the controversies in the United States. Some days Canadians follow politics in the States closer than our own, perhaps because our politics are just so much more respectful, we feel bored listening to it.
The United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and that has us Canadians talking about it, even though it does not directly affect us. It has been all over CBC Radio, which I listen to on the way to work. For many of us, we feel connected to these events. Many of us have American family members. Many of my friends are American Baptist pastors. Many of us wonder whether something like this could happen here. Others of us hear the toxic rhetoric from our own circles.
Over social media, I have seen a disturbing mix of gloating on the part of conservatives and rage on the part of liberals, finger-pointing memes that attempt cute but all too simplistic “gotcha moments” like it is all one big game.
For conservatives, the gloating justifies why they supported Donald Trump, finally coming to fruition. Supporting an immoral man so that republicans could control the Supreme Court was worth it. For others, this marks a terrible victory for bigotry that is taking over the public discourse, where people have climbed into places of power using lies and demagoguery, pushing the United States closer to something like Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, Gilead.
For us, north of the border, I am very thankful that we have a completely independent judiciary, can I just say. I also feel like we are watching our neighbours, our closest ally in the world, pull themselves apart. The rage is palpable as the protests by both sides edge closer and closer to violence. I wonder if the US is on a collision course for another civil war.
And so, I told the organizers of the service this week that I would speak on the topic of abortion today. But let’s be clear about something up front:
This is not a liberal versus conservative issue.
This is a scriptural discernment issue.
This is a truth and compassion issue.
This is an issue that involves people.
When the world wants to shout, I think that is a good indication for us, Christians, that we need to stop and listen, but not to the shouting. We need to listen to the whispers of God’s voice in Scripture; we need to listen to the advice of our Baptist forebearers, but also, we need to listen to each other, especially to the cries of the lives affected, the voices of women.
So, I have entitled this sermon “Learning to Listen: Abortion and Becoming ‘Pro-Voice.’” The term Pro-Voice is based on an excellent book by Aspen Baker that I will reference later.
1. Listening to Scripture
So, first, can we listen to what God might have to tell us in Scripture? I say that knowing that this is a debate where people love citing the Bible as if it is obvious and clear on the matter. However, let me survey some of the Scriptures people cite in these debates, and let me suggest that perhaps the voice of God might not be saying what people try to make it say.
This is a topic that cannot be discussed by just one Scripture. As I thought about it, there is really no other way to handle this than by going through a couple¾there are about half a dozen of them–that people bring up (there are others, but these are the most pertinent ones). So, that is what we are going to do.
Now, there are several scriptures that don’t say much at all about this issue that constantly get quoted. So, let’s start with those:
A. Psalm 139
For instance, Psalm 139:13 says, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” There are similar ones in the books of Job and Jeremiah. I saw this on a billboard driving through the South one time, but it really has nothing to say about the legal status of a fetus. Technically, God knits all life together. So, already, one of the most commonly cited passages in this debate says actually very little.
B. Luke 1
There are other Scriptures that are not as convincing but have some weight to them. One of these is how in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, sees Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, and it says that the “child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” You see this one often around Christmas time. Some have taken this to imply that, obviously then, all fetuses are children. Well, I don’t think that is really Luke’s point in this passage, but be that as it may, we also don’t know how far along Elizabeth was. To feel a baby leaping is something that would happen well into the second trimester, so if this text does speak to this issue, it does not seem to say anything about the condition of the unborn in the first trimester. In Canada, 90% of abortions happen in the first trimester before movements can be felt. So, this text doesn’t say enough.
C. Genesis 1
A much more important text in this debate is Genesis chapter one, verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
This term “image” is used later in the book of Genesis to speak about how Adam’s son, Seth, is like him in his image. It is a parental term. If you were to look at my sons, you might say they are chips off the old block. They look like me. They are in my image. Genesis 1 is saying that all humans are God’s children; God sees himself in them and them in him. Genesis 1 teaches that human life has inherent dignity and worth in God’s eyes, no matter the gender, the health, the mental ability, which should say something when we are placed in a position to decide what kind of human life is worth living.
However, as important as this passage is, this passage does not tell us when a human person, in the legal sense, begins. It tells us the worth of human life, but not its origin. So, it is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.
D. Exodus 21
The only passage in the Bible that deals with the destruction of a fetus is Exodus, chapter 21. It reads as follows:
22 “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The laws of the Old Testament are made up of different types. You have some, like the ten commandments, that are direct: Do not commit adultery, do not lie, etc. Others, like this one, is a case law that work as applications: if this happens, you should do that.
This situation is a fight where a pregnant woman is struck, and a miscarriage happens, and if the woman is harmed permanently, the offender is harmed in retribution. It is not the case when a woman seeks an abortion. For in the Hebrew mindset, birth control of any kind was just not on their radar because the ideal was to have as many children as you could.
This is the only case where the destruction of a fetus occurs, and according to this passage, a fine is paid. It is paid to the husband because he, in that culture, was considered the patriarch and lord over his wife, who has his property. So, one quickly feels that this is a text written for its own time and place.
Nevertheless, the most important detail of this text is that a fine is paid. According to Old Testament laws, if you murdered a person, you got the death penalty, life for a life. The implication here is that if a miscarriage happens, and we are not told anything about how far along the pregnant woman is, the offender pays a fine. Thus, it implies a legal person has not been killed.
Some more conservative commentators have tried to argue that this is merely referring to a premature birth, that the word for miscarriage could mean something else, but that is not how it was understood in its own time or in later Rabbinical and Christian commentaries.
However, some later Jewish commentators argue that this case only refers to when it happens to a woman in the first half of her pregnancy, before the fetus is formed sufficiently. In the second half, it could be considered murder.
And so, some have argued that just as Scripture pushes God’s people toward equality between men and women as the biblical narrative progresses, so also does Christian tradition become more sensitive with regard to the unborn.
But the question remains, when does a fetus become a person? When does it become a legal person? When should the government protect what it can discern to be human life?
Some have argued, based on this passage, that a person is a person when they take their first breath after birth. When the first human in the Bible, Adam, was made a living soul, this occurs in Genesis 2 when God breathed into him the breath of life. With the first breath after birth, the human person is identifiable. This was the view of Palestinian Jews in ancient times, and in modern times, this argument was made by the Baptist ethicist Paul Simmons.
However, is breath the real mark of life with dignity? After all, there are lots of creatures out there that are alive but don’t have lungs and acquire oxygen in other ways, and we believe in animal rights. A fetus gets oxygen through the blood in the umbilical cord. Does that count?
If the first breath is the mark of personhood, can a pregnant woman have an abortion right up until labour starts? Late-term abortions are very rare, and in Canada, they are really only done when the life of the mother is at stake. In Canada, abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy account for 0.59% of all abortions.
On the other side of the spectrum is the view that a human person begins at conception. This is probably the one we are most familiar with, often called “life at conception,” but that is a misnomer in the debate. No one is debating whether life begins at conception. In fact, the sperm and ovum are also alive before conception. The question is rather does a fertilized zygote, a set of multiplying cells, which does not have thought, a nervous system, or a heart, so small it could fit on the end of a pin, growing to about the size of a lentil as an embryo–should this be considered a legal person? Baptist ethicists like David Gushee and the late Glenn Stassen hold that the sanctity of human life compels them to refuse abortion even at this early stage.
Early Christian writers like Clement and others support a similar view. They held this view because they assumed the philosophy of Plato. What does that mean? Plato believed that humans have souls in the sense that what made the person truly a person was not based on their bodies or brains but was based on an eternal substance of the mind that could be divorced from the body and brain. That is a bit different from the earlier Jewish belief in the soul that would say that while we have a spiritual dimension to ourselves, it is always in connection to our bodies. One writer put it that we don’t so much have a soul. We are a soul, a holistic unity of spirit and flesh. We are enspirited bodies.
So, several early Christian writers adopted this more Platonic notion that separates mind and body, soul and flesh, and by this, a zygote from the beginning of conception has a full soul, the same as a fully developed human. And this position became Catholic dogma and, by extension, the default setting of most of Christianity, including the modern pro-life movement.
Now, as I said, the early church and Judaism had two wings in the spectrum of their views: one was personhood beginning at first breath, the other, beginning at conception. However, there was a diversity in the early church and Judaism.
The most common view was a middle-ground view. Thinkers like the Alexandrian Jewish writers but also important Christian writers like Tertullian, Origen and Augustine (if you don’t recognize these names, let’s just say they are heavy hitters in theology). They believed that a fetus was a person somewhere in the second trimester, corresponding to the degree of the formation of the fetus.
Now, we know today that a fetus’s heart is discernable at six weeks. But does a heartbeat define a human person?
We know that somewhere around the 12th week, the fetus has a formed nervous system and thus, probably can feel pain. Does the ability to feel pain indicate to us that this is a life we need to protect? 80% of abortions in Canada occur before the 12th week.
We know that the fetus becomes viable around the 24th week, which means if it was born then, it’s probable that it would live. Is this the point where the government has the prerogative to say an abortion should not take place unless the life of the mother is at risk? As I said before, late-term abortions are very rare in Canada.
2. Listening to Our Baptist Principles
As you can see, this topic is one that leads to more and more questions. What do we do with that? I have learned that the principles of our Baptist tradition were devised in many ways to aid the believer in walking these difficult paths, where the road ahead comes to a blind crest. So, what might our Baptist principles tell us?
While I don’t think Baptists are automatically the “best” Christians, much less the “only” Christians, I do think our Baptist principles can be virtuous practices that can help us navigate this complex post-Christian, post-modern world we live in.
A. Humans have Rights and Freedoms
One principle that all Christians share is that we believe that because we are all made in God’s image, all human life has dignity and has been bestowed rights and freedoms. Baptists have particularly emphasized rights and freedoms.
Now, someone might pipe up and say then what about the rights of the unborn? Here is a tension between the rights of the pregnant woman and potentially the rights of the unborn.
B. Separation of Church and State
In this case, I believe it is important to keep in mind the second Baptist principle: separation of church and state.
That is to say that if we believe that life begins at conception, and by that a full person because a full soul is imparted at conception if this is a premise based on the beliefs of Christianity, a particular belief about the soul, my Baptist faith cautions me from imposing this view on others who might not share it.
Again, someone might say that imposing this view is necessary when human life is in danger. Many would insist that a fertilized zygote is a potential human being, and by the sanctity of human life in any form, it ought to be protected.
But this conversation must admit that what it means to be a person and when a person begins legally is not clear, both in public discourse and in Jewish and Christian theology. As we have been asking: Is it at conception? An established heartbeat? The development of a nervous system? Fetal viability? Or at first breath after birth? Arguments can and have been made for all of these with no clear winner.
If we cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that one option is the obvious standout, we ought not to be insisting that the government enforce one view, particularly not the earlier ones that impose so much on a woman against her will.
C. Liberty of Conscience
In this case, another Baptist principle is important to keep in mind: we believe in the liberty of all people to decide matters based on their conscience.
Now, this is not an absolute liberty. This does not mean we ought to be free to do anything we want. I did not have the right, as we have seen in the pandemic, to jeopardize the health of my neighbours or co-workers or people I interact with in public spaces but refuse to wear a mask or show vaccination information. Governments and organizations do have the right to regulate spaces based on health and safety.
And if the nature of the unborn was obvious, as some think it is, I can see a better case to say why it ought not to be left up to choice.
While it is not a person’s decision that makes a fetus into a person, it is up to people to recognize another person, and the question is, who has this power? Who has the right to pronounce when a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus becomes a person when the matters are not clear?
If these matters are not obvious, it is appropriate then that the power of this decision lay neither in the hands of the state nor the church nor the biological father, who simply does not have the same bodily risk in the matter, but rather the power of this decision should reside in the hands of the person who will be most affected by that decision, namely the pregnant woman herself.
This does not mean that we have to view a decision always as the right decision. There are lots of bad reasons to have an abortion, but at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the woman herself to make this difficult choice.
3. Listening to Each Other, especially Women
If we can understand these things, this issue takes on a different character. It is quite possible for Christians to occupy a muddy middle ground that sees abortions as a tragedy but is not interested in imposing our convictions on another person using the laws of our nation.
We can ¾in fact, we must¾resist the either-or of our polarized culture and its toxic, corrosive effects on honesty, decency, and thoughtfulness. We can be profoundly and fervently committed to the dignity of all human life but admit that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about that.
A. Accepting the Diversity of Voices
In the midst of a world that is divided and diverse and even a church that is as well, I know people who take their views and live them out graciously. I know people who are pro-life that have chosen to adopt the babies of unwanted pregnancies. On the other end of the spectrum, I know Christian social workers who are pro-choose that have worked at deep personal expense to help women out of abuse and poverty through education and empowerment. I think the church would be impoverished if we refused to see the good character of either of these people.
I think of the conviction of former US president and evangelical Baptist Jimmy Carter. He writes in his important book, Our Endangered Values, that during his presidency, he believed that the Bible taught the sanctity of all life, so he was and still is, personally, against abortion. However, he also believed in the separation of church and state. He believed it was the right of a nation to choose its values democratically. So, instead, he funded programs to help young women and mothers–things like sex education, birth control, free contraception, testing, funded daycares programs, work programs, etc.–so that if a woman truly wanted to keep her baby, she could feel supported. The result was that abortions were lower doing his presidency than during the two Republican pro-life/anti-abortion presidents that came before him and him after.
The right way to go about this issue involves giving people the space to work out for themselves what quite possibly could be the most difficult, life-altering, haunting decision a woman could make in her life.
The right way is to listen to and support people medically, financially, and emotionally–people who are vulnerable and scared and only then do people feel empowered to make an informed decision because they know they are not alone.
B. Listening and Walking with Women
Aspen Baker formed an organization that is devoted to doing just that. Her philosophy, the title of this sermon, is called “pro-voice.” Look up her Ted Talk on this subject. Her organization is a helpline devoted to listening to the needs of women who have had abortions. She believes that one of the most important things we can do in this debate is to listen to the experiences and needs of women without judgment.
And this does not mean all women will think the same way. What she found was that there were many on the pro-choice side that valorized abortion as liberating. Feminists that when they got pregnant, just could not bring themselves to have an abortion or when they did have one, they found themselves experiencing regret, guilt, and anguish.
On the other side, she handled calls by women, fathers, husbands, and pastors who were adamantly pro-life before, but because of certain complicated circumstances, they ended up considering that abortion might be the necessary path, and they felt deeply unprepared to consider these things.
Aspen Baker, in her book, speaks about navigating life in the areas that are gray, where the questions do not lead to clear and definite answers. The question we have been asking (although there are many other questions in this debate) is when does the fetus become a human person, a person in the legally definable sense? How do we live this out? And when we have surveyed the most pertinent Scriptures, we come up short of complete answers.
Now, I am sure you all want me to solve this issue for you. I could tell you where I feel most comfortable drawing that line. But I am a man that has never experienced anything a pregnant woman might face. It is not my decision, nor is it an obvious decision. Let me just tell you that some issues are not easily solved. In fact, they shouldn’t.
Can I tell you I have so badly wanted these questions to have an easy answer? When I was in my first year of Bible college, I had a friend that knew me as a Christian and as a Christian that always had an answer for things. She came to me quite troubled. She was pregnant. She was pregnant with twins. However, one twin died and became what is called a molar pregnancy, essentially becoming something like a tumour that kept growing. Doctors said it should be removed as it could cause serious health risks (infertility, even cancer, later on), but to do this, the other baby–that is the term she used¾had to be aborted and removed.
What would you do if that were you? What would you say to her if you were me? If you can believe it, in Bible College, I was a member of the pro-life club, and my answer as the plucky and ultra-pious, know-it-all Bible college student was: “Don’t do it. Abortion is wrong. Pray and have faith.”
This woman–fortunately–did not listen to me. She went ahead with the procedure, and because of it, she is healthy today and has gone on to have a family.
That experience impressed me that life and faith might be more complicated than I want them to be. Anyone who says the solution is obviously this or that is usually someone who has not really come to grips with the complexities of life and the intricacies of the Bible. Life and morality are not always an obvious thing.
It can be frighting thinking about just how messy and grey the world can be.
It can feel scary not knowing what to think, especially if you believe that your salvation depends on believing and doing the right things.
This can cause many of us to retreat into easy answers, black and white thinking that permits neither questions nor alternatives.
But it is here in reality, in this messy thing called life, that our humanity is found.
And it is here that God’s grace finds us: not despite our humanity but in it.
C. The Character of Grace
If we can realize this, we must know that to become a mature follower of Christ in this complicated world involves moving from partisan politics and obsessing over having the right position or policy (although these have their place) to simply dwelling with people, hearing their stories, and being a gracious presence there in their midst.
I have learned the difficult lesson as a theologian, who has devoted my life to reading Scripture and the great works of theology, all to strive to synthesize the best answers on doctrinal topics in our pursuit of truth (which I believe is a pursuit we all must do). I have learned that some issues don’t have clear answers–that’s the truth–and sometimes in life, the point of things is not having the answer, but meeting these difficult situations with a certain character, that difficult balance of honesty and empathy, conviction and compassion, and that this is the only way to live with a clear conscience in this corrupted world.
If this is the case, we might listen and hear the voice of God from Scripture say something else beyond the Scriptures we just surveyed. In all the ambiguity of life, the Word of God might simply be saying something like this:
“Let everyone,” says the Apostle James, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Or it might be what Paul simply advises, that in all the fragmentation and division in this world, he simply says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:32)
Or it might be what the Prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). When life gets complex, sometimes the only thing we can do is be fair and forgiving and admit that in all of life’s moments, whether moments of success or failure, joy or tragedy, we need God. We need the grace revealed in Jesus Christ. We need the one who has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).
No matter what our views on anything, all we can do, all we must do, from beginning to end, is to trust that.
Pew Research, one of the largest sociological research groups in North America, surveyed mothers and fathers. Fifty-seven percent of fathers described being a father as “extremely important,” which was virtually identical to the women surveyed (58%). However, most of the moms surveyed said they did “a very good job” of raising their children; among the dads, just 39 percent said the same.
On the whole, fathers care about being fathers at the same rate as mothers care about being mothers, but a significant gap exists in how fathers feel about how they are doing at being fathers. Most fathers feel like they aren’t great fathers. Why is that?
I read an interesting article coming up to this father’s day by Daniel Engber from the Atlantic (I think the Atlantic writes probably the best articles on social issues out there, in my opinion). The article is entitled, “Why is Dad so Mad?” He writes,
Everybody knew that dads used to earn a living; that they used to love their children from afar; and that when the need arose, they used to be the ones who doled out punishment. But what were dads supposed to do today? In former times, the definition of a man was you went to work every day, you worked with your muscles, you brought home a paycheck, and that was about it… What it is to be a man now is in flux, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of men. Indeed, modern dads were left to flounder in a half-developed masculinity: Their roles were changing, but their roles hadn’t fully changed.
They are left in a kind of lurch. Fatherhood is in a state of flux, retaining some conventional patterns but scrapping others.
I was reminded of this just this morning. My wife called me into the room. “What is it?” I said. She pointed to a spider on the wall. Apparently, in our marriage, it is the man’s job to kill the spider.
I jest, but many men feel seriously caught: if I work too much, as many jobs are demanding, this is no longer considered virtuous, and I am seen as a workaholic, neglecting my family.
If they work too little, society could perceive them as a deadbeat or lazy, particularly by the older generation that built and achieved so much.
Society used to value a man’s more forceful presence in discipline, but most parenting books have denounced harsher forms of discipline.
Women have made inroads in the workforce, but men have not gravitated the same way to homemaking or childcare, traditionally female roles.
There are increasingly fewer jobs that require physical strength. And increasingly, fewer fields of work are considered male careers.
It has left some men wondering: what do I contribute to my family or in my marriage? And this has many men feeling like they have lost their place in society and in the home. They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel what they do has value, or they don’t feel like they are successful in doing it. Fatherhood feels like it is in a state of flux.
In the wake of this, political groups have attempted to capitalize on this feeling of instability and nostalgia for the good old days. The movements by Jordan Peterson, who dies the existence of systemic sexism, or Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson have tried to say that there is a war against masculinity wagered by feminists and liberals and other monsters under the proverbial bed of culture. These guys have made a lot of money saying what they are saying because this is a message a lot of men want to hear.
However, probably the more accurate explanation is that with the cost of living going up so much compared to what it was decades ago and wages not increasing in proportion, the idea of a single-income household that owns their own property can have a designated stay-home parent, is becoming extinct for the average Canadian, and with it that male role.
Culture is in a state of flux. And when people feel this unease, this displacement of identity, it is very easy to look for someone to blame.
For many Christians, this has caused many to recede into nostalgia, longing for the days when everyone went to church, or when there was prayer in schools, when there was allegedly no divorce, or when, allegedly, everything cost a nickel (why was everythin always a nickel, by the way?).
Nowadays, I’m nostalgic for when gas costs a dollar a litre.
The text I am going to read today is a text that has often been misused by Christians. It is a text we have so often read, wishing to get back to the way things used to be when fathers’ and husbands’ roles were clear and revered.
It is really one of the most important passages on being parents and spouses, as well as being fathers and husbands, in the New Testament, but we often forget that the Biblical writers were writing for matters in their own day. They were writing because their situations were in flux also. We forget that.
It is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, what is often called the household code. I am going to first read this passage, but then we are going to ask some questions about what this means, both in the ancient context and what it means for us today:
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ 4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So, let me pause for a moment. Did some of those words make you uneasy a bit (particularly the submission and slavery parts)? Did some of those words sound agreeable (like the love parts)? I imagine most listeners will have mixed feelings reading this passage.
Perhaps you know this passage well. Maybe a pastor told you this is God’s pattern for marriage for today. Maybe you believe it is.
But, if this passage was giving us an obvious, clear, and timeless definition of marriage and parenting, why does it tell husbands to love their wives in order to make them holy and without blemish? Is Paul saying all women are unclean? Or is that what Jews assumed in that culture? May Paul is speaking in a way his audience would have understood.
It also says that wives should submit in everything. Should wives do that today? Aren’t there stories of women who did listen to their husbands and God was honoured, like Abigail or Rachel or Tamar. Maybe Paul is reacting to a certain circumstance woman in Ephesus face.
Sadly, this passage has been used to say to women that they cannot question or disagree with their husbands. It has been used almost like a club to clobber some people.
Maybe this passage brings up painful memories. I have dealt with women who were told that they had to submit to their abusive spouses because that is what this passage means. Let me be clear and say that whatever this passage means today, it does not mean that.
This passage also mentions slavery. It tells slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling. I have heard some preachers say that this passage applies to bosses and employees today, but I just don’t think that is the case. There were day-labourers in the ancient world. But more importantly, as an employee with rights living in a country with employment laws, I just don’t think I should obey everything my boss says, let alone with fear and trembling.
But worse still, this passage has been used to justify slavery rather than the good news of God’s kingdom that Jesus announces: “freedom to the captive, that the oppressed can go free” (as he says in Luke 4).
For five years, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Sudbury, which had historic roots in the Social Gospel. The church historically led the charge for the miners of the city to have employment rights, safety standards, and eventually unions. They believe working to improve human life was an aspect of the kingdom of God. I think they were correct.
So, how do we understand this important passage today? How do we understand it as offering words that can build us up?
This will be a bit of a technical sermon (if you have not realized this already). I don’t know if you have met me, but I kinda like to go deep with my sermons. I do this because if we are going to become the fathers and husbands God wants us to be (and of course, this goes for all Christians as well), one vital way we get formed for that purpose is by meditating on God’s word, understanding it rightly, not in facile, careless ways.
Just like navigating what it means to be a man or a father in today’s world, God’s Word takes wisdom and work. So often, the church has assumed that the Bible is always so clear and straightforward it makes us ill-prepared to live in a world that isn’t.
Many want to go to the Bible to escape just how messy the world is, hoping to find a place that is black and white and clear, and there are some passages that are very clear, don’t get me wrong. But often, if you have read through the Bible, you see a lot of passages that cause you to have questions. Some that, at face value, don’t sound all that redemptive. In those cases, the path from what the words on the page say and what it means for us today is not straightforward.
Part of the reason for that is that the Bible was written not as an escape from the flux of history but written in its very midst. It was not written despite our humanity. It was written by humans for our humanity.
The Bible is a complex thing, and it’s complex because life is complex. And if we care about God’s word, we have to be willing to put in the effort to study and think about it in all its depth. It’s only then that its richness is fully appreciated. It’s only then that we realize that God isn’t trying to save us from the complications of life. God is trying to meet us there, in its midst, gently moving us forward in grace.
I sit on the board of an organization called the Atlantic Society for Biblical Equality. It is an organization that was founded by Hugh McNally and Harry Gardner to promote that men and women are made equal in the eyes of God and that when the Scriptures are considered in their fuller context and meaning, it teaches equality in marriage, that women can serve as pastors and things like that. I would encourage you to become members and support the work (perhaps the church could even be a supporting church partner in its mission).
This is one passage that people stumble over. I know people that are content to ignore a passage like this. But as Christians, that is just not a good plan, and so, our work as ASBE is to help Christians understand the Bible better.
My advice is that we need to study the Bible and study the difficult texts: Find the Bible’s meaning in the flux of history because that can really help us understand what it could be saying to us today.
So with that very long introduction, let me ask this: what was going on in Paul’s day that he needed to write this passage?
Well, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Ephesians, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey. It was a very important city both for Greek culture and the church. The Christian church had grown rapidly there, comprising of both Jews and Gentiles coming together, and that had caused some issues. The beginning of the letter speaks about how God’s household is where both Jews and Gentiles come together as one under God in Christ. Later in the letter, here, Paul turns to talk about what individual households could look like through the love of God in Christ. Here, if we do some digging, we find that Ephesus and the church there were experiencing their own state of flux, and Paul had to navigate that.
1. Christianity in Ephesus was in Flux
Christianity came on the scene in the ancient world and caused a profound social change. You see, Christianity preached the individual responsibility of all people to repent and believe in the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and this proclamation saw Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, wealthy individuals as well as slaves seeing the gift of the Holy Spirit, and people trust this and are justified.
In the ancient world, however, if you were a wife, a child, or a slave, your obligation was to worship the god of the head of your family, your father and master. If you were Roman or Greek, you were expected to follow the local gods. Christianity did not uphold this, and it caused friction.
Jesus warns about this in Matthew chapter ten. Jesus says that I have not come to bring peace but the sword, which is kind of a strange thing for Jesus to say. What does he mean? He speaks about how households will be set against one another, and if you are loyal to your family members more than Jesus’ way, this is not taking up Jesus’ cross. In other words, you are not a true disciple. For Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t saying he is going to cause literal wars, but rather that the way of Jesus is going to cause social upheaval, and any peace that means people can claim loyalty to their families against Jesus to please them is not true peace. It isn’t the peace that Jesus’ way offers.
Well, this insistence soured marriages and split families. Christians were viewed as traitors. Paul notes in his first letter to the Corinthians that spouses were leaving and deserting their partners over their change in religion, but Paul tries to say to Christian spouses to do their best to keep their marriages if they can: if their spouses leave, that’s their decision, but for the Christian spouse, commit to working it through, loving the other, hopefully winning them over. That is a good witness to the Gospel.
This is a thing Paul has to keep reiterating. In his letter to Titus, he says to young women to love their spouses so that “the word of God will not be maligned.” Paul’s letter to the Colossians chapter 4, just before it gives a similar household code, says that Christians need to walk wisely in how non-Christians are seeing them. 1 Peter similarly advises Christians to live in a way that prevents slander.
Christianity in the Greek and Roman world was being perceived as a group of people that were disloyal to their nation, to their marriages and families, and therefore were out to ruin society. There were rumours that Christians were cannibals because they ate flesh and drank blood when they got together for worship. Christians were thought to be atheists because they refused to worship the gods of their communities.
For many, Christianity was perceived as strange and even dangerous. Now, while it was true that Christians opposed the worship of Greek and Roman gods and opposed the ways of the emperors, it wasn’t true that Christians hated their families. Far from.
We have to appreciate the irony: today, we look at Christianity and the way things used to be, and we think it’s our culture that has caused all this disruption and flux. For Ephesians, they believed their culture’s values gave stability, and they saw Christianity as causing the disruption and flux. Our contexts are very different.
And so, this helps us understand the statements in the New Testament, where the Apostles keep telling Christians to honour the Emperor (even though the Emperors were immoral people), submit to authorities (even those that were brutal and corrupt as the Roman powers), leave peaceable lives, and so on. Those are passages that also don’t straightforwardly apply today because we live in democracies where we can choose our government, whereas, in the New Testament, they couldn’t.
The Apostles were doing everything possible to prevent Christianity from being perceived as a threat to the well-being of their home communities. They are trying to walk this tightrope of the faithfulness of Jesus and peaceableness with their families and fellow citizens. What were they worried about? Its something we just aren’t worried about in our country:
The Apostles did not want to be perceived as an insurgent movement as they spread the Gospel. Why? Revolutions ended in violence, with Roman soldiers slaughtering anything that could be perceived as a rebellion or disloyal to the Empire, and so, the Apostles tried to be wise in portraying Christianity as upholding certain social mores that Greeks saw as fundamental to social wellness.
What were those? Well, one of those was the Greek household code.
2. Ephesian Culture Believed Men were the Heads of their Households. Paul believed Jesus was the Head
And so, the second important aspect of Paul’s context was the Greek understanding of marriage. Ephesians believed it was good and proper for the husband and father to be the head of the household. The husband was often the educated one, legally was the one who managed the finances, and he was the one that procured the income for the family. Often the man was the religious representative of the family as well.
Because of this, he was regarded as the authority of the family, and Ephesians felt it was only good and proper to have wives, children, and slaves living in complete submission to the family’s leader.
However, men in Ephesian culture were regarded as the heads of their households, and as such, they were afforded power and privilege. Wives, children, and slaves were their servants, all for the purposes of affording them a better life. Husbands had little to no moral obligation to their wives and could act with a great deal of self-interest.
If the Apostles attacked this teaching too forcefully, a lot of women, children, and servants could find themselves without a roof over their head or worse. It wasn’t that the Apostles were afraid to sacrifice for their faith, but they were trying to be prudent to not pick unnecessary battles. In their judgment, in this context, which is different from ours, they choose a cautious and more subtle path.
Women did not have legal rights, no sources of income; there were no women’s shelters; there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or alimony in a divorce. These are things our culture has created, and if we are tempted to see these as an obstacle to living this passage, we must look to the history of Christian suffrage advocates and Christian abolitionists, Christians that have looked at how humans are made in God’s image and said our laws should reflect justice and equity.
Our culture has been influenced by 2000 years of Christian proclamation; Ephesian culture was not. That does not mean we are always better, but it does mean we are in a very different place.
Paul was dealing with a world that operated under certain conditions, things that the culture took for granted as the norms of how things functioned, while Paul was against things like slavery (he was a Jew, after all, that knew full well the stories of the Exodus, where redemption meant liberation from physical oppression), he also realized that for some people, slavery was their sole means of provision or that to oppose slavery in a revolution could end with Roman legions coming and killing everyone involved with a revolt.
We have to do this in similar ways today: We know, for instance, that our use of fossil fuels is not good for the environment, but for many of us, we still have to own gas-powered cars or have homes that use oil. If we tried to just rid Canada of all fossil fuels right now, that probably would leave a lot of people without transportation and without heat in the winter, so we are trying to transition off fossil fuels. I don’t know if we are doing a good enough job of that, but that is a topic for another sermon.
So, what Paul does then, is try to word the Christian life in as close of terms as possible to the way Ephesians understood marriage and parenting and managing their homes. He meets them where they are at and how they understand things, but he adds a Christian twist to it. He sows a seed of Christ-like transformation in it.
And this is where we really miss the point of the passage when we refuse to read the Bible in its historical context.
Let me read one of the more well-known household codes in Greek culture. Ask yourself, how is Paul’s version different from this? This is from Aristotle’s Politics:
Of household management, we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature… [W]hen one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect… The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.
Both Paul and Aristotle talk about husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. That’s how we know that Paul has something like this in mind for the context he is writing in. Did you spot some of the differences?
Aristotle talks about the rulership of all three. Men rule over women. Why? Because men are more intelligent by nature. They are, by nature, superior. They live in permanent inequality, and that inequality is a good thing.
Is that what Paul believed?
Paul is a Jew, and he knows that men and women are both in the image of God. He knows that if women are not equal to men, it is not because of nature but because of sin. The curse of Genesis 3 was that women’s desire would be for their husbands, but men would rule over them.
We have to ask ourselves: is it the church’s job to uphold the curse of sin? Or is it the church’s role to undo the effects of sin in this world with the power of salvation?
Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.”
If we look at Paul’s writings, we see that he had women leaders spreading the Gospel with him: church leaders like Chloe and Nympha, Pheobe (a deacon from Cenchrea), Eudia and Synteche (apostolic leaders along with Clement), Junia (an apostle listed that the end of Romans). If you have not heard those names before, look them up. Paul very much believed that the Spirit was moving to bring about equality in the world broken by sin.
We need to keep that big picture in mind when we interpret these passages. And when we do, the point of these passages of today becomes clearer:
Ephesians 5 begins with Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. When it gets to the next line, it actually uses the same verb as this sentence: Be subject to one another… wives to your husbands. In other words, wives are doing something all Christians, men, fathers, and husbands included, ought to be doing too. Yet, so often, we preach this passage as if the burden is on women to do something unique to them.
Aristotle’s view of headship in the family emphasizes male rulership; Paul takes that notion of headship in God’s family and emphasizes mutual submission.
The Greek household code said men did not have to care for their wives, children, or slaves beyond food and shelter. Families served the man’s own self-interest. Paul says things like this in his household code:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.
Masters, know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.
Aristotle emphasized authority; Paul introduced accountability. Which one do you think then is the principle that applies to us today?
3. Jesus’s Love is the Pattern for Parents
Jesus told his disciples that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In speaking to them about the authority, he said,
“You know that the 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 your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
Paul summarizes the pattern of Christ in Philippians chapter two when he says,
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
And so, in a culture where men were assumed to be the heads of the household, Paul, in essence, says, “Okay, men, if you want to be the head of the household, then be one like Jesus. Be ready to give up everything for your family.”
But that is not some new way to reinforce male power. It is consistent with what all Christians are called to do. Notice the principle that Ephesians chapter five begins with: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (v. 1-2).
This is the guiding principle for what Paul says in this entire chapter, and it says all Christians are to live self-sacrificing love towards one another, and when we come to verse 21, the guiding principle for the household code, Paul says all Christians are to submit one to another. The household code is merely applying these to the way Ephesians needed to have it applied in that context. But ultimately, submission, respect, service, and accountability¾these are things all Christians ought to be doing for each other, regardless of gender.
It is funny how we have looked at Ephesians chapter 5, and we have tried to apply it to mean something more like the philosophy of Aristotle than the way of Jesus.
If we defined authority in Jesus’ way, we would give up our authority, not hold onto it.
If we define what it means to be a man through Jesus, we won’t be worried about how we can get power out of our marriages and families, power over our wives and kids. We will ask ourselves: How can I serve them? How can I even submit it to them? What sacrifices do I need to make in order to love them better?
That might mean doing something things that our culture, perhaps even our church cultures, might view as not very manly.
When Meagan and I were first married, we had just bought our first house, a little townhouse in Bradford, one hour north of Toronto. We had our first child, Rowan, soon after moving in.
Meagan was teaching at a Christian school, and the school wanted her to upgrade her teaching degree to a full Bachelor of Education. So, she used her mat-leave to go back to school full-time.
I was also in school, working on my doctorate. I was between work, and I eventually got a contract as a pastoral intern at Bradford Baptist Church, a few hours a week.
But with Meagan in school in an intensive program, I had to pivot to caring for Rowan most mornings as well as do cleaning and some cooking.
Can I confess something to you? I am just not as particular about cleaning as my wife is. If there is a dirty spot on the counter, I don’t notice it. My wife enters a room, and it is like radar detection. But in order to have a household that felt orderly enough that my wife did not feel stressed about, I had to learn how to clean better.
Admitfully, after 13 years of marriage, I still am not there.
Of course, not having a full-time job, I got comments from family members: “So, when are you going to get a real job.” The implication is that my current situation was not what a man, a biblical husband, was to do. And I felt feelings of worthlessness, staying home, and caring for our son.
I had learned to equate my worth as a man and father with work and money.
I had to come to a point and say, but what does my family need? It is not about fulfilling some expectation of what a man or a husband or a father is according to our culture or even our church cultures. It is about asking our families, “what do you need?”
What does that mean for a world that is in such flux? Well, it is going to mean something very different for every couple and family.
It means that whatever life entails, it probably is not going to be easy. It means navigating decision-making, household work, finances, and childcare with fairness, with mutual submission.
And that takes sacrifice, and that is what we are celebrating today on Father’s Day. The ways our fathers have sacrificed to show their wives and children they love them.
For many of our fathers and grandfathers, these sacrifices fulfilled a traditional need, but for the younger generations, these sacrifices might look different.
Whether it is working a tough job away from home or working as a stay-home dad, whether it is mowing the lawn or cooking dinner, driving the kids to soccer or reading to them when they go to bed, there are little acts of service that show your families how much you love them.
The tasks may change, but love does not.
Paul says that when we do this, we are reflecting the reality that God is showing us in Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he came in human form, became a servant, and became obedient even onto death, death on a cross.
Can I just say that Jesus knows a thing or two about changing to love those he cares for in the way they need it?
Fathers, husbands, men in the audience today, sometimes the world tells us that to be a man means relying on no one but yourself, don’t ask for help, don’t be vulnerable. Men don’t talk about love. Real men don’t cry and things like that.
That is just not true. It is not the pattern of Jesus. We can share our needs with our families and friends, but most importantly, we need to share our needs with God.
When we feel frustrated in life, we know that God understands, God is with us, and God is for us. God raised Jesus from the dead in victory over sin and all of life’s struggles.
Ask God, trust him, and he will help.
In all the change and uncertainty of life, God’s love remains constant. God’s love does not change. God’s love is perfect. God’s love is faithful and true. And God loves you.
Fathers, husbands, and men today, can you leave this place trusting that love in a new way today?
Loving and gracious God our Father.
You are our creator, and we are your children, made in your image and likeness.
We praise you today because you are loving and good.
You have shown your love for us in sacrificing your very self.
While we were sinners set against you, you died for us.
God, we are thankful.
And you have called us to reflect this love, this love that is your very being.
Father, teach us how we can do this better.
Many of us feel like we are not all that good at it.
And in a changing world, many of us desire to follow our ways, but the way does not seem all that clear.
God, give us wisdom.
Encourage our hearts: Remind us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love you have for us.
Show us how we can love our families better.
Thank you so much for all the examples of fathers we have around us. Thank you for the sacrifices they have made, the lessons they have taught, and the fun we have had with them. May we cherish these gifts among us today.
We pray that today the fathers, husbands, and men of this church would know your love in a new way, be able to trust that love, and live that out.
Give us your Spirit, for we know you are faithful.
Preached at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, Sunday, January 30th, 2022, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I, by my works, will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus, the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14-26, NRSV)
When I was young, I attended a little Bible camp for many years. I loved it. Set out in the woods, it was always the highlight of my summer there: the sports, the crafts, the campfire with singing and snacks afterwards.
But most importantly, as a Bible camp, they did bible stories. At the campfire, they would do dramas of different bible stories, and one person always told a story of a famous Christian like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Nickey Cruz. Those stories left a profound impact on my faith as a young person. It was at this camp, really, where my love of the Bible began.
So, when one of the leaders talked about baptism, inviting anyone to be baptized if they professed to believe in Jesus, I naturally came forward, all to have myself abruptly halted. “I would like to be baptized,” I said. However, the leader simply said, “Spencer, I can’t baptize you.”
I said, “Why not?”
He answered, “Because you don’t go to one of our churches. I can’t baptize you in good conscience unless I know for sure that you will go to a biblical church after.”
Now, for the record, I attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance church at the time, one that prided itself with being bible-believing. His words shocked me.
I remember protesting this with him: “Are we not all Christians here? Don’t we all believe in Jesus here?” His response was a bit sheepish, but his answer was, “Sorry, Spencer, that is not enough.”
That experience, as I think of it, was really the first instance where I witnessed exclusion within the body of Christ for myself. It was the first moment I became aware that just because we are all Christians, who believe in Jesus, that does not mean we all treat each other as Christians.
And as you listen here this morning, think about is yourself: what was the first instance where you felt demeaned by another Christian about your Christian beliefs? Or perhaps, can we be challenged to think about how we might have been the ones who did the excluding?
This week has been if you did not know, the week of prayer for Christian unity. It is a week where Christians pray in repentance for how we have so often divided the Body of Christ based on our faith convictions: Catholic against Protestants, and of course, Protestants against other Protestants, even Baptists against other Baptists in our own churches.
It is kind of funny that we put together this preaching schedule, John and I, just going passage by passage. Interestingly enough, this passage takes place on the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I say “funny,” you might call that providential too.
James challenges us to live our faith, that we are rendered just by what we do. And we will see, the language of this text here is very different from the words of Paul on justification, which he says is by faith. As we will think about this morning, this text challenges us to live our faith but also live out our beliefs in the midst of the diversity of Christianity in a Christ-like way.
1. Seeing Diversity
First, I want to tackle what seems like a point of diversity and tension in the Bible. James calls us to live our faith. He puts it in pretty strong terms. He says, So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Here a scripture says you are justified by works.
Now, Paul in Galatians says, this: …a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
One says justification by faith, the other justification by works.
Martin Luther used this teaching from Paul to found Protestantism (and we are all Protestants because of him, by the way). Five hundred years ago, he protested the Catholic Church and its corrupt practices. Martin Luther saw how the Church was using sacraments to enforce their power, saying if you comply with this, if you pay money to us, we will give you forgiveness, and you or the loved one you pay for will be saved. Luther called this works righteousness, making salvation conditional on what you do. He saw what Paul was saying in his own day as applicable to his: Jewish Christians in Galatia sought to make Gentiles accept laws like circumcision to be members of God’s people, and so, the Catholic church was making certain things the requirement to receive grace. Luther’s protest against this succeeded, recalling the church to what the Bible taught, sola scriptura, by scripture alone, and the rest is history.
However, there was a kind of flaw in Luther’s argument. He argued for sola scriptura, but there was a scripture that did not quite conform to what he said. James says no one is justified by faith.
Martin Luther saw this passage, and he hated it. He called James the “epistle of straw” and did not think it ought to be in the Bible. It is ironic that a Reformer that wanted things to be biblical oddly did not want to listen to this Bible passage. Have you ever done that? Many of us are guilty of picking and choosing.
Why did he do this? I suspect Martin Luther assumed the Bible to be uniform. The Reformation as a whole certainly believed that if you just trusted God and read the Bible, one biblical view of things would always emerge with the Spirit’s help.
Well, as the years following the Reformation showed, that did not happen. One after another, groups like Anabaptists and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals all looked at biblical texts with a passion for living out the Bible and came to different conclusions, splitting off from their previous group.
And what happened when they did this? Their tendency was to think, “Aha! I have the Holy Spirit, and I have it right. God revealed to me the true apostolic pattern that has been lost for centuries, and all those other Christians must not have the Holy Spirit, and they need to listen to this discovery I found, or they must be evil.”
Well, when they did not all agree, they fought and, in some cases, killed each other. Reformers hated Baptists and would take Baptists and drown them in rivers, giving them what they felt was their real baptism, terrible things like that.
The result of these religious wars and violence is that Western society saw Christians fighting over doctrine and said, “I don’t think we can build just laws on what they believe.” In other words, if we lament the loss of Christianity in the public sphere, if we lament that we live in a secular society in Canada, I don’t think we need to wonder why. It was our fault.
It all comes down to this tendency that Christians have not known how to manage, this notion that two sincere believers can come to the same text and conclude very different things. We don’t know what to do with that, other than by treating differences as dangerous:
You are either too liberal, too conservative, too traditional, too informal, too emotional, too rational, too this or too that. We are quick to label and dismiss, or worse, exclude.
In my experience, the two primary things Christians have fought about in recent years are styles of worship and ethics of sexuality. And if you cannot come to grips with the fact that there are good believers on either side of a debate, trying to navigate it because they love Jesus, we are only furthering this 500-year-old problem.
We have not been good at dealing with diversity. When we see it, we divide. To date, there is somewhere in the ballpark of 50 000 denominations of Christianity, who have all, more or less followed this tendency.
But what if diversity is not all bad? What if diversity is not always a cause for division? What if there is something about our faith that is naturally diverse? What if there is diversity in the Bible?
I think these texts have something to say about this. Some scholars have suggested that these two passages in Paul and James could reflect two views in what was really the first theological debate of Christianity. What is the role of works? What is the role of faith and the law? James and Paul answer it differently.
It is interesting that James quotes the exact same texts from the Old Testament as Paul does in Galatians, referring to Abraham and Isaac, and they interpret it two different ways. Are we witnessing here the records of two Apostles differing about their faith in Christ?
Of it is, that raises some interesting notions for our faith. We like to think that early Christianity was perfect, that they agreed on everything, that they miraculously never fought, never disagreed, never had to discuss and debate. They all just supernaturally knew what to believe about everything. Well, if we read the book of Acts or other books in the New Testament like these, we just know that is just not the case (and frankly, I for one find it oddly comforting to know just how weirdly messed up the church at Corinth was).
And if you look at a book like John or Mark, in particular, you will see that in the early church, there were different ways to tell the story of Jesus.
The Bible, the inspired Scriptures, contains diversity: different ways of thinking about Jesus and following him that the early church did not ultimately see as bad. Maybe God is trying to give us a hint with that.
And when it comes to a disagreement like the role of Jewish laws for the church that now includes Jews and Gentiles, Paul and James had to come together with the rest of the church, as it shows in Acts 15 and work it out. They had to come to terms with their differences. Now, we don’t know if the book of James was written before the events in Acts 15 or after, but the fact remains: in the Bible are two Apostles speaking quite differently about their faith in two different letters of the early church, which the church today draws inspiration from. Again, I think God might be giving us a hint here. Diversity is to be expected, and what we do with that is really the mark of what it means to follow Christ.
Now, the question is, how far do they actually disagree? For instance, there were groups in the church that did not believe Jesus came in the flesh and did things that harmed fellow Christians, and John says in his first epistle that this is too far. Clearly, there are limits to diversity, and we need to think about those.
When we look at the history of the church, we see the creeds of the faith offering decisions that I think provide helpful standards, classic summaries of what Christians hold as central. That does not solve it all, however. For instance, the Apostle’s Creed says nothing about how the church is to confront modern racism or climate change, but they are all part of the task we have as the church of discerning wisely together.
And, on many matters, there is a kind of range of views being worked out that is well accepted amongst Christians. And on this matter, as it goes with many theological debates with Christians, what sounds like a deep divide between how we talk about our faith, is, in reality, not that big of a difference.
I remember one time in seminary, listening to two students talk about eschatology (the end times) over soup in the cafeteria. One student said that when they looked at the biblical evidence, they just did not see a premillennial rapture. They saw something more like an amillenial kingdom. The other was mortified, and I remember them saying: “If you don’t’ believe in premillennial dispensationalism, I don’t know how you can be in the truth!” (Now, if you don’t know what those terms are, consider yourself spared)The important thing that struck me was just how ridiculous this was: I am pretty sure both still believed that their hope was Jesus.
I think something similar is happening in Paul and James, just in different contexts: Paul is going after Judaizers that believed you need to obey the whole law, including getting circumcised, in order to be one of God’s people. However, Paul very much believes that we need to obey the law of love, love our neighbours as ourselves, and live in a way that manifests the fruit of the Spirit.
And James, here it seems, is not interested in ritual laws like the people in Galatia are worrying about. His concern here is with the poor. If we believe that God loves the poor, if God loves anyone really, we will do something to help. And if you believe something, he says, we ought to live it, namely, just like Paul, by following the “royal law:” the law of love, love your neighbour as yourself.
So, James goes after a faith that does not do anything to help, whereas Paul goes after a view of the actions that make people believe they are better than others.
Yet both, however, are committed at the end of the day to humbly trusting Jesus and following him.
Both are committed that at the centre of the Christian life is living out love.
Ask yourself, if you have had a debate about your beliefs as a Christian with another: what are the things you hold in common? Are you really so different?
An old motto of Christian unity is this: In the essential things, unity; in the non-essential, liberty, but in all things, charity. Let that be your guide.
2. Living Reconciled Faith
So, we need to take James’ point: Faith is something we need to live. And when it comes to diversity, we need to live out Christ’s reconciliation. And if that is the case, we have not done in our works what we often believe.
Paul says in Ephesians 4:4-6 says, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
James might get us to look at that and ask, “Do you really believe that?”
James says You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. The real difference is that we are willing to act on this.
Do you really believe that we are one?
Do you really believe if someone is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they are your brother or sister in faith? Even if they are a Catholic, even if they are a liberal, or even if they are a fundamentalist? Or whatever group in Christianity is the group you tend to have very little patience for. They share in this oneness, and we need to live accordingly.
It is one thing if we all call ourselves Christians. James might say. It is quite another whether we actually treat each other as Christians.
The opposite is a dark path of believing only people like us are the true believers, and everyone else is wrong, or worse, evil, and living out our days in an ever-shrinking echo chamber of our own making.
This does not mean that we compromise on what we think is true and good. It does not mean that just because someone calls themselves Christians, we give them a free pass to believe anything they want.
I say that as a person that had to leave the Baptist denomination my grandfather helped found because I became convicted that God’s kingdom means equality between men and women and that women should be ordained. After I was given a threat that if I kept speaking about this, I would lose my funding as a church planter, I realized I had to leave for a denomination that did support women’s equality.
And if you have ever had to leave a church family, you will know these moments are painful. We have to be wise on what we take our stands on and be diligent to be healers of the wounds that mar the body of Christ.
There are things we need to take a stand on, but that does not mean seeing those who differ from us as evil or stupid, and hopefully, we can navigate these tensions with gentleness, patience and peace.
Other times, our differences should not get in the way of Gospel work. I remember when I worked at a soup kitchen. This ministry attached Christians from all different strips. And it always struck me that when we centred on the task at hand of helping those who were in need, our differences always felt smaller.
So, I will repeat this, realizing that Christianity is a diverse place does not mean we compromise on the truth, but it does mean we go about the truth a different way.
It might mean giving the benefit of the doubt before judging.
It might mean having some sense that we are just as fallible, and we need to listen.
It might mean taking steps to be patient and forgiving.
It might mean being tolerant and focusing on our shared tasks of caring for others.
All of this speaks again of what James is challenging us with: we need to put our faith into practice. We need to step up and do the work of listening and discerning, confessing and repenting, forgiving and reconciling.
It means treating people like family, knowing that God is bringing together all peoples into one family through what Jesus Christ has done for us.
3. Witnessing the Spirit in Unity
Only then will we welcome differences not as dangerous but as a reflection of what the Spirit started doing at Pentecost, bringing people together as members of many tribes and nations, languages and ways of thinking, into God’s family.
Can we allow ourselves to be open to this?
I remember one event where the Spirit moved in this way. It was at a unity service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seven years ago. I was pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. Our church participated in the ecumenical service for several years before that, but I suspected we did that as some way of showing the other churches just how much more biblical we were than them. Well, over the years, that didn’t quite work out that way. Members of our church got to know members of the Catholic, United, and Anglican churches, and different members attended each other’s events. In a small town like Garson, that meant we all started saying hi to one another at the grocery store and being neighbourly to one another. We all intuitively started thinking we were not so different after all. Maybe we do have something in common.
Well, that unity service, held at the catholic church that year, it is like this all bubbled up. I remember the one pastor gave a great monologue as if she was the woman from the well. And people were asked to come up in pairs to a pool of water. They were asked to say words of repentance, acknowledging how we have harmed each other, the body of Christ, and then make the sign of the cross with water over the other’s forehead.
I remember sitting there with the other pastors when I looked back and saw people beginning to break down and cry. Others were hugging, saying, “I’m so sorry. I am so sorry.”
I can tell you that I have never seen the Holy Spirit move in a room like I did that service, and it happened by a willingness of those in the room to repent and realize the people in this room, despite different traditions of Christianity – were all family.
Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, how might we see the Spirit move among us today if we are willing to reconcile with other brothers and sisters in our Christian family? What might our witness be in this broken, fragmented world?
What would the Spirit do if we are willing to let go of our arrogance, be willing to listen and learn, but also go forward together to care for one another and serve those who need help in our communities? I am excited to see what the Spirit will do.
God, our Father, who has brought us all together as a family through your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us for all the ways we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves, and especially have not treated fellow Christians as family.
Let your Spirit move amongst us with a spirit of repentance and humility, a spirit of service and solidarity. Show us ways we can come together and live our faith in the Good News.
In Christ’s name, amen.
When I got the email wondering if I would be up for speaking at Port Williams for thanksgiving, and I was told that Pastor Don would be away, it caused me to reminisce. This fall marks my fourth year here in Nova Scotia, moving from Sudbury, Ontario. It has been an eventful four years to say the least. Along the way, I am thankful for the friendship Don and Anita have extended to me. They were one of the first who called me up four years ago and said, “Hey you’re new to the area and so are we, come on over for dinner.” So, I am thankful for that gift of friendship.
Can I just say that it has been interesting to see Pastor Don climatize to being Canadian in real time? The culture shock has been a pleasant surprise, or at least that is what it seems like from his Facebook page. Now, I came from living in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, then pastoring in Sudbury where it was winter for a solid six months out of the year, but I think Don and I have both have had this feeling like Nova Scotia has been this refuge that we have both grown to love. Autumn in the valley is simply beautiful. Last weekend, my wife and our five boys – yes we have five boys (we had three and my wife really wanted to try for a girl and then we ended up having twin boys – three are with me today as my wife was also asked to play at Bethany Memorial to relieve their pianist) – but anyway last weekend we went hiking. We went to Noggins to picked apples and got terribly lost in their corn maze. I bought a caramel apple pie from there for later today.
We are so blessed. These are the words that ring in my mind this weekend, and I want to reflect more on what they mean today. I want to reflect on a text that I read this week with my son, Rowan, who we have been trying to read the Bible together every night. The passage, James 1:1-18, is about acknowledging God’s giving. I will read from the beginning of the book in chapter 1 for context, but I want to focus on the last verses.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (NRSV)
James, who is very likely the brother of Jesus himself, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, one of pillar-leaders of the early church along with Peter and John and Paul, writes a letter to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world to give them important advice about how to live wisely in light of the challenging times they face.
We are facing challenging times today, aren’t we (not that ours is the same)? It looks like they faced issues of division in the church, poverty and persecution, and to all of these, James recommends living out the character of Christ.
He begins this letter with advice on confronting the trials they face, but then he quickly addresses the rich and the poor. And then he makes a point of warning his congregations: “Don’t be deceived,” He says. Well…what are they deceived about? He says, “Make no mistake. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, whose character does not change. But,” he says, “he has chosen us according to his purposes as first fruits.” If you read the passage quickly, it gives an impression like James is constantly segueing between several subjects, but they are actually all very connected.
People are facing trials where they are tempted to go another way than Jesus’ way. It sounds like staying on the right path will cost them, at least some of them, deeply, financially. Many are facing tough times. Yet others seem untouched by all this misfortune. And they are wondering, where is God, how is God acting in all this?
It kind of sounds like there are people in his congregations who believe God made them fall to temptation or that God brought calamity on them, meanwhile there are those who have made it through pretty good, and they are tempted to think God has done good to them more than others. Perhaps God makes some people rich, because he loves them more, and others poor, because he does not love them quite as much.
For five years I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. This is a church about four hours north of Toronto. Sudbury was a cold place with very warm people. The church itself back in the late 70’s moved from its old building in the downtown to the area of Garson, which was a sub-urb of the city about ten minutes from the city centre.
The church moved out there thinking this would become the next up and coming affluent neighbourhood in the city. The reality was the opposite. The city built supplemented income housing there in an effort to move the problems of crime and poverty out of the downtown.
As I got to know my neighbourhood, I realized this was an area that struggled. A few moments really reiterated this to me. I remember one summer taking my kids to a playground behind our house. This playground overlooked on several sides a couple of different sub-divisions of the neighbourhood. There was ours, which was a group of semi-detached homes, then down the street were larger ones, a sub-division of newly built two story detached homes, but on the other side there were row homes and small apartment buildings, supplemented income housing and homes like that. My kids began playing with some of the other kids, and I joined in, playing tag. The one boy introduced himself. My son introduced himself pointed to our house. “We live just over there.” The boy turned and said, “Oh, you live there. My mom says that is where all the rich people live.”
I was stunned. My house was smaller than the house I was raised in. I always thought of our home as modest at best. But of course, that was my perspective, being raised in a middle-class family.
A part of me wanted to insist, “What? I am not rich! I work as a pastor! Pastors are not rich!” (Or if they are, let me just say, I have some questions).
I remember walking back home lost in thought. I felt conflicted. You see, I was raised in a fairly strict Dutch Baptist family. My dad was the son of a card-carrying fundamentalist Baptist pastor that came over from Holland. And there was a particular set of values instilled in me, many of them good, but they went like this:
Dutch people believe in hard work and that the life you live reflects that hard work.
A Dutch man is to provide for his family for this is the measure of being a man.
If you were poor, it was because you were lazy or not frugal with your money, pure and simple, and you needed to just man up and work.
To be a Christian is to be honest, have integrity, and to fulfill your obligations at work, church, and home.
If you do these things, these are the kind of things that God blesses.
God’s blessing means among other things, material provision, our daily bread and probably a good career with a pension.
God is sovereign, so God chooses what he wants to happen, and nothing happens that God did not choose. Somehow this strong sense of social mobility was married to this notion of God’s sovereignty, even though they actually don’t really go together that well.
These values have served me incredibly well, and I know as a father to five boys, I will teach them to be men one day that are honest and hardworking and of course to trust God. But when we stroll into the territory of God’s blessing, I never understood passages in the Bible like the one James just lists: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.“
Well, that seems mean. What does James have against rich people? It is not their fault! That does not seem particularly wise given what the Proverbs say about hard work and everything else. Doesn’t God want us to plan and be frugal and save our money and work hard and through all of that enjoy the fruits of our labor? Those passages are in the Bible too, and I must say, I like those passages much more than this passage here.
But the reason for why James says what he says was illustrated to me one thanksgiving. As our church started doing outreach in the community. When I started pastoring, our church was that summer a dozen people, all easily twice my age. In some cases, three times my age. I worried about the future of the church, but I figured I can’t make this church grow, and I can’t attach young families to our church where there are churches with slick programs and staff in the area. So, I resolved to minister to those least fortunate in the community. We volunteered at food banks. I would drive people to the food bank and then take them out for coffee. I would deliver food to shut ins and we organized a community meal at one of these single-room apartment buildings. That meant over time a hand full of people started attending the church.
One person in particular was a man quite troubled. He faced a lot of mental health issues. He had no family. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me. I remember in church that thanksgiving Sunday remarking that I felt very blessed: a good home, good job, good family, health…I said I feel so blessed. Well, this person came up to me after the service. He, a young believer, although he was older than me, often asked those curious questions after the service. So, he came up to me, “Pastor, how do I become blessed like you? I wish God would bless me like that.”
As we talked, he shared with me that deep down, he worried maybe God did not love him all that much at all. Or at least not as much as God did for others. After all, God heals those he loves, and he has struggled with a severe mental illness his whole life. God provides for those he loves, and he could never find work, often he could barely leave his apartment due to his illness, and he struggled on disability payments that barely covered his rent let alone food for the month.
God blesses those he loves, and that implied for him, either he has done something wrong his whole life, his whole faith, or God just didn’t choose to love him as much as others.
My heart sank with those questions. I remember having a very pensive and reflective thanksgiving that year. My wife wondered why I was so quiet, lost in thought. I am always lost in thought by the way (that is an occupational hazard of being a professor), but this time more than usual.
I thought to myself, for instance, I was born able bodied. I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t control that. I was born able minded. I didn’t have to be. I was born into a loving household. I didn’t have to be. I was able to meet a person who has been an exacellent life-partner, my wife, where I know some people, some good people, that the person they married just was not the person they thought they were. We were able to have children, lots of kids (some days I am tempted to think too many kids). They are healthy boys.
It gave me pause, a pause that lasted through the day, of just how many opportunities I had received, that those, who were just as able, smart, and good, in many cases better, did not get. And yes, while there were good choices and hard work along the way, I felt overwhelmed by the fact that so much of the goodness of my life was not because of me, what I could choose and control.
That conversation fundamentally changed how I think about prayer, blessing, what it means to have good things in my life, and what my responsibility to others is.
This is what James is getting at: he says that all good things come from God. If you ever think God wills bad things, or shows favouritism, loving some more than others, that goes against the God who has an unchanging character of love, perfectly for every human being: every human being, without exception.
But we forget this. We have to find ways to adjust, shall we say, this truth in order justify why our lives are materially better than others, why we don’t have to feel bad about that fact, or more importantly, feel obliged to do something for those that have less than us, how we don’t have to do something as churches, as a society, about poverty, about mental health, or about systemic injustices.
That is when days like today, thanksgiving, we engage in that religious talk about being blessed or being thankful, and yet, if we ignore our responsibility to those less fortunate, that God loves all people with the same perfect longing to provide and lift all people into a place of flourishing, if we forget that, I am going to suggest to you we are not truly engaging in thanksgiving.
When we talk this way, thanksgiving ends up meaning something more like self-congratulations: I am thankful I worked hard; I am thankful I got good grades; I am thankful I made good career choices; I am thankful I did not marry someone who does not pull their weight; I am thankful I am such a good parent; I am thankful I have done so well.
This is a part of a mentality in our culture, a cultural myth of sorts that has a long history and endorsement in the church: the myth of the self-made person. You see our culture has this very strong insistence on the worth and power of the individual. This in many ways is a good thing. We believe people have inherent dignity and worth, individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, but these insistences can have a down-side when made into an extreme: We can turn these values into the notion that all the good things in our lives are our doing. It is not because of privileges we were born into, opportunities we did not choose, all the various ways the starting line in the race of life was a bit further up for us than other people. This breeds a culture of entitlement where those that have less are effectively blamed for their misfortune.
Or we do something even worse: we think to ourselves that God wills this inequity to be the way things ought to be. We end up saying something, implicitly, truly terrible: we say I am thankful for the fact that God loves me a whole lot more than most of the people on this planet. I am thankful God wanted me to be privileged.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The deep contours of Scripture show that God chooses no one for ultimate ruin nor does God will evil or tragedy to anyone.
But what God does do is chooses, as James says, those who he will use to be the first fruits of an entire harvest of the goodness done to all people.
This is a pattern that begins in Father Abraham, who was blessed in order, the Book of Genesis says, to be a blessing, so that all the families of the world can be blessed through him.
It goes on to the Book of Exodus where God says he chose the Israelite slaves not because they were so much better or stronger or promising than any other nation, but because God favours the weak and the oppressed. God chooses the least of these in the world. God chooses to liberate them from bondage, not because he loves them and only them, but that through them, God says, they will be a kingdom of priests, firstborn of the family, as if all nations are God’s congregation, all our God’s family, but Israel is God’s paradigm and instrument of doing good to the rest inviting them in.
This continues on to the time of the prophets where, when God’s people grow haughty and disaster comes on them, Isaiah says God will uses a righteous remnant who will live in these difficult times self-sacrificially for the sake of the rest.
This all culminates in Jesus Christ, God himself who came in human form and chose himself to bear rejection itself at the cross, so that if anyone every questions, “Has God chosen me a sinner? Does God love me? Does God want what’s best for me?” All they must do is look at the cross and see the God that was willing to give of his very self for the sake of others, even those who meant him harm.
This is all so, so, so important to keep in mind in this time of a pandemic. We have not seen the disaster living here in Nova Scotia that many have elsewhere. We live in the safety of the Annapolis valley. While this past year was tough for me, teaching online and being stuck at home with my kids, I think my life just not been as bad as those who have faced unemployment, the loss of their business and livelihood, the impact of anxiety or depression.
I have seen how this terrible virus can hit. Some are not affected badly, others fatally. A college classmate of mine back in Ontario got covid, a person my age, went to bed with a cough and did not wake up. A person I know in Toronto got covid and he will now never breath again without a respirator.
Where does all this leave us: Do we pat ourselves on the back for having a government that responded well to the crisis when so many people did not choose where they live nor did they vote for the governments that are not acting responsible? Do we say God has protected us and God has blessed us, when the implication of that might sound like God has refused to protect others? We can very easily fall back into a thanksgiving that is actually self-congratulations and self-thanking. It is thanks-getting not thanks-giving.
Let me tell you the story of an inspiring person that illustrates the attitude we must have. His name is Charles Mully, born in 1949. He is a Kenyan business owner and philanthropist. At age 6, his parents abandoned him on the street. He spent years begging and getting by living on the street. He was able to be enrolled in school, and being exceptionally intelligent, succeeded. At age 16, he walked into a church and heard the Gospel, and he accepted the message of salvation. He did not have any money to go into higher education so, he packed up his things and walked 70 kilometers to Nairobi to find work. He did odd jobs until he eventually worked as a farm assistant and then for a construction company. He met his wife and they had eight kids together. During all this he saved enough money to buy his own truck and began his own trucking company. Within a short amount of time, he procured several other companies. Very quickly he became a multi-millionaire.
One day he was driving by in his car, and he saw a street boy, homeless, and he realized that there was no achievement he had that made God love him any more than those kids on the street. In fact, he concluded that the reason why God brought him from homelessness into such wealth was not for him to keep it but to give it away. And that is what he did. In 1989, he sold all his businesses and properties, opening up his homes to serve as shelters for the many street kids of Kenya. Since 1989, he and his family have helped 23 000 kids out of homelessness.
I tell you this story because If ever there was a self-made person, if ever there was a person that you could say, “That man earned every cent he owns,” if ever there was a person who might be tempted to think God has favoured me from rags to riches, it would be Charles Mully. And yet for him, his faith compelled him to believe that all the good things of his life were from a God that loves all people with that same perfect love. And with the goodness he has been given, with true thanksgiving, he realized he was to be the first fruits of a plan of God to help others with what he has been given.
What does that mean for us, for you and me, Port William Baptist Church? I hope you don’t take anything I have said to be some kind of kill joy on your festivities this weekend. God surely does want us to cherish the good things in our lives. Give thanks for your families with your families, enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie, play with kids and grandkids in the back yard. These are gifts from God that I know I don’t deserve.
But let us not stop there. It can’t stop there. For it to be true thanksgiving, it must be both giving thanks to God, but also giving thankfully to others.
If we acknowledge that all the goodness we have in our lives comes from God above, that God wills tragedy and misfortune to no one, what will we do to make sure we bring this goodness to others, those that don’t family, don’t have work, or don’t have health? How will we be fathers and mothers to the fatherless, the motherless, empowers to the oppressed, comforters to those in despair? How will we be first fruits in the way the Spirit of God might be call us of a harvest of blessing that is intended for all people?
A reading of Psalm 77 from the NRSV:
1 I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah
4 You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10 And I say, “It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the depths trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
May God bless the reading of his word.
The Psalms are the prayer book of Israel, arranged to mediate and pray through our life of obedience to God’s law. They are written in five books just like the books of Moses, mirroring them. They are a lasting reminder in the canon of scripture that true faith in God and true obedience to his ways are only possible by prayer.
As Psalms 1 and 2, the gateways to the Psalter, state, these poetic prayers are also intended to pray through the rise of David, the anointed one, the plight of the persecuted righteous, but then the Psalms form a narrative of sorts, praying through the failure of the Davidic kings, and then the exile of God’s people and its devastation, and then finally the restoration of Israel’s hope surrounding the coming messiah and restoration of temple worship. Psalm 77 occurs in that middle point, between the times of thanksgiving.
In this travail of 150 Psalms, I was surprised, the first time I read through them in high school, to find out so many of them are psalms that express lament, doubt, even anger and accusation at God. About half are psalms what Walter Brueggemann calls psalms of “disorientation.” And they are disorienting, make no mistake. The first time I read some of these psalms I remember my words being caught in my throat in shock.
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22)
Why have you rejected me? (Ps. 43)
Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Ps 44)
O God, why have you rejected us forever? (Ps. 74)
Lord, where is your great love? (Ps. 89)
I remember saying to myself, “How can this be in the Bible?” Does the author not trust God? If you trust God, how can you ask such false, absurd, disrespectful things of him? I was taught that God is good and if you feel otherwise your feelings are wrong, so don’t trust your feelings.
I was also taught that we were saved by faith, and how do you know you have faith? You believe the right things. How do you come to know the right things? The Holy Spirit convicts you directly, so don’t ever question your beliefs. To doubt them is to doubt what saves you. You trust them and never waver, for so many have doubted their way along that proverbial “slippery slope.”
I was taught that all that a Christian needs to do to overcome sadness or despair, if true Christians are capable of such things, was to believe a bit harder, to focus on Jesus a bit closer, obey more purely, and if that does not help you have done something wrong. We sang, “Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright, happy all the time.” Of course, we know that life is not uniformly happy, but some have heard this and thought: If I am sad, does that mean I don’t have Jesus?
So, when I came across a psalm like this one, my automatic gloss on a text like this in order to make it fit my paradigm was, “Oh well, this is Old Covenant. So glad we are in the New Covenant of grace now!” (Somewhere Glenn Wooden and Matt Walsh just shuttered, I’m sure).
The Psalms are perhaps one of the most interesting books of the Bible in that they are God’s word to us by first being our words expressed to God, which possess all sorts of interesting conundrums for how we understand inspiration for sure. If Marshal McLuhan is correct and the medium is the message, the fact that the psalter is the experience of God’s people prayed to God – experience of creation, politics, love, war, illness and healing, obedience and confession, thanksgiving and despair, praise for God’s presence in one’s life, and more pointedly, lament over times of a sense of God’s absence – all of these prayers, strangely and beautifully, turn back to be a word from God to us, and this says something: there is no domain of human experience, whether science or history, politics or poetry, that is irrelevant or meaningless to our relationship with God. This includes times of despair, feelings of abandonment by God, even anger at God. God permits these to be meaningful to him.
Worship, according to the Psalms means there is no facet of human life that God does not find meaningful, and no facet of human life that cannot find its meaning in him. Whether it is the mountain of divine ecstasy, miracles, that fuzzy feeling we all get when Andrew Conrad sings in chapel with silk-smooth voice, or the opposite: “valleys of the shadow of death,” darkness, discouragement and despair.
The Psalms, like this one, then offer a template for emotions to inhabit, words to give voice to what is our hearts, or, as John Calvin once said, a mirror to see into our souls. They offer a rhythm to allow scripture’s story to be our story and for our story to an extension of Christ’s story in the world.
There is a Christian poem that we have probably all heard so many times that to quote it now may sound a bit cheesy, but it goes like this: there was a man walking along the beach with God, and he looks at the footprints to find that there were only one set of tracks where his life seemed the toughest. “Where were you then?” he asked God. “My child,” God replies, “that is when I carried you.”
We miss the insight here that often in times when we think God is absent – that indeed there are times we will feel God is absent, that we will feel like God has forsaken us – it is in these times he is in fact present to us in a way we only discover afterwards.
The mystic Simone Weil once said that the absence of God was more present to her than the experience of all other presences. For her times where she thought she saw God absent in the world begged deep multi-layered questions for faith and prayer that atheism only gave shallow responses to.
Mystics like St. John of the Cross have called these experiences the “dark night of the soul.” Dark nights are times in which we feel distant from God, times that we might even then get angry at God, accusing him, or blaming ourselves, and yet, if these experiences do their work, they are pathways to deeper trust, deeper intimacy, deeper love of a God who is ineffable: beyond all our words, ideas, feelings, and actions.
Have you gone through a time like this? Did you wonder whether God was there? Perhaps you still wonder. Perhaps you are going through one of sorts right now. Or, perhaps, you are sitting here thinking this does not apply to you, and so, perhaps you should just bank this message for later: perhaps you may need this message in the near future, say some time between mid-terms and finals (I don’t know, but that is just my guess).
I can tell you I needed this message. My most significant personal trial occurred in the final year of Bible College, which I call “my dark summer.” I went to a Bible College in Cambridge, Ontario. My experience in Bible College up until this point I think had been pretty standard. I hung out with friends. We would goof off playing video games till 2:00 am, pull all-nighters getting essays done that we waited till the night of to do, or sit around strategizing how to “court” certain girls. I say “court” because – thank-you Joshua Harris – we did not believe in “dating” (if you don’t know that distinction, trust that you have been spared). The guys residence, which did not permit the presence of any woman in there except for a small window of a few hours after lunch on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, was like a G rated National Lampoon’s Animal House, with holes in the walls from wrestling matches and broken lamp shades from air soft rifle attacks, and other collateral damage from the ongoing prank wars. The kind of usually college things.
I loved my studies, despite not taking them particularly seriously. I was always an insatiably curious person. And while the seminary’s official perspectives were generally conservative, in the ongoing rigor of academic studies, I began to ask questions about the reliability of scripture; how do you interpret Genesis one? What do you do with the ending of Mark? Could even, dare I even utter the question, a woman be ordained? (That was a dangerous question in those circles). Each time I would just repress the question, swallowing it back with an easy proof text to keep me on the straight and narrow, lest I go down the “slippery slope.”
Or at least I certainly tried. While I was in college, I helped a small house church. I remember one night after Alpha Course, I was angry at one person because they believed in infant baptism (how dare he!). I turned to my pastor and friend saying, “We need to stop that person from thinking that way! It’s unbiblical!”
My pastor and friend turned to me in the car, “How do you know you aren’t the one who is wrong?”
I responded, “I can’t be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit!”
He smiled and echoed my words back to me, “You are saying you cannot be wrong?”
“That’s right,” I said again, “I cannot be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit.”
This repeated on for a while, longer than I would care to admit, and he kept repeating my words to me till the thought struck me, “Wow, I sound really arrogant. I’m human. I’m a sinner. Of course, I could be wrong!” The day I learned to ask myself “Could I be wrong?” about the things I regarded as “too important for me to be wrong,” was the day my faith started to fragment.
Psalm 77 says in verse 3, “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.” Tremper Longman notes that the Psalmist seems to be uncomfortable with the ideas they had about God. The pat answers no longer satisfy.
But then something else happened, my father, who had just retired, complained at Christmas time of stomach-aches, and doctors diagnosed it as inoperable, pancreatic cancer. In four months, he lost over a hundred pounds, shriveling up into something you would see in holocaust pictures.
Yet, my Dad had a very strong faith. He knew that he was going to die, and told me, “Spencer, I know I am not getting out of this one.” He told me how proud he was of me and encouraged me to continue pursuing my ministry calling and academics. As he said that, he took off his wedding ring and his favorite watch and gave them to me.
He kept telling me that the last thing he wanted to do was see me graduate, so in April, we drove him to Forward Baptist Church, and we brought him in on a wheel chair for the graduation ceremony. He passed away two weeks later in hospice, just over four months after being diagnosed.
Losing your Dad is like losing the one reason to make another person proud, because he was that person. Watching your Dad die, knowing that pancreatic cancer is hereditary, is like watching yourself die, to be permanently haunted with the suspicion that one day, you too may just get a stomach-ache, and this is how you will go too, and it will be painful. It caused me to wonder what the point of doing studies was. Was there a point to anything?
Yet, he showed me an example of perseverance in suffering. One time, his meds wore off, and he clenched his fists so that his fingers dug into his palms. Bent over in the tremendous pain, he prayed, “Thank-you, God, even for this. Thank-you for every opportunity you give me to show my love for you!” Those words have gotten me through a lot.
At the same time, that summer, more happened. I went to the mall. I saw my close friend, who was a part-time supervisor there and also an associate pastor in the area. He asked if I was up for coming to his car, while he was on smoke break. I agreed. When we got there, he confessed to me that his marriage had come to a brutal end. I asked, “Why?” and he responded: “Spencer, I’m gay.” This came as a complete surprise to me. He apparently married his wife trying to suppress or change his orientation, but the result was the opposite. He went through reorientation therapy and it only made matters worse. When he told his senior pastor, the pastor fired him on the spot, saying, “Obviously you just need more faith!”
The ensuing scandal led him, my friend, to become suicidal. He had become convinced that he was predestined not to actually have salvation because, as he thought, “With enough faith I can do anything, but if I am still like this, I must not have enough faith. And if I do not have faith, which God gives as a gift, God must not want me to be saved. Perhaps,” he said to me, “maybe I am one of those people who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but never were actual believers.” So, he concluded that if he did not have God in his life, life was no longer worth living. He attempted suicide and, thankfully, failed, and as he told me his story, he showed me his scared, sliced hands, which he had hidden under long sleeves. I was moved with tears. What I managed to choke out was that if he was willing to take his own life in the idea that life without God is not worth living, then truly he revers God in a way that I have never had to. That, I can only reason, is a sign that he does have a relationship with God. The first beatitude is blessed are the poor in spirit, not the rich in spirit, after all. If Jesus died for all sin at the cross, I simply could not accept that God rejects a person who needs him, no matter who they are.
My summer had more to it. Yes, there is more. The pastor of that little church I volunteered at, had recently closed, and moved into another congregation. My friend was really getting wayward at this point. He and his family went off on vacation to his hometown.
They got back and something was different. I felt like they were angry at me for some reason, as they just seemed stand-offish and dodgy. Turns out it was because their marriage was ending. The man had met up with a woman from high school while in his hometown and he was planning on going to leave to be with her. News like this did not stay hidden, soon everyone knew, and it was a mess.
He left, and I remember him telling me this and me just being in a state of shock for days. I idolized this person, my mentor and best friend. Yet I watched this man spiral mentally and spiritually into chaos. He left for a time, but in time he eventually came to his senses in that months that followed and came back.
Along with this, I was also penniless. I could not find a student job at the beginning of summer, and so, I was getting back on summer rent and worried I would get kicked out with all that was happening. I eventually finally got a job working night shift at Tim Horton’s. My only conversational partner in the dead of night, as I cleaned coffee pots and changed garbage cans, was a Polish immigrant lady named Helena, who knew enough English to take a coffee order, swear in half-English-half-Polish under her breath, and ask to go for a smoke. Those were lonely nights. As the semester started, I had to work night shifts then go to class, sleep, then work all night, and I did this for a time until I could find another job.
My father dying, my fiend coming-out about his sexuality and attempting suicide, my friend and mentor having a mental break down – this all happened in one summer.
When you care about a person, when you have a deep friendship, their doubts have a way of becoming your doubts: their pain, your pain.
The Psalm records in verse 6, “I communed with my heart in the night; I meditated and searched my spirit.” One night, I recall sitting in my room feeling that all rational grounding for my faith was left void, all practical examples of faith in my life had failed, left the church, or, even worse, had passed away due to horrific god-forsaken illness. It was in that moment of despair that I sensed a great void of meaning confront my life: Could all this be worthless? Is life an abyss of vacuous truth?
The Psalmist asks in verse 8, “Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Similarly, I asked: Where are you God? Why didn’t you heal my dad? Why didn’t you come through for my friends? Are you even there?
Then something happened. Something manifested itself to me. I remember sensing in that abyss of the void, the truth of Christ beyond all the failures of human thought and religion, a hope that prevailed. It did not take away the abyss, but make the darkness less of fear and more like stillness. An existential Selah, the Psalmist might suggest.
It simply assured me that while I can get my faith terribly wrong, Christ is still there. My “truth” could fail, but Christ will not. If Jesus is who he is, “Even if we are faithless,” says 2 Tim. 2:13, “he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”
The Psalmist, similarly, despite doubt, despite anguish and accusation, recounts the deeds of God and feels assurance, meditating on the Exodus:
I will meditate on all your work…
Your way, O God, is holy…
You are the God who works wonders…
You redeem your people…
The result of this was that I committed myself to rethinking my faith with a new-found hope and reassurance. That summer I must have read through about 30 books. I thought to myself that if Christ is true even if my beliefs have failed, then I must give Christianity the benefit of the doubt and investigate what others have said, others I either ignored or missed. My studies became excited by a deep personal drive that pushed me on to doctoral studies, driven by the thrill of wondering and wandering with a God who is with us even in the questions.
I would not presume to say to you that somehow this means all these questions I had then have been resolved. The point of faith, of relationship, is not to have it resolve. St. John of the Cross reminds us that while periods of despair lift, the Dark Night of the Soul is actually without end in this life. For that is seeing, as Paul would said, always “as in a mirror darkly” until the final day where we will see God face to face.
I did not mean nor want any of the things that happened to me that summer in seminary. No one wants their faith to be fragmented like this, especially those who need it most, as I did. I have met so many Christians who have gone through a time of questioning or a time of discouragement, and they have fallen away from the church and from faith altogether, often because of an expectation of faith that could not permit doubts or could not see God’s presence in times of darkness, yet this psalm invites us to see, paradoxically, that God’s presence is there even in times of absence, light in times of darkness, and faith in and through the toughest questions.
If you know someone in your life perhaps like this, continue to pray for them, for we know that our good shepherd does not forsake the lost sheep. And if you feel you may be one of those lost sheep, know that our God has not forsaken you either. If you feel alone, know that you have a family here at ADC that may know a thing or two about what you may be going through.
My other concern is for us teachers and pastors also. Sometimes we can be so obsessed with numeric growth we neglect the hard work of spiritual growth. Sometimes we are so afraid of the fallout of asking a provocative question to our congregations we don’t ask it at all. Or worse, sometimes we become so afraid of the consequences of these questions, we stop asking them of ourselves entirely. To paraphrase St. John of the Cross, those who are in the darkest nights of the soul are the ones who have convinced themselves they are walking in perfect daylight.
C. S. Lewis once said this after his wife died, in his book, A Grief Observed, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has been shattered time after time. God shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? And most are offended by this iconoclasm; but blessed are those who are not.”
Brothers and sisters, blessed are those who are not.
So, may you know today in all your questions, wonderings, and wanderings, that you have a God that knows you deeper than you know yourself, closer to you than you are to yourself, who sees you with eyes of mercy, who holds you with hands that were pierced for you and bleed for you at the cross.
May you be free to bring to him in prayer your whole self, nothing held back, whether confession or accusation, joy or despair, and know that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ.
May you be blessed to be shattered, to have your faith in fragments, and yet, little by little, day by day, fragment by fragment, may you be remade into a mosaic that depicts Jesus to our broken world.
Rev. Dr. Spencer Miles Boersma
Acadia Divinity College Chapel,
September 30th, 2020.
I titled this sermon “The Unexpected Messiah,” and this has been a few weeks of the unexpected, hasn’t it?
This week has been a week of frustration trying to work from home, restlessness from being cooped up, of isolation from not seeing family and friends, of anxiety and anxiousness over this pandemic and all the fallout from it. But it has also been a time of unexpected blessings: time with my wife and kids, time that makes one thankful for all that we have, time being forced to do a little more of what the Bible calls sabbath.
And now, here this Sunday, I did not expect to be giving a sermon in front of a laptop today. But I also could not have expected everyone to pull through and come together to make the online service possible. These days are teach us in a new way what it means to be the church. So this has been a season of the unexpected, and now we are here on Palm Sunday, ready to enter Holy Week. I have to ask, if we have made preparations for how the world can give us unexpected twists and turns, are we ready for how God can show up unexpectedly? Let us come to God’s word for what we might hear from him today. The reading is Matthew 21:1-17 from the NRSV:
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
What do we expect kings to look like? What do we think of when we think of power?
Three hundred years before Christ, there arose a man named Alexander the Great. One of the most successful conquerors of all time – up there with Napoleon and Genghis Khan.
A Macedonian prince, schooled by the brightest in the world, his tutor was the philosopher Aristotle, and early in his life, the prince burned with a violent ambition for conquest.
After his father’s assassination, Alexander assumed the throne at age 20. Alexander feared rebellion, and so, he quickly worked to eliminate all possible challengers to his throne. He killed his cousins, two princes, his father’s other wife, her father, who was a general, and her daughter. He killed his whole family.
Once he had done this, he pursued his real agenda. He assembled his army: 48 000 soldiers, 6000 calvaries, 120 ships with crews that amounted to 38 000, and battle after battle, he conquered the known world.
His army was nothing short of impressive. Without radios, without motors, without any of our modern luxuries, his army ran with an efficiency and discipline that would make modern generals blush.
He was without a doubt one of the most formidable commanders in world history, ingeniously outflanking armies several times larger than his own. His victories are the stuff of legends.
In ten short years, his army had conquered all the way to Egypt then out all the way to India, where his soldiers finally persuaded him to turn back and go home.
When he came through Israel, he laid siege to the cities, and as they fell, he ordered his soldiers to kill all military-age males and to take all male children to sell them as slaves, funding the war effort.
Along the way, he founded 20 cities, most of them creatively named, “Alexandria.” As the army returned home, Alexander figured that he would set up a new capital in Babylon, however, one day, at age 32, after drinking some wine, he fell violently sick and died. Most historians suspect it was an assassination.
Alexander’s life was short, but spectacular. This young man conquered the known world by age 30. If you could describe his life in one word, it might be “glorious”: the glory of battle, of brilliance, of victory and conquest. That is why they call him Alexander the Great.
History is full of these kinds of “Greats”: Rameses the Great, Antiochus the Great, Cyrus the Great, Herod the Great, etc.
When Alexander conquered a city he rode in on his favourite horse. He rides his mighty horse, Bucephalus.
Look at almost every city in the world and at the heart of the city is a statue of its great man riding a horse.
Look Rome. Look at London. Look at Washington. Even look at Ottawa. They all proudly display the conqueror on the horse. It is the fundamental symbol of worldly power: The man on the horse, who has brought peace by victory. This is our image of power, wealth, stability, glory. This is what we expect a king to be like. Riding in with his army on the stallion, a Brucephalus.
Jesus did not ride in on a horse. Jesus did not do what we think kings should do. He wasn’t the messiah God’s people were expecting. He came in an unexpected way to give an unexpected message. And who Jesus is and what his message says, still today, two thousand years later, upsets our expectations of what we think God to be.
That is our challenge this morning. Jesus is still the unexpected messiah.
1. The people had the wrong expectation
Throughout the Old Testament, it is the people’s perennial temptation to want a conqueror on a horse. The people saw the great kings, and unfortunately, they wanted to be like the nations.
Look at the horse in the Old Testament, and frankly, sorry horse-lovers, the Old Testament does not look well on horses. Nearly every mention of horses is negative.
Why? Horses were exclusively used in war. You used oxen for farming. You used camels for long travel. Horses were much more expensive. They were kept for a singular purpose: battle.
Horses were the tanks of the ancient world, able to outflank foot soldiers and plow throw them like a knife through butter.
Israel’s prophets watched men like Alexander the Great riding on their horses. Deuteronomy warned that if Israel trusted in human power and a human king over God, the king will trust in his military more than God and lead the people astray. Deuteronomy 17:16 warns that the king must never accumulate horses, “lest they go back to the ways of Egypt.”
But they did.
The Old Testament is a sad narrative at many points. It is the story of God longing to be the king of his people, for them to trust him and accept his reign over their hearts and lives, but they resist for they want a king like the nations do. They want the wealth and security and grander of an empire. And they were willing to follow other gods, if those gods promised these things.
The apex of this quest is during King Solomon’s reign. His God-given wisdom brought wealth and prosperity beyond measure. 1 Kings records that he had so much gold that silver was virtually worthless, as common as rocks. But then he grew arrogant. The Bible records that he started to accumulate horses. It says he amassed 12 000 horses and 1400 chariots. He started to stockpile weapons.
He brokered alliances with pagan kings, and they gave him their daughters in marriage. His greed caused him to collect women like he did gold and weapons. And these wives persuaded him to worship their idols, perhaps because they promised power. Solomon grew corrupt. His kingdom began to fracture from insurrection as he grew more and more oppressive. The nation broke in two after his death into North and South, and as the two dynasties of kings constantly fell into idolatry and injustice, God finally removed his presence of protection.
Israel gets conquered again and again. First by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans in the time of Jesus. Israel lived under the shadow of empires and emperors, in oppression and occupation.
One hundred years before Jesus, the Jews revolt against the a Greek ruler named Antiochus Epiphanies. Antiochus bans Jewish worship and proclaims himself god. He nicknames himself the “Anti-messiah” the “Anti-Christ” in mockery of the Jewish God. The Jews are outraged and are rallied by their high priest, Matthias the Hasmonean. He gathers an army in the wilderness, and his five sons lead the army, headed by his firstborn, Judas the Maccabee. Maccabee means “the hammer” by the way: Judas the Hammer.
The Maccabees succeed in retaking Jerusalem. They come riding into Jerusalem on their warhorses. People cry out in adoration spreading their cloaks on the road. The people greet them by waving the symbol of their house. Can you guess what that is? The palm branch.
Now the Maccabean revolt was not particularly successful. Israel very quickly becomes a vessel kingdom to a larger empire, but the memory hangs on. People long for the good old days. They are nostalgic for the glory of the Maccabees. They long, you might say, to “Make Israel Great Again,” and so, the people greet Jesus with palm branches because they expected he was going to raise an army just like the Maccabees. He would be the next hammer. He would be a conqueror on a horse: Jesus the Maccabee, Jesus the Hammer.
The irony for us Christians is that we wave palm branches on a day like this, because that is what the passage describes. I have fond memories of holding palm branches in church when I was little. They seem so harmless. But since we are removed from this history, we do not realize why they were holding them. The palm branch was a symbol of revolution. It was like the hammer and sickle.
Perhaps this might change your feelings about waving a palm branch on Palm Sunday ever again. Or perhaps, maybe it is a reminder that we too can still today expect God to be something other than what he truly is.
In my experience, I know many people, Christians included, who assume God is like an invisible Santa Claus in the sky, existing to just give us stuff. This is the God that if you just believe in him, and if you are nice enough, which everyone generally is, you get stuff. You can get whatever you want out of God, and getting stuff is really the most important thing.
Other expectations are far less jolly. There is an expectation of God where God is so moralistic and angry, people live in constant fear and guilt. Their religion can be summarized in one line: “Don’t mess up or else.” This god claims to be loving, but only so long as you obey, never question, never stray.
This is a god that is a reflection of our own failed perfectionism. This god’s grace is limited because we are limited. We expect this god’s grace to be limited because we expect god to act just like us. If we know that we don’t measure up to our own standards, why should god be any different?
Still others believe God is absent from their lives, absent in the same way perhaps their fathers are. Where was God when I needed him most? Somewhere else, with his children, he clearly cares more about than me. This is a God that is never around and no matter what we do, we can never get his attention because nothing is ever good enough.
Still others believe in a God that approves of their politics. God is American. God is western. God is white. God is male. God is on our side. Our nation is God’s nation. Our war is God’s war. God hates everyone I hate.
What is it for you? What is your expectation of God? How have you put Jesus in a box of expectations the Gospel does not fit?
Can you say to yourself today as Isaiah 55:9 says: God your ways are not my ways and your thoughts are not my thoughts.
This easter time, are you ready for God to surprise you? Are you prepared for Jesus to show up in unexpected ways?
The people in Jesus’ time weren’t ready.
2. Jesus gave an unexpected message
Israel expected Jesus to be a conqueror on a horse. They expected him to come in and rally the troops like Judas Maccabee did, to conqueror the nations like Alexander the Great. But Jesus, as we know from the Gospel of Matthew, did not come riding in on a Brucephalus. He did not come with an army, with golden armour or sword. He did something unexpected.
He rode in on a donkey. Donkeys are work animals. They have stubby legs, best for carrying heavy loads, not for speed. If you have ever seen someone ride a donkey, you know it is not the most dignified of animals.
The people wave palm branches, hailing Jesus a warlord King. Jesus counters this with the prophecy of Zechariah, which Matthew quotes the first part of:
Look, your king comes to you
Triumphant and victorious is he
Humble and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The next verse is important:
He will end the chariot from Ephraim
And the war-horse from Jerusalem;
And the battle bow shall be ended,
And he shall command peace to the nations
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
The donkey is not only the symbol of humility, but it is also the prophetic sign of non-violence. Jesus is not their warlord. Jesus is not there to start a war. Jesus is not against the Romans. Nor is he merely the king of the Jews. He is everyone’s king. His kingdom cannot be reduced to this nation or that land or that tribe and that tongue. He desires peace for everyone.
In the 1970’s a Christian by the name of Oscar Romero preached to his church in El Salvador against the oppression they faced. He would be martyred for speaking out against these oppressors. So, the people wanted to rise up in revolution, kill their oppressors. They wanted Romero to tell them God was on their side, that God would approve of their violence. This is what he said:
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross; the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
Jesus was a disruptor, a resistor, a revolutionary, just not the one they wanted him to be. His is a revolution of love, of justice, of peace, of reconciliation.
The people wanted him to kill all their enemies. Jesus did something more profound and ultimately more dangerous. He exposed the enemy within our hearts.
St. Augustine once said, “It is arrogant to believe that our enemies can do more damage than our own hatred.”
The people were expecting Jesus to come into the temple and perhaps give one of those iconic speeches a general might give, like Mark Anthony’s “Friends, brothers, countrymen, lend me your ears.” They expected him to preach a message that vindicated them and pronounced vengeance to their enemies. We are God’s people! They are not! Kill them, end this occupation, establish your kingdom, make us rich like in the days of Solomon! It says instead that he starts to overturn the tables.
Now let me put to rest an old misconception about this passage: Jesus was not surprised and outraged because there was commerce occurring in the Temple. the priests of the temple were not just having bake sales and fundraisers. In fact, what we know of the temple is that it was very important to the city that it did carry on commerce: The temple contracted barbers, clothing makers, incense makers, goldsmiths, etc. The temple kept a lot of common people employed. This is not the issue.
The issue was not commerce per se, but a certain kind of commerce. Jesus says that the practices turned the temple into a house of robbers. What was the robbery? The text says: Jesus overturned the money changers and dove sellers.
From what we know of temple practice, the temple refused to allow any goods or services to purchased with Roman money. The Temple had its own currency that you had to buy it first at an increased rate just to go buy something else. The temple regarded Roman money as unclean money, and unfit to be used to buy sacrifices with, but conveniently the temple did not have a problem taking that money off a person’s hands. Out of their hands and into the priests’ pockets, who conveniently not defiled to have large sums of it.
What sacrifice was being bough there? The text says doves. That is interesting because the law in the Old Testament allowed two options for a sin offering. If you sinned you could either sacrifice a goat or a dove. Goats obviously cost way more than doves, so if you were rich, you would obviously use a goat. Doves were the choice for the poor.
What we know of temple practices of this day is that doves were being sold at an exorbitant price: two gold coins per pair of doves. The poor had to pay several months of income just to get a pair of birds to sacrifice to God. In other words, the temple was exploiting the poor. The Temple was selling forgiveness. They turned grace into oppression, into a get rich quick scheme.
So the liberator on a donkey, comes into the temple he is supposed to drive out the Roman occupation from, but instead, he starts driving out the religion’s true sickness: greed, exploitation, apathy, hypocrisy. That’s unexpected.
Now we scowl and condemn those Pharisees, how do we do similar things?
How do we limit God’s grace to only those who we think are worthy?
What walls of exclusion have we built for who can come into God’s houses and who do we try to keep out?
Where have we used God’s name to justify our agendas?
How have we invoked our faith to remain comfortable and privileged?
Who have we blamed in order for that to stay the way it is?
If Jesus came into our churches, our lives, while we shout “Hosanna!” what tables would he overturn today?
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from our culture, full of unbelievers and doubters,” Jesus comes and clears the temple of our own faithlessness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those people that are ruining the environment,” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own wastefulness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, make sure I have enough money,” Jesus may come and clear the temple of our lack of generosity.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those greedy CEO’s and corrupt politicians;” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own hypocrisy.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, keep me safe from the coronavirus,” Jesus may come and remind us of our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our society.
As we shout out, “Hosanna,” are we prepared to have God work in us, break us open, overturn our expectations?
3. Who do we expect Jesus to be?
You will notice in this narrative that Jesus had many people respond to him. Some good others not. Which ones are we like?
First, there are the crowds, who proclaimed hosanna with the palm branches, expecting Jesus to be the next military leader. These were the same fickle crowds that just as soon as Jesus was not going to do that, they turned to yell out, “Crucify, crucify!”
When they didn’t get what they wanted out of Jesus, they turned on him. Will we do the same? Will we reject God just because he does not do what we expect him to do? Are we God’s fair-weather friends? Or will we trust God through thick and thin?
The second is the money changers and the Pharisees. These are people invested in the religious system staying the same. They have made their faith all about them. These are people whose identities are built on the idea that they are right and others are wrong. Out of some misdirected sense of piety, they decide who is in and who is out. And of course, they and those like them are the ones who are in and would prefer to keep it that way.
Are we like that? How are we invested in our churches staying the same? How are we invested in our churches looking just like us?
The last group is the sick and the children. The text says that Jesus, after clearing the temple immediately started healing the sick. If you had an illness in that culture, you would have been deemed unclean. In other words, you were excluded from the temple. You could not sacrifice. You could not have forgiveness.
This is not quite the same thing as being quarantined, for the ancient world believed that if you were sick it was because of your sins. You were cursed. You were clearly a sinner.
Jesus healed them, which means Jesus showed them grace and forgiveness that no one else would or could.
This is so wonderful that little children start praising him as the Son of David.
While we take care of those that are affected by sickness in our community, I think if we understand what sickness meant in Jesus’ time, we have to realize something with it. We are all in need of Jesus’ healing.
Without Jesus, we are all excluded from grace. Without Jesus, we are all unworthy.
Without Jesus, we are lost. Without Jesus, we are all broken. Without Jesus, we cannot expect forgiveness.
If we can admit that, can we confess that Jesus everyday – every day – surprises us with even more grace. Why? Because he is just that kind of messiah. He is just that kind of God.
May this prepare us for what lies ahead this week.
As we think about Good Friday, may we trust even more the surprise of the cross: that when we were content to murder Jesus, Jesus was content to love us. Jesus has died our death to offer us his life.
As we think about Easter Sunday, may we trust even more that surprise of the empty tomb, that all that has gone wrong in this world will be put right.
And if we know that Jesus is so unexpectedly patient, unexpectedly loving, unexpectedly gracious, may we be inspired to live that kind of grace out in our world a bit more too.
In a world of ignorance, of greed, of arrogance, of worry and fear, may you be this week a witness for Christ that your neighbours did not expect.
Sermon preached at Wolfville Baptist Church, Sunday, Oct. 20th, 2019.
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…
Which way is your life going? There is a beautiful poem by Robert Frost that goes like this…
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;…
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost tells of the paths we take in life. Some are popular ones; others are unpopular. Some follow well-worn paths; others down the road less traveled. Some are common turns in the road; others are watershed moments: those decisions that reshape your life in a way your will never be the same, you cannot undo, you will forever look back on as momentous.
It is a cliché but life is a journey. The more important question is journey where? What way are you taking?
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction
This psalm almost feels more like a chapter in the Proverbs then the Psalms. Doesn’t it? It is an odd way to begin the Psalms, but it really gets at these prayer-songs’ true purpose.
The Psalms are organized into 5 books which mirror the 5 books of the Law. That is intentional. The longest Psalm, Psalm 119, praises the goodness of the law. That is also intentional.
The Psalms were intended to aid the people of God to follow God better. And this Psalm makes that point clear.
When we pray, we pray for wisdom. When we believe, it is to form and reform the way we live. When we act, it is to seek God’s blessing, his will, his love in the midst of life.
As we will see, the Psalms are the prayers of God’s people through all the up and downs of life, from thanksgiving to lament, from good times and bad, whether season your soul is in, these are intended to teach us how to walk with God better.
What does it mean to be blessed?
We here about blessing thought the Old Testament. God blesses creation on the seventh day of creation. God blesses Abraham to go and be a blessing to all nations.
My personal favorite, Jacob steals his brother’s blessing by dressing up like him while his brother is off hunting. The story says his brother was super hairy, so Jacob puts fur on his arms and goes in and sees his father, who is near blind. His father, Isaac thinks it’s the older brother, Esau from petting his fur-clad, and blesses Jacob. Jacob then high-tails it out of there before his brother gets home, and his brother does not get a blessing, because apparently blessings can get revoked even under false pretenses.
So…What is a blessing?
Blessed is not being rich or getting material stuff, although the patriarchs of the old testament did have those things. Blessing is not some warm and fuzzy feeling either. If you are blessed you are probably happy, but not necessarily. Listen to the beatitudes of Jesus, and you get a sense that blessed is a lot different.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek (the humiliated) for they will inherit the earth Or fast forward to the end: blessed are those that are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
Obviously those who are mourning are not happy. Obviously those that are being persecuted might not have much at all. Blessed does not merely mean you are comfortable in life or happy.
Blessing means something different. Let me take a stab at it. Blessing is God’s approval over your life.
I think how as a child and as a teenager who I strived to make my dad proud of me. I was a good student, so I loved bringing a test home and showing my Dad my grades. I remember his smile, his sense of pride and joy over me doing that. That approval and encouragement in my life, gave me a sense of worth that allowed me to keep going.
I had a Dad that blessed me with that kind of approval and pride in my life. It didn’t matter if I messed up either. He was the kind of Dad that was always proud.
Do you remember the face of you parent when they were proud of you?
Do you strive to live your life longing to do God’s will that way?
Blessed is the sense of God’s approval on your life. It is that deep peace knowing you are living in the will of God, the heart of God, and you know God will use you and bring you into his kingdom, which you are apart of.
You right now, if you trust Jesus, if you are seeking to follow him – and we all mess up following him make no mistake on that – if you are seeking him, trying to follow his way, even if you stumble, even if you are crawling along, you can rest in the fact that God looks at you with a smile, like I said, even if we fail terribly in our walk with Christ, God loves sincerity before perfectionism. You know you have the peace of heaven in store. You know you are a part of his kingdom.
You are like the thief on the cross, where Jesus says, “Today, I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.” You are blessed. Right now. Knowing that beautiful gospel truth that God loves .
You might not have a cent to your name. You might have health problems. You might have stress in your life. Whatever it is, where ever you are at, our problem in this life pale in comparison in knowing God loves us, he has saved us, he has given his life for us, he looks at our lives with a certain deep pride, deep regard, deep joyous love. That is God’s blessing.
Do you strive for God’s blessing? Then comes the question, who is blessed in this Psalm?
Blessed are those, who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
See the metaphor of the journey and way get taken up there: walking in the way of the wicked, the way of sinners or resting along the way in the company of mockers.
Who are the wicked and who are sinners? Well in one sense we are all sinners and we all have wickedness in our hearts, but often the Psalm use it in a more concrete sense of those who very explicitly have turned their backs on God and embrace ways that hurt and harm others.
Just like salvation has multiple sense: we are saved the moment we accept Christ’s forgiveness, then we are being saved as we take of practices of grace in our daily life, and one day we will be saved, vindicated in the final day.
One theologian talked about we have been saved from the penalty of sin, being saved the practices of sin, and one day will be saved from the presence of all sin. It is the second sense, our daily choices to either draw closer to God or turn away, that is what we are talking about here.
Who are mockers? This word for mockers in the Old Testament is synonymous with arrogance, stubbornness, ruthlessness, and hostility.
Mockers are those who have chosen to harden their hearts from God. They have chosen to ignore God’s commands. They have chosen to turn a blind eye to human suffering, choosing to benefit themselves. They live life for themselves and they don’t care.
And when a Christian comes along they mock, they scoff: You believe in God? Pfff… You actually go to church? Boring. You don’t drink or do drugs or sleep around? How on earth do you ever have fun?
They are quick to label you the closed minded one, when they have long since closed their souls off from the pursuit of truth.
They are quick to say they aren’t so bad, they don’t need God to be good people, but in turn their morality is maintained only if it is convenient for them.
They scoff at faith in God, we have all encountered these people. The scary thing is that we are often tempted to join in. We don’t want to be mocked. No one does. We want to be popular and do all that wild and crazy stuff our co-workers brag about on Monday mornings.
There is a seductive allure to the life lived ignoring God. Its so much easier, it is no much more fun.
This is nothing new. It is a temptation that is thousands of years old.
One way seems easy and better, the other seems difficult and unpopular. One leads to life, the other leads to destruction.
How can that be? Let me put it this way. THink of two paths
The first looks straight forward, but actually it is the deadliest road in North America. The Dalton Highway is a 667 km road in Alaska. It is a serene drive, but a dangerous one. The road has numerous potholes due to the frozen ground shifting – we in Sudbury know a think or two about that. I should have put a picture of Maley drive there! Anyways, Dalton highway have fast winds that unexpectingly freeze the road leaving unprepared drivers stuck in the middle of nowhere to freeze to death.
Think of other paths. This might not be a path per se, but it works. Think is Edge Walk in Toronto around the CN Tower. First glance, I know what answer would be if you were to ask me to go on that: no thank you!
But the fact of the matter is it is completely safe. You have a safety harness that ensures you cannot fall. In fact, just last year, a 90 year old lady walked it. It was on her bucket list apparently. Good for her.
Do you see the difference between paths. One looks easy but is in fact very dangerous. One looks impossible, but is in fact quite safe and quite rewarding.
What way is your life taking? Is it towards God or away?
This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Dt. 30:19-20)
How do we follow this difficult way?
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
Notice the importance of meditation, thinking, pondering, wrestling. I think it implies that the way of God is not always so simple, but there is joy in facing difficult realities longing to follow God.
Life will be messy. Life is not black and white. Neither are the Scriptures sometimes because if the Scripture were just simple and nothing more complex to them, they would only offer us shallow truism in the face of life’s perennial questions.
God does not just want us to have all the answers, he wants us to trust him, to walk with him, even to wrestle with him.
I know so many people that quote passages of the Bible in harmful ways rather then taking the time to mediate on them.
I usually encounter two people: One thinks too much of the law directly applies today and falls into literalism and legalism, imposing oppressive rules that don’t function.
The other doesn’t think any of the law applies today and their faith is often vague or action-less. The problem with that is that love and grace demand action, that is why law does apply. If I love someone there are certain things I will do and won’t do. In that regard the law does apply.
It does not make God loves us, and this is the Apostle Paul’s point. But God is pleased when we follow its principles, which get to God’s very heart and will for our lives today.
Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Jesus lived the law out and said if a law does not conform to his summary of the law, the law of love, that the core purpose of the law is not sacrifice but mercy and compassion, if an individual law did not function to promote love and mercy, then Jesus simply saw that individual law as no longer applying.
So, do you meditate on God’s law? John Wesley the great revival preacher said that before he went to bed he would pray asking God whether he had wrong anyone that day and resolved in prayer to fix it or if he had sinned against God, he would ask forgiveness, and resolve to work tomorrow on that aspect of his character.
Do we have that kind of deep self-examination before God? This is what this Psalm is calling us to.
When we do these things, what kind of people do we become?
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
The Psalmist uses this analogy of a rooted tree by the water. Let me take this metaphor further…
There is a tree that grows in the desert called the mesquite tree. It thrives there. Why? Mesquite trees have roots that can go down over forty feet to underground streams.
Mesquite trees in times of drought or in the harsh winds of the dessert, stay green and lush. It is because of their rootedness. Their roots are strong enough to reach streams that refresh them.
The question is whether we are like Mesquite trees. Are we rooted enough in God? Do we nourish our spirits by meditating on God’s law? Do our souls drink from the streams of the Gospel to refresh us?
If we don’t we will wither. If we do, we will produce fruit.
The Apostle says that the whole law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: love your neighbor as yourself. When you do that, when you life in God’s love and for the love of others, not in the pits of laziness or legalism, then our lives produce fruit. Paul describes them in Galatians 5:
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
You see, when we strive to follow his way, when we mediate on his word in wisdom, when we know how the law culminates in prayer and love, and we look for these fruit, the law is fulfilled.
You can weather storms. It is not that storms don’t happen. It is that you can weather them because you have strong roots.
Whatever they do prospers. In the Bible there are kind of two perspectives on obedience and success. This early Psalm expresses the idea that those that do right are virtuous and therefore succeed in life. There is a lot of truth to that.
We also know that the righteous can also find a lot of strife in life. Those that are honest do not always get promoted. Those that are self-less don’t always make a lot of money. Bad things can happen to good people. That is the whole book of Job.
Perhaps you are wondering this: I am trying to follow God, but why did I lose my job? I tried doing what is right, why are more people angry at me? I am honest in my life, why is my health worse? It is in the face of questions like this that we have to reevaluate what true success is.
True success in found in God.
True success is found in trusting the Gospel
True success is found in walking with Christ, through all the ups and downs of life.
True success is knowing that at the end of the age, Christ will turn to you and say, “Well done good and faithful servant.”
That is all that matters. If you are wondering why life has given you the short end of the stick, remember in the eyes of the world we all might be losers and suckers, but in God’s eyes we are kings and queens, ready for the crowns of life.
Are you ready to rest in that, to know that God is enough.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction
You see the success of this world is not success in God’s eyes. They are like chaff. They are like the dry husk of grain that is blown away in the wind.
Some of us that have not grown up on farms might not get the chaff analogy. I was sitting looking out the window and the light shown in. In the beams of light, you can see little particles of dust, normally invisible, gently moving. You can’t even feel them on you hand.
That is the success of this world. They are that dust to God. One day they will be exposed for how inconsequential they are.
The people of God trust in hope that God will return to set right all that has gone wrong. And the sad fact is that those that continue to hold on to the idols of this world will experience this day as a bitter day, a day of destruction.
All the money of the greedy will burn, all the towers of the ambitious will be flattened, monuments will be melted, so much false-accomplishment will be destroyed. Everything that was not done to the glory of God will be no more.
It will be a bitter day because so many have spent their entire lives, they have built their entire lives on things that cannot last. They have refused to build their lives on God.
Jesus warns this:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Mt. 7:13-14)
The question then for us is, will we enter the narrow gate? Will we follow the path of the righteous? Will be build our lives on the things that last or the things that will be dust one day?
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God…
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Lord of ages, you are the beginning and the end. Everlasting God, we know our days are in your care. We trust you and praise you this morning our God. For your faithfulness in our past, your constant care in the present, and for all that your promised to do. We trust you and praise you this morning our God. Come and meet us here today. Amen.
So, tomorrow is New Years. At least it is when we celebrate New Years. The point is an arbitrary marker. Chinese New Year is on February 16. Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) should have been the logical choice, but not everything is logical. Do you know who decided the calendar we use and which day makes the new year?
Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. ordered the modification of the Roman Calendar. Isn’t that cool? He ordered the calendar to change. That’s the kind of power that guy had. “You will all tell time differently if I say so.” Thankfully, he didn’t abuse his power and make everyday his birthday or something like that.
Julius Caesar ordered the insertion of leap years in February. Apparently Greek astronomers had known for over a hundred years before that Earth take s 365.24 days to get around the sun. They figured that out somehow. And so, everyone was worried that every century or so the calendar’s months would correspond to different seasons. So something had to be done, and he did it.
Pope Gregory in the 1500’s modified it further to account for the 0.01 that could not be reconciled with an extra day every four years. Did you know we have leap centuries? Look it up.
So, that is why we as Western people celebrate New Years today…
But New Years, this day we have chosen to make the next bout of 365 days, is supposed to be a time of self-examination, of making resolutions, of the possibility of fresh starts.
You are supposed to stay up to midnight and watch the party and fireworks happening in some more exciting place in the world like Toronto or New York, kiss someone and make a resolution.
In my family the tradition when we were kids was New Years as our annual Monopoly tournament, leading up to the final countdown.
Will anyone make a New Years resolution? Thinking about it?
I bought an exercise bike. Not apart of a New Years resolution per se, but with staying in more in the evenings in the winter for the twins and stuff, I have not gone to dodge-ball. I played dodge-ball religiously the past few years as my way of blowing off steam in the winter. There is something so therapeutic about grown men throwing foam balls at each other. I don’t know why it just is. But, without that winter activity, I figured I would get an exercise bike.
I know a bunch of people that all got gym memberships, and pledges to diet, and quit smoking, whatever last year. I didn’t really stick.
According to one magazine, the ten most commonly broken New Years resolutions are: Lose weight, quit smoking, learn something new, eat healthier, get out of debt, spend more time with family, travel to a new place, be less stressed, volunteer, drink less.
So often we don’t keep our resolutions do we? Who has ever said, “This year I going to X…and this year I mean it!”
I wonder if anyone will make a resolution to stop making resolutions? I think that is the only resolution you can potentially keep!
Some of us think making resolutions are so silly we just don’t bother making them.
For many of us New Years resolutions merely reiterate and repeat the deeper nagging reality that next year is going to be just like this year, second verse same as the first: perhaps a little bit louder, perhaps even a little bit worse.
Insert obligatory worn out rant about US politics here…
New Years for many is just the opposite effect from starting something new: It is a time when people are reminded that nothing new is happening. They are trapped in the same old, same old.
It makes us feel like the Teacher in the cynical wisdom book the Ecclesiastes chapter 1:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?…
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
Is this what it feels like for you? Day an day out, month after month, year after year? Is your life caught in a rut?
The writer of Ecclesiastes, is reflecting on life under the sun, life without taking God into the equation, and he longs for something new, and thinks nothing new can happen in his life because nothing new happens in history either.
So bigger question still is our world caught in a similar rut? Does my life not change because nothing changes?
Is history cyclical? Is history like a video on repeat? His our world just an endless cycle of live and die, good and evil, work and play, fight and love, repeating and repeating with no change or victor or goal?
That is how the ancient pagans viewed time and history. That is the view of time that the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, when he is reflecting about what happens under the Sun – that is without God – he realizes that without God there is nothing new. It is just one thing after another in endless cycles. Time is circular.
Of course, we modern people are not much better. We are not that different than ancient pagans are we?
Once we have debunked the myth of progress – that history is a steady climb into utopia – we fall back into that same cyclical pattern.
I remember sitting in science class learning about how science operates on cause and effect. Everything that exists now, had a cause, and that cause was caused, and that cause was caused, all operating by material laws.
And I remember one person putting up their hand and saying, “What about miracles?” And the professor just kind of fluffed it off: we live in a world of cause and effect, not miracles.
For many modern people, the laws of science means everything that exists happens by natural laws that don’t change. The universe is like a watch with clogs.
This means that the hand and dials on the watch have a fixed course. The hour hand will never go to a thirteen hour and the hands will never go in anything other than a 360 degree turn – just like history. Their courses are fixed. Nothing new under the sun.
If history is like the rotations of a clock, then again we are caught in rotations of birth and death, war and peace, happiness and sadness, ups and downs and back around again.
For some people, I know they do not pursue some kind of resolution purely out of apathy to the notion anything new is even possible. Nothing new under the sun.
My life won’t change because nothing changes
Nothing changes because miracles don’t happen.
Miracles don’t happen because God doesn’t act or reveal himself.
That is the end result of that line of thinking.
But that is not the testimony of Christian Scripture:
We believe in a God that shows up.
We believe in a God that acts in history, changing its course.
We believe in a God that ransomed Israel from Egypt.
We believe that God that came in human form.
We believe that God in Jesus Christ, did miracles, taught redemption, changing peoples lives.
We believe that God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, was buried and three days later altered history in the greatest possible way: he rose from the grave undoing death itself.
We believe that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven and sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us.
In short we do confess that something new can happen. History is no endless cycles but something guided by God towards an end he desires.
That means our lives can have something new. That means our lives can have direction and purpose.
Why? We believe with God all things are possible.
Here is what God tells Isaiah to give to people:
Isaiah 43: 16-19:
This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
He is referencing the exodus, and saying, see that powerful event, forget it! I will do something even different than that. I am a God of surprises. I am a God that cannot be boxed in. God is the I am that I am. God is the God of possibility and he will do something new.
Something is possible because God is a living God.
By the way, scientist are realizing that miracles and the laws of science aren’t necessarily at odds either. Quantum physics – that is a field that you need to go on the internet and google some stuff up about – quantum physics looks at how atoms are events of relational energy all the way down, and this is showing us more and more that our world is open to new events, surprising occasions, and mystery.
Every moment has some degree of inexplicability to it. Every moment leads us to ask, why was there a whole new moment at all? What holds this whole world together? What mystery lies beneath it all?
It is actually a sound scientific statement that every moment is in some way a miracle.
The world was created open and mysterious, not locked in and fixed.
Same thing with your life.
I read a fascinating argument the other day that all the miracles that Jesus did, they all work with willing participants.
Jesus in Mark 5 says to the woman, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
When Peter stops looking at Jesus, he sinks into the water.
Even the Pharisee with a withered hand is asked to stretch it out, which if he did not trust Jesus in some way, he wouldn’t have.
While God is a God of power, he is also a God of freedom and relationship. God could solve all our problems with a snap of the fingers, but he prefers not to coerce. His way is be inspiring, persuading, and inviting us into his redemption.
God is always there, always ready to act, the question is whether we can see it, will trust it, will participate with it, will invite God in….
Jesus never heals someone that does not believe he could be healed in the first place. In fact, Mark 6 goes so far as to say that Jesus could not do any miracle with those that refuse to trust him. Listen to these verses:
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Now, this doesn’t mean just because have to want something and you will get it from God.
God is not a vending machine, and I have met a lot of people that beat themselves up think it is their fault God did not act in their lives.
That is surely not the case.
Sometimes we forget that the greatest miracles, the greatest works of God is simply moving our hearts to love or realizing God’s presence and peace in the midst of chaos.
I know someone that struggles with terrible depression. Many times they prayed, God heal me! Each time wondering if they just did not have enough faith, which of course, made their depression worse, thinking they were being punished by God or that God had left them.
But it struck them reading the Gospel’s of Jesus inseparable unconditional love for people hurting and broken. This truth gave them a different kind of miracle, I think, it is the most common and most precious: the gift of a different perspective.
They saw their life through a different perspective.
They were not far away from God, they were close to God.
They were not forsaken by God, they were loved by God.
They were not being punished by God, they were being used by God.
They realized that they could use their story to draw close to others struggling with depression and give them comport in the way only someone who also wrestles with depression can give.
To this day, this person regards their lot in life – depression and all – to be a blessing, a miracle, a gift.
The question is are you ready to view your life that way too?
Are you ready to stop seeing your life as an endless cycle of the same thing and start seeing every moment you have as a miracle, a gift from God, an opportunity to seize?
Are you ready to open your life up to how the Holy Spirit can remake your life for his good purposes? Are you excited about what new thing he can do with you as you trust him?
Do you want to hear my theory about why so many new Years resolutions don’t work? I’ll tell you. It isn’t because they are too ambitious.
It is because they are not ambitious enough. If your new years resolution is only about what you eat, don’t be surprised that you are going to keep eating what you have always been eating.
If you seek to change just your weight, as if your weight is all that matters, don’t be surprise that does not change.
If you seek to get a gym membership, as if your life plus going to the gym is going to be that much better, that probably won’t fulfill you.
Remember what Matt 6:3: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all things – everything you worry about – will be added unto you.
Let’s make this year the year that you draw close to God in a new way.
Let’s make this year the year of trusting our God that can do all things.
Let’s make this year the year God works something new in your life as your trust in him.
Lord of history. You are alpha and omega, beginning and the end. To you, a thousand years are as a day. Time is in your hands. You are the great I am. You are not bound by our world. You offer us hope of a new day. You offer us hope because you raised your son Jesus Christ from the grave. You offer us hope because we know you are a God that loves, acts, and redeems.
Renew us by your Holy Spirit. Break the barriers of sin and despair. Break the barriers of apathy and arrogance. Allow us to see the dawn of your light.
Renew us by your Holy Spirit, that while we have breath and life we may serve you with courage and hope through the grave of your son, our savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Holy Spirit we invite you into our lives.
Holy Spirit we trust you to remake us new today.
Holy Spirit transform our hearts so that we may walk closer to Jesus Christ.
Holy Spirit come into our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world, so that you may be all in all.
We pray that your kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for the restoration of all things, the salvation of all people, and may these begin with me now.