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.
We have all heard the Christmas story before.
The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.
About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married
It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.
A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.
It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.
It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.
It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.
It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.
It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.
It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.
And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.
This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.
It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.
It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.
It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.
The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.
Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.
It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.
Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.
It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.
But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.
Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.
We live in an apathetic age.
Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.
There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.
Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.
The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.
Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.
It is unbelievable.
Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.
They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.
…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.
This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.
God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?
Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.
We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.
With God all things are possible.
If we grant that, this story starts making sense.
Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.
These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.
The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.
Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.
The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.
Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?
Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?
Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?
Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?
Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?
Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.
We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?
Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?
Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?
Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?
Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?
Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.
What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.
Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.
In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.
Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.
In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.
Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.
After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.
He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.
Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?
How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?
We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.
You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.
There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.
If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?
If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?
If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?
If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?
If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.
Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…
Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.
May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives
May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.
May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.
May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.
May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.
May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.
May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.
May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.
May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]
This Monday we got to see a solar eclipse. This is just one way that we can look out at the world and see creation.
The Scriptures have a section in it called the Psalms. These are poems of prayer, praise, lament, thanksgiving, and confession, compiled for God’s people to recite in worship to God. At some point, perhaps next summer, I might preach through a number of Psalms.
The Psalms are poems by the people of God, usually king David, that speak inspired truths about who God is, who we are, and in this case, the beautiful universe we live in. It really takes a poet to describe the beauty of God and the world, doesn’t it?
Psalm 19 is a brilliant Psalm. It is brilliant because of the movement of the poetry. It goes from seeing God in the beauty of the universe, then in the laws of morality, and this moves David to humility and repentance. Beauty moves us to responsibility, which moves us to humility and repentance. This is the way this Psalm wants us to experience something beautiful like a solar eclipse.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The Heavens Tell the Glory of God.
What is glory? That is a term we often use as Christians. Some people after watching the movie Dunkirk referred to that battle as “glorious.” What does that mean? The Hebrew word for “glory” is kavod, and kavod has a rich meaning. It means about three things:
It means splendor, the way a king’s throne and robes and throne room has splendor. Ever come into an old cathedral and feel moved by its beauty? That is splendor. It is beauty kicked up a notch. It is beauty that moves us.
It also means honor. A king is glorious not merely because of his robes, but because of his significance. Think of a king returning from battle, securing stability and safety for his people by risking his life, fighting with courage. That warrants respect and honor.
When we honor someone we recognize their importance for us. When we give God glory in worship, we honor him. We tell God the importance he has. We do this not because God needs it, but because it is good to tell God we love him, to remind ourselves how important God to us, to remind ourselves of all that he has done for us. God has given us life and redemption, if we forget to honor him, that is a step of vast stupidity on our parts.
So, glory can mean splendor and honor and also abundance. That is not the best term. Magnitude would be better.
Have you been in a situation where you realized that this is a moment that could change your life? I remember the birth of my son, Rowan. Holding my first son in my arms reminded me of the weight of responsibility I had but also the privileged and joy. I felt the magnitude of the situation. Glory is the magnitude of God.
When we look up at a starry sky we are reminded of the glory of God: his splendor in its moving beauty, his honor, knowing his importance – that if the universe is so big, and God is bigger and we are so small, so dependent on God, God is important.
We are finite creatures; he is infinite. We are dependent; he is absolute – seeing the universes size, knowing his magnitude, the creator of all this. It leaves us awestruck. It leaves us without words. It takes our breath away.
The heavens tell the glory of God.
Are You Listening?
The next few lines are odd. Day after day the heavens pour our speech, but there are no words. Oh. No voice is heard, but indeed, there is a voice. What is the poet, David, here trying to get at?
At Laurentian University, there is a large library where I go to get out books. I usually go get books when I have a spare moment. I am always pressed for time. Hunting down books can be really annoying.
In front of the Laurentian library there is a Starbucks, and one time, I was feeling in need of a pick-me-up to keep slugging through stuff, so I got a coffee there (I’ll say something blasphemous, but I like Starbucks’ coffee better than Tim Hortons – but I also really like super strong coffee). I sat and sipped a coffee before I headed back to my office. I looked up and there was a massive painting, three panels, taking up the entire wall above me. I had never noticed that there before. I had been so much in a hurry that all the dozens of times I had walked past it, I never noticed it.
Finally, sitting there, I got to just take in the artwork. It was just a beautiful array of color in the shapes of exotic flowers. In ended up being just a delightful moment in my day, enjoying the beauty of this painting.
But I never would have seen it if I did not stop and look.
It is amazing how we can become blind to things around us. It is even more amazing that we can become blind to God’s glory. We can become deaf to this voice.
Our faith has profound answers, but many now, are too distracted with work and pleasure and all the wrong in the world to even bother asking the questions. That includes us Christians too. We have become deaf to the voice. Too caught up in work, too caught up in routine. We fail to see the beauty.
You look up at a beautiful sky, how can you not feel small and ask, “Is there something more to us?” Or look at the sun and moon and stars and ask, “What made all this? What is the purpose of life? Why is there all this rather than nothing?” If you don’t, I suspect you are rushing and missing their full splendor.
When we wonder, we start listening. We beginning listening to that voice that speaks without words, as this psalm tells us. Something made this. Something bigger than them. This all has a purpose. This all has a meaning. Their beauty reminds us of God. The question is, are you listening?
Are we watching for God’s splendor? Are we listening for the traces of God’s honor? Are we a wake to his magnitude all around us?
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
A Flat Earth? God Meets Us Where We Are At…
Notice that it describes the heavens as a tent for thus sun. That warrants a bit of explanation.
The other day I had perhaps one of the most bizarre conversations I have ever had in my life.
I met a person on line (which if there is anything good about the internet, it is for meeting bizarre people).
This person was convinced that the earth was flat. I asked, “why?” I did not even think this perceptive existed, so I really was curious how he came to hold this view. He said the Bible teaches the earth is flat. He used this very psalm. He also gave a set of really bad pseudo-scientific references.
Anyways, for sake of this person, not that many people hear are worried about this kind of thing, but the Bible was indeed written for a people that thought the world was flat, yes.
It is important to say, the Bible assumes that language, but does not teach it.
This is because the ancient world assumed the world was flat with the sky as a hard dome over top, much like this picture here. The earth was flat and rested on pillars.
Here is a picture of the universe how Egyptians believed it was. See how they thought the sky was actually the body of a goddess, Nut, held up by the air god, Shu, resting on the earth god, Ged? They believed that the sky was a surface, a person actually.
Notice that the Bible resists deifying these things. But why does it talk this way? The Bible uses a bit of this language because God means us where we are at. Jesus teaches that faith is like a mustard seed, which he says is the smallest seed. Now, actually in point of fact, the iris seed is smaller, but for that time and place, they knew of no smaller seed. Is Jesus interested in correcting their inaccurate understanding of the size of seeds? No. He is interested in teaching redemptive truths in ways the people at the time would understand.
Other passages of the Bible mention the monsters Rahab, Lilith, Leviathan, and Behemoth. It is not because these things are real, but because the ancient people thought they were real.
It is sort of like how my son the other day was scarred that monsters were going to get him. At first I told him, these things don’t exist, but that did not take the fear out of the situation for my son. So, I got him to pray that God is greater than anything that could ever hurt us. That worked. I think that is what is going on here. God is not interested in saying, “those things don’t exist silly!” but something more like, “whatever you could be afraid of, I am greater than that.”
God meets us where we are at.
We don’t think about the world is flat that way and Christians truth is not bound to that kind of cultural assumption. God was just meeting them there where they are at.
That is just the way a non-scientific culture thought about the world.
It was Greek astronomers in the 3rd century BC that discovered the world might actually be a sphere, and Christians had no problem accepting this.
We still talk that way when we say “sunrise and sunset” even though we know that the sun does not actually move, it is the earth that revolves around the sun.
We know that because Copernicus and Galileo discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth. The church originally held that the sun revolves around the earth, but very quickly adopted Galileo’s findings because the church realized that this was not harmful to the essence of Christian faith.
So again, Christians have no problem accepting new legitimate scientific findings, since we know that God is always pleased to talk to us where we are at, as we are in a process of discovery.
This psalm uses the ancient language of the culture around it because God was meeting them where they understanding was and teaching them his beauty in the way they knew.
Some have called the Bible sexist, but again, it is important to keep in mind that the Bible met us where we are at. It assumes a patriarchial culture, but that does not mean we teach that today.
Some have called the Bible too violent, but again, while God met people when they were at their mist brutal, God pulled them deeper into non-violence. The Bible assumes great violence, meets us there, but does not teach it today.
Some have called the Bible oppressive. It has slavery in it. Again, while the world of the Bible has slavery, that does not mean, when we listen to its spirit, that we are to teach slavery today.
The Bible meets us where we are at, then seeks to advance us forward into a more redeemed way of life. It speaks to the young gang-member just as much as to the old missionary. It uses the language we understand to move us from where we are to where God wants us to be.
So where are we at today?
Here is a picture from the Hubble space telescope. It is a picture of hundreds of galaxies. Each dot is not a star, but a galaxy, going off into space. Beautiful is it not? The Hubble, a remarkable piece of technology, is showing us aspects of God’s creation that we never knew existed.
We are but a planet with a sun, in a galaxy of about 300 billion stars, and the milky way galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.
The ancient people might not have had the instruments like a Hubble space telescope to understand that figure, so God was not interested in telling them something they did not understand.
And make no mistake, the magnitude of that is beyond our comprehension as well. But does the truth of this ancient poem, inspired by God still ring true?
Yes. The grandeur of this speaks to us again. Its splendor speaks: who made this? What brought this into existence? Who has ordered all these stars and galaxies?
Are we watching for God’s splendor? Are we listening for the traces of God’s honor? Are we awake to his magnitude all around us? The heavens tell the glory of God! Are you listening?
If you are, the next step is realizing our responsibility…
From Beauty to Responsibility
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure,
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
When we see parallel statements, I think the poet is trying to make a point. Six times David mentions the law of God six different ways using six different adjectives: law statutes, precepts, commands, reverence, decrees, which are perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, and firm.
It is like he can’t say enough good things about the law of God. He is almost nagging us about its goodness, trying to get it into our heads, the way a parent keeps nagging their children to wash their hands before dinner.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Two things fill me with wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
These two are connected for Kant and for King David. Beauty moves us to responsibility.
As the stars remind us that there must be something bigger than ourselves physically, it suggests, perhaps, all our ways are accountable to someone bigger than us, spiritually.
When we recognize the grandeur of beauty, we are humbled to responsibility.
If the world is wondrous, life is sacred. If it is sacred, it ought to be protected.
If the world is lovely, life is a gift. If it is a gift, it ought to be cherished.
Here is the jump from “is” to “ought.” If life has value, it demands a responsible way of valuing it.
And so, God did not just give us the world, we have us a way. He did not just give us life, he gave us his law.
God did not give us laws to burden us, but to liberate us. When we understand God’s law through Jesus’ example, through his summary of the law as love, obeying Jesus is a way of cherishing life in the fullness God wants for us. All the commandments, understood through Jesus, do this.
Don’t lie…God knows life is better when we are honest with ourselves and each other.
Don’t kill…God knows life is better when we don’t seek to hurt one another.
And so on and so forth.
But the first law is important for our purposes today: The first law God gave us is I am the Lord your God, you will not have any other God except me.
While there were not many, there were fractions of wiccans that used the solar eclipse as an event to engage in ritual worship of the sun last Monday.
They worship the sun because they believed that the eclipse had the power to bring new life in them. It is important to note that while the ancient people looked to the sun and saw something so powerful it obviously should be a deity, the Hebrew people under God’s guidance knew the true purpose of the sun. It shows the splendor of God and it gives us heat. That’s it.
Nature moves us to awe at it, God’s law stops us from worshiping it.
We do not worship creation, because creation did not make itself. But there is other important thing.
If we worship the way things are, we are saying there is no force out there that can make this world better. That which is, is all there is, and the way things are, are the way things will stay.
But God is a living God, able to make this world new, better. That is why we honor him.
Also, the sun cannot give new life. The stars cannot give us a better future. We do not buy into horoscopes or astrology, why? God gives us a choice to embrace a future that these things cannot predict or predetermine.
Only God can forgive sins. Only God can have a personal, renewing, saving relationship with us. Not the sun. That is why we worship him.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
From Responsibility to Humilty
We see the movement. Beauty moves us to responsibility, responsibility to humility. This humility is expressed in repentance and prayer.
We just don’t do the beauty of the world justice if we look at it, without thinking there is something bigger than ourselves. We cannot think of something bigger than ourselves without realizing we are accountable to something more than ourselves. And we can’t realize that we accountable to something more than ourselves without realizing we have failed to live up to that standard.
Discount all this: Even if the only standard we have for morality is ourselves, we do not live up to even our own standard, let alone God’s perfect one.
I commit to being selfless, but I am always selfish.
I commit to loving my wife, but I know I don’t do enough everyday there.
I commit to telling the truth, but I am aware that under pressure I don’t give accurate statements.
I could go on. What is it for you? Even by our own standards of integrity we fail.
This is why there must be more than all this. There must be a God that made us. There must be a God that knowns us. There must be a God that loves us and wants to forgive us.
We know the sun cannot do this. There is nothing in the world that can do this. Forgiving ourselves is too easy. We don’t have the right to forgive ourselves when we are not even faithful to our own standard, let alone if we wrong another.
Where do we find forgiveness? Some people might look at the stars and conclude there is a God, but only the Bible, only its witness to Jesus tells us God is forgiving.
David knows he is forgiven even of his unintentional faults because of who God as revealed himself to be.
God has revealed himself as not only a God that exists, but as a God that forgives.
This revelation came to perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He drew near to us taking on our humanity. He lived a perfect life to show us a perfect moral standard. Yet people put him to death, because they could not stand to be reminded that there was a greater standard than their self-righteousness.
He chose to count his execution as a sacrifice, atoning for the sin of all people, a sign that God himself was willing to die the death penalty on our behalf to show that God forgives us of even our worst sins.
All we need to do is to trust this, to ask forgiveness, to let the light in.
Clear me from hidden faults! Says David. Clean me from the inside out. Then I shall be blameless.
Then he says,
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
God is a rock and redeemer. He is strong, unmovable, secure. He is someone you can build your life on. He is our redeemer, our rescuer, our savior.
Knowing this, it is our joy to live our entire lives devoted to him, walking with him, trusting that the God who loves us enough to die for us, has the best life possible in mind for us.
This leads us to pray, longing for every aspect of our lives to be in conformity to his will: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you. Nothing else matters.
Can I let you in on a secret? The solar eclipse in all its beauty is simply dull in comparison to a heart that has awoken to God’s glory.
Can this be your prayer today?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
My wife and I, on our honeymoon, did a Mediterranean cruise. We saw Malta, Naples and Pompei, Rome and the Vatican, Florence and Pisa, and finally Cannes, France.
Florence was a gorgeous city. We toured the city’s cathedrals, and through the streets we saw statue after statue, all by walking along very picturesque cobble stone roads.
We came to the city center where the Duomo was. This is a massive cathedral constructed by the same architect that did the St. Peter’s Basilica. The baptismal chapel on the one end of the Duomo has gold gates, called the “Gates of Paradise,” lined with plates of biblical artwork.
I remember thinking, we really don’t have stuff like that in Canada. We don’t have the depth of history like a place like Florence does.
The tour took a break and so I want to the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, one of the other people on the tour started talking to me. Apparently it was acceptable to talk to others in a bathroom in his culture.
“Are you enjoying the tour?”
“Yes, the gates were awesome,” I said.
“You’re an American, yes?” he asked.
Of course, I replied, “No, I’m Canadian.”
To which he replied with one of the most insulting things you could say to a Canadian in that instance: “Oh, same thing!”
If this was hockey, the gloves would have come off!
So, I turn to him and asked, “Your ascent – its Irish, isn’t it?”
“No, I am from London.”
To which I replied, “Oh, same thing!”
Now, since then, that story has caused me to reflect on what it is to be a Canadian. What does it mean to be a Canadian? Are we, as John Wing joked, “Unarmed Americans with healthcare”?
This is not as obvious a question as it sounds. Yes, I was born in the area in between the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans, North of America and South of Greenland, but that does not tell us much about what it means to be a Canadian. That’s geography. However that may tell us something or two.
“Canada [geographically] is like an old cow. The West feeds it. Ontario and Quebec milk it. And you can well imagine what it’s doing in the Maritimes.” – Tommy Douglas
My apologies to all the Maritimers in the room.
Anyways, what I am talking about is being a “true Canadian.” Is there such a thing?
Do Canadians have a particular culture? We love hockey. We love camping. Outdoor sports in general. Everyone in this room knows what it is like to walk out of your house in the winter and breathe in -45 degree Celsius air.
Canadian food: Maple Syrup, bacon, Nanaimo bars, poutine with globs of gravy and cheese curds, beaver tails, etc.
We like to drink unhealthy amounts of coffee, double double. We get our milk in liter plastic bags, not jugs.
Our money is all sorts of goofy colors, and for some reason, the Canadian mint is slowly turning all our bills into progressively larger coins. The 5 and 10 dollar coins are coming, people. What then? I think eventually we will have 20 dollar coins the size of frisbees and eventually 100 coins the size of manhole covers!
We have iconic figures like beavers, moose, the Canada goose. We are apparently really proud of our wildlife!
We sort of go to those kinds of things in order to understand ourselves, but those kinds of things are pretty surface level and outward. That does not tell us a whole lot about us. Hopefully there is more to us than that.
The fact that we have receded into those kinds of cutesy notions of who we are shows what the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan said decades ago:
“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”
McLuhan was the man that stated, “The medium is the message.” Canada had these brilliant culture philosophers like George Grant and Northrop Frye that no one really remembers today. It’s kind of sad.
Anyways, we are a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, not a culture but a set of cultures, and that leads us to feel a sense like we don’t have a uniform set of values. We often don’t feel like we know who we are deep down as Canadians.
However, interestingly enough, while many Canadians are unaware of it, there is a bizarre consensus in Canada on values.
In college I read the book, Fire and Ice: Canada, the United States, and the Myth of Converging Values. It was a bit of an eye opener. Canada, according to sociologist Michael Adams, is becoming very different from its American counterparts. We are similar to Americans, but as far as values goes, the presence of America to the South of us as caused us to be increasingly different form them on lots of stuff.
That is one way of saying who we are, isn’t it? Canadians are not Americans. Whoever we are, we ain’t that. We are proudly not that.
We always define ourselves in terms our brothers and sisters to the south. Pierre Trudeau once likened North America to a bed where Canada was a beaver trying to sleep next to a raging Elephant (the US).
And while Americans assume they have a more uniform melting pot kind of culture and Canada has a multi-cultural, diverse culture, Canada is actually far more uniform from sea to sea than the US. That’s ironic.
In values of Authority vs. Individuality and Survival vs. Fulfillment, American regions are very diverse: the Deep South is strongly Authority-Survival, South Atlantic is Individuality-Survival. Some states were closer to Authority-Fulfillment while others closer to Individuality-Fulfillment. Meanwhile, all Canadian provinces fell within the Individuality-Fulfillment quadrant.
What does that mean? Here are some of his statistics: Only 20% of Canadians attend church weekly versus 42% for Americans. Only 18% of Canadians feel that the father must be Master of the house versus 49% for Americans. 71% of Canadians felt that a couple living together were family versus 49% for Americans. Only 25% of Canadians were prepared to take great risks versus 38% of Americans. Only 17% of Canadians feel a widely advertised product is probably good versus 44% of Americans
Adam’s said, and I think this sums it up well: Americans would be more likely to brag about a new car; Canadians more likely to brag about the trip they went on.
Adams feels that “an initially conservative society like Canada has ended up producing an autonomous, inner-directed, flexible, tolerant and socially liberal people. On the other hand, “an initially liberal society like the US has ended up producing a people who are materialistic, outer-directed, intolerant and socially conservative.”
Now, here is the important question for today. Does that make our culture the right one?
According to the news, people from both American and Britain have been googling “How to move to Canada” at record rates, but I think that is short-sighted.
I don’t think anyone of them is necessarily bad or good. I see things like and things I am concerned about in those statistics. Sure there are cultures that have strong education or have less crime or promote religion. However that can all have good aspects and bad aspects.
Of course, if we said that Canada’s culture was the best, we would be saying that out of bias, and we would also be failing to cultural arrogance, which is not good.
The fact is that you can take your culture in a good way or a bad way. You can’t blame your culture for stuff you know is wrong. Any culture has upsides and downsides. The point is to be aware of it. There will be extremes. Culture is not necessary a thing to be opposed in faith, but is something to be understood critically, placing our faith and discernment first. We need to celebrate the good and work at eliminated the bad.
Christians have usually two dangerous responses to our cultural identities:
(1) Isolation: Churches that Retreat from Culture
This is very common of fundamentalist churches. Our culture is bad, impure, evil, so lets huddle in our faith bunker where it is safe.
Churches that get isolated don’t use the goodness the Spirit of God has planted in the culture to use to communicate the Gospel. Paul knew this when he spoke to the people at Mars Hill.
There is no such thing as a culture-less church. No church is free from culture. God did not intend it that way. The Bible was written within a culture of its own, but the Word of God speaks to all cultures. The church should be working to promote the best of culture. The point is discerning the good from the bad.
It is not weather we will have a Canadian culture within us or not, the question is will we be aware of it and response appropriately.
Canadians are more skeptical about consumerism and war, and more hospitable to immigrants. That’s good. I think Jesus was too!
Canadians are individuals that value strong relationships over institutions and programs. That is something we can work with.
Canadians might be skeptical about religion, but they are open to talking about justice, spirituality, ideals, and values. In a round about way, that sounds religious!
Lots of people want to lament that our culture is becoming less Christian. That is true in one way, but that does not mean the Spirit has stopped working in our culture to make opportunities for the Gospel.
(2) Accommodation: Churches Claim All Culture for their Own
The worst example of this in history is when Emperor Constantine in the third century made Christianity the state religion. To be Roman was to be Christian. To be Christian was to be Roman. Roman law was ordained by God. The church went to war against Rome’s enemies.
We saw horrific examples of this in Nazi Germany where the state church proclaimed Hitler to be chosen by God to bring glory back to Germany.
We see the same in the British Empire. Where the Anglican Church sanctioned colonialism. The British colonized half the world and now complain about immigrants taking their identity!
We see this also in America today, sadly. American wars for oil have become evangelical crusades against Muslims. The American motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is preached as gospel in some churches.
We Canadians can do the same.
I think ours is a culture of apathy and skepticism. We have allergic reactions to organized anything, except organized sports. We have trouble committing to community. We are terribly afraid of offending people with the truth. We are individualists that don’t know who we are and don’t want you to tell us.
That comes out in our religion.
We say stuff like, “I believe Jesus in my Lord and Saviour, but that is just my personal opinion.” (A joke often made by the ethicist, Stan Hauerwas).
We are multi-cultural, which is great. But also we have allowed tolerance to go a bit too far. There are two kinds of tolerance, by the way. One kind says, “You are different from me, so please help me understand you, and let me make a space for you, so that we can have peace.” That’s good.
There is bad tolerance that says, “I don’t know you, I don’t care, you stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours. If we bump into each other at Foodland, lets have a shallow conversation about the weather or local sports team, but not anything meaningful, let along religious.”
We are terribly afraid of speaking truth and very afraid to commit to organization and community. That fear has caused us to shrink back from opportunities to encourage people with the Gospel. We are so afraid of offending people that we miss opportunities to encourage.
When we think about our nationality, we have to be critical. We are called to be “in the world and not of the world”
We need to understand that there is good and bad in our culture. We need discernment to that we do not fall into nationalism. Being Canadian can be a good thing, but not necessarily.
This is why we look to how we are apart of another nation: the kingdom of heaven…