“Longing to be at One”: Sermon for the CTS Prayer Service
Preached at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Sacred Heart University for the Prayer Service of the College Theology Society and National Baptist Professors of Religion (Region at Large)
Friday June 2, 2023, in anticipation of Trinity Sunday
Scripture Reading: John 17: 1-26
As I said before, my name is Spencer Boersma. I am a Baptist pastor and theologian, and I teach at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada. My regular courses are Introductions to Christian Theology, parts 1 and 2, at the grad level there. What that often means is that I get to take some plucky grad students through doctrines of incarnation, atonement, soteriology and such. Some I get the sense they come to class from churches so dogmatic, I think in their minds they do not need this class. Others come from churches that don’t go near theology with a ten-foot pole. Well, needless to say, it makes things interesting.
When we get to the doctrine of the Trinity, there are always mixed feelings. It’s important for most people in their minds, but they don’t get it. It’s fundamental but fuzzy. I tell them about Dorothy Sayers (which they have no idea who that is), and how she once joked that she felt like the Trinity was something theologians thought up one day to make life harder for the rest of us. To this, I like to admit to my students, “Ya’caught me, Dorothy! You do know how I love to make things difficult for my students!” (That is when I say it is just a joke, and the students look at me unconvinced).
As we come upon Trinity Sunday, we have to admit that probably most of us at one point have sympathized with Sayer’s feelings on the matter. Why has the mystery of the Trinity been so onerous? Too often, the Trinity has been captured in impersonal analogies – if any of you have ever wondered why it just wasn’t comforting to know that God is like a clover or like an egg or like an ice cube. And we wonder why it does not connect with people.
Too often, the Trinity is relegated to an appendix of theology: an unnecessary fixture some will just eventually have removed.
Or worse: Too often, the Trinity is the club to bludgeon the dissenter rather than nurse the sick soul.
Dorothy Sayers followed up her joke about the Trinity with a really good piece of advice about understanding the doctrine: if you want to understand the doctrine, you need to look at the drama. If you want to understand the our Triune God, look at the narrative of the Bible.
To confess Christ is to attest to how we have found ourselves in a story where the Creator, who reveals Godself as One, the I am who I am – this God, who appears to the men and women, who rescues and redeems Israel out of bondage, who makes covenants and sends prophets – this God longs to be with humanity fully and unreservedly. This God longs to be at one with us.
This God, who is beyond all things, is also the root of all existence, in whom we live and move and have our being. This God is transcendent and infinite, but this God is also Spirit, the breath of life, closer to us than we are to ourselves.
It is this God who has chosen to come in the form of Jesus Christ, God Immanuel, the messiah who perfectly enfleshes the presence of the God Israel worshiped but also fulfills the longing for righteousness Israel was called to. Jesus shows us that God has come to be at one with us.
Yet, we are not at one. Oh no, we are not at one.
As I said, we travelled down from Nova Scotia. It was a beautiful but long drive. It was made a bit longer to get stopped and searched at the border (that is a story for another time). Anyways.
I live about an hour outside of the province’s major city, Halifax, and if you did not know, we left in the knowledge that parts of Halifax, a city of about a million people, are being evacuated due to a forest fire that is right now about 20 000 hectares (that is over 75 square miles). Hundreds of homes have been destroyed by a fire caused by such dryness that is unheard of for a province that literally has ocean on all sides of it.
Of course, the news is quick to point out the obvious answers as to why: They say the fire was probably caused by someone walking along in the forest having a cigarette and turning and flicking their butt into the dry grass. The weather is getting more and more severe because we are dealing with the effects of climate change. While Nova Scotia has moved to have among the best recycling practices on the continent, there is still so much to be done in our energy sector, which is still very reliant on oil, and our climate is affected by practices all over the world. And at the end of the day, all it took was one person to flick a cigarette, and now, 200 families might not have homes to come back to.
It is things like a forest fire that remind us that a city of a million people still is a community, depending on one another, needing one another; affected by the choices of one another; that our states and providences and nations, just like individuals are not self-enclosed, independent, self-reliant units, able to carry one without help or to help others. We are dependent on the earth and the seas, the fish and the animals, for the very processes of life that sustain us. We are learning the hard way that we are all connected. Where one acts irresponsibly, all are affected, but also, where one suffers, all suffer.
And yet, history is a sad record of humanity, Christians included, choosing to ignore this fact. Our lives are marred with reminders that we are living alienated from nature and each other. We are divided against the very things we need most. We are killing ourselves because we are constantly failing to see ourselves, our fate, and our identity, as dependent on others. We know we need to be one; we long to be at one with each other; we long for unity and harmony where we can all be ourselves, and others can be themselves in peace with the earth, and yet, we are not at one. We have given in to greed and selfishness or just slipped into an easy thoughtlessness, too concerned with the rat race of life.
We find ourselves reliving this story of humanity again and again, which comes to a particular apex and intensity when people rejected Jesus’ invitation to step into the oneness of God, the kingdom of heaven. Jesus died on the cross, executed by an instrument of imperial oppression orchestrated by the corrupt religious institution, but also betrayed by the ones Jesus was closest with. The cross discloses the tragic depth of our proclivity to refuse to be at one with God and others.
It is here we must remember that Jesus bore the consequences of human division. As the people cried out, “Crucify him!” he prayed for their forgiveness.
And yet, for Jesus, God in human flesh, for him to die as one counted as a sinner, yet one with the Father, God has revealed through Jesus Christ God’s loving solidarity with every human being, no matter how lost or sinful. God chooses to see Godself in us and with us.
So often, we are tempted to lose heart, to recoil and collapse under the weight of our guilt and shame, when we think about the state of our world, our complicity in things like racism, colonialism, climate change, or just our individual apathy to the needs of others we encounter on a daily basis – there is so much that might cause us to shrink back and say we don’t deserve a better world. We deserve what is coming to us.
It is in these moments of condemnation that we are encountered by a presence, a love that invites us to see that we are loved with the same perfect love the Father has for his own only begotten Son.
Our Gospel is that in the cross and resurrection, God has shown us who God is.
God is the God that stands with the least of us, the god-forsaken, the oppressed, the outcasts, the sinners: all of us.
God is the God who, in our darkest moments, the comforting Spirit comes, one with us, bringing the presence of undeserved hope.
This God who is God above has come and walked with us in Christ as God beside us and has redeemed us with the Spirit, leading us forward as God within us and through us.
And so, the Apostle John challenges us to be at one with each other in a similar way to how the Father is at one with the Son and how God is at one with us: May they be one as we are one. He prays for his disciples, and he is praying for us today: God knows I could use some prayer on this.
I had my family call me from Ontario, wondering if I was safe and okay with the fires they had heard about in Nova Scotia. I caught myself saying, “I am okay. This does not affect me.”
I caught myself doing something we all too easily do: since hardship or oppression does not touch my immediate experience, my job and family, I conclude I am not affected.
One reason the Trinity feels abstract is that we so often use it as just one more way to honour God with our lips (and perhaps our cognitive minds), but the reality is our hearts are far from God.
Again, folks are so often tempted to see the Trinity as some abstract idea (and we theologians can admit some part in that), but the Trinity flows from our relationship with God. It is an invitation into the movements of worship and prayer, service and sacrifice that speaks to the essence of who we are and the only way we can move forward: We are connected; we belong to one another. And in God’s choice to be bound to us, to refuse to let us go, we are awakened to our responsibility to others – more than this, our sacred privilege, our witness – beginning with our fellow Christians, whether we are Catholic or Baptist, American or Canadian, whatever our race, sex, or status – it begins with us who have awoken to the reality that we are all children of God.
As we leave this place, will we persist in seeing ourselves as removed and unaccountable and unaffected? Or will we choose to see ourselves in others? Will we weep with those who weep, seeing others suffering as our suffering? Will we see choose to see the success of others as the measure of our success?
May we, daily in choices, grand or small, step into the oneness of God, who will one day be all in all. Amen.
Systems of Slavery and Our True Exodus
Preached at Billtown Baptist Church, January 15, 2023.
The Israelites, a people descending from a man named Abraham, came to live in a land called Egypt due to God working mysteriously and powerfully in the life of Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but what they meant for harm, God meant for good, it says, and through these tragic circumstances, God uses Joseph, raising him up to second in command in the nation, and saves Egypt from seven years of famine. In doing so, he is able to provide for his family, who come to live there. Hundreds of years go by, and a Pharaoh arises who knows nothing of what the Israelite hero, Joseph, did, and he decides to enslave the people of Israel, making them work, making mud bricks. He is so threatened by how numerous they are he orders the destruction of newly born boys. One boy, however, is hidden by his mother and sister in a basket, a basket in the water that Pharaoh’s own daughter finds and raises Moses as her own. When Moses grows up and learns of his true heritage, he murders, in his rage, an Egyptian taskmaster and flees in Exile to Midian.
There it seems, he consigns himself to a modest life. He makes peace with the injustices he cannot change. He gets married. He tends sheep. But one day, he sees a spectacle: a burning bush, the divine presence appearing to him. And this divine presence speaks and reveals the name of God, “The I am who I am.” This God, who made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob long ago, has heard the cries of the oppressed. This living God commissions Moses¾against his choice at first¾to go and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people be God.
Moses goes and talks to Pharaoh. He tells him God is ordering him to release the Hebrew people. Pharaoh’s response? “Who is this God that I should listen to him?”
And so, Moses warns that ten plagues will come upon Egypt, each showing God’s sovereignty over the gods of Egypt, each stripping Pharaoh of his credibility and, with it, the Egyptian resolve.
Finally, after the most formidable of plagues, the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh, relents. The people assemble to leave, and they march out into the wilderness. And this is where our scripture reading for today picks up. I am going to read the whole chapter, Chapter 14, and the first part of 15:
14 Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. 3 Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, ‘They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.’ 4 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so.
5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” 6 So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him; 7 he took six hundred elite chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8 The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. 9 The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
10 As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”
19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord, in the pillar of fire and cloud, looked down on the Egyptian army and threw the Egyptian army into a panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
15 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;Exodus 14:1-15:3 NRSV
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
2 The Lord is my strength and my might,[a]
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him;
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3 The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
We can see in history moments of liberation, moments that seem exodus-like: where those things that we see as truly oppressive to people get dismantled or a higher moment of dignity for people is achieved.
In 1945, the allied forces finally overpowered the German forces. Germany surrendered with the tyrant Hitler dead and Berlin surrounded, ending perhaps the most brutal conflict in modern history. War was finally over. People did not need to be afraid anymore. The troops could come home. The nations Germany had taken over were free. News of the victory caused people to dance in the streets.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr crossed the bridge at Selma, peacefully confronting a small army of police who had brutalized the protesters days earlier. Walking prayerfully in a line, the protestors were resolute, and in a moment that came to be described as divine providence, the police relented. The protestors continued their march to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for African Americans. The people on the march sang and praised God. What began as a few protestors swelled to tens of thousands, joining in the work of justice. Within several months they achieved what they were seeking.
In 1989, the Berlin wall was torn down: A wall set up by the Soviet Union to control their chuck of Germany after World War 2, separating families overnight for years. Finally, the wall came down. Many in North America watched their television screens as one segment smashed through, and the people on the other side stuck their hands through. Family members could see each other, touch each other, and, as the segments came down, were reunited in moments of pure joy.
There are many other events that we might describe as exodus-like: like the abolition of slavery, the day women got the right to vote, a country gaining independence, or, most recently for us, the day a vaccine was discovered. If you remember that day, the day you got tangible hope finally that the pandemic would end. These are moments of hope.
Just a few weeks ago, I read in the news that the hole in the O-Zone Layer is shrinking due to the global reduction of the chemicals that caused the hole. It will still take several more decades for the hole to be repaired fully, but with all the bad news on global warming, it was just so encouraging to hear about this little victory.
Each of these moments, no matter how small or even how secular, are pin-pricks of light showing through the shroud that enfolds us, glimmers of what God desires in human history: God wants to establish his kingdom on earth. God wants his will, as the Lord’s prayer says, to be done on earth as it is in heaven. God wants his goodness to heal every facet of this world, setting all that has gone wrong right again without remainder.
That is what this story in Exodus is pointing to. Martin Luther King correctly describes this story when he said this:
“The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and of unjust exploitation” (King, Strength to Love, 78).
Martin Luther King went on to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
It is so easy to forget this when we look out at the world we live in. It is so easy to be disenchanted with the notion that God wills the hope of liberation for our world when we are inundated with messages of the world growing darker.
History does not feel like it is bending toward God’s justice. It feels more like one step forward and two steps back (or, in some cases, three or four or even a leap back).
I felt it in 2020 when we were scared in our homes from a pandemic that would come to claim more than 3.3 million people. The globalized world we live in all of a sudden felt so precarious.
At the same time, we in Nova Scotia witnessed a stand-off between indigenous fishermen and settler fishermen in St. Mary’s bay, a stand-off sparked by decades of neglect by the federal government to properly regulate, a clash fuelled by underlying resentment that explored into a racial conflict. And we say the pictures of violent mobs and fires. And I remember saying to myself: “We haven’t come as far as we think we have.” The injustices of the past linger in the present. As soon as people feel their livelihood threatened, good folk turn back to old hate.
We inhabit a world warped by a colonialist past and a present that still has so much exploitation and inequity in it. So many of our luxuries as Canadians, sold in our stores to us, which we thoughtlessly buy, are products made from exploited work or exploited resources from other countries.
When we think about it, we feel caught in this system of the world that simply is not the way things ought to be, and we don’t know what to do about that.
While these systems of greed and exploitation have afforded us westerners comforts that most of the rest of the world can only dream of having, we feel a strange sense that we are powerless in our own way. We feel enslaved to these economic and cultural forces (the “powers and principalities,” as Paul called them) that say to us: “You can’t do anything about this; this is just the way the world works. Get used to it. There is no changing it.”
When we know God’s will is goodness, truth, beauty, life and hope, then we look at the world and see that it has radical, systemic, and cosmic evil: that the world is not as it should be. We feel powerless against this. We feel trapped.
Why can’t we humans get our act together?
When we say there is something wrong with the world out there, scriptures push us to turn our attention from the evil out there to the evil in here, in our hearts. The inexcusable evil we do.
Otherwise, we do something sometimes even more terrible: we convince ourselves we are the righteous few, better than everyone else, the pure ones, God’s favourites among the damnable masses. When we delude ourselves into that kind of self-righteousness, we see history scared with those that felt they could take God’s wrath into their own hands rather than let God fight for us.
It is an old saying that when we point fingers, we have three fingers pointing right back at us.
Society has made advances and progress in many wonderful ways. Yet, it still has not changed the human heart: the same evil capacities remain in human beings that in light of all our education and knowledge, all our collective wisdom and arts and religion, and all our power and technology, we will still choose the path of annihilation, knowing full-well what it is.
When we know the vast waste and depravity of violence, we still go to war.
When we know that more is accomplished in unity, we still choose division, petty feuds and tribalism.
When we know the benefits of facing hard realities, we still choose to cling to our delusions and our comforts.
In this story of Israel and Egypt, if we are really honest, we must realize that we are more often Egypt than Israel. We are God’s people, and yet we live all too happy as people of Pharaoh.
We, as Christians, know that while our faith pushes us to love more and pursue truth more and justice more, we also are aware that our hearts can also contort our religion into instruments of apathy and self-righteousness.
We do this when we offer prayers that we don’t intend to act on.
We do this when we know the beauty of the Gospel and don’t share it.
We do this when we talk about salvation as a way of escaping all our problems rather than confronting them, a strictly spiritual reality that never offends, confronts, or transforms.
We do this every time we settle for an anemic, easy gospel that refuses to look at all the ways sin has its grip on us and, more tragically, all the ways we ignore the offer of eternal life, the fullness of life, the invitation into God’s kingdom because we are content with so much less.
We look out at the world, and we condemn its evil; we look at our country, and we realize we are living in a modern-day Egypt. And then we look at ourselves, and we have to realize we are no better.
We choose our chains.
C. S. Lewis once said it is our perennial tendency to be content playing in filth when God has shown us the path to the most beautiful beach right around the corner.
One ongoing detail of the Book of Exodus is just how much the people gripe and complain. Moses comes and says that God has sent him to rescue them from oppression, and the people don’t believe it. God literally shows them the answer to their prayers, and they shrink back and say they don’t want it. God ransoms them out of Egypt, and they immediately turn, wanting to go back rather than step out in faith, trusting where God is leading them.
It is here in the story that they find themselves pinned against the sea, with nowhere to go, and so they finally resort to calling on God because they have nothing left to do.
They always had nothing from God, but it is finally here that we realize it.
Corrie Ten Boom once said that so often, we treat God as our spare tire rather than our steering wheel.
Despite all the progress of history, there is a problem in the human heart: We resist God’s new way and so often only call on him when we have exhausted all our own strength.
And yet, God, in his mercy, delivers them. Because, says Paul, even if we are faithless, he is faithful, for he cannot deny himself.
God delivered them not because they were worthy but because God has made promises based on his character of love and mercy that he will see done, despite empires and armies, despite sin and death, and despite our stubbornness too.
And so, the exodus story points to something greater than itself: a final and definitive exodus, a moment when sin, death, disobedience, despair, and the devil are shown to be finally defeated.
In the New Testament, Jesus comes, God’s own son, God Immanuel, the True Moses. Jesus comes and heals and helps people. He preaches the coming kingdom of God imminent to us. He enters Jerusalem, and it seems people are ready for him to be king. And on the night of the Passover, celebrating the Exodus, Jesus says that through him is a new covenant. Through his body and blood, we will have a new relationship with God, a definitive display of salvation from our sins: a new and true exodus.
As the Gospels show, Jesus’ promises are met with some of the worst displays of human faithlessness. This is important because for the exodus story to apply to us, we need to place ourselves in the seats of the disciples. And what did the disciples do? They failed just as we failed. The Gospels show the full extent of our enslavement to sin.
Judas betrayed. Peter denied. The others fled in fear, afraid of soldiers such that they deserted the one that could raise the dead. The law of God was manipulated to execute their own deliverer. The people of God were complicit in the murder of their messiah. Jesus was handed over to the Roman legions to be executed on a Roman execution cross.
And in these dark moments of the very worse of human unfaithfulness, Jesus shows us the true Exodus.
Jesus prays in the midst of all this for us: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” His body, which we broke, was broken for us. The blood the people of God shed, he counted as a sacrifice for their sins. By his wounds, we are healed.
No vast sea was split the day Jesus was nailed on the cross, but the veil was torn, and a greater cosmic event occurred: The gulf between God and the sinner was bridged. God embraced death so that we could have life. God chose to suffer as one cursed so that all who cry out forsaken would know God is on their side.
And as the Gospels say, here the Scripture was fulfilled. To read Exodus through the cross is to know that Jesus died for Pharaoh just as much as Moses. Just as Jesus died for Peter, who denied him, he died for you and me, that failed to follow him.
To read this narrative of Pharaoh being thrown into the sea with his soldiers through Christ is to realize that Jesus fulfilled this by accepting that punishment for evil on himself, not visiting it back on those that deserve it, ending the spiral vortex of hate and violence we so often get trapped in.
To read Exodus through the cross is to know that God’s way of dealing with evil is not by bringing disaster on the perpetrators but by bringing healing, with waters not of the Red Sea’s destruction but of baptism’s cleansing. God’s way is not repaying evil with evil but overcoming evil with good.
To read the Exodus Passover through Jesus shows us a God that does not want to kill his enemies, but rather a God who loves his enemies and overcomes them not with force but with forgiveness.
At the cross, the great evils of this world that nailed Jesus to a Roman execution pike did not prevent our Savior from being fully obedient to the Father and fully willing to forgive us. That is how evil was defeated.
And three days later, the Father raised Jesus from the dead, overturning history’s judgment and injustice.
The resurrection was the overturning of death itself. Death, all the drives towards death that sin causes, whether hate, greed, idolatry, deception, or cowardliness – death in all its forms was overcome that day. Humanity’s deepest slavery, the slavery within our very hearts, in the very being of things, was defeated.
“Both horse and driver / he has hurled into the sea,” the text says.
Or, as the early church prayed, “Hell reigns, but not forever.”
Oppression still exists, but its days are numbered.
Death reigns, but it realizes now it is the one that is mortal.
Sin still inflects us, you might say, but there is a vaccine.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
So, as Moses says, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”
The question for us today is what will it take for us to fully trust God’s Exodus in our lives?
What will it take for us to open all the windows of our souls to let God’s resurrection light in?
What will it take for us to finally say, “I’m done living in Egypt. I am done living Pharaoh’s way here in Canada. I am done with the status quo, this system of slavery that does not work. I am ready to walk with God to his promised land”?
God of Exodus hope and liberation.
We look out at our world, and we see that it does not reflect your kingdom. We see such inequality. We see wars and famines and poverty and cruelty. God, it is so overwhelming to think about. So often, we just go along with it out of a sense of defeat and hopelessness.
God, forgiveness our own complicity in the injustices of this world. Wake us up to all the ways we are privileged at the expense of others. Convict us of all the ways to choose the slavery we are in. God forgive us and deliver us.
God, heal our hearts of sin. Renew us with your Spirit so that we will have the freedom to break free from the cycles of sin we are caught in. Empower your church to be a glimpse of your coming kingdom, where hate is overcome with understanding, where anger is overcome with peace and forgiveness, and where pride and privilege are overcome with service and humility. God, show us the liberation of your love.
We long for what your word promises: the restoration of all things. We long for your kingdom to come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We long for a place where righteousness is at home. God gives us the courage to embrace these realities today, to step into the Exodus of new creation now.
These things we pray, amen.
Stories of War and the Victory of Love
The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to comeIsaiah 2:1-4 (NRSV)
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
All the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways
And that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
Last Saturday, 33 missiles and drone strikes rained down on the people of Ukraine, destroying essential infrastructure, and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power as the weather starts to go cold.
This is just one more moment in a conflict that officially began several years ago with the annexing of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and since then, the conflict has simply not stopped, leading up to the invasion by Russia in February.
Up until the invasion, it was reported that 14 000 people had died in the conflict, but now the explosion of fighting with the invasion is seeing a death toll exponentially higher. The numbers are difficult to determine as both Ukraine and Russia are doctoring their numbers for the purposes of morale, but the best estimates suggest that somewhere between 7 000- 30 000 Ukrainian civilians have died, 60 000 Ukrainian soldiers have died, and possibly 90 000 Russian soldiers have been killed. So somewhere near 200 000 people have died and several times that injured, not to mention 13 million people have lost their homes. Those numbers, when I read them, left me speechless.
And sadly, this war does not seem to have an end in sight. Canada and other western powers have been sending resources, whether financial or military, to Ukraine, as well as imposing sanctions on Russia, which seems to be helping¾and I firmly believe these are good things, just as I deeply sympathize with Ukrainians who are simply defending their homes against a force that seeks their personal and cultural destruction.
And yet, an important detail in this conflict is often ignored by the secular west: this is a war being done by Russia, which believes it is a Christian nation, perhaps even a restored Christian empire, and it believes that the church and the state are one, its culture and its faith are one, and that these things ought to be defended and advanced using military force if threatened. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Moscow has called this a holy war, sanctified by God to advance the ways of Orthodoxy in a world that has embraced the evils of western tolerance. And so, as we lament a death toll that nears 200 000 lives, this is met with a unique anguish for us Christians that those who are doing this claim Jesus on their side.
Whether this is the defence of the innocent or the justification of invasion, the world feels pulled towards war; its seductive allure to total war, whose end is destruction, whether the annihilation of the Russian forces, the annihilation of the Ukrainian forces and people, and in the end, perhaps, the termination of both. There is something about these numbers that make us long: Is another way possible?
Martin Luther King, Jr. once reflected on this possibility:
“War, as horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But I now believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Pilgrimage into Non-Violence,” in Strength to Love, pg. 161
So, how are Christians to think about war? We can’t ignore this question as we live safely in Canada. With tensions mounting between the Western powers and Russia as well as China, many are saying we could be seeing the stirrings of what will be another global conflict within our lifetime.
We do not know what will happen, but one way or another, we have to ask some simple but difficult questions: Whose side is Jesus on? What is Jesus’ way? What hope do we have?
1. A Different Allegiance
The narrative of the Bible is not a story where God’s redemption drops out of the sky unaffected by time but meets us in the midst of things within our complex web of relationships and histories, stirring us little by little towards God’s kingdom.
And so, it should not surprise us to find that when we look at the pages of Scripture, we find war, but not only that, God’s people going to war by God’s command.
And if you have ever read through the Bible, you will come to some passages that might shock you. There are passages in the Old Testament that command the killing of the Canaanites, the nation that lived in the land before Israel. The reasons for these passages in the Bible (passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua) sound frighteningly similar to the reasons the leaders of the church in Russia are saying they invaded Ukraine: the war is to punish the sin of those in the land, the war is to make sure God’s people are secure, the war is to stop the advancement of evil ways and keep God’s people pure, and so on and so forth.
These passages have been cited in our own history as well. Centuries ago, European settlers believed they were a new Israel coming to America, a new promised land, and because of that, its inhabitants, the indigenous peoples with their perceived pagan ways, needed to be exterminated if they did not convert.
Reading these passages should, hopefully, causes us to ask: is this all there is to this story? To read these passages as straightforwardly pertaining to today, as if that is where God wanted to leave our perception of him, where God leaves us in the drama of salvation, is to miss what we might call a long arc toward peacemaking in the biblical narrative.
It began with God meeting a desperate people in an ancient world that believed in things like tribal holy war, and these laws reflect a gentle push towards something better than the status quo.
We see this in all kinds of issues: the treatment of women, marriage, slaves, children, wealth, etc. If you have ever thought a certain passage of the Bible on these topics taught things that seemed regressive, potentially harmful, even oppressive, ask yourself what this look law looks like in comparison to what was being practiced in its time, and you will see what my Bible professors call, “a redemptive-movement,” glimpses of how God is nudging God’s people little by little towards the ends that God desires.
The whole of the biblical narrative is a travail moving from the subservience of women to equality, from slavery to emancipation, from exclusion to solidarity, from brutality to charity, and so also, from war to peacemaking.
And it seems that while God is gentle in instructing this redemption, we see little break-outs, seed moments, and events where the kingdom of God shines through with particular clarity.
It can look like Deborah in the book of Judges, a woman called by the Spirit of God in a time when women were seen with little worth to be a prophet and judge over all of Israel.
It might look like the love poetry in Song of Songs, where the bride and groom are described with a mutuality in marriage that defies the curse of Eve: “I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.”
It can look like laws in the Old Testament, like the laws of Jubilee, where every 50 years, all debts would be forgiven, all slaves would be set free, and all land wealth would be redistributed.
Or it can be a moment like when the commander of Israel, Joshua, is sitting ready with his armies in invade Jericho, and he sees a mysterious angelic man, and he asks him, “whose side are you on? Are you one ours or theirs?” And this man says, “I am the commander of the armies of heaven, but I am on neither side” (Josh. 5:14).
This is but one moment that plants a seed that suggests God is beyond our earthly allegiances, whether they are political, ethnic, financial, or even religious, what we label as Christian allegiance. Whose side is God on? When we seek to pull God onto our side to justify our community, our causes, and our conflicts, God is quick to say, “I am on no one’s side.”
Isaiah’s vision is another moment, written in a time of mounting tension between the superpowers, and it envisions many nations coming to Jerusalem to the house of God. They come to a God that seems like the God of a different nation, a God not of their nation, and yet, they assemble in Jerusalem, welcomed as if they are not strangers as if this nation is the place of the gathering of many nations, a people out of many peoples, and here they unlearn the ways of war.
Whose side is God on? God is on everyone’s side. God is not the God of one nation but all nations, not one people but all people.
This calls us to a fundamentally different allegiance as the people of God, who know and trust this truth. We are citizens of heaven, first and foremost.
This did not stop the early Christians from still being Romans or Greeks or anything like that, nor does it stop us from being Canadians, but it does orient us to say we do not participate in these earthly allegiances if they are set against our allegiance to the kingdom of heaven.
And when we realize this, we have to ask ourselves, whose side are we on? Are we on the side of the powerful, the rich, the apathetic, the status quo or are we on the side whom God has declared his special favour: the weak, the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the lowly, the captive? Whose side will we choose to be on?
Whose side are we on when our nation says we need to invade these people in order to keep us safe and secure? But perhaps that question is not for us in Canada today: Maybe it might look like this: Whose side are we on when innocent people are being killed and need our help, millions of refugees have lost their homes and are showing up at our doorstep? Will we turn a blind eye and say, “Sorry, but helping will cost us too much. We have to look after ourselves”? Whose side will we be on?
But let’s go further: what if our nation says we need to forget about the rights of indigenous people or the rights of foreign workers because it means too much for Canadian prosperity to treat them fairly? Whose side will we be on, then?
Whose side are we on when our nation uses its military presence to protect its grip over the economies of the Caribbean, its mining interests over the inhabitants of South America or the Congo? Canada has a very respectable military, but it is not perfect. And those things don’t tend to make the news because it so readily goes against the narrative that we Canadians tell ourselves, we are the peacemakers, the good guys, and our nation does not oppress anyone. That is not quite true. When it comes to confronting the truth about ourselves, again, whose side are we on?
2. A Different Way
What our allegiance is will determine a different way. Isaiah says that “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” What is this way, this word, God is instructing us toward?
As we have been seeing, there is a process that is working itself out in the biblical narrative, where God meets humanity where they are at, in the midst of tension and conflict, and slowly teaches them redemption, wooing them towards reconciliation, little by little.
And yet, this narrative comes to a kind of summit or apex moment in the coming of Jesus Christ, who came proclaiming what God’s kingdom is about: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.” Where Joshua and David came and defeated Israel’s enemies, this new Joshua, this new Son of David, this Messiah came and gave a different teaching:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:43-45
This Messiah waged a war of a different sort, not against people but against sin, fought not with weapons but with grace. And as the story of the Gospels show, the world, even God’s own people, did not want peace.
One writer said that we simply cannot have peace until we understand that peace will always feel like it costs us more than war. And Jesus’ preaching started costing a few people some things: their power and reputation. And so, religious leaders orchestrated the murder of the Messiah.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, soldiers came with Judas to get him in the Garden, where he was praying. One disciple, eager to defend the Messiah, a worthy reason for violence if there ever was one, takes a blade and strikes one of the soldiers. Yet, Jesus turns to heal the soldier on the spot of his own arrest and rebukes the disciple: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.”
Then, Jesus was taken, tried, tortured, and hung on a cross to be executed. And it is here, in the darkness of the cross, that the word of God shines most clear. Jesus prays, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
The heart of the Bible is the message that at this moment when we treated God as our enemy, when we killed God’s very son, God was saving us.
The cross is how God treats his enemies. Thank God!
3. A Different Hope
Yet, if the cross is how God treats his enemies, if we are saved by the cross, if we are called to take up the cross as well, the cross is also how we treat our enemies.
And so, if this is our allegiance, if this is our way, we will have a very different hope. Isaiah names this hope. One that day…
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
There is an old joke that, despite being a joke, names how we so often misunderstand Christian hope. It goes like this:
One day a man feels troubled and goes to church. He comes in and hears the preacher proclaim, “Step aside, and let the good Lord fight your battles.” He finds this inspiring. Just then, a gust of wind blows, pushing open the preacher’s coat to expose that he had a pistol holstered in his coat. The man is taken aback by it. After the service, he goes up to the preacher, “Pastor, you said step aside and let God fight our battles.”
“Yes,” said the preacher.
“Well, then, why are you carrying a gun?” the man asked.
The preacher looked at him like he had said something silly, “Of course, I carry a gun! That’s to hold them off until he gets here!”
I think that is actually a lot of people’s view of Christian hope: “God will fix that one day; until then, we can’t do anything about it. God will bring peace one day; until then, we are stuck killing each other. Oh, well.”
Put another way: our drive to annihilate our enemy is driven by a kind of worldly hopelessness. I have no hope left for my enemy, no hope for their redemption, so I need to take history into my hands as its judge.
That is not how we understand Christian hope. If God promises the restoration of all things, our hope is that God invites us to participate in this reality in a fuller way every moment, in anticipation of what God will one day do.
In fact, this is how the early church understood Isaiah chapter 2. Here is what Justin Martyr said,
“And that this [he is referring to Isaiah chapter 2 here] did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God, they proclaimed to every race of people that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the world about God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie or deceive our examiners, and willingly die confessing Christ.”Justin Martyr, First Apology, 1:175-6
If our allegiance is that God loves all people, this fundamentally prevents us from quickly saying I am on your side and dead set against them, much less choosing the sides of power and privilege.
If our way is shown in Jesus’ loving for his enemies, our way has to see in our enemy someone God has died for, with love that matches the love that saves us.
And if our hope is that God will judge all people and restore all things, this also prevents me from needing to repay evil with evil. As Romans 12 says, hope frees us to overcome evil with good. We do this because we trust that this is how the story of human history, God’s story with us, will end.
Walter Wink, the biblical scholar the worked to overcome racial segregation in the apartheid in Africa, once said that being a Christian was the art of resisting evil without becoming evil ourselves.
This does not mean we give up helping those that need help and opposing those who harm the innocent; it does not mean we jump to easy conclusions and give up that moral wrestling that has to negotiate those difficult moments where self-defence and protecting others, where force and harm are in play, where the tragedies of violence still happen. But it does change how, why, where, and for whom we act.
What does this look like? I am not going to offer a quick answer here. There isn’t one. However, let me conclude with this: The El Salvadorian archbishop and martyr, Oscar Romero, was told by some he needed to embrace violence and revolution if the people of his nation would be liberated from their oppressive and corrupt government. Violence was the only way to bring peace. Romero, a message he died for, said this, echoing Isaiah 2:
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.“Oscar Romero, from The Violence of Love
While we live in a complicated world where militaries and police forces surely have their role to play in maintaining order when an enemy threatens us, however, do we get pulled into that seductive spiral towards total war, the grim realities of which history repeats over and over, or do we see a different possibility–light breaking in, by which, however that might look, we are inspired to do the hard work of “unlearning the ways of war”?
Fatherhood in Flux: Ephesians 5 in Changing Times
Pew Research, one of the largest sociological research groups in North America, surveyed mothers and fathers. Fifty-seven percent of fathers described being a father as “extremely important,” which was virtually identical to the women surveyed (58%). However, most of the moms surveyed said they did “a very good job” of raising their children; among the dads, just 39 percent said the same.
On the whole, fathers care about being fathers at the same rate as mothers care about being mothers, but a significant gap exists in how fathers feel about how they are doing at being fathers. Most fathers feel like they aren’t great fathers. Why is that?
I read an interesting article coming up to this father’s day by Daniel Engber from the Atlantic (I think the Atlantic writes probably the best articles on social issues out there, in my opinion). The article is entitled, “Why is Dad so Mad?” He writes,
Everybody knew that dads used to earn a living; that they used to love their children from afar; and that when the need arose, they used to be the ones who doled out punishment. But what were dads supposed to do today? In former times, the definition of a man was you went to work every day, you worked with your muscles, you brought home a paycheck, and that was about it… What it is to be a man now is in flux, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of men. Indeed, modern dads were left to flounder in a half-developed masculinity: Their roles were changing, but their roles hadn’t fully changed.
They are left in a kind of lurch. Fatherhood is in a state of flux, retaining some conventional patterns but scrapping others.
I was reminded of this just this morning. My wife called me into the room. “What is it?” I said. She pointed to a spider on the wall. Apparently, in our marriage, it is the man’s job to kill the spider.
I jest, but many men feel seriously caught: if I work too much, as many jobs are demanding, this is no longer considered virtuous, and I am seen as a workaholic, neglecting my family.
If they work too little, society could perceive them as a deadbeat or lazy, particularly by the older generation that built and achieved so much.
Society used to value a man’s more forceful presence in discipline, but most parenting books have denounced harsher forms of discipline.
Women have made inroads in the workforce, but men have not gravitated the same way to homemaking or childcare, traditionally female roles.
There are increasingly fewer jobs that require physical strength. And increasingly, fewer fields of work are considered male careers.
It has left some men wondering: what do I contribute to my family or in my marriage? And this has many men feeling like they have lost their place in society and in the home. They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel what they do has value, or they don’t feel like they are successful in doing it. Fatherhood feels like it is in a state of flux.
In the wake of this, political groups have attempted to capitalize on this feeling of instability and nostalgia for the good old days. The movements by Jordan Peterson, who dies the existence of systemic sexism, or Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson have tried to say that there is a war against masculinity wagered by feminists and liberals and other monsters under the proverbial bed of culture. These guys have made a lot of money saying what they are saying because this is a message a lot of men want to hear.
However, probably the more accurate explanation is that with the cost of living going up so much compared to what it was decades ago and wages not increasing in proportion, the idea of a single-income household that owns their own property can have a designated stay-home parent, is becoming extinct for the average Canadian, and with it that male role.
Culture is in a state of flux. And when people feel this unease, this displacement of identity, it is very easy to look for someone to blame.
For many Christians, this has caused many to recede into nostalgia, longing for the days when everyone went to church, or when there was prayer in schools, when there was allegedly no divorce, or when, allegedly, everything cost a nickel (why was everythin always a nickel, by the way?).
Nowadays, I’m nostalgic for when gas costs a dollar a litre.
The text I am going to read today is a text that has often been misused by Christians. It is a text we have so often read, wishing to get back to the way things used to be when fathers’ and husbands’ roles were clear and revered.
It is really one of the most important passages on being parents and spouses, as well as being fathers and husbands, in the New Testament, but we often forget that the Biblical writers were writing for matters in their own day. They were writing because their situations were in flux also. We forget that.
It is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, what is often called the household code. I am going to first read this passage, but then we are going to ask some questions about what this means, both in the ancient context and what it means for us today:
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ 4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
So, let me pause for a moment. Did some of those words make you uneasy a bit (particularly the submission and slavery parts)? Did some of those words sound agreeable (like the love parts)? I imagine most listeners will have mixed feelings reading this passage.
Perhaps you know this passage well. Maybe a pastor told you this is God’s pattern for marriage for today. Maybe you believe it is.
But, if this passage was giving us an obvious, clear, and timeless definition of marriage and parenting, why does it tell husbands to love their wives in order to make them holy and without blemish? Is Paul saying all women are unclean? Or is that what Jews assumed in that culture? May Paul is speaking in a way his audience would have understood.
It also says that wives should submit in everything. Should wives do that today? Aren’t there stories of women who did listen to their husbands and God was honoured, like Abigail or Rachel or Tamar. Maybe Paul is reacting to a certain circumstance woman in Ephesus face.
Sadly, this passage has been used to say to women that they cannot question or disagree with their husbands. It has been used almost like a club to clobber some people.
Maybe this passage brings up painful memories. I have dealt with women who were told that they had to submit to their abusive spouses because that is what this passage means. Let me be clear and say that whatever this passage means today, it does not mean that.
This passage also mentions slavery. It tells slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling. I have heard some preachers say that this passage applies to bosses and employees today, but I just don’t think that is the case. There were day-labourers in the ancient world. But more importantly, as an employee with rights living in a country with employment laws, I just don’t think I should obey everything my boss says, let alone with fear and trembling.
But worse still, this passage has been used to justify slavery rather than the good news of God’s kingdom that Jesus announces: “freedom to the captive, that the oppressed can go free” (as he says in Luke 4).
For five years, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Sudbury, which had historic roots in the Social Gospel. The church historically led the charge for the miners of the city to have employment rights, safety standards, and eventually unions. They believe working to improve human life was an aspect of the kingdom of God. I think they were correct.
So, how do we understand this important passage today? How do we understand it as offering words that can build us up?
This will be a bit of a technical sermon (if you have not realized this already). I don’t know if you have met me, but I kinda like to go deep with my sermons. I do this because if we are going to become the fathers and husbands God wants us to be (and of course, this goes for all Christians as well), one vital way we get formed for that purpose is by meditating on God’s word, understanding it rightly, not in facile, careless ways.
Just like navigating what it means to be a man or a father in today’s world, God’s Word takes wisdom and work. So often, the church has assumed that the Bible is always so clear and straightforward it makes us ill-prepared to live in a world that isn’t.
Many want to go to the Bible to escape just how messy the world is, hoping to find a place that is black and white and clear, and there are some passages that are very clear, don’t get me wrong. But often, if you have read through the Bible, you see a lot of passages that cause you to have questions. Some that, at face value, don’t sound all that redemptive. In those cases, the path from what the words on the page say and what it means for us today is not straightforward.
Part of the reason for that is that the Bible was written not as an escape from the flux of history but written in its very midst. It was not written despite our humanity. It was written by humans for our humanity.
The Bible is a complex thing, and it’s complex because life is complex. And if we care about God’s word, we have to be willing to put in the effort to study and think about it in all its depth. It’s only then that its richness is fully appreciated. It’s only then that we realize that God isn’t trying to save us from the complications of life. God is trying to meet us there, in its midst, gently moving us forward in grace.
I sit on the board of an organization called the Atlantic Society for Biblical Equality. It is an organization that was founded by Hugh McNally and Harry Gardner to promote that men and women are made equal in the eyes of God and that when the Scriptures are considered in their fuller context and meaning, it teaches equality in marriage, that women can serve as pastors and things like that. I would encourage you to become members and support the work (perhaps the church could even be a supporting church partner in its mission).
This is one passage that people stumble over. I know people that are content to ignore a passage like this. But as Christians, that is just not a good plan, and so, our work as ASBE is to help Christians understand the Bible better.
My advice is that we need to study the Bible and study the difficult texts: Find the Bible’s meaning in the flux of history because that can really help us understand what it could be saying to us today.
So with that very long introduction, let me ask this: what was going on in Paul’s day that he needed to write this passage?
Well, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Ephesians, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey. It was a very important city both for Greek culture and the church. The Christian church had grown rapidly there, comprising of both Jews and Gentiles coming together, and that had caused some issues. The beginning of the letter speaks about how God’s household is where both Jews and Gentiles come together as one under God in Christ. Later in the letter, here, Paul turns to talk about what individual households could look like through the love of God in Christ. Here, if we do some digging, we find that Ephesus and the church there were experiencing their own state of flux, and Paul had to navigate that.
1. Christianity in Ephesus was in Flux
Christianity came on the scene in the ancient world and caused a profound social change. You see, Christianity preached the individual responsibility of all people to repent and believe in the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and this proclamation saw Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, wealthy individuals as well as slaves seeing the gift of the Holy Spirit, and people trust this and are justified.
In the ancient world, however, if you were a wife, a child, or a slave, your obligation was to worship the god of the head of your family, your father and master. If you were Roman or Greek, you were expected to follow the local gods. Christianity did not uphold this, and it caused friction.
Jesus warns about this in Matthew chapter ten. Jesus says that I have not come to bring peace but the sword, which is kind of a strange thing for Jesus to say. What does he mean? He speaks about how households will be set against one another, and if you are loyal to your family members more than Jesus’ way, this is not taking up Jesus’ cross. In other words, you are not a true disciple. For Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t saying he is going to cause literal wars, but rather that the way of Jesus is going to cause social upheaval, and any peace that means people can claim loyalty to their families against Jesus to please them is not true peace. It isn’t the peace that Jesus’ way offers.
Well, this insistence soured marriages and split families. Christians were viewed as traitors. Paul notes in his first letter to the Corinthians that spouses were leaving and deserting their partners over their change in religion, but Paul tries to say to Christian spouses to do their best to keep their marriages if they can: if their spouses leave, that’s their decision, but for the Christian spouse, commit to working it through, loving the other, hopefully winning them over. That is a good witness to the Gospel.
This is a thing Paul has to keep reiterating. In his letter to Titus, he says to young women to love their spouses so that “the word of God will not be maligned.” Paul’s letter to the Colossians chapter 4, just before it gives a similar household code, says that Christians need to walk wisely in how non-Christians are seeing them. 1 Peter similarly advises Christians to live in a way that prevents slander.
Christianity in the Greek and Roman world was being perceived as a group of people that were disloyal to their nation, to their marriages and families, and therefore were out to ruin society. There were rumours that Christians were cannibals because they ate flesh and drank blood when they got together for worship. Christians were thought to be atheists because they refused to worship the gods of their communities.
For many, Christianity was perceived as strange and even dangerous. Now, while it was true that Christians opposed the worship of Greek and Roman gods and opposed the ways of the emperors, it wasn’t true that Christians hated their families. Far from.
We have to appreciate the irony: today, we look at Christianity and the way things used to be, and we think it’s our culture that has caused all this disruption and flux. For Ephesians, they believed their culture’s values gave stability, and they saw Christianity as causing the disruption and flux. Our contexts are very different.
And so, this helps us understand the statements in the New Testament, where the Apostles keep telling Christians to honour the Emperor (even though the Emperors were immoral people), submit to authorities (even those that were brutal and corrupt as the Roman powers), leave peaceable lives, and so on. Those are passages that also don’t straightforwardly apply today because we live in democracies where we can choose our government, whereas, in the New Testament, they couldn’t.
The Apostles were doing everything possible to prevent Christianity from being perceived as a threat to the well-being of their home communities. They are trying to walk this tightrope of the faithfulness of Jesus and peaceableness with their families and fellow citizens. What were they worried about? Its something we just aren’t worried about in our country:
The Apostles did not want to be perceived as an insurgent movement as they spread the Gospel. Why? Revolutions ended in violence, with Roman soldiers slaughtering anything that could be perceived as a rebellion or disloyal to the Empire, and so, the Apostles tried to be wise in portraying Christianity as upholding certain social mores that Greeks saw as fundamental to social wellness.
What were those? Well, one of those was the Greek household code.
2. Ephesian Culture Believed Men were the Heads of their Households. Paul believed Jesus was the Head
And so, the second important aspect of Paul’s context was the Greek understanding of marriage. Ephesians believed it was good and proper for the husband and father to be the head of the household. The husband was often the educated one, legally was the one who managed the finances, and he was the one that procured the income for the family. Often the man was the religious representative of the family as well.
Because of this, he was regarded as the authority of the family, and Ephesians felt it was only good and proper to have wives, children, and slaves living in complete submission to the family’s leader.
However, men in Ephesian culture were regarded as the heads of their households, and as such, they were afforded power and privilege. Wives, children, and slaves were their servants, all for the purposes of affording them a better life. Husbands had little to no moral obligation to their wives and could act with a great deal of self-interest.
If the Apostles attacked this teaching too forcefully, a lot of women, children, and servants could find themselves without a roof over their head or worse. It wasn’t that the Apostles were afraid to sacrifice for their faith, but they were trying to be prudent to not pick unnecessary battles. In their judgment, in this context, which is different from ours, they choose a cautious and more subtle path.
Women did not have legal rights, no sources of income; there were no women’s shelters; there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or alimony in a divorce. These are things our culture has created, and if we are tempted to see these as an obstacle to living this passage, we must look to the history of Christian suffrage advocates and Christian abolitionists, Christians that have looked at how humans are made in God’s image and said our laws should reflect justice and equity.
Our culture has been influenced by 2000 years of Christian proclamation; Ephesian culture was not. That does not mean we are always better, but it does mean we are in a very different place.
Paul was dealing with a world that operated under certain conditions, things that the culture took for granted as the norms of how things functioned, while Paul was against things like slavery (he was a Jew, after all, that knew full well the stories of the Exodus, where redemption meant liberation from physical oppression), he also realized that for some people, slavery was their sole means of provision or that to oppose slavery in a revolution could end with Roman legions coming and killing everyone involved with a revolt.
We have to do this in similar ways today: We know, for instance, that our use of fossil fuels is not good for the environment, but for many of us, we still have to own gas-powered cars or have homes that use oil. If we tried to just rid Canada of all fossil fuels right now, that probably would leave a lot of people without transportation and without heat in the winter, so we are trying to transition off fossil fuels. I don’t know if we are doing a good enough job of that, but that is a topic for another sermon.
So, what Paul does then, is try to word the Christian life in as close of terms as possible to the way Ephesians understood marriage and parenting and managing their homes. He meets them where they are at and how they understand things, but he adds a Christian twist to it. He sows a seed of Christ-like transformation in it.
And this is where we really miss the point of the passage when we refuse to read the Bible in its historical context.
Let me read one of the more well-known household codes in Greek culture. Ask yourself, how is Paul’s version different from this? This is from Aristotle’s Politics:
Of household management, we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature… [W]hen one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect… The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.
Both Paul and Aristotle talk about husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. That’s how we know that Paul has something like this in mind for the context he is writing in. Did you spot some of the differences?
Aristotle talks about the rulership of all three. Men rule over women. Why? Because men are more intelligent by nature. They are, by nature, superior. They live in permanent inequality, and that inequality is a good thing.
Is that what Paul believed?
Paul is a Jew, and he knows that men and women are both in the image of God. He knows that if women are not equal to men, it is not because of nature but because of sin. The curse of Genesis 3 was that women’s desire would be for their husbands, but men would rule over them.
We have to ask ourselves: is it the church’s job to uphold the curse of sin? Or is it the church’s role to undo the effects of sin in this world with the power of salvation?
Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.”
If we look at Paul’s writings, we see that he had women leaders spreading the Gospel with him: church leaders like Chloe and Nympha, Pheobe (a deacon from Cenchrea), Eudia and Synteche (apostolic leaders along with Clement), Junia (an apostle listed that the end of Romans). If you have not heard those names before, look them up. Paul very much believed that the Spirit was moving to bring about equality in the world broken by sin.
We need to keep that big picture in mind when we interpret these passages. And when we do, the point of these passages of today becomes clearer:
Ephesians 5 begins with Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. When it gets to the next line, it actually uses the same verb as this sentence: Be subject to one another… wives to your husbands. In other words, wives are doing something all Christians, men, fathers, and husbands included, ought to be doing too. Yet, so often, we preach this passage as if the burden is on women to do something unique to them.
Aristotle’s view of headship in the family emphasizes male rulership; Paul takes that notion of headship in God’s family and emphasizes mutual submission.
The Greek household code said men did not have to care for their wives, children, or slaves beyond food and shelter. Families served the man’s own self-interest. Paul says things like this in his household code:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.
Masters, know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.
Aristotle emphasized authority; Paul introduced accountability. Which one do you think then is the principle that applies to us today?
3. Jesus’s Love is the Pattern for Parents
Jesus told his disciples that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In speaking to them about the authority, he said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
Paul summarizes the pattern of Christ in Philippians chapter two when he says,
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
And so, in a culture where men were assumed to be the heads of the household, Paul, in essence, says, “Okay, men, if you want to be the head of the household, then be one like Jesus. Be ready to give up everything for your family.”
But that is not some new way to reinforce male power. It is consistent with what all Christians are called to do. Notice the principle that Ephesians chapter five begins with: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (v. 1-2).
This is the guiding principle for what Paul says in this entire chapter, and it says all Christians are to live self-sacrificing love towards one another, and when we come to verse 21, the guiding principle for the household code, Paul says all Christians are to submit one to another. The household code is merely applying these to the way Ephesians needed to have it applied in that context. But ultimately, submission, respect, service, and accountability¾these are things all Christians ought to be doing for each other, regardless of gender.
It is funny how we have looked at Ephesians chapter 5, and we have tried to apply it to mean something more like the philosophy of Aristotle than the way of Jesus.
If we defined authority in Jesus’ way, we would give up our authority, not hold onto it.
If we define what it means to be a man through Jesus, we won’t be worried about how we can get power out of our marriages and families, power over our wives and kids. We will ask ourselves: How can I serve them? How can I even submit it to them? What sacrifices do I need to make in order to love them better?
That might mean doing something things that our culture, perhaps even our church cultures, might view as not very manly.
When Meagan and I were first married, we had just bought our first house, a little townhouse in Bradford, one hour north of Toronto. We had our first child, Rowan, soon after moving in.
Meagan was teaching at a Christian school, and the school wanted her to upgrade her teaching degree to a full Bachelor of Education. So, she used her mat-leave to go back to school full-time.
I was also in school, working on my doctorate. I was between work, and I eventually got a contract as a pastoral intern at Bradford Baptist Church, a few hours a week.
But with Meagan in school in an intensive program, I had to pivot to caring for Rowan most mornings as well as do cleaning and some cooking.
Can I confess something to you? I am just not as particular about cleaning as my wife is. If there is a dirty spot on the counter, I don’t notice it. My wife enters a room, and it is like radar detection. But in order to have a household that felt orderly enough that my wife did not feel stressed about, I had to learn how to clean better.
Admitfully, after 13 years of marriage, I still am not there.
Of course, not having a full-time job, I got comments from family members: “So, when are you going to get a real job.” The implication is that my current situation was not what a man, a biblical husband, was to do. And I felt feelings of worthlessness, staying home, and caring for our son.
I had learned to equate my worth as a man and father with work and money.
I had to come to a point and say, but what does my family need? It is not about fulfilling some expectation of what a man or a husband or a father is according to our culture or even our church cultures. It is about asking our families, “what do you need?”
What does that mean for a world that is in such flux? Well, it is going to mean something very different for every couple and family.
It means that whatever life entails, it probably is not going to be easy. It means navigating decision-making, household work, finances, and childcare with fairness, with mutual submission.
And that takes sacrifice, and that is what we are celebrating today on Father’s Day. The ways our fathers have sacrificed to show their wives and children they love them.
For many of our fathers and grandfathers, these sacrifices fulfilled a traditional need, but for the younger generations, these sacrifices might look different.
Whether it is working a tough job away from home or working as a stay-home dad, whether it is mowing the lawn or cooking dinner, driving the kids to soccer or reading to them when they go to bed, there are little acts of service that show your families how much you love them.
The tasks may change, but love does not.
Paul says that when we do this, we are reflecting the reality that God is showing us in Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he came in human form, became a servant, and became obedient even onto death, death on a cross.
Can I just say that Jesus knows a thing or two about changing to love those he cares for in the way they need it?
Fathers, husbands, men in the audience today, sometimes the world tells us that to be a man means relying on no one but yourself, don’t ask for help, don’t be vulnerable. Men don’t talk about love. Real men don’t cry and things like that.
That is just not true. It is not the pattern of Jesus. We can share our needs with our families and friends, but most importantly, we need to share our needs with God.
When we feel frustrated in life, we know that God understands, God is with us, and God is for us. God raised Jesus from the dead in victory over sin and all of life’s struggles.
Ask God, trust him, and he will help.
In all the change and uncertainty of life, God’s love remains constant. God’s love does not change. God’s love is perfect. God’s love is faithful and true. And God loves you.
Fathers, husbands, and men today, can you leave this place trusting that love in a new way today?
Loving and gracious God our Father.
You are our creator, and we are your children, made in your image and likeness.
We praise you today because you are loving and good.
You have shown your love for us in sacrificing your very self.
While we were sinners set against you, you died for us.
God, we are thankful.
And you have called us to reflect this love, this love that is your very being.
Father, teach us how we can do this better.
Many of us feel like we are not all that good at it.
And in a changing world, many of us desire to follow our ways, but the way does not seem all that clear.
God, give us wisdom.
Encourage our hearts: Remind us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love you have for us.
Show us how we can love our families better.
Thank you so much for all the examples of fathers we have around us. Thank you for the sacrifices they have made, the lessons they have taught, and the fun we have had with them. May we cherish these gifts among us today.
We pray that today the fathers, husbands, and men of this church would know your love in a new way, be able to trust that love, and live that out.
Give us your Spirit, for we know you are faithful.
That They May Be One: The Trinity for Our Time
There are many great passages that I could use to talk about the Trinity. One of the challenges, however, if anyone has endured a sermon on the Trinity and thought, “the fact that God is like a cloverleaf really isn’t all that reassuring to me,” is that the Trinity is hard to explain with just one passage. The Trinity, as I will say again in this sermon, is not so much a doctrine of Christianity; it is the very structure that all doctrines cohere in. For all intents and purposes today, that is like saying, you know how some people say you don’t see the forest through the trees? Well, with the Trinity, it’s more like we see this vast forest, and now, we have to explain that majestic, complicated forest with just one tree. That’s hard.
Yet, if I had to choose one passage to explain the Trinity, it would be this. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is at the last supper, and he prays for his disciples: Jesus, who is God himself, as John says, the Word of God made flesh, the logic of God’s being dwelling among us personally and fully, this person Jesus is praying to God the Father. Listen to what Jesus says to the Father and what he prayers for his disciples.
17 When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. 2 You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. 3 This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. 4 I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. 6 “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 “I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10 Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 11 I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one…
20 “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world. (John 17:1-NRSV)
A Longing For Oneness
So, Jesus prays as one who is in the Father and the Father in him, one with God, but more than that; he prays that we would be one, share in this oneness as well. This gets to the heart of what the Trinity is all about. There is a band. You may have heard of it. It’s called U2. Bono from U2 has a song called, “One,” that goes like this:
Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame
You say, one love, one life
When it’s one need in the night
One love, we get to share it
Leaves you baby if you don’t care for it
Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without
Well it’s too late tonight
To drag the past out into the light
We’re one but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
U2 sings a song that speaks to this deep longing of the human heart. We long to affirm that we are one global family of sisters and brothers. We long to be at one with each other. And yet, we are different. And in our differences, we have competed against one another as if the resources of life are a zero-sum game, and in that striving against one another, we have hurt one another. We are not one with each other.
There is a fear that has pointedly inflicted us in this time of the aftermath of the waves of the pandemic. It is this feeling that a time of scarcity is upon us. The pandemic has had a cost in Canada of roughly a billion dollars a day. Last year (this is last year’s, please note), the US estimated the total cost today of somewhere in the ballpark of 16 trillion dollars. People worry: How do we get the economy back up and running? Will it ever get back to what it was before? Will I be able to hold onto what is mine? Will I keep my standard of living? What will happen if I can’t? Behind many political messages is the fear that in a time of scarcity, I am going to lose what is mine, or worse, I will have it taken. And it can be a drive to self-protection and self-preservation against others, whoever that may be, whoever becomes the scapegoat.
Is our freedom and meaning in life only found against others? Is this what it means to be human? Is this the right mentality to have? Worded another way: Is this what we trust about the way the world works and about our future?
I have learned that what we trust, we also worship. The word “worship” comes from the old English word “Worth-ship.” In other words, we worship what we are invested in. Whatever we trust ultimately is what we treat as God to us.
There is a simple fact that whatever we believe God to be, whatever or whoever is divine and ultimate to us, we will act like that God in some way. We become what we worship. And this means that each and every one of us has to ask this, who is God? What is God like? What are God’s character and essence? Do I trust? Because the answer to that question will decide who we are as a church, as a society, how we treat each other, and what our futures will be. So, who is God? Hold that thought for a second.
My son, Asher, is a very curious kid. The other day my son was sitting there at night in his bed. He asks the most random questions. The other day he was drifting off to sleep, then he perked awake and asked me, “Dad, if an earwig goes to your ear, could it get into your brain?” What, how is that the question that popped into your head?
Other times they are more spiritual in nature: “Dad, will we have skin in heaven?” Skin that is what you are worried about? The other day he asked me, “Dad, is Jesus God or is God, God?” To which I could only say, “Well, both…God is a Trinity.” I don’t think he was satisfied with that answer. It was kind of a theologian dad fail moment there.
I think my son’s question is probably pretty common. The Trinity is one of the most difficult and confusing teachings in Christianity. I want to impress upon you that it is also one of the most beautiful and essential. It’s fuzzy but fundamental.
The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible (but, then again, the word “Bible” never appears in the Bible, either), and so some groups throughout church history have denied the Trinity. My grad student just wrote a great thesis looking at the movement called Oneness Pentecostalism. Anyways, this does not mean the reality of the Trinity is not there in the Bible. The word ‘Trinity” comes from the early church where St. Tertullian coined the term in the second century to explain that when he read Scripture, he saw God have a “tri-unity” of identity. The word names something that goes on in the Bible; it summarizes it and brings a central truth together for us. This is where Christians, especially we, Protestants, can’t be afraid to recognize that while we don’t consider tradition an authority, we don’t deny that it is good advice, that the great saints of the past do have lessons we can learn to help guide us.
So, the recommendation of 2000 years of Christians reflecting on the Bible would say yes. The Trinity is the best way to read the Bible: that God is one being who has revealed God’s self in three persons, each fully God, one but not the same, that the experience of God in the Bible is the experience of God above, God beside us, and God within us. But how does the Bible teach the Trinity? That is the interesting part. And moreover, it gets to what the Trinity means for us today.
It has something to do with what U2 sang there: this profound longing for oneness, the oneness of all things, different things, different peoples, brought together by love, forgiveness, equality, and solidarity, which is all found in the very heart of who God is.
Dorothy Sayers, the great Catholic thinker, once joked that she felt growing up that the Trinity was something theologians thought up one day to make life difficult for the rest of us. Some of my students might be tempted to agree with her. Ya, caught me, Sayers! Just kidding. But Dorothy Sayers also has a great line that helps provide a solution: One reason why I think the Trinity is so confusing and abstract and ultimately feels irrelevant (the theological equivalent of the appendix: it’s there, but we don’t know what it does), is because we forget that the Trinity flows from the experience of God in the narrative of Scripture. Sayers says if you want to understand the doctrine, you need to look at the great drama of Scripture. The drama is the doctrine.
The Drama is the Doctrine
As I said before, one reason why the Trinity is hard to teach is because you have to look at the entire Bible to see the big picture. Obviously, we can’t do that because I suppose you want to get out of here before supper time. So, let me do a few snapshots of the story where hints of God’s character show up.
Snapshot One: You need to look at the beginning in Genesis 1 and see a God who makes this world out of nothing, out of the sheer charity of God’s being. And God makes through God’s eternal word, and it says, God’s breath of life hovers over the depths, bring form out of the formlessness. Here God is this creativity that brings all things into being through an eternal logic of generosity, God’s word, and life itself is animated by the wind of God’s breath resuscitating, refreshing, and restoring. God creates, but he creates with. God creates with breath and word.
Snapshot Two: The narrative continues to Genesis 2. God makes humanity in God’s image, male and female, collectively. God is imaged through relationship. In Genesis chapter two, the story reads how God made the woman from the rib of the first man, and the man, who realizes he is alone and empty by himself, sees this companion and realizes he sees himself in her; he can’t be himself without her: bone of my bone flesh of my flesh, he rejoices. That is a profound statement, a subversive statement, for a time when women were treated as property.
This coming together in love of individuals who are different yet in love become one flesh–one but not the same–shows that already from the very first chapters of the Bible, we see God revealing God’s very self as creator by word and spirit, who are in a oneness, the very essence of which is love and relationship, and God makes us to share in this, to reflect it and to embody it.
Snapshot Three: Eventually, after being ransomed out of Egypt into the promised land, the people want to be governed by a king, and so God concedes and allows Saul and David and Solomon to be kings. However, as time goes on, we see the lines of kings fail. No human king can set right all that has gone wrong, and the people plummet into injustice and self-destructive corruption. But God is this liberating love, promises that one day a new king will come, a perfect king. But in the prophecies that long for this perfect king, there is a kind of hint here: No human king can be perfect. Only God is the perfect king. And so, these prophecies suggest that this messiah, this true king, will bear the presence of God. So, God promises a king that will be the presence of God himself. We read Isaiah 9 in the season of Advent: It says they will call him, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” God up above promises to be God beside us.
Snapshot Four: As the story shows, Israel has a hard time keeping God’s law. Israel constantly falls away. And each time, there is this force, this imminent presence that comes and helps. This force empowers the judges to act formidably to protect God’s people, endowing them with wisdom and strength. It is like this breath from the original creation that breathed life into everything is resuscitating and re-invigorating God’s people with new life. This breath comes upon prophets to speak God’s word, his pronouncement. The prophet Jeremiah talked about the fire moving within him. So, the Judges and the Prophets sense this breath of God coming in them, moving them, empowering them to do God’s will. This breath is this mysterious agency that allows us to live out the word, the commandments, in the way they ought to be.
As God sees our hearts constantly captive to sin and evil and idolatry, God promises a gift of himself, the Spirit that sustains life will be poured out on human hearts and flesh to renew us from the inside out, bringing to fruition the fullness of life. So, God, who is word and Spirit, God who is relationship, this God above promises not only to come and be God beside us but also God within us.
The Centre Picture: This all sets us up the text we read earlier: Jesus appears on the scene as the Messiah, God Immanuel: God with us, the word from the beginning made flesh.
And Jesus keeps reminding the people that he is at one with the God they worship, who they pray to as the Father. Jesus is the Son that when you look at Jesus, the man who heals the sick, the one who commands love, the one who loves his enemies even to the point of dying for them on the cross, this is who God is. Love itself with us. And Jesus promises to bring us into this love by imparting his Spirit.
And so, he prays here in John 17 that this oneness that the Son has with the Father in their very being, the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son, perfectly equal yet different, perfect love within themselves and perfect love for all–this Jesus prays that all people will experience and participate in, begin with us. The Trinity is this longing to have God above come and be God beside us as well as God within us bringing us into the oneness of God’s love. The Trinity is this movement of love that wants to bring all things, everyone into the loves of God.
How Can God Be Three Yet One?
Now, I have to pause and ask: How can God be above, beside, and within? How can God be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit without being three Gods? How can God be one being and yet have these relations within him?
Theologians have tried to solve this question for two thousand years, trying to get all the right terminology or the right analogies: God is one being three persons, God is like an egg or water or a cloverleaf. The problem with these pursuits is simply this: God is not like anything in this world. When Moses says, what do I call you?” to God in the book of Exodus, God simply answers, “I am who I Am.” God simply is.
Saint Augustine once said that the God that I can comprehend would not be my God. So, if you find that you have a hard time understanding the Trinity, you find it confusing and hard to wrap your head around, don’t feel bad. I think it is actually a very good thing. If we ask ourselves how God can be three persons in one being, we are simply left with this fumbling: I don’t know; he just is. I don’t know about you, but I find it comforting that there is nothing in the world like God.
We will not be able to understand what God is. However, when we ask, “What is God showing us when he reveals himself as the Trinity?” Here we get a different answer: this God who is ineffable, infinite, incompressible, this God loves us. This God is for us, not against us, and God is showing us that God is love with his very being, and we are invited in.
The Trinity Means God is Love
I did not understand the value of the Trinity until when I was pastoring. I had the privilege of meeting on a weekly basis for coffee with a woman who struggled with addiction.
Often she would describe times when she was failing at managing her addiction, and these were dark times. I would ask her: “Where do you think God was?” Her answer was clear: “God was not near me. H wants nothing to do with me in those moments.” And I would ask, “What makes you think that God was not with you? Who do you think God is?”
“Well, God is holy and just, and he is, I think, full of anger at me because of all the bad choices I have made. God was nowhere near me.”
Her image of God was one where God was not fundamentally love, and so, God was far away because God was primarily something more like a distant parent figure that was always disappointed with her. I wonder where she got that idea.
So, I asked her: “When you look at the cross, Jesus in the place of sinners, where is God there?” She answers, “God is up able, looking away.” I suspect she learned this from that song we always sing on Good Friday, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” which is a beautiful song, but it has a line in it that says about Jesus at the cross that “the Father turns his face away.” Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that. The Gospels are saying something much more profound: When we look at this man, crying out forsaken, bearing the weight of sin, we are staring at the face, the very heart, of God revealed.
If Jesus and God the Father are one, and Jesus at the cross is at one with sinners, you are seeing the truth that God is with us sinners. God was there in our worst moments.
To see the cross with the help of the Trinity is to know that the same love the Father has for the Son, God has for all sinners through Christ dying in our place.
The Triune God came in Jesus to say that I love you with my very self. What happens to you happens to me. We are in it together. That is my choice. However, what happened to me also will happen to you. Whatever darkness your life is stuck in, whatever darkness you have chosen. God is there with you. God has bound God’s very self to our fate to say, “I will never leave you or forsake you, for I cannot forsake myself.” And so, in those dark moments, God brings love and life and light, shining in the darkness of hate and shame and hurt and blame, and John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” The same love that made and moves the sun, moon and stars, the eternal loves of Father, Son, and Spirit, invaded the corpse of crucifixion with Easter’s hope of new life. This is the hope we are invited into. This is the oneness that God longs for everyone one of us. May they be one as we are one.
The Trinity Means We Were Meant for Love
The Trinity is not just an abstract doctrine; it is a revolutionary truth of how to be human. We were meant for love.
Desmond Tutu, who passed away at the end of last year, was the Anglican Archbishop in South Africa, who opposed the apartheid, enduring threats and violence, terrible racism, bringing a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, receiving a Nobel peace prize for his work on the commission for truth and reconciliation. In his message, he preached the Gospel of God’s love for all, victim and perpetrator, justice and restoration. He used an African proverb to drive this home: Ubuntu.
What is Ubuntu? It is an African saying that people are people through other people. That is essentially what the Trinity is, only perfectly.
Ubuntu. In other words, we are all essentially connected. We cannot succeed ourselves without helping others succeed. If I diminish your dignity and humanity, I will have diminished myself. People are people through other people, reflecting a glimmer of how God is God through Father, Son, and Spirit.
There is a myth we have as westerners of the self-made person. This myth has gotten us in a lot of trouble. We believe as modern western individuals that our autonomy is so fundamental, moral obligations are burdensome, relationships are seen as an affront to our identity, and community is seen as repressive to self-expression and mobility. There is a saying that goes like this: “No person is an island.” Well, I think our assumption as modern people is that we are islands.
But this is where Desmond Tutu’s saying helps us understand the mystery of the Trinity that we are invited into. God is free and equal between Father, Son, and Spirit, through a relationship of perfect, mutual, self-giving, other-empowering love. It is through love that we are free. It is through love that we truly are ourselves.
That is a better account of how we came to be who we are as individuals and what we are as a society. Before we could walk or talk or even feed ourselves, we were nourished by the love of our parents, born into a society we did not choose but greeted our existence with order and stability, basic things we needed to flourish. These relationships, this connectedness, makes us who we are. As I think about it, as a Father and Husband, these roles define who I am. They do not monopolize who I am, but to say that I am less free because of these commitments and obligations, misses what Ubuntu is saying. True love ought not to be co-dependent. It sets boundaries and loves with tough love some days, and it is a love that is not afraid, to be honest. With that in mind, these relationships are freedom in a deeper sense: the relationships of our lives that liberate us into goodness, the freedom of love.
This is what God wants for all society. God wants us to realize that we are never going to succeed as a society if all we ever do is obsess about me and what is mine. We are never going to get through all this unless we learn how interconnected we all are.
What would the world look like if we took to heart these truths? The scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said that society was revolutionized when human beings harnessed the power of fire all those millennia ago: to cook meat, warn homes, sterilize water, see at night, refine and craft metal, to power engines. Civilization was made possible by harnessing the power of fire.
However, he says, the next age of humanity, the next revolution of human social potential–which we may be living on the cusp of–will only be possible when we trust the truth of love. If we accept the true potential of love, the power that is God’s very presence and being, if we are open to living that love out, allow it to permeate all levels of our society and self, he wagers the world we could build with that will make our world today look like the stone age.
That sounds very ambitious, but it begins with simple tasks. It starts with us, the church, the family of God. Mother Teresa once said, “I never tire of saying God loves you,” because she knew that in it, even the smallest act has the power to heal our broken world.
Do we trust this love today? Can we commit ourselves to sharing this love with others today?
Can These Bones Live?: The Resurrection of the Body and the Mission of the Church
Preached November 21, 2021, at Brookfield Baptist Church for their 159th anniversary service.
Let me read to you a text of hope for our troubled times. It is a vision of Ezekiel’s from Ezekiel chapter 37:1-14:
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (NIV)
God bless the reading of his word.
I remember my first day as a lead pastor. This was after several months of applying around, resume after resume, each church turning me down – they did not want to take on a doctoral student, they also wanted someone with more experience.
Life then was so uncertain back then. I was just beginning my dissertation for my doctorate at the University of Toronto. My contract as a coordinator of a drop-in center for those who faced homelessness and poverty in downtown Toronto had ended due to the funding cuts to social programs in Toronto. My wife and I just had our second child, Emerson, a few months prior. We had just bought a home and now were realizing we might have to sell it. My contract as an intern for church planting in another Baptist denomination had come to an unfortunate end: the denominational leaders found out that I was in favor of women in ministry, and for this Baptist denomination, such a belief was beyond the pale. I had a meeting with a denominational leader, a card-carrying fundamentalist, who gave me an ultimatum: he put on no uncertain terms that the belief that men lead (and are the only ones that can be pastors) and women submit – this conviction was for him and the denomination essential to the Gospel, and that meant for me that I had to either shut up or have my funding as a church planter cut. I decided I could not in good conscience continue. It was hard leaving the denomination that my grandfather was a founding pastor of. When you have to leave the church family you were raised in, it feels like you are leaving Christianity itself, since it is the only Christianity you know. When you are literally threatened and attacked by your church family, the one that raised you, attacked over the beliefs you feel are biblical, if you have ever had a similar interaction with some of your Christian friends, it can make you wonder, does the church have a future? If it does, is it a future with me in it?
So, in all the uncertainty, a Canadian Baptist church, the 120 year old First Baptist of Sudbury hired me. They wanted a young pastor. First Baptist Church of Sudbury was a little church four hours north of Toronto, a place I had only visited once when I was in high school in the winter, a place that gets down to minus 40 in the winter, and I wondered how any human being could live here. It was this church that voted to hire me.
All of that is to say, I remember walking into my office to see that the interim pastor had left a report on my desk. It was a church growth flow church, charting the birth of a church, the peak years of a church, and then qualities and stages that indicate decline, and finally twilight and death. There was a big red circle around the word death.
This was a church, as I found, that had experienced over a decade of turmoil to no fault of its own. Two pastors one after the other had really done a lot of damage to the church. One ran off with the wife of one of the deacons. The other was hired and did not tell the church he was going through a bitter divorce with his wife and then divided the church. I remember that summer the church attendance was less than a dozen people.
It was not a very encouraging first day as I reflected how we just moved my family 400 kilometers away to a small church, all of which were twice and sometimes three times my age. Does this church have a future? Does the church have a future?
This is a question I think many are asking especially in this time of the aftermath of the Pandemic. Financially the pandemic has rocked Canada: the Toronto Star has estimated that pandemic has costed Canadians 1.5 billion dollars of every day of the pandemic. For the United States, the total cost to date is estimated to be over 16 trillion dollars. People are worried whether there will be enough to go around.
Yet, it is the human cost that is most important. According to the most recent numbers on John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, there has been 256 million reported cases globally and there has been 5.1 million deaths attributed to the virus. Canada has seen 29 000 deaths. We call that being fortunate, but it is really so, so tragic. Many of these individuals have been seniors in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. But make no mistake: this virus is unpredictably deadly. I heard that a classmate of mine a few months ago, a woman my age with a child, got the virus, went to bed, and did not wake up.
For many, it has been the emotional toll that people have felt the most: feelings of isolation, burn out, anxiety. Churches have felt this as their pastors have been over worked to put services online and adapt to new health standards. All our churches have felt distant from members of the community but also feeling obstructed from doing ministry in the wider community.
As we look out at a post-pandemic world, as it moves to endemic stage, while we are still facing waves and new variants, it feels like we are surveying the wreckage. It feels like we are the survivors of a battle.
In my reading of Scripture, recently I went through the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet and a priest that proclaimed messages and visions from God about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel watched a foreign empire, Babylon, come and destroy his home. The Jewish armies were decimated by a cruel and brutal military superpower. The people then were brought into exile. Ezekiel went with them where he served as a priest and teacher to a small expatriate community, living in exile.
Such hopelessness and insecurity can make our own situation seem so insignificant, but then again, we too are feeling a sense of dislocation, insecurity, and uncertainty, and when we come to Scripture, the Spirit of God animates these ancient words to say something to us today, something we need to hear.
It is in this context that Ezekiel has a vision of the aftermath of a battlefield, filled with corpses, dry bones, and it is a vision that is symbolic as it explains, but it names the spiritual reality that God’s people were in: a state of feeling defeated.
Yet, the spirit of God is not. God says to Ezekiel: Can these bones live? And Ezekiel replies in the most human way he can: “I don’t know. I don’t know the future. But you God do know.”
And he is given this vision: he sees the dry bones being raised up, the breath of God, the Spirit of life that animated all humanity and all living things in creation, this breath now is causing death to be reversed, a new creation.
God says of these bones that they are the house of Israel. They are God’s people who have said, “Our strength is gone, our hope feels lost. We feel cut off and separated.”
And God says to them, “I will restore you. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you and renew you.” God is saying this to us today, I believe.
It can feel like the church in Canada has lost a battle or just barely is scrapping by. So many of us have sent the past year stressed and anxious, our bones feel dried up, our hope feels lost.
And yet, the Spirit of God has not been defeated. God is still God, the Lord Almighty, the God of all possibilities, the God whose plans are always good, the God whose promises will not be thwarted.
Our God’s will and plan and promise is to bring salvation, forgiveness, healing, life, love, and liberation to all people – these have not been stopped for they cannot be stopped: God’s kingdom is still coming so that earth will one day be as it is in heaven.
And we know this definitely because this vision here is a prefigure of what happens to Jesus, God’s son, the messiah. For when the forces of darkness, of death and despair came against Jesus, Jesus gave himself up as a ransom to liberate us from these things, dying on a cross, a god-forsaken death. God became a cursed corpse. By this we know God is with us in our darkness moments. And in that time of hopelessness, in the time that it seems like the plan of God was truly foiled, that Jesus’ claims to being the messiah were disproven, on the third day the tomb was found empty; Jesus is risen from the grave by the Spirit.
As we celebrate where we have come today as a church, we must remember that we stand on the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are his body as the church, and the body of Christ, while it was bruised, beaten, and crucified, the Spirit raised this body to new life.
This is our hope for a time that has seen such death. This is our hope in a time that has seen such sadness. We have the hope of Jesus.
The church is founded on this truth, and we cannot forget this. We live because Jesus is Lord.
The same Spirit that raised Jesus is the same Spirit that came on the first disciples to begin the church at Pentecost. It is the same Spirit that moved the first Baptists in Nova Scotia, prophets is like Henry Alline, to speak God’s word boldly, to live God’s gospel courageously, even in the face of all that has gone wrong in this world. It is the same Spirit that moved that is alive with us today.
As we remember God’s faithfulness to our churches in the past, and ask the question what does the future have in store? Our question sounds very similar to what God said to Ezekiel, and our answer must be the same:
O Lord God, you know. We trust you and your way. You know because you are sovereign. You know because you are good. You know because you have made promises you keep, plans that will come true.
These are words I know I needed to hear when I first started pastoring. Because the fact is many of us have convinced ourselves that we can control the future, that we can predict it and change it by our power and skill. I thought that pastoring. Looking at that depressing church growth document all those years ago in my office, I thought to myself: I can change that. I thought I could save the church.
I became obsessed over the next few years of starting programs and fundraisers and advertisements. Many of these did not have much effect (at best people from other larger churches came to these programs, used them like a free service and continued attending their own churches), and after two years of it, I just found myself burnt out and wanting to quit.
It was in that moment that I realized I don’t know what the future of this church will be. Only God knows. But what I do know is that I must be faithful to live what God is calling the church to be.
The church was located in the town of Garson. The church relocated out there in the 70’s hoping that this new suburb would be the next up and coming neighborhood. The reality was the city zoned it to be where the poor of the city were sent: supplemented income housing was built on all sides of the church. Many of the stores had graffiti on it. You would very often see police cruisers making stops.
One day a guy called and wanted a ride to church. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me, and as I got to know him, he faced a lot of mental health challenges. He had attended other churches that frankly saw him as a burden and ignored him. Other churches wanted to grow the church by attracting easier, and I should say, richer sheep.
This was the person God had given us, our family of faith, so we did our best, and I soon found he had a lot of friends. I put out a sign in his building that if anyone needed a ride to the foodbank on a Tuesday afternoon, I would drive them to the other end of town and have coffee with them after.
Many would ask me, “Are you just being nice to me to get me to come to your church?” And I would say emphatically: “While I strongly believe that a community of faith and weekly worship is important to our spirituality, I will always be there to help you, even if you never set foot in our church.”
I realized in those experiences that if the church is to have a future, it will be by taking up our crosses in a new way. The church must die to self: it must lay to rest its obsession with money that causes it to see the poor as worthless; it must lay to rest its expectations of what a successful Christian life is, which causes so many to feel they are not worthy to be in the family of God: the mentally ill, those who face addictions, those whose love lives are messy and complicated, those who are in the sexual minority. The church must take up its cross in a new way, embracing the discomfort the Spirit is calling us into.
It was in those moments that I know I saw the church, what it can truly me, a place where th outcasts was welcomed, a family of misfits. Let’s face it: we all are seeing very pointed reminders of the failures of the church today: racism and residential schools, stories of bigotry and abuse, or just the stories of apathy and irrelevance where churches just don’t actually care about doing what is right or sharing God’s love.
One elderly lady in my church said to me, “Pastor, I don’t know what to do with some of these people.” And I said to her, “I get it, I don’t know how to handle some of these issues either, but at the end of the day, a lot of these individuals are people without parents. I know you know how to be that.” So, the ladies of our church started cooking meals and putting them in Tupperware containers to give out. We organized community meals for people in the common area of the apartment building. It was the old folks of the congregation that said, “We know we need to be open minded, because we know what happened when we weren’t.”
It was pastoring this little church that renewed my confidence in the church: the church that is not a building, but a community of disciples, imperfect but willing to bare one another’s burdens, living like a family, being family to those that have no family.
It is amazing what can happen when the church is ready to take up its cross.
And it must be said, if we want to see the reality of resurrection, the Spirit moving and breaking in and causing new life, it will only happen, when a church is ready take up the cross, to sacrifice all that it is and even can be.
I emphasize here “can be” because so often we go out on mission for the purpose of the “future of the church,” but that really means we just want to keep what is ours. And when we do that, we will ignore those who don’t matter to our budget, our building maintenance, our membership lists. We will be vulnerable to politicians that promise power to the church. We will make the church and its mission about us.
While the future offers no guarantees – I know I constantly worried: “Will we have enough money to pay the bills? Will we have to amalgamate with another church?” – the promise of God in this passage is that God will do wonderful things, surprising things, in the valleys of dry bones.
I had a bunch of stories I wanted to tell, but here is just one: In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low-income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews. He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank. I would take them as per my Tuesday noontime routine. I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered to, could nevertheless hear an uplifting Scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital. After he got out I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him. I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed upward. In that dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer, I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist anymore.”
God surprised me that day. God surprises us most often when we are ready to be the Gospel for the broken and when we are willing to be broken for the Gospel.
It is a beautiful irony that church growth did not happen when I obsessed about growing the church. The church started growing when we resolved to be there for those in need in our communities even if it could cost us “the church” as we know it.
The church will only find itself when it is ready to die to self. It will only rise when it is willing to dwell in the valleys of dry bones.
As we celebrate today, Brookfield Baptist Church, where we have come from, where we are now, where we hope to go. Remember we are the body of Christ: We live in this world crucified and only in and through this, we can see moments of resurrection.
God of hope and new life, we praise you that you are faithful. You have been faithful through the years in this church, and so we trust you with our present and future.
Lord, we do not know what the future holds. And we have seen so much discouragement these days.
Lord, teach us in new ways to trust your Spirit. Inspire us in new ways to take up your cross.
Empty us into this world, so that we can be with those who need to hear about you.
Permit us to see moments of resurrection, moments of your kingdom come.
We pray longing for the salvation of all people, the restoration of all things.
These things we pray in your name. Amen.
Thanksgiving or Thanks-getting?
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?
Unmarked Graves and the Hells We Have Made: Jeremiah’s Judgment Sermon and the Residential Schools
Sermon preached on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Billtown Baptist Church, NS.
On Thursday, a new national holiday will be observed: the Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day to remember indigenous peoples and the tragic events that happened to indigenous children in the residential schools.
In June of this year, while we were all trying to get by from the pandemic, we learned of an atrocity that, for many of us, made our problems seem so small. The unmarked graves containing 215 remains of indigenous children were found in Kamloops, BC. Others have been discovered.
While this shocked many of us, indigenous communities have been fighting for awareness of what took place in these schools for decades. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 3 200 remains. They listed the names on a long red banner, and it was revealed in October of last year. Here is a picture of it, and as you can see, it goes around the room and out. It is so large. That’s how many. If you saw this as I did, I remember falling back in my chair, overwhelmed with the magnitude of this massacre.
These schools operated for over 150 years, the final ones being shut down in the 1990s. That means it is estimated that about 150 000 indigenous children went through these schools. The survivors face terrible mental health difficulties from these experiences. They estimate that the death toll to be somewhere around 5 000 children. In other words, there are many more graves yet to be discovered.
There were 137 of these schools throughout Canada run by churches. Most were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United, but there were Baptist ones as well.
How do we wrap our heads around the fact that our nation, our churches, participated in something so cruel? How do we process the fact that these schools were operating in plain sight for over a century? It was not a conspiracy of a few individuals. There were reports, visits by other clergy, politicians, and townspeople. People knew. It was an act of systemic racism and genocide because it took many people, many laws and administrators, a whole culture of prejudice to do it. What words can we muster to talk about something so unspeakable?
I am going to suggest to you that we need to talk about God’s wrath. We cannot help but think about God’s anger, for if we don’t, the possibility that God is okay with these things, people doing these things to others, the alternative is worse: it makes God look uncaring and apathetic.
Many of us, however, have a toxic understanding of God’s wrath inherited from our fundamentalist upbringings. I am going to suggest to you that if we think rightly about the figures of hell and the fact God’s wrath actually flows from God’s love, we have a way of grasping this formidable failure of Christian morality. And yet, there is hope; there is hope for redemption and reconciliation.
In order to do that, I am going to read a text of bitter medicine. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 7:1-11, 17-20, 30-34 (abridged for time):
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord…
17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. 19 Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt? 20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched…
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31 And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
What I have read to you is one of the most important judgment passages in the whole Bible. It is Jeremiah’s judgment sermon on Jerusalem that he delivers in the temple.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet” because he was called by God to give the people the worst news in the whole Old Testament: Because of the sins of the people, Jerusalem will fall.
What could have led them to that point?
Jeremiah, in this temple sermon, says why. The people have become so lax in their walk with God that they turned to idols: the gods Baal, Molech, and Ishtar, whose title was the queen of heaven and was celebrated with ceremonial cakes that Jeremiah mentions.
Idolatry in the ancient world was really an attempt to barter with the gods, to get power and prosperity out of them, forgetting God is the only true God.
The way of God is a sharp rebuke of this: God is already on our side; we now just need to follow his way if we want good things in our lives because the right way is the best way. Goodness begets goodness, and God’s justice is good for everyone. We can’t manipulate God out of doing the right thing. We can’t butter him up with long prayers or church services. God simply says, repent and do good.
Justice is always hard work, especially compared to idols that offer a seductive bargain: if you give this to Baal or Molech, then you will be blessed without having to be a blessing to others. It sounds so much easier.
But the allure of idolatry is fatal: if you are trying to convince false gods of our delusions to do good to you, what is enough? Do you sacrifice more crops? Do you sacrifice more animals, even the ones you need to make it through till next harvest? Do you slash your body and bleed in the act of devotion like the prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah? Or do you go even further and sacrifice the very thing, the very person you place hope for the future in, your own child, whom you love and care for?
This is what the people did. The idolatrous religions of Canaan demanded you sacrifice your child in the flames. With the growing worry of a new superpower in the east, the Babylonians, the Jews, after they prayed in the temple, took their children secretly outside the city to the valley. It is here, in the valley of Topheth, the valley of Hinnom, that the people did something unthinkable, a crime so terrible, God calls it an abomination. And he says that if the people tolerate the sacrifice of children in the flames, Jerusalem will have an ironically similar fate. Jerusalem will burn.
The people responded mocking Jeremiah: “We are God’s people. Jerusalem is where the temple is. That will never happen. God is on our side. We’re safe.”
The king, Zedekiah, ignores Jeremiah, and in his arrogance, breaks his alliance with Babylon, siding with Egypt, thinking God would protect him. After Jeremiah warns the king not to do this, God’s judgment was simply God saying, “Alright, have it your way.” The same callous hearts that sacrificed children was the same that sealed Jerusalem’s fate. Sin is its own punishment.
The brutal armies of Babylon came and laid siege. As the defences broke, the city was burned, and the people were pulled out of their homes, tortured, and killed. The corpses were set ablaze and left smouldering in the valley.
Jeremiah’s prophecy stated that there would be so much carrion and bitumen produced by the fire that he calls it a permanent, unquenchable fire.
In fact, writers like Philo and Josephus 600 years later speak about how the effects of the flames were still visible in the valley. The scorched soil, Philo says, permanently had sulphur in it, a lasting reminder of the inescapable inferno.
1. Places Reveal
In indigenous spirituality, their culture is not a written culture but an oral culture. For them, places are revelatory, for the land holds memory; the land tells a story, stories that are told and retold down through the generations. In that regard, their culture is closer to ancient Israel than ours, and perhaps we can understand our Bible better if we are willing to learn from them that places reveal things.
When my family and I were on vacation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we stayed at cottages owned by an indigenous family in the unceded village of Wikwemikong. Each day we would explore a different part of the island. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking trails, waterfalls, as well as villages with little cafés and shops. One day we drove into Wikwemikong. We were looking for a hiking trail, and as we drove just outside the village, there stood these eerie ruins.
This was the site of one of the residential schools. This was the old building of the Wikwemikong Residential school that operated from 1840 to 1963.
I read an account of these schools by a woman named Ida Embry. She tells of how every fall she would be forced to go to this school, her and her sister. The children were beaten severely with a thick leather strap for things such as simple as trying to talk to another in their native language. The children were referred to by number, not name. The curriculum openly taught them to despise their parents in an attempt to rid them of indigenous thinking.
Why did these schools exist? The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, was one of the first initiators of the schools and said the schools needed to cut off contact between the child and their family in order to get rid of the “savage” in them. He believed this was his Christian duty to Christianize the world. These actions are a part of a long history of Christian imperialism and colonialism, where Christians felt it was their responsibility to take indigenous land from them and impose a Christian order onto their society no matter the cost. Put another way: it did not matter the sacrifice.
The people of Jeremiah’s time sacrificed children in the flames of the valley of Topheth to idols in order to gain divine favour. I am going to suggest to you that Canadian society has engaged in its own child sacrifice. Only the children were not Canadian children, nor was the land ours to do it on.
But they were sacrificed to idols. These were sacrifices to the idols of power, empire and colonization, cultural superiority and racism, idols that led Christians to believe their faith automatically made them the good no matter what they did, and that the mission of the Gospel could be accomplished by doing very things Jesus was categorically against.
Part of me wondered, why didn’t they level this evil place to the ground? But, this place stood as a reminder. Places reveal if we listen.
I have known a few survivors of these schools. I got to know them in Toronto, where I was the coordinator of a soup kitchen, as well as in Sudbury, where I pastored for five years.
The stories these children of God have told me have kept me up at night. The crimes of these schools are so terrible we don’t even want to think about them. They are so jarring; they are an existential threat to who we think we are as Christians and Canadians, what we believe about ourselves, and our responsibility to each other.
Are Christians always the good guys of history? No, not always. Is it possible that Christians can use the Bible and their beliefs to motivate horrific acts of hate? Yes, we have.
I am going to suggest to you, however, that if we don’t dwell in these painful places, repent, and learn what is necessary to rectify these injustices, we will never display a faithful witness in Canada fully. But more than that, we will never learn to love in a way God wants us to, to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the victims of our foolish beliefs. The God of Scripture loves the forgotten of this world and us also too much to let us get away with this.
We forgot about those unmarked graves. God did not. Those schools, those graves, are our Topheth. Putting it that way is certainly startling, but we must understand something else:
2. God’s Anger Intends to Heal
I apologize if you came this morning with the expectation of a cheerful sermon, but let’s think about these things more today because I have realized that when we understand God’s anger correctly, God is trying to heal us, not hurt us.
What is Topheth? It has many names in the Bible: the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Here it is called Topheth. It is a valley that stretches outside the city down to the Dead Sea, which also had a nickname that is a part of this land of judgment: the Lake of Fire. Perhaps you recognize that one from the Book of Revelation.
As I said, the effects of these moments of judgments on Jerusalem linger to this day, and that is why the fire was called the “unquenchable flame” or the “eternal fire.” When we understand the geographic figure of Topheth, of the valley of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, we also understand what God is doing a bit better with what Christians have called hell.
The word, “hell,” is a European term that does not do a very good job at translating nearly a dozen places of judgment in the Bible. The doctrine of hell has been really one of the most misunderstood and abused ideas in the church. I will suggest to you it is because we have forgotten that it comes out of this history of the land.
I remember as a boy coming home from church being shaken by a sermon a pastor preached that if you don’t stay on the straight and narrow path, I will go to hell for eternity. I remember crying that night, terrified that I just would not be good enough, terrified of the thought friends and family or anyone could be trapped there.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. Perhaps you are like many modern Christians that just choose to ignore hell. Some of us are content to say, God is love, and therefore God never gets angry, and when we come to a passage of the Bible that says differently, we more or less just skip it and go on our merry way.
Many of us are content to think of hell as a place under the ground ruled by cartoonish devils dressed in red and with horns and pitchforks. It looks a lot more like European mythology than Hebrew memory. Many of us modern people are content to think of this version of hell in the same way we think of unicorns or leprechauns.
I did this for a time, but I just could not get around how Jesus uses this language. Jesus uses this figure of Topheth and Gehenna to warn people.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that when we refuse to reconcile with others, we are in danger of going into Gehenna.
Jesus also says that when we refuse to deal with sin, it would be better to cut off our arms or eyes that cause us to stumble than have our whole bodies go into the unquenchable fire (that’s language from Jeremiah’s Topheth).
The fact that these scriptures exist and are even statements of Jesus breaks through our assumptions about what love is and what judgment means. Love is not about turning a blind eye to how we harm others, but neither is judgment about God giving up hope on us.
I never understood why Jesus, who has died for the sins of the whole world, who is perfect and has self-sacrificial love towards sinners, who reflects the heart of God, who Paul tells us, “desires all people to be saved” – I could never understand why Jesus gives these warnings. Not sweet, gentle, never hurt a fly, Jesus?
Then I became a father. As you already know, Meagan and I have five very busy boys. Being a dad is really the greatest privilege and responsibility one can really have. It is your job to do what is best for them and try to stir them towards the best future. But we all know we can’t control our kids, and sometimes our kids make terrible decisions. Sometimes this fact is exasperating, and it makes us, parents, angry. Angry because we love them so much. I can tell you the things that make me the angriest as a parent is when my kids hurt each other and don’t care. It is in those moments, as parents, we plead for our kids to stop. We word our warnings in the strongest possible terms in some hope our kids will take the consequences of their actions seriously.
One time my one son was about to hit their brother, and I said, “You do that, and you are dead meat.”
Another time they were really rude to one another, and I said, “You keep acting like this, and I am just going to take away TV forever.”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child? These are called hyperboles. A hyperbole is a statement purposely worded so strong it will grab the other person’s attention. Jesus uses hyperboles all the time. God’s wrath is his outcry so loud and so strong that God hopes it will break through our stubbornness and apathy.
Let me suggest to you that the images of hell work something like this. What seems to be happening here is that these memories from Jeremiah’s day, of fire, permeant, and unavoidable destruction, become pictures of the end, and God uses these to warn the people about the course they are on.
He does this, sadly, because we so often use heaven and salvation as a big cop-out. We tell ourselves that God loves us so much he will fix all that when we get to heaven. I don’t have to do what is right; God forgives me; I’m good. When that happens, God, like in the Book of Revelations, holds up this moment of the valley of Topheth (which in that book is called the lake of fire) and says, one way or another, you will have to deal with this. I love you too much to just let you avoid it. If you don’t deal with this evil, this sickness in our soul, what makes you think you can participate in the fullness of eternal life I have for you?
3. But Hope is Real
God’s judgment is often those moments God steps back and allows us to feel and see the consequences of our decisions. When we fixate on these moments, however, we are tempted to believe God gives up hope on us, that God has chosen some to be saved and others not, or that God does not actually love all people and want to save them. But the prophet Jeremiah says this in his book, Lamentations, chapter 3:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness…
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
Notice that Jeremiah warns the people with the figures of unquenchable fire but also comforts them, saying God’s love never fails, and ultimately God rejects no one. No one is cast off by the Lord forever. It even says that when he does bring punishment, he does so reluctantly, unwillingly. The prophet Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in punishment. The prophet Isaiah actually depicts God as weeping as he judges the people, feeling their pain. That sounds a lot more like a loving father trying with everything he’s got to turn his children from hurting themselves and each other towards something better.
The images of Topheth, Gehenna, and the Lake of Fire are God mirroring our brutality back at us. But make no mistake, God is not brutal or pleased with torture, nor does he give up hope in us or ever stop loving us. Isaiah depicts God’s judgment fire like it is the fire that purifies polluted ore into precious metal. Malachi imagines the fire judgment of God burning the sickness of sin away like a strong soap cleansing infection.
We often fixate on these dire warnings, but these warnings must always be coupled with the promises of restoration: We can’t understand redemption without both.
Jesus uses these punishment images of Gehenna, but we must never forget that Jesus went on then and accepted Gehenna’s punishment on our behalf.
With these warnings, how do we know there is hope for us with these atrocities in Canada’s past? We can have confidence because God in Jesus Christ was the child of God sacrificed for our sin. He was deemed expendable by the religious authorities, who wanted to keep their power. He was arrested, taken, beaten, and brought outside the city, to a place in the valley of Topheth, a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death.
It is there that God counted the murder of his son as a sacrifice for the sins of those murdering him. He died praying for forgiveness for the very people who killed him.
If we have any doubt that God loves sinners, even when we have done the very worst of things, we can look at Jesus and know, he has gladly taken the hells we have made, the ones we are trapped in, and he chooses to bear them on the cross.
But that does not mean we get off the hook for the wrongs done in our world, in our history, and in our society. It does something different. It says there is hope that we can overcome them. The God of second chances forgives us and is now giving us opportunities to make it right, to learn and to repent, to heal and to restore: others and ourselves.
If there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by resurrection light, there is no wrong of the past that cannot be amended with God’s forgiving, reconciling future. But God gives us a choice: confront the hells we have made, unmake them with God’s gracious help, or the hells we have made for others will become our own.
But there is always hope because our God is a God of hope, a God that was pierced with the nails of hopelessness itself on the cross so that all the graves that Death and Sin have scarred God’s earth with might one day be emptied into Jesus’ eternal life.
Jeremiah reflects on the valley of Topheth later in his book, in the light of God’s promises to one day save his people, give them a new covenant, and place the law of love in their hearts, renewing them, and he says this in Jeremiah 31: 38-40:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord… The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes… shall be holy to the Lord.”
One day, these places of brutality and judgment will be healed and holy. The places of our greatest failures can be sites of forgiveness.
Let me suggest to you that if these graves of the residential schools are Canada’s Topheth, the hells we have made, it is a place of warning if we forget what happened there. But it will also be a place of hope if we remember the stories these places tell. It will be where we must look for how to repent fully, authentically, where God is sending us to carry out the work of reconciliation, where we as the church in Canada will find a new sense of Christ’s hope, a hope he has for us all.
If we treat these graves of these precious children as holy, letting their family’s laments be our laments, their battles for justice be our battles too, letting go of the idols of power and self-preservation, the arrogance that the face of Christ can only be found in faces that look like ours, these mentalities that centuries of Christians have held on to before us, to our own determent and destruction, if we do this – if we do this, God promises we will see glimpses of nothing short of heaven on earth, holy ground, the inbreaking of what Peter called the hope of the restoration of all things.
When Will It End? A Different Kind of Apocalypse
So, Phase Five of the reopening plan in Nova Scotia has been delayed until October. I don’t know about you, but when I read that, while I think it is the right decision, I just groaned with that sound a drain makes when I try to pour soup down it: ugh. When will this be over?
Believe it or not, the people in Zachariah’s day were asking a similar question: When will the end come?
Zechariah is a prophet that writes at the time of the return from exile (this is 520 years before Jesus, in case you are wondering), but we need a bit more background to understand what is being said in our passage today before I read it. You see, the nation of Israel after King David and his son, King Solomon, split into two halves: The Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, and this was due to the idolatry of King Solomon and the foolishness of his son, Rehoboam. While the Southern kingdom continued on for about two hundred more years, it was defeated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was burned and levelled, and its people were carried off into exile in Babylon.
This destruction was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah also prophesied that God would restore Israel after the exile. He says,
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
How many of us have had that Scripture read lately? We like that part of Jeremiah, don’t we?
After 70 years, God would fulfill his promises for Israel. These promises include God bringing about the kingdom of God. If you are already doing the math and thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, Jesus came 520 years later,” hold that thought.
So, when the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and the Persian kings ordered the return of the Jewish exiles back to their home, the Jews got back, and they started rebuilding, hoping for the imminent coming of God’s kingdom. They did not want the past to repeat itself, so they did the good religious thing, and they started fasting regularly. But beneath the piety, they had not actually changed.
God sends Zachariah, and Zachariah tells the people he has had visions in dreams. Chapters 1-6 record them, eight in total, each one perplexing and fantastic in its symbolism, and the first four and last four seem to mirror each other.
Zachariah dreams of four powerful angelic horsemen returning to Jerusalem, but then in his eighth dream, they are going out on patrol on standby. What is happening there?
He dreams of the horns of the oppressive nations being dismantled. But then he dreams of a woman being carried off in a led basket by angels to Babylon, where a permanent dwelling awaits her.
He dreams of measuring a new Jerusalem, where God dwells and protects his people. But then he dreams of a flying scroll going out into the land and finding anyone who has dealt with another falsely and cursing them.
He dreams of the high priest of his day, a man named Joshua, being accused in heaven by the Adversary, and God coming to his defense, taking his filthy, soiled clothes, and giving him a beautiful new priestly robe to serve the people.
Then he dreams of a golden lamp stand with a bowl with seven lamps standing beside olive trees. This, an angel explains, is the governor Zerubbabel. This is what he can be for his people if he trusts not his own strength but trusts in the Spirit.
Reading these, one cannot help but ask: When is this going to happen? Did it already happen or is it yet to happen? How are they going to happen? It does not exactly fit into a neat timeline (more on that in just a minute). Then the dreams close with God saying something strange in Chapter 6:15: “This will happen if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord.”
If? That’s weird. That can’t be right. The future is set and determined. The translator probably got that waw wrong. Or did they? Well, this brings us to our text today:
7 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. 2 Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and their men, to entreat the favour of the Lord, 3 and to ask the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I mourn and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” 4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5 Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6 And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? 7 Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited? 8 The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: 9 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 11 But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. 12 They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. 13 Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts, 14 and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus, the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate. (Zechariah 7:1-14, NRSV)
1. We want to know when all this will be over.
So…After the book recounts these dreams, it says that a delegation comes to Zechariah, and they say, “Hey, it’s been 70 years of exile since Jeremiah said God would come and restore us and fulfill all his promises. The clock is ticking. We are back, but life is terrible!” Let’s just say it was worse than a life of zoom calls and mask-wearing. So they say, “When is God going to come? When and how are all these dreams going to take place? When is God’s kingdom going to be here?”
Jeremiah’s prophecy looms in the background, and so the prophet brings it up. They want to know, when is it all going to end? When is a golden age going to dawn? You might say that they want to know if they are living in the end times.
I grew up in a religious tradition that was almost singularly obsessed with this question of the end times. As a person that has always loved reading, in my early years, I read book after book on predictions for the end times. As a young person, I felt deep down that things were not the way they were supposed to be. The world was becoming a darker place, not better, and when you read through a book like the Book of Revelation, it is very easy to draw the conclusion that the end is certainly near.
On Dec. 31st, 1999, my family was vacationing in Florida at my Grandparents’ condo over Christmas. Everyone was worked up about Y2K. Could this be the end? Will there be a mass computer failure, resetting civilization? Will the armies of the middle east rise up against the Western powers like what we saw in the Gulf war? Will the European Union become the new Babylon? Some of the preachers I read said it would. It’s 2000 years from the life of Christ. It makes sense. Two thousand years from Abraham to Jesus, the beginning of the covenant, so logically 2000 years from Jesus to the second coming.
I remember asking my dad about this, and part of him was skeptical. The other part was scared and felt anxious.
We watched the countdown: 3, 2, 1, Happy New Year! The ball dropped in New York, and people sang silly Irish songs. And as people out in the pool house of the condo ran around blowing their horns and noisemakers, my dad and I looked at the TV screen: reports came in that everything was fine. Nothing happened.
The end did not come.
I wish I could tell you that I learned a lot from that experience, but through high school, I really just went on to another prediction, figuring that the Y2K prediction was the right approach with the wrong conclusion.
Another event happened in my young adult life: 9/11. I watched from the big TV in the corner of our classroom in high school the planes flying into the World Trade Centre Towers. Then the war on terror was launched, then the Iraq war. The books I read suggested that these are the real prophesied enemies, Gog and Magog, and now, not Y2K, was the real beginning of the end. It felt like it.
But already, as a young person, this approach became dissatisfying to me, and perhaps you have felt this too (if you have any clue about what I am talking about). It seemed like those most certain that this politician or that terrorist attack was clearly this man on a horse in the Book of Revelation or that seal or bowl or trumpet or beast – whatever it was – it seemed that these preachers had been making these predictions for decades.
Protestant Christians have been habitually predicting the end since Martin Luther, who was convinced that the beasts in Revelation were Roman Catholicism. For 500 years, Christians have been treating apocalyptic literature as a code to crack and that we are now living in the definitive age that has provided the cipher, all to be proven wrong time and time again. Anna said last week: We have been living in the end times for 2000 years.
A few months ago, I was driving to work. I took a different way than I normally do. As I drove, I admired the farms and trees and all the beauty of the Annapolis Valley. Of course, I passed by churches. One church in particular (which will remain nameless) struck me. It had a sign on the front. It was a quotation from the Book of Revelation. It indicated that COVID-19 is one of the plagues from the Book of Revelation, revealing that we are in the definitive end times. Oh, and by the way, service is online at 10; all welcome.
A piece of me really wanted to deface that sign. Adorn a ski mask and spray paint something on that sign in the middle of the night. I don’t know what I would spray paint it with. Maybe Matt. 25:13: “You don’t know the time or hour!” I don’t know. I decided that probably was not the best idea.
I was tempted to call that church up and lecture them about how you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I can’t imagine that going well.
But the other part of me had to say: Aside from the sign being in bad taste, it is a question people are asking: Is the world ending? Cause it kinda feels like it is. If not, when will it end? How will it end?
So, to give these folk some credit, all our hearts feel the same thing: the foundations of our world are shaking, and our social fabric is tearing, and that has led so many of us to pray: How long, O Lord? When will your promises be fulfilled? When will your kingdom come and will be done? Because our world today feels like it is on the precipice to oblivion.
2. What does the end reveal about us now?
As I reflect on it, that sign probably revealed just as much about me as it did about that church. Apparently, I have tendencies towards vandalism, and I get really bothered by other people’s bad theology (It is an occupational hazard).
Something similar, however, is true of the visions of Zechariah.
An apocalypse is an unveiling, a revealing, that is what the word in Greek means, but it is not God giving believers a spoiler video clip of the conclusion of his own movie before the movie comes out.
It is prophetic poetry that uses fantastic and frightening symbols: of fire and flying scrolls, beasts and bowls of wrath, angels and dragons – and if we read it as literal, something will happen exactly like this or that, or we dismiss it as vague mythology of a by-gone era, something modern science with its laws of the conservation of energy has disproven, we miss that these figures are trying to unveil something in us, something in front of us.
Books like Zechariah or Revelation are not maps to the future. They work more like postcards and compasses because we so often lose our way on the journey of faith.
Sometimes we are tempted to go our own way, take history into our hands, and think that now we can make God’s kingdom come here. All we need to do is lie here, cheat there, or kill those getting in the way.
Other times we are tempted to be so certain Jesus is coming we sit back and do nothing and watch idly as the world becomes a darker place as we wait to escape it. We think the end is about fleeing earth to get to heaven, rather than living a way on earth as it is in heaven.
Other times we fall to despair and say God isn’t coming, there is no hope, and we recede into ourselves, caring only about our little slice of the world we can control, and we try to distract ourselves with life’s few fleeting moments of pleasure and peace.
Which have you been most tempted to do during this pandemic? Have you spent the pandemic angry at others? Or just waiting for it all to be over because you’re just done? Or have you just stopped caring?
These visions give us something more like a collage of pictures and mirrors: pictures that point to God’s end for all things, yes, but also mirrors that reflect these figures on ourselves, allowing us to see what is going on in our selves at a particular time so that we can get back on the right path to God’s end.
These are the things these visions are trying to truly unveil. Notice the move Zechariah makes, and it is a move that Jesus makes as well when the disciples ask him about the end in Acts 1. The people ask: when is it going to end? Zechariah responds with a challenge:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
3. The End is an Invitation
Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist pastor and theologian, once said, “It is for us to see the Kingdom of God as always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action.”
We want God to come. But then God opens a door and says: ok, step through. The future is an invitation, the future is a choice, and it is being presented to us every moment of every day. In this way, we are living in the end.
Embrace God’s future, live in line with the restoration of all things, or hold on to your past and the ways of this world and live in line with the road that leads to Gehenna’s destruction. The choice is before us, and it is a call we so often ignore.
We want to know what is true in this world, seeing it as it truly is, but we cling to easy answers and protect ourselves with lies.
We want a world of justice, but we cling to our privilege and complain about the sacrifice it calls for to set right what has gone wrong.
We want a world of love, but we don’t want to forgive or empathize with those we disagree with.
We ask God when will all this be pandemic stuff be over? When are you going to bless us and fulfill your promises?
God replies: Be honest; start being kind to one another; stop oppressing the marginalized of society; stop hating others. It is simple, but we keep refusing to listen.
During this pandemic, have we learned just how important it is, to be honest, to pursue sound truth and follow good common sense?
Have we learned through this pandemic just how interconnected we all are, just how much our actions affect those around us? That our health is connected to the health of others, that we are only as protected as those least protected.
Have we learned how we are connected to the earth and to each other and how the only way we can succeed as a society is by using our rights and resources to lift each other up?
Have we learned to be kind to those with whom we disagree? Have we learned that people have more worth in them than their opinions and that no opinion can make them worth any less?
Have we learned to care more about the vulnerable of society: our seniors, those that live in long-term care facilities, front-line and minimum wage workers, those who face eviction, homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, and disability, those that face hardship through no fault of their own?
Have we learned that money cannot dictate morality? Have we learned the real thing that has kept society together has been individuals coming together and giving their time and service to the common good?
If we have not learned these things, this might sound apocalyptic, but will society survive another pandemic? Can we even survive the next few years or even months?
When will all this be over? Scripture flips this question around on us and simply asks: What will you choose now?
But the answer to that is predictably dim and disappointing. Zachariah says that the people refused to listen, and here we are 2500 years later, and we still don’t want to listen. Have we learned that much from the pandemic about how to live in the way God wants us? I don’t think we have.
And so, Zachariah, like many of the other prophets, calls us to repentance and justice, and he offers us words of warning and even wrath, but then also ends with hope, hope that does not depend on us, although it constantly invites us into it.
He proclaims in chapter 9: “Rejoice O Daughter Zion, your king will come to you. Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Then God says, “Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free… I will restore you.”
It is the hope that the God that made this world and has spoken promises through prophets has come into the world in Jesus Christ, his Son. God became a man, and this man died on a cross because of our failure to embrace goodness and truth when God has proclaimed it. But the forces of death, disobedience, destruction, and despair did not have the final say.
In this, we trust and hope today, despite our own selfishness and stubbornness, that God desires the resurrection for everyone and everything so that the force that emptied the tomb will fill every corner of this world, every heart and mind, beginning with us.
And so, we ask: When will all this end? The church knows it will and simply prays: Come, Lord Jesus Come. We are ready to step into your kingdom!
Lord, God, Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, you are Lord of history because you have taken on the darkness of history and bore it in your very flesh, then you rose from the dead into a future of hope, forgiveness, and joy.
Lord, we long for this pandemic to end. But may this be the end of our selfishness and hatred; put an end to our deceit and ignorance; may this be the final day we tolerate injustice and division.
Let a dawn of resurrection righteousness shine in our hearts, in our relationships, and our communities. May we see something new among us, in us, and through us, by the power of your Spirit.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.
Jesus Is (Still) King: A Sermon for the Election
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump
God give us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the mind of Christ to comprehend your word today.
In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a vision of God on his throne, and it is at a precarious time in the nation’s history. The beginning of the passage says: “It was the year king Uzziah died.” It was a time of political instability, the death of the king, the prospect of a new king, the vulnerability of the change of power.
We see some political instability of our own day, are we not? Just a little! I drive down the road, and it is not just the leaves that are changing colours. Lawns are decorated with that person’s favourite colour, whether red, blue, orange, green, and now we see a few purples as well.
The Prime Minister has called a snap election during a watershed moment in Canada’s history: the time that the pandemic still rages in some provinces, while in ones like ours, it is still here but curbed heavily. Canada asks: what now? Where do we go from here? What will the next few months look like? The next few years? Who will lead us through them?
The chessboard is assembled, but what are the biggest stakes in this game?
Is it getting the economy back up to normal (can it get back to what it was before)? Is it keeping the restrictions up to save lives? Are human rights on the line with vaccine passports? Is it the environment and building a green economy? Is it safe drinking water for indigenous communities? Each one of these questions is asked with particular fears behind them.
Our TVs, computers, and phone screens are injected with campaign ads and articles sporting people’s preferred candidates. The mud-slinging and back-biting has begun, not that it ever stopped. We have become aware of how social media has fundamentally changed our everyday lives and so has fundamentally remade how we think politically. This has come with a dark side. Rumbling from the depths of chatrooms, Twitter, and Facebook groups have come messages that bear deep senses of hate, frustration, disgust, resentment.
People are angry and desperate. We like to think of ourselves as Canadians as peaceful, orderly, and reasonable people, but moments of violence have irrupted along the campaign trail as radicals have thrown rocks at the Prime Minister going to his bus.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg as our world seems to be exploding with division: fear and hate, misinformation, and blame.
Conflict and tragedy are becoming our everyday reality. The stakes are high, and it feels like the world is collectively holding its breath for the next tragedy.
Where do we look in the midst of this instability?
Do we look to ourselves? Do we look to a particular candidate? Do we look to a particular party? Who do we put our hope in?
In the year that King Uzziah died, [in the time of deep uncertainty] I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne [He saw the true king]; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim [the majestic other-worldly powers], each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with [the] smoke [of worship].
1. If Jesus is King, did we look to him first?
In times of political instability, we cannot look to ourselves; we must look first to the Lord, ruler of heaven and earth.
This world cannot contain him. This world’s politics cannot define him. This world’s corruption cannot restrict him. He is a God unmatched, unblemished, unlimited. He is the threefold Holy, holy holy, Lord God Almighty.
We have forgotten what holiness means. It is not just a personal thing; it is a political thing.
God in Jesus Christ is holy-Other than our ways, our ideas, and therefore our politics.
But if God is king, make no mistake; no king or president or prime minister can claim the authority of God. No politician can claim messianic status.
If God is king, no kingdom, no nation, no political party can claim that they represent the kingdom. As Clarence Jordan once said, the kingdom is always at hand but never in hand.
If God is king, while God is patient with our imperfections, we must be wary of any attempts to deliver the kingdom by hook or crook. Christ’s kingdom comes Christ’s way. The Commander of heaven’s armies hires no mercenaries.
If God is king, this means all kings of this earth, all presidents or prime ministers, any leader of any community, corporation, tribe or nation, must realize God is the only true king, and if their rule does not look like the kingdom of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, they will have to answer to him.
And if God is king, and we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, then we must often live as Peter says to his congregation: as strangers living in a foreign land, like a family that can’t be defined by a nation’s political allegiances.
We can look up and say that the kingdom of heaven is near, that this is our way, and in it, we are free to live differently.
The kingdom of God does not pull us back into the political status quo; it prophetically calls us forward.
It does not call us to political isolation or retreat. It is a holiness in the midst of the world that seeks a new way. Will we look for this new way? But I will tell you, the simple fact is we as Christians, as the church in Canada, so often we haven’t.
2. If Jesus is our King, have we been loyal to him?
One day at women’s coffee hour at First Baptist Church of Sudbury, where I pastored, I observed the fact that Christians are not altogether uniform on how to think politically. On Wednesday morning, the ladies of the church would get together for coffee and knit or do crosswords, or some of them became fans of doing those adult colouring books. Anyways, I would often work on the sanctuary computer, which was behind a curtain to the side of this room. One morning they did forget I was there.
In casual conversation, one lady expressed disappointment over “her boy, Justin,” in how he handled the Student Summer Jobs funding debacle. “Your boy?” Another lady said in disgust, “how can a Christian vote for a liberal?”
“Well,” said the first, “when I came to Canada from the Caribbean, the conservative party wanted to deport my family and me because they thought we would bring crime into the country and we would steal Canadian jobs or go on welfare. Pierre Trudeau protected my family, and so that is why his son is my boy.”
The other lady was a bit flabbergasted; she then turned to the lady beside her to attempt to gather some peer pressure: “Can you believe her?”
The third lady, a bit struck, said, “Yes. Indeed, I can’t see how anyone could support the liberals or conservatives. I have been a member of the NDP my whole life. My parents helped form the NDP with Tommy Douglas because they fought for labour rights for the miners of Sudbury. I just don’t understand how people can’t see that socialism best reflects the kingdom of God.”
Again, lady number two had this awkward moment of putting her foot in her mouth. The conversation quickly devolved into an awkward silence and a quick change of subject as these kinds of discussions often go. Many of us have had moments like that. And many of us are surprised we still have moments like that. We are astonished to find believers believing different things. “You think that? You support that person?” What do we do with that?
Notice a few things in this little event: (1) All three women were thoroughly partisan. Their minds were made up a long time ago, and it was not going to change. (2) All three simply could not believe the other’s view. There was an overt refusal of empathy and fallibility. (3) Their solution or lack thereof was to stop talking about it.
Perhaps in that moment of discussing or rather awkwardly discovering their political differences, I think they forgot the most important thing: their unity in Jesus Christ.
They were sisters in Christ. They were a part of a kingdom much bigger than any political party. His kingdom calls us to treat each other like family, even when we disagree, and that is a different kind of politic.
In our current political situation, it should not surprise us to see that Christians of different strips have influenced and participated in all the political parties in some way: the conservative appeal to traditional values and economic pragmatism, the liberals appeal to human rights and equity, the NDP’s appeal to the values instilled by Social Gospel Baptists like Tommy Douglas. And so on. On my Facebook, I have pastor friends of mine each running in all the major parties. They have all come to these values with a particular Christian emphasis. That does not mean they are all equally right. It does mean we have to have a moment of pause when we assume our views are the best, and everyone else is dumb, delusional, and dangerous.
The biggest thing that worries me in this election is not which candidate gets in; although I have my strong views on that, it is the fact that Christians no longer how to love people that are different, not even other Christians. The outrage of politics has overpowered Christian humility, patience, and honesty, and if that is the case, the church in Canada has already lost regardless of who votes for what.
That is why we must consistently and constantly recall our hearts and minds to the fact that Jesus is still king.
In the Gospels, James and John, sons of Zebedee, asked Jesus, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” We want power, Jesus. Jesus’ reply: “You don’t know what you are asking.”
He says, and I paraphrase: If you want to drink of glory, the cup you drink is my crucifixion. He says,
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 42-45)
This cherished scripture about the nature of the cross ransoming us from sin, we forget, is the answer to a political question: How do I get power and glory, Jesus? How do I get my way?
Jesus’ answer: You won’t that way. That is not my way; my way is the cross.
The Son of Man, the one who rightfully deserves all the power and honour, the crowns of every kingdom, all the riches of all the wealthy, became a servant healing the forgotten of this world, serving those that deserted him and forgiving those that murdered him by dying on a cross fully obedient to the Father, a death of shame and humiliation, and counted it on our behalf. God in Christ is first because he made himself last.
Whatever our political convictions are, they must flow from his reality.
We have to ask ourselves if our ways are in line with this kind of humility, this kind of honesty, this kind of peacefulness, this kind of service, sacrifice and solidarity?
In other words, if we as Christians go to the ballot boxes and say to ourselves, “Who is the politician that will give me the most?” That simply is not Christ’s attitude.
If we go to the ballot trying to ensure the church stays powerful and prominent, our witness to a watching world will simply be that we are just as power-hungry as all the other political factions out there. We don’t offer anything different.
But that is so often what we have done. And if we have traded this kingdom and this king for any other politician, party, or platform, our words can only be Isaiah’s:
“Woe to us! We, the church, are ruined! For We are people of unclean lips, and we live among a people of unclean lips, for our eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
So then, what can we do?
But then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it, he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Your sins are atoned for. I don’t know why, but we worship a God that when humanity murdered Christ on the cross, he forgave. He answered our worse with his very best. He died our death to offer us his life. When we fail him terribly, his character is grace immeasurably.
I don’t understand it. It goes against everything this limited mind thinks should be the case. I know I stand condemned in judgment, but to my surprise, his judgment is love.
It seems inconceivable; it seems too impractical; it seems too unpolitical, but that is how God runs his kingdom. Grace is God’s policy.
But all I can know is if I am lost in sin, Christ has found me. I am ruined, and he atoned for me.
Jesus has cleansed us, and he is not done with us. He is doing something else: he commissions us.
3. If Jesus is King, Let’s Keep Following His Way
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
The church is called to Isaiah’s commission here: to truth, love, and hope.
The church is called to prophetic truthfulness that this world does not understand. If the political candidate or party you follow has done wrong or made a mistake, don’t be so urgent to see your version of justice come that you forget that God’s kingdom never comes by people who refuse to repent, confess the truth and own their mistakes.
No political ideal is so important that it allows us to take a shortcut and bypass Jesus’ way.
You might find that if you do that, you won’t fit in. People just won’t get what you’re saying. They don’t want to listen. That is the way Isaiah had to go and us too.
In a world of half-truths, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us! We will speak the truth.”
Second, we must speak the truth in love. Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop that guided South Africa out of apartheid, led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when people told him that clergy couldn’t be political, he just responded and said, “Of course, I can. We must. We are called to love our neighbour.”
Who is my neighbour? Is my neighbour white or black, an immigrant or indigenous, is a senior or an unborn baby, is my neighbour a Muslim, a gay person, rich or poor, criminal or law-abiding or any other difference that we have treated differently?
Is it just one or another? No! All of them. I don’t get to choose. All are made in the image and likeness of God, all are children of our Father, all by God’s word have inherent dignity and worth, none more worthy than the other.
Some Christians I know refuse to vote because the system is too broken. That is their right, but I would say that we can’t forget the power of a vote, the possibilities, even small ones, that a good politician can help those least fortunate in our world.
I have to remind that cynical part of me that if I love my neighbour, I must press on thinking and conversing and voting and acting. Other people way less privileged than myself depend on it.
In a world of hate and exclusion, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us! We care about our neighbours.”
Then Isaiah said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste…until the Lord sends everyone far away…Even if a tenth part remains in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. But the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
“How long, O Lord?” For Isaiah, this question has a tinge of “It’s going to get better, right? If I do this, then this will fix things, right?” God’s answer is not comfortable, but it is the truth. Isaiah’s day is different from ours, but the principle is the same: He is prophesying of the coming exile, and that is not what we are facing. However, so often, we say to God, “God, I’ll do this, now you do that. God, if I do this, then things will get better, right?”
Our choices matter, and so this election matters. But will it solve everything? We all know that it won’t.
How long, O Lord? How long do we have to do this? Will things get better? The real question before us today is this: even if things keep getting worse first, will we still choose Christ?
God says to Isaiah that amongst the desolation, a holy seed is planted: We know that as we walk into the uncertainty of the future, we carry this hope within our hearts:
Christ had died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
In a world of despair and apathy, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us, Lord! No matter what, we will go!”
Today, after church, think well about the issues. Discuss how to get involved, how to live change, how we can care for the least in our communities. Tomorrow, go out and vote. The day after, remember Jesus is still king, and no matter what, we are going to keep following him.