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.
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.
Anyone else into watching Netflix’s The Crown?
There is something beautiful and captivating getting this inside look into the monarchy. I been on a bit of a kick reading about the Queen.
Not gonna lie, it has made me a big fan of Queen Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth as a female leader to me has captured my deepest respect. All her speeches and public actions show her to be a person that is both gentle yet unwavering in resolve.
Did you hear her Christmas speech? The queen of England openly said that she believes wholly in Jesus Christ and she set out to live her life by his teachings and she called on all English people to turn back to Christ and not to forget God in these dark times.
I’ll be honest I have often questioned Canada’s connection to the British monarchy, whether or not it is useful or represents who we are as a nation, but in that moment I was glad we have a figure head of such conviction and decency.
Our Queen has done significant work to advance liberty and equality in the world. While her predecessors wanted an Empire in which the “sun never set,” She was instrumental in granting the independence of over 20 countries.
Our own prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, while having no love of the role of the monarchy, praised her for the “grace she displayed in public” and “the wisdom she showed in private.”
Later she was asked what she thought of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and she let it slip that she found him, “rather disappointing.” I thought that was funny.
She was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa. She has worked for stability and good governance of many commonwealth nations that were in turmoil during her reign.
There is a powerful scene in the Crown that symbolizes the influence she would exert, the coronation scene: You can only imagine what it would be like to be in that cathedral, the leaders of the free world in attendance, the head of the church of England presiding, choirs singing angelically as the jewel encrusted crown is placed on your head.
The splendor and magnitude of that moment would have been overwhelming.
Think of what the crown signified at that time. It does not quite mean the same thing today where the monarchy is more of a figure.
The monarch represented political stability, hope. The monarch, especially Queen Elizabeth perhaps the last Christian monarch, represents the moral resolve of the nation. With that mindset we turn to the psalms.
You see for Israel, God’s nation in the Old Testament, they had a similar view of their king, and the Psalm we are meditating through this morning is actually very likely the coronation Psalm of King David or the Kings of David’s line.
We are going to read this look at what this meant for God’s people in the old testament but then as a psalm of God’s people that point to the fulfillment of Old Testament in King Jesus, and what that means for us as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Why do the nations conspire[a]
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
3 “Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
5 He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
6 “I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
8 Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You will break them with a rod of iron[b];
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Like I said, this is very likely a coronation song for the king. You can imagine that being sung as the king has his crown placed on his head.
The song signifies the place of the king to both ensure the stability of the nation and to be a person of close connection to God. David is seen as a cherished child of God.
But to read this Psalm in the context of the Old Testament is to understand that the Psalm if it merely looks forward for a human king to be these things, falls short of God’s kingdom.
Does God really want a human king to subjugate all the nations around them?
Does God want God’s people to build idolatrous empires?
Can a human king really claim the title of being God’s true son?
When we read this Psalm, like many passages in the Old testament, it leaves us uneasy, yearning for God to say something more.
Human kings were not really what God originally wanted, we find.
1. Israel’s Quest for a King
The Hebrew people saw the power of human kings and they wanted one themselves, rather than being a loose collection of tribes depending on God for guidance. They grew jealous of the nations. God nevertheless concedes and the first king, Saul is anointed.
This did not work out well. Saul proved arrogant and selfish. He only was interested in serving God if it served himself.
So the Prophet Samuel goes and anoints a boy named David.
All his older brothers were soldiers. At the time Israel and Philistia were at war. The Philistine warlord Goliath openly mocked God and the Israelites, and the people were scared since Goliath was a giant of a man. Goliath challenged the Israelite army to a one-to-one battle, and no one accepted.
David shows us and hears Goliath’s scorn for God, and he decides he will take on the giant himself.
This puny boy walks up to Goliath and as Goliath mocking him and God and the people, David drew a smooth stone – does anyone remember what he called it? It called it the Ebenezer, which means “Thus far the lord has helped me.”
He takes that, puts it in his sling-shot, and hits the Giant, striking him dead.
David became a hero. He later became leader of the armies of Israel. Then jealous Saul tried to get rid of him, and David had to live on the run. Finally, Saul died in battle, and David was enthroned as king.
As King, David was known for his military prowess, defeating the surrounding nations in battle, bringing a level of security to the land. The nations became the inheritance of the throne of David as this Psalm longs for. David, the anointed king, became a holy emperor over the nations around Israel.
But the question is does God really want an empire? We will see that this caused trouble in the line of kings. David himself was told by God that he could not build the temple in Jerusalem because the temple was to be a place of holiness, which David could not do since he was such a man of war.
Nevertheless, David was also a man of deep piety and love of God. God saw him as a man after his heart. It is the reason so many of the Psalms bear his name.
This did not mean he was perfect or even at times good. David later in life had an affair with one of his general’s wives and he tried to cover it up by having that man killed in battle. An act of terrible dishonor. The fact our scriptures report this misdeed is important. One scholar remarked that Israel’s scriptures contain the most honest history of the leaders of any nation of its time. For Israel, it was so important to understand the failures of God’s people in order to have a sense of moral responsibility and hope.
After David, the line of Kings slowly fell. Solomon despite his extraordinary wisdom refused to serve the Lord alone. His rule plunged into idolatry. It had something to do with the fact that he had hundreds of pagan wives.
His son, Reheboam, a foolish king, sundered the nation apart. While righteous kings still continued in the line of David, kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, inevitably their refusal to walk in the ways of God lead to the exile of Judea, the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians for over 70 years.
When the exiles returned, they remembered the prophets speaking about how God would raise up another king like David, the true messiah.
The true king that would bring an end to the destruction on their land. The faithful remnant would be safe.
The true king that would rebuild Zion. The true king that would make Jerusalem a place of peace again.
But left as an expectation for a human king to do all this, this Psalm sounds highly nostalgic and imperialistic. Surely God does not want the nations of this world in shackles. Surely God does not love Israel more than other nations. Surely the king is not God’s son just by the power of his office.
The king must be more than that.
The true king must rule not with force and war, but is the prince of peace, whose rule would undo the need for war itself, reconciling all nations to God.
A true king that would not merely be just, but is justice itself, righteousness embodied.
A true king that would be able to prevent not just enemy nations from conquering them, but their sins from corrupting them. A messiah that could forgive sins.
This longing suggests that the only King that could do this was not in fact a human king, but God himself, the true king.
In the Psalms we see this move where the Psalm begin singing about the human kings of Israel, then lament their failure then a turning to God as true King.
And so, from the time this was written, for several hundred years, the people were left praying: God when will the messiah come? When will all that has gone wrong in this world be made right? When will righteousness reign.
2. God did show up as this king.
Jesus is the true king. Jesus is true anointed one, the messiah, the true son of God, the true ruler of the nations.
But here is the thing: In fulfilling this Scripture God shows us a powerful provocative new vision of what it means to rule. How does Jesus fulfill this Psalm that looks to the messiah to conquer the nations?
He chose to be born in humble circumstances like David. He chose to be born to a poor girl named Mary, in the poverty of a manger. A poor king, a king for the poor. What an idea?
This Psalm is the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament. It is quoted at his baptism, transfiguration, death, and in Revelation, twice.
It is quoted at Jesus baptism. “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Think of the Baptism of Jesus as his coronation. While the kings of the earth are enthroned in palaces by the powerful, Jesus is enthroned in the wilderness, in a lake, by a prophet.
While the kings of the earth are blanketed in jewels, Jesus is blanketed with the Holy Spirit.
From there, Jesus set out to conquer the enemies of God, but these turns out aren’t actually humans.
Jesus sets out to cast out demons, the radical evil in our world.
Jesus sets out to forgive sins, the real thing that shackles us.
Jesus sets out to heal the sick, the real things we are suffering from.
Jesus sets out to teach true obedience, the real path to freedom.
He starts talking about what his kingdom is actually like, how God chooses to rule,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they are citizens of this kingdom.
Blessed are those who are sad and in morning, because God’s kingdom is their to comfort them.
Blessed are the humiliated and meek, the oppressed, because they are the ones that will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for justice, for they will get it.
Blessed are the merciful and the pure in heart.
Blessed are not those that try to conquer their enemies, but the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those that are persecuted for righteousness sake, those that do not conform to partisan lies or the status quo, for these are the true citizens of God’s kingdom.
This message of Jesus the king about God’s heavenly kingdom is one that in a turn of sinful irony, God’s people are the ones that ended up rejecting and conspiring against him.
When Jesus claimed to be the messiah, they called him a blasphemer.
The nations conspired and sadly, Israel was one of those nations. The Temple priests plotted to have Jesus arrested.
Jesus’ disciples betrayed and abandoned him.
He was brought before a roman dictator and sentenced to death in order to satisfy a mob.
The conversation between the Roman Governor Pilate and Jesus is so telling:
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
One rules a kingdom of this world, the other rules a kingdom not of this world
One rules a kingdom with force; the other a kingdom of non-violence.
One rules a kingdom with a sword; the other with sacrifice.
One rules a kingdom of apathy, the other rules a kingdom of truth.
This drama has its climax in the cross, where in that dark moment, Jesus is shown as the king God chooses to be.
They give him a crown of thorns and write “King of the Jews” over the cross. The narratives have these kinds of ironies to it.
Here is the king, not making himself first but last.
Here is the king, lifted up not in exaltation but in crucifixion.
Here is the king, conquering, not with violence but with forgiveness
Here is the king, fully obedient to God the father, such that he is shown to be God’s true son.
“Surely this man is the Son of God” says the soldier, unwittingly quoting Psalm 2.
The rule of the nations was broken that day, not be military power or legislative acumen, but by the humble faithfulness of Jesus Christ, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
That day the wrath we deserved he gladly bore upon himself in order to show that this king, this God, is a God of love.
One the third day Jesus rose again, completing the victory, ascending to heaven to rule at the right hand of the Father, sending the Spirit to commission his disciples to go out into all nations.
Death and despair, disobedience and the devil were defeated, so that all people include his enemies, including us, can be apart of his kingdom.
Christ as died, Christ has risen, and Christ will also come again
3. Our king will return
The victory of the resurrection points forward to the victory of Christ’s second coming. Psalm 2 is quoted several times in Revelation. One day Christ will return and he will set right all that has gone wrong. He will return to judge the nations with justice and truth and mercy.
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
That day will be like the confusion of tongues at Babel. Where we create empires of uniformity, God will break our plans apart with diversity. God will show he is that God of all peoples, all nations, all humanity.
That will be a terrible day like that day Pharaohs army drowned in the sea, all that power will be nothing compared to the glory of our infinite God.
That day will be like the destruction of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Empires come and empires go, crushed by the sweeping power of the Rock.
And let us not go arrogant as we – God’s people Israel – have in the past. That day will be like the destruction the Temple because we turned their religion into an idol of power and control.
But for those whose hearts are sincere and ways are just and merciful, we await that day with hope. We long for the day when all that was wrong in this world will be put right, death will be no more. Tears will turn to joy.
We await the day his kingdom reigns fully and visibly over our world, but in the meantime, as Jesus says, the kingdom of God is within us. It is within us as we turn our hearts over to King Jesus.
How do we live this kingdom out? We chose to live as citizen not of this world. 1 Peter talks about how the early Christians lived as if strangers in a foreign land. We live like we don’t belong. We live like we don’t want to be a part of these corrupt discourses.
There is a better way 1 Peter talks about it: it is called being holy, set apart.
It be a Christian today show give us a kind of culture shock, the way an immigrant might feel, a fish out of water. As our culture continues to more away from God, as our leaders grow more and more depraved and greedy, we will continue to live as citizens of heaven.
While the nations rebel, we will obey.
While the kings of this world look for war, we will walk in peace.
While the kings of this world delight in perversion, we will walk in purity.
While the kings of this world deal in oppression, we will promote liberty.
While the kings of this world take care of the rich, we will take care of the poor.
While the kings of this world speak lies, we will speak honesty.
While the kings of this world further division, we will walk in reconciliation.
While the kings of this world see themselves as gods, we worship the one true God, the one true king.
And one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Christ is Lord and king to the glory of God the Father.
In the meantime, we will bow and confess. We will never stop confessing Christ is Lord.
But the question is not what the rulers of nations recognize God as king. Right here, right now, are you ready to make Jesus the king of your heart?
Are you ready to say, “King Jesus, I submit to your rule; I want to be a part of your kingdom. I repent of my sin and resolve to walk in your ways.”
So the Psalm ends: blessed are all who take refuge in him.
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
This is what a pastor told me as we sat chatting at his house for lunch after service several years ago. I spoke at his church and my message was on drawing close to the love of the cross. Recently a friend of mine then had came out to his church and was driven out. He went suicidal, and seeing the whole thing, I was outraged at those Christians. One of my points challenged them to stop their hatred and conditional love of sexual minorities and thus to truly embrace the fact that we are all justified by faith not by works.
I thought this would be a controversial sermon, but it was met with unanimous approval. One lady even came up to me and said, “Pastor, what a fine sermon. One day you will become the next John MacArthur!” I choose to take that as a compliment.
At lunch the pastor turned to me and expressed that he also felt challenged by what I said. He told me that he was doing door-to-door evangelism one day – God bless him! – and a person greeted him and let him come in. As he started talking, the person shared startling information. This person appeared female, but was actually “intersex,” meaning that while she appeared mostly female, she had both male and female genitalia. Neither she nor the pastor I spoke with shared specifics beyond that.
She turned to him and said, “Do you honestly think that if your church knew this about me that I would be welcomed in your church?”
The man sheepishly tried to respond, and as he did he looked around and saw the pictures of her family. She apparently had a lover, who was female, and they had a child.
Overwhelmed, he turned to her and said, “Honestly….nope, my church would freak out.”
So, he thanked her for her time and dejectedly left. And as he turned to me, he uttered a statement indicative of the grand mess the church with its uncritical beliefs has gotten itself into:
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
For him, he believed that there was male and female and that was it (which is a pretty bad way to read Genesis 1-2). If you don’t fall into those comfortably, it’s your choice, your fault. However, in doing so, his beliefs prevented him from not only reckoning with the basic facts of life: that intersexed people (and this is something different than transgender) exist and they were born with both genitals in some way. It also prevented him and his church from having grace on people it should have been showing grace to. He admitted to me with deep shame that his church was not prepared to love the unloved.
The way we talked about this person was a matter of ministry: is this person loved by God? Is there a place for her in our church? Those are the important questions of us as a church. However, people are talking about this issue in regards to politics…
Once upon a time our laws were blissfully naïve to the existence of the full range of the children of God. Women went to the bathroom that had a person with a dress in it; men to the one with a person in trousers. We are told that trans-people have always been around, and it seems like these people used the bathrooms that best corresponded to how they looked, and the watching world was none the wiser. If they did go to a bathroom that did not correspond to how they looked, they did so at risk of ostracization and even being beaten up.
Lawmakers did one of two things: institute laws that prevented trans people from using bathrooms of their current gender or institute laws that protected them, giving them the right to use the bathroom of their current gender. Either way, people were not happy.
Now, I am going to talk about a sexual topic today, which we have to say always makes people squirmy. Sexuality is a dimension of the human person that is closest to who we are at our most vulnerable. Therefore, we are the most guarded and sensitive about those topics.
Obvious proof of this: how many couples here even go to the bathroom while their spouses are in the bathroom with them? I don’t like to even with my spouse being near me, let alone another man, let alone anyone else. Thank-you very much.
There was an East Side Mario’s in Hamilton. In the men’s washroom, there were urinals. Anyways, I went to the bathroom there, and I found that the urinals were only about a foot apart. No barriers. Another guy came in. He obviously had to go. Came up to the urinal beside me, and started going. Our shoulders were touching. I couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. It was very traumatic for the both of us.
All of that is to say, matters like sexuality, we are more sensitive to. People naturally will get upset about these kinds of things no matter what people say. People make knee-jerk reactions based on their sexual-disgust feeling. Evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this. They are ironically “liberal” reading their experience of bodily shame into Christian ethics. Where guilt and shame-based preaching abides, evangelicals fixate on matters of sexual disgust as their core political concern, forgetting far more grievous social sins. I have heard evangelical pastors say really idiotic stuff like, “I am not homophobic; I just think the whole gay thing is disgusting.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted this when we visited the U.S. He thought evangelicals resembled gutter journalists, obsessed with what people did with their genitals to the neglect of all other ethics. I think that is more or less true.
So, keep that in mind, and now let me sketch out a timeline of this kerfuffle.
Most people don’t even know that the legal battle in Canada is a done deal. A transgendered person can use any public bathroom that they feel corresponds to their gender.
In Canada, in 2012, the NDP proposed Bill C-27, which amended the criminal code to protect other “gender identities.” If you remember the Conservative party was in power at the time. Over the next few years, it went through various readings, eventually being fully passed in 2013. What is interesting about his (and you can look up all the transcripts of debates and votes on the internet) is that the bill would not have passed if 30 some odd votes were not given by conservative MP’s. On most of the votes that happened on Mar. 20, 2013, the bills were passed by 150 to 130, give or take. The 20-30 votes that were needed to tip the bill into being passed came from the conservative party.
This means the party could have prevented the bill if its leader demanded uniformity (which he often did). This to me smacks of the lip-service conservatism that says it is pro-life but does nothing about it (Harper actually quashed his own MP’s from trying to talk about it), or in this case, says it is against a bill, but lo and behold, supplies just enough to get the bill passed, but not enough for it to look like the conservatives supported it.
I say that because I am very weary of any political party claiming to be the “Christian option” in this day and age. At least as far as I understand the conservative party in Canada, it does not seem like the definite traditional-Christian party anymore. It seems like a house divided at best. This does not mean the liberals are “the Christian” option either, or the NDP. Christians are called to affirm that Christ is King and all other politics authorities are secondary.
I find in politics there is very little integrity. Politicians refuse to admit their faults. They will argue their points, even if they know they are wrong. They will demonize their opponents to win. They often have ulterior motives: making a corporation rich or appealing to a voter base. For that reason, Christians should always keep politics at arms length. Only the kingdom of God will restore society, not a liberal utopia or conservative nostalgia. We are not going to build the kingdom of heaven by who we vote for.
At any rate, the Bill was met with interesting protests from trans individuals. Take for example, Brae Carnes (first picture below), who posted in male bathrooms, exposing the obviously problem of making all transgendered people go into bathrooms that did not match their identities. I don’t think any conservative would want a person that looks like the next two individuals in women’s bathrooms either.
The issue changes when it has a face doesn’t it?
I think intuitively when you see just how far transitioned these people are that it would not be a good idea to force them to go to the bathroom of their birth gender. But there are lots of transgendered people that do not look that much like their transitioned gender. For them, going to any public bathroom will still be dangerous.
Many conservatives did oppose the bill under the notion that it put women and children at risk. Potentially a predator could come into a woman’s bathroom and claim to be a woman, and refuse to leave. There are a handful of examples that show laws the protect transgendered people have been manipulated by sexual predators. For instance, a man claimed to be transgender, and used it to living in a woman’s shelter, committing acts of sexual assault. There are those examples.
Certain places in Canada installed gender-neutral, co-ed bathrooms. I remember using one of these bathrooms at University of Toronto. Apparently these bathrooms were quite unsafe. They certainly were awkward.
Then HB2 hit. While Canadians dealt with this debate rather quietly and civilly, as we often do, for good or for ill, but when things happen in America, it happens like singing a bad campfire song again: “Second verse same as the verse, a little bit louder a little bit worse!”
North Carolina passed the law allowing organizations liberty to enforce that a person ought to go to the bathroom of their birth-gender.
The company, Target, refused. They said, if you are trans-gendered, you can use whatever bathroom you feel meets the gender you feel. Note that they are merely exercising the rights that HB2 gave them.
Conservative family values lobbying organizations protested this and organized a boycott of Target of almost 1.1 million signatures. I think organizing a boycott like that is foolhardy. Even if you are morally outraged at Target, there are so many more immoral companies out there that Christians are not boycotting, so by doing this to Target, this portrays that Christians really have uneven standards.
Also, think about it this way: Would you appreciate a company refusing to sell to you if it knew your religious convictions? Lets say an atheist bakery refused to bake bread for church communion? We would be outraged at the pettiness. Yet this is why I cannot see those conservative Christians they would refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding as anything but petty.
In wake of this, two particularly disappointing things happened:
First is that there is a story of a woman, who had short hair and was athletic, was followed from the woman’s bathroom and harassed by Christians in a public place because they did not believe she was a full woman. Now Christians are the ones straight people need protection from!
Second, the leader of one of these family values political lobbyist groups, Sandy Rios of American Family Association, admitted in an interview that her organization actually sent men into women’s bathrooms to scare women and children into agreeing with her agenda. That is the height of hypocrisy. Her organization claimed to be about protecting women and children from men in their bathroom, yet they are the ones sending men into said bathroom all for the sake of their political agenda. What if one was, as they argued, a woman that was raped? Again, there is this odd necessity to now protect bathroom from Christians.
We should note that if this is true, the American Family Association has very likely put more men in women’s bathrooms than there are instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws. While there have been instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws, these instances are very rare. With good reason: How many times do you think a predator can get away with doing that? Predators need absolute secrecy, and it seems like only the really stupid ones would try to do that.
But given the whole debacle, the whole thing is really quite sad. Just plain sad.
Personally, I find the conservative politics the most abhorrent. It is mostly because Christians often back conservative politics, so there should a higher expectation of moral integrity, which is not there. But perhaps it is my own disappointment with the party I was raised to support. While liberalism worships sexual liberty in a problematic way, Christians who support conservative politics routinely come off as condescending and apathetic towards others. Evangelicals routinely ignore basic science on matters of gender. The persistently make one issue about another. Do conservative evangelicals really care about transgender people? Or do they just want their political sensibilities validated and codified?
They sound like they just want the church to flex its muscles and the world to bow down to them and wave fans at them for being so right. That’s probably most sad part.
Personally, I would rather say, “I don’t know but I care,” then be obsessed with have all the right answers, and coming off like I don’t care.
I know Christian pastors that harp on this issue and don’t even know a single transgender person. These pastors are not acting like the priests of Christ but acting like pharisees of the law.
Those that do this forget some very important facts. They read their Bibles, but not the book of nature. This much I do know about the science: There are people – less than 1% but that is still quite a bit – that are born with different configurations of gender. Some are born being physically male but have within them ovaries. Some are born physically female, but have within them testes. They often don’t discover this till years later, and then they understand why they feel “different.” Some are born with both genitals, believe it or not. Some are born physically male or female, but their brains are hardwired to be the opposite. There are all sorts of other examples like this.
When I hear of unique cases like this, I turn to God and reaffirm the strange but blessed diversity of God’s image in humans. He made us all; he loves us all; he claimed us with the dignity that belongs to his children. The more we lovingly draw close to others different from ourselves, the more we see the divine image.
If they are born that way, there is the unsettling truth that I could have been born that way too. So could you. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth.
I could have been born feeling like a female within, and being drawn to “girlie” stuff as my parents looked on with confusion and concern.
I could have had a disappointed father that always made me feel like half of a “true man.”
I could have been the one mocked in gym class change rooms as my peers invented new insults.
I could have been married with kids, trying to live a normal life, but never feeling like “myself” around them, or anyone else for that matter.
I could be the one dying of confusion, despair, and even self-hatred of why I am the way I am.
If this could be any of us, we must follow Christ’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
How would I want to be treated in public? Hopefully just to be left alone. What kind of world would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a just one. What kind of church would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a compassionate one.
What they go through could be what any of us could be going through, and therefore it is our obligation to care and do something.
I am amazed at how many people don’t get this.
I often ask myself: Why cannot people be more rational? Why can’t Christians particularly have empathy? Or at least discuss things with a least a drop of honesty and integrity. So, let’s try to do that.
Note that there are two major responses to this debate:
(1) Liberals have made it their goal to proclaim that all gender is fairly fluid and that choosing the gender that one feels is the best approach. This usually involves hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. How that works, I am not going to get into here.
(2) Conservatives tend to ignore the existence of true intersexed people, and emphasize that there are many others that are plainly gender confused because of the break down of the nuclear family. It is nurture not nature. The person had an unstable childhood, so their gender is unstable. In those cases, recommending gender reassignment surgery is a bad option. It causes more harm to an already unstable person. The best thing a society can doe is get back to the stability of the “good old days.”
Who is right? I don’t think either side has it completely. Let’s admit that. When issues polarize, there is very rarely one perfectly right side.
Christ forbids the notion that there ought to be an “us” versus “them.” Eph. 6 :12 warns, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I worry about those Christians that excel at making enemies of the people they are called to preach reconciliation to.
At least as far as I have read, gender reassignment surgery has been shown to relive the anguish of some transgender people, but also in many cases create whole new problems. I am not a psychiatrist, so that is all I can say. Whatever a transgendered person is going through, we know it is going to be difficult. We should be honest about that.
Now, bring in politics. What do you do when a person identifies as a woman, but was born a man, and wants to use a woman’s bathroom? Some say, “Let them if it helps them feel some modicum of security and peace.” Others say, “I don’t feel comfortable with a person of the opposite physical gender being in that bathroom. The laws can be abused by predators.” Again, both have a point, but neither side have it all.
There seems to be a bunch of concerns here that all Christians should have:
- Transgendered people are valued and should be kept safe from harassment.
- We need greater awareness for the existence of transgendered people and what they go through.
- However, the concern is also that in doing so, society promotes the notion that our genders are fluid, which could cause physiological harm to some that need more structure.
- Women and children could be put at risk by sexual predators abusing transgender laws
You will notice that liberals tend to prioritize (1) and (2) while conservatives prioritize (3) and (4). But, if you can admit that both sides are trying their best to uphold justice some way, I think we can have a better way of thinking about his whole debacle.
We cannot be satisfied with any law that does not protect all vulnerably parties. We don’t get to choose who we defend the dignity of, one way or another. We are called to defend all people’s dignity. All people, not some, not just your kids, not just transgendered people either – all are made in the image of God. Everyone is. We don’t get to choose who to care about. All deserve our love in how we talk, think, feel, and write policies.
So, what should a Christian do? Should we advocate for the laws to stay the same? That did not happen, and there should be a law that protects trans people. Should we advocate for the bathroom laws to pass uncritically that can be abused? No. I think there needs to be further criteria to how the bathrooms are used. Should we advocate new ones that can further allow transgendered people to get beaten up and harmed, protecting the churches prerogative over others? No.
Many say we should move to installing gender-neutral bathrooms that are fully enclosed. That is probably the way things are going to go, but that sounds expensive. I don’t think companies can accommodate every public bathroom being converted that way. There does not seem to be a good answer here.
I think the obvious response for Christians, when the law of the land does not reflect the perfect justice of God is to pray and trust and hope.
I recently read through 2 Peter. Peter is encouraging a congregation with the hope that Christ will return and one day the world will be ruled by God not people. So, he says,
“We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)
We are to live like exiles in a strange land, for we are citizens of a different kingdom.
This admits that the current situation does not have a comfortable solution that Christians should be happy about. If any law leaves a vulnerable party unsafe, we should not be happy about it. We need to continue to rethink, listen, and pray.
What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to many things in life. But as I said, I would rather say that I don’t know but care then that I know but come off like I don’t care.
I don’t know if I have a position, but I do know the posture: Christ. I don’t care much for politics, but I do care about the people. That is what we should focus on: the posture of Christ and the people in need of love.
I look at this world, and all I know is to cling to the love of Christ, the love he showed me, and the love I ought to extend. True religion is, according to the prophet Micah 6, “To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The more I befriend people that much different me, the more I see Christ working around me. That is a humbling thing.
I know that politics is not the vehicle of the kingdom of God. The Gospel of our God loving all people, forgiving all sin is. Our world is broken, so we need to walk graciously in Christ, for our sake and others. There are broken people in it, like ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors, we need to listen to them and walk with them.
May you walk in the peace of Christ in this broken world, on this matter and all things.