Tagged: Sermon

“What Do You Want to Be Known For?” My Final Sermon at First Baptist Church of Sudbury

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What do you want to be known for?

Interestingly you can take courses online on how to be known for things. They are called personal branding courses. They are marketed to business people, and the theory is just as a company should be known for a motto and a certain style, so you should be too. The course essentially gets people to think in simple terms:

Because I am x, I am known for doing y.  Or Since I do y, I am x. Answer that yourself. Think about it.

What do you want to be known for? What does First Baptist want to be known for? It is something I have thought about this week.

A few people have asked me, “Now that it is your last sermon, you get to say whatever you want, because you are leaving.” Like I can now air out a list of grievances that I have kept to myself for five years, like this is Seinfeld’s Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it.” [Spoken in Jerry Stiller’s voice, of course].

I have to admit, I really don’t have grievances or axes to grind or anything of that sort.

As I looked through the scriptures, I came to 1 Cor. 2, which actually had Paul reporting to the Corinthians what he resolved to do and be when he was with them, and therefore, I think, what he wanted to be known for.

I think it is the right answer. It is the answer that we should all strive for. He writes:

“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2

I have resolved to know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul wants above all else to be known for the Gospel. I do not want my last sermon to be about me (although I will tell a story or two). As I planned out my final sermon, I have resolved to center it on the most important thing I can be about and First Baptist can be about: who Jesus is, the Gospel.

The Gospel is our salvation, our purpose, our unity, our joy and hope.

1. The Gospel is Our Salvation

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 7-10)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,” (2 Tim. 2:8)

I admit, 1 John 4 is probably my favourite chapter in the Bible. I had to mention it on my last sermon! God is love because God was found in the person and work of Jesus. That is our Gospel.

Our Gospel is that God is love. God is our creator. He made the world out of his generosity.  He has made every human being in his image and likeness, as his children even though we, as prodigal sons and daughters, have failed to realize him as our Father.

We worship a God that made us, loves us, and will not see any of his creation be lost. We do not worship a God that only loves some of his creation or only seeks to save some of his creation, but a God the loves perfectly without limitation.

We know God is love because God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love in one being. Before the world began, before creation and sin, God is love.

God came in Jesus Christ, in human form, in sinful flesh, to show the loving solidarity of God with all sinful humanity, and the restoration of God’s people in him.

God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, died a cursed death, the death of a sinner for all sinners, to show us sinners, he has died our death. It is the mystery of our faith that constantly baffles me: God in Christ loved us more than his very bodily self. God is that kind of self-less love.

God our Father raised Jesus from the dead to show a love that is victorious and powerful. As Jesus has taken on our flesh, now in Jesus, we all have the hope that the very worst of this world, the very things that have stolen us away from his love – these things do not have the final say.

As my friend, Brad Jersak was saying this week, “God is love. God is not love but also just or holy or wrathful. God is love period.”

God’s love is holy because it is pure. God is infinite because his love is immeasurable. God’s love is powerful because it is unfailing. God’s love is just because he is in equal measure merciful. God’s love is capable of anger because God’s love passionately cries out to a world gone astray, hoping that we would change and come back to him.

We understand all of God through Jesus. We understand all of God through Jesus’ cross. If there is an idea of God that contradicts the display of a God who would willing give up his very life for us because of his great love for us, we simply have departed from the God of the Gospel.

God’s love is not simple or sentimental, it is complex and mysterious, surprising even uncomfortable, but it always comes back to love. It is always understood through love.

If we can define God in any way other than love, as I have found, we will inevitably find ourselves without a Gospel that offers salvation to us sinners.

We stand on the Gospel that God is love. If God is not a God of consistently personal, perfect, and powerful love, we simply do not have a Gospel. Period.

One pastor told me that preaching is the fine art of being a broken record. If I have been a broken record these past five years, I have also learned that this truth is so counter-intuitive to our limited, sin-soaked minds, that we have to constantly remember it, re-hear it, re-tell it, and re-live it.

Otherwise we simply forget it. Never forget this, First Baptist Church.

2. The Gospel is Our Purpose

“To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).

The Apostle Paul writes this to the Philippians saying life for him is serving Jesus, walking with Jesus, being willing to die for Jesus, death being nothing in comparison to having Jesus.

When you know what you are about, you have purpose, nothing else matters.

Funny story: I know a person that put that as their high school year book blurb, and the school called the police because they were worried he was suicidal.

We ended up going to college together. He is now a pastor in BC. He is not suicidal, he just believes in something this world does not understand. Although he probably has gone a little nuts since he has a big batch of kids like I do. As long as I have known him, he has lived with purpose.

When we rest in Jesus Christ, when we draw close to him, when we resolve to know nothing but his Gospel, we are captivated by the beauty of what he is, and we want to live that love out to others. That is our purpose: We live to see what the Gospel can do in us and others. That is what gets me up in the morning (other than screaming babies).

Sharing the Gospel can take on implicit and explicit ways. I have gotten to share the Gospel on Sunday mornings, at weddings, at funerals, in times of blessing and in times of tragedy. I have gotten to share the Gospel over coffee and over board games, on the street and in my office. I am always surprised at when people say they are reluctant to share their faith since they are worried about a negative reaction. When we set out to live and speak good news for others, saying and doing something good to them and for them – without an agenda of trying to force them to become a Christian or come to our church or believe this or that, but simply being there for them, to listen, to give hope, and share ourselves, my experience has been overwhelming positive.

Yes, a lot say no thanks. A lot say they want to but there is no follow through. It does require patience.

I think of our McCourt meals and taking people to the food bank on Tuesdays. This simple an act of service and fellowship has openned doors for me to sit and pray with dozens of people, many of whom as shut ins are too sick to come to church, but are precisely the kind of people that God has a special heart for. Or others are people that face terrible mental illness. Many times I have gotten the privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to be the first person that sees them as a person of value and worth, and when they ask, “why do you do this for people?” I get to tell them why.

Sometimes sharing the Gospel is quite explicit and decisive, other times it is a simple act of kindness or service.

Or it can be planting a community garden to promote community and food healthy food in our community. That lead to Alexander Kuthy to start coming here. Remember Alex? He sadly passed away a little while ago, but he shared his testimony with us. An irreligious man that hated the church growing up because a priest tried to sexually assault him. He lived most of his life completely unconcerned with God until he had an accident and he said, “All of a sudden I was aware that I needed God.” Alex would stroll into my office and chat with me. In five years, I can probably count on my one hand how many appointments I had at my office that were actually booked in advance. That’s just fine, my life is far more interesting for it. Alex lived with a new purpose. You saw that in him. He said he lived all his life for himself, now he was making up time living for God. He believed in devoting his life to “spreading peace” as he said it often.

I hope everyone goes home, reads some scripture, meditates, and prays upon it, and asked themselves, “What is my purpose? Is my purpose living the Gospel, completely without reservation? Is my reason for being alive walking in God’s love, worshiping in God’s love, showing others God’s love?”

If it is and the person next to you agrees, that is the church, brothers and sisters. That is what we are doing here together.

3. The Gospel is Our Unity

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

It is such a simple phrase. Jesus is lord, and salvation is in trusting that work of the resurrection. Jesus is our unity. We so often make it Jesus plus a hold lot of other stuff, or Jesus can only mean the way I relate to Jesus.

I have spoken before that I was raised with a very fundamentalist faith. My grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, and that is what formed me growing up. Fundamentalism is a lot of things. While many come by it sincerely, as I did, at its very worst, it is an arrogance that all my thoughts and interpretations are the right and infallible ones. It is often obsessed with control and certainty and simple pat answers; that affective sense of certainty in essence shields the reality that since most fundamentalists do not believe God loves all people perfectly, there is a deep sense that God might actually not love them either, unless they do and think a certain way. It is also oddly then obsessed with very specific and convoluted doctrines, whether about creation, the Bible, the atonement, how Jesus will return, you name it, and perfectionist behavior, usually obsessed with sexuality above any other sin. Each doctrine or behavior is then turned into a litmus test of who is truly a Christian and who is not, disregarding the historic creeds of our faith and that our communities must embody grace. It also sees everyone who believes differently and acts differently as dumb, delusional, or dangerous.

I know this not because I look down on fundamentalists, but because I used to think that way. I really did not know any other way to be honest.

I have learned the simple biblical truth that, as James McClendon has put it, “Fundamentalism just isn’t fundamental enough.”

When I came to First Baptist, I did see something different. First Baptist, like many other historic First Baptist Churches in North America, has a long history, enduring all the movements over the last century. Some of our members have been in this church for over 50 years. It has learned to endure diversity. Many of the First Baptist Church family when I came had lived together as a community for so many years they just resolved to keep being a family together, no matter what.

Being committed to being historically Baptist we have upheld the liberty of the conscience of members of this church to interpret the Bible for ourselves in community as our denomination on the whole upholds that our churches are autonomous yet partner together for the Gospel.

For the last five years I have marveled at just how diverse First Baptist is, the different faith backgrounds and experiences, the different doctrines and ideas of faith and how they have functioned in people’s lives, and the sincere commitments to keep learning the Bible together.

That is rare. It is difficult to live out, but it is refreshing in this divided world we live in.

It has been oddly refreshing to lead a Bible study hearing all these perspectives come out, and sometimes quite heatedly, but then have a recognition that we are all sincerely trying to follow Jesus together, and he is our unity.

First Baptist is a diverse place, we all don’t think the same, and we have to reckon with all our diverse backgrounds and experiences and ideas, whether on theology, politics, or on what color the carpet should be.

But if Jesus is our unity, we are bound by blood as family.

As we do this within our walls, we have a vital witness outside our walls. The Gospel has been our unity with all the other churches here in Garson and Coniston. I don’t think you realize the high regard we are held in by the other churches. And it has been an honor working with so many excellent pastors and priests.

One of the most powerful moments in my years here was when we gathered for worship with St. John’s, Trinity United, and the Anglican churches.

I remember the second ecumenical service I participated in here, we went to St. John’s. That year the liturgy called for each person to pair off with a person from another church, and come to a font of water, dip your fingers in it and make the sign of the cross over the other person’s head, asking forgiveness for the sins we have done against each other.

I have never seen the Spirit move so powerfully. People broke down crying in repentance and hugged right there.

That moment was not of ourselves. That was the Spirit moving as we, Christians from very diverse traditions, simply came together to worship Jesus.

The Gospel, the simple Gospel, is our unity. Nothing else should be or can be.

4. The Gospel is Our Hope

“But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Heb. 3:6)

When you are able to be there and see our God working. It is the best thing in the world.

While pastoring can be quite difficult, it is propelled along by the conviction that God never gives up hope on people and neither do we.

One more story: Some of you remember Jered. He does not live around here anymore. A troubled young man, who had been in and out of prison, with so much chaos in him you could immediately tell just from hearing him talk.

The chaos and pain with him was so bad, he once told me he resolved to stop believing in anything because his mind was so unreliable he just had had enough. If you can imagine living like that and being at that point?

I remember coming home that day shook-up by his words. “How can the Gospel reach someone that unstable?” I thought. How can our Gospel mean anything if it can’t bring hope to someone like him?

A few days later, I remember seeing him at the residence.  He came up to me: “Spencer, I had a really difficult night. I was in a really dark place…Then he showed up.”

“Who?” I asked. Jered just pointed upwards. “He did. I can’t be an atheist anymore,” he said. God showed up for him in a time of need, far beyond what I or anyone is capable of. In that dark moment God appeared and told him he had worth and that he was loved and that there was hope.

That is the hope of our faith. God does not give up on people. He has not given up on me; he has not given up hope on you; therefore he will not give up hope on anyone. He simply will not give up on this broken world.

Because of this – this good news – we live with purpose, with unity, with joy and hope.

Let us pray…

Benediction:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

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The God Who Sees You: Hagar’s Story for Mother’s Day Sermon 2018

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If there was a job description for being a mom, what do you think it would sound like? Frankly it would sound like the worst job in the world.

Hours? 24-7. Evenings and weekends, travel costs not reimbursed.

Skills? advanced communication, cooking, janitorial capabilities, basic first aid, tutoring skills, etc. etc.

Pay? None..actually, you pay to have this job!

Benefits? No dental, no medical. Yet the intangible benefits are beyond worth.

Parenthood and motherhood specifically is one of the most difficult, longest, toughest callings a person can have in this life. It is a calling that is essential to there being human life. It is a unique relationship.

The sound “m-” is nearly universal of language. The name for mother in almost every language on earth has the sound “m-” in it, which leaves some linguists to suspect that ma might be a word, that relationship, that is semi-hardwired into our brains at birth.

We sometimes say that children have a special place in the mother’s heart. It is actually scientific fact that mother carry a part of their children in them. “Microchimerism” is the recently discovered phenomenon that mothers after birth still have fetal cells – cells of their babies – inside their bodies, for years after. These cells circulate through the mother’s body much in the same way red blood cells do. They have been suspected of having a mild healing effect on the mother. There you go, science says it!

This bond is so essential, it often means we take that fact for granted. It is true. We take our mothers for granted.

By analogy it is similar how we take God’s love in a similar sense for granted. We just assume it will always be there.

When we do that, we fail to understand the depth and extend of what that love is and means: what our mothers do for us and how that is one of the first and greatest gifts God has given us humans. This gift of this parental bound that is so precious.

We take our moms for granted. We take love in all is powerful and precious forms for granted.

It was my wife and I’s 9th anniversary last week. In 9 years, can’t believe all the stuff we have been through. Twins to top it! Twins have meant a lot of sleepless nights for Meagan with tough days trying to wrestle three other kids with two you can’t really put down.

In nine years, I continue to grow in admiration for my wife. How tough she is, how caring and hard working. I told her this knowing she would have to be with the twins in the nursery. See she is still working! I have to admit that I don’t appreciate my wife enough.  I don’t know if I ever will appreciate all the ways she makes our families life better.

Husbands I imagine you might feel the same.

And there are moms in this congregation that probably feel like they are taken for granted: undervalued and underappreciated and overworked and overtired.

Today we are going to look at on overlooked mother in the Bible. It is a story with two mothers in it, in competition, actually. It is a messy and at some points sad story, but there is something beautiful about it that way because it shows God in the midst of life, in the midst of what we go through, that God does not forget or neglect what any of us go through, especially mothers.

There is a special, unique, place in God’s heart for those that have the love of a mother.

1. Hagar’s Story, the First Part

So go to Genesis 16. This is the story of Hagar. Her story is a sub-plot of the greater story of Abraham, the patriarch of our faith.

So, the story begins with Abram, before he was named Abraham. God had promised Abram the blessing of offspring, land, protection, and reknown. He was blessed in order to be a blessing to all humanity. That is the Christian calling right there. But, all of that does not sound very comforting when you are nearly 100 years old and don’t have a son.

Abram is a good man, but imperfect. In this culture, it was very common to divorce your wife if you two could not have kids, and it seems to be because Sarai is infertile. So, Abram refuse to divorce Sarai, they hold to their wedding vows for richer or for poorer, but they get frustrated, as you can imagine.

Abram and his wife Sarai decide to take the future into their hands.

Sarai implores her slave girl to be Abram’s lover, a surrogate mother. This is a culture where polygamy and slavery was prevalent. Polygamy is something the New Testament clamps down on, probably because of what happens in this story.

As I said, this is actually a story about two mothers, Sarai and Hagar, but we are going to track with Hagar for what her story has to show us. Both show the frustrations and messiness of life, however.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

You can detect the desperation in her voice, can’t you? This is the same woman that also lied about her marital status with Abram earlier in order to get him favor with rich and powerful leaders. She is used to sacrificing her dignity. But, this time it is way too far. It is a desperation that is causing her to lose trust in God. It is a sacrifice that is not hers to make.

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

Can you imagine how awkward this could have been for Hagar? Again this is a time when women are treated like property and here is a poor slave girl that is essentially told to be the wife of Abraham and bear him a son. This would have been a great opportunity, economically speaking, but was it her choice? You begin to see the plight of this poor girl.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

Now, this makes Hagar sound conceited, but according to Mesopotamian customs at the time, if you had more than one wife, one wife could not enslave another. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that this is a bad idea, especially when a slave girl like Hagar is now able to claim that she is the mother of the heir to the entire household. If she is a bit puffed up, its obvious why. This person has gone from being a nobody to somebody, the mother of the heir is also the slave to the wife that did not produce an heir. Do you see how tangled the situation is?

Notice again, Abram’s next mistake, he avoids stepping in and making peace:

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

She abused Hagar and Abram like so many know about it and did nothing. So, this young pregnant girl ran.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”

This is difficult advice. The angel recommends a path that while it is not adviceable to any abused person today, it will be effective at winning Sarai over and thus allowing her baby to be born and cared for.

How many mothers work terrible jobs or endure terrible circumstances just to provide for their families? Sometimes this is the only option.

 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” {She is given Abram’s promise, God has included her in his plan]

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,[a]
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”

The blessing is two edged. She is now the mother of a great nation, but God knows this nations will have its problems. This is describing the harsh and militant way of life the Ishmaelite Bedouin live, often at loggerheads with Israel.

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “[El-Roi] You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

2. Hagar’s Story, the Second Part

The story continues. It says that when Abram was 99 years old God appeared again to Abram and made a covenant with him. He changes Abram’s name to Abraham. From “Exalted Father” to “Father of Many.” God again promised Abraham an heir through Sarai, renaming her Sarah. After this a bunch more happens, and the story picks up in Chapter 21.

Sarah has a son, she calls him Isaac which means laughter. You can tell these is so much joy in her words, but the celebration is bitter sweet.

Another son means Ishmael is not the heir anymore. Hagar has lost her rank.

Ishmael is on the verge of being a teenager (there is some ambiguity as to how many years have in fact passed), and one day it appears that Ishmael teased young Isaac.

The competition between Sarah and Hagar that was dormant for a decade resurfaces and Sarah urges Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Abraham again concedes and seems to get a message from God that they will be okay.

So, he sends them out of the camp.

But without much water, Hagar and Ishmael started to die of heat exhaustion in the desert.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

That is a round about way of saying that God came through for Hagar.

This is a story in the midst of life.

The people in this story a deeply imperfect. Abraham seems like a patriarch that is easily swayed. Sarah is desperate, competitive, then conceded. Hagar swings from arrogance to abused.

Mothers competing to make sure their children have the best in life. Their kids security is their security. We all understand that. God understands what a mother goes through.

According to statistics it is getting hard to be a mom these days.

Today, 40% of women who have children under the age of 18 are the primary breadwinners in their family. In 1960, that figure was only 11%! And while 92% of mothers were married in 1960, today only 69% are married.

This means in many cases, moms today are working harder and still their job at home remains the same.

And mothering is heard work: The average mother will have changed approximately 7,300 diapers by the time her baby turns two years old.

Parent life can be stressful: worrying about money and work; worrying about kids school. Are they playing with the right kids? Are they getting good grades? Do I help him with his homework enough? Are we having enough family time? Is my marriage working?

I have not met a single mother today that does not subject herself to grueling, unfair expectations. The judgment and worry, this picture in their heads of being super mom, the worry that they just aren’t good enough.

How Hagar’s Story is Our Story and Hagar’s God is Our God…

This is where this story – this ancient story from a time very distant from ours, from a culture very different from ours, from customs very different – ends up having something to say that is true of our God then as now.

First: Pregnant Hagar, alone, on the run, at the end of her rope, has God appear to her. She does not know what to call this God, so she calls him, El-roi, the God who sees me.

Our God sees what you are going through. Our God understands the struggles that you endure. Our God knows every little sacrifice you make, every thankless deed of goodness and kindness. He feels the same long-suffering love, because that is the same love he has for all of us. Our God sees you.

Second, Our God is a God who keeps his promises, who comes through in the end, who does not fail.

Hagar, who was forced to leave her home, her security and status, all for the safety of her son again, when she is near death and the situation is so hopeless, she lays her child down at a distance because she cannot bear to see him die before her, God in the last moment, shows up again.

He reveals a well for them to drink and revitalize themselves. He comes through on his promise of bring them to safety. The story ends with Ishmael becoming an archer, which is the ancient equivalent of having your son become doctor or something.

Hagar was not Abraham’s first and chosen wife. She was not in the covenant. We will tackle what election means in a few weeks. And this is the remarkable thing. Abraham did a foolish thing having a child with Hagar. He did not trust God, neither did Sarah. When it all went South and Abraham again did not do what was right, God still came through. God in his grace blessed Hagar.

Even though Isaac would be the chosen one from whom Israel and the church would come, God chose in his surprising grace to also bless Ishmael.

God blesses un-expectantly and over-abundantly. He comes through in the end.

The sign outside of our church says the prayers of our mothers are still being answered.

I have often said, I think one of the many cool things we will see in heaven is how our prayers all got answered. And we know our mothers pray long and hard for us.

They pray that we would be healthy. They pray that we would make good choices. They pray that we will succeed in life and find happiness. Our mothers of faith pray that we will come to know the lord.

Can we trust again that God is the God that comes through? He answers prayer. He keeps his promises. He does not always answer them right away or answer them the way we expect. But he does answer them.

Our God is the God that sees us. He is with us not against us. He gave of his life, in the Son, to save us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He will provide, sustain, empower, heal, restore, redeem, and vindicate for he is our father and we our his children.

Let’s pray…

Psalm 2: Awaiting the King

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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?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
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.

“God’s Victory over (Our) Evil” A Sermon for the Ecumenical Unity Service 2018

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – Martin Luther King

From the second book of the Bible, we are given a powerful story.

That God’s people came to the land of Egypt under the protection of Joseph, the long lost son of Jacob, who secured the prosperity of the land against terrible famine, all because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. But after many years, the Israelites multiplied and the Egyptian Pharaohs grew forgetful of who Joseph was and what he did for the Egyptian people years ago.

So, a tyrant Pharaoh arose, who turned and enslaved the Israelites. He forced them to build its temples and pyramids from bricks, hearkening back to the tower of babel. In Scripture the figure of Babylon, the idolatry of empire itself, has many names: Assyria, Greece, Rome, Egypt.

Empires always put power before people. Empires always but money before humanity. Empires always justify terrible oppression as maintain order.

Pharaoh worried that the Israel were getting too numerous for their Egyptian overloads to contain, and in order to keep Egypt pure and powerful, he ordered the genocide of all the baby boys of Israel.

The narrative tells of one boy, Moses, who survived the genocide by being floated in a reed basket down the river, to be picked up providentially by Pharaohs daughter and raised as her own.

This boy, Moses, grew to be a man, and when he learned of the truth about who he was and what the pharaoh had done, murdered a slave master, and fled into exile.

Moses’ outrage tried to solve oppression with violence, and it did not work. Violence never ends violence.

In exile one day he happened upon a mysterious burning bush. It was ablaze but was not consumed. The mysterious sight spoke to him, identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he had heard the cries of the people in slavery, and was now going to act.

What shall I call you, Moses asks? “I am that I am” the presence answered. The un-nameable, uncontrollable, freedom of being and root of all existence itself, the Great I Am, this being is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.

Moses is commissioned reluctantly to go and tell the new Pharaoh, his half-brother, that God wants him to let his people go. God wants liberty for his people. God want liberation for all people.

Pharaoh, who believes he is god, refuses, and so Ten Plagues rain down to break the tyrant’s resolve. First the sacred Nile turned to blood, then frogs and lice spread, then disease and boils, hail and locusts, then finally darkness covered the land, and then it says that Pharaohs’ resolve was finally broken in the Passover as the angel of death himself descended and visited the death of the firstborn boys back against Egypt.

Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israel to go. But as they left, however, he recanted.

He assembled his army to re-enslave the people and slaughter them if need be. The people fled and then found themselves pressed up against the sea, nowhere to run. No weapons to fight, no soldiers or chariots. All hope was lost.

But then as the story goes, God opened up the sea, walls on either side, dry land in the middle, so that the Israelites could escape.

The Egyptian army rallied to pursue, but as they made their way into the divide, God let go the walls of water, washing the army away.

The Israelite slaves were now free, free without every picking up a sword on their part, free to live, more importantly, free to worship and follow their God.

So, Exodus 15 recites the praise of the people for God rescuing them.

I will sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea…

The Lord is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him…

The Lord is a warrior;
    the Lord is his name…

Who is like you—
    majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
    working wonders?

Our readings for this unity service looks at the God we worship (Ex. 15, Psalm 118, and Mark 5). God who is strong, majestic, holy, awesome in glory. It is this very God that is on the side of the weak and the oppressed. It is this very God that opposes the proud and will brings down the powerful. It is this very God who has promised to end the presence of evil in this world.

This is important to say that this story is more about who God is than about the spectacle of walls of water crashing down on unsuspecting Egyptian soldiers. Hollywood loves to fixate on the imagery of chariots and walls of water, whether Moses is played by Carleton Heston or Christian Bale, but Hollywood often forgets the theology.

Martin Luther King said it best:

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)

This is a narrative that we see through Christ as we look at evil in the world, which reminds us of God’s ultimate victory over evil and how we are invited to live that out in part today and awaiting a final day of God’s liberation.

1. There is real, radical, systemic, and cosmic evil in our world today.

One might think this is an obvious point. Just turn on the news and you are bombarded with messages about corrupt politicians, poverty, wars and disasters.

But why do we think anything is or can be evil at all – and not just merely unfortunate?

Again, this seems obvious but just as God has become a suspect belief today, so with him, also the belief that there is actually good and evil.

One atheist Neuroscientist wrote that empirically there is no good or evil technically, just nature that we prefer and nature that we don’t. The world, disasters and death is neither moral or immoral. It just is. As far as human nature, there isn’t evil or good, so much as proper functioning brains and malfunctioning brains.

Coincidentally, he is not to big on the idea that humans have free will either.

Our culture has placed its trust in the power of the empirical, and as a result, with belief in a transcendent God out of the picture, so also, slowly with that good and evil.

The world as it is is all there is. It is not evil or good, it just is.

Why is there meaning as opposed to meaninglessness?

Why is sacrifice more virtuous than comfort and apathy

Why is compassion preferable to domination?

Why is good preferable to evil?

Why is life preferable to death?

We are learning that these cherished hopes we have as humans and more specifically as Christians, they are not natural givens. They are not sitting there obvious to the disinterested observer. They are seen by faith. They are produced within a particular community that looks to God for what is most true and meaningful, most ultimate and good.

It is faith in a God, who made the world good, that we know that there is a primal innocence and beauty residing in all reality, and that as humans have made the decision to rebel and reject God’s life and goodness, evil and sin has deformed our world.

Some might say God obviously does not exist because of all the evil in this world. I think it is the opposite. We can only see that there is something called evil in this world by believing there is something good beyond the world.

If God exists and God is good, we know is not the way it ought to be.

2. When we consider evil in our world, we have to contend with the evil within us.

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.

But when we say there is something wrong with the world out there, the scriptures us push to turn our attention from the evil out there to the evil in here, in our hearts. The in excusable evil we do.

This evil is found in the capacity of 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 its harm.

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 choose division.

When we know the benefits of facing hard realities, we still choose to cling to our delusions.

In this story of Israel and Egypt, if we are really honest, we must realize that we are more often Egypt than Israel.

So often we read the Exodus story saying we are the Israelites in a spiritual bondage. The reality is we are more accurately the Egyptians. We are more often oppressor than oppressed. We are members of one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.

We sometimes smugly accuse our neighbors to the south of injustice, but we Canadians have to realize our own nations sins.

Our corporations have stripped the resources away from people in South America and Africa.

Our banks have suffocated the economies of many Caribbean Islands.

We have used our military to even overthrow democratically elected leaders and even  Christians leaders in other countries, all to secure our wealth.

I am no internet conspiracy theorist. These are all facts in plain sight. The question is do we have eyes to see these realities?

Underneath our facade of a nation of peacekeepers and human rights is a disappointing track record of exploitation that we Canadians turn a blind eye to because we don’t want to know where our products come from or what is ensures our economic comforts.

We are more like the Egyptians then the Israelites. Many good Egyptians of conscience probably sat ideally by as Israelites died building temples and pyramids. They probably did the same thing we are going. Throwing up our arms and saying, “Oh, well,” and turn a blind eye because they did not want to sacrifice their comforts..

To be human from the standpoint of faith is to know we have a primal goodness, but also the terrible capacity to forsake that goodness.

We as Christians know that while our faith pushes us to love more and pursuit truth more and justice more, but 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 refuse to reach out to the broken in our communities.

When we cling to our own comforts rather than living sacrificially.

When we shut out the world so that we don’t have to have compassion on it.

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 they we look at our churches and we have to realize we are no better.

forgive

3. God’s answer to evil, our evil, is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ

What happens when we see evil in this world and we realize that we also have that same evil within our hearts? What do we do when we realize we are more like Egypt than Israel?

The book of exodus is a narrative that gets retold, recited, and re-enacted throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament. If we don’t read the Exodus through the New Testament we are left realizing we belong drowned in that sea rather than safe on that shore. We deserve sorrow not these songs.

But Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. Jesus is our exodus.  Jesus shows us true exodus.

This story of Passover is re-enacted and fulfilled in the last supper and the cross.

This is important because for the exodus story to apply for us, we need to place ourselves in the seats of the disciples. And what did the disciples do? They failed just as we failed. They turned from Jesus. And so often we do to. The disciples that ate with Jesus, knew what was good more than anyone else, they sinned. That is the beginning of the church.

Judas betrayed. Peter denied. The others fled in fear. The people of God were complicit in the murder of their messiah. The law of God was manipulated to execute to their own deliverer. To see radical evil in our world and in our hearts, we need not look any further than what happened to Jesus at the cross by those whom he came to save.

The world denied Jesus, but the more troubling part is that we denied Jesus.

And so, the words are ever more powerful that on the night of the Passover, the night the disciples remembered this exodus event, this was the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus became our the Passover lamb, to liberate us from our own sins.

His body that we broke, was broken for us.

The blood the people of God shed, he embraced as a path to forgive them of the very sins they were sinning against him. A new covenant.

No vast sea was split the day Jesus was nailed on the cross but the veil was torn, a greater cosmic event occurred: God forgave his enemies, us, God atoned for sins, our sins, even as we murdered him. 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 they are not.

And as the Gospels say, here the Scripture were 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 fail 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.

To read exodus through the cross is to know that God’s way of dealing with evil is not with bringing disaster on the perpetrators but by bringing healing.

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, overcomes them not with force but  with forgiveness, such that even the Roman guards by the cross cried out, “Surely this man was the son of God.”

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 died, overturning histories judgment.

The resurrection was the overturning of death itself. The weapon of evil and fear, empire and tyranny was disarmed that day.

Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.

Jesus overturned our sins that day too. He appeared to those that betrayed him, the disciples, and announced peace to you.

Death, sin, and despair have lost. They destiny is oblivion, and our destiny is liberation.

When we lose hope in ourselves, when we are overwhelmed at the sin in our hearts, we know that we worship a God that would gladly accept the death penalty in order to bring us to him.

When we look at our world, its systems of oppression and corruption, the cogs of death that keep turning, we know we worship the God of life, who raised Jesus from the dead.

Hell reigns, but not forever.

Oppression reigns but its days are numbered.

Death reigns but it realizes now it is the one that is mortal.

Sin is here but it has been defeated.

Christ has had his definitive victory that Easter morning for the tomb was found empty. The grave could not contain him.

Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.

The question then is how to we live this victory?

4. How do we live out the victory of the resurrection?

We are called to sacrifice. When we know that God has given us salvation and the enduring presence of his love, we take our liberation and use our freedom to take up our cross. No one is liberated until everyone is liberated. And the highest freedom is not material mobility but spiritual strength. That is only possible by follow Christ no matter what.

Martin Luther King knew this. Oscar Romero knew this. Maximilian Kolbe knew this. Jim Elliot knew this. All the martyrs that have given their lives for Christ, the Gospel and his kingdom of truth and justice will tell you this.

There can be no path to resurrection without the cross just as there cannot be any path to freedom without sacrifice. And this sacrifice is freedom.

We must be sorry. This freedom begins in repentance. There is no solution to the terrible evil in this world until we take responsibility for our own roles in further it. We are called to acknowledge that we sin and we need forgiveness. We repent because we need restoring.

The Gospel gives us that counter-intuitive truth that humility is liberation. Liberation from ourselves.

We are called to serve. The only way our world will become a better place is by good people acting differently. For use to move out of our culture’s default setting of selfishness and apathy and ignorance.

As Desmond Tutu said, God has no body but ours. God has no hands and feet but ours. God uses our eyes to look upon the oppressed. He uses our ears to listen to those suffering.

Are we, brothers and sisters from different traditions of Christianity, ready to be Christ’s body again?

Lastly, tonight, we are called to sing. That is what we are doing today at this unity service. When we worship a God of perfect goodness and power and love, we see the world differently. If we don’t continue to meet together, to pray together, to recite Scripture together, we will grow weary along the difficult path disciples must way.We need each other.

When we worship together in the unity of Christ, we show a divided world that there is hope beyond the fragments.

And so, please stand with me and let us renew are hearts by praising our God with this inspiring song, “The Right Hand of God.”

 

 

 

So, What’s New About New Years?

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Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God…


A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.

Opening Prayer:

Lord of ages, you are the beginning and the end. Everlasting God, we know our days are in your care. We trust you and praise you this morning our God. For your faithfulness in our past, your constant care in the present, and for all that your promised to do. We trust you and praise you this morning our God. Come and meet us here today. Amen.

Sermon

So, tomorrow is New Years. At least it is when we celebrate New Years. The point is an arbitrary marker.  Chinese New Year is on February  16. Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) should have been the logical choice, but not everything is logical. Do you know who decided the calendar we use and which day makes the new year?

Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. ordered the modification of the Roman Calendar. Isn’t that cool? He ordered the calendar to change. That’s the kind of power that guy had. “You will all tell time differently if I say so.” Thankfully, he didn’t abuse his power and make everyday his birthday or something like that.

Julius Caesar ordered the insertion of leap years in February. Apparently Greek astronomers had known for over a hundred years before that Earth take s 365.24 days to get around the sun. They figured that out somehow. And so, everyone was worried that every century or so the calendar’s months would correspond to different seasons. So something had to be done, and he did it.

Pope Gregory in the 1500’s modified it further to account for the 0.01 that could not be reconciled with an extra day every four years. Did you know we have leap centuries? Look it up.

So, that is why we as Western people celebrate New Years today…

But New Years, this day we have chosen to make the next bout of 365 days, is supposed to be a time of self-examination, of making resolutions, of the possibility of fresh starts.

You are supposed to stay up to midnight and watch the party and fireworks happening in some more exciting place in the world like Toronto or New York, kiss someone and make a resolution.

In my family the tradition when we were kids was New Years as our annual Monopoly tournament, leading up to the final countdown.

Will anyone make a New Years resolution? Thinking about it?

I bought an exercise bike. Not apart of a New Years resolution per se, but with staying in more in the evenings in the winter for the twins and stuff, I have not gone to dodge-ball. I played dodge-ball religiously the past few years as my way of blowing off steam in the winter. There is something so therapeutic about grown men throwing foam balls at each other. I don’t know why it just is. But, without that winter activity, I figured I would get an exercise bike.

I know a bunch of people that all got gym memberships, and pledges to diet, and quit smoking, whatever last year. I didn’t really stick.

According to one magazine, the ten most commonly broken New Years resolutions are: Lose weight, quit smoking, learn something new, eat healthier, get out of debt, spend more time with family, travel to a new place, be less stressed, volunteer, drink less.

So often we don’t keep our resolutions do we? Who has ever said, “This year I going to X…and this year I mean it!”

I wonder if anyone will make a resolution to stop making resolutions? I think that is the only resolution you can potentially keep!

Some of us think making resolutions are so silly we just don’t bother making them.

For many of us New Years resolutions merely reiterate and repeat the deeper nagging reality that next year is going to be just like this year, second verse same as the first: perhaps a little bit louder, perhaps even a little bit worse.

Insert obligatory worn out rant about US politics here…

New Years for many is just the opposite effect from starting something new: It is a time when people are reminded that nothing new is happening. They are trapped in the same old, same old.

It makes us feel like the Teacher in the cynical wisdom book the Ecclesiastes chapter 1:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?…

Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

Is this what it feels like for you? Day an day out, month after month, year after year? Is your life caught in a rut?

The writer of Ecclesiastes, is reflecting on life under the sun, life without taking God into the equation, and he longs for something new, and thinks nothing new can happen in his life because nothing new happens in history either.

So bigger question still is our world caught in a similar rut? Does my life not change because nothing changes?

Is history cyclical? Is history like a video on repeat? His our world just an endless cycle of live and die, good and evil, work and play, fight and love, repeating and repeating with no change or victor or goal?

That is how the ancient pagans viewed time and history. That is the view of time that the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, when he is reflecting about what happens under the Sun – that is without God – he realizes that without God there is nothing new. It is just one thing after another in endless cycles. Time is circular.

Of course, we modern people are not much better. We are not that different than ancient pagans are we?

Once we have debunked the myth of progress – that history is a steady climb into utopia – we fall back into that same cyclical pattern.

I remember sitting in science class learning about how science operates on cause and effect. Everything that exists now, had a cause, and that cause was caused, and that cause was caused, all operating by material laws.

And I remember one person putting up their hand and saying, “What about miracles?” And the professor just kind of fluffed it off: we live in a world of cause and effect, not miracles.

For many modern people, the laws of science means everything that exists happens by natural laws that don’t change. The universe is like a watch with clogs.

This means that the hand and dials on the watch have a fixed course. The hour hand will never go to a thirteen hour and the hands will never go in anything other than a 360 degree turn – just like history.  Their courses are fixed. Nothing new under the sun.

If history is like the rotations of a clock, then again we are caught in rotations of birth and death, war and peace, happiness and sadness, ups and downs and back around again.

For some people, I know they do not pursue some kind of resolution purely out of apathy to the notion anything new is even possible. Nothing new under the sun.

My life won’t change because nothing changes

Nothing changes because miracles don’t happen.

Miracles don’t happen because God doesn’t act or reveal himself.

That is the end result of that line of thinking.

But that is not the testimony of Christian Scripture:

We believe in a God that shows up.

We believe in a God that acts in history, changing its course.

We believe in a God that ransomed Israel from Egypt.

We believe that God that came in human form.

We believe that God in Jesus Christ, did miracles, taught redemption, changing peoples lives.

We believe that God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, was buried and three days later altered history  in the greatest possible way: he rose from the grave undoing death itself.

We believe that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven and sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us.

In short we do confess that something new can happen. History is no endless cycles but something guided by God towards an end he desires.

That means our lives can have something new. That means our lives can have direction and purpose.

Why? We believe with God all things are possible.

Here is what God tells Isaiah to give to people:

Isaiah 43: 16-19:

This is what the Lord says—
    he who made a way through the sea,
    a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
    the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
    extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

He is referencing the exodus, and saying, see that powerful event, forget it! I will do something even different than that. I am a God of surprises. I am a God that cannot be boxed in. God is the I am that I am. God is the God of possibility and he will do something new.

Something is possible because God is a living God.

By the way, scientist are realizing that miracles and the laws of science aren’t necessarily at odds either. Quantum physics – that is a field that you need to go on the internet and google some stuff up about – quantum physics looks at how atoms are events of relational energy all the way down, and this is showing us more and more that our world is open to new events, surprising occasions, and mystery.

Every moment has some degree of inexplicability to it. Every moment leads us to ask, why was there a whole new moment at all? What holds this whole world together? What mystery lies beneath it all?

It is actually a sound scientific statement that every moment is in some way a miracle.

The world was created open and mysterious, not locked in and fixed.

Same thing with your life.

I read a fascinating argument the other day that all the miracles that Jesus did, they all work with willing participants.

Jesus in Mark 5 says to the woman, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

When Peter stops looking at Jesus, he sinks into the water.

Even the Pharisee with a withered hand is asked to stretch it out, which if he did not trust Jesus in some way, he wouldn’t have.

While God is a God of power, he is also a God of freedom and relationship. God could solve all our problems with a snap of the fingers, but he prefers not to coerce. His way is be inspiring, persuading, and inviting us into his redemption.

God is always there, always ready to act, the question is whether we can see it, will trust it, will participate with it, will invite God in….

Jesus never heals someone that does not believe he could be healed in the first place. In fact, Mark 6 goes so far as to say that Jesus could not do any miracle with those that refuse to trust him. Listen to these verses:

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Now, this doesn’t mean just because have to want something and you will get it from God.

God is not a vending machine, and I have met a lot of people that beat themselves up think it is their fault God did not act in their lives.

That is surely not the case.

Sometimes we forget that the greatest miracles, the greatest works of God is simply moving our hearts to love or realizing God’s presence and peace in the midst of chaos.

I know someone that struggles with terrible depression. Many times they prayed, God heal me! Each time wondering if they just did not have enough faith, which of course, made their depression worse, thinking they were being punished by God or that God had left them.

But it struck them reading the Gospel’s of Jesus inseparable unconditional love for people hurting and broken. This truth gave them a different kind of miracle, I think, it is the most common and most precious: the gift of a different perspective.

They saw their life through a different perspective.

They were not far away from God, they were close to God.

They were not forsaken by God, they were loved by God.

They were not being punished by God, they were being used by God.

They realized that they could use their story to draw close to others struggling with depression and give them comport in the way only someone who also wrestles with depression can give.

To this day, this person regards their lot in life – depression and all – to be a blessing, a miracle, a gift.

The question is are you ready to view your life that way too?

Are you ready to stop seeing your life as an endless cycle of the same thing and start seeing every moment you have as a miracle, a gift from God, an opportunity to seize?

Are you ready to open your life up to how the Holy Spirit can remake your life for his good purposes? Are you excited about what new thing he can do with you as you trust him?

Do you want to hear my theory about why so many new Years resolutions don’t work? I’ll tell you. It isn’t because they are too ambitious.

It is because they are not ambitious enough. If your new years resolution is only about what you eat, don’t be surprised that you are going to keep eating what you have always been eating.

If you seek to change just your weight, as if your weight is all that matters, don’t be surprise that does not change.

If you seek to get a gym membership, as if your life plus going to the gym is going to be that much better, that probably won’t fulfill you.

Remember what Matt 6:3: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all things – everything you worry about – will be added unto you.

Let’s make this year the year that you draw close to God in a new way.

Let’s make this year the year of trusting our God that can do all things.

Let’s make this year the year God works something new in your life as your trust in him.

Let’s pray

Lord of history. You are alpha and omega, beginning and the end. To you, a thousand years are as a day. Time is in your hands. You are the great I am. You are not bound by our world. You offer us hope of a new day. You offer us hope because you raised your son Jesus Christ from the grave. You offer us hope because we know you are a God that loves, acts, and redeems.

Renew us by your Holy Spirit. Break the barriers of sin and despair.  Break the barriers of apathy and arrogance. Allow us to see the dawn of your light.

Renew us by your Holy Spirit,  that while we have breath and life we may serve you with courage and hope through the grave of your son, our savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Benediction

Holy Spirit we invite you into our lives.

Holy Spirit we trust you to remake us new today.

Holy Spirit transform our hearts so that we may walk closer to Jesus Christ.

Holy Spirit come into our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world, so that you may be all in all.

We pray that your kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for the restoration of all things, the salvation of all people, and may these begin with me now.

The First Christmas: An Unbelievable Story about our Unbelievable God

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The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni (c 1640)

We have all heard the Christmas story before.

The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.

About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married

It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.

A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.

It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.

It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.

It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.

It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.

It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.

It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.

And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.

This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.

It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.

It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.

It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.

The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.

Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.

It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.

Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.

It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.

But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.

Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.

We live in an apathetic age.

Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.

There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.

Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.

The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.

Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.

It is unbelievable.

Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.

They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.

…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.

This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.

God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?

Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.

We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.

With God all things are possible.

If we grant that, this story starts making sense.

Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.

These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.

The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.

Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.

The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.

Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?

Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?

Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?

Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?

Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?

Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.

We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?

Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?

Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?

Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?

Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?

Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.

What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.

Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.

In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.

Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.

In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.

Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.

After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.

He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.

Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?

How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?

We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.

You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.

There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.

If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?

If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?

If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?

If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?

If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.

Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…

*Pause*

Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.

May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives

May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.

May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.

May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.

May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.

May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.

May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.

May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.

May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen

[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]

How (Not) to be Patriotic (Part 1): Understanding Culture and Faith

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My wife and I, on our honeymoon, did a Mediterranean cruise. We saw Malta, Naples and Pompei, Rome and the Vatican, Florence and Pisa, and finally Cannes, France.

Florence was a gorgeous city. We toured the city’s cathedrals, and through the streets we saw statue after statue, all by walking along very picturesque cobble stone roads.

We came to the city center where the Duomo was. This is a massive cathedral constructed by the same architect that did the St. Peter’s Basilica. The baptismal chapel on the one end of the Duomo has gold gates, called the “Gates of Paradise,” lined with plates of biblical artwork.

I remember thinking, we really don’t have stuff like that in Canada. We don’t have the depth of history like a place like Florence does.

The tour took a break and so I want to the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, one of the other people on the tour started talking to me. Apparently it was acceptable to talk to others in a bathroom in his culture.

“Are you enjoying the tour?”

“Yes, the gates were awesome,” I said.

“You’re an American, yes?” he asked.

Of course, I replied, “No, I’m Canadian.”

To which he replied with one of the most insulting things you could say to a Canadian in that instance: “Oh, same thing!”

If this was hockey, the gloves would have come off!

So, I turn to him and asked, “Your ascent – its Irish, isn’t it?”

“No, I am from London.”

To which I replied, “Oh, same thing!”

Now, since then, that story has caused me to reflect on what it is to be a Canadian. What does it mean to be a Canadian? Are we, as John Wing joked, “Unarmed Americans with healthcare”?

This is not as obvious a question as it sounds. Yes, I was born in the area in between the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans, North of America and South of Greenland, but that does not tell us much about what it means to be a Canadian. That’s geography. However that may tell us something or two.

“Canada [geographically] is like an old cow. The West feeds it. Ontario and Quebec milk it. And you can well imagine what it’s doing in the Maritimes.” – Tommy Douglas

My apologies to all the Maritimers in the room.

Anyways, what I am talking about is being a “true Canadian.” Is there such a thing?

Do Canadians have a particular culture? We love hockey. We love camping. Outdoor sports in general. Everyone in this room knows what it is like to walk out of your house in the winter and breathe in -45 degree Celsius air.

Canadian food: Maple Syrup, bacon, Nanaimo bars, poutine with globs of gravy and cheese curds, beaver tails, etc.

We like to drink unhealthy amounts of coffee, double double. We get our milk in liter plastic bags, not jugs.

Our money is all sorts of goofy colors, and for some reason, the Canadian mint is slowly turning all our bills into progressively larger coins. The 5 and 10 dollar coins are coming, people. What then? I think eventually we will have 20 dollar coins the size of frisbees and eventually 100 coins the size of manhole covers!

We have iconic figures like beavers, moose, the Canada goose. We are apparently really proud of our wildlife!

We sort of go to those kinds of things in order to understand ourselves, but those kinds of things are pretty surface level and outward. That does not tell us a whole lot about us. Hopefully there is more to us than that.

The fact that we have receded into those kinds of cutesy notions of who we are shows what the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan said decades ago:

“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”

McLuhan was the man that stated, “The medium is the message.” Canada had these brilliant culture philosophers like George Grant and Northrop Frye that no one really remembers today. It’s kind of sad.

Anyways, we are a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, not culture but a set of cultures, and that leads us to feel a sense like we don’t have a uniform set of values. We often don’t feel like we know who we are deep down as Canadians.

However, interestingly enough, while many Canadians are unaware of it, there is a bizarre consensus in Canada on values.

In college I read the book, Fire and Ice: Canada, the United States, and the Myth of Converging Values. It was a bit of an eye opener. Canada, according to sociologist Michael Adams, is becoming very different from its American counterparts. We are similar to Americans, but as far as values goes, the presence of America to the South of us as caused us to be increasingly different form them on lots of stuff.

That is one way of saying who we are, isn’t it? Canadians are not Americans. Whoever we are, we ain’t that. We are proudly not that.

We always define ourselves in terms our brothers and sisters to the south. Pierre Trudeau once likened North America to a bed where Canada was a beaver trying to sleep next to a raging Elephant (the US).

And while Americans assume they have a more uniform melting pot kind of culture and Canada has a multi-cultural, diverse culture, Canada is actually far more uniform from sea to sea than the US. That’s ironic.

In values of Authority vs. Individuality and Survival vs. Fulfillment, American regions are very diverse: the Deep South is strongly Authority-Survival, South Atlantic is Individuality-Survival. Some states were closer to Authority-Fulfillment while others closer to Individuality-Fulfillment. Meanwhile, all Canadian provinces fell within the Individuality-Fulfillment quadrant.

What does that mean? Here are some of his statistics: Only 20% of Canadians attend church weekly versus 42% for Americans. Only 18% of Canadians feel that the father must be Master of the house versus 49% for Americans. 71% of Canadians felt that a couple living together were family versus 49% for Americans. Only 25% of Canadians were prepared to take great risks versus 38% of Americans. Only 17% of Canadians feel a widely advertised product is probably good versus 44% of Americans

Adam’s said, and I think this sums it up well: Americans would be more likely to brag about a new car; Canadians more likely to brag about the trip they went on.

Adams feels that “an initially conservative society like Canada has ended up producing an autonomous, inner-directed, flexible, tolerant and socially liberal people. On the other hand, “an initially liberal society like the US has ended up producing a people who are materialistic, outer-directed, intolerant and socially conservative.”

Now, here is the important question for today. Does that make our culture the right one?

According to the news, people from both American and Britain have been googling “How to move to Canada” at record rates, but I think that is short-sighted.

I don’t think anyone of them is necessarily bad or good. I see things like and things I am concerned about in those statistics. Sure there are cultures that have strong education or have less crime or promote religion. However that can all have good aspects and bad aspects.

Of course, if we said that Canada’s culture was the best,  we would be saying that out of bias, and we would also be failing to cultural arrogance, which is not good.

The fact is that you can take your culture in a good way or a bad way. You can’t blame your culture for stuff you know is wrong. Any culture has upsides and downsides. The point is to be aware of it. There will be extremes. Culture is not necessary a thing to be opposed in faith, but is something to be understood critically, placing our faith and discernment first. We need to celebrate the good and work at eliminated the bad.

Christians have usually two dangerous responses to our cultural identities:

(1) Isolation: Churches that Retreat from Culture

This is very common of fundamentalist churches. Our culture is bad, impure, evil, so lets huddle in our faith bunker where it is safe.

Churches that get isolated don’t use the goodness the Spirit of God has planted in the culture to use to communicate the Gospel. Paul knew this when he spoke to the people at Mars Hill.

There is no such thing as a culture-less church. No church is free from culture. God did not intend it that way. The Bible was written within a culture of its own, but the Word of God speaks to all cultures. The church should be working to promote the best of culture. The point is discerning the good from the bad.

It is not weather we will have a Canadian culture within us or not, the question is will we be aware of it and response appropriately.

Canadians are more skeptical about consumerism and war, and more hospitable to immigrants. That’s good. I think Jesus was too!

Canadians are individuals that value strong relationships over institutions and programs. That is something we can work with.

Canadians might be skeptical about religion, but they are open to talking about justice, spirituality, ideals, and values. In a round about way, that sounds religious!

Lots of people want to lament that our culture is becoming less Christian. That is true in one way, but that does not mean the Spirit has stopped working in our culture to make opportunities for the Gospel.

(2) Accommodation: Churches Claim All Culture for their Own

The worst example of this in history is when Emperor Constantine in the third century made Christianity the state religion. To be Roman was to be Christian. To be Christian was to be Roman. Roman law was ordained by God. The church went to war against Rome’s enemies.

We saw horrific examples of this in Nazi Germany where the state church proclaimed Hitler to be chosen by God to bring glory back to Germany.

We see the same in the British Empire. Where the Anglican Church sanctioned colonialism. The British colonized half the world and now complain about immigrants taking their identity!

We see this also in America today, sadly. American wars for oil have become evangelical crusades against Muslims. The American motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is preached as gospel in some churches.

We Canadians can do the same.

I think ours is a culture of apathy and skepticism. We have allergic reactions to organized anything, except organized sports. We have trouble committing to community. We are terribly afraid of offending people with the truth. We are individualists that don’t know who we are and don’t want you to tell us.

That comes out in our religion.

We say stuff like, “I believe Jesus in my Lord and Saviour, but that is just my personal opinion.” (A joke often made by the ethicist, Stan Hauerwas).

We are multi-cultural, which is great. But also we have allowed tolerance to go a bit too far. There are two kinds of tolerance, by the way. One kind says, “You are different from me, so please help me understand you, and let me make a space for you, so that we can have peace.” That’s good.

There is bad tolerance that says, “I don’t know you, I don’t care, you stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours. If we bump into each other at Foodland, lets have a shallow conversation about the weather or local sports team, but not anything meaningful, let along religious.”

We are terribly afraid of speaking truth and very afraid to commit to organization and community. That fear has caused us to shrink back from opportunities to encourage people with the Gospel. We are so afraid of offending people that we miss opportunities to encourage.

When we think about our nationality, we have to be critical. We are called to be “in the world and not of the world”

We need to understand that there is good and bad in our culture. We need discernment to that we do not fall into nationalism. Being Canadian can be a good thing, but not necessarily.

This is why we look to how we are apart of another nation: the kingdom of heaven…