Preached Sunday, January 23, 2022, at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church.
2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” No,w if you do not commit adultery, but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.(James 2:1-13, NRSV)
In 2011, while I was studying as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I applied to be the coordinator of a soup kitchen one night a week a few blocks from Queen’s Park, if you know the area. It was called the Gathering Spot, a weekly drop-in food ministry that operated in the basement of Walmer Road Baptist Church, an old historic church in the downtown. I applied because I wanted a simple, one-night-a-week gig to earn a few bucks while I did my studies. What I got was a lot more than what I figured for.
That is kind of like what we see here in the book of James. This packed little passage will give us more than what we figured for as well. James is a book that does not let us off the hook when it comes to difficult questions about how we treat others. This passage in James gets us to ask difficult questions like Just who are the poor? What is our responsibility toward them? And have we failed at this? Have we forgotten and shunned those of different status from us? These questions are what we are going to explore today.
Who are “the Poor”?
So the first question: who are the poor? Growing up in a middle-class suburban neighbourhood, I never really saw “the poor” in any tangible way. I was aware that we were not rich and some of my friends had it worse off than me, some were better off, but that was about it. Some of my friends had smaller houses than me, and others had bigger ones. I grew up in a conservative family where common dinner conversation was complaining about taxes and about how poor people were just lazy and didn’t deserve any of our hard-earned money. So, I had an assumption that if you did not have a job, it was because you were lazy and if you were collecting unemployment or a related service, you were essentially a leech on the system. That is who the poor was.
Well, at the Gathering Spot, my job was the program coordinator. I bought groceries and helped prepare a meal. I greeted people once they arrived, and I put together activities after dinner, usually learning seminars on city programs or helpful skills like first aid or price matching. On an average night, we would serve about 30-50 guests, most of which were people who lived in low-income housing in the area, but also people who were homeless and found their way to the Gathering Spot. All of a sudden, every Tuesday night, the “poor” had a human face. It was startling. I soon realized what poverty was. The poor was a gay youth that his parents had kicked out and was now on the streets. The poor was a senile elderly lady, who had a successful career as a nurse, but now in old age started hoarding things and her family stopped caring for her. The poor was an elderly man with the intellectual age of a 12-year-old, but with no family and not “disabled enough” to require more help in the government’s mind, he was left on his own.
Who are the poor? As I got to know a lot of the individuals, what they were going through was mental illness, plus abuse, plus addiction. Inevitably their choices were their own at some point. And yes, there were dishonest people that just wanted to use the system, but even their stories were not just straightforward as I assumed. Everyone had a story. Poverty had layers.
Who are the poor? I realized that poverty is the systemic consequence of the loss of family. A homeless person is “home-less” well before they are found without a roof over their head. Many of the homeless of Toronto were mentally ill individuals that had been deserted by family due to their erratic behaviour, such that they did not have a single person that they could crash on their couch or lend a few bucks or whatever. I had to think to myself: If I had something terrible happen in myself where I lost my home or health, I could still impose on my two siblings or even my uncle and aunt or even a few college buddies that would help me out. I had people to fall back on. They didn’t.
Who are the poor? I think about the fact that I was born into a loving family. I was raised with discipline and responsibility. I went to good schools. I am able-bodied and able-minded. I was financially supported through high school and college. But all of these factors that contributed to me getting where I am, I did not choose. I did have to work hard, but my father modelled that for me. I could have been born into a family that cared nothing for instilling basic virtues. I could have been born into the foster care system, getting bounced around. I could have been born with a mental illness or with a physical disability. Or take the instances where a person acquired a disability: a car crash, developing severe depression later in life or something like that. That could happen to any one of us, and that could mean at any moment we could be without a career or livelihood in the traditional sense, dependent on the care of others. We, as people that prize our achievements and autonomy, don’t ever want to think about the possibility of becoming dependent and unable. If we really understand that many of the people that face poverty were born into the absence of a support system of family and friends or have been stricken with a lack of mental and physical ability, then there is that nagging possibility that this could have been me.
This is why James connects the love of the poor with the love of neighbour as yourself (even if your neighbours aren’t particularly poor): 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He calls this the “royal law” (the law that is king over all the others) – it is the criteria Jesus gives as to whether any law of the Bible applies and how it should be applied. Why do we love the poor? The logic is simple: because that could have been us. And if that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, if we can place ourselves in their position, what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of church would I hope to be there to help me? Whatever our answer is, much like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we are bound deep down in our conscience to then go and do likewise.
Have We Forgotten the Poor?
Working in a soup kitchen in many ways caused me to reevaluate how we are responsible to others in society how we may have forgotten the poor.
Our society wants to shun the poor. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The biggest, I think, is fear and guilt. There is a simple disgust at looking at a dirty homeless person. We see them and are afraid because they could be dangerous, we tell ourselves. But as I said before, I think the real fear is that their lives are unthinkable to us. The thought of being homeless is so terrifying, and the fact that it could happen to us if we had been born into a situation without family, with a circle of support, with challenges that make housing difficult. That could have been us, and we can’t even think about that. That fact scares people deep down, and so, we have to rationalize their situation to make us feel better: They obviously made bad choices, we tell ourselves. Just as the would-be friends of Job find it easier to blame than to help, it is because we cannot face the truth that calamity could have happened to us. Job replies to his friends, “Now you too have proved to be of no help, for you see something dreadful and are afraid” (Job 6:21).
If we get past the fear, there is usually an unproductive sense of guilt. The guilt of seeing poverty is that intuitive sense of feeling obliged to help but turning a blind eye. We do this often when we see a panhandler begging at a street corner, and we pretend not to see them. Or we give them some small token of money, which is more about appeasing our guilt than actually taking steps to help them often. And what if we did try to help them? Many of us would be overwhelmed at the amount of care many require: housing, medical needs, counselling, education, job placement, etc. The poor are a lasting reminder of the impotence of our civilization, our abilities. Ironically, the homeless make us feel powerless.
Frankly, most cities then decide that they just need to segregate the poor from the rest of us. Take the instance of Orlando, Florida, where it is now illegal to be homeless. If you don’t have a home, cops will just drive you out to the middle of nowhere, dump the person there, and tell them don’t come back. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it is illegal to give food to the poor on the streets. A 90-year old Christian man, Arnold Abbot, in 2014 refused to comply, and he went out to give out food and blankets. Cops arrested him, and he faced either a 500-dollar fine or up to 60 days in prison.
The government of Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Abbot illustrate two very different responses to poverty. One wants to reduce poverty by getting rid of the poor, the other by serving them. But we have to ask ourselves: Why take Arnold Abbot’s way? It can be uncomfortable, frustrating, even dangerous. And many of us know there is a strong likelihood that our attempts might not end with success. In a world that prizes autonomy, helping the poor is seen as too great an expense to oneself and even enabling those who refuse to “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In other words, why should I give my hard-earned money and time to those that I think won’t help themselves?
To ask this leads me to conclude that I think to care for the poor is made possible by something like a religious conviction. I say “religious-like” not because all religious people care for the poor – they don’t – or that only religious people care for the poor – which is not the case either. I felt a great kinship of goodwill with the atheists I worked with, sadly a closer kinship than them than with my fellow Christians, who were hard-hearted. I say religious conviction than because the drive towards empathy and service, whether in a religious person or an atheist, is spurned by a conviction that cannot be reduced to the world as it is. If it was, apathy would take over. The poor are just there, and that is just the way the world is: Too bad, so sad. We learn that true loving actions, as C. S. Lewis argues in his book The Four Loves, are “other-worldly” in some sense. Why should I empathize with people I do not know? Why should I experience unnecessary heartache? Why should I give at great expense to myself, not just a feel-good charity as guilt-relief exercise, but to help others that may not even say “thank-you”? The choice to care, to empathize, to serve beyond what we are naturally predisposed to do, what is naturally advantageous to us, beyond what we culturally are obliged to do that has to be in some sense a religious decision: a choice to act in the world in a way that is different than the ways of the world typically run. It runs against the grain.
Yet, sadly, as I said, many Christians have found reasons, couched in religious language, to forget about the poor. The “prosperity Gospel” is very popular in many streams of Christianity, far more popular than what we typically realize. Its central tenet is that if God loves you, you will be blessed, and blessing means health and wealth. Corrupt preachers have capitalized on this where, for instance, in the case of Toronto based preacher at the “Prayer Palace,” the pastors there have manipulated their congregation into thinking they should earn exorbitant salaries, drive fancy cars, and own mansions since this is a sign of God’s blessing. Then the preachers state that if people want to be blessed like they are, they need to give money to the church (to God, but really to them) and trust that God will bless them. While that is manipulative enough, the implication is that if you are not financially well-off, then God does not favour you. This means the rich are loved by God, and the poor are forgotten.
Of course, many of us know that this way of thinking is wrong, and we would never go to a church where a minister owned several mansions, hopefully. Let’s just say if there was a Bethany Memorial Baptist Palace, I would not attend it. But we all know there are subtle ways we forget the poor in our midst. We fall into similar mentalities.
I remember speaking with a church leader. While he was an honest person, he sincerely believed God would never forsake anyone who believes in him, and so, what that meant for him was that if you did not have enough in your life, you just did not have enough faith. I remember saying to them, “But what about the passage that says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your comfort’ I remember him turning back to me scoffing, “Oh ya, where is that in the Bible?” And I said, “That is Jesus saying that in Luke chapter 6.”
I remember talking about our responsibility to the poor with a group of pastors, and I talked about what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). I remember one pastor, not hearing that I was quoting the Prophet Isaiah, getting upset at me that I was promoting socialism. In his mind, that was obviously one of those Old Testament Scriptures that did not apply anymore. That struck me as a very convenient interpretation.
James, similarly, has to contend with congregations who are showing favouritism to the rich, and it sounds like they have created a few excuses for their apathy towards the poor. The example he gives is the treatment of people who look wealthy when they come to a church gathering. The rich are given places of honour. Meanwhile, those who are not being told to sit on the dirty floor. And from a worldly perspective, who’s to blame them? What church doesn’t want to woo some potentially generous tithers? Such wealth obviously means they would be good to serve on a management board or may even be deacon material, we tell ourselves in excitement.
I remember being told by one pastor who did church planting: don’t bother much with the poor of your area. They have way too many problems. They take way too much of your time, and in the end, they don’t have any money. You can’t build a church with people with no money, so let the poor be someone else’s problem.” Frankly, what he said explicitly many believe implicitly.
What is interesting about James is that he says that when we treat people differently based on their wealth, their social-economic status, we do something actually terrible: have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? He says. He calls this evil. He goes on to say this:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now, if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
A transgressor of the law? If you notice the way James is talking about the matter here, you will notice his rhetoric is subtle but severe. He talks about the neglect of the poor alongside those that commit adultery and particularly those who commit murder. Ouch. That hits hard.
Have we thought about it that way? I think most of us think of charity work as a kind of the cherry on top of what is required, something that is not expected, but if we do, that’s an extra jewel in our crowns in heaven. Many of us have inherited a kind of checklist spirituality, by which we measure whether we are okay with God. An old Baptist saying is, “I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and I don’t date girls who do.” That is a bit silly sounding, but many of us have these: I know I am good with God because I don’t sleep around. I don’t use bad language, even at work. I don’t watch HBO. I don’t get wasted on the weekends. Whatever that is for you. We can set a simple bar for ourselves.
That is not how James sees it. If serving the poor, including the poor, is the way that is most in tune with Jesus’ law of love, the way of conscience and empathy, the way that most honestly admits to the fragility of our existence and why we are bound to others in life, then going against that, well James does not mince words: Its not just bad or inappropriate or rude, but evil, he says. He begins the passage by asking: My brothers and sisters, do you, with your acts of favouritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? This is a legitimate question for James.
When you allow God’s word to do its work in you, you wake up to our responsibilities to each other in ways most don’t want to think about. Have we forgotten the poor? The worst night I ever experienced at the Gathering Spot was a night of a deep freeze in January (not unlike what we felt this week). In front of the store where I would get groceries, I saw one indigenous fellow who regularly attended. He had told me previously that he and his sister had been abused in the residential school system. His pain from what happened there was so much that he lived with a constant hatred of God and everyone else for what happened. He could not stand to go to a shelter. It would cause his anxiety to explode, and he would get in a fight. “What are you going to do tonight in the cold?” I asked. “Same I do other cold nights,” he said. He panhandled enough money for a bottle of whiskey. As the night fell, he would down it and sleep behind a dumpster. He would drink to the point that his blood turned to anti-freeze in order to survive in the cold. Can you imagine living like that, drinking yourself half to death just to stay alive?
What is our responsibility as Christians as well as Canadians to right the wrongs of the residential schools? We might be quick to say, “Well, I have never used a racial slur, or thought racist thoughts, or intentionally did harm to an indigenous person.” James might push us further: Ya, but what if that was you?
As I thought about this man, that same night, we had an above-average amount of guests, so the food ran out. One man came in late out of the cold, and you could tell he was hungry. A young man had lost his apartment because he unexpectedly lost his job. We scrounged up something for him, not much. He told me that he had lost his apartment and had nowhere to go. I told him where some of the shelters were, but also, I suspected they would be full by now. He figured he would try anyway. We prayed together, and he left. I remember riding home on the bus back to my home in Bradford. I wanted to go with him, to be honest, but there was a cut-off for the last evening bus from the downtown back to Bradford (which was an hour and a half bus ride away). I could barely sleep that night. I worried about him, and I felt terrible, going to bed in my warm home.
In the morning, I read reports that 35 people were found frozen to death throughout the city. It did not make the papers since the city does not really want to know about this kind of thing. When a homeless person is found dead in an alleyway, no one cares. No one wants to be reminded that the tax breaks they got from the politician they elected were made possible because they cut funding throughout the city to programs that people needed to survive. No one wants to consider that if people are freezing to death in our city, maybe in some way it is our responsibility. The poor are our responsibility, and sadly, we have forgotten them.
So What Do We Do Now?
James says, in verse 12, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
James hints that there is a way of obeying God, doing his will, following his way that is freeing, liberating, the law that brings liberty. Then he says that if we live without mercy, we will be judged accordingly. It is similar to what Jesus says about judging others: by your own standard, you will be judged. Or think of Jesus’ words that on the day of judgment, he will tell us, as you did to the least of these in this world, you did onto me. In other words, if you can live your life with a kind of comfort and apathy about those in need, God wants to prod us a bit, and said, what makes you think I won’t show you apathy then? The lord’s prayer says, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. God is trying to say something here: If you really believe in God’s grace, forgiveness, and mercy, you have to show it. If you don’t, really saying that you don’t actually understand it.
We might be tempted to think that God is doing this to strong-arm us into being obedient, but the truth is that this is fundamentally a better way to live: the law of liberty, a rule or way that is liberating. When we show grace to others, when we are always ready to forgive, when we make room in our lives for those in need, putting others ahead of ourselves, while it is difficult, potentially dangerous, is fundamentally a better way to live. It is a way of living in clear conscience. It is living in the way that best appreciates that this is how God treats us.
Dwelling with the poor at the gathering spot also gave me some of the best memories that year. I watched people that had very little always be willing to give something, help in some way, or say a kind word. I saw some of the worst of human depravity, but also some of the best of human decency.
James remarks something: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? I don’t think he has a naïve or too rosy view of the poor here. I remember meeting with a woman who had suffered from severe addiction her whole life long. I asked her, “What does your faith mean for you?” She said, “I know God loves me because he gave himself for me. I know I can’t get up in the morning without acknowledging his grace in my life. Without it, I can’t live.” I remember thinking, I am pretty sure I got out of bed and forgot to pray and got going on my daily grind of stuff. I was too busy that day to acknowledge my need for God when I got up. The thought occurred to me that I was the one, not her, that really needed to think harder about the nature of God’s kingdom. I had it in mind that I was there to help her, but I was the one blessed.
Christmas time was beautiful. Now my mother had died the previous year at Christmas time from cancer, so that season was something I was not looking forward to. I remember going into Christmas thinking the Grinch was really a misunderstood figure. However, having dinner – a feast actually that the kitchen manager, a frugal and stern but gracious Dutch lady named Marijke, made – was one of the best meals I had ever had. I tell you that lady could penny pitch and make the best meals with next to nothing. We ate, and we all got up and sang Christmas carols. Hearing a carol like “Joy to the World” sung by people that have nothing other than the simple thanks for a good meal and good company renewed my love of the season.
There is this wonderful permission to be yourself around people that have accepted they are imperfect. As I began to joke to people who couldn’t understand my work, I would say, “It is amazing how hanging out with mentally ill people each week keeps you sane.” I meant it as a joke, but it was true. “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
Loving God, God of the oppressed, the poor, the outcast, reminds us that our lives are fragile. That where we are is made possible by so many privileges. Convict us in the various ways we want to forget these facts and forget those around us.
Do not let us sit and wait for needy people to just show up in our church. Stir us to see the ways we can go out and meet them. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear the ways people cry for help, yet often without words.
Give us the wisdom to serve, to have big hearts, to endure the heartache of the tragedies we see in people’s lives. Allow these all to bring us closer to the mystery of what you endured for us at the cross in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Preached November 21, 2021, at Brookfield Baptist Church for their 159th anniversary service.
Let me read to you a text of hope for our troubled times. It is a vision of Ezekiel’s from Ezekiel chapter 37:1-14:
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (NIV)
God bless the reading of his word.
I remember my first day as a lead pastor. This was after several months of applying around, resume after resume, each church turning me down – they did not want to take on a doctoral student, they also wanted someone with more experience.
Life then was so uncertain back then. I was just beginning my dissertation for my doctorate at the University of Toronto. My contract as a coordinator of a drop-in center for those who faced homelessness and poverty in downtown Toronto had ended due to the funding cuts to social programs in Toronto. My wife and I just had our second child, Emerson, a few months prior. We had just bought a home and now were realizing we might have to sell it. My contract as an intern for church planting in another Baptist denomination had come to an unfortunate end: the denominational leaders found out that I was in favor of women in ministry, and for this Baptist denomination, such a belief was beyond the pale. I had a meeting with a denominational leader, a card-carrying fundamentalist, who gave me an ultimatum: he put on no uncertain terms that the belief that men lead (and are the only ones that can be pastors) and women submit – this conviction was for him and the denomination essential to the Gospel, and that meant for me that I had to either shut up or have my funding as a church planter cut. I decided I could not in good conscience continue. It was hard leaving the denomination that my grandfather was a founding pastor of. When you have to leave the church family you were raised in, it feels like you are leaving Christianity itself, since it is the only Christianity you know. When you are literally threatened and attacked by your church family, the one that raised you, attacked over the beliefs you feel are biblical, if you have ever had a similar interaction with some of your Christian friends, it can make you wonder, does the church have a future? If it does, is it a future with me in it?
So, in all the uncertainty, a Canadian Baptist church, the 120 year old First Baptist of Sudbury hired me. They wanted a young pastor. First Baptist Church of Sudbury was a little church four hours north of Toronto, a place I had only visited once when I was in high school in the winter, a place that gets down to minus 40 in the winter, and I wondered how any human being could live here. It was this church that voted to hire me.
All of that is to say, I remember walking into my office to see that the interim pastor had left a report on my desk. It was a church growth flow church, charting the birth of a church, the peak years of a church, and then qualities and stages that indicate decline, and finally twilight and death. There was a big red circle around the word death.
This was a church, as I found, that had experienced over a decade of turmoil to no fault of its own. Two pastors one after the other had really done a lot of damage to the church. One ran off with the wife of one of the deacons. The other was hired and did not tell the church he was going through a bitter divorce with his wife and then divided the church. I remember that summer the church attendance was less than a dozen people.
It was not a very encouraging first day as I reflected how we just moved my family 400 kilometers away to a small church, all of which were twice and sometimes three times my age. Does this church have a future? Does the church have a future?
This is a question I think many are asking especially in this time of the aftermath of the Pandemic. Financially the pandemic has rocked Canada: the Toronto Star has estimated that pandemic has costed Canadians 1.5 billion dollars of every day of the pandemic. For the United States, the total cost to date is estimated to be over 16 trillion dollars. People are worried whether there will be enough to go around.
Yet, it is the human cost that is most important. According to the most recent numbers on John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, there has been 256 million reported cases globally and there has been 5.1 million deaths attributed to the virus. Canada has seen 29 000 deaths. We call that being fortunate, but it is really so, so tragic. Many of these individuals have been seniors in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. But make no mistake: this virus is unpredictably deadly. I heard that a classmate of mine a few months ago, a woman my age with a child, got the virus, went to bed, and did not wake up.
For many, it has been the emotional toll that people have felt the most: feelings of isolation, burn out, anxiety. Churches have felt this as their pastors have been over worked to put services online and adapt to new health standards. All our churches have felt distant from members of the community but also feeling obstructed from doing ministry in the wider community.
As we look out at a post-pandemic world, as it moves to endemic stage, while we are still facing waves and new variants, it feels like we are surveying the wreckage. It feels like we are the survivors of a battle.
In my reading of Scripture, recently I went through the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet and a priest that proclaimed messages and visions from God about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel watched a foreign empire, Babylon, come and destroy his home. The Jewish armies were decimated by a cruel and brutal military superpower. The people then were brought into exile. Ezekiel went with them where he served as a priest and teacher to a small expatriate community, living in exile.
Such hopelessness and insecurity can make our own situation seem so insignificant, but then again, we too are feeling a sense of dislocation, insecurity, and uncertainty, and when we come to Scripture, the Spirit of God animates these ancient words to say something to us today, something we need to hear.
It is in this context that Ezekiel has a vision of the aftermath of a battlefield, filled with corpses, dry bones, and it is a vision that is symbolic as it explains, but it names the spiritual reality that God’s people were in: a state of feeling defeated.
Yet, the spirit of God is not. God says to Ezekiel: Can these bones live? And Ezekiel replies in the most human way he can: “I don’t know. I don’t know the future. But you God do know.”
And he is given this vision: he sees the dry bones being raised up, the breath of God, the Spirit of life that animated all humanity and all living things in creation, this breath now is causing death to be reversed, a new creation.
God says of these bones that they are the house of Israel. They are God’s people who have said, “Our strength is gone, our hope feels lost. We feel cut off and separated.”
And God says to them, “I will restore you. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you and renew you.” God is saying this to us today, I believe.
It can feel like the church in Canada has lost a battle or just barely is scrapping by. So many of us have sent the past year stressed and anxious, our bones feel dried up, our hope feels lost.
And yet, the Spirit of God has not been defeated. God is still God, the Lord Almighty, the God of all possibilities, the God whose plans are always good, the God whose promises will not be thwarted.
Our God’s will and plan and promise is to bring salvation, forgiveness, healing, life, love, and liberation to all people – these have not been stopped for they cannot be stopped: God’s kingdom is still coming so that earth will one day be as it is in heaven.
And we know this definitely because this vision here is a prefigure of what happens to Jesus, God’s son, the messiah. For when the forces of darkness, of death and despair came against Jesus, Jesus gave himself up as a ransom to liberate us from these things, dying on a cross, a god-forsaken death. God became a cursed corpse. By this we know God is with us in our darkness moments. And in that time of hopelessness, in the time that it seems like the plan of God was truly foiled, that Jesus’ claims to being the messiah were disproven, on the third day the tomb was found empty; Jesus is risen from the grave by the Spirit.
As we celebrate where we have come today as a church, we must remember that we stand on the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are his body as the church, and the body of Christ, while it was bruised, beaten, and crucified, the Spirit raised this body to new life.
This is our hope for a time that has seen such death. This is our hope in a time that has seen such sadness. We have the hope of Jesus.
The church is founded on this truth, and we cannot forget this. We live because Jesus is Lord.
The same Spirit that raised Jesus is the same Spirit that came on the first disciples to begin the church at Pentecost. It is the same Spirit that moved the first Baptists in Nova Scotia, prophets is like Henry Alline, to speak God’s word boldly, to live God’s gospel courageously, even in the face of all that has gone wrong in this world. It is the same Spirit that moved that is alive with us today.
As we remember God’s faithfulness to our churches in the past, and ask the question what does the future have in store? Our question sounds very similar to what God said to Ezekiel, and our answer must be the same:
O Lord God, you know. We trust you and your way. You know because you are sovereign. You know because you are good. You know because you have made promises you keep, plans that will come true.
These are words I know I needed to hear when I first started pastoring. Because the fact is many of us have convinced ourselves that we can control the future, that we can predict it and change it by our power and skill. I thought that pastoring. Looking at that depressing church growth document all those years ago in my office, I thought to myself: I can change that. I thought I could save the church.
I became obsessed over the next few years of starting programs and fundraisers and advertisements. Many of these did not have much effect (at best people from other larger churches came to these programs, used them like a free service and continued attending their own churches), and after two years of it, I just found myself burnt out and wanting to quit.
It was in that moment that I realized I don’t know what the future of this church will be. Only God knows. But what I do know is that I must be faithful to live what God is calling the church to be.
The church was located in the town of Garson. The church relocated out there in the 70’s hoping that this new suburb would be the next up and coming neighborhood. The reality was the city zoned it to be where the poor of the city were sent: supplemented income housing was built on all sides of the church. Many of the stores had graffiti on it. You would very often see police cruisers making stops.
One day a guy called and wanted a ride to church. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me, and as I got to know him, he faced a lot of mental health challenges. He had attended other churches that frankly saw him as a burden and ignored him. Other churches wanted to grow the church by attracting easier, and I should say, richer sheep.
This was the person God had given us, our family of faith, so we did our best, and I soon found he had a lot of friends. I put out a sign in his building that if anyone needed a ride to the foodbank on a Tuesday afternoon, I would drive them to the other end of town and have coffee with them after.
Many would ask me, “Are you just being nice to me to get me to come to your church?” And I would say emphatically: “While I strongly believe that a community of faith and weekly worship is important to our spirituality, I will always be there to help you, even if you never set foot in our church.”
I realized in those experiences that if the church is to have a future, it will be by taking up our crosses in a new way. The church must die to self: it must lay to rest its obsession with money that causes it to see the poor as worthless; it must lay to rest its expectations of what a successful Christian life is, which causes so many to feel they are not worthy to be in the family of God: the mentally ill, those who face addictions, those whose love lives are messy and complicated, those who are in the sexual minority. The church must take up its cross in a new way, embracing the discomfort the Spirit is calling us into.
It was in those moments that I know I saw the church, what it can truly me, a place where th outcasts was welcomed, a family of misfits. Let’s face it: we all are seeing very pointed reminders of the failures of the church today: racism and residential schools, stories of bigotry and abuse, or just the stories of apathy and irrelevance where churches just don’t actually care about doing what is right or sharing God’s love.
One elderly lady in my church said to me, “Pastor, I don’t know what to do with some of these people.” And I said to her, “I get it, I don’t know how to handle some of these issues either, but at the end of the day, a lot of these individuals are people without parents. I know you know how to be that.” So, the ladies of our church started cooking meals and putting them in Tupperware containers to give out. We organized community meals for people in the common area of the apartment building. It was the old folks of the congregation that said, “We know we need to be open minded, because we know what happened when we weren’t.”
It was pastoring this little church that renewed my confidence in the church: the church that is not a building, but a community of disciples, imperfect but willing to bare one another’s burdens, living like a family, being family to those that have no family.
It is amazing what can happen when the church is ready to take up its cross.
And it must be said, if we want to see the reality of resurrection, the Spirit moving and breaking in and causing new life, it will only happen, when a church is ready take up the cross, to sacrifice all that it is and even can be.
I emphasize here “can be” because so often we go out on mission for the purpose of the “future of the church,” but that really means we just want to keep what is ours. And when we do that, we will ignore those who don’t matter to our budget, our building maintenance, our membership lists. We will be vulnerable to politicians that promise power to the church. We will make the church and its mission about us.
While the future offers no guarantees – I know I constantly worried: “Will we have enough money to pay the bills? Will we have to amalgamate with another church?” – the promise of God in this passage is that God will do wonderful things, surprising things, in the valleys of dry bones.
I had a bunch of stories I wanted to tell, but here is just one: In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low-income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews. He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank. I would take them as per my Tuesday noontime routine. I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered to, could nevertheless hear an uplifting Scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital. After he got out I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him. I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed upward. In that dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer, I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist anymore.”
God surprised me that day. God surprises us most often when we are ready to be the Gospel for the broken and when we are willing to be broken for the Gospel.
It is a beautiful irony that church growth did not happen when I obsessed about growing the church. The church started growing when we resolved to be there for those in need in our communities even if it could cost us “the church” as we know it.
The church will only find itself when it is ready to die to self. It will only rise when it is willing to dwell in the valleys of dry bones.
As we celebrate today, Brookfield Baptist Church, where we have come from, where we are now, where we hope to go. Remember we are the body of Christ: We live in this world crucified and only in and through this, we can see moments of resurrection.
God of hope and new life, we praise you that you are faithful. You have been faithful through the years in this church, and so we trust you with our present and future.
Lord, we do not know what the future holds. And we have seen so much discouragement these days.
Lord, teach us in new ways to trust your Spirit. Inspire us in new ways to take up your cross.
Empty us into this world, so that we can be with those who need to hear about you.
Permit us to see moments of resurrection, moments of your kingdom come.
We pray longing for the salvation of all people, the restoration of all things.
These things we pray in your name. Amen.
When I got the email wondering if I would be up for speaking at Port Williams for thanksgiving, and I was told that Pastor Don would be away, it caused me to reminisce. This fall marks my fourth year here in Nova Scotia, moving from Sudbury, Ontario. It has been an eventful four years to say the least. Along the way, I am thankful for the friendship Don and Anita have extended to me. They were one of the first who called me up four years ago and said, “Hey you’re new to the area and so are we, come on over for dinner.” So, I am thankful for that gift of friendship.
Can I just say that it has been interesting to see Pastor Don climatize to being Canadian in real time? The culture shock has been a pleasant surprise, or at least that is what it seems like from his Facebook page. Now, I came from living in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, then pastoring in Sudbury where it was winter for a solid six months out of the year, but I think Don and I have both have had this feeling like Nova Scotia has been this refuge that we have both grown to love. Autumn in the valley is simply beautiful. Last weekend, my wife and our five boys – yes we have five boys (we had three and my wife really wanted to try for a girl and then we ended up having twin boys – three are with me today as my wife was also asked to play at Bethany Memorial to relieve their pianist) – but anyway last weekend we went hiking. We went to Noggins to picked apples and got terribly lost in their corn maze. I bought a caramel apple pie from there for later today.
We are so blessed. These are the words that ring in my mind this weekend, and I want to reflect more on what they mean today. I want to reflect on a text that I read this week with my son, Rowan, who we have been trying to read the Bible together every night. The passage, James 1:1-18, is about acknowledging God’s giving. I will read from the beginning of the book in chapter 1 for context, but I want to focus on the last verses.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (NRSV)
James, who is very likely the brother of Jesus himself, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, one of pillar-leaders of the early church along with Peter and John and Paul, writes a letter to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world to give them important advice about how to live wisely in light of the challenging times they face.
We are facing challenging times today, aren’t we (not that ours is the same)? It looks like they faced issues of division in the church, poverty and persecution, and to all of these, James recommends living out the character of Christ.
He begins this letter with advice on confronting the trials they face, but then he quickly addresses the rich and the poor. And then he makes a point of warning his congregations: “Don’t be deceived,” He says. Well…what are they deceived about? He says, “Make no mistake. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, whose character does not change. But,” he says, “he has chosen us according to his purposes as first fruits.” If you read the passage quickly, it gives an impression like James is constantly segueing between several subjects, but they are actually all very connected.
People are facing trials where they are tempted to go another way than Jesus’ way. It sounds like staying on the right path will cost them, at least some of them, deeply, financially. Many are facing tough times. Yet others seem untouched by all this misfortune. And they are wondering, where is God, how is God acting in all this?
It kind of sounds like there are people in his congregations who believe God made them fall to temptation or that God brought calamity on them, meanwhile there are those who have made it through pretty good, and they are tempted to think God has done good to them more than others. Perhaps God makes some people rich, because he loves them more, and others poor, because he does not love them quite as much.
For five years I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. This is a church about four hours north of Toronto. Sudbury was a cold place with very warm people. The church itself back in the late 70’s moved from its old building in the downtown to the area of Garson, which was a sub-urb of the city about ten minutes from the city centre.
The church moved out there thinking this would become the next up and coming affluent neighbourhood in the city. The reality was the opposite. The city built supplemented income housing there in an effort to move the problems of crime and poverty out of the downtown.
As I got to know my neighbourhood, I realized this was an area that struggled. A few moments really reiterated this to me. I remember one summer taking my kids to a playground behind our house. This playground overlooked on several sides a couple of different sub-divisions of the neighbourhood. There was ours, which was a group of semi-detached homes, then down the street were larger ones, a sub-division of newly built two story detached homes, but on the other side there were row homes and small apartment buildings, supplemented income housing and homes like that. My kids began playing with some of the other kids, and I joined in, playing tag. The one boy introduced himself. My son introduced himself pointed to our house. “We live just over there.” The boy turned and said, “Oh, you live there. My mom says that is where all the rich people live.”
I was stunned. My house was smaller than the house I was raised in. I always thought of our home as modest at best. But of course, that was my perspective, being raised in a middle-class family.
A part of me wanted to insist, “What? I am not rich! I work as a pastor! Pastors are not rich!” (Or if they are, let me just say, I have some questions).
I remember walking back home lost in thought. I felt conflicted. You see, I was raised in a fairly strict Dutch Baptist family. My dad was the son of a card-carrying fundamentalist Baptist pastor that came over from Holland. And there was a particular set of values instilled in me, many of them good, but they went like this:
Dutch people believe in hard work and that the life you live reflects that hard work.
A Dutch man is to provide for his family for this is the measure of being a man.
If you were poor, it was because you were lazy or not frugal with your money, pure and simple, and you needed to just man up and work.
To be a Christian is to be honest, have integrity, and to fulfill your obligations at work, church, and home.
If you do these things, these are the kind of things that God blesses.
God’s blessing means among other things, material provision, our daily bread and probably a good career with a pension.
God is sovereign, so God chooses what he wants to happen, and nothing happens that God did not choose. Somehow this strong sense of social mobility was married to this notion of God’s sovereignty, even though they actually don’t really go together that well.
These values have served me incredibly well, and I know as a father to five boys, I will teach them to be men one day that are honest and hardworking and of course to trust God. But when we stroll into the territory of God’s blessing, I never understood passages in the Bible like the one James just lists: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.“
Well, that seems mean. What does James have against rich people? It is not their fault! That does not seem particularly wise given what the Proverbs say about hard work and everything else. Doesn’t God want us to plan and be frugal and save our money and work hard and through all of that enjoy the fruits of our labor? Those passages are in the Bible too, and I must say, I like those passages much more than this passage here.
But the reason for why James says what he says was illustrated to me one thanksgiving. As our church started doing outreach in the community. When I started pastoring, our church was that summer a dozen people, all easily twice my age. In some cases, three times my age. I worried about the future of the church, but I figured I can’t make this church grow, and I can’t attach young families to our church where there are churches with slick programs and staff in the area. So, I resolved to minister to those least fortunate in the community. We volunteered at food banks. I would drive people to the food bank and then take them out for coffee. I would deliver food to shut ins and we organized a community meal at one of these single-room apartment buildings. That meant over time a hand full of people started attending the church.
One person in particular was a man quite troubled. He faced a lot of mental health issues. He had no family. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me. I remember in church that thanksgiving Sunday remarking that I felt very blessed: a good home, good job, good family, health…I said I feel so blessed. Well, this person came up to me after the service. He, a young believer, although he was older than me, often asked those curious questions after the service. So, he came up to me, “Pastor, how do I become blessed like you? I wish God would bless me like that.”
As we talked, he shared with me that deep down, he worried maybe God did not love him all that much at all. Or at least not as much as God did for others. After all, God heals those he loves, and he has struggled with a severe mental illness his whole life. God provides for those he loves, and he could never find work, often he could barely leave his apartment due to his illness, and he struggled on disability payments that barely covered his rent let alone food for the month.
God blesses those he loves, and that implied for him, either he has done something wrong his whole life, his whole faith, or God just didn’t choose to love him as much as others.
My heart sank with those questions. I remember having a very pensive and reflective thanksgiving that year. My wife wondered why I was so quiet, lost in thought. I am always lost in thought by the way (that is an occupational hazard of being a professor), but this time more than usual.
I thought to myself, for instance, I was born able bodied. I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t control that. I was born able minded. I didn’t have to be. I was born into a loving household. I didn’t have to be. I was able to meet a person who has been an exacellent life-partner, my wife, where I know some people, some good people, that the person they married just was not the person they thought they were. We were able to have children, lots of kids (some days I am tempted to think too many kids). They are healthy boys.
It gave me pause, a pause that lasted through the day, of just how many opportunities I had received, that those, who were just as able, smart, and good, in many cases better, did not get. And yes, while there were good choices and hard work along the way, I felt overwhelmed by the fact that so much of the goodness of my life was not because of me, what I could choose and control.
That conversation fundamentally changed how I think about prayer, blessing, what it means to have good things in my life, and what my responsibility to others is.
This is what James is getting at: he says that all good things come from God. If you ever think God wills bad things, or shows favouritism, loving some more than others, that goes against the God who has an unchanging character of love, perfectly for every human being: every human being, without exception.
But we forget this. We have to find ways to adjust, shall we say, this truth in order justify why our lives are materially better than others, why we don’t have to feel bad about that fact, or more importantly, feel obliged to do something for those that have less than us, how we don’t have to do something as churches, as a society, about poverty, about mental health, or about systemic injustices.
That is when days like today, thanksgiving, we engage in that religious talk about being blessed or being thankful, and yet, if we ignore our responsibility to those less fortunate, that God loves all people with the same perfect longing to provide and lift all people into a place of flourishing, if we forget that, I am going to suggest to you we are not truly engaging in thanksgiving.
When we talk this way, thanksgiving ends up meaning something more like self-congratulations: I am thankful I worked hard; I am thankful I got good grades; I am thankful I made good career choices; I am thankful I did not marry someone who does not pull their weight; I am thankful I am such a good parent; I am thankful I have done so well.
This is a part of a mentality in our culture, a cultural myth of sorts that has a long history and endorsement in the church: the myth of the self-made person. You see our culture has this very strong insistence on the worth and power of the individual. This in many ways is a good thing. We believe people have inherent dignity and worth, individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, but these insistences can have a down-side when made into an extreme: We can turn these values into the notion that all the good things in our lives are our doing. It is not because of privileges we were born into, opportunities we did not choose, all the various ways the starting line in the race of life was a bit further up for us than other people. This breeds a culture of entitlement where those that have less are effectively blamed for their misfortune.
Or we do something even worse: we think to ourselves that God wills this inequity to be the way things ought to be. We end up saying something, implicitly, truly terrible: we say I am thankful for the fact that God loves me a whole lot more than most of the people on this planet. I am thankful God wanted me to be privileged.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The deep contours of Scripture show that God chooses no one for ultimate ruin nor does God will evil or tragedy to anyone.
But what God does do is chooses, as James says, those who he will use to be the first fruits of an entire harvest of the goodness done to all people.
This is a pattern that begins in Father Abraham, who was blessed in order, the Book of Genesis says, to be a blessing, so that all the families of the world can be blessed through him.
It goes on to the Book of Exodus where God says he chose the Israelite slaves not because they were so much better or stronger or promising than any other nation, but because God favours the weak and the oppressed. God chooses the least of these in the world. God chooses to liberate them from bondage, not because he loves them and only them, but that through them, God says, they will be a kingdom of priests, firstborn of the family, as if all nations are God’s congregation, all our God’s family, but Israel is God’s paradigm and instrument of doing good to the rest inviting them in.
This continues on to the time of the prophets where, when God’s people grow haughty and disaster comes on them, Isaiah says God will uses a righteous remnant who will live in these difficult times self-sacrificially for the sake of the rest.
This all culminates in Jesus Christ, God himself who came in human form and chose himself to bear rejection itself at the cross, so that if anyone every questions, “Has God chosen me a sinner? Does God love me? Does God want what’s best for me?” All they must do is look at the cross and see the God that was willing to give of his very self for the sake of others, even those who meant him harm.
This is all so, so, so important to keep in mind in this time of a pandemic. We have not seen the disaster living here in Nova Scotia that many have elsewhere. We live in the safety of the Annapolis valley. While this past year was tough for me, teaching online and being stuck at home with my kids, I think my life just not been as bad as those who have faced unemployment, the loss of their business and livelihood, the impact of anxiety or depression.
I have seen how this terrible virus can hit. Some are not affected badly, others fatally. A college classmate of mine back in Ontario got covid, a person my age, went to bed with a cough and did not wake up. A person I know in Toronto got covid and he will now never breath again without a respirator.
Where does all this leave us: Do we pat ourselves on the back for having a government that responded well to the crisis when so many people did not choose where they live nor did they vote for the governments that are not acting responsible? Do we say God has protected us and God has blessed us, when the implication of that might sound like God has refused to protect others? We can very easily fall back into a thanksgiving that is actually self-congratulations and self-thanking. It is thanks-getting not thanks-giving.
Let me tell you the story of an inspiring person that illustrates the attitude we must have. His name is Charles Mully, born in 1949. He is a Kenyan business owner and philanthropist. At age 6, his parents abandoned him on the street. He spent years begging and getting by living on the street. He was able to be enrolled in school, and being exceptionally intelligent, succeeded. At age 16, he walked into a church and heard the Gospel, and he accepted the message of salvation. He did not have any money to go into higher education so, he packed up his things and walked 70 kilometers to Nairobi to find work. He did odd jobs until he eventually worked as a farm assistant and then for a construction company. He met his wife and they had eight kids together. During all this he saved enough money to buy his own truck and began his own trucking company. Within a short amount of time, he procured several other companies. Very quickly he became a multi-millionaire.
One day he was driving by in his car, and he saw a street boy, homeless, and he realized that there was no achievement he had that made God love him any more than those kids on the street. In fact, he concluded that the reason why God brought him from homelessness into such wealth was not for him to keep it but to give it away. And that is what he did. In 1989, he sold all his businesses and properties, opening up his homes to serve as shelters for the many street kids of Kenya. Since 1989, he and his family have helped 23 000 kids out of homelessness.
I tell you this story because If ever there was a self-made person, if ever there was a person that you could say, “That man earned every cent he owns,” if ever there was a person who might be tempted to think God has favoured me from rags to riches, it would be Charles Mully. And yet for him, his faith compelled him to believe that all the good things of his life were from a God that loves all people with that same perfect love. And with the goodness he has been given, with true thanksgiving, he realized he was to be the first fruits of a plan of God to help others with what he has been given.
What does that mean for us, for you and me, Port William Baptist Church? I hope you don’t take anything I have said to be some kind of kill joy on your festivities this weekend. God surely does want us to cherish the good things in our lives. Give thanks for your families with your families, enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie, play with kids and grandkids in the back yard. These are gifts from God that I know I don’t deserve.
But let us not stop there. It can’t stop there. For it to be true thanksgiving, it must be both giving thanks to God, but also giving thankfully to others.
If we acknowledge that all the goodness we have in our lives comes from God above, that God wills tragedy and misfortune to no one, what will we do to make sure we bring this goodness to others, those that don’t family, don’t have work, or don’t have health? How will we be fathers and mothers to the fatherless, the motherless, empowers to the oppressed, comforters to those in despair? How will we be first fruits in the way the Spirit of God might be call us of a harvest of blessing that is intended for all people?
Sermon preached on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Billtown Baptist Church, NS.
On Thursday, a new national holiday will be observed: the Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day to remember indigenous peoples and the tragic events that happened to indigenous children in the residential schools.
In June of this year, while we were all trying to get by from the pandemic, we learned of an atrocity that, for many of us, made our problems seem so small. The unmarked graves containing 215 remains of indigenous children were found in Kamloops, BC. Others have been discovered.
While this shocked many of us, indigenous communities have been fighting for awareness of what took place in these schools for decades. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 3 200 remains. They listed the names on a long red banner, and it was revealed in October of last year. Here is a picture of it, and as you can see, it goes around the room and out. It is so large. That’s how many. If you saw this as I did, I remember falling back in my chair, overwhelmed with the magnitude of this massacre.
These schools operated for over 150 years, the final ones being shut down in the 1990s. That means it is estimated that about 150 000 indigenous children went through these schools. The survivors face terrible mental health difficulties from these experiences. They estimate that the death toll to be somewhere around 5 000 children. In other words, there are many more graves yet to be discovered.
There were 137 of these schools throughout Canada run by churches. Most were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United, but there were Baptist ones as well.
How do we wrap our heads around the fact that our nation, our churches, participated in something so cruel? How do we process the fact that these schools were operating in plain sight for over a century? It was not a conspiracy of a few individuals. There were reports, visits by other clergy, politicians, and townspeople. People knew. It was an act of systemic racism and genocide because it took many people, many laws and administrators, a whole culture of prejudice to do it. What words can we muster to talk about something so unspeakable?
I am going to suggest to you that we need to talk about God’s wrath. We cannot help but think about God’s anger, for if we don’t, the possibility that God is okay with these things, people doing these things to others, the alternative is worse: it makes God look uncaring and apathetic.
Many of us, however, have a toxic understanding of God’s wrath inherited from our fundamentalist upbringings. I am going to suggest to you that if we think rightly about the figures of hell and the fact God’s wrath actually flows from God’s love, we have a way of grasping this formidable failure of Christian morality. And yet, there is hope; there is hope for redemption and reconciliation.
In order to do that, I am going to read a text of bitter medicine. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 7:1-11, 17-20, 30-34 (abridged for time):
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord…
17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. 19 Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt? 20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched…
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31 And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
What I have read to you is one of the most important judgment passages in the whole Bible. It is Jeremiah’s judgment sermon on Jerusalem that he delivers in the temple.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet” because he was called by God to give the people the worst news in the whole Old Testament: Because of the sins of the people, Jerusalem will fall.
What could have led them to that point?
Jeremiah, in this temple sermon, says why. The people have become so lax in their walk with God that they turned to idols: the gods Baal, Molech, and Ishtar, whose title was the queen of heaven and was celebrated with ceremonial cakes that Jeremiah mentions.
Idolatry in the ancient world was really an attempt to barter with the gods, to get power and prosperity out of them, forgetting God is the only true God.
The way of God is a sharp rebuke of this: God is already on our side; we now just need to follow his way if we want good things in our lives because the right way is the best way. Goodness begets goodness, and God’s justice is good for everyone. We can’t manipulate God out of doing the right thing. We can’t butter him up with long prayers or church services. God simply says, repent and do good.
Justice is always hard work, especially compared to idols that offer a seductive bargain: if you give this to Baal or Molech, then you will be blessed without having to be a blessing to others. It sounds so much easier.
But the allure of idolatry is fatal: if you are trying to convince false gods of our delusions to do good to you, what is enough? Do you sacrifice more crops? Do you sacrifice more animals, even the ones you need to make it through till next harvest? Do you slash your body and bleed in the act of devotion like the prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah? Or do you go even further and sacrifice the very thing, the very person you place hope for the future in, your own child, whom you love and care for?
This is what the people did. The idolatrous religions of Canaan demanded you sacrifice your child in the flames. With the growing worry of a new superpower in the east, the Babylonians, the Jews, after they prayed in the temple, took their children secretly outside the city to the valley. It is here, in the valley of Topheth, the valley of Hinnom, that the people did something unthinkable, a crime so terrible, God calls it an abomination. And he says that if the people tolerate the sacrifice of children in the flames, Jerusalem will have an ironically similar fate. Jerusalem will burn.
The people responded mocking Jeremiah: “We are God’s people. Jerusalem is where the temple is. That will never happen. God is on our side. We’re safe.”
The king, Zedekiah, ignores Jeremiah, and in his arrogance, breaks his alliance with Babylon, siding with Egypt, thinking God would protect him. After Jeremiah warns the king not to do this, God’s judgment was simply God saying, “Alright, have it your way.” The same callous hearts that sacrificed children was the same that sealed Jerusalem’s fate. Sin is its own punishment.
The brutal armies of Babylon came and laid siege. As the defences broke, the city was burned, and the people were pulled out of their homes, tortured, and killed. The corpses were set ablaze and left smouldering in the valley.
Jeremiah’s prophecy stated that there would be so much carrion and bitumen produced by the fire that he calls it a permanent, unquenchable fire.
In fact, writers like Philo and Josephus 600 years later speak about how the effects of the flames were still visible in the valley. The scorched soil, Philo says, permanently had sulphur in it, a lasting reminder of the inescapable inferno.
1. Places Reveal
In indigenous spirituality, their culture is not a written culture but an oral culture. For them, places are revelatory, for the land holds memory; the land tells a story, stories that are told and retold down through the generations. In that regard, their culture is closer to ancient Israel than ours, and perhaps we can understand our Bible better if we are willing to learn from them that places reveal things.
When my family and I were on vacation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we stayed at cottages owned by an indigenous family in the unceded village of Wikwemikong. Each day we would explore a different part of the island. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking trails, waterfalls, as well as villages with little cafés and shops. One day we drove into Wikwemikong. We were looking for a hiking trail, and as we drove just outside the village, there stood these eerie ruins.
This was the site of one of the residential schools. This was the old building of the Wikwemikong Residential school that operated from 1840 to 1963.
I read an account of these schools by a woman named Ida Embry. She tells of how every fall she would be forced to go to this school, her and her sister. The children were beaten severely with a thick leather strap for things such as simple as trying to talk to another in their native language. The children were referred to by number, not name. The curriculum openly taught them to despise their parents in an attempt to rid them of indigenous thinking.
Why did these schools exist? The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, was one of the first initiators of the schools and said the schools needed to cut off contact between the child and their family in order to get rid of the “savage” in them. He believed this was his Christian duty to Christianize the world. These actions are a part of a long history of Christian imperialism and colonialism, where Christians felt it was their responsibility to take indigenous land from them and impose a Christian order onto their society no matter the cost. Put another way: it did not matter the sacrifice.
The people of Jeremiah’s time sacrificed children in the flames of the valley of Topheth to idols in order to gain divine favour. I am going to suggest to you that Canadian society has engaged in its own child sacrifice. Only the children were not Canadian children, nor was the land ours to do it on.
But they were sacrificed to idols. These were sacrifices to the idols of power, empire and colonization, cultural superiority and racism, idols that led Christians to believe their faith automatically made them the good no matter what they did, and that the mission of the Gospel could be accomplished by doing very things Jesus was categorically against.
Part of me wondered, why didn’t they level this evil place to the ground? But, this place stood as a reminder. Places reveal if we listen.
I have known a few survivors of these schools. I got to know them in Toronto, where I was the coordinator of a soup kitchen, as well as in Sudbury, where I pastored for five years.
The stories these children of God have told me have kept me up at night. The crimes of these schools are so terrible we don’t even want to think about them. They are so jarring; they are an existential threat to who we think we are as Christians and Canadians, what we believe about ourselves, and our responsibility to each other.
Are Christians always the good guys of history? No, not always. Is it possible that Christians can use the Bible and their beliefs to motivate horrific acts of hate? Yes, we have.
I am going to suggest to you, however, that if we don’t dwell in these painful places, repent, and learn what is necessary to rectify these injustices, we will never display a faithful witness in Canada fully. But more than that, we will never learn to love in a way God wants us to, to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the victims of our foolish beliefs. The God of Scripture loves the forgotten of this world and us also too much to let us get away with this.
We forgot about those unmarked graves. God did not. Those schools, those graves, are our Topheth. Putting it that way is certainly startling, but we must understand something else:
2. God’s Anger Intends to Heal
I apologize if you came this morning with the expectation of a cheerful sermon, but let’s think about these things more today because I have realized that when we understand God’s anger correctly, God is trying to heal us, not hurt us.
What is Topheth? It has many names in the Bible: the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Here it is called Topheth. It is a valley that stretches outside the city down to the Dead Sea, which also had a nickname that is a part of this land of judgment: the Lake of Fire. Perhaps you recognize that one from the Book of Revelation.
As I said, the effects of these moments of judgments on Jerusalem linger to this day, and that is why the fire was called the “unquenchable flame” or the “eternal fire.” When we understand the geographic figure of Topheth, of the valley of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, we also understand what God is doing a bit better with what Christians have called hell.
The word, “hell,” is a European term that does not do a very good job at translating nearly a dozen places of judgment in the Bible. The doctrine of hell has been really one of the most misunderstood and abused ideas in the church. I will suggest to you it is because we have forgotten that it comes out of this history of the land.
I remember as a boy coming home from church being shaken by a sermon a pastor preached that if you don’t stay on the straight and narrow path, I will go to hell for eternity. I remember crying that night, terrified that I just would not be good enough, terrified of the thought friends and family or anyone could be trapped there.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. Perhaps you are like many modern Christians that just choose to ignore hell. Some of us are content to say, God is love, and therefore God never gets angry, and when we come to a passage of the Bible that says differently, we more or less just skip it and go on our merry way.
Many of us are content to think of hell as a place under the ground ruled by cartoonish devils dressed in red and with horns and pitchforks. It looks a lot more like European mythology than Hebrew memory. Many of us modern people are content to think of this version of hell in the same way we think of unicorns or leprechauns.
I did this for a time, but I just could not get around how Jesus uses this language. Jesus uses this figure of Topheth and Gehenna to warn people.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that when we refuse to reconcile with others, we are in danger of going into Gehenna.
Jesus also says that when we refuse to deal with sin, it would be better to cut off our arms or eyes that cause us to stumble than have our whole bodies go into the unquenchable fire (that’s language from Jeremiah’s Topheth).
The fact that these scriptures exist and are even statements of Jesus breaks through our assumptions about what love is and what judgment means. Love is not about turning a blind eye to how we harm others, but neither is judgment about God giving up hope on us.
I never understood why Jesus, who has died for the sins of the whole world, who is perfect and has self-sacrificial love towards sinners, who reflects the heart of God, who Paul tells us, “desires all people to be saved” – I could never understand why Jesus gives these warnings. Not sweet, gentle, never hurt a fly, Jesus?
Then I became a father. As you already know, Meagan and I have five very busy boys. Being a dad is really the greatest privilege and responsibility one can really have. It is your job to do what is best for them and try to stir them towards the best future. But we all know we can’t control our kids, and sometimes our kids make terrible decisions. Sometimes this fact is exasperating, and it makes us, parents, angry. Angry because we love them so much. I can tell you the things that make me the angriest as a parent is when my kids hurt each other and don’t care. It is in those moments, as parents, we plead for our kids to stop. We word our warnings in the strongest possible terms in some hope our kids will take the consequences of their actions seriously.
One time my one son was about to hit their brother, and I said, “You do that, and you are dead meat.”
Another time they were really rude to one another, and I said, “You keep acting like this, and I am just going to take away TV forever.”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child? These are called hyperboles. A hyperbole is a statement purposely worded so strong it will grab the other person’s attention. Jesus uses hyperboles all the time. God’s wrath is his outcry so loud and so strong that God hopes it will break through our stubbornness and apathy.
Let me suggest to you that the images of hell work something like this. What seems to be happening here is that these memories from Jeremiah’s day, of fire, permeant, and unavoidable destruction, become pictures of the end, and God uses these to warn the people about the course they are on.
He does this, sadly, because we so often use heaven and salvation as a big cop-out. We tell ourselves that God loves us so much he will fix all that when we get to heaven. I don’t have to do what is right; God forgives me; I’m good. When that happens, God, like in the Book of Revelations, holds up this moment of the valley of Topheth (which in that book is called the lake of fire) and says, one way or another, you will have to deal with this. I love you too much to just let you avoid it. If you don’t deal with this evil, this sickness in our soul, what makes you think you can participate in the fullness of eternal life I have for you?
3. But Hope is Real
God’s judgment is often those moments God steps back and allows us to feel and see the consequences of our decisions. When we fixate on these moments, however, we are tempted to believe God gives up hope on us, that God has chosen some to be saved and others not, or that God does not actually love all people and want to save them. But the prophet Jeremiah says this in his book, Lamentations, chapter 3:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness…
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
Notice that Jeremiah warns the people with the figures of unquenchable fire but also comforts them, saying God’s love never fails, and ultimately God rejects no one. No one is cast off by the Lord forever. It even says that when he does bring punishment, he does so reluctantly, unwillingly. The prophet Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in punishment. The prophet Isaiah actually depicts God as weeping as he judges the people, feeling their pain. That sounds a lot more like a loving father trying with everything he’s got to turn his children from hurting themselves and each other towards something better.
The images of Topheth, Gehenna, and the Lake of Fire are God mirroring our brutality back at us. But make no mistake, God is not brutal or pleased with torture, nor does he give up hope in us or ever stop loving us. Isaiah depicts God’s judgment fire like it is the fire that purifies polluted ore into precious metal. Malachi imagines the fire judgment of God burning the sickness of sin away like a strong soap cleansing infection.
We often fixate on these dire warnings, but these warnings must always be coupled with the promises of restoration: We can’t understand redemption without both.
Jesus uses these punishment images of Gehenna, but we must never forget that Jesus went on then and accepted Gehenna’s punishment on our behalf.
With these warnings, how do we know there is hope for us with these atrocities in Canada’s past? We can have confidence because God in Jesus Christ was the child of God sacrificed for our sin. He was deemed expendable by the religious authorities, who wanted to keep their power. He was arrested, taken, beaten, and brought outside the city, to a place in the valley of Topheth, a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death.
It is there that God counted the murder of his son as a sacrifice for the sins of those murdering him. He died praying for forgiveness for the very people who killed him.
If we have any doubt that God loves sinners, even when we have done the very worst of things, we can look at Jesus and know, he has gladly taken the hells we have made, the ones we are trapped in, and he chooses to bear them on the cross.
But that does not mean we get off the hook for the wrongs done in our world, in our history, and in our society. It does something different. It says there is hope that we can overcome them. The God of second chances forgives us and is now giving us opportunities to make it right, to learn and to repent, to heal and to restore: others and ourselves.
If there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by resurrection light, there is no wrong of the past that cannot be amended with God’s forgiving, reconciling future. But God gives us a choice: confront the hells we have made, unmake them with God’s gracious help, or the hells we have made for others will become our own.
But there is always hope because our God is a God of hope, a God that was pierced with the nails of hopelessness itself on the cross so that all the graves that Death and Sin have scarred God’s earth with might one day be emptied into Jesus’ eternal life.
Jeremiah reflects on the valley of Topheth later in his book, in the light of God’s promises to one day save his people, give them a new covenant, and place the law of love in their hearts, renewing them, and he says this in Jeremiah 31: 38-40:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord… The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes… shall be holy to the Lord.”
One day, these places of brutality and judgment will be healed and holy. The places of our greatest failures can be sites of forgiveness.
Let me suggest to you that if these graves of the residential schools are Canada’s Topheth, the hells we have made, it is a place of warning if we forget what happened there. But it will also be a place of hope if we remember the stories these places tell. It will be where we must look for how to repent fully, authentically, where God is sending us to carry out the work of reconciliation, where we as the church in Canada will find a new sense of Christ’s hope, a hope he has for us all.
If we treat these graves of these precious children as holy, letting their family’s laments be our laments, their battles for justice be our battles too, letting go of the idols of power and self-preservation, the arrogance that the face of Christ can only be found in faces that look like ours, these mentalities that centuries of Christians have held on to before us, to our own determent and destruction, if we do this – if we do this, God promises we will see glimpses of nothing short of heaven on earth, holy ground, the inbreaking of what Peter called the hope of the restoration of all things.
So, Phase Five of the reopening plan in Nova Scotia has been delayed until October. I don’t know about you, but when I read that, while I think it is the right decision, I just groaned with that sound a drain makes when I try to pour soup down it: ugh. When will this be over?
Believe it or not, the people in Zachariah’s day were asking a similar question: When will the end come?
Zechariah is a prophet that writes at the time of the return from exile (this is 520 years before Jesus, in case you are wondering), but we need a bit more background to understand what is being said in our passage today before I read it. You see, the nation of Israel after King David and his son, King Solomon, split into two halves: The Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, and this was due to the idolatry of King Solomon and the foolishness of his son, Rehoboam. While the Southern kingdom continued on for about two hundred more years, it was defeated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was burned and levelled, and its people were carried off into exile in Babylon.
This destruction was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah also prophesied that God would restore Israel after the exile. He says,
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
How many of us have had that Scripture read lately? We like that part of Jeremiah, don’t we?
After 70 years, God would fulfill his promises for Israel. These promises include God bringing about the kingdom of God. If you are already doing the math and thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, Jesus came 520 years later,” hold that thought.
So, when the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and the Persian kings ordered the return of the Jewish exiles back to their home, the Jews got back, and they started rebuilding, hoping for the imminent coming of God’s kingdom. They did not want the past to repeat itself, so they did the good religious thing, and they started fasting regularly. But beneath the piety, they had not actually changed.
God sends Zachariah, and Zachariah tells the people he has had visions in dreams. Chapters 1-6 record them, eight in total, each one perplexing and fantastic in its symbolism, and the first four and last four seem to mirror each other.
Zachariah dreams of four powerful angelic horsemen returning to Jerusalem, but then in his eighth dream, they are going out on patrol on standby. What is happening there?
He dreams of the horns of the oppressive nations being dismantled. But then he dreams of a woman being carried off in a led basket by angels to Babylon, where a permanent dwelling awaits her.
He dreams of measuring a new Jerusalem, where God dwells and protects his people. But then he dreams of a flying scroll going out into the land and finding anyone who has dealt with another falsely and cursing them.
He dreams of the high priest of his day, a man named Joshua, being accused in heaven by the Adversary, and God coming to his defense, taking his filthy, soiled clothes, and giving him a beautiful new priestly robe to serve the people.
Then he dreams of a golden lamp stand with a bowl with seven lamps standing beside olive trees. This, an angel explains, is the governor Zerubbabel. This is what he can be for his people if he trusts not his own strength but trusts in the Spirit.
Reading these, one cannot help but ask: When is this going to happen? Did it already happen or is it yet to happen? How are they going to happen? It does not exactly fit into a neat timeline (more on that in just a minute). Then the dreams close with God saying something strange in Chapter 6:15: “This will happen if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord.”
If? That’s weird. That can’t be right. The future is set and determined. The translator probably got that waw wrong. Or did they? Well, this brings us to our text today:
7 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. 2 Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and their men, to entreat the favour of the Lord, 3 and to ask the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I mourn and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” 4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5 Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6 And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? 7 Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited? 8 The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: 9 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 11 But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. 12 They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. 13 Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts, 14 and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus, the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate. (Zechariah 7:1-14, NRSV)
1. We want to know when all this will be over.
So…After the book recounts these dreams, it says that a delegation comes to Zechariah, and they say, “Hey, it’s been 70 years of exile since Jeremiah said God would come and restore us and fulfill all his promises. The clock is ticking. We are back, but life is terrible!” Let’s just say it was worse than a life of zoom calls and mask-wearing. So they say, “When is God going to come? When and how are all these dreams going to take place? When is God’s kingdom going to be here?”
Jeremiah’s prophecy looms in the background, and so the prophet brings it up. They want to know, when is it all going to end? When is a golden age going to dawn? You might say that they want to know if they are living in the end times.
I grew up in a religious tradition that was almost singularly obsessed with this question of the end times. As a person that has always loved reading, in my early years, I read book after book on predictions for the end times. As a young person, I felt deep down that things were not the way they were supposed to be. The world was becoming a darker place, not better, and when you read through a book like the Book of Revelation, it is very easy to draw the conclusion that the end is certainly near.
On Dec. 31st, 1999, my family was vacationing in Florida at my Grandparents’ condo over Christmas. Everyone was worked up about Y2K. Could this be the end? Will there be a mass computer failure, resetting civilization? Will the armies of the middle east rise up against the Western powers like what we saw in the Gulf war? Will the European Union become the new Babylon? Some of the preachers I read said it would. It’s 2000 years from the life of Christ. It makes sense. Two thousand years from Abraham to Jesus, the beginning of the covenant, so logically 2000 years from Jesus to the second coming.
I remember asking my dad about this, and part of him was skeptical. The other part was scared and felt anxious.
We watched the countdown: 3, 2, 1, Happy New Year! The ball dropped in New York, and people sang silly Irish songs. And as people out in the pool house of the condo ran around blowing their horns and noisemakers, my dad and I looked at the TV screen: reports came in that everything was fine. Nothing happened.
The end did not come.
I wish I could tell you that I learned a lot from that experience, but through high school, I really just went on to another prediction, figuring that the Y2K prediction was the right approach with the wrong conclusion.
Another event happened in my young adult life: 9/11. I watched from the big TV in the corner of our classroom in high school the planes flying into the World Trade Centre Towers. Then the war on terror was launched, then the Iraq war. The books I read suggested that these are the real prophesied enemies, Gog and Magog, and now, not Y2K, was the real beginning of the end. It felt like it.
But already, as a young person, this approach became dissatisfying to me, and perhaps you have felt this too (if you have any clue about what I am talking about). It seemed like those most certain that this politician or that terrorist attack was clearly this man on a horse in the Book of Revelation or that seal or bowl or trumpet or beast – whatever it was – it seemed that these preachers had been making these predictions for decades.
Protestant Christians have been habitually predicting the end since Martin Luther, who was convinced that the beasts in Revelation were Roman Catholicism. For 500 years, Christians have been treating apocalyptic literature as a code to crack and that we are now living in the definitive age that has provided the cipher, all to be proven wrong time and time again. Anna said last week: We have been living in the end times for 2000 years.
A few months ago, I was driving to work. I took a different way than I normally do. As I drove, I admired the farms and trees and all the beauty of the Annapolis Valley. Of course, I passed by churches. One church in particular (which will remain nameless) struck me. It had a sign on the front. It was a quotation from the Book of Revelation. It indicated that COVID-19 is one of the plagues from the Book of Revelation, revealing that we are in the definitive end times. Oh, and by the way, service is online at 10; all welcome.
A piece of me really wanted to deface that sign. Adorn a ski mask and spray paint something on that sign in the middle of the night. I don’t know what I would spray paint it with. Maybe Matt. 25:13: “You don’t know the time or hour!” I don’t know. I decided that probably was not the best idea.
I was tempted to call that church up and lecture them about how you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I can’t imagine that going well.
But the other part of me had to say: Aside from the sign being in bad taste, it is a question people are asking: Is the world ending? Cause it kinda feels like it is. If not, when will it end? How will it end?
So, to give these folk some credit, all our hearts feel the same thing: the foundations of our world are shaking, and our social fabric is tearing, and that has led so many of us to pray: How long, O Lord? When will your promises be fulfilled? When will your kingdom come and will be done? Because our world today feels like it is on the precipice to oblivion.
2. What does the end reveal about us now?
As I reflect on it, that sign probably revealed just as much about me as it did about that church. Apparently, I have tendencies towards vandalism, and I get really bothered by other people’s bad theology (It is an occupational hazard).
Something similar, however, is true of the visions of Zechariah.
An apocalypse is an unveiling, a revealing, that is what the word in Greek means, but it is not God giving believers a spoiler video clip of the conclusion of his own movie before the movie comes out.
It is prophetic poetry that uses fantastic and frightening symbols: of fire and flying scrolls, beasts and bowls of wrath, angels and dragons – and if we read it as literal, something will happen exactly like this or that, or we dismiss it as vague mythology of a by-gone era, something modern science with its laws of the conservation of energy has disproven, we miss that these figures are trying to unveil something in us, something in front of us.
Books like Zechariah or Revelation are not maps to the future. They work more like postcards and compasses because we so often lose our way on the journey of faith.
Sometimes we are tempted to go our own way, take history into our hands, and think that now we can make God’s kingdom come here. All we need to do is lie here, cheat there, or kill those getting in the way.
Other times we are tempted to be so certain Jesus is coming we sit back and do nothing and watch idly as the world becomes a darker place as we wait to escape it. We think the end is about fleeing earth to get to heaven, rather than living a way on earth as it is in heaven.
Other times we fall to despair and say God isn’t coming, there is no hope, and we recede into ourselves, caring only about our little slice of the world we can control, and we try to distract ourselves with life’s few fleeting moments of pleasure and peace.
Which have you been most tempted to do during this pandemic? Have you spent the pandemic angry at others? Or just waiting for it all to be over because you’re just done? Or have you just stopped caring?
These visions give us something more like a collage of pictures and mirrors: pictures that point to God’s end for all things, yes, but also mirrors that reflect these figures on ourselves, allowing us to see what is going on in our selves at a particular time so that we can get back on the right path to God’s end.
These are the things these visions are trying to truly unveil. Notice the move Zechariah makes, and it is a move that Jesus makes as well when the disciples ask him about the end in Acts 1. The people ask: when is it going to end? Zechariah responds with a challenge:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
3. The End is an Invitation
Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist pastor and theologian, once said, “It is for us to see the Kingdom of God as always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action.”
We want God to come. But then God opens a door and says: ok, step through. The future is an invitation, the future is a choice, and it is being presented to us every moment of every day. In this way, we are living in the end.
Embrace God’s future, live in line with the restoration of all things, or hold on to your past and the ways of this world and live in line with the road that leads to Gehenna’s destruction. The choice is before us, and it is a call we so often ignore.
We want to know what is true in this world, seeing it as it truly is, but we cling to easy answers and protect ourselves with lies.
We want a world of justice, but we cling to our privilege and complain about the sacrifice it calls for to set right what has gone wrong.
We want a world of love, but we don’t want to forgive or empathize with those we disagree with.
We ask God when will all this be pandemic stuff be over? When are you going to bless us and fulfill your promises?
God replies: Be honest; start being kind to one another; stop oppressing the marginalized of society; stop hating others. It is simple, but we keep refusing to listen.
During this pandemic, have we learned just how important it is, to be honest, to pursue sound truth and follow good common sense?
Have we learned through this pandemic just how interconnected we all are, just how much our actions affect those around us? That our health is connected to the health of others, that we are only as protected as those least protected.
Have we learned how we are connected to the earth and to each other and how the only way we can succeed as a society is by using our rights and resources to lift each other up?
Have we learned to be kind to those with whom we disagree? Have we learned that people have more worth in them than their opinions and that no opinion can make them worth any less?
Have we learned to care more about the vulnerable of society: our seniors, those that live in long-term care facilities, front-line and minimum wage workers, those who face eviction, homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, and disability, those that face hardship through no fault of their own?
Have we learned that money cannot dictate morality? Have we learned the real thing that has kept society together has been individuals coming together and giving their time and service to the common good?
If we have not learned these things, this might sound apocalyptic, but will society survive another pandemic? Can we even survive the next few years or even months?
When will all this be over? Scripture flips this question around on us and simply asks: What will you choose now?
But the answer to that is predictably dim and disappointing. Zachariah says that the people refused to listen, and here we are 2500 years later, and we still don’t want to listen. Have we learned that much from the pandemic about how to live in the way God wants us? I don’t think we have.
And so, Zachariah, like many of the other prophets, calls us to repentance and justice, and he offers us words of warning and even wrath, but then also ends with hope, hope that does not depend on us, although it constantly invites us into it.
He proclaims in chapter 9: “Rejoice O Daughter Zion, your king will come to you. Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Then God says, “Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free… I will restore you.”
It is the hope that the God that made this world and has spoken promises through prophets has come into the world in Jesus Christ, his Son. God became a man, and this man died on a cross because of our failure to embrace goodness and truth when God has proclaimed it. But the forces of death, disobedience, destruction, and despair did not have the final say.
In this, we trust and hope today, despite our own selfishness and stubbornness, that God desires the resurrection for everyone and everything so that the force that emptied the tomb will fill every corner of this world, every heart and mind, beginning with us.
And so, we ask: When will all this end? The church knows it will and simply prays: Come, Lord Jesus Come. We are ready to step into your kingdom!
Lord, God, Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, you are Lord of history because you have taken on the darkness of history and bore it in your very flesh, then you rose from the dead into a future of hope, forgiveness, and joy.
Lord, we long for this pandemic to end. But may this be the end of our selfishness and hatred; put an end to our deceit and ignorance; may this be the final day we tolerate injustice and division.
Let a dawn of resurrection righteousness shine in our hearts, in our relationships, and our communities. May we see something new among us, in us, and through us, by the power of your Spirit.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump
God give us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the mind of Christ to comprehend your word today.
In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a vision of God on his throne, and it is at a precarious time in the nation’s history. The beginning of the passage says: “It was the year king Uzziah died.” It was a time of political instability, the death of the king, the prospect of a new king, the vulnerability of the change of power.
We see some political instability of our own day, are we not? Just a little! I drive down the road, and it is not just the leaves that are changing colours. Lawns are decorated with that person’s favourite colour, whether red, blue, orange, green, and now we see a few purples as well.
The Prime Minister has called a snap election during a watershed moment in Canada’s history: the time that the pandemic still rages in some provinces, while in ones like ours, it is still here but curbed heavily. Canada asks: what now? Where do we go from here? What will the next few months look like? The next few years? Who will lead us through them?
The chessboard is assembled, but what are the biggest stakes in this game?
Is it getting the economy back up to normal (can it get back to what it was before)? Is it keeping the restrictions up to save lives? Are human rights on the line with vaccine passports? Is it the environment and building a green economy? Is it safe drinking water for indigenous communities? Each one of these questions is asked with particular fears behind them.
Our TVs, computers, and phone screens are injected with campaign ads and articles sporting people’s preferred candidates. The mud-slinging and back-biting has begun, not that it ever stopped. We have become aware of how social media has fundamentally changed our everyday lives and so has fundamentally remade how we think politically. This has come with a dark side. Rumbling from the depths of chatrooms, Twitter, and Facebook groups have come messages that bear deep senses of hate, frustration, disgust, resentment.
People are angry and desperate. We like to think of ourselves as Canadians as peaceful, orderly, and reasonable people, but moments of violence have irrupted along the campaign trail as radicals have thrown rocks at the Prime Minister going to his bus.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg as our world seems to be exploding with division: fear and hate, misinformation, and blame.
Conflict and tragedy are becoming our everyday reality. The stakes are high, and it feels like the world is collectively holding its breath for the next tragedy.
Where do we look in the midst of this instability?
Do we look to ourselves? Do we look to a particular candidate? Do we look to a particular party? Who do we put our hope in?
In the year that King Uzziah died, [in the time of deep uncertainty] I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne [He saw the true king]; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim [the majestic other-worldly powers], each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with [the] smoke [of worship].
1. If Jesus is King, did we look to him first?
In times of political instability, we cannot look to ourselves; we must look first to the Lord, ruler of heaven and earth.
This world cannot contain him. This world’s politics cannot define him. This world’s corruption cannot restrict him. He is a God unmatched, unblemished, unlimited. He is the threefold Holy, holy holy, Lord God Almighty.
We have forgotten what holiness means. It is not just a personal thing; it is a political thing.
God in Jesus Christ is holy-Other than our ways, our ideas, and therefore our politics.
But if God is king, make no mistake; no king or president or prime minister can claim the authority of God. No politician can claim messianic status.
If God is king, no kingdom, no nation, no political party can claim that they represent the kingdom. As Clarence Jordan once said, the kingdom is always at hand but never in hand.
If God is king, while God is patient with our imperfections, we must be wary of any attempts to deliver the kingdom by hook or crook. Christ’s kingdom comes Christ’s way. The Commander of heaven’s armies hires no mercenaries.
If God is king, this means all kings of this earth, all presidents or prime ministers, any leader of any community, corporation, tribe or nation, must realize God is the only true king, and if their rule does not look like the kingdom of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, they will have to answer to him.
And if God is king, and we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, then we must often live as Peter says to his congregation: as strangers living in a foreign land, like a family that can’t be defined by a nation’s political allegiances.
We can look up and say that the kingdom of heaven is near, that this is our way, and in it, we are free to live differently.
The kingdom of God does not pull us back into the political status quo; it prophetically calls us forward.
It does not call us to political isolation or retreat. It is a holiness in the midst of the world that seeks a new way. Will we look for this new way? But I will tell you, the simple fact is we as Christians, as the church in Canada, so often we haven’t.
2. If Jesus is our King, have we been loyal to him?
One day at women’s coffee hour at First Baptist Church of Sudbury, where I pastored, I observed the fact that Christians are not altogether uniform on how to think politically. On Wednesday morning, the ladies of the church would get together for coffee and knit or do crosswords, or some of them became fans of doing those adult colouring books. Anyways, I would often work on the sanctuary computer, which was behind a curtain to the side of this room. One morning they did forget I was there.
In casual conversation, one lady expressed disappointment over “her boy, Justin,” in how he handled the Student Summer Jobs funding debacle. “Your boy?” Another lady said in disgust, “how can a Christian vote for a liberal?”
“Well,” said the first, “when I came to Canada from the Caribbean, the conservative party wanted to deport my family and me because they thought we would bring crime into the country and we would steal Canadian jobs or go on welfare. Pierre Trudeau protected my family, and so that is why his son is my boy.”
The other lady was a bit flabbergasted; she then turned to the lady beside her to attempt to gather some peer pressure: “Can you believe her?”
The third lady, a bit struck, said, “Yes. Indeed, I can’t see how anyone could support the liberals or conservatives. I have been a member of the NDP my whole life. My parents helped form the NDP with Tommy Douglas because they fought for labour rights for the miners of Sudbury. I just don’t understand how people can’t see that socialism best reflects the kingdom of God.”
Again, lady number two had this awkward moment of putting her foot in her mouth. The conversation quickly devolved into an awkward silence and a quick change of subject as these kinds of discussions often go. Many of us have had moments like that. And many of us are surprised we still have moments like that. We are astonished to find believers believing different things. “You think that? You support that person?” What do we do with that?
Notice a few things in this little event: (1) All three women were thoroughly partisan. Their minds were made up a long time ago, and it was not going to change. (2) All three simply could not believe the other’s view. There was an overt refusal of empathy and fallibility. (3) Their solution or lack thereof was to stop talking about it.
Perhaps in that moment of discussing or rather awkwardly discovering their political differences, I think they forgot the most important thing: their unity in Jesus Christ.
They were sisters in Christ. They were a part of a kingdom much bigger than any political party. His kingdom calls us to treat each other like family, even when we disagree, and that is a different kind of politic.
In our current political situation, it should not surprise us to see that Christians of different strips have influenced and participated in all the political parties in some way: the conservative appeal to traditional values and economic pragmatism, the liberals appeal to human rights and equity, the NDP’s appeal to the values instilled by Social Gospel Baptists like Tommy Douglas. And so on. On my Facebook, I have pastor friends of mine each running in all the major parties. They have all come to these values with a particular Christian emphasis. That does not mean they are all equally right. It does mean we have to have a moment of pause when we assume our views are the best, and everyone else is dumb, delusional, and dangerous.
The biggest thing that worries me in this election is not which candidate gets in; although I have my strong views on that, it is the fact that Christians no longer how to love people that are different, not even other Christians. The outrage of politics has overpowered Christian humility, patience, and honesty, and if that is the case, the church in Canada has already lost regardless of who votes for what.
That is why we must consistently and constantly recall our hearts and minds to the fact that Jesus is still king.
In the Gospels, James and John, sons of Zebedee, asked Jesus, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” We want power, Jesus. Jesus’ reply: “You don’t know what you are asking.”
He says, and I paraphrase: If you want to drink of glory, the cup you drink is my crucifixion. He says,
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 42-45)
This cherished scripture about the nature of the cross ransoming us from sin, we forget, is the answer to a political question: How do I get power and glory, Jesus? How do I get my way?
Jesus’ answer: You won’t that way. That is not my way; my way is the cross.
The Son of Man, the one who rightfully deserves all the power and honour, the crowns of every kingdom, all the riches of all the wealthy, became a servant healing the forgotten of this world, serving those that deserted him and forgiving those that murdered him by dying on a cross fully obedient to the Father, a death of shame and humiliation, and counted it on our behalf. God in Christ is first because he made himself last.
Whatever our political convictions are, they must flow from his reality.
We have to ask ourselves if our ways are in line with this kind of humility, this kind of honesty, this kind of peacefulness, this kind of service, sacrifice and solidarity?
In other words, if we as Christians go to the ballot boxes and say to ourselves, “Who is the politician that will give me the most?” That simply is not Christ’s attitude.
If we go to the ballot trying to ensure the church stays powerful and prominent, our witness to a watching world will simply be that we are just as power-hungry as all the other political factions out there. We don’t offer anything different.
But that is so often what we have done. And if we have traded this kingdom and this king for any other politician, party, or platform, our words can only be Isaiah’s:
“Woe to us! We, the church, are ruined! For We are people of unclean lips, and we live among a people of unclean lips, for our eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
So then, what can we do?
But then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it, he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Your sins are atoned for. I don’t know why, but we worship a God that when humanity murdered Christ on the cross, he forgave. He answered our worse with his very best. He died our death to offer us his life. When we fail him terribly, his character is grace immeasurably.
I don’t understand it. It goes against everything this limited mind thinks should be the case. I know I stand condemned in judgment, but to my surprise, his judgment is love.
It seems inconceivable; it seems too impractical; it seems too unpolitical, but that is how God runs his kingdom. Grace is God’s policy.
But all I can know is if I am lost in sin, Christ has found me. I am ruined, and he atoned for me.
Jesus has cleansed us, and he is not done with us. He is doing something else: he commissions us.
3. If Jesus is King, Let’s Keep Following His Way
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
The church is called to Isaiah’s commission here: to truth, love, and hope.
The church is called to prophetic truthfulness that this world does not understand. If the political candidate or party you follow has done wrong or made a mistake, don’t be so urgent to see your version of justice come that you forget that God’s kingdom never comes by people who refuse to repent, confess the truth and own their mistakes.
No political ideal is so important that it allows us to take a shortcut and bypass Jesus’ way.
You might find that if you do that, you won’t fit in. People just won’t get what you’re saying. They don’t want to listen. That is the way Isaiah had to go and us too.
In a world of half-truths, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us! We will speak the truth.”
Second, we must speak the truth in love. Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop that guided South Africa out of apartheid, led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when people told him that clergy couldn’t be political, he just responded and said, “Of course, I can. We must. We are called to love our neighbour.”
Who is my neighbour? Is my neighbour white or black, an immigrant or indigenous, is a senior or an unborn baby, is my neighbour a Muslim, a gay person, rich or poor, criminal or law-abiding or any other difference that we have treated differently?
Is it just one or another? No! All of them. I don’t get to choose. All are made in the image and likeness of God, all are children of our Father, all by God’s word have inherent dignity and worth, none more worthy than the other.
Some Christians I know refuse to vote because the system is too broken. That is their right, but I would say that we can’t forget the power of a vote, the possibilities, even small ones, that a good politician can help those least fortunate in our world.
I have to remind that cynical part of me that if I love my neighbour, I must press on thinking and conversing and voting and acting. Other people way less privileged than myself depend on it.
In a world of hate and exclusion, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us! We care about our neighbours.”
Then Isaiah said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste…until the Lord sends everyone far away…Even if a tenth part remains in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. But the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
“How long, O Lord?” For Isaiah, this question has a tinge of “It’s going to get better, right? If I do this, then this will fix things, right?” God’s answer is not comfortable, but it is the truth. Isaiah’s day is different from ours, but the principle is the same: He is prophesying of the coming exile, and that is not what we are facing. However, so often, we say to God, “God, I’ll do this, now you do that. God, if I do this, then things will get better, right?”
Our choices matter, and so this election matters. But will it solve everything? We all know that it won’t.
How long, O Lord? How long do we have to do this? Will things get better? The real question before us today is this: even if things keep getting worse first, will we still choose Christ?
God says to Isaiah that amongst the desolation, a holy seed is planted: We know that as we walk into the uncertainty of the future, we carry this hope within our hearts:
Christ had died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
In a world of despair and apathy, God says, “Whom shall I send?” Will Billtown Baptist answer, “Send us, Lord! No matter what, we will go!”
Today, after church, think well about the issues. Discuss how to get involved, how to live change, how we can care for the least in our communities. Tomorrow, go out and vote. The day after, remember Jesus is still king, and no matter what, we are going to keep following him.
Palm Sunday, Bethany Memorial Baptist Church, 2021
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8
This week my wife and I woke up to our oldest son making his mommy a gift. Rowan sneaked down to the kitchen and started breakfast for his mom. Rowan has taken to learning cooking and baking, and he is doing a wonderful job. He made chocolate cookies the other day – sorry chocolate-covered peppermint fudge cookies – the other day, and frankly, they were some of the yummiest cookies I have ever had. However, this was not cookies.
This particular morning I came down while Meagan was in the shower, as I usually come down and start the whole process of cereal and toast for all our kids. I came downstairs to find that Rowan and started making eggs on the stove. While I was about to give him the talk about not using the stove when parents aren’t around, I noticed the eggs appeared to have blood in them.
“What is that?” I said. “I put red food coloring in to make it in the shape of a heart for mommy,” my son replied.
“Oh, I see,” I said, “Well, I am sure Mommy is going to be surprised,” I remember looking again at the sight of these eggs, which looked kind of like something died a horrible death in the frying pan, and I recall gagging a bit, even though it was just food coloring.
Of course, Meagan came down and was, in a word, shocked, to say the least. After the shock wore off, she recomposed herself as Rowan said that he wanted to make heart-shaped eggs for her. To which, she happily ate that reddish, pinkish mess of eggs that did not really come out in the shape of a heart at all (Maybe a kidney or possibly a liver shape).
The point is often, parenting, as I have learned, means giving a lot for your kids, and sometimes it means seeing them give gifts in return (one way more than the other for sure). These gifts, while they are not what we expect, are the ways in which our kids show love. In that regard, they are special. I love that my son has taken to cooking and wants to appreciate people with it.
While this notion of gifts, gifts of appreciation, gifts expressed in particular and personal ways, and in the case of this text today, gifts that cost deeply, that is what the life of faith is about.
I found myself reflecting on this account of the triumphal entry, reading the passages leading up to it and the ones coming after it, and as I said to Sarah, I want to just pause and think about the events that happen just before Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus is anointed at Bethany before this, and I want to reflect on this beautiful passage as a way of getting to the truth of Palm Sunday this morning.
John’s Gospel is the only one that places the anointing before Jesus comes into Jerusalem. John’s is also the only Gospel who names Mary of Bethany as the woman (not Mary Magdalene – there is a lot of Mary’s in the Gospel accounts, by the way). The reason I bring this up is that ancient history writers like the Gospel writers wrote this history with rich narrative. One of the reasons you see stories told in different ways and in different places in the Gospels is because the Gospel writers place the stories in a certain order to say something.
We sometimes are tempted to think of the Gospels are haphazard catalogues of the events of Jesus’ life, which we listen to in our Bibles section by section, but the reality is the Gospels are beautifully crafted stories, very intentional in how they say what they say.
Narratives mean something on the whole, and we do the Gospel’s a bit of a disservice by chopping them up and reading them in little sections and bites. There is nothing wrong with just enjoying a beautiful verse, but if anyone is a book lover, you know that a good story is a page-turner, and you just want to keep reading to just dwell in the story.
One of the most significant moments of growth in my walk with Christ is when I took a course on the Gospel of John in college. One thing the teacher made us do was to sit down and listen to the whole Gospel from start to finish in one sitting.
I had never bothered to do this before, and it allowed me to experience the Bible in a new way. John’s beautiful storytelling came through. The emotion and tension between Jesus, the people, and the Pharisees, seem so real and palpable. The use of irony and even sarcasm in the text, I saw for the first time. And the sense of climax and culmination as the tension and conflict builds between Jesus and the religious leaders that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. It all really hit me.
Let’s take time to read the story as it is meant to be read. Again, small passages are good, but you don’t just listen to one line of your favourite song. You listen to the whole thing, from intro to ending.
I am just going to put this out there. I have a pastor friend who, every year for Good Friday, has a get-together at his house, and there they listen to the entire Gospel story, everyone taking a chapter, breaking to eat and talk and pray. Perhaps this is something we could do next year.
But for the time being, maybe sit down this week and listen to the whole of John’s Gospel, and when you do, look at the stories that happen before a passage and after it. Ask yourself, “Why did John place this here? What is John trying to tell us?”
Here, beginning in chapter 11 and into the beginning of chapter 12, just before Jesus marches into Jerusalem, something takes place that is setting this whole final week of Jesus’ life into motion. Jesus gives a very costly gift. He raises Lazarus. And, we see here that Mary, Lazarus’ sister, responds to this with her gift of perfume in adoration. She thanks Jesus with a costly gift. But his disciple Judas scoffs at this. I am going to suggest that that hardness of heart that we all can have will cost us as it did him.
Jesus gave a costly gift; Mary thanked him with a costly gift, but Judas scoffed and it cost him.
1. Jesus gave a costly gift
So, what happens before this story? Well, if we go back to a chapter, we find out that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
If you recall, in this story, people come to tell Jesus that Lazarus has fallen sick and is about to die, and Jesus says he is going to come to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, to raise Lazarus. The disciples get really worried about all this. The last time Jesus traveled that close to Jerusalem, a crowd trying to stone him. Jesus has made some very powerful enemies that want him dead.
But Jesus goes anyway, despite the risk. This upsets the disciples. Thomas even says sarcastically, “Fine then, let’s go so we can die as well.”
Jesus goes, and he raises Lazarus, even though Lazarus had been dead for four days, and proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” To raise the dead and to claim that in Jesus is life itself, those are things that God says and does.
You can imagine that news like that does not stay hidden. A word about this gets to the ears of the religious leaders, and they realize Jesus is taking away their followers. Jesus is taking away their power and influence. Jesus is threatening their religion. It is funny how Jesus can do that!
If Jesus is God in the flesh, they are out of a job because they have made a lot of money telling people grace comes with a price. And if a desert Rabbi can do these things and claim these things, the religious teachers are exposed as greedy frauds that they are.
So, the Pharisees put in motion a plot to arrest and kill Jesus if he comes into Jerusalem.
By coming and raising Lazarus, Jesus is a marked man. With raising Lazarus, Jesus’ life story has entered its endgame.
You have to ask, then, why did Jesus do that? Surely, he could have kept on living for many more years, healing many more people, teaching many more things, then come and died on a cross. Why take this risk? Why be wasteful?
The answer is obvious: Jesus loved others, and Jesus was faithful to the plan God the Father set for him. Jesus loved Lazarus to the point of weeping at the news of him passing, even though he knew he was going to raise him up. This was what God the Father set out to show.
Jesus was faithful to his task, which was showing us love at a deep cost. Jesus gave the gift of life back to Lazarus, but it was an action that would cost Jesus his life in the end.
Jesus gives the gift of life, and he gives the gift of his life. The two are one and the same.
Jesus says later at the last supper, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” John 15:13.
One writer says this, “The mystery of the Christian faith is that if you have not loved, you have not truly lived, but if you have truly loved, you will end up dying for it.”
The raising of Lazarus is the beginning of the climax of John’s Jesus story, preceding Jesus coming into Jerusalem, Jesus being betrayed, Jesus laying down his life at the cross to “draw all people to himself,” to be a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, to show us that God has this kind of love for sinners: a love that sacrifices of one’s very self.
All of this is to say to us when the very worst parts of ourselves come out when we feel and know deep down it is like there is nothing good in us, nothing that deserves better, God loves.
God loves us despite the very worst of ourselves.
When we feel like our lives are worthless, like we don’t even deserve to live, God gladly dies our death to offers us his life in the cross.
If we ever are tempted to think that God has forsaken us, has lost hope for us, that we have sinned against God too many times: we just don’t feel what should feel and do what we ought to do, we have to remember that God has revealed himself in Jesus.
John 1:18 makes this plain: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” God is like Jesus because Jesus is God and Jesus shows us what God is truly like.
What is God like? God is the God that loves us more than his very life. God is showing us that this love is life, eternal life, the resurrection and the life.
Because Jesus loves with a perfect, self-giving, self-sacrificing, costly love, what he does for Lazarus is merely Jesus being who Jesus has always committed himself to be, for each and every one of us, showing us who God truly is.
This is why he could not stay away. He had to go. He had to love. Its who he is!
But here is the thing: if we know that we are saved by this kind of love. If we know that this is who God is and invites us into this love. We must love the same way: “If you have not loved, you have not truly lived, but if you have truly loved, you will end up dying for it.”
Jesus says a few verses later, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:25-26)
The question is, how do we do that? How do we do that in our everyday lives, where we might not have life or death decisions in front of us? And to that, Mary, Lazarus’ sister, gives a bit of a clue:
2. Mary thanked with costly gratitude
The story says that Mary and Martha are the sisters of Lazarus. It also says that the sisters lived with Lazarus. Is it because Mary and Martha are not married? It makes you wonder: Have they been widowed? It seems likely.
If this is the case, Lazarus dying could have spelled poverty and dereliction for these ladies if they had no other family support.
And if they were widows, which is very likely, this says all the more what Lazarus meant for Mary. Lazarus was the brother that cared for her when she lost her husband, the person that sustained her when she had nothing. He seems like the kind of endearing, tender-hearted person that when he died, Jesus himself missed him and wept.
Jesus gave back her big brother. The question is, if you were Mary, what would you do or say to Jesus if Jesus did that for you, and he does this, moreover, knowing that this will cost him this life?
Mary is overcome with gratitude, and so she does something special, even over the top. She goes out and buys an expensive incense. It seems like she had some savings as this incense is supposed to have cost nearly a year’s wage, something that would have cost today tens of thousands of dollars. We don’t know where she got this, but I wonder if she is a widow, if these are her savings leftover from when her husband died.
Has anyone ever done something for you that made you want to give a gift that could cost an entire year’s pay? Think about that for a second, and it gives you the sense of just how moved she felt.
What does she give? The incense is nard, which was the oil from a type of honeysuckle plant that only grew in India and China. It’s expensive because it is imported and very difficult to make. It had a sweet smell, and it was used in medicine: it soothed muscles and cleaned the skin. It is so expensive that you would try to ration it to make it last for as long as possible. However, she buys a whole pint of it and brings it to Jesus and pours it on him.
She comes into the room and anoints Jesus’ feet by pouring this oil on him and adores Jesus to the point of wiping his dirty feet with her beautiful hair. I think the women can appreciate this action more than the men. She is showing her thanks financially with the incense, but also physically and emotionally with her hair.
She also makes a point of using oil that has a double meaning.
First, it is the oil you would anoint a king with. The kings of Israel were anointed by prophets who herald them as coming kings.
God used the great prophets to herald the kings like Saul and David. Here God chooses a lowly but grateful lady, Mary, to anoint the true King. While the disciples seem to scratch their heads, puzzled about who Jesus is, Mary seems to get it.
Jesus is our king; Jesus is her king, but he is the king who is going to give up his life for others because his kingdom is different, and it made a difference for her.
A few days later, at the last supper, Jesus sits his disciples down, takes a towel and, as a servant, washes the disciples’ dirty feet. The disciples are horrified that Jesus would be a servant to them. They still think his kingdom is about having power and status. But here, Mary is already living the way of Jesus for Jesus, anointing his feet. Mary know Jesus is king and she knows what this kingdom is all about.
Second, it is also oil that you would anoint the body of a cherished family member with when they died. Jesus recognizes this. He knows it is for his burial.
The next day, people shout Hosanna to Jesus, greeting him as a messiah, and eager to see what Jesus will do for them: will he overthrow the Romans? Will he re-establish a golden age of prosperity for them?
They never think of what this will cost Jesus. Mary knew. Mary knew Jesus would die.
That is why this gift costs her. It costs her materially and emotionally. She puts herself into it.
She wanted Jesus to know that Jesus was worthy of the very best she had to give.
She wanted Jesus to know that what he did has meant everything to her.
She wanted Jesus to know that she was thankful deep down to the core of her very being.
The crowds the next day hailed Jesus as King, but at his cross, they left him because a dead king is no king at all in their mind.
Mary died the opposite. She anoints Jesus as King because she knows he will die.
Do we understand that this week especially? And if so, how will we show it?
3. Judas mocked at his own cost
There is a powerful saying by the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, “If Jesus is not everything to you, Jesus is nothing to you.”
If we don’t recognize this costly gift Jesus gives, we can’t receive it for all that it truly is.
It seems that there was one person that really failed to understand this in Jesus’ circle, and that was Judas. It seems that all those years of travelling with Jesus, seeing miracles, hearing his teaching didn’t do anything. Judas’s heart had grown hard.
So, when he sees Mary do this for Jesus, he is indignant. What a waste!
You could have given that to the poor! He snarled. But John reminds the reader that Judas did not actually care about the poor; he was greedy and would often help himself to the communal funds. He was skimming off the top.
Judas does something I have seen many times over. We love to cloak our apathy with concerns that sound pious.
How often is racism from our nation’s past protected in the name of preserving “culture and history”?
How often are ignorant and bigoted opinions protected in the name of freedom of speech?
How often do we as Christians excuse ourselves from doing what is good and just by invoking religious freedom?
If we take a good look deep inside ourselves, we know we can put up excuses and fronts that get us off the hook from following Jesus in a costly way.
In fact, in a sad and ironic way, I have heard this very story be used to get out of doing what Jesus teaches us to do.
Judas scoffs at this and says this money could go to the poor, and Jesus says, “the poor you will always have, but you won’t always have me.” I have heard preachers use that phrase to say that, therefore, we should not care about the poor; there will always be poverty, so don’t bother with soup kitchens and benevolence and all that.
That seems to really miss the point of what Jesus is saying on the cusp of his crucifixion, to the person who will betray him.
Mary was not neglecting the poor, she was recognizing the one who had loved her, whose kingdom was for the poor, whose kingdom was for all people, especially the forgotten of this world.
But it goes to show just how often we can mask our apathy, our unwillingness to follow Jesus in those important costly ways, by making very seeming good excuses.
How do we do that? I think of how often I have said, “I wish I could do this or that, but I am just too busy.”
How do we do that as a church? Can we hide behind excuses when we know we need to be going out and serving as Jesus did? We have to ask again this morning:
Will we love Jesus with everything we have?
Will we serve like Jesus even if it costs us everything we have?
It should not escape us that the anointing at Bethany is the namesake of this church. It is a name that recalls us to the power of Jesus is raising Lazarus and the love of Mary in anointing him.
It recalls us to the costly nature of following Jesus. Serving Jesus will cost us. But the cost is worth it!
One great Christ-follower of the last century was a missionary named Jim Elliot, who died in 1956 at age 28 in Ecuador. He was killed by a marauding band that swept through his camp, killing several people, including him.
Why did Jim Elliot go to He felt the Gospel was calling him to share the good news in the most dangerous places on earth. He felt called to share the Gospel to tribes in Ecuador, which was a place irrupting in violence. People pleaded with him: “Don’t’ go, it’s too dangerous.”
Jim Elliot replies with the mentality that I think Christ had, and it is the mentality that we must have: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Brothers and sisters, when we know that Jesus has given us everything, when we see Mary’s example of offering everything, and we see the peril of Judas refusing and losing everything, we must ask ourselves: What are we holding back? What can you entrust to God today?
Is it emotional, or is it financial? Is it time, or is it a task?
What have you got to lose? More importantly, what have we got to gain?
Perhaps, if you are like me, just asking these questions reminds me of all sorts of ways I forget and neglect to make Jesus my everything, every day.
So often, we aspire to be like Mary, giving 100%, but in our day-to-day lives, we feel more like Judas, apathetic and unfaithful, making excuses.
Judas met a terrible end in betraying Jesus. However, so did Peter and his story ends very different. Let me suggest to you that he met this end in part because he simply could not fathom that Jesus could forgive him after what he did. He simply could not surmise that Jesus’ grace really is grace because his mercy really does not have conditions or limits.
So, it is not whether we fail in our Christian walk, we have and will. It is whether we can keep trusting God’s forgiveness in our lives.
In that case, part of the gratitude we are all called to begins with that simple thank-you, saying today and every day in a new way,
God, I know I don’t love you perfectly,
but I know I can trust you again today
that you love us perfectly.
Jesus, I long for your love to renew my heart today,
so I can love you deeper
and love like you.
Let’s pray this together before we continue in worship:
Sermon preached on Nov. 15 at Billtown Baptist Church.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-7, NRSV)
The image I am about to show you is a bit grotesque, but I think it is necessary in order to reflect on the next essential truth of the Christian faith we are going to tackle today.
The person I am about to show you is Joseph Merrick. Born in 1862 in England, Merrick developed from birth a very rare disorder where his bones began to fuse together and grow lumps.
Again, I warn you that the picture is a bit shocking.
After his mother died when he was 9, his father soon rejected him and remarried, deserting him, seeing him as a monster. As a young boy, he was not able to work well due to his deformed hand, and he soon found that the only work available was in circus, as a freak show act. He was nicknamed the “Elephant Man.”
He rarely went out in public, but when he did, he wore a hat with a sheet around it to cover his face.
While on tour in London, a doctor saw him and felt compassion on him. Dr. Friedrich Treves gave Merrick his card, pledging to offer any medical assistance he needed.
Merrick continued on his tour into Europe, and there even his own circus managers took advantage of him, robbing him and leaving him for dead.
His deformities caused him to lose his voice, but he was nevertheless able to make it back to London, and still holding on to the business card of Dr. Treves, he made his way to the hospital in London.
Dr. Treves found that the deformities were incurable and would eventually be fatal, but he allowed Merrick to live the rest of his days in the care of the hospital. Dr. Treves flipped the bill, and became Merrick’s close friend, visiting him often.
Several years later, Merrick died at age 27. His deformities were so severe that the bone formations around his skull eventually prevented him from getting enough oxygen, and he died of asphyxiation, a terrible way to die, gasping for air.
Who was Joseph Merrick? Was he an abomination such that his own father abandoned him?
Was he a freak, such that the only place he could work was a circus?
Even then, was he just a way of making some money, a resource to be exploited? That is what his circus managers saw him as. What is the difference between a human being and a piece of property?
Or was he a person how Dr. Treves immediately saw him? Not an abomination, not a freak show, not a piece of property, not even a medical phenomenon, but a person of worth, worthy of compassion. Someone to help; someone who had needs; someone who needed friendship.
Was Joseph Merrick human? And if he was, does that mean anything?
Why do we choose to see something of worth in those that others deem worthless?
Is it something in us? Something we do? Or is it a decision of faith? Faith in something more than ourselves?
The Question of Being Human
Admittedly, this is a strange question to ask this morning. It comes out of this week’s readings from the Believe book that I have been told you are going through with Pastor Chris.
The question is this: What does it mean to be human?
It is one of those questions that is fundamental to who we are, but it is of the kind of philosophical nature that we rarely ask. After all, has any of us gotten up in the morning, sat down to our morning breakfast and coffee and asked ourselves questions like, “How shall I be human today?” If you did, I think I would either be very impressed or be a bit worried about you. I know for myself, putting full sentences together before my morning coffee is a bit of a challenge!
At face value it is an almost insulting and obvious question. What is a human? We are humans….silly! That’s like asking the question, “What’s breathing?” …I am sure you will figure it out.
What does it mean to be human? I looked up some definitions in the dictionary. One definition wrote, “A bipedal primate mammal.” Have you ever looked in the mirror and said, “Good morning you handsome bipedal primate mammal?” If you did, I would again worry about you. For some reason, that definition just doesn’t get to the core of who we are.
Another definition said, “Humans are not animals, nor are they aliens from outer space,” which is true, but not really narrowing it down all that much.
Even then, that is probably a bit overstated. Are we that distinct from animals? When we look at the animal world, there are lots of things that animals can do better than us.
Most land animals are faster than us.
Dolphins and Octopuses have problem solving intelligence.
Baby piglets have about the same emotional intelligence as a baby human.
Ants are capable of organizing societies of over 300 million per colony. Given that 300 million is roughly the population of the US, I’d say ants could probably teach us a thing or two about how to be harmonious and productive.
Did you know we are genetically 98% percent similar to chimps? That 2% goes along way.
That 2% accounts for the biggest different between us and the rest of the animal world, a little part of the front of our brains that control the production of language and advanced problem solving.
Think about that: a tiny chunk of pink gooey tissue at the front of our brains makes the difference between civilization and swinging from trees. There really is not that much that separates us from animals, biologically speaking. It is that little bit that goes a long way.
If that is all that it is, what leads us to believe we are special, better than the animals? If we are, again, so similar to chimps, chimps can instinctively kill one another over food. They have been known to cannibalize each other. Are they wrong to do that? Is it wrong if we kill others? Why are we different?
One atheist wrote over a century ago that since we are no different from animals, war is really just nature’s way of thinning out the herd. Is that true?
If not, why are we different? Are we special as humans because we talk and reason; we build and write; and we sing and philosophize?
We are human because of the things we do? Are we human because of the things we can achieve that no animal can?
We have a tendency to define our humanity according to the greatest things humans have achieved. We look to the greats of history such as conquerors like Alexander the Great, scientists like Albert Einstein, athletes like Michael Phelps, or artists like Van Gogh.
But if to be human means something we do, our achievements, where does that leave those that don’t do these things well? Where does that leave the average Joe’s?
If to be human is to have reason and ability, are people with physical and mental disabilities less human?
If to be human is have freedom and morality, are criminals less human?
History has shown that we often define certain people as more human than others based on these characteristics: men were defined as true humans and women defined as “defective males” for centuries in the western world based on the philosophy of Aristotle. In Europe, Jews were less human than Germans. In the United States, whites more human than blacks. In Canada, particularly, indigenous people.
Today the question is whether we really consider immigrants and refugees truly human, and therefore as deserving of care as a citizen gets.
We live in a day where human rights are assumed, but what it means to be human has no agreed answer. And some have even given up bothering with the question all together. Yet we can’t have one without the other.
In an age of white nationalism and mass displacements of refugees, anger and resentment over anyone that might economically threaten us, whether countries like China or different communities here at home like the indigenous fishermen or people in the sexual minority– so much of our laws hang on the notion of our common humanity, but the fact is, agreement on what it means to be human is far from common.
And things are only going to get more complicated. As we develop technologies like gene modification or artificial intelligence or the ability to merge human bodies with robotic parts, this question is not getting any easier. How do respond?
Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us of an important truth: “A human being is one thing, to be human is quite another.”
The problem with questions like “What does it mean to be human?” is that we can’t answer why we are the way we are. Biology and history offer clues, but not answers. Why? Because we did not make ourselves. The answer to who we are as humans and why we are the way were are, and whether we deserve dignity or forgiveness or, more importantly, salvation, must come from the one who did make us: God himself.
In God’s Image and Likeness
How does God see us? It is a question so important, it seems that writers of the Bible had the foresight to include it in its very first chapter: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Notice a few things in this text:
First is that Genesis is an ancient book and it was written for ancient people. This is a narrative written to say something to poor Israelites who have endured slavery and exile, who obviously did not have science nor thought in a scientific way. It was written to a people that were inundated with mythology that taught that Pharaoh and other kings were the true image of God, that since they are god, they can oppress whomever they choose.
If we are to understand Genesis, we have to understand that it is saying something to these ancient people, and through that, something that applies to us today.
In Genesis, notice that all people, male and female, regardless of age, gender, status, bears the divine image, where everywhere else in the world, kings, warlords, and priests were in the divine image. This idea is unique to Israel that drives Israel forward in thinking about what it means to be human.
What does it mean to be in the divine image? There are many possible answers to this, but we get a hint of it a few chapters later when Seth is described as being in the image of his father, Adam. It is parent language. Children are in the image of their parents. If you were to look at my kids, particularly, Rowan and Asher, and looked at a picture of me when I was their age, you might say they are a spitting image of me. What this means in Genesis is very important: all humans are in God’s image, therefore, all humans are considered God’s children, not because of what we can do and achieve, but because of how God has chosen to see us.
This is important because if we try to start with ourselves, why we deserve dignity, I think, as I just reflected, we will come up short. We will make our dignity conditional on something we have and do. But if we start with God, we realize that God considers us, no matter who we are, where we are from, or what we have done, to be his children.
You are God’s child. Regardless of who you are and what you have done. You are God’s child.
If we want to understand who we are, why we are here, and what we are meant to be and do and to become, we have to look to the one who made us, the one who knows us, the one who loves us.
Notice also that we are made in his likeness. We were made in his image, bestowed with dignity, considered his children, but we were also made in his likeness, intended to be like God.
As God is loving and holy and good, God wants this for each one of us.
If we want to be more human, we must learn to obey him. Obeying here is not God being a tyrant that want us to jump through hoops for his own amusement. The commands of God, understood through Jesus, his example of selflessness, his rule that all the laws are summarized in the law of love, applied for their weightier matters like compassion and justice and humility – so interpreted rightly, God’s commands are his ways for us to be more human. Consider some of the Ten Commandments:
God wants a way of life for us where we stop putting our worth in the things of this world. That is idolatry.
God wants us to stop reducing ourselves to our work. So he commands sabbath.
God wants a life for us where we are honest with ourselves and others. Do not lie
God wants a world where we do not harm one another or life in fear. Do no murder.
God wants us to know that if we love our spouses, our partners in life, there are certain things we simply will not do to them, such as committing adultery.
You can see this with each of the Ten Commandments, understood according to their spirit, how they offer a way that is better for us.
But there is a problem, also, which the next chapters in Genesis tell. The first humans like us today, when it came down to trusting God and choosing a way that was life-giving and good or to go our own way, down a path that was self-destructive, harmful to others and ourselves, and cut off from God. For no good reason, they chose that path, and we still do today.
To be human also is to realize that we are fallible and fallen. We are a admixture of mystery and misery, truth and tragedy, sacred yet sinful. Despite being made for love and life and light, we allow pride and hate and greed and lust and fear to get the better of us. We turn from God and others and even are inauthentic to ourselves, and so, we are can be caught in sin.
I once sat with a man whose wife left him because he beat her in an argument, and how he was consuming himself with alcohol. As I realized, he was punishing himself, drinking himself to death, because he knew he had done something that he could not forgive himself for, destroying his marriage, the one good thing in his life.
As I got to share with him, if forgiveness is up to us, we don’t have the right to forgive ourselves, that is true. The modern notion of Oprah-style all we need to do is accept ourselves is a myth. Forgiveness is not up to us. But whether our lives have worth, whether we deserve a second or third or forth chance, whether our lives are redeemable after we have done things that we can’t even think to forgive ourselves, these are up to the one who made us, knows us, and loved us, who has the right to all judgment, who has the right then to all forgiveness.
Since God loved his children so much, he came as one of us, God in the flesh, God Immanuel, in Jesus Christ as a sign that God is for us not against us.
And when we rejected him, betrayed him, took him and murdered him on a cross, God in Jesus Christ forgave us; he bore our death, so that we could have his life, and on the third day, he rose from the grave to show that nothing can stop the victory of his love over sin.
Because of this, we human beings have love, forgiveness and hope. And I have learned that we humans cannot live without these things.
Learning to be Human Together
Now what does this mean for us here as a church? Someone once told me they don’t go to church. I asked, “Why not?” They responded, “The church is full of people, and I am just not the kind of person that can put up with people.” To which I had to respond, “You do know you are also a ‘people’ too right?”
God has loved us with a self-giving love, and so we ought to love others as we love ourselves. It is in loving others and being loved ourselves that we discover how we are human.
Being human is not merely that we have brains and bodies, sexuality and smarts, it is why do we have them, and what do we use them for? For importantly, it is how do we treat others with the love and respect we wish for ourselves? It is to see ourselves in and through others. That is what we mean by our common humanity.
There is a simple notion that we often forget. We do not control how we are born. So many of the things I take for granted about my identity I did not choose: I am a Canadian born, male, of Dutch descent, born to a middle class family that thankfully provided a good home to grow up in, good schools to go to. I don’t have any major health concerns. I did not choose my body. I did not choose my ethnicity, my sexual orientation, my citizenship, so many things about me. One of my defining characteristics in my career as an academic is my mind. While I worked hard to be where I am today, I also recognize that I did not choose the brain I have.
If we recognize this, we have to realize, I could have had a very different life. If I could have been another, how would I want to be treated? How do I treat others who have been less fortunate than myself? How do we understand people who have made terrible mistakes, destructive choices?
I am friends with a federal level prison chaplain. He works with people leaving prison after committing crimes like murder. He said working this job has been profound for so many reasons. One reason is the most startling: He has come to realize that those that commit murder are not monsters. We want to think of them as such, but the reality is scarier: They are people just like us. We all are a lot more alike than we are different.
We are all humans made in God’s image, and when we realize that, we also know we are all sinners, people who fail to live out God’s likeness. Each and every one of us. We are a lot more alike than we are different.
Sometimes we expect the church to be perfect, to say fundamentally, “I am not like them; those people.” Sometimes we convince ourselves we are: we try to be perfect at church, and put on a face to hide that we are not.
But the church, as I have found, is that place where we learn how to be human. And that means not showing off our achievements and strengths, but contending with our weaknesses and failures.
This is why I believe in the work of the church: It not because the church is perfect. It is the opposite. It is the place we can relearn our humanity by realizing I can’t be who I am without you.
I can’t fully realize how God accepts me for who I am, until I accept others for who they are.
I can’t fully realize how I am forgiven, until I start forgiving others.
I can’t be honest with myself, until I can be honest with others.
I can’t know that I am loved until I am vulnerable about the parts of me that I don’t love myself.
Why? This is all a reflection of who God is, the God that is relationship in his very essence as Father, Son, and Spirit. God is, in the Trinity, a community of being, and we are made in his image to find ourselves in community as well. We are the visible family of God, called together from our diversity into a common love.
And that makes the church, when it is taking its calling to be radically human, both profoundly difficult but also profoundly beautiful.
Our constantly tendency is to define ourselves according to our strengths and achievements, our titles and roles. But this way makes us terrified of failure, of growing old, of losing status or ability.
What if we see ourselves more clearly not in times of strength and success, but in times when we have been the most vulnerable and shown our weaknesses? But what if we see define ourselves not by what we have achieved, but by what we have received?
One of the most powerful books I have ever read is Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human. Vanier’s own life, as we have seen, tells the tale of both the sacredness and sin, but that perhaps allows his work to be all the more applicable: He tells in this book of how his communities for people with disabilities got started. He tells of one man, Eric, so tormented with loneliness and fear from being abandoned due to his severe disabilities, that he would leap on people and squeeze them.
When Eric was brought to Vanier’s community, Vanier realized that this person’s biggest problem was not medical, it was emotional. So, they figured, what if he really does just need someone there. So, they got the biggest orderly they could find, someone that was not going to get hurt by Eric, and they let him squeeze for as long as he needed. And as Eric did, the orderly just hugged him back and reassured him that nothing bad was going to happen, he was in a place that he was loved and accepted. Slowly but surely, Eric’s condition improved. He of course was still severely disabled, but his quality of life and ability deeply improved and it was really only because he had come to know that he was loved.
Eric needed a love that would never let him go in order to heal of his wounds and be all that he could be. We are no different. I think that is what the church when it is being the church, can do.
May you know today, that you are God’s child, made in his image.
May you know that he loves you, has drawn near to you in Jesus Christ, and even has we rejected him and turned from him, even then, God has loved us so much that he died our death and offered us his perfect life.
May you received this love today. May it define all that you are, and may you turn then and show it to others.
And in knowing, in receiving, and in living it out in turn, may we together be as God intended his church to be: fully human.
A reading of Psalm 77 from the NRSV:
1 I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah
4 You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10 And I say, “It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the depths trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
May God bless the reading of his word.
The Psalms are the prayer book of Israel, arranged to mediate and pray through our life of obedience to God’s law. They are written in five books just like the books of Moses, mirroring them. They are a lasting reminder in the canon of scripture that true faith in God and true obedience to his ways are only possible by prayer.
As Psalms 1 and 2, the gateways to the Psalter, state, these poetic prayers are also intended to pray through the rise of David, the anointed one, the plight of the persecuted righteous, but then the Psalms form a narrative of sorts, praying through the failure of the Davidic kings, and then the exile of God’s people and its devastation, and then finally the restoration of Israel’s hope surrounding the coming messiah and restoration of temple worship. Psalm 77 occurs in that middle point, between the times of thanksgiving.
In this travail of 150 Psalms, I was surprised, the first time I read through them in high school, to find out so many of them are psalms that express lament, doubt, even anger and accusation at God. About half are psalms what Walter Brueggemann calls psalms of “disorientation.” And they are disorienting, make no mistake. The first time I read some of these psalms I remember my words being caught in my throat in shock.
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22)
Why have you rejected me? (Ps. 43)
Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Ps 44)
O God, why have you rejected us forever? (Ps. 74)
Lord, where is your great love? (Ps. 89)
I remember saying to myself, “How can this be in the Bible?” Does the author not trust God? If you trust God, how can you ask such false, absurd, disrespectful things of him? I was taught that God is good and if you feel otherwise your feelings are wrong, so don’t trust your feelings.
I was also taught that we were saved by faith, and how do you know you have faith? You believe the right things. How do you come to know the right things? The Holy Spirit convicts you directly, so don’t ever question your beliefs. To doubt them is to doubt what saves you. You trust them and never waver, for so many have doubted their way along that proverbial “slippery slope.”
I was taught that all that a Christian needs to do to overcome sadness or despair, if true Christians are capable of such things, was to believe a bit harder, to focus on Jesus a bit closer, obey more purely, and if that does not help you have done something wrong. We sang, “Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright, happy all the time.” Of course, we know that life is not uniformly happy, but some have heard this and thought: If I am sad, does that mean I don’t have Jesus?
So, when I came across a psalm like this one, my automatic gloss on a text like this in order to make it fit my paradigm was, “Oh well, this is Old Covenant. So glad we are in the New Covenant of grace now!” (Somewhere Glenn Wooden and Matt Walsh just shuttered, I’m sure).
The Psalms are perhaps one of the most interesting books of the Bible in that they are God’s word to us by first being our words expressed to God, which possess all sorts of interesting conundrums for how we understand inspiration for sure. If Marshal McLuhan is correct and the medium is the message, the fact that the psalter is the experience of God’s people prayed to God – experience of creation, politics, love, war, illness and healing, obedience and confession, thanksgiving and despair, praise for God’s presence in one’s life, and more pointedly, lament over times of a sense of God’s absence – all of these prayers, strangely and beautifully, turn back to be a word from God to us, and this says something: there is no domain of human experience, whether science or history, politics or poetry, that is irrelevant or meaningless to our relationship with God. This includes times of despair, feelings of abandonment by God, even anger at God. God permits these to be meaningful to him.
Worship, according to the Psalms means there is no facet of human life that God does not find meaningful, and no facet of human life that cannot find its meaning in him. Whether it is the mountain of divine ecstasy, miracles, that fuzzy feeling we all get when Andrew Conrad sings in chapel with silk-smooth voice, or the opposite: “valleys of the shadow of death,” darkness, discouragement and despair.
The Psalms, like this one, then offer a template for emotions to inhabit, words to give voice to what is our hearts, or, as John Calvin once said, a mirror to see into our souls. They offer a rhythm to allow scripture’s story to be our story and for our story to an extension of Christ’s story in the world.
There is a Christian poem that we have probably all heard so many times that to quote it now may sound a bit cheesy, but it goes like this: there was a man walking along the beach with God, and he looks at the footprints to find that there were only one set of tracks where his life seemed the toughest. “Where were you then?” he asked God. “My child,” God replies, “that is when I carried you.”
We miss the insight here that often in times when we think God is absent – that indeed there are times we will feel God is absent, that we will feel like God has forsaken us – it is in these times he is in fact present to us in a way we only discover afterwards.
The mystic Simone Weil once said that the absence of God was more present to her than the experience of all other presences. For her times where she thought she saw God absent in the world begged deep multi-layered questions for faith and prayer that atheism only gave shallow responses to.
Mystics like St. John of the Cross have called these experiences the “dark night of the soul.” Dark nights are times in which we feel distant from God, times that we might even then get angry at God, accusing him, or blaming ourselves, and yet, if these experiences do their work, they are pathways to deeper trust, deeper intimacy, deeper love of a God who is ineffable: beyond all our words, ideas, feelings, and actions.
Have you gone through a time like this? Did you wonder whether God was there? Perhaps you still wonder. Perhaps you are going through one of sorts right now. Or, perhaps, you are sitting here thinking this does not apply to you, and so, perhaps you should just bank this message for later: perhaps you may need this message in the near future, say some time between mid-terms and finals (I don’t know, but that is just my guess).
I can tell you I needed this message. My most significant personal trial occurred in the final year of Bible College, which I call “my dark summer.” I went to a Bible College in Cambridge, Ontario. My experience in Bible College up until this point I think had been pretty standard. I hung out with friends. We would goof off playing video games till 2:00 am, pull all-nighters getting essays done that we waited till the night of to do, or sit around strategizing how to “court” certain girls. I say “court” because – thank-you Joshua Harris – we did not believe in “dating” (if you don’t know that distinction, trust that you have been spared). The guys residence, which did not permit the presence of any woman in there except for a small window of a few hours after lunch on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, was like a G rated National Lampoon’s Animal House, with holes in the walls from wrestling matches and broken lamp shades from air soft rifle attacks, and other collateral damage from the ongoing prank wars. The kind of usually college things.
I loved my studies, despite not taking them particularly seriously. I was always an insatiably curious person. And while the seminary’s official perspectives were generally conservative, in the ongoing rigor of academic studies, I began to ask questions about the reliability of scripture; how do you interpret Genesis one? What do you do with the ending of Mark? Could even, dare I even utter the question, a woman be ordained? (That was a dangerous question in those circles). Each time I would just repress the question, swallowing it back with an easy proof text to keep me on the straight and narrow, lest I go down the “slippery slope.”
Or at least I certainly tried. While I was in college, I helped a small house church. I remember one night after Alpha Course, I was angry at one person because they believed in infant baptism (how dare he!). I turned to my pastor and friend saying, “We need to stop that person from thinking that way! It’s unbiblical!”
My pastor and friend turned to me in the car, “How do you know you aren’t the one who is wrong?”
I responded, “I can’t be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit!”
He smiled and echoed my words back to me, “You are saying you cannot be wrong?”
“That’s right,” I said again, “I cannot be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit.”
This repeated on for a while, longer than I would care to admit, and he kept repeating my words to me till the thought struck me, “Wow, I sound really arrogant. I’m human. I’m a sinner. Of course, I could be wrong!” The day I learned to ask myself “Could I be wrong?” about the things I regarded as “too important for me to be wrong,” was the day my faith started to fragment.
Psalm 77 says in verse 3, “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.” Tremper Longman notes that the Psalmist seems to be uncomfortable with the ideas they had about God. The pat answers no longer satisfy.
But then something else happened, my father, who had just retired, complained at Christmas time of stomach-aches, and doctors diagnosed it as inoperable, pancreatic cancer. In four months, he lost over a hundred pounds, shriveling up into something you would see in holocaust pictures.
Yet, my Dad had a very strong faith. He knew that he was going to die, and told me, “Spencer, I know I am not getting out of this one.” He told me how proud he was of me and encouraged me to continue pursuing my ministry calling and academics. As he said that, he took off his wedding ring and his favorite watch and gave them to me.
He kept telling me that the last thing he wanted to do was see me graduate, so in April, we drove him to Forward Baptist Church, and we brought him in on a wheel chair for the graduation ceremony. He passed away two weeks later in hospice, just over four months after being diagnosed.
Losing your Dad is like losing the one reason to make another person proud, because he was that person. Watching your Dad die, knowing that pancreatic cancer is hereditary, is like watching yourself die, to be permanently haunted with the suspicion that one day, you too may just get a stomach-ache, and this is how you will go too, and it will be painful. It caused me to wonder what the point of doing studies was. Was there a point to anything?
Yet, he showed me an example of perseverance in suffering. One time, his meds wore off, and he clenched his fists so that his fingers dug into his palms. Bent over in the tremendous pain, he prayed, “Thank-you, God, even for this. Thank-you for every opportunity you give me to show my love for you!” Those words have gotten me through a lot.
At the same time, that summer, more happened. I went to the mall. I saw my close friend, who was a part-time supervisor there and also an associate pastor in the area. He asked if I was up for coming to his car, while he was on smoke break. I agreed. When we got there, he confessed to me that his marriage had come to a brutal end. I asked, “Why?” and he responded: “Spencer, I’m gay.” This came as a complete surprise to me. He apparently married his wife trying to suppress or change his orientation, but the result was the opposite. He went through reorientation therapy and it only made matters worse. When he told his senior pastor, the pastor fired him on the spot, saying, “Obviously you just need more faith!”
The ensuing scandal led him, my friend, to become suicidal. He had become convinced that he was predestined not to actually have salvation because, as he thought, “With enough faith I can do anything, but if I am still like this, I must not have enough faith. And if I do not have faith, which God gives as a gift, God must not want me to be saved. Perhaps,” he said to me, “maybe I am one of those people who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but never were actual believers.” So, he concluded that if he did not have God in his life, life was no longer worth living. He attempted suicide and, thankfully, failed, and as he told me his story, he showed me his scared, sliced hands, which he had hidden under long sleeves. I was moved with tears. What I managed to choke out was that if he was willing to take his own life in the idea that life without God is not worth living, then truly he revers God in a way that I have never had to. That, I can only reason, is a sign that he does have a relationship with God. The first beatitude is blessed are the poor in spirit, not the rich in spirit, after all. If Jesus died for all sin at the cross, I simply could not accept that God rejects a person who needs him, no matter who they are.
My summer had more to it. Yes, there is more. The pastor of that little church I volunteered at, had recently closed, and moved into another congregation. My friend was really getting wayward at this point. He and his family went off on vacation to his hometown.
They got back and something was different. I felt like they were angry at me for some reason, as they just seemed stand-offish and dodgy. Turns out it was because their marriage was ending. The man had met up with a woman from high school while in his hometown and he was planning on going to leave to be with her. News like this did not stay hidden, soon everyone knew, and it was a mess.
He left, and I remember him telling me this and me just being in a state of shock for days. I idolized this person, my mentor and best friend. Yet I watched this man spiral mentally and spiritually into chaos. He left for a time, but in time he eventually came to his senses in that months that followed and came back.
Along with this, I was also penniless. I could not find a student job at the beginning of summer, and so, I was getting back on summer rent and worried I would get kicked out with all that was happening. I eventually finally got a job working night shift at Tim Horton’s. My only conversational partner in the dead of night, as I cleaned coffee pots and changed garbage cans, was a Polish immigrant lady named Helena, who knew enough English to take a coffee order, swear in half-English-half-Polish under her breath, and ask to go for a smoke. Those were lonely nights. As the semester started, I had to work night shifts then go to class, sleep, then work all night, and I did this for a time until I could find another job.
My father dying, my fiend coming-out about his sexuality and attempting suicide, my friend and mentor having a mental break down – this all happened in one summer.
When you care about a person, when you have a deep friendship, their doubts have a way of becoming your doubts: their pain, your pain.
The Psalm records in verse 6, “I communed with my heart in the night; I meditated and searched my spirit.” One night, I recall sitting in my room feeling that all rational grounding for my faith was left void, all practical examples of faith in my life had failed, left the church, or, even worse, had passed away due to horrific god-forsaken illness. It was in that moment of despair that I sensed a great void of meaning confront my life: Could all this be worthless? Is life an abyss of vacuous truth?
The Psalmist asks in verse 8, “Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Similarly, I asked: Where are you God? Why didn’t you heal my dad? Why didn’t you come through for my friends? Are you even there?
Then something happened. Something manifested itself to me. I remember sensing in that abyss of the void, the truth of Christ beyond all the failures of human thought and religion, a hope that prevailed. It did not take away the abyss, but make the darkness less of fear and more like stillness. An existential Selah, the Psalmist might suggest.
It simply assured me that while I can get my faith terribly wrong, Christ is still there. My “truth” could fail, but Christ will not. If Jesus is who he is, “Even if we are faithless,” says 2 Tim. 2:13, “he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”
The Psalmist, similarly, despite doubt, despite anguish and accusation, recounts the deeds of God and feels assurance, meditating on the Exodus:
I will meditate on all your work…
Your way, O God, is holy…
You are the God who works wonders…
You redeem your people…
The result of this was that I committed myself to rethinking my faith with a new-found hope and reassurance. That summer I must have read through about 30 books. I thought to myself that if Christ is true even if my beliefs have failed, then I must give Christianity the benefit of the doubt and investigate what others have said, others I either ignored or missed. My studies became excited by a deep personal drive that pushed me on to doctoral studies, driven by the thrill of wondering and wandering with a God who is with us even in the questions.
I would not presume to say to you that somehow this means all these questions I had then have been resolved. The point of faith, of relationship, is not to have it resolve. St. John of the Cross reminds us that while periods of despair lift, the Dark Night of the Soul is actually without end in this life. For that is seeing, as Paul would said, always “as in a mirror darkly” until the final day where we will see God face to face.
I did not mean nor want any of the things that happened to me that summer in seminary. No one wants their faith to be fragmented like this, especially those who need it most, as I did. I have met so many Christians who have gone through a time of questioning or a time of discouragement, and they have fallen away from the church and from faith altogether, often because of an expectation of faith that could not permit doubts or could not see God’s presence in times of darkness, yet this psalm invites us to see, paradoxically, that God’s presence is there even in times of absence, light in times of darkness, and faith in and through the toughest questions.
If you know someone in your life perhaps like this, continue to pray for them, for we know that our good shepherd does not forsake the lost sheep. And if you feel you may be one of those lost sheep, know that our God has not forsaken you either. If you feel alone, know that you have a family here at ADC that may know a thing or two about what you may be going through.
My other concern is for us teachers and pastors also. Sometimes we can be so obsessed with numeric growth we neglect the hard work of spiritual growth. Sometimes we are so afraid of the fallout of asking a provocative question to our congregations we don’t ask it at all. Or worse, sometimes we become so afraid of the consequences of these questions, we stop asking them of ourselves entirely. To paraphrase St. John of the Cross, those who are in the darkest nights of the soul are the ones who have convinced themselves they are walking in perfect daylight.
C. S. Lewis once said this after his wife died, in his book, A Grief Observed, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has been shattered time after time. God shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? And most are offended by this iconoclasm; but blessed are those who are not.”
Brothers and sisters, blessed are those who are not.
So, may you know today in all your questions, wonderings, and wanderings, that you have a God that knows you deeper than you know yourself, closer to you than you are to yourself, who sees you with eyes of mercy, who holds you with hands that were pierced for you and bleed for you at the cross.
May you be free to bring to him in prayer your whole self, nothing held back, whether confession or accusation, joy or despair, and know that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ.
May you be blessed to be shattered, to have your faith in fragments, and yet, little by little, day by day, fragment by fragment, may you be remade into a mosaic that depicts Jesus to our broken world.
Rev. Dr. Spencer Miles Boersma
Acadia Divinity College Chapel,
September 30th, 2020.
I titled this sermon “The Unexpected Messiah,” and this has been a few weeks of the unexpected, hasn’t it?
This week has been a week of frustration trying to work from home, restlessness from being cooped up, of isolation from not seeing family and friends, of anxiety and anxiousness over this pandemic and all the fallout from it. But it has also been a time of unexpected blessings: time with my wife and kids, time that makes one thankful for all that we have, time being forced to do a little more of what the Bible calls sabbath.
And now, here this Sunday, I did not expect to be giving a sermon in front of a laptop today. But I also could not have expected everyone to pull through and come together to make the online service possible. These days are teach us in a new way what it means to be the church. So this has been a season of the unexpected, and now we are here on Palm Sunday, ready to enter Holy Week. I have to ask, if we have made preparations for how the world can give us unexpected twists and turns, are we ready for how God can show up unexpectedly? Let us come to God’s word for what we might hear from him today. The reading is Matthew 21:1-17 from the NRSV:
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
What do we expect kings to look like? What do we think of when we think of power?
Three hundred years before Christ, there arose a man named Alexander the Great. One of the most successful conquerors of all time – up there with Napoleon and Genghis Khan.
A Macedonian prince, schooled by the brightest in the world, his tutor was the philosopher Aristotle, and early in his life, the prince burned with a violent ambition for conquest.
After his father’s assassination, Alexander assumed the throne at age 20. Alexander feared rebellion, and so, he quickly worked to eliminate all possible challengers to his throne. He killed his cousins, two princes, his father’s other wife, her father, who was a general, and her daughter. He killed his whole family.
Once he had done this, he pursued his real agenda. He assembled his army: 48 000 soldiers, 6000 calvaries, 120 ships with crews that amounted to 38 000, and battle after battle, he conquered the known world.
His army was nothing short of impressive. Without radios, without motors, without any of our modern luxuries, his army ran with an efficiency and discipline that would make modern generals blush.
He was without a doubt one of the most formidable commanders in world history, ingeniously outflanking armies several times larger than his own. His victories are the stuff of legends.
In ten short years, his army had conquered all the way to Egypt then out all the way to India, where his soldiers finally persuaded him to turn back and go home.
When he came through Israel, he laid siege to the cities, and as they fell, he ordered his soldiers to kill all military-age males and to take all male children to sell them as slaves, funding the war effort.
Along the way, he founded 20 cities, most of them creatively named, “Alexandria.” As the army returned home, Alexander figured that he would set up a new capital in Babylon, however, one day, at age 32, after drinking some wine, he fell violently sick and died. Most historians suspect it was an assassination.
Alexander’s life was short, but spectacular. This young man conquered the known world by age 30. If you could describe his life in one word, it might be “glorious”: the glory of battle, of brilliance, of victory and conquest. That is why they call him Alexander the Great.
History is full of these kinds of “Greats”: Rameses the Great, Antiochus the Great, Cyrus the Great, Herod the Great, etc.
When Alexander conquered a city he rode in on his favourite horse. He rides his mighty horse, Bucephalus.
Look at almost every city in the world and at the heart of the city is a statue of its great man riding a horse.
Look Rome. Look at London. Look at Washington. Even look at Ottawa. They all proudly display the conqueror on the horse. It is the fundamental symbol of worldly power: The man on the horse, who has brought peace by victory. This is our image of power, wealth, stability, glory. This is what we expect a king to be like. Riding in with his army on the stallion, a Brucephalus.
Jesus did not ride in on a horse. Jesus did not do what we think kings should do. He wasn’t the messiah God’s people were expecting. He came in an unexpected way to give an unexpected message. And who Jesus is and what his message says, still today, two thousand years later, upsets our expectations of what we think God to be.
That is our challenge this morning. Jesus is still the unexpected messiah.
1. The people had the wrong expectation
Throughout the Old Testament, it is the people’s perennial temptation to want a conqueror on a horse. The people saw the great kings, and unfortunately, they wanted to be like the nations.
Look at the horse in the Old Testament, and frankly, sorry horse-lovers, the Old Testament does not look well on horses. Nearly every mention of horses is negative.
Why? Horses were exclusively used in war. You used oxen for farming. You used camels for long travel. Horses were much more expensive. They were kept for a singular purpose: battle.
Horses were the tanks of the ancient world, able to outflank foot soldiers and plow throw them like a knife through butter.
Israel’s prophets watched men like Alexander the Great riding on their horses. Deuteronomy warned that if Israel trusted in human power and a human king over God, the king will trust in his military more than God and lead the people astray. Deuteronomy 17:16 warns that the king must never accumulate horses, “lest they go back to the ways of Egypt.”
But they did.
The Old Testament is a sad narrative at many points. It is the story of God longing to be the king of his people, for them to trust him and accept his reign over their hearts and lives, but they resist for they want a king like the nations do. They want the wealth and security and grander of an empire. And they were willing to follow other gods, if those gods promised these things.
The apex of this quest is during King Solomon’s reign. His God-given wisdom brought wealth and prosperity beyond measure. 1 Kings records that he had so much gold that silver was virtually worthless, as common as rocks. But then he grew arrogant. The Bible records that he started to accumulate horses. It says he amassed 12 000 horses and 1400 chariots. He started to stockpile weapons.
He brokered alliances with pagan kings, and they gave him their daughters in marriage. His greed caused him to collect women like he did gold and weapons. And these wives persuaded him to worship their idols, perhaps because they promised power. Solomon grew corrupt. His kingdom began to fracture from insurrection as he grew more and more oppressive. The nation broke in two after his death into North and South, and as the two dynasties of kings constantly fell into idolatry and injustice, God finally removed his presence of protection.
Israel gets conquered again and again. First by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans in the time of Jesus. Israel lived under the shadow of empires and emperors, in oppression and occupation.
One hundred years before Jesus, the Jews revolt against the a Greek ruler named Antiochus Epiphanies. Antiochus bans Jewish worship and proclaims himself god. He nicknames himself the “Anti-messiah” the “Anti-Christ” in mockery of the Jewish God. The Jews are outraged and are rallied by their high priest, Matthias the Hasmonean. He gathers an army in the wilderness, and his five sons lead the army, headed by his firstborn, Judas the Maccabee. Maccabee means “the hammer” by the way: Judas the Hammer.
The Maccabees succeed in retaking Jerusalem. They come riding into Jerusalem on their warhorses. People cry out in adoration spreading their cloaks on the road. The people greet them by waving the symbol of their house. Can you guess what that is? The palm branch.
Now the Maccabean revolt was not particularly successful. Israel very quickly becomes a vessel kingdom to a larger empire, but the memory hangs on. People long for the good old days. They are nostalgic for the glory of the Maccabees. They long, you might say, to “Make Israel Great Again,” and so, the people greet Jesus with palm branches because they expected he was going to raise an army just like the Maccabees. He would be the next hammer. He would be a conqueror on a horse: Jesus the Maccabee, Jesus the Hammer.
The irony for us Christians is that we wave palm branches on a day like this, because that is what the passage describes. I have fond memories of holding palm branches in church when I was little. They seem so harmless. But since we are removed from this history, we do not realize why they were holding them. The palm branch was a symbol of revolution. It was like the hammer and sickle.
Perhaps this might change your feelings about waving a palm branch on Palm Sunday ever again. Or perhaps, maybe it is a reminder that we too can still today expect God to be something other than what he truly is.
In my experience, I know many people, Christians included, who assume God is like an invisible Santa Claus in the sky, existing to just give us stuff. This is the God that if you just believe in him, and if you are nice enough, which everyone generally is, you get stuff. You can get whatever you want out of God, and getting stuff is really the most important thing.
Other expectations are far less jolly. There is an expectation of God where God is so moralistic and angry, people live in constant fear and guilt. Their religion can be summarized in one line: “Don’t mess up or else.” This god claims to be loving, but only so long as you obey, never question, never stray.
This is a god that is a reflection of our own failed perfectionism. This god’s grace is limited because we are limited. We expect this god’s grace to be limited because we expect god to act just like us. If we know that we don’t measure up to our own standards, why should god be any different?
Still others believe God is absent from their lives, absent in the same way perhaps their fathers are. Where was God when I needed him most? Somewhere else, with his children, he clearly cares more about than me. This is a God that is never around and no matter what we do, we can never get his attention because nothing is ever good enough.
Still others believe in a God that approves of their politics. God is American. God is western. God is white. God is male. God is on our side. Our nation is God’s nation. Our war is God’s war. God hates everyone I hate.
What is it for you? What is your expectation of God? How have you put Jesus in a box of expectations the Gospel does not fit?
Can you say to yourself today as Isaiah 55:9 says: God your ways are not my ways and your thoughts are not my thoughts.
This easter time, are you ready for God to surprise you? Are you prepared for Jesus to show up in unexpected ways?
The people in Jesus’ time weren’t ready.
2. Jesus gave an unexpected message
Israel expected Jesus to be a conqueror on a horse. They expected him to come in and rally the troops like Judas Maccabee did, to conqueror the nations like Alexander the Great. But Jesus, as we know from the Gospel of Matthew, did not come riding in on a Brucephalus. He did not come with an army, with golden armour or sword. He did something unexpected.
He rode in on a donkey. Donkeys are work animals. They have stubby legs, best for carrying heavy loads, not for speed. If you have ever seen someone ride a donkey, you know it is not the most dignified of animals.
The people wave palm branches, hailing Jesus a warlord King. Jesus counters this with the prophecy of Zechariah, which Matthew quotes the first part of:
Look, your king comes to you
Triumphant and victorious is he
Humble and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The next verse is important:
He will end the chariot from Ephraim
And the war-horse from Jerusalem;
And the battle bow shall be ended,
And he shall command peace to the nations
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
The donkey is not only the symbol of humility, but it is also the prophetic sign of non-violence. Jesus is not their warlord. Jesus is not there to start a war. Jesus is not against the Romans. Nor is he merely the king of the Jews. He is everyone’s king. His kingdom cannot be reduced to this nation or that land or that tribe and that tongue. He desires peace for everyone.
In the 1970’s a Christian by the name of Oscar Romero preached to his church in El Salvador against the oppression they faced. He would be martyred for speaking out against these oppressors. So, the people wanted to rise up in revolution, kill their oppressors. They wanted Romero to tell them God was on their side, that God would approve of their violence. This is what he said:
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross; the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
Jesus was a disruptor, a resistor, a revolutionary, just not the one they wanted him to be. His is a revolution of love, of justice, of peace, of reconciliation.
The people wanted him to kill all their enemies. Jesus did something more profound and ultimately more dangerous. He exposed the enemy within our hearts.
St. Augustine once said, “It is arrogant to believe that our enemies can do more damage than our own hatred.”
The people were expecting Jesus to come into the temple and perhaps give one of those iconic speeches a general might give, like Mark Anthony’s “Friends, brothers, countrymen, lend me your ears.” They expected him to preach a message that vindicated them and pronounced vengeance to their enemies. We are God’s people! They are not! Kill them, end this occupation, establish your kingdom, make us rich like in the days of Solomon! It says instead that he starts to overturn the tables.
Now let me put to rest an old misconception about this passage: Jesus was not surprised and outraged because there was commerce occurring in the Temple. the priests of the temple were not just having bake sales and fundraisers. In fact, what we know of the temple is that it was very important to the city that it did carry on commerce: The temple contracted barbers, clothing makers, incense makers, goldsmiths, etc. The temple kept a lot of common people employed. This is not the issue.
The issue was not commerce per se, but a certain kind of commerce. Jesus says that the practices turned the temple into a house of robbers. What was the robbery? The text says: Jesus overturned the money changers and dove sellers.
From what we know of temple practice, the temple refused to allow any goods or services to purchased with Roman money. The Temple had its own currency that you had to buy it first at an increased rate just to go buy something else. The temple regarded Roman money as unclean money, and unfit to be used to buy sacrifices with, but conveniently the temple did not have a problem taking that money off a person’s hands. Out of their hands and into the priests’ pockets, who conveniently not defiled to have large sums of it.
What sacrifice was being bough there? The text says doves. That is interesting because the law in the Old Testament allowed two options for a sin offering. If you sinned you could either sacrifice a goat or a dove. Goats obviously cost way more than doves, so if you were rich, you would obviously use a goat. Doves were the choice for the poor.
What we know of temple practices of this day is that doves were being sold at an exorbitant price: two gold coins per pair of doves. The poor had to pay several months of income just to get a pair of birds to sacrifice to God. In other words, the temple was exploiting the poor. The Temple was selling forgiveness. They turned grace into oppression, into a get rich quick scheme.
So the liberator on a donkey, comes into the temple he is supposed to drive out the Roman occupation from, but instead, he starts driving out the religion’s true sickness: greed, exploitation, apathy, hypocrisy. That’s unexpected.
Now we scowl and condemn those Pharisees, how do we do similar things?
How do we limit God’s grace to only those who we think are worthy?
What walls of exclusion have we built for who can come into God’s houses and who do we try to keep out?
Where have we used God’s name to justify our agendas?
How have we invoked our faith to remain comfortable and privileged?
Who have we blamed in order for that to stay the way it is?
If Jesus came into our churches, our lives, while we shout “Hosanna!” what tables would he overturn today?
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from our culture, full of unbelievers and doubters,” Jesus comes and clears the temple of our own faithlessness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those people that are ruining the environment,” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own wastefulness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, make sure I have enough money,” Jesus may come and clear the temple of our lack of generosity.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those greedy CEO’s and corrupt politicians;” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own hypocrisy.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, keep me safe from the coronavirus,” Jesus may come and remind us of our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our society.
As we shout out, “Hosanna,” are we prepared to have God work in us, break us open, overturn our expectations?
3. Who do we expect Jesus to be?
You will notice in this narrative that Jesus had many people respond to him. Some good others not. Which ones are we like?
First, there are the crowds, who proclaimed hosanna with the palm branches, expecting Jesus to be the next military leader. These were the same fickle crowds that just as soon as Jesus was not going to do that, they turned to yell out, “Crucify, crucify!”
When they didn’t get what they wanted out of Jesus, they turned on him. Will we do the same? Will we reject God just because he does not do what we expect him to do? Are we God’s fair-weather friends? Or will we trust God through thick and thin?
The second is the money changers and the Pharisees. These are people invested in the religious system staying the same. They have made their faith all about them. These are people whose identities are built on the idea that they are right and others are wrong. Out of some misdirected sense of piety, they decide who is in and who is out. And of course, they and those like them are the ones who are in and would prefer to keep it that way.
Are we like that? How are we invested in our churches staying the same? How are we invested in our churches looking just like us?
The last group is the sick and the children. The text says that Jesus, after clearing the temple immediately started healing the sick. If you had an illness in that culture, you would have been deemed unclean. In other words, you were excluded from the temple. You could not sacrifice. You could not have forgiveness.
This is not quite the same thing as being quarantined, for the ancient world believed that if you were sick it was because of your sins. You were cursed. You were clearly a sinner.
Jesus healed them, which means Jesus showed them grace and forgiveness that no one else would or could.
This is so wonderful that little children start praising him as the Son of David.
While we take care of those that are affected by sickness in our community, I think if we understand what sickness meant in Jesus’ time, we have to realize something with it. We are all in need of Jesus’ healing.
Without Jesus, we are all excluded from grace. Without Jesus, we are all unworthy.
Without Jesus, we are lost. Without Jesus, we are all broken. Without Jesus, we cannot expect forgiveness.
If we can admit that, can we confess that Jesus everyday – every day – surprises us with even more grace. Why? Because he is just that kind of messiah. He is just that kind of God.
May this prepare us for what lies ahead this week.
As we think about Good Friday, may we trust even more the surprise of the cross: that when we were content to murder Jesus, Jesus was content to love us. Jesus has died our death to offer us his life.
As we think about Easter Sunday, may we trust even more that surprise of the empty tomb, that all that has gone wrong in this world will be put right.
And if we know that Jesus is so unexpectedly patient, unexpectedly loving, unexpectedly gracious, may we be inspired to live that kind of grace out in our world a bit more too.
In a world of ignorance, of greed, of arrogance, of worry and fear, may you be this week a witness for Christ that your neighbours did not expect.