Tagged: Sermon

Longing for the Justice, Praying with Persistence

Sermon preached at Wolfville Baptist Church, Sunday, Oct. 20th, 2019.

Grocholski_Praying_Jew

Grocholski, The Praying Jew, 1892.

It is a privilege to be here with you this morning.

It is also a great privilege to be able to have my friend and colleague, Melody Maxwell, leading the service with me. The irony should not be lost on us all that while she is “interning” here for her ordination, she is a great teacher to all of us. Not only the students, but I myself have learned much from her.

I am the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College up the hill from you, I have been there now just over a year. My wife and five boys have absolutely loved settling into life in the Annapolis valley.

I can’t decide which I like better the people or the food. Its harvest time – you know that is a very really struggle. I had to ask myself recently whether I wanted to go out and see friends or stay in and enjoy a caramel apple pie from Sterlings. The struggle is real.

Perhaps I don’t have to choose most times. It was over delicious food with great people that I came to be speaking here by the way. Pastor Scott had my family over for dinner and as we talked and ate – Scott and I obvious geeked out and talked about theology – he asked me to come speak while he was away.

The scripture that the lectionary presented for us today – in other words I did not choose this scripture, it was the scripture of today in the lectionary, the reading plan a lot of churches in their daily reading – it is one that I think is deeply needed for our world today, for our church today, or us, right here, right now.

Luke chapter 18:1-8: ‘Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”’

1. What is Prayer?

Why pray? What is prayer?

It is a question that a certain Court of Appeal had to ask as it would have it in British Columbia in 1980. A man accused of arson sat before the court, and as the court deliberated on the evidence as to whether this man did in fact burn down a building, the man, distraught, bowed his head and whispered a prayer. However, in bowing his head, he accidentally leaned into the microphone in front of him, to which the whole court heard him pray, “Oh God, let me get away w this just this once.”

The judge initially discounted this as evidence because a prayer was something private, a conversation between a person and their god, and therefore could not be used. This decision was revoked upon appeal as illegitimate, and so, well, lets just say our boy the arsonist had his prayer answered, just not the answer he wanted.

What is prayer?A court had to think about that and so often we don’t think about what it is. Prayer is talking to God. Prayer is acknowledging God, thanking him, praising him, confessing to him, even listening to him.

Nearly all religions have prayer in it. Ancient Greek religion and philosophy at the time of the New Testament spoke about prayer, with an interesting difference. The Greek believed prayer was important.

Similar to many Christians, they believed prayer helped you become a better person. It is a old proverb that often we pray hoping to change God only to find God has changed us in the process. That is very true.

But the ancient Greeks didn’t believe you could convince the gods to do anything on your behalf. Why? The gods were up there and we were down here. The gods really were not all that concerned about humans and imploring them based on some grand moral cause was seen as pointless because the gods there not moral. They were selfish and aloof. If anything you prayed because if you did not pray, then the gods might be offended at your lack of devotion.

Prayer in the ancient world was like paying a phone bill for a phone that does not work out of fear that if you don’t pay that they will take away your heat and hydro as well.

The Hebrew people, the people of the Old Testament, believed something different. God was a God of love, of redemption, a God that made this world out of his sheer generosity, and is intimately involved with it. Prayer was able to do something, it was able to be answered because God was a relational God, promising to make right what has gone wrong. Our God makes and cares, reveals and listens, relates and rescues.

There is an old philosophical problem that if God knows all things, why would you need to ask him what you need and if he is in deed good, would he be doing that anyway? The only answer to this we see in the implicit logic of Scripture is that God longs for relationship, God will to relate to us, to act with us, and not just by himself.

God did not make himself to be the battery of a clock work universe with you and me as mindless, involuntary cogs and gears. No, the world – we are are invited to be something more like God’s dance partners, invited to dance to the music of redemption, and this dance takes relationship, communication, free will, and vulnerability.

Just as there simply cannot be any good relationship without time spent with one another, without communication, without listening to another, there simply cannot be a Christian life without prayer. Prayer is to faith what communication is to love, and so, prayer is as vital to the Christian as breath is to living.

Jesus reminds us of the need to pray always. 1 Thes. 5:16 says to “pray without ceasing.” Why? Because at every moment God is with you; God is near you; God loves you.

Our God is God Immanuel, God with us. He has stepped into history, the eternal one into time, the infinite one into finite space, and he became flesh, in Jesus he took on our form, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” says Paul, (God had bound himself to our fate to say, “I will come through for you for I have literally put skin in this game”), and so he has shown that there is no barrier or distance between us and him.

God is the very root of our being, the very spark that gives us life, the energy that gives us vitality, the air that gives us breath. He knows us perfectly, and yet he wants to hear from us. He does not want to be a spectator to your life, but an active part. He is what causes our hearts to beat, and yet he is gentle enough to knock and ask to be invited it.

P. T. Forsyth once said, the greatest answer to prayer is prayer itself. What he meant is that God answers prayer, but the fact of prayer of this kind speaks of the beautiful reality that God listens and loves, a God who is with us and for us.

I know this from pastoring. It was often my privilege to lead a person in their first prayer. Often I would have coffee with someone that I met in the community and I could explain to them that God loves them and that God was always waiting to listen to their cares in prayer, they just needed to voice them. Often the prayers were wonderfully simply, “Um, hey God, its me Josh…um, you’re great. I need help. Thanks in advance…bye.” It’s funny but we sometimes we have over complicated prayer and made it too formal. I love a prayer that is intentionally worded to speak to my heart, but I know God sees that prayer is just as beautiful.

Do you know you can talk to God at any moment? Do you know you can tell him anything? God is the kind of God that delights in hearing what is on your heart. Tell him.

2. Sometimes we can lose heart

Jesus tells us to continue to pray and not lose heart. Is he saying that we need to pray in order to not lose heart? That prayer teaches us to hope as we acknowledge God, remind ourselves of who Christ is and what he has done?

As I have said, it is true, we often come to prayer longing for change in the world or in God perhaps, all to find that God is using prayer to change you: to have a heart of hope, to have a character more confirmed to his, to be comforted by his presence.

Or, and I think this is the more likely reading, is he saying that as the disciples continue, they will pray for many things in a world that is dark they may get discouraged? Have you every prayed for something, something you knew had to be good and if God is good he should obviously want to do this good thing?

Perhaps you prayed for a clear path in the midst of confusion and complexity, all to find that the option that you thought that seem like God’s best option for your life was not what ended up being the case.

I know of a couple that felt called to be missionaries in another country. They were educated, they raised money, they learned new languages and sold their home. Yet when they arrived in their new place of ministry one of their children got fatally ill, and they had to come home permanently, shocked with grief and having to adjust to a life they never foresaw, they wondered how could this be in God’s plan for them as opposed to being out on the mission field? The path seemed so clear, the option obvious.

Perhaps you have prayed for a spouse to change or a marriage to mend.

Perhaps you prayed for a friend or family member struggling with cancer. All to see the cancer slowly over take them.

When I was in college, both my parents died of cancer. My mom had been battling breast cancer since I was in high school, then suddenly my father got pancreatic cancer my third year of college, and he died five months after that, two weeks after I graduated. My mother two years after that, after the cancer that we though she had beaten came back suddenly.

I know God heals in miracles. I have seen what I can only explain as miracles, and yet I don’t know why my parents died where others lived.

Perhaps you have gone through something similar.

Perhaps you have looked at this world, this broken world, and you have prayed for healing and peace and reconciliation and liberation, as I have, all to feel like this world is growing darker.

As we hear of shootings and crises in immigration, news of economic strive that our churches are all feeling the pinch of, or of global warming or the latest dire news about the Kurds, fighting for their lives and loosing their homes, all messages delivered to us in our newsfeed accompanied by articles and memes spouting a new hate, a new irrationality, a new indifference and apathy that has caused me sometimes to wonder in prayer, “Where are you God in all this? Why aren’t things getting better?”

It is easy to look at this world and lose heart. It is easy to pray and feel discouraged.

3. The Parable of Persistence

Jesus knows this. And so, he is telling his disciples, who will face persecution, who will face the oppression and tyranny of the Roman Empire. This disciples will see many of their family members disown them, many of their friends get martyred, all to come to martyrdom themselves, most of the disciples executed for their faith in Jesus. Jesus knew that they are going to see things that would discourage them.

Jesus knows his disciples will pray, they will pray for things that they knew were good, and yet they will see things happen that are disheartening. Jesus knows this.

Jesus does something unexpected, odd even, but brilliant here, he comes into that hopelessness and gives us an analogy in this parable that reminds us that there is hope, that there is always hope. He gives us to the situation of a widow who keeps coming to a cruel judge for justice.

The persistence of the widow – someone with little power or wealth or status, nothing in her but the God-given will to see something better – succeeds where there is no reason for her to succeed other than by her persistence.

The judge, cruel but also apathetic, so apathetic that in the face of persistence, he allows justice as a path of least resistance, in order to not get worn out. Evil is its own demise.

This parable has taken place many times over in the pages of history. People of little power or status or wealth, succeed against all odds, against terrible apathy and evil, why? Perhaps nothing other than persistence, that we can see God behind.

Look to history, we see Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg, brought in arrested before inquisitors, having to escape for his life, writing books hidden away in a tower, all by his persistence he sparked the reformation, what some have called the most powerful social movement of the last half millennia.

We see examples like the persistence of William Wilberforce, who against the wickedness of the slave trade with all its corrupt wealth, was able to write and persist and convince the English world of the evil of slavery.

Look at Emily Stowe, a Christian Quaker, the first female physician and first advocate of women’s suffrage in Canada. Facing sexism, she persisted in advancing her ideas creating the first associations for advancing women in education, in difference professions, and in arguing for the right to vote. She persisted!

Look at Gandhi in India, a person who used hunger strikes and the forms of non-violent resistance, leading a movement against the British who subjugated India and so he successfully persisted in seeing India become independent and free. In the face of imperial power, he won hearts without shedding a drop of blood.

Look at Martin Luther King, in the face of the racist bigotry of segregation, King used again nothing other than non-violence, intellect, faith and persistence in his civil rights campaigns. While he was attacked, stabbed, threatened and eventually assassinated, through his efforts the apathetic heart of President Johnson was moved and the whole American people with him.

King once said that “the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

And I can name many more, whether Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu, or perhaps today we see the example of Greta Thunberg.

Jesus chooses a parable, it is a situation his disciples will know. They will live this parable.

Jesus is perhaps saying, remember that change is possible, a new world is possible, and that is why we can keep praying.

While the disciples did not see the end of persecution nor did they get to live out their lives in quiet, dying in peace, they did see justice: they saw the kingdom coming; they saw the Gospel proclaimed; they saw the Spirit moving; they saw hearts changed.

In all these instances and many more, while history has its darkness, its valleys, it also has its peaks, its beacons of light, its triumphs. Do not forget them! And do not forgot that with God all things are possible!

Why is change possible? Because God is not a tyrant like the unjust ruler, and if a despot can be moved, there is nothing with God who loves us and cares for us that can’t be moved.

How can God not want the best for us if he is the God that died for us?

How can we not have hope when the forces of evil could not keep our Lord Jesus Christ buried in the tomb?

How can we not persist when we see his Spirit moving?

4. Will we be found faithful?

So the text says,’7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”’

Perhaps sometimes we pray: “God solve all this sickness and poverty and war and ignorance. Do something about it!” And God says, “I am going to do something about it: I am going to send you.”

God surprises us some days with unexpected miracles, other days he tells us that we have everything we need already.

We pray longing for the kingdom, but we also praying knowing as Jesus says just a few verses earlier: the kingdom of God is among us. It is within us.

Sometimes we pray for the hand of God to intervene; Sometimes God reminds us that we are his hands and feet. We are his body.

When we pray for the end of poverty, God stirs us towards generosity.
When we pray for the end of war, God moves in us reconciliation.
When we pray for healing, God gives us compassion.
When we pray for liberation, God gives us persistence.

If you are wondering today why  the path of the world has taken a step back,  when you cry out to God longing for the kingdom, for justice, can you consider the possibility that the God is calling you to step forward?

Here is another odd truth: you are the widow of this parable. The widow was a person, as I said, without status, wealth, or power. You can say to yourself I am not strong enough, not smart enough, not financially stable enough, too young, too old, to make a difference. Yet God can use you to be the difference we long for in this world!

Do not lose heart, persist in prayer.

The question I want to leave you with then is Jesus’ Wolfville Baptist Church, will Jesus find you faithful? Will he find us faithful?

Will he find us speaking honesty in a world that does not want truth.
Will he find us being humble in a world of arrogance.
Will he find us being loving in a world that has stopped caring.
Will he find us being generous in a world of greed.
Will he find us being gentle in a world of violence.
Will he find us being just in a world that is cruel.

Will he find us confronting the powers of darkness by the light of his Holy Spirit?

Will he find us being faithful?

Let us take up that invitation today right now, and let’s pray with persistence…

All for Jesus

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Mark 8:27-38:

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[h] 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

This passage challenges us to be the church God has called us to be in so many ways. Here we see who Jesus is, therefore who we are as followers of Christ, and what the way of Jesus is all about.

Jesus is our why for being who we are; Jesus is our how for being who we are; Jesus is our everything.

Let’s mediate on this story for a few minutes. Notice its subtleties, notice all the things God’s spirit has to say to use through it today…

1. Jesus Is Our Why

So Jesus asks the disciples: Who do you say that I am?

Some thought he was John the Baptist, who has recently been killed by Herod, but when Herod found out that there was a man working wonders in the wilderness, he was afraid that God had resurrected John the Baptist. Others thought Jesus was Elijah returned, the figure that would herald the coming messiah. Thus not the messiah, but the herald of the messiah.

Both would be flattering descriptions for Jesus to be likened to, but both fall short.
We also live in a day where there are lots of people saying who Jesus was. Jesus is just a Jewish prophet, a provocative philosopher, or lesser: the invention of the disciples or later tradition, a mere symbol of spiritual truths. These are all good things, but they too fall short.

Who did Peter say he was? “You are the messiah” Matthews Gospel expands Mark’s short and pithy narrative and says “You are the son of the living God.” As I was thinking about this, I had a moment of pause. We don’t talk that way do we? If someone asked you if you believed in Jesus, you might say, “He is my personal lord and saviour” or “he is my God, redeemer and friend.” None of these answers are wrong, but I don’t remember the last time I hard someone say, “He is the messiah.”

And yet for Peter to say this, it means he understands the man in front of him to be the culmination and fulfillment of thousands of years of yearning. As the people sinned, where carried off into exile, returned, rebuilt the temple, and still fell to idolatry, still witnessed empires sweep in and oppress them – the memory of Israel preserves this longing for God’s kingdom, a longing for true justice to be restored on earth, for the poor to be lifted up, for the humble to be exalted, for the people to be healed of their sin for the inside out. All of this to be through the messiah, God’s anointed, the king of Israel who will bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth.

You see in forgetting to acknowledge with that important title, messiah, we have given ourselves over to modest hopes. Jesus is my personal lord and saviour, but his way does not effect my job or my relationships. Jesus is my salvation, but he just does not have any relevance for how I think politically. Jesus is my lord, but I don’t want him to interrupt my comfortable middle-class way of life.

We often make Jesus the saviour of our soul, not the messiah for this broken world.

For Peter this means, in Jesus Christ was not just someone he had an idea about in his head or merely the name for why he was confident he had an afterlife. Jesus Christ was the subject of all his hopes and aspirations, politically, socially, personally, spirituality – all of it. When we acknowledge this, we have to then say, Jesus what would it be like if your lordship was made visible in every aspect of my life, in every aspect of my town, in every aspect of my province and country.

When we turn on the news and hear of starvation and strife and war, when we listen and here of poverty and drugs, or we learn of struggling families and the great void and emptiness that inflicts so many of our lives. Does your heart yearn? Do you long for healing in our world? When we do we long for Jesus the messiah once again.
As we celebrate, do we also anticipate. As we remember this morning, can we also hope?
As we remember the faithfulness of the Spirit in our past, trust the Spirit to light a fire deep inside us, to help us to hunger again for the way of Jesus, to thirst again for the Gospel.

Who do you say that I am? This is the question not just for the disciples but for us, for all people. This is the question that defines everything. This is the question that defines eternity? Who do you say that I am? Who is Jesus to you?

In order for us as a church to celebrate where we have come and where we are going, we have to re-ask this question: Who is Jesus Christ to us? Is this question front and centre?
If Jesus is not our why, if he is not the reason for everything we are and do, we simply do not have a church.

2. Jesus Is Our How

Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone. He does this several times in the Gospel of Mark. He silences the unclean spirit in the synagogue and he silences those he heals as well. Why does he do that?

Jesus silences people because he does not want to be proclaimed the messiah for military reasons. He does not want to appear as another messianic hopeful, inciting violence against the Romans. He silences these early pronouncements because he is not looking for praise. He is a humble messiah.

Jesus also wants his identity to be fully understood through his cross and resurrection.
Or else you misunderstand Jesus. The cross is Jesus Christ and therefore God in focus. If you want to know what God is like in Jesus Christ, look at the cross.

See what happens to Peter. Peter wants a messiah, but not the way of the cross. He sees Jesus as the messiah – all his hopes and aspiration in him, but then Jesus says, “by the way, me saying these things, means the pharisees are going to have me executed. The people will reject me, but this will be part of the Father’s plan of salvation.”

Jesus tells him the plan, but Peter can’t handle it. Wait, you mean you are not going to conquer and kill all those Romans? You want us to love our enemies? You mean I am not going to be rich and powerful at the end of all this when you come into your kingdoms? You mean I have to become a servant? Wait – you are actually saying the path to salvation is through rejection, execution, crucifixion, death…? This is the example you are setting?

That’s not what I signed up for. That can’t be!

The text says that Peter actually went so far as to rebuke him, as if what Jesus was saying was wrong and Jesus need to repent to be in accordance with Peter’s way of seeing things. That sounds ridiculous but how often do we do that? God that is not what I signed up for! God, the Christian life is supposed to be easy! God, salvation was supposed to me things simpler! God, prayer was supposed to mean I get what I want! Or God, church was supposed to always be blissful and happy! God you need to change this or else. I didn’t sign up for this! This is not my plan for you!

We do that sometimes don’t we? Some of us don’t say it with words, not directly, but we say that with our hearts. We often have no problem believing in Jesus, but then we have to follow Jesus. We love the notion of salvation; we don’t want the cross. Neither did Peter.

But today we must reaffirm that Jesus way is our way. Is obedience and compassion, honesty and humility,  service and sacrifice our way, or is our way the way of the world?: Convenience, indifference, power and comfort?

If Jesus is not our how than we simply do not have good news to share.

I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury before coming here. Sudbury area was a very needy community. The church was surrounded by low income apartments. As I was told by one wise pastor when I came: Sudbury is not an un-churched town it is a de-churched down. It is a town with many who have been hurt by pastors, priests, churches that did not respond with Christ-like love.

I found that particularly of the poor of the city. They were treated as worthless. I put it out that if anyone needed a ride to the food bank I would drive them and if they wanted a coffee after I was more than willing.

Doing this taught me in whole different and new ways how the Gospel must be shared with Christ’s way.

One time two guys got into an argument as I was sitting with them for coffee. The fight sprung out of an argument about who does Snoop Dog look like. Apparently both guys had been using new meds and that made both of them snappy. One jump up and started yelling at the other. They got in each other’s faces as I sat there dumb-founded. The manager quickly yelled at them to leave, and outside, they quickly became apologetic with the manager. The manager came in and looked at me, “So I hear you are their pastor.”

“By the grace of God, yes, I am,” I said. Then I pleaded with the manager to give the guys a break. I came out to find them standing there ashamed. I told them they had to apologize, but I did manage to talk the manager out of banning them.

I think a moment like that was when most pastors would have said, “I am done. This is too much hassle. This is not safe, and there has to be easier sheep to save.” But this moment I realized was an opportunity.

That moment of being there with them, earned me the opportunity to listen to their story as one that did not give up on them.  As I listened I heard terrible stories of abuse and neglect. I also found that many of the individuals did believe in God, but the God they had in their brains, told to them by many churches in the area, was that God’s grace had run out, and that meant that God was just like their absent fathers.

It was so often my pleasure to say to them, “How can God not love you? God in Jesus Christ died for any and all the punishment you think you deserve. God bore all the darkness you have ever faced; how could he be the kind of God that would give up on you?”

These words, I can tell you have given hope to people in suicidal despair.
I believe and know they are the only words that can.

3. Jesus Must Be Our Everything

How do we live out Jesus today and in the future?

The story takes place in Caesarea Philippi. Many times the Evangelists mention the place of something, there is often a significance to it. For instance in Luke, it is not coincidence that salvation is brought to the home of Zaccheaus, who lives in Jericho, the city whose history represents the victory of God’s people over the Canaanites, but also the slaughter of many. Here Jesus, the new Joshua, defeats the new Jericho, not with violence, but mercy.

Earlier in Mark, Jesus casts out a demon in the land of the Garesenes. Here the demon’s name was Legion, the name of the Roman army. This land was a place where the Jews fought Rome and lost. Mentioning it that way implies that Jesus is here to truly defeat the oppressors of God’s people, but also, the true enemy of God’s people is not Rome, it is a demonic darkness in the human heart that only the authority of Jesus can cast out.

So, what is unique about Caesarea Philippi? The name says it. Caesarea Philippi was a temple town devoted to Caesar, named after him, and in it was pagan temples devoted to the Roman gods, particularly the god, Pan. When the disciples ask Jesus who he is, they know where they are and what it means when Jesus answers. They are in occupied territory. They are surrounded with the reminder that their world had a different lord.

Our home setting is not that different: We live in occupied territory here in secularized Canada. We see the traces remaining of Christianity, some of it we are trying to keep hold of, other parts we need to just let go of, but surrounding us is a culture, sometimes quite overt other times quite subtle, that holds its allegiance to something else.

We may think we are sophisticated enough to not by into those ancient Gods like Pan or Zeus, but that is really not the case. Our world worships gods – gods of wealth, power, war, fear, goddesses of vanity, popularity, consumerism – yes, our world has its gods, we just call them by different names.

The temples of our days are different: Where are they? I have seen something simply to worship in shopping malls, in front of televisions or cell phone screens, at sporting events.

Someone told me they don’t believe in organized religion because organized religion makes people violent. Ignoring the fact that there are pacifist religion and how sloppy a statement that was in general, I said, pointing out they were wearing a NHL jersey. You do realized at the last Stanley Cup riots broke out causing the injury of dozens of people? And yet you still believe in organized sports?

His response: “Pff…We’re all human, you can’t blame a sport on the actions of a few bad people.” Exactly. To be human is to be religious, even if you don’t believe in anything remotely spiritual or supernatural. The question is will be focus our convictions, rituals, experiences, and deep longings on things that drive us towards humility, love, and peace, or things that will fill us with a meaninglessness that results in arrogance and violence?

We very much have gods today. We very much have worship and temples and religions in secular Canada, we just call them by different names.

What do we do when our world and the very structure of society is becoming dismissive to faith? Churches feel the pinch as people have less time and money, the Christian way being seen as backwards or just strange.

Some have lamented the loss of Christianized Canada, and there is much to lament, but we do know something for sure: in a culture where it is less easy to be a Christian we have to be more intentional in choose Jesus as our everything.

While we do not welcome the loss of Christian values, we do welcome any opportunity to walk faithfully and unreservedly with Jesus Christ.

For us there is really just one simple path: that is to follow Jesus. This path might look difference in the future than what it did in the past. The future might me we have to learn to trust Jesus in a whole new way.

What ever way Christ calls, we know it will take sacrifice. This is not our burden; this is our privileged; this is our way.

Jesus reaffirms that there cannot be any belief in Jesus without discipleship, without dying to self, without making Jesus our everything.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

You see the cross is Jesus Christ paying our ransom for sin. He paid this ransom with living in complete obedience to the Father, even to the point of becoming last, humiliated, death on a cross. It is becoming last he was exalted to first in the resurrection, defeated death, despair, disobedience, all the darkness of sin.
And he invites us to this path.  Commentator Ched Myers points out that if the disciples were ready to follow Jesus way, there should have been 12 more crosses, but they declined the honour.

As the disciples realized so do we today. We have so often fail to live out the path Jesus sets before us.  All we can do is what the disciples did. When they saw the resurrected Jesus, they could only trust his mercy. And that is the God we are celebrating today: Jesus died our death to offer his life. There is no sin he did not die for and therefore no opportunity of salvation he is unwilling to give. So, while we so often fail, God in his grace never gives up. He invites us to trust him with our everything today.

We must live as the missionary to Ecuador Jim Elliot once said when going to the indigenous tribes there meant certain death, “He is no fool to give up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot loose. ” Jim Elliot went to Ecuador, ministered among the tribal people there and was sadly caught by a raid of violent neighbouring tribes people and lost his life. The world might look at that and thing he was careless with his life, that he lost everything. But in the final day, when we all stand before the risen lord, we must ask ourselves what true success and true failure really is.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Or as the British Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “If Jesus is not everything to you he is nothing to you.”

Today, brothers and sister, I want to ask you afresh as we remember what God has done: Is Jesus your everything? Is Jesus the reason we exist as a church? Is Jesus our only hope and passion, joy and pursuit? Are we willing to dedicate our lives to him again today? Nothing held back? Is the way of the cross the only path we are willing follow? If so, one the day of the Lord’s return, on the day that our faith is made sight, there on the day of the restoration of all things, we will know that the way of the cross is worth it.

Benediction:

Then today may you know that Jesus is the messiah, son of the living God. He has shown us the way; he has conquered sin; his kingdom is coming, and his will will be done.

As you are willing to give up everything to the one who has already given his all to you, may you know afresh the assurance of his immeasurable grace.

May you go from here, renewed in Christ’s love to live the way of Jesus Christ with hope for this broken world.

Let’s pray.

Prayer: God Listens, Partners, and even Surprises

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“Three Camaldolese Monks in Ecstatic Prayer” (circa. 1710-1740)

Acadia Divinity College, Simpson Lecture Prayer Breakfast, at Manning Memorial Chapel
Tuesday, February 12, 2019. 

Steve McMullin has invited me to offer thoughts for this years prayer breakfast. He told me to keep it “practical and inspiration.” I can tell you that after a big plate of bacon and eggs, I don’t really know what is going to come out of me. You might have to settle for vague and semi-coherent!

Someone asked what I was talking on for the prayer breakfast. I paused and looked at them: “Umm…I am going to talk about prayer.” Am I being unoriginal? I suppose I could have talked about the meaning of breakfast, but that probably would not have been as practical or inspirational.

There are many great passages on prayer, but I found myself drawn to these words in thinking about the subject this morning: 1 John 5:13-15 writes, 

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

Stated right at the end of the First Letter of John, like many epistles with powerful theological treatments at the beginning, the closer is often simple words of wisdom for everyday life. John begins his epistle with explaining how God is light and how Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. He treats difficult topics like apostasy and apostolic discernment. He gives his beautiful explanation of how God is love, but he reserves his final words of advice to remind his congregation about the necessities of prayer. 

I think that is a fitting reminder for today as we listen to all the wisdom Dr. Theissen has to show us, all the sophisticated ways we can be more effective pastors and leaders, understanding our communities. There is so much data and effective strategy and wisdom to be learned here in these few days. 

But lets just take a moment, as John does, to remind ourselves of the simple fundamentals: we need to pray. We need to ask God, what does this mean? How do we act on this? How do we follow Jesus? How is God’s Spirit addressing us? Where is God’s Spirit sending us?

For five years I served as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. It is a small aging church. Through my time there, it should be no surprise to you that I realized just how integral prayer was to pastoring. 

It should also be no surprise during times of trying to do it all on my own or merely going about my day forgetting to centre myself in prayer that day, that it effected what I did negatively. 

Of course the opposite was also true, the times where I was in deepest prayer, those were often the times that I saw God act. I am sure God was and is always acting, but it was prayer that helped me see it. 

I would like to tell three stories of realizing the necessity of prayer in pastor. The first shows that God is a God that listens to us, comforts us, gives his presence as provision to us. The second shows that he invites us to partner with him in realizing his kingdom. And the final story shows us that God is faithful to meet small needs, that God also is capable of wonderful surprises that we are to expect.  

He listens. He partners, and he even surprises. 

1. God Listens

As you can imagine, pastoring a church with a number of elderly people meant I often made visitations to the nourishing home. One lady in our congregation had surgery, and was placed in long term care. As we visited her, one of the deacons of my church and I, she instructed us that we should visit the lady down the hall. 

So, she phoned her, and the lady was up for us visiting. As we walked down the hall, I suspected this would be a difficult turn in an otherwise mundane pastoral visit. 

We stepped into a room with this middle-aged lady. I tried not to stare. Bedridden, her limbs were terribly, inhumanly swollen. “Come in, don’t be alarmed,” she said with a beaming, bright smile. I was surprised. She was in wonderful spirits. 

We inquired what her condition was. She had a rare lymphatic infection, that has left her bedridden, functionally paralyzed. Every day, day in and day out, she had to receive a steady drip of strong antibiotics. But also, steadily, day by day, the infection grew immune to the antibiotics. The very thing that was saving her, was also the very thing slowly killing her. Day by day the inflection slowly but surely was winning. 

And yet, to my amazement, I have never met a happier person. 

She proceeded to tell me that at the beginning, she was bitter and resentful. She prayed angrily that she would be healed, and of course, while she still does pray for that now, something changed in her disposition. 

“What changed?” I asked. 

“I realized that Jesus was enough. Everyday, I get to thank God for another day, and I know he is with me. He listens to me and is my friend. That is enough for me.”

She told me that she saw her condition as a calling to be Jesus’ presence here in the nursing home, to the nurses and other patients, who in her mind needed hope and healing more than her. 

I think this helps us understand a bit of what John is saying when he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

This person knew the gift of eternal life. She knew the gift of his presence. While she still prayed for healing, that was enough. 

Whenever I am tempted to ask, “Does prayer actually work?,” I am reminded of a quote that P. T. Forsyth once said, “The greatest answer to prayer is first and foremost prayer itself.” 

Before we can fret about getting anything through prayer, we have to cherish the gift that prayer is. We have to cherish the fact that God is listening, that the first and greatest gift is eternal life, in how Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave. 

In Jesus Christ, all our prayers are already answered. Jesus is enough. 

2. God Partners

So why do we trouble God to ask for more? When we rest in Jesus we know we can because he is generous. When we know he is generous, we also confess that everything we have and are comes from him, so we ask in acknowledgement of him. We ask because we cannot do and be anything other than what God in his generosity gives. As God is at liberty to give in the abundance of his generosity, we ask because we know we are free in relationship to ask. 

So, I am reminded that John tells us, “…that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” What is God’s will? 

During my doctoral studies, I was the co-ordinator of a soul kitchen called the Gathering Spot at Walmer Road Baptist Church in Toronto, off of Blood and Bathurst if you know the area. 

It was an odd job. I applied to it because it was near the University of Toronto, where I did my studies, and I really just needed the money, and I wanted something ministry related. I got more than I bargained for. 

At that point in my faith, I was going through a disorienting time. Pastors can go through disorienting times. We don’t like to admit that to our congregations, but we do. As some of you know both my parents died while I was in seminary, and I was still processing that as I was trying to grasp my calling in ministry and in academia. Grief effects us all different, and looking back at that, I remember feeling for several years, numb inside

I don’t think I ever stopped praying or stopped believing in praying, but let me just say that it certainly just did not feel like prayer was doing much. Your soul just felt dried up inside. 

Well, my perspective changed working at the Gathering Spot. It changed as I was surrounded one night a week, by people whose problems in life vastly exceeded my own. 

I felt moved to pray, not sure what this whole prayer thing was anymore, but praying nevertheless because I cared about these people. 

You see a scary underside of humanity, the realities of poverty, of the dehumanizing despair of homelessness. People would come off the streets and wanting a meal, needing services of various kinds.

My prayers took on a different fervour. Mostly because I wasn’t praying for me anymore. 

I have learned that service moves us for prayer, and prayer moves us to service. 

I remember one bitter cold night in January. We had a large crowd that night and the food went quick. But just as we were finishing, a guy showed up out of the cold. “Is there any more left? Sorry I had trouble finding this place.” 

We scrounged up as much as we could. He ate quickly, and I sat with him. I heard a little bit of his story, about how he lost his job and so he was recently evicted from his apartment. 

He had to leave because he wanted to get to the shelter before it got too late. But he asked me to pray for him. I did. “God please get him to a shelter.” I wanted to go with him, but I knew I had to stay there at the kitchen till closing. I also had to get the bus home to Bradford, or else I would be stuck too. I prayed with him and he left. 

I thought of nothing else as I rode home on the bus that night. And I just kept praying. 

I got home late, and I sat in my warm town house in Bradford, think and praying about him. 

I heard the next morning that 30 people froze to death that night on the streets of Toronto.

I don’t think I ever prayed so passionately in my life that night, and the only thing I could resolve to do in the light of that is to say that if I see someone in need, and if I pray for their well being, we have to consider that perhaps God has moved us to pray for that person because he is moving us to do something for that person. 

Why? Because as John says in the passage previous to ours this morning. God is love. God’s will is love. God is light and in him there is no darkness. 

Mother Theresa once said God wills no one to be poor, it is our will that keeps others poor. 

The question then is whether we will partner with God in obedience to his will, not ours. 

I told you that story to tell you this one: Several years later, as I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury, we ran a community meal at one of the low-income residences a few blocks from the church. One person, a young guy came to our Christmas service. He just kind of look like he had a dark cloud over him. 

Turns out that dark cloud was serve mental illness. One night, after giving a lecture at Thorneloe University, where I also taught, I came back home, ready to relax and get some sleep. I got a text from him. “Pastor, help me. I have been evicted. I went off my meds, and they kicked me out. It was stupid. I know. The shelter is full.”

I can tell you I was tempted to ignore that text. I was tempted to say, “Hope everything works out. I’m praying for you.” But I knew I just couldn’t live with myself if I did. So, I prayed, “God help me to help this man.” 

So, I grabbed my coat, and met up with him at a Tim Hortons. We drove from Hotel to Hotel, trying to find something. I could tell he was taking his meds again, but he really was not in a good place still. 

Hotel after hotel was either too expensive, or they took one look at him and made some excuse. I asked him whether he had any friends that he could couch surf for a few nights. He didn’t have any friends. No family in the area. Nothing. 

It is the fundamental truth that many people are homeless well before they don’t have a roof over their head. People are homeless before they are houseless. 

I thought to myself, “What if we don’t find anything? It is getting late. Should I just bring him back to my house to stay the night?” He really did not sound safe or in a good state of mind. In fact, he seriously turned to me and wondering, if he just went out and committed a small crime, he would at least get so stay in a prison where it is warm. He had been to jail as a young man, and I told he wasn’t going to take that way out. 

Finally we found an inn above a small pub that was not too expensive, and we went with that. The next day, I was able to arrange a bus ticket for him to get to where he did have some folks that agreed to take him in.

As we pray, God partners. We partner with him, in conformity with his will, and he claims us as his own and uses us. St. Theresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses.

We pray for our prayers to be answered, and sometimes God can turn that back to us and commission us to be that answer.

If ever you pray to God, “God I pray someone would do something about crime or poverty or sickness or whatever.” Be prepared that that someone could be you. 

3. God Surprises

I say God surprises because while that last point is true – God chooses to use us – so is the simple fact that God also goes beyond us. 

God is powerful, but he chooses to partner with people. Humans are free and Christians are Christ’s hands and feet, but that does not mean God does not act. God acts in wonderful and surprising ways. 

Notice I have described three ways God answers prayer: by giving comforting presence, by commission us to act out his will, and also acting beyond us. We would be wise to know that to say that God answers prayer is not too say that God is predictable. And that is why I say God surprises. 

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. This was my usually Tuesday noontime routine. The food bank was at the other end of the town and often the food bank packages were heavy, and often people had mobility issues. So, I put out a sign at one of the low income apartments that if anyone needed a ride, i would help. Word spread and there was about a dozen or so I would regularly meet up with. 

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, 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, but 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 up. In a 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.”

God surprised me that day. It is because what John says, “we know that he hears us.”

God listens, God partners, God surprises. 

And of course, as God is faithful to save from sin, to give comforting presence, to commission for courageous service, and to show up in all sorts of unexpected ways, God is also, I fundamentally believe, there for you. He has not forgotten you or your family. God has not forsaken his pastors, his chaplains, or his church. 

His will is love, life, and light, says John, pleasing and perfect. And we will know this as we ask, as we follow, as we wait on him – all by prayer. Can not do this any other way. 

What are your needs? What are your church’s needs? What our your community’s needs? Are they small? Are they big? Do you sometimes think they are too big? Perhaps sometimes you think they are too small. 

Whatever they are, John says, to pray for we have confidence in him. 

Pray about it anyway. Pray boldly. Pray persistently. Pray to the point that you think you are praying foolishly and wildly, because then it is a very likely possibility that you are praying in line with God’s will for us all: the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Now, let’s turn to God in prayer…

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

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What do you want to be known for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Gospel is Our Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Gospel is Our Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Gospel is Our Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Gospel is Our Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray…

Benediction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Husbands I imagine you might feel the same.

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

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

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

1. Hagar’s Story, the First Part

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

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

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

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

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

2. Hagar’s Story, the Second Part

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, he sends them out of the camp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a story in the midst of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray…

Psalm 2: Awaiting the King

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Anyone else into watching Netflix’s The Crown?

There is something beautiful and captivating getting this inside look into the monarchy. I been on a bit of a kick reading about the Queen.

Not gonna lie, it has made me a big fan of Queen Elizabeth.

 

Queen Elizabeth as a female leader to me has captured my deepest respect. All her speeches and public actions show her to be a person that is both gentle yet unwavering in resolve.

Did you hear her Christmas speech? The queen of England openly said that she believes wholly in Jesus Christ and she set out to live her life by his teachings and she called on all English people to turn back to Christ and not to forget God in these dark times.

I’ll be honest I have often questioned Canada’s connection to the British monarchy, whether or not it is useful or represents who we are as a nation, but in that moment I was glad we have a figure head of such conviction and decency.

Our Queen has done significant work to advance liberty and equality in the world. While her predecessors wanted an Empire in which the “sun never set,” She was instrumental in granting the independence of over 20 countries.

Our own prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, while having no love of the role of the monarchy, praised her for the “grace she displayed in public” and “the wisdom she showed in private.”

Later she was asked what she thought of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and she let it slip that she found him, “rather disappointing.” I thought that was funny.

She was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa. She has worked for stability and good governance of many commonwealth nations that were in turmoil during her reign.

There is a powerful scene in the Crown that symbolizes the influence she would exert, the coronation scene: You can only imagine what it would be like to be in that cathedral, the leaders of the free world in attendance, the head of the church of England presiding, choirs singing angelically as the jewel encrusted crown is placed on your head.

The splendor and magnitude of that moment would have been overwhelming.

Think of what the crown signified at that time. It does not quite mean the same thing today where the monarchy is more of a figure.

The monarch represented political stability, hope. The monarch, especially Queen Elizabeth perhaps the last Christian monarch, represents the moral resolve of the nation. With that mindset we turn to the psalms.

You see for Israel, God’s nation in the Old Testament, they had a similar view of their king, and the Psalm we are meditating through this morning is actually very likely the coronation Psalm of King David or the Kings of David’s line.

We are going to read this look at what this meant for God’s people in the old testament but then as a psalm of God’s people that point to the fulfillment of Old Testament in King Jesus, and what that means for us as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Why do the nations conspire[a]
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”

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

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron[b];
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Like I said, this is very likely a coronation song for the king. You can imagine that being sung as the king has his crown placed on his head.

The song signifies the place of the king to both ensure the stability of the nation and to be a person of close connection to God. David is seen as a cherished child of God.

But to read this Psalm in the context of the Old Testament is to understand that the Psalm if it merely looks forward for a human king to be these things, falls short of God’s kingdom.

Does God really want a human king to subjugate all the nations around them?

Does God want God’s people to build idolatrous empires?

Can a human king really claim the title of being God’s true son?

When we read this Psalm, like many passages in the Old testament, it leaves us uneasy, yearning for God to say something more.

Human kings were not really what God originally wanted, we find.

1. Israel’s Quest for a King

The Hebrew people saw the power of human kings and they wanted one themselves, rather than being a loose collection of tribes depending on God for guidance. They grew jealous of the nations. God nevertheless concedes and the first king, Saul is anointed.

This did not work out well. Saul proved arrogant and selfish. He only was interested in serving God if it served himself.

So the Prophet Samuel goes and anoints a boy named David.

All his older brothers were soldiers. At the time Israel and Philistia were at war. The Philistine warlord Goliath openly mocked God and the Israelites, and the people were scared since Goliath was a giant of a man. Goliath challenged the Israelite army to a one-to-one battle, and no one accepted.

David shows us and hears Goliath’s scorn for God, and he decides he will take on the giant himself.

This puny boy walks up to Goliath and as Goliath mocking him and God and the people, David drew a smooth stone – does anyone remember what he called it? It called it the Ebenezer, which means “Thus far the lord has helped me.”

He takes that, puts it in his sling-shot, and hits the Giant, striking him dead.

David became a hero. He later became leader of the armies of Israel. Then jealous Saul tried to get rid of him, and David had to live on the run. Finally, Saul died in battle, and David was enthroned as king.

As King, David was known for his military prowess, defeating the surrounding nations in battle, bringing a level of security to the land. The nations became the inheritance of the throne of David as this Psalm longs for. David, the anointed king, became a holy emperor over the nations around Israel.

But the question is does God really want an empire? We will see that this caused trouble in the line of kings. David himself was told by God that he could not build the temple in Jerusalem because the temple was to be a place of holiness, which David could not do since he was such a man of war.

Nevertheless, David was also a man of deep piety and love of God. God saw him as a man after his heart. It is the reason so many of the Psalms bear his name.

This did not mean he was perfect or even at times good. David later in life had an affair with one of his general’s wives and he tried to cover it up by having that man killed in battle. An act of terrible dishonor. The fact our scriptures report this misdeed is important. One scholar remarked that Israel’s scriptures contain the most honest history of the leaders of any nation of its time. For Israel, it was so important to understand the failures of God’s people in order to have a sense of moral responsibility and hope.

After David, the line of Kings slowly fell. Solomon despite his extraordinary wisdom refused to serve the Lord alone. His rule plunged into idolatry. It had something to do with the fact that he had hundreds of pagan wives.

His son, Reheboam, a foolish king, sundered the nation apart. While righteous kings still continued in the line of David, kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, inevitably their refusal to walk in the ways of God lead to the exile of Judea, the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians for over 70 years.

When the exiles returned, they remembered the prophets speaking about how God would raise up another king like David, the true messiah.

The true king that would bring an end to the destruction on their land. The faithful remnant would be safe.

The true king that would rebuild Zion. The true king that would make Jerusalem a place of peace again.

But left as an expectation for a human king to do all this, this Psalm sounds highly nostalgic and imperialistic. Surely God does not want the nations of this world in shackles. Surely God does not love Israel more than other nations. Surely the king is not God’s son just by the power of his office.

The king must be more than that.

The true king must rule not with force and war, but is the prince of peace, whose rule would undo the need for war itself, reconciling all nations to God.

A true king that would not merely be just, but is justice itself, righteousness embodied.

A true king that would be able to prevent not just enemy nations from conquering them, but their sins from corrupting them. A messiah that could forgive sins.

This longing suggests that the only King that could do this was not in fact a human king, but God himself, the true king.

In the Psalms we see this move where the Psalm begin singing about the human kings of Israel, then lament their failure then a turning to God as true King.

And so, from the time this was written, for several hundred years, the people were left praying: God when will the messiah come? When will all that has gone wrong in this world be made right? When will righteousness reign.

2. God did show up as this king.

Jesus is the true king. Jesus is true anointed one, the messiah, the true son of God, the true ruler of the nations.

But here is the thing: In fulfilling this Scripture God shows us a powerful provocative new vision of what it means to rule. How does Jesus fulfill this Psalm that looks to the messiah to conquer the nations?

He chose to be born in humble circumstances like David. He chose to be born to a poor girl named Mary, in the poverty of a manger. A poor king, a king for the poor. What an idea?

This Psalm is the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament.  It is quoted at his baptism, transfiguration, death, and in Revelation, twice.

It is quoted at Jesus baptism. “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Think of the Baptism of Jesus as his coronation. While the kings of the earth are enthroned in palaces by the powerful, Jesus is enthroned in the wilderness, in a lake, by a prophet.

While the kings of the earth are blanketed in jewels, Jesus is blanketed with the Holy Spirit.

From there, Jesus set out to conquer the enemies of God, but these turns out aren’t actually humans.

Jesus sets out to cast out demons, the radical evil in our world.

Jesus sets out to forgive sins, the real thing that shackles us.

Jesus sets out to heal the sick, the real things we are suffering from.

Jesus sets out to teach true obedience, the real path to freedom.

He starts talking about what his kingdom is actually like, how God chooses to rule,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they are citizens of this kingdom.

Blessed are those who are sad and in morning, because God’s kingdom is their to comfort them.

Blessed are the humiliated and meek, the oppressed, because they are the ones that will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for justice, for they will get it.

Blessed are the merciful and the pure in heart.

Blessed are not those that try to conquer their enemies, but the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those that are persecuted for righteousness sake, those that do not conform to partisan lies or the status quo, for these are the true citizens of God’s kingdom.

This message of Jesus the king about God’s heavenly kingdom is one that in a turn of sinful irony, God’s people are the ones that ended up rejecting and conspiring against him.

When Jesus claimed to be the messiah, they called him a blasphemer.

The nations conspired and sadly, Israel was one of those nations. The Temple priests plotted to have Jesus arrested.

Jesus’ disciples betrayed and abandoned him.

He was brought before a roman dictator and sentenced to death in order to satisfy a mob.

The conversation between the Roman Governor Pilate and Jesus is so telling:

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

One rules a kingdom of this world, the other rules a kingdom not of this world

One rules a kingdom with force; the other a kingdom of non-violence.

One rules a kingdom with a sword; the other with sacrifice.

One rules a kingdom of apathy, the other rules a kingdom of truth.

This drama has its climax in the cross, where in that dark moment, Jesus is shown as the king God chooses to be.

They give him a crown of thorns and write “King of the Jews” over the cross. The narratives have these kinds of ironies to it.

Here is the king, not making himself first but last.

Here is the king, lifted up not in exaltation but in crucifixion.

Here is the king, conquering, not with violence but with forgiveness

Here is the king, fully obedient to God the father, such that he is shown to be God’s true son.

“Surely this man is the Son of God” says the soldier, unwittingly quoting Psalm 2.

The rule of the nations was broken that day, not be military power or legislative acumen, but by the humble faithfulness of Jesus Christ, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

That day the wrath we deserved he gladly bore upon himself in order to show that this king, this God, is a God of love.

One the third day Jesus rose again, completing the victory, ascending to heaven to rule at the right hand of the Father, sending the Spirit to commission his disciples to go out into all nations.

Death and despair, disobedience and the devil were defeated, so that all people include his enemies, including us, can be apart of his kingdom.

Christ as died, Christ has risen, and Christ will also come again

3. Our king will return

The victory of the resurrection points forward to the victory of Christ’s second coming. Psalm 2 is quoted several times in Revelation. One day Christ will return and he will set right all that has gone wrong. He will return to judge the nations with justice and truth and mercy.

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.

That day will be like the confusion of tongues at Babel. Where we create empires of uniformity, God will break our plans apart with diversity. God will show he is that God of all peoples, all nations, all humanity.

That will be a terrible day like that day Pharaohs army drowned in the sea, all that power will be nothing compared to the glory of our infinite God.

That day will be like the destruction of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Empires come and empires go, crushed by the sweeping power of the Rock.

And let us not go arrogant as we – God’s people Israel – have in the past. That day will be like the destruction the Temple because we turned their religion into an idol of power and control.

But for those whose hearts are sincere and ways are just and merciful, we await that day with hope. We long for the day when all that was wrong in this world will be put right, death will be no more. Tears will turn to joy.

We await the day his kingdom reigns fully and visibly over our world, but in the meantime, as Jesus says, the kingdom of God is within us. It is within us as we turn our hearts over to King Jesus.

How do we live this kingdom out? We chose to live as citizen not of this world. 1 Peter talks about how the early Christians lived as if strangers in a foreign land. We live like we don’t belong. We live like we don’t want to be a part of these corrupt discourses.

There is a better way 1 Peter talks about it: it is called being holy, set apart.

It be a Christian today show give us a kind of culture shock, the way an immigrant might feel, a fish out of water. As our culture continues to more away from God, as our leaders grow more and more depraved and greedy, we will continue to live as citizens of heaven.

While the nations rebel, we will obey.

While the kings of this world look for war, we will walk in peace.

While the kings of this world delight in perversion, we will walk in purity.

While the kings of this world deal in oppression, we will promote liberty.

While the kings of this world take care of the rich, we will take care of the poor.

While the kings of this world speak lies, we will speak honesty.

While the kings of this world further division, we will walk in reconciliation.

While the kings of this world see themselves as gods, we worship the one true God, the one true king.

And one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Christ is Lord and king to the glory of God the Father.

In the meantime, we will bow and confess. We will never stop confessing Christ is Lord.

But the question is not what the rulers of nations recognize God as king. Right here, right now, are you ready to make Jesus the king of your heart?

Are you ready to say, “King Jesus, I submit to your rule; I want to be a part of your kingdom. I repent of my sin and resolve to walk in your ways.”

So the Psalm ends: blessed are all who take refuge in him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Luther King said it best:

The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and of unjust exploitation. (King, Strength to Love, 78)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is there meaning as opposed to meaninglessness?

Why is sacrifice more virtuous than comfort and apathy

Why is compassion preferable to domination?

Why is good preferable to evil?

Why is life preferable to death?

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

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

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

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

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

When we know God’s will is goodness, truth, beauty, life and hope, then we look at the world and see that it has radical, systemic, and cosmic evil.

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

This evil is found in the capacity of human beings that in light of all our education and knowledge, all our collective wisdom and arts and religion, and all our power and technology we will still choose the path of annihilation, knowing full-well its harm.

When we know the vast waste and depravity of violence, we still go to war.

When we know that more is accomplished in unity, we choose division.

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

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

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

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

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

Our banks have suffocated the economies of many Caribbean Islands.

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

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

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

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

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

We as Christians know that while our faith pushes us to love more and pursuit truth more and justice more, but we also are aware that our hearts can also contort our religion into instruments of apathy and self-righteousness.

We do this when we offer prayers that we don’t intend to act on.

We do this when refuse to reach out to the broken in our communities.

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

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

We look out at the world and we condemn its evil, we look at our country and we realize we are living in a modern day Egypt. And they we look at our churches and we have to realize we are no better.

forgive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His body that we broke, was broken for us.

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

No vast sea was split the day Jesus was nailed on the cross but the veil was torn, a greater cosmic event occurred: God forgave his enemies, us, God atoned for sins, our sins, even as we murdered him. God embraced death so that we could have life. God chose to suffer as one cursed so that all who cry out forsaken would know they are not.

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

To read exodus through the cross is to know that Jesus died for Pharaoh just as much as Moses. Just as Jesus died for Peter who denied him, he died for you and me that fail to follow him.

To read this narrative of Pharaoh being thrown into the sea with his soldiers through Christ is to realize that Jesus fulfilled this by accepting that punishment for evil on himself not visiting it back on those that deserve it.

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

To read the exodus Passover through Jesus shows us a God that does not want to kill his enemies, but rather a God who loves his enemies, overcomes them not with force but  with forgiveness, such that even the Roman guards by the cross cried out, “Surely this man was the son of God.”

At the cross the great evils of this world that nailed Jesus to a Roman execution pike did not prevent our Savior from being fully obedient to the Father and fully willing to forgive us. That is how evil was defeated.

And three days later, the Father raised Jesus from the died, overturning histories judgment.

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

Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.

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

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

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

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

Hell reigns, but not forever.

Oppression reigns but its days are numbered.

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

Sin is here but it has been defeated.

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

Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.

The question then is how to we live this victory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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