Monday, 18 June 2018

The Lord looks at the heart- David is chosen

We find the prophet Samuel in mourning. Israel’s first king, Saul, is a failure. The one Samuel anointed, the one God chose, has failed. …

But, God speaks up, “it’s time for something new. I know we had high hopes for Saul, but he’s just not working out.”.

Samuel gets his oil and sets out for Bethlehem. He is careful not to raise suspicion, so he takes an animal for sacrifice. He’s just doing his rounds- caring for the people’s souls. If Saul found out what God was planning, he might try to kill Samuel and anyone who looked like they were helping him.

When he arrives in Bethlehem he invites a man named Jesse and his sons to the ceremony. A prophet doesn’t come to town for no reason. They know something is up. The prophet has Jesse present his eldest son to him. He is tall, attractive and strong. Samuel gets out his oil, but God stops him saying,
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

I once heard the pastor Eugene Peterson describe how his mother told him this story. She would embellish on the story, so she said the eldest was presented and he was big and strong, just full of muscle. But he wasn’t chosen. … The next oldest was presented. He was very smart. He wore a tweed jacket, dark-rimmed glasses, and had 3 PhD’s. But he wasn’t chosen. … The next was smooth. Just a really cool person. Everyone wanted to be seen with this guy. But he wasn’t chosen. …. The next brother was very charismatic. He could really motivate people. But he wasn’t chosen. … Every brother who was presented had a good reason to be chosen based on their outward appearance, but they were ultimately not the chosen one. … Finally, all of his sons pass before Samuel, and all of them are rejected by God to be king.

Samuel thinks, “There’s something wrong here”. Confused he turns to Jesse, “Are these all your sons?”

Jesse looks confused, “well there’s the youngest- he’s looking after the sheep” there isn’t anything special about him though. If you rejected my other sons, I don’t understand why he would be the one.”

Samuel tells Jesse to bring him.

David finally arrives, he is anointed the next king of Israel, and God’s Spirit comes upon him. The little shepherd boy that Jesse didn’t even think to bring with him to the ceremony.

It is like the story about the sword in the stone. The sword is stuck in a stone, magically imbedded in it. Only the true and future king of England can free the sword. Strong men from all over the country line up for an opportunity to pull on the sword and take their place as the rightful king of England. But, it was a small boy, a nobody, who accidentally draws the sword, making him the future king.

David, this young and relatively unimpressive boy- a nobody, is anointed the new King of Israel. He was chosen for his heart, and not his outward appearance. David will be the King of God’s people- Abraham’s descendents who God would use to bless the whole world. Both books of Samuel are really all about David, he is the central figure. David is the one who establishes Jerusalem (otherwise known as the City of David) as the capital of Israel, and solidifies the country. David is the one who makes plans for the building of the temple that would become the center of Judaism. The songbook of the Bible- the Psalms- are said to have been written by or for David. David is the king against whom all other kings will be judged. … The awaited messiah, called the “Son of David”, is from David’s family. The little shepherd boy changes his people and becomes a pivotal figure in his religion. God uses the humble, unexpectedly.

God has this thing with using the unassuming. Even though Moses had a speech problem God sent him to negotiate with Pharaoh and communicate God’s Law. Jesus, a carpenter’s son, was from Nazareth. A joke about the place made it into our Scriptures- “can anything good come from Nazareth”. … Who thought Abraham and Sara, an elderly couple with no children, could give birth to a nation that would bless the world? Who thought a little nun named Theresa could make a difference in the poverty of Calcutta? Who thought that a tax collector and bunch of fishermen would make good disciples to spread God’s good news to the world?

Wouldn’t it have been better to pick someone who had a university degree? Someone who had experience speaking in public? Someone with administrative ability (well maybe the tax-collector did)? But, no, God chooses the unassuming. Maybe it is because there isn’t as much of an ego to deal with. Maybe it is so that people will know that it is God, because otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. The credit goes to God in all these cases. Who would have believed that fishermen could preach and teach like that?

My favorite saint is Francis of Assisi. He lived a life of incredible simplicity, but accomplished an amazing amount in his short life. One of Francis’ companions was Masseo. He was a great preacher, and he was a handsome man as well. Perplexed, Masseo once repeatedly asked Francis as they walked along the road, "Why after you?" When Francis asked him what he meant he said, "I mean, why does all the world seem to be running after you and everyone seems to want to see you and hear you and obey you? You are not a handsome man. You do not have great learning or wisdom. You are not a nobleman. So, why is all the world running after you?" Francis thought for a moment, then replied by quoting 1st Corinthians 1:27: "God has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise."

Jesus preached that a kingdom had arrived- God’s kingdom. In this Kingdom everything was upside down. The first will be last. The fishermen will teach the religious experts. The blind will be the ones that see. The tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom before the priests and religious. The greatest among them will be a servant. Their king will save them by dying, not killing. And unless you become like little children you will never even enter the kingdom.

I guess the point is that we should be ready to be surprised by what God does, and who God chooses to work through. We should keep ourselves open and beware of our prejudices. We need to be willing to “not consider appearances”, and look as God looks, at the heart. … We also need to be willing to be a little upside down and backwards from the world from time to time. … We should also beware of saying, “God would never use me to do something in the world” because it seems like that is exactly who God does use to make a difference in the world. David, the little shepherd boy, was so unexpected to be in line for the throne they didn’t even bring him to the ceremony. And yet, God works through the unassuming.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

don't change me, change the system- 1 Sam 8- the call for a king

Image result for "demand a king" samuel

God is so amazingly gracious that He works for us even when we work against God. In Romans 5:7-8 Paul says, 

“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
 We can imagine dying for someone who has been important to us. We would be willing to die to protect our child. Or, we would be willing to die for a parent or a mentor who has loved us and treated us well. … But, would we be willing to die for someone who sued us? Would we be willing to die for the playground bully? Would we die for an enemy? … Paul says that is exactly what God was willing to do. God worked to save us while we were actively working against God and God’s good plans for the world.

We see that same character trait at work in today’s reading from 1 Samuel. The elders of Israel come to Samuel, and they are not impressed with Samuel’s children. They don’t think his children will be good leaders. They wanted a change. They were rejecting the old pattern of priests and judges who were leading the tribes of Israel. And you have to admit that as you read through that time in their life, things weren’t exactly going well. But the problem wasn’t really their political structure. 

At that time they were a alliance of tribal groups who were occasionally led by people called “judges” who God rose up as they were needed. Other than that the elders and the priests seemed to give leadership. The real problem was that they were stuck in a cycle of rebellion against God. This is called the judges cycle. Things would go well and they would ignore God and turn to other gods, then things would go poorly for them as they stepped out from under God’s protection, then they cried out to God and God would raise up a judge who would come and defeat whatever enemy was attacking and peace would be restored, which is when they would turn away from God and God’s ways again. So, the problem wasn’t really the political system, it was the people living within it.

Perhaps the same is true for us. Capitalism can be a great system. It has brought more wealth to more people than any other system we know of. But the greed of human beings can turn that system into an oligarchy, where wealthy corporations run the show for their own advantage. Then if people get crushed under the wheels of that machine… well…. That’s just business. … Capitalism works well as long as generous and caring people participate in it to help those who fall through the cracks (and every system has cracks). There are many people calling for a socialist shift, but perhaps the problem isn’t the system. Perhaps those participating in it has been walking off the path God and his prophets have set. The path that calls for generosity towards the widow and orphan- the path that calls for a consideration of a transcendent reality that will ultimately have to be answered to regarding how people are treated and the integrity of each human being- a path that calls for a Sabbath even for servants and animals once per week. Capitalism can work, if compassionate and generous people are a part of it at every level.

Those who call for a change of the system don’t realize the same is true of their system. Those who call for a communist shift look around at the experiments in China, North Korea, and Soviet Russia, and they see how it has failed. They think something was wrong with the structure- in some way it wasn’t “done right”. I suspect they same will be true o this system as of others. It depends if you have people of integrity working at every level of that system. Without people of integrity the system quickly degenerates. Even worse, when sinful, greedy, prideful people get in power they can turn any system into a hellish reality.

On the other hand, if you have people of truly godly integrity in the positions of power, any system can likely work well. I’m sure there were times in human history when a monarchy worked well as long as good people were involved. If there was a queen or king who understood themselves as a servant of God and understood that they would at some point stand accountable before God regarding the widow and orphan in their kingdom, I can imagine that system working well.

But back to our story. The assumption of the elders who came to Samuel seemed to be that the system was the problem (rather than the people in it). They were calling for a new system. They wanted to take a lesson from the other nations and use a new model of governance by appointing a king.

Samuel is upset by this. It seems like he sees it as a rejection of his leadership, but God says that it isn’t a rejection of Samuel, it is the people’s rejection of God. God doesn’t seem to be surprised. God says to Samuel, “…they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods…”. God is not surprised.

Since the people were rescued from Egypt there has been a tendency to turn away from God and towards the ways of the nations around them especially their worship of various gods. When Moses was receiving the commandments he came down the mountain to see the people worshipping a golden calf. Over and over again they were tempted to turn away from God and to turn towards some other nations’ gods. … The whole Bible has been described by some in two parts- God’s rescue of the people from slavery in Egypt, and the second and longer rescue, which is rescuing the people’s hearts that are constantly being drawn back to slavery in Egypt.

In their latest call for a king, we might as well say they were calling for a pharaoh. We might rightfully ask if they have every really left Egypt. The God we have though, is the God who pursues us anyway.

I once heard a (true) story about a pastor whose son rejected everything his father stood for. His son ended up in a bad crowd and became addicted to powerful narcotics. His father tried to get him to come home, but he was an adult and didn’t want to have anything to do with his dad. The man got used to the idea that his son was lost to a world of drugs.

One day he got a call in the middle of the night that his son was in jail. He got up and put on his coat and made his way down to the police station. When he got there the person working the counter said that there was no one there with his son’s name. He told her that he would not be there in the middle of the night if he didn’t get a call. Could she please check again, could she please check other police stations. She did and there was no sign of his son in their system.

Perplexed, the father decided he would try to track down his son. He knew he sometimes stayed at a crack house in a certain part of town. He drove up to the house that had more dandelions than grass. He walked up to the door and it found it open. He walked in and his eyes scanned the bodies strewn about all over until his eyes caught his son sleeping on the couch. He quietly walked over, thankful that his son was okay, and kissed him on the forehead. Then he left and went back home without waking his boy up.

6 month later his son called him. He told him that he was clean, and that he was holding down a job, and that he was even going to church again. The son wanted to have lunch with his dad, so they met. At some point during lunch the son asked his father, “aren’t you going to ask what brought about the change in me?” The father, so grateful for the transformation he sees in his son hardly cares, but he asks anyway, “what happened?”. His son looks him in the eyes and says, “I wasn’t asleep when you kissed me on the forehead”.

It was the realization of his father’s love for him that, even in the middle of the night, he was willing to drive to a sketchy part of town and walk into the sketchiest house on that block to find his son and kiss his forehead.

I think that is the kind of God we have we make all kinds of wrong turns and like a GPS God recalculates a course correction for us to get us back on track. ….

And so for the people calling for a king. God tells Samuel to listen to the people, but God will continue to chase them. He will continue to work with them, even in their rejection. God will continue to find a way to save his children. Even when they reject him by killing him on a cross, he will even use that to save them.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Hearing God's Voice- 1 Sam 3

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We meet Samuel in our reading as the nation is on the doorstep of a major transition. The nation was made of a number of tribal groups, who were sometimes led by judges (something like a mixture of warrior and a prophet). The book of Judges is a book about the deterioration of God’s people. By the end of the book they are in a deep dark hole. During Samuel’s time the people will transition to being a kingdom under the rule of a king.

The spiritual state of the people probably has something to do with why it says, 
“The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
 It could be that God wasn’t active in communicating, but I suspect it is more likely that the people had entered into a space where they were unwilling to hear and live according to the word they might hear. In the book of Judges the people were stuck in a pattern or turning away from God, which led to things going badly for them, then they would turn to God for help; God helped them, but when things went well they once again turned their back on God.

There are things we can do that will make it hard for us to hear God’s word to us. One definition of sin is that it is separation from God. Sin will make it hard to hear God’s word to us. If we are unwilling to follow what God will say (if we were to hear God speak), that indicates a heart that is not trusting of God's direction. A heart like that will not hear God easily. We might also lead a life of distracted hurry where we rarely take time to be quiet- that too will make it difficult to hear God. Whatever the reason, it seems like the people rarely heard communication from God.

It is during this dark time in the history of Israel that we meet little Samuel, who was placed into the care of the priest Eli by his parents. We don’t know how old he is at this point, but let’s imagine maybe he is a 10 year old boy. He has grown up serving in the temple and being trained under the old priest Eli. Serving God was that boy’s whole life.

One night (well it was actually very early in the morning) as the two of them were sleeping- the priest Eli was sleeping in his room near the sanctuary and Samuel was sleeping in the sanctuary near the Ark of the Covenant- Samuel hears a voice calling him.

We have a God who communicates. Our Bible describes God speaking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God speaks to the family of Abraham. God speaks to Moses, using a burning bush to get his attention. God sends angels, who are messengers. God sends dreams and visions. Sometimes God communicates dramatically, and sometimes- like Elijah standing at the entrance to the cave- God speaks with a still, small, voice. One translation says it was the sound of sheer silence by which God communicated. ... Our God wants to communicate, but it’s more than that, God wants to have a relationship with His people. In our reading today God seems to be speaking with an audible voice- though perhaps it was a voice only Samuel could hear.

I think it is not insignificant that at this moment of darkness and transition that God chooses a young boy to be his prophet. God values the humility Samuel represents. Humility and obedience to God’s will seem to be important elements for hearing God. These are elements we see in those called to be prophets- often they refuse God’s call believing they aren’t special enough to be a part of God’s plan. I suspect that is why Jesus chose fishermen rather than religion scholars when he was starting his movement.

So little Samuel is sleeping when he hears a voice calling to him. Twice he thinks the old priest Eli is calling to him. I think this tells us a few interesting things about God’s voice that are worth reflecting on. 

The first thing that stands out to me is that to Samuel the voice seemed familiar. It didn’t sound like a foreign voice. It was so familiar to him that he thought it was the voice of the man who was a father to him, so he ran to Eli. This man took care of him. He taught him to serve God. He fed him. He made sure he was safe. This man seems to have been a caring father to Samuel. 

God’s voice also called him by name. God didn’t say, “you boy”. God said, “Samuel”. God is personal. God knows us intimately. As the Psalmist says, “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb” (139:13). And in Jeremiah 1 God says, "before I formed you in the womb I knew you".  God speak as someone who knows you, not as a stranger.

You can also learn something about your view of God by how you imagine God’s voice in this passage. Is it a booming and demanding “SAMUEL!” or is it a loving father waking his child up, “Samuel, it's time to get up”. In my mind there is a gentleness to God’s voice. If Samuel mistook the voice for Eli's voice then we have reason to believe it was a gentle voice. The second time Samuel wakes Eli up he says, "
I did not call, my son; lie down again." I hear all kinds of gentleness in that "my son".          

There is also a persistence to God’s voice. God doesn’t just call out once and then give up. God gave Samuel time to figure out what was going on, so he kept calling. … But notice how important Eli’s guidance is here. What if Eli told the boy that he was just dreaming and to God back to bed? Or what if he told him he was just hearing things, or said that he was crazy? That would have had a huge effect on the nation because they would have lacked Samuel's leadership. The guidance of Eli is crucial for Samuel to hear God. 

That makes me think about our role with the children around us. Do we help them hear and understand God's call to them, or do we too easily encourage them to pass by God’s call? Do we teach them to hear God’s call, or do we teach them that it is just their imagination playing tricks on them? … This isn’t easy. Sometimes it IS their imagination. But we are called to discernment and wisdom as we guide the young. I wonder what leaders the world as been denied because there was no one willing to be an Eli in a young person's life.   

 Thankfully, Eli was wise and discerning and by the third time Samuel came to him he realized what was going on. He gave him the direction, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'”

Samuel follows Eli’s direction and hears a message from God. But it isn’t a pleasant message. Part of hearing God is being willing to do the difficult thing God is asking. God gave a message that Eli’s irreverent and hypocritical sons would be removed from their service as priests. Understandably, Samuel doesn’t want to share what God Spoke to him, but Eli insists.

I think this is another aspect of the story we don’t want to miss. A prophet who has to share difficult news finds it painful to do so. Samuel was full of fear, not “righteous indignation” and judgement. The prophet Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. He loved his people, but he saw the terrible things that were going to happen to them. I once heard someone say you should not talk about hell unless you have tears in your eyes. … The false prophets told people what they wanted to hear and so people loved being around them, but the true prophets were willing to speak the hard words of necessary correction- and they were hard words to speak as well as hard words to hear.

Samuel began a long relationship with God through his willingness to hear and act on what God said to him. Samuel is considered by some to be the most important prophet next to Moses. It is through Samuel that the people went from being a group of tribes to being organized under a king. This wasn’t necessarily a good transition, but it was one that God used.

I think that Samuel was called to a very specific ministry and so he heard God in a very specific way. … I also believe that God speaks to people now. I know of one person who heard an audible voice from God coming from the backseat while he was driving. It was only once and he was not someone inclined to the charismatic side of the church. We was a humble and quiet banker. … Hearing a voice like that is unusual, but I think there are ways that we can all hear from God.

Generally, God probably won’t make a point of communicating something to us that is plainly a part of the overall message of Scripture. I suspect God isn’t going to wake us up in the middle of the night to tell us not to murder (unless, maybe, we are in the midst of planning a murder, but I suspect we aren’t very open to hearing God’s voice at that point). When we take Scripture as a whole and we consider the general principles we can derive from it, reading it through the person of Jesus, we have a pretty good general sense of what God is wanting to say to us. And anything God is going to say to us is not going to be in contradiction to the person of Jesus.

The main way we hear God personally is through an impression on our spirit, or as an experience in our thoughts. An impression on our spirit is something like the feeling of conscience. When you are about to do something you know is wrong and something in you doesn’t feel right, that’s conscience. The regret you feel after doing something you shouldn't have is also your conscience. When you know you should do something to help someone, the pressure inside you is your conscience. Similarly, you will sometimes have thoughts enter your mind. And I have to admit that it isn’t always easy to discern between my thoughts and God’s voice. Sometimes it is only after the fact that you have a hint as to which one it was.

We should not be surprised that God communicates with us. If God is real, and the God Jesus reveals to us is who God actually is, then we should expect that we will hear from God. And we should also beware of saying things like, “who am I that God would speak to me?” because that seems to be the exact prerequisite in the Bible for someone God speaks to. God spoke to a shepherd with poor public speaking skills named Moses. God spoke to a little boy, not the priest. I suspect God is speaking to more of us that we realize, but perhaps we need the voice of Eli to tell us to listen and to identify that voice. AMEN

Tuesday, 15 May 2018



Title: Mysteries of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ (detail)
[Click for larger image view]

The cell phone is an amazing invention. I can speak or whisper into a little microphone in my cell phone and it will transform my speech into a radio wave that can be sent to my brother’s phone in Vancouver, or just about anywhere else on the planet. When my brother lived in London, England, I could speak to him as if he was standing right in front of me. But there is a strange transformation that has to happen to my voice in order for my brother to hear it. My voice, which is audible to those standing near me, has to be transformed into radio waves, which are invisible and inaudible. In fact my voice becomes completely imperceptible when it is transformed into radio waves. If you came from the past and saw me speaking into my cell phone you might think I was crazy. And I would not help them to think I was sane by explaining that my voice was being transformed into invisible radio waves and being sent half-way across the planet to someone else with a little plastic rectangle who would then be able to transform it back into sound waves and hear me. If my brother in Vancouver wants to hear my voice it ironically has to be transformed into a state that can’t be heard.

I think about that when I think about the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus was visible and audible. He was with his disciples for 40 days after he was resurrected from the dead. He met with them, they touched him, they ate with him. Then we read in Acts “… as [the disciples] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). At that point they didn’t see him, they didn’t touch him, and they didn’t hear him (at least not by way of his vocal chords). Judging by the usual human senses, Jesus was gone. I remember the first time I read about the Ascension and being really quite confused by it. I couldn’t understand why Jesus left. Why wouldn’t he stay with us? The world is such a mess, why wouldn’t he stay and help?

What I didn’t get was that the Ascension isn’t about Jesus leaving, but about him becoming much more present to us. Just as my voice is limited by my volume, so experiencing Jesus was limited by his physical presence. And as my voice is able to extend across the world when it is transformed to radio waves, so Jesus is able to be much more present when he transcends the physical world and enters the dimension of heaven. As Jesus enters into transcendence he becomes more immanent. “Transcendence” means out there, beyond, and other. “Immanence” means close, intimate, and experienced. When Jesus enters into heaven he becomes more “transcendent”- we can’t see him, we can’t hear the vibrations of his vocal chords, and we can’t touch him. … But, because of his “transcendence” he is now “immanent”. Before his Ascension only those physically around Jesus could experience him. If he was with his disciples in Jerusalem he wasn’t in Nazareth, or China. But after his Ascension, after entering into the dimension of heaven, he was no longer limited by time or space and so was able to be present by his Spirit to disciples in Jerusalem, Nazareth, China, or wherever. And so Jesus’ ascension was not about Jesus leaving, but about Jesus being with us in a more intimate way, and being with us no matter where we are. So if you were a disciple watching Jesus be enveloped by the cloud of God’s glory as he entered heaven you would have seen less and less of him. But, from Jesus’ point of view, as he was enveloped by heaven, he would have seen more and more of humanity.

As Jesus entered heaven, he brought something with him that he didn’t have before he was born to Mary. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, “The ascension of Jesus in this context becomes a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life”.[1] On the heavenly throne of the universe sits a human being. When Jesus entered heaven he did not cease to be human- Jesus took his human body with him. It has been said that there are five man-made things in heaven- the wounds on the body of Jesus- his hands, feet, and side. Jesus brought his physical body, scars and all, into the very heart of God. The human at the heart of God is one who understands what it is like to live as a human being- to know hunger, and sadness, grief, and loss, betrayal, and temptation. The one sitting on the throne of the universe knows our problems.

The ascension is, in a way, the flip side of the incarnation. In the incarnation God became human- He became a little baby. In the Ascension, human flesh was made divine- human flesh exists in the very heart of God. And the more you think about that the more amazing it seems. It is not just the glorification of Jesus, but the glorification of human nature. The end point of human development has been reached in Jesus. And, in a sense, God wants us to be like him. We are to become like the ascended Jesus. The 3rd century church father, Athanasius, once said, “God became man that man might become God”.[2] Certainly the statement has to be understood rightly and read in context, but he does mean that in the adoption of human flesh into God’s self, that the way is opened for human beings to follow him. And so there is a long tradition of human beings desiring and learning to be more and more like him- a process that is often called “theosis”. “Theosis” means becoming like God, or coming into union with God. When we are baptized the goal that is spoken over us is to mature into the “fullness of Christ” this is what is meant, and so this is God’s goal for all baptized Christians.

This process of becoming like God is possible because Jesus ascended and then sent the Spirit to guide us and empower us. Through the Spirit he can guide and teach us.

When you compare the Apostle Peter in the gospels to Peter in the book of Acts when he is empowered by the Spirit the transformation is obvious- they hardly seem like the same person. Peter is healing people and whereas he once denied Jesus because of fear of the authorities, now he is boldly proclaiming the message of Jesus even to those authorities. The Spirit empowered them to spread his message across the known world. Paul speaks about going to Spain, though we don’t know if he got there. We do know he made it to Rome and proclaimed the message of Jesus right in the heart of the Roman Empire. Thomas is said to have gone to India to share the gospel. Despite the danger, the disciples of Jesus were boldly going to the ends of the earth to proclaim the message of Jesus. The Spirit transformed the disciples from a frightened group hiding behind closed doors, to openly proclaiming Jesus as the true king of the world and performing miracles in his name. They proclaim this message despite the danger of competing with the claims of Caesar, who was also considered “Lord” and even in some way “divine”. The Ascension was the enthronement of Jesus. The disciples boldly proclaimed that Jesus was sitting on the throne of the universe, not Caesar.

That same Spirit is available and active within us. Jesus is still reigning over the universe. The Kingdom of God is still present and growing. And we are still called to be agents of Jesus, showing his love and proclaiming his reign. He engages the world often through us. His reign is often expressed through us. When we see injustice we stand against it as representatives of a kingdom that is reclaiming territory against the chaos that has temporarily and destructively taken control. In taking a stand for our King and his kingdom we may endure hardship and suffering, but our king can sympathize with us and has also endured human suffering. The suffering will have an end, and the ultimate end will be a world where Christ reigns in love. In every area of our lives, we are invited to live like Jesus is on the throne of the universe, and we are empowered to mature to be more and more like our king as his kingdom is proclaimed and grows.

[2] “On the Incarnation”

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Psalm 23- freedom from anxiety

Psalm 23
A Psalm of David.
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.[a]
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness[b]
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,[c]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely[d] goodness and mercy[e] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell[f] in the house of the Lord

Psalm 23:2 Hebrew beside waters of rest
Psalm 23:3 Or in right paths
Psalm 23:4 Or the valley of deep darkness
Psalm 23:6 Or Only
Psalm 23:6 Or steadfast love
Psalm 23:6 Or shall return to dwell
Psalm 23:6 Hebrew for length of days

We live in a world that seems to be full of reasons to be afraid. You watch the news and you are told about terrorist attacks, or some food that is going to cause cancer. We are worried about our family- or worried about not having a family- Worried about paying bills- worried about our job- worried about the way we look- worried about grades- worried about our health- worried about crime. Anxiety disorders are supposed to effect more than 1 in 10 Canadians. (It becomes a disorder when it starts to disrupt your daily life, so way more of us are dealing with anxiety without it becoming a disorder.) …

If you think about everything else going on in the world we have it pretty good. There are places where people are living through horrible conflicts, famines, and natural disasters. I’m sure there are many people all over the world who would be overjoyed to live in Canada and call this place home. And yet, we still seem to be haunted by fear.

Many of the Psalms are associated with King David, but it’s not clear if they are dedicated to David or written by him. … Certainly reading about David’s life leaves you with a sense that David’s life was filled with many reasons to be anxious. Whoever the author was, Psalm 23 gives a kind of personal parable of their experience of facing fear with God’s help.

In Psalm 23 God is imagined as a shepherd and everything seems to change. It is very short, but there is a reason we go to it for comfort. The Psalmist imagines himself as a sheep being cared for by God who is his shepherd.

The opening line is insightful- 

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (23:1).
 In Harry Potter there is a magic mirror. When you look into it you see your deepest desires. Harry is an orphan, so when he looks into the mirror he sees himself with his parents. His friend Ron looks into the mirror and he sees himself as a great athlete and head-boy for his house at their boarding school. Harry had not yet figured out what the mirror was when the very wise wizard, Dumbledore, gives him a hint. He says that the happiest person in the world would look into the mirror and see themselves just as they are. The insight is that the happiest person has learned what St. Paul wrote in Philippians 4, 
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13).

How often are we driven to unhappiness and anxiety by a deep unfulfilled desire? We desire life to be different. … What if, with the psalmist and with Paul, we could be without want because God is our shepherd? We could trust that God knows exactly what we need, rather than giving us what we want. What if we knew that God will look after us in what we need. This is deeper than the necessities of life. God wants us to become a certain kind of person- a Jesus-like person. That is our deepest need. And that is the need God will always provide for because it leads to a never-ending life with Him. To be with God is to be with the source of every joy we have ever felt.

God will lead us to the abundance of green pastures, and still waters. For sheep to be healthy, they need these. What if from God’s perspective we are surrounded by the abundance of (symbolic) green pastures and still waters for the life God wants for us. Remember that God’s goal for us is that we take on a Jesus-shaped life. What if our life is filled with opportunities to learn this, but we just don’t take advantage of it? What if the sheep are brought to a green field, but for some reason doesn’t know it can eat the grass? What if the sheep is brought to a stream, but doesn’t know to drink? Could it be that we are surrounded by the abundance of God to feed us in the ways we need and don’t even realize it?

“He restores my soul” (Ps 23:3). That is God’s goal. He wants to restore us to who He made us to be. He does this by leading us “in right paths”. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of hiking in creation and with every step your soul felt healthier. Every step feels like some poison was drawn out and you could breathe in a way you couldn’t before. … The path God leads us on is what restores our soul. Over and over throughout the Bible we hear about the ‘way’ of God. In the New Testament, we would call it discipleship, or apprenticeship to the ways of Jesus. Our souls are restored by living the in the ways of Jesus. God doesn’t give us these directions for His sake- they are for our sake. They are for the restoration of our soul.

An interesting thing happens in this psalm at this point. We are free from wants. We have the abundance of green fields and clear water. Our soul is restored by walking the shepherd’s path. And we might think the sheep just go blissfully on. But then we read about walking through the darkest valley, or the valley of the shadow of death, and then we are in the presence of our enemies. We might rightfully ask, I thought I was on the Shepherd’s path? It leads me to dark valleys and to the presence of my enemies? … But, when we know our Shepherd is with us these don’t have to be terrifying places. We read, 
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (23:4-5).
There are so many times in the Bible we read about some messenger telling the person to not be afraid because the Lord is with them. … The Shepherd’s rod and staff were to protect the sheep from wolves or other predators, but they were also used to keep the sheep on the right path, or to pull them up if they got themselves into a hole, or down the side of a cliff. It is a symbol of God’s guidance. There are times He gives us a tap to redirect our path. There are times we get ourselves stuck and we have to cry out for him to pull us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

God’s path also doesn’t save us from being faced with our enemies. But it is an interesting way of being with your enemies. … Put yourself back in grade school and imagine the biggest, meanest bully you ever met. Every day they torment you. They tease you. They push you into the mud and take your lunch. Now imagine this giant of a man caring for you. He sets up a table in the school yard and hovers over you while pulling your lunch out of your bag and setting it up on front of you- that’s what it means to fill your cup and anoint your head with oil. It means to be caring for you, even serving you. Imagine Him doing this while looking at the bully. … That is a very different way to be in the presence of your enemies.

Of course this starts to sound like the way Jesus lived. Jesus knew his Heavenly Father loved him and cared for him. Jesus knew there was a bigger picture. He knew he didn’t have to worry no matter what happened. Jesus could walk through the valley of the shadow of death and face his enemies from the cross, even speaking words of forgiveness for his enemies, because he knew there was a bigger picture- the story wasn’t over yet. Jesus knew that even death couldn’t end God’s plans for Jesus.

And God wants that same mentality for us. As Christians, we live in the wake of Jesus' resurrection. We believe that death has limitations for how destructive it can be. This has allowed Christians to live amazing lives walking through very dark valleys filled with incredible enemies, while also being free from fear. Or at least with enough courage that their fear was overcome. Christians saw the resurrection as having very real day to day application for how they lived their lives. They were able to live their lives free from fear.

What are you afraid of? … What horror or crisis have you faced? Maybe you're facing it right now. ... How would your fear be transformed if you walked through these dark valleys knowing that God is shepherding you? Knowing that while things are difficult right now, that ultimately (eternally) everything is okay? Could we live seeing everything we deal with as an opportunity to become the person God wants us to be? Knowing that God is with us, guiding us, leading us, and serving us. Perhaps we could even say with the psalmist, 
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Ps 23:6). 

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Resurrected Body of Christ

At Easter we spoke about the resurrection. We spoke about the fact that the body of Jesus had gone missing from the tomb. We also spoke about the fact that multiple people reported having an experience with the resurrected Jesus. … People in the ancient world were accustomed to stories about dreams or visions where a loved one who died spoke to someone. They were also aware of stories about ghosts. You might remember that when Jesus was walking on the water some of the disciples in the boat were afraid because they thought Jesus was a ghost (Matt 14:26). In our Gospel reading we again see that the disciples were trying to fit the resurrected Jesus into a category so they could understand what was happening. We read, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:37). Then Jesus eats a piece of fish in front of his disciples. This might seem like an odd detail to include, but what he is doing is proving that he is not a ghost. He didn’t fit their categories.

What they were reporting seemed to be something other than a vision or a ghost. … Jesus was resurrected, but that was something that hadn’t really been seen before. He was living a flesh and blood life again, but not exactly like the life he lived before. …

You might be thinking, “well, what about Lazarus?” When Jesus raised Lazarus back to life, Lazarus went back to living his life. He was returned to the way he was before he died. And he eventually died again. I imagine that Lazarus continued to live and get colds and would have achy muscles if he worked a hard day. It doesn’t seem like there was anything different about Lazarus when he was brought back. …

But, when it comes to Jesus there is something strange happening. What the disciples experienced was not just a vision and not a ghost. They experienced a flesh and blood Jesus. But he didn’t seem to be just back to the way he was before he died the way that Lazarus was brought back. The disciples said that Jesus would suddenly appear among them even when the doors were locked. He would disappear just as mysteriously.

Earlier in Luke 24 you might remember that two disciples were walking to Emmaus after the crucifixion and after hearing stories about the empty tomb, but they didn’t know what to make of it all. A stranger started walking with them and taught them about the fact that the messiah was supposed to suffer and die and rise again in three days. It turns out to be Jesus but somehow they don’t recognize him until he breaks bread with them, then he disappears.

Similarly, in John we read about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus (20:1-18). She didn’t recognize him. He even speaks to her and she still thinks he’s the gardener. Commentators have all kinds of trouble trying to explain why she doesn’t recognize him- is it the tears in her eyes? Is he standing behind a bush? Is it that her mind can’t handle the idea that he could be back from the dead? She doesn’t recognize him until he says her name.

Later in John we read that Jesus appears among the disciples even though the doors are locked (20:19). And in John 21 we read that the disciples were fishing and Jesus was on the shore, but the disciples didn’t recognize him even though they were having a conversation about how their fishing was going.

There is something strange going on with the resurrected Jesus. He has amazing abilities to appear into locked rooms, and disappear just as mysteriously from supper tables. His own disciples, who were with him day in and day out, sometimes didn’t recognize him

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul teaches, 

“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44).
 The body we have is sown in the grown when we die, but it is raised as something different. When Paul is talking about a spiritual body, he isn’t necessarily talking about a spirit or a ghost. He is talking about a new kind of body. The body Jesus had in his resurrection was a new creation. It had never been seen before. Our reading from John’s first letter makes a similar point when it says, 
“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2-3).
 What we will be won’t be exactly like what we are. It will be in continuity with what we are, but it will be different.

The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, 

“The new body … will belong in both the dimensions of God’s world, in both heaven and earth. (At the end of the book of Revelation, heaven and earth will finally be joined together into one, so there wont be any shuttling to and fro; the two dimensions will be fused together at last). At this moment our bodies are earthly only; Jesus’ new body is at home in both earth and heaven” (Luke for Everyone, Luke 24.36-53).

So, the resurrection of Jesus isn’t so much about Jesus coming “back” to life, as if he came back to the same existence he had before. Instead what the resurrection seems to be is a pushing through death to come out the other side into a new existence. The resurrection is a new creation. Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus is a first fruit (1 Cor 15:20-22). The resurrection is the beginning of God’s renewing of creation and the binding together of heaven and earth.

At this point we might very well say, “assuming we believe this resurrection business, that’s very good for Jesus, but what does that matter to me?” There’s two things that I would say. One, is that Jesus’ resurrection body is often described by Paul as an example of the kind of body that his followers are promised to eventually have. Christians are sometimes described as people who have their roots in the future. We can be courageous today despite the difficulties we face because we have been promised a glorious future. That means our circumstances don’t define us. In Romans 8:18 Paul says, 

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”.
 And this is coming from someone who also wrote, 
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:24-28).
 So When Paul talks about momentary affliction he isn’t talking about getting a cold, he is talking about facing serious suffering.

The other reason the resurrected body of Jesus matters to us is hidden in the fact that he kept his wounds. He kept the holes in his hands and his feet. He kept the gash in his side. He invited Thomas to touch them. I’m assuming that part of resurrection is a healing of the wounds of life. If you had a chronic illness I’m assuming you would be healed of that. If you lost a limb, I’m assuming that your resurrected body would include a restored limb. … Then why would Christ continue to have his wounds? Why wouldn’t they be healed? … I don’t know, but I believe that they are a physical sign of his love and connection to humanity. The Christian teaching is that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took flesh into himself. He bound himself to humanity, and not just the flesh but also the wounds that he suffered to show humanity the extent of his love and his willingness to do battle against sin a death on behalf of humanity. He kept the wounds because they are symbols of his love for you.

I think this calls us to respond. How do we live now, knowing that Christ has shown such love and endured such pain to free is from sin? How do we live now, knowing that no matter what we face we are promised a glorious future with God in a world where earth and heaven are wedded together? John’s letter sums up our response well, 

“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). 

Monday, 9 April 2018

Unity in the Church of the Resurrection Acts 4

Acts 4:32-35

4:32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
4:33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
4:34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
4:35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

In todays reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see a vision of a pretty idealized church. There was complete unity. They didn’t consider anything as privately owned, but considered the things they had as belonging to the group. The apostles continued to teach about the resurrection and the needs of all were taken care of.

We should see this as an ideal, and it is an important ideal that isn’t to be over-looked or dismissed too quickly. For those who know about church history, we know that the early church wasn’t always ideal. We wouldn’t have letters like Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians unless there were problems in the church. They had their own conflicts around sexual ethics, marriage, gender roles, how to interact with neighbours of another religion, which teachers were authoritative, and the importance of spiritual gifts. Peter and Paul had pretty serious words about the role of the law and how to include non-Jewish people into the church.

And of course, if you have been a serious member of the church for very long you will have heard your far share or war stories from church-land. The church is often less than ideal. Often our major conflicts happen because of conflicting ideals. Someone desires the ancient roots of the church to be honoured and exemplified. They want to emphasize Scripture, history, creeds, chants, and liturgies. Another wants to be relevant to the society and want practical teaching on ways to make life better, and want more modern music like people actually listen to, and maybe want to de-emphasize some parts of theology that don’t sit well with society. …. But there are more than just those two poles. There are plenty of ideals to fights for.

Some people are tempted to just walk away from the church. That is pretty easy to do in a individualistic consumerist society. As a consumer, I’ll just go somewhere that matches my tastes. … Or maybe I just won’t go at all. Why do I need a community? Maybe I can just worship at home where I can read books I agree with, and listen to music that I like, and won’t have to deal with people I don’t always get along with. .. The issue here is that there is no way in which I’m challenged to change.

While there have been a few hermits in the history of the church, the majority of Christians throughout the last 2000 years have seen being a part of the church as a crucial part of being a Christian. Even hermits would often form small communities or come to the community for certain times of worship. The relatively modern notion of individualism mixed with consumerism has resulted in many feeling that belonging to a church as being unnecessary. For most Christians throughout history, the idea of being a Christian and not being a part of a Christian community was a contradiction.  Being a part of a Christian community has been so important that Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd century wrote, 
“He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother” (from On the Unity of the Church).
 The community, even with all of its problems, has helped shape people to worship God, grow into the image of Christ, and serve the world.

As messy as the church can sometimes be, it is also important to consider the ideal and to be constantly working towards it. When we read about it I think a part of our heart yearns deeply to be a part of that community.

First, we read that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32). There is something about being with people you are on the same page with. Sometimes we have to dance around each other because we aren’t sure if we are going to accidentally offend each other. Am I going to say something you don’t believe that will make you dismiss me? What if you label me as a fundamentalist or a heretic? We appreciate difference because it helps us learn and grow, but there is something about being with a group of people that you feel you are in-step with. There is a flow. You work as one body.

A.W. Tozer once said, 
“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers (meeting) together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship”.
 … The church we read about in the early days of Acts were deeply tuned to the risen Jesus and that made them tuned to one another.

We are usually trying to achieve unity by convincing one another that our way is best. If everyone would just agree with me we would have unity. …  I once heard about a man who had a dream. He was walking through an old graveyard where many kings were buried. Suddenly the kings rose out of their graves, clad in armor with their swords in their hands. The kings began to battle each other for dominance. A vicious battle was taking place. Then a figure arrived. It was Christ, and all the kings stopped fighting and bowed their knee to him.[1] … Sometimes we try to achieve unity by trying to make people submit to our way, like the kings all fighting for dominance. But unity is truly found by submission to the reality of Christ.

Now, we would have to discuss what submission to Christ looks like because we sometimes have different ideas about that, but the principle of agreeing to submit to Christ together is an important starting point for unity in the church.

What was the outflow of this unity? What was a major characteristic of this church? “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). We might find this hard to believe, but isn’t this exactly what we see in a healthy marriage? Two people are unified and come together and they consider what they own to be owned together, not as individuals. I would be concerned about a couple that had everything divided up into “his” and “hers”. My assumption would be that there is some blockage to unity and maybe a problem with trust.

This ideal has sometimes been lived out in various Christin communities. We see this in monasteries and convents, and we see it in some communities like some of the Anabaptists (like the Amish). Most of us look at that ideal and there is something that pulls at us, but there is also a fear that prevents us from going through with it. … How beautiful to have that kind of unity, where everything is shared so freely. … But, then our practical suspicion kicks in. How would that work. What if I put in more than someone else and that person is lazy and gets a free ride on what I worked so hard for? What if I change my mind about being a part of that community, how would I leave? … most of us are attracted by this way of life, but we are also afraid of it.

We should also recognize that there was such a thing as personal property in the church. There were some who owned homes where the churches met. This wasn’t exactly Marxist communism.  I suspect it was something more like Julius Nyerere’s vision- He was the President of Tanzania and said he wanted to build a nation where 
“no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty” (Essays on Socialism).
 One of the first things stated about the early church was that, among their numbers, poverty was eliminated. … Sure this was an ideal, but it is beautiful, and why shouldn’t we be bold and creative enough to consider how we might live this way? The resurrection of Christ changed things for them. The whole world was different. Their values and priorities changed.

 Another characteristic of this community is that it was based on the leadership of the apostles and their testimony about Jesus- Acts says, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (4:33). They had attuned themselves to the resurrected Christ under the leadership of the Apostles who Christ had commissioned to continue the work of creating disciples. Earlier in Acts we read a very similar passage to this- “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The testimony and teaching of the Apostles is what we find preserved in our Scriptures. As faithful Jews the Old Testament was their Bible. The New Testament was their additional teaching about Christ and living as disciples of Jesus. That was one of the requirements for a text to be entered into the Bible- it had to be in line with or have a connection to an Apostle. As the church we are still attempting to embrace this ideal. We desire to teach what the Apostles taught in a way that is appropriate for the place and time we are living in. May God grant us such a clarity around who our Lord is that we find unity by attuning ourselves to his love. May our egos lay down their swords in submission to the king of kings and Lord of lords. And may this submission, this attuning, have real and creative consequences for the most vulnerable among us. May we open up our lives to share with one another, perhaps of our treasure, but perhaps our treasure is just symbolic of us opening our lives to one another. Perhaps we can have the courage to pray that God will break down that barrier that prevents us from truly sharing our lives with one another. May God grant us unity of “heart and soul”.

[1] Jordan Peterson
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