Monday, 2 December 2019

Advent 1

Today is the church’s New Year. The Church year always begins with Advent. Advent is a season that brings a certain level of tension. Our culture wants to sing Christmas Carols and begin celebrating Christmas, but Advent wants us to wait. It can be a time of year that we can seem very out of step with the rest of our culture. The mall echoes with songs like “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”, and we see images of cozy sleigh rides, fire places, and hot chocolate and peppermint. … But, when we get to church we hear readings that warn us to prepare for a coming judgement as we wait for Jesus to return. It can feel a bit like Lent invading our Christmas celebrations. There are a lot of people that want to “bah-humbug” Advent. They see Advent as a serous downer that gets in the way of Christmas celebrations.

Our readings are not what our culture expects at this time of year, but they are important to prepare us.

Isaiah, the old prophet, reminds us of the cries of humanity throughout history. A history that is filled with war, violence, disease, and suffering. We are reminded to not be na├»ve about the world we live in. Isaiah expresses a yearning for a time when the ways of God would be respected by a united humanity. The profound peace that would be found on the earth would render weapons useless and they would be refashioned into farm tools. This yearning stands against the reality that humanity lives in- that of violence, conflict, disunity, and the rejection of God’s ways. From the suffering masses of humanity, we hear Isaiah’s voice that cries out with hope for a time when things will be made right.

The prophets yearn for the future when the Messiah is revealed, but they also point to why things are so bad. They call humanity to look at itself. To us, who always want to find the problem somewhere outside ourselves, the prophets point to us and make us view the reality that the reason we don’t live in God’s paradise is our unwillingness live the way God desires in every area of our lives. … But, the prophet’s voice is ultimately a voice of hope that God has saved His people in the past, and that God will not allow injustice to persist forever.

In our Gospel reading Jesus says that his second coming will be like the days of Noah. It will come without warning. People will be living their ordinary lives when it suddenly happens. Anyone who predicts a date for Christ’s coming is a liar. Christ himself, like the church, does not know the day or time. The angels don’t know. The first sign that someone is wrong is that they claim to know. … This image of Christ sneaking up on us when we don’t expect can leave us with a sense of excitement or fear. … We are reminded that the glowing baby in the manger will grow to be the king of kings, and the judge of all humanity. Jesus is relating his second coming to the time of Noah, when sin was washed away from the surface of the world. … Most of us fear judgement, but it is also through judgement that the world will be made right. … Part of what needs to be put right is us. We don’t know how we will stand at the time of judgement. We trust in Jesus, but we can only hope. He owes us nothing.

In many of us there is a little twinge of fear when we think about Christ’s return. Whenever I think about the judgement of Christ I am always reminded of the words of the preacher, Austin Farrer, who said,
“The God who saves us is the God who judges us. We are not condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God. What is it that will break our hearts on judgment day? Is it not the vision, suddenly unrolled, of how he has loved the friends we have neglected, of how he has loved us and we have not loved him in return; how, when we come before his altar, he gave us himself, and we gave him half-penitences, or resolutions too weak to commit our wills? But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems us.”

The Christ who judges us is also the one who loves us and died to save us.

Jesus tells us that since we don’t know when his return will be we should 
“42 Therefore, stay awake, …. 
44 Therefore you also must be ready…” (Matt 24:42, 44). 
How is it that we can be awake and ready? … We heard from St. Paul in Romans,
"the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom 13:11-14)

Paul reminds us to live now as if he will come today. We might pat ourselves on the back for not being involved in an orgy, but we should remind ourselves that the works of darkness include quarrelling and jealousy. The works of darkness are all those choices we make that draw us away from God, and draw us away from the love of our neighbour. These have been systematized as the Seven Deadly Sins. These sins cause us to be asleep to the Spirit because they express a mistaken way of looking at reality. It is like being drunk- we aren’t perceiving life accurately.

The Works of Darkness are opposed to the Armour of Light. To put on the Armour of Light is to be clothed with the character of Christ. Christ is the most awake human being that has ever lived. He sees and experiences reality as it truly his. His priorities are the proper priorities. His character is shaped to respond to life in the appropriate ways. His life is marked by the virtues that destroy the works of Darkness, which is perhaps why the Works of Darkness are not described using a military image- They are more chaotic. … But the Armour of Light is an active military image. It is protective, but it also something worn by a warrior going into battle.

Advent is a time to remember that Christ came in the past- born as a baby and placed in the manger. We are also reminded that Christ is coming again someday- when sin and injustice will be ended and the will of God will be imposed on reality. … Advent is about living between those two arrivals of Christ. … He is present with us now. We are the body of Christ and he promises to be in our midst, especially when we gather (Matt 18:20). He says he is present to us as those who are in need- to offer them help is to offer it to him- To reject them is to reject him (Matt 25). Christ will eventually come, bursting into the world in an obvious way that no one can deny, but (for now) he comes to us in disguise.

As we go through this season there will still be those who ‘bah-humbug’, wanting to rush past the self-reflection we are called to in Advent. But I encourage us to take this season seriously. … Remember the longing of humanity for a future filled with justice and the presence of God- learn to feel that longing in your bones. Build that longing expectation for the coming judgement of Christ when things will be made right. … But more than anything, be present now- be awake to who we are called to be in Christ right now. These are the true ways to prepare for the season. AMEN.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Christ the King

Humanity had a very powerful experience when it came into contact with Jesus. It was such a powerful experience that it took the church generations to begin to realize the depth of that experience. And I think if we are honest, we as the church are still unpacking our experience of Jesus

As the church attempted to more fully understand their experience with Jesus they inevitably bounced from one extreme understanding to another. Those extremes began to be called heresies. We all struggle with heretical ideas as we attempt to grow in our understanding of Jesus. We have a natural desire to follow an idea to its extreme.

For example, some couldn't understand how Jesus could be a divine being and be human being. Some wanted him to be 100% human, and not God at all. They could accept him as a teacher, or a prophet. Others wanted him to be 100% God, and not human at all. To them there was something very unholy about human flesh. It's messy. Humans have to go to the bathroom, which isn’t very dignified for God. So, they started to say that Jesus only looked human. It was as if Jesus was a holographic projection sent from heaven with a message for us.

There were those that believed Jesus was a divine being, but not God. Jesus was a powerful being, but a created being. There was a point in time when The Son did not exist. He was a creature- created by God, and therefore is not God.

In the early church most Christians agreed that Jesus was God, but the difficulty was in understanding exactly how that worked - how exactly is Jesus God? Was Jesus 50% human and 50% God? Was he some kind of hybrid? Would Jesus still be able to save us if he was only ‘sort of’ human? Wasn’t the whole point that he came to be one of us?

Others started to wonder in what way Jesus was God and they imagined that God the Father left heaven and became incarnate in the baby Jesus. But some started to ask who kept everything in existence while the baby Jesus was sleeping. And when Jesus died on the cross, who kept the universe going? And who was Jesus praying to? What was Jesus speaking about when he spoke about the Father?

It seemed like each time they came to a conclusion they had more questions to deal with. The only way that seemed to make sense of the Church’s experience of Jesus was to see Jesus as 100% human and 100% divine. … That brought up more questions.

Now we just blew through a few hundred years of thought on Christ. If you've never dealt with any of this your head might be spinning a little. It is a difficult subject. Some of you might have never thought about any of this, and some of you might be wondering what you believe about Jesus at this point. Some of you might be thinking that this is a lot of silly theology about things we can’t really know. We might as well discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. However, these beliefs mattered and still matter. What is at stake is how salvation works, if we pray to and worship Jesus, and whether we can trust Jesus or not. That's why the Church struggled so hard with these issues. And these opinions are not just deep in history covered by ten feet of soil. They all exist here and now. Walk down the street and ask people who Jesus is and all these opinions are still present in our world.

There are some New Agey folk who believe that Jesus came from some distant planet to teach us. There are those who believe that Jesus was just a vision received while someone was on hallucinogenic drugs. There are those who believe Jesus was just a human teacher or prophet, nothing more- That is what Muslims believe. The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus is the incarnate Archangel Michael, a creature of God, but not God. The Mormons believe that Jesus is a god on his own, separate from God the Father.

These positions weren't accepted by the ancient Christians because it didn’t hold together what they had received from the Apostles. You have to ignore or twist significant chunks of Scripture to make it work. These positions don’t make sense in terms of the Church's historical experience of Jesus. They change who Jesus is, and so (in a sense) they set up a different Jesus. That's why the church cared so much about attempting to get it right.

Each time the Church heard an idea they kept coming back to the Scriptures that were handed on to them. They kept going back to what they were taught by those who were with Jesus. This didn't mean that all Jesus' mysteries were all explained. What the Church was trying to do was set boundaries on how we talk about Jesus. At what point do we stop talking about Jesus of Nazareth? The Church concluded that when we deny that Jesus was a human being we have stopped talking about Jesus and are really talking about something else. When we deny that Jesus was God we have stopped talking about Jesus of Nazareth and are really talking about something else.

One of the places in Scripture that was returned to again and again during these controversies was the Colossians reading we heard today. Most scholars believe that chapter 1 versus 15-20 was an early Christian hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter to the people of Colossae. The letter is believed to have been written in the 50's or early 60's. We're talking 20 or 30 years after Jesus had died and was resurrected. That means this hymn is dated even earlier than that. Listen to this hymn again and think about what kind of a person we are talking about- who is Jesus?
"15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." 

He is "the image of the invisible God". Imagine that being said of a human being. … "by him all things were created". Think of something... that exists because of Jesus. … All the atoms and energies of this universe were created by him in some amazing and mysterious way.

But not only did he create everything, everything was created FOR him. It's hard to even imagine what that means. … Imagine something- anything ... that was made for Jesus.

And then we read that "in him all things hold together". … Imagine something... you know why that thing doesn't stop existing? … Jesus. All things were created by him. Go back to the beginning and Jesus is there. Go to the end where all creation is heading and Jesus is there. And right now everything is being held together by him. …

"God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus]". All God's fullness is in Jesus. This is not something that can be said of someone who was only a human being. That can't even be said of an angel. No angel has all God's fullness.

This is a difficult place for words. If Quantum Mechanics is difficult to grasp then how much more the nature of God. And just because it is difficult to understand doesn't mean it's not true.

Jesus is 100% God. He shares a nature with the Father and the Spirit. Jesus is also 100% human. God the son took onto Himself human nature. A human being has been incorporated into who God is. And because he is both fully God and human, he has brought broken humanity back into relationship with God through his life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension.

He is fully human, so he understands your struggles. He understands how difficult life can be. And being God, he brings that understanding into God as a human being speaking for us, as one of us.

If Jesus is God then we can pray to Jesus and worship him without being polytheists. If Jesus is God then God sacrificed Himself on the cross for us, taking on the full power of evil to show His love for us. He didn't send one of his poor creatures to endure the cross for our sake. God endured it for us. … If Jesus is God, then we can trust what he says about God, because he is God. He isn't a creature giving us good guesses. He is God revealing Himself to us.

It's a hard thing to talk about. Partly because it's technical, but also it is difficult to talk about because it is true. Evil and darkness and suffering is easy to talk about. But the reality of Jesus as the union between humanity and God isn't easy because I can never get the words beautiful enough. I can never convey the grandeur of the God of the universe being present in a human baby in his mother's arms. I'll never have the language to truly communicate the love felt for you as he drew his last breath on the cross. And I'll never really be able to fully describe the human being now present as God in the realm of heaven looking at us all here as we worship. I'll never have words beautiful enough.

We are talking about a great mystery, as hard as it can be to understand Jesus we can rest assured that we are not saved by understanding every intricate detail of who Christ is. He sees us longing after him. And we long after him because we sense the reality that he is the "image of the invisible God". In seeing him we have seen God. AMEN

The New Creation- Is 65

We have ended our time examining the Psalms. Today we notice a shift in the readings towards the Reign of Christ, which we celebrate next Sunday. The Reign of Christ, or the Feast of Christ the King is the end of the church year in our liturgical calendar. We end the year with the end of the Christian story, which is when all things are made right- all injustice is ended- and all suffering ceases. Christ is on the throne of the universe and there is no disputing his rule, or disagreement that his rule is good. Our readings today speak about the return of Christ, the New Creation, and what we are to do in the meantime.

Today we will be looking at our passage from Isaiah 65 specifically. It is a sweeping promise about the future God will bring into reality. We see it reflected in Revelation 21 as well. Revelation says, 
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
 Our passage from Isaiah reads, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth…” (Isaiah 65:17), and there too we read about a re-created Jerusalem.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. This is what is being described in Isaiah. The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. In Luke 17:21 Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”. It is not just some reality far away that we are waiting to come to us. It is a reality right here in our midst. The kingdom is present wherever the will of God becomes reality. When one of us is suffering and another of us shows compassion, the kingdom of God is present and real in that moment. If someone is lonely and one of us visits with a loving presence, the kingdom is present. When we spend time in prayer seeking God’s presence, the kingdom is there. When we resist temptation, the kingdom is present. When we express love to an enemy, the kingdom is there. …

Our will has a limited reach. Our will is expressed in how we set up the furniture in our house- in what kind of car we drive- in what kind of people we choose to be friends with- in what we read and what TV shows we watch- in how we treat those around us. … Our will does not extend to how North Korea treats their people, or how Turkey deals with Syria. Our will doesn’t even extend to the house around the corner. … Wherever our will is done, that is our kingdom. Where God’s will is done, that is where the kingdom of God is present.

What we see in Isaiah 65 is an expression of God’s will when it becomes a reality for all creation- When what God wants to have happen is what actually happens. The kingdom, in its fullness, has finally come.

The Kingdom is here in small ways, but someday it will come in its fullness- in a way that can’t be resisted. For the moment, human beings are able to resist God’s will. We can set up our own kingdom in opposition to the kingdom of God, for the time being. But that time will come to an end, eventually, and God’s kingdom will become the lived reality.

One Bible commentator (Alec Motyer) talks about how Isaiah paints a picture for us, but he’s trying to describe something outside our present experience. He says this picture is “drawn in the colours of this life, [and] project the perfection of the life to come”. So, this image is to be taken seriously, but it can’t be taken literally. Take the emotion of it seriously. Take the intent of it seriously. … For example, in verse 20 Isaiah says,
“No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed”.

Should we assume from this that in the fullness of the kingdom, when creation is remade, that children will be born? and that people will still die? … From what is said in other parts of the Bible, the final enemy that will be defeated is death itself (1 Cor 15:26). And Jesus says that when the kingdom is fully revealed in the resurrection that people will be like the angels and will not get married, which we assume includes not having children. Our relationships won’t be based biological reproduction (Luke 20:34-36). …

Isaiah seems to be using familiar colours to paint a picture of something we can barely imagine. I think he’s is saying something like “you know the pain parents feel when they give birth to a child and that baby only lives for a few days? That kind of pain won’t exist in this new created world. … You know what it feels like when someone dies just when they retire and they don’t get a chance to do all the things they hoped and saved for? That kind of tragedy won’t exist in God’s kingdom. … You know how it feels when you get swindled by a business partner and they take everything you worked so hard for? That kind of injustice won’t exist in the Kingdom- the one who carefully tends the vineyard year after year will enjoy the grapes, and the one who builds the house will get to live in it. The pain of the former life will be so distant, it will be like it has been forgotten. This new Jerusalem will be pure joy”. I think Isaiah wants to paint the picture of the New Creation by using familiar feelings and experiences.

It is a beautiful picture that Isaiah paints for us. The new Jerusalem will be a place where the presence of God dwells in an unmistakable way. Sometimes we talk about “thin” places, which are places where God’s presence feels particularly powerful. Sometimes that is a retreat center, and sometimes that is a holy place people we visit on pilgrimage. This New Jerusalem will be unmistakably and obviously filled with God’s presence. It will be a place where all nations come to gain access to the goodness and guidance of God. … It will be a place where the people are in such an intimate relationship with God that they will desire the right things and God will hear their call and answer it before they can even articulate it.

I love the earthiness of the New Creation. He mentions trees, wolves, lambs, and lions. Their nature will be so changed that there will be no violence between them. The ancient ferocity and fear between the wolf and the lamb will be gone. The lion will eat straw, and no one will have a reason to fear it. The carnivore will become a herbivore.

Isaiah’s image is amazing and beautiful. Heaven and earth are remade. Just as God is making us a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Likewise, God is going to remake the world. Jesus is the first fruit of this New Creation. His old body was made new, into a body that was beyond death. … In Romans 8, Paul says that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). Our being made a new creation is bound up with the Creation being made new. … The will of God is spreading throughout the world and eventually all things will be made new, according to the good and perfect will of God.

We yearn for all things to be made right. The way the Bible says that is that we yearn for the kingdom of God. We yearn for the King to sit on the throne and for His will to be followed because he is good and wise- He loves us and wants what is best for us. This is the hope we yearn for, along with the rest of creation. AMEN

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Remembrance Day Sunday

As you know, Remembrance Day is tomorrow. It is important to remember the suffering that is a part of the high cost of war- then and now. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember that the monster of war lives just under the surface and seeks a way to be released into the world. It is important to remember the sacrifices many make to try to do something about the suffering because to sit back and do nothing is a worse evil. It is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and about how we are to treat our enemies.

Christians have always had a difficult time with violence. At the beginning Christians seemed to be pacifists. The words of Jesus telling them to love their enemies, and telling Peter to put away his sword, rang pretty loud in their ears. St. Paul taught them that they didn’t fight against flesh and blood. There are many stories about Early Christians being martyred. They were willing to die, but they didn’t seem willing to kill. … It wasn’t always easy though. There are stories about Roman soldiers becoming Christians. They remained as soldiers, but they were often not willing to kill. Soldiers who became Christians were sometimes considered disobedient and disloyal if they were unwilling to kill and would sometimes receive severe punishments.

The question became more difficult after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this, Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. Eventually, they had to deal with invading armies. Christians who had the power to command an army had to decide what to do while being consistent with their beliefs. Suddenly, there was a need for a Christian understanding of how a Christian empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He imagines the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is a man travelling on the road who is attacked, robbed, and left for dead. A priest and a religious person pass by, not helping the man, but someone you wouldn’t expect to help is the one who helps the man bleeding and dying in the ditch. … Jesus uses this story to talk about loving your neighbour. St. Augustine wonders what would happen if the Good Samaritan came upon the man as he was getting attacked. How would the good neighbour respond? Surely the good neighbour wouldn’t look away and ignore the beating.

He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward dispositions. So, in protecting the victim, I may actually kill the attacker, but inwardly my actual motivation was to protect the victim. I did not want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accidental consequence that occurred as I was defending someone. So, to St. Augustine the sin in a war is really internal- it is to be found in motivation and inward disposition. If I killed someone by accident, it is not murder. For St. Augustine, if I ended up killing someone while defending someone else it would be something like an accident. It is the inward disposition that motivates the act that determines if the act is moral or not. If I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent, rather than out of a desire for cruelty and violence, then I am justified in killing.

St. Augustine also believed that God created human beings to exist in a kind of natural order that includes rulers who were given a responsibility that included using violence, if necessary, to protect the innocent. He believed that God meant society to be organized under rulers. So, for example, we read in Romans 13:1, 4 that 
“…authorities that exist have been instituted by God… the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”
 It is the duty of the ruler to maintain order and peace and at times this means war. … War in itself is not good. It is something that causes bloodshed and suffering, but it seems to be necessary (at times) to maintain the peace and order of the state.

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. He put together a theory of Just War at a time when his people were being killed and raped by foreign armies. He spelled out principles, which are still used today, under which a nation can justly go to war. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always used as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of not defending and allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. The suffering of war would be less than the suffering of not going to war. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

It is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It helped the empire to resolve the conflict. But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples. First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war". Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war.

A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy, our actions will flow from that disposition. Our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a fist swung at an enemy's nose.

Jesus' words about our enemies are pretty direct and challenging. Jesus says in Luke 6:27-29, 32-33- 
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, […] And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”

We are left wondering how we interpret this. Does this only apply to us as individuals? Does it apply at the level of government? Is this a law? Is this wisdom and guidance, but not to be applied in every circumstance of violence? … Is there any way of dividing a person so that inwardly they love their enemy, but outwardly they strike them across the cheek? … His words make us uncomfortable. His words don't seem realistic. He is asking too much of us. He's asking us for everything. He's asking for our very lives. … Maybe he is.

This makes us uncomfortable because we imagine ourselves during a war and we wonder what we would do. We have people we care about who we want to protect from an invading army. Sometimes there are atrocities being committed in the border of another country and we want to do something to stop it. … We might be in danger and we don't want to die. … As disciples of Christ we are called to be peacemakers and to turn the other cheek. What do we do?

Often the way of Christ is only made clear in the moment. We cannot be pacifists out of being cowards, or being unwilling to stand against evil. And we also have to avoid the other extreme, thinking that we can solve all the worlds problems with violence. If we engage the violence, and use it, we must do so out of a burning desire to protect the innocent, not to destroy the enemy.  We are called to live lives of courage in the midst of (what often seems like) a chaotic world. The way Jesus shows us will not always be predictable. It will not always be safe. It won't be a formula that can be applied to every violent situation. We have to rely on God through prayer to give us the right way.

Jesus' way of love led to his own death, but there are worse things than death for the Christian. His way may lead us to death, but it will also lead us to resurrection. We follow Jesus' way because we are disciples. We know that Jesus knows the way to live life best. Ultimately, peace and freedom do not come from war, but from God.

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality for the time being. We have choices now. We are called to live Jesus' way right now. … The seeds of war lie dormant in each one of us. When someone offends us we are given the opportunity to practice peace by not shooting hurtful words back at them. When we see someone being hurt by someone else we are being given the opportunity to be a peacemaker. When we are cut off in traffic we are asked to notice and deal with the anger within us that can lead to murder.

Those who have gone before us had hard decisions to make. They should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. … We also need to notice the contradiction of the belief that war leads to peace. The peaceful world will come about as God works through us- When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the work of Jesus- and we are transformed into people who see each other as God's children. Amen.

All Saints- Psalm 149

Today we are celebrating the feast of All Saints, which was actually on November 1st. Most people don’t realize the connection between Halloween and All Saints Day. The old word for “All Saints Day” was “All Hallows Day”. … When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name…”. If something is “hallowed” it is holy. The “hallows” are the “holy ones”. In Latin the word for ”holy” is “sanctus”, which is where we get the word “saint”. So, the saints are the holy ones, or the hallows. The night before “All Hallows Day” is “All Hallows Eve”, which gets transformed into “Halloween”.

As a culture we have pretty much lost the connection to All Saints, which is unfortunate because the saints are important for us to think about. … In one sense of the word, “saint” just means “Christian”, but saint soon came to mean more than that. The saints are those who have shown amazing holiness. They are those who we have no doubts about their friendship with God. We feel confident about their presence before God. … For that reason many Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians ask them to pray for them, just as you might ask your Christian friends to pray for you. They are still considered part of the church (even though they have died) and it is believed that they still pray for their Christian brothers and sisters here on earth. …

The saints are those that have shown incredible character and courage in the face of impossible odds. They are examples to us of what a close relationship with Jesus looks like. They are also an amazingly diverse group of people. They followed God’s call on their lives in very different ways. Some lived like hermits in the desert devoting their lives to prayer. Some, like Thomas Aquinas, dedicated their lives to scholarship and learning. Others, like Mother Theresa, dedicated their lives to serving the poor. Sometimes God used saints to bring healing and to show miracles. … The saints are remembered as people who God used in astonishing ways.

The saints are those who show us what is possible in a life lived with God. … The writer and pastor Frederick Buechner says, 
“Their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has, for some reason, chosen to do through them”.
 God works through these people to give us a glimpse of heaven on earth. In them we see a love and peace and a courage that is beyond our understanding. The saints show us self-sacrifice as they pick up their cross and follow Jesus. …

The Psalm chosen for All Saints is Psalm 149. Bible scholars think is a hymn of preparation for God’s people going into battle. Which might seem to be a strange choice for a group of peaceful disciples of Jesus. Jesus showed that something important had changed regarding the kind of warfare they were to be involved in when Peter struck the servant of the high priest with a sword to defend Jesus, and Jesus responded, 
“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52).

The Psalm speaks about the “Assembly of the Godly” (149:1), the “children of Zion” (149:2). It says, “He adorns the humble with salvation” (149:4), “Let the Godly exult in glory” (149:5). But it also speaks about them having “two-edged swords in their hands” (149:5), “to bind their kings with chains” (149:8). … Holy War was not uncommon in the Old Testament, but Jesus dramatically shifted those assumptions about violence.

For the followers of Jesus there is a sense of battle. We are called to rescue people from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. There is a battle we are called to fight, but it is not a physical battle. The Psalm mentions that the godly hold a two-edged sword, and the early Christians said 
“the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
 St. Paul encourages us to 
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:10-17).
 Similarly, in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians he says, 
“For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor 10:4).
 Strongholds is sometimes a symbol of false arguments that someone might try to hide behind to avoid the truth.

The followers of Jesus are definitely called to participate in battle, but we have to put aside our usual images of battle- power works differently for the saints. The saints have been called into battle, but it is not an obvious battle. It is not a physical battle. The enemy is not other people, who are made in the image of God. The traditional enemies that the church speaks about are “the world, the flesh, and the devil”. By the “the world” they mean human systems that are organizing themselves to exploit the creatures of God. By “the flesh” they mean our own internal drive away from God- our inclination towards sin. And by “the devil” they mean the spiritual unseen personal powers that work against God and God’s creation. This battle is called Spiritual Warfare, and it is the work of the saints. Anything that threatens God’s plans for the world is the enemy, but that isn’t a human being. Humans are sometimes held captive by these enemies, and they might unwittingly help this enemy. But, human beings are not the enemies. The saints do battle in service to God and God’s creatures.

The battle plan doesn’t involve earthly weapons. The battle looks a lot more like what we hear described by Jesus in our Gospel, 
“I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:27-31).

The victory of the saints is to participate in the victory of Christ. … By the help of the Holy Spirit, they have not allowed themselves to be overcome by the evil systems of the world. They have stood apart, not willing to be mere cogs in a system of exploitation. … By the Holy Spirit, they have resisted the inner sinful desires that draw them away from God. By the authority of Christ, they have claimed victory over the dark unseen powers that whisper temptations into their hearts. … They have carried their cross and so they participate in Christ’s resurrection and Christ’s victory. AMEN

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Psalm 65

Some scholars think that our psalm might have been a psalm sung during a harvest festival. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the things God has done, and the benefits the people enjoy as a result of God’s actions. Here we see a compassionate God who works to make life flourish. As in other psalms, there is a strong connection between joy and gratitude.

The psalm begins with a description of God’s kindness (v1-4).

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed. 2 O you who hear prayer, to you shall all flesh come. 3 When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions. 4 Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!
God is described as one who hears prayers. Thinking about God as hearing prayer might not seem that astonishing or surprising, but when was the last time you stopped to consider your relationship to an ant on the sidewalk? Surely, the distance between us and God is greater than the distance between us and the ant. We are more like the ant than we are like God in many ways. If we don’t stop to consider the ant, doesn’t it make you wonder why God would be concerned with our prayers? Isn’t that, in itself, an amazing thing? God listens to your prayers. … God draws all living things to Himself. God cares for all living things- “all flesh”. God is not distant, but attentive and compassionate.

The psalmist also describes being attacked by sin- he says “when iniquities prevail against me” as if it was an animal that attacks him. In Genesis 4:7 God says to Cain, who is contemplating murdering his brother, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is seen as a power external to Cain and the psalmist. … Sometimes we feel that, don’t we? As if our temptations and sin are outside ourselves, even sometimes outside our control? Sometimes we can’t even want to resist. … St. Paul tends to see Sin this way as well. He sees it as a power that has enslaved humanity. God, in Christ, rescues us from that power. …

This is right in line with our psalm. He speaks about atonement. Which is the process of being brought back into relationship with God after having that relationship broken by sin. This atonement isn’t considered something the people do through their sacrifices, which is often the stereotype of how Israel dealt with their sin. It is seen as an action of God. God heals the broken relationship between the psalmist and God that is a result of sin. That is right in line with the Christian understanding of what God did through Christ.

The end goal of that atonement is that people are drawn into a relationship with God- In the Psalm that means being brought to the temple. In Christian terms, Jesus replaces the temple as the place where heaven and earth meet, so we could say we are drawn into relationship to God in Christ (see John 2:18-22). … The end goal is establishing a healed relationship between God and human beings. … The psalm also says that this is God’s doing. God chooses. If you are here it is because God has drawn you here. You have responded to something God has done in you- a conversation God started. God is the one who initiates. … Next, to be satisfied with the goodness of God’s house is to realize that there is no lasting pleasure outside God’s presence (see the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis where demons ). God is the creator of joy and peace. All true lasting joys are to be found in God’s presence. It is spiritual maturity. We are not drawn away from God to seek some good that God can’t give us.

The next part of the Psalm describes God’s deeds (v5-8).

5 By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness [/deliverance], O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas; 6 the one who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might; 7 who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples, 8 so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.

Verse 5 reads “By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness” or it can also be translated, “with deliverance”. Deliverance and righteousness are pretty religious sounding words, so they can be a bit hard to see in our lives. … But, there's another problem. 

The problem is that, for some reason, when many of us think of God as “righteous” or as giving out “justice” many of us imagine ourselves as the ones being punished or judged. That probably comes from a sensitivity regarding our own sinfulness. … But, when Israel talked about God bringing righteousness it was in the sense of God rescuing them. When they called out for God to give justice it was against an oppressor who was doing them harm.

Imagine you are a child on the playground and you are constantly bullied. The bullies make you hate going to school. They tease you. They kick sand in your eyes. They laugh at you. Occasionally, they actually beat you up. … One day a child in an older grade decides to take you under their wing. All the bullies are afraid of this person. This saviour defends you and the bullies stop bothering you. That person has enacted “righteousness”, and you have been delivered from the hands of your bullies. … That is the sense that Israel would have when they used words like “deliverance” or “righteousness”. …

God is described as “God of our salvation”. “Salvation” is another very religious word. It means to be safe, saved, rescued, and victorious. … You are in the position of having been rescued from the bullies. … The idea here is that God acts in the world for our benefit. He brings salvation. … Twice the psalm mentions the “ends of the earth”. While It might seem like God is the God of Israel alone, this psalm makes it plain that God is for the world- He is the “hope of all the ends of the earth” and “to [him] all flesh will come”. … The natural next step is that he is the one who brings salvation to the world. ... The ancient church often called the psalmist "the prophet", and here we can see why.

In the ancient world the waters could be seen as a manifestation of chaos. Chaos was an unpredictable evil. In ancient thinking the world was made out of the ordering of chaos, and pushing it back made space for civilization. But that chaos still existed in the depths of the seas and lakes and they could rise up and crash against the people at any moment (Think of a tsunami). God, in his grace, pushed it back and calmed it.

No doubt, Ancient Christians would read verse 7, God “stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves”, and think about Jesus in Mark 4, who was sleeping in the boat when the chaotic waters rose up to destroy them “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mk 4:39). Keep in mind that it was common to have these psalms memorized. So, when the disciples see Jesus calm the waters, or when the first readers would have read this, it is likely that this psalm came to mind. God is the one who calms the waters, but here Jesus is calming the waters. It is a subtle way of showing that in some mysterious way Jesus does what God does.

And in the final section (V9-13) we see that the sea of chaos is tamed and its waters are made useful.

9 You visit the earth and water it;
you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their corn, for so you have prepared it. 10 You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 11 You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance. 12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, 13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with corn, they shout and sing together for joy.
The waters of chaos are tamed by God and used to water the fields, like God is a gardener. This was a powerful image of blessings for an agricultural community that relied on the rain. The watered fields produce bountiful crops to sustain the lives of the people. The earth reaches the peak of its fruitfulness. The image we are left with is that of an earth made vigorously alive- green, lush, and adorned with beauty. As Jesus says, “Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these [lilies]” (Lk 12:27). And the ground is producing this beauty abundantly. The ground is producing abundant crops and flocks of animals. The overall effect on the earth is joy- Joy in the morning and joy in the evening- Joy in the hills, and joy in the meadows and valleys.

We can see why this psalm would have been used for a harvest festival. It gives thanks for God who gives us so much. God initiates the healing of our sin, and draws us into deeper relationship with Him. But it is also surprising in that it extends God’s reach beyond Israel to the rest of the world. He is the hope of the ends of the earth. He calms the chaotic waters. And he causes abundant life to grow from the ground. The end result is relationship with God, enjoying the bounty He has produced, and Joy. AMEN

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Psalm 119- God's guidance for your life

Psalm 119:97-104

This morning we are continuing with our series looking at the Psalms. Our Psalm this morning is a portion of Psalm 119. We are only looking at a portion of it because it is 176 verses long. It is famous for being very long. 

 It is an acrostic poem, so each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, if it was in English the first section would be made up of lines that start with A. The next section would be made up of lines that start with B and so on. Today’s section starts with the letter ‘mem’. So all the lines we will be dealing with start with the same letter. (It's a bit of a Sesame Street vibe.)

Even though Psalm 119 is very long it does have a consistent theme: God’s Torah. We usually translate the word “torah” as “law”, but the word is a bit more full than that. It doesn’t just mean ‘legal rules’. It can also refer to the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In its most full definition, however, “torah” means something like “God’s teaching” or “God’s instruction”. Torah is our guidance to live as children of God. It is something precious. It is guidance to live a good life. … We see it in a condensed form in the 10 Commandments, and even more condensed form in Jesus’ summary of the law- “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ … And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37-40).

Sometimes we think about Jesus’ summary of the law as a way to not have to pay attention to the rest of the Law. As if we have the Cole's Notes version of the law so we don't have to look at it.  The Early Christians didn’t think that way. Jesus Says he came to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17-18). In Paul’s Second letter to Timothy he says,

 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …” (2 Timothy 3:16).
In the Early Church, Scripture referred to the Old Testament and the New Testament didn’t really exist yet. What became the New Testament was still in the form of letters that were being shared between the churches. There was a lot of respect for what we call the Old Testament and Christians constantly turned to it seeking wisdom from God. Though, they always looked back on Scripture with Christ in their minds.

For example, Maximus of Turin (a bishop who lived from the late 300’s to early 400’s) said this:

“[The] children of Israel, arriving at Marah and being unable to draw the water because of its bitterness (for the well had water but no sweetness and it was pleasing to the eye but polluted to the taste), drank water that became sweet and mild as soon as wood was thrown into it by Moses [Exodus 15:22-27].”
Maximus is referring to an Old Testament story in Exodus when the people have been rescued from Egypt and are brought into the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. They were looking for water and when they finally found it, it was too bitter to drink. When Moses cried out to God he was shown a particular log. When he threw the log into the water it became good and drinkable.

Maximus goes on to say,
“The sacrament of the wood removed the harshness that the noxious water bore. I believe that this happened as a sign, for I think that the bitter water of Marah is the Old Testament law, which was harsh before it was tempered by the Lord's cross. For it used to command ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and, austere as it was, it offered none of mercy’s consolation. But, when it had been tempered by the wood of gospel suffering, at once it changed its bitterness into mildness and presented itself as a sweet drink to as the prophet says: ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, more than honey and the honeycomb to my mouth!’ [Ps 119:103] For sweet are the words that command, ‘If anyone strikes you on your cheek, offer him the other as well; if anyone takes your tunic from you, leave him your cloak too.’ This, then, is the bitterness that has been changed into sweetness: the austerity of the law has been tempered by the grace of the gospel. For the letter of the law is bitter without the mystery of the cross; about this the apostle says, ‘The letter kills.’ But when the sacraments of the passion are joined to it, all its bitterness is spiritually buried, and about that the apostle says, ‘But the Spirit gives life.’” (SERMON 67-4).
Again, we find this principle of the Ancient Church to constantly turn to Christ as the way of understanding the Old Testament.

Our portion of the psalm begins, 

“Oh how I love your [Torah]!”
 Most of us don’t have an attitude towards the law that would cause us to say such a thing. If we just think about the Torah as a bunch of rules imposed on us, then we are likely to resist and even feel resentful about this. But, if we see the Torah as God’s instruction for how to live life as children of God, then we might start to see how we might start loving the Torah. Maximus would say that this is especially true when we read it with Christ in our mind, who said that he came to fulfill the Torah. He brings out its deeper meaning and purpose.

If we are going to learn to love the Torah we should do what the psalmist does in the next line- 

“It is my meditation all the day”.
 We should consider the instructions deeply, meditatively. We should consider that it might have something to teach us, so we shouldn’t dismiss it as just a bunch of ancient rules that have nothing to say to us. If we meditate deeply on this Torah we will hear God speaking to us about our life. We sit at God’s feet and ask what the meaning is for this law- What principle rests behind it? What wisdom does it have for today? What does the Torah have to say about our politics, our bioethics, our treatment of the environment and the vulnerable, or our business decisions? We have to wrestle with the Torah- Like Jacob wrestling the angel, we have to wrestle with it all night and not let it go until it gives us its blessing. (This is what the practice of Lectio Divina is all about). Is it wise to ignore thousands of years of accumulated wisdom as a result of such wrestling?

Verses 98-100 can make the psalmist look a bit arrogant. He says,

“98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.” (119:98-100)
What is being compared isn’t necessarily the psalmist and his enemies, teachers, and elders. What is being compared is human wisdom as compared to the wisdom of God expressed through the Torah. Human wisdom has its limitations. …

We sometimes talk about “standing on the shoulders of giants” as a way of saying that we build on the discoveries and wisdom of the past. No matter how smart you are. No matter how long you live. You will be much more knowledgeable if you learn from those who went before you. That’s true of physics, astronomy, and engineering. You might be very smart, but you’re only going to go so far as an astronomer laying on your back in the dark at night and staring into the sky, never learning about telescopes or reading about Copernicus, Galileo, and Stephen Hawking. ... How much more is it true if we consider the source of the Torah as inspiration through human beings who wrestled with God?

What is the result of this meditation on the Torah? Our psalmist says,
“101 I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 102 I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me.” (Ps 119:101-102)
The Psalmist says he is able to live a good life. Isn’t that the desire for all of us? To live a good, wise, fulfilled, and meaningful life? To avoid doing evil. To not hurt the people around us, and not leave the world worse than we found it. To live a life where our relationship are made healthier because we wisely know how to interact lovingly and wisely with people. To know how to spend money wisely so that you can use it to bless people. To have those younger than you seek your advice because you seem to know how to live life well. To have such a trusting relationship with God that you have a radiant life, and will have a radiant death. … When we see God’s instruction as leading us to this place we can say with the psalmist,
“103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!"

Follow @RevChrisRoth