Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Bible Reading Challenge- Genesis, Psalms, Matthew

For those who are attempting to read through the whole Bible in a year I am providing a bit of an introduction for some of the books of the Bible. I hope it is helpful. 

Reading the Bible in General:
We are in the habit of reading for information. We consume as we read. The Bible was not written to be read this way. The bible is not a newspaper, or a text book, or even a novel. The Bible is an entirely different kind of book. Reading the Bible is about prayer and spiritual-formation, not merely information gathering. As we read we get a sense of who God is and who we are. We begin to see ourselves and our lives in the pages of the Bible. As we learn to live in its pages we begin to relate our lives to situations we read about. We see the betrayal of family as the betrayal Joseph experienced. We see our prayers in a difficult time as related to Jacob wrestling the angel. We see our own denial of our gift as Jonah running away from God. We see reconciliation with a friend as the story of the prodigal son. 

Find the readings here:
download the PDF here:      

Reading Genesis:
The word “Genesis” means “Beginning”.  The book of Genesis is a book of beginnings. It describes the beginning of creation- The creation of earth, stars, moon, sun, life, families, nations, cities, and traditions.  Genesis is the foundation of the Bible. It is foundational because in Genesis we learn that the creation is good and not a place of suffering that we have to strive to escape from. We learn that God desires to have a relationship with what (and who) He has made. We also learn that we are no longer living in the creation as God desired it to be. In Genesis we see the beginning of Sin. Human beings used their freedom to turn away from God.  Disharmony enters the world and spreads like a disease.  Things, suddenly, aren’t the way they were supposed to be. Human beings do horrible things to each other and distance themselves from God.  
God works to heal the relationship between him and humanity eventually by working with a particular family- Abraham and Sarah and their decedents (who will become the people of Israel). God places a blessing on Abraham, blessing him and his family to be a blessing to all humanity. Genesis follows this promise in the life of this special family. The people of God inherit this promise and blessing.  

Tricky bits- In Genesis there are a lot of names and places mentioned that don’t mean a lot to modern readers, especially if you are new to the Bible. These names helped the people to find their roots so that they knew how they were a part of God’s story. Don’t feel bad about skimming through these names and places. Focus, instead, on the overall movement of the story.
 It is also helpful for us to remember that this book is from a distant culture from a distant time. Some things will shock us. This was a different time that came with different assumptions about life.
Genesis is not (strictly speaking) a modern history text book, or a science text book. Genesis is primarily telling us about who God is and who the people of God are. It is a kind of theological text. Getting drawn into debates regarding a literal 24 hour 6 day creation is missing the point. The questions to ask is “who is this God?” And “who are his people?”
Like God’s people you are created, called, and formed. See yourself in the midst of the struggles and joys of God’s people. How is your relationship with God like Abraham and Sarah’s? How do you see yourself in this story? 

Reading the Psalms:
The Psalms are the prayerbook and songbook of the people of God. They express every emotion imaginable in human experience. The Psalms give us words when we aren’t quite sure what to say. We see emotions expressed about enemies. We see deep sadness and regret. We see thankfulness and joy. Sometimes it seems as though we are overhearing one of Jesus’ own prayers, and pray it mysteriously and boldly as a member of his body.  The psalms teach us about the depths of brokenness and the heights of victory. They teach that it is okay to be human. They also give show us our roots. We pray and sing what the people of God have been singing and praying for thousands of years. Our voices joins with countless generations before us.
Tricky bits- The language used against an enemy can sometimes be shocking for modern readers. The Psalmist has no intension to hide the nitty gritty of human life. They call for justice against enemies and hypocrites and the corrupt. Sometimes the Psalmist is speaking against very real enemies who are out to kill them, their friends, and their families. The Psalms sometimes speak in ways we feel, but would never have the guts to say. They speak truth about the human heart and that condition of the heart is something Jesus came to heal and transform, but ignoring its present condition is not the way of Jesus. Our spiritual elders have said that the best way to read the Psalms is to pray them.

Reading Matthew:
The Gospel of Matthew is a natural link from the Old Testament to the New Testament, and is considered the most Jewish of the four Gospels. This is especially obvious at the beginning of the gospel where we find the genealogy of Jesus, which shows how Jesus’ family line is connected to the people of God. Especially important is Jesus’ connection to his ancestor, King David. In the Gospel we are introduced to John the Baptist, who is another link. He embodied and represented the Old Testament, especially the prophets, and points to Jesus as do those ancient writings. Matthew is answering Jewish questions, and wants to show how Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets. Primarily, though, Matthew wants to show us Jesus and what a life following him looks like.  Jesus is a king and his followers are called into his kingdom. He has kingly authority over the forces of nature, the spiritual unseen forces, over life, forgiveness of sin, sickness, and even death. Living in his kingdom is challenging. It seems to be an upside-down kingdom compared to the way our world works. It is a kingdom where the citizens forgive their enemies and turn the other cheek when struck. They follow Jesus along the way of the cross, and willingly turn in their earthly kingdom for a heavenly kingdom. The way to spot someone who lives in this kingdom is spelled out in chapters 5-7. This “Sermon on the Mount” has changed many lives and will continue to do so if we try to put his words into action.      

Monday, 27 May 2013


Trinity Sunday is a difficult Sunday for preachers. We are given the task of taking a complex idea, like the Trinity, and communicating it simply and clearly. The idea of the Trinity is this- God is one in nature, but three in persons. If you ask what God is, we say “God”. There is only one such being in that category. If you ask what we are, we say human.  God is in His own category.  If you ask who God is, we say “Father, Son, Spirit”.  As we speak we have to be careful not to mix the persons of the Trinity together. However, we also need to be careful that as we describe the Persons of the Trinity that we don’t divide their nature- which is God- one and unified. That’s the basic idea. Three persons. One God. It is not necessarily an easy concept to hold in your head.
As we try to make it easier to understand we quite often get into trouble. We try to make it easier by imagining that God changed into tree forms. So he was The Father, then he became the Son when Jesus was born, and once Jesus ascended he became the Holy Spirit. But we get in all kinds of trouble when we do that. For example, who was Jesus praying to if he really was the Father? 
It’s also difficult to find a picture to help explain it. Sometimes people will talk about an egg- shell, yolk, and white, but still one egg. However the separation is too distinct. We might talk about light going through a prism and being separated into the colours of the rainbow. Or, a musical chord made of three notes. But these images all come up short.

The difficulty is that we are describing the God of the universe. Imagine an ant trying to understand who you are and what you do- your relationships, your job, etc. The understanding between the ant and the human being is actually closer than that between us and God. Sometimes we don’t take the time to realize how much God is beyond us. Imagine how unbelievably amazing a being we are talking about. This being is beyond time. He doesn't just live forever, he is outside of time. He created time. He is beyond the physical universe. He doesn't have a physical nature. This being created the universe. When we start looking at how massive the universe is, we get a little glimmer of the power of the being we are talking about. This being is beyond our understanding. This being is beyond our words.  This is sometimes the role of the Atheist. Sometimes we describe a much too simple and small God and the atheist rightly takes issue with such a being. The being we describe is beyond our often simple descriptions. Anything we say about God is like a crudely drawn picture.

When my sons draw a picture of our family I come out somewhat recognizable, but I don’t think I could use it for my passport photo. Our words about God are like that. Anything we say about God is a crudely drawn image, and has very little ability to really describe God. Calling God “Him” is even problematic because he is so different and beyond other “hims”. We call God “Father”, or “love” and all of this is just not good enough. We can never get our language beautiful enough, or accurate enough, or profound enough, to really describe what we are talking about. Even using the word “God” is problematic, because it can bring to mind the Roman or Greek gods, but we are talking about a being that is beyond all that.
When Moses was introducing the people to the God that rescued them from slavery, one of the commands they were given as they learned to become God’s people, was that they were not to make an image of God to be used in worship. Any image would not be good enough, no matter what image was used.  Idolatry is confusing God with what is not God. Any image or description of God risks idolatry, or confusing God with what is not God. This is sometimes called Apophatic Theology, which is a theology that says we are really on safer ground when we say what God is not, rather than saying what God is. In India there is a tradition where they will sometimes say in Sanskrit “Neti Neti” which means “not this, not this”. God is not this. God is not this. It is easier to say what God is not then to say positively who or what God is. God is so beyond us we have a very difficult time really gaining a clear understanding of who God is. We might look at the world and wonder where it all came from, but what can we really say about the source of everything we know… except to say that it must be other than it? It must be other than a tree, a mountain, a star, me. It seems logical and necessary to point to the source… beyond creation, and beyond our own thoughts to that something or someone else out there way beyond it all- beyond time and space even. All we seem able to do is point, but even that is a problem because what direction do we point in?
But then what hope do we have in knowing this being, let alone having a relationship with “Him”? Anything we try to do really is pretty pointless. Our technology cannot help us here because all we can do is look at what this being has perhaps made. We can reach out all we want, but it is a fruitless effort ….unless….. God reaches back. 

 We cannot know God except through His self-revelation. God has to reveal himself to us if we are to know Him at all.  Revelation is God showing us what we couldn’t possibly know any other way. Revelation is God expressing Himself through the person of Jesus Christ. Revelation is transcendence becoming immanent. 
I heard someone explain it this way. It's as if a cartoonist drew himself into his comic strip in order to introduce himself to the characters he made.

A priest I know once said it this way- The incarnation is like being near a lake on a really sunny day and the sun is too bright to look at, but the reflection is slightly less bright so it is possible to look at the sun through the reflection on the lake.

 Jesus Christ is the reflection of God- the image of God. He allows us to see God in a more clear way.  The God of the universe, who we can’t say much of anything about, showed us Himself in Christ. Jesus is the pinnacle experience of humanity with God. God has reached out to humanity in many ways over the thousands of years, but Christ is the clearest expression of God’s reaching out.   
People have written their experiences with this revealing God and have gathered these experiences together in the Bible throughout thousands of years. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t continue to speak to people. The Holy Spirit is present with us and communicates to us, but the Bible allows us to measure our experiences against the experience of the community that has been having encounters with God for thousands of years. So through those pages we see God reaching out to us across history and we can start to know this God when we read through the pages… especially when we have Jesus in mind as we read.
If the only way we can know God is if he reaches out to us, and if the Bible is a record (in some way) of God reaching out to us as a community, and Jesus is the most clear image of God reaching out to us that we have, then the Bible (read through the lens of Christ) is the best chance we have of knowing about God. One of the things we learn about God as we read through peoples’ experiences with God, especially experiences with Jesus, is that there is a threeness and a oneness about God. Here are some examples-  Jesus tells us to go out and make disciples, baptizing them in a threefold way- in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Paul blesses the churches in a threefold way, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14). In Genesis 18 three visitors come to Abraham. It says the Lord appeared to him and then it says there were three men. In Colossians 2:8 we read that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”. In John 14:9 Jesus says that anyone who has seen him has seen the father.  In John 15:26 Jesus says “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me”. There are plenty more passages we could look at, but I think you get the point. As the saints and theologians poured over the Bible they arrived at what we now know as the doctrine of the Trinity. The way we hold this threeness and oneness together is the Church’s teaching about the Trinity.      
 It’s not that they didn’t have it before, it’s just that it became more polished and more well thought out. It’s really just direction to help us speak rightly about God. It is advice to show us where the boundary markers are in our language and thought about God. The doctrine doesn’t remove the mystery of God. The teaching on the Trinity describes the mystery. 
Our experiences with Jesus are like a tightly packed rosebud and the more time we take over the centuries to reflect on the church’s experiences with God the more we learn to speak about God. Sometimes we get it wrong, sure, but I think we sometimes get it right too. And that is the Holy Spirit working to bring us into truth. After Jesus ascended he didn’t leave us on our own to figure all this out. He said that the Holy Spirit would be left with us to help guide us into all truth (John 16:13). 
This is how we can feel confident talking this way about a God that is beyond our wildest imaginings. It is bold for sure. We are speaking about something/someone that is beyond our thought and language. But, we boldly trust that God has reached out to us and that the Holy Spirit has helped us to see this, especially through our reading the Bible. And especially as we get to know Jesus who is (the clearest image of God reaching out to us).  We have to trust in his reaching towards us or we are hopeless to know anything about Him.  The good news in all this is that God has made himself knowable. And that dusty Bible sitting on most people’s book shelves is the primary way to know Him (along with Prayer, of course), but the Bible is where we learn who we are praying to. It is not an easy book. Of course it is not an easy book to read. We are learning about the transcendent God. It is not easy, but I do believe it is worth the effort.

Monday, 13 May 2013

beam me up Scotty- Ascension


For a long time I had many mixed feelings about Jesus’ Ascension. I never quite understood why Jesus left. It was as if he was “beamed up” to the Starship Enterprise boldly going somewhere else and leaving us down here. I sometimes wonder if the Apostles felt the same way. 
It was pretty obvious that they still needed Jesus’ help. In our reading from Acts the disciples ask Jesus a question. They asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" John Calvin commented on the Apostles’ question and stated that there are almost as many errors as there are words in the question. Keep in mind that Jesus has been teaching them for fourty days after the resurrection, and that is on top of the three years they spent together.  They still had the sense that the kingdom was something that would happen suddenly. The sky would suddenly open up and the kingdom would fall on them. Jesus spoke about the kingdom being like a mustard bush- a weed that grows and spreads from a single tiny seed. They also still had the sense of nationalism that the kingdom had something to do with restoring the nation state of Israel to the Jewish people, and in the process defeating their political enemies. But the mission of God was to spread the Good News (and therefore the kingdom) across the world.
After such a question could he really leave? It would be like leaving a teenager in charge of the house when you go on a trip. You put emergency numbers on the fridge, you fill the pantry with food, and just before you walk out the door to catch a plane your teenager asks you “You don’t mind if I have a small party while you’re gone do you?” I’m sure most of us would cancel the trip convinced they aren’t ready for the responsibility yet.
But, Jesus goes. The whole group of disciples come and ask him this question, but they should know better. The question shows their ignorance. I want to yell out to Jesus at that point and tell him not to leave them at such an important time. They need more help. They need more training.       

          Sometimes I feel the same way when I look at our world. He’s left, but we need help. We have made the kind of world where factories collapse on people because we want cheap t-shirts.  At times I can feel pretty overwhelmed with the mess the world seems to be in. War. Genocide. People imprisoning people in house. School shootings. We’re destroying our environment. We’re killing each other in increasingly creative ways.  Some have much too much, while others don’t have enough to survive. We’re scared of each other.
Sadly, sometimes the church is a mess too. We’re confused. We argue over all kinds of things. There are politics and power games. It’s easy to come down on governments and factory owners and institutions like the church, but we look into our own lives and we aren’t really all that better. Very few of us really live up to our own standards of what it means to live a really good life, unless our standards are very low.  … Surely we are just as ignorant as the apostles who asked the question. … But he left. He left us in this mess. Surely he must know that we need him with us- so why would he leave?     

The good news is that I misunderstood the Ascension. It wasn’t about Jesus getting beamed up into a spaceship to boldly go where no messiah has gone before. It was not about abandoning us at all. It was about getting closer to us.
By Ascending, Jesus was enveloped in the cloud of the Glory of God. When Jesus ascended, in modern language we might say that he went into another dimension- The dimension of heaven. He entered as a full human being into the dimension of heaven. There he realized his full glory. But, this ascending isn’t about leaving us. The dimension of heaven isn’t on some far distant planet, it is a dimension that overlaps our own.
The Ascension is an enthronement. It is when Jesus entered his full Lordship. It is also he also when he took on his full Transcendence. Transcendence is a word that is used to talk about how “other” God is. God is the creator of the universe and so is beyond the physical universe. God is beyond any of our imaginings about Him. He is beyond our words about him, because He is unlike anything else. If you want to understand Transcendence, contemplate the seeming infinitude of space- The billions of Galaxies- and then think about the being that began it all.  Or think about a being that can create time, or laws of physics (like gravity). Our image of God as the man with the white beard sitting in the clouds is soon blown away.
God’s transcendence can sometimes mistakenly make us feel as if He is not close to us. This is a mistake because His Transcendence is necessary for his immanence. Immanence means that God is close to us. God is intimately near us. As St. Augustine said, “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves”. God is so close to us he hears the beating of our heart- the blood flowing through our veins- He hears every secret whisper of our mind.
As I said, and it seems like a strange thing, but transcendence and immanence are two sides of the same coin. If Jesus were to stay with us as his resurrected self without ascending he could only be in one place at a time. That means that if he was in a locked room with his apostles, he could not at the same time be with us here at St. Timothy’s. In ascending into the dimension of heaven, Jesus gains the ability to be with us always and everywhere to the very end of the age.  He gains the ability to work simultaneously through Mother Theresa in Calcutta, and Deitrich Bonhoeffer in Germany. He has the ability to be simultaneously present in our Eucharistic meal, and also at the numerous other meals of Holy Communion throughout this city and throughout the world. And in a thousands upon thousands of other ways he is working to transform us and our world. That immanent presence and power of Jesus with us after his ascension is what we call the Holy Spirit. 

An analogy is hard to come by, but we’ll try this. I speak and my voice is limited by my volume, other competing sounds, the acoustics of the building, etc. However, if I use my cell phone, it can change my voice into an invisible reality that can then be heard and received all over the world (depending on the number I call). But for that to happen my voice has to be transformed into radio waves that we can neither hear nor see without having another cell phone to receive the signal. My voice has to ascend into a different way of being before my wife can then receive my call across the city telling her that I love her. Jesus had to ascend to be able to be with us. Though, it is a different way of being.  This was the gift of the Holy Spirit they were to wait for in Jerusalem.
The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is the flipside of the Ascension, and it is only possible because of the Ascension. The Holy Spirit present with the disciples is Jesus’ presence with the disciples. When this gift comes they receive power. This power will enable them to live and teach what he taught. They will act and speak in Jerusalem, but they won’t be limited by the geography or politics of the nation of Israel.  Eventually this teaching will spread to the ends of the earth by the Holy Spirit working through disciples- generation after generation. This is a mission we have inherited. The Holy Spirit working through Christians has brought us this message, and is now empowering us to deliver it into the world, just as the Holy Spirit has done for 2000 years.  
The Book of Acts is sometimes called the “Acts of the Apostles”, but that can be a little misleading. Others have offered to call it the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”, this can be equally misleading. The preacher John Stott suggests the lengthy title “The Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles”. It is a bit wordy, but it is accurate. I think it would be helpful for us to think of ourselves this way as the church. The church is continuously speaking the words and deeds of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus entered as a human being into Heaven, but he has not left us. His presence is different, but he has not left us. The Ascension is about him getting closer to us, not further away. Because of his ascension He hears every quiver of pain in our heart. And he stands as a fellow human being holding our pain and sorrow before God’s open heart. He also pours out on us healing and power through His Holy Spirit to do his work here.   

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Lamb on the throne- Rev. 7

Revelation is an unusual book. It is filled with symbols and references to other parts of the Bible. It is mysterious and often difficult to understand. All this means it is not often read, and often not understood.
Different books of the Bible speak to us in different ways. Some speak to our emotions. Others speak to our will, or our intellect.  The Bible scholar Bruce Metzger says, “the book of Revelation is unique in appealing primarily to our imagination- not, however, a freewheeling imagination, but a disciplined imagination.”[1] We should also be careful not to discount it because it speaks to us through our imagination. Like a parable, the book of Revelation speaks truth to us in its own particular way.  
As human beings we tend towards extremes. With the book of Revelation we tend to read literally as a description of future political events, or we tend to dismiss it as not worth reading at all. Speaking about those who tend to use Revelation as a Crystal ball to see the future G.K. Chesterton once said, Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” There is another extreme that is equally flawed, which is to completely dismiss the book because of its symbolic nature as if truth cannot me communicated through music, art, or vision.  I knew one woman in a church I served who would roll her eyes at the mention of the book of Revelation and say “fairy tales”. Neither extreme is helpful. There is truth in this book, but it is truth accessed through imagination.
  The book of Revelation is about the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of the age. It can be summed up as a battle between a huge dragon and a little lamb. Not just any lamb- a lamb that has been slain. … Unexpectedly the slain lamb wins the battle.
          In the portion of the book we are reading today we encounter a multitude standing before a throne. The multitude includes people from every nation, and it is such a large group that no one can count it. This multitude is connected to the 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel. It is a symbolic number meaning no one is missing. There is a completeness to the number. They carry Palm branches that signal their victory and they wear white robes that indicate their purity. They have washed themselves in the blood of the lamb, which is a symbolic way of saying that they have obtained their blessed state in the presence of God because of the sacrificial death of Christ. They are gathered around a throne and are crying out “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  There are angels and elders and four strange creatures all bowing before the throne in worship.
          This is a bit of a side note, but there is an idea out there in the world that heaven is a bit of a dull and boring place- Like a Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial- Clouds and harps and nothing much going on. That is not the image of heaven we see in the Bible. Go back to a dinner you’ve had when you had that feeling that you never want the moment to end. C.S. Lewis describes Heaven as being like a good book with an infinite number of chapters and the next chapter is always better than the one before it. We have to remember that God is the source of all joy and pleasure. A common description people have when they feel God’s presence, or have a vision of God is that they feel a tremendous and profound joy. The multitude is worshipping before the throne of God- the creator and source of all joy.   
          I would like us also to notice who is seated on the throne. In our reading the multitude is shouting “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne”. Elsewhere in Revelation the one on the throne is described as “him who is, and who was, and who is to come” (1:4); he “had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne” (4:3); “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder (4:5); “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne” (5:6); We read that the throne is the heavenly focus of worship, because it is God who is on the throne (7:11);  The one who is on the throne will be the ultimate judge of the creation (20:12). The writer of Revelation has very little trouble associating God with the Lamb. Sometimes God is described as being on the throne. At other times The lamb is described as being at the center of the throne. At other times the throne is described as being occupied by both God and the Lamb. In John’s mind there does seem to be any problem with this. Keep in mind that Christianity arose in a Jewish context, which prided itself on its monotheism. Worship is not to be shared. In Judaism the Shema is sometimes described as their creed- “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”. Jewish people who became Christians did not feel the need to stop defining themselves as monotheists. They saw their worship as being monotheistic. And yet, there seems to be this twoness, (even threeness), on the throne of God in heaven. And yet, there is one throne. There is unity, and yet a kind of diversity.
            In The Gospels we get all kinds of hints about who Jesus Christ is. He forgives sins and his enemies accuse him of blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. He walks on water, which is a description of God from the Book of Job (9:8). Jesus says before Abraham was “I AM”, which is a reference to God’s name given to Moses through the burning bush in Exodus. Jesus calms storms. St. Stephen, as he is being martyred calls for Jesus to receive his spirit, as if crying out to Jesus and crying out to God is one and the same. Speaking about Jesus and God the theologian Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, “the New Testament moves toward the extraordinary notion that the Creator of the universe is at work without interruption in the life and work of Jesus- that it is God who is doing what Jesus is doing.”[2]
            This is a tremendous insight for those who are persecuted. There are many who believe the beast in Revelation is the Roman Emperor Nero. The beast seems overwhelmingly powerful, just as the Roman Empire seemed unstoppable. On the surface there didn’t seem to be much hope for a small group of Christians. … But the lamb is at the center of the throne.
            John would say the same to us. We might not have the Roman Empire to persecute us but be are confronted by other problems- broken families, difficulties at work, financial problems, disease, cancer depression, you can fill in the blank. John would remind us of who is on the throne. Paul says it this way, Rom 8:35 “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
            Those who are gathered around the throne have come through tribulation. They have suffered. They have been without shelter. They have been hungry and thirsty. They have been struck down by the sun and the elements. But now they are gathered around the creator and source of all joy and He will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst any more, and the elements will no longer oppress them. Oddly, it is the slain lamb who will be their shepherd, and the one who will wipe away their tears will be one who himself shed tears.       

[1] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code, p 11
[2] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p62-63

Eat, Pray Love- Acts 16

What do you do if you want to find Truth?... People say it in different ways. Sometimes people want to “find themselves”. Or, they say they want to find “meaning”, or “purpose”. Some people travel across the world to meet a guru or medicine man. Some get on a motorbike and ride along the hi-ways. Some retreat to a cabin in the woods. … Sometimes we feel the need to search when we graduate high school or university and we’re trying to figure out how we’ll spend the rest of our lives. … Sometimes it’s after a tragedy and we’re trying to find out how we will go on living. … Sometimes we search after the end of a relationship, or when we retire. At some point, most human beings, hopefully, begin to search for what really matters.  
I recently watched the movie “Eat, Pray, Love”. (It was a book first). It is about a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert who finds herself frustrated in the life she is living. She notices an emptiness in her life where meaning and purpose should be. Desperate and fighting back tears she prays for what seems like the very first time in her life. Here are the words of her prayer, “Hello, God? … Nice to finally meet you. … I’m sorry I’ve never spoken directly to you before, but I hope I’ve expressed my ample gratitude for all the blessings you’ve given to me in my life. … I’m in serious trouble… I don’t know what to do … I need an answer. … Please tell me what to do. … God help me please… Tell me what to do and I’ll do it…“. It is a desperate prayer. It is a prayer most of us have prayed. It is a prayer agnostics and atheists have sometimes prayed. It is a profoundly human prayer. This is the kind of prayer that begins the search.
Elizabeth feels like she has to do something extreme. She divorces her husband and she goes on a journey. She travels to Italy, and then to India where she is hoping to meet a particular spiritual teacher she had heard about. Her story manifests in many people’s lives. People look for gurus on mountain tops. They retreat into caves. They travel in search of that special something that makes life worth living. People will risk everything to find the truth they are looking for. They will risk their safety, and they will spend a fortune.  
In our reading from Acts we meet a woman Elizabeth could probably relate to. Her name is Lydia. Lydia was a unique woman in many ways. She lived in the city of Philippi (in modern day Greece) and sold cloth to the upper class. She was a business woman. She did not have a husband and was the head of her household. In a male-dominated world she held an unusual place in her culture. There was something else that made her unusual. Somehow, even though she was in a thoroughly Pagan society she became drawn to the Jewish God. I think Lydia and Elizabeth would understand each other. They are both strong women who were willing to take risks for the sake of truth.
There is a difference in their story, though. Elizabeth went on a journey- an expensive and risky journey- She climbed the mountain to find the guru at the top to ask about the meaning of life. In Lydia’s story the expense and risk wasn’t hers.
             Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11) that he did not ask money from those he taught the Gospel. He prides himself in not being a burden to them, as opposed to other charlatans, who charge for their teaching. He says, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (1 Cor 11:23-28). Paul, the guru, the spiritual teacher is the one who endures the cost and the danger for the sake of his students. He follows the example of his God who humbled himself to show His love to humanity.
God came to find Lydia. God sent the guru off the mountain to endure danger in order to find Lydia. God sent Paul to find Lydia, though travel was costly and dangerous. God came to Lydia, He didn’t stay on top of a mountain waiting for Lydia to scramble up the mountain risking life and limb. He crosses oceans. He crossed cultures.
Paul came to Europe because of a dream he had of a man asking for help. Paul changed his original plans, and headed to Greece. When he came to the city of Philippi he followed his normal pattern. First, he looked for a synagogue. After he told the Jewish population about Christ he would then turn and tell the non-Jewish population. When Paul arrives he finds no synagogue, so he looks outside the city for a place in nature where people have gathered for prayer. By a river Paul and his friends find a group of women. Paul sat down with them- something a good Pharisee wouldn’t do. Paul’s words set Lydia’s heart on fire. In that moment God came to meet Lydia in a profound way.
Lydia and her household are baptized. She became the first convert to Christianity in Europe. Lydia welcomed Paul and his friends into her home and her home likely became a house church, of which she would have been the head.  God came to meet Lydia and transformed her life.  
          That is what Baptism is about. It is about God coming to meet you. It is not you reaching out to God- climbing the mountain and crossing the ocean. Baptism is God reaching out to you.  God is the one who crosses the boundaries. He climbs the mountains, and crosses the oceans, and crosses the culture and gender barriers. It is primarily God’s journey, not our journey.
          Paul will later write a letter to the church In Phillippi, a church that probably met in Lydia’s house. He wrote about God’s journey- “[Jesus Christ] Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8). God wanted to crosses any and all boundaries to show us his love. John’s Gospel says it this way “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). Another translation says it this way, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (The Message).
          Lydia’s longing was met by God, not because of her scrambling up a mountain, or crossing a sea. Her longing was met by God’s love. One commentator says it this way- “Here is the center of the story, the moment of intersection between human obedience and divine initiative. Longing and grace meet there on the bank of the river. The longing heart of a faithful woman is opened by the gracious impulse of a faith-giving God in an action that, like the incarnation itself, is at once fully human and fully divine. Like Lydia we are astonished when, looking back, we can say only that our steps were guided and our hearts opened” (Ronald Cole-Turner, Feasting on the Word). Lydia longs to hear what Paul is saying, and even her longing is evidence of God’s presence with her.
          The journey comes later in the Christian life. We are always encountered by God at His initiative. God meets us. But once we meet God we are called to respond. Like Lydia, we encounter God and our household is baptized. Like Paul, God meets us and then we respond by going on a journey to help others meet him. We find those whose hearts are yearning for God like Lydia’s and God works through us to deliver his love.
          For Christians the journey and risk begins at baptism. The Christian way is not to hide away and wait for the Lydias of our city to try to find us. The Christian way is to find Lydia wherever she is- no matter the cost- no matter the danger- so that God can show Lydia his love. When we are baptized we are agreeing to be a part of that mission. We don’t join the guru up on a mountain somewhere waiting for people to find us. The Christian way is to go and find those whose hearts are open and ready to hear more about the God who is already working in their lives. We don’t ram this message down people’s throats. That would hardly give an accurate image of the God we know. We find those whose hearts are open- who have already turned themselves to God in some small way- and who are ready to hear.
                  When we are baptized we state that we believe in a God who comes to us and washes us free from all our sin and guilt so that we can take on a new life. It is a life of searching love. It is a life where we find the Elizabeth’s and Lydia’s around us and open our lives to them.   When we do that, amazingly, it will be as if God met them through us.  

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