Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Psalm 23

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

We live in a world that seems to be full of reasons to be afraid. You watch the news and you are told about terrorist attacks, or some common food product that is going to cause cancer. We are worried about our family- or worried about not having a family- Worried about paying bills- worried about or job- worried about the way we look. Anxiety disorders are supposed to effect 12% of Canadians. It becomes a disorder when it starts to affect your daily life, so way more of us are dealing with anxiety without it becoming a disorder. … If you think about everything else going on in the world we have it pretty good. There is horrible war in Yemen and Syria, and famine in Sudan. Iraq is still dealing with ISIS. I’m sure there are many people all over the world who would be overjoyed to live in Canada and call this place home. And yet, we still seem to be haunted by fear.

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

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at the psalms surrounding the Psalm you are looking at. The previous psalm, Psalm 22, has some incredibly painful expressions of human anxiety. It starts out: 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Ps 22:1-2).

“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me” (Ps 22:16).

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

The opening line is insightful- 

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (23:1). 
In Harry Potter there is a magic mirror. When you look into it you see your deepest desires. Harry is an orphan, so when he looks into the mirror he sees himself with his parents. His friend Ron looks into the mirror and he sees himself as a great athlete and head boy for his house at their boarding school. Harry had not yet figured out what the mirror was when the very wise wizard, Dumbledore, gives him a hint. He says that the happiest person in the world would look into the mirror and see themselves just as they are. The insight is that the happiest person doesn’t have any deep wants. … How often are we driven to unhappiness and anxiety by a deep unfulfilled desire? We desire a certain kind of life. We want a certain kind of house. We want a certain kind of vacation. We want a certain kind of relationship. We want a certain kind of life for our kids. … What if, with the psalmist, we could be without 'want' because God is our shepherd? We could trust that God knows exactly what we need (not what we want) and provides for us. 

This is deeper than the necessities of life. God wants us to be shaped into a particular kind of person- a Jesus-like person. That is our deepest need. And that is the need God will always provide for because it leads to a never ending life with Him … where eventually every joy will be fulfilled.

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

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

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

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

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

The way we view our life and death can have a tremendous effect on how we live our lives. St. Athanasius lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He lived while Christians were being persecuted. So you might have heard about Christians being thrown to the lions to be devoured for the amusement of bloodthirsty crowds. This is when Athanasius lived. This is what he says of Christ's victory over death, 
"...it is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in his own disciples. For ... one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into [death], but eager with soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ's sake electing to rush upon death ... [Christ] supplies and gives to each the victory over death ... For who that sees a lion, ... made sport of by children, fails to see that [death] is either dead or has lost all his power. (On The Incarnation, xxix.3-5) ...

So weak has [death] become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed." (xxvii.3)

"For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the Cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death" (xxviii.2).

Athanasius is speaking about Christians who were tortured and killed because they were Jesus followers. These Jesus followers laughed at death. These people were not suicidal. They did not hate their lives, but they no longer feared death. Even their children didn't fear death and would make fun of the lions that were about to kill them. Imagining living with that kind of freedom from fear.

We might make another mistake and think that these Christians were all about going to heaven when they die, but no. Their lack of fear meant that when a plague hit a city, instead of fleeing, many of them stayed to help the sick, even if that meant getting sick and dying themselves. It meant that they were willing to stand up for what was right and just even in the face of cruel kings and rulers. The promise of God’s presence with them- guiding them like a shepherd- freed them from fear.

The early Christians also lived in the wake of Jesus' resurrection. They knew the limitations of death. This allowed them to live amazing lives free from fear. These Christians saw the resurrection as having very real day to day application for how they lived their lives. They were able to live their lives free from fear.

We don't face lions, or persecution at the hands of cruel kings. Some Christians do face horrible deaths even now because of their belief in Jesus. Some of us watched a series about Christians facing ISIS. There are places in our world where what we are doing right now is illegal, or even if it isn't illegal we might still worry about our safety being gathered together like this. We might not face persecution like this, but we have our own worries and fears. We fear cancer. We have disease. We have abuse and betrayal. We have the death of a loved one to face. We have financial issues to face. Some of us fear commitment, or rejection. ... What are you afraid of? … What horror or crisis have you faced? Maybe you're facing it right now. ... Could you live through these dark valleys knowing that God is shepherding you? Knowing that while things are difficult right now, that ultimately everything is okay? Could we live seeing everything we deal with as an opportunity to become the person God wants us to be? Knowing that God is with us, guiding us, leading us, and serving us. Perhaps we could even say with the psalmist, 
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Ps 23:6).


Monday, 20 March 2017

An Unlikely Meeting- Lent 3

Some of the best stories are about two people who never really should have met: Romeo and Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, the Prince and the Pauper. In John chapter four we read about another meeting that shouldn't have happened.

Jesus is alone sitting on the edge of a stone well. It is an ancient well that was said to have been dug by the patriarch Jacob. The disciples have gone into town to buy food and Jesus stayed behind at the well. This is where he meets a Samaritan woman who has come for water.

The first reason this meeting shouldn't have taken place is that a group of devout Jews really shouldn't be spending any time in Samaria when there is a perfectly good detour around the territory. Samaritans and Jews were hostile to each other. They were ethnic and religious enemies. To a first century Jew a "good Samaritan" was an oxymoron. It was a contradiction. So the first reason this meeting shouldn't have taken place is because of geography. Jesus, as a devout Jew, had no business being in the enemy territory of Samaria.

The second reason this meeting shouldn't have happened is because of gender. Rules of decency and good etiquette in the Middle East would not allow for Jesus and this woman to be alone talking. When Jesus saw the lone woman approach he should have stepped away from the well and waited about 20 feet away until the woman had gathered her water. He shouldn't say anything to her. He shouldn't even look her in the eye. This is dangerous territory for both of them, especially since they are alone. There are no witnesses to attest to their behavior and nothing to stop people from assuming whatever they want when they hear that the lone woman was alone with a strange man by the well. But, Jesus did not move ... and she needed water. So she approached anyway. The scholar Kenneth E. Bailey says, "Throughout forty years of life in the Middle East I never crossed this social boundary line. In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place." A meeting like this between a man and a woman in the Middle East should not have happened.

A third reason this meeting shouldn't have happened is because of ethnicity and religion. When the Samaritan woman comes to the well Jesus asks her for a drink. Verse 9 says, "The Samaritan woman said to him, 'You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?' (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)" Samaritans and Jews will not even share dishes. These wells required you to bring your own bucket to retrieve the water. As a Jew, Jesus should not even consider drinking from a Samaritan's bucket even if she were to draw up some water for him. The water would be ritually unclean and not drinkable for a devout Jew.

There is also a fourth reason that this conversation shouldn't be happening. Morally they are on different playing fields. Jesus is a devout and holy person. He is leading a group of devout Jewish disciples. She is not only a Samaritan, but there is good reason to believe that she might not even be a very "good" Samaritan at that. As a woman she really should not have been traveling alone. She should have been with a group of women so that there would be witnesses to attest to her whereabouts and her virtue. Since she is arriving at the well alone and is carrying a heavy jar of water back to her home in heat of the day it is safe to say that she has become separated from her community- she is an outcast. As the woman and Jesus get further into their discussion it is revealed that this woman has been married to five men and is now living with a man who is not her husband. This may be the reason she has been separated from her community. She has perhaps gained a reputation in her community as being a woman with loose morals. Perhaps this is why she's willing to approach a lone man by a well. I don't know, but maybe. It’s also possible that numerous men divorced her because she wasn’t able to have children.  We aren’t sure, but for some reason she is an outcast. She is a woman haunted by broken relationships.

Jesus jumps all these barriers that stand against him meeting this woman. And he does this in our own lives as well. Jesus jumps over all kinds of barriers to get into our lives. Some think that they really need to get their lives in order before they can really have a relationship with God. Perhaps some of you feel this way. Maybe you don't feel holy enough to really connect to God. Maybe you really don't think God would want to have anything to do with you. Maybe you feel like you need to shake some sin before God would want to meet you. We feel like we need to get our lives straight and then go on some pilgrimage, and get ourselves into a more holy pattern of life and then God might peek into our lives.

Maybe you feel like human beings and God are just too different to really be able to have a conversation. God has created the universe. God is the one who caused the Big Bang, and here we are on this blue and green marble floating through a massive universe that is beyond our comprehension. And we think that God would have anything to do with us? We are little bits of flesh that are here for a few moments and then we die. Why would the eternal God of the universe want to have a conversation with us? If we are really deeply thinking, we can't even begin to wrap our heads around what a being like God would even be like.

But what we learn from watching Jesus and this woman is that Jesus jumps those barriers. Those walls are not ours to jump. Jesus jumps all those barriers. God the Son has taken human flesh onto Himself. He came to us as a baby that needed milk and warmth and love. And here he stands before the Samaritan woman as a thirsty Jewish man asking for water. God has made a tremendous journey to meet this woman. And God has leapt over just as many barriers to meet us. It is not our journey. God has made the journey. God comes to meet us. Often in unexpected ways. To the Samaritan woman God came as a stranger needing a drink of water. God came to me unexpectedly in a bar and showed me His overwhelming love. God has come to many of you in a variety of unexpected ways as well. God comes to us and then asks us to respond to His invitation to know him better.

Jesus leads the woman step-by-step to know him more fully. When she points out the barriers that should not allow her and Jesus to have this conversation Jesus answers her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

He begins to draw her to himself. She becomes more interested. Who is this man? Where would he get this living water from? Is he greater than the Patriarch Jacob who dug the well where they are meeting?

Jesus responds to her questions, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Now it is the Samaritan woman who is thirsty and it is Jesus who has access to the water. "Sir, give me this water", she says. She doesn't quite understand, but she knows that she is weary. She is tired of making the journey to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the awkward stares and the reminder that people don’t want to be associated with her. But, she is even more tired of carrying her shame and dissatisfaction with life.

Jesus tells her to go and bring her husband. She tries to avoid her shame and says that she has no husband. Jesus sees through her half-truth and replies, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” Another layer is pealed away. She sees that this is not just an open-minded Jewish man who doesn't mind talking to Samaritans. This man knows her life. He knows her shame. And he does not look at her with disgust. He is a prophet.

Her shame has been exposed, she cannot hide from God. But where does she go? Does she return to God by going to the Samaritan holy mountain, or does she go to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. She turns to Jesus the prophet to answer her question. How does she return to God? Amazingly, Jesus says neither. … This is profound. Jesus announces that the Temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritan Holy Mountain are both obsolete. Jesus proclaims this daringly, "... a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” These are not the words of any ordinary prophet. (If any prophet can be called ordinary). What he is saying changes everything for Jews and Samaritans.

Another layer is removed. She is beginning to draw from the well that is Jesus. He is not just an open-minded Jewish stranger. He is not just a prophet. The woman says, “I know that Messiah ... is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Could he be the one like Moses who they have been waiting for? Could he be the messiah?

Jesus' response takes her even further. He is not just the messiah (if you can say "just" messiah). In the Greek version of the Old Testament we read about the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3 (v14). When Moses asks God's name he replies, "ἐγώ εἰμι" (Ego Eimi) I AM. … When Jesus replies to the Samaritan Woman he declares, "ἐγώ εἰμι", “I, the one speaking to you—I AM.” This is the one who spoke to Moses from that burning bush. It is this One who says in Jeremiah 2:13- "They have forsaken me, the spring of living water...".

Jesus meets her where she is, but she doesn't stay there. He guides her to himself. He does this with us as well. He is always meeting us in the everyday ordinary events of our lives. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear we will notice his movements. God came to me in the bar and introduced me to his overwhelming love for humanity, but he didn't leave me in the bar. Many of you met God in a variety of places. You felt that warming of your heart. You felt overwhelmed by beauty. God met you, but he didn't leave you there. He wanted to start a relationship with you. He wanted you to know Him better.

The disciples arrived back from town and were shocked to see Jesus having leapt over the cultural and religious barriers speaking to a Samaritan woman. She leaves her jar there at the well and runs back to her town to bring people to meet Jesus. She isn't sure about every detail. She doesn't know exactly who this man is, but she feels that she cannot keep the news to herself. After being with Jesus she leaps over her own walls to tell people about Jesus. She leaps over the walls that cause her to get water at the well in the middle of the day in the heat of the sun, alone, rather than with a group of female friends in the cool of the morning. She leaps over the wall of her own shame. This woman makes herself vulnerable to further rejection and ridicule in running to tell the people to come and see if this man might be the Christ they have been waiting for- The prophet like Moses mentioned in Deuteronomy 18. She goes to her people not as someone made perfect. Not even as someone who really completely understands Jesus. She goes to the people of her town with a question. … Could it be?

We stand as people with many barriers. We have barriers that sometimes separate us from each other. We are divided by economics, race, language, marital status, politics, etc. … And we have barriers that separate us from God- our own sin, our own feelings of inadequacy, the vastness and otherness of God. … God crosses those barriers and teaches us to do the same. Once God has crossed those barriers and has entered our own lives and revealed himself as the great "I AM", then that unity overpowers any divisions that can stand between us. God's reality in our lives calls us to gather others to "come and see" and received the living water that spring up to eternal life. AMEN.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

born again?

I wonder if you’ve ever been waiting somewhere, like at a bus stop, and you’ve had someone come up to you and ask if you’re a Christian. If you reply, “yes, I am a Christian.” The follow up question will often be something like, “But, are you born again?” The term “born again” is almost used as a denominational marker. It is used of a kind of Christian who worships in a particular way (usually involving putting your hands in the air), and who is more likely to approach people on bus benches to ask about their spiritual lives (sometimes handing out little pamphlets).

More traditional Christians usually have two responses to being asked if they are “born again”. One is plain dismissal. We roll our eyes and say to ourselves “oh, you’re one of those”. We label them as zealots, extremists, unsophisticated, overly emotional, and religious nuts. Once we label them, we can dismiss them and not actually take what they say seriously. We can give them a bit of a smirk and go on merrily with our day.

The other reaction is often self-doubt and anxiety. Am I “born again”? Is it not enough to be a Christian? What does it mean to be born again? I grew up in the church. I’ve been a Christian all my life? How do we do it? We can feel Nicodemus’ confusion, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

The 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon describes being “born again” this way.

“Regeneration is a subject which lies at the very basis of salvation, and we should be very diligent to take heed that we really are ‘born again,’ for there are many who fancy they are, who are not. Be assured that the name of a Christian is not the nature of a Christian; and that being born in a Christian land, and being recognized as professing the Christian religion is of no avail whatever, unless there be something more added to it-the being ‘born again,’ is a matter so mysterious, that human words cannot describe it. […] Nevertheless, it is a change which is known and felt: known by works of holiness, and felt by a gracious experience. This great work is supernatural. It is not an operation which a man performs for himself: a new principle is infused, which works in the heart, renews the soul, and affects the entire man. It is not a change of my name, but a renewal of my nature, so that I am not the man I used to be, but a new man in Christ Jesus. To wash and dress a corpse is a far different thing from making it alive: man can do the one, God alone can do the other” (Morning and Evening, March 6, Charles Spurgeon).

I have heard many people speak with a sense of guilt that they don’t think they have been born again. They don’t have a moment they can point to when they were “saved”- when they had an overwhelming experience with God that changed their life. And they are faced with this paradox that they can’t make it happen, it has to happen to them, but they need it in order to be saved.

I think both these reactions can have dangers. To dismiss the idea of needing to be “born again” means we are dismissing Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. However, we can also become caught up in a particular definition of what “born again” means and be crushed by the weight of it.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Darkness is very symbolic in the Gospel of John. Darkness is associated with the human ways of the world that ignore God and God’s ways. To be in the dark is to not see clearly- it is ignorance. Nicodemus is a leader of the Jewish people. He is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council and law court for the Jewish people. By outward appearance Nicodemus is doing everything right. He takes the commandments seriously. He teaches them. He is high up the totem pole in his community. The equivalent for us might be someone who was born in the church and has always been involved. They have been wardens or sat on Parish Council. They might lead services. They might be a priest or a bishop.

It seems like something is missing for Nicodemus though. He seeks out Jesus who doesn’t have any of what Nicodemus has. Jesus isn’t a Pharisee. He doesn’t sit on an important council. He has been wandering around with a motley crew of fishermen and tax-collectors, while preaching. He’s only been doing this for three years. Based on outward appearance, Jesus should be going to Nicodemus for spiritual advice. However, Jesus’ ministry is filled with power. Nicodemus is humble enough to recognize that Jesus has something he doesn’t.

Sometimes we can be in the church and we think we are doing everything right. We tick off the right boxes, we a dutiful in the things we think we should be doing, but we still have that sense that something is missing. There is still an emptiness in it.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." “Born from above” can be translated as “born again”, or “born anew”. Nicodemus came to Jesus from out of the darkness and that darkness is still blinding him. He tries to interpret what Jesus is saying in a literal way- he starts talking about crawling into his mother’s womb as an old man.

In Jesus’ first statement he speaks about seeing the kingdom. This time Jesus speaking about entering the kingdom- "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The church has traditionally interpreted being “born of water” as meaning baptism. Baptism isn’t just a ritual where we get someone wet and speak the names of the Trinity over them. Baptism is a covenant where we are adopted as God’s children and we make certain vows as a part of belonging to this family. In Baptism we declare or belief in the Trinity as outlined in the Creed. We promise to study Scripture, to develop relationships with other Christians, to partake of communion, and to lead a life of prayer. We promise to resist evil and to repent of sin. We promise to proclaim Christ by word and example. We promise to serve Christ by serving others, and by seeking justice and peace for all people. Baptism is more than getting wet. It is the beginning of a certain kind of life.

The Church has also recognized that we need to be born of the Spirit. In the Bible there were people who were baptized, who then received the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. This has been ritualized in traditional churches through Chrismation and Confirmation. In Confirmation, those who were baptized as babies, confirm the promises that were made over us. We make the promises ours. And the Bishop prays for a particular filling of the person by the Holy Spirit to empower them to live the Christian life. In some churches this is not formalized and so they wait for an experience of the Holy Spirit that has a paradigm shifting effect.

I actually agree with both of these. I think a prayerful life dedicated to God should be marked with experiences. Some of these experiences are more dramatic than others. But these experiences cannot be conjured up. We can make ourselves ready for them by leading lives filled with prayer and Bible Study, and times of silence and solitude. But we cannot force it. It is outside our control- like being born- like the blowing of the wind. It is a gift. All we can do is open our hands to receive it, but our hands being outstretched does not mean we will receive it right in that moment. But neither should we expect to receive it if we fill our lives with busyness and distraction. Sometimes we can’t help this, but should be aware that this kind of frenetic activity can get in the way of experiencing God. Sometimes it is church stuff that is keeping us too busy!

This kind of encounter is not something God is trying to keep away from us. Sometimes we are too busy to receive it. Sometimes we receive it and we don’t realize it has happened. Some receive the Spirit like a bolt of lightning. Some receive the Spirit like a glowing fire that slowly burns away inside of them.

To those who dismiss the question “Are you born again?” I challenge you to consider it more seriously. Have you had experiences with God? Have you been open to those experiences? Could you be more open to experiencing God?

To those who are troubled that they don’t have a date and a time associated with when they were “saved”, I would say consider more your love for God. Do you have a relationship with God that is developing and deepening? That is more important than having a “moment” you can name. I believe and hope that I have been saved, that I’m being saved, and I will be saved. I believe and hope that I have been saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I believe and hope that I am being saved by the work of the Spirit in my life, transforming me into who God wants me to be. I believe and hope that I will be saved when I am face to face with Christ when my life ends. So in a sense we are not born again only once. We are born again all the time. The Spirit is constantly renewing us and drawing us into a deeper relationship with the God of deep sacrificial love.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Temptation and Sin- Lent 1

Our Genesis reading not only talks about how sin entered the world, but it also speaks about how sin works. To deal with any disease it is important that we have an intimate understanding of how the disease works and how it effects the body. Likewise, if we are to deal with temptation and sin we have to understand how they are likely to effect us. 

God has created Adam and given him purpose. God gives the human permission to eat from every tree in the Garden except for one- The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Some people wonder why God would put a tree like that in the garden at all. The explanation I find most convincing is that for love to be genuine it has to be chosen. For Adam and Eve’s love to be real it had to exist alongside the reality of rejection. Someone can’t put a gun to your head and make you love them. They can make you say it, but they can’t make you love them. The tree is the opportunity to reject God. If the tree didn’t exist then Adam and Eve wouldn’t really be able to love. … There are consequences to rejecting God, who is the source of all love, beauty, grace, peace, and joy. The consequences of rejecting God by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is that by rejecting God they will experience evil. Up to then, they have only experienced good. The day they eat it, which means the day they reject God, they enter spiritual death.

The command from God is quite clear. Eat from any other tree in the garden, just not that one. The serpent causes doubt to arise in Eve’s mind. He asks the question, “Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The answer is almost the exact opposite. Eve replies, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

We notice something interesting when we compare what Eve says to the original command. Eve has somehow added “nor shall you touch it”. Ancient rabbi’s wondered where this extra command came from. Eve wasn’t created when God gave the command, so they wondered if maybe Adam added that bit when he passed the command on to Eve- just to keep Eve extra safe. But then they imagined the serpent pushing Eve up against the tree showing her that when she touched the tree nothing bad happened.

The serpent causes Eve to doubt God, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." God is keeping something good away from you. What a mean God. And Eve sees “that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

We can learn a lot about the process of sin from this passage. First, it seems like they were hanging around the forbidden tree. It doesn’t see like they had to travel to get to the tree. You have the sense that the tree was right in front of them. … Don’t we sometimes do that with those sins that we are most drawn to? We dance around the line. We put ourselves close enough to the sin that we aren’t technically sinning, but we are close enough to make it easy.

Then we see the sin as a good thing God is denying us. Eve didn’t desire the fruit because she desired to be disobedient. Her motivations were to eat the beautiful fruit and obtain wisdom. … That is how sin tends to work in our lives. Take stealing for example. Wanting money isn’t bad in itself, but stealing as a means to get it causes it to enter into the realm of sin. Pleasure isn’t bad, but when we become addicted to an illegal drug to obtain it, then we enter into the realm of sin. Desiring intimacy with another person is good, but not when the means are an extramarital affair. …

We can see this on a broader scale as well. Did Hitler think he was a bad person? … I don’t think he did. In his mind he was creating an empire that would eventually bring in an era of peace. He was following the principles of evolution to help the human race become stronger in the long run. So he tried to remove those elements of humanity that he thought were weak and emphasize those elements he thought of as strong. Did he think he was doing something evil? No, he probably saw it all as a means to a good end. … That is why we always have to beware of “means to an end” thinking to justify our behavior. Sin, in my own life, and in the lives of those I encounter seems to be a desire for something good, but the means of attaining it makes it sinful. We obtain the thing outside of God’s plan.

The temptations of Jesus (Mat 4:11) follow a similar pattern. Jesus wasn’t tempted to do evil, he was tempted to good … outside of God’s plan. What was Jesus tempted to do? Jesus is hungry after fasting for 40 days and the Devil tempts Jesus to use his power to turn stones into bread. The desire for bread is a good thing, but his hunger in fasting is a reminder that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. His fasting and hunger in that moment have a purpose. It is preparing him for his ministry where he has to rely of his Father’s provision.

The Devil then took Jesus to the top of the temple where he is invited to very publically throw himself off and allow angels to catch him, which would remove any doubt in the minds of the temple elite that the messiah has arrived. Again, Jesus isn’t tempted to do evil. He is tempted to good. Jesus will do miracles as a part of his ministry. He is the messiah and invites people to arrive at that conclusion. However the invitation will begin with fishermen and tax collectors in the towns and villages, not with the ruling elite. The invitation to perform this particular miracle is outside of God’s plan.

Then the Devil tempted Jesus with the promise of giving him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus as the ruling king of the world is not a bad thing. In fact he is the King of kings, and Lord of lords. We read about Jesus in Colossians that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). His ultimate destiny is indeed to be King of the whole world. But not through force, and not by avoiding the cross. His empire is to be built on love. The Devil is tempting Jesus to attain good things, things even appropriate for Jesus to have. The Devil even uses Scripture to support his temptation. Jesus recognizes that he is being tempted to take shortcuts that avoid the poor, love, and the cross.

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as our true high priest saying, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus is the Second Adam who was able to not eat the forbidden fruit. He is the one who resisted sin, but understood the strength of it. As C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of [an] army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.” (Mere Christianity). Jesus resisted and invites us to share in his victory over sin.

Jesus is tempted to avoid the way of God- but he is tempted by good things. This is important because unless we realize that we are tempted to good things we will justify our sin. Cheating on our spouse is not sin, we just fell in love. We aren’t stealing, we just took what we deserved. We can hurt someone and think they deserved it because they did something that made them deserve it- it was for the sake of justice. It is usually the means that makes is sin. It is attaining some good, or some pleasure in a way that doesn’t fit with the ways of God.

The bible tells us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Temptation will not come to us in a cloud of black smoke, speaking in a raspy voice, wearing horns and carrying a pitchfork. Temptation will come to us as a beautiful good, but avoiding the ways of God, and especially avoiding any cross that God might be asking us to carry. AMEN.

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