Lent II (A) – A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON. An audio recording of the sermon is available here.

Texts: Numbers 21:4-8; John 3:1-20

Cloister Cross

The picture above is the Cloister Cross, an altar cross from the 12th century. It is made of walrus ivory. The image at the cross beams is of Moses raising up the bronze serpent.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14)

I.

While John 3.16 is probably the most well-known and often-quoted Bible verse – think of that one guy in every football game holding up a John 3:16 sign – today we are going to focus on verse 14, the verse I just re-read. In last week’s sermon, we unpacked what St. Paul meant when he said that Adam was a ‘figure’ or ‘type’ of “the one to come”, which is to say Jesus (Rom. 5.14). You will recall that I described the figures or types of the Bible using the image of a typewriter – a type writer writes type. To recap, a type is a symbol that points to and represents the antitype in the same way that the type left on a sheet of paper made by a typewriter points to and represents the type bar, the metal bar that makes the type on the page. The Bible is full of types, most of which point to and represent Jesus Christ. This is an ancient way of reading the Bible called a typological or figural interpretation.

Now, perhaps some of you aren’t convinced; this way of reading the Bible seems too convenient, takes too many creative liberties, and perhaps reads too much into things. Well, if you aren’t convinced, I submit John 3:14 as evidence for my case: Jesus himself read the Hebrew Scriptures, that is to say the Old Testament, typologically. Jesus interprets the story of Moses raising the serpent on a pole in the wilderness as a type that prefigured his own crucifixion. So, if Jesus reads the Bible typologically, I think it is safe to say that we should follow his reading. As St. Augustine once remarked: “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed”. If the entirety of Holy Scripture finds its meaning and fulfilment is Jesus Christ, then we are best served if we expect Christ to meet us on every page of the Bible, revealing Himself through types and figures.

II.

In his nighttime meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus makes some remarks that would have doubtlessly struck the Pharisee as rather odd. Indeed, the text indicates as much; Nicodemus wonders at how a grown man can be reborn in the same way that he came into the world the first time (cf. Jn 3.4). Jesus seems a bit frustrated at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3.10). So, Jesus appeals to a story that Nicodemus would certainly know: that of the wilderness wanderings of their ancestors, making a specific reference to the story of Moses making a bronze serpent to heal the people from poisonous snake bites. However, Jesus does not merely reference this story; he interprets it as a reference to his own being lifted up. Of course, as those who read this text after Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Ascension Day, we have the benefit of knowing exactly what Jesus is talking about: his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. However, during their conversation, Nicodemus certainly has no clue what Jesus is talking about. This is likewise true for those who would be reading this text of Scripture for the first time without knowing how the story ends, much less the reference to the Old Testament.

Jesus is talking about God’s judgment against a people who “loved darkness rather than light” and his redemption to eternal life for those who believe in Him (Jn. 3.19). This is heavy stuff – a matter of life and death. Although God’s judgment is real and should be taken with uttermost seriousness, Jesus also makes it clear that God the Father did not send God the Son “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3.17). And how does Jesus save the world? Through his enactment of God’s loving judgment on the Cross. This is truly good news.

Furthermore, it was good news to Nicodemus as well, who although he did not initially understand Jesus, we have every reason to believe he did following Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19.39 tells us that Nicodemus helped to prepare Jesus’ body for burial by “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighting about a hundred pounds”. This is no small gift –as one commentator notes, the amount of spices indicates that Nicodemus sees Jesus’ burial as a “royal burial”.[1] This brings to mind the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with lavish perfume. Christian tradition venerates Nicodemus for his loving care of Jesus’ body. It is Christ’s own body lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, and lifted up to be seated at the right hand of God the Father that opens the way of salvation, of re-birth through water, which is to say baptism – a baptism into Christ’s own death and resurrection – and the Spirit.

III.

To further unpack the meaning and depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, we need to read backwards, we need to turn back to the Old Testament and read it through the ‘Jesus-lens’.

Snakes are never a positive symbol in Scripture (Matt. 10.16 could be read as an exception) Already in the beginning, we see a serpent tempting humanity to doubt God’s provision and ordering of creation. In scripture, serpents are symbolic of sin and fallen powers. Just as a serpent plays an antagonistic role in the Garden in the beginning, so too a serpent is one of the primary antagonists in the end, which is to say in book of Revelation. Likewise, in today’s Old Testament reading, snakes are “a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin”.[2]

But why does God send snakes? Is God merely trying to punish the perpetually complaining Israelites in creative fashion? No. God’s judgment is giving people exactly what they want. And when things get difficult, what do the Israelites want, time and again? They want to return to Egypt. God has liberated them from the bondage to Pharaoh, and yet they would much rather return to a life they knew, regardless of how awful it was, then to trust in God’s promises and provision and follow Moses’ leadership. Better to be enslaved yet rooted in one place than to be free and wandering in the wilderness. Verse 4 tells us that the people were “impatient”. The word used could also be translated as ‘discouraged’ or ‘fainthearted’. Indeed, as one commentator notes, “the souls of the people were shortened”; they lacked “the soul for enduring their long and difficult journey” (Stubbs, 167). Life with God in the wilderness was simply too hard for them; they wanted relative comfort, even if it meant living in slavery. The difficulty and risk of following God were simply too much to ask. The people’s lack of faith leads them to assume that God wants them to die. The people’s focus on the immediate gratification of their desires leads them to forget God’s provision for them. How fickle God’s people can be, over and over again.

So, God gives the people exactly what they want: snakes. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, how did the people want snakes? Egyptian religion at the time considered the god Apep as the antithesis to Ra. Apep was depicted as a snake and symbolized darkness and evil to the Egyptians. In God’s sending snakes to torment Israel, God is essentially saying: you want to go back to life in Egypt? Well, let me remind you what like is like in Egypt…

In instructing Moses to fashion a snake, God is reminding His people of his victory over Egypt. God’s people did not liberate themselves; how could they? They were powerless slaves. Rather, God alone liberated His people. The people could not feed themselves in the wilderness; they had to rely on God’s provision. Similarly, it is not the bronze snake itself that saves the people; it is the God who delivers His people, the God who does not want His people to die, but desires abundant and flourishing life for them if they would but turn to Him. Looking at the bronze snake was an act of faith because it required trusting in God’s promise that “everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). [3]

IV.

The snake on the pole and the cross of Jesus Christ are both about liberation and healing. Beginning with the temptation by a serpent, all of humanity is enslaved to sin. Rebelling against God’s ways and grumbling about God’s provision seems to be our default setting. In response to our rebelling and grumbling, God gives us exactly what we want, leaving us to wander in the wilderness, a place where abundant and flourish life seem to be nothing but a mirage. And yet, God does not leave us in the wilderness to die. Rather, God shows and provides us with the way to new life. However, this pathway to new life requires that we, like the Israelites in the wilderness looking at the bronze snake, look at our sin directly, that we face it head-on in repentance in order to receive rebirth. God enacted His judgment against Israel in the wilderness by exposing the sin of the Israelites through the symbol of the serpent; God enacted His judgment against humanity on the cross of Jesus Christ by exposing the lengths at which we will go to rid ourselves of God.

Yet in both stories, God’s judgment is not the end of the story; indeed, God’s judgment is simultaneously the means by which God brings healing and salvation. Just as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake to receive physical healing, we look to the cross to see the lengths at which God would go to reconcile Himself to humanity. Furthermore, it is because of the Cross that we have the assurance that despite the suffering and difficulties we experience in this life, we too will be lifted up with Christ.

Lent is a season in which we prepare for life in the wilderness by fixing our eyes on the Cross. By doing so, we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within who will open our eyes to see signs of resurrected life, of new and abundant life, even in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to make peace “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.20).

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week

[2] David L. Stubbs, Numbers, 168.

[3] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people kept the bronze serpent and worshipping it as an idol until King Hezekiah destroyed it (cf. 2 Kings 18.4).

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Easter Vigil: A Reflection

An Easter Vigil Sermon, preached at Trinity Anglican Church (Aurora, ON), April 19, 2014

 

I speak to you in the name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

                                                                                                             

I believe in Jesus Christ, the Lord. Who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried he descended to the dead.

                                                                                                             

It is easy to rush by Holy Saturday on our way to Easter Sunday and the joy of the resurrection.

After all, who wouldn’t trade sorrow for joy, lament for praise, guilt for forgiveness?

It is easy to pass by Holy Saturday.

There is no drama; no excitement.

It is an odd and unsettling time and place.

It is full of nothing.

The nothingness of silence.

The nothingness of darkness.

The nothingness of death.

And yet here we are in the depths of this nothingness.

So, let us linger in the nothingness of silence, darkness, and death.

Let us linger here in order to seek the God who descended to the dead.

Let us linger here in order to seek the God who descended to the dark nothingness that is utter separation from God.

                                                                                                                       

I have a confession to make: I am afraid of the dark.

Darkness is everything that “I do not know, cannot control, and am afraid of”.[1]

Darkness exposes my vulnerability and weaknesses.

Darkness is where my enemies lie in wait.

Darkness exposes my need for rescue and liberation.

It is strange to think of darkness as exposing anything – after all, it is in the darkness where I hide my deepest, darkest secrets.

When I linger in the darkness, I come face-to-face with my secrets, my brokenness.

When I linger in the nothingness of death, I come face-to-face with my deepest fears.

I am afraid of the dark.

I want to escape to the light as quickly as possible, to feel the warmth of sunshine on my face, to leave the darkness behind.

And yet, light can be deceptive.

It can leave me with the illusion that all is well.

It can cause me to forget what I left hidden in the darkness.

In the light, I have no need for God, no need for his protection and care.

However, in the darkness, my search for God is desperate.

Why, O Lord, so you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm10:1a)

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? (Psalm 13:1)

O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:14)

In the darkness, I am alone.

In the darkness, God is nowhere.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1a)

                                                                                               

Jesus’ cry on the cross indicates the experience of the utter darkness that is separation from God.

Jesus’ cry on the cross is a cry of solidarity with human suffering; solidarity with the dead.

Jesus’ experience of the nothingness of darkness and death is real.

Because it is real, we have the comfort of knowing that Christ goes before us into the darkness.

Christ is there in the nothingness, in the darkness.

Wracked with grief and suffering, he may be difficult to see; it is possible that we may even pass by him in our rush to the light.

But if we linger in the darkness, our senses become heightened: as we stumble and grope our way through the darkness, our eyes and ears become wide open.

If we linger in the darkness, we will find Jesus Christ, the God who took on human flesh and descended to earth; the God who took on our suffering and descended to the dead.

For our sake, Christ goes before us into the darkness.

For our sake, Christ is with us in the darkness.

When we linger in the darkness with the God who goes before and with us, we will not be afraid.

When we cling to God in the darkness, we will be better able to cling to him in the light.

In a world that lives in the nothingness of Holy Saturday, in the darkness of death and suffering, in a world where God is seemingly absent or even dead, may you have eyes to see and ears to hear the God who goes before us and with us in the darkness. May you cling to Christ in hopeful anticipation of the light of Easter Morning.

Amen.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor in a recent interview: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/barbara-brown-taylor-encourages-christians-embrace-darkness/

Get Wisdom, Go Beyond the Gold

Every year, the GEMS have a theme which guides their discussions and activities.  The theme for GEMS this year is “Get Wisdom, Go Beyond the Gold”.  The GEMS have been learning about what it means to pursue wisdom.  Like the GEMS, wisdom is something that is near and dear to my heart – so it’s no surprise that in grad school I majored in philosophy and that my daughter’s name is Sophie.  The Greek word for wisdom is “sophia” – so, philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom” and the name Sophie is based on the same word.

This theme also reminds me of one of the best scenes in one of my favorite movies – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Who has seen the movie?  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.  And even if you have seen it, you should watch it again.  It’s a great movie.  In the scene Indiana Jones and his nemesis Donovan have discovered the secret location of the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper.  The grail is “protected” by a 700 year old knight who can barely lift his sword.  There is, however, one slight problem – there are dozens of different cups in the room.  No one but the knight knows which cup is the real Grail.  In order to find out, a person must choose one of the cups, fill it in the water basin, and take a drink.  The knight warns both Donavan and Indy that the right choice will lead to everlasting life, but the wrong choice will lead to death.

Donavan, the bad guy of the movie, rushes to go first.  He chooses a very opulent goblet made of pure gold and encrusted with jewels.  It is, he says, a cup for the king of kings.  Kings should drink from the finest cups, cups that display their power and wealth.  What Donavan forgets is that Jesus is a very different kind of king –a king unlike all the kings of the world.  Immediately after drinking from the cup, Donavan dies a horrific death, to which the knight remarks “He chose poorly”.

Indy, on the other hand, remembers that Jesus was a carpenter, so he chooses a very plain wooden cup, the type of cup that a commoner would have used.  Indy nervously drinks from it, not sure if he, like Donavan, has chosen poorly.  We, as the audience, hold our breaths in anticipation.  The knight tells Indy, “You chose wisely”.

This scene paints a great picture of the GEMS theme verse for this year: “How much better to get wisdom than gold”.  Donavan was blinded by gold and the lust for power.  Indy was motivated to save his father and had a clearer head about who Jesus is.  So, as we explore what it means to purse wisdom I want you to keep this scene in your mind.

Before we can go any further, we need to be very clear that there are two kinds of wisdom – the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God.  Not only are these two types of wisdom very different, they are complete opposites of each other.  Listen to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:19: “Do not deceive yourselves…the wisdom of this world is foolishness is God’s sight.”  These are very harsh words, aren’t they?  After all, look at everything humans have accomplished!  We’ve found the cures for diseases, we’ve created marvelous inventions, and we’ve sent people to the moon!  And yet, Paul makes it clear that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1. Cor. 1:26).

So, what does human wisdom look like?

It all goes back to the Garden of Eden.  After God created everything, he instructed Adam and Eve to take care of everything.  Everything was good – Adam and Eve were cared for and they walked with God in the garden.  But then…

But then the serpent came along and tempted Adam and Eve.  He promised that if Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of life, that they would become wise – they would become like God, knowing good and evil.  Adam and Eve selfishly craved this wisdom for themselves –they saw the fruit, they were tempted, and they ate.  Their disobedience led to their banishment from the Garden.

Adam and Eve were disobedient because they were selfish – they lusted after something that was not theirs; they wanted something they were not allowed to have, at least something they were not allowed to have at that time.  They wanted their own way.  Selfishness is like that – “yes” to my way and, as a result, it says “no” to the way of God.  Selfishness says “it’s all about me!”  – my wants, my desires, my way.    And, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that at the height of our selfishness, we try to make our way appear like God’s way.  Human wisdom is rooted in the selfish pursuit of our own desires and will always lead to disappointment and devastation.

We can see human wisdom work itself out in many different ways.  One of the main things human wisdom desires above all else is wealth – the more money I have, the more comfortable I will be, and the more comfortable I am, the happier I will be, so I’d better do everything I can to get as much money as I can.  So, my primary goal in life is to make lots of money.  I envy those who have more money or success than me and I do what I can to surpass them.  However, Jesus reminds us that whenever we “go for the gold”, we will always turn our backs on God – he says “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Another thing human wisdom desires is fame and popularity – if I am well known, then people will like me, and if people like me, the happier I will be, so I’d better do everything I can to be as popular and famous as possible.  The pursuit of popularity requires putting yourself first, and this almost always means trampling over other people; it means building yourself up at the expense of others, cutting them down to build yourself up.  The pursuit of popularity destroys others so that you can be number one.   However, this goes directly against what Paul tells us in Romans 12: “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought”; rather, he says, you should “be devoted to one another in love” and “honor one another above yourselves”.   Popularity makes everyone into a potential enemy, someone who is in my way and must be defeated st that I can become top of the heap.  However, Jesus commands us to “Love our enemies” and to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27; 31).

Human wisdom also desires knowledge.  Knowledge itself is not a bad thing – God has blessed us with minds to think and explore his world.  However, our knowledge becomes corrupted when we think that we no longer need God, that because of the power of our own minds, we can do and think as we please.  When we fail to consider our pursuit of knowledge as an act of worship, our intelligence becomes a source of pride and knowledge becomes our idol.  We make the mistake of equating intelligence with wisdom; we think that being smart makes us wise, that having lots of letters and acronyms after your name is an indication of wisdom.  However, Paul tells us that if I “can fathom all mysteries and knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing” (1. Cor 13:2).  When we pursue knowledge for its own sake, we forget that, as Paul reminds us, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.  Those who think they know something do not yet know as they out to know.  But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:1b-3).

The wisdom of the world is foolishness in the eyes of God because it removes love for God from the centre of our lives and replaces it with the love of ourselves.  St. Augustine said it best: “There can only be two basic loves… the love of God unto the forgetfulness of self, or the love of self unto the forgetfulness and denial of God.”  The root of true wisdom is the love of God.

But what does God’s wisdom look like?

Simple – God’s wisdom looks like Jesus because Jesus is God’s wisdom.

Paul calls Jesus “wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30).  He says that it is in Jesus Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).  Jesus is wisdom personified in the flesh.  Human wisdom says “it’s all about me because I’m most important!”  God’s wisdom says “it’s all about Jesus because he is most important”.  Because Jesus is Wisdom, he is the source, the foundation, of all godly wisdom.  Therefore, to be wise is to be Christlike.  To be Christlike is to love unconditionally.

The truly wise person is the one who has a relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  This is what Proverbs 9:10 is about when it says “the fear of God is the foundation of wisdom” (NLT).  The type of fear this verse is talking about is not about the way I feel when I’m alone in the dark.  Rather, the fear of the Lord is the realization that God is the source of all things – we stand amazed at who he is and what he has done.  To fear the Lord is to make him the centre of our lives, it means relying on his strength and letting him guide us.  When we fear the Lord, we commit ourselves to his service and to living our whole lives as an act of worship.  This is the beginning of wisdom.

Wisdom is also gift we receive.  One night, God appeared to Solomon and said to him “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” (2 Chor. 2:7).  Wow – what an offer!  Solomon could have chosen wealth, fame, or knowledge – but what was his answer to God?  “Give me wisdom”.  God gives Solomon the deepest desire of his heart precisely because he did not ask for worldly things but sought wisdom first and foremost.  James reminds us that God wants to give us wisdom, if we would but ask for it – “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).  Likewise, Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus was that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Eph. 1:17).  Indeed, to receive wisdom is to receive the Holy Spirit – as Paul tells the church in Colassae – “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives”.  To be wise is to receive the Holy Spirit; therefore, we know someone is wise when the fruits of the Holy Spirit are evident in their life.

God’s wisdom is not for “spiritual superstars”, the “perfectly pious” or the “holier-than-thous”.  God’s wisdom is for everyone who asks for it, for those whose hearts and minds are ready to receive it.  We prepare ourselves to receive God’s wisdom when we seek his face and pursue his kingdom before anything else.  God does not give his wisdom to the proud or the selfish; he does not call those who would live by their own devices.  Rather, God gives wisdom to the humble, to those who put God first.  Listen to how Paul explains it to the church in Corinth: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor.1:26-27).  Wisdom is a gift from the God who loves to turn things upside down, the God who uses the weak to show his strength, and the God whose wisdom the world considers foolishness.

Wisdom is not a gift that once we have it remains in our possession forever.  God’s wisdom is a gift that requires continual nurturing and growth.  We all know the story Jesus tells of the wise man and the foolish man in Matthew 7.  We know that in spite of all the raging storms and rising waters, the house of the wise man stands firm, while the house of the foolish man is destroyed.  However, what we often forget is the introduction to the story where Jesus says “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…”  The wise person receives wisdom as a gift and puts that gift into use.  Wisdom is both listening and doing.  We cannot be wise if we are doing only one of these things and not the other.  We need both.  Wisdom if, therefore, a way of life.

In one of our Scripture passages for today, James describes what way of wisdom looks like: “Do you wanted to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom?  Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly.  It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts.  Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom.  Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom.  Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom.  It’s the furthest thing from wisdom – its animal cunning, devilish conniving.  Whenever you’re trying to letter better than other or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.  Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others.  It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced” (James 3:13-17 MSG).  In other words, wisdom seeks to live life with God and life for God; wisdom is rooted in God’s love and always seeks the good of others.

The wise person heeds the advice of Paul to the church in Philippi: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking on the very nature of a servant…” (Phil. 2:1-7a).

Following the way of wisdom, the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the Holy Spirit, is not an easy task and it is not something we can do in our own strength.  Therefore, a wise person is careful and diligent in developing good habits that help her grow in her relationship with Christ – praying frequently, worshipping with the body of believers regularly, and serving others continually.  A wise person is someone who can make good and godly decisions because they are rooted in God’s love and rely on his strength.  A wise person is motivated by love, desires to live at peace with everyone, actively pursues justice, and seeks to be Christ’s hands and feet.  The way of wisdom is a way of life that the GEMS verse summarizes perfectly – “And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humblywith your God” (Micah 6:8).

The way of wisdom is difficult – it requires total surrender to Christ, a desire to become like him, to live the way he lived, a life of love, of forgiveness, of caring for the underdog, of proclaiming the good news that God is King, a life lived with and for God.  However, we know that this way of life is possible precisely because of what Christ has done for us.  He has redeemed us and saved us from sin.  He has made new life possible – life lived in him; life transformed by his love.  We can walk in the light because Christ is the light that has conquered darkness.  We can become wise because Christ is wisdom.

This puts us in a situation similar to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30, where we are faced with a choice: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.  But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.   This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight”.

How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, then follow him.  If money, or fame, or knowledge is god, then follow them.

So, the choice is yours – will you choose the way of death, the way of selfishness, the way of human wisdom or will you choose the way of life, the way of God, the way of wisdom?

May you choose wisely.

Amen.

Feasting with Christ

A sermon I gave at Bethel CRC (Newmarket) on January 8, 2011.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you are what you eat”.  It means that the food you eat affects your health and state of mind.  When I was a kid, my mom always had the same solution for my after school crankiness – “eat something!”  She knew that an empty belly usually leads to a less than positive attitude, which, for a guy my size, meant that she had to have a well stocked fridge.

We can also see the truth of “you are what you eat” in the frightening statistics about rising obesity and the overwhelming availability of junk food both at drive-thrus and in grocery stores.  In moderation there is nothing wrong junk food, but as a whole it seems that our culture is addicted to it.  Constantly eating bad food will lead to bad health, which, in turn, can lead to an early death.  Good food choices, along with an active lifestyle, will lead to good health.  You are what you eat.

Not only is eating important for giving our body fuel, it is also an important part of our social lives.  Growing up, my family’s kitchen table was the centre of our life together.  Eating dinner was one of the most important ways that we grew our relationships with each other – we told stories and jokes, shared how our day went, and helped each other with and problems we might be facing.

Sharing meals together is also part of romantic relationships.  When a couple begins to date, typically the first place they go is to a restaurant.  When Natalie and I started dating, we got to know each other in the many diners and cafes surrounding our university.  Our relationship grew, and continues to grow, as we eat together.

Because eating is an important part of what it means to be human, it is not surprising that the Bible is full of stories about food.  One of my favorite stories about food in the Bible is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  One of the reasons this story is fascinating to me is that I grew up in a small town of 4,500 people, so whenever I heard this story in Sunday School, I always tried to imagine what it would be like for Jesus to have fed everyone in my town – I couldn’t wrap my head around it then and I can’t wrap my head around it now.  It is pretty amazing when you think about it.  It was pretty amazing to the Gospel writers too – did you know it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that is recorded in all four of the gospels?

The Gospel writers each tell the story differently.  They do so because they are not interesting in simply recounting history.  They are each trying to make a point in the way they tell and structure the story.  In other words, the Gospels are sermons, each with its own emphases and points of view that paint a larger picture of Christ’s life and ministry.  Today we will be reading the version of the story as told by Mark.  Please read along with me from Mark 6:30-44.

In order to get a sense of just how amazing this story is, I brought some food along with me – 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread to be exact.  Now, I should note that the fish is Tilapia, the most commonly caught fish in the Sea of Galilee and the loaves are as close as I could find to what people in Jesus’ day would have eaten.  This isn’t much food.  It would take at least one fish and most of a loaf of bread to fill me up.  If I were to host a dinner party with this amount of food, how many people do you think I could reasonably feed to the point that they were full?  4-5 people.  There are about 200-250 people here today.  If I broke all this bread and fish into small enough pieces, there might be enough for everyone to get either a piece of bread or a piece of fish.  Is that enough to feed everyone?  Obviously not.  If you multiply 250 by 20, what do you get?  5,000.  Now imagine 20x more people than are in this building being fed by this small amount of food that is enough to feed maybe 5 people.  Add to that 12 baskets of leftovers.  This is the reality of the miracle performed by Jesus.  If we are amazed by it, can you imagine what it was like for those who witnessed it and ate this miraculous food?

But is that all there is to this story – Jesus’ ability to do the impossible?  Is that what is really important?  Don’t get me wrong – Jesus’ miracles are all amazing.  Yet at the same time, if you hung around him long enough, you would begin to realize that you could expect miracles all the time.  So, the miracle, although important, is not the main point.

The menu is not important either – fish and bread were common staples of the day.  They were the typical items that common folk would eat on a daily basis.

Neither is the number of people being fed, especially when 5,000 isn’t really the correct number.  If you read the other gospel accounts of this story, 5,000 is the number of men who were present.  This means that the women and children weren’t counted.  So, in reality, Jesus fed far more than 5,000 people.

The most important part of the story is the feeding.

Earlier in chapter 6, Jesus sent out his disciples, two-by-two, with the task of preaching and healing.  At the beginning of our story for today, the disciples have just returned from this mission and are giving Jesus their report.  They are tired and hungry from their journey.  But while they were sharing their stories with Jesus, a crowd started gather.  So, Jesus instructed his disciples to join him to find a quiet space to get some rest.  They got in a boat and headed out.  But when they arrived at their destination, the crowds were there waiting.

When Jesus sees the crowds, he has great compassion on them.  The Greek word used to explain Jesus’ feelings about the situation is “splagchnizomai” – let me hear you say “splagchnizomai”.  It literally means to have one’s guts be torn apart.  Jesus is deeply moved by the needs of the crowd.  It’s like the feeling a parent has when they hold their newborn child – the emotional connection and heave of love and care is overwhelming.  This is what Jesus felt toward the crowd.

They were sheep without a shepherd – lost and wandering in the wilderness.  There are a flock that needs care.  So, Jesus foregoes his rest and begins to teach them.

The disciples come to Jesus asking him to send the crowds away so that the people may get some food.  This is the disciples’ way of saying to Jesus “we were promised food and rest and now these people are preventing us from taking a well-deserved break.  Get rid of them so that we can relax”.  Although Jesus’ care for the crowds is evident, the disciples seem ignorant of this, preoccupied with their own needs.

Jesus turns to them and says “You give them something to eat”.

This is not an instruction.  This is an accusation.

Earlier in chapter 6 when Jesus sends the disciples out, he tells them “take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, and no money in your belts”.

Now, when Jesus says “You give them something to eat”, the disciples are incredulous and immediately begin giving excuses – “It would take almost 8 months wages to feed everyone here!  We don’t have that kind of cash with us”.  The implication is that the disciples have money with them and Jesus is calling them out on this.

This leads to Jesus’ next question – “how many loaves do you have?”  To which the disciples reply “We have five loaves of bread and two fish”.

The disciples have just returned from a mission on which they were to bring no food and no money.  And yet, here they are, having just come back and what do they have?  Food and money.

Jesus is being sharp with his disciples.  He is saying – “why are you asking me to do something about this when you have food and you have money?  You do something about it!”  In other words, he is saying “You didn’t trust me to provide for you before, and now you’re running to me to fix your problems?  Why don’t you trust that God will provide?”

And yet, the disciples, like so many other times, seem incapable of even the smallest amount of trust.  Their responses are pragmatic – we don’t have enough money and we don’t have enough food.  This attitude leaves them unable to see the possibility that God is always able to provide.

So, out of his deep compassion for the flock, Jesus tells everyone to sit down on the green grass.  In that time, people would recline when eating a special meal.  The irony is inescapable – although they are in the middle of the wilderness, Jesus is getting ready to give a feast.  This immediately brings to mind the words of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.  He makes me lie down in green pastures…He prepares a table for me.”  The sheep now have a shepherd.

Even though the provisions are meager, Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and the fish and instructs the disciples to give it to the crowd.

They all ate and were satisfied.

This crowd that followed Jesus, once spiritually and physically hungry, is now full.

Everyone ate her fill and there are leftovers.

Most people don’t like leftovers.  But in this story the leftovers signify God’s abundance and generosity.  God gives and when we receive in faith, there is always enough for everyone with more to spare.  Not to mention that perhaps the 12 baskets of leftovers were Jesus’ way of saying to the disciples – when you trust me, I will always provide for you.

Not only is the feeding important, but so too is the history and symbolism in Mark’s telling of this story.  We need to be aware of this to get the fuller picture of what this story is all about.  Mark frequently uses symbolism in his gospels to add layers of meaning to the stories.

Twelve was a very important number for the Israelites.  Not only are there 12 tribes, there are also 12 disciples.  The number of loves and fish also bear symbolic importance – the five loaves of bread correspond to the five books of Moses, and the two fish represent the law and the prophets.  These details underline the deep connection between food and scripture.  “Food and scripture are rightly tied together because there can be no strict separation between body and soul.  The words of scripture are the words of life, every bit as essential for our ability to live as bread and fish”.[1]  God is the provider of everything we need – physically and spiritually – and precisely because these needs overlap, there is no clear separation between them.

This story echoes that of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:38-44.  There is a famine in the land.  A man brings Elisha 20 loaves of bread.  Elisha tells his servant to feed the 100 men who are with them.  The servant scoffs saying “How can I feed one hundred men with this?”  To which Elisha responds: “Give it to the people so they can eat!  This is what the Lord says: ‘Eat and there will be leftovers’”.  The servant gave the men the bread, they ate it, and there were leftovers.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Mark is also alluding to God’s provision to the Israelites in the desert following their exodus from Egypt.  The feeding of the 5,000 is essentially a re-enactment of God’s feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness.  In Exodus 16, the Israelites begin complaining to Moses “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt.  There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread.  Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve us to death” (v.4).  To which God replied: “At twilight you will eat meat.  And in the morning you will have your fill of bread.  Then you will know that I am the Lord your God” (v.12b).

Not only does the feeding of the 5,000 recapitulate God’s feeding of the Israelites in the desert, it also anticipates God’s feeding of the church through the Lord’s Supper.  In these meals, God is providing spiritual and physical sustenance.  He is displaying his compassion and care for humans through simple yet lavish means.  But he is also reminding us that we do not live by bread alone, but also by the words of God.  Like the manna and quail in the desert and the food for the 5,000, God provides a feast for his people, the church, a feast that we call the Lord’s Supper.

The question for us today is how do we eat this feast?

There is a wonderful movie called Babette’s Feast that is an apt description of both how we often approach the Lord’s Supper and the effect that Lord’s Supper should have on us.  The movie tells the story of a very strict Christian sect that avoids all the sensual delights of this world.  Fleeing from the revolution in France, a woman named Babette comes to live with them as their housekeeper and cook.  After she wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery, rather than return home, Babette decides to spend it all on preparing a marvelous and extravagant feast for the aging members of the sect.

Although the congregation shuns all sensual luxury, they agree to eat the meal.  However, before eating, they decide amongst themselves that they will not take any pleasure in the food and will not talk about the food during dinner.  I think that this is often how we approach the Lord’s Supper – as a somber and solemn affair despite the richness and abundance of food being offered.  Like the sect members, we often equate reverence and piety with a detached austerity.  Rather than celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and his triumph over sin and death, we act as though we are at his funeral.

However, in the film, as the feast progresses, the guests cannot help but be overcome by the meal.  As they eat, their hearts begin to melt and they begin to understand that, despite their resistance, that God’s grace cannot be contained by our piety precisely because his grace is lavish and infinite.  They slowly begin to realize that creation is a gift given to us by God to be enjoyed and celebrated.  The meal is a reminder to them of the richness of God’s creation and redemption.

Someone once said “the Church has nothing to say to the world unless it throws better parties”.  In other words, the Church has the best news offered to the world – that Christ is risen, that sin is forgiven, that death and hell are defeated, that Christ is returning to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth and that when he returns we will be feasting with him for eternity.  This news should be cause for the type of celebration that causes us to want to get up and dance, to shout from the rooftops, to celebrate with a sense of reckless abandon because we know that Christ is Lord!

So the question is – do we allow the meal to become truly transformative of our lives in such a way that it is a celebration of the new lives we have because of Christ?  In other words, in our consumption of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, do we allow Christ to completely consume us?

When we feast with Christ at his table, we are participating in his kingdom and we are anticipating when that kingdom will be fully established on earth.  But, our waiting is never passive.  Like he did to his disciples, Jesus also turns to us and asks us to feed the hungry sheep – to be their shepherds on his behalf, to show the kind of gut-ripping compassion he shows to us.

This also means that we when pray “Give us our daily bread” that we use this as an opportunity to open ourselves to the reality of our spiritual and physical hunger.  Every day I require food.  When I do not get the food I need, I become hungry. The stuff of my life is hunger, need, and lack, which opens me to the reality of my complete and utter dependence on God.   However, technology and affluence blind me to this truth; I live in a country where food is readily available and in a culture where food is an idol.  I seek to sate my hunger with all the wrong things and, as a result, I am always left hungry and empty.  And yet, a single day without food is enough to remind me of the truth of what I am – a creature who depends on the good gifts of his Creator.  A sheep who needs a shepherd.

God is our provider – he provides us with physical food and spiritual food.  It is in the Lord’s Supper and the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in which we are reminded that when we feast with Christ, we will always be satisfied.  We taste and see that the Lord is good.  We learn that God is not a miser – he spared no expense in the meal he gives us.  Indeed, it cost him everything to ensure that his sheep are feed.  This is provision.  This is abundance.  This is grace.  This is something worth celebrating.

When we feast with Christ, our faith is established, our hope is nourished, and our love becomes extravagant.


[1] Stanely Hauerwas, Matthew.  Brazos Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2006, p.139.

Praying with the Psalms

A Sermon I gave on August 8, 2011 at Bethel CRC (Newmarket):

Texts: Psalm 22:1-8; Psalm 102:1-11; Psalm 88:1-7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do we do with Psalms like these?

To our ears, they are irreverent and accusatory toward God.  There is no show of deference or respect that we would expect from someone talking to God.

Who talks like this?

What gives them the right?

This is not the way we are supposed to speak to God.

And yet, here they are, in the Bible, in a book that is all prayers and songs to God.

Part of the reason these Psalms are difficult and even offensive to us is because we’ve often overlooked them, preferring the more happy and uplifting ones.  We are so used to hearing that Christians must be joyful that we don’t know what to with these Psalms because they don’t express the type of joyful attitude we expect from Christians.  We assume that this is not the way Christians are supposed to think or behave.

However, this expectation has more to do with the assumptions of our culture than it has to do with a biblical understanding of prayer.  Our culture, and, as a result, many Christian congregations, are addicted to happiness.  Any other attitude than perpetual cheerfulness is seen as a downer.  Our solution to someone who is not always happy is to give them medication in order to help them feel more balanced and positive.  But in the end, our culture’s addiction to happiness prevents us from facing and dealing with the sadness and grief in our lives.  It’s almost as though we are afraid of our emotions.

So, when we hear these difficult Psalms, we are disturbed and unsettled.

I mean, who talks like this?

We do.

If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is that we all do.

In the midst of grief, struggle, and doubt, we cry out from the depths of our being, begging to be heard and to have the pain go away.  But, because we are addicted to happiness, we lack the emotional capacity to process what we are feeling.  We assume that something must be wrong with us for feeling this way, so we ignore our emotions or we try to medicate them, whether through prescription drugs or other means.

Psalms like these teach us that prayer is more than simply nice thoughts expressed toward God or asking for basic needs.

Prayer is the discipline of confronting ourselves – our strengths, our weaknesses, our struggles, our triumphs – and meeting God face-to-face with absolutely nothing standing in the way.  This requires brutal honesty and humility with ourselves and with God.

We are used to using our piety and reverence as buffers between us and God.  The Psalms teach us that we don’t have to do this.

If the Psalms are the “prayer book of the Church”, then what do these difficult Psalms teach us about what it means to pray?  How can we learn from them as we seek to re-train ourselves in the discipline of prayer?

First, we need to reclaim art as a form of prayer.

The Psalms are poems.  Poems are artistic expressions using words, pauses, meter, metaphor, and rhythm.

So, if the Psalms are poems, then they are artful forms of prayer.  This means that art, whether poetry, painting, music, sculpture, or any other artistic medium you can think of, can be used as forms of prayer.  This also means that we can pray without using words.  Our art can be used as a creative act that responds to the reality and power of God.

God has given us imaginations.  Our imaginations are part of what it means to be made in the image of the God who creates.  Our imaginations can and should be used in prayer.  The Psalms engage our imagination and turn it toward God, allowing us to enter into his presence.

Art, in all its forms, is an important form of prayer.

Second, we need to reclaim lament and grief as indispensible expressions in prayer.

The Psalms are, in the words of John Calvin, “an anatomy of all parts of the soul”.  In other words, the Psalms express the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity, both the fullness if our divine likeness and the staggering depravity of humans.  The Psalms teach us that expressing the full range of our emotions – from love and devotion to bitterness and even hatred – is a necessary part of prayer because it helps us to face our feelings and to bring them completely to God.

The Psalms teach us that openness and honest with God are part of what it means to have a close and deep relationship with him.

We need only look to how Jesus prayed to understand this.  In the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion, Jesus’ prayer was one full of agony, to the point of sweating blood.  This is a far cry from what we normally associate with prayer, sitting around the table before a meal, or sitting in pews on a Sunday morning.

And what about Jesus’ words on the cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus is directly quoting Psalm 22.  But more than that, he is accusing God of abandoning him, of crying out, where are you God?  How could you do this to me?  Jesus used these very raw words as an expression of what he was going through and as a prayer to God.

Sometimes we are too quick to praise without acknowledging how we really feel.  Our praise becomes empty of passion because we haven’t be honest with ourselves and God about how we really feel.  The result is that we begin to drift away from God.  We find ourselves unable to praise and pray because we haven’t been able to protest.

The difficult Psalms we are looking at tonight suggest that protest to and even against God can be a prelude to praise.  When you read the rest of Psalm 22 and 102, it becomes clear that there is a progression – the Psalmist starts with rage, he reflects on how these feelings are affecting him, and it almost always leads to rejoicing.  There is a transition from pain to hopeful praise that God will hear the prayer and will act.

There is something very important and necessary about acknowledging our pain; it helps us to face our hurts and to begin the healing process – you can’t start getting better is you are in denial about being sick!  When we are hurting, we are extremists – we don’t mince words to express how we are feeling.  When we are open with God, we begin to be open with each other and this allows us to “bear each others’ burdens” as a community.

This means that prayer is not always neat, tidy, and well-spoken words – it is raw emotion that expresses the realities of what we are going through, the highs and the lows.  If we are unable to this to and with God? Then to whom can we?  And what are the consequences of our faith if we don’t share our struggles with God?

Like the poets who wrote these Psalms, we need get past Christian “political correctness” about how we talk to/about God.  Christian speech should always be dangerous speech and return to speaking using biblical vocabulary and talking and praying the way the psalms and prophets do.  There is no room for a tame and domesticated spirituality in the Church; we won’t find it in the Psalms, so we shouldn’t either in the church.

It is important for our spiritual health to face disorienting texts like these Psalms because it forces us to rely on God’s faithfulness and to reexamine our relationship with him.  We have to remember that because God is God, he can take our complaints; it is better to be brutally honest with our loving God than it is to turn our back on him because we assume he won’t like what we have to say.

a close relationship with God opens you to brutal honest with God – again, look at the Psalms and the Prophets.  We cannot afford to talk to God with embarrassment or trepidation.  We speak the truth in love; we can pray with chutzpah, indeed we must for it teaches us to abandon ourselves in outright trust of God; we can hold nothing back when we pray; if/when we do, we are not really praying, rather, we are just saying empty words. The ability to “rage against God” can help us to develop a deeper and more profound hope as our raging calls God and ourselves to our covenant responsibilities.  And this, in turn, will help us to cultivate a more deeper, defiant, and resilient hope.

Prayer must be open and honest and passionate – Prayer is a face-to-face dialogue; it must be so.  Like all good relationships, our relationship with God requires openness and honesty form both parties – we don’t like it when God is blunt with us and we often shy away from being blunt with God.  This is a requirement for developing intimacy and humility.

The Psalms are confessional in character – they express deep longing, belief, doubt, etc. – the whole array of human emotion.  They are not “objective” statements of fact; they are expressions of profound belief.  The Psalms are dialogical in character – they are a conversation between God and humans.  Our prayers are not a monologue; our relationship with God is not a one-way street;

Praying with the Psalms the way the Psalms are written will develop a daring, vibrant, transformative, daring, and bold faith – this is the only kind of faith that will sustain us in times of trail and in times of joy; a deep and multi-dimensioned faith, not a shallow and insipid faith concerned with intoning moral platitudes and niceties.

Amen.

SHALOM: Peace No Matter What

A Sermon I gave at Bethel CRC on July 31, 2011.  Our youth group recently went on a SERVE Trip – you can check out the video here
Text – John 14:25-27

Every year at SERVE there is a theme for the week.  The theme is meant to tie the entire SERVE experience together – from the worksites, to the evening sessions, to the relationships we built with our teammates.  We gathered every night as a group to explore the theme with our site speaker.  Immediately following the large group gathering, we would continue the discussion in our small groups.

This year’s SERVE theme is “SHALOM: Peace No Matter What”.  Today, we are going to spend a bit of time exploring this theme in order to give you the chance to encounter some of the things we talked about and learned at SERVE.

Unless you are Jewish, “Shalom” is not a word that you hear very often in your daily conversations or in church services.  And yet, the concept of Shalom is central to the Biblical story.  The Bible begins and ends with Shalom.  So, why is it that such an important theme is so often overlooked by Christians?

The main reason for this has to do with translation.  The Hebrew word, “shalom”, is usually translated into English as “peace”.  Typically when we think of peace, we think of the absence of war or of the idealistic and unrealistic aspirations of people wearing bellbottoms and flowers in their long hair.

We all want peace, but at the same time, as modern people living in a world where warfare and bloodshed are the norm and dominated by an economic system based on conflict and the survival of the fittest, we are very cynical about the possibilities of peace and an end to global conflict.  This is especially true of us Calvinists who preach about the “total depravity” of all humanity.  We have been taught to believe that peace is impossible in a fallen world.  This, in turn, leads us to turn a deaf ear to biblical references of peace since we know that war, not peace, is our current reality.

In our culture, we also understand peace as a sense of inner tranquility.  There is no end to the amount of books, programs, and products that all claim to offer us the secrets to peace of mind in the midst of our hectic lives.  We want to live perpetually blissful lives, free of stress and conflict.

However, these definitions of peace are not what the biblical writers have in mind when they talk about shalom.  While it is true that shalom does entail an end to war and a sense of inner tranquility, this is not what shalom is really about in its fullest sense.  While the absence of conflict is a good thing, in the end it is not enough; the mere absence of conflict cannot by itself lead to reconciliation, healing, and restoration.

Indeed, when we translate “shalom” as “peace”, we end up with a very one-dimensional and secular understanding of a central biblical concept.  This means that our preferred translation of “shalom” as “peace” can be very misleading, suggesting nothing of the richness and depth of what shalom truly is.  Shalom is more than a political concept and it is bigger than an individual feeling of serenity; Shalom is cosmic in scope.

Shalom, translated literally, means wholeness or completeness.  It refers to harmony and unity between all things.

Furthermore, shalom is also connected to biblical understandings of justice and truth.  When justice is accomplished, shalom prevails.  When truth is revealed, shalom abounds.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see shalom used as an expression of hope and longing for the restoration that the Messiah will bring.

Truly, Shalom is a central theme of the biblical story.

In the beginning there was Shalom.  Everything was good.  Everything had a name.  Everything was provided for.  There was harmony.  Creation was complete and whole.  God’s assessment of his creation “it is good” implies shalom.  God could rest and enjoy the word of his hands because shalom thrived.

But then.

But then the disobedience of Adam and Eve and their dissatisfaction with the way things were disrupted shalom.

Sin began and continues to destroy the goodness and harmony of God’s creation.  It unravels what was once whole.  It tears down relationships and causes enmity between people.

If Shalom is the way things are supposed to be, then sin is the way things are not supposed to be.

Sin is the antithesis, the complete opposite, of shalom.

God is the God of shalom.  Sin and its devices have no place in the world he lovingly created.  God desires the flourishing of creation and to enjoy a relationship with his image-bearers.  His purpose and plan is to bring all things to himself, to love and bless what he has made.  In other words, shalom is God’s will for the world.

Nothing can stand in the way of God’s love.  God emptied himself sending his son, Jesus, to earth in order to proclaim God’s message of hope.  The hope that God will restore his broken creation and that Jesus would be the one who would usher in the kingdom of God’s shalom.

However, as much as God is faithful to his promises to bless and to heal, we, like Adam and Eve, are dissatisfied with the wholeness that God offers and seek to find it on our own.  We long to be made whole, but insist that we are the ones to do it.  We search for what is missing in our lives while asserting that we be the ones who define what it is that is missing.  We want shalom, but we want it on our terms.  We are looking for shalom because we were made for shalom.  Yet, we are always quick to settle for the imitation rather than the real thing.  We would rather be perpetually distracted by temporary happiness offered by the latest trend than to accept the gift of a life with God.  The former is easy and costs only money.  The latter is difficult and costs us our lives.

In our quest for our self-made shalom, we always end up dissatisfied, hurt, lonely and unable to find what we are really looking for – God’s shalom.

Although distorted by sin, shalom was brought back into focus through Christ’s resurrection.  His resurrection signals the triumph of shalom over sin.  Because of his sacrifice, shalom is restored between humans and God – listen to these words from Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace, shalom, with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”.  Our relationship with God is restored; it is once again whole and complete.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice, shalom is also restored between us and our neighbors – listen to these words from Ephesians 2:14-16: “For he [Christ] is our peace, our shalom; in his flesh he was made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us”.  The divisions that cause us to hate our neighbor and go to war with each other become secondary to the unity that we share in Christ.  Mother Teresa once said “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”.  We are all, each and every person on the planet, image bearers of God, forgiven and loved by Christ.  This is our true and first identity.  When we remember this, then there is no room for hatred and conflict or for disunity and distrust; there is only love for God and neighbor.  There is only the fullness of shalom

Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension show us that God’s kingdom of shalom is at hand.  But more than that, Christ’s actions on earth bring this heavenly kingdom into earthly reality.  The division that sin caused between heaven and earth is being erased.  Heaven and earth are being restored into one whole and seamless reality.

Think of it this way.  In the Old Testament, the tabernacle was meant to represent heaven and earth.  It had two rooms; the first room, where the table of showbread, the golden lamp stand, and the incense altar were, represented earth.  The second room, the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, represented heaven.  There was a thick curtain that divided these two rooms.  The curtain represented the division or separation between heaven and earth, between humans and God.  A division caused by sin, a division that is not the way things are supposed to be.

Now, think of what happened when Jesus died.  The curtain in the temple in Jerusalem was ripped.  To be clear, the curtain in the temple served the exact same purpose as the curtain in the tabernacle.  God’s heavenly kingdom is breaking into earth reality.  The ripping of the curtain represents the triumph of shalom over sin.  Because sin has been defeated, there is nothing to separate heaven and earth.  God’s future, a time when justice and peace will finally embrace, is coming into the present.

Shalom is about restoration, about heaven being united to earth, about the lordship of Christ over all creation, about the final defeat of sin, death, and suffering once and for all.  This is our hope as Christians; and it is a hope we are called to bring into reality now.

As Christ-followers, we are called to be shalom-makers.  Jesus summarized it best in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Blessed are the peace-makers, shalom-makers, for they are children of God”.  Bringing shalom to our world is one of the primary tasks of the church.  We must be actively pursuing and sharing shalom with the world.  Toward his conclusion in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that you will be known by your fruit, and, as you know, shalom, is one of the fruits of the Spirit.

In our text for today, Jesus gives two gifts to his disciples: the Holy Spirit and God’s Shalom.  It isn’t very difficult to see the connection between the gifts and the implication of what these gifts are to be used for.

Shalom is a gift that we receive and it is a gift we give to others.

Shalom is the power of the Holy Spirit living and working in us, empowering us to share God’s shalom with the world.

This means that we cannot claim to be Christians if we are not actively pursuing and sharing Shalom.  In the words of the Psalmist, we must “seek shalom and pursue it” for we are known by our fruit.

We respond to the gift of Shalom by either ignoring it or by participating in it.  There is no middle ground.  If God is in and with us, then Shalom will prevail – it will explode out of us.  When we abide in shalom, we cannot help but pass it on!

To receive the gift of Shalom, we must turn our back on the destructiveness of the world; however, this does not mean we turn our back on the world.  Our mission as the church is to enter the world to spread shalom.  When we abide in shalom, we seek to bring healing and wholeness to our broken world.  In other words, the church is called to be a community of shalom – to be a foretaste of God’s future and to bring God’s shalom to the world.

Someone once said that “to dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself”.  Shalom is about life the way God intended to be lived – a life of joy, gratitude, satisfaction and rest.  A life lived to the fullest in hopeful anticipation of Christ’s return when all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.  A life lived in self-sacrificial love for others in the midst of a hurting world that calls out for healing – a world where hunger, warfare, broken relationships, and suffering abound.  A life lived that works for justice.  A life lived that seeks to bring healing and restoration.  A life that knows even when sin and death seem to always have the last word, that the Holy Spirit will always bring comfort and shalom.

When Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done”, he was teaching us to pray for shalom.  God’s kingdom is one where Shalom abounds.  God’s will is for shalom to permeate the entire universe.  As God’s covenant partners, our responsibility is to cultivate God’s kingdom and to do his will.  Through his resurrection, Christ has established his kingdom on earth.  We do not idly wait for his return because we, the church, the people of God, are called to be Christ’s presence on earth – to be shalom-makers, bearers of faith, hope and love.  The coming of the kingdom is about the restoration of shalom, about God reconciling all things to himself.

On SERVE this year, we had the chance to participate in God’s shalom by learning, praying, eating, playing, and serving together.  All are acts of worship.  All are acts of shalom.  All are a taste of God’s kingdom.  When we gather together as a church to learn, pray, play and to serve others, we too are participating in shalom.

I want to leave you with a challenge today – that when the Bible talks about “peace” that you remember that it is really talking about shalom.

Shalom is God’s gift to us.  May we faithfully pursue it and pass it on to those who are so desperately seeking it.  Amen.

Jesus: Age 12

This is a sermon I gave on July 3, 2011 at Bethel Christian Reformed Church as a kick-off to our VBS Progam – this year’s theme is “Hometown Nazareth: Where Jesus Was a Kid”.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:39-52

Today’s story is the only story in the Bible about Jesus as a young boy.

Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that even record Jesus’ birth – Mark and John exclude it entirely.  Even then, Matthew devotes only 23 verses to Jesus’ birth and Luke uses 52 verses, including the story we just heard.

This is not to suggest that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were lazy about details while writing their gospels.  As any writer will tell you, editing is very important – if your introduction is too long, the audience will quickly lose interest.  So they made the choice to omit stories of Jesus’ early life.

But, does this mean that Jesus’ childhood and young adult years are unimportant to the gospel story?  The gospels describe 3 years of Jesus’ life, but what about the other 30 years?  Don’t they matter?  As someone who is 30, I am a bit sensitive to this – did my life story only really begin last year, even though who I am today is directly shaped by my experiences in the past 30 years?

Certainly the omission of Jesus’ childhood and young adult life were not for lack of information.  Stories about Jesus would have been very easy to learn about – his mother was alive and available to share them.  After all, we know that Mary “stored up all these things in her heart”; surely she would have been willing to share stories about Jesus’ life.  However, the gospel writers decided that in order to best convey their message, it was necessary to focus on Jesus’ adult life – his ministry, death and resurrection.

This means that when we read the gospels, we get a fairly clear picture of what Jesus was like as an adult.  But what about Jesus as a young man, a teenager, a boy?  Does the lack of stories mean that Jesus’ early life is unimportant?

Absolutely not.

The lack of stories about Jesus’ early life is an invitation to wonder about what Jesus was like.  Perhaps Matthew, Mark, Luke and John felt they could say more about who Jesus is – the one who is 100% God and 100% human – by leaving some stuff out. Perhaps the intent of the gospel writers in omitting stories about Jesus’ childhood was to create space for us to ponder the paradox of the incarnation.  In other words, we are being called to use our God-given imaginations to ask questions about Jesus’ identity.  In doing so, we become wrapped in the mystery of who Jesus is.  Rather than being provided with mere facts about Jesus, we are invited into the story of Jesus’ life.  Our questions give us the opportunity not simply to mine for information but to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

I’d like to invite any 12 year olds to the stage, or those who will be turning 12 this year to ask them some questions.  [At this point, I invited the 12-year-olds form our congregation up to the front and asked them the following questions.  As you can imagine, the answers were very apropos of that age group].

What is your favorite pastime?

Do you like school?  What grade are you going into?

Who is your favorite teacher?

Do you like going to church?

What is your favorite thing about church?

What is your favorite food?

What is something that you are really good at doing?

Do you ever disagree with your parents?

What is a chore that you can’t stand doing?

 

This is what it is like to be 12 years old.  Most of us here were 12 at one point in our lives, whether recently or long ago.  Jesus was a twelve-year-old too.  This raises some questions about Jesus’ childhood:

Did he suck his thumb?  Did he ever cry?

What was his favorite game?

Was he ever bored or even fall asleep when he went to the synagogue?

What his least favorite food?

What was he afraid of?

Did he ever break a bone or chip a tooth?  And if he did, did he heal himself?

Was he part of the “in-crowd”?  Was he ever bullied?

Was he athletic, always picked first for games?

Was he know-it-all?

Did he ever struggle with learning?

Did Mary of Joseph ever have to ask him to do something more than once?

Did he ever have a crush on someone or have his heart broken?

Did he know the future?  Did he know who he really was and what his life’s purpose was?

Was he a momma’s boy?

Was he good at carpentry?  Did he ever hammer his thumb?

These questions make us squirm because they seem irreverent.  But are they?  As Christ-followers, we believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human.  However, whenever we talk about Jesus the human, we become squeamish.  Why?  Do we have difficulty accepting that Jesus was a twelve year old boy since we all know what 12 year old boys can be like?  Do we not fully accept Jesus’ humanity?  Would we rather focus on his divinity as if this somehow maintains his holiness?  And does this focus on Jesus’ divinity keep him at a safe and comfortable distance from the messiness of our own lives?  I mean, how could Jesus possibly be human like us, when our lives seem so imperfect?

Furthermore, when we do ask questions about the humanity of Jesus, we typically default to the “God” answer – of course Jesus knew everything, he is God; of course he was a perfect kid, he is God; of course he was better at carpentry than Joseph; he is God, and so on.

However, in answering this way, we forget that Jesus is also 100% human.  Jesus the second person of the Trinity does not trump Jesus the little boy.  Jesus is equally human and equally divine; one does not override the other.  The Bible is clear that Jesus is God and that Jesus knows what it means to be human precisely because he was human himself.  This means we are allowed to ask questions about Jesus’ early life, but it also means that the question mark must always remain.  In this way, the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of what it means that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, is always something that we can ponder as we strive to become more like him.

Moreover, in remembering that Jesus is totally human, we can take comfort knowing that Jesus understands what it is like to be human.  He knows what it is like to be twelve years old.  He knows what it is like to have fun playing, to have favorite and not-so-favorite food, to have an imagination, to wonder about the future, to have scraped knees and elbows, stomach aches, nightmares, to be frustrated with your parents, to wrestle with your identity, and to struggle with the things of life because he understands our weaknesses and was tempted in every way that we are.  If anyone knows what it’s like to be human, it is Jesus.

And in the Bible’s one story of Jesus’ early life, we do get a picture of what Jesus the boy was like.

We know that he was a child of his time and place – a small-town Aramaic speaking boy who was brought up to learn his father’s trade, making farm equipment, such as plows and yokes.

We also know that Jesus was Jewish.  This may sound strange, but we have to remember that Jesus was not a Christian – he was a devout Jew his entire life.  He was circumcised according to custom and he and his parents observed the Jewish festivals.  In fact, we know that Mary was very strong in her faith, not only because she was chosen to be Jesus’ mother, but also because in our story for today, she accompanied Joseph to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations.  During that time, only men were required to make the journey, so for Mary to join him on a trip that would take three days travel one way underlines her devotion.

We also know that according to first-century Jewish practice, young boys would begin religious instruction and at age twelve the instruction would become more intensive.  In our story today, we see Jesus, already at age twelve, before beginning his intensive study, is already very knowledgeable about the Torah – he asks probing questions and provides insightful answers.  We can try to easily account for this appealing to the “God” answer, but this doesn’t fully explain things.  Indeed, like the religious teachers, we should be amazed, not because Jesus is God, but because a young boy was so passionate and knowledgeable about his faith.  Jesus remained in the temple because he wanted to learn more and to grow in his relationship with God.  Because he took his beliefs seriously, he asked questions and he explored the boundaries of tradition.  It is this devotion that began to prepare him for his adult ministry.

We also know that Jesus could be a source of stress for his parents.  Anyone who is a parent knows what it is like when you think your child is missing – 5 minutes of uncertainty can feel like an eternity.  Can you image having your child missing for three days?  May and Joseph were probably riding a rollercoaster of emotion – fear, anger, anxiety.  And when they finally do find their son, he talks back to them.  A bit of a disclaimer here – kids, I’m not suggesting that it is OK to talk back to your parents just because Jesus did.  You can try that argument, but I don’t think it will work for you.  I know that if my mom and dad were Jesus’ parents, he wouldn’t be able to sit down for the whole walk home (all three days of it) if he talked like that, son of God or not.  And as devout Jews, I’m sure Mary and Joseph probably were well aware of the advice in Proverbs 13:24, and, like all human parents, I’m sure Mary and Joseph made mistakes in their parenting.

But we also know that, in spite of this incident, and presumably others like it growing up, Jesus was a good kid – our text specifically mentions that he was obedient and that he was well-liked.  Does this mean that he never caused or got into trouble?  Anyone who knows or has a twelve year old boy would agree that this is highly doubtful.  Yes, as the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus never sinned.  But this doesn’t mean that he was the perfect child, always well-behaved with a halo around his head.

Moreover, our text for today says that Jesus grew in wisdom.  Growth implies process and development.  Growing up is a physical process – and yes, this means that Jesus went through puberty – but it also entails developing emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual maturity.  In our story, it is clear that Jesus knows the Torah very well.  But knowing the Torah would not be enough for his mission on earth.  He would require wisdom.  In the Bible, wisdom is not about “book smarts” or intelligence.  Rather, wisdom is about how close you are to God and how well you follow God’s law.  Wisdom is a skill to be learned and developed over time.  It is a gift from God that requires nurturing and the willingness to put it into practice.  Wisdom is one of the most important skills Jesus learned throughout the first 30 years of his life in preparation for his public ministry, which is probably why Luke mentions wisdom twice in our text.

We believe that Jesus is 100% human and 100% God.  In order for him to understand what it means to be human, Jesus had to become human himself.  Coming to earth as an adult wouldn’t have allowed him to do this.  He needed to experience what we experience.  He needed to grow up just like we grow up.    By remembering that Jesus was once a boy, we see his humanity, and in seeing his humanity, we see his love for all people, a love so great that he became just like us in order to restore our relationship with God that we may become truly human and enjoy life with him the way it was meant to be.  Amen.