Scripture Reading: Jonah 3:1–10 | Psalm 62:5–12 | 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 | Mark 1:14–20
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
How many of us actually like disruptions?
I don’t just mean surprises… something new or unexpected. I mean those moments of interruption… when our plans are suddenly derailed. When we’re faced with having to make immediate changes, and do things differently.
For many of us, the fact that we’ve started having Church online is a prime example of this kind of disruption. For close to two hundred years people have gathered in person at St. Luke’s Church to worship God together, and to grow as disciples of Jesus. And now here we are, worshipping in our own homes, while some of us are using the internet to join together for Morning Prayer. What a strange disruption to the ways we are used to being a Church family… though I’m grateful that there are still some ways for us all to stay connected.
Of course, this year has been full of far more difficult disruptions. The changes and complications that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about for people all over the world has been simply staggering. In basically every facet of life, things keep on getting disrupted… and we keep on having to adjust, and re-adjust our plans. Small wonder most of us are getting sick of disruptions, and are longing for a time when everything finally settles down.
But what happens when disruptions turn out better than we could have imagined? What happens when they turn out to be a gift; a channel of God’s grace?
Our Scripture readings today, from the book of Jonah, and the Gospel of Mark, introduce us to some major but blesséd disruptions in the story of God.
First, we heard an excerpt from the story of Jonah: The Israelite prophet entrusted with a message from the Living God. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city,” the LORD commissions Jonah, “and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) Now it’s no surprise that God would call a prophet to bring this kind of message. After all, the Old Testament is full of divine warnings against human wickedness. What’s strange is that, rather than send the prophet to warn his own people, God’s sending him to warn his enemies. To go to Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrian Empire… near the modern city of Mosul in Iraq. This was an ancient superpower, and in the time of Jonah, the people of Nineveh were a terrible threat to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
As the story goes, this strange mission was too ‘out there’ for Jonah. Instead of obeying the call, the prophet simply runs away. He boards a boat to take him as far from Nineveh as possible. Though he was called to be a prophet, speaking on behalf of the Living God, this mission contradicted Jonah’s idea of what should really be done. To follow this call would completely disrupt Jonah’s life: it would mean completely re-arranging his purpose and priorities. And so he runs… right into a bigger disruption: a terrible storm.
Eventually, Jonah ends up being tossed into the sea, but instead of drowning, he gets swallowed by a giant fish. While in that watery prison, Jonah cries to the LORD for mercy. He has no other hope. He’s caught by this fish, with no way to free himself. But the LORD hears his desperate prayer, and spares him… causing the fish to spit him up on to dry land. Jonah, this disobedient messenger of God, has his life completely disrupted, and totally turned around… and is given another chance to deliver the message to Nineveh.
All that’s the backstory to our reading this morning, when we heard about how Jonah proclaimed Nineveh’s coming doom. Did you notice the tone of his message? “Forty days more,” he said to them, “and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He offers them no hope. No way out from the coming judgment. As far as Jonah was concerned, he had come to bring bad news.
But the people of Nineveh believe the message he brought to them. They took his words to heart, and this city, renown for its cruelty and its wickedness… does the unthinkable: it actually repents. The Ninevites drastically disrupt their lives and respond to the divine judgment… with the hope that God just might be merciful, and forgive their evil ways. And as it turns out, much to Jonah’s utter dismay, the LORD had mercy on them too, and spared the entire city.
God sent his servant Jonah to disrupt the wickedness of Israel’s dreaded enemies. To turn their lives around and bring them all into His mercy. Jonah fought against this mission every step of the way, and even got furious with God after Nineveh repented. But God’s mission of mercy was greater than Jonah could imagine. Reaching out to the hopeless to rescue even his enemies.
Switching gears again, let’s jump forward to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus, the Son of God, has just come up from the waters of Baptism, but instead of fleeing God’s call on his life, Jesus heads out into the desert, facing temptations in the wilderness for forty days… the same timeline that Jonah gave Nineveh before its coming doom. Just like Jonah, Jesus also came proclaiming a disruptive message: God’s kingdom has come. Turn around repent, and believe in the Good News.
This message sums up, for Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s entire ministry. Everything He’s up to… everything Jesus will say and do… is about the coming of God’s reign, God’s good Kingdom at last. The Kingdom of His mercy… of His deliverance. Unlike Jonah, Jesus had come with truly Good News to share. But it also meant the time of reckoning had come for all other kingdoms… that all other claims of allegiances are now being called into question. Once again, the LORD has sent a disruptive messenger: One whose word and life requires that we offer our response.
The theologian, William Abraham, describes the disruptive message of Jesus like this: “It is not the announcement of some generic theism, or a call to moral renovation, or an offer of celestial fire insurance for the life to come, or a network of pious platitudes about how to become more religious. The gospel is the arrival of God’s new order in the world. Long prepared for and eagerly awaited in Israel, it is the good news that God’s rule has arrived. To be sure, this will be bad news for those who want to be in charge of the universe, and they will not stand by and abandon their role of running the world. Yet the truth is simply this: God’s sovereign reign has drawn near in human history, and in the end nothing will prevent its being established. This remains the heart of the gospel for all time.” So how does Mark tell us God’s Kingdom starts to take shape here at last? By the Son of God calling to Himself a handful of fishermen.
Two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, are found by Jesus at the sea of Galilee. If the world of prophets and kings feels pretty foreign and remote to us, the lives of these four men might be a whole lot more familiar. Here are ordinary folk: hard-working laborers, focused on keeping food on the table, and their families provided for.
And yet, when Jesus calls each of them to come and follow Him, these ordinary people become caught up in the Kingdom of God. Their old lives were disrupted in an instant by the call of Christ. Against custom and convention, against the obligations of family, and business, they heard the voice of the King of Kings, and they obeyed His summons… leaving behind everything that would keep them from His side.
We know they faced all sorts of challenges as they followed Him… for the way of God’s Kingdom would one day lead to the cross. Because unlike Jonah, Jesus embodied God’s merciful love for this lost and wicked world, freely laying down His life to disrupt and destroy the power of sin and death; to turn our lives around and bring us back to the LORD, so that we all might share in His Kingdom of mercy and hope forever. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has changed everything… and He’s calling us to follow Him into God’s brand New Life.
How is the message of God’s kingdom disrupting our lives today? What ways are we being called to respond to God’s reign?
Perhaps we are being called to set aside some form of wickedness… some sin that keeps a hold of our hearts, but leads us away from God’s light?
Perhaps we are being called into a whole new vocation… a new way to embody the Good News of Jesus Christ with our life? This could be a call to Church ministry, as a layperson or ordained. This could be a call to a different form of serving God’s Kingdom in the world: in the workplace, in our neighbourhoods, in our homes.
Perhaps we are being called into deeper fellowship with God? Called to set aside the distractions that tie up all our energies, and intentionally share more of our day to day lives with Jesus. In prayer, in reading His word, in moments of worship, and acts of mercy, we are all being called to follow our Saviour and share in His Good Kingdom… not simply on Sunday mornings, but as long as we draw breath. Until His Kingdom fully comes on earth, just as in heaven.
So may the Holy Spirit help us to hear and respond to God’s call in our lives. May we place our trust in the Good News of Christ, and all He’s done. May we continue to turn to Him with our whole heart and life, opening us up to share His hope and mercy with those all around us. And may we follow Him however disruptive it may be, confident that He’s always leading us into God’s good Kingdom. Amen.
 William J. Abraham, “Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 174.
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1–20 | Psalm 139:1–18 | 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 | John 1:43–51
“You will see greater things than these.”
Today we celebrate the second Sunday of Epiphany: a season of revealing… of finding & being found. Reminding us that the story of God often involves surprises, inviting us to listen and look for where He’s at work even now.
Our first reading begins with a pretty bleak assessment: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (1 Sam 3:1) Hundreds of years after Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt, and had been brought by God to the Promised Land, Canaan, the people were again in a state of spiritual unease. There’s a sense in these words of a growing separation between humanity and God, even between the LORD and His chosen, covenant people.
But in this time when God’s voice seemed distant and remote, we are introduced to Samuel, who would one day become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, but who was now simply a boy serving the High Priest, Eli, at the Tabernacle, the sacred Tent which was, before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the place signifying the Living God’s presence among His people… the place where heaven and earth were to intersect, so to speak. The High Priest alone, as the representative of all of God’s people, was only occasionally to go in and out of the Most Holy Place, the heart of this sacred Tent, to meet with God on Israel’s behalf… to ritually uphold their sacred connection, their covenant relationship. It was a place where the goodness and holiness of the Living God was to be encountered, and spread out through His people into the world.
But in those days, the Tabernacle had become a place where selfishness and sin had taken root, and had all but taken over. Eli’s sons, who served as priests, had grown wicked and corrupt; they were stealing from God and His people by seizing much more than the share from the sacrifices set aside for them, as well as sleeping with the women who came to serve at the Tabernacle. These sons of Eli, set aside to be holy priests of God, had let their greed and lust distort the core practices of Israel’s covenant relationship with the LORD. They had ceased to be agents of God’s holy love and mercy, and instead served only their sinful desires, causing all kinds of grief. Especially for their father.
Although he was disturbed by the conduct of his children, Eli failed to do anything to stop their outright wickedness. He let them carry on corrupting the sacred role they had been entrusted with, and harming the people under their spiritual care. The ones who were supposed to be faithfully leading God’s people had lost themselves in sin, threatening to lead all the people astray as well.
But at this time when it seemed God’s voice was absent, He finds Samuel. The LORD calls out to this small, confused young boy, and entrusts to him the true but challenging message for Eli: That his family’s unfaithfulness would no longer be ignored. The time had come for them to face the consequences of their corruption. God would find another way to make His purposes and presence known. “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest,” the LORD made known to Eli, “who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever.” (1 Sam. 2:35). Through a surprising, small messenger, God makes His purpose and presence known: Even if those entrusted with caring for the Tabernacle, the place where heaven and earth came together, failed miserably, the LORD Himself will find a way to be among His people… to reveal Himself to them, that they may live with Him always.
Who this ‘faithful one’ will be, of course, is yet to be revealed. But that question points forward, through the centuries, to our Gospel passage this morning.
Our reading from John’s Gospel depicts a scene full of discoveries: It starts off by telling us Jesus, just beginning His ministry, finds a man named Philip from Bethsaida, calling to him: “Follow me.” The next thing that we know, Philip is running to find his friend Nathaniel, excitedly exclaiming that they had found the Messiah: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathaniel responds to his friend’s message about the news of Jesus: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Before we toss Nathaniel’s words aside as overly cynical, how often do we, or those we love and respect, respond likewise? Sickened by the dishonesty they have seen in politics, church, or other aspects of community life, how many have given up on expecting ‘anything good’ to come from them? We too live in a time when it seems there’s a strong sense of separation between our day to day existence and the presence and purposes of God… and so many of us give up looking or listening. For his part though, Philip doesn’t start to argue with his friend. He simply says: “Come and see.” He invites his Nathaniel to take a step, to ‘Come and find out for yourself.’ And as he does, Nathaniel finds much more than he expected.
It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t condemn Nathaniel for his initial hesitation… in fact, He commends him! “Here is truly an Israelite [He says,] in whom there is no deceit!” Unlike the sons of Eli, Nathaniel was not playing games with God. Confused as to how this man from Nazareth knew so much about him, Jesus tells him plainly: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Note: Before Philip went to find his skeptical friend and invite him to come and see the Messiah, Jesus already saw Nathaniel clearly… He knew him inside and out. Though he may have felt alone underneath that fig tree, he was not unseen or forgotten. He was not lost to the eyes of God.
And that’s enough for Nathaniel. At these words alone, he goes from cynic to convinced in the blink of an eye. But Jesus has more in store for him… far more to reveal, not only to Nathaniel, but to us as well. When Nathaniel exclaims: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Now what in the world is he talking about? Clearly Jesus (and the author of John) thinks this is an important revelation, something of significance we’re meant to understand.
Here’s another place where a healthy knowledge of the whole Scriptural story comes in handy. The Bible is full of interconnecting images and themes, all meant to weave together as God’s way of revealing Himself to us. In the case of Christ’s cryptic words about the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man, the theologian Leonard Klein can help shed some light on things:
“When Jesus promises Philip and Nathanael a fuller vision, “greater things than these,” he alludes to Jacob/Israel’s dream of the angels ascending and descending the stairway to heaven [See Genesis 28:10-22]. The original event guarantees the unworthy Jacob’s place in the life of Israel and in the ancestry of Jesus. And as that place became holy, Bethel (which means “house of God”), so Jesus himself is now the dwelling place of God. The angels will ascend and descend upon him as they did upon Bethel. The reference is subtle but not obscure; for Christianity Jesus is the holy place. As God dwelt at Bethel and ultimately in the temple at Jerusalem, so he dwells in the Word made flesh and wherever the Spirit makes Christ present in the church.” Or as N.T. Wright puts it: “When you’re with Jesus, it is as though you’re in the house of God, the Temple itself, with God’s angels coming and going, and God’s own presence there beside you.”
The surprising revelation here is that Jesus is not merely someone with deep insight, or supernatural knowledge, He is Himself the holy meeting place of heaven and earth. He is that ultimate faithful priest the LORD promised Eli would one day come, who would completely embody the heart and mind of God in the world, standing faithfully on behalf of His often-faithless people… and laying down His life on the cross as the perfect sacrifice, dying in order to open up the way of life for the world.
Despite how far-off God may feel, in Jesus Christ He is truly with us, and we can be with Him. Through His holy word and sacraments, in times of prayer and service, when faced with strong temptations, doubts, or even failures, the Living God has opened up the way through His beloved Son for us to hear and heed His voice, finding new life in Him, who first loved and found us. And like Samuel and Philip, when we answer the call of the LORD, and draw near in faith, may He speak through us, through our words and lives, to draw others to Him too. Epiphany reminds us that God’s story is full of surprises; and that He works in surprising ways, through surprising circumstances, and simple people like us. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts and eyes to see the “greater things” of Christ at work today, and help us to faithfully make His presence known in our world. Amen.
 Leonard R. Klein, “Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 487.
 Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 19.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1–5 | Psalm 29 | Acts 19:1–7 | Mark 1:4–11
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 4:10-11).
A lot has happened in one week, hasn’t it? This past Wednesday, as the whole world is aware by now, an angry, violent mass of people, goaded on by the President, stormed the US Capitol building to try and disrupt the process of finalizing the recent US election results, in what many are calling an outright act of insurrection. Much can, and has been, said about this tragic and fatal event, though its long-term implications are not yet all that clear. But there is one image from Wednesday in particular that caught and held my attention: in the midst of all the violent tumult, some rioters were waving flags that read “Jesus Saves.” Seeing this, I felt sick. Of course, these words are true. Absolutely true. But to see them being identified so blatantly with the cause of violent political outrage, where lives were being threatened and lost in a chaotic struggle to simply seize power… it made me wonder (not for the first time) what kind of witness this kind of behaviour offers to a watching world. Is this how Christ’s salvation is to take concrete shape on earth? Anger and rage let loose upon those seen as enemies? Demanding that our will be done, or that their blood be shed? Last week was certainly not the first time we have seen our Lord’s precious name drawn into deeply disturbing actions… but it is one that should still give us pause, and perhaps lead us to ask ourselves what it really means to be a Christian. What does being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ look like today? And what is it that drives this unique way of life forward?
Our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Mark tells of the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As we reflect on this part of our Saviour Jesus’ sacred story, we may be able to find our bearings again when it comes to the Christian life; both what it truly looks like, and what keeps it going.
Our passage takes place right at the start of the Gospel of Mark: After announcing that his book is about “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), Mark introduces John the Baptist as a prophetic messenger preparing the way for the LORD’s coming salvation, and tells us that John was calling God’s people to be baptized as an act of faithful repentance… of turning away from their sin, and turning their lives to the LORD. And we hear his message was resonating with a lot of folks: people were coming from all over Judaea, and from Jerusalem, confessing their sins, and seeking a new start on God’s path. But as we know, John knew there was more of the story of God’s salvation on it’s way. He knew there was one who was coming after him, who would baptize God’s people, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit of God, flooding them with God’s life-giving, and life-changing presence. And here, just 9 verses in to Mark’s Gospel, we meet Jesus of Nazareth, as He comes to John in order to be baptized as well. Up until now, Mark has only told us two things about Jesus: He is the Son of God, and yet He has come to be baptized alongside offenders seeking to repent. He comes from the Almighty Holy One, and yet comes to stand with sinners.
This might seem like a contradiction at first. How can these two go together? Aren't the good and the bad to be kept apart? Isn't it "us against them"? And yet as Mark’s Gospel unfolds, and the whole story of Scripture brings to light, we see that this surprising movement is at the heart of the Good News all the way through. Jesus’ baptism is the continuation of His astounding descent, His mission of incredible mercy, coming not to condemn, but to reach out and save sinners. Though He was eternally at-one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, in His baptism Jesus identifies Himself with those alienated from God… with those exposed as unrighteous… as lawbreakers… as enemies. He places Himself alongside those who stand in desperate need of forgiveness… taking up the cause of those who need their lives completely turned around. The Christian life begins with Jesus drawing near to us in our sin, taking up our cause, and taking our place... to save us. In humbly stepping into the water, we see that Jesus doesn’t save from a safe distance… He steps right into our mess. Right into the flood, in order to bring us out again on the other side.
Because that, of course, is the whole point: Not simply drawing near to be with sinners, but drawing them out of the waters again! Drawing them out of the darkness and into the light of life. So often we forget that the salvation of God is meant to bring about some real changes in us, not simply to offer us comfort, or confirming our old habits. Yes, the Son of God came to draw near, but as the cliché goes, he doesn’t leave us there. He comes to rescue us, and realign us to share in God’s life. N.T. Wright has a good way of expressing this point: “The meaning of a royal pardon is not simply that the prisoner enjoys a good feeling of innocence restored, but that he gets out of jail.” Or as St. Paul puts it, in his second letter to the Corinthians (5:21), “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Salvation entails our lives being filled with God’s own righteousness… undoing all the darkness within us, and setting us free to share in His light. But we know for this to happen, for God’s righteousness to truly take hold of our hearts, it was going to cost the Son of God all that He could give.
In His baptism, Jesus prefigures and points towards His ultimate act of redemption: His suffering and death upon the cross. Immersed in death’s shadow for our sake and for the sake of the world, Jesus endured the worst of what we sinners had coming our way. Ending our indebtedness through His great sacrifice. And in rising again from the grave, Jesus has opened up the way for God’s New Creation, New Life, to flood into our lives… to fill us up with the righteousness, with the goodness of God, transforming us more and more each day to be more and more like Him.
In His baptism, first in the waters of Jordan, and finally in His death on the cross, we find Jesus has come to truly rescue us from our sin. Jesus saves us by gaining our forgiveness, and by sharing God’s holy life with us… freeing us to be God’s true children today.
Upholding all of this talk of salvation is one more vital point to consider, one which sheds light on what it is that drives the Christian life: that is, God’s holy love. Love is what led Jesus to step into the waters in order to rescue even His enemies. Love is what led Him to give His life to bring God’s New Life to us. And love is what Jesus offers us now: the love of the Triune God… Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… drawing us deeper into His divine fellowship, and reaching out with that same love through us into the world. Jesus was not motivated by fear, or hungry for power, or seeking glory for Himself, or chasing after revenge. No, what led Him into the waters, and ultimately onto the cross was the love of God He shared in, and shared for God’s lost creation. Coming out of the water, we’re told the veil between heaven and earth was opened up for an instant. The Holy Spirit descended in peace on Jesus, like a dove, and the Father’s voice proclaimed: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From beginning to end, Jesus was filled with and led by the holy love of God, and this is what is to fill and lead His disciples today.
Christ’s baptism reveals the Living God’s heart of saving love: drawing near to us, drawing us near to Him, and flooding us with His holy love. This is the beginning of discipleship, of devoting our lives to following Jesus: trusting in His saving and life-changing love, that it may flood our lives, and lead us forward, every step of the way.
All we who claim to be Christians are called to walk “just as He walked” (1 John 2:6), to follow our Lord into the New Life God is bringing about. We are not free to give in to the darkness anymore… to the hatred, fear, prejudice, self-righteous indignation, or apathy we see at work all around us… but we're called instead to strive to stay always in the light of Jesus, our one and only Saviour, who loves us and gave Himself for us, and for this world, which still stands in such need of His saving love.
So in this turbulent time, may we resist the strong temptations on the one hand, to go along with the darkness, and on the other, to sit back and condemn as though we did not need forgiveness and mercy ourselves. May we remember our Saviour, Jesus, who draws near even to save sinners, and pray for the healing of hearts, and for His reconciliation to reign. May we place our faith in Him, who saves us through His own shed blood, and seeks to draw us all into the New Life of God. And may the Holy Spirit fill us with the holy love of God, so that all that we say and do faithfully proclaims the Good News of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year B (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), 19.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11 | Psalm 126 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 | John 1:6–8, 19–28
Today, here at St. Luke’s Church, we have many good reasons to rejoice. We can rejoice because after our region moved back into the Yellow Phase of recovery this week, we are holding in-person services of Holy Communion again; worshiping God together, and receiving His gifts of love. We can rejoice because today is the third Sunday of Advent, a day when Christians reflect on the biblical theme of joy. And if we took a moment, I’m sure, that we could come up with a pretty long list of other reasons it would be easy for us to rejoice today.
And yet… we also know of many reasons it’s hard to rejoice right now. I don’t think it takes much imagination to know what I am talking about. In countless ways, our neighbours, our country, our world is suffering today. Maybe we too are suffering. Maybe it’s those dear to us. And what makes it all the harder, sometimes, is not knowing when this suffering will end. Today, there are many reasons it is hard to rejoice.
But this is precisely when the message of joy is meant to be received: in very the face of darkness and suffering… when joy is needed most. Perhaps the words “rejoice always” mean much more than we think? Perhaps they offer us more than we could ask or imagine?
Of course, there is a kind of joy that is not all that unusual. The kind of happiness or joy common throughout the world. We find it in all sorts of ways, as we share in the good things in life: like time well spent with family and friends… hearing a beloved song that stirs up our hearts… in the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. These are all examples what I’ll call glimpses of joy: tastes of the goodness of life that the Living God has created to be enjoyed… gifts meant to be received with simple gratitude, and shared generously with the people all around us. These moments of joy are precious… but they’re not the complete picture. They offer us a welcome taste, but they’re not the entire meal.
And again, along with these glimpses of joy, also come the big challenges of life. Much of our experiences are not what we’d call enjoyable, after all: the times of deep loneliness… or when we’re confronted with harsh and ugly side of our world… or ourselves… with the feelings of futility when our efforts seem to fall short, or when they’re cut short.
We know these times, when the normal joys of life are overshadowed, are not the whole picture either… we know there is much that is still good all around us. But we need more than a reminder to just look on the bright side… though it can bring comfort to reflect on and remember the things that stir up our joy: the loving memories, the blessings of each day, and the hope of a brighter future; God’s salvation drawing ever nearer. It is good to keep all this in mind, but there is more being asked of us than to simply reflect and remember… we are also asked to receive. Today we are invited to see that true joy is a gift.
Our Scripture readings today point us to the source of this gift: to the goodness and the rescuing grace of the Living God.
In our first reading, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s word of hope and joy sent to those in darkness and suffering.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
God’s message through the prophet was good news to the oppressed. Not a call to optimism, but a message of redemption: that the Living God would not ignore the suffering of His people, but instead would come to end their sorrow, and bring about new life.
Isaiah begins these words of hope with a phrase of great significance: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” This message, and the power of it, flows from the Spirit of God. It is God’s Spirit, God’s living presence, that shares and brings about this new life. The Good News comes to us from the Holy Spirit’s work.
And in our Gospel reading, we are told of that great the New Testament prophet, John the Baptist, who was sent by God to point ahead to the Greater One who was still to come. John was sent to prepare the way for the LORD’s anointed: the Christ… the One who would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Who would immerse God’s people with the LORD’s presence and life.
And so, John points us to Jesus: to the Son of God… who stepped into the place of His people in order to bring them God’s rescue at last. Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus embodied the promise of Isaiah, transforming the lives of even those in the most hopeless suffering by graciously drawing near to them with the holy love of God… restoring sight to the blind, healing the sick, raising the dead… Christ touched people with God’s Spirit, and their sorrows turned to joy.
And before His own darkest night, before He would face the suffering of the cross, Jesus spoke to His followers and shared these words with them (John 15:9-11):
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Facing His death for the sins of the world, Christ speaks to us of sharing His joy… by inviting us all to abide in His love… together to share in His life, bound in Him to the source of all joy: joined to the Living God.
Joined to the blessed Trinity; to the One who imagined, and invented, joy in all its earthly forms, as glimpses and tastes of the true joy of complete fellowship with Him… with the one Who is Himself the fountainhead of all that is right and true, and good. It is God’s own inner joy that He wants us His creatures to share in. Giving glimpses here and there of what will one day be in fullest view… tasting a few bites and drops of the full feast that’s to come.
But in Jesus Christ, God’s joyful life has drawn impossibly near to us, and He has poured out His joyful life in the world through the Holy Spirit, so that those who abide in Jesus are able to share in God’s joy here and now… despite all the darkness around us or the suffering within. Abiding in Christ, we can come to know the joy of the Living God… always. Even as we struggle… even as we weep… God’s joyful Spirit is a gift we can hold onto forever.
Christians can “rejoice always” as St. Paul urges us, not because it’s always easy, but because the Holy Spirit of God has been poured into our lives… drawing near to us with His rescuing, re-creating love, and breaking into our darkness and pain with the gift of His joyful salvation.
So today, may we remember and reflect on all the reasons that we can rejoice today, whether it’s easy or not. But even more than that, may we abide in Jesus Christ. May we cling to Him in faith, eager to fully share in His joy, and through the Holy Spirit, may God’s joy be alive in us always. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:1–11 | Psalm 85:1–13 | 2 Peter 3:8–15a | Mark 1:1–8
When it comes to roads, Northwestern Ontario and Southern Manitoba are worlds apart. If you’ve dared to travel by car across Canada, you know exactly what I mean. In Northwestern Ontario, where I was born and raised, travelers must wind their way through some pretty rough terrain: skirting swamps and lakes, climbing hill after hill, slowly making their way through the many obstacles this beautiful and vast wilderness has to offer. But as you keep on heading West and enter into Manitoba, suddenly you find yourself crossing into the Prairies. The hills and trees start to give way to the wide-open plains, where the road is flat, and stretches straight on to the horizon. Nothing in the way, except the occasional transport truck. Though both of these landscapes have their own special charm, the straight road across the plains is certainly much easier to navigate. To build a highway as level and straight as it through Northwestern Ontario would be far beyond the wildest dreams of any engineer, and would cost far more than any government budget could afford.
For the foreseeable future, though they truly belong together, in this sense at least these roads will remain worlds apart: one is winding and wild, the other level and straight.
Today marks the second week of the season of Advent, the time of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord. The theme often associated with this week is Peace; an important but sometimes misunderstood facet of the Good News. Sometimes we imagine peace to be simply about avoiding conflict… doing anything we can to avoid upsetting other people. This kind approach can easily turn into mere people-pleasing, or pacification… simply going along with the flow, even if it takes us far off course. The flip side of this, of course, is when we seek to put an end to conflict by pushing for our own way… using our power to keep others in line… intimidating them into going along with our plans. But the peace which Advent brings to mind is not simply about avoiding conflict, either through pacification, or intimidation. Instead, it speaks of the kind of peace that brings reconciliation. Restoring deep communion and wholeness again. At a time when division, distrust, and disconnection seem at work everywhere, let’s turn our hearts again to hear the message of God’s peace.
But in turning to our Scripture readings this morning, we are not stepping into some idealized fantasy. No, we are firmly standing within the familiar story of our world… a story of conflict, of suffering, of storms, and tragedy… where God’s people are waiting longingly for God’s righteousness to reign, and for all that is broken to be set aright again.
The Gospel of Mark introduces us to a man called John the Baptist, living in the Jordan wilderness in the early first century. John was no ordinary man, but rather he was a man with a mission, a message from the Living God, like Israel’s prophets of old. In fact, the author of Mark makes this connection explicit, introducing John’s ministry by calling to mind the prophet Isaiah:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:2-3)
As we heard in our Old Testament reading today, Isaiah’s message goes on to describe what it means to prepare the way of the LORD. Isaiah 40:3-5 says,
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Valleys raised, mountains leveled, rough places made into plains… the imagery is one of dramatic and powerful transformation… which all fits nicely with how Mark wants us to see John’s ministry: not as words of pacification, or of intimidation, but of seeking peace with God through wholehearted repentance… with a sincere commitment of true life-transformation. John came calling for all of Israel to remove the obstacles in their lives, and to urgently prepare for the arrival of God’s good Kingdom. In his preaching and practice of baptizing his fellow Israelites, John was inviting God’s people to recognize their deep need for forgiveness and rescue, and to turn back to the LORD their God with their entire life.
NT Wright describes it all like this:
“They were to come through the water and be free. They were to leave behind ‘Egypt’—the world of sin in which they were living, the world of rebelling against the living God. They, the Israel of the day, were looking in the wrong direction and going in the wrong direction. It was time to turn round and go the right way (that’s what ‘repentance’ means). It was time to stop dreaming and wake up to God’s reality.” John was proclaiming that it was time for God’s people to pursue true peace: Not simply to try and appease God by making some surface-level changes… or to keep on pursuing their own ideas and agendas… but to prepare for the coming of God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed King, by humbly and wholeheartedly turning over their lives to the LORD. By being baptized in the Jordan river, they were seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God. They knew they had been living worlds apart from what God had wanted of His children, and so they were looking to close the gap… to be reunited to their LORD.
This is all well and good, but it is not the whole story. But there is so much more to the Good News, the Gospel, then even our wholehearted repentance. The focus of our readings today was not on what the people themselves did: their acts of repentance. It’s not even on John’s ministry, as vital as both of these things might be. No, the focus is all on the One that John, and the prophets, had promised was on the way… the One who would baptize God’s people, not simply with water, but with the Holy Spirit… the One who was coming to rescue God’s wayward people, once and for all.
John was serving as a signpost pointing us onward to Jesus, to the Son of God Himself, sent to bring about God’s peace. To establish restoration and reconciliation far beyond our wildest dreams, and to reunite humanity with the LORD once again…fulfilling the message of hope which Isaiah had written of long ago. Isaiah 40:9-11:
“Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
He came, not simply to teach us how to be good, and how we can try our best to appease God and keep Him happy, or to give us the moral fortitude to make ourselves fit for the LORD… but rescue us, and fill us with the Living God’s own presence and life-changing power, so that His reconciliation and restoration can take root within us, and our community. So that the saving, life-changing peace of the LORD might be shared through the Church with our broken, wandering world.
As the rest of Mark’s Gospel will highlight, this peace all came at the highest cost. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, paid for our peace with His precious blood. Christ gave His entire life; was born, lived, died, and rose again, to bring God’s peace to our fragmented and fractured world; beginning in the Church, but overflowing everywhere.
Advent calls us to remember that Jesus Christ Himself is our Peace. He removes all the obstacles between us and the Living God. Though in our sins we had become wild and treacherously winding… worlds apart from how God wanted His children to be… at the cross, Christ has made straight the way for us to be reunited to God at last. He graciously binds the Church to Himself in faith, through baptism, sharing His new life with us, and through us, with the world. He immerses us in the Holy Spirit of God, who remains at work, empowering us to truly live as God’s peaceful people, even in the midst of conflict and tragedy.
By His power working in us, through the Holy Spirit of God, may our lives be shaped more and more by the truth of Christ's saving peace. May we give ourselves to the work He has begun in us through baptism, that we can faithfully serve as agents of His reconciliation. And in the midst of all the conflicts and storms we see around us, may we eagerly and patiently look for His arrival, bringing about God’s New Heavens and Earth, beyond our wildest dreams, where His righteousness and peace will be at home forever. Amen.
 Both Isaiah and Malachi are being quoted in these verses, but the author of Mark only references Isaiah.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 2.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 64:1–9 | Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19 | 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 | Mark 13:24–37
Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Hear we are again.
As the second wave of this pandemic seems to have finally reached our region, again we are faced with many hard choices, and quickly changing plans. For a long while, we had done fairly well here in southern New Brunswick, and even now things are certainly not as bad as they could be. We had several months of relative stability, where it almost seemed like things were staring to get back to normal. But now we’ve had our wake-up call. Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise. Safety measures have needed to be stepped up again, and we have all been urged to be vigilant… acting for the good of ourselves, and those all around us. Not simply driven by our fears and (understandable) anxieties, but spurred on to do our best, even in taking the smallest steps, to be a people of compassion, of longsuffering patience… a people who love their neighbours, and who point them towards the light. For as disruptive and (in many ways) disappointing as this year has turned out to be, the darkness is not complete, nor will it always endure. Though here we are again, we will not be hear forever.
But what would we have done differently, how would we have behaved, if we knew this time last year how 2020 would unfold? If we knew for certain that this pandemic would upend our entire world, and bring so many changes… what would we have done with that knowledge? Visit more of our family and friends? Get out and do some traveling? Maybe invest some money in a little-known company called Zoom? But seriously, we know we all would have done some things differently, had we known what was coming. But like the rest of the world, we too were caught off guard.
Today marks the beginning again of the Christian year, which starts off with the holy season of Advent: the time of expectation of the coming of Christ… re-entering the scriptural story in anticipation of His birth at Christmas; the incarnation of the One who alone is God-with-us. But just as importantly, it is the season of anticipation of His final return, not in a humble manger, but in glory… to bring an end to our world’s sin, our sufferings, and strife, and to ultimately unveil the blessed Kingdom of God. The current time of waiting will then finally be over. Every tear wiped away. Every wound mended. Every knee bending at the blessed name of Jesus.
It is fitting that on this first week of Advent that we often focus on hope, for from the beginning, until the final day when the Lord Jesus returns, the Church is urged to be a people of hope, through and through. Not simplistically optimistic, trying to only see the ‘sunny side’ of life, while denying the darkness all around. And not driven by anxiety to desperately ‘do something’, trying to fend off the darkness by our own urgent efforts alone. No, Advent reminds us of the Christian character of our hope: that is, waiting… faithfully enduring the present times of tension by trusting in the Risen Lord, through His strength given now by His Spirit, and in the end, looking for the fulfillment of the promise of His salvation. What’s more, Advent urges us to wait by taking action. By acting in all things in the light of what we’re waiting for.
Our Gospel reading today is from the thirteenth chapter of Mark, and this whole chapter contains much for us to carefully contemplate: many dire warnings, and unsettling imagery… of nation rising against nation, families against their own kin, and even the powers of earth and heaven being completely upended and shaken. Given the dark and dramatic words Christ speaks to His disciples here, many have come to see this passage as only speaking about some cataclysmic catastrophe at the end of the world. But it seems from the text itself as though there is another situation being spoken of, first and foremost, a crushing event which would soon change everything for God’s people: the destruction of Herod’s Temple, and the obliteration of all Jerusalem by the Roman legions, all in the not too distant future. For Christ’s disciples, who at this time were all part of the Jewish community, they were being warned that the world they knew would soon be gone forever.
“Jesus’ main concern” in this chapter, the Bishop and scholar N.T. Wright maintains, “is to warn his followers of the signs that will immediately herald the end—the end of the Temple, the end of the Jewish national way of life up to that point.. Indeed, Mark 13 begins with the disciples pointing out how impressive and magnificent the Jerusalem Temple looked, with Jesus responding: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2). The shocked disciples then ask Him about when this unthinkable event would happen, leading our Lord to lay out a grim vision of violence and terror to come, which did in fact come in the year 70 A.D. when Caesar sent his armies to crush a Jewish rebellion centred in the holy city. The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, described the aftermath of this Jewish-Roman war like this: “Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury, (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done,) Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple”, and apart from some towers and sections of wall the Roman armies preserved, “it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.” For the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and for all of the people of God who had built their hopes and lives upon their ongoing connection to God’s Holy Temple, Jesus was truly describing the end of their world… the upending of everything they knew. But alongside this warning He also held out another source of hope: the enduring Kingdom of God they had come close to and had found in Him. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” He tells them, “but my words will not pass away.”
This relocation, this recentering of hope is not meant just for those who heard Him speak these words about two thousand years ago. They remain His words to us, speaking to us all as well. The things they had taken for granted about the world all those years ago, like the Temple, their traditions, their nation, would all soon come to an end, and we know the things we build our lives upon will have their endings as well. How quickly the things that seem so steady and sure can be swept away! But the hope of all the Church, from the beginning, through today, and until the very end, belongs firmly in the hands of our faithful Master, Jesus: in His resurrection, His victory, and in His coming again. Our hope truly belongs, from first to last, in Him.
In light of the destruction of the Temple and all Jerusalem, Christ did not tell His disciples to try and look on the bright side… to deny the traumatic impact of the suffering shortly to come. Nor did He urge them to do everything possible to prevent it from happening, or to plan ahead for ways to retrieve everything that would be lost. No, we heard today that Jesus urged His followers, then and now, to be vigilant. To stay awake. To be diligent in doing the vital work of God’s Kingdom… wholeheartedly devoted to God, and actively loving those around us. Christ urges us all to faithfulness, knowing that as dark as things may seem, the tensions and suffering we face will not be the end of our story. “Keep awake”, Jesus implores us, keep following Him diligently… don’t give in to despair, or desperation. Keep up hope, and keep going.
Despite all of the upheaval, and uncertainty we have encountered, we know ultimately where the story of our world is heading: Christ Jesus, the Risen Lord will return to judge the living and the dead… to establish justice, to end all strife, and to finally bring to fulfillment God’s good Kingdom of life and light at last. In light of this future hope, which through the Holy Spirit, is present among us even now, how are you and I being called to respond? What are we going to do differently? Though the world may be caught off guard by the coming of Christ’s Kingdom, how are we going to live in line with our Master’s reign today?
With the hope of Christ before us, and with God’s help let us stay awake, both in spiritual devotion, and in acts of loving service. May we not give in to despair, and give up on living as His people. May we not get overly comfortable with the current status quo, which we know at any time could come to an unforeseen end. But rather, may we grow more and more as diligent disciples of Jesus; putting into practice all that He has asked of us, and praying in certain hope for His rescuing return. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 186.
 Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews VII.I.I. Accessed through the online source: “Christian Classics Ethereal Library” https://ccel.org/ccel/josephus/complete/complete.iii.viii.i.html
Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18 | Psalm 90:1–12 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 | Matthew 25:14–30
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
Once again, we are nearing the end of the Christian Year: the Church’s yearly rhythm of retelling the story of God’s salvation. In two weeks time we’ll begin the season of anticipation in Advent, where we look ahead in hope for the coming of God’s Messiah. In a little less than six weeks time, we’ll be celebrating Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ, God-with-us, in the flesh. Next will come the season of Epiphany, where God’s great rescue mission through Jesus comes into focus. And then we come to the season of Lent: a time of reflection and repentance… preparing us for the horror and world-changing joy of Holy Week: where Christ suffers and dies on Good Friday for the sins of the world, and is raised again on Easter bringing God’s New Creation to life. 40 days later, we’ll celebrate Christ’s Ascension to the right hand of the Father, and then the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Form there we’ll enter the long season of Ordinary time, where we dig deeper into what it means to be God’s people hear and now. And then the year will end with the feast of Christ the King, where we celebrate the good news that Jesus is Lord of Lords, now and forever.
All year long, the Church retells this story… we’re drawn into it again and again, allowing its message of joy and hope to take root deep within us… to transform the way we see our world, and our own place in it… to help us learn to live each day as God’s own faithful children. Today’s readings, though they may seem dark and troubling, and confusing, have that same good goal in mind: to help us to become children of God’s light.
In our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, we find ourselves confronted with one of the parables of Jesus, commonly known as the Parable of the Talents. On the surface, it seems pretty straightforward, almost like a moral lesson, meant to reinforce a bit of wisdom to help us succeed in life. Something like: “Be diligent; don’t be lazy and waste your talents.” That seems like pretty good advice, and no doubt, we should follow it… but if we follow the parable more closely, that moral message gets a bit messy: “Don’t waste your talents… or… God will… punish you?” Is that what Jesus is saying? “Use your talents well, or else?” How does this message fit in with the Good News of Jesus? With all we know about the story of God’s salvation?
I don’t think it does… but not because there is something wrong with the parable… but with how we often try to read the teachings of Jesus: as if they were simply bits of spiritual wisdom for us to learn from, instead of a part of a wider story He is constantly calling us to share in. This parable, along with the rest of the teachings of Jesus, belongs together with the story of what Jesus Himself has done… bringing about the precious gift of God’s salvation… and confronting all that stands in the way of the Kingdom of God. If we want to understand what this parable is about, we need to keep it close to the rest of God’s story.
Before getting too far ahead though, there’s one word we should talk about first: what does the word ‘talent’ mean in this parable? In English, we use this word to talk about our gifts or abilities: like in the reality TV show “America’s Got Talent”. In the Bible though, a talent had nothing to do with someone’s abilities… a talent was a sum of money. A whole lot of money! Which some claim was “worth roughly what a labourer could earn in 15 years.” We’re talking about serious wealth here, with genuine treasure.
What’s more, in the parable, we’re dealing with someone else’s treasure. The wealthy master hands the money over to the servants, who obviously expect him to return for it one day. This is where the understanding of this parable as simply a lesson in using our abilities really breaks down: Though it’s good to use our abilities and gifts wisely and with purpose, Jesus is talking about something else entirely: not about using well what we have, but being faithful with what we’ve been given. Or better yet, being faithful with the treasure we have been entrusted to manage. This is a message about stewarding the precious treasure of God… and it’s a message directed at those Jesus claimed had dropped the ball.
Where this parable fits into the Gospel of Matthew is important: It’s not found when Jesus is teaching his followers in Galilee, but at the height of His confrontation with the leaders in Jerusalem… where Jesus calls out the unfaithfulness of those charged with guiding God’s people, who were instead fighting against the signs of God’s Kingdom Jesus was bringing about… all while claiming to be God’s true and faithful servants. Christ identifies those religious and political leaders of His people with the wicked servant who had abandoned his responsibility… burying their Master’s treasure, instead of helping it grow. The bishop and scholar NT Wright makes the point like this:
“The scribes and Pharisees had been given the law of Moses. They had been given the Temple, the sign of God’s presence among them. They had been given wonderful promises about how God would bless not only Israel but, through Israel, the whole world. And they had buried them in the ground. They had turned the command to be the light of the world into an encouragement to keep the light for themselves...They had been worthless slaves. And now, when their master was at last coming back, he was going to call them to account.” This parable packs a powerful punch: it is a prophetic indictment of the faithless leaders of God’s people… accusing those who abandoned His holy ways and followed their own, much like the prophet Zephaniah had proclaimed in our first reading, when calling out the complacency and corruption he saw in his day.
At it’s core, this parable is intended as a warning, one which we too must also take to heart. As God’s people today, have we also grown complacent, refusing to believe the Living God is still present and at work? Tired of trying to live as those set apart for His service? Are we comfortable with compromising our commitments to our LORD? Giving our hearts to idols, like security, success, pleasure, and power? Are we, like the unfaithful servant, trapped living in dread, unwilling to move forward at all, out of fear of failure? Are we like those who plotted the death of the Son of God; completely misunderstanding the mind of our Master, and fighting to keep His good kingdom from coming to light?
We too have been entrusted with God’s own precious treasure. Will we bury it in the ground, or will it grow in our hands?
I guess we should ask: What is this treasure? I believe it’s the gift of belonging in God’s kingdom. The treasure of sharing in the holy life and love of the Living God… a treasure meant to bring hope and joy to us and to our world. We know that as God’s people, we’ve often been careless with the gift of being God’s children; abandoning the way of life our Lord has entrusted to the Church.
So how do we handle it faithfully? How do we keep from burying the treasure of God’s Kingdom in the ground? For starters, we can remember the bigger story that we are a part of: the story of God’s salvation come to us in Jesus Christ.
In writing to those early believers in Thessalonica, St. Paul was careful to pass on to them the core of the Christian story: Christ Himself. The conviction that ultimately, we are not left here alone to rescue and fend for ourselves… but to receive and to hold onto the Good News of Jesus Christ… that in Jesus, the Living God has come to take us from the darkness of our sin and into His life-giving light… to bring forgiveness and mercy, instead of condemnation… to reconcile us to God even when we were still sinners… “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep… [alive or dead] we may live with him.”( 1 Thess. 5:9–10). We faithfully handle the treasure of belonging in God’s Good Kingdom by placing our trust, our faith in Jesus, so that God’s story of salvation becomes our story too.
In light of all Christ has done, St. Paul reminds us this means we’re to stop acting as though we belong to the story of darkness anymore… behaving as if the dawn of God’s new day has not arrived. NT Wright puts it well: “God’s new world has broken in upon the sad, sleepy, drunken and deadly old world. That’s the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the spirit— the life of the new world breaking in to the old. And you belong to the new world, not the old one. You are wide awake long before the full sunrise has dawned. Stay awake, then, because this is God’s new reality, and it will shortly dawn upon the whole world.”
So as children of the light, let’s keep awake and be alert… sober, self-controlled, intentional as we follow Jesus, and in Him taking our part in God’s unfolding story; secure in the faith, and love, and hope we are given in the Holy Spirit; looking ahead to the joy of our Lord for all eternity; and seeking ways to bring this blessed life with those around us today. Not burying the treasure of belonging in God’s Kingdom, but sharing it. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 137.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 138.
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 128.
Scripture Readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1–7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 | Matthew 25:1–13
“Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
This week I was reminded of a film from my childhood: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Alongside the late Sean Connery, who died just last Saturday, the film stars Harrison Ford as an adventuring archeologist, racing to find the Holy Grail before the bad guys do. The Grail was a cup supposedly endowed with magical properties… giving perpetual life to all who drink from it. At the end of the film, both the hero and villain find out where the precious Grail is hidden, but instead of just one cup they find all sorts of them. In order to discover the true Holy Grail, they must choose one of them and drink from it. But of course, the stakes are high: they are warned: “You must choose, but choose wisely. For as the true grail will bring you life, a false grail will take it from you.” The villain chooses poorly, and suffers a horrible death. The hero chooses wisely. He makes the right choice, and then he acts… he does something in line with that choice, /and so brings life to his dying father.
Aside from being an entertaining and fun adventure story, this film can help to highlight the importance of the choices we make in life: asking us to reflect on where our devotion and loyalties truly lie. As we all know, choices can change us… and can even change the world.
This week, like many, I found myself eagerly waiting to hear about the results of the choice the American people had made about their next President. After days of dragged out vote counting, their choice became clear yesterday. But as many are quick to point out, now that they’ve finally made their choice there is much for the American people to do. For their choice to really matter, they have to actually live in line with that choice. To put into practice their communal commitment.
In our Old Testament reading this morning from the book of Joshua, we heard another nation making a choice about the one they would follow… about the one they would trust and serve, and devote themselves to. This passage takes place at the end of the book of Joshua, which tells of Israel’s story as they entered the Promised Land. Their years of wandering the wilderness were finally at an end, and after Moses’ death, the LORD chooses Joshua, Moses’ assistant, to lead His people onward. In Joshua Chapter 1, God says this to Joshua: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5-7). God intended to lead His chosen people to their new home through Joshua… but to do that, Joshua would need courage, and complete devotion to God and His ways. They would be facing fierce opposition, and what looked like impossible odds a times, but the way forward was the way of faith: trusting that their Saviour was with them.
As the book of Joshua unfolds, Israel has it’s share of ups and downs: miraculous victories when they were careful to keep to the LORD’s instructions… and humiliating failures whenever they went their own way. Despite these ups and downs, the LORD was true to His people, and they end up in the land, relatively safe and secure. But near the end of the book, as an aged Joshua prepares to die, he does not seem convinced that Israel will stay true to the LORD. And so, we heard today, Joshua calls for their re-commitment: to reaffirm their devotion to the Living God.
At Mt. Sinai, Israel had vowed to belong to the LORD, entering a covenant relationship, much like a marriage. Here at Shechem, Joshua was challenging Israel renew their vows, or forsake them. To make a definitive choice to be God’s faithful people, or not. “Now therefore revere the Lord,” Joshua says to the people, “serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15). He lays out for the people a choice with consequences: choose the LORD, and then live in line with that choice.
The people, for their part, seem to choose wisely. “Far be it from us” they said, “that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods.” And then they go on to recount all the LORD had done for them and their ancestors. “Therefore” they finally reply, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” Sounds like they made the right choice… but Joshua doesn’t buy it.
Why? Because he knows the LORD is holy, and he knows his people are not. Joshua has seen his people repeatedly turn their backs on God, from Egypt, to Mt. Sinai, and all the way to the Promised Land. He has seen them break their word to the LORD, again and again. Yes, they say the right words, they make this right choice, but for their choice to truly make a difference, they actually have to keep living in line with that choice. To put into practice their communal commitment… to be God’s faithful people. To be changed by their choice. The stakes are high for Israel. Everything is on the line.
But the people insist, and swear to serve the Living God alone. They double-down on their choice: “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” (Joshua 24:24). But sadly, we know story of Israel plays out as Joshua predicted. Despite all their promises, not long after their leader Joshua dies, the people abandon their covenant, and turn from the ways of God. Repeatedly choosing the cup of death, instead of the life the LORD offered them. Though there are moments and times of renewal, this pattern of betrayal continues throughout the centuries: through the time of the Judges, through the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, leading to God’s chosen people being carried away into exile, then after long years of hardship humbly returning to the Promised Land… no longer living in freedom, but under the rule of powerful, foreign empires.
The whole story of Israel in the Old Testament confronts all of us who would claim to love and serve the Living God, to reflect on our own choices: on where our devotion and loyalties truly lie. To not assume that words alone are what the LORD wants from us: He wants our hearts in line with Him… our lives to reflect His holy love. As Christ’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins reveals: It’s not enough to simply have a lamp, there must be fuel and fire too if there is to be any hope of shedding light. Jesus was confronting those people in His day who assumed they were being faithful to the LORD, but who were really turning away from Him, and were rejecting His Chosen One. Those who, despite outwardly seeming to make all the right choices, foolishly did not keep the flame of devotion to God alight in their hearts… and whose lives reflected religious practice empty of God’s holy love. And just as easily, we can fall into that very same trap: assuming that God is on our side, while choosing to walk away from Him. We can have a beautiful building, a perfectly practiced liturgy, and rich spiritual traditions, and still not know the LORD. We could have made the right choice to follow God some time ago, but if our life today is not backing up that choice, we too can expect to find some trouble ahead of our own choosing.
So where in this is the Good News for us today?
Well, I suppose warnings are a part of the good news as well. Being reminded that the stakes are high; that there is a true path for us to be following… a life-giving way ahead is not a bad thing at all. Christ’s warnings to “keep awake!” surely come from His heart of compassion, longing to stir up in us deep faith, and hope, and devotion.
All this is true, but the Good News is more than what we ourselves can do. It’s what the Living God has done for us in Jesus Christ! That is, God’s choice to be, not only our Leader, but our Saviour. God’s choice to shed His own blood once and for all at the cross, to reconcile His rebellious world, and bind us to Himself. Forgiving all our failures, as a gift of gracious love. Drinking the cup of death for us that we might taste eternal life.
Despite Israel’s pattern of unfaithfulness, Joshua had chosen with his household to serve the LORD. Like an even greater Joshua, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, chose to humbly take on our frail human life, and in our place He remained unerringly true to His Father, never once turning to the right or to the left from the will of the LORD. In His life and death, and resurrection, never to die again, Christ offers to all who trust in Him a place in God’s own household… joined to God’s own family in faith, as Christ shares His faithfulness with us, offering us His Holy Spirit to ignite our hearts with His holy love, empowering us to follow Him. To have our lives be shaped forever by His life-giving grace.
In Christ, the Living God has chosen graciously to come to the rescue of us, and of our world. He has chosen to pour out His saving, life-changing love on us. With the Holy Spirit’s aid, may we answer His call in faith, keeping alive the flame of devotion to the LORD, as we seek to follow Jesus in every choice we make: serving our faithful Saviour in all we say and do. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Revelation 7:9–17 | Psalm 34:1–10, 22 | 1 John 3:1–3 | Matthew 5:1–12
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
What keeps us going when things get tough? I mean, really tough? I think this has been a pretty tough year… a truly crazy year. Even though here in southern New Brunswick, we have been largely sheltered from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, we still feel the weight of what our world is continuing to grapple with: rising numbers of cases and deaths, widespread economic uncertainty, disrupted patterns of life, and increasing isolation. Although we still have much to be thankful for, it makes sense if we’re feeling overwhelmed these days, in need of some sources of comfort and strength to help us carry on.
One common direction to look when we’re feeling discouraged is to the past: to the days when we felt safe and secure, and when the world made sense to us. As Christians we are blessed to belong to a community with a rich sense of history, and long memory. For thousands of years the Living God has caught up regular folks like you and I into the great story of His rescuing love. Through all sorts of troubles, the LORD has been faithfully caring for His people, leading them through challenges that make even this crazy year seem pretty tame. But as comforting as it can be to revisit days gone by, God’s story is not stuck in the past… it’s ongoing even today. And as we step into it we find ourselves being led towards blessed days that are to come… and a future filled with hope.
Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints, honoring God’s gracious gift given to humanity: drawing us into the blessed life of the Holy Trinity… into the holy communion of love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Today we remember that we are a part of God’s glorious fellowship… comprised of believers from all nations, and cultures, and backgrounds, and times… stretching across every age, and into eternity. We’re reminded that we share our stories with those well-known Saints of old: people like St. Peter, St. Mary, and our Patron Saint, Luke the Evangelist. We remember that we are still bound to those Saints of our own acquaintance… with those we have known, who have lived and died keeping the faith. But even more than that, we remember that we are all called to be Saints… to take our place in this sanctified community; to be shaped by God’s own holiness, and transformed by His love.
It may seem like a stretch, thinking of ourselves as Saints, but this is what God has been up to with His people all along: setting some apart in order to offer His holy love to the world. Bringing some close in order to bring His blessed life to all.
We saw all this play out this Fall as we’ve been exploring the Exodus story. We heard how God rescued Israel, a helpless family of slaves, to make them into a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. Moved with compassion, the LORD overthrew their Egyptian oppressors, led them through the wilderness, and brought them into a sacred covenant relationship… so that they would be His people, and He would be their God; bound to each other in every facet of Israel’s life. The Law was given to train them in the way of faithful love: to reflect God’s own holy character out into the world, so that all the nations and peoples would come to know the Living God through the way that Israel actually lived… through God’s holy love embodied and practiced in their community, surrounded by a world that had basically forgotten Him.
We can see God’s plan for Israel way back in His promise to Abraham. In Genesis 12, God says to Abraham I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Israel, the descendants of Abraham, were called to be a holy people in order to bring God’s blessing to all the families of the earth. From the very beginning, this calling to holiness is God’s gift to Israel, and to all. The few are set apart, in order that all might be blessed through them.
We can see this in the context for our Gospel reading this morning. Here Jesus is speaking to His disciples in what is called the Sermon on the Mount, which in Matthew’s Gospel covers all of chapters 5-7. Just like God called Moses up Mt. Sinai to give him the Law for Israel, Jesus called His disciples up from the crowds, to teach them in the way of faithful love: to lay out what it looks like to trust and follow Jesus and walk in the ways of His Father in Heaven… offering a very distinct vision of the world. For how most people see life, you might know you’re on the right track if things were going well. When you have everything you need, feel successful and satisfied. But here, Jesus flips that picture completely on it’s head… and offers a different assessment of what it means to be blessed.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Not exactly what many today would call a picture of ‘the good life’. Gentle? Noble? Maybe. But blessed? Really? To live with this perspective in a world which prizes security status and power, and shuns all suffering, is to be on a completely different track… following a different path. But Jesus is not basing these claims of blessedness on the present, on one’s current circumstance, but on where this path is leading them, by the grace of God. He’s not offering abstract ideas about how good it might be to face challenges… as if to glorify suffering in and of itself. No, Christ is calling His disciples to follow the road He Himself is taking… to share with Him the blessed life of faithfulness to His Father. To live in line with the character of the Living God, even if that seems out of sync with the world around us, which is bound to bring real challenges and troubles our way.
For Jesus though, these blessing are deeply rooted in the future: with the good fruit that will come from living God’s way today. In the face of tough times Jesus points us to the future in hope; to see that our current circumstances are not how our stories will end. Christ does not promise that His followers will have an easy life, but He does offer us a share in the blessed life of God. Set aside to be holy, through the Spirit’s work within us, Jesus is drawing us into the community, into the communion of Saints… where all the troubles of today are met with God’s rescuing love.
In our reading from the book of Revelation, this morning, we are given insight into our world’s story from a heavenly perspective. St. John the visionary is shown, not a small huddle of super-spiritual elites… but an innumerable congregation drawn from every corner of the world, praising God after having come out of great trials and trouble, yet holding onto their faith, they find God faithful to the end. Listen again to this vision of the fate of God’s holy ones: Revelation 7:16-17,
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb [Jesus] at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
What started as small gathering of ragtag disciples on the hillsides of Galilee, becomes this multitude, cleansed and made holy by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, now sharing together in the perfect peace of the Living God.
This is where God’s saving story has been headed since the very beginning: from an old childness couple, Abraham and Sarah, that God graciously gave the promise of a family, to the enslaved Israelites, graciously set free, and set apart to belong to Him completely, in order to reflect His character to all the nations, and now to the Christian Church, where the Holy Spirit is still at work taking ordinary, struggling, discouraged people, and drawing them His fellowship… into His holy family, as we heard in our New Testament reading. Let’s hear it again: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Not what we will be one day, but what, in Jesus, we are today! Beloved and blessed daughters and sons of our Father in Heaven, rescued by Christ’s sacrifice, and made holy through the gift of His Spirit.
Today it can be easy to give up on hope. But as God’s beloved children, called to be a holy community today, we can find our hope by remembering where our Lord Jesus Christ is leading us: towards a time when every tear is dried and every wound mended… where racial injustice and divisions are finally overcome… where poverty and loneliness and fear are washed away… and where we are united by the holy love of God once and for all.
This is our future, which we hold onto in hope… and through the Spirit’s work in us we can begin to see this holy hope take real shape in the present, today. By trusting in Jesus, and walking faithfully in His holy ways, the Spirit can bring the gift of God’s blessed life to our world drawing us His children into His great rescue mission, caught up into God’s gift of saving love meant for all.
As we mark the Feast of All Saints, may we look back, forward, and all around. May we look back and remember that the Living God has sent Jesus to rescue our world, dying and rising again from the dead once, and for all. May we look forward and face the future with confident hope, trusting in God’s holy love, which will wipe away every tear. And may we look around and faithfully follow Jesus Christ today; guided by His word, transformed by His Spirit, and drawn close to Him to share God’s blessed life with everyone. Amen.
 “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.” Exodus 6:7.
Scripture Readings: Leviticus 19:1–2, 15–18 | Psalm 1 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1–8 | Matthew 22:34–46
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
Like a pretty logical basis for society. Not to mention a pretty grounded religious way of life. You know, just treat each other well. Be kind. Play nice. If this is all that’s asked of us, we could handle it, right?
Now I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but our neighbours South of the boarder, the United States of America, are about to hold an election. For what seems like forever, we have been hearing all about how much is at stake in their political competition, and just how divided their country is today. Torn between powerful factions locked in bitter rivalry, each vying for power by pitting their people against the ‘other side’. Wild claims and accusations are being bandied about, making it harder and harder for the people to know what is really going on in their own communities… eroding their ability to trust in those around them. Aggression, intimidation, violence, and hate… all aimed at each other… at their fellow Americans. This is not their whole story, of course. Not everyone there is caught up in this wave of division, but it sure seems many are finding it hard these days to ‘be kind’ and ‘play nice’.
Of course, we have plenty of problems a lot closer to home too; examples of where ‘loving our neighbours’ is brutal on this side of the boarder. Take a minute to think about some of the issues in our communities that could easily make us turn on each other… to turn our backs on each other. What about the intimidation and destruction happening in Nova Scotia, as Indigenous fishermen face violent anger from those upset by their treaty rights? What about the political and cultural tensions in our own Province? What about the clashes that split up Churches, or workplaces, or homes?
No matter who we are, or what community we belong to, loving our neighbours is hard. It can be really, really hard! We may try our best to be nice, at least most of the time… but sharing our life with other people, with real, flesh and blood neighbours, is truly challenging. Good for us, a gift to us, but challenging nonetheless.
This has been true since the beginning. All throughout our human story, we people have consistently struggled to love our neighbours well. We can see this, even in Jesus’ day. In our reading from Matthew this morning we jump right into a controversy: into a community deeply divided by bitter rivalries. Our Gospel reading itself mentions two of the factions that were themselves vying for influence and power at that time in Jerusalem: the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These two factions of Judaism did not see eye to eye. Though both claimed to be faithful to the Law God had given through Moses, they had very different visions of what God wanted of them.
The Pharisees were very strict about obeying the Law, and also the religious traditions handed down by the elders, often going beyond what the Law itself required, striving hard to keep themselves as pure as possible. They followed both the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, as well as the rest of what we call the Old Testament. They believed in angels, spirits, and the resurrection of the righteous, and were fairly popular among the common people.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, were more in favour with the ruling elites of the day. They did not believe in the spiritual realm, or in any form of resurrection. They focused mostly on the first five books of the Bible, and seemed to have had a less strict approach to following the Law.
Both of these two groups were competing for the hearts of their neighbours… for the influence and power that comes with being seen as the spiritual authority. Like many rival parties in our own time and day, both the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to be in control. In control of their community’s vision, and hopes, and future. And so it’s no surprise that they both saw Jesus of Nazareth as a threat. Despite their own differences, they saw Jesus and His project as a serious problem that needed to be stopped.
Our reading today, from the Gospel of Matthew is taken from the end of Chapter 22. But to understand what’s going on in this exchange, we should go back a bit to the beginning of Chapter 21… to the moment Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and upsets everything.
First, He rides into the city surrounded by a massive crowd who were waving palms and calling Him the ‘Son of David’… a title for the Messiah, God’s chosen royal rescuer. Next, He rides right to the Temple, to the most sacred place on earth, and starts cleaning house, and calling out the corruption that He sees. Matthew 21:13 “He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”” Jesus was messing around with both the political and spiritual status quo… in many ways He comes to Jerusalem to pick a fight.
And so, all sorts of factions start trying to stop Him. To question His right to say and do all these divisive things. And the rest of Matthew 21 and 22 moves through this building conflict, as again and again, Jesus is challenged, and yet comes out on top. Every group that was vying for influence in Jerusalem, the Chief priests and Elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herodians, all try to undermine Jesus, to cut Him down to size. But Jesus keeps on tripping them up, and calls out their hypocrisy. Publicly exposing the fact that despite their pious appearances, they were play-acting with God and His people… they were not faithfully following the ways of the LORD.
Then in today’s reading, which comes in the middle of this extended confrontation, Jesus responds to a final question, meant to test and trip Him up: When asked what is the single greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus responds with two: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Love the LORD, love your neighbour. Simple enough, right?. Only…
One question we might be tempted to ask is: How was Jesus loving His neighbours in Jerusalem? Knowing full well how disruptive His words and actions would be, Jesus repeatedly, and publicly, called out, not just the policies of these leaders, but their character as well. What about this extended conflict seemed all that kind or nice? If Jesus thinks loving our neighbours is so important, why would He be so harsh? What is going on here? What is Jesus doing?
As strange as it sounds, I think He is showing us what loving our neighbours really looks like. But to explain why, let’s turn back to our reading from Leviticus, a book meant to help Israel live as God’s own holy people. Located right after Exodus in the story of the Bible, the book of Leviticus, John Sailhamer maintains, “intends to show how Israel was to fulfill its covenant responsibility to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” set apart to reflect God’s character and goodness out into the world. They were to have their whole lives shaped after and transformed by God’s own life; they were to be holy, for the LORD their God is holy.
Just from our passage this morning, we are given a glimpse of how God called His people to live: upholding justice, regardless of someone’s status or wealth; not being slanderous, but instead speaking the truth; not profiting from someone’s bloodshed, or filling your heart with hate… but being willing to correct and reprove others when necessary. Never seeking vengeance, or bearing a grudge, but instead loving your neighbour as yourself.
For God, loving our neighbour is not simply being kind or playing nice. It always entails protecting the vulnerable, defending truth, and what is right, not giving in to our destructive impulses when we are hurt… not dehumanizing our neighbours, but rather, doing our best to protect them. Sometimes this means saying ‘no’. Sometimes love leads to conflict, or challenging the status quo, not simply to cause division, but to set things right again.
In calling out the hypocrisy of Jerusalem’s divisive leaders, Jesus was embodying the holy love of God: As the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, sent to rescue His people, Jesus was refusing to ignore the deadly games they were playing (not only with their own lives, but with their neighbours’ lives as well), and He was calling them to turn around and go another way. To follow Him, and find in Him the holy love of God: to learn from Him how to love the LORD, and love their neighbours.
As we know, most of these leaders did not turn from their destructive path. They rejected Jesus, plotted and schemed to have Him crucified. And as we know, this too is how Jesus offers them God’s love: dying for them, and for us all, as the ultimate act of love… laying down His own sinless life to forgive and rescue sinners, and rising again to share with us God’s holy love forever.
As we seek to follow Jesus in the year 2020, we too are called to love our neighbours, with God’s own holy love. But in order to love like God does, we need our eyes to be fixed on Jesus: to trust in Him, and receive from Him God’s gift of holy love poured out for us all on the cross, where our hypocrisy and sin is exposed, and where we’re graciously forgiven, and invited to be God’s holy people, reflecting His goodness out into our world: Standing up for the vulnerable, speaking and acting truthfully, not giving in to hated and fear, but striving for the good of all.
May we not settle for simply being kind, and playing nice. With the Spirit’s help, let us share God’s life-giving, holy love with our neighbours. Living each day, as those shaped by the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Herodians were Jews that were politically allied with the Roman appointed ruler or Judea, Herod Antipas. The Herodians were not on friendly terms with the Pharisees in particular, but in Matt. 22:15-16 we see them cooperating to try and trap Jesus.
 John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 323.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 33:12–23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10 | Matthew 22:15–22
Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
Today we wrap up our exploration of the book of Exodus. Over the last several weeks, the lectionary readings have led us through some of the highlights of this important arc in the much larger story of God. In this book, we have been invited to see a new vision of Yahweh, the Living God: not only as the Almighty Creator, but as the Merciful Rescuer… coming to set Israel free from slavery and cruel oppression. And not only that, but also to guide them safely through the desert and into the Promised Land… proving Himself again and again, to be their Faithful Provider. And over the last two weeks we heard how God brings them to Mt. Sinai, and invites Israel into a sacred relationship… a covenant… to be His chosen partners in His work to rescue the world.
But last week we heard that at the very moment this sacred partnership was to begin, the people of Israel break their promise, and go back on their vows to the LORD. They form for themselves out of gold an idol, an image of a calf… and they bow down to it in worship, turning their backs on the glory of God.
At this crucial moment, God listens to the prayers of mercy from Moses, and so He does not give up on Israel, which would have destroyed them. So Moses goes down to the people, destroys the calf, and stops their false worship, even going so far as to slay those who refused to repent and turn back to the LORD. Then Moses goes up the mountain again to plead for mercy for the people. To ask the LORD to rescue their shattered relationship.
The Old Testament scholar, John Sailhamer sums up the situation well: “Israel’s relationship with God had been fundamentally affected by their ‘great sin’ of worshipping the golden calf. All was not the same. The narrative shows that there was now a growing distance between God and Israel that had not been there before.” In Exodus 33:2-3, just before our reading today, we can hear how God intends to respond to His people’s rebellion: “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Thanks to the prayers of Moses, Israel would not be totally abandoned by God. The LORD would fulfill His promises and be completely faithful, graciously blessing this stiff-necked people in ways they simply did not deserve. God would make sure Israel would finally be brought to the Promised Land. But this in itself was not what the LORD had always wanted for them… that was only a glimpse, a taste of His deepest desires for them.
Way back in Exodus chapter 6, while they were still oppressed in Egypt, the LORD had shared with Moses what this whole rescue mission was about: Exodus 6:5-8, “I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. [That is, God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’
“I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God”. God wants more than to simply bless Israel… God wants to belong to them… He wants them to be His people… to be truly known by them. To be their Merciful Rescuer, to be their Faithful Provider. God wanted to share His divine life with this people forever.
But after the Golden Calf, it is clear that Israel has other plans. They want to serve less demanding lords; gods of their own making, ones that they could use to help them get the things they wanted. That is what idolatry is after all: refusing to acknowledge and serve the Living God, and instead to try and manipulate divine power to grab hold of something else. To use the divine for some other purpose.
It can be easy for us to fall into this temptation as well… to seek what God can give us, instead of seeking God Himself. To pursue all of the spiritual, psychological, and social blessings that come with our religion… but never to search for the face of the LORD.
Yes, we may not make a golden calf for ourselves… but are there ways we too distort our relationship with God? Using Him to try to get what we want, even unconsciously?
For example: Is our ultimate goal simply to get through the wilderness and into the Promised Land? For many years, the Gospel has almost been reduced to sacred fire insurance. Is our commitment to God simply about getting to heaven one day? Doing whatever it takes to avoid punishment or hell?
Or is our goal to feel better? Do we use God just to help us face our struggles? To find peace, joy, forgiveness, purpose, and hope for ourselves? Are we serving God simply for the emotional benefits?
Or is our goal to find community: to feel like we belong? To hang out with likeminded people, or to avoid loneliness?
Are all of these desires and more at work within us? If I am being completely honest, they are all at work in me.
And what’s more, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things! They are all good aspects of God’s blessings that are intended for His people… they’re all part of His plan for them, and for the world. Just like there was nothing wrong with the Israelites having gold, but it was wrong for them to take that gold and make it into a god… to serve it and centre their life around it… in the same way there are so many gifts God offers to those who follow Him that in themselves are good, but that will distort our truest purpose if we build our lives around them.
Imagine marrying someone, not because you want to share your life with them… to grow in intimacy, understanding, and mutual love… but just for their house? Or because they say nice things to you. Or because you like to spend time with their social circle? All these things can be a part of sharing your life with someone, but what matters most is the bond, the connection, the love that is shared.
Like Israel, God does not simply want to bless us, but to belong to us, and for us to belong to Him. He wants to be our God, and for us all to truly be His people… to share in His divine life. To know Him intimately, and to respond to Him in love.
Back on Mt. Sinai, God tells Moses He will not abandon Israel in the wilderness to die. He will faithfully fulfill His promises to them and to their ancestors… but His presence will not be going with them. They will receive much more then they deserved, but they will have missed the greatest gift of all: an ongoing relationship with the Living God… to know the LORD their Saviour with intimacy and love… to truly belong to God, and belong with God forever.
Standing alone in faith before the LORD, Moses intercedes again… he pleads for God not simply to bless the people… or to be faithful to His promises… but to go with them… to stay with them… to always be with them. To not give up on being Israel’s God, and for them to be His people. And amazingly God says yes again! God will go with His people. Though their relationship would be rocky, as the people kept falling back into fear and sin, God would share His divine life with them. Moses’ prayer was answered.
Then something incredible takes place: Moses goes a huge step further. “Let me see your glory!” He prays. “Let me see your glory.” Moses, who alone in biblical story so far, had experienced an amazingly intimate knowledge of the Living God, wants even more. Moses wants as much of the LORD Himself as humanly possible… he’s not seeking what God could give to him… He’s not using God to get something else. No, Moses wants to know the LORD, to follow in God’s ways… to share as fully as possible in God’s holy life. Here we see Moses embodying what the third century Church Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, called having the true vision of God: “never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.”
And again, God answers Moses’ prayer: revealing Himself to him… giving to Moses a powerful glimpse of His goodness and glory. This was a deeply personal blessing and gift, a life-changing encounter, not simply for his own benefit, but so that all of Israel might come to a deeper knowledge and love of the LORD as well. Through Moses’ seeking the face of God all of Israel was given a way forward to be God’s people… to truly belong to Him.
In Jesus Christ the Living God offers this same gift to us. As the Eternal Son of God Christ reveals God’s true face to the world… that He is our Merciful Rescuer, and Faithful Provider. That His desire is still for all of humanity, as stiff-necked and sinful as we are, to truly belong with Him. For Him to be our God, and for us to be His people. To share in His divine life, both now and forever.
Jesus stood alone on our behalf to reconcile us to God. To live among us as God’s faithful covenant partner, and in His death on the cross to deal with all our sin once and for all: repairing our relationship with the Living God, that united to Him in faith, we can be with our Saviour forever.
There are many gifts that come with sharing in God’s own divine life, but the greatest gift He offers us is the gift of Himself… that in Jesus Christ we all are invited to truly know and love the LORD… to belong to Him, and belong with Him all of our days. So let us receive everything that our Saviour desires for us, and above all else may we seek to draw near to Jesus: who is the face, the goodness, and the glory of God. Amen.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 313.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. by Abraham Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 116.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1–4, 12–16 | Philippians 2:1–13 | Matthew 21:23–32
“But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?'”
Today’s reading from Exodus reminds me of the old saying: ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’.
Just last week we heard about how the Israelites, taking their first steps on the road to freedom and the Promised Land, had quickly turned to despair when they ran out of food. Seeing no hope ahead, they complained against Moses and the LORD, only to be given an incredible gift: divine bread, enough to sustain the entire community. Offered, not just once, but faithfully from that day forward. The Living God miraculously provided for His people, inviting them to trust and rely on His merciful love.
Not long before this episode with the hunger and the heavenly bread, Israel had already faced trouble finding water. In Exodus chapter 15, only a few days after God had rescued them from the Egyptian army by parting the sea before them and leading them to safety, God led them into a region where the only water was unfit to drink. In response to the people’s complaints, God makes the bitter waters sweet; another gift meant to meet their needs, and show to them his love.
So far, at every step of the way, the LORD has been utterly faithful. Though He is leading Israel into uncharted and dangerous territory, He is continually present with them, and lovingly provides everything that they need to follow Him. But instead of Israel growing more confident and trusting in God, we find another dangerous trend beginning to develop… a pattern of doubt and disbelief that was quickly escalating.
“Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”” How often have we seen this pattern at work in the world: faced with troubles, we give in to fear, then we look for someone to blame… and then we start to look for things to throw at them. Anger and violence flow freely from fear and desperation… from believing there is no help coming, no hope on the horizon. For Israel, the stakes were raised, and so was their sense of panic… again they forgot the One who had been with them all along, who had rescued them in the past… and the One who would rescue them again.
Their fear led them to doubt the LORD, and to resist His lead.
We can see something similar going on in our Gospel reading this morning, in the confrontation unfolding between Jesus and the Temple leadership… the chief priests and scribes charged with leading what was left of Israel to be faithful to the LORD and to walk in His ways. Centuries after the people quarreled with Moses in the wilderness, panicking on their way towards the Promised Land, Jesus arrives in triumph to holy city, Jerusalem, the capitol of the Promised Land… and He starts disrupting everything. He boldly upsets the political, spiritual, and social status quo, calling out the hypocrisy and hard-heartedness of those claiming to be in charge. Matthew’s picture of Christ is of someone who comes, not simply to comfort and console, but to lead His people into the true Kingdom of God. To lead them away from self-righteousness, and the love of power and status. To lead them into the humble and holy ways of the Living God.
No wonder Jesus was seen as a threat to those on top. To those who wanted to be the ones calling all the shots… the ones who wanted to take the lead all for themselves. Christ was threatening their authority… challenging their right to rule… and endangering their high standing with all the people. And so their fear leads them to doubt… to reject Christ’s powerful words and deeds… and then it leads them to anger… to quarreling against this dangerous upstart. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they demand of Him, “who gave you this authority?” They were not looking for Christ’s answer here; they were looking for a fight.
The response of Jesus is startling… upsetting many of our assumptions about what God wants from us. To the religious leaders, scholars, priests, and teachers of his day, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Despite all of their status, and credentials, and power… despite all of their religious background and practices… outcasts and outright sinners were closer to God’s kingdom then they were, because the sinners believed and turned back to God, while they doubted and dug in their heels.
In the ministry of John, and ultimately in the person and work of Jesus, the Living God was again leading His people into the way of freedom and life. But because of their fear and doubt, the chief priests and scribes were fighting against the LORD… unable to see God’s unexpected lifegiving Gift before them.
How often do these two stories from the pages of Scripture remind us of our own pasts? Of our own times of doubt? Do we remember the times when it seemed as though we didn’t have enough? When we could see no way forward, and we could feel our panic starting to rise? Do we remember when we felt that things were great, but then suddenly we were confronted by an uncomfortable truth that threatened to disrupt the things we held to be most dear? Do we ever remember being called out for being on the wrong path? Do we remember repeating the same mistakes, again and again?
If so, then both of these passages of the Bible have good news for us: The Living God, who led Israel through the arid wilderness… who humbly took on the form of a servant, in the Lord Jesus Christ… to rescue His people, and lead them into the Promised Kingdom of God… this same God is with us today, and He remains utterly faithful… even despite our ungratefulness, our fears, and unbelief.
God graciously poured out water for the Israelites when the rock was struck, even though they had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. And when the guilty ones… the sinners and reprobates believed and turned their hearts to God, Christ welcomed them wholeheartedly into the Promised Kingdom. From beginning to end, God’s story is about His ongoing rescue mission… bringing hope to the hopeless, and help to the lost… salvation for slaves and sinners.
Though we continue to struggle with fears and doubts, God has shown us again and again that He has not given up on any of us. He longs to break the patterns of disbelief in our lives, to draw us back to Himself through faith in His redeeming love.
Yes, we do well to learn from the poor examples of unbelief we have both heard and experienced first hand, and with fear and trembling work to follow Jesus into the way of salvation. But always our hope is that God Himself is still at work within us, transforming us through His Spirit to live wholeheartedly for the LORD.
In Christ we see God providing new life for any who will receive it: allowing Himself to be struck, to be killed upon the cross, all to free us sinners trapped by our fears, and doubts, and stubbornness… and to raise us up with Him to share in the holy life of God.
In Christ we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past… we need not keep falling back into the self-destructive patterns in our lives. God has poured out His grace through Jesus His Son to sustain and to save, not only those of us gathered here, but our whole frightened, doubting world.
So even in the face of our own fears and doubts, may the LORD pour out His grace, and keep us faithful to Jesus. Following His lead. Forgiven and freed. And empowered to help those around us find eternal life in Him. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 16:2-15 | Psalm 105:1–6, 37–45 | Philippians 1:21–30 | Matthew 20:1–16
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
Today we continue our travels through the book of Exodus, following the unfolding story of the faithfulness of God as He rescues and redeems the people of Israel. So far we have seen how the LORD was moved with compassion at the sufferings of the Hebrews, and so He raised up a man named Moses: sending him to confront Pharaoh, and to demand His people’s release. We have seen God’s fearsome power at work, as He sends plague after plague, culminating with the death of all the firstborn of Egypt. We saw God part the sea to save Israel from destruction at Pharaoh’s hands, and God’s decisive act of deliverance: washing away Egypt’s army. And so now we have come to a new beginning: a new phase of Israel’s journey. They are finally out of Egypt, finally free from their old oppressors… now they are headed into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But their newfound freedom turns out to be much harder than Israel had imagined. Now they were confronting new dangers they were not prepared to face.
Exodus 16:1 “[O]n the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Not exactly a hopeful view of their situation.
Just over two weeks into their Exodus, the Israelites were despairing. Grumbling against Moses and Aaron, they say they’d be better off dead… longing for the life they’d had back in the land of Egypt. Back when they had plenty of meat and bread… back when life was familiar and safe.
Two weeks… how quickly we can forget the goodness and mercy of God. How quickly we can turn back to our old ways of life, even when they brought us nothing but misery and grief. With no food in sight, four centuries of oppression and suffering were forgotten. Along with Pharaoh’s brutal execution of their children, attempting to wipe out any hope for their future. Gone too was their memory of God mighty acts to save them: the plagues, parting of the waters… providing a way of escape when all hope was lost.
They had all witnessed first hand the saving love of the Living God… in a way no other nation on earth had ever experienced. Mere months before they were simply slaves crying out for mercy. Now they were free, with no one to hold them back from the new life God had in store for them. But what could they do when their path led them through a land completely empty of food? What were Moses and Aaron thinking? How could God treat them so poorly? How were they ever going to survive if they kept on following Him?
Faced with the undeniable danger of running out of food, Israel again could not see any possible way forward. Their trust was stretched to the limit… and so they grumbled and complained… something we can all be tempted to do in times of crisis. And I mean really, who among us would have acted differently? It’s not like they were upset about nothing, after all. We’re talking about one of the most basic needs there is. Israel needed food! They needed a whole lot of food! But it turns out they also needed to learn where too turn in their times of need. That instead of giving up and grumbling, they could instead continue to trust the One who had rescued them, the One who was still with them.
In spite of their doubts and complaining, God responds to their needs, both the lack of food and lack of faith, by graciously providing: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” Miraculously, the LORD provides the Israelites with food… with a strange, unfamiliar substance they could turn into bread, but which they could not store up and hoard… it needed to be received daily.
The Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton writes this about the impact this daily offering was intended to have: “Each day God would furnish a fresh supply of manna for His people. In this way God is teaching them about a relationship of trust, an attitude reflected later in the words of Jesus: ‘do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink… do not be anxious about tomorrow.’ The Israelites are to trust Him to meet their physical needs one day at a time. Tomorrow is His concern and problem, not theirs.” Along with the miraculous food, God was teaching the Israelites to trust Him. To believe that He would be faithful to them, always. Not only through those dramatic acts of deliverance in the past… but by supplying daily everything they would need to follow Him.
Up until this point, Israel’s relationship with the LORD had been somewhat limited to witnessing His saving work, and following His lead. Now God was taking that relationship into a deeper level: forming a pattern of life for His people dependent on His ongoing grace, inviting them to trust Him with the very basics of life. They were still to look back and remember those great acts of God’s redeeming love, but now they were also to look ahead and expect to find His grace each day. They were now to become a people who placed their whole hope in their Saviour, even in the face of some very real challenges.
We too are being invited into this deeper walk with God, into a way of life where we can bring all our cares and concerns before Him, and in this way, to learn how to rely upon His love. We’re invited to turn to God, not only when we’re at the end of our rope, but to actively look to Him each day, for our sustenance and strength.
This past year we have all seen our world dramatically change before our eyes. Many things that once seemed safe and familiar have now been severely shaken, and it can be tempting to look back and grumble at all that has been left behind. We too can easily forget the saving grace we have received, and how our Saviour has been there for us, in our every hour of need. But despite the very real challenges that lie ahead of us, God is calling us to be a people who can face the future in hope. A people who expect to find the mercy of God each day, and who know where to turn, when we can’t find our own way.
“Give us today our daily bread.” Our Lord Jesus has taught us to pray… inviting us, in our times of need not to give up or to grumble, but to cry out in faith to our merciful heavenly Father. Through prayer, through seeking to share our lives with the Living God each day, we too can learn to rely upon His faithful, constant love. We too can learn to look with hope to where our LORD is leading us, eager to receive and share His grace with our world. Through Jesus Christ we have been set free for this brand-new life with God; guided by His Holy Spirit into God’s Promised Kingdom. In Jesus, the true bread from heaven, God has provided everything we need, and He asks us now to trust Him with everything we are… with our yesterdays, todays, tomorrows, and forever. Amen.
 Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 186-187.
Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:21-28
“But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’”
What are some things that bring you comfort? A familiar song? Your favorite meal? The voice of a dear friend? Something that I find quite comforting is fire… especially drawing close to a hot woodstove on a cold, gloomy day. The feel of the heat, the smell of the woodsmoke, the site of the dancing flames, I love all of it. To me, fire brings comfort.
But I know it can also be dangerous… unpredictable… unsafe, so to speak. This same object can be both the source of delight, as well as a cause of destruction. And what sometimes brings us comfort can also disrupt everything.
In today’s Old Testament reading from the book of Exodus, we heard about Moses’ lifechanging encounter with the Living God. Many years and troubles have passed for Moses since our reading last week: Having been spared as an infant from the fear-driven violence and cruel bloodshed of Pharaoh, the Israelite Moses ends up being raised in the palace of Egypt’s king: the adopted son of a princess.
As an adult, Moses becomes troubled by the oppression of his people, and one day he takes matters into his own hands, and murders an Egyptian man who was beating an Israelite slave. When his crime becomes known, Moses flees out into the dessert… to the land of Midian… where he tries to start his life over again: he gets married, and begins working in the family business, shepherding. And here we find him today: miles away from his past and from his suffering people, tending sheep on Mt. Horeb, or Sinai, in the wilderness. And here, God finds him too… and disrupts everything.
Out of the midst of the burning bush, the Living God calls out to Moses with words of both grave dis-comfort, and ultimate security. In this surprising exchange God is taking action to change the course of the story: for Moses, for Israel, and most dramatically for Pharaoh, challenging his brutal reign and prideful claim to power, and bringing to light God’s character of compassion and rescuing love.
Our text today dwells on Moses: God disrupts his new life, and calls Moses to go back to the land he fled from, to confront the most powerful leader of the most powerful empire of his day, and demand Pharaoh let his slaves… let God’s people, go. What God gives to Moses, out of the blue, is an overwhelming, and dangerous mission.
A scholar, Brevard Childs, sums up the effect this call had on Moses: “What began as just another day doing the same old thing, turned out to be an absolutely new experience for Moses. The old life of shepherding was ended; the new life of deliverer was beginning… The initiative is shifted from Moses to God. The ordinary experiences emerge as extraordinary. The old has been transformed into the new.” Suddenly Moses’ life is being taken up by God and drawn into His redemptive purposes and work in the world… that God’s mercy, and justice, and holy love might shine out into the darkness.
Are there moments in our own lives when things like this happen to us? Not God’s voice speaking to us from within a burning bush, but much more subtle moments when out of nowhere we are confronted with our own calling? When we know within our bones we are being urged to take action… to take part in something true and good, but also frightening? Those times when the Living God seems to be disrupting our comfortable stories in order to bring His New Life into our world?
As God’s people, Christians have been called to a distinctive, some might say disruptive form of life: set free from the grips of sin, in order to share in God’s holy love. In our reading from Romans today we can catch a glimpse of what that kind of life looks like, as St. Paul unpacks what it means to live for Christ; to be a living sacrifice. Some of it sounds wonderful: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” Some of it sounds daunting: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another; associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” And some of it sounds dangerous: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… never avenge yourselves… if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”
Isn’t this going a bit too far? Isn’t this a little extreme? I mean, the world we know doesn’t work this way… blessing our enemies… refusing revenge… isn’t that a recipe for disaster? Won’t that lead to people taking advantage of us? How can we keep ourselves safe when God’s calling us to live so differently… to embrace the way of peace in an often hostile world?
In this we can hear echoes of Moses’ concerns about facing Pharaoh: feeling uncertain, inadequate, afraid and vulnerable. And here God’s words of comfort come to us as well… speaking to us in our distress as we seek to follow Him. Whatever Moses may face before Pharaoh… whatever we might face on our road… this is the comfort God offers us all: “I will be with you.” “I will be with you.” The comfort we have comes from trusting that the Living God is with us.
John Sailhamer, another Old Testament scholar makes a noteworthy point: “God responds to Moses’ question not by building up Moses’ confidence in himself but by the reassurance that he would be with him in carrying out his task.” Where today we might expect someone to encourage Moses to think more positively… to dig deep down and find the inner strength to face his challenges, God doesn’t leave Moses to lean on his own power, but to find the comfort and strength he needs by leaning on the LORD. The point isn’t that Moses is up for the task, but that the LORD almighty is.
The scholar John Goldingay makes this point even more strongly: “Moses is not being commissioned on the basis of his experience in the palace, his initiative, or his leadership potential… What counts is God’s “I will be with you.” This is not merely a promise that he will feel God is with him but a promise that God will be with him actively whether he feels it or not.”
The Living God, the LORD, Yahweh, the One who truly IS, invites Moses… invites Israel… invites us to trust Him. Even as He calls us to go where we’re frightened to go.
Last week we heard how Peter boldly confessed his faith in Jesus, proclaiming that He was the Messiah; God’s chosen Saviour. But today we heard how, moments later, Peter tries to disrupt Jesus’ mission… to dissuade his Master from taking the road of suffering to the cross.
No doubt, Peter thought he was helping… trying to offer support and comfort. But he was ultimately undermining God’s greatest act of salvation, not only for Israel, but for our entire world, trapped and burdened by the weight of evil and sin.
Jesus does not take the bait, and after calling Peter out, Christ turns to His disciples to make clear to them their calling: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The road of discipleship… of the Christian life… is not traveled by playing it safe, but by trusting the LORD. By following the Living God, and His Son who was sent to save us. Who promises again and again that He will be with us always.
Christ’s call is disruptive: it leads us to the cross, and to the dismantling of sins grip on us, both inside and out. Dying to all that is not of God in us. But it is precisely in following Christ to the cross that we find New Life in Him: freed by His sacrifice, forgiven by His blood, and filled with His Spirit to walk with Him in holiness. Though the Living God can be disruptive, unpredictable, even dangerous… He is also the source of our deepest comfort, freedom, and life.
In sending Moses back to Egypt, as frightening as that may have been, God disrupted the power of Pharaoh and brought new life to His people. In sending Jesus the Son of God to take our place on the cross, God disrupted the powers of evil, to set us all free from sin. And now, in sending the Church out into the world, through the power of His Spirit, the Living God is at work in us disrupting the darkness through His holy love: Changing the stories of those who find in Him eternal life. And wherever we are called to go, He promises to be right there with us. May that promise be our comfort, now and forever. Amen.
 Childs, B. S. (2004). The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. (P. Ackroyd, J. Barr, B. W. Anderson, & J. L. Mays, Eds.) (p. 72). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Parids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 245.
 Goldingay, J. (2010). Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone (p. 19). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42
Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
Now I know I said last week’s Gospel reading, seemed like a difficult text to talk about on father’s day… but our Old Testament reading today takes that theme of familial tension to a whole new level.
This is one of those parts of God’s story, that we may have heard hundreds of times before, but which can still leave us feeling disturbed and more than a little bit unsettled. Just like last week’s reading we are left asking: What is going on here? Why would God ask for such a thing? What kind of a good and loving God would ask someone to slay their own innocent son?
Once again, the temptation for us can be to assume that we ultimately know what’s best, and then to take up the task of judging whether or not God lives up to our ethical standards. But instead, let us try to resist this urge, and, Lord willing, let us take on the work of a faithful listener… as one who is trying first to hear and understand, God’s word to us, even if it goes against our own first impressions. We are being asked first of all to trust, even when we don’t understand… Something that is challenging for all of us to do.
This part of the story begins with an obvious, but important observation: This story is about how “God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). It’s not primarily about somehow proving that God is trustworthy. Although time and again in the story we find that the Lord is faithful beyond measure, graciously giving to Abraham everything that he needs. Rather, the question that is driving the story is whether or not Abraham is trustworthy: if he will be willing to truly trust the Living God with everything. It is Abraham’s life in the spotlight, it is his character and commitment that are on trial… and along with him we are drawn into the story as well.
If we look a bit closer at Abraham’s story so far, we find a complicated story. He has his moments of deep obedience, but mixed in with some very serious setbacks. It all begins in Genesis chapter 12: As part of God’s world-wide rescue mission to restore His fallen creation, God calls Abraham out from the land, and way of life, of his ancestors… promising to give him a land and life all of his own. Further on we find God making some other amazing promises, including the promise that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who were both well beyond child-rearing age, would miraculously have a son together, and that through this child all the nations of the world would be blessed. God invites Abraham into a unique and blessed relationship.
But while Abraham says yes to, and wants all that God has promised him, we find him stumbling along the road of obedience and trust, often driven by fear and doubts, taking what he thinks are easy short-cuts, and leaving those closest to him to suffer for it. Like his first son Ishmael, born to Sarah’s servant, Hagar, who were both forced out of Abraham’s family, and left desperately alone. That is, until the Lord mercifully steps in, and bringing hope out of their despair. In short, Abraham’s life so far has been one of unsteady devotion… of shaky faithfulness.
Despite all this, God still clearly wants Abraham to be a part of His own divine story. Throughout his stumbling journey towards wholehearted faith, we find God right there with him, patiently walking along with him, in utter faithfulness. Leading us all the way to today’s reading: to the climax of Abraham’s story, when God commands him to offer up Isaac his promised son as a sacrifice.
What a thing to ask for… the life of his beloved son.
We rightly cringe at the thought of human sacrifice, largely because our culture way back has been formed by the story of God. And the idea of slaying one’s own child strikes us
as barbaric and heartless. But for Abraham, this was an even more intense and terrible request. Isaac embodied absolutely everything for Abraham. He was the one glimpse of hope that all of his own struggles and strife, that his entire life was not meaningless… that it wouldn’t all be in vain. For Abraham, Isaac was God’s gracious love and promises personified. Isaac had been God’s priceless gift to Abraham and Sarah. God was not simply asking for his son, He was asking Abraham for everything… to put his whole life on the altar, and give it back to the Lord.
What has the Lord given to us that we hold onto as precious? What are the blessings that we treasure most in life? During this time of the pandemic many of us have had to step back and rethink our priorities. People are finding that many of the things they have been striving for in life… success, money, security, pleasure, and so on, are a lot more fragile and fleeting than we had imagined. At the same time, it seems there is also a newfound appreciation for a different kind of treasures: time with family and friends, relationships, and community, justice, and kindness, goodness, and truth. These things are re-awakening in the hearts of many today; treasures we have all too often taken for granted.
But this story bids us to take a step beyond this revelation: beyond simply recognizing those things that are truly worth striving for, and beyond simply reorganizing our own priorities. Through this story we are being summoned to envision setting everything aside: to surrender our dearest treasures, to hand back to God everything that we have been given. We are being called to trust the Living God with everything. And not in a vague, abstract sense, but in an uncomfortably close to home choice: to let everything go into the hands of the Lord.
It is natural at this point to think about all that saying yes to this choice will cost us. To count up all the things that we can’t imagine living without, and then to think that God must be cruel to ask us to let them go. But the flip side of that question, which we do not as easily think about, is the cost of saying no to trusting God with everything. What is the cost of clinging to the treasures of our hearts, to our hopes, and dreams, instead of trusting God with our lives?
The author Dallas Willard seeks to clarify this for us in writing about the high cost of nondiscipleship; that is, of choosing not to take up our cross and wholeheartedly follow Jesus. He writes:
“one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in human life… But the cost of nondiscipleship is far greater - even when this life alone is considered - than the price paid to walk with Jesus.
Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”
Yes, following Christ, trusting God, means letting go, but it also means sharing our life completely with our gracious Lord… our, Creator, our Redeemer, and the Giver of all good things.
All along, God had remained faithful to Abraham beyond all expectations, giving freely to Abraham more than he could have ever imagined. Then in this challenging command God gives him another precious gift: a life-changing call into a life of radical faith. To entrust everything Isaac embodied, all his own hopes, paternal love, and life, into the gracious hands of the Living God… reorienting his whole life forever in the process. In his book entitled Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “Abraham had to learn that the promise did not depend upon Isaac, but only on God… Abraham received Isaac back, but he has him in a different way than before.” The Living God Himself, not Isaac, was now the foundation of Abraham’s whole life, and this is the same relationship, the same way of life that you and I /are being called to share in too.
But God’s giving goes on: This part of the story ends when God Himself provides the lamb, the means by which Isaac, and with him Abraham’s entire life, is spared, and the sacrifice that unites them together in love, pointing us to the greatest gift God gives to us all: For Jesus Christ is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In Christ, God offers us Himself, His entire life, embodied once and for all in Jesus, God’s incarnate Son, faithfully laying down His life to reconcile and redeem our world… who suffered, died, and was raised again to bring eternal, abundant life.
Despite our own stories of unsteady devotion and shaky faith… our own imitations of Abraham’s stumbling and struggling, in Christ God has provided us /with everything that we need. Baptized into Jesus, and set free to live in Him, we are called to offer our entire lives, everything we are and have to the Living God, to set aside and resist the pull of sin, which only leads to death, to entrust all we treasure into His gracious hands, and to learn anew that everything, the preservation of our past, the enduring of our present, and the hope of all our tomorrows depends ultimately on Jesus our Saviour… the ultimate gift of God, who alone brings eternal, abundant life.
In our struggles and our doubts, let us not turn aside, but turn again and again to our gracious Lord, who invites us to come to Him, to trust in Him, and receive our life in Him.
May the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to give to all those who trust in Him, keep our minds, our hearts, and our whole lives faithful to our Lord, that we too might take our part in God’s world-wide rescue mission, and find ourselves transformed by His gracious faithfulness. Amen.
 Willard, Dallas. In Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith) (p.16). HarperSanFransisco. Italics mine.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2003). Discipleship (p.97) Minneapolis: Fortress Press.