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.
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-13 | Psalm 69:7-18 | Romans 6:1-11 | Matthew 10:24-39
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Interesting reading for Father’s Day…
These are some surprising, unsettling words to hear coming from the mouth of Christ… from the One we proclaim not only teaches but embodies self-giving love. These words might seem more fitting if they came from some merciless revolutionary warlord… or from a power-mad tyrant, bent on beating back any who would defy them. I mean… dividing up families? A sword instead of peace? This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know. How do these divisive words fit into the Good News?
These questions came pretty naturally to me… and maybe they did to you as well. Quite easily I started off with what I thought Jesus should be saying… positioning myself as the one who already knows what’s best… and who’s job it is to examine Jesus to see if He will align with me… with what I already believe to be right and good.
Now I know this kind of thing is easy enough for anybody to do. It’s pretty much the way most of our society functions these days… And to be fair, what Christ is saying here stands out precisely because it DOES seem so out of place. It seems He IS being provocative… but to drive home a clear point: Jesus is not calling for us to agree with Him… but to trust and follow Him. He is not calling for us to agree with Him… but to trust and follow Him. To have our lives realigned by Him for God and His good Kingdom. To step off of our thrones and to own Him as our Lord… to take up our task as servants and students, and listen to our Master.
We are not at all used to thinking this way… and for very good reasons we often cringe now at words like master and servant… seeing how connected they are to evils like slavery, oppression, injustice, and cruelty. This is unsettling stuff to be sure… but that is actually part of what needs to happen: to have our hearts and our heads shaken up a bit so Christ’s words can actually get through to us. So, after all that, what IS Jesus trying to say to us in these unsettling words? Why the talk of family division, and swords instead of peace?
This whole passage, and chapter from Matthew’s Gospel is about being prepared to share in Christ’s ministry. It began with Jesus calling the twelve, and sending them out as bearers of the Good News: announcing the coming of God’s good Kingdom through their words and acts of mercy. He was inviting them into, and empowering them to participate in, the great rescue mission of God… Preparing His disciples… His students… apprentices… to join with Him in His work. And centuries later we too are being invited to take our part along with them… to share in and share Christ’s good Kingdom with the world around us.
But Jesus knew all those centuries ago what was coming for those who would follow Him. Opposition is bound to arise, not only from strangers… but even from those closest to us.
We’re not talking about the natural divisions and fights that happen in families… as painful and disruptive and destructive as they are. And were not talking about the kind of tensions that come when someone close to you tries to force their faith or their values onto you. It’s not that following Jesus means we should become intolerable self-righteous know-it-alls. But rather, we’re talking about the conflicts that come when one’s deepest and highest commitments… their way of life in the world is at odds with those around them. The talk of division and swords prepares us for the painful separation that can occur when the way of Jesus and the ways of the world lead in opposite directions. The kingdoms of the world, will clash with the coming of God’s Kingdom… especially when they feel their way of life being challenged. Though we long and hope and work for peace, sometimes it is not up to us… we are called first of all to faithfully follow our Lord.
This theme is by no means new to Matthew’s Gospel. Tracing the story all the way back through to the Old Testament, we can see the same tensions at work, within ancient Israel itself: called to be God’s chosen people, but conflicted and divided. We could think of Jeremiah, whose words we heard in our first reading this morning. But it turns out there’s an even clearer connection between Jesus’ unsettling words to His disciples and the Old Testament prophets… because Jesus is actually quoting them from the prophet Micah.
In Micah chapter 7 we find the following bleak assessment of the state of society in Judah during his day: “The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice… Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” 
One scholar, N.T. Wright, makes this helpful point:
"In this passage, the prophet predicts the terrible divisions that would always occur when God was doing a new thing. When God acts to rescue his people, there are always some who declare that they don’t need rescuing, that they are comfortable as they are. Part of the reason for [Jesus] quoting this passage here is to say: don’t be surprised if this happens now; this, too, is part of your tradition! Your own scriptures contain warnings about the great disruptions that will happen when God finally acts once and for all to save you."
In our day we can see the same patterns at work: injustice and evil abounding, and those who strive to stand for truth are often viciously opposed by their neighbours who seem to like things fine just the way they are. Think for a moment about the Black Lives Matter movement. They are currently drawing our attention to an unsettling, and uncomfortable truth: that for centuries our North American society has in many ways gone on as if Black lives do not matter… and now they are calling for everybody not only to agree with the basic statement that Black lives do in fact matter, but also to live each day convinced and transformed by this truth. To start noticing all of the people we may have been ignoring or exploiting, whether consciously or not… and then to make the changes that we need to make to finally set things right.
This is an important matter, which deserves more than simply a passing comment… but for now let’s step back and think about the resistance this movement is facing. Taking a particular, convinced stance, and seeking to promote a different form of life, no matter how just or laudable it may seem, has brought harsh resistance and division. And this is just one example of various kingdoms clashing in our world: whenever we humans take a stand that unsettles ‘the way things are done’ we can expect things to get messy. Even so with God’s Kingdom.
As disciples of Jesus, the Church is called to a different vision and form of life than we will find in the world around us. And Jesus tells us up front: living God’s way sometimes means taking a stand that others in our life may not understand or agree with. But along with these warnings, Christ also offers to us a word of hope: “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. Despite the dangers, despite the disruptions, despite the tensions and the pain, when we stand in faith for Christ we are never standing alone. Jesus says to us as well: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Friends, we are known and loved more than we can know by the One who gave His life to save us, once and for all, and then rose again to set us free to share in His eternal life.
So as we seek to faithfully follow Christ, and to share in His life-giving work, may we also entrust ourselves and our loved ones to the mercy and grace of God… even if divisions and tensions arise. May we be willing to stand for God’s good Kingdom, even when others will not… confident that we remain in the care of our risen Saviour and Lord. Amen.
 See Matthew 10:5-8.
 Micah 7:2-3, 5-7.
 Wright, N.T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (p. 123). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 19:2-8a | Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 | Romans 5:1-8 | Matthew 9:35-10:8
"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
What a wonderful word of comfort for us today from our Lord: to be reminded that when Jesus sees our suffering and confused world, compassion is what moves Him, and compassion is what drives His call for us to move as well. Too often our vision of God can misplace this basic motivation, leading us to forget how vital it is for the Church’s life in the world.
In our reading today, from the book of Exodus, we witness a key moment in Israel’s story, as well as a key moment in the unfolding drama of God’s redeeming love. Having recently rescued Israel from oppression and slavery in Egypt, the Living God invites this community into a covenant relationship. They were called to be His chosen people, set aside to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”, reflecting the goodness and love of God back out into the world, so that all people might come to know and be reunited to the Lord. All of Israel we are told responds in a single voice: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Yet as their story unfolds, we quickly find Israel failing to follow their Lord, as time and again they turn from His ways, and find disaster waiting for them… leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, and their return to oppression in Exile.
But despite this continuing saga of unfaithfulness, Israel’s story also reveals God’s saving goodness at work: Time and again, the Living God has mercy on His wandering people, and out of compassion the Lord continuously comes to their aide… not ignoring their rebellion and sin, but not abandoning them either. Which leads us to our reading this week from the Gospel of Matthew.
Here we witness Jesus Christ, wandering from Jewish town to town, teaching and proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom, and “curing every disease and every sickness.” In Jesus, God’s compassionate love had truly taken on flesh, and just as God had set Israel apart all those centuries ago at Sinai, Jesus now calls twelve of His followers and sets them apart to be His chosen messengers: sending them out to share in and spread His healing Kingdom work, and empowering them to take part in His own rescuing mission. Yet as the twelve apostles’ stories unfold, we hear time and again of their near-constant confusion, missing the real point of what Christ had come to do… leading up to the moment where they all run away in fear, as Jesus goes to the cross.
Not a very promising picture for the people of God, is it? Whether we look to the Old or New Testaments, the story seems the same: faltering, fumbling, failing, faithless. Time and again God calls people to share in and share His goodness, and life, and love… and time and again they turn their backs on their Saviour and Lord.
Maybe we see ourselves somewhere in this story too. We know we have been called as the Church to share in and share God’s good Kingdom, but are we struggling to set aside our old ways, or say no to our favorite temptations? Are we actually eager to do “everything that the Lord has spoken”, or are we just paying lip-service?
We know Christ has called each of us to follow Him, and to help others do the same… but do we find ourselves frightened and faltering when we’re asked to put this into practice? Do we easily give up when we start to run into resistance along the way?
There are so many ways that we can become overwhelmed by discouragement, disheartened by our struggles, and convince ourselves that we are not good enough for God… that He would never have room for somebody like us to share in and share His Kingdom… that we are too weak, or broken, or fearful, or lost to be of any use.
But even if this is you today… feeling frightened, and faltering, and weak… God has good news to share with us all, if we will turn to where He shows His face most clearly: the cross.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Here at the cross we see the compassionate face of the Living God: offering His life on our behalf when we were at our worst! This is the same face that refused to give up on Israel, but time and again sought to seek and to save them when they had lost themselves in sin. This is the same face that called twelve mixed-up nobodies, and empowered them despite all their fears and faults, with a truly world-changing message. In Jesus, we see the God’s compassionate love poured out for the sake of sinners… so richly that absolutely everyone can have a share in it. It’s not about how good we are, it’s about the mercy of God for all… revealed and offered to us all through Christ’s redeeming death.
One scholar puts it well: "The death of the Messiah on our behalf, when we were weak, helpless sinners, demonstrates how much God loves us; and if he loves us that much, he can be trusted to rescue us from the coming day of judgment. After all, God did the unthinkable thing in sending his son to die for us while there was nothing whatever to commend us to him, and indeed everything to make him revolted by us—when, in other words, we were his enemies. Now that we are his friends, reconciled to him in the manner described in verses 1 and 2, [See footnote] God is not about to abandon us after all."
As we face what seems like an increasingly confusing and broken world these days, one in which many are desperately searching for hope, and truth, and justice, friendship, and restoration, let us take to heart that our Saviour Jesus looks on this same world and is filled with compassion for it, having offered His life on the cross that we all may have peace with God and each other. When the troubling voices and doubts arise, seeking to lead us to despair, let us remember that Jesus looks at us too with the eyes of compassion. That when we feel harassed and helpless our Lord will certainly not forsake us. Rather Christ calls us to look to Him in faith, and find our strength in His grace. And as we seek to answer His calling to share in and share His good Kingdom with our world, may His mercy be the heartbeat that drives all that we do. Amen.
 “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Romans 5:1-2.
 Wright, N. T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8 (pp. 87–88). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Scripture Readings: Acts 1:1-11 | Psalm 47 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Luke 24:44-53
“You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:48-49.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
It feels a bit like the winds are changing… like a fresh breeze is blowing in.
On Friday we had one of the hottest days here in the Kennebecasis Valley so far this year. As it was combined with our Province’s decision to open us up of the next phase of the COVID-19 recovery plan (the “Yellow Phase”, to be precise), it seemed to me that a lot of people were getting excited about enjoying this new sense of freedom, as well as making the most of what felt like the first day of summer. We know the pandemic and its many effects are still far from over, but there is also a new sense of energy and excitement at work here too.
I mean really, a lot of us were getting pretty sick of ‘staying in’. We’re getting antsy… we want to get on with things again… Perhaps the impulse to throw caution to the wind and ‘get back to business’ quickly is growing more and more tempting in our eager minds, and the remaining safety measures and guidelines are starting to seem less and less essential. At this point though, maybe we need to ask ourselves again: why are we waiting? What is really at the root of our need to move ahead with caution and patience?
Put simply, we ‘wait’ because we are called to love our neighbours: To care for them, and for each other, by exercising self-control… and patience, and gentleness, and peace… by seeking the protection and well-being, both physically and mentally, of the people God has placed with us in the wider community. As Christians especially, we need to be as prepared as we can be for the days ahead, so that we can better show all those around us God’s long-suffering love through what we do. This is not living in fear, it is a choice to act with humility: of acknowledging our limited expertise of what the future may hold, and perhaps setting aside our own desires for the sake of loving others. As much as we may want to rush ahead, we are being called, with good reason, to wait.
In our Scripture readings today, we can get a sense of this same sort of tension at work. We can almost feel the anticipation and eagerness in the words of Christ’s disciples: “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”” (Acts 1:6). This question was asked at a turning point in the story of our Lord: He had just spent 40 days with His disciples after His suffering, death, and resurrection… convincing them of the amazing reality of His tangible victory over death, “and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), the long-awaited reunion of heaven and earth envisioned by the ancient Hebrew prophets, and which the risen Jesus had identified with Himself and His mission. The disciples were eager to experience the fullness of this Kingdom for themselves, to taste God’s New Creation, kick-started when Christ was raised from the dead… rescuing His people, and restoring His broken creation at last, and I think that’s understandable. I mean, if not now, in the wake of their beloved Master’s resurrection, then when? At least He could let them know a bit of the timeline.
Rather than satisfy their curiosity, and appease their anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom, Christ instead reminds His disciples that they have a job to do: They are now tasked to be His apostles, that is, ‘the ones who are sent’ as His witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). They are to share the Good News of Jesus Christ the Risen Lord with all the world… a task that would firmly take hold of their lives, and which has been handed down to all believers.
But first… they must be patient. Jesus commands His followers first to wait in the city of Jerusalem until they receive “power from on high”: the Holy Spirit of God. As important and urgent as their mission, as the Church’s mission was, they were commanded not to rush ahead, but to wait for the Spirit.
Why? What could be so challenging about being Christ’s witnesses that they needed some sort of external, heavenly support? Isn’t it all fairly straightforward? Something anyone could do? Why was it so important for the apostles to wait?
A few weeks back, I shared a bit about what it means to be a witness for Christ (See “All of Us Are Witnesses” - Easter II - April 19 2020), and how, among other things, it entails not simply the passing on of information about the Good News of Christ’s resurrection and God’s Kingdom at work in Him, but of “living in such a way that its truth becomes believable”. Of our lives being shaped and transformed by the Gospel… by God’s new creation tangibly taking root in our day to day existence, intentionally opening us up to our Lord’s continual guidance.
And that is something we cannot simply create in ourselves… it is a way of life dependent on the power and grace of God. One scholar puts it this way: “Jesus appoints his followers to be “witnesses” or testifiers to the truth. Sharing personal opinion with others would not suffice. Dispensing tidbits of worldly wisdom was not their task. This was to be a mission guided by God, not one where they would proceed on their own terms. They were to be clothed with power from on high… The church is powerless on its own without the Spirit. Anyone serving in Jesus’ name would need to be guided by the strength of the Spirit.” As the rest of the story of Acts, and the history of the Church unfolds, we can see the truth of this statement again and again. Where we Christians rush ahead and neglect the guidance and power that comes from God, we fall. When we wait on Him, and lean on Him, His New Creation abounds.
Before Christians can be sent out to truly reveal the Living God’s redemptive work to the world… they must first be empowered by the Living God at work in them.
Here in New Brunswick, in Gondola Point, today’s Scripture passages speak to us as well: Through them, God is affirming that we too have a mission… a task set before us: to make the Good News of Jesus Christ known to our world in all we do. There are many ways we can do this, but ultimately THIS is why we are here! Sharing in God’s new creation in Jesus Christ, living in His self-giving love, so those all around us can share in it too.
But first… we too must be patient… we too must learn to look for, and wait for, our Lord… to recognize that we cannot really do this mission apart from God’s power at work in us… apart from the Holy Spirit… anymore than a candle can illumine a darkened room without its first being lit. The temptation to rush off and start “getting things done” can be a strong one. Yes, we have a mission, we have important work to do, but not on our own. Our Lord intends to accomplish it by His power at work in and through us.
Because, after all, the Good News is not primarily about us and what we are doing… it is about the Triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… and what this God has done and is completing even now. Ascension Sunday celebrates, not first of all Christ’s directions for us His followers, but His enthronement as the Anointed Ruler of all creation, who is now victoriously seated at the right hand of God the Father. Today “He is announced as King and Lord,” another scholar maintains, “not as an increasingly distant memory but as a living and powerful reality, a person who can be known and loved, obeyed and followed, a person who continues to act within the real world.” We are called to be His witnesses, sharing in His gracious Kingdom and making it known by His Spirit at work in us. The only way forward for the Church is to faithfully follow, and wait for Him.
Next Sunday is Pentecost, when Christians all around the world commemorate the sending of the Holy Spirit on the first believers, when God first empowered them to truly take part in and make His Kingdom known in the world. Today, Ascension Sunday, may we lay all our plans and desires again at the feet of Jesus, our Risen and Reigning King and Lord, and moving forward may our lives be shaped by an eagerness to wait for Him, and to find our true mission and power by patiently looking to Him. Amen. Alleluia!
 Marty, P. W. (2001). Ascension of the Lord, Years A, B, C. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 470). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
 Wright, N.T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (p. 2). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Scripture Readings: Acts 17:22-31 | Psalm 66:8-20 | 1 Peter 3:13-22 | John 14:15-21
“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
“I just can’t wait until we can go back!”
I wonder how many times over the last two months we have heard, spoken, or thought these words? Whether we’re referring to a particular place, a favorite event, or a familiar pace and pattern of life, for many of us the urge to ‘return’ has become a persistent and growing companion. Just recently, our Province decided to allow small religious services to take place again, providing they carefully follow the government’s public health guidelines, and many other businesses and organizations are again being permitted to stir from their pandemic-induced ‘slumber’. Our parish is in the process of creating our own Operational Plan right now, which is required before we officially open up our doors again, and it seems likely that in some form or another we will be able to physically gather again soon for worship at St. Luke’s Church. But along with people all over New Brunswick, and Canada, and across the world, who are trying to figure out how we are supposed to ‘do things’ moving forward, it is becoming clear that it won’t be as simple as going back to the way things were. Though we may still hope and long to ‘go back’, the world we are ‘returning’ to is simply not the same anymore; for better or for worse, things really have been changed.
That sounds pretty bleak, I know, but there is good news all around. There is hope on the horizon, and quite a few dark days are behind us. After all, not everything in our ‘old ways’ was good, for us or for our world… and the most vital thing of all can never be taken away.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus’ words to His disciples as they were gathered together on the eve of His arrest and crucifixion. We hear Him reassuring and comforting them ahead of the trials to come, but not by pointing them back in the hopes or reclaiming their familiar pattern of life. Christ does not say to them “Don’t worry friends, this painful struggle will be over soon, and then we can all get back to the way things were before.” The hope He is offering is not about re-establishing the status quo. Instead Jesus directs their attention forward, beyond the dark days ahead, and towards the new reality that the Living God had in store for them. Through Him, Jesus promised them, His disciples will share in the life of God more intimately and powerfully than they had every imagined before.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” The promise is of His enduring presence, and of taking part in the life of God! Not only is Christ revealing His own intimate connection with God the Father, He is also showing them that, in Him, they too are invited into this communion; that as confused and frightened as they were, they would never be left alone. Jesus their beloved Master was going to share His life…God’s life with them, and all that this entails. How? By sending to them the Advocate… the Comforter… the Helper… that is, the Holy Spirit of God, the third Person of the Trinity, whom Christ promises will come to abide with and in His disciples forever.
This must have been miles, light-years away, from what the disciples had first thought they were signing up for. I mean, they could probably have wrapped their heads around following a holy teacher, and even a miracle-working one believed to be God’s Chosen Messiah. But it’s a huge leap to go from there to having the Holy Spirit of God indwelling a bunch of ordinary people like them. Even so, this was the world-changing reality Jesus was at work bringing about, all throughout His life, but most of all through His death and in His rising again: reconciling and reuniting humanity with the Living God, and opening up the way for God to share His everlasting life with us. The hopeful message of Easter is that Christ didn’t come simply to smooth out a few of our troubles, or to help us figure out how to become better people… that is, to help us get along a bit better in the midst of a broken world. No, He came to rescue His beloved but broken creatures, once and for all, and to bring about in us God’s new creation, by sharing His resurrection life with us.
One scholar puts it really well: “with the resurrection of Jesus God’s new world has begun; in other words, his being raised from the dead is the start, the paradigm case, the foundation, the beginning, of that great setting-right which God will do for the whole cosmos at the end. The risen body of Jesus is the one bit of the physical universe that has already been ‘set right’. Jesus is therefore the one through whom everything else will be ‘set right’.” In the Risen Jesus, we have been given a much brighter future than simply ‘going back’ to the way things were before. In Him, God is really at work recreating us and our world. In Him, things really have been changed… but ultimately for good.
So how do we move forward into this new creation God is bringing about? What does it look like to believe this Good News, and have our lives actually transformed by it?
Let’s be clear: we are talking about God’s gracious gift to us… something offered to us because of what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. Last week, we heard Christ spell this out for us plainly when He says: “Believe in me” (see John 14:1-14). Ultimately, we are being called to continue to trust in and follow Jesus, who tells us Himself what this kind of faith looks like in practice: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments… They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them”(John 14:15, 21). There is no sense in saying we believe in Jesus, that we love and are devoted to Him, if we persistently turn away from obeying His commands. To believe in Jesus means to also let Him rearrange our lives… as we, step by step, learn to walk and live in obedience to Him. This is how we begin to share in God’s eternal life: by trusting Christ and, with the Holy Spirit’s aid, obeying Him.
This is not new information for many of us, I’m sure, but no matter how many times we have heard it before, this calling lays a new claim on our lives every day. There is, after all, no question of ‘going back’ in this journey of faith… in God’s new creation at work in us; we are constantly being invited further and deeper into communion with our gracious Saviour… to experience and know God’s goodness, and love, holiness, and fellowship, more and more. Christ has promised to be with us forever, abiding in us through His Holy Spirit. So with this as our comfort and Him as our guide, let us take courage and go forward. Amen. Alleluia.
 Wright, N.T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 (p. 93). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Scripture Readings: Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Do not let your hearts be troubled? Really? How can we follow these words of our Lord today?
There’s a whole lot of troubled hearts today, for a whole lot of good reasons. Not long ago, we can remember how each ordinary day already had enough worries of its own, but as ‘the Virus’ spread across the world over the last three months, people everywhere have been struggling to cope with the emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual weight of all that has happened. Even though our province of New Brunswick has mercifully been spared the worst of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic so far, we know the path forward for Canada and the rest of the world is one that needs to be traveled cautiously. This is no time to be cavalier and careless, wisdom tells us, especially if we take seriously our calling to love and look after our neighbours.
So how are we to understand these words from our Lord? “Do not let your hearts be troubled”? Is this just a piece of trite advice? A simplistic call for optimism and positivity? The theological equivalent of Bobby McFerrin’s tune: “Don’t worry, be happy”… meant to take our mind off the hard things in life so we don’t get overwhelmed, but unable to offer real confidence or hope?
As with any passage of Holy Scripture, if we simply pull it out of its place and try to make it stand all on its own, we will struggle to understand its purpose and significance. In a vacuum, these words alone don’t offer us much hope worth holding onto.
But thankfully, we know Jesus’ words were not spoken in a vacuum; they were spoken in the middle of God’s great rescue story coming to fruition… on the very night of His betrayal and unjust arrest, the night before He was condemned to death, and brutally hung on a cross. Jesus knew that this was His path; He new the trials and suffering ahead, and so He urged His disciples beforehand to not despair of their faith in Him when He would soon be taken away from them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He said, but He did not stop there. He showed them why and how to do this: “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
In the midst of trouble, Jesus urges us to trust in God… and trust in Him.
The confused disciples struggle to make sense of what their Master meant, leading our Lord to make this bold statement about Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” In all their confusion and fear, Christ tells them (and us): trust in Me! When you feel lost, don’t seek another way… come to Me. When you doubt, do not go seeking truth elsewhere, believe in Me. When you are despairing, do not give up, or look for fulfillment in some other source… I am the true Life of God in the world.
With these words Christ sought to comfort them, and to assure them in the very troubling times that lay ahead, that rather than fail or abandon them He is going to prepare a place for them to be with God forever. Though He, and they, will suffer for a time, Christ knows that He is securing eternity for those who will trust and follow Him. But for now, what will help them to endure is to hold on in faith. “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Within 24 hours of hearing this, the disciples would see their beloved Master betrayed, arrested, tortured, executed, and buried. It would seem that they had plenty of reasons to let their hearts be troubled. But then, resurrection! God’s new creation bursts into the scene, completely unexpected: Jesus is raised again from the dead, and appears to His disciples! Sorrows are turned to joy, hope unlooked-for comes to them, and the one they had thought was overcome by death was now standing alive in their midst. Trust placed in this Jesus, who endured and conquered the grave for us, is not mislaid… no matter how truly troubling our situations may be.
In our passage from Acts 7 today we see this trust in the Risen Lord lived out in the lives of the earliest believers. We heard the account of St. Stephen, the first person to be killed for their devotion to Jesus Christ. Stephen was a deacon, set apart by God through the Apostles to care for the poor and defenseless among the Christian community in Jerusalem, but he soon became a powerful proponent of the Good News: the message that Jesus was indeed the risen and reigning Messiah, God’s chosen Saviour. Sharing this message put him into conflict with the religious authorities, who falsely accuse him of blasphemy against God, as well as speaking against Moses and the Temple. Essentially, they saw Stephen, a humble servant of Jesus, as a threat to their own power and status.
Stephen answers their false charges by recounting the wider story of the Living God, and of Israel’s checkered history as His chosen people… culminating with a bold response to his accusers: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53). Stephen confronted their lies with a very troubling truth, but rather than heed his words, they became enraged. Unfortunately, we know this is not an uncommon response to hearing troubling truths… and too often those who speak up for the truth end up facing real trouble themselves. By following the way of Jesus and not shying away from speaking the truth, Stephen’s life was now in jeopardy.
Yet in that fateful moment, we are told, Stephen’s faith in God, and in Jesus his Lord did not waver. Instead, “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And seeing the Risen Lord standing in heaven for him, Stephen was able to be faithful and follow the way of Jesus to the very end… even faithfully echoing his Master’s words of forgiveness uttered on the cross (Luke 23:34) with his own dying breath: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. Though we’re not used to seeing of this kind of end as a victory, that is because we keep forgetting that Stephen’s story did not end there. For just as he committed his life (and death), to Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, Stephen will share in Christ’s final resurrection-victory over the grave. Believing in God, believing in Jesus, Stephen’s story ‘ends’ in life. The troubles came, true enough, but they could not overcome.
I hope that none of us will face martyrdom as St. Stephen did (or, for that matter, as countless of our sisters and brothers in Christ are facing even now in various corners of the world. Lord have mercy; strengthen and sustain them.). Yet likely none of us will be strangers of times that are deeply troubling, which can put our faith under enormous pressure and strain. Some of us may even be in the midst of those times right now; the way forward seeming to be lost, unsure of who or what to trust, and feeling just about ready to give up on it all.
But the Good News for us today is that even in the midst of serious trouble the risen Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour stands with, and for, us. Christ lives and reigns even now, and remains the Way, the Truth, and the Life… the One to whom we can truly entrust our lives, our loved ones, and our world. Though we may not yet see Him with our eyes standing at the right hand of God, we can have faith, and find in Him the courage and strength to faithfully face any troubles that come… confident that in Him we too will share in God’s eternal life.
Like St. Stephen, we have been called not only to place our faith in Jesus, but to live for Him too: to serve Christ both in active love, like caring for those around us in need, but also in our commitment to the truth of the Good News, which every disciple of Jesus has been entrusted with sharing. May the Holy Spirit of God equip and empower us to live as Christ’s faithful people; signs and agents of faith and hope in our troubled time. And trusting Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life of God, may we lovingly and boldly follow in His blessed footsteps, sharing the Good News with the world He died and lives to save. Amen. Alleluia.
Scripture Readings: Acts 2:42-47 | Psalm 23 | 1 Peter 2:19-25 | John 10:1-10
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
Please forgive me for starting off by stating something really obvious: Over the past several weeks a lot of us, all around the world, have had to make some major changes in our daily routines. Because of events and happenings well outside of our personal spheres of control, we have been required to live very differently than we had not all that long ago. This disruption has brought us many challenges (some that are well known, and others which are much more hidden), as well as some blessings too, the most apparent being the preservation of many lives. In this time we have been made well aware that how we live has implications… for us and those around us… and how blessed it is to have wise leaders who can help us find our way forward together. By all accounts we know that we still have a long and challenging road ahead of us, but we also have some good reasons to be hopeful too.
Today is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday, as the Scripture readings for the day bring that beautiful image to mind. Psalm 23 bids us look to the Living God as our gracious Shepherd, who abides with and leads His people all along the way. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus our Lord takes up this same pastoral to image to reveal Himself: as the shepherd of the sheep who “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). At its heart, it is an image of trust. Of the Lord’s trustworthiness, first of all, but also of the trusting response asked of those who would follow Him. In order to benefit from the guidance of the Shepherd, the sheep need to stay close and listen to His voice. For He is ultimately striving to care and provide for His sheep… as Jesus said, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Abundant life. That sounds pretty good. Not just eking out an existence, but abundantly living. That certainly sounds like the destination I’d want to be heading towards. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, maybe we should take a second to ask what we mean by abundant life.
This seems to be, after all, what so many of us have been chasing all our lives, and what our whole society has been driven by for quite a long time: pursuing ‘the Good Life’ is what we’re told ‘its all about’, even if we can’t always agree about what ‘the Good Life’ actually is. Some see it as success; be it in business, relationships, or other notable goals. Some see it more as security; keeping healthy and stable, trying not to make any waves, and avoiding as much pain or suffering as possible. Some see it as ‘seizing the day’; filling up on meaningful or fun experiences, pushing the limits of what we thought possible… or simply enjoying life. No doubt there are more variations we could discuss, but I think you get my point. Importantly, what our vision of ‘the Good Life’ happens to be will play a big part in guiding and directing the choices we make to attain it. What we are pursuing in life will in fact shape our life.
This is the kind of thing we often think of when we hear the words “abundant life.” I mean, there are even those who in the name of Christ boldly claim that this is really what God wants for all of us: to simply be healthy, happy, successful, rich, and so on… and that if we’re suffering or struggling, we just need to “have more faith.” Following Jesus, for them, seems to mean getting whatever we want.
But for Christians, we are called to set aside our visions of “abundant life”, whatever they may be, and instead seek to know above all else what our Saviour Jesus means when He says “abundant life”… to entrust the direction, and shape, of our lives to our Good Shepherd.
Thankfully, this isn’t exactly a mystery for us to solve, for our Lord wants us to know where He’s taking us, and how we are to get there, and our Scriptures today give us more than a glimpse about the true meaning of ‘abundant life’.
Quickly turning to 1 Peter and our New Testament passage today, we can write off from the start one of the most common misunderstandings about ‘abundant life’: that is, it is NOT the avoidance or absence of suffering. Writing to fellow Christians who were well acquainted with harassment, pain, and tragedy, St. Peter reminds them that this is precisely the path that our Saviour walked as well, and that living God’s way in the world is bound to bring its share of suffering. Instead of crushing us though, St. Peter points out that Jesus shows us how to go through the darkest times of life: entrusting our futures and our present to our Heavenly Father, and not letting ourselves be drawn off of the way of righteousness, which has been made possible for us by the sufferings of Christ. Whatever else that the ‘abundant life’ of Jesus may be, St. Peter reminds us that we can expect that it not always to be easy (which, when we think about it for a second, is true for most of the best things in life.)
So, from St. Peter we can see that for Jesus ‘abundant life’ is not simply avoiding suffering. But what is it then? Again, the Scriptures have much to show us, and our first reading from Acts chapter 2 gives us in a few brief words a wonderful example of Christ’s abundant life at work.
In these five verses, we are given an inspiring picture of the life of the first believers; those who believed the Apostle’s message about the crucified and Risen Jesus on Pentecost, who had received the Holy Spirit of God, and had become the brand new community which would one day be called the Church. Though there’s much that we can (and probably should!) say about this important passage, I’ll get right to the point: we can notice two vital connections in their pattern of life. First, their lives were firmly centred on the Living God; worshiping, praising, and praying to Him, and learning from the Apostles all about the Good News of Jesus, God’s Son. Second, (rather than turn them into pious, self-righteous snobs), the love of God compelled them to love each other too… and in very practical, down to earth ways! Though they had been strangers before they came to Christ, now they were God’s family, and so they provided for and supported each other so that no one was left in need. And this way of life was open for others to take part in as well… they were not self-focused but welcoming and generous, so that many were drawn to join them, and began to participate in this beautiful way of life as well.
The first followers of Jesus here in Acts chapter 2 were living out… embodying God’s abundant life the way God has always intended humans to exist together… which was summed up by our Good Shepherd as the two greatest Commandments: they were loving the Lord their God with all of their heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and they were loving their neighbours as themselves.
This is the abundant life that Jesus is in Himself, which He came to bring to us, and enable us to share in. Abundant life is partaking in the self-giving love of the Living God.
This love is not only where He is leading us, it’s also how He’s leading us too… by the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, God’s self-giving love is meant to be the very shape of our lives all along the way as we follow in the steps of our Shepherd, and share His way of life, and re-organizing our lives, even make major changes, to faithfully go where He’s leading us.
We have heard this many times before, but so often we struggle to do it. Again and again, we can find ourselves following other guides, listening to other voices, and pursuing other tempting visions of so-called ‘abundant life’. But again and again, we are also urged to turn and draw near to our Good Shepherd, and we find as we do so that He has not left us behind… no, He has been the One searching and striving for us all along.
So may we come to trust the voice of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and draw nearer to Him, especially when we are tempted to turn aside from His way. May we follow His lead, away from our self-centredness and fear, and into the self-giving love of our Heavenly Father. And may the Holy Spirit help us to embody God’s love right where we are, that those around us might see and share in God’s abundant life today. Amen. Alleluia.
Scripture Readings: Acts 2:14, 36-41 | Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 | 1 Peter 1:17-23 | Luke 24:13-35
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Our Gospel passage today starts on a pretty low note: Two of Jesus’ followers were leaving Jerusalem. They were heartbroken by the sudden, cruel death of their beloved master, and confused by the strange, unbelievable story told by Mary Magdalene and the others. It was all too much… too disorienting, too overwhelming to take in. The horror of the cross still fresh in their minds… their hopes that Jesus was the Redeemer sent by God so visibly dashed and hung high for all to see… how could anything good come from all these ‘things that have taken place’. Their world was shattered, and they were going home, alone it seemed, to pick up the pieces.
But then, we find they are not alone. A stranger shows up on the road and joins them on their journey, and when he asks they share with him their sorrowful story.
After listening, we’re told, this stranger then begins to share a story with them. The same story, actually… one which also told about these horrible ‘things that have taken place’, but then suddenly, instead of a tragic failure and the end of all they’d hoped for, these ‘things’ were becoming the climax of the story of God’s redeeming love. The stranger, “beginning with Moses” and the very first Exodus… the grand rescue of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, “and all the prophets,” who shared the message of warning, yes, but also the message of hope that the Living God would ultimately end Israel’s sufferings, and rescue them again from their enemies and their sins… the stranger unpacks God’s Story for them, helping them see that the Messiah, the Chosen One, had to “suffer these things… and then… enter into his glory.”
It was a story they had heard the pieces of probably hundreds of times before, but now this stranger was putting the pieces together again in a whole new way; helping them to see a unity and purpose, which had always been there, but which until that very moment they had not recognized. Listening to him, their peoples’ Scripture Story was connecting with their own, and their hearts began to burn with a new sense of hope and expectation.
By the time they had reached the village, they were not ready to say goodbye to the stranger. They urged him to join them for dinner, and to spend the night as well. They opened up their home to him and invited him to stay with them, and found as they did so that their whole world was about to be upended again, this time for good.
As they sit down and share a simple meal, this stranger took the bread… he blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them.
Suddenly they recognize Him! Suddenly they see! It’s Jesus, their beloved Master, now living once again! All this time He had been with them, but now He’s made His presence known! And then, just like that, He vanishes right before their eyes. He was gone, in a way… but now they knew to be true what that had just before been unbelievable: He was back!
Despite the late hour, and with their hearts still burning with hope powerfully rekindled, they race back to Jerusalem to share their joyful story, and find that others too have found “The Lord is risen indeed!”
This part of the story of the appearance of the Risen Lord may be fairly familiar. It is read and talked about each year, on the Third Sunday of Easter, taking its part in the regular rhythm of our annual journeys through the Scriptural Story in our worship.
But like the two sorrowful travelers at the beginning of the passage, sometimes we fail to see how this Story all fits together, and all we can see are the shattered pieces that we had hoped would help us, and we find ourselves discouraged, disorientated, and overwhelmed.
But even then… even now… St. Luke wants to remind us, that like those two travelers we are not left to journey on alone. We are reminded that this is our story too… that even when we cannot recognize the presence or purposes of our Redeemer, the Risen Lord remains with us, and is eager to open our eyes.
The two travelers could not see Jesus at first, only the confusion and pain they were experiencing when their hopes in God’s rescue had seemed to fail. But like them, we need to be reminded of the heart of the Story of the people of God. As one scholar puts it “[t]hey had been seeing it as the long story of how God would redeem Israel from suffering, but it was instead the story of how God would redeem Israel through suffering; through, in particular, the suffering which would be taken on himself by Israel’s representative, the Messiah.” The suffering of Jesus on the cross, His crucifixion and death are the means by which the Living God ultimately redeems us, and in His rising from the grave to new and everlasting life, Jesus draws us in to God’s new creation as well: sharing with us the final hope of resurrection from the dead, as well as lives transformed and freed to serve Him without fear today.
So we continue to turn to all of Holy Scripture and seek the face of our Redeemer, letting our own small stories find their proper place within its message of hope and joy. When we can gather together in worship, we will again break blessed bread in remembrance of Him, and find ourselves rekindled and nourished by His gracious presence. In both word and sacrament, in story and mystery, we find that Jesus is right here with us. And we are reminded that He is present, even when we cannot see or feel Him near.
Even in those dark, confusing, painful times, when we feel like we are travelling alone, there is always one more thing we can do: we can simply cry out in prayer. We can share our sorrowful stories with God, inviting Him into the ‘things that have taken place’ in our lives, and trusting that He has taken on Himself our sufferings too. And that in time, He may rekindle our hope, and help us see His redemption at work, putting even the most shattered pieces of our world back into place, as surely as Jesus Christ our Lord is risen from the dead.
 Wright, N.T. (2004). Luke for Everyone (p. 294). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Italics in the original.
Scripture Readings: Acts 2:14a, 22–32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3–9 | John 20:19–31
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
In this brief sentence from the book of Acts, St. Peter actually offers us an excellent account of what it means to be the Church: that is, to be a community of witnesses in the world of God’s raising up of Jesus. There are of course many things we do as the Church, many worthwhile and essential activities that Christians regularly take part in, such as worship, prayer, compassionate service, fellowship, and so on. But all of these activities, all these ‘things we do’ as the people of God find their deep unity and purpose just here: in forming us to be witnesses of the resurrection of Christ, and the new creation the Living God is bringing about in Him. From the day of Pentecost, when St. Peter first uttered these words, all the way to today, the Christian Church exists in order to bear witness. Its more than what we do, it is really who we are.
But what does it mean for us to be this kind of a witness?
One helpful way to unpack this might be to compare the difference between a ‘witness’ and a ‘bystander’. At a basic level, to be a witness means to testify… to tell the truth about something that one has come to know. And in so doing, their own story gets tied in and tangled up with this wider story. What they have experienced and come to know has made an impact on their life, and they are now compelled to share it as truthfully as they can.
A bystander, on the other hand, may have shared the very same experiences, may have seen and heard the very same things as our ‘witnesses’, and yet for whatever reason the event does not take hold of them in the same fashion. For the bystander, it all remains a private experience. It may end up being a profound, disturbing, or inspiring experience, to be sure, but they are not compelled to share in, and share, what has happened with others, and so it remains an isolated and incidental part of their history. In short, unlike the ‘witness’, the ‘bystander’ remains outside of the story.
This is a very rough sketch, I know, but I believe it can help us clarify something that has often been muddied in our society. By and large we have become used to thinking about and living our faith in essentially private ways, and the idea of being more ‘public’ with it makes many deeply uncomfortable. Images immediately come to mind of pushy, arrogant, and self-righteous know-it-all's, or those who use religion for political or selfish gain. Clearly, this kind of ‘public faith’ is miles away from the Way of Jesus, and thankfully there are much more faithful ways to live Christian-ly in the world. But as comfortable as we might feel living as spiritual bystanders, to follow the Way of Jesus Christ is to become a witness: one whose whole life is draw into the Story of what God has done in raising Jesus Christ from the grave, and who is tasked with making this known to the world as truthfully as they can.
Our Scripture readings this morning talk much about believing and faith, and the narratives (both from Acts and John’s Gospel) tell of the early disciple’s first steps as a witnessing community. In our Gospel reading the story picks up on Easter evening. Just before our reading, in verse 18, we can find the very first account of someone being sent as a witness with the Good News: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” And in response… they gathered together and locked their doors in fear of persecution.
Maybe not the most courageous or noble first step, I know, but that didn’t stop the Lord’s world-changing plans for them. And maybe we can identify with their fear and hesitancy too. Maybe we can easily see ourselves following their early ‘lead’. But the same Lord who transformed these fear-filled disciples back then remains the Lord of the Church today, and that should give us hope. For rather than leave His people to fend for themselves, the Risen Lord arrives. The Good News they’d hear from Mary is suddenly present in their midst: Jesus really has risen!… and although that means re-imagining the entire story of the world, they come to believe and know this to be true.
Well, most of them did at least. Poor Thomas missed the party that night, and now he finds all his friends backing up Mary’s story… all claiming to have seen their beloved master Jesus alive again. But rather than take them at their word, Thomas responds by demanding the same experience the rest of them all had: to see for himself the presence of the Risen Lord. Despite the best attempts of the rest of the witnessing disciples, Thomas remains resolute in his resistance.
But then, just as before, when they had all gathered together, the Risen Lord shows up and graciously comes to Thomas, inviting him to stop doubting and believe. Christ does not turn Thomas away for not believing until he had seen Him raised for himself, but along with Thomas we are told: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now turning to our reading from Acts, we hear a portion of St. Peter’s speech to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. This is the same St. Peter who, not long before, was resistant to Mary’s message until the Risen Lord Himself appeared among them alive. This is the same St. Peter who, along with the others disciples, could not convince Thomas, one of their own number, that the Good News was true… until the Lord again showed up and stirred up Thomas’ faith. This same St. Peter now stands in front of thousands of faithful Jews, from all over the ancient world, and tells them the truth about Jesus. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, he tells them the story of how the One they had crucified was truly their Messiah, and that God had raised Him from the dead, and raised Him up in glory. This time we are told, if we read a bit further, that about three thousand people believed (verse 41), and stepped into the Church’s story with their lives as well. From there, the Church continued to grow and spread all through the world, as more and more people believed the Good News of the Risen Lord, and shared what they had come to believe and know with their world.
There are just a few points I think I should highlight before drawing to a close. First of all, witnessing to the reality of the resurrection is not simply about sharing information, but rather of living in such a way that its truth becomes believable. We can say all the ‘right things’, but if our choices and actions and lives don’t line up, we are undermining the message we have all been entrusted to share. On the other hand, if our lives are in line with the world-changing reality of Christ’s resurrection, then our words will be too, and will also likely be needed to help others understand why we now live the way we do. It’s not a question of prioritizing resurrection ‘words’ or ‘deeds’; they both belong together, like so many things in life.
Second, though we’re all called to be witnesses, to tell the truth about the Risen Lord through our entire lives, it is ultimately God who makes use of our witness to enable people to believe. As our Scripture texts today attest, faith is not always a straightforward path, and those that eventually believe may still have a long journey ahead. The disciples first doubted Mary, then Thomas doubted the other disciples, but the Risen Christ still used their faithful witness. True faith cannot be forced, for it is a gift from God, and each of us may arrive at that gift and receive it in a different way. After all, how did we first come to the Church? We each have a unique story, but in some way each of us responded to the message of Jesus Christ as it was expressed and lived out by others in our lives. We believed their witness, and joined in this Story along with them, and have each grown and learned a whole lot along the way. Though we did not see the Risen Lord with our own eyes as the first disciples did… we believed their testimony, which has been the story of the Church’s life throughout the centuries. And now we too are witnesses… our lives now have this purpose: to point to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, and to help others to share in the New Creation that the Living God is bringing about through Him.
And finally, for most of us this won’t mean standing up in front of a crowd of thousands… but what about a crowd of one… or two, or three? Honestly, what would it look like to be faithful to our calling to be witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ first of all in our own homes? With our next-door neighbours? Our closest friends? Our spouses? Ourselves?It certainly doesn’t look like being pushy, or arrogant, self-righteous, manipulative, or defensive… but what might it look like to live as those who believe the Good News of Jesus?
Patience? Forgiveness? Asking for forgiveness? Gentleness? Courage? Hope? Trust?
In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is bringing about His New Creation, and He offers us His Holy Spirit to bring it to life in us. Like St. Peter and all the rest, though we stumble, and struggle along the way, our Risen Lord is still with us as we seek to make Him known.
So may we continue to believe, and hold fast to the hope we’ve been given, and may we discover anew what it means to take part in this Story with our whole lives… so that our world “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing” they too “may have life in his name.” Amen.
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:32-36)
Maundy Thursday is upon us, the night we remember and relive Christ’s final moments with His disciples before he was taken from them in order to be crucified.
We remember His celebration of the Passover with them: Israel’s sacred commemoration of their ancestor’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, as the Lord God struck down the firstborn of their captors. We remember how Jesus transformed their understanding of this already sacred meal into more than a commemoration of the Living God’s saving acts in the distant past, and that now, through His own body which would soon be broken and His own blood which was soon to be shed, the Living God was again about to deliver His people… and indeed, open the doorway for the rescue of all peoples. Tonight, we Christians remember with reverent joy the sacred gift of Holy Communion; God’s gracious self-offering life and love, made accessible to us in faith through the body and blood of God’s Son. We are used to sharing this gift together, but tonight we remember this Holy Communion without being able to eat and drink. Our true Communion continues, yet tonight we taste the loss.
We remember too the way of humility and service Jesus opens for us: as He took on the role of a lowly servant and washed the feet of His disciples. In this surprising act Jesus reveals that the Glory of the Lord and the nature of His greatness is not shared in by amassing power and influence for ourselves, but in laying aside our own selfish ways and stooping down to serve each other… caring for those around us in simplicity and sincerity, and seeking their honour and well-being instead of chasing after our own. Tonight, we Christians would remember this call to true godliness through the washing of each other’s feet, but tonight we are unable to re-enact this sign of our calling with our wider family of faith. Our true, humble and holy calling continues, but tonight we cannot feel its cleansing touch.
Tonight we remember the New Commandment that Christ gave to His disciples: revealing the depths of what it means to live as God’s children in this world. The fulfillment of the whole Divine Law and Covenant comes to its head as Jesus tells us His followers “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). Tonight, we Christians remember that this is always to be at the heart of our life together in the Church, and that more than anything else that might define who we are, we are called to love as Christ Jesus has first loved us. But tonight we struggle with how to love each other at a distance. Tonight we long for the shared life of love that is the Church, and though we remain united in our love for one another through the Spirit, we are still pained by our bodily separations. Our true community of love remains, yet we feel cut off from each other.
This is certainly not the Maundy Thursday celebration that we are used to. This has not been, nor likely will be, the kind of Holy Week that we remember and cherish. But it is the one which we have been given, and which still invites us to take part in the sacred story of Jesus Christ, who tonight shares with us something we might perhaps rather prefer to forget. For tonight in the Garden, praying alone, Jesus suffers with us. He takes upon Himself all the anguish and fears and sorrows of His people, and draws it all into Himself before His merciful Father. In His prayer that this dreadful cup might pass, “yet not what I want, but what You want”, Christ faithfully takes hold of all of our sufferings and makes them His own. His true act of self-offering also means sharing in our losses, our frustrations, our separations, and our sorrows.
Tonight, we remember the Gift of Holy Communion, the Way of Humble Service, the Commandment to Love each other, and Christ’s Suffering for and with us. Tonight we Christians remember that, whatever trials or losses or pain that we might be facing, our Lord Jesus faces it with us as well. He endures and tastes it along with us in all its bitterness, and bears it on our behalf to bring about our deliverance.
Tonight, may we remember that Christ is with us even now. And may we receive from Him all that He has to offer us this Holy Week. Amen.
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10, NRSV).
This past week has certainly been an eventful one, hasn’t it? Last Sunday we were still wrapping our heads around things like ‘passing the peace’ with a wave, light refreshments instead of our weekly fellowship meal, and only sharing the Bread together during Communion. Now suddenly we are required to cease gathering altogether… to worship the Lord as the scattered members of His Church, not to mention all of the other major adjustments in the rhythms of our daily lives. It is amazing how much can change in such a short time.
But change is nothing new for us. From the beginning, we Christians have been a people of change, although at times we may have forgotten this important part of our collective past. As individual believers we have each been called into a life of discipleship: of continuous learning and growing and training in the way of Jesus, our Master. And as the Church, we are called to be a community that is aligned to God’s good will, and to be willing ourselves to be realigned to Him whenever we get off track. As St. Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, which we read together this morning, though we were once in darkness, in Jesus, we are to leave that form of life firmly behind us… we are to be changed… and now we are to live (together and alone) as children of the light.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we heard a dramatic (and enlightening) account of one man’s life-changing encounter with Jesus… how the Living God gave sight, in more ways than one, to a man who was born blind.
But first things first, of course. This story does not begin with the man suddenly deciding to change himself… or even with him taking the initiative to ask for help. No, here we are told that it all simply began when Jesus saw the man. Christ saw this man in his blindness… and did not pass him by. In our suffering, or blindness, or darkness, can we believe that Christ sees us?
The disciples saw the man too, of course… but not in the same way at all. Rather than be moved with compassion, they instead focused in on his problems… preoccupied with wondering whose fault was it that the man had been born blind in the first place. In those days, (not unlike our own) it was often assumed that physical impairments like congenital blindness were the result of God’s judgment on sin… that someone must have ‘done’ something to deserve that painful lot in life. For the disciples, this man’s predicament had them playing the ‘blame game’; trying to make sense of it all by finding out for certain who is at fault. Before we start picking on the disciples though, we might want to ask ourselves how often we do the same kind of thing… fixating on problems and searching for ‘causes’, but not actually doing much good.
Jesus doesn’t answer their question though. At least, not in the way they were expecting. He does not offer them an explanation for the man’s situation. He does not lay any blame or answer their big questions about the causes of human suffering. No, Jesus points them instead to what God’s work, God’s good will actually look like in action: He gives them a glimpse of His New Creation… New Life, beyond all expectations.
Disregarding the taboos against working on the Sabbath, Christ makes mud from some dirt and his own spit, rubs it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool named ‘Sent’. We are told the blind (and no doubt confused) man listens to Jesus… he goes and washes himself just as he was told, and miraculously receives full sight for the first time in his life. In an instant, his whole life was changed, completely transformed… and in the same moment, his journey of faith had begun.
The rest of our Gospel passage plays out with a comic back and forth between the spiritual experts, who stubbornly refuse to see God’s re-creative work right in their midst, and this unlearned man who had just received his sight… and who is slowly coming to see that Jesus really is the One sent from God to do His divine work: who finds him at last and takes him from living in darkness into the light of faith… re-creating his physical eyes, yes, but even more importantly giving him spiritual eyes to recognize the Living God at work in Jesus… and to believe in Christ wholeheartedly, and worship Him as Lord.
This passage from John’s Gospel is a beautiful story of how Jesus completely changed someone’s life: setting them free and drawing them deeper towards the light and life of God. But it is also a story meant to invite us to reflect on our own stories too. How is Jesus drawing us deeper into His light today? How are we being asked to exercise faith in the Living God, and let Him bring about His new creation through us?
Like the disciples, it can be easy for us to fixate on all the troubles we see. Especially with all of the uncertainty, suffering, selfishness, and fear at work around us. And like the Pharisees, there are lots of ways we too can resist God’s invitation to share in His light: there are things we can cherish and cling to that keep us back from the life we have been called to live. But in Jesus, we have been made children of God’s light… and are the means by which God wants to share His hope, peace, truth, and holy love with those still in darkness (in whatever form it may take). So how can we take seriously our calling as children of the light? Especially today, as we find ourselves mostly stuck in our homes?
First things first, of course: the Christian journey doesn’t start off with us simply changing ourselves, but with listening to and believing in the One who re-creates us.
How do we live as children of light? We seek to draw close to Jesus. In faith we seek to let Him draw us deeper into the light and life of God. We pray… not simply sharing our words and worries with the Lord, but we also let go of our own agendas we make room for listening to Him. We read and study the Scriptures, trusting that through these written sacred words that the Holy Spirit is still at work revealing God’s purposes and mission, and is transforming and enabling us to take part in it as well. We worship, intentionally honouring the goodness and glory of God, and orienting our own lives around Him as our Lord. And as we do all this, we keep our eyes open… we actively look for ways that He might be opening up for us to share in His re-creative work. We ask Christ to show us those people (maybe they’re right before our eyes), that He wants us to reach out and help, or comfort, or challenge, or connect with. And we ask Him to show us what we need to let go of so we can be free to do His will.
So let us commit to persevering in prayer (for ourselves, for each other, and for our world), to listening to the Scriptures, and turning our hearts to God in worship, that our Saviour will show us what it means to live in His light today. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42
“But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5, NRSV).
One of my favorite cartoon strips of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. Does anyone remember that one? For those of us unfamiliar with this brilliant work of illustrated literature, Calvin and Hobbes is about the imaginative life of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Together they get into all sorts of trouble and have amazing adventures, and Calvin often ends up butting heads with every adult around. Not that it usually does him much good, in the end.
Time and again, we readers find Calvin grumbling and complaining about the cruelty and injustice of adults, especially his parents, when they ask him to do his homework eat his supper or finish some chores. Against all of Calvin’s complaints when things don’t go his way, his unsympathetic father usually resorts to repeating the same simple response: “just do it anyway… it builds character.” Whatever unpleasant, or difficult tasks lie ahead they should just be endured… because suffering, apparently… builds character.
Unsurprisingly Calvin doesn’t find this message all that compelling, and he often ends up suspecting that his parents are out to get him; that they really don’t care about what’s best for him. That ultimately, he (and Hobbes, of course) have to fend for themselves.
This past week it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s more news about COVID-19: This new respiratory virus that has captured the minds it appears, of our entire world. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety driving the actions of many: fear of not having enough of the things we need; fear of suffering, sickness and death, both for ourselves and our loved ones; and for a whole lot of us there’s also just the plain old fear of the unknown, as everything around us seems suddenly so unstable.
These are not necessarily unreasonable fears, by the way. As a friend reminded me yesterday: this is especially true for the most vulnerable. For the poor, for our elders, for those with other health complications, there is a lot at risk right now… especially if the rest of us choose to give our own fears free reign and turn our backs on our neighbours, only looking after ourselves. It’s OK to feel afraid at times. But what we do when we’re faced with our fears, really does matter, especially if we are called to care for those around us.
So as disciples of Jesus Christ, how are we called to respond? How should we react in genuinely fearful situations? We know we shouldn’t panic, but then what should we do? Just suffer through it? Does our passage from Romans command us to simply endure it all? Is St. Paul, like Calvin’s uninspired and un-sympathetic father telling us: “just to suck it up” because whatever difficulties we might have to face “builds our character”? Is that all the hope that we have to hold onto?
Today we heard in the Scriptures another story of when God’s people had to face a genuinely fearful situation, and this story opens up for us a way to answer that question. The book of Exodus tells of how the LORD rescued Israel, delivering them from slavery in Egypt and setting them free to live with Him. Our reading takes place in the early days of Israel’s rescue: not too long after all the plagues, and the parting of the sea, and just after the LORD provides them with manna, food from heaven. All along this journey so far God had graciously, and patiently led His people to freedom, as they stumbled along after Him into the unknown. And today we heard, how they ended up in the wilderness without water. They were faced with a frightening shortage of one of their most basic needs.
In their genuine fear of thirst, suffering, and death, (which I think all of us can completely understand), the Israelites turned against their LORD: calling into question His integrity and goodness, and also His ability to ultimately save them. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” They could only conclude, it seems, that God didn’t care. That the LORD would bring them all that way, then abandon them to die.
How often are we tempted to believe the same as they did? That the Living God ultimately doesn’t care about us? When we’re faced with the unknown... with our own insufficiencies… with the grim possibility of our suffering or death… When we are genuinely afraid, we are also being asked to answer this question: “Do we still believe that God actually loves us? Will we continue to believe that the LORD really cares?”
Despite all their doubts, and their ungratefulness, this part of the story of Exodus, of Israel faltering out of fear, gives us a glimpse into the grace of the Living God and points us to the source of our own enduring hope. The LORD does not leave even His unfaithful people to fend for themselves, or tell them simply to “suck it up” and endure their sufferings quietly. No, mercifully... miraculously… the LORD still delivers them, pouring out life-giving water as Moses strikes the rock. The LORD remains faithful and cares for His people, even when they had failed to trust in His saving love.
This sacred story invites us to learn from Israel’s early failure, and to hold onto our faith when we are faced with genuine fear. To entrust ourselves again to the saving love of our LORD, and to place our hope firmly in Him whatever comes our way.
Even when we can’t seem to see the way forward anymore. Even when we don’t seem to have all that we need. Even when we are faced with suffering, loss, or death: God is asking us to trust Him, to trust in His enduring love.. a love ultimately made known in the crucifixion of Jesus. Just as Moses struck the Rock and God’s gracious water poured out to spare His people, Christ was stricken for our sake “while we were still sinners” to bring God’s saving life to us and to our world.
When our genuine fears would have us question whether or not God really loves us, let us turn again and again and again to the cross of Christ.
That is what St. Paul urges the Christians in Rome and us, to do: Not simply to suffer in silence, in order to “build our character”… but rather to face whatever lies ahead by trusting in God’s saving love which can turn even our sufferings into a source of hope:
Excuse the long quotation, but let us hear our reading from Romans again as St. Paul anchors our confidence in the saving love of Christ: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; /and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners …Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
What are we Christians to do when we’re faced with genuine fear? We are not asked to ignore them… to pretend they are not real. But fears and all, we’re called to look to our Saving LORD in faith. To lean on Christ’s life-giving love and let Him lead the way as He calls us to genuinely care for those all around us… and to share the hope we have in Him through our words and our actions.
Through the Holy Spirit at work in us, may this be so. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:12-17, 3:1-7 | Psalm 32 | Romans 5:12-19 | Matthew 4:1-11
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19, NRSV).
How do we stay faithful when faced with temptation?
God’s people have been wrestling with this question for ages. From the beginning we have come to know that as we seek to live God’s way, we will have to face all sorts of snares, obstacles, and outright lies… which aim to distract and direct us away from our gracious LORD. So Christians throughout the ages have tried to come up with plans and strategies in order to help to keep us on the straight and narrow path. For instance:
When I was a teenager, back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, there was one particular trend that I can remember well: does anyone else here remember WWJD? It’s a slogan often printed on bracelets or other simple objects, that stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” The idea was that when faced with a morally confusing or tempting situation, we should just ask ourselves the question: ‘What would Jesus do here?’ and our answer would help us figure out the right way to respond, to clarify for us how we too can be good, what it is that we can do to act more like Jesus would.
As well-meaning, and practical, as this catchphrase might seem to be, we are led in a very different direction by the Scriptures this morning. Instead of having us ask the question ‘What would Jesus do?’, we are being asked to reflect on what it was that Jesus actually did. We’re pointed away from ourselves, and our struggles with how to figure out right from wrong, and pointed towards the one, we are told, has come to set us free.
Let’s begin back in the beginning: with our reading from Genesis. Where we heard that originally the Living God placed humanity in Paradise, entrusting it to them and giving them one straightforward command: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;” God says “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” All of God’s good creation stood open before them, just listen to God and don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet tempted and deceived, humans take and eat the fruit, trusting in serpent’s word they seized upon the temptation to make themselves like God, to know right and wrong for themselves. And their eyes were opened, but so was the rift between them and their Maker, with the shame and guilt of sin now cutting them off from God and the innocent life they had known with Him, instead of living in Paradise they find themselves cast out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
As we may know this is the story of original sin: of the first and fatal fracture in all of God’s good creation, the source of every evil still at work in our world, as we humans cut ourselves off from our gracious Creator and chose to forge our own path… to do things “our way.” In the Scriptures we hear that this tragic turn was more than a one-time mistake, it becomes the familiar enduring pattern of human history as a whole.
But alongside this tragic story, beginning with Adam and Eve, running through the stories of Abraham and the Israelites, the Bible insists on offering us this hope: that the Living God has not given up on His people or humanity, but will take action Himself to break this cycle and to turn our story around. And so finally, we are told God comes to our aid through His beloved Son: Jesus, who is led out into the wilderness to bring us back to Paradise, overcoming our failures… with His faithfulness.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew we hear of this dramatic encounter between Jesus the Messiah and the tempter: the devil, who seeks to throw Christ off track through a series of three temptations: all designed to drive a wedge between Jesus and His Heavenly Father.
First: “If you’re really God’s Son” the devil says, “turn these stones You see into bread. Show your power as the Son of God and take matters into Your own hands, miraculously find a way to satisfy Your own hunger. If God really loved You, surely He would not want You to go hungry.” But Christ does not take the bait.
Next, the devil says: “Throw Yourself from the top of the Temple, prove Your faith in Your Father’s rescuing power, show Yourself and all of Jerusalem that You really are God’s Son.” Again, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap.
Finally, the devil goes all in: “Worship me,” he says to Jesus, “and I’ll give you the world. Everything… all power and authority it all can be Yours. You really don’t need God, just bow down to me. Choose Your own path apart from Your Father.”
This is the root and goal, after all of every temptation we face: the temptation that is, not to trust God… to not trust in His goodness, His wisdom, His justice, or His mercy… to live as if we are the ones who ultimately know what’s best, and that it’s up to us to make it happen… to see our will be done.
And this is the temptation that Jesus overcame, not because He was strong or wise enough to choose to be good, and not to be evil all by Himself, but because again and again Jesus chooses to trust the will of God. As the Son of God made flesh, He specifically DOES NOT choose what is right for Himself... because His whole embodied life was about trusting His Heavenly Father: remaining completely united with the Source of all goodness and life.
As Christ’s disciples we too are not called to seek our own independent ‘goodness’, to simply weigh the good and bad in life for ourselves, or even to ask ourselves what we think Jesus would do, and then try to live up to His example as best we can. No, we are called first of all to faith: to believe in Jesus Christ, to entrust ourselves entirely to Him. To the One Who perfectly embodied the good will God, and opened up a way for us to share in it with Him. Christ lived out the prayer: “Not my will, O LORD but Your’s be done.” And led by that trust the innocent One took up our cross for us, and gave His life to reunite us with our graciously Heavenly Father.
We are all tempted daily in a variety of ways, but every temptation, at it’s root, is the voice beckoning us not to trust in God. To trust in ourselves & our own judgment, and to doubt His goodness, His holiness & grace… to doubt His love for us, a love which is shown most clearly in the cross of God’s beloved Son: the only completely faithful One who died to save the rest of us.
What Jesus did for us is our victory over temptation. It is the means by which God Himself comes to our rescue, exposing the lies that would draw us away from Him, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to follow Him in faith. Christ doesn’t simply show us how to save ourselves from temptation, He overcomes humanity’s disobedience, our disobedience, in order to set us free to be reconciled to God: inviting us to turn to Him in faith and seek His mercy, and through His Holy Spirit, at work in us even now, Christ shares His righteousness with us and helps us to be faithful.
When we’re faced with temptations, whatever they may be, we are not simply left to figure out our own way forward. We have a gracious Saviour: Jesus, the faithful One, who came to bring us back out of the wilderness and safe again in God’s arms.
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25).
Scripture Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 | Psalm 51:1-17 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. (Joel 2:12-13, NRSV)
I love Ash Wednesday.
That might seem a bit strange, considering the heavy nature of this day: marking, as it does, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent with self-reflection, acknowledging sin, and an earnest call for repentance. In truth, it is not a comfortable time, but it is a sacred time… a gift from the LORD to His people and intended for our good.
One facet of this sacred gift which I deeply appreciate, is the way Ash Wednesday invites us to abandon our pretensions. To get really real, with God, yes, and also with each other. To decidedly set aside all of our attempts to pretend that we have finally gotten ourselves to a place where we no longer need mercy; to cease trying to convince ourselves and others, that we’ve got it all under control. To cut through all the pleasantries and face the truth together.
In our Gospel passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ warns His disciples about the temptations of hypocrisy: of play-acting with our faith… and putting on spiritual performances that does not in truth reflect the reality of our lives. Of using religious practices and holy patterns of life not to seek the LORD or walk in His ways, but to chase our own desires: especially those things that offer us a false sense of superiority: things like honour respect status acceptance. But Ash Wednesday cuts through these false promises and levels the field for us inviting us into a way of life, not grounded in our performance or on the opinions of others, but in the mercy and love of God offered to us all at the foot of the cross.
For the cross is ultimately where Ash Wednesday wants to direct our gaze… it is the suffering and death of Jesus that Lent beckons us to remember. Yes, through the prayers and practices of this sacred season: through our Lenten fasts our self-reflection, our offerings, and repentance, we are asked to take a long honest look at our lives. To acknowledge the truth of our brokenness, our limits and our sins, in order for our eyes to be firmly drawn away from ourselves, from both our so-called successes, and from our faults and failures too, so that our hope and faith might be finally fixed on the merciful face of our Saviour… so that we might turn to Christ, who Himself bore our brokenness, limits, and sins so that we might share in His righteousness.
Ash Wednesday and Lent do not task us with self-perfection or self-mastery. It is not about finding ways to become better people. No. They invite us to honestly turn our eyes in faith to Jesus our Saviour… and to follow Him in the way of God’s suffering, saving love.
This too is a merciful gift to us. As one theologian puts it: "We are able to follow him only because he was able to do what we cannot do, that is, he alone was capable of freeing us from the grip of sin through his cross." (Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.75.)
From first to last Ash Wednesday reminds us we cannot save ourselves… in truth, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But it reminds us this in order that we might cling always to our Saviour. To set aside all that would keep us from His gracious arms, and together find ourselves embraced by His steadfast love and mercy, offered to us all through the blood of His cross.
I love Ash Wednesday… because it reminds us of the depths of God’s love. This Lent may the Holy Spirit grant that our eyes be always fixed on Jesus, and may our lives be remade by His mercy and love. Amen.