Scripture Readings: Leviticus 19:1–2, 15–18 | Psalm 1 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1–8 | Matthew 22:34–46
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
Like a pretty logical basis for society. Not to mention a pretty grounded religious way of life. You know, just treat each other well. Be kind. Play nice. If this is all that’s asked of us, we could handle it, right?
Now I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but our neighbours South of the boarder, the United States of America, are about to hold an election. For what seems like forever, we have been hearing all about how much is at stake in their political competition, and just how divided their country is today. Torn between powerful factions locked in bitter rivalry, each vying for power by pitting their people against the ‘other side’. Wild claims and accusations are being bandied about, making it harder and harder for the people to know what is really going on in their own communities… eroding their ability to trust in those around them. Aggression, intimidation, violence, and hate… all aimed at each other… at their fellow Americans. This is not their whole story, of course. Not everyone there is caught up in this wave of division, but it sure seems many are finding it hard these days to ‘be kind’ and ‘play nice’.
Of course, we have plenty of problems a lot closer to home too; examples of where ‘loving our neighbours’ is brutal on this side of the boarder. Take a minute to think about some of the issues in our communities that could easily make us turn on each other… to turn our backs on each other. What about the intimidation and destruction happening in Nova Scotia, as Indigenous fishermen face violent anger from those upset by their treaty rights? What about the political and cultural tensions in our own Province? What about the clashes that split up Churches, or workplaces, or homes?
No matter who we are, or what community we belong to, loving our neighbours is hard. It can be really, really hard! We may try our best to be nice, at least most of the time… but sharing our life with other people, with real, flesh and blood neighbours, is truly challenging. Good for us, a gift to us, but challenging nonetheless.
This has been true since the beginning. All throughout our human story, we people have consistently struggled to love our neighbours well. We can see this, even in Jesus’ day. In our reading from Matthew this morning we jump right into a controversy: into a community deeply divided by bitter rivalries. Our Gospel reading itself mentions two of the factions that were themselves vying for influence and power at that time in Jerusalem: the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These two factions of Judaism did not see eye to eye. Though both claimed to be faithful to the Law God had given through Moses, they had very different visions of what God wanted of them.
The Pharisees were very strict about obeying the Law, and also the religious traditions handed down by the elders, often going beyond what the Law itself required, striving hard to keep themselves as pure as possible. They followed both the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, as well as the rest of what we call the Old Testament. They believed in angels, spirits, and the resurrection of the righteous, and were fairly popular among the common people.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, were more in favour with the ruling elites of the day. They did not believe in the spiritual realm, or in any form of resurrection. They focused mostly on the first five books of the Bible, and seemed to have had a less strict approach to following the Law.
Both of these two groups were competing for the hearts of their neighbours… for the influence and power that comes with being seen as the spiritual authority. Like many rival parties in our own time and day, both the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to be in control. In control of their community’s vision, and hopes, and future. And so it’s no surprise that they both saw Jesus of Nazareth as a threat. Despite their own differences, they saw Jesus and His project as a serious problem that needed to be stopped.
Our reading today, from the Gospel of Matthew is taken from the end of Chapter 22. But to understand what’s going on in this exchange, we should go back a bit to the beginning of Chapter 21… to the moment Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and upsets everything.
First, He rides into the city surrounded by a massive crowd who were waving palms and calling Him the ‘Son of David’… a title for the Messiah, God’s chosen royal rescuer. Next, He rides right to the Temple, to the most sacred place on earth, and starts cleaning house, and calling out the corruption that He sees. Matthew 21:13 “He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”” Jesus was messing around with both the political and spiritual status quo… in many ways He comes to Jerusalem to pick a fight.
And so, all sorts of factions start trying to stop Him. To question His right to say and do all these divisive things. And the rest of Matthew 21 and 22 moves through this building conflict, as again and again, Jesus is challenged, and yet comes out on top. Every group that was vying for influence in Jerusalem, the Chief priests and Elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herodians, all try to undermine Jesus, to cut Him down to size. But Jesus keeps on tripping them up, and calls out their hypocrisy. Publicly exposing the fact that despite their pious appearances, they were play-acting with God and His people… they were not faithfully following the ways of the LORD.
Then in today’s reading, which comes in the middle of this extended confrontation, Jesus responds to a final question, meant to test and trip Him up: When asked what is the single greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus responds with two: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Love the LORD, love your neighbour. Simple enough, right?. Only…
One question we might be tempted to ask is: How was Jesus loving His neighbours in Jerusalem? Knowing full well how disruptive His words and actions would be, Jesus repeatedly, and publicly, called out, not just the policies of these leaders, but their character as well. What about this extended conflict seemed all that kind or nice? If Jesus thinks loving our neighbours is so important, why would He be so harsh? What is going on here? What is Jesus doing?
As strange as it sounds, I think He is showing us what loving our neighbours really looks like. But to explain why, let’s turn back to our reading from Leviticus, a book meant to help Israel live as God’s own holy people. Located right after Exodus in the story of the Bible, the book of Leviticus, John Sailhamer maintains, “intends to show how Israel was to fulfill its covenant responsibility to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” set apart to reflect God’s character and goodness out into the world. They were to have their whole lives shaped after and transformed by God’s own life; they were to be holy, for the LORD their God is holy.
Just from our passage this morning, we are given a glimpse of how God called His people to live: upholding justice, regardless of someone’s status or wealth; not being slanderous, but instead speaking the truth; not profiting from someone’s bloodshed, or filling your heart with hate… but being willing to correct and reprove others when necessary. Never seeking vengeance, or bearing a grudge, but instead loving your neighbour as yourself.
For God, loving our neighbour is not simply being kind or playing nice. It always entails protecting the vulnerable, defending truth, and what is right, not giving in to our destructive impulses when we are hurt… not dehumanizing our neighbours, but rather, doing our best to protect them. Sometimes this means saying ‘no’. Sometimes love leads to conflict, or challenging the status quo, not simply to cause division, but to set things right again.
In calling out the hypocrisy of Jerusalem’s divisive leaders, Jesus was embodying the holy love of God: As the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, sent to rescue His people, Jesus was refusing to ignore the deadly games they were playing (not only with their own lives, but with their neighbours’ lives as well), and He was calling them to turn around and go another way. To follow Him, and find in Him the holy love of God: to learn from Him how to love the LORD, and love their neighbours.
As we know, most of these leaders did not turn from their destructive path. They rejected Jesus, plotted and schemed to have Him crucified. And as we know, this too is how Jesus offers them God’s love: dying for them, and for us all, as the ultimate act of love… laying down His own sinless life to forgive and rescue sinners, and rising again to share with us God’s holy love forever.
As we seek to follow Jesus in the year 2020, we too are called to love our neighbours, with God’s own holy love. But in order to love like God does, we need our eyes to be fixed on Jesus: to trust in Him, and receive from Him God’s gift of holy love poured out for us all on the cross, where our hypocrisy and sin is exposed, and where we’re graciously forgiven, and invited to be God’s holy people, reflecting His goodness out into our world: Standing up for the vulnerable, speaking and acting truthfully, not giving in to hated and fear, but striving for the good of all.
May we not settle for simply being kind, and playing nice. With the Spirit’s help, let us share God’s life-giving, holy love with our neighbours. Living each day, as those shaped by the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Herodians were Jews that were politically allied with the Roman appointed ruler or Judea, Herod Antipas. The Herodians were not on friendly terms with the Pharisees in particular, but in Matt. 22:15-16 we see them cooperating to try and trap Jesus.
 John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 323.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 33:12–23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10 | Matthew 22:15–22
Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
Today we wrap up our exploration of the book of Exodus. Over the last several weeks, the lectionary readings have led us through some of the highlights of this important arc in the much larger story of God. In this book, we have been invited to see a new vision of Yahweh, the Living God: not only as the Almighty Creator, but as the Merciful Rescuer… coming to set Israel free from slavery and cruel oppression. And not only that, but also to guide them safely through the desert and into the Promised Land… proving Himself again and again, to be their Faithful Provider. And over the last two weeks we heard how God brings them to Mt. Sinai, and invites Israel into a sacred relationship… a covenant… to be His chosen partners in His work to rescue the world.
But last week we heard that at the very moment this sacred partnership was to begin, the people of Israel break their promise, and go back on their vows to the LORD. They form for themselves out of gold an idol, an image of a calf… and they bow down to it in worship, turning their backs on the glory of God.
At this crucial moment, God listens to the prayers of mercy from Moses, and so He does not give up on Israel, which would have destroyed them. So Moses goes down to the people, destroys the calf, and stops their false worship, even going so far as to slay those who refused to repent and turn back to the LORD. Then Moses goes up the mountain again to plead for mercy for the people. To ask the LORD to rescue their shattered relationship.
The Old Testament scholar, John Sailhamer sums up the situation well: “Israel’s relationship with God had been fundamentally affected by their ‘great sin’ of worshipping the golden calf. All was not the same. The narrative shows that there was now a growing distance between God and Israel that had not been there before.” In Exodus 33:2-3, just before our reading today, we can hear how God intends to respond to His people’s rebellion: “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Thanks to the prayers of Moses, Israel would not be totally abandoned by God. The LORD would fulfill His promises and be completely faithful, graciously blessing this stiff-necked people in ways they simply did not deserve. God would make sure Israel would finally be brought to the Promised Land. But this in itself was not what the LORD had always wanted for them… that was only a glimpse, a taste of His deepest desires for them.
Way back in Exodus chapter 6, while they were still oppressed in Egypt, the LORD had shared with Moses what this whole rescue mission was about: Exodus 6:5-8, “I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. [That is, God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’
“I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God”. God wants more than to simply bless Israel… God wants to belong to them… He wants them to be His people… to be truly known by them. To be their Merciful Rescuer, to be their Faithful Provider. God wanted to share His divine life with this people forever.
But after the Golden Calf, it is clear that Israel has other plans. They want to serve less demanding lords; gods of their own making, ones that they could use to help them get the things they wanted. That is what idolatry is after all: refusing to acknowledge and serve the Living God, and instead to try and manipulate divine power to grab hold of something else. To use the divine for some other purpose.
It can be easy for us to fall into this temptation as well… to seek what God can give us, instead of seeking God Himself. To pursue all of the spiritual, psychological, and social blessings that come with our religion… but never to search for the face of the LORD.
Yes, we may not make a golden calf for ourselves… but are there ways we too distort our relationship with God? Using Him to try to get what we want, even unconsciously?
For example: Is our ultimate goal simply to get through the wilderness and into the Promised Land? For many years, the Gospel has almost been reduced to sacred fire insurance. Is our commitment to God simply about getting to heaven one day? Doing whatever it takes to avoid punishment or hell?
Or is our goal to feel better? Do we use God just to help us face our struggles? To find peace, joy, forgiveness, purpose, and hope for ourselves? Are we serving God simply for the emotional benefits?
Or is our goal to find community: to feel like we belong? To hang out with likeminded people, or to avoid loneliness?
Are all of these desires and more at work within us? If I am being completely honest, they are all at work in me.
And what’s more, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things! They are all good aspects of God’s blessings that are intended for His people… they’re all part of His plan for them, and for the world. Just like there was nothing wrong with the Israelites having gold, but it was wrong for them to take that gold and make it into a god… to serve it and centre their life around it… in the same way there are so many gifts God offers to those who follow Him that in themselves are good, but that will distort our truest purpose if we build our lives around them.
Imagine marrying someone, not because you want to share your life with them… to grow in intimacy, understanding, and mutual love… but just for their house? Or because they say nice things to you. Or because you like to spend time with their social circle? All these things can be a part of sharing your life with someone, but what matters most is the bond, the connection, the love that is shared.
Like Israel, God does not simply want to bless us, but to belong to us, and for us to belong to Him. He wants to be our God, and for us all to truly be His people… to share in His divine life. To know Him intimately, and to respond to Him in love.
Back on Mt. Sinai, God tells Moses He will not abandon Israel in the wilderness to die. He will faithfully fulfill His promises to them and to their ancestors… but His presence will not be going with them. They will receive much more then they deserved, but they will have missed the greatest gift of all: an ongoing relationship with the Living God… to know the LORD their Saviour with intimacy and love… to truly belong to God, and belong with God forever.
Standing alone in faith before the LORD, Moses intercedes again… he pleads for God not simply to bless the people… or to be faithful to His promises… but to go with them… to stay with them… to always be with them. To not give up on being Israel’s God, and for them to be His people. And amazingly God says yes again! God will go with His people. Though their relationship would be rocky, as the people kept falling back into fear and sin, God would share His divine life with them. Moses’ prayer was answered.
Then something incredible takes place: Moses goes a huge step further. “Let me see your glory!” He prays. “Let me see your glory.” Moses, who alone in biblical story so far, had experienced an amazingly intimate knowledge of the Living God, wants even more. Moses wants as much of the LORD Himself as humanly possible… he’s not seeking what God could give to him… He’s not using God to get something else. No, Moses wants to know the LORD, to follow in God’s ways… to share as fully as possible in God’s holy life. Here we see Moses embodying what the third century Church Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, called having the true vision of God: “never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.”
And again, God answers Moses’ prayer: revealing Himself to him… giving to Moses a powerful glimpse of His goodness and glory. This was a deeply personal blessing and gift, a life-changing encounter, not simply for his own benefit, but so that all of Israel might come to a deeper knowledge and love of the LORD as well. Through Moses’ seeking the face of God all of Israel was given a way forward to be God’s people… to truly belong to Him.
In Jesus Christ the Living God offers this same gift to us. As the Eternal Son of God Christ reveals God’s true face to the world… that He is our Merciful Rescuer, and Faithful Provider. That His desire is still for all of humanity, as stiff-necked and sinful as we are, to truly belong with Him. For Him to be our God, and for us to be His people. To share in His divine life, both now and forever.
Jesus stood alone on our behalf to reconcile us to God. To live among us as God’s faithful covenant partner, and in His death on the cross to deal with all our sin once and for all: repairing our relationship with the Living God, that united to Him in faith, we can be with our Saviour forever.
There are many gifts that come with sharing in God’s own divine life, but the greatest gift He offers us is the gift of Himself… that in Jesus Christ we all are invited to truly know and love the LORD… to belong to Him, and belong with Him all of our days. So let us receive everything that our Saviour desires for us, and above all else may we seek to draw near to Jesus: who is the face, the goodness, and the glory of God. Amen.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 313.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. by Abraham Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 116.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1–4, 12–16 | Philippians 2:1–13 | Matthew 21:23–32
“But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?'”
Today’s reading from Exodus reminds me of the old saying: ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’.
Just last week we heard about how the Israelites, taking their first steps on the road to freedom and the Promised Land, had quickly turned to despair when they ran out of food. Seeing no hope ahead, they complained against Moses and the LORD, only to be given an incredible gift: divine bread, enough to sustain the entire community. Offered, not just once, but faithfully from that day forward. The Living God miraculously provided for His people, inviting them to trust and rely on His merciful love.
Not long before this episode with the hunger and the heavenly bread, Israel had already faced trouble finding water. In Exodus chapter 15, only a few days after God had rescued them from the Egyptian army by parting the sea before them and leading them to safety, God led them into a region where the only water was unfit to drink. In response to the people’s complaints, God makes the bitter waters sweet; another gift meant to meet their needs, and show to them his love.
So far, at every step of the way, the LORD has been utterly faithful. Though He is leading Israel into uncharted and dangerous territory, He is continually present with them, and lovingly provides everything that they need to follow Him. But instead of Israel growing more confident and trusting in God, we find another dangerous trend beginning to develop… a pattern of doubt and disbelief that was quickly escalating.
“Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”” How often have we seen this pattern at work in the world: faced with troubles, we give in to fear, then we look for someone to blame… and then we start to look for things to throw at them. Anger and violence flow freely from fear and desperation… from believing there is no help coming, no hope on the horizon. For Israel, the stakes were raised, and so was their sense of panic… again they forgot the One who had been with them all along, who had rescued them in the past… and the One who would rescue them again.
Their fear led them to doubt the LORD, and to resist His lead.
We can see something similar going on in our Gospel reading this morning, in the confrontation unfolding between Jesus and the Temple leadership… the chief priests and scribes charged with leading what was left of Israel to be faithful to the LORD and to walk in His ways. Centuries after the people quarreled with Moses in the wilderness, panicking on their way towards the Promised Land, Jesus arrives in triumph to holy city, Jerusalem, the capitol of the Promised Land… and He starts disrupting everything. He boldly upsets the political, spiritual, and social status quo, calling out the hypocrisy and hard-heartedness of those claiming to be in charge. Matthew’s picture of Christ is of someone who comes, not simply to comfort and console, but to lead His people into the true Kingdom of God. To lead them away from self-righteousness, and the love of power and status. To lead them into the humble and holy ways of the Living God.
No wonder Jesus was seen as a threat to those on top. To those who wanted to be the ones calling all the shots… the ones who wanted to take the lead all for themselves. Christ was threatening their authority… challenging their right to rule… and endangering their high standing with all the people. And so their fear leads them to doubt… to reject Christ’s powerful words and deeds… and then it leads them to anger… to quarreling against this dangerous upstart. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they demand of Him, “who gave you this authority?” They were not looking for Christ’s answer here; they were looking for a fight.
The response of Jesus is startling… upsetting many of our assumptions about what God wants from us. To the religious leaders, scholars, priests, and teachers of his day, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Despite all of their status, and credentials, and power… despite all of their religious background and practices… outcasts and outright sinners were closer to God’s kingdom then they were, because the sinners believed and turned back to God, while they doubted and dug in their heels.
In the ministry of John, and ultimately in the person and work of Jesus, the Living God was again leading His people into the way of freedom and life. But because of their fear and doubt, the chief priests and scribes were fighting against the LORD… unable to see God’s unexpected lifegiving Gift before them.
How often do these two stories from the pages of Scripture remind us of our own pasts? Of our own times of doubt? Do we remember the times when it seemed as though we didn’t have enough? When we could see no way forward, and we could feel our panic starting to rise? Do we remember when we felt that things were great, but then suddenly we were confronted by an uncomfortable truth that threatened to disrupt the things we held to be most dear? Do we ever remember being called out for being on the wrong path? Do we remember repeating the same mistakes, again and again?
If so, then both of these passages of the Bible have good news for us: The Living God, who led Israel through the arid wilderness… who humbly took on the form of a servant, in the Lord Jesus Christ… to rescue His people, and lead them into the Promised Kingdom of God… this same God is with us today, and He remains utterly faithful… even despite our ungratefulness, our fears, and unbelief.
God graciously poured out water for the Israelites when the rock was struck, even though they had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. And when the guilty ones… the sinners and reprobates believed and turned their hearts to God, Christ welcomed them wholeheartedly into the Promised Kingdom. From beginning to end, God’s story is about His ongoing rescue mission… bringing hope to the hopeless, and help to the lost… salvation for slaves and sinners.
Though we continue to struggle with fears and doubts, God has shown us again and again that He has not given up on any of us. He longs to break the patterns of disbelief in our lives, to draw us back to Himself through faith in His redeeming love.
Yes, we do well to learn from the poor examples of unbelief we have both heard and experienced first hand, and with fear and trembling work to follow Jesus into the way of salvation. But always our hope is that God Himself is still at work within us, transforming us through His Spirit to live wholeheartedly for the LORD.
In Christ we see God providing new life for any who will receive it: allowing Himself to be struck, to be killed upon the cross, all to free us sinners trapped by our fears, and doubts, and stubbornness… and to raise us up with Him to share in the holy life of God.
In Christ we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past… we need not keep falling back into the self-destructive patterns in our lives. God has poured out His grace through Jesus His Son to sustain and to save, not only those of us gathered here, but our whole frightened, doubting world.
So even in the face of our own fears and doubts, may the LORD pour out His grace, and keep us faithful to Jesus. Following His lead. Forgiven and freed. And empowered to help those around us find eternal life in Him. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 16:2-15 | Psalm 105:1–6, 37–45 | Philippians 1:21–30 | Matthew 20:1–16
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
Today we continue our travels through the book of Exodus, following the unfolding story of the faithfulness of God as He rescues and redeems the people of Israel. So far we have seen how the LORD was moved with compassion at the sufferings of the Hebrews, and so He raised up a man named Moses: sending him to confront Pharaoh, and to demand His people’s release. We have seen God’s fearsome power at work, as He sends plague after plague, culminating with the death of all the firstborn of Egypt. We saw God part the sea to save Israel from destruction at Pharaoh’s hands, and God’s decisive act of deliverance: washing away Egypt’s army. And so now we have come to a new beginning: a new phase of Israel’s journey. They are finally out of Egypt, finally free from their old oppressors… now they are headed into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But their newfound freedom turns out to be much harder than Israel had imagined. Now they were confronting new dangers they were not prepared to face.
Exodus 16:1 “[O]n the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Not exactly a hopeful view of their situation.
Just over two weeks into their Exodus, the Israelites were despairing. Grumbling against Moses and Aaron, they say they’d be better off dead… longing for the life they’d had back in the land of Egypt. Back when they had plenty of meat and bread… back when life was familiar and safe.
Two weeks… how quickly we can forget the goodness and mercy of God. How quickly we can turn back to our old ways of life, even when they brought us nothing but misery and grief. With no food in sight, four centuries of oppression and suffering were forgotten. Along with Pharaoh’s brutal execution of their children, attempting to wipe out any hope for their future. Gone too was their memory of God mighty acts to save them: the plagues, parting of the waters… providing a way of escape when all hope was lost.
They had all witnessed first hand the saving love of the Living God… in a way no other nation on earth had ever experienced. Mere months before they were simply slaves crying out for mercy. Now they were free, with no one to hold them back from the new life God had in store for them. But what could they do when their path led them through a land completely empty of food? What were Moses and Aaron thinking? How could God treat them so poorly? How were they ever going to survive if they kept on following Him?
Faced with the undeniable danger of running out of food, Israel again could not see any possible way forward. Their trust was stretched to the limit… and so they grumbled and complained… something we can all be tempted to do in times of crisis. And I mean really, who among us would have acted differently? It’s not like they were upset about nothing, after all. We’re talking about one of the most basic needs there is. Israel needed food! They needed a whole lot of food! But it turns out they also needed to learn where too turn in their times of need. That instead of giving up and grumbling, they could instead continue to trust the One who had rescued them, the One who was still with them.
In spite of their doubts and complaining, God responds to their needs, both the lack of food and lack of faith, by graciously providing: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” Miraculously, the LORD provides the Israelites with food… with a strange, unfamiliar substance they could turn into bread, but which they could not store up and hoard… it needed to be received daily.
The Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton writes this about the impact this daily offering was intended to have: “Each day God would furnish a fresh supply of manna for His people. In this way God is teaching them about a relationship of trust, an attitude reflected later in the words of Jesus: ‘do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink… do not be anxious about tomorrow.’ The Israelites are to trust Him to meet their physical needs one day at a time. Tomorrow is His concern and problem, not theirs.” Along with the miraculous food, God was teaching the Israelites to trust Him. To believe that He would be faithful to them, always. Not only through those dramatic acts of deliverance in the past… but by supplying daily everything they would need to follow Him.
Up until this point, Israel’s relationship with the LORD had been somewhat limited to witnessing His saving work, and following His lead. Now God was taking that relationship into a deeper level: forming a pattern of life for His people dependent on His ongoing grace, inviting them to trust Him with the very basics of life. They were still to look back and remember those great acts of God’s redeeming love, but now they were also to look ahead and expect to find His grace each day. They were now to become a people who placed their whole hope in their Saviour, even in the face of some very real challenges.
We too are being invited into this deeper walk with God, into a way of life where we can bring all our cares and concerns before Him, and in this way, to learn how to rely upon His love. We’re invited to turn to God, not only when we’re at the end of our rope, but to actively look to Him each day, for our sustenance and strength.
This past year we have all seen our world dramatically change before our eyes. Many things that once seemed safe and familiar have now been severely shaken, and it can be tempting to look back and grumble at all that has been left behind. We too can easily forget the saving grace we have received, and how our Saviour has been there for us, in our every hour of need. But despite the very real challenges that lie ahead of us, God is calling us to be a people who can face the future in hope. A people who expect to find the mercy of God each day, and who know where to turn, when we can’t find our own way.
“Give us today our daily bread.” Our Lord Jesus has taught us to pray… inviting us, in our times of need not to give up or to grumble, but to cry out in faith to our merciful heavenly Father. Through prayer, through seeking to share our lives with the Living God each day, we too can learn to rely upon His faithful, constant love. We too can learn to look with hope to where our LORD is leading us, eager to receive and share His grace with our world. Through Jesus Christ we have been set free for this brand-new life with God; guided by His Holy Spirit into God’s Promised Kingdom. In Jesus, the true bread from heaven, God has provided everything we need, and He asks us now to trust Him with everything we are… with our yesterdays, todays, tomorrows, and forever. Amen.
 Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 186-187.
Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:21-28
“But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’”
What are some things that bring you comfort? A familiar song? Your favorite meal? The voice of a dear friend? Something that I find quite comforting is fire… especially drawing close to a hot woodstove on a cold, gloomy day. The feel of the heat, the smell of the woodsmoke, the site of the dancing flames, I love all of it. To me, fire brings comfort.
But I know it can also be dangerous… unpredictable… unsafe, so to speak. This same object can be both the source of delight, as well as a cause of destruction. And what sometimes brings us comfort can also disrupt everything.
In today’s Old Testament reading from the book of Exodus, we heard about Moses’ lifechanging encounter with the Living God. Many years and troubles have passed for Moses since our reading last week: Having been spared as an infant from the fear-driven violence and cruel bloodshed of Pharaoh, the Israelite Moses ends up being raised in the palace of Egypt’s king: the adopted son of a princess.
As an adult, Moses becomes troubled by the oppression of his people, and one day he takes matters into his own hands, and murders an Egyptian man who was beating an Israelite slave. When his crime becomes known, Moses flees out into the dessert… to the land of Midian… where he tries to start his life over again: he gets married, and begins working in the family business, shepherding. And here we find him today: miles away from his past and from his suffering people, tending sheep on Mt. Horeb, or Sinai, in the wilderness. And here, God finds him too… and disrupts everything.
Out of the midst of the burning bush, the Living God calls out to Moses with words of both grave dis-comfort, and ultimate security. In this surprising exchange God is taking action to change the course of the story: for Moses, for Israel, and most dramatically for Pharaoh, challenging his brutal reign and prideful claim to power, and bringing to light God’s character of compassion and rescuing love.
Our text today dwells on Moses: God disrupts his new life, and calls Moses to go back to the land he fled from, to confront the most powerful leader of the most powerful empire of his day, and demand Pharaoh let his slaves… let God’s people, go. What God gives to Moses, out of the blue, is an overwhelming, and dangerous mission.
A scholar, Brevard Childs, sums up the effect this call had on Moses: “What began as just another day doing the same old thing, turned out to be an absolutely new experience for Moses. The old life of shepherding was ended; the new life of deliverer was beginning… The initiative is shifted from Moses to God. The ordinary experiences emerge as extraordinary. The old has been transformed into the new.” Suddenly Moses’ life is being taken up by God and drawn into His redemptive purposes and work in the world… that God’s mercy, and justice, and holy love might shine out into the darkness.
Are there moments in our own lives when things like this happen to us? Not God’s voice speaking to us from within a burning bush, but much more subtle moments when out of nowhere we are confronted with our own calling? When we know within our bones we are being urged to take action… to take part in something true and good, but also frightening? Those times when the Living God seems to be disrupting our comfortable stories in order to bring His New Life into our world?
As God’s people, Christians have been called to a distinctive, some might say disruptive form of life: set free from the grips of sin, in order to share in God’s holy love. In our reading from Romans today we can catch a glimpse of what that kind of life looks like, as St. Paul unpacks what it means to live for Christ; to be a living sacrifice. Some of it sounds wonderful: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” Some of it sounds daunting: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another; associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” And some of it sounds dangerous: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… never avenge yourselves… if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”
Isn’t this going a bit too far? Isn’t this a little extreme? I mean, the world we know doesn’t work this way… blessing our enemies… refusing revenge… isn’t that a recipe for disaster? Won’t that lead to people taking advantage of us? How can we keep ourselves safe when God’s calling us to live so differently… to embrace the way of peace in an often hostile world?
In this we can hear echoes of Moses’ concerns about facing Pharaoh: feeling uncertain, inadequate, afraid and vulnerable. And here God’s words of comfort come to us as well… speaking to us in our distress as we seek to follow Him. Whatever Moses may face before Pharaoh… whatever we might face on our road… this is the comfort God offers us all: “I will be with you.” “I will be with you.” The comfort we have comes from trusting that the Living God is with us.
John Sailhamer, another Old Testament scholar makes a noteworthy point: “God responds to Moses’ question not by building up Moses’ confidence in himself but by the reassurance that he would be with him in carrying out his task.” Where today we might expect someone to encourage Moses to think more positively… to dig deep down and find the inner strength to face his challenges, God doesn’t leave Moses to lean on his own power, but to find the comfort and strength he needs by leaning on the LORD. The point isn’t that Moses is up for the task, but that the LORD almighty is.
The scholar John Goldingay makes this point even more strongly: “Moses is not being commissioned on the basis of his experience in the palace, his initiative, or his leadership potential… What counts is God’s “I will be with you.” This is not merely a promise that he will feel God is with him but a promise that God will be with him actively whether he feels it or not.”
The Living God, the LORD, Yahweh, the One who truly IS, invites Moses… invites Israel… invites us to trust Him. Even as He calls us to go where we’re frightened to go.
Last week we heard how Peter boldly confessed his faith in Jesus, proclaiming that He was the Messiah; God’s chosen Saviour. But today we heard how, moments later, Peter tries to disrupt Jesus’ mission… to dissuade his Master from taking the road of suffering to the cross.
No doubt, Peter thought he was helping… trying to offer support and comfort. But he was ultimately undermining God’s greatest act of salvation, not only for Israel, but for our entire world, trapped and burdened by the weight of evil and sin.
Jesus does not take the bait, and after calling Peter out, Christ turns to His disciples to make clear to them their calling: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The road of discipleship… of the Christian life… is not traveled by playing it safe, but by trusting the LORD. By following the Living God, and His Son who was sent to save us. Who promises again and again that He will be with us always.
Christ’s call is disruptive: it leads us to the cross, and to the dismantling of sins grip on us, both inside and out. Dying to all that is not of God in us. But it is precisely in following Christ to the cross that we find New Life in Him: freed by His sacrifice, forgiven by His blood, and filled with His Spirit to walk with Him in holiness. Though the Living God can be disruptive, unpredictable, even dangerous… He is also the source of our deepest comfort, freedom, and life.
In sending Moses back to Egypt, as frightening as that may have been, God disrupted the power of Pharaoh and brought new life to His people. In sending Jesus the Son of God to take our place on the cross, God disrupted the powers of evil, to set us all free from sin. And now, in sending the Church out into the world, through the power of His Spirit, the Living God is at work in us disrupting the darkness through His holy love: Changing the stories of those who find in Him eternal life. And wherever we are called to go, He promises to be right there with us. May that promise be our comfort, now and forever. Amen.
 Childs, B. S. (2004). The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. (P. Ackroyd, J. Barr, B. W. Anderson, & J. L. Mays, Eds.) (p. 72). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Parids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 245.
 Goldingay, J. (2010). Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone (p. 19). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42
Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
Now I know I said last week’s Gospel reading, seemed like a difficult text to talk about on father’s day… but our Old Testament reading today takes that theme of familial tension to a whole new level.
This is one of those parts of God’s story, that we may have heard hundreds of times before, but which can still leave us feeling disturbed and more than a little bit unsettled. Just like last week’s reading we are left asking: What is going on here? Why would God ask for such a thing? What kind of a good and loving God would ask someone to slay their own innocent son?
Once again, the temptation for us can be to assume that we ultimately know what’s best, and then to take up the task of judging whether or not God lives up to our ethical standards. But instead, let us try to resist this urge, and, Lord willing, let us take on the work of a faithful listener… as one who is trying first to hear and understand, God’s word to us, even if it goes against our own first impressions. We are being asked first of all to trust, even when we don’t understand… Something that is challenging for all of us to do.
This part of the story begins with an obvious, but important observation: This story is about how “God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). It’s not primarily about somehow proving that God is trustworthy. Although time and again in the story we find that the Lord is faithful beyond measure, graciously giving to Abraham everything that he needs. Rather, the question that is driving the story is whether or not Abraham is trustworthy: if he will be willing to truly trust the Living God with everything. It is Abraham’s life in the spotlight, it is his character and commitment that are on trial… and along with him we are drawn into the story as well.
If we look a bit closer at Abraham’s story so far, we find a complicated story. He has his moments of deep obedience, but mixed in with some very serious setbacks. It all begins in Genesis chapter 12: As part of God’s world-wide rescue mission to restore His fallen creation, God calls Abraham out from the land, and way of life, of his ancestors… promising to give him a land and life all of his own. Further on we find God making some other amazing promises, including the promise that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who were both well beyond child-rearing age, would miraculously have a son together, and that through this child all the nations of the world would be blessed. God invites Abraham into a unique and blessed relationship.
But while Abraham says yes to, and wants all that God has promised him, we find him stumbling along the road of obedience and trust, often driven by fear and doubts, taking what he thinks are easy short-cuts, and leaving those closest to him to suffer for it. Like his first son Ishmael, born to Sarah’s servant, Hagar, who were both forced out of Abraham’s family, and left desperately alone. That is, until the Lord mercifully steps in, and bringing hope out of their despair. In short, Abraham’s life so far has been one of unsteady devotion… of shaky faithfulness.
Despite all this, God still clearly wants Abraham to be a part of His own divine story. Throughout his stumbling journey towards wholehearted faith, we find God right there with him, patiently walking along with him, in utter faithfulness. Leading us all the way to today’s reading: to the climax of Abraham’s story, when God commands him to offer up Isaac his promised son as a sacrifice.
What a thing to ask for… the life of his beloved son.
We rightly cringe at the thought of human sacrifice, largely because our culture way back has been formed by the story of God. And the idea of slaying one’s own child strikes us
as barbaric and heartless. But for Abraham, this was an even more intense and terrible request. Isaac embodied absolutely everything for Abraham. He was the one glimpse of hope that all of his own struggles and strife, that his entire life was not meaningless… that it wouldn’t all be in vain. For Abraham, Isaac was God’s gracious love and promises personified. Isaac had been God’s priceless gift to Abraham and Sarah. God was not simply asking for his son, He was asking Abraham for everything… to put his whole life on the altar, and give it back to the Lord.
What has the Lord given to us that we hold onto as precious? What are the blessings that we treasure most in life? During this time of the pandemic many of us have had to step back and rethink our priorities. People are finding that many of the things they have been striving for in life… success, money, security, pleasure, and so on, are a lot more fragile and fleeting than we had imagined. At the same time, it seems there is also a newfound appreciation for a different kind of treasures: time with family and friends, relationships, and community, justice, and kindness, goodness, and truth. These things are re-awakening in the hearts of many today; treasures we have all too often taken for granted.
But this story bids us to take a step beyond this revelation: beyond simply recognizing those things that are truly worth striving for, and beyond simply reorganizing our own priorities. Through this story we are being summoned to envision setting everything aside: to surrender our dearest treasures, to hand back to God everything that we have been given. We are being called to trust the Living God with everything. And not in a vague, abstract sense, but in an uncomfortably close to home choice: to let everything go into the hands of the Lord.
It is natural at this point to think about all that saying yes to this choice will cost us. To count up all the things that we can’t imagine living without, and then to think that God must be cruel to ask us to let them go. But the flip side of that question, which we do not as easily think about, is the cost of saying no to trusting God with everything. What is the cost of clinging to the treasures of our hearts, to our hopes, and dreams, instead of trusting God with our lives?
The author Dallas Willard seeks to clarify this for us in writing about the high cost of nondiscipleship; that is, of choosing not to take up our cross and wholeheartedly follow Jesus. He writes:
“one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in human life… But the cost of nondiscipleship is far greater - even when this life alone is considered - than the price paid to walk with Jesus.
Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”
Yes, following Christ, trusting God, means letting go, but it also means sharing our life completely with our gracious Lord… our, Creator, our Redeemer, and the Giver of all good things.
All along, God had remained faithful to Abraham beyond all expectations, giving freely to Abraham more than he could have ever imagined. Then in this challenging command God gives him another precious gift: a life-changing call into a life of radical faith. To entrust everything Isaac embodied, all his own hopes, paternal love, and life, into the gracious hands of the Living God… reorienting his whole life forever in the process. In his book entitled Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “Abraham had to learn that the promise did not depend upon Isaac, but only on God… Abraham received Isaac back, but he has him in a different way than before.” The Living God Himself, not Isaac, was now the foundation of Abraham’s whole life, and this is the same relationship, the same way of life that you and I /are being called to share in too.
But God’s giving goes on: This part of the story ends when God Himself provides the lamb, the means by which Isaac, and with him Abraham’s entire life, is spared, and the sacrifice that unites them together in love, pointing us to the greatest gift God gives to us all: For Jesus Christ is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In Christ, God offers us Himself, His entire life, embodied once and for all in Jesus, God’s incarnate Son, faithfully laying down His life to reconcile and redeem our world… who suffered, died, and was raised again to bring eternal, abundant life.
Despite our own stories of unsteady devotion and shaky faith… our own imitations of Abraham’s stumbling and struggling, in Christ God has provided us /with everything that we need. Baptized into Jesus, and set free to live in Him, we are called to offer our entire lives, everything we are and have to the Living God, to set aside and resist the pull of sin, which only leads to death, to entrust all we treasure into His gracious hands, and to learn anew that everything, the preservation of our past, the enduring of our present, and the hope of all our tomorrows depends ultimately on Jesus our Saviour… the ultimate gift of God, who alone brings eternal, abundant life.
In our struggles and our doubts, let us not turn aside, but turn again and again to our gracious Lord, who invites us to come to Him, to trust in Him, and receive our life in Him.
May the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to give to all those who trust in Him, keep our minds, our hearts, and our whole lives faithful to our Lord, that we too might take our part in God’s world-wide rescue mission, and find ourselves transformed by His gracious faithfulness. Amen.
 Willard, Dallas. In Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith) (p.16). HarperSanFransisco. Italics mine.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2003). Discipleship (p.97) Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
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.