Scripture Readings: Acts 4:32–35 | Psalm 133 | 1 John 1:1–2:2 | John 20:19–31
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’”
Holy Week is now behind us. The light of Easter has dawned, and God’s New Creation has been brought to life in the Risen Christ, inviting us to receive all that comes along with it. Today, the second Sunday of Easter one aspect of God’s re-Creation in Christ stands out for us to contemplate, as well as to take part in: Peace.
God’s gracious gift of peace.
What a precious thing peace is; so often sought and longed for, and always so sorely needed. Our Psalm today written centuries before the Resurrection of Jesus, used holy, sacred imagery to talk of its significance.
“Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
that runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.”
The anointing with oil was one of the ways that Israel’s priests, and High Priests like Aaron, the brother of Moses, were consecrated… set apart to stand before the Living God on behalf of the people, and teaching them to live God’s ways together in the world. The Psalmist poetically connects this priestly calling and role with kindred living together in harmony and peace. But today in our reading from Acts, we hear the dream of this poem coming to life in the light of the Resurrection.
After the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on those who believed that Jesus is Risen, something remarkable happened: they actually lived together in peace. They “were of one heart and soul”, we are told, holding all things in common. Caring for one another to the point that none of them was in need. Imagine this: over 3,000 Israelites, gathered from all over the Roman world, were living in unity together because of their newfound faith in the Risen Lord. What a wonderful fulfillment of God’s rescue mission in motion! How can we share in this kind of living sign of God’s peace at work in the world? How can broken, messed up people really live together in peace?
The Good News, not only for you and I, but for the whole Church and the wider world, is that this is God’s gift to us in the reality of the Resurrection: real reconciliation and peace is possible through the life of the Risen Lord.
In our reading today from the Gospel of John, we are given a glimpse into that startling reunion between Christ and His frightened disciples. Confused and concerned by the death of their Lord, and the strange news from Mary Magdalene, the disciples had locked themselves away. But that didn’t stop Jesus from finding them, and offering these words: “Peace be with you.”
This first meeting could have taken a whole different direction. After all, despite all their words of commitment, these men had all deserted their Lord. Though John tells us that one of them found the nerve to not look away while Christ hung on the cross, they had all fled while He alone suffered. In the end, they had all abandoned Him to die. Jesus could have arrived in their midst, and condemned them all for their unfaithfulness… but instead He comes announcing and offering them peace. Union, harmony… reconciliation. Offered unexpectedly as a gracious gift.
For Israelites, like the first disciples, there was one place where this kind of peace was found: the Temple of God in Jerusalem was where amends were made… where peace between humans and the Living God was offered and received. Sacrifices were made there to atone for the sins and failures of the people. And the priests alone were the ones who were able to announce God’s forgiveness and peace.
Of course, we know that Jesus was doing this kind of thing long before His crucifixion… in fact, offering forgiveness to sinners was one of the reasons the chief priests and the temple leaders hated Him. But something different is going on in light of His Resurrection. The crucified and Risen Jesus has accomplished, and offers something new: forgiveness and peace, atonement made possible through His own blood.
In the letter of First John, which we heard today, Jesus is portrayed as the perfect sacrifice, renewing fellowship, unity, and peace, between us sinners and God by cleansing us from all sin with His own redeeming blood. But He’s also portrayed as our perfect High Priest; the One who stands before the LORD on behalf of humanity as our advocate, interceding for us, and empowering us to live God’s way in the world. Israel’s Temple, sacrifices, and priesthood, are all pointing us to Jesus, and they all find their fulfillment in the reality His resurrection makes possible: reconciliation, union, peace between God and sinners like us. Jesus, the Son of God gave up His life on the cross to make atonement for the whole world, and He lives again as serves as our eternal Advocate… pleading for us, and praying for us, even when we stumble into sin… offering God’s forgiveness, to all who trust in Him.
We usually stop right here, with the announcement of this Good News that Jesus has died to reconcile us to God, once and for all. But this is precisely not the end, this is the New Beginning… this is God’s New Creation at work even now among us, and for His messed up world.
Back to that first Easter, what does the Risen Lord do immediately after pronouncing peace to His bewildered disciples? He gives them all a mission… a share in His mission. “As the Father sent Me, so I send you...” Jesus says to them, and then He breathes God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that was at work in Him, into them, and says these curious words: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What is all this about? What is going on???
In a word, we’re seeing the fulfillment of God’s plan for His people Israel: That though the whole earth belongs to God, His covenant people were to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6), sharing in the fellowship of the Living God… living together in the light of His holy love… and making His goodness and mercy known to all people everywhere. They were to stand before God on behalf of the nations, that the LORD’s forgiveness and peace might be shared by everyone. They were to be the means by which God’s ways would be known in the world… and though this mission was taken up and completed by Jesus, the faithful and true Israelite, Christ is now, once again, creating a community to bring this mission to life in their midst.
In short, through the disciples, God was re-Creating the priestly kingdom in the Church: a worldwide community shaped by God’s forgiveness and peace, to be shared with everyone through faith in the Risen Lord.
At Easter, Jesus entrusted to His disciples a share in His own priestly role: pronouncing peace with God, and forgiveness of sins, in Jesus’ name, and through the Holy Spirit at work in them. They were to announce by their words and their way of life that in Jesus Christ the Risen Lord, the reality of reconciliation is now truly possible… overcoming all that divides us from God and from each other.
This is the hope that the Psalmist had: a family living together in unity, set apart for the sacred ministry of embodying God’s peace. This is precisely what happened after the Holy Spirit empowered the first believers to live together in the reality of God’s forgiveness and holy love… drawing people to faith daily by living God’s way together.
For many of us, this all sounds like some unachievable fantasy… completely removed from our experience of human relationships. And yes, it is all too easy to see our painful lack of peace… especially in those places where we long to see it the most: among our communities… in the Church, and our families… we can even see all sorts of divisions in our own selves. There’s so many broken relationships… so much anger, suspicion, and selfishness. How are we supposed to take seriously the possibility of peace… of unity, if we’ve never seen it in action? If we can’t even imagine it happening?
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29) These are the words the Risen Lord spoke to Thomas, one of the Twelve disciples, who would not come to believe in the New Reality… in the Resurrection of Jesus, and all that comes along with it… until Christ came and met with him… opening his eyes and his heart to the truth.
These words are also spoken to all of us who struggle to believe in the Good News that Jesus lives, and that He has opened up the way of peace, once and for all. These words are an invitation to faith… an invitation to trust that God is doing something beyond what we can expect or imagine, and that, even though we cannot clearly see how it might come about, God wants to bring His New Creation, His peace to light through you and me.
In His death and Resurrection, Jesus offers God’s peace, forgiveness, and fellowship to us all. Through His Holy Spirit, He empowers us to truly be God’s people, to walk in God’s light, and to share in God’s great rescue mission. To be the community of those who have received forgiveness in Jesus Name, and who are now commissioned to share forgiveness too. In our life together: in our worship, fellowship, service, and even in our struggles and failures, Jesus remains our eternal Advocate, our Great High Priest… so that through this Resurrection Reality, this New Creation He’s begun in us, all people might come to believe in Him, and receive New Life in His name.
So, with the Holy Spirit’s help, may the peace of the Risen Lord be always with us. May it overcome the divisions and darkness in us that deny God’s reconciling love. And may it empower us to live God’s way in the world, that others might come to believe in Christ’s peace by seeing it at work in us. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 25:6–9 | Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24 | Acts 10:34–43 | John 20:1–18
“I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18)
These words from Mary Magdalene, spoken around two thousand years ago, announce again to us today the Good News beyond all hope! The news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified, died, and was buried… has been raised and lives again: the firstborn of the resurrection! Two days ago, with Mary, we looked and saw Him on the cross, bearing our sin and shame… suffering for the sake of the world… and pouring out God’s holy, reconciling love for us all. Two days ago, we saw Him buried, but today we see and empty tomb. Today we know our Saviour lives, and will forevermore.
Today is the fulfillment of all that has come before it: the promises of God to renew and rescue His broken world; the mission of His Son to draw all people back to Himself; the suffering of the cross, to bring forgiveness and salvation. All the works of God come to a head today… to make all things new. Today, Jesus Christ has been resurrected, from the dead. And with His rising, the Living God has begun Life anew.
It’s impossible to capture all that Easter morning means in one sermon. A lifetime isn’t long enough to completely understand, never mind actually speak about, what the resurrection of Jesus entails. But when Mary first said those joyful words “I have seen the Lord”, God’s light has begun to open our eyes to the truth of this Good News, helping us to begin to grasp what the Risen Lord has done… what He’s been up to all along, and which He will one day bring to completion.
We heard more than hints of this work in our reading today from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, who wrote these words at a time when Israel was heading towards disaster: towards losing everything, and being led into exile. And yet, God gave Isaiah even then these words of hope:
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:7-8)
Tied up with God’s promise to redeem and rescue His covenant people, Israel, is the promise to destroy that “shroud that is cast over all peoples… he will swallow up death forever.” The destruction of death. How can that be? How can we even imagine it? The end of that thing which comes to us all… which causes so much grief and fear. For that to happen, the world as we know it would have to be remade… yet this is exactly the hope that the Living God gives to His people, and which the Risen Christ brings to life in His own resurrected body: nothing less than New Creation breaking into the midst of our Old one… revealing God’s plan and power to raise up His people along with Him. To not abandon this world He loves to darkness and destruction, but in Christ to raise it up again to share in His own New Life.
This isn’t all a simple way of saying that we will go to heaven… escaping this physical place, in order to go somewhere else entirely. The picture the Bible paints for us, especially at Easter, is the hope that death itself has actually been overcome. That what happened to Jesus at the resurrection will one day happen for us. That we will be given new bodies, like His, that can never die again… ones perfectly fitted for life within God’s re-Created world. Today we echo Isaiah’s words that the Living God has swallowed up death forever in Jesus Christ, who is the Risen Lord of Life. Today, though we face death, we need not fear it as those who have no hope. Christ has conquered the grave for us and we will share in His victory.
If our passage from Isaiah points us to this New Creation, one set free from the fear of death in the hope of resurrection, our reading from Acts holds out the hope of a New Humanity… a new way to be God’s family, again through the Risen Lord.
In Acts Chapter 10, we heard St. Peter speaking about Jesus… about what He did in His life, His death, and that He was raised again from the dead. But if we know a bit more about who it is that St. Peter is speaking to we may come to see just how world-changing this message really is. St. Peter, like all the Apostles and early members of the Church, was Jewish… a descendant of Israel, God’s chosen covenant community. As a people set apart from all the other nations of the world, Israel had often assumed that God was mostly concerned about them… rescuing them, restoring them, bringing God’s kingdom to them.
But ever since Jesus, whom St. Peter knew to be Israel’s Messiah, was raised from the dead, God had been pushing His people further out into the world. At the time of our passage today, the Holy Spirit of God had led St. Peter to do something he had never done before: visit the house of a Gentile, someone who was not Jewish. And not only that, the man, Cornelius, was a Roman Army Officer. This was someone who represented the forces ruling over St. Peter’s people, even though Cornelius himself feared God, and was kind to his Jewish neighbours. Under normal circumstances, this Roman soldier was untouchable… there were too many barriers between him and the first disciples. And yet in this moment, with the Spirit’s help, Peter begins to understand… to see that Christ is not just Israel’s Messiah… but the hope of every nation… that the Risen Jesus is truly the Lord of all.
This was the watershed moment when the Holy Spirit of God began to break down the walls of hostility between Jews and non-Jews, drawing people from all cultures and races of the earth into God’s New Family, united together by faith in the Risen Lord of all. Through the work and witness of people like Peter, God’s Spirit continues to spread the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection throughout the whole world, so that people from every nation might look to Him as Saviour and Lord. We are here today (in body, or the Spirit) because that message has been passed down to us, and today we are just one part of the worldwide Christian Church. Today, we see everyone’s invited into God’s New Family.
Which brings us to our passage from the Gospel of John, to that first Easter morning when the resurrection of Jesus was first brought to light. For the turning point of all history… it’s a bit of a messy story: people running all over the place… confused, afraid, weeping… an empty grave, a pair of angels… and what seems to be a gardener. Yet in the midst of all the chaos, the Risen Lord is there, and He makes Himself known not by some grand spectacle… but by saying the name of one who felt lost, and who suddenly was found. The Risen Lord spoke to Mary, and the world was never the same.
Mary Magdalene is rightly known as the very first apostle… the very first eyewitness to the Risen Lord, and the first person sent by Him to share the Good News with others. In that moment, she went from a grieving, distraught disciple to someone with a mission: a new purpose, a new reality, a new identity. She had encountered the Risen Lord… God’s re-Creation in the flesh… and now she had a part to play in helping others encounter Him too. Today we see that the Risen Lord is drawing not just nations but people… people like you and I to be a part of His New Creation. That in the midst of the messiness of life, the Risen Lord still speaks to us, making His presence known, and empowering us to tell the world that Jesus Christ not only suffered and died; He rose again. To show that He is alive, by living as those, who through the Holy Spirit, are already being shaped by God’s New Creation today.
Today, like Mary, we’re given a New Identity: we’re a Resurrection People. Those who exist in the world as witnesses that Jesus lives… and who are beginning to put into practice God’s New Life even now. Through the eyes of faith: we see the Risen Lord of life, and the fear of death that grips our world begins to lose it’s hold over us. We see the Risen Lord of all, and the prejudices and self-interest that threaten to shatter our world begin to crumble and give way, to God’s reconciling, self-giving love. We see the Risen Lord, who calls each one of us by name, and all the confusion, isolation, grief, and sense of purposelessness begins to be transformed, by His compassion and grace, into our new and blessed life as God’s beloved children, and into our new calling to share this Good News with our world.
Today, in faith, the world-changing words of Mary are entrusted to us. We are called to proclaim through our actions and words that we too “have seen the Lord.” That we have believed the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead, and that God has begun His New Creation in our lives. So today, and always, let us be those who will say: The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Amen!
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 52:13–53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 4:14–16, 5:7–9 | John 18:1–19:42
Don’t look away!
Today we stand confronted with two hard realities which have the tendency to trouble and disturb us, tempting us to avert our eyes and do our best to ignore them: I’m referring to the words suffering… and sin. They both have many names, like anguish and rebellion… grief and wickedness… but whatever it is we call them, today they’re simply unavoidable. They are of course present in our daily lives, in all sorts of guises, but today they stand out in the open. Today the Scriptures lead us with Jesus to the very foot of the cross, where these two seemingly unescapable forces are exposed in all their ugliness. A good and innocent man suffers and dies before our eyes, and all the world turns on Him… or simply turns away.
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we… held him of no account. (Isaiah 53:3)
Don’t look away. As hard as it is… to see His awful pain, and remember our own.
As hard as it is… to see the guilt of those who killed Him, and remember our failures.
Don’t look away. Today, we are called to share in this sacred moment.
As hard as it is, we are invited to bear witness. To see.
To see that at the cross the Living God Himself does not look away. That the LORD does not ignore our suffering, standing by, unmoved. That the Holy One does not leave our injustices unanswered. That rather than leave us to fend for ourselves, Jesus, the Son of God, chose to bear the cross for us all because God refuses to look away from us… even when we could not, and cannot bear to look at Him.
For he did not despise or abhor / the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, / but heard when I cried to him. (Psalm 22:24)
In Jesus Christ God endures all of our sin and suffering… and at the cross He draws infinitely close to us. Today we see there’s more going on than an innocent man suffering. This is more than simply a cruel tragedy… it’s the costly cure for all our transgressions. At the cross there are no cliché words of comfort… but rather we see Jesus embrace all our pain completely. At the cross there’s no brushing aside or excusing all our wickedness… but rather we see Jesus offer us all complete forgiveness.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
Don’t look away from Christ at the cross, because that is where God’s love is found! God’s love which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things… endures all things. God’s love which refused to look away… to let all our suffering and sin continue to separate us from Him any longer. God’s love poured out for us even while we were still his enemies… when our voices joined in with the crowd calling out “Crucify Him!”
Don’t look away because at the cross, as hard as it is to endure, Christ shows us the shocking depths of God’s love… just how far He has gone to redeem and rescue His sinful and suffering world. In Christ’s suffering and death at the cross God becomes Godforsaken for us… in order to rescue Godforsaken us. There’s nowhere we could go that His redeeming love can’t reach. There’s no darkness that the light of Christ at the cross cannot break through.
The Good News of Easter will remind us soon that the story, our story doesn’t end here. That the darkness of this day gives way to a glorious new dawn. But today… the Good News of the cross of Christ is that the Son of God has come to us suffering sinners… and has died to set us free. To take our place. To bear our shame. To give up His life to save ours. Precisely at the point where we deserved it the least… precisely at the point when we needed it the most.
It is precisely at the cross Christ shares God’s love with us, and it is also precisely where we see God’s love for our neighbours as well. For if God has loved us so completely, what’s stopping us from loving each other?
We cannot look away from the cross because that is where God helps us to see the suffering and sins, of ourselves… and also our neighbours… but instead of looking away from them in despair or disgust, we are empowered to see them with the eyes of God’s holy love. We cannot look away from the cross, because that is where God reminds us that the way forward for all of us comes only through forgiveness. We cannot look away from Jesus Christ on the cross, because that is where God opens our eyes to His longsuffering, reconciling love… and that is where Christ opens up the way for us all to find New Life in Him.
So today, let us look in faith to Jesus at the cross. And find in Him forgiveness, life, and God's longsuffering love. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 | Mark 11:1–11
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
It’s hard to believe that Palm Sunday is upon us once again. Through the last forty days of Lent, we’ve been on this journey together, preparing our hearts for the message of Holy Week, which we celebrate each year. This is my second Palm Sunday hear at St. Luke’s… and it’s also the second beginning of Holy Week that we’ve marked since the start of this pandemic. And while I hope to celebrate many more Palm Sunday’s together with you, I think we are all hoping that this is our last one with COVID-19 in the mix.
How many times over this past year have we said or thought: “I can’t wait ‘til this is over!”? I’m willing to guess, more than a few… hundred, that is. Despite all of the good things that we have to be thankful for, there’s a real longing for what we have lost: the sense of stability, security… what seems like at times our whole way of life. And so we look ahead for signs of hope: available vaccines, decreasing active case numbers, old routines resuming, stirring up anticipation that some change is on the way. And while there are lots of different ideas about how we should all be move forward … whether we want to get ‘Back to Normal’, or to ‘Build Back even Better’... one thing most of us agree on is that we don’t want this to go on much longer. We’d all like this pandemic to come to an end… and better yet, to end NOW!
This is all completely natural. A very normal response to some incredibly challenging times for our entire planet. But what if, in the midst of our anticipation, we’re also missing something important? What if our minds are so fixated on a certain kind of hope that we’re unable to notice an even greater reason to be excited?
Today, as I mentioned before, Christians around the world mark the beginning of Holy Week: the time when the most significant part of the Gospel story takes shape. It begins today, Palm Sunday, where we join along with the crowds mentioned in our Gospel passage this morning, praising God and cheering as Jesus of Nazareth arrives, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. It is a day full of celebration, anticipation, and excitement… where hopes are raised that finally things are all about to change. Finally, life will be sorted out… it’ll all be set to rights. Finally, God’s kingdom is coming, on earth as in heaven.
Of course, the crowds in Jerusalem that day, were not dealing with a pandemic… (not much social distancing being practiced, by the sounds of it), but they were dealing with many challenges most of us have never had to face: the pains oppression, living under the rule of violent Empires. Though they had once had their own nations, Israel and Judah had lost it all… and now those who remained were living under the cruel kingdoms of the world.
In a lot of ways, that sentence describes much of the history of God’s people. Early on in their story, the Living God had rescued them from Egypt, where they had been living for centuries as the slaves of Pharaoh. Set free to be God’s people, to share in God’s reign of goodness and love, Israel was led to a land of their own, a land full of blessings. But far from ideal, their time in the land was filled with many ups and downs… of moments when they were in sync with God, but more often when they were not. Eventually, their own kingdom is divided into two, and both fall into wickedness, corruption, and unfaithfulness. Though the LORD had warned His people that this path would lead to dark consequences, both kingdoms would find themselves overthrown, and carried away into Exile. Only the Southern Kingdom, the people of Judah, would one day return to their land, yet even then, they were still being ruled by oppressive, powerful nations: Babylon, the Medes and the Persians, the Greeks, and finally, the Romans. Yet through all this time, they were offered the hope that God faithfulness would endure… that He would not abandon them forever, but would one day rescue them again, just as He did when they were powerless slaves in Egypt, long ago. God’s promise of a Messiah, a chosen descendant of King David who would bring God’s good Kingdom at last was something that gave them courage and strength… as they learned to live as God’s people after their whole way of life had been lost… after their sense of security, and stability had been all but destroyed by centuries of living under the threat of various vicious kingdoms.
At the time of our Gospel reading today, in the first century AD, there was a whole range of different ideas about how to best prepare for the arrival of God’s kingdom. Some focussed on a renewed obedience to the Laws of the Covenant. If the Exile and subsequent sufferings were the result of their own unfaithfulness, then some, like the Pharisees, figured the best way to bring about God’s kingdom was to double down on strict adherence to their religious duties. On the other side of the spectrum, were those who embraced the new situation… who endeared themselves to those in power, and sought to gain their favour. Awaiting God’s kingdom for them looked more like pragmatic survival: compromising with the existing kingdoms of the world, and settling for whatever positions and status their masters were willing to offer. The Herodians, and even some of the Temple leaders had taken this route, finding security, and stability from the hands of their overlords.
A third approach was that of pursuing radical revolution: rising up fight against their powerful oppressors! Many would-be Messiah’s had tried this tact… but most ended up in bloodshed. Yet even so, some still thought that the best way forward was through the sword.
And finally, there were also a whole lot of people who were just hungry for change. They had no obvious politics, no agenda or plan to follow. They were just bearing the weight of oppression, and wanting that burden to end. Like their ancestors in Egypt, all those long centuries ago, many in Jesus’s day were simply crying out to God for deliverance, longing for an end to their sufferings, and for a whole new life to begin. And just like He heard His people’s cries for deliverance all those years before, the Living God had come to set them free in ways they could never imagine.
And so we heard today that Jesus entered Jerusalem, the capital city of God’s people, at the time when the week-long celebration of Passover was about to begin. He came along with pilgrims from all over the Near East were arriving to remember together the LORD’s great act of salvation in their past: His rescuing them from oppression in Egypt, and especially the final, terrible plague where all of the firstborn of Egypt died… while a lamb was slain so that Israelite families would be passed-over, and find a whole New Life with God. Jesus had come to what was left of Israel in those days, the survivors of the kingdom of Judah, after years of exile and suffering… the descendants of the people God had saved from slavery in Egypt, and He had shared with them the Good News of God’s Kingdom coming again, but in ways they had not anticipated, and which didn’t fit into their plans.
Jesus came among them as One who was able to bring God’s healing into their lives: miraculously restoring life and wholeness to all those who were suffering, but also pushing the boundaries, and the nerves, of those with influence. Jesus came among them teaching about what it looks like to live in God’s Kingdom here and now, but in ways which all too often exposed hypocritical hearts. Jesus came among them, offering them a whole new way of life, but instead of stability and security, he spoke about loving even our enemies, finding greatness through humility, seeking forgiveness instead of retaliation… picking up crosses and following Him.
The Kingdom Christ is concerned with, the Kingdom of God… one meant to be lived out here on earth, as it is in Heaven, was simply not what they, or even we, would have imagined, but it is God’s response to all our cries of longing, and pain, and hope. “Hosanna!” ‘God Save Now!’ the crowds had called out as Jesus arrived among them. And often our own aching hearts could echo that very same cry today.
But the question is: how will we receive God’s response to our cries through Jesus, His Son? Even if it is not at all what we had anticipated, will we trust that the LORD knows what we need most, beyond what we could ask or imagine?
The rest of Holy Week reveals God’s Kingdom coming about at last: Christ’s humble service and communion shared at the table on Maundy Thursday; prayer in the midst of temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane; faithfulness even while being betrayed, with Judas’ kiss, and Peter’s denial; courage and integrity when falsely accused and unjustly condemned by the Jewish Council and the Gentile Courts; the ultimate act of self-giving love as Christ was raised up on the cruel cross; and God’s ultimate act of New Life breaking through death when He rose again from the grave.
It’s natural to get excited about the ups and downs of our lives. It’s good not to be too detached from the struggles and joys we all face. But let us not forget where our hope as God’s people truly rests: in what Jesus Christ has done for us and for the all the world, bringing God’s Kingdom to life, both forever, and now!
Let us not lose sight of the New Way of Life Christ has opened up for us at the cross: saving us, and setting us free to be His people right here and now. To be shaped by His forgiveness; to be guided by His grace; to be caught up in His mission to share God’s rescuing love with everyone. The end of this pandemic is something that we can all look forward to, but even this pales in comparison to the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. So today, may we lift up our hearts, and rejoice in what Jesus has done for us, and through His Spirit at work in us, may we join in His Kingdom work right now! Amen.
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 31:31–34 | Psalm 119:9–16 | Hebrews 5:5–10 | John 12:20–33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:20-21)
Do we wish to see Jesus? Do we desire to see God at work in our world?
It seems like a silly question. I mean, of course we would want that, right? To recognize the presence of our Saviour close at hand. To draw near to the eternal King of Kings and Lord of Lords… who also calls us to cast our cares on Him, because He cares for us. To come to know Him more completely. To experience His life. Of course we’d want to see Jesus! Such an obvious answer, right?
Maybe. But then again, maybe there’s more to the story than we have considered. Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we’re being asked to reflect on what ‘seeing Jesus’ entails… and how it might just change how we ‘see’ everything, and everyone else as well.
In our Scripture reading this morning from the twelfth Chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus invites us to see the surprising way in which the glory of God is made known in the world. But before we reflect on our passage, we need to set the stage a bit.
Right before our text this morning comes John’s account of Christ’s ‘triumphant entry’; with Jesus arriving at Jerusalem ahead of the Passover festival, riding into the city on a donkey and greeted by crowd crying: “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches. Next week, on Palm Sunday, we’ll look a bit closer at this significant part of our Lord’s story, but for now it’s important to know the context of Jesus’ words we heard today, as His controversial ministry of signs and sermons gives way to the rising tensions of Holy Week… which we are fast approaching.
Riding into the city, we clearly see the expectations of the crowd: they’re welcoming Him as the Messiah, the chosen One of God… descended from King David, and sent to rescue Israel for good. We’re also able to see the panicking of the Pharisees, along with the rest of the Jewish leaders who were plotting against Jesus. Having already been told in the earlier chapters of John’s Gospel that these leaders were looking for way to have Jesus arrested and killed, they looked on in dismay as the crowds of Jerusalem cheered Him on. John 12:19 says, “The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” As it turns out, they weren’t really all that far off the mark. In the very next verse, we heard that “among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks”… and that they wanted to see Jesus too. This may not seem like a big deal today… but back then it certainly was.
There was little love between most Jews and Greeks in Jesus’ day, due to a long and bitter history of clashes and conflict. After Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and it’s people carried away from the land into exile, the Jews had existed under the thumb of several ancient superpowers: the Babylonian Empire, Persians and Medes, who let them return to the Promised Land, and then came the Greeks, with the armies of Alexander the Great, and his power-hungry successors, who fought for control of his vast empire… which, of course, included the region of Judea.
And like many empires, before and since, the Greeks hoped to spread their own culture, their own language, values, religions, and their whole way of life, forcing the people they conquered to conform, either willingly or not. In Judea, especially during the second century before Christ, this all led to harsh oppression, bloodshed, and essentially cultural genocide… as their Greek-speaking conquerors desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and tried brutal ways of forcing Jews to abandon their faith and their God. Eventually, some devout Jews rose up in revolt, retaking control of Jerusalem at least for a time… before the entire region was brought under Roman rule. The Romans at least allowed the Jews to retain their religion and culture, but the tensions with their non-Jewish, Greek-speaking neighbours remained, and continued to fester.
Which brings us back to Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, at the climax of His deeply misunderstood mission to Israel. The crowds saw Him as the Messiah, but one who would bring about their desires: a powerful military victory over their non-Jewish oppressors. For them, the Messiah was to bring glory to God by crushing their enemies and bringing Jerusalem enduring freedom and peace at last. On the other side of things, the leadership of Jerusalem saw Jesus through the eyes of jealousy, and fear. Not only were they losing the respect, and influence, and glory they felt they deserved, as more and more of their people looked to Jesus instead of to them… they were also afraid that if Jesus succeeded in starting a revolt, the Romans would step in and crush Jerusalem once and for all. For them, Jesus was a threat to everything that they held dear. Even Jesus’ own disciples, seemed mostly concerned with their own sense of power and greatness. Seeing all His signs and hearing His words, but missing their true meaning. God’s people, it seems… the crowds, the leaders, the disciples, could not yet see Christ clearly. At this point, late in John’s Gospel, I think we’re meant to remember John’s words from the very beginning, where he says in Chapter 1:10-11, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” But we’re also reminded of this hope too, found in verses 12 & 13, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
And so, as some Greeks come, seeking Jesus, He says that the fateful hour has now arrived for Him, the Son of Man to be glorified. How? By military might? By rising in fame, power, and influence? By crushing His rivals, and seizing control, like everyone else expected of Him? No. Our Lord makes clear that His hour of glory means going first to the grave. Buried, like a single grain of wheat in the ground, in order to bear much fruit, and bring new life into being. “Very truly, I tell you,” He says to us, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:24-26)
Setting aside the praise and expectations of those around Him, He chooses instead to surrender His fate to the will of His Father in Heaven, setting His face towards the cross as the fulfillment of what He had come to do… the only means by which God’s great rescue mission would succeed. As one scholar writes: “Jesus sees his own forthcoming death. It would be so easy to avoid it, to choose the path of human glory and follow the crowd to revolution. But if the seed is not placed in the earth, “it remains alone.”… Jesus’ path to glory will also put him in the ground before he can bring his fruit to his Father.” His glorious victory would be to faithfully face the cross. This is ultimately the place God’s life-giving power shines through the brightest. But what kind of ‘fruit’ was Jesus’ crucifixion and death to bring about? What was accomplished by laying down His life in the grave?
More than we could ever imagine, and certainly more than we can speak of today, but our text today points us to some of the ‘fruit’ of our Lord’s life-giving death. At the cross, Jesus reveals the true and glorious heart of God: a heart full of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love… which He intends to bear all sorts of fruit in our lives. N.T. Wright puts it like this: “Jesus’ death will be like sowing a seed into the ground. It will look like a tragedy… In fact, it will be a triumph: the triumph of God’s self-giving love, the love that looks death itself in the face and defeats it by meeting it voluntarily, on behalf not just of Israel but of the whole world, the world represented by these ‘Greeks’.” In the words of our Lord: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”( John 12:32). All people. Jew. Greek. All. Any who will receive Him, believe in Him… follow Him. And in coming to Him, we find ourselves drawn to each other in His love. To see ourselves, and everyone, only in the light of the cross.
Christ died to draw us back to God, and back together too. To bring us God’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and love… and to bring human forgiveness, /reconciliation, and love to life as well. To tear down old hostilities, and put to death our prejudices… to set aside our selfish ways, that we too can share in His glory. Not the glory of this world… the glory of fame, power, or domination… but the glory of God’s eternal love, planted in Jesus at the cross in order to take root and spread through us His people, and out into His world.
Do we still want to see Jesus? To draw near the Living God at work in our world? If so, we are pointed first of all to look at Him on the cross: offering His life in God’s own glorious, self-giving love for all of us, Jew… Greek… all of us, while we all were still His enemies. And seeing Him there, offering His saving love to everyone, we are pointed to our enemies… and called to love them too.
How might seeing Jesus offer His life for sinners transform how we see the real people in our lives, and in our wider world? How might it call us to change our attitudes and actions towards the people we’d rather not see? Those we fear? Those we despise? Those we are struggling to forgive? What might we have to set aside if we are to reflect the holy, self-giving love God offers us all in Christ? Our own ambitions? Our bitterness? Our selfishness? Our indifference?
Seeing Jesus truly, coming to know Him as He really is will challenge us, and change us, and call us to let His love take root in us. Seeing Him on the cross, there’s no more enemies to overcome… just fellow human beings in need of God’s forgiveness, and New Life. To live this way, to follow Him, means letting our old life die… letting Christ bury our fear, and hate, and evil with Him at the cross. But it also means bearing the fruit of God’s glorious love: becoming the way that God’s goodness, and mercy, and healing power flows into our world, which is still being torn apart by the darkness Christ died to rescue us from.
So may the Holy Spirit of God help us always to see Jesus: to remember His self-giving love offered once and for all on the cross. May His love take root within us, may it change how we see and treat those in our lives, and by His grace, may we bear all the fruit that comes from following Jesus. Amen.
 Richard A. Burridge, “Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 542.
 Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 29–30.
Scripture Readings: Numbers 21:4–9 | Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22 | Ephesians 2:1–10 | John 3:14–21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)
What comes to our minds when we look at a cross?
For many, crosses are simply a common Christian symbol… an image closely identified with one of the world’s religions. With a bit more reflection, of course, crosses become a lot more uncomfortable. Long before Christianity, crosses were simply instruments of death… a form of brutal execution, designed to cause all sorts of suffering, as well as to publicly display the powerlessness of the victim, all while showcasing the supremacy of those who had them lifted up.
This tension isn’t erased when we turn to the story of Jesus either, for the crucifixion of Jesus exposes the worst of what’s wrong with the world: as this upright, innocent man is betrayed, /and handed over to humiliation, suffering, and a cruel death in an absolutely atrocious act of injustice.
And yet… from the very beginning, Christians have looked back on the cross as absolutely central to the Good News of God, seeing it as the focal point of genuine forgiveness, and the indispensable pillar holding up all of our hope. The season of Lent lays before us the road to the cross, and it calls us to contemplate its deeper significance. And so today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we’re drawn towards an odd passage from the Book of Numbers (or as it’s known in Hebrew: In the Wilderness), a story about doubt, deadly snakes, and a curious cure… a story picked up by Jesus Himself to point us to His purpose: to shed much needed light upon His mission of redemption.
The story takes place in the wilderness, as the people of Israel are being lead by God through Moses from slavery in Egypt into a whole new life, and new land of their own. At this point, they’ve already spent years travelling in the desert, consistently provided for by the gracious hand of God. And yet, they consistently prove themselves to be quick to turn on the LORD… exposing their lack of trust in His love for them, and betraying Him in their hearts every time they find themselves in trouble.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” we heard them say today, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5). The scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier sums up their reaction like this: “Absent is any recollection of their gracious deliverance by the hand of God. Gone are all thoughts of the covenant they have entered into with the Lord at Mount Sinai. Forgotten is the divine promise that they are to be God’s chosen, holy nation and a kingdom of priests. Their present discomfort and suffering rob them of the memory of God’s gracious redemption and faithful day-and-night guidance of them.” And so, in the face of Israel’s persistent unfaithfulness, serpents are sent, bringing to light the people’s sin… with dire consequences.
In this case at least, the people’s suffering seems to bring them to their senses. In Numbers 21:7 we’re told they “came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” (Numbers 21:7). In response to their repentance, the LORD doesn’t remove the deadly serpents, but He does mercifully provide their means of survival… one which requires those bitten to respond with trust in God.
“And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
How was that supposed to work?!? The story doesn’t care about unpacking the mechanics of the miracle. In many ways, it remains a strange story for us today. But there are a few points that this part of Israel’s story raises for us to ponder: First, God’s people had turned away from Him in distrust and ungratefulness, bringing about their own suffering and death as a result. Yet God provided for them a sign which brought about salvation: despite their betrayal, they would live if they trusted in the LORD’s gift… if they looked on the serpent of bronze, which was raised up to rescue them.
Turning now to the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus draw this odd episode from Israel’s past into His own unfolding story, in the context of a conversation with one of the teachers of Judah. In John chapter 3, were told that a pharisee named Nicodemus came one night seeking to speak with Jesus. A risky move, considering that by this point, our Lord was already becoming a controversial figure. But Nicodemus seems open to what Jesus was up to. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2). Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus was sent from the Living God, the same LORD who had rescued Israel from Egypt centuries earlier, and had led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. He sees at work in Jesus the holy presence of God… but our Lord takes this conversation in a surprising direction. “Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3)
What follows is a back and forth between Jesus and a puzzled Nicodemus, where it becomes clear that our Jesus is presenting Himself as more than a godly teacher, but as the One sent with the unique role of revealing God work in the world. “No one has ascended into heaven” He says, “except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:13-15)
If you blink, you’ll miss it. Just one line thrown into a complicated, multilayered exchange. But by referencing this ancient story of doubts, and snakes, and salvation, Jesus is shedding important light on what He claims He has come to do… comparing Israel’s unfaithfulness in the wilderness to the situation in Nicodemus’ day… and in our own!
Just as in the wilderness, long ago, where Israel had turned their back on the LORD, doubting His faithfulness, forgetting His gracious deliverance and covenant with them, grumbling against His provisions, and despising the path He was leading them on, Jesus was making the case that God’s people were again betraying the LORD, and so were headed for disaster. The leadership of God’s people at the time of Nicodemus had claimed to be concerned with being faithful to the LORD, obeying His covenant, and walking in His ways. Yet time and again their response to Jesus’ actions and words exposed their hardened hearts, towards God and their neighbours. They had become preoccupied with their own preservation, instead of pursuing their calling to be God’s people in the world. It was as if they were reliving their ancestor’s unfaithfulness in the wilderness: preferring the darkness of hypocrisy, selfishness, and pride to the light of the LORD… and by evoking this story, Christ was exposing the sin of His people. Not just in Jerusalem that day, but in our day and age as well.
How have we relived the sins of Israel in the wilderness? How have we re-enacted the same distrust, ungratefulness, and contempt of God’s holy ways in our own lives? Perhaps paying lip service to the commandments of God, while happy to hide much of our heart’s desires in the dark?
This isn’t easy to think about. It’s even harder to talk about. It’s so much more comfortable to turn a blind eye to our darkness… instead of stepping into the light so that it can all be dealt with. But just as Israel’s guilt, in the wilderness, and in Nicodemus’ day, was only the beginning and not the end of the story, our own failures and sinfulness don’t have the final say either. We too are offered hope and forgiveness from the LORD, as Christ reveals God’s merciful response to all our unfaithfulness.
As He did long ago in the wilderness, God has provided a saving gift, only this one was meant not for one betrayal, but for all betrayals… not for one moment in history, but for all of time… not only for one people, but for all the families of the earth… offering new life to any and all who look at the Christ, the Son of Man ‘lifted up’ on the cross, and see in Him, in His suffering and death, God’s unending love for sinners… and place their trust, no longer in themselves, but in Him. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)
In connecting His mission with the story from Numbers Chapter 21, Jesus was not simply exposing the darkness at work in all of our lives… He is pointing us to the remedy for our spiritual sicknesses: that is, His own life, lifted up on the cross, and offered as a gift of love from God to our messed up world. As one scholar puts it: “Like the dying Israelites looking to the snake “lifted up” for healing, we are to see in Jesus’ broken body “lifted up” on an instrument of torture our healing and the source of eternal life.” For the Israelites in the wilderness, looking at the bronze snake, would no doubt be deeply uncomfortable: a clear reminder that they had brought about their own misery. But if they responded to the invitation to look at it anyway, trusting in God’s mercy, it was transformed from a reminder of suffering, sin, and death into a gift meant to ensure their survival.
For you and I, looking at Jesus on the cross, we are forced to remember the reasons for His suffering: our sin, but ultimately God’s love. We are invited to look at Jesus lifted up on the cross and see much more than the brutal result of human betrayal and unfaithfulness… we’re invited to see the merciful love of the Living God for sinners like us, and looking at Him in faith, we are offered forgiveness, reconciliation, and God’s everlasting life, which we now know that even the grave itself is powerless to stop.
Jesus endured the cross for us as an act of God’s saving love. His whole mission was not to condemn, but to offer us His life, once and for all. As we draw nearer to Holy Week, to the suffering of Christ on the cross, may we remember that, for us, it is always a sign of God’s great love: drawing us out of the darkness and into God’s life-giving light, where everyone can find forgiveness, healing, and hope.
 Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 120–121.
 Richard A. Burridge, “Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 500.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16 | Psalm 22:23–31 | Romans 4:13–25 | Mark 8:31–38
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Mark 8:34-35
For many today, self-denial presents a serious struggle. Our current culture is one in which we’re urged to give in to our urges… to pursue what makes us ‘happy’ as one of the highest goals in life. We can see this at work in the blatant consumerism all around us… promising us fulfillment if we’ll buy into what they’re selling. We can also see this at work in the more belligerent resistance to making simple concessions for the sake of the safety of others… like wearing masks in public during a global pandemic. But before we get to comfortable pointing our fingers at those ‘other’ people, it’s good to remember that this same struggle is at work in us as well. No one loves to be told to do what we don’t really want to do. To go against our own instincts, or set aside our plans. To do something like that requires a whole lot of trust… trust in the one who is asking us to follow their lead instead.
In our Scripture readings today from the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, we find the Living God at work inviting His people to trust Him: to set aside our own agendas, and hand our lives over to Him.
In our reading from Genesis 17, we heard the Living God reaffirm His relationship with Abram and Sarai, who He renames Abraham and Sarah. We heard God call them into a deeper, life-shaping commitment, promising that through them both would come many nations and kings. This all sounds wonderful, especially for Abraham and Sarah, who were both well beyond the age when having children was even possible. God’s promising them more then they could ever achieve on their own. But wrapped up in this wonderful promise is also an invitation to faith, by saying no to their own ideas about the way forward. This is a call to take God at His word, even if it seems impossible.
Backing up a bit in Abraham’s story, this all becomes a bit clearer. In Chapter 15, God promises that Abram will have children of his own… offspring who will carry on his line, despite his advanced age. In Chapter 15:5-6, God tells him: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” So far so good. He trusted God, and took Him at His word, but as their story unfolds, we can see that Abram and Sarai will continue to struggle to let go of control… causing deep pain and wickedness as a result.
Right after God makes this promise, in Genesis Chapter 16, Sarai decides the only way forward is to take matters into her own hands, by making her Egyptian slave sleep with Abram, to bear him a son. Calling to mind how Eve took the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gave it to Adam, choosing to go their own way, instead of staying true to the LORD, Genesis 16:3 says “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.” Together they use this vulnerable person as a tool to achieve their own ends… and from this act, all sorts of cruelty and division unfold in their family. And yet, God steps in to bring life and hope to Hagar and Ishmael her son… leading us to Chapter 17 where the LORD has words with Abram and Sarai. “I am God Almighty”, He reminds them, able to be faithful, despite all their doubts, and for their part they’re to walk before Him “and be blameless.” How they live in the world as His people matters: their faith needs to take shape in all they do. Letting go of their own agendas, and letting God lead them onward.
In short, God calls Abraham and Sarah to a renewed relationship of faithfulness; trusting that the LORD would be true to His word, as impossible as it may seem, and that they were to let go of their need for control, and follow His holy ways.
In our Gospel reading today, we find another call to faithfulness, another wonderful promise, and another struggle at work.
We heard Jesus our Lord making clear what it means to be His disciple: it means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Him. The scholar R.T. France makes an important point about what this really entails: “The metaphor of taking up one’s own cross is not to be domesticated into an exhortation merely to endure hardship patiently. In this context… it is an extension of Jesus’ readiness for death to those who follow him, and the following verses will fill it out still in terms of the loss of life, not merely the acceptance of discomfort. While it may no doubt be legitimately applied to other and lesser aspects of the suffering involved in following Jesus, the primary reference in context must be to the possibility of literal death.” As was the case for Christians throughout the ages, and even to this day, following Jesus means putting it all on the line: it may lead us to our death.
This is a clear call for serious commitment. For entrusting our entire lives to the LORD. But with this call to deny ourselves, comes the promise of New Life. Unlike the fleeting security and false fulfillment our world has to offer, Jesus is leading us into the eternal life of God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35). Just as the LORD promised that Abraham & Sarah would have offspring of their own, as impossible as it seemed, Christ promises that as hard as discipleship may be, it will all be worth it! That following Him to the cross is truly the path to life. The question again becomes: will we take Christ at His word?
Backing up again… before Christ says these challenging yet promising words, we heard what led Him to utter them: the challenge from Peter. Moments before, Peter had been the first to confess that Jesus was more than simply a teacher, a miracle worker, or prophet, but was in fact the Christ, the Chosen Messiah of God, sent to rescue His people, and bring God’s good kingdom at last. It’s clear Peter believed in Jesus… but just like Abram and Sarai before him, he struggled to let go of his own ideas of how God’s plan would unfold. Unable to reconcile his own vision of what it meant to be the Messiah, with Jesus’ words about rejection, suffering, and death, Peter tried to turn his Master away from His dangerous mission… but ended up getting in the way of God’s kingdom.
So Christ has words with Peter, calling him to remember that our human ways are not the same as the ways of God. That despite how frightening the path before them might be, enduring the cross was the only way God’s good kingdom would be able to come. To trust that Jesus is the Christ means letting Him lead us onward… sharing in His sufferings, to also share in His New Life.
As Christians today, faced with our own struggles, temptations, and doubts, we too are invited to trust in Christ, and follow Him in faith. To let our plans and actions be shaped and guided by His holy love; to bring to Him our fears of losing control, and suffering; to remember that God Almighty can truly handle what lies before us; and to believe that our Saviour will see us safely home.
Christ’s call for us to deny ourselves is above all else an invitation to trust Him. Not only once and a while, but all throughout our days. So may the Holy Spirit give us the faith to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. Living God’s way in the world, as He leads us into Life. Amen.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 340.
Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 2:1–12 | Psalm 50:1–6 | 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 | Mark 9:2–9
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
This morning the Church celebrates Transfiguration Sunday: the part of our story when our Lord Jesus Christ was dramatically revealed as the beloved Son of God to Peter, James, and John, on top of a mountain. It is a strange part of our story, with puzzling, otherworldly elements, and yet it also offers us a clear, life-giving message; in many ways, summing up God’s word to us today.
But this part of our story does not simply stand all on its own. Its message flows throughout the entire story of the Bible, drawing together its distinct notes into a surprising melody. And so, while this passage from Mark’s Gospel wants to focus our eyes on Jesus, it does so by bringing to mind two renowned servants of God: Moses and Elijah two of Israel’s greatest heroes, appear with Jesus as He is transfigured in glory on top of the mountain.
Each of these ancient prophets, who spoke for and served the Living God, had their own dramatic parts to play in the story so far. Moses, of course, was chosen to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, to become a people set apart for the LORD. It was through Moses that God had given the Law, the commands of the covenant to transform Israel’s communal life by God’s own holy love. And centuries later, Elijah was known for powerfully challenging the unfaithful leaders of Israel, calling the people back to serve the LORD with all their hearts, and to turn away from the false gods they had been chasing after.
Yet besides having two very different roles to play in God’s story, there are also some striking similarities between them that we should note:
Both Moses and Elijah had encounters with God on a mountain. The same mountain, actually: Mount Sinai, or Horeb. Moses had met with God alone amid the lightning and the cloud to receive the Law from the LORD, in order to share it with Israel. Elijah, fleeing the wrath of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, encountered the LORD at his lowest moment, who offered some surprising hope that God had not given up on His people.
Both Moses and Elijah were also connected to the promise of the Messiah, seen as foreshadowing the coming of God’s ultimate Saviour. The last biblical prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, concludes his book with these words from the LORD: 4 Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:4-5). As God’s people longed for His Chosen One to bring God’s kingdom at last, the stories of Moses and Elijah were deeply tied to this hope: That the One who had promised to be their God, and to make them His own people would not abandon them, and would be their faithful redeemer.
Which leads us to one more way that both Moses and Elijah were connected: they had both stood before God’s people and called them to make a clear choice. To choose to be faithful to the Living God, or go their own way. To choose the path of life, or the path that leads to death.
At the end of his life, after leading the people of Israel through the wilderness for years, Moses challenged his people to stay true to the LORD. Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. The way of the LORD leads to life, all others lead to death. Moses confronted the people with this call to faithfulness.
Centuries later, after years of Israel’s blatant unfaithfulness, worshipping the Canaanite gods, like Baal, Elijah confronts God’s people with the same kind of decision: Serve the LORD, the Living God alone, or serve somebody else. Take the path of life, or the path that leads to death. As we can read in 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a dramatic, mountain-top showdown in front of the assembled crowds of Israelites. Verse 21: 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. But in a dramatic display of power, the LORD answered Elijah’s prayers, turning the hearts of the people back to the Living God, for a time.
These three similarities between Moses and Elijah… their special encounters with God on top of a mountain, their connection to Israel’s future hope of God’s coming kingdom, and their roles in calling God’s people to renewed faithfulness, all come together in our Gospel passage for this morning, and shed light on its significance. Helping us to understand it’s message for us today.
Mark tells us that Jesus brought three disciples, Peter, James, and John, up to a mountain with Him, where He was changed before their eyes. Transfigured, with clothes suddenly shining with an unearthly light, Christ gives these three a glimpse of God’s coming Kingdom through Him. This alone would have been an amazing experience for the disciples, but then suddenly Moses and Elijah are there alongside their master. Having grown up hearing all about these two heroes of Israel, no doubt their heads were spinning as they tried to grasp what this all meant. The scholar R.T. France points out that, “the reappearance of two such great men of God from the past, and their conversation with Jesus, would evoke a sense of Jesus’ climactic place in the ongoing purpose of God, and of the coming of the long-awaited age of fulfilment in his person.” Here they all were: on a mountain top, Moses and Elijah talking with their Master, who was just transformed in glory before their very eyes.
All this would surely confirm that He is indeed the Messiah, the Chosen One who would finally bring God’s good Kingdom at last. Then suddenly, a cloud overshadows them, like it did on Mt. Sinai when the LORD appeared long ago, and a voice calls out: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” More than a prophet, more than even a human Messiah, Jesus is being revealed as the very Son of God… and also revealing what their (and our) response to Him must be. The scholar Stanley Saunders maintains that “Everything in this episode —Jesus’ transformation, the appearance of Elijah and Moses, Peter’s babbling attempt to be useful —leads up to the moment when God speaks from the cloud that suddenly overshadows them, naming Jesus and commanding the disciples to “Listen to him!” This is the message of the Transfiguration: God’s word that “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” If this is truly who Christ is than what else could we do? Again, in facing Jesus we’re confronted with the choice between the way of life or the way of death: to listen to and follow God’s own beloved Son, or to listen to other voices, and follow our own way.
So, what is Jesus saying to us? What are we being asked to do if we too are to follow God’s beloved Son?
Many things, we can be sure. Some which will seem wonderful, filling us with hope and joy. Some which will be much harder, calling us to be transformed. Immediately before he led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, Mark tells us that Jesus had some hard words for His disciples to hear. Though Peter tries to push forward his own vision for God’s kingdom, Jesus reveals to them His mission is to suffer, die, and rise again, and that those who follow Him on this way of life will suffer too. He says to them in Mark 8:34-35: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Confronted with this choice, will we listen to Him? Will we find true life by taking up our crosses, and following Him?
This coming Wednesday, we will begin our journey through the season of Lent; choosing the way of life by following Jesus as He bears our sins up mount Calvary, overcoming the power of death, by dying on the cross. We follow Him there knowing that the grave could not hold Him, and that New Life awaits all those who place their hope in Him. The Season of Lent invites us to listen closely to our Lord: to draw near to Him, and be transformed by God’s mercy and grace.
So may the Holy Spirit of God open our eyes and hearts to God’s vision for our lives: for ourselves, for our families, our Parish, and our world. And may we draw near to Jesus, God’s own beloved Son, and truly listen to Him… committed to being faithful to Him, and in Him find New Life. Amen.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 352.
 Stanley P. Saunders, “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 9:2–9,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 453.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:21–31 | Psalm 147:1–11, 20c | 1 Corinthians 9:16–23 | Mark 1:29–39
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”
What does it mean to become all things to all people? And in what ways are these words being directed to us today?
We are living in a society which cares a lot about identity. For many, it seems, the highest purpose in life is all about figuring out, or perhaps even crafting, ‘who it is we really are’… the journey of self-discovery, summed up well in these famous words from the play Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” For many, being authentic, ‘being yourself’, has become the greatest goal.
And yet… at the very same time there’s the crushing pressure to find acceptance… to receive approval and welcome from the people we value in life. No one wants to be shunned, to be rejected or excluded, and one of the easiest ways to avoid that seems to be to try and fit in… to adjust aspects about ourselves to blend in with the group… or as the marketing slogan goes: “Give the people what they want.” Even if this means we have to put on a bit of an act.
“Be yourself”, and “be like us”. “Be unique” and “be sure to fit in.” These two conflicting messages are pulling on us all. And into this mix, we hear the words from St. Paul’s letter this morning, speaking about how he became “all things to all people.” Though it may at first seem like St. Paul has simply chosen his side… that is, ‘fitting in’, even at the cost of authenticity… there’s actually something in his words and life which moves us far beyond our culture’s quests for self-discovery, or finding community. But to better understand what St. Paul is calling for, I think we would do well to turn again to today’s Gospel text: to the first Chapter of Mark, and his story of Christ’s first healing.
Our Gospel reading today takes place right after last week’s encounter in Capernaum, between the man with the unclean spirit and Jesus of Nazareth. We heard last week how with a word, Christ cast the unclean spirit out, powerfully revealing His clear spiritual authority. And so today, we heard that right after this amazing event in the synagogue, Jesus and His first disciples went to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew (probably to enjoy their own version of Hymn Tortons), and there they find Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Even today, with modern medicine, this could have been quite dangerous. Back then, this could have easily been a matter of life and death.
But easily, and astonishingly, Jesus takes her hand and raises her up from her sick bed, and she’s completely healed. Word spreads, and once the Sabbath was over at sunset, the whole town had gathered at the door, bringing to Jesus everyone who was sick, or was suffering at the hands of an unclean spirit. And Jesus brought to them God’s healing and rescuing power; restoring their bodies, minds, and spirits, working well into the night in order to bring them rest at last.
So far, so good. Everything seems to be going smoothly. Jesus has a chance to do some real good in this community, building up his base of support, at the same time. But in the morning, we heard Jesus was nowhere to be found. And when the disciples tracked Him down and tried to explain that “everyone is searching for you”, Jesus replies: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also” (Mark 1:38).
Why go so soon? Why would He leave, when there’s still so much to do? The people of Capernaum, not to mention His own disciples, wanted Him to stick around. The crowds saw His power to bring them spiritual and physical freedom beyond their deepest hopes. The disciples saw how the people were all being powerfully drawn to Him. They saw the beginnings of a movement with real momentum. Their new Rabbi had the potential of becoming an influential leader, and no doubt, as His apprentices they’d rise in status along with Him.
But despite the expectations of the people, and His followers, Jesus was looking elsewhere for His sense of direction. That is, in His connection with the Living God, His Father. Despite the outside pressure, Christ knew His mission meant moving on from Capernaum. The New Testament scholar, R.T. France puts it all this way: “The disciples assume, and the people are demanding, that things should continue as they have so impressively begun. But Jesus has other priorities; his primary mission is not to be a wonder-worker but to proclaim the kingdom of God.” To spread the word… proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom everywhere. “For that is what” Jesus said, He “came out to do.”
France drives home the point by stating that: “Here for the first time we meet a recurrent theme of the gospel, that of the difference between Jesus’ programme and his disciples’ (and still more other people’s) expectation…his whole conception of how God’s kingship is to be made effective is quite different from theirs. While they would naturally pursue the normal human policy of taking advantage of popularity and building on success on their own home ground, following Jesus will increasingly involve them in having to learn a new orientation.” Jesus understood His mission, what His whole life was about, in a way that constantly challenged the assumptions of the people around Him. He was not seeking to fit in with the expectations of others, but neither was He simply seeking after His own path. No, Christ was constantly committed to the will of His heavenly Father. He was bent on accomplishing what He was sent to do: to announce and enact the Kingdom of God. And to follow Him means having our lives reoriented too. Not by our search for self, or our quest for acceptance, but by the rescuing love of the Living God… for all people.
Which leads us back to where we started with the words of St. Paul: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” As a follower of Jesus, His Apostle, sent out to the peoples of the earth, St. Paul was not simply seeking to ‘give the people what they want’. He was so focused on what was most important, on what was essential, that he was able to be flexible for the sake of his mission: bringing the Good News of Jesus, the Risen Lord to all people… that they may come to know and trust in His powerful, saving love, and share along with him the blessings of New Life in God’s Kingdom.
Like Jesus before him, St. Paul did not go along with what everyone wanted. Rather, he learned to let go of any obstacle that got in the way of the Gospel… including his own freedoms, plans, and advantages… so that, as far as possible, he could help people from every walk of life, and every nation, hear and receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. N.T. Wright summarizes St. Paul’s point like this: “Paul’s rights, his freedoms, are as nothing; what matters is whether people are being won for God, being saved from the corrupting wickedness around and within them, being rescued from darkness and brought into the light.” His whole identity was being reoriented around the Gospel: above all else, being true to His loving Saviour, who gave His life to rescue and welcome us all.
In becoming “all things to all people”, St. Paul was walking in the way of Christ’s self-emptying love. He was imitating the One who is the Eternal Son of God, yet who humbled Himself completely, and took on all of our weakness, dying on the cross to save us. Though we are not all called like St. Paul to be Apostles, we all have been invited into Christ’s Kingdom mission: to share, in our own ways the saving love of God… with all people. People in our households. People in our communities. People we may never meet in person. People everywhere.
If we the Church are to be true to this calling on our lives, what are the ways we need to be re-oriented again? Are we content to try and keep God close at hand? To keep to ourselves the gifts of His healing, comfort, and freedom?
Are we mostly concerned with keeping our own community intact? For the growth of our Parish? The success of our ministries? For own sense of security and identity as Christians?
All of these things have their own place within the Kingdom of God. We know Christ heals, frees, and raises up a community bound to Him in love, and it is not wrong for us to look for these blessings from His hands.
But as the Christians, as the Church, there is much more to our story: we are to be the means by which these blessings are shared with all people, the voice by which the word of God’s Good News is spread to everyone.
So, may we learn to be true above all to Christ our Saviour; finding our true identity as His own beloved people; flexible enough to be open to all people, so that they too may come to know and trust in His saving love, and share with us in the New Life of God’s blessed Kingdom. Amen.
 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), 45.
 “Hymn Tortons” is what we at St. Luke’s Gondola Point call our pot luck fellowship meal, which before the pandemic began, we shared together after service each week.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 112.
 Ibid., 111.
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 117.
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15–20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 | Mark 1:21–28
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. (1 Cor. 8:1-3)
As a child I was, for the most part at least, a well-behaved student at school. I would never dream of being intentionally disruptive. I was not rude, and I’d usually try my best to pay attention to the lesson. But there was one way I found myself consistently struggling: I had a really hard time, it seems, not shouting out the answers. Raising my hand and waiting my turn did not come very naturally for me. If I knew the answer, or thought I knew the answer, I’d want to let you know.
Eventually I gained a little humility and self-control, and as I grew up a bit I discovered how to be a better student; how to learn, not just the answers, but how to learn alongside others. How to wait, and listen, and leave room for those around me to share.
This struggle of my young student days is a fairly simple one; born of my immaturity, and eventually grown out of. But it highlights a more widespread temptation that many today find hard to resist: There is something enticing about knowing ‘the answers’… and showing that you know can be even more alluring, especially in a world that believes knowledge is power.
We can find all sorts of examples of this temptation at work today: from those touting the ‘secret insights’ of dark conspiracy theories… to those who shame and despise anyone not ‘up to date’ with the latest edition of what’s politically correct, and what’s not… to those who are always hungry for some juicy bit of gossip, tearing their neighbour’s life apart, all for the ‘inside scoop’. Of course, this is just a sample. But what all these examples have in common is their great potential to cause distrust, division, and destruction… of communities, relationships, and individual lives.
Yes, knowledge can be useful. Like all of God’s gifts, it can and does contribute to all kinds of goodness. But on its own, chasing knowledge can be quite dangerous too. If knowledge is a source of power, then how we handle it matters. What we do with what we know has real significance. Not only for ourselves, but for our wider world.
In our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Mark, we heard the story of the first display Mark gives us of Christ’s power. In this part of the story the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, begins to reveal what God’s good Kingdom entails.
Mark focusses our attention at first on the way that Jesus taught: not like the other law experts, but with “authority”; as one speaking ‘with power’ about the ways of God. This in itself was enough to amaze the synagogue that day. From the very start, Jesus assumed the full weight of His mission as the One through whom the Good News of God’s Kingdom was to come. He was not offering opinions, or insightful advice, but teaching the very truth of the Living God.
This is all noteworthy, but then the story takes a startling turn. In the midst of this powerful lesson in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit interrupts everything. The term unclean spirit is another name for demon: a dark spiritual being estranged from the Living God, deceptively and destructively at work in the world. In the story, it is clear that this is not some form of natural illness. There is an evil will at work, in opposition to God. And so while Jesus was teaching this man with the unclean spirit cries out and says: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24). Which is… all true, of course. The unclean spirit gives the correct answer: understanding truly who Christ is, and what He came to do. Here we have a representative of the spiritual forces of evil, loudly telling the startling truth about this powerful teacher. As far as proper knowledge goes, the demon gets it right… but that in itself highlights for us the limits of knowledge. When it comes to sharing in God’s Kingdom, we need more than the right answers. True knowledge may be powerful, but it isn’t enough.
What’s missing then? What else is needed aside from knowing and sharing the truth?
One helpful response comes from a North African theologian and bishop, St. Augustine, who reflected on the nature of the spiritual forces being worshipped and served by non-Christians in the Roman world he knew. Commenting on our passage today from the Gospel of Mark, St. Augustine has this to say: “the demons had much knowledge, but entirely lacked love. They dreaded receiving their punishment from him. They did not love the righteousness that was in him.” They knew the truth about Jesus, but remained his enemies; opposed to God’s good will, and in dread of His coming justice. The forces of darkness did their damage through knowledge without love.
In our second reading today, from his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul the Apostle, writes to a Church community struggling with all sorts of disputes and divisions. One of these disputes, as we heard, involved the eating of meat. In Gentile cities like Corinth, meat that was sold in the markets would often have been prepared in connection with the idols in pagan temples. So Jewish Christians concerned with avoiding idols and following kosher traditions, as well as many Gentile Christians who had left their old religions behind, decided to refrain from eating meat at all.
Other Christians in Corinth, (as well as St. Paul himself), did not seem to see eating meat as a major problem. They knew that in Christ they need not fear the dark spiritual forces anymore, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor. 8:6.) They also knew that the Living God didn’t command non-Jewish Christians to follow kosher laws. And so these Christians would eat meat… which then led to the problem: Both groups of Christians in Corinth were condemning each other over food, and causing harmful divisions within the family of God. They were using their ‘knowledge’ to tear each other down.
In his response, interestingly enough, even though St. Paul knows the answer… even though he is convinced of the truth in this dispute, he does not spend his time trying to convince them all to take his side, but rather he pleads with ALL OF THEM to live in line with the Gospel… that is, to follow the way of Christ, and stay united in His love. To sort out their disputes as beloved brothers and sisters, and fellow children of God which is far more important than what we put on our plates. Their sole focus on ‘being right’ was tearing down their Church community. So St. Paul called them all to prioritize ‘being love’ instead… to so that they could keep growing in understanding together. As one Church Father would put it in the centuries to come: “Arrogance causes divisions, but love draws people together and leads to true knowledge.” Or in the words of St. Paul himself: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor. 8:1).
This is the kind of love that God’s Kingdom is about, the love revealed and embodied by Jesus Christ: teaching us the way to build one another up, and to truly care for one another despite our differences. Christ did not come to stoke our self-importance or pride, but to lead us away from all the traps that turn us against each other. To lead us in the way of God’s own holy power: not through amassing knowledge, which, “without love”, makes us “nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2) … but through offering compassionate service; setting aside our egos, to support one another, so that together we can share in the New Life of God.
Christ came, as we read in 1 John 3:8, to “to destroy the works of the devil.” To set us free from the destructive spiritual forces at work in the world, keeping so many people trapped in fear, pride, and despair. And so, the Gospel tells us, Jesus silenced the unclean spirit, and cast it out of the man, freeing him from its vicious influence. Again and again, the Son of God put His saving love into action: putting back together lives shattered by darkness and sin… all leading to the cross, where He offered up His precious life on behalf… of everyone. The wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, those who know and those who don’t. Christ gave His life for us all. This is the power of God’s Kingdom at work: when we start to share the amazing love of Jesus Christ together. So that, together, we can share it with the world around us.
So may we be built up together by the holy love of God. May we be freed from all the forces that fight against His gracious will. May we learn to handle faithfully the knowledge we’ve been entrusted with, so that our lives may truly make known the way of Jesus Christ. Amen.
 St. Augustine, City of God (9.21) in Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Mark (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 21.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 20.2. In Thomas C. Oden and Cindy Crosby, eds., Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings: Lectionary Cycle B (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011), 56.
Scripture Reading: Jonah 3:1–10 | Psalm 62:5–12 | 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 | Mark 1:14–20
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
How many of us actually like disruptions?
I don’t just mean surprises… something new or unexpected. I mean those moments of interruption… when our plans are suddenly derailed. When we’re faced with having to make immediate changes, and do things differently.
For many of us, the fact that we’ve started having Church online is a prime example of this kind of disruption. For close to two hundred years people have gathered in person at St. Luke’s Church to worship God together, and to grow as disciples of Jesus. And now here we are, worshipping in our own homes, while some of us are using the internet to join together for Morning Prayer. What a strange disruption to the ways we are used to being a Church family… though I’m grateful that there are still some ways for us all to stay connected.
Of course, this year has been full of far more difficult disruptions. The changes and complications that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about for people all over the world has been simply staggering. In basically every facet of life, things keep on getting disrupted… and we keep on having to adjust, and re-adjust our plans. Small wonder most of us are getting sick of disruptions, and are longing for a time when everything finally settles down.
But what happens when disruptions turn out better than we could have imagined? What happens when they turn out to be a gift; a channel of God’s grace?
Our Scripture readings today, from the book of Jonah, and the Gospel of Mark, introduce us to some major but blesséd disruptions in the story of God.
First, we heard an excerpt from the story of Jonah: The Israelite prophet entrusted with a message from the Living God. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city,” the LORD commissions Jonah, “and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) Now it’s no surprise that God would call a prophet to bring this kind of message. After all, the Old Testament is full of divine warnings against human wickedness. What’s strange is that, rather than send the prophet to warn his own people, God’s sending him to warn his enemies. To go to Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrian Empire… near the modern city of Mosul in Iraq. This was an ancient superpower, and in the time of Jonah, the people of Nineveh were a terrible threat to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
As the story goes, this strange mission was too ‘out there’ for Jonah. Instead of obeying the call, the prophet simply runs away. He boards a boat to take him as far from Nineveh as possible. Though he was called to be a prophet, speaking on behalf of the Living God, this mission contradicted Jonah’s idea of what should really be done. To follow this call would completely disrupt Jonah’s life: it would mean completely re-arranging his purpose and priorities. And so he runs… right into a bigger disruption: a terrible storm.
Eventually, Jonah ends up being tossed into the sea, but instead of drowning, he gets swallowed by a giant fish. While in that watery prison, Jonah cries to the LORD for mercy. He has no other hope. He’s caught by this fish, with no way to free himself. But the LORD hears his desperate prayer, and spares him… causing the fish to spit him up on to dry land. Jonah, this disobedient messenger of God, has his life completely disrupted, and totally turned around… and is given another chance to deliver the message to Nineveh.
All that’s the backstory to our reading this morning, when we heard about how Jonah proclaimed Nineveh’s coming doom. Did you notice the tone of his message? “Forty days more,” he said to them, “and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He offers them no hope. No way out from the coming judgment. As far as Jonah was concerned, he had come to bring bad news.
But the people of Nineveh believe the message he brought to them. They took his words to heart, and this city, renown for its cruelty and its wickedness… does the unthinkable: it actually repents. The Ninevites drastically disrupt their lives and respond to the divine judgment… with the hope that God just might be merciful, and forgive their evil ways. And as it turns out, much to Jonah’s utter dismay, the LORD had mercy on them too, and spared the entire city.
God sent his servant Jonah to disrupt the wickedness of Israel’s dreaded enemies. To turn their lives around and bring them all into His mercy. Jonah fought against this mission every step of the way, and even got furious with God after Nineveh repented. But God’s mission of mercy was greater than Jonah could imagine. Reaching out to the hopeless to rescue even his enemies.
Switching gears again, let’s jump forward to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus, the Son of God, has just come up from the waters of Baptism, but instead of fleeing God’s call on his life, Jesus heads out into the desert, facing temptations in the wilderness for forty days… the same timeline that Jonah gave Nineveh before its coming doom. Just like Jonah, Jesus also came proclaiming a disruptive message: God’s kingdom has come. Turn around repent, and believe in the Good News.
This message sums up, for Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s entire ministry. Everything He’s up to… everything Jesus will say and do… is about the coming of God’s reign, God’s good Kingdom at last. The Kingdom of His mercy… of His deliverance. Unlike Jonah, Jesus had come with truly Good News to share. But it also meant the time of reckoning had come for all other kingdoms… that all other claims of allegiances are now being called into question. Once again, the LORD has sent a disruptive messenger: One whose word and life requires that we offer our response.
The theologian, William Abraham, describes the disruptive message of Jesus like this: “It is not the announcement of some generic theism, or a call to moral renovation, or an offer of celestial fire insurance for the life to come, or a network of pious platitudes about how to become more religious. The gospel is the arrival of God’s new order in the world. Long prepared for and eagerly awaited in Israel, it is the good news that God’s rule has arrived. To be sure, this will be bad news for those who want to be in charge of the universe, and they will not stand by and abandon their role of running the world. Yet the truth is simply this: God’s sovereign reign has drawn near in human history, and in the end nothing will prevent its being established. This remains the heart of the gospel for all time.” So how does Mark tell us God’s Kingdom starts to take shape here at last? By the Son of God calling to Himself a handful of fishermen.
Two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, are found by Jesus at the sea of Galilee. If the world of prophets and kings feels pretty foreign and remote to us, the lives of these four men might be a whole lot more familiar. Here are ordinary folk: hard-working laborers, focused on keeping food on the table, and their families provided for.
And yet, when Jesus calls each of them to come and follow Him, these ordinary people become caught up in the Kingdom of God. Their old lives were disrupted in an instant by the call of Christ. Against custom and convention, against the obligations of family, and business, they heard the voice of the King of Kings, and they obeyed His summons… leaving behind everything that would keep them from His side.
We know they faced all sorts of challenges as they followed Him… for the way of God’s Kingdom would one day lead to the cross. Because unlike Jonah, Jesus embodied God’s merciful love for this lost and wicked world, freely laying down His life to disrupt and destroy the power of sin and death; to turn our lives around and bring us back to the LORD, so that we all might share in His Kingdom of mercy and hope forever. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has changed everything… and He’s calling us to follow Him into God’s brand New Life.
How is the message of God’s kingdom disrupting our lives today? What ways are we being called to respond to God’s reign?
Perhaps we are being called to set aside some form of wickedness… some sin that keeps a hold of our hearts, but leads us away from God’s light?
Perhaps we are being called into a whole new vocation… a new way to embody the Good News of Jesus Christ with our life? This could be a call to Church ministry, as a layperson or ordained. This could be a call to a different form of serving God’s Kingdom in the world: in the workplace, in our neighbourhoods, in our homes.
Perhaps we are being called into deeper fellowship with God? Called to set aside the distractions that tie up all our energies, and intentionally share more of our day to day lives with Jesus. In prayer, in reading His word, in moments of worship, and acts of mercy, we are all being called to follow our Saviour and share in His Good Kingdom… not simply on Sunday mornings, but as long as we draw breath. Until His Kingdom fully comes on earth, just as in heaven.
So may the Holy Spirit help us to hear and respond to God’s call in our lives. May we place our trust in the Good News of Christ, and all He’s done. May we continue to turn to Him with our whole heart and life, opening us up to share His hope and mercy with those all around us. And may we follow Him however disruptive it may be, confident that He’s always leading us into God’s good Kingdom. Amen.
 William J. Abraham, “Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 174.
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1–20 | Psalm 139:1–18 | 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 | John 1:43–51
“You will see greater things than these.”
Today we celebrate the second Sunday of Epiphany: a season of revealing… of finding & being found. Reminding us that the story of God often involves surprises, inviting us to listen and look for where He’s at work even now.
Our first reading begins with a pretty bleak assessment: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (1 Sam 3:1) Hundreds of years after Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt, and had been brought by God to the Promised Land, Canaan, the people were again in a state of spiritual unease. There’s a sense in these words of a growing separation between humanity and God, even between the LORD and His chosen, covenant people.
But in this time when God’s voice seemed distant and remote, we are introduced to Samuel, who would one day become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, but who was now simply a boy serving the High Priest, Eli, at the Tabernacle, the sacred Tent which was, before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the place signifying the Living God’s presence among His people… the place where heaven and earth were to intersect, so to speak. The High Priest alone, as the representative of all of God’s people, was only occasionally to go in and out of the Most Holy Place, the heart of this sacred Tent, to meet with God on Israel’s behalf… to ritually uphold their sacred connection, their covenant relationship. It was a place where the goodness and holiness of the Living God was to be encountered, and spread out through His people into the world.
But in those days, the Tabernacle had become a place where selfishness and sin had taken root, and had all but taken over. Eli’s sons, who served as priests, had grown wicked and corrupt; they were stealing from God and His people by seizing much more than the share from the sacrifices set aside for them, as well as sleeping with the women who came to serve at the Tabernacle. These sons of Eli, set aside to be holy priests of God, had let their greed and lust distort the core practices of Israel’s covenant relationship with the LORD. They had ceased to be agents of God’s holy love and mercy, and instead served only their sinful desires, causing all kinds of grief. Especially for their father.
Although he was disturbed by the conduct of his children, Eli failed to do anything to stop their outright wickedness. He let them carry on corrupting the sacred role they had been entrusted with, and harming the people under their spiritual care. The ones who were supposed to be faithfully leading God’s people had lost themselves in sin, threatening to lead all the people astray as well.
But at this time when it seemed God’s voice was absent, He finds Samuel. The LORD calls out to this small, confused young boy, and entrusts to him the true but challenging message for Eli: That his family’s unfaithfulness would no longer be ignored. The time had come for them to face the consequences of their corruption. God would find another way to make His purposes and presence known. “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest,” the LORD made known to Eli, “who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever.” (1 Sam. 2:35). Through a surprising, small messenger, God makes His purpose and presence known: Even if those entrusted with caring for the Tabernacle, the place where heaven and earth came together, failed miserably, the LORD Himself will find a way to be among His people… to reveal Himself to them, that they may live with Him always.
Who this ‘faithful one’ will be, of course, is yet to be revealed. But that question points forward, through the centuries, to our Gospel passage this morning.
Our reading from John’s Gospel depicts a scene full of discoveries: It starts off by telling us Jesus, just beginning His ministry, finds a man named Philip from Bethsaida, calling to him: “Follow me.” The next thing that we know, Philip is running to find his friend Nathaniel, excitedly exclaiming that they had found the Messiah: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathaniel responds to his friend’s message about the news of Jesus: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Before we toss Nathaniel’s words aside as overly cynical, how often do we, or those we love and respect, respond likewise? Sickened by the dishonesty they have seen in politics, church, or other aspects of community life, how many have given up on expecting ‘anything good’ to come from them? We too live in a time when it seems there’s a strong sense of separation between our day to day existence and the presence and purposes of God… and so many of us give up looking or listening. For his part though, Philip doesn’t start to argue with his friend. He simply says: “Come and see.” He invites his Nathaniel to take a step, to ‘Come and find out for yourself.’ And as he does, Nathaniel finds much more than he expected.
It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t condemn Nathaniel for his initial hesitation… in fact, He commends him! “Here is truly an Israelite [He says,] in whom there is no deceit!” Unlike the sons of Eli, Nathaniel was not playing games with God. Confused as to how this man from Nazareth knew so much about him, Jesus tells him plainly: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Note: Before Philip went to find his skeptical friend and invite him to come and see the Messiah, Jesus already saw Nathaniel clearly… He knew him inside and out. Though he may have felt alone underneath that fig tree, he was not unseen or forgotten. He was not lost to the eyes of God.
And that’s enough for Nathaniel. At these words alone, he goes from cynic to convinced in the blink of an eye. But Jesus has more in store for him… far more to reveal, not only to Nathaniel, but to us as well. When Nathaniel exclaims: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Now what in the world is he talking about? Clearly Jesus (and the author of John) thinks this is an important revelation, something of significance we’re meant to understand.
Here’s another place where a healthy knowledge of the whole Scriptural story comes in handy. The Bible is full of interconnecting images and themes, all meant to weave together as God’s way of revealing Himself to us. In the case of Christ’s cryptic words about the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man, the theologian Leonard Klein can help shed some light on things:
“When Jesus promises Philip and Nathanael a fuller vision, “greater things than these,” he alludes to Jacob/Israel’s dream of the angels ascending and descending the stairway to heaven [See Genesis 28:10-22]. The original event guarantees the unworthy Jacob’s place in the life of Israel and in the ancestry of Jesus. And as that place became holy, Bethel (which means “house of God”), so Jesus himself is now the dwelling place of God. The angels will ascend and descend upon him as they did upon Bethel. The reference is subtle but not obscure; for Christianity Jesus is the holy place. As God dwelt at Bethel and ultimately in the temple at Jerusalem, so he dwells in the Word made flesh and wherever the Spirit makes Christ present in the church.” Or as N.T. Wright puts it: “When you’re with Jesus, it is as though you’re in the house of God, the Temple itself, with God’s angels coming and going, and God’s own presence there beside you.”
The surprising revelation here is that Jesus is not merely someone with deep insight, or supernatural knowledge, He is Himself the holy meeting place of heaven and earth. He is that ultimate faithful priest the LORD promised Eli would one day come, who would completely embody the heart and mind of God in the world, standing faithfully on behalf of His often-faithless people… and laying down His life on the cross as the perfect sacrifice, dying in order to open up the way of life for the world.
Despite how far-off God may feel, in Jesus Christ He is truly with us, and we can be with Him. Through His holy word and sacraments, in times of prayer and service, when faced with strong temptations, doubts, or even failures, the Living God has opened up the way through His beloved Son for us to hear and heed His voice, finding new life in Him, who first loved and found us. And like Samuel and Philip, when we answer the call of the LORD, and draw near in faith, may He speak through us, through our words and lives, to draw others to Him too. Epiphany reminds us that God’s story is full of surprises; and that He works in surprising ways, through surprising circumstances, and simple people like us. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts and eyes to see the “greater things” of Christ at work today, and help us to faithfully make His presence known in our world. Amen.
 Leonard R. Klein, “Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 487.
 Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 19.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1–5 | Psalm 29 | Acts 19:1–7 | Mark 1:4–11
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 4:10-11).
A lot has happened in one week, hasn’t it? This past Wednesday, as the whole world is aware by now, an angry, violent mass of people, goaded on by the President, stormed the US Capitol building to try and disrupt the process of finalizing the recent US election results, in what many are calling an outright act of insurrection. Much can, and has been, said about this tragic and fatal event, though its long-term implications are not yet all that clear. But there is one image from Wednesday in particular that caught and held my attention: in the midst of all the violent tumult, some rioters were waving flags that read “Jesus Saves.” Seeing this, I felt sick. Of course, these words are true. Absolutely true. But to see them being identified so blatantly with the cause of violent political outrage, where lives were being threatened and lost in a chaotic struggle to simply seize power… it made me wonder (not for the first time) what kind of witness this kind of behaviour offers to a watching world. Is this how Christ’s salvation is to take concrete shape on earth? Anger and rage let loose upon those seen as enemies? Demanding that our will be done, or that their blood be shed? Last week was certainly not the first time we have seen our Lord’s precious name drawn into deeply disturbing actions… but it is one that should still give us pause, and perhaps lead us to ask ourselves what it really means to be a Christian. What does being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ look like today? And what is it that drives this unique way of life forward?
Our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Mark tells of the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As we reflect on this part of our Saviour Jesus’ sacred story, we may be able to find our bearings again when it comes to the Christian life; both what it truly looks like, and what keeps it going.
Our passage takes place right at the start of the Gospel of Mark: After announcing that his book is about “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), Mark introduces John the Baptist as a prophetic messenger preparing the way for the LORD’s coming salvation, and tells us that John was calling God’s people to be baptized as an act of faithful repentance… of turning away from their sin, and turning their lives to the LORD. And we hear his message was resonating with a lot of folks: people were coming from all over Judaea, and from Jerusalem, confessing their sins, and seeking a new start on God’s path. But as we know, John knew there was more of the story of God’s salvation on it’s way. He knew there was one who was coming after him, who would baptize God’s people, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit of God, flooding them with God’s life-giving, and life-changing presence. And here, just 9 verses in to Mark’s Gospel, we meet Jesus of Nazareth, as He comes to John in order to be baptized as well. Up until now, Mark has only told us two things about Jesus: He is the Son of God, and yet He has come to be baptized alongside offenders seeking to repent. He comes from the Almighty Holy One, and yet comes to stand with sinners.
This might seem like a contradiction at first. How can these two go together? Aren't the good and the bad to be kept apart? Isn't it "us against them"? And yet as Mark’s Gospel unfolds, and the whole story of Scripture brings to light, we see that this surprising movement is at the heart of the Good News all the way through. Jesus’ baptism is the continuation of His astounding descent, His mission of incredible mercy, coming not to condemn, but to reach out and save sinners. Though He was eternally at-one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, in His baptism Jesus identifies Himself with those alienated from God… with those exposed as unrighteous… as lawbreakers… as enemies. He places Himself alongside those who stand in desperate need of forgiveness… taking up the cause of those who need their lives completely turned around. The Christian life begins with Jesus drawing near to us in our sin, taking up our cause, and taking our place... to save us. In humbly stepping into the water, we see that Jesus doesn’t save from a safe distance… He steps right into our mess. Right into the flood, in order to bring us out again on the other side.
Because that, of course, is the whole point: Not simply drawing near to be with sinners, but drawing them out of the waters again! Drawing them out of the darkness and into the light of life. So often we forget that the salvation of God is meant to bring about some real changes in us, not simply to offer us comfort, or confirming our old habits. Yes, the Son of God came to draw near, but as the cliché goes, he doesn’t leave us there. He comes to rescue us, and realign us to share in God’s life. N.T. Wright has a good way of expressing this point: “The meaning of a royal pardon is not simply that the prisoner enjoys a good feeling of innocence restored, but that he gets out of jail.” Or as St. Paul puts it, in his second letter to the Corinthians (5:21), “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Salvation entails our lives being filled with God’s own righteousness… undoing all the darkness within us, and setting us free to share in His light. But we know for this to happen, for God’s righteousness to truly take hold of our hearts, it was going to cost the Son of God all that He could give.
In His baptism, Jesus prefigures and points towards His ultimate act of redemption: His suffering and death upon the cross. Immersed in death’s shadow for our sake and for the sake of the world, Jesus endured the worst of what we sinners had coming our way. Ending our indebtedness through His great sacrifice. And in rising again from the grave, Jesus has opened up the way for God’s New Creation, New Life, to flood into our lives… to fill us up with the righteousness, with the goodness of God, transforming us more and more each day to be more and more like Him.
In His baptism, first in the waters of Jordan, and finally in His death on the cross, we find Jesus has come to truly rescue us from our sin. Jesus saves us by gaining our forgiveness, and by sharing God’s holy life with us… freeing us to be God’s true children today.
Upholding all of this talk of salvation is one more vital point to consider, one which sheds light on what it is that drives the Christian life: that is, God’s holy love. Love is what led Jesus to step into the waters in order to rescue even His enemies. Love is what led Him to give His life to bring God’s New Life to us. And love is what Jesus offers us now: the love of the Triune God… Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… drawing us deeper into His divine fellowship, and reaching out with that same love through us into the world. Jesus was not motivated by fear, or hungry for power, or seeking glory for Himself, or chasing after revenge. No, what led Him into the waters, and ultimately onto the cross was the love of God He shared in, and shared for God’s lost creation. Coming out of the water, we’re told the veil between heaven and earth was opened up for an instant. The Holy Spirit descended in peace on Jesus, like a dove, and the Father’s voice proclaimed: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From beginning to end, Jesus was filled with and led by the holy love of God, and this is what is to fill and lead His disciples today.
Christ’s baptism reveals the Living God’s heart of saving love: drawing near to us, drawing us near to Him, and flooding us with His holy love. This is the beginning of discipleship, of devoting our lives to following Jesus: trusting in His saving and life-changing love, that it may flood our lives, and lead us forward, every step of the way.
All we who claim to be Christians are called to walk “just as He walked” (1 John 2:6), to follow our Lord into the New Life God is bringing about. We are not free to give in to the darkness anymore… to the hatred, fear, prejudice, self-righteous indignation, or apathy we see at work all around us… but we're called instead to strive to stay always in the light of Jesus, our one and only Saviour, who loves us and gave Himself for us, and for this world, which still stands in such need of His saving love.
So in this turbulent time, may we resist the strong temptations on the one hand, to go along with the darkness, and on the other, to sit back and condemn as though we did not need forgiveness and mercy ourselves. May we remember our Saviour, Jesus, who draws near even to save sinners, and pray for the healing of hearts, and for His reconciliation to reign. May we place our faith in Him, who saves us through His own shed blood, and seeks to draw us all into the New Life of God. And may the Holy Spirit fill us with the holy love of God, so that all that we say and do faithfully proclaims the Good News of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year B (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), 19.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11 | Psalm 126 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 | John 1:6–8, 19–28
Today, here at St. Luke’s Church, we have many good reasons to rejoice. We can rejoice because after our region moved back into the Yellow Phase of recovery this week, we are holding in-person services of Holy Communion again; worshiping God together, and receiving His gifts of love. We can rejoice because today is the third Sunday of Advent, a day when Christians reflect on the biblical theme of joy. And if we took a moment, I’m sure, that we could come up with a pretty long list of other reasons it would be easy for us to rejoice today.
And yet… we also know of many reasons it’s hard to rejoice right now. I don’t think it takes much imagination to know what I am talking about. In countless ways, our neighbours, our country, our world is suffering today. Maybe we too are suffering. Maybe it’s those dear to us. And what makes it all the harder, sometimes, is not knowing when this suffering will end. Today, there are many reasons it is hard to rejoice.
But this is precisely when the message of joy is meant to be received: in very the face of darkness and suffering… when joy is needed most. Perhaps the words “rejoice always” mean much more than we think? Perhaps they offer us more than we could ask or imagine?
Of course, there is a kind of joy that is not all that unusual. The kind of happiness or joy common throughout the world. We find it in all sorts of ways, as we share in the good things in life: like time well spent with family and friends… hearing a beloved song that stirs up our hearts… in the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. These are all examples what I’ll call glimpses of joy: tastes of the goodness of life that the Living God has created to be enjoyed… gifts meant to be received with simple gratitude, and shared generously with the people all around us. These moments of joy are precious… but they’re not the complete picture. They offer us a welcome taste, but they’re not the entire meal.
And again, along with these glimpses of joy, also come the big challenges of life. Much of our experiences are not what we’d call enjoyable, after all: the times of deep loneliness… or when we’re confronted with harsh and ugly side of our world… or ourselves… with the feelings of futility when our efforts seem to fall short, or when they’re cut short.
We know these times, when the normal joys of life are overshadowed, are not the whole picture either… we know there is much that is still good all around us. But we need more than a reminder to just look on the bright side… though it can bring comfort to reflect on and remember the things that stir up our joy: the loving memories, the blessings of each day, and the hope of a brighter future; God’s salvation drawing ever nearer. It is good to keep all this in mind, but there is more being asked of us than to simply reflect and remember… we are also asked to receive. Today we are invited to see that true joy is a gift.
Our Scripture readings today point us to the source of this gift: to the goodness and the rescuing grace of the Living God.
In our first reading, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s word of hope and joy sent to those in darkness and suffering.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
God’s message through the prophet was good news to the oppressed. Not a call to optimism, but a message of redemption: that the Living God would not ignore the suffering of His people, but instead would come to end their sorrow, and bring about new life.
Isaiah begins these words of hope with a phrase of great significance: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” This message, and the power of it, flows from the Spirit of God. It is God’s Spirit, God’s living presence, that shares and brings about this new life. The Good News comes to us from the Holy Spirit’s work.
And in our Gospel reading, we are told of that great the New Testament prophet, John the Baptist, who was sent by God to point ahead to the Greater One who was still to come. John was sent to prepare the way for the LORD’s anointed: the Christ… the One who would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Who would immerse God’s people with the LORD’s presence and life.
And so, John points us to Jesus: to the Son of God… who stepped into the place of His people in order to bring them God’s rescue at last. Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus embodied the promise of Isaiah, transforming the lives of even those in the most hopeless suffering by graciously drawing near to them with the holy love of God… restoring sight to the blind, healing the sick, raising the dead… Christ touched people with God’s Spirit, and their sorrows turned to joy.
And before His own darkest night, before He would face the suffering of the cross, Jesus spoke to His followers and shared these words with them (John 15:9-11):
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Facing His death for the sins of the world, Christ speaks to us of sharing His joy… by inviting us all to abide in His love… together to share in His life, bound in Him to the source of all joy: joined to the Living God.
Joined to the blessed Trinity; to the One who imagined, and invented, joy in all its earthly forms, as glimpses and tastes of the true joy of complete fellowship with Him… with the one Who is Himself the fountainhead of all that is right and true, and good. It is God’s own inner joy that He wants us His creatures to share in. Giving glimpses here and there of what will one day be in fullest view… tasting a few bites and drops of the full feast that’s to come.
But in Jesus Christ, God’s joyful life has drawn impossibly near to us, and He has poured out His joyful life in the world through the Holy Spirit, so that those who abide in Jesus are able to share in God’s joy here and now… despite all the darkness around us or the suffering within. Abiding in Christ, we can come to know the joy of the Living God… always. Even as we struggle… even as we weep… God’s joyful Spirit is a gift we can hold onto forever.
Christians can “rejoice always” as St. Paul urges us, not because it’s always easy, but because the Holy Spirit of God has been poured into our lives… drawing near to us with His rescuing, re-creating love, and breaking into our darkness and pain with the gift of His joyful salvation.
So today, may we remember and reflect on all the reasons that we can rejoice today, whether it’s easy or not. But even more than that, may we abide in Jesus Christ. May we cling to Him in faith, eager to fully share in His joy, and through the Holy Spirit, may God’s joy be alive in us always. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:1–11 | Psalm 85:1–13 | 2 Peter 3:8–15a | Mark 1:1–8
When it comes to roads, Northwestern Ontario and Southern Manitoba are worlds apart. If you’ve dared to travel by car across Canada, you know exactly what I mean. In Northwestern Ontario, where I was born and raised, travelers must wind their way through some pretty rough terrain: skirting swamps and lakes, climbing hill after hill, slowly making their way through the many obstacles this beautiful and vast wilderness has to offer. But as you keep on heading West and enter into Manitoba, suddenly you find yourself crossing into the Prairies. The hills and trees start to give way to the wide-open plains, where the road is flat, and stretches straight on to the horizon. Nothing in the way, except the occasional transport truck. Though both of these landscapes have their own special charm, the straight road across the plains is certainly much easier to navigate. To build a highway as level and straight as it through Northwestern Ontario would be far beyond the wildest dreams of any engineer, and would cost far more than any government budget could afford.
For the foreseeable future, though they truly belong together, in this sense at least these roads will remain worlds apart: one is winding and wild, the other level and straight.
Today marks the second week of the season of Advent, the time of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord. The theme often associated with this week is Peace; an important but sometimes misunderstood facet of the Good News. Sometimes we imagine peace to be simply about avoiding conflict… doing anything we can to avoid upsetting other people. This kind approach can easily turn into mere people-pleasing, or pacification… simply going along with the flow, even if it takes us far off course. The flip side of this, of course, is when we seek to put an end to conflict by pushing for our own way… using our power to keep others in line… intimidating them into going along with our plans. But the peace which Advent brings to mind is not simply about avoiding conflict, either through pacification, or intimidation. Instead, it speaks of the kind of peace that brings reconciliation. Restoring deep communion and wholeness again. At a time when division, distrust, and disconnection seem at work everywhere, let’s turn our hearts again to hear the message of God’s peace.
But in turning to our Scripture readings this morning, we are not stepping into some idealized fantasy. No, we are firmly standing within the familiar story of our world… a story of conflict, of suffering, of storms, and tragedy… where God’s people are waiting longingly for God’s righteousness to reign, and for all that is broken to be set aright again.
The Gospel of Mark introduces us to a man called John the Baptist, living in the Jordan wilderness in the early first century. John was no ordinary man, but rather he was a man with a mission, a message from the Living God, like Israel’s prophets of old. In fact, the author of Mark makes this connection explicit, introducing John’s ministry by calling to mind the prophet Isaiah:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:2-3)
As we heard in our Old Testament reading today, Isaiah’s message goes on to describe what it means to prepare the way of the LORD. Isaiah 40:3-5 says,
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Valleys raised, mountains leveled, rough places made into plains… the imagery is one of dramatic and powerful transformation… which all fits nicely with how Mark wants us to see John’s ministry: not as words of pacification, or of intimidation, but of seeking peace with God through wholehearted repentance… with a sincere commitment of true life-transformation. John came calling for all of Israel to remove the obstacles in their lives, and to urgently prepare for the arrival of God’s good Kingdom. In his preaching and practice of baptizing his fellow Israelites, John was inviting God’s people to recognize their deep need for forgiveness and rescue, and to turn back to the LORD their God with their entire life.
NT Wright describes it all like this:
“They were to come through the water and be free. They were to leave behind ‘Egypt’—the world of sin in which they were living, the world of rebelling against the living God. They, the Israel of the day, were looking in the wrong direction and going in the wrong direction. It was time to turn round and go the right way (that’s what ‘repentance’ means). It was time to stop dreaming and wake up to God’s reality.” John was proclaiming that it was time for God’s people to pursue true peace: Not simply to try and appease God by making some surface-level changes… or to keep on pursuing their own ideas and agendas… but to prepare for the coming of God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed King, by humbly and wholeheartedly turning over their lives to the LORD. By being baptized in the Jordan river, they were seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God. They knew they had been living worlds apart from what God had wanted of His children, and so they were looking to close the gap… to be reunited to their LORD.
This is all well and good, but it is not the whole story. But there is so much more to the Good News, the Gospel, then even our wholehearted repentance. The focus of our readings today was not on what the people themselves did: their acts of repentance. It’s not even on John’s ministry, as vital as both of these things might be. No, the focus is all on the One that John, and the prophets, had promised was on the way… the One who would baptize God’s people, not simply with water, but with the Holy Spirit… the One who was coming to rescue God’s wayward people, once and for all.
John was serving as a signpost pointing us onward to Jesus, to the Son of God Himself, sent to bring about God’s peace. To establish restoration and reconciliation far beyond our wildest dreams, and to reunite humanity with the LORD once again…fulfilling the message of hope which Isaiah had written of long ago. Isaiah 40:9-11:
“Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
He came, not simply to teach us how to be good, and how we can try our best to appease God and keep Him happy, or to give us the moral fortitude to make ourselves fit for the LORD… but rescue us, and fill us with the Living God’s own presence and life-changing power, so that His reconciliation and restoration can take root within us, and our community. So that the saving, life-changing peace of the LORD might be shared through the Church with our broken, wandering world.
As the rest of Mark’s Gospel will highlight, this peace all came at the highest cost. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, paid for our peace with His precious blood. Christ gave His entire life; was born, lived, died, and rose again, to bring God’s peace to our fragmented and fractured world; beginning in the Church, but overflowing everywhere.
Advent calls us to remember that Jesus Christ Himself is our Peace. He removes all the obstacles between us and the Living God. Though in our sins we had become wild and treacherously winding… worlds apart from how God wanted His children to be… at the cross, Christ has made straight the way for us to be reunited to God at last. He graciously binds the Church to Himself in faith, through baptism, sharing His new life with us, and through us, with the world. He immerses us in the Holy Spirit of God, who remains at work, empowering us to truly live as God’s peaceful people, even in the midst of conflict and tragedy.
By His power working in us, through the Holy Spirit of God, may our lives be shaped more and more by the truth of Christ's saving peace. May we give ourselves to the work He has begun in us through baptism, that we can faithfully serve as agents of His reconciliation. And in the midst of all the conflicts and storms we see around us, may we eagerly and patiently look for His arrival, bringing about God’s New Heavens and Earth, beyond our wildest dreams, where His righteousness and peace will be at home forever. Amen.
 Both Isaiah and Malachi are being quoted in these verses, but the author of Mark only references Isaiah.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 2.