Scripture Readings: Proverbs 31:10–31 | Psalm 1 | James 3:13–4:3, 4:7–8 | Mark 9:30–37
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3:13)
What does it mean to be wise?
Wisdom is one of those words that can be a little hard to wrap our heads around. We know it has something to do with knowing, but it’s not always easy to pin down more precisely. With words like this, I sometimes find it helpful to use an example, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this example ends up being helpful or not. Here it goes: an intelligent person might be able to tell you all the reasons why it’s a bad idea to spit into the wind… and a wise person wouldn’t do it.
There’s a world of difference between knowing information and facts about the world, and knowing how to exist in the world… how to relate well to what’s going on around us. Wisdom refers to this second way… calling us to live in ways that actually line up with the wider story of our world. It aids us in navigating all sorts of situations and choices… helping us find our way when we might otherwise get lost.
The need for Godly wisdom is a common theme throughout the Scriptures, which all of our readings today pick up, each in there own ways. Our reading from Proverbs 31, for instance, uses the image of a “capable wife” (Prov. 31:10), (which actually sounds like an ideal that no one could possibly live up to…) but this image is used as a down to earth picture of how godly wisdom is the ultimate companion… bringing all sorts of blessings into the lives of those who “trust in her” (Prov. 31:11).
This morning we prayed Psalm 1 together, which speaks of two different ways: the way of the wicked, which leads to ruin, and the way of life. “Happy are those” whose “delight is in the Law of the LORD, …and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:1a, 2-3). Here the Psalmist invites us to live within the wider story of God’s ways; aligning ourselves to His wise commands, and so find ourselves nourished so that we can truly flourish.
Turning next to our New Testament reading, St. James, the half-brother of our Lord, explicitly contrasts two very different kinds of wisdom: wisdom from on high, and ‘so-called’ wisdom from below. True wisdom, St. James reminds us involves our character being shaped by sharing in God’s holy love… especially as it plays out in community. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:16-18). Given the noticeable lack of gentleness and peace in public discourse today, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine what St. James would think of our culture’s current sense of wisdom. But before we as the Church get smug, and start looking down on our neighbours, St. Mark gives us an example of this same conflict between Godly and false wisdom at work in Christ’s own closest followers.
Our Gospel passage today began with Jesus repeating a message to His disciples that they were struggling to wrap their heads around. He said to them: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31).
This was the second time that Jesus had tried to talk to teach them about His coming death… His mission to be rejected, crucified, die, and rise again. Jesus knew that this mission was fully in line with God’s story since the beginning… but His disciples were still out of sync with what their Master had come to do. St. Mark tells us “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Mark 9:32). Lack of understanding and fear… two barriers all of us face in our faith journeys at times. And in the case of the disciples, I think we can see why they struggled. Jesus was not confirming their own expectations about God’s Kingdom, but teaching them something new that was stretching their imaginations.
This passage helps to remind us that following Jesus involves a lifetime of learning… and re-learning… drawing us ever deeper in understanding the Living God. As we look to Jesus, God’s Son, the Holy Spirit can work to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to the wisdom and ways of the LORD.
And yet, the disciples were still caught up in their own vision of what mattered most. On the road with Jesus, even after He spoke of His own suffering and death, they were more eager to argue about which one of them was the greatest.
As we know, tomorrow’s Election Day, where we vote for our next government. For the last several weeks, candidates from all over this country have been trying to convince as many people as possible that they and their party are the greatest… positioning themselves as the only ones who know best how to lead our country into the future… calling us to trust them.
Who knows why the disciples on the road were arguing about greatness? Not long before, a few of them had a special mountain-top experience with Jesus, seeing Him revealed in glory, proclaimed by a voice from heaven to be God’s Son. The rest had struggled to perform the work they had been entrusted to do in Christ’s absence… failing to drive out a demon that had been tormenting a young boy. Perhaps both pride and insecurity were at work in their debate? Just as these two impulses seem to be at work in debates about greatness today.
Whatever their motives, the point for us this morning is that the Disciples were still operating according to the wisdom of the world. They were in sync with the way most of us are used to existing, and responding to our circumstances… that is, without taking God and His mission into account.
St. Mark helps us see this contrast between what was on the Disciple’s minds, and what Jesus had just been trying to reveal to them: that He, as their Master, was not chasing after position or power… but was willingly heading towards His own suffering, rejection, and death… which seems like madness to the world, but was fully in line with the surprising wisdom of God His Father, following His mission on it’s course to rescue the world.
So to help them get the message… to wrap their heads around God’s ways of doing things, Jesus takes a child in His arms and gives them an example… a tangible image to teach them to see things, and people, the way God does.
“Whoever wants to be first” He said, “must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35,37)
What does this mean? What is our Lord getting at?
Well, for one thing Jesus wasn’t putting kids up on a pedestal… compelling us to welcome children because children were really the most important. The reason He embraced the child was because children were seen to be among the least important… the least powerful or influential people in those days.
The scholar R.T. France makes the case that in Jesus’ day: “The child represents the lowest order in the social scale, the one who is under the authority and care of others and who has not yet achieved the right of self-determination. To ‘become like a child’ (Mt. 18:3) is to forgo status and to accept the lowest place, to be a ‘little one’”. He goes on to say that to receive a child the way Jesus spoke of was “to reverse the conventional value-scale by according importance to the unimportant.” Jesus was turning conventional wisdom completely upside down! True greatness in God’s eyes really is about humility, and service… not puffing ourselves up, but practicing self-emptying love… just as Christ was on His way to the cross to pour out His life for us all.
Another scholar, Peter Marty sums up what Jesus was saying in this way: “It all points to the creation of a new community with altered priorities. This new community would be one where the least of humankind would count. And the least would not only count, they would be embraced.”
Our world tells us that some people deserve attention status and welcome much more than others. That only those who fight their way to the top can truly be great. But instead of focussing on making ourselves great in the eyes of others… which is just a recipe for division, ego trips, and butting heads… Jesus calls us to focus instead on caring for and welcoming others… especially those considered unimportant by the world.
Who are these people in our culture? How might God be calling you and I to welcome them today?
There’s another important part of this message with Good News for us all as well! We don’t have to be great in the world’s eyes to be important in God’s kingdom. Even the most humble, seemingly insignificant of us can be the way that somebody else encounters and welcomes the LORD of all into their life! There are no unimportant, powerless people in God’s Kingdom. He has embraced all of us in Christ, and through each one of us the Holy Spirit of God wants to draw those around us into His fellowship.
It’s tempting to look for success, or even survival by doing things the world’s way. But we are part of a different story: the story of God’s good Kingdom reigning, not by self-centred striving after influence or popularity… but by self-giving love… ultimately the self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ, who faced rejection, betrayal, and cruel death to reconcile us to God… to open the way for all to be welcomed and share in God’s eternal kingdom.
Our passage from Mark highlights this example of Godly wisdom at work, but there are many ways Christ is calling us to embrace God’s surprising wisdom, and let go of the ways of living that only lead ourselves and others to ruin.
Some we might recognize easily. There’s likely many more we can’t yet see. Just like the disciples, we also struggle to recognize where we are more in sync with the world’s wisdom than with God’s.
But as St. James reminds us “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” (James 1:5) “Draw near to God,” St. James says as well, “and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8). You and I are invited to draw near to Jesus Christ, the Risen King of Kings, who makes known God’s wisdom, and God’s true greatness, through His own self-giving love. 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), 374.
 Peter W. Marty, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 245.
Scripture Readings: Proverbs 1:20–33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1–12 | Mark 8:27–38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)
As a young adult, attending school in Southern Manitoba, I travelled across Northwestern Ontario a great many times… back and forth to my family’s home near Thunder Bay. Eventually, along that nearly 8 hour journey, we would pass a sign on the highway that, for some reason, stood out in my mind: it was the sign marking the watershed boundary between Lake Superior to the East, and to the West, the Hudson Bay. On one side of the crest, rain would run down to the Great Lakes, and eventually end up in the Gulf of St. Laurence, and Atlantic Canada. On the other side, the rain would flow through prairie rivers, lonely lakes, and barren tundra, emptying out into the Artic Ocean. Rain from the same cloud, even the same storm could easily end up on the other side of the world. The destination all came down to which side of the hill it landed on. A few feet to the left or right could change the story forever.
The phrase ‘watershed moment’ can conjure up this kind of decisiveness… those moments when something significant shifts, and life is never the same again. Some we deliberately choose, and others surprise us. Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of one such moment, a day Western countries like ours woke up to both terror and tragedy… leading the world down a pain-filled path, still wreaking havoc today. More recently, the Afghan people experienced another such moment as their country was overrun in a matter of days by the Taliban. Our world has know many such moments, both of devastation, but also of joy. Just as our own lives are marked by many different kinds of watersheds as well.
One that is close to home for me was when Addie was born. When we brought her home from the hospital, our lives were never the same. This little baby brought many big changes, and like her they just keep growing. Though some were painful and hard, they have also led us into great to joy too. Like much of life, the ups and the downs are often intertwined. Whether or not we’ve had kids, whether in an instant, or subtly, over time, we’ve all had our own turning points where our stories have radically changed.
In our Scripture readings today we encounter the watershed moment in Mark’s Gospel, where the direction that Jesus is taking begins to be revealed to His disciples, challenging their vision and hopes of where their stories were headed. And it all begins with one little question: Jesus asks His disciples: “who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29).
Obviously, by this point they had some ideas about their beloved Master. They had seen His healing touch, and His power against the forces of darkness. They had heard is His words filled with wisdom, witnessed His compassion for the hungry, the hurting, and hopeless. They had some idea that Jesus was bringing God’s good Kingdom within reach. In their minds, Jesus was on His way up, and was taking them to the top with Him.
St. Peter responds to his Master’s question: “You are the Messiah.” The Christ. The Chosen One. Anointed by God to do His will. And he was completely right. And also completely wrong. He was right about the title, but wrong about what that title entailed… about what the Living God had sent His Chosen One to do.
The bishop and scholar, N.T. Wright gives this helpful explanation of what the disciples and other Jews at the time would have thought was meant by ‘Messiah’: “Calling Jesus ‘Messiah’ doesn’t mean calling him ‘divine’, let alone ‘the second person of the Trinity’. Mark believes Jesus was and is divine, and will eventually show us why; but this moment in the gospel story is about something else. It’s about the politically dangerous and theologically risky claim that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the final heir to the throne of David, the one before whom Herod Antipas and all other would-be Jewish princelings are just shabby little impostors. The disciples weren’t expecting a divine redeemer; they were longing for a king. And they thought they’d found one.” But instead of praising St. Peter, Jesus tells them to keep this quiet… and then He completely throws off their plans and re-writes their future story.
Mark 8:31-32 “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.” This was not what they had signed up for. How could this be the plan?
Jesus was challenging everything they thought they were a part of. Instead of leading them to the top, He was headed for destruction. Willingly moving towards His own suffering rejection, torment, and death. No wonder St. Peter tries to talk some sense into His Master. Everything that they had been working for now seemed to be needlessly threatened. He had to try to get Jesus back on the right track again. To steer Him towards the destination the disciples were eager to get to.
Do we do this too? Do we try to direct and dictate how God should be at work in our lives? Are we trying to get God to conform to the expectations that we have? Are we following Him, or are we really wanting Him to follow us?
Jesus sees right through what is going on, and abruptly exposes the dark danger lurking in St. Peter’s attempt to dissuade Jesus from His mission. Then He quickly turns to the rest of His disciples, along with the crowd, and calls them to cross over the crest of the watershed of their own hopes, visions, and plans, and instead to follow Him onto a very different road.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
This was not an attempt to scare them off, but to set the record straight. To clarify the costly way through which God’s Kingdom would come at last. The scholar, Walter Kaiser Jr. puts it like this: “If they believed that he was the Messiah, they must know what kind of Messiah he was; if they were still minded to follow him, they must realize clearly what kind of leader they were following, and what lay at the end of the road he was pursuing. The revelation shocked them; this was not what they expected.” They could no longer simply assume that Jesus was leading them to an easy victory. He was headed for suffering and calling them… and us… to join Him.
We know suffering is a part of life, regardless of our faith. As much as we might want to avoid it, pain plays a role in all of our stories… some, more than others. And yet, the path Christ calls us to walk involves something unique: He invites us to share in God’s suffering love, and so share in His New Life. The New Testament scholar Donald English clarifies what it means to pick up our cross: “Jesus is not using cross-bearing to describe the human experience of carrying some burden through life. It is much more comprehensive than that. ‘People carrying crosses were people going to execution.’ Cross-bearing as a follower of Jesus means nothing less than giving one’s whole life over to following him. And here comes another surprise. This is the way of total freedom. If you clutch your life wholly to yourself, protecting it against all others, asserting all your rights, needs and privileges, you lose it because it isn’t life any longer. If, however, you acknowledge that life is not yours by right, that all is privilege, and that it is to be lived in the love that the gospel story reveals, self-giving love, then you possess it wholly. There is now nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Christ leads us to the cross because that destination does not end in death… because through His cross and resurrection, He has changed the story of our world. Christ is calling us to follow Him and carry our cross, not because He is cruel… or indifferent to our pain, but because He longs to share with us His new and everlasting Life! To share the long-suffering love of God which compels us to lay down our self-centredness, and enables us by God’s Spirit to care for one another as Christ Jesus cares for us all.
And finally, Christ calls us to follow Him and take up our cross, that we might find Him right there with us! That when we are burdened, and broken, we know He will see us through to God’s good end, trusting that the crucified and risen Christ can transform even our most tragic stories… leading us to New Life, not from far off in the distance, but bearing our sorrows, up close… that they may be one day turned to joy.
So may we be led with the Spirit’s help to answer our Saviour’s call to pick up our cross and follow Him, that He might change all our stories for good. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 107.
 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 425.
 Donald English, The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 161.
Scripture Readings: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:24-37
“…mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
If the old saying is true that “hindsight is 20/20”, one problem that’s become a lot clearer these days as we look back is prejudice: judging other people by our own preconceptions. Whether we’re talking about systemic racism, gender inequality, or the volatile divisiveness that marks our political landscape, our world seems to be becoming more and more aware of how prejudice poisons our common life. Of course, that doesn’t mean we know much about how to resist it’s pull. This is a deep problem that’s been with humanity for quite some time… and one we don’t seem that capable of ending on our own.
Our Scripture readings today from the Book of James and the Gospel of Mark bring this problem of prejudice before our eyes, not to heap on even more judgment, but to show us another way… to draw us deeper into the merciful Kingdom of the Living God, which upends our expectations, and is always full of surprises.
In our reading today from Mark’s Gospel we certainly find a surprising story: where Jesus Himself appears to disparage a Syrophoenician woman… likening her to a dog when she begs Him to rescue her daughter. By all accounts, this is not an easy story for Christians to contemplate. We are so used to seeing our Lord as the epitome of kindness and grace. Instead, in this passage He seems to be propagating the prejudices of His times, referring to Gentiles, those outside of Israel, as something less than human. How does this all fit with the rest of Christ’s story and His character? What are we supposed to do with this upsetting episode?
First off, we need to remember our proper place within this scenario: we are not being called to pass judgment on Jesus, but rather to seek understanding. To discern God’s holy love at work, even when it’s hard to recognize… to be open to possibilities beyond our pre-conceptions.
Secondly, it helps to remember that this episode does not stand alone: it’s connected to the larger story that Mark is trying to tell us about the Good News of Jesus, God’s Son, sent to be the Saviour… not only of Israel, but of all the peoples of the world.
One clue that Mark gives us about the purpose of our troubling passage today is a theme that connects with our reading from last week, where Christ has a dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem about what it means to be right with God… that is, about what it means to be truly clean. We heard these religious elites were focussed on rules of ritual purity, practiced through acts like always washing their hands before they would eat. By contrast, Jesus called, not simply for clean hands, but for clean hearts… for whole lives devoted to living in line with the holy love of God. Jesus effectively called out the religious leadership of Jerusalem, accusing them of caring more about their own traditions than the ways of God… for judging to be ‘unclean’ those who didn’t do things their way.
After this confrontation, suddenly, Mark tells us that Jesus heads into the country beyond Israel… to the region of Tyre, which is a city of ‘unclean’ Gentiles. There Jesus seeks some solace, but is sought out by a Syrophoenician woman, an ‘unclean’ Gentile, shaped not by Israel’s way of life, but by pagan, Greek culture. Mark tells us her daughter was suffering under the power of a demon. A rebellious, ‘unclean’ spirit, at odds with the will of Almighty God. This woman is someone who seems as far from the Living God as anyone could be. She was from another ethnicity, cultural, and religious world. To a faithful Jew, her whole identity and situation would have simply screamed ‘unclean’… cut-off from the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, standing in complete contrast to how the Scribes and Pharisees were usually seen.
But Mark wants us to see beyond appearances, and prejudice… and to open our eyes, he tells us what happened when this Gentile mother met Jesus.
We’ll return to Mark in a few moments, but let’s turn briefly to the Book of James, who offers a much more direct discussion about the nature of the Christian Church, and why the poison of prejudice is to have no place in it.
In today’s passage, St. James tackles head on the problem of ‘positive prejudice’, the problem of favoritism, especially when it comes to preferring those with wealth over the poor. St. James sees this as totally out of line with what the Church is all about, with the radical equality of the counter-cultural kingdom of God, a community not based on money, or influence, or race, or sex, or status, but on God’s saving love, drawing all peoples together in Christ. “My brothers and sisters,” St. James writes, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1) St. James saw that Christ’s kingdom way of life was being completely betrayed by how some were treating their poorer brothers and sisters, as if they were less valued, because they had less money.
Sadly, this same attitude persists today both inside and outside the Church, but how out of place this prejudice is within the family of God! There are many today who still teach that riches are a sign of God’s favour. That if we only have enough faith, God will bless us financially. The flip side is then, if we aren’t rich, than we must not have enough faith. In this view, material wealth becomes hard evidence that one is right with God, and so those with money and influence deserve more of our attention and energy.
Against this kind of garbage, St. James shows us another way: reminding us that the evidence of true faith is not wealth, but compassionate love in action. “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (James 2:8)
This is what a clean heart looks like! This is God’s holy way of life: to be guided, not by our prejudices, or by favoritism… but compassionate love in action. Works of mercy, not mere words, are the evidence of living faith. This is he way of Christ’s kingdom, which St. James would have us follow… caring for one another, as Christ Jesus cares for us all.
Turning back now to the Gospel of Mark, we encounter someone living this kind of faith… but it’s not the religious elite, the ones with the reputations for godliness. It is the ‘unclean’ Gentile mother, driven to the feet of Jesus, humbly entrusting herself to His mercy out of compassionate love for her tormented daughter. She placed her hope, her faith, her trust in Jesus to come to her rescue, knowing full well all the barriers and differences between them. Unlike the Pharisees and Scribes who thought of themselves as utterly clean and holy, she does not back down from seeking mercy, even in the face of insult.
But why does Jesus speak to her this way? Why does He seem to dismiss her request with such an uncaring, unkind response? It seems so out of character.
I wish I had an easy answer that would smooth everything over. But I don’t think the purpose of this story is for us to find an easy answer. I think it’s a way Mark wants us to also experience the same tension this Gentile woman faced: to not expect to be flattered, or treated with favoritism when we come to Jesus’ feet… not to presume, like the Pharisees and Scribes, that we will get special treatment, counting on our own goodness in order to get what we want from God. Like this Gentile mother, can we come to Jesus, and trust Him to be merciful? That He will overcome all the real obstacles between us… not because we somehow deserve it, but simply because we believe that He is driven by compassionate love, and will put it into action?
The entire Gospel message gives us good reasons to believe this, and there is even a powerful hint hidden within Jesus’ strange reply. Mark tells us that Jesus “said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) “Let the children be fed first”. This is a question of order.
We know from the rest of Christ’s story that His ultimate intention is not to ignore, dismiss, or disparage the Gentile nations, but first to fulfill God’s unique mission to His covenant people Israel… which was the necessary step in order to rescue every other nation! This mission was leading Him closer and closer into a confrontation that would end with Christ being rejected by His own, and hung on a cross, where He would willingly suffer, and die to redeem and reconcile the whole world to God. Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, no favoritism… but mercy for all. And to drive home the point, Mark will later tell us that after Jesus had breathed His last, it was a Gentile, a Roman soldier, who was the first to recognized Him as the Son of God.
Though hard to hear, Christ’s words to the Gentile mother are not an expression of prejudice. He’s not looking down on her, and judging her to be unworthy of care. Christ’s whole mission to Israel is not about who is more loved by God, or who is more worthy of honour. Through His unique relationship with Israel, which Jesus brings to a head, the Living God has reached out to ALL nations, once and for all… reconciling, and uniting us together in His mercy, and filling us with His own compassionate love to be put into action.
And as a foretaste of this worldwide mission, Jesus is moved by this Gentile mother's pleas, and sets her daughter free from the darkness that had tormented her.
As the Church, we are called to be the community on earth not driven by our own prejudices, but by our Lord Jesus’ compassionate love for all. There are still many ways that prejudice remains a real temptation for us, undermining the work of love God has prepared for us.
What are some of the ways that we still struggle with a spirit of judgment? Where do we need to trust in the mercy of Jesus again today? How might God be wanting to work through us to make His life-giving mercy known more and more to those who desperately need it today? Amen.
Scripture Readings: Song of Solomon 2:8–13 | Psalm 45:1–10 | James 1:17–27 | Mark 7:1–23
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:8)
How clean are your hands?
In the early days of this pandemic, almost a year and a half ago, before we knew much about COVID-19, or how best to stop it, one age-old practice quickly grabbed hold of our attention again: we all began to work much harder at keeping our hands clean. Hand-sanitizing stations began popping up everywhere, along with posters highlighting the best ways to wash our dirty digits. Handshakes and high-fives disappeared, replaced by waves and elbow bumps. Almost overnight, we changed our habits… the way we handle our hand hygiene, stepping up our precautions in an effort to be safe. Hopefully, this change has helped to keep us all healthier… and maybe a bit more aware of how our simple actions can effect (or infect) those all around us.
Our Scripture reading today from the Gospel of Mark has a lot to say to us about being truly clean. Not only on the outside, but inside as well.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that some Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem, the Holy City, came to confront Jesus about His disciples’ uncleanliness… that is, the disciples were not ritually purifying their hands before they ate… a tradition the Pharisees and Scribes cared a whole lot about… not because they were worried about microscopic germs, or hygiene… but because they were really really concerned with holiness. With trying to keep themselves spiritually clean to stay close to the Living God. For them, this was an essential practice for staying in God’s good books… and if Jesus’ followers weren’t following this important tradition, they suggested He must not care about holiness either. Their comment was an attempt to undermine Jesus’ character and reputation. But how was washing your hands before you eat to help make you holy?
There is no commandment in the Scriptures about washing your hands before you eat, at least not for regular people… only the Priests serving in the Temple were required to ritually wash their hands. But as we know, this was a tradition, a practice handed down from the past, which tried to honour God’s holiness by going above and beyond God’s commands. In order to avoid crossing the line… to avoid any chance of breaking God’s Law, Israel’s elders got into the practice of placing “a fence around the Law”, so to speak. Establishing their own rules intended to make it ‘easier’ to obey, developing a clear way of life over the centuries. In this case, elders concerned with raising the ‘holiness’ standards of God’s people took ritual cleansings commanded for priestly service and applied it to everyone. After all, what harm could come from everyone building these habits of ritual holiness? Shouldn’t everyone try to put their devotion to God into practice? And so, the Scribes and Pharisees, supported by this human tradition, try to put Jesus in His place by discrediting His disciples.
Now we can see why Jesus gets so upset by their question which was designed to malign His followers, and undermine His mission. Jesus responds by calling out their well-hidden hypocrisy:
“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8)
Jesus points out that they were using their own traditions in ways that actually undermined their alleged commitment to living in God’s holy ways. They were using their ritual practices as a tool to build up their own religious reputation, and to tear down those who differed from them. The problem was not that they wanted to promote and pursue holiness… or that they developed some practices to help them live this out. The problem was that their traditions had become a barrier… an obstacle… looking great on the outside, but obscuring both God’s character, and holy work in the world. They were so focused on their own definitions of what God wants from His people that they had become blind to the ways they were breaking the heart of God’s commandments… twisting His holy words to support their own selfish ways.
By contrast, Jesus Christ reveals the true heartbeat of the Holy Trinity, and He calls us to follow Him into His holy way of life: one wholly in line with the Living God’s character and purposes… not just on the surface, but completely to the core… through and through. Rather than focus on their symbolic practices, Christ cares most deeply about whether or not God’s people are reflecting God’s own holy life. Whether or not they love the LORD their God, and faithfully walk in His ways… and whether or not they share God’s holy love for their neighbours. Christ knows these Pharisees and Scribes care much about having clean hands. And Christ shows us He cares much more about having clean hearts.
Does our way of doing things, our understanding of what is right and good uphold or undermine the holy work of the Living God in our midst? In other words… even if our hands seem clean, are our hearts clean? Spiritually speaking, are we focused on the superficial, but ignoring the essential? Are we blind to our own infections, while diagnosing others?
As a sort-of silly example, let’s think about this kind of problem in the context of COVID-19: What if our only response to COVID-19 was to clean our hands? Think of all the sanitizing, hand washing, and resisting of hand-shakes that we have adjusted to. Would simply cleansing our hands prevent the virus from spreading? No. The much bigger issue of breathing in the virus would persist. Though hand-washing is certainly helpful, it’s only one part of the answer. We need a much deeper answer to overcome this disease.
As a much-less silly example, let’s change the focus a bit: What happens in our minds and hearts when others don’t follow our COVID rules? When people don’t respond to the ongoing pandemic the way we think they should? Cases are rising again in New Brunswick, along with many people’s anxiety levels. There is understandable fear, frustration, and anger being stoked… often directed at those who refuse to take the danger seriously… undermining the safety of our whole community.
As Christians, we’re called to love our neighbours… to set aside our own desires in order to work for the good of everyone, especially the most vulnerable… in St. James’ context, that meant caring “for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). In other words, we’re to stand up for all those with no one else to care for them. With this calling, of course we’ll get upset when vulnerable lives are put at risk. Of course we’ll be pulled by all sorts of emotions and impulses. But despite the physical threat of COVID-19 we’re having to face, there is also the spiritual threats of bitterness, condemnation, and anger that can easily eat away at our hearts… causing all sorts of damage. I saw a newspaper headline this week where someone gave voice to this spirit of spite, saying things like this: “I have no empathy left for the willfully unvaccinated. Let them die. I honestly don’t care if they die from COVID. Not even a little bit.” These words may not have escaped our lips, but do they echo some of our attitudes? Does this in any way reflect the holy way of God that Christ calls us into? Are we free to completely condemn our neighbours, even if only in our hearts?
As Christ unpacks His teaching to His followers in Mark 7:21-23, He makes clear that what goes on in our hearts has serious implications: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” This is what makes us ‘unclean.’ And from Matthew’s Gospel, especially in Chapter 5 (the Sermon on the Mount), Christ clearly connects uncontrolled anger, and hate to something as serious as murder. Incompatible, with the holy love of God.
But Christ also reveals God’s holy heart, even in the face of hate: Hanging on the cross, Jesus pleaded for His Father to forgive those who had Him crucified… including the Pharisees and Scribes that He had challenged in our reading today. He did not ignore their hypocrisy, just as He does not ignore ours. He did not go along with their selfish schemes, just as He does not support ours. But far from give up on them or us, Jesus gave His life up for us all… for while we were still sinners, while we were at our absolute worst… Christ died for us (See Romans 5:8), and rose again to save us. This is the heartbeat of God. This is the depths of His holy love. Jesus, shedding His precious blood, to cleanse and rescue His enemies.
In the absence of hope, so many today are turning to anger and hate. But in the light of the Gospel, the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, how are we to respond when we are tempted to give in to anger?
Let’s hear again the words of St. James’: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20). Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. We must not give free reign to the forces in us that undermine the holy love of God that Jesus poured out for us all… which is at work in us even now through the Holy Spirit, empowering us to love our neighbours, even if they are acting like enemies!
This is just one example of how we humans are tempted to turn from God’s holy ways… all while trying to convince ourselves and others that we’re in the right. But in Christ who die and rose again to cleanse our hearts, and our whole lives, God’s Spirit is empowering us to share His saving love with our world.
In closing, let us pray this slightly modified Collect for Purity, placing our faith in Christ to cleanse us through and through:
to you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hidden.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you, and our neighbours,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
 See Exodus 30:18–21 & Exodus 40:30–32.
 From the Toronto Star, Thursday August 26, 2021.
 Matthew 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And again, in Matthew 5:43-45, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10–11, 22–30, 41–43 | Psalm 84 | Ephesians 6:10–20 | John 6:56–69
“The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63)
Who’s ready for another election?
For the third time during this pandemic, next month we’re being called again to cast our ballots… this time, to choose our new Federal Government. To select the leaders we hope will guide our country the best in the aftermath of COVID-19, and the many changes and challenges we now face together.
As I’ve mentioned before, voting is a tangible act of trust. A concrete way of saying: ‘we believe in the vision these people are offering, and the way of life they are promising to bring about.’ And as we know, during elections there are plenty of promises, speeches, and words being spoken… fighting for our confidence, as well as our support. Sometimes it’s hard not to be too cynical about these kinds of promises. Sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out who we should trust to guide our country. But every election presents us with a crisis… a moment of decision… where we each must weigh our options and decide who we trust with this huge responsibility. After all, at the end of the day, we can only cast one vote.
In our Gospel reading today we encounter another crisis moment at the culmination of a conversation between Christ and those who were following Him. For the last few weeks we have heard how this conversation has been unfolding. Jesus had performed a miracle: turning five loaves and two fish into a feast that fed over five thousand people. They had tasted and seen His life-giving power at work, and they wanted more. In fact, in John 6:15, we’re told that the crowd had it in mind to take Jesus “by force, to make Him king”… to seize political power for this Man who could provide their kind of leadership… that is, someone who could satisfy their hungers.
We can see this kind of impulse at work all the time in our world: people seizing power by force, backed by crowds that place all their future hope in them. Such stories, however, all too often bring on great tragedy and disaster… think with compassion about the people of Afghanistan today, whose lives have been shaken to the core by those seeking to rule over them.
Back in John chapter 6, we hear that Jesus resists the plans of the crowd, challenging their understanding of what it means to be God’s chosen King… to bring about God’s Kingdom by His Spirit, not by the sword.
Last week, we heard how Jesus called the crowd to find true life by eating His flesh, and drinking His blood. A summons, which at its heart is a radical call and invitation to believe… not merely in some ideal, or principle, or political platform… but to believe in Him. To trust Him. To follow Him. To receive, not just things from Him, but to receive the gift of Himself… to share in His own blessed life, offered up to one and all.
Today Christ’s invitation to believe in Him is again driven home, as He says to them (and us): “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Here we come to the crisis point… to the moment of decision. And today we hear that many decided not to trust in Him. To give up on His vision and His way of life. “[M]any of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:66).
Wait, who turned back? Today’s passage is not about the response of the hungry but ultimately undecided crowd. It’s about the response of those who had already committed to following Him. Many of His students… His apprentices… His card-carrying disciples decided to walk away. To no longer trust His word, and what He was bringing about.
Why? We first hear about their grumbling in John 6:60: “When many of his disciples heard it,” that is, Christ’s claim that He is the Bread of Life, sent from Heaven, and so on, “they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
His teaching was difficult. Let’s unpack that a bit.
Part of the difficulty may have been that they didn’t understand. They struggled to make sense of what Jesus was talking about. Fair enough! There’s plenty of things that Jesus says that goes right over our heads… and all the Gospels show how Christ’s disciples often misunderstand Him. It can be hard to follow somebody when we can’t quite grasp what they’re talking about. That is, unless we have cause to trust them even when we don’t understand. An infant may not understand much of what their parent says and does, and yet, they still can trust them with all of their heart. Most of us don’t know all the ins and outs of running a government, and yet we still entrust others to do this work on our behalf. Scientists, doctors, and many others see things and know things that we don’t… and yet we still trust them, and rely on them in all sorts of ways.
A simple lack of understanding does not necessarily lead to doubt. But there are other reasons why some might find Christ’s teaching’s difficult. We can understand something, and not want to believe in it. Here we have the struggle to accept what’s being said. Choosing to refuse the vision and message that is being offered. Again, we know that it is often a struggle to accept as true the things that challenge our old understandings of how the world really works. To trust in new ways of seeing things… or take on new ways of life. Yet as hard as it truly can be to accept challenging changes, it is not impossible either. We can accept, and have accepted, all sorts of big changes in life… especially if we still have something firm to cling to and believe in.
Whatever the reason that the disciples found Jesus’ teaching’s difficult, one option still remained open: they could have chosen to trust in Jesus Himself, despite not understanding… and even despite the conflict and doubts still going on inside them.
They could have chosen to stick around out of sheer commitment to Him, but instead, many chose to look elsewhere for the path to life.
Today’s reading confronts us current disciples as well with this same question: How will you and I respond to what Jesus our Lord is up to? Especially when we find the things He says and does hard to understand? Or when He deeply challenges the way we see and live in the world?
This story highlights a really important point about belief. About the kind of faith that Christ is concerned about. To believe in Jesus, to come to trust in Him is not like an election… where before we cast our vote for Him we first size Him up to see if He ticks all the boxes on our checklists… assessing how closely He aligns with our values, our vision for how things should be, to make sure He will confirm and support our own familiar way of life.
No, believing in Jesus means placing our trust and confidence in Him. To place ourselves and our future in His hands wholeheartedly… unreservedly… ‘all-in’. Jesus Christ is the One person that we’re meant to ‘swallow whole’, so to speak. That is, not to try and cut Him up into pieces we’ll say yes to, and pieces we’ll leave behind. He offers us His whole self, coming to us as He truly is, and asks us to to trust in Him, especially when that’s difficult. And just like with elections, we’re asked to trust Him over and over again… to re-affirm our faith over the whole course of our lives. To turn to Him when we find ourselves in situations we don’t understand. And when we are struggling, conflicted, and torn between the things we want, and what Christ shows us to be the way of life.
We can take heart as the Gospel reminds us that some disciples stayed true to Christ… remaining by His side, and by the Spirit’s help, keeping the faith. Jesus turns to the handful of followers left, and asks them “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67). On behalf of the twelve, and also for Christians all throughout the ages, St. Peter says to Jesus: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).
And through this handful of faithful disciples… who were not without their own struggles, misunderstandings, conflicts, and doubts… through them the Living God revealed His life-giving glory and love for the world: transforming them into witnesses of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, and receivers of God’s Holy Spirit powerfully breaking out into our world… through their words about Jesus, and as they follow His way of life, drawing people from all nations into God’s family, the Church.
When we’re discouraged, when we face difficulties, and when we begin to doubt, let us remember that Christ has spoken to us the words of “spirit and life.” That in Jesus, the Living God is offering all who believe eternal life… and that He can take a handful of far-from-perfect, but faithful followers, and draw them into His mission to reconcile and redeem the world.
Perhaps, as we consider our own lives, and the future mission of St. Luke’s, no other questions have more relevance than these: Do we believe that Jesus Christ has the words of eternal life? And if so, how must we put this belief into action? Amen.
Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 2:10–12, 3:3–14 | Psalm 111 | Ephesians 5:15–20 | John 6:51–58
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus takes the conversation in a very odd direction: he tells His listeners to eat Him. Imagine that this was the very first passage of the Bible you came across; you flip open the pages, and read these words… how do you react? I wonder how many of us would even bother to keep reading? In fact, it’s this kind of visceral imagery that led to the early Christians being accused of cannibalism by their Greek and Roman neighbours. For those of us who have been in Christian circles for a while, we know that Jesus is talking about something beautiful, and blessed here… but even so, this passage still has the power to shake us up a bit. Inviting us to wrestle with some strange sounding questions. Like:
How exactly are we supposed to “eat and drink” Jesus?
For us Anglicans and many other Christians, this might seem pretty simple: that’s what we do in Holy Communion… in sharing the Lord’s Supper, where we remember and receive Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross for the sake of the world… which we will be celebrating together in just a few moments.
But hold on a second. Is it all that simple? Is He just talking about the sacrament of Holy Communion? Do we really think that simply taking Communion will give us eternal life? Is this what Jesus had in mind when He was speaking to the crowds?
Now there is definitely a clear connection between our Gospel reading today, and the Christian practice of Holy Communion. But perhaps we need to take a step back and take a closer look to see if there’s something we’re missing. To see it there’s something more that our Lord might want us to hear… and do.
Our passage today takes place in the middle of much longer conversation between Jesus and the crowd that had gathered around Him in Galilee. This crowd had personally tasted the miraculous power of Jesus the day before, when He took one boy’s meager lunch, five loaves of bread and two fish, and made it enough to satisfy over five thousand people. We’re told that they eagerly tracked Him down, when Jesus had moved on with His mission, but instead of repeating the miracle and feeding them all again, Jesus tells them to stop working for “food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27) When they ask Jesus what kind of work God has in mind, He “answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
A bit taken aback, the crowd responds to Christ’s invitation to believe in Him by demanding that He give them a sign for them to see and believe in Him… pointing to the manna, the mysterious bread from heaven, that Moses provided to Israel during their wilderness wanderings after the Exodus. Christ quickly responds by pointing out that it wasn’t Moses, their greatest hero, who gave them the manna, it was Christ’s heavenly Father who’s the source of true bread from heaven.
The crowd then turns to Jesus and says, “Ok then, you give us this heavenly bread… not just once, but always.” “If you are greater than Moses, give us our fill of bread.” In their words we might hear the echoes of Christ’s first temptation in the wilderness: dared by the devil to prove that He was God’s Son by turning stones into bread… this time though, the miracle was not to satisfy His own hunger, but the hunger of His people. They wanted something from Jesus that would fulfill their ongoing desires. But Jesus responds by again offering Himself.
“I am the bread of life.” He says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe… 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:35-36, 40)”
The crowd begins to balk now: ‘who does this Jesus think that He is?’ ‘This is just the son of Joseph…’ ‘we know His family…’ ‘how can He claim to be God’s gift sent from heaven?’ But rather than smooth things over, Jesus takes this heated conversation to the next level: “Very truly, I tell you,” He says, “whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:46-51).
The conversation between Christ and the confused crowd keeps going, and next week we’ll be spending some time reflecting on how it wraps up. For today, I just want us to consider two words that keep popping up throughout this chapter. Interestingly enough, they both begin with the letter “b”. The first one of course is ‘bread’… but the second is ‘believe’.
Believe. Believe in the one that God has sent. Whoever comes to Him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in Him will never be thirsty. The crowds had seen Him, /and yet did not believe. All who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life.
What is this passage, this whole conversation really about? The crowds can’t stop thinking about how to get something from Jesus: first ordinary, then heavenly bread… signs, straightforward answers. But the central concern of Jesus is that the crowds not simply seek things from Him, but that they believe in Him. That they put their faith in Him as the One sent from the Father, not just to fill their bellies with food, but to fill them with God’s blessed life, for all eternity. The miracle they had tasted when he multiplied the fish and bread, was truly a great gift displaying the generous, powerful love of God. But even more crucial was God’s gift of His only Son… sent to offer His life to be broken and poured out to bring forgiveness of sins, and New Life to God’s people… and to the world.
Jesus Christ is Himself the ultimate source of all we truly need. In Him, God shares His life with us, and will forevermore. In this context, to “eat and drink” Jesus means to believe in Him. To say ‘yes’ to His invitation, His call to place our trust in Him. Not once, but over and over again… as our true daily bread.
It’s faith in Jesus Christ that enables us to rightly receive Holy Communion as a sacrament… an outward sign of God’s grace working inside of us. Without faith in Jesus, this precious gift just becomes a ritual… something we do, which might be beautiful, but lacks God’s life-giving power. But we are invited to come to Christ’s table trusting in His love for us… placing our faith, not in our own goodness, but in His saving sacrifice… called to receive this bread as His broken body, and this wine as His blood, shed for us… to believe the Good News of all He has done, to fill us with His New Life.
Holy Communion is one of the most precious gifts Christ gives us to strengthen our faith… to draw us closer to Him so we can receive anew His grace and love. But it is meant to inspire and empower us to live our entire lives by faith. To be guided each day, not by our own wisdom, but by the hand of our Saviour… setting His will above our own desires and plans.
In everything we do, gathered together here for worship, or out in the wide world, we are called to “eat and drink Jesus” …to continually trust in Him, and walk in His life-giving ways. So may the Holy Spirit fill us all with a living faith in Jesus, drawing us ever deeper into the blessed New Life of God. Amen.
Scripture Reading: 2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19 | Psalm 24 | Ephesians 1:3–14 | Mark 6:14–29
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, / the world and all who dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1)
As of the end of August, my family and I will have been living here in New Brunswick for 5 years. I’m not sure how long it takes, exactly, before we’re officially considered Maritimers… but I hope it’s not too much longer. Truth be told, we love it here. Coming to New Brunswick from Ontario was certainly an adventure… one that has had a huge impact on us, with it’s full share of big adjustments, joys, and even challenges. In many ways, it was a truly life-changing decision to put down roots here; re-orienting every aspect of our day to day lives, and redirecting the course of our family’s future… where we’ll work, worship, and go to school… what communities we’ll connect with… not to mention a newfound appreciation for really good seafood.
Where we dwell shapes us. And so does who we dwell with. And five years on, I’m certainly glad to be dwelling here with you.
In our Scripture readings today from 2 Samuel and the Gospel of Mark, we are invited to hear what happens when God comes to dwell in the midst of His people; making His holy presence known in new and profound ways.
In our reading from 2 Samuel we heard about one of King David’s triumphant adventures: bringing the Ark of the covenant of God to his new capital city, Jerusalem. The ark was sacred for many reasons. Notably, it held the stone tablets of the commandments… God’s written covenant with Israel. But even more than that, the ark was itself a tangible sign of God’s royal presence among His people. The scholar, Patricia Dutcher-Walls, drives home the ark’s significance: “The ark of God was the most powerful symbol of the Lord’s presence with Israel at that time. The container for the tablets of the commandments had accompanied the people for years on their journey toward the Promised Land and during their time of settlement on the land. The ark was more than a box; it was a visible symbol of God’s awesome presence for and with the people… Now David brings this potent symbol of God’s power and might up to Jerusalem.” Now that he had secured a unified kingdom, centred on Jerusalem, King David sought to publicly honour and glorify the LORD, bringing God’s holy presence into David’s royal city. Again, Dutcher-Walls says it well: “When David brings the ark to Jerusalem, he literally brings God into the center of his kingship.” It’s a moment full of anticipation… a sacred adventure, with “David and all the house of Israel… dancing before the Lord with all their might” (2 Samuel 6:5).
But like most adventures, this one had its share of serious adjustments and challenges too… ones that are easy for us to miss today because of the verses our lectionary happens to skip over this week. In 2 Samuel 6:6-12, the adventure starts getting bumpy… literally. The ark, the sacred symbolic marker of the presence of Almighty God begins to slip off the ox-drawn cart that had been carrying it, and a man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark and stop it from falling. But as he does so, Uzzah is struck dead on the spot… driving home to David that God’s presence is never to be taken lightly, even with good intentions. According to God’s command, no one but the High Priests were supposed to handle the ark… even those especially chosen to carry it could only do so after it had been properly covered. In his rush to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem, David had been careless with the LORD… and Uzzah’s shocking death was the tragic result.
Obviously, this all freaks David out. The whole procession grinds to a halt, and for three months King David leaves the ark in the house of somebody else nearby… unsure if it’s truly safe to invite God any closer. But when he hears that the man watching over the ark is being blessed by God, David takes heart, and resumes the sacred procession, to Jerusalem… this time, with much deeper reverence and respect for God’s holiness; even offering sacrifices after every six steps.
But this deeper sense of reverence was matched by overwhelming joy! King David still dances before the ark in genuine celebration, even to the point of seeming undignified to his wife. Later on, she mocks him for what she sees as a ‘vulgar’ and ‘shameless’ display, but David does not seem bothered at all about losing himself in worshipping God. And when the ark finally arrives, King David offers a feast: bread, and meat, and raisin cakes, shared with one and all… rejoicing in God’s symbolic arrival to Jerusalem as Israel’s King. From now on, David’s city would be the centre of Israel’s spiritual life. The whole nation’s relationship with God would have to adjust as the ark found a permanent home, but with that change came a renewed sense of God’s presence dwelling with them, and all the hope and joy that this divine fellowship brings.
Turning now to Mark’s Gospel, we find the story of the fate of John the Baptist, the prophet-herald of God’s coming King. The Gospel of Mark begins by introducing us to John in the wilderness, who was sent, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, to “prepare the way of the Lord”, and “make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). John is portrayed as a faithful messenger, called to prepare God’s people for the coming of God’s Messiah, the Christ, their Anointed Saviour King… who was on His way to rescue, and right the wrongs of Israel… restoring God’s holy blessed presence, and dwelling with them again. St. Mark tells us that a huge part of John’s mission was to remind his fellow Israelites that they were all called to be God’s holy people, set apart to live in God’s holy ways… calling them to turn their lives around… to seek and receive the LORD’s forgiveness.
And many believed John’s message; getting ready for God’s return by being baptized in the Jordan River,
and turning away from sin… finding new joy and hope in their renewed devotion to the LORD. But John’s preaching got him in hot water with one of Israel’s overlords: Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee under the Romans, along with his wife Herodias, didn’t like having their unlawful relationship called into question by John, which led to his unjust arrest, and murderous execution.
On it’s own, this seems like yet another tragic account of powerful people getting what they want, and good people paying for it all with their lives. But this part of the story belongs to the wider adventure of Mark’s Gospel as a whole: to the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sent to save us… through His own suffering.
N.T. Wright locates the story of John’s terrible and tragic death as an important foretaste of the path Jesus Himself would soon take to fulfill His mission: “Mark’s readers… realize that if the herald has come to a bad end at the hands of wicked people, the monarch may go the same way. If this is what happens to prophets, think what will happen to the king himself. This king, too, has been despised by his own family… and will end up rejected by all.” John was sent to prepare his people, to get them ready for God to dwell with them… to help them get ready for God’s gifts of joy and hope, through forgiveness and New Life. But he also shared in the suffering and rejection of his coming King… killed for staying true to the LORD and His holy ways… and pointing ahead to Christ’s own arrival to Jerusalem, where He reconciled our sin-filled world to God by becoming the Crucified King… then renewing our joy and hope by rising again from the grave.
John’s story speaks loudly of the opposition, the resistance to God drawing near to us, exposing our darkness in the sacred light of His holy love. But instead of giving in to the pressures and pain he faced, John chose to centre his life around the will of the Living God, entrusting his future fate into the hands of his heavenly King. And as John shared in Christ’s sufferings, so too will he share in Christ’s glory, reminding us that even if others reject or hurt us for following Jesus, the Risen Lord is with all those who place their trust in Him… and one day He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and share with us the unending, joy-filled New Life of God.
Together, these two sacred stories have much to tell us about dwelling with God… about what comes with sharing our lives with the Risen Lord. Both call us to get ready for the coming of God in our lives: to not take His presence with us lightly, but receive it with reverence and joy, welcoming God’s holy love to reorient, and transform us. Both remind us that we too can expect to face our share of resistance… that not everyone will welcome a closer connection to the Risen Christ, and that we will likely experience our own rough roads on this journey. And both remind us to place our hope in the presence and power of the LORD: that all the many ups and downs of this adventure are worth it, because they’re a part of sharing in the blessed kingdom of Jesus Christ… the one true kingdom that will never be overcome… that will never end.
So as we consider our own journeys so far, and what might lie before us, may we all grow deeper in the desire to truly dwell with the LORD: to let His holy love shape and re-arrange all that we are, and all we do. May we find in Christ the hope and joy that God has prepared for His people, sustaining us in our own struggles with the promise of sharing in His New Life. And may we press on, and encourage one another to stay true to our Risen King and His Kingdom, who rules, not just in Jerusalem, but over all the earth… even here, in the Maritimes, and Gondola Point. Amen.
 Patricia Dutcher-Walls, “Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 197.
 Ibid. 196.
 See Numbers chapter 15.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year B (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), 87.
Scripture Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1–5, 9–10 | Psalm 48 | 2 Corinthians 12:2–10 | Mark 6:1–13
“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
There’s an old saying that comes to mind: ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ The more we think we know something, or someone, the more we tend to dismiss their significance or value. While not true in every case, this can be an easy trap to fall into: treating those closest to us far worse than they deserve, or rolling our eyes when someone we know really well tries to influence us. We might be tempted to ask: “Just who do they think they are?” “What gives them the right?” “Do they think that they know better than us?” “Do they think that they are better than us?” As strange as it may sound, sometimes its harder to gain the confidence of those we’re closest to… to challenge or change how they already perceive us. And yet throughout the Scriptures, we find the Living God at work, transforming the familiar, the simple, the ordinary into the precious gifts of His Kingdom… challenging and renewing how we look at everything and everyone… including ourselves.
In our Scripture readings today, from 2 Samuel and the Gospel of Mark, our attention is drawn to two very different responses to God’s chosen ones: inviting us to consider how we are to respond as well.
The first reading tells of how David was welcomed by Israel as their new King. A few weeks ago, we heard how God had secretly chosen David to replace Saul as Israel’s king, after the latter repeatedly proved himself to be unfaithful to the LORD. At the time, David was just a simple shepherd, tending his father’s flocks, but with the LORD at work in his life, he became a powerful soldier, and a well-loved general. After Saul’s demise, we’re told that David, despite his humble beginnings, received the whole nation’s confidence, and they happily accepted him as their king. This passage offers a simple, straightforward picture of God’s people saying ‘yes’ to the one the LORD had anointed and chosen to reign over His good Kingdom.
The passage from Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, paints a very different picture: where rather than being received, we find God’s chosen One is rejected… despised by those closest to Him: Christ’s own family and neighbours.
Returning to His hometown of Nazareth, after an intense season of ministry, Jesus continued His mission and work, sharing the Good News of God’s Kingdom. He began by teaching in the synagogue, and at first all seems well. But soon it’s clear the people of Nazareth are having a hard time reconciling the Jesus they thought they knew with the One standing before them. The scholar Morna Hooker describes the scene like this: “The congregation is astonished at his wisdom and at the mighty works… that are performed at his hands: they recognize him as the agent of a supernatural power. But their astonishment quickly turns to disbelief: he cannot be what he seems, since they know who he is and where he comes from.”
Despite His words of wisdom, despite the miracles, and works of power they had heard about, they all still doubted, dismissed, and looked down on Jesus. “Where did this man get all this?” they said, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3) In other words, they were saying to themselves: “Who does He think He is?”
Another New Testament scholar, Peter Marty, has this to say: “The tone of Jesus’ reception by his family and “friends” is hardly warm. Their language is shaded with negativity. They seem to appreciate the results of what they see Jesus doing, even if it puzzles them in large measure. But they do not appreciate him. They do not accept him for who he is.”  At issue in Nazareth wasn’t His message, or the Kingdom work He was doing… the source of their doubt, their biggest obstacle was their ideas of Jesus Himself. They thought they already knew all there was to know about Him… that He was no different than them, despite all the rumors and signs to the contrary. They could not see how the little, ordinary child they had seen grow up before their eyes could be something more; could be the One chosen by the LORD to finally bring in His Kingdom… could be Someone who actually embodied the Living God in human flesh… that Mary’s boy could also be the only begotten Son of God.
How often are we tripped up by what we think we know about Jesus? Dismissing and disregarding what He is revealing to us about Himself, because we remain unwilling to let our old ideas be challenged? Our assumptions about His character? His intentions? His will for us? This episode in Nazareth reminds us of how important it is for all of us not to try to put Jesus in a box… not to pretend we have Him all figured out… but instead to be open to the surprising, life-long journey of growing closer to Him. Of learning to listen to His voice, and to trust Him more and more.
Because of their unbelief, the people of Nazareth missed out that day… limiting their contact with the healing, freeing power of God’s Kingdom, which was standing right before their eyes in Someone they thought they knew so well. They rejected Jesus; foreshadowing where Mark’s Gospel is headed. Not toward earthly success, but towards suffering… and salvation. Towards the Son of God enduring the rejection of the world on the cross, in order to reconcile the world to the Living God. In the rejection of Jesus by His own family and neighbours, Marty writes: “we get a taste of the challenging task Jesus will face in his ministry, all the way to the cross. We [also] see some demanding features of what the full mission entails for those who choose to follow him.”
Which leads us to the Disciples of Jesus: that odd assortment of ordinary folk… fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and others with unknown professions. They had been chosen by Christ to follow Him: to take part in His mission and ministry, and to join Him in sharing God’s Kingdom with the world around them. Who did they think they were? What were their qualifications for such a serious, significant calling? Just one: They had been with Jesus. Bearing witness to what He was saying and doing… even as they still struggled to understand it all. After all, Mark’s Gospel paints the Disciples as pretty clueless most of the time… yet these are the people that Jesus entrusts with the mission of God’s Kingdom. Ordinary, simple, familiar people, empowered and sent by Jesus to change the world.
How did He send them?
Not with lots of provisions or earthly possessions… encouraging them instead to trust in God, and on the goodwill of their neighbours… though, after Christ’s own rejection by His family and hometown, it’s clear that they too should be prepared to face rejection as well.
He did not send them alone either, but together… as pairs of witnesses. As small communities of faith sent out to share the Good News.
And He did not send them to gain honour, power, or influence for themselves, but to offer a place in God’s Kingdom to anyone who would welcome it: proclaiming repentance… turning around lives, not just heaping on guilt. Casting out demons… bringing spiritual freedom to those bound by darkness. Curing the sick… touching lives with tangible help, healing, and hope. They were sent to be living signs of God’s Kingdom… God’s holy love breaking into our world.
As Disciples of Jesus Christ today, who do we think we are? How do we envision our own role in this ongoing story?
There was a time when Christians wanted, and even expected to rule… to possess great power and influence in our wider society. For many years, we saw this as God’s calling for the Church: to be the ones who called the shots… and for a time, that’s what we did. Welcomed by the world as keepers of things like truth, goodness, and duty.
That time is long-gone now… and there’s no going back!
And with the growing divide between the Church and our wider Canadian culture… especially when we as Christians don’t live in line with God’s good Kingdom… we should not be surprised if we encounter unbelief from our neighbours.
Yet Christ Jesus still sends us out to share His Kingdom with our world today. We’re sent perhaps without much worldly power, possessions, or influence… but called to trust in God’s ongoing presence, providing all we need to be faithful to His mission. We’re sent together, not alone, as a community of faith, bound to one another by God’s holy love… to strengthen each other, support one another, and challenge one another to stay true to our Lord, even when our courage starts to fail. And we’re sent, not leaning on our own strength, but in the strength of the Risen Lord… whose grace is sufficient to sustain us through every trial we face, and whose power is made perfect even in our weakness.
Who do we think we are?
Whether we face welcome or rejection… outward success or serious struggles… we are those who have been called to follow Jesus, the Risen King of Kings. We are those entrusted with the Good News: with the message of repentance, freedom, and hope found in Jesus Christ. We are a fellowship of simple, ordinary, familiar people, graciously being drawn into the family of the Living God… not because we deserve it more than others, but so that we can invite them too! So that the world might come to know the saving love of Jesus, and with us share in the New Life of His eternal Kingdom. Amen.
 Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1991), 152.
 Peter W. Marty, “Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 213.
Scripture Readings: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 8:7–15 | Mark 5:21–43
"Do not fear, only believe." (Mark 5:36)
This week we’ve been given another glimpse of the tragic side of our country’s story: more than 750 unmarked graves were found at the old site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. As horrible as this fact is, there’s likely to be more such discoveries in the days to come, bringing to light the heart-rending traumas so many indigenous people, families, and communities have faced over the years… stories we are all tied to as both Christians and Canadians. It was our Christian organizations and our Government that were responsible for running these schools; enacting policies and plans that we now know were designed to destroy. As the gravity of these tragedies begins to be widely recognized, it’s still unclear to many of us how best to bring about restoration. But it is clear that this work needs to happen… to begin and carry on… and that we are all required to be a part of the healing work ahead.
At it’s heart, the Christian Gospel, after all, is a story of healing and hope… of life being restored and renewed, even when that seems impossible. Today, our reading from the Gospel of Mark points us in this direction, with the stories of two women… two daughters… whose own tragedies were turned upside down by the touch of Jesus. Last week we heard St. Mark describe Christ as the Lord of Creation; completely calming the terrible storm, simply with a word. Today we hear St. Mark describe Christ’s power over sickness and death… portraying Jesus as the one and only Lord of Life, by tying together the stories of two very different lives.
St. Mark starts off by introducing us to Jairus: a local synagogue leader, who comes to Jesus looking for help. We’re told his 12-year-old daughter is on the verge of death. As a parent of a young daughter myself, this part of the story makes me tremble. Few things can frighten parents more than to have their children suffer, and be helpless to stop it. So, throwing public opinion to the wind, this desperate father throws himself at Jesus’ feet, and begs Him to come and rescue his girl before it’s too late. Here is this honoured, respectable man, urgently, publicly pleading with Jesus on behalf of his beloved child, who cannot plead for herself. “My little daughter is at the point of death”, he says to Jesus. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (Mark 5:23). And just as we’d suspect, Jesus is moved by this man’s pleas. And so they head to Jairus’ house, followed by a crowd.
It's here, on the road, that St. Mark introduces us to another character: a women, also in need of help, but with a very different story. St. Mark doesn’t tell us her name, only that she has been suffering… hemorrhaging, bleeding continuously for years. As her story unfolds, it’s clear that she’s in desperate need as well: having spent all that she had, seeking medical assistance, though her condition only worsened, with no sign of relief. But unlike Jairus, who came to Jesus directly to plead for his daughter, this woman could only dare to approach Jesus while hidden among the crowd. Unlike the daughter of Jairus, we don’t know how old she was, only that she had been suffering for 12 years, as long as the first child had been alive. Unlike Jairus’ daughter, who had a prominent parent to plead for their beloved child, this women had no one to help her… she’s pictured as being alone. But just like Jairus, this women had also placed all her hope in Jesus, trusting that she could find the healing she needed… if she could only connect with Him.
While Jairus publicly begged Jesus to lay His hands on his little girl in order to restore her to life, this woman could only whisper to herself: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). And so, well hidden among the crowd, this desperate woman reaches out to Jesus, touching His cloak as He passed. And then everything changed.
After all, who knows what will happen if we reach out in faith to Jesus? What kind of power we might encounter? What new twist might appear in our stories?
For this suffering woman, the instant she touched Jesus she knew she had been healed. All of her hopes came bursting to life… but along with them came fear. Something had happened that she hadn’t counted on: her healing hadn’t stayed hidden! Jesus had stopped in His tracks, and turned around asking aloud: “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30). Even in the crush of the crowd, Jesus had noticed that someone had reached out to Him… and even though she had been healed, and her long suffering would now be at an end, the woman now finds herself facing Jesus and trembling with fear.
Why? Why was she now so afraid that her act of faith would be found out? She had just received a miracle that had given her back her health. You’d think she’d be excited, overjoyed, eager to spread the news. Was she shy? Intimidated by being singled out by this important and powerful rabbi? Was she worried about what others in the crowd thought of her faith? After this truly life-changing moment, why is it that she’s afraid? Though the answer isn’t as obvious to us as it would be to folks back then… it’s clear there’s much more to this woman’s story… much more pain, and shame, and suffering… that she had faced, and which all made her uncertain her act would be welcomed by Jesus at all. She was afraid because she had crossed a serious line by reaching out and touching Him.
What line? The line of holiness. Of spiritual sacredness. Laid out in the Laws of God, given to Israel long ago. In the book of Leviticus, the Laws set out some very specific rules for how to avoid becoming ritually unclean, that is, unready to enter into the presence of the Living God, as well as how to be made clean again, which happened fairly regularly. Because of its connection to both life and death, blood and other bodily fluids had strong symbolic meanings, not only in Israelite culture, but among many ancient Near Eastern peoples. In that context, something as natural and frequent as menstrual bleeding would make women ‘ceremonially impure’, or ‘unclean’ for a brief time. But in Leviticus 15:25, the Law addresses another scenario: if a woman keeps bleeding, she keeps on being considered unclean. “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.” Because of the nature of her illness, because her bleeding never ceased for 12 long years, she was considered unclean for all the years of her suffering. There was no chance for ritual restoration; instead she was cut off from the spiritual life of her community, and close contact with others as well. Religiously speaking, she was untouchable.
Much like we have been practicing ‘social-distancing’ in these days of COVID-19 in order to keep the virus from spreading from person to person, there were rules back then about not coming into contact with those who were ritually unclean, or else you risked becoming unclean as well… at least for a time.
Think of that for a minute. We’re all getting tired of the isolation and distance we feel from one another after cutting down our close contact with those we love for a little over a year. Imagine this woman, cut off for 12 years, while everyone else around her could go on with life. For her to step into that busy crowd, she was breaking her self-isolation, openly spreading her ‘unclean’ state. More than that, she was intentionally making Jesus, a powerful rabbi, unclean. She planned to secretly reach out to Him, even though this would still be considered wrong. Her desperation led her to draw near, hoping that nobody would notice. But Jesus noticed. Jesus stopped and sought out the one who had reached out to Him. So trembling, she falls down before Him, and confesses everything. She tells Him her whole sad story… unsure of what will happen next.
This too is a sacred moment: the opening up of a heart, sharing a story filled with pain, and hopes, and shame, and longing. It takes faith to reach out… to seek to make that first connection. And it takes faith to entrust our stories with somebody else. To give them our whole story, with all of it’s joys and tragedies.
In the midst of that crowd. In that time of urgency, Jesus stopped to receive the story of this scared and suffering woman. And instead of dismissing her, or condemning her deed done in desperation, Jesus reaches out to her in her pain and isolation, and draws her close, reminding her with a word that she is welcome: “Daughter,” He says to her. No longer alone. No longer cut off. She belongs! She is welcome! She is blessed, and brought back to life! “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34). Untouched by her uncleanness, Jesus makes her holy, and whole again. Restoring her to life in every sense of the word.
Right here, the story switches again, as messengers come from Jairus’ house telling him that they’re to late. That his beloved daughter has died. This time Christ doesn’t hesitate one second… calling this desperate father to trust Him. “Do not fear, only believe.” (Mark 5:36). Remember the miracle that had just taken place before his very own eyes, and trust in the One who had just restored that woman to life … the One who was still with him.
In the words of the scholar Donald English: “If Jesus remains with you, there is no ground for fear. Trust the person, not the circumstances. Jairus had just witnessed a lonely, sick and shunned woman manage to do this very thing. He must also believe, because Jesus had shown his intention to make the girl well. It is significant that the tense for believing means ‘keep on believing’… The bridge from the one to the other is Jesus’ presence to heal the girl. Jairus had begun well... He must not lose faith now.” At this crucial moment, when all hope crashes down, and darkness is all one can see, Jesus called Jairus, and calls each one of us to keep trusting Him. Sometimes restoration happens all at once. Sometimes it’s a long hard journey. Sometimes it seems like the whole world will have to change for the story to turn out right.
But these stories from Mark’s Gospel remind us that we can entrust our stories to Jesus. That we can draw near to Him, in whatever way we can, and place our pain, our hopes, our shames, our whole lives in His hands… and that His touch can transform even our darkest tragedies. That in Christ we encounter the compassionate power of the Living God, and find ourselves embraced by the Risen Lord of Life.
As we look around and find ourselves facing our world’s desperate need for restoration… for genuine healing, and enduring hope… our task is to trust in our Saviour, Jesus, and let Him reach out through us so that our neighbours, our loved ones, and strangers, can come into contact with His rescuing love. To stop and attend to their stories that stand in need of our understanding, gentleness, courage, and even our own confessions… confident, that Jesus, the Risen Lord of Life wants to work through His people, bringing the truth to light in order to bring God’s restoration and wholeness to His broken world.
When Jesus finally drew near the beloved but now lifeless daughter of Jairus, He reached out and gently took her hand in His own and said: “Little girl, arise.” Beyond all hope, He raised her from the grave and gave her life again. Through His Spirit at work in us, may we too trust Jesus and reach out our hands so that He can help all those around us to rise again and find New Life. Amen.
 Donald English, The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 115–116.
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4–11, 19–23, 32–49 | Psalm 9:9–20 | 2 Corinthians 6:1–13 | Mark 4:35–41
“He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40).
What are you afraid of? What are we afraid of today?
I know this can be a deeply personal and uncomfortable question. One we may not be all that eager to answer, or even think about. Each of us have our own struggles… our own scars, wounds, and worries that can suddenly stir up great storms within us, or leave us feeling paralyzed. This past year our whole world has faced a prolonged season of heightened anxiety… hitting so many, especially those most vulnerable, with big reasons to be afraid: afraid of sickness and death; afraid of financial instability and loss; afraid of isolation from family and friends… afraid of our mistakes… and having them come to light.
How are we going to get COVID-19 under control? How are we going to resolve deep seeded injustices? How are we going to preserve our planet? Prepare for our future? Provide for our loved ones?
When what matters to us is under threat, it’s natural to be afraid. But what helps us conquer our fear is finding something, or Someone that is stronger than all of the foes and forces that would otherwise overwhelm us. From giants to storms, our Scripture readings today have a lot to tell us about faithfulness in the face of truly fearful circumstances.
Today we have heard to stories that we have likely heard before… two dramatic episodes in the biblical narrative that have been a source of inspiration and hope for believers for centuries: David facing Goliath, and Jesus calming the storm. On the surface, they both seem to be about overcoming overwhelming odds. About the importance of not giving in to our fears… no matter what. But as familiar as these stories may be, there’s more going on than we often assume. And reading them together may help us discern their deeper message of hope… and perhaps help us to discover that these stories are not primarily about us… about our actions, our battles, what we need to do to overcome. These stories are about the power of God, and they point us to our Saviour.
Turning to our reading from 1 Samuel, we heard the story of David: the brave young shepherd who steps up to fight the fearsome Philistine champion Goliath, when the rest of Israel’s soldiers were left trembling in fear. This is one of those famous stories used to lift up the victorious ‘underdog’… the unlikely hero who overcomes all odds and wins the day, a theme that’s replayed, again and again, in all sorts of novels, stories, and films. We find these kinds of stories exciting, but even more than that, they are often held up as examples of what can be possible in our own lives… of what we too could achieve if we are willing to face our fears. Just as David defeated Goliath, maybe we can take on all our troubles too… if only we can find the courage, the inner strength to overcome.
This kind of reading seems right to us… it fits with what we might think the story’s about. A straightforward moral example for us to learn from and put into practice. But the story of David does not stand alone: it belongs to the much bigger story of what the Living God Himself is doing to rescue His people… and rescue His world. The point of this part of the story is not that just anyone could have beaten Goliath, precisely because David is not just anyone anymore! Last week we heard, (in 1 Samuel 16), that this young shepherd had been chosen by God Himself to replace Saul as the anointed King of Israel. Though the time had not yet come for Saul to fall, and for David to be raised to the throne, this episode with Goliath marks the beginning of that journey: of David serving as God’s faithful servant, when all others fail… overcoming the forces opposed to God’s kingdom by trusting in the LORD. David’s story is meant to be inspiring, but what does it mean to inspire us to do? It’s not about pushing us to face our fears, it’s calling us to trust in the LORD. To show us God’s saving hand at work in and through His chosen one, who embodies God’s victory and power… and who points us to Someone greater than David… to God’s anointed Son.
This is the story the Gospel of Mark is ultimately concerned about. From chapter 1 verse 1, St. Mark is wanting to share with us “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” revealing God’s powerful victory, and kingdom coming through Him. All throughout Mark’s Gospel, but especially in the first half of his narrative, all sorts of questions are being asked about the identity of Jesus… focusing our attention on the things He says and does, and forcing us to try to figure out how He fits into God’s great story. So far in Mark, Jesus has done some very surprising things that have convinced many people that the Living God is truly at work in Him: He has restored the health of many who were sick, paralyzed, and suffering from leprosy, displaying God’s life-giving power, as well as His compassionate care. He has exorcized many demons with unheard of authority, displaying God’s sovereignty over the forces of evil, as well as His will to free all those who are bound by their oppression. He has put Himself in the place of Israel’s priesthood and Temple, offering forgiveness of sins, which God alone can give. And today we heard Him display God’s power over all His creation… as the Master of mighty winds… Lord over chaotic waters.
All throughout the Holy Scriptures, the Living God alone was portrayed in this way, as the only One who could bend the forces of creation to obey His voice. At times He would send prophets who would pray to the LORD for a sign of this sort, but it was always clear that God was the one who was calling the shots. For instance, Psalm 89 speaks of God’s rule of creation in this way:
“O Lord God of hosts,
who is as mighty as you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them…
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.” (Psalm 89:8-9, 11)
But right before the eyes of the bewildered disciples, Jesus stands up in the midst of the storm and stills it all with a word. “Peace! Be still!” Peace! Be still!
Moments before, they thought they were done for. Their ship was about to be lost, along with their lives, and their Rabbi seemed oblivious… asleep, while they suffered. In a panic, they woke Him up, crying out ‘Don’t you care that we’re perishing?’ In our own darkest moments, who hasn’t cried out terrified words like these? Who hasn’t questioned God’s purposes, or His power to rescue us when all we can see is the wind and the waves… when our fears are overwhelming us?
But again, this story is not primarily about the disciples… or us… as if there was something that they, or we, could have done to overcome the storm… like saying the right kind of prayer, or having the right attitude, or choosing to face our fears in the right sort of way. No, the story is about Jesus. It’s about the Son of the Living God, the One who has come to rescue us, and who calls us all to trust Him.
Back to the storm, the theologian and author Jane Williams has this to say about the impact that Jesus’ display of power had on His disciples: “As Jesus stills the storm… we see again the awesome power of God. The unpredictable and merciless forces of nature suddenly respond like obedient children to the voice of Jesus, and the disciples are amazed. They were already terrified by the storm, but they are almost equally terrified by its sudden cessation at Jesus’s command. When Jesus asks them, ‘Why are you afraid, have you no faith?’ the Gospel is deliberately unclear about which fear he means.”
In other words, the disciples were blown away by what Jesus just did. This didn’t fit with anything they’d expected or experienced, and suddenly they were filled with great awe, or rather fear in the presence of Jesus. “Who then is this,” they say to each other, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). We are meant to be asking the same kind of question: to let the unsettling reality of this display of God’s power in Jesus to lead us to re-examine our own ideas of who He is, and what He has come among us to do. Of course, there’s much more to Christ’s story. To truly answer this question, St. Mark wants us to read through the rest of his Gospel, right through to Christ’s cross, and His resurrection. To God’s ultimate victory over our greatest enemies: the forces of sin, of spiritual evil, and even death itself… facing it all for us, and overcoming it all for us.
This stormy episode doesn’t stand all on it’s own. It’s a sign reminding us that in Jesus Christ God Himself has come to save us. That our Risen Lord remains with us, and will not leave us to fend for ourselves. That He’s poured out His Holy Spirit on us to set us free from our fears: fear of our failures and weaknesses; fear of oppression and evil; fear of suffering, grief, and loss… fear of the grave. Not by telling us we can take all of these ‘enemies’ on by ourselves. Not by promising we won’t face problems if we just do things the ‘right way’. Not by diminishing our struggles or pain, or pretending there’s nothing to be afraid of. But by calling us to trust Him. To place our faith in Jesus. To count on Him to be with us, and to place our lives in His loving hands.
The scholar Donald English makes this point well: “For the disciple it should be enough to be with the Lord, whether life’s seas are running smoothly or not. Forms of Christianity which encourage and promise a life of continual success, excitement and growth will not only lead to frustration and despair; they actually point the disciple towards the wrong goal in the Christian pilgrimage. It is enough that Christ goes with us on our journey. We do not judge his care for us, nor the state of our discipleship, by the roughness of the seas over which we sail.” In Christ, we’ve found Someone who can handle everything we’re afraid of, and who has promised never to leave us… never to forsake us. Just as the sea brings wave after wave, so life will always present us with another thing to fear. But faith in Jesus frees us to find shelter and refuge in His arms. Trusting Him, we find God’s power at work in us as well, stirring up something stronger than our fears: the life-giving power of Christ’s love.
So I ask again: What are you afraid of? What are we afraid of today? May the Holy Spirit help us to bring all of our fears to Jesus. Again and again, as often as the waves of the sea roll in to the shore. May we entrust our lives to Him, and lean always on His faithful love. And may His love free us from fear to join Him in His kingdom work. Amen.
 Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections: Year B (London: SPCK, 2005), 82.
 Donald English, The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 107.
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13 | Psalm 20 | 2 Corinthians 5:6–17 | Mark 4:26–34
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 2 Corinthians 5:16.
The Kingdom of God is so often not what we expect.
Today in our reading from Mark’s Gospel, we heard two parables of Jesus which can help us start to grasp and think about God’s Kingdom. Both involve seeds being sown… and growing in due time. A farmer plants, waits patiently, and harvests when the grain is ripe. A tiny mustard seed grows into a surprisingly large plant. Familiar images, reminding us of the mystery of life that surrounds us every day. The miracles we often look down on, because they seem so common.
It can be easy for us at first glance to assume we know what these parables mean. They sound a lot like other proverbs and words of wisdom that we know: like “everything comes to those who wait”… or “from a tiny acorn comes a mighty oak”. Sayings meant to teach us about the importance of virtues like patience, and hope. But there’s more going on in these parables of Jesus than abstract moral lessons. He’s not simply offering words of wisdom for human life in general… He’s inviting us to rethink our own visions of God’s New Life… to catch a glimpse of how the Living God is at work in the world bringing about His Kingdom in unexpected ways.
To help us understand what’s going on in these parables, let’s turn to our other readings today from 1 Samuel and 2 Corinthians.
In first Samuel, we heard about Israel’s first royal transfer of power. Last week we heard how Israel demanded God give them a king like all the other nations, and so a man named Saul was chosen to lead them as their king. But now, despite his impressive and royal appearance, Saul had proven to be unfaithful, so the LORD sent Samuel the prophet to go to Bethlehem, to the house of a man named Jesse, and anoint one of his sons as another king for God’s people. But as the prophet admired the kingly look of Jesse’s eldest son, “the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Again, this sounds like another well known proverb: “don’t judge a book by its cover”. But the point here is not that Samuel simply needs to set aside his own prejudices (though that may have been worthwhile advice). The point is that the Living God who alone looks on and knows all hearts, was going to choose a king for His people, and Samuel was called to trust in God’s choice… even if that choice was not what he had expected.
As the story goes on, we hear that seven of Jesse’s sons are passed over, until the least among them, the youngest, a boy named David is summoned… and chosen. Overlooked by his father, less impressive than his older brothers, the LORD draws David into His kingdom: from tending his father’s flocks, to shepherding all God’s people… the LORD unexpectedly transformed David’s life forever. This story highlights a pattern that flows throughout all of the Scriptures: God delights in choosing to work through humble and unexpected people… drawing them into His kingdom to take part in His New Life.
Turning now to the second letter to the Corinthians, again we find God’s kingdom is revealed in unexpected ways. There is a lot packed into this passage that we won’t have the chance to discuss this morning, but there are a few crucial points that I think are important to highlight. The first is simply St. Paul’s relationship with the Christians in Corinth. Though he has spent much time and energy trying to build up their faith and love, it seems from his letters that St. Paul was not as impressive as many of them would have liked… not as charismatic, or flashy, as they wanted their leaders to be. But rather than trying to convince them of his own credentials or worthiness as an apostle, St. Paul points them instead to the Good News of Jesus, and the New Reality that it opens up for everyone.
2 Corinthians 6:14, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them”.
At the core of their faith (and ours!) is not a charismatic leader or gifted speaker… it is the love of Christ, who gave His life on the cross, dying and rising again for us all. Like a seed sown in the ground, Jesus chose to face the grave for us, but instead of it being the end, He turned it into a brand new beginning. Unexpectedly… through His death on the cross the Risen Jesus brings us New Life. God’s New Life, which changes how we see everything… and everyone.
Verses 16-17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” One of the implications St. Paul sees coming from the Gospel is that what Jesus has done for us changes how we must see each other… and even ourselves. Because of the new, unexpected reality Christ brought about in His resurrection, our old ways of seeing and treating each other must give way to God’s love: not based on outward appearances, or our natural preferences… but on what Christ has done for us all… and what He is still doing… drawing us into His kingdom through His Spirit at work in us.
St. Paul had already begun to have his life transformed by the Gospel. He had once been a fierce enemy of the Church, until he encountered the Risen Lord… who changed his life forever, and sent him to go share the Good News with the world. More than anyone, St. Paul understood that trusting in the Risen Jesus changes how we see and treat the people in our lives. It’s not just a private belief… it’s the seeds of a whole new way of life… being planted in our hearts, and meant to bear fruit in all we do. It may not happen overnight… but the Gospel is meant to change us… to make us ready and able to actually live God’s way in the world. N.T. Wright puts it this way: “Paul had originally regarded even the Messiah in the old, prejudiced way. Now he was challenging the Corinthians to see everyone, himself included, not by the standards of their prevailing culture but in the light of the Messiah in whom all things had become new.” God’s new creation is to be found right here, in our common life. Though it may seem at times insignificant in the story of our wider world, Christ turns our lives, our actions, our words… how we see and treat those around us… into seeds of His New Creation, through His Holy Spirit at work in us.
We’ve come a long way from Mark chapter 4, and the two parables we started with, but these passages from 1 Samuel and 2 Corinthians help us to see how these parables fit into God’s story:
First off, they do not stand alone… they point us to Jesus… to God’s Kingdom coming about at last, in and through Him. In Mark’s Gospel, even early on, Jesus was facing opposition. Last week we heard how the religious leaders, and even His family doubted Him… imagining God’s kingdom to look quite different from what He was up to. But this is exactly how God’s Kingdom comes about… surprisingly, unexpectedly, growing from what others might see as inconsequential beginnings… in ways that we are not able to predict, God’s New Creation was coming about. As God had chosen David, not because of appearances, but with an eye to his heart, his faithfulness, so Jesus, God’s Son was sent, even if he was not what other’s expected, to faithfully fulfill God’s rescue mission: drawing us into the action as well, to share in His New Creation.
Remember: God delights in choosing to work through humble and unexpected people… like King David… like St. Paul… the other Apostles… and you and I!
Can we believe that the Living God wants to work through people like us to share His kingdom? Can we believe that the New Creation Jesus has brought to life through His death and resurrection can take root and grow in our lives? Can we believe that the Spirit of God we claim is at work in us can do infinitely more than we could ask or even imagine?
The parables in Mark invite us to plant our faith firmly in Jesus; to trust that in Him, God’s kingdom and New Creation are truly coming about… even if we cannot always see it’s fruit ‘til the time is ripe. To trust that the seeds Christ is sowing, in our actions and our lives, might seem small, but in His faithful power can make a world of difference. To trust that when we are tempted to look down on others, or even look down on ourselves, God’s New Creation in Jesus Christ is truly meant for everyone… drawing us all into the love of God, beyond all expectations.
We have more than words of wisdom, or popular proverbs to rely on. We have the hope that comes from the Good New of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. And in Him, we can share in God’s kingdom and New Life, even today.
I’ll end now with a poem that I think sums up this sermon well. It’s called “A Penny in God’s Pocket”.
A penny in God’s pocket
Of infinitesimal insignificance;
Almost perfectly pointless.
Hidden, not forgotten.
As holy fingers play.
Toying with this secret
Tossed by all the rest.
A penny in God’s pocket.
Almost nothing at all,
But held by One
Who makes all out of nothing.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year B (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), 78–79.
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 8:4–20 & 11:14–15 | Psalm 138 | 2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1 | Mark 3:20–35
[Jesus said] “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:35
Are we truly seeking to do the will of God?
Of course, we all want to answer ‘yes’. Especially here in Church. Of course we are! Why else would we gather here week after week… Sunday after Sunday?
I’m not asking this question because I doubt anyone’s sincerity, or their faith, or their commitment to living God’s way in the world. I’m asking this question because I believe God’s word is asking us all this question. Through the Scriptures today, especially the reading from Mark’s Gospel, I believe our Lord is calling us to re-examine our daily responses to Jesus, as the One through whom God’s will is truly made known. But rather than putting us down, I believe we are being invited to draw nearer, to grow even more connected to God’s will at work in the world.
In the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, which we heard read this morning, we’re told of three different groups of people, each with their own response to Jesus. As we look a bit closer at this part of the Gospel story, we too are drawn into the action. How would we respond if we were there? How do these groups mirror what’s going on inside our hearts?
The first group we’ll look at is the one that’s most hostile to Jesus and what He was up to: the Scribes. Who were the Scribes? One scholar describes them a lot like modern-day pastors… like me… “teachers of the people.” Peter Tan-Gatue says that “Mark’s Gospel presents the scribes as teachers of the people who have religious authority, especially over matters of law interpretation, observance and purity.” They were those who had studied the Holy Scriptures, and so claimed to understand the will of the Living God… at least enough to help God’s people to live faithfully: to help them be true to the covenant, and be guided by God’s wisdom.
And in their response to Jesus, Mark tells us that the Scribes from Jerusalem claim that He’s in league with demonic forces… with the Adversary, the Satan… and that the healing miracles, and exorcisms that Jesus was doing was evidence, not that God was with Him, but of some dark-hearted deception.
We too can go down this route when we outright reject what Christ has called us to… when we place our own judgments about what’s right and what’s wrong above His word. We too can trust more in our own understanding about the will of the Living God, and condemn Christ’s teachings and actions as out of sync with the highest good. Maybe we wouldn’t say this out loud… but actions speak louder than words. Are there ways we are rejecting the way of Jesus by how we live each day? By choosing to ignore or contradict His clear commands?
The second group from our Gospel reading today is one that’s much closer to Jesus, and yet they too have a hard time with what He’s up to: this group is His family. Specifically, Mark tells us “his mother and his brothers” (Mark 3:31) had come to “restrain him” (Mark 3:21). To seize, contain… to hold him back. Why? Because they thought He was mad. The things He was doing and saying were so unusual, so unexpected, they thought He had lost His mind, and so they came to reign Him in.
In many traditional cultures a family’s honour was extremely important, and any behaviour that threatened a family’s good name would have been a major concern. It seems likely that Mary and her other children were getting worried that Jesus was shaming them… publicly putting their place in the wider community at risk. And so, though they surely cared about Him, they also wanted to control Him, to keep Him from running amok, and ruining their reputations too.
Is this ever a temptation we face? Do we ever try to tame Jesus? To keep Him contained, worried about what others might think about us? Are we ashamed to be associated with Him? Does that fear drive us to restrain His influence on how we live in the world?
This one can be really hard for us these days, even in the Church. Our current culture doesn’t hold a high view of publicly practicing our faith… after years of being told religion is only a private matter. But the way Jesus lived out the will of God, and the way He calls us to live means letting God’s kingdom shape every aspect, every corner of our lives… living each day, at work, at home, at school, with friends, with strangers, as agents of peace, integrity, generosity, forgiveness, and self-giving love. This way of life stands out in our world… which often makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we want to take Christ seriously… we want to follow His beautiful way… but it all seems so strange, so crazy, we’re not sure it’s possible. Are there ways we’re acting like His mother and brothers, trying to keep Him in check?
Finally, there’s the third group: the crowd drawing near to Him. Those who had felt His healing touch, those who had tasted the freedom He gives, those who had heard His words, experienced His welcoming love, and felt their hearts coming alive with hope. This group didn’t have all the answers, they were just drawing closer to Him. Wanting more of what He had to offer… seeking to share in what He was up to. This crowd was a new community finding their way to God’s Kingdom… finding their way to God’s King… and in finding Him, they found themselves drawn into God's family.
“And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mark :34-35). In that crowd was found the beginning of the Christian Church, the community of ordinary people drawn to Christ in faith.
What binds the Church together, including our Parish here in Gondola Point, is not our religious practices, or our family ties, or friendships… as beautiful, and life-giving, and blessed as they may be. What unites us together as God’s family is our devotion to doing God’s will: drawing near in faith to Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord of all; learning from Him what it means to truly live God’s way in the world; and through His Spirit at work in us, putting God’s will into practice.
Like the crowd in Mark Chapter 3, none of us have it all figured out. We’re all on our way to a more complete commitment to Jesus our Lord. We will all find ourselves struggling at times to keep from rejecting His will for us, wanting to go our own way, instead of trusting Him to lead us. We’ll all find ourselves tempted to hide from the strangeness of His Kingdom, even if that strangeness is exactly what our world desperately needs. But even so, Christ calls us all to draw closer to Him. To share in the life of His Church, the place where we learn to live His way together. To let the truth that Jesus is Lord of all, and our Lord too, take hold of and transform our lives, so we can live God’s way in the world. Mark’s Gospel wants us to draw near to Christ, to choose to place our trust in Him, and through Him to seek, and find, and do the will of the Living God.
I’ll end now with a well known quote from the author and lay theologian C.S. Lewis, from his little book entitled Mere Christianity:
“You must make your choice. Either this man [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Amen.
 Peter Tan-Gatue, “Scribe,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2002), p. 50-51.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 6:1–8 | Psalm 29 | Romans 8:12–17 | John 3:1–17
“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 3:16-17)
First impressions are funny things.
Sometimes they give us a pretty good glimpse about part of the picture… but rarely do they go deep enough for us to truly understand… to truly know who we are dealing with in any meaningful sense. I’m sure we all have an experience or two in this department, but this morning I’ll share just one example with you from my own past.
When I was growing up, I was afraid of my Grandpa.
Although I knew that he was good… he was an upright hard-working Christian, who cared a lot about doing things right… I remember being pretty uneasy and intimidated by him. Granted, I was a pretty sensitive and timid child, but I still believe there were some good reasons that I was afraid of him. He could be pretty gruff and impatient, and often erred on the stricter side of things. To my child’s eyes he seemed like someone I dared not disappoint.
But thanks be to God, I was given the gift of a closer look at my Grandpa. As a young adult, he hired me to work for him, and I started to see a whole new side of this man that I once had feared. Up close, I saw his deep devotion, to God and to his family. I saw his generosity, his creativity, and to my great surprise he even revealed great gentleness, tender-heartedness, and sacrificial love.
Over the years I worked with him, my Grandpa opened up his heart to me, revealing a side of himself that changed our relationship forever. Not only did I have to alter how I thought of him, but how we related to each other changed forever too. My first impressions of him were incomplete; I didn’t have the whole picture of who my Grandpa really was until he started to show me. By truly getting to know him more, we were brought much closer together, and now I’m so grateful for the gift of his friendship and love.
Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Christian Church celebrates God’s gift of revealing to us His own character and nature as eternally Three in One, and One in Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Three Persons, One God.
We know we’re speaking of a mystery when we talk about the Trinity. We’re not mastering or explaining, or nailing God down with our human words… rather, we’re trying to faithfully share what God has shared with us. We’re trying our best to be true to how God has made Himself known to us, even if that makes things more complicated than we first imagined.
The Trinity… the Three-in-Oneness of God is the way we can speak truthfully about the Living God, Who is way beyond our abilities to understand, but Who nonetheless longs for us to grow closer to Him in knowledge and in love. Contemplating the Trinity is an invitation to get past our first impressions about God, and explore the mysterious, and complex goodness of God’s heart…
And it’s an invitation to renew, not only our thoughts about God, but to have our whole relationship with Him renewed as well.
In our Scripture readings today, God’s word opens up this path for us to get to know the Living Triune God, and come to love Him more.
In our reading today from Isaiah, we heard an account of the prophet’s vision of an encounter with the Living God that changed his life forever. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,” he tells us, “high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). Far from a joyous moment, Isaiah’s first impression is terror, and for good reason: he knows that God is holy, pure goodness… and he knows that he himself is not. Isaiah cries out “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). This is all true, of course, but it’s also not the whole picture. The vision continues, giving Isaiah, and us as well a glimpse into the heart of the Living God through what He does for Isaiah.
A Seraphim, a spiritual being serving in God’s presence brings a holy coal from the heavenly altar, and purifies Isaiah, touching it to his unclean lips, in order to offer forgiveness… to make this sinful man holy. Sharing with him God’s holiness, and making him able to stand before the Lord with no reason to be afraid any more. Rather than end Isaiah’s life the Lord renews it instead.
But even more than that, God draws Isaiah into His own mission… empowering him to respond to the questions: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” with the faithful, and fateful words “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). Despite Isaiah’s terrified first impressions of what it means for him to draw close to the Lord, the Holy One, Most High, God blesses him instead… and brings about everything that Isaiah needs to serve Him faithfully in the world without fear. Through this vision of God, Isaiah’s mind and heart was changed for good, reshaping his whole life, and preparing him for what was to come.
Moving forward a few hundred years, we come to the Gospel of John, where we hear the story of Nicodemus coming to meet with Jesus. In this passage we catch a glimpse of what this Pharisee and Jewish leader, first thought of Jesus, both by what he says and when he says it: “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) His first impression: Jesus is a godly teacher… but a dangerous one. At least, he thinks it’s dangerous to be seen with Jesus publicly.
And again, Nicodemus isn’t wrong… about either of his hunches. After all, the Gospel of John goes on to tell of the consequences others would face for openly supporting Jesus, like being kicked out of the synagogue community. And Jesus was a teacher sent from God. But this is not the whole picture: Christ is much more than a teacher. He is the Son, sent from the Father in heaven to fix the world’s deepest problem: not simply offering new information from God, but new Life! “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5) “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 3:14-15).
This response throws Nicodemus for a bit of a loop. He can’t quite wrap his head around what Jesus is saying to him… and for us as well, his words are puzzling, complicated, and mysterious, but are also meant to draw us deeper into the story made known in John’s Gospel, and all throughout the Scriptures. But even here Jesus reveals what He is truly up to… and what lies at the heart of the mission of the Living God… that is, God’s rescuing, life-giving love for our broken world. “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 3:16-17).
Jesus is not simply someone speaking to us about God, some teacher, prophet, or even some kind of angelic messenger. He is the Living God Himself, God the Son taking on human life, revealing God’s own character and heart to us in action; all throughout His earthly life, especially at the cross… giving His life to suffer and die to share His life with us all.
Far beyond anything Nicodemus expected to find that night, He had in fact drawn near to the Holy Lord, Most High… for to see Jesus Christ is to see the Living God. So often we can forget this truth that the Trinity reveals to us… that there is no division between Christ and the Father. Again and again, our fears can drive a wedge between what we think God is really like, and the heartbeat we see at work in Jesus Christ. Jesus give us the complete picture of God’s heart.
I’ve shared this quote before, so you may remember it, but I think it powerfully captures what the Trinity shows us: “The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation - and how they both asked exactly the same question: ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ And he assured them both, Torrance writes, ‘that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.’” To recognize the face of God in Jesus is the response of faith, which is itself the result of the Holy Spirit at work in us… opening our eyes to see what we otherwise would miss… and opening our hearts to say yes the New Life Jesus shares with us.
Belief in the Trinity affirms that the Three we know as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the One God… that for all time they share in everything it means to be the Living God, and that they are united in drawing us closer to Him. From their shared self-giving love, God the Father sends God the Son into the world to save us… and to share with us His own eternal life, through God the Holy Spirit… who draws us by faith in Jesus into God’s family, as St. Paul says in Romans, with the Spirit of adoption… transforming us from rebels into true children of God. The Gospel, the Good News of what God has done in Jesus Christ, is the story of the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all together inviting us into God’s own life. Inviting us to go beyond our faulty first impressions, our fears, and failures, to truly come to know and love the Living God, all so that we too can share in His unending holy love.
Today, may we be open to the truth of the Trinity. May we say yes to God’s invitation to draw closer to Him… to let Him mercifully deal with all our faulty first impressions, our fears, our failures, and instead draw near to Him in faith. May we grow to truly know His holy, life-giving love, and may that love transform and deepen our love for God, for His world, and for each other. Amen.
 T.F. Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, 55. Quoted by William C. Placher in The Triune God: An Essay In Postliberal Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 139.
Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 37:1–14 | Psalm 104:24–37 | Acts 2:1–21 | John 15:26–27, 16:4b–15
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
One of the joys of moving somewhere new is that you get to experience each season of the year with a renewed sense of adventure. What will winter feel like here? How hot will it be in August? What will the leaves look like in the Fall? What’s going to grow here come Spring?
This is our first Spring in our new house, and so far it’s been a great adventure… especially as the weather’s warmed up, and our yard’s begun to bloom. We’re practicing ‘No Mow May’, where people delay cutting the grass in their yards until June begins, to give the bees and other pollinators something to sustain themselves after the long wait of winter. We thought we’d just see dandelions having a field day, so to speak, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the variety of flowers… of new and unexpected life that has sprung up all around us.
Wide patches of white Canadian violets, and wild-strawberries… all sorts of scattered Johnny jump-ups, forget-me-nots, and daffodils, and not to mention the host of others whose names we don’t yet know, and whose shapes are unfamiliar. Together, along with the dandelions of course, they make a beautiful but unexpected garden… a blessing, both to us, and hopefully to the bees… and a reminder that new life often comes as a surprise.
Today the Church celebrates the holy day of Pentecost, which for thousands of years had been an ancient festival for Israel, but which had been given new life and meaning for those who trust in Jesus Christ, as this was the day God’s Holy Spirit was poured out into our lives. As we heard in our reading from Acts Chapter 2, at Pentecost, God was fulfilling His promise, made through the prophets long ago, to fill up His people… old and young, women and men, slaves and free… with His own Divine presence and power… so they could all together take their part in His great mission to bring salvation to our world. To reconcile and rescue us, to restore us in His righteousness… to share His life of holy love with all who will call on His name.
At Pentecost, the Spirit of God at work in the life of Jesus… from His birth and baptism, all throughout His faithful life, in his trials, suffering, and death, and in His rising from the dead… this same Spirit was given to us, to Christians… in order to fill, empower, and lead ordinary people like you and I. To bring God’s New Life in Jesus Christ to birth in and through believers… guiding us deeper into lives shaped by the truth of God’s Good News.
All this and more is packed into the meaning of Pentecost. It’s an unexpected, easy to misunderstand part of our story, one we might just be tempted to skip on past as soon as possible. But to do so cuts us off from seeing how God’s Spirit’s at work even today; bringing new life and power, and hope, both to and through His people.
Before our reading today taken from the book of Acts, the entire Christian movement could have fit inside this room (that is, St. Luke’s Church). Maybe not with COVID-19 social distancing measures in place, but in Acts 1:15 we’re told there were only about 120 believers at this point. Picture that for a second. All those who had come to believe in Jesus Christ, the Risen and Reigning King of heaven and earth… who were also called to share the Good News of Jesus with all the world… they could all fit inside these walls… with all the world outside their doors. Talk about a daunting, seemingly impossible task. How could a group of 120 ordinary men and women even start to take their message and share it in a meaningful way? Especially as they were still at risk of being arrested by the very same people who had arrested and crucified our Lord? All they had to go on was the promise Christ had given them: that He would send them an Advocate, Someone to take their side who would fill them with God’s power, and truly lead them on. In the mean-time, they were to wait, to trust the LORD, and seek His will. Which we’re told they did, gathered all together in constant prayer.
Throughout the centuries, this is what God’s people have been called to do: to gather together, to trust in the LORD, to wait, and to pray… not because there is nothing else to do, but in order to be prepared, ready to take our part when God’s unexpected, powerful New Life breaks through, even when it seems like the time for hope is over. When it seems like there’s no way forward, and that the end has come.
This was the kind of situation faced by the people of Judah when Jerusalem was conquered, and they were taken off into Exile. They had seen their entire homeland, their whole way of life, overthrown and ruined by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar. Though the prophets of YHWH, the LORD, had long been warning that this would be the result if the kingdoms of Israel and Judah continued on in their unfaithfulness, God’s people had not turned back to Him, and so they lost everything. They were as good as dead. At least, that’s how they saw things: “Our bones are dried up,” they said “our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Yet the Living God was far from done with His beloved people. Despite their fears and failures, God would not abandon them, and as the vision of the prophet Ezekiel makes plain, God’s life-giving Spirit is full of powerful surprises.
Our reading today from Ezekiel 37 stands out as one of the most striking images of hope in the entire Bible, pointing us towards God’s faithfulness even beyond death… which would come fully to light in the resurrection of Jesus. Though the people had given up, God Himself would have the final say. The Old Testament scholar, John Goldingay, sums up God’s response like this. “They feel like a people who are dead and buried. OK, says God, I shall open your graves and bring you back to life… When the people of God seems to be finished, it’s not finished.” Just as in the vision the dry and scattered bones were gathered together, and the Wind, the Breath, the Spirit of God restored the bones to full life, God promised to gather His people again, restore them to their homeland, and put His own Spirit within them, so they might truly live… that is, so that their lives might fully share in God’s own life… taking their part in His life-giving holy love for our world.
Back in the book of Acts, at Pentecost, over 500 years later, God’s promise through Ezekiel was bearing surprising fruit. Those 120 believers, waiting and praying together, found themselves caught up in God’s New Life breaking out, both for Israel, and for all nations.
“[S]uddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” In an instant, waiting gives way to God’s Spirit filling Christ’s followers, enabling them to speak in tongues they did not know before. This would no doubt be a blessed, unforgettable experience, one which would strengthen their faith, and draw them closer to God and each other, even if it only involved the 120 gathered together. But of course, the whole point was God’s Spirit was moving in their midst to empower them to share the Good News of Jesus with the world! And that is exactly what happened… which is why we’re here today.
After the Exile, Israelites and Jews were scattered all through the ancient world; living among all sorts of communities, speaking all sorts of languages, far from their homeland, but holding onto God’s promise to restore them. Many would come on the holy festivals, like Passover, and Pentecost, to worship at the rebuilt Temple of God in Jerusalem. And suddenly, this multitude of pilgrims, gathered in their homeland once again, heard this small group of believers sharing the Good News of God in their own scattered languages... reaching out to each of them in ways they could clearly understand. And though our reading today doesn’t let us hear the whole story of Pentecost, Act 2:41 tells us the message was received: “So those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.”
From 120 to over 3,000… a surprising new community made up of Jews from Galilee, Jerusalem, and all over the ancient world… and this was just the beginning, the first-fruits of God’s rescue mission to reach out to all people with the Good News of Jesus… so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21). The book of Acts recounts how this community grows, gathering together Jews and Gentiles, and spreads throughout the world. And over the centuries, it’s still growing! The Good News of Jesus is still reaching out and transforming our world today, renewing lives, restoring hope, and reconciling us with God and each other… bringing God’s New Life to birth even here in Gondola Point.
You and I are part of the evidence of God’s faithfulness and power, gathered together in worship, prayer, and holy love in Jesus’ name, thousands of years after the Spirit was given at Pentecost, and part of a worldwide family, the Church, with billions of sisters and brothers!
I don’t know if any of the 120 believers who had got up that Pentecost morning could have possibly imagined what God’s Holy Spirit was about to begin through them, but you and I have plenty of reasons to hold onto hope in what God is up to. Not because there are no challenges ahead, or failures behind us. Not because we have it all figured out, or have all the needed expertise. No, our hope is that the Living God we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ, loves to draw ordinary people like us into His own surprising story of worldwide salvation, through His Holy Spirit at work in us.
The Anglican priest and theologian John Stott sums up how indispensable the Holy Spirit is for the life of the Church with a particularly forceful point: “Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, even impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth, no fellowship without the unity of the Spirit, no Christlikeness of character apart from his fruit, and no effective witness without his power. As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead.” The Holy Spirit isn’t an extra, optional part of the Christian faith. The Spirit is God’s own life giving presence and power among us, and out in our world… drawing us into the resurrection life of Jesus our Lord, and working through us in surprising ways to share His saving love with all.
Here at St. Luke’s, may God’s Holy Spirit come powerfully among us. May He share God’s hope with us when we are feeling broken, lost, and alone. May He draw us deeper in our devotion to Jesus, helping us seek His face in prayer, and follow in His ways. May the Holy Spirit convict and challenge us when we need it, leading us back to the truth, and restoring us in God’s mercy. And may He open our hearts to be ready and able to take our part in Christ’s mission, to share the New Life of God… even in ways that might be full of beautiful surprises. Amen.
 John Goldingay, Lamentations and Ezekiel for Everyone, Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 184.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 60.
Scripture Readings: Acts 1:1–11 | Psalm 47 | Ephesians 1:15–23 | Luke 24:44–53
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
Who’s really in charge?
Just over four months ago, nations around the world were in shock: violent protesters had stormed the US Capitol Building in Washington, in order to disrupt their country’s transition of power. Egged on by then President Trump, who claimed that the election was stolen from him (a claim he maintains to this day despite the persistent lack of proof) … chanting his name, this massive gathering tried to seize control of their nation’s future… to force their political will to be done.
As shocking as this event was, it’s shockwaves are still ongoing, with many still choosing to perpetuate what is being called “the Big Lie”, the claim that Trump actually won their election, and that he’s the one that truly deserves their ultimate loyalty. Clinging to his claims of power, and desperate to avoid what he sees as the humiliation of defeat, Trump keeps grasping after the influence and attention that he craves… and all kinds of people are eagerly following his destructive lead.
Sadly, we know this kind of behaviour, though shocking, is not unique. History has many stories to share of ruler’s desperately clinging to power, and perpetuating all sorts of lies and atrocities to do so. Again and again, people have sacrificed their integrity, the common good, and the lives of others in order to be in charge: to be the ones who get to say “my will be done on earth.”
But this week, Christians around the world tell a very different story, we offer a different account of who’s truly in charge. This week we mark the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, and celebrate the ‘Big Truth’ that Jesus is Lord of all. That he has been lifted up above all earthly authority, and reigns over heaven and earth, at the right hand of God the Father.
Of course, from the very beginning, this message has been a contested claim. There are many who argue that our devotion and loyalty should lie elsewhere, and even those of us who claim to believe in the truth of the Christian faith might still find ourselves serving other so-called ‘lords’ in our daily lives. How much are our actions and choices driven solely by things like power, or pleasure, or money, or security, or personal freedom, or family? All things created to be good, and to be received with gratitude, but that can also be turned into idols… into objects of worship, commitments that can end up consuming our lives instead of building them up.
Truth be told, if we are to step back and look at a lot of our own motivations, we might be more than a little shocked to see how little God’s kingdom factors in. We might see within our own hearts that craving to be the one in charge… to get to say, at some level, “my will be done on earth.”
But the Good News we Christians celebrate today calls us away from that impulse… from the seduction of the self-centredness we see at work in the world. This Good News speaks of a Saviour who has come to lead us another way… to rescue us, and reign forever as our Risen King of Kings. The central claim of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, is that the One who gave His life on the cross to save the world has been raised from the dead, and now been given all authority on heaven and earth. That His kingdom has begun, even if our world refuses to recognize it. And that His kingdom is at work even now in the lives of His people, empowering us to live God’s way… and enjoy the blessings of His reign.
In a very real sense, the Ascension is the completion of the triumph of Easter; the overcoming of death, with humanity now sharing in the life of God… united together once and for all in the risen body of Christ. It is the final step of Jesus in His journey of redemption: The One who came down from heaven, who humbled himself and took on our human existence, who willingly gave Himself to suffer and die for us all… was raised from the dead as the firstborn of God’s brand new re-creation, never to die again, and bringing up His resurrected body to the right hand of God… ruling as the Son of God, and the Son of Man. Without His ascension, His resurrection would not have fulfilled it’s full purpose, not simply to undo the cross, but to fully overcome death itself, and reconcile us to the Living God.
The theologian (and one of my old professors) Tim Perry puts it this way in his book He Ascended Into Heaven: “The Ascension is the sign of Jesus’ victory - his exaltation… Luke wants to leave his readers in no doubt about one simple fact: Jesus left his disciples not through death on the cross, but through conquering death on the cross. The proof of his victory was not only his Resurrection but also his Ascension. It’s not that the Resurrection is less important than the Ascension. It is that, in some way, they are one continuous divine act. Resurrection is the beginning of ascension; ascension is resurrection completed.” The purpose of Easter morning was for God’s new creation to begin in the body of Jesus, and from there to spread out into all of creation. He was not raised just to bring a godly man back to earthly life, or so He could one day escape this broken world, and leave His body behind… He was raised so that heaven and earth might be united forever, first of all in the flesh of the Risen Lord Himself.
This longish quote from NT Wright might help to shed some light on the significance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus: “People often think that ‘resurrection’ simply means ‘life after death’ or ‘going to heaven’, but in the Jewish world of the first century it meant a new embodied life in God’s new world; a life after ‘life after death’, if you like. But the new body which will be given at the end is not identical to the previous one. In an act of new creation parallel only to the original creation itself, God will make a new type of material, no longer subject to death, out of the old one. In Jesus’ case, of course, this happened right away, without his original body decaying, so that the new body was actually the transformation of the old one. For the rest of us, whose bodies will decay, and whose bones may well be burnt, it will take a complete act of new creation.
The new body—and this is the point—will belong in both the dimensions of God’s world, in both heaven and earth. (At the end of the book of Revelation, heaven and earth will finally be joined together into one, so there won’t be any shuttling to and fro; the two dimensions will be fused together at last.) At the moment our bodies are earthly only; Jesus’ new body is at home in both earth and heaven.”
I know that’s a lot to take in, especially if we’re not used to thinking about these kinds of things, but this claim is the heart of the Good News of Jesus that the Christian Church has proclaimed from the beginning: in Jesus, the Risen Lord, God’s new creation has begun, reuniting heaven and earth once and for all.
In his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension Jesus Christ has won the ultimate victory: He has conquered death, the powers of sin, and the forces of spiritual darkness, overcoming the divide between the Living God and His creation… reconciling all things together in Himself… who was raised to begin His reign as the King of Kings.
For that is the other side of the message of the ascension: the One who was raised has been given all authority in heaven and earth… who did not cling to power, or flee from humiliation, suffering, or even death, but faithfully said to His Father in Heaven “not my will, but yours be done”. The One that Christians claim is truly in charge, who deserves all our love and loyalty, is our Risen Redeemer. The One who came not to be served, but to serve, and to save.
How do we begin to talk about and respond to His reign? What are some ways we can take part in Christ’s Kingdom here and now? Our Scripture readings today, in speaking of His ascension, can help us start to wrap our heads around this wonderful truth.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are meant to go together: they’re two parts of one narrative, written by the same author, and the story of Jesus begun in Luke finds it’s fulfillment in Acts, with the ascension standing as the bridge between the two halves. In Luke, Jesus fulfills His earthly ministry and mission, and ascends to heaven not in order to rest, but to rule… to continue the work of God’s Kingdom through His faithful witnesses, believers empowered by the Holy Spirit to share His Kingdom with the world… the story which unfolds all throughout the Book of Acts.
But the ending of Luke’s Gospel, and the beginning of Acts, would have us remember that this is all a part of God’s Great Rescue Mission at work all throughout the Scriptures, and from the very beginning. That the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises to people like Abraham, Moses, David, and that we cannot cut off the story of Israel from the life of the Church. Living in God’s Kingdom calls us to step into the story of Scripture… to seek to understand what God has been doing all along, and opening our hearts to listen to His Holy Word, as His Kingdom spreads from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
These same Scriptures, both old and new, will also remind us that the claims of God’s kingdom remain contested claims. Both Israel, and the New Testament Church faced all sorts of temptations to follow after other forces claiming their allegiance, and so we too will have our own temptations in our turn. The Scriptures remind us as well, that if we stand firm in our faith, we’re likely to face not just temptation, but opposition. As Jesus Himself was rejected, persecuted, and put to death, those faithful saints in Israel and in the New Testament all had their share of sufferings too. We also can expect times of conflict and trouble will arise if we push back against the ‘so-called lords’ fighting for our loyalty… if we choose to be true to our Risen King, and don’t go along with the crowds.
We’re also reminded that we are not left to stand for God’s kingdom on our own strength: in Christ, God’s Holy Spirit has come to protect and empower us… enabling us to endure even the darkest times we may face, guiding us when we can’t seem to see our own way forward, and filling us with the abundant blessed life of God: the power of His holy love; the joys that outlast our sorrow; the riches of God’s mercy and grace, the comfort and peace of His presence; the freedom from the fear of death, and from the grip of sin; the knowledge that we belong forever in the family of God.
Next Sunday’s the Feast of Pentecost, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit, to unite us to Jesus, our Saviour King, and empower us to share in the life of His gracious Kingdom.
But even today, may God’s Holy Spirit fill us with the hope that builds up our faith. May we take up our part in the story of His Kingdom, revealed in the Scriptures and at work even now. May we serve as faithful witnesses to all that He has done to bring God’s mercy, forgiveness, and new life to the world. And may the way we live each day point to the One who’s truly in charge: to Jesus Christ the Risen and Ascended Lord of all. Amen.
 Tim Perry, He Ascended Into Heaven: Learn to Live An Ascension-Shaped Life (Paraclete Press: Brewster, MA, 2010), 7.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 300.