Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1–13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8–14 | John 9:1–41
“for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7).
What a gift it is to see clearly.
I don’t just mean with our eyes… though that’s certainly a gift too easily taken for granted. No, I mean seeing clearly with the heart and mind: perceiving the truth… and not being led astray by deceptions, and lies, and appearances… the ability to live in line with what is real, even if no one else around us sees it the same way.
What a gift it is to see clearly. A challenging gift, but a gift nonetheless.
In our Scripture readings today we are invited to contemplate what it means to see things God’s way… to have our eyes and hearts and minds opened to the reality He longs to reveal.
Our reading today from first Samuel tells the story of David’s anointing: the shepherd boy, completely overlooked by others, but chosen by God to serve Him as King.
This story starts off a bit further back: The twelve tribes of Israel had been in the Promised Land for a while now… having been rescued by the LORD from slavery in Egypt, and set apart as God’s chosen people, to live His way in the world so that everyone could come to know the Living God through their faithful lives.
But now Israel wanted to be just like every other nation… and rather than looking to the Living God to guide them and protect them, they wanted to have a king… a human ruler who would take the lead… who they could look up to, and place their confidence in. They saw kingship as just the thing they would need to move forward in an uncertain world.
The prophet Samuel warned them, just like Moses had warned them centuries earlier, that the kind of king they were wanting would only end up leading them astray… away from God’s ways, and would oppress rather than protect them, but they refused to listen. They wanted to serve someone they could see with their own eyes, instead of placing their trust in the Living God… the One who had rescued them, and led them, again and again, into life.
Eventually, God tells Samuel to give the people what they wanted, and so he anointed their first king Saul, who seemed perfect for the job. Saul was tall, strong, impressive… but he ended up repeatedly failing to follow God’s instructions… doing what was right in his own eyes, instead of obeying the word of the LORD.
And so, in our first reading, we heard how God sent the prophet Samuel to choose another king for God’s people… this time anointing someone completely overlooked, and deemed unsuitable for such an honour: Jesse’s youngest son, David… someone the LORD alone could see would be the one to guide His people… not perfectly, by any means, but as far as human kings go, pretty faithfully… filled with the power of God’s own Spirit to lead His people into life.
Now this ancient anointing ceremony may seem a long way from our daily lives here in Gondola Point, but a key phrase from this reading stands out for us all to hear:
“the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… … for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7).
How often are we too just living by what seems right in our own eyes, instead of looking to God?
How are we searching for things that seem impressive, strong, stable… hoping that they will give us some security in our increasingly uncertain world?
Or how are we wanting to be just like our neighbours… to set aside God’s ways, so we can be just like them… or at least, so that we aren’t seen as strangers and outsiders… afraid of feeling cut off and alone?
Are we seeing clearly today? If not, our Gospel reading, as usual, has Good News for us all.
John chapter 9 starts off simply enough with a scene that would not have seemed all that unusual: Jesus and His disciples pass by a beggar who had been blind from birth.
From the start, the disciples saw the man and failed to see beyond their own concerns. Like many in their days, and in our own, they saw someone suffering… blind from birth… and assumed it was somebody’s fault. “Rabbi,” they said, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
The assumption behind this question is that suffering of any kind must be a punishment… proof that someone did something to deserve their misery.
It can be easy for us to feel responsible or guilty when we or those we love are suffering… when they face challenges and struggles beyond our ability to solve. It can seem right to us to search for an explanation… a cause… for someone to blame… but Jesus rejects this way of seeing suffering, and what He does next aims to open the eyes of His followers, and shine light on the truth.
“Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.” (John 9:3-7).
Note that Jesus did not say that God caused the man’s blindness, but that his blindness will be the cause of God’s work being revealed in him. This isn’t an explanation for who’s responsible for his suffering. It’s an explanation of who will be responsible for his healing… and salvation.
Jesus then spits on the ground, makes mud, wipes it on the man’s eyes, and sends him away to wash. And suddenly, he could see! His eyes were opened for the first time in his life!
Imagine how excited he must have been! In an instant, so many possibilities that had been completely closed off, had been freely given to him: The beauty of the world around him. Colours, shapes, things only imagined before, all now clearly able to be perceived.
Imagine seeing the faces of his friends and family for the first time!
Imagine looking into the eyes of someone who loves you! What a gift!
But even so, it was a challenging gift… and one which would change everything. Freely given, but not without cost, as the Gospel of John goes on to explain.
The controversy starts with the man’s neighbours, who were deeply confused when they saw the man who they had only known as a blind beggar, suddenly now able to see. They don’t know what to do with him, or what to believe. So they send him to the experts: the Pharisees, those who, due to their knowledge of the Law, and the traditions of God’s people, were supposed to see these kinds of things clearly.
And the first thing that catches their eye is not the miracle, God’s healing hand at work, but the fact that Jesus appears to have broken the Law of God… healing on the Sabbath day of rest, and on top of that, daring to make mud.
Back in Exodus, before they had tasted God’s freedom and salvation which the Sabbath Day was intended to be a perpetual reminder of, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, and were forced to make bricks out of mud. Now any form of work was deemed to be forbidden on the Sabbath, but to the Pharisees, making mud, which brings to mind those mud bricks of oppression, would be like spitting upon the memory of God’s saving work in their people’s past.
In their eyes, if Jesus was so careless with what was so clearly sacred, He could be nothing but a sinner, seeking to lead God’s people astray into unfaithfulness. But even so, they could not deny that something unusual had happened here.
John 9:16, “Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.”
But instead of simply choosing to believe the man’s story, or to look for Jesus Himself to discover the truth, they search for the parents of the man who was blind, expecting to find some deception or misunderstanding at work that will fully explain everything.
Then the man’s parents, afraid of the pushback they will receive if they support Jesus publicly, refuse to back up their son. They confirm his identity, but then leave him all alone to face these interrogators by himself.
The Pharisees press him even harder: “they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’” (John 9:24-25).
All through this story, the Gospel writer is highlighting for us the tension and contrast at work between those who see the truth, and those who do not:
The disciples of Jesus look at the appearance of someone’s suffering, and they search for someone to blame, instead of seeing a person in need of their compassion.
The neighbours look at the man they knew from before, but can’t see how he could have been changed so much.
The Pharisees look at a miraculous work of God in someone’s life, and only see a threat to all they hold most dear.
And here we have someone completely overlooked and unexpected… a man who’s never seen anything before… slowly coming to recognize the truth: that Jesus was even more than a wandering healer, or a prophet… Jesus is the One through whom the Living God is at work doing what no one else can do.
As the Pharisees continue their questioning, he offers this testimony: “The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’” (John 9:30-33).
Following his example, this Gospel passage invites you and I to see that Jesus is the One who is the truth… who alone can open our eyes to the true reality of the world… to finally see things clearly so that we can begin to live in line with what is right. To experience the beauty, and abundance, and freedom of life with the Living God, even when we are suffering… misunderstood by our neighbours, abandoned by our families and friends, and treated unjustly by those with power.
Jesus has come to open us up to a new kind of life… one not based on our old ways of seeing the world, and our place in it… but one which is open to God’s saving love, which no one else can take away from us. A way of life which is not afraid to speak openly of the hope that has been shared with us. One which is open to being led by God’s Holy Spirit, instead of our own understanding, trusting that Jesus has come to bring us into God’s life and light… which will challenge and can change us all.
The man began that day like any other: blind, and begging for help. Jesus freely gave him sight, but this new life cost him dearly. He was suddenly a complete stranger to his neighbours. His parents refused to stand up for him. He was harassed and excommunicated from both his social and spiritual relationships.
What would we do in his place, I wonder?
His story shows us what we are all called to do:
“Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.” (John 9:35-39).
Believe in Him… believe in the One who from the very beginning saw the man in his blindness, not as others did… as someone less worthy of attention, acceptance, and the fullness of life… but as a beloved child of the Living God in need of compassion, whose story would become a glorious gift to all of us in our times of suffering, isolation, abandonment, and outright rejection… in our seasons of darkness when it seems that no one really sees what we are going through.
But Jesus sees us… clearly… completely… and He understands all our troubles. And He looks at us as beloved children of His Heavenly Father with divine eyes full of compassion.
And His great love growing inside us can help us to truly see each other as well. To see each other, and all those around us… especially those we so easily overlook, as equally beloved by God, whom Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, came to seek, and save, and set free… by giving up His own life for us all at the cross. And who rose again from the grave to open us up to share God’s eternal life through Him, being filled with His holy Spirit to share this message of hope with everyone.
If we can start to see each other, and everyone else in this light… the light of the Good News of Jesus and what He has done for us all… just imagine what God will do through us! Imagine what kinds of good works He can accomplish in our midst. What healing and hope He longs to share.
So may we, like the man who received his sight, place our faith in Jesus our Saviour, no matter the cost. And as we do so, may God’s Spirit open our eyes and lead us into His life and light. Amen.
"Sir, Give Me This Water" - A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent (March 12, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1–7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1–11 | John 4:5–42
[Note: Bottled water with John 3:16 verse on it given to each person upon arrival. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”]
"The woman said to Him, 'Sir, give me this water'" (John 4: 15).
O God, light of the minds that know you, life of the souls that love you, and strength of the hearts
that seek you - bless the words of our lips and the meditations of our hearts. We ask this in Jesus'
name and mercy Amen.
[Water is poured into the font]
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the
beginning of creation. Through water you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in
Egypt into the land of promise. In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us through his death and
resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Last week within our Gospel reading we heard about the confused Nicodemus. He puzzled about how one could be born a second time - born of water and the Spirit? As Nicodemus worked out his thoughts out loud, Jesus invited him to accept who God is and shared more about the cost of God making eternal life available to humankind.
As natural birth begins our life on this earth, so spiritual birth brings us into the spiritual life and makes us God’s “born ones.” Rev. Rob put it this way in his sermon last week, “We come to Jesus with all of our questions, and concerns, and hopes, and fears, and find him waiting to give us His life…inviting us to turn to Him and trust Him with everything.…Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God, alone can save us. Jesus alone can give us God’s new life, now and forever.”
Now we come to today’s long Gospel reading which follows shortly after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. As Jesus is traveling through Samaria he engages in conversation with a woman at a well. He speaks with her about the “water” He can provide that will quench her deepest thirst.
And, the woman says to Him, “Sir, give me this water…” (John 4:15a).
Like Nicodemus, the woman thirsts for something more and seeks to be filled by coming to the well day after day. Unlike Nicodemus she does not come to Jesus by night although she might have thought of doing so. Drawing water from the town well in biblical times was an important social event for women. The fact that the Samaritan woman came alone suggests, as did Jesus’ reference to five “husbands,” that she was rejected by the other women.
Notice though that Jesus does not reject her. The woman came to the well seeking water and leaves with something very different, she is different. We are told that she leaves her water jar by the well when she goes back to the city. She came all the way out to the well and leaves empty handed but with her heart full. After experiencing Jesus’s love and acceptance, His holding truth in grace, she leaves full of the living water, the divine mercy, God’s grace. A new life in Christ!
In our thirst in our lives, what do we try to fill our buckets with? Maybe it is material wealth, acceptance, power, disordered relationships, various kinds of pleasures … Jesus says that everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again. I imagine that at certain times in our lives, maybe even right now, we have experienced this kind of thirst.
Our thirst is real, our sin is real, our need for God is real. What is also real is that God is always and already looking for us! God wants to share our life. Nicodemus sought out Jesus and He was there. The woman went to the well and Jesus was there. Be assured that Jesus is already here in our lives as we too seek and say, “give me this water”. This is divine grace.
We can stop filling our buckets with that which leads to pain, rejection, fear, grief, and anguish and rather allow ourselves to be found. God is seeking worshippers, not looking for new ways to judge us.
This season of Lent if a gift of the time to prepare our hearts to receive. A time to put down our buckets, clear the clutter of our hearts and remove whatever obstacles there may be the flow of the living water.
The living water never runs out, the fountain never runs dry, this is the divine life. This is what Jesus offered the women at the well. What he offered Nicodemus. What is offered in baptism.
This is the well we can drink from.
May we then, receiving this living water, leave our buckets and go like the woman to others,
those of our family, friends and neighbours; calling them to see this Jesus, the Messiah and be filled!
 BAS, pg. 157-158, Thanksgiving over the Water
Scripture Readings: Genesis 12:1–4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 | John 3:1–17
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3).
If you could have a private, face to face conversation with Jesus alone, what would you talk about? What kinds of questions would you ask? What concerns would you raise? What words of wisdom or hope might you long to hear from Him?
In our Gospel reading this morning, we heard the story of one such conversation: a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and religious leader, and teacher of God’s Law, was drawn to Jesus… convinced by the signs and miracles that Jesus had performed, and rightly discerning there was something different, something significant about Him. Nicodemus knew that God’s own power was at work in what Jesus was up to. And so, Nicodemus sets out one night in secret, hesitant to let others know He was visiting Jesus, to have a chance to talk with Him one on one.
But regardless of how Nicodemus may have had intended this conversation to unfold, Jesus had other things in mind to talk about… and instead of simply answering Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus aims to transform the way this teacher of the Law, as well as you and I today, understand what the Living God is up to… and our part in God’s story.
In our first reading today we were reminded of another key character in that story: Abram, who would later on be renamed Abraham, the ancient ancestor of the family of Israel.
Now Abraham’s story wasn’t a straightforward success by any means. Though he’s renowned as a founding father of the faith, Abraham was just as often driven by fear, and ended up making some truly disastrous decisions. And yet, he was still the one through whom the Living God chose to bless the whole world. This would be the special, covenant relationship that would reveal God’s divine life and love to all nations.
Genesis 12:1-4, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
Note that Abram was not chosen and blessed, because he was particularly gifted, or because God could see some hidden potential in him… actually, it’s quite the opposite!
Abram and his wife Sarai had no children, and had long passed the age when that would be even remotely possible. Yet God tells Abram that He will make a massive family out of this old man… someone without any natural hope of raising up future generations.
In other words, God promised Abram something that only God’s power could accomplish. Abram was called to place his trust, his faith in what God alone could do. If we want to understand the rest of the story, this is the place we must start.
Fast forward several centuries in the story, and we find that God was more than true to His word: many generations of Abram’s great family have come and gone, who have at times shared in their forefather’s faith, but more often than not, fell into fear and unfaithfulness.
The ten Northern tribes of Israel had been swept away into exile by Assyria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was then overrun by Babylon. But this small portion of God’s chosen people had been able to return to the land, and rebuild… not to rule it like before, but to be ruled by powerful Gentile nations that knew nothing at all about the Living God and His ways.
After years in this situation, some Jews cut themselves off from the outside world to try and keep themselves pure. Many just went along with the strange new cultural context that they found themselves in, eventually forgetting the story of God, and their place in it.
And others worked hard to try to be faithful to God, to hold firmly onto their faith by following the traditions that had been passed on to them for generations. They thought that if they were obedient to God’s holy laws, and preserved their identity as children of Abraham, then God would come to their rescue… then God would send His chosen King, the Messiah, who would overthrow their enemies, and re-establish their kingdom… this time for good.
Then all of their struggles would be overcome. Then their future would be secured. If they just did what they were supposed to do, and be perfectly faithful to the Covenant, the Law, then God would reward them, rescue them, and share His reign with them.
This was the story that many in Jesus’ day were holding onto. And in one form or another, it’s still a story we find at work today.
Perhaps we too can remember a time when our future seemed secure, and our role in the world seemed strong, or at least, we were still hopeful that the best days for God’s people lay ahead of us.
And we know that’s not how things often seem today: Churches keep closing. Future generations seem absent.
The Christian faith seems sidelined in our society by so many other priorities. Like our old kingdom has been taken away, and we’re now living under the rule of those who don’t care about the Living God and His ways.
And in our own personal lives, many of us have faced serious setbacks and struggles… feeling at times like the hope we had for tomorrow has been totally shaken.
Maybe even today, we’re wondering what we’re supposed to do now? How can we turn things around? Searching for answers, for signs of how we can somehow regain God’s blessing. Like Nicodemus the Pharisee, maybe we’re coming to Jesus today with our own mix of faith and fears… hoping He'll tell us what we need to do to set things right.
And maybe, like Nicodemus, Jesus gives us Good News that we didn’t ask for, and often struggle to understand. Good News that doesn’t rest on what we can do, but on what God alone is bringing about. Good News that the New Life for ourselves and for our communities that we long for is truly open to us… but that it cannot be achieved by any natural means.
John 3:3, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Born from above. Or born again, as some translations put it. Not a simple adjustment to the system, but a brand new beginning… one which, like our first births here below, we did absolutely nothing to earn, or achieve or instigate, but which we all received as a gracious gift.
In order to enter God’s kingdom, we must receive it as a gift… trusting, not in our actions in the present, our connections to the past, or our potential for the future… but trusting in what the Living God has given to us all in the gift of His Son:
John 3:16-17, “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.”
Pharisees like Nicodemus thought God’s coming Kingdom would be a special gift for them… for the faithful Israelites… descendants of Abraham alone.
And we can be tempted to do the same, imagining God’s Kingdom is just for us… given to address our concerns, to alleviate our fears and ease our struggles… to restore our place in the world… to help our kingdom come, whatever that might be.
But Jesus came to bring God’s eternal life not just to Israel… not just to you and I… but to the whole broken world He loves and longs to save. This is His divine agenda… His mission from the very start.
Abram was chosen purely as a gift from the Living God, who Abram trusted to do what only God could do… bringing life to the dead, and calling “into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). And through his story… as well as the story of all of Abram’s descendants… though mixed up with faith and fear, God’s own saving hand has been powerfully at work… not just for them, but for everyone.
As Christians today, we too have been chosen to take part in God’s story… in our own time to trust God to do what He alone can do, and bring His new life, not just for us, but for everyone.
For Jesus Christ was not lifted up on the cross for just one family… for one kind of community… or only for those who seem to deserve it. Jesus gave Himself over to endure the shame and suffering of the cross to bring the blessings of God’s everlasting life to all who believe.
We come to Jesus with all of our questions, and concerns, and hopes, and fears, and find Him waiting to give us His life… inviting us to turn to Him and trust Him with everything. No matter how many times we have messed things up. No matter how discouraged, and afraid we may be… no matter how strongly we want to hold onto the past… no matter how well we behave in the present… no matter how promising or desperate our futures may seem…
Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God, alone can save us. Jesus alone can give us God’s new life, now and forever. Jesus alone is where we must turn to understand God’s love for our broken world. And Jesus alone has given His life to rescue everyone.
Turning to Him in trust is not at all a guarantee that our kingdoms will be restored… that all our concerns will be resolved, our church pews and Sunday School classes filled again… our fears and struggles ended. Nicodemus did not experience the restoration of Israel that he had hoped for when he came to meet with Jesus alone that night… but he did experience a new beginning, the first signs of a new birth… drawn into the unexpected and glorious story of God’s Kingdom which Jesus alone is bringing about… one Nicodemus or Abram could never have imagined, and which invites all of us to believe in, and share with our world so they too can come to know:
that, “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.”
May we believe this Good News of God’s gracious, saving love in Jesus Christ with all our heart, and mind, and strength… with all our lives… and may we share this hope with everyone. Amen.
Share In His Story... Mind, Spirit, & Body - Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent (February 26, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7 | Psalm 32 | Romans 5:12–19 | Matthew 4:1–11
“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (Romans 5:18)
Today we mark the first Sunday of the season of Lent: A time of preparation for the unfolding of Holy Week, and the story of Christ’s betrayal, death, and resurrection. Lent invites us all to slow down, to take stock, and turn back to the LORD with all that we are. And for many, Lent is a time to take up the spiritual practice of fasting… deciding not to eat, or to avoid certain behaviours for a time.
I have a bit of a confession to make: this year, I’ve struggled to come up with something to give up for Lent. Since I was introduced to the practice of Lenten fasts some years ago, I’ve often looked forward to this season, giving up things like: drinks with sugar in them, caffeine, meat, screentime in the evenings… all sorts of things that I might enjoy, but which I can choose to give up if it opens me more up to God. But this year, for some reason, I’ve really had a hard time getting a Lenten fast of the ground.
Preparing for today’s sermon, I spent some time reflecting on why this was… what was going on inside of me. And to be honest, I think I’d sort of forgotten what fasting is really all about. I think I had fallen into the trend of treating fasting like some sort of spiritual workout… some way to challenge and improve myself when it comes to the Christian life.
But there’s much more to fasting than this. There’s much more spiritual nourishment, and fulfillment that Christian fasting can help us receive… not as a technique or a method of making something happen… inside us, or out in the world… but as a way to say “yes” with all that we are to all that God has for us.
I’m deeply indebted to the New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, who literally wrote the book on Fasting, and who I think defines it very well: “Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments.”
McKnight goes on to unpack how this ancient practice fits into the story of Scripture, which then calls us to re-imagine what fasting might mean for us today.
McKnight claims “Because Israel’s perception of the person was unified, repentance often expressed itself in the physical act of fasting. The moment of turning from sin and back to God, of turning from a false path onto the path of light, of empathizing with God’s grief over Israel’s sin, was so sacred and so filled with the potential of the grace-giving God that Israelites chose not to eat.” There is a deep sense of ones whole life, body, mind, and spirit, as being all wrapped up together, all integrated, so that any major events in ones life would call for a bodily response, just as much as one of the heart or mind.
So as we think about the season of Lent, and all it entails… the turning, or returning to the Living God… the practice of fasting, and so on, the question before us is: how are we turning to God with all of our heart, and mind, and body? With all that we are? Thankfully, our Scripture readings today point us towards the answer.
They hold up for us two stories… two paths, to approaches to life… to ways to be human… one rooted in the ancient depiction of the first humans, Adam & Eve, and the other arising from the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So, this morning, I want to invite us to compare these two paths, these two stories side-by-side, and see what light they might be able to shine on our own lives today:
In our first reading from Genesis Chapter 3, we find Adam and Eve in the garden paradise of God: Created to bear and be the image of God, serving as His representatives and agents on earth… charged with caring for His good world, with tending and keeping His garden.
And in our reading today from St. Matthew’s Gospel we find a very different picture: we see Jesus being led up by the Spirit of God into the desolate wilderness. Into a dry and desolate land, wild and waste, and empty of life.
Now right before being led into the desert, Jesus had just been baptized in the Jordan River by John… which was the first moment when His unique identity was affirmed: Matthew 3:16-17, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Armed only with this divine declaration of love, Jesus goes out to the desert and fasts, deprived of even the basic necessities for forty days and nights, until He was famished. While in the garden, Adam and Eve had everything they could have wanted.
But despite these differences, these stories do have a few things in common. For instance, both the first humans in the garden, who were created in the image of God, and Jesus of Nazareth, who St. Matthew tells us is the beloved Son of God, would have their identities challenged and called into question by the voice of a deceiver.
In Genesis, a cunning serpent, who comes to signify dark spiritual forces opposed to God’s will, deliberately twists the words of the LORD to Adam and Eve, convincing them to doubt the LORD’s love for them, and that instead of giving them good limits that will lead them to abundant life, God was really just withholding something really good for them that they could simply seize for themselves: that is, the wisdom to discern good from bad on their own apart from God.
The serpent insists that they shouldn’t trust God’s word to them, and that instead, if they eat the forbidden fruit,
they “will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5).
The irony is, of course, they were already made to be like God: created as His image-bearers, they were made to reflect His divine character, and care for creation as His co-rulers, under His loving lordship. But the serpent offered them a path to being “like God” without this essential relationship. And they took the bait. They saw the fruit, they ate of it, and brought the power of death into God’s good world.
In a similar way, when the tempter comes after Jesus in the wilderness, famished after his long fast, the devil goes right for the stomach. But importantly, just like with Adam and Eve, this temptation was also a hidden jab at Jesus’ identity, seeking to plant the seeds of doubt in His relationship with the Living God. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matthew 4:3). But unlike Eve and Adam, Jesus does not doubt His Father’s word, or His loving care, trusting Him to graciously provide all the nourishment and strength required in His hour of need. Jesus answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4).
Back to the Garden, after they take and eat the fruit, we can see how the tempter had cut off the first couple’s confidence in God to care for them… and now, instead of serving as His images on earth, reflecting His goodness and glory with their lives for all the world to see, the humans, now full of shame, seek to hide themselves from the LORD, and one another. They were no longer free to be fearless… able to trust God to preserve them from harm.
Turning back to the Gospel, we find the devil leading Jesus to Jerusalem, to the very top of the Holy Temple… the pinnacle of God’s sacred place, where he dares Jesus to make the most public display of His faith imaginable: “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and
‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6).
Twisting the Scriptures to suit his own purposes, the devil prompts Jesus: “Don’t you trust God? If you really are His Son, won’t He rescue you? Prove You have nothing to fear. Prove that You really trust Him! Prove You’re really who You think You are!”
And Jesus does prove He trusts God… just not at all in the way the devil demanded. Jesus responds by simply saying no. I trust My Father. I do not have to prove anything. I will “not put the Lord God to the test.” Unlike Adam and Eve, who had lost their faith in their relationship to the Living God, Jesus was able to place His complete confidence in His Father without any spectacle at all… just simple, quiet obedience and faithfulness was needed, not a dramatic show of so-called devotion. Faithfulness is how we can live fearlessly before the Lord.
So now the gloves come off. The time for subtly is over, and the devil lays all his cards on the table. He shows Jesus all of the kingdoms of the earth… all their glory, and splendour… and says: “It’s all Yours. All of it can be Yours. Just worship me, and I will give you the world. Everything!”
This is, of course, at the heart of the temptation that Adam and Eve were offered as well: ‘become like God, knowing good and bad for yourselves, and you can rule the world without Him. You can have everything you want, whenever you want it. You don’t need God, trust me.’
And of course, that’s what we did. Not just Adam and Eve in the Garden, but all of humanity… all through the ages… all over today’s headlines… this is the story of our world. Our story. Whether we’re talking about whole nations invading and seeking to dominate or destroy their neighbours… or people in positions of power, exploiting and abusing the vulnerable… or even the simple, self-centered lifestyles we just take for granted, that revolve around our desires for comfort, security, recognition, and success, whatever.
We see with our own eyes what we want. We reach out and take it for ourselves… and we re-introduce death into God’s good world… again and again and again.
Adam and Eve embody our story. Our path. Our way of life, apart from the Living God. Where we fearfully search for fulfillment, and only find ourselves famished instead.
But the Good News is, there is another story. Another path. Another way to live. One embodied in none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
To the tempter’s best offer, Jesus replies: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Matthew 4:10).
Jesus flat out refuses to serve the devil, or become a slave to His own desires, but radically reaffirms His devotion to His Heavenly Father alone. Where Adam and Eve were deceived, and led astray by doubting God’s love for them, Jesus completely passes the test by placing His trust, His life completely in God’s hands.
At this point, there’s nothing more that the devil can do to Him, and so this time of temptation comes to an end… but all through His life, Jesus will remain just as devoted, just as committed to His Father, which will require this same steady faithfulness every step of the way. The same way, the same path that Jesus calls you and I to follow.
And here, we too face a temptation: the temptation to reduce all that Jesus has done here to merely an example to emulate… showing us that faithfulness is possible, and then sending us out on our own to go, and do likewise.
This is one of the great temptations that plagues the religious life: the temptation to believe that all we need is to figure out what we need to do to make ourselves better… more spiritual… more godly… more like God, if you will… If that rings a bell.
This impulse can be deceptive, preying on our desires to do good, and be good, but offering us our own path to self-improvement and spiritual growth on our own terms. So then, even sacred seasons like Lent, and practices like fasting can become just one more forbidden fruit… good things, twisted to make us trust in ourselves and what we can achieve, instead of in God’s great love for us.
But the Good News is that Jesus did far more than just show us how to become good, or how to pass our own temptation tests… on our own. He passed the test for us! He faithfully faced every temptation in order to undo their fierce power over us, and now He shares His victory and New Life with us as well.
In other words, Jesus restarted and rescued the story of humanity once and for all.
This is the wonderful message that St. Paul was working through in his letter to the Romans, showing how what Jesus alone has done has changed everything.
Looking back to Genesis, St. Paul says “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).
He then goes on, “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many” (Romans 5:15).
“Free gift”, “grace”… these are the words St. Paul uses to describe how we now receive the New Life of God. A free gift, that has its source in one man: Jesus Christ.
He goes on to explore the differences between the works of Adam and Christ: through the first came condemnation, the domination of death for all through disobedience. But through the second comes justification, abundant grace, the free gift of righteousness, and new life for all “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:21).
Jesus Himself has opened up another story for humanity… not to pursue or fulfill on their own, but to receive as a gift in Him. He took on Himself all the consequences for our failed story… taking up His cross and bearing the full brunt of the death that Adam and Eve earned for us all in the garden, and which we all keep on embracing in our own ways… and He did this to bring God’s New Life to those who place their faith, their trust not in themselves and what they can achieve… but in Jesus God’s Beloved Son, and what He has done.
And so we can commemorate Lent, and practice fasting, not to make ourselves better somehow, but to turn wholeheartedly to our Saviour. To step out of our old stories, and receive the free gift of His story… all that He is, all that He’s done for us, all that He will do in and through us. We can fast to entrust ourselves, our whole selves, mind, spirit, and body, into the nail-pierced hands of Jesus, who rest completely in the faithful, loving hands of our Father in Heaven. We fast to say no to ourselves, so we can say yes to Jesus, and in our weakness our emptiness, to find that He is our strength. That He is our sustenance, He is our bread from heaven, and the Word that comes from the Living God.
So then, whether or not we take up a fast, or other Lenten practice this year, let us wholeheartedly entrust ourselves, our minds, our souls, and bodies, to Jesus, our loving Saviour, and step into His life-giving story. Amen.
 Scot McKnight, Fasting (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), xiv.
 Scot McKnight, Fasting (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 24-25.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 24:12–18 | Psalm 2 | 2 Peter 1:16–21 | Matthew 17:1–9
“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” (Matthew 17:5).
What does God have to say to us today?
Along with Christians around the world, today we’re celebrating Transfiguration Sunday, the final week before Lent begins, and taking place at the end of Epiphany: a season we contemplate the Good News that Jesus has been revealed as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s well beloved and eternal Son, sent to save not only one people, but all the peoples of the Earth.
The Transfiguration story itself marks a kind of watershed moment in the life of Jesus, where Christ’s hidden glory is suddenly glimpsed by three of His frightened followers, challenging and changing their understanding of His significance forever.
More than just a righteous religious teacher, or powerful miracle worker… the Transfiguration proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Christ… the beloved Son of God… whose word above all we must heed.
Of course, there are many other voices that we are drawn to… there are lots of other ideas about who God is, and what He is up to in the world. Voices inviting us to give them our ears, and hearts, and loyalties.
And many of these other voices use the Bible to back up what they have to say. Taking up portions of the Holy Scriptures to amplify and justify their own agendas… often in ways that distort or completely conflict with what the Christian faith proclaims.
But these voices can be pretty convincing, making it hard to know who to believe. And on top of that, there are seasons in all of our lives when it can seem like God’s face is hidden from us… like His presence is somehow veiled by a cloud our eyes and minds can’t penetrate.
In times like this, how are we to discern what God is actually trying to say to us? How can we be sure that we are truly listening to His voice?
In the story of the Transfiguration, St. Matthew is inviting us to contemplate how we Christians can come to hear the voice of God with confidence… teaching us where we are to turn to know His will, and walk in His ways.
In this strange and short episode in the life of Jesus, the entire expanse of the story of the Bible comes to into focus… with key representatives from both the Old and New Testaments on the scene.
We heard how Jesus took three of His disciples, Peter, James, and John, with Him up a mountain, where they would witness a startling change in their Master, and a remarkable meeting. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” (Matthew 17:2-3).
As we know, Moses and Elijah were two of ancient Israel’s most renown prophets, serving as those who shared God’s message, God’s word with His people in powerful ways. Moses had been the one God had chosen to lead Israel through the wilderness, after the LORD had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Moses was seen, even centuries later, as Israel’s ultimate hero: the one who God gave the Law and Commandments of the Covenant to at Mt. Sinai, entering the cloud to meet with the LORD alone, as we heard in our first reading today, making known how Israel was to live as God’s people in the world… transforming how they were to relate to the Living God, each other, and all their neighbours too.
While this meant that Moses would come to be closely associated with the Torah, the Law, the first five books of the Bible, the Prophet Elijah, who came on the scene many centuries after Moses, had a different role: he served as a messenger on a mission to call God’s people to repent… to turn back to the LORD, whom they had abandoned to serve the gods of the Canaanites, led by their unfaithful Kings. Elijah called out King Ahab and challenged the people to give God alone their allegiance, and the LORD worked through Elijah to dramatically display His divine power and authority.
But this moment of Elijah’s victory would be followed by discouragement and despair, as he would be hunted by Israel’s leaders who persisted in resisting the LORD and His ways. Eventually, Elijah would also find himself alone on Mt. Sinai (or Horeb, as it is sometimes called), encountering God’s presence in the silence after the storm, and listening to His voice.
In time, Elijah would come to stand as a key representative for the whole prophetic movement in the Scriptures… for those who speak on God’s behalf, inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, to share God’s message with His people… calling them to turn back to Him, and find true life by walking in His ways.
Both the stories of Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, involve chosen figures who were set apart to share God’s word with the world: making known God’s own character, His divine will, and the ways for His people to faithfully follow.
And yet, both of their stories, and the whole of the Law and the Prophets point forward beyond themselves to One who will fulfill God’s promises, and rescue His people once and for all: the promised Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.
But now we must turn to consider the others that St. Matthew tells us had gone up the Mountain with Jesus: three of His disciples, St. Peter, St. James, and St. John.
These three disciples will all have special roles to play in the story of the Christian Church. St. James would be the first of the Apostles to be put to death, slain by Herod in Jerusalem in the years after Christ’s resurrection. St. John, James’ brother, would be the only Apostle not put to death, and his influence on the Church’s understanding of Jesus would by significant, with one of the four Gospels, three letters, and the Book of Revelation being linked to him.
And finally, we have St. Peter, who has been widely recognized as the leader of the Apostles, and who God uses mightily as a key servant in the early days of the Church, but who also has a bit of a mixed track record… including in our Gospel reading today.
But as usual, having some context is key. Just before the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus had asked His disciples who they believed that He was, and St. Peter replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus praises Peter’s response, and then warns his followers not to tell anyone He is the Messiah yet, because His mission was about to take an unexpected turn:
Matthew 16: 21-23, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
St. Peter had not yet wrapped his head around what Jesus had been sent to do as God’s Messiah. The idea that his beloved Master would have to suffer such a cruel fate was one he would not willingly listen to. It went against all of his own expectations, all of his hopes, and plans.
But as Jesus points out, Peter was listening to the wrong voices… setting his heart and mind on human designs, rather than listening to and following divine designs.
And so, when the three disciples see Jesus transformed before their eyes, and see Moses and Elijah, two heroic saints from his people’s ancient past, talking with Jesus, St. Peter still struggles to understand what’s really going on, and what it really means for Jesus to be the Son of God.
“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” (Matthew 17:4).
In this pious sounding suggestion, St. Peter was trying to elevate his Master to the level of Israel’s two heroes, Moses and Elijah, making them equals in his estimation. But what happens next shatters this vision, as God sets the record straight:
“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” (Matthew 17:4-6).
The cloud overshadows Peter, James, and John… they too are brought into God’s holy presence on top of a mountain, just like Moses and Elijah experienced centuries earlier, when the LORD shared His divine word with them. But the message these three disciples hear is simple and direct and clear: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’
The story of the Transfiguration reveals to us that it is in Jesus Himself that we are able to truly hear God’s word. As St. John would one day put it, Jesus is Himself the Word of God in the flesh!
Jesus is God’s Word to us today. Jesus is where we must turn to know what the Living God is up to in the world, and how we are to take part in it.
In Jesus, the message of Moses and Elijah comes to its fulfilment… as He is the One the entire Old Testament and the story of Israel is pointing us to.
In Jesus, the stumbling voices of St. Peter, the rest of the Apostles, and all of the members of the Christian Church throughout the ages is taken up and transformed into God’s message of Good News for the world… as He is the One that brings to life the faith, and hope, and love revealed in the New Testament.
Jesus is the One, who through His own suffering, betrayal, death, and resurrection, sets in motion God’s great rescue mission… bringing His forgiveness, mercy, self-giving love, and New Life into our world torn apart by our obedience to bitterness, condemnation, self-centeredness, violence, and death.
Jesus Himself is where the Living God has chosen to make His character, will, and ways known to the world, once and for all.
So, if we want to know what God want to say to us today, and every day, we must look to Jesus. We must constantly make time to listen carefully to Him. Not just to what we assume He would say… or what we might want Him to say… we need to honestly focus… to fix our eyes and our ears on Jesus, and listen.
And what might this kind of listening looks like?
Well, first of all, listening looks like humility. To listen to anyone means recognizing that we all have much more to learn. That we all have plans and ideas that can be way out of wack, and need to be challenged.
To listen to Jesus means to be open… to trust. To have faith that He knows better than we do. Especially when He challenges all the voices that tell us what we naturally want to hear.
Remember how St. Peter had his own ideas about what Jesus should and shouldn’t do. Remember how often we too have needed to have our eyes opened to see things from a new point of view.
To listen to Jesus means to learn to trust Him above every other voice… even our own.
This kind of relationship of trust does not just happen in an instant. It comes with time spent with Him in prayer, both together with others and alone.
Christian prayer is a posture of openness and readiness to obey our LORD… to say to our Father in Heaven “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth… starting right here in my heart.”
But like any relationship, if we’re always the one talking, we aren’t really listening. Prayer isn’t just going on asking God for what we want, we are also making sacred space in our lives for God to make Himself and His will for us known, inviting the Holy Spirit to speak into our hearts in Jesus’ name, and testing that voice to make sure it lines up with what Jesus Himself has already made known in the Holy Scriptures.
Which leads us to another vital way we listen to Jesus: by reading and studying the Bible, both together and alone, becoming familiar over our whole lifetime with the story of God.
We read both the Old and New Testaments together, and both with Jesus Himself in mind, reflecting on how every part of this story points us to and fits within His story… Christ’s cross and resurrection, as God’s ultimate victory.
If we want to know what Jesus is saying to us, we need to keep prayerfully turning to Scripture, and seeking to understand it. But the point of all this understanding is to put it into practice. To not just hear what Jesus is saying, but to heed His words… to obey His voice.
In Hebrew, the word for listen ‘shema’ is the same word as obey. The two concepts are indistinguishable: to listen means to hear and do!
It won’t help us at all to memorize the entire Bible, and pray every day, if we refuse to do what Jesus tells us to. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus invites you and I to be transformed as well by listening to Jesus, and doing what He says. This is what it means to have a Living Faith… trust that turns into action, that shapes our lives as we learn to listen to the voice of our Lord.
Speaking of listening to our Lord: What is the first thing Jesus says in this passage, to the three disciples, and all of us today?
“When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” (Matthew 17:6-8).
To His frightened disciples, back then and today, Jesus says “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
There are so many reasons today for us to want to simply stay put… paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. To let ourselves be overwhelmed by the unknown, or to be weighed down by our pain, or our mistakes and failures… or our growing sense of helplessness.
But even so, Jesus Christ our Saviour is reaching out to touch our hearts today, and to raise us up… calling us to trust in Him, to listen to His voice, and not to be afraid. To lift up our heads and fix our eyes on Jesus alone, and find our hope in Him.
May the Risen Lord transform our minds and hearts and lives so that we may truly listen to God’s beloved Son… get up, follow Him, and not be afraid. Amen.
Living Faith | Growing Love | Sharing Hope - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany (February 12, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15–20 | Psalm 119:1–8 | 1 Corinthians 3:1–9 | Matthew 5:21–37
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Have you every been turned around in an unfamiliar part of town? Last week, I was driving to an appointment in Saint John in the evening. Though it was in a part of town I don’t often go to, I knew the route pretty well, and I thought I had plenty of time… until, just as I was drawing near to my destination, I saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles up ahead. Apparently, there had just been an accident, and the road was completely blocked. I had to turn around and find a new way to get to where I needed to go.
Here's where my… let’s say, somewhat fuzzy mental map of Saint John comes into the story.
I was pretty confident I knew another way to get to my appointment, although it would mean backtracking a bit, and travelling less familiar roads. So I went with my gut, and all seemed fine at first… but the further I went down my new route, the clearer it was becoming that I had taken a wrong turn.
Actually, it was a bit worse than that. I had taken the right turns. The ones I intended to make… I was following my new route flawlessly… it just turns out that my intended destination was on a completely different road, and growing further and further away with each passing moment.
So, as frustrating as it was, I had to pull over, and pull out my phone, and finally figured out where I actually was, and how to get un-lost.
From time to time, we all have to do this kind of thing in life: we have to stop for a moment, regain our bearings, and find the right way forward again.
This past year, members of our Parish Mission Visioning Group have been doing just that: taking time together to reflect on how we at St. Luke’s can keep taking part in the mission of the Living God here in Gondola Point and beyond.
Part of what we considered was the need for a clear sense of direction for our Church: a vision for where we are headed together, to keep us all on the right track. This led us to propose a new vision statement for St. Luke’s, which we brought to Vestry, and was eventually adopted at our Annual Meeting last Sunday afternoon.
So our new vision statement, our best sense of where God is calling us to go as a Church community is this: Living Faith | Growing Love | Sharing Hope.
All the decisions we make about how to move forward as a Parish family, or how to carry on doing what we do will take this new vision into account. So even when we end up in unfamiliar territory, we will at least remember what matters most, and work together to pursue it.
But what do we mean by Living Faith, Growing Love, and Sharing Hope? How might this vision statement help us stay on track together? There’s a whole lot we could say about this statement in itself, but we don’t gather here to just to hear human words, but to contemplate the word of God.
Thankfully, our Scripture passages today invite us to reflect on what it means to be Living Faith, Growing Love, and Sharing Hope. While we won’t address every aspect of what our new vision statement intends to cover this morning, I hope it will give us a taste of what we believe the Lord has in mind for our Parish.
In our first reading today from the book of Deuteronomy, we catch a glimpse of what Living Faith looks like: Choosing to put our trust in the Living God into practice.
This passage comes at the conclusion of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible that serve as the foundation for the rest of the Biblical story… anchoring all that follows in the creating, rescuing, and sustaining work of
Yahweh, the Living God, in partnership with His people, who have been set apart to share His holy life, so that all the world might be blessed.
The trouble is though, that time and again, God’s people get lost… spiritually speaking. They think they know which way to go, but end up far from the life God intends for them, trusting their own instincts and desires, instead of trusting their Lord to guide them.
And so, at the end of Deuteronomy, God’s people are being called to stop… to regain their bearings, and choose the way forward that will truly lead to life… not by going their own way, but by walking in God’s holy ways:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
While we may not be ancient Israelites, about to enter into the Promised Land, we too must keep choosing every day to live as those who trust the Lord to guide us into life, even when we feel pulled to go off in all sorts of other directions.
We too are called to trust that the Living God really wants what is best for us, or our community… and for our world… following God, and deepening our faith in Him is essential to all we do.
Which leads us to our Gospel reading, in which we explore what it looks like to be Growing Love: nurturing the holy love of God with our whole lives.
Our passage today from St. Matthew’s Gospel comes from the so-called Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus Christ God’s Son, teaches His followers, back then and today, what it means to wholeheartedly follow God’s ways here on earth, and to become a people reshaped and renewed by His holy love.
But before we take a close look at the words of Christ, let’s take a second and think about the difference between a garden, and a patch of wilderness.
Both likely involve some plants. Both likely have their own beauty, and attractiveness. But one thing that gardens have that wilderness does not have is a sense of intention. An order and purpose that includes but goes beyond simply growing things for their own sake. A garden is cared for and cultivated in order for certain, chosen things to grow and bear fruit, and to keep all other things from taking root in its soil.
What Christ is doing in our Gospel reading today is teaching us what it takes for God’s love to grow in us… the ways to tend to our hearts and our relationships so that His love can flourish among us and bear good fruit in the world.
What Jesus tells us about how to nurture God’s love goes well beyond the world’s experience and expectations… and what often comes naturally to us. But Jesus is not just trying to help us be “good people”, but “God’s people.”
A people who are learning to resist the pull of anger, resentment, and wrath… a path which leads us to division, and ends up having us demonize all those we disagree with.
A people who recognize that our own desires can often lead us into disaster… distorting how we see and relate to the people around us, that God calls us to love with purity and kindness, and goodness, not just as objects to be used for our own gratification.
A people who are striving to be committed and faithful to one another, understanding that our human relationships are not simply disposable, but are the very soil in which the Living God is at work, reconciling, and redeeming deeply broken people like us, and putting us back together through the practices of repentance, grace, and forgiveness.
A people of integrity, who don’t need to be compelled to speak the truth, but who seek to live honestly in our daily lives, especially when that is difficult, because we are bound to the One who is the Truth.
Through the commands Christ Jesus gives to His followers, we find the garden of God’s holy love: patience and forgiveness, self-control, goodness, faithfulness, integrity. These are the fruit that the Holy Spirit cultivates within the life of God’s people, meant not just for their own benefit, but to be share with all those around us.
This holy love is inseparable from the life God calls us into. And so, growing His love must be at the heart of all we do.
But as any seasoned gardener will tell you, sometimes growing things is really hard work! Especially if we’re starting from scratch, and are still just learning the basics.
This is the challenge of the Christian life too. Sometimes it’s really hard to choose to trust God, and to do what it takes to let His holy love begin to grow in our lives. We can often feel discouraged… inadequate… especially when we trip up and fall, or when we suddenly find ourselves lost, and far off from where we thought we were headed.
Thankfully, we don’t need to give up, or give into our doubts or despair. As we are reminded in our second reading today, the way forward for us means Sharing Hope: helping each other to hold on, and carry on because of Jesus Christ.
In our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle confront some deep misunderstandings that were causing all sorts of chaos and trouble in the Church of Corinth. One of the issues was that the Christians were rallying around their favourite Christian teacher or leader, setting up all sorts of rivalries that were tearing their community apart.
In many ways, they were lost… far off track from the kind of love Christ Jesus calls us into… the holy love at the heart of the Gospel message St. Paul and others had shared with them.
But as lost as they were, St. Paul doesn’t just give up on them. He calls them to stop. To take a look at themselves, and what they were doing… and turn back to what mattered most: the life of the Living God at work in them.
And as he does so, St. Paul shares real hope with those of us who are still mere beginners when it comes to living out our faith and growing God’s holy love.
He speaks of these divisive Christians as infants in the faith, still needing to be fed spiritual milk… but with the expectation that they, that we will continue to grow! He redirects their attention from where we are all inclined to place our confidence… in strong leaders that we look up to, or in our own capabilities, or sense of maturity… and points us to the only One on whom our hope is secure.
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
It is God who gives the growth. He is the One our confidence must rest upon. We all play a part. We all have ways to be involved in His mission and work, serving together with the common purpose of His kingdom, side by side. But we can face the future with hope, not because we are on the right team, or because we’ve got everything figured out, but because of the Good News of what the Living God has done and is doing even now.
Because Jesus, God’s Son has come into the world to set us free. To forgive us our sins, reconciling us to God and each other by His own blood. To show us what God’s holy love truly looks like as He gave His life for the world at the cross. To rescue us from the fear and chains of death through His resurrection from the grave. To fill us with God’s holy love by giving to us His own Holy Spirit.
As we strive to live out our faith, and grow in God’s love, we too will share in the work of hope. Apollos, Paul, you and I… all of us, even when we feel lost, and way off track… this hope is for all of us to share: carrying on because we believe God’s Holy Spirit Himself is at work in, among, and through us. No one is too far off… too lost to be beyond our Saviour’s reach.
And so we keep working in God’s garden. We plant, we water, we weed, because we trust, we believe that God Himself is going to make something good grow here.
Living Faith, Growing Love, Sharing Hope. Choosing each day to put our trust in God into practice. Nurturing the holy love of God with our whole lives. And helping each other hold on, and carry on because of Jesus Christ. This is all at the heart of where we believe God is leading us as a Parish here in Gondola Point. By the gracious power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, may we always be living faith, growing love, and sharing hope. Amen.
The Light of God's Holy Love - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany (February 5, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12 | Psalm 112 | 1 Corinthians 2:1–16 | Matthew 5:13–20
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
“You are the light of the world.”
What a thing for Jesus to say to the rag-tag band of disciples who had gathered around Him… that strange new community He was drawing together to take part in God’s Kingdom, both back in Galilee all those years ago… and here in Gondola Point today.
But do many of us feel like we are the light of the world? How does Jesus want us to live up to this high calling???
One way that many of us Christians have understood what it means to be the light of the world is to strive to be preservers and proclaimers of the truth… champions of the doctrines, teachings, and traditions of the Church, determined to make sure everyone comes to share our understanding of God and His ways. For some, sharing God’s truth is what it takes to be the light of the world.
Others take a different approach. For them, being the light of the world is more about doing what is right. Acting with compassion and mercy, challenging injustice, helping people in all kinds of need. For these folks, it is the practical good things we do that shine out into the darkness. Doing the right thing is what it takes to be the light of the world.
Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to know and share the truth… or seeking to do what is right. Both of these belong fully within the life of the Kingdom of God.
But when we reduce our shared calling as Christians to be ‘the light of the world’ to one or the other… to speaking the truth or doing good… something is deeply amiss. And we know this because at various times in our history, the Church has done both of these things… and when we have, the results have left us more divided and in the dark than ever.
Now’s not the time to drag up all the examples that could come to mind, but we know how easily we Christians have embraced at times the evils of judgmentalism and violence, all in the name of standing up for the truth… turning on our neighbours, and even our fellow Christians to try to prove that we are right.
On the other hand, when the Church has just thrown truth to the wind in favour of ‘getting things done’, we have fared no better… often causing all sorts of confusion and damage we did not foresee. There have been many examples over the centuries of well-meaning Christians creating more problems through the ‘good’ we were trying to accomplish. When our actions are out of line with God and God’s ways, even our best intentions can end up in darkness.
This struggle to be the “light of the world” has been an ongoing problem for God’s people for a really long time. As we heard in our first reading today, this was an issue the prophet Isaiah was called to confront… with Israel seeming to be concerned with “drawing near to God” and following His ways, and yet being far off from the life and light of the LORD.
Centuries later, in Jesus day, this problem still remained, as the remnant of Israel in the land of Judah wrestled with one another about how to best be the people of light in the world. One well known faction in those days were the Pharisees, devout Jews who took God’s laws very seriously, and tried to teach others to do the same.
And rather than choosing between holding fast to the truth, and actively doing what was right, the Pharisees strove to do both. They were concerned both with the truth, and with doing ‘the good and right things.’
But as Jesus Himself points out in our reading today, and all throughout the Gospels, the way many Pharisees tried to be “the light of the world” somehow missed the mark. Even though their commitment to truth, and right action may have been commendable, something essential was off… something was missing… something was out of line with the life and light of the LORD. Matthew 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What was it that Jesus was looking for in His followers that would make all the difference? What would truly make them… make you and I… into “the light of the world”?
What is the key? It’s God’s holy love alive within His people… leading them into all truth, empowering them to do God’s good work in the world, and given to them through Jesus Himself, by what He accomplished for us all at the cross.
God’s holy love alive in us is what makes us the light of the world. Without His love, all our best words and deeds won’t be able to break through the darkness. But with it, even when we stumble and struggle, God’s power and grace shines out for all to see.
Let’s think back to the two approaches I mentioned earlier that many of us take in trying to be the “light of the world”: through believing and teaching the truth, and through doing good things for others.
Both of these approaches belong together, and belong in the life of God’s people, but it is only God’s holy love that transforms them both into light… into something more than we could ever hope to achieve on our own.
Though it wasn’t one of our Scripture readings for today, I think it would be fitting to reflect together on another well-known passage: 1 Corinthians 13. In this short Chapter, St. Paul gets to the heart of what the Christian life is all about, and what it really means for us to be “the light of the world”:
Regarding the first temptation to focus solely on holding to the truth, St. Paul points out that, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Powerful speech, and complete understanding of the truth is nothing when separated from God’s holy love.
Regarding the second temptation to focus simply on doing good to those around us, St. Paul again makes the case that these acts alone aren’t what God is after: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Even sacrificial giving, going to extremes to meet the needs of others, if cut off from God’s love gets us no closer in the end to the life and light of God’s kingdom. Without love, all the good we may do remains in darkness.
Love is what lights up the world.
But let’s be clear, were not just talking about natural, human love here… the kind of connection we feel for those close to us, or those who we admire or pity. We’re talking about God’s holy love, that has it’s source not in us, but in Him, a love that is able to connect us with people that we would never consider caring about on our own. It’s a love that does not just look out for its own interests. A love that forgives, and reconciles, and seeks the best for everyone, especially when it is not easy. A love that does right and seeks the truth… that binds us to God and to our neighbours. A love that when put into practice, shines like a beacon for all to see, drawing those sitting in darkness closer to the Lord of Love.
This is the power of God! This is what our God has done for us! Sharing His holy love with us through Jesus His Son at the cross… and working inside us, through the Holy Spirit, so that Christ’s light and life might shine through us too. Drawing us into the community of the Church, who are meant to grow together in God’s holy love, becoming the light of the world in word and deed, through our Saviour’s love.
The beautiful simplicity of the Gospel leads us into the depths of God’s saving love: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave His life at the cross to rescue us from the power of evil, sin, and death… and rose again to bring us into God’s New Life, now and forever.
And so, when we’re tempted to place our confidence in anything, apart from God’s love made known to us at the cross, let us remember St. Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth that we heard this morning:
“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
That power is God’s holy love; the source of all our light.
Knowing Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, transforms our lives and reveals the wonderous depths of His holy love, which is His power at work in us, shining through us, through our words and actions, out into God’s world.
I want to end now by reading 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 again for us in full. May this holy love of Christ be our light today.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Blessed Are Those Who Love - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany (January 29, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Micah 6:1–8 | Psalm 15 | 1 Corinthians 1:18–31 | Matthew 5:1–12
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”
(1 Corinthians 1:18).
What does it mean to be blessed?
What kind of blessings are we looking for?
In our reading today from St. Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord Jesus has a lot to say about being blessed. But what He says tends to turn most of our expectations upside down… inviting us to have our own imaginations realigned, and opening us up to receive God’s true blessing.
Our passage today comes from the very beginning of a long section in Matthew’s Gospel, a collection of His teachings often called ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. The Anglican priest and theologian John Stott gives this helpful introduction to this important part of our Lord’s mission and message: “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do.”
As Christ’s followers today, we are being offered not advice, but the teachings of our Lord… wisdom intended to reshape our lives, and help us see things God’s way.
And so, Jesus starts off this collection of His teachings by pronouncing certain people blessed: the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; and those who are abused because of Christ.
At first glance, even for those of us who have grown up in the Church and have heard these words many times, it can be hard for us to see how any of these folks could be called ‘blessed’. In fact, it seems like the opposite is the case: all of these people… the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted, the abused… all of them seem pitiful and powerless, not blessed. At least, if we’re talking about the way we usually understand blessings.
But something else is going on here. Jesus is not simply describing some natural benefit for being in these states… He’s offering Good News that undermines many of our assumptions about what it means to truly live well… that is, to live God’s way in the world… in line with the life of our Creator. N.T. Wright puts it well: “In our world, still, most people think that wonderful news consists of success, wealth, long life, victory in battle. Jesus is offering wonderful news for the humble, the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers.”
In other words, Jesus is challenging and re-defining here what it means to be blessed, and He’s calling together a new community that will share in this blessed life.
The way St. Matthew tells the story is meant to bring to mind the memory of Moses, one of the heroes of Israel’s story who at Mt. Sinai also called God’s people into a whole new way of life… committed to the LORD, and to each other too. Many centuries earlier, Moses had gone up the mountain and received from Yahweh, the Living God, the Law, or Teachings, a gift meant to guide God’s people to live His way in a world living very differently… to help them stand out and shine as a living sign of God’s blessings intended for all nations.
If we read through the entire Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew Chapters 5-7, we’ll hear Jesus, again and again, calling all His followers back to the heart of God’s ways, that not only echo the Law given at Mt. Sinai, but bring it’s full meaning into focus… shining a spotlight on what it really means to be God’s blessed people today.
But just like the Law of Moses, Christ’s teachings in the Sermon are a gift meant to guide a whole community… to map out a way of life for God’s people to share in together.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “the sermon is not addressed to individuals but to the community that Jesus begins and portends through the calling of the disciples. The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people. You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another.” 
So then, far from creating a bunch of rigorous religious rules for individuals, in His teachings Jesus is re-establishing within the life of this new community of disciples, what it means to live in line together with the Living God… and that includes what it means to receive the blessings God has in store for His people to share. In short, we’re talking about something that always has a social, a communal element. The blessings Christ speaks of are not merely about our own private experiences. We can’t separate living God’s blessed way in the world from how we relate to one another.
Something very similar is going on in our first reading today, from the prophet Micah, where the Lord is challenging the assumptions of His unfaithful people, and calling them to return to Him, and follow His blessed ways.
But what does that look like? Is God after some grand gesture, or religious ceremony? What must God’s people actually do to please the Living God? Micah 6:6-7,
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
This kind of thing made sense in the ancient world. To please the gods, you gave them elaborate gifts… even sacrificing one’s own firstborn children would not be off the table. And in our own day, we too can be tempted to think that God wants us to placate Him… imagining that if we just do this or that ‘religious’ or ‘righteous’ thing, then He’ll bless us. Then He’ll give us all the things we want.
But the message that Micah was entrusted to share turns this way of relating to God on its head, reminding God’s people that the point is not to use our connection to the LORD to get what we want, but to seek the LORD and walk in His ways… which is itself the blessed life that He longs to share with us. As the biblical scholar John Walton points out: “God was not asking to be appeased through extravagant gifts. The most extravagant offering they could give him would be their obedience.” And Micah points out what obedience to the Living God looks like: it looks like love.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
We’re brought right back to the heart of the Law of Moses… and the two great commandments that Jesus says uphold the entire Covenant: Love the Lord your God wholeheartedly… humbly walk with Him… and love your neighbours… do justice… do what is right, and love to show kindness and mercy.
This is the blessed life: to love God, and to love one another… to share His love together. If we want to receive God’s blessing, this is the way that Jesus gives us.
But… won’t we just get walked over if we’re led by love while everyone around us doesn’t live this way? This sounds really nice and spiritual, but it doesn’t seem all that practical. Not practicable. What would happen if we actually lived like this in today’s world?
That’s a question worth asking, and sitting with for a while. And it brings to mind the many times that good people have been taken advantage of by those who don’t live this way… those who don’t really care about God at all, or about the wellbeing of their neighbours.
I’m sure many of us have stories like this… times when we’ve been open and loving to others, only to be burned. When this happens, we face the temptation to temper our openness and love for those who might end up hurting us… limiting what we’re willing to do to work for justice and mercy… and all that comes with it, in order to protect ourselves… to hold onto some sense of control… and not feel so powerless.
But right from the start, Jesus calls His disciples to follow Him on a different, difficult path… the path of God’s love… a path which will at times leave us all vulnerable… but even so, it is the path that leads us into God’s own blessed life.
Looking back to our Gospel reading, we can see that there’s one thing each group that Jesus calls blessed has in common: they are all vulnerable… apparently powerless people… open to the abuse of the neighbours they are called to love.
The poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst, who are deprived of what is right; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; and those who are abused because of Christ. None of these describe the people our world considers powerful, those who call the shots, who get their own way, and protect themselves from harm… those most would consider blessed.
So why does Jesus call these vulnerable folk blessed? Because they will share in the God’s own blessed life. Their ‘blessedness’ may not be apparent, or obvious, but it is promised, awaiting the fulfillment of what has been assured… like a seed, planted in the soil will one day bear its fruit, even if for a time it gets trampled under uncaring feet.
The way of love, which lies at the heart of all those Jesus calls blessed, requires faith and hope… trust that despite all of the dangers involved, it will be worth it, not because we can see how right now, but because our Lord has promised it will be… and He Himself has already led the way.
Christ is inviting us to join Him… to follow God’s love all the way to the cross… which upends the wisdom of the world that says only the powerful and strong can be happy and blessed… revealing in His own sufferings our world’s injustice, cruelty, and prideful rejection of God, and drawing near with compassion and mercy to all those who are beaten down, vulnerable, and abused.
At the cross, Jesus made Himself entirely vulnerable… embodying all of the weakness and need of those He promised would be blessed. At the cross, He surrendered His life in order to bring God’s saving love to the world, even to those who had abused, betrayed, and brutalized Him. But this was precisely how He would bring God’s blessed life to everyone… making things right with God on our behalf with His own broken body… covering us with kindness and mercy we didn’t deserve with His own blood… dying, then rising again to lift us up so we too could share in full fellowship, communion with God… sharing our life with Him, and humbly walking in His ways.
None of this would have been possible if Jesus had not been vulnerable… if He had not faithfully walked the path of self-giving love, that first led Him to the cross, but ultimately brought Him to the glory of God’s right hand, and opened up the way for us to share in His blessings forever.
The life of the Church, this new community that Christ is calling into being, is blessed only as we share in His life… in faith and hope, following Jesus into the way of God’s self-giving love. Even when it means we will face suffering along with Him, we know we too will share in the glorious blessings of His Kingdom.
So may the Holy Spirit renew and re-align our hearts and minds, to receive God’s blessed life today. May we be drawn together as brothers and sisters in God’s family, empowered to encourage and support one another as we follow our Saviour together. And may we be filled with the faith and hope we need to share in Christ’s self-giving love for our world… even when it means sharing in His vulnerability, confident that God Himself will be at work through it all.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Amen.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 14–15.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 36–37.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 61.
 Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Mic 6:7.
Following Him Together - Sermon for the Third Sunday After Epiphany (January 22, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:1–4 | Psalm 27:1, 4–9 | 1 Corinthians 1:10–18 | Matthew 4:12–23
“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:19-20).
I haven’t been on that many teams in my life. I wasn’t exactly the athletic type when I was younger… or now, for that matter. But there was a time in the years shortly after high school when I played soccer for one season in a men’s league in my hometown. Before you get too impressed, I must admit, I was the worst player on this team… which ranked the lowest in our division… which happened to be the lowest division in the league.
The crazy thing was that, apart from me, we had some really great players on our team. People who loved soccer, and had been playing it for their whole life. But we weren’t just supposed to be a bunch of great players… we needed to be a team. And that’s where we struggled.
This was our first season playing together… and although we (that is, my teammates) had lots of talent, we didn’t yet know how to work well together. And so, despite our best efforts and hard work, we couldn’t pull together a single victory.
Unity, working together with others is such an important part of life. But even more important than unity itself… is the thing that unites us. The hub that holds the wheel together… the trunk from which the branches spring.
In our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the Apostle’s account of the calling of the first disciples of Jesus. This is the very beginning of the community that will one day become the Church: the worldwide family of disciples of Jesus, committed to His Kingdom and mission, and bound to one another in God’s holy love. It’s a pivotal moment in the story of the Scriptures, and the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says this about it’s significance:
“The very first thing Jesus did, according to Matthew, was to call followers. The beginning of a community, the Kingdom people; the first sign, earlier even than the remarkable healings, that something new was afoot. They left jobs, they left family—both vital symbols of who they were—and became part of that something new, without knowing where it would lead.”
These first disciples didn’t know what they were in for when they left everything to follow Jesus. But as they responded to His call they were becoming something new together… a community, united simply because of Christ Himself.
Sometimes it’s easy for us to imagine the Christian life as a ‘solo sport’, so to speak. A private pursuit we take part in simply for our own benefit. In our highly individualistic culture, this can be a big temptation for us: to live as a bunch of scattered, spiritual seekers… instead of the family of God’s Kingdom that Christ has called us into. We may desire to love and learn from Jesus, but without all the mess of having to love and learn along with our brothers and sisters up close and personal.
But to follow Jesus is also to be drawn closer to others whom He has called too. No one is an island… and there really is no such thing as a solo disciple.
On the other hand, the Church is not just a collection of like-minded folk content to keep to themselves together, like a sort of religious club. In our increasingly unstable times, this temptation to circle the wagons can also be hard to resist. Understandably, we might long for security, familiarity, and a strong sense of belonging, especially if we’re feeling, like so many others today, more and more disconnected and alone.
The danger is that we transform the Church into our own social club, connected more to each other by our shared interests and tastes and natural bonds than by our commitment to Christ and His Kingdom. We might want to love each other, without having to worry about where God may want to take us… without having to actually leave our old ways behind to follow Jesus.
But Jesus didn’t just go around Galilee and Judea to start up special interest groups ,and gathering like-minded people together with no other purpose… He called people like us to let go… to leave their old life behind, and to follow Him into something new… building a new community, and drawing us closer together as we learn to follow our Lord where He will lead us… to share the Good News of God’s Kingdom with everyone sitting in darkness.
The Church is a community where we can find belonging, comfort, and peace, but it is a community centred on and united by the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is what binds us together, and leads us into God’s light. We can have nothing else at all in common, and still be united because of Jesus… drawn together as we follow Him out into the world… sharing in His Kingdom, and serving in His mission.
Is this how we imagine being a part of the Church today? Not bound together by our shared interests, or history… but by our connection to Christ Jesus and to what the Living God is doing through Him even now?
Our Scripture readings today from St. Matthew’s Gospel, and the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians can help us remember what being a disciple of Jesus entails: what it asks of us, and what it gives us too.
St. Matthew recounts the calling of the first disciples… two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John… four average Galilean fishermen.
They had some similarities, of course. They shared a trade, and a hometown. But they also had their own familial and financial commitments. Personal connections that they all surrendered in order to become Christ’s disciples together… sharing now a new connection together because they were all now following Jesus. Peter and Andrew were still brothers, of course, and so were James and John. But that natural connection became secondary as they left their nets, their livelihoods, and in James and John’s case, their father, to follow Jesus, not where they wanted to go, but where He wanted to take them. They trusted Him, and that trust, that faith began to bind them to one another.
Thinking beyond our Gospel reading today, to include all of the other disciples, this becomes even clearer. At least these first four were all fishermen, and all from the same village. But as Jesus gathered more and more disciples, calling them to come follow Him, in this new community He was creating, the differences between them all grew and grew as well.
They came from all sorts of walks of life, backgrounds, and even rival political camps, but they were called to leave aside the things that separated them in order to share in the new community of the Church. Sure, they shared a common ancestry as part of the people of Israel, and a cultural heritage, but those were not the reasons they all got together and traveled from town to town. They were held together by their faith in Jesus, who drew these strangers together, to share in something greater than any of them could have imagined.
And after His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus would turn to these same disciples and send them out into the world… into the Gentile world… a world full of Greeks, and Romans, and Parthians, Egyptians, so-called Barbarians… sent out to invite people they had absolutely nothing in common with to hear the Good News of Jesus, to trust in Him, and follow Christ along with them. Inviting everyone to become disciples of Jesus too, so that all those sitting in darkness can be drawn together into God’s light.
And this remains the mission of the Church today, and the mission of all of His disciples: to bring the light of God’s Good News, Jesus Christ, to the whole world… to those sitting in darkness even now… even here in Gondola Point. This is the ultimate goal we are working towards… the mission of Christ He has shared with us as we follow Him: to share in the life, and love, and light of God, and help others do the same.
This all sounds wonderful. But as St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us, being drawn into this new community of Christ’s disciples doesn’t mean we will all know how to get along, and work together.
As we read through the New Testament, the temptations to cause divisions and factions… to cut ourselves off from each other, and form various factions within the one body of Christ, have been with us since the earliest days of the Church… causing all sorts of grief.
Among the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, a church community which St. Paul had played a huge part in gathering together, people had begun aligning themselves with various popular preachers and leaders, and had started turning against one another… a destructive temptation that we Christians have fallen for over and over again.
“It’s a sobering thought” N.T. Wright says, “that the church faced such division in its very earliest years. People sometimes talk as if first-generation Christianity enjoyed a pure, untroubled honeymoon period, after which things became more difficult; but there’s no evidence for this in the New Testament. Right from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but struggling to hold together in a single family those who had obeyed its summons.”
But St. Paul’s response to this terrible temptation for division is to remind his brothers and sisters about what truly holds them together: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of the crucified one, who has now been raised from the dead, sent to reconcile the world to God, and to one another in Him… to shine God’s light on all who sit in darkness and draw them together in His love.
For St. Paul, and for all of us who are called to follow Christ and care about the unity of the Church, the priority must always be the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here at St. Luke’s we too have been called to trust and follow Jesus, to share in this new community that He has created called the Christian Church. We are all have some similarities, and many differences as well, but we are being drawn together by Jesus, and invited into His mission.
How are we tempted towards spiritual individualism, or forming factions within God’s family? And how might we have to ask God to save us from falling for these traps?
How can we move away from approaching discipleship as simply a private matter, and learn to lean on each other as we follow Jesus together?
How can we start to overcome the sad divisions that exist within the Church? Not simply here at St. Luke’s… but what about how we relate to our fellow Anglican Churches, not to mention our Christian brothers and sisters in other traditions and branches of the Church?
And how can we always keep before our eyes the whole point of it all: the Good News of Jesus Christ and the mission He has shared with us?
Like Peter and Andrew, and James, and John, we were not called to be “fishers of people” just for our own sakes, but because God in His great mercy and compassion longs to bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the sick, freedom to those in bondage, and love to those who are alone.
Like the first disciples, what might we need to leave behind to follow Christ in this way?
Like the first disciples, what will we gain by dropping our old nets and joining Him together?
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 23.
 N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 8.
"What Are You Looking For?" - Sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany (January 15, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 49:1–7 | Psalm 40:1–11 | 1 Corinthians 1:1–9 | John 1:29–42
“When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” (John 1:38).
What are we looking for?
Today is the second Sunday in the Season of Epiphany, a time when we Christians reflect on the mystery revealed to us regarding Jesus Christ our Lord… His divine identity, and divine mission to rescue God’s beloved world. It is a season when the entire unfolding story of God comes to a head in Him, and through Him, we find it carrying on even today… even here in Gondola Point. Even here in this room… inviting you and I to be drawn into His story.
That’s why we’re here, after all: in all sorts of ways, we too have drawn near to Jesus. We have seen something in Him, maybe something we do not yet fully understand, but that has still pulled us closer to Him, and closer to each other too.
So what is it we’re looking for in Jesus today? And what are we meant to see in Him? These are some of the questions Epiphany invites us to wrestle with.
Thankfully, we aren’t the first ones to have done so. Our reading today from the first Chapter of John’s Gospel deals with these very questions, as a part of the Apostle’s careful attempt to open up for us a much wider vision of who Jesus really is… a more ‘complete’ picture of His glory for us to see.
But before we get right into what the Apostle John says, we should take a second to look at how he says it… starting with his creative use of the number seven in this first Chapter.
In our culture, numbers are usually used in a fairly straightforward way to count and quantify. But in other cultures, numbers can also carry important symbolic meanings. Seven is a very special number in the Jewish imagination, which a number of scholars point out “came to symbolize completeness and perfection.” So, for instance, in Genesis Chapter 1, when God completes creation and rests on the seventh day, this is all highly symbolic imagery for the perfection and wholeness of God’s good world.
So whenever seven shows up in the Bible, it’s a big clue that something important is going on… something that asks us to slow down and contemplate to get a more complete picture. And in the Gospel of John Chapter 1, part of which we read today, seven shows up in an interesting way: there are seven titles given to Jesus… six significant, and symbolic names that others give to Him, and one that He uses Himself.
This morning, I want us to do something a little different: instead of looking closely at the narrative or context for our readings, I’d like us to slow down and simply spend some time reflecting on each of these seven names St. John gives us in Chapter 1 that together give us a more complete picture of Jesus our Lord. Not all of these seven names turned up in our Gospel reading today. Some came earlier, some later, but they all belong together if we are to see Jesus in all His fullness.
The first name comes at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, in verse 1, where He is referred to with the mysterious title: the Word of God.
These opening verses intentionally call to mind Genesis Chapter 1, where the Eternal Living God creates everything that is by simply speaking it into being. By calling Jesus the Word of God St. John is making the startling claim right from the start that Jesus shares in the eternal existence of the Divine… that He “was God”, and “was with God”… the same, and yet distinct from the Father in ways that mess with all our categories, but is mysteriously true.
As the Word, St. John wants us to see Jesus as both God’s agent of creation, as well as the way God communicates and reveals Himself to the world. As we can share what’s in our hearts by speaking to others, God shares His heart with us through His Word, who took on flesh and shared our human life to make God known.
The second title given to Jesus is the one St. John the Baptist proclaimed today in verse 26: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, he says. And again, in verse 39: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The Lamb of God that takes away sin is a reference to an atoning sacrifices some of the most sacred practices of ancient Israel taking part in their Holy Temple. The pure life of a lamb or other chosen animal was sacrificed, in order to restore the shattered relationship between God and His sinful people. This was a sacred means of bringing forgiveness and restoration, instead of destruction… one life laid down to bring life to another… a powerful image of love.
These practices, and this title also point us back to the story of Exodus, and the Passover Lamb, whose blood was used to mark the doors of the Israelites in Egypt, so they would be spared from the final plague, and find God’s freedom at last.
So for Jesus to be called the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the World, St. John is calling our attention to the connection between Israel’s sacred sacrifices, and God’s act of deliverance, and the story of Jesus, seeing Him as the one who will be the Ultimate sacrifice, not just to bring freedom and forgiveness to Israel, but to bring freedom and forgiveness to the whole world.
Next, in verse 38, we’re told two would be disciples were following Jesus, and in response to His question “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
In some ways, this is a simple enough title: Rabbi… Teacher… an honoured but not uncommon role within the Jewish community as someone who’s duty it is to help God’s people learn, and live in line with the Divine Teachings, also known as Instructions, or Law. That is, the Torah, the Holy Scriptures of the Bible. These disciples see Jesus as a godly Teacher, one who could guide them in God’s ways. And St. John wants us to see Jesus in this light too… but as the supreme Teacher and Guide, not just one voice or opinion among a host of others, but as the one who is the Truth, and longs to make it known.
So far, we’ve looked at the first 3 names: the Word of God, the Lamb of God, and Rabbi, or Teacher. The fourth title for Jesus that St. John introduces is the “Anointed One”… which is the Messiah in Hebrew, or in Greek, the Christ.
To be anointed was a really big deal. It refers to the sacred ceremony of pouring sacred oil on someone’s head, marking them as chosen, and set apart for God’s holy service, and inviting God’s Spirit to empower them to faithfully fulfill their calling. In Israel, kings and priests, and occasionally prophets alone were anointed, those who were designated to reign, to proclaim God’s word, and to intercede for God’s people. But in time, the term Messiah came to refer to a promised deliverer… a “Chosen One” that God would send as a Saviour to His people, whose whole life would be dedicated to God’s rescue mission.
Around the time of Jesus, many were eagerly awaiting the Messiah, imagining that they would come to defeat their enemies, and set Israel on top of the nations. But as St. John wants us to see, it means something else entirely to be God’s true Messiah.
Which leads us to the fifth and sixth titles given to Jesus in this Chapter. In verse 49, well after the end of our reading today, but still connected in St. John’s mind, we find an excited Nathaniel, blown away by the small glimpse of glory revealed in His first encounter with Jesus and he blurts out: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
These two titles Son of God and King of Israel are deeply connected, and carry more meaning than we might imagine at first glance. First, Son of God suggests a unique, direct, and intimate connection with the Living God. In the Bible, this kind of language is sometimes used to speak of Israel as a whole, imagining God’s covenant people as His beloved but often wayward child. Non-Jewish cultures also made use of language like this. For instance, Caesar in Rome was said to be a “son of the god”, and therefore worthy of devotion and worship.
But for St. John, to call Jesus the Son of God is not just a way to stress His Israelite heritage, or to cast Him with the likes of Caesar, as someone using people’s faith as a way to gain prestige and power. For St. John, Jesus is the only true Eternal Son of God, the one who comes from the Father in Heaven, to draw us all into God’s family as adopted sons and daughters, through our faith in Him.
Turning now to the sixth title for Jesus: the King of Israel. Again, there are political as well as prophetic dimensions to this name, all wrapped up with God’s promise to the most famous King of Israel: that is, King David.
Centuries earlier, God had promised King David that one of his descendants would be raised to the throne, and that his kingdom would never end. Since that time, Israel’s kingdom was divided by civil war, and conquered by Assyria and Babylon, sent into Exile from which only a fraction had returned. And even then, they were oppressed in their own lands by powerful Empires, like the Romans.
And yet, God’s promise to David remained a central hope for Israel’s future on this earth… not just someday in heaven, but a future here and now as well. And so, wrapped up with their hopes for the Messiah, were the hopes of a return of God’s good Kingdom… and of an eternal King.
Yet for St. John, Jesus is a very different kind of King. One who will indeed rule forever, but who would first be executed like the lowest criminal.
At the climax of John’s Gospel, Jesus is arrested, falsely accused, unjustly sentenced to death, tortured and mocked mercilessly, with the soldiers making him a crown of thorns, and hailing Him “King of the Jews”, which is what the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate has inscribed on a sign above Jesus’ head as he hung naked and dying in agony on the cross.
No one would look at Jesus on the cross and see a King. And yet, that is the amazing truth St. John is inviting us to believe… to see in the cross, not defeat, but the beginning of Jesus’ eternal reign: suffering and dying to bring about God’s good Kingdom at last.
This leads us to the seventh and last name applied to Jesus in John Chapter 1. The name He most frequently uses for Himself: the Son of Man.
In one sense, this name means ‘mortal’, or ‘human one’, a descendant of the race of Adam & Eve, who were given the chance to share God’s eternal life, but chose instead to listen to the Serpent, that symbol of spiritual rebellion and evil at work in our world, and found themselves under death’s thumb.
But in this same story from Genesis God offers hope to His beloved but now broken human creations: He promised that one day, a descendant of Eve would finally crush the head of the Serpent, that instigator of evil, once and for all… even though he would also be bitten by the Serpent in the process. In other words, the promised Saviour of the human race would win the victory through suffering.
This promised suffering but victorious Son of Man is a theme that runs all through the story of Scripture, and from the outset of His ministry, Jesus uses this name, identifying with us in our weakness and vulnerability, but also pointing forward to His role as the promised suffering Saviour.
All this and more is meant to be brought to mind by the seven names of Jesus in John Chapter 1. From the start of his Gospel St. John wants us to see that Jesus is all of these things at once… not only back then, two millennia ago, but today as well!
Jesus is the Word of God… the One who shared in the Creation of all that is, and who has made known God’s own character and heart. In our times of chaos and darkness, we can look to Jesus and find God’s eternal, life-giving word bringing order, beauty, and light, and making all things new.
Jesus is the Lamb of God… who laid down His life to deal with the sins of the whole world once and for all at the cross. In our times of failure, regret, and shame, we can look to Jesus and find He has revealed God’s love for us, in that while we were still sinners, He died… not just for the whole world, but for you and me… to cleanse and set us free from our sins and wickedness… and to pour out on us God’s gracious forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.
Jesus is the great Teacher. In our times of doubt, as the truth we need seems harder and harder to comprehend, we can look to Jesus and find the One who still truly shows us God’s holy ways… the One who is Himself the truth, and who leads us into life.
Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ… the Anointed One, set apart for God’s mission. In our times of confusion and uncertainty, we can look to Jesus and find Him completely dedicated to doing God’s will, and bringing God’s deliverance to us all.
Jesus is the Son of God… uniquely sharing in His self-giving life. In our times of being pushed around by those who hunger for positions and power, we can look to Jesus and find the one who truly embodies God’s greatness… by caring for the outcasts, the hurting, the powerless… by seeking and saving the lost.
Jesus is the King of Kings, the One who reigns even now at God’s right hand. In our times of being caught up in the conflicts and struggles of our days, where we are pulled in a hundred directions by those who demand that we give them our loyalty, we can look to Jesus and find God’s good Kingdom at work even now in our lives: the Kingdom whose victory was won by Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross even for His enemies… the only Kingdom that will endure forever.
Jesus is the Son of Man, stepping into our mortal human existence, and sharing in all our sufferings. In our times of fear and fragility, even as we face the shadow of death, we can look to Jesus and find the one who confronted the powers of death, and endured it’s worst at the cross, only to be raised again as the firstborn of God’s New Creation… and who will raise us up with Him, to share in His risen life for all eternity.
Jesus is all this at once… and more! Even when we don’t understand Him all.
And thankfully, just like John the Baptist, and the first disciples in John’s Gospel… we aren’t meant to understand it all right from the start. No, just like them, we just catch a glimpse of Jesus… we hear a hint of His mission… a whisper of His story… and that is enough to draw us closer… only to find Him looking at us and inviting each of us to follow Him… to “come and see” even more…
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asked those first disciples. And He asks you and I the same thing this morning: “What are we looking for in Him?”
This is His invitation to follow. To draw near to Him in faith, and find that He is far more than we could have ever imagined, and that He has more in store for you and I as we follow Him too. Like St. John, we too can come to experience Jesus in all of His fullness. And like St. John, we can with confidence invite others to do the same.
Whatever we started off looking for in Jesus, may we find in Him the fullness of God’s great gift of love to us and our world. Amen.
 Joel F. Drinkard Jr., “Number Systems and Number Symbolism,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1199.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6 | Psalm 72 | Ephesians 3:1–12 | Matthew 2:1–12
What is the longest road trip that you have ever taken?
In my mid-twenties and my second year of University, my Dad and I took a trip over March Break from my school in Southern Manitoba all the way down to the Southern tip of Texas to visit my Grandparents at their trailer, where they would spend their winters.
It was my first time travelling in the states, aside from a few short trips just across the border, so I was in for all sorts of surprises, as the two of us crossed the continent. We ran into a few challenges along the way, like a flash-flood and tornado warning in Kansas, and getting turned around after dark in some unfamiliar cities, but after three days we made it. Then after a three-day visit, we had to turn around and head back North again. Six days on the road for a short three-day stay. The math might not seem to add up, but it was a great adventure with my Dad I’ll always remember, and look back on with gratitude.
Some journeys are about far more than just the destination… or the stay… they’re about drawing us together. About bridging the distances between us, so to speak.
In our reading today from St. Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about another long road trip: the journey of the wise men, searching for the newborn King. We don’t know for sure where they came from, or how long they travelled, although some later traditions try to fill in these gaps for us. St. Matthew just tells us they came from “the East”, which at the time meant ‘outside the Roman Empire’, and more than likely they came from within the Parthian Empire, in what is now Iraq, Iran, and beyond, and which had once belonged to the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian peoples… pretty big players in the story of Israel’s struggles, Exile, and return as told in the Old Testament.
Again, we don’t know exactly where they set out from, but to give us a rough idea of the kind of distances we’re talking about, Google Maps tells me that to drive from Tehran in Iran, to Bethlehem, it is almost 2,000 KM. Back in the first century, of course, there were no cars or highways. Travel was a much more costly and dangerous adventure, to be sure. But knowing the challenges, these wise men still thought it worth it to make the long journey West, following the star that had caught their eye.
This detail about the star, and the word “wise men” or magi, tells us a bit more about these mysterious visitors from the East: they were students of the stars, well learned experts of ancient astrology, a practice strictly forbidden by God for His covenant people Israel, but widely practiced and respected as trustworthy wisdom by many other cultures.
NT Wright offers some helpful insights about the ways astrology was understood in those days, which sheds some light into why the magi in Matthew’s Gospel were watching the skies so closely, and why they were willing to set out on their long road trip together: “Many people, particularly in the countries to the east of Palestine, had developed the study of the stars and the planets to a fine art, giving each one very particular meanings. They believed, after all, that the whole world was of a piece; everything was interconnected, and when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens. Alternatively, a remarkable event among the stars and planets must mean, they thought, a remarkable event on earth.”
And so, seeing signs in the heavens, they somehow came to believe that a new king had been born to the Jewish peoples far to the West, and not just any king, but one that warranted a truly cosmic announcement, and who was worth putting their own lives on hold to see face to face, and honour as best they could. These Gentile sages from far away were seeking to honour and pay homage to the newborn Jewish King.
But there was a problem: the Jewish people already had a King, Herod the Great, who ruled the region with the backing of Caesar Augustus in Rome. So news of a newborn King was not taken well by the folks in Jerusalem: the experts and scribes were taken by surprise by the arrival of the magi, having had no warning or clue that something so important was happening in their midst. St. Matthew tells us that Herod “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). Not simply surprised, but afraid.
Why? We don’t know for sure. The Scriptures don’t say.
But we could easily imagine why: A newborn King would be a big threat to Herod’s own power, and Herod was not one to take challenges to his position lightly.
As far as the people of Jerusalem were concerned, it’s a bit less clear. Perhaps they were worried about a disturbance to their own fragile peace? The ancient world was very familiar with bloody power-struggles, and any chance there could be a civil war could bring Rome’s wrath to the region as well. Or perhaps they were just happy with things as they were, and didn’t want another king challenging the status quo? What if they just were afraid of the unknown… even if it might be very good in the long run? Or afraid that if it was really God’s Messiah that had been born, then their less-than-faithful lives might soon be put under God’s righteous spotlight? Who knows? There were likely all sorts of reasons this news of a newborn king made them afraid. St. Matthew only tells us what fear led Herod to do.
He sends the magi off secretly to Bethlehem, saying: “‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’” (Matthew 2:8), so they head to Bethlehem. And as they go they see the same star they had followed before leading the way again. The folks in Jerusalem who had said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the coming King had gotten it right!
…but none of them had joined the Magi on their journey to see the Messiah for themselves, even though it was only about 9 km down the road.
What a contrast St. Matthew wants us to see!
On the one hand we have non-Israelite astrologers, not exactly the picture of faithfulness we might expect, who had travelled from far in the East, facing unknown trouble and great expense… searching for something they hardly understood, but believed was of great significance.
While on the other hand we have God’s own people, who it turns out knew exactly where to look but were too troubled and frightened or otherwise unmoved to be bothered to go just down the road to meet their long-awaited Messiah for themselves.
Of course, this also begs the question: where do we fit in this story? How far are we willing to go to come face to face with our Messiah King? How important is it to us to draw near to Him in worship and devotion? And what are the things that keep us from seeking to draw nearer to Him? What obstacles keep us at a distance?
We know there’s lots of things in our lives that can get in the way of our life with God, but one common obstacle that St. Matthew highlights for us today is fear: Like Herod, and all God’s people in Jerusalem when the wise men showed up, we too can find ourselves unsettled by the Good News that our King has been born.
Maybe we’re afraid of what we’ll lose, or what we will have to give up? Maybe we’re afraid of what will have to change if the Messiah has really come to reign? Maybe we don’t feel worthy to enter His presence… worried that He’ll turn us away? There’s all sorts of ways fear can grip our hearts and keep us standing at a distance, but the invitation to draw near always remains.
Will we join with the magi and draw near to Jesus Christ?
This is really our invitation, our journey… but it’s not really the most important journey St. Matthew wants us to contemplate today. Along with the journey of the magi, our journey to draw near to Christ in faith is just our response to the journey Christ Jesus has taken to draw near to us!
In being born of Mary, Jesus made the biggest trip of all: from sharing the exalted, eternal throne of heaven, to joining the humble human family… bridging the infinite distance between our broken sinful, and scared condition and Almighty God, with His tiny newborn body… re-uniting us to our loving Creator, once and for all, through the precious gift of His life, offered each day that He drew breath, but most completely through His saving death on the cross… all to draw all people… Jew and Gentile, you and I… all those covered in darkness, drawing us together into His gracious light… which is what St. Paul claims in Ephesians Chapter 3, God has been planning since the very beginning.
Ephesians 3:5-6, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
We tend to forget how big of a deal this is, but for St. Paul and many others this changed everything, and shaped how Christians not only understood God’s love, but how they practiced it too! No longer seeing some folks as outsiders from the start… as cut off from God’s concern because they were born into the wrong family, or community, or country. In Christ, God has revealed His saving love for the entire world at work, drawing everyone together as reconciled brothers and sisters at His side.
The feast of Epiphany which we celebrate today reminds us of this Divine surprise: that in Jesus Christ God has come to us to rescue not just one people… but all peoples… not just Israel, but everyone.
So when we are tempted to see those around us, or around our world… or even ourselves, as outside of God’s compassion or concern… as those who are too far off from His holy life and light to share in His Kingdom… let us remember the Good News that in Christ God has made the greatest journey of all to be with us… even when we were far off, and frightened, and fumbling in the dark, He came to find us… and through His death and resurrection He draws us all to Himself, and in Him, to each other, to live in God’s light together forever.
I’ll end now with these powerful words from the Prophet Isaiah 60:1-3
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
May the light of Christ shine upon us, and shine through us to draw those around us to Him. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 10.
Scripture Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1–13 | Psalm 8 | Revelation 21:1–6a | Matthew 25:31–46
“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:5).
These words from the last book of the Bible offer us all a powerful image of the Christian hope: that the story of all things ends with the Living God upon the throne, and that His reign entails the restoration of all things. At the heart of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, lies the claim that God’s good Kingdom will have the final word, and that, regardless of how dark the present can seem, the Risen Lord will reign forever.
But just because we know how the story ends, that doesn’t mean that all the ups and downs and events in the middle of the story, where you and I find ourselves, are unimportant. That what we do with all our days doesn’t really matter to God’s larger story.
Rather, as our Scripture readings this morning remind us, each in their own way, understanding the end of our story serves to guide and shape what we do with today, drawing us closer to the life of God here and now, because how we live here and now really does matter.
Our first reading this morning comes from the book of Ecclesiastes: a poetic exploration of the meaning of human life, which looks closely at many of the common goals and priorities we people pursue… things like success, pleasure, and knowledge… and makes the case that in the end, everything we chase after is like vapor or smoke… just as we reach out and grasp after them, they drift right through our fingers and disappear.
This may sound bleak, but this ancient wisdom sheds light on the important fact that much of what our world pours its energy into is not of ultimate lasting value… and if we live like success, or pleasure, or comfort, or knowledge are what matter most, our lives will get off track, and out of line with the true story.
So while in our reading, the author of Ecclesiastes speaks of a time for all things, their overall message is one of clarifying our priorities: of putting first things first, which for them means living in line with the Living God. Ecclesiastes ends with these words: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Keeping in mind the One on the throne, live each day following God’s ways.
This reminder of just and divine judgement points us to our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew: a powerful depiction of the Son of Man, God’s Messiah, sorting out once and for all, not just His covenant people Israel, but all the nations… bringing into the light what everyone has done with the time given to them.
One thing worth noting about this passage is how it cuts through all our present attempts to sort out the good from the bad, the insiders from the outsiders… us and them. Rather than asking if they belong to the ‘right’ group, the ‘right’ movement, or even the so called ‘right’ side of history, the Son of Man alone sorts out the nations, based on the shape of their lives… based on how their choices and actions in life lined up with the character of the Living God.
This picture drives home the point that God is not just interested in making our lives easier or better, but of drawing us deeper into God’s eternal life… meant to shape how we live today! Among other things, Christ is offering a warning here to not waste our lives, but to do what we can to live God’s way with whatever time we’re given.
Turning now to our second reading from Revelation, we’re given a vision of what God’s New Life is all about: the ultimate union of heaven and earth, accomplished as God’s gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.
“‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:3-5).
This is a beautiful, hopeful, and powerful vision, which also drives home the point that our lives and response to God’s gracious gift truly matters, especially if we keep reading. A few verses later, the author of Revelation makes a very clear connection between those who miss out on this beautiful destiny, and their choices in this life:
“Those who conquer [that is, remain faithful to the end] will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:7-8)
Again, Scripture offers a pretty strong warning that we need to take with all seriousness. Much more could be said about this passage, but in one sense the message is clear: God’s gracious Kingdom is coming, and so how we live today in the light of the Good News of Jesus really does matter! Our faith in the Gospel of Christ is mean to take shape in our lives here and now.
So what might we do to actually help adjust our lives to the light of the Gospel? How can we begin to go from talking about God’s New Life to actually living it?
Of course, today seems like a great time to talk about new beginnings… pursuing new goals, and making new commitments. For many, today marks the start of their New Year’s resolution: starting a new year off trying to make positive changes in our lives, breaking old habits, or taking on new practices.
There can be lots of good things about New Year’s resolutions, inspiring us not to simply keep going with the flow (unless that’s what you’re trying to start doing, of course), but to be intentional with our time on this earth, and to make even difficult changes that we believe will be worth while in the end.
But rather than just recommending that we all make New Year’s resolutions to try to be more faithful to God’s ways this year, I’d rather invite us to take up a Rule of Life.
What’s a Rule of Life?
In a word, a Rule of Life is an intentional set of guidelines people adopt to help keep them focused on and following a particular pattern and way of life. They can be simple. They can be detailed. They can be adjusted over time. But their intention is to help keep those who make use of them in line with what matters most.
Now, lots of people create and make Rules of Life, not just Christians. But Christians have made use of these practices for centuries, and they have deep roots in our own Anglican tradition.
But before we get too far off track, I want to point out one key difference between a New Year’s resolution and a Christian Rule of Life:
A resolution is basically a personal attempt to become the kind of person that I want to be. It’s inherently self-focused, and self-imposed. Not necessarily selfish in its goal… but in its process. That is, the only reason to take up a resolution is because I want to change the course of my life. I have a goal I want to pursue. My will is at the centre.
A Rule of Life, on the other hand, is an intentional attempt to realign my life… not around my goals, but with the Living God and His will for me, and for His work in the world. It’s an attempt to respond faithfully to what God has already done by adjusting my actions and priorities to help me to follow Jesus. It is not me focused, it’s Christ focused… seeking to draw me closer to, and become more like our Saviour, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
So, at the heart of a Christian Rule of Life is an attitude of openness to God: of humility, and trust, and the desire to be obedient to God’s will.
But let’s be clear: this is not at all an attempt to earn God’s favour, or our own salvation. The Gospel tells us that God loved us even when we least deserved it, and sent Christ to rescue us from our sins as a gift… as a gracious and self-giving act of mercy.
We don’t need to adopt a Rule of Life to get into God’s good books, or receive eternal life. These are God’s gifts to us in Jesus Christ. But if we want to receive these precious gifts, and practice them in our day to day lives, a Christian Rule of Life can be a very helpful aid… making it easier to develop good habits that reinforce our faith, habits that might seem new or strange at first, but then soon become second nature.
And as I mentioned before, this practice has deep roots in the Christian Church, and in our own Anglican tradition, where creating a Rule of Life was at one time seen as an important part of everyone’s spiritual growth.
The following is taken from our own Book of Common Prayer on page 555.
“Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself a RULE OF LIFE in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel and the faith and order of the Church; wherein he may consider the following:
The regularity of his attendance at public worship and especially at the holy Communion.
The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading, and self-discipline.
Bringing the teaching and example of Christ into his everyday life.
The boldness of his spoken witness to his faith in Christ.
His personal service to the Church and community.
The offering of money according to his means for the support of the work of the Church at home and overseas.”
This is just a basic framework, but it invites all Christians to take seriously the several ways our faith is taking shape in our daily lives, and what we might need to do to support it even more.
The BCP envisions every Christian doing this individually “from time to time”. But to be honest, creating and committing to a Rule of Life on our own can be really challenging. And just like with New Year’s resolutions, they can be easily set aside without the gift of a community of others on the same journey… who
can support one another by sharing a way of life, instead of doing it all alone.
In essence, that was how many monastic communities began: with someone deeply committed to following God’s will in a particular context, adjusting their life accordingly, and inviting others to share in their efforts. People from the ancient days of the Church, like St. Benedict of Norcia, St. Basil, and St. Augustine, all created rules that were picked up by whole monastic communities and orders, guiding the shared lives of nuns and monks for centuries.
In more recent times, Brother Roger of Taizé created a Rule of Life for the 20th Century monastic community he helped found in France, which is made up of Christians from very different traditions… Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, all living together despite their significant differences in order to live as a sign to the wider Church and world that God’s reconciliation is at work here and now.
Their Rule of Life is very different from St. Benedict’s, or St. Basil’s, but it’s one that helps them in their context keep their lives in line with the Gospel, and with Christ’s particular calling as a community.
Here at St. Luke’s, we don’t have a common Rule of Life. But this year, we created a Mission Vision Group that has spent time together exploring what it means for us to share in God’s mission here in Gondola Point. And a part of that work has been to consider a Parish Vision Statement: a simple guide to keep us focused on where we believe God’s calling us to go.
More will be said about this ahead of our upcoming Annual Meeting, but we are proposing the following as our new Vision Statement: Living Faith | Growing Love | Sharing Hope.
While not exactly a Rule of Life, this Vision Statement, or similar guides, can help keep whole communities like ours from getting off track, or distracted from what matters most.
Speaking of staying on track…
So, what does it look like to create a Rule of Life today?
Well, it all starts with looking to Jesus. With remembering all that God has done and is doing through Him; that He is Himself the gift that saves us, and that alone we do nothing to earn God’s favour. We need to remember that In Christ we know that the Living God longs for us to receive His rescuing love, and share His New Life here and now.
Then, in response to this Good News, we need to honestly look at our current life with God… where we’re starting from, so to speak.
We can use the structure given in the Book of Common Prayer as a basic guide: inviting us to reflect on…
Our participation in public worship.
Our practice of private prayer, reading Scripture, and cultivating self-control.
It can hep us ask ourselves: How does my life line up with what Jesus shows us about God’s ways?
Where am I afraid to follow Jesus’ way today?
How can I take part in Christ’s kingdom work, in the Church and everywhere else?
How am I able to offer my money to support the work of God, here and around the world?
Finally, we can prayerfully ask God to help us identify how we can draw closer to Him in our daily life, and what the next steps may be on this journey.
Don’t start off by aiming for the finish line, but for the next step or the next leg of the journey… start with choices or actions we can take that actually help us be more open to God’s love, and His saving work in and through us.
We may find this easy to do alone. Or we may find it helpful to do along with someone else, sharing a simple Rule of Life, to support each other.
Maybe we try this with those in our household, or with a close friend… or a small group we’re a part of, like the ACW, or Choir, or Book Club, etc.
But whether we do this alone, or with others, the point isn’t to become focused on following rules, but to intentionally keep our eyes on Jesus and God’s saving love, so that we can faithfully follow our Saviour the Risen Lord of all… which is what really matters most. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 52:7–10 | Psalm 98 | Hebrews 1:1–12 | John 1:1–14
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
What do you want for Christmas?
What gifts are we looking for today?
Setting aside all of the stuff we can find in stores… or shop for online… all the presents that we can wrap up and put under a tree, or into stockings… what is it that you and I and our neighbours are truly longing for today? If we could have anything, anything at all, what would we ask for?
For a deep sense of community? For friendship, and fellowship? To be truly known, and still truly welcomed.
For happiness? Fulfillment? To feel completely free from drudgery or despair?
Maybe for stability? For healing, and wholeness… both in ourselves, and our relationships. For a bright future, for ourselves, our loved ones, and our world… or even just a light to guide us through a dark season of life?
What do we really want for Christmas?
What are we longing for today?
What if the gift that we need most of all has already been given? What if it’s just waiting to be remembered… and received for all that it has to offer?
The whole story of the Holy Scriptures tells of God’s gracious generosity… of His strong desire to bless and bring beauty and abundant life to His beloved Creation. And when we humans chose to cling to the darkness instead of embracing His light again and again, the Bible recounts how our Heavenly Father faithfully continues to give us far more than we could ever ask for or deserve.
Giving us Hope, not just for eternity, but for today too… offering us the courage to carry on, knowing that even when we walk through the darkest valleys… even through the shadow of death, we need not be afraid for we are not alone… the God of life walks with us.
He gives us His Peace which goes beyond all understanding, bringing our shattered lives together again… so we can take part together in the harmony God has in store for heaven and earth.
He gives us Joy, knowing that all our world’s many sorrows have been bourn by our mighty Saviour, who will not rest until every tear has been wiped away, and all the world has been made new.
And He gives us His Love, reaching out to embrace us all, even when our hard hearts had turned Him away… a love that led Christ Jesus to the cross, dying to bring us true life… a love that proved even stronger than death, as Christ Jesus was raised again from the grave, to share in His Father’s glory, and share His own resurrection life with us.
All that we truly need… all that our hearts yearn for has already been given: Christ Jesus is God’s great gift to us: heaven and earth all wrapped up in the body of a little babe, laid in a manger long ago, to bring us into God’s light.
This Chosen One, who is the Word of God, who from the beginning was with God, and was God, became one of us… became one with us… taking on our frail humanity, our flesh and blood… becoming a human child, given to all, so that all who believe in Him might become God’s children too. That in Him, we too might be filled with the Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love that Jesus has always shared with His Heavenly Father, and with the Holy Spirit.
In the gift of Jesus, the Christ child born this day, God gives us Himself. All that the Living God is has been shared with us in His Son… in Emmanuel, God-with-us.
What else could we want than what God gives to us today? To share in the divine life of the Trinity, the source and Creator of all Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love… not only on some distant day, but now, today? To glimpse now the glory, and grace, and truth of the LORD, and to live even now in His light?
Jesus Himself is the gift we all need today… those gathered here at St. Luke’s, and those who will never darken our doors.
So may we receive all that God gives us in Him, and may His gracious light shine through us so that all those in our lives might come to receive Him too.
I’ll end now with a sonnet by the Rev. Malcolm Guite:
O come, O come and be our God-with-us,
O long-sought with-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name,
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
Amen, and Merry Christmas.
 Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2012), 13.
"Do Not Be Afraid... God-Is-With-Us" Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 18, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 7:10–16 | Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19 | Romans 1:1–7 | Matthew 1:18–25
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23).
Can you believe Advent is almost over?
Christmas day is only one week away. Are we ready yet?
Over the past three weeks, along with Christians around the world, we have been reflecting on what it means to get ready for the coming of Christ: first of all, remembering the story of His birth, but also looking forward to His return as our Saviour King, as the One who is coming again to set us free forever.
Each year during Advent, we explore four gifts of God that Christ shares with us: first we looked at the gift of Hope, followed by the gifts of Peace, and Joy. And this final Sunday of Advent we contemplate the gift of Love… a gift that is deeply connected to this time of year, both inside and outside the Church.
For lots of folks, Christmas is the season we’re meant to spend with those we love: gathering together with family and friends… to throw parties… and exchange presents… to sing old familiar songs… to practice and pass on long-cherished traditions, to share in all sorts of delicious food… and basically do all of those things that help us feel warm and fuzzy inside, so to speak.
Of course, the holidays aren’t easy for everyone. Lots of us have painful memories wrapped up in this season too.
Perhaps we’ve been wounded by those who were once close to us, leaving behind angry scars where once we had peace. Maybe we’ve lost someone we love, someone we shared our lives with, and though we still cherish the gift that their life has been to us, we also feel the sting of grief that makes it hard to celebrate. Maybe we’re dealing with other losses… or loneliness, or struggles that seem to somehow overshadow the festivities that everyone else around us seem to enjoy. Perhaps we are struggling just to get by, and need to lean on the kindness of others for help.
If this is you today, please know that you’re not alone. Please know that your brothers and sisters here at St. Luke’s are here for you… to share in each other’s joys and sorrows. To celebrate with, and come alongside to lend our support and strength when things get rough. Not only during Advent, and Christmas, but all throughout the year, we are here to love one another… not just with words, but with our lives.
But this is exactly where the kind of love that Advent calls us to contemplate and share in comes into focus, challenging many of the ways our world understands and practices love. Perhaps “challenges” is not quite right… it’s more like Advent, and the whole Christian story for that matter, invites us to love in ways that go far beyond what comes naturally… to go beyond the kinds of love we feel for those those who are like us… or those who are close to us… our natural relations, and friends, and those we feel drawn towards.
The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this about this natural kind of love:
“In loving those who love us, our kindred, our people, our friends, yes, even our own Christian community, we are no different than the Gentiles and the tax-collectors. That kind of love is self-evident, regular, natural, but not distinctly Christian… loving those who belong to me through blood, history, or friendship is the same for non-Christians and Christians. Jesus does not have a lot to say about that kind of love. People know all by themselves what it is. He does not need to light its flame, to emphasize it or exalt it. Natural circumstances alone force it to be recognized, for non-Christians and for Christians. Jesus does not need to say that people should love their sisters and brothers, their people, their friends. That goes without saying.”
But God’s gift of love, the love that Advent and Christ Himself shares with us, goes far beyond this natural, reasonable kind of love… and it calls you and I to do the same.
In our Gospel reading this morning we were introduced to Joseph’s story, which starts out as a story of natural love: Joseph was engaged to a woman named Mary, getting ready for their new life together… but then he becomes aware that it seems that Mary has betrayed his love. She’s suddenly found to be pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father.
What else was he to believe? And what was he supposed to do now?
It would have been well within his rights and ability in their culture to have her publicly disgraced, and possibly even put to death, depending on the lengths their community was willing to go to preserve their own purity. After all, the Mosaic Laws given to Israel at Mount Sinai were pretty specific about adultery, which would have included infidelity after an engagement was established. Leviticus 20:10 dictates that “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” But even if he didn’t want to go that far, Joseph could have easily ruined her life, publicly shaming her to re-establish his own reputation and honour.
This might seem cruel to us… but how often might we be inclined to do the same kind of thing? If not in our outward actions, then at least in our hearts? To insist on punishing those who brought us pain, or shaming those who have insulted us… of insisting that those who have wronged us get a taste of their own medicine… all without going against the reasonable, natural expectations of our communities?
Joseph could have easily went down this road, and no one would have faulted him. And yet… knowing full well what the obvious explanation for Mary’s pregnancy was… knowing he could vent his anger and heap shame on her, and still wash his hands in innocence… Joseph, though confused, and hurt, and with all of his hopes for the future dashed to the ground… deep inside, he still doesn’t want to see Mary brought to harm, even if she deserved it. Joseph looked at her with compassion, and made up his mind to end things quietly.
What about justice? What about everyone getting what they deserve? What about the Laws of God? Doesn’t this kind of compassion spit in the face of holiness? I mean, what kind of a world would we live in if we all acted like Joseph?
We can wrestle with all of these questions, and how they might relate to our own stories… but St. Matthew, who cares deeply about God’s holiness, and our obedience to the ways of our LORD, explains why it is that Joseph responds to Mary the way he does: Matthew tells us Joseph “was a righteous man”… someone whose life was in line with the heart of the Living God.
And far from demanding that everyone, especially those who wrong us, ‘get what they deserve’, St. Matthew wants us to see that true righteousness is inseparable from compassion.
And this has always been the case! It’s not just a New Testament development. From the very first pages of Genesis, and all throughout the story of Scripture, the Living God is constantly moved with compassion towards His people, despite their constant betrayals of their sacred relationship, and complete disregard for His holiness and love.
Our first reading today, from the book of Isaiah gives us a great example of this. We heard how the prophet Isaiah was sent by God to Jerusalem to offer King Ahaz a sign… something to encourage him and bring hope to God’s people at a time everything seemed about to collapse for good.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes cut off from Judah in the South by civil war, and the Kingdom of Aram, had made an alliance against Ahaz and Judah, and had planned to wipe them out. Now Jerusalem was under siege… surrounded by these enemy armies… but God wanted them to know they could still put their trust in Him.
Isaiah 7:1-4, “In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim [that is, Israel], the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub… and say to him, ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.”
These words of assurance and hope would have been a great gift for anyone, but what makes it amazing is that Ahaz had been a horrible king, just like his forefathers… leading God’s people into all sorts of evil and unfaithfulness… worshipping idols of other gods, a betrayal often spoken of as adultery by the prophets.
Time and again, God’s people had betrayed their LORD, but He still remained faithful to them… exasperated, outright angry even, but faithful nonetheless.
So now in verse 10, God sends Isaiah to offer Ahaz another sign of hope, anything Ahaz might request… but Ahaz refuses to go along… so God gives to unfaithful Ahaz and all of the people a sign they had not even asked for… one they would never have dreamed up on their own, and one that would ask them to trust Him, even amid all their troubles, and to wait for the promise to be fulfilled: the sign would be that a young woman (the same word for a virgin), would soon give birth to a son, and His name would be Immanuel, ‘God-with-us’… and before he had come of age, knowing right from wrong, their dreaded enemies, Aram and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, would themselves be wiped away.
They would still have to wait… to endure the difficulties that lay ahead, and even greater dangers would need to be faced further down the road… but now they could hold on to hope with the promise that God Himself would be with them, and that with His help, they did not need to live in fear… and they would be saved.
Of course, God could have left them to destruction… to being humiliated, and brought down by the neighbouring nations. They had already broken the Covenant time and again, but God was still moved by compassion for His people. So He gives them hope. He gives them a sign that He still longs to save them.
This sign of hope is picked up by St. Matthew many centuries later… pointing to God’s plan, not just to rescue Judah from rival kingdoms, but to rescue the whole world from the powers of darkness and sin that seek to wipe it out. To rescue from all that prevents us from sharing in the full and blessed life of the Living God… and again, this sign comes into focus in the story of Joseph.
As we already know, Joseph felt betrayed by his beloved fiancé, Mary. But rather than call for her blood, he sought to dissolve their relationship quietly. Like Ahaz before him, Joseph’s future hopes seemed likely to collapse. But God had other plans, and so He sends an angelic messenger to Joseph in a dream, with a sign of hope he would never have asked for or imagined: Matthew 1:19-23,
“‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,’
which means, ‘God is with us.’”
Just like in Isaiah’s day, God’s promise was an invitation to trust… an invitation for Joseph, and for you and I.
“Do not be afraid… God is with us.”
God reveals the truth to Joseph that Mary has not been unfaithful, and that the child she bore was to be the One promised long ago to save His people from their sins… rescuing them from all that they had done to betray God, their divine bridegroom. Despite all they had done, God still longed to have compassion on them… to bring them hope. To draw them near, and share His own blessed life with them forever. This child named Jesus would Himself be the sign of God’s love, not just for Judah, but for all the world, the sign that we do not need to live in fear… the sign that God is with us.
Joseph would have to believe in God’s message, despite the whispers of his neighbours, and doubts that would surely rise up in his own mind from time to time. But the promise remains: “Do not be afraid… God is with us.”
Joseph would look at this child and simply see a normal baby… no halo hung about His little head… and despite what the carols may say, this baby would cry, and fuss, and wake up at 2AM, like every other baby. All signs of His saving destiny would have to wait… and as it turns out, Joseph would not see it come to pass in his lifetime. But even so, Joseph was called to care for this child, to love Him… as God’s own great gift of love.
“Do not be afraid… God is with us.”
There sure seems to be a lot for us to be afraid of today… maybe not enemy armies, like some of our neighbours in Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world have to contend with. Maybe not the complete overturning of all of our hopes and plans, like Joseph… but we all have our own struggles. Our own reasons to fear.
So, what does it mean for us to trust that God is with us in our darkest moments? What does it mean for us to believe in His love for us… even when we don’t deserve it?
When we don’t have it all together? When we haven’t been everything we know we should be? To believe that even in our brokenness, and the deep brokenness of our world, the Living God has reached out in His holy and righteous compassion to set us free, to be with us forever through the gift of His Son?
This is after all the message, the sign that we have been given. As St. John puts it in his Gospel: “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 Himself is God’s gift of love, sent to rescue the world and bring us His eternal life, drawing us into His love, even when we were far beyond deserving it. In Christ, God gives us a love which longs for reconciliation, not retribution… which strives to save, not to strike down… a love which is fully in line with the holy compassion of God that Jesus displayed on the cross, as He died giving His life in order to save His enemies.
God’s gift of love is for us, to save us from our sins… but it also sends us out into God’s world to share this same saving love, not only with people we like, or who are like us, our family and friends… the people it’s easy to love. No, God’s love sends us out to share His compassion and love even with those we would see as enemies.
Later on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus Himself will unpack what it means to love the way God loves: Matthew 5:43-48.
“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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
God’s perfect love calls us to go far beyond our natural inclinations… loving those who are unlovely… those who have hurt and even betrayed us, seeking their good… because that is the kind of love He give to us in Jesus Christ His Son.
As Advent draws to a close, and the celebration of Christmas draws near, let us remember that the love that makes this season so sacred is the love that led Christ to the cross. The perfect love of God that goes far beyond our expectations, and natural capacities… a love that even dares to embrace those of us who don’t deserve it.
To share in this sacred love… to actually put it into practice in our daily lives, we too need to take to heart the message that God shared with Joseph all those years ago: “Do not be afraid… God-is-with-us.” We are not all on our own here. God’s saving love longs to be at work in us… setting us free to share His life-giving love, not just with each other, but with everyone.
So may the rescuing love of Jesus not only reach us in our brokenness and need today… but may God’s love reach out through us and embrace those in our lives we find the hardest to love. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 143.
Where We Look For Joy - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 35:1–10 | Luke 1:46–55 | James 5:7–10 | Matthew 11:2–11
“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5).
Does anyone remember Big Mouth Billy Bass?
Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s it was all the rage: a fake fish mounted to a plastic plaque, that would suddenly burst into song when a button was pressed, wagging it’s tail and mouthing along to the words of Bobby McFerrin’s hit song: ‘Don’t worry… be happy!”
Sometimes the places we’re tempted to look for happiness seem just as silly and out of place as listening to the sage advice of a fake fish on a plastic plaque. The truth is, as much as we all want to be happy… many of us today don’t know, or forget where to look for it… especially when we want it most. When it feels like we’re the ones plucked out of our comfortable waters and hung up on the wall for all to see.
As we know, today is the third Sunday of Advent: the season of anticipation and waiting for the coming of Christ, not only at His long anticipated birth in Bethlehem, but also when He will come again in glory to bring God’s blessed Kingdom to earth at last. When every tear will be wiped away. Every injustice set right. Every wound and schism healed, and every sorrow turned to joy.
And this is the theme that we contemplate this week: the gift of Joy, following our explorations of the gifts of Hope and Peace. And just like Hope and Peace, we all have ideas about Joy, and how it’s supposed to fit into our lives… and into the Christian life, for that matter.
For some folks, Joy just seems like an extra… an add-on… something fleeting that doesn’t really factor into our day to day duties. ‘What matters is getting things done’, they might say, focusing on the many challenges and tasks laid out before them. Feeling happy for these folks seems like a luxury, not a need. Much better to invest our energies into things that really matter… into things that will last.
On the other hand, there are those who see happiness as the most important part of our lives. The goal that guides their actions and choices. We hear this a lot in our culture… where happiness here and now is the test being used to figure out what we should do. Am I unhappy? Then I should do whatever it takes we’re told, to change that… no matter who else might get hurt along the way, or what damage I might end up doing to myself down the road.
And to confuse the matter even more, both of these inclinations have bled into the Christian faith as well. Some want to reduce religion to serious spiritual matters only. There’s no time to worry about how we feel, when there’s so much kingdom work to do.
But I think, more and more, we can see Christianity and faith in general being used simply as a source of emotional support… simply a way to find comfort, connection, and celebration as the end in itself… the goal… the point of it all, so to speak. We can see this spirit at work when we hear people say: “If things like reading the Bible, or prayer, or going to Church, don’t bring me joy, then I don’t need to do them.’ In that case, we’re treating God like a joy-machine… instead of our Lord.
These are two rather extreme examples, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle… or bounce back and forth between giving up on Joy, and giving up everything else to chase after it.
But as we seek to understand how Joy fits into our lives and our faith, our Gospel reading this morning invites us to reflect on Joy in a surprising way: through the story of John the Baptist as he is left waiting in jail. How does Joy fit into his story? And how might this help you and I know where to look to find and fit the gift of Joy into our stories as well?
Our passage starts off with John in prison, arrested for speaking out against King Herod, the puppet ruler set up by the Romans over the region of Galilee, calling out Herod’s clear breach of God’s Covenant Law regarding his unlawful marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s ex-wife, who had left him for a more desirable match.
Today we might wonder why John would be worrying about who King Herod married at all. I mean, after all who is John to get in the way of his ruler’s happiness?
But as N.T. Wright points out, John’s point is not simply about someone’s unorthodox family arrangements… it’s about what Herod’s willingness to flout God’s ways and commandments says about his status as a king over the Lord’s chosen people. As much as Herod wanted his Jewish subjects to think of him as their rightful, God-chosen ruler, John’s willingness to call even Herod to repent was a real kill-joy.
N.T. Wright puts it like this: “King Herod had taken exception to John’s fiery preaching, and particularly to his denunciation of him for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. This was all part of John’s announcement that God’s kingdom—and God’s true king—were on the way. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. No wonder Herod put him in prison.”
So here we find John, the no-nonsense, inspired preacher from the wilderness, in prison for sticking his neck out and standing up to speak God’s truth. And as we see him in his cell, the words from a few Chapters back in Matthew’s Gospel, in the so called Sermon on the Mount, are probably meant to be ringing in our ears: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10).
Right now though, it doesn’t really seem like John is feeling all that blessed. In fact, this intense messenger for God’s coming kingdom seems now to be unsure of the plan. He had once confidently pointed to Jesus as the long awaited One who would baptize God’s people with the Holy Spirit and fire! Burning away all unrighteousness, until only what is holy remains. But now, staring at his own prison walls, John the Baptist begins to doubt.
I mean, how would any of us respond in his place?
When we are suddenly caught off guard by unexpected setbacks… when we’re sure we’ve been doing all the right things, but it all seems to unravel… when instead of our best efforts bearing fruit and flourishing, we find ourselves stuck… stifled… and isolated?
In our own times of struggle, when all we can see when we look around are prison walls, so to speak, it’s so easy to lose sight of the larger story we’re in. To either become completely downcast by all of our troubles… or dig in and desperately get to work trying to keep what’s left of our fragile world from collapsing. Or on the other hand, to seek some kind of escape by chasing after whatever we think will satisfy our desires… what we think will bring us joy.
But John doesn’t fully despair. He doesn’t give up completely, or give himself over to simply saving his own skin. No, he sends his friends to go and speak to Jesus for him. Confused, suffering, facing an uncertain future, John reaches out through those close to him towards the One he had hoped really was the Christ, God’s chosen Saviour, and the true coming King.
What a precious gift it can be to have friends we can lean on and trust in dark times, isn’t it? To have those who understand our situation… who see our struggles, and share in our burdens? To know there are those who can help us reach out towards hope, and remind us of the reasons we still have to rejoice?
This is the gift of the community of faith, the Church. Brothers and sisters, friends in God’s family, who can share in each other’s sorrows… and in our lowest moments help us to reach out and look to the One who brings true Joy… even when He shows up in ways none of us expect.
And Jesus was not turning out to be what John had expected at all. Far from the bringer of fire, and overthrower of unjust tyrants, Jesus was spending His time with His handful of stumbling students, and crowds of hurting and hungry misfits. Where John had been deeply dedicated to the serious work of God’s coming kingdom, and ended up in prison, Jesus was out there having feasts with tax collectors and sinners.
John’s discouraged because he can’t see how Jesus could be the One he had been waiting for, coming to bring God’s good reign once and for all, and end our sorrows for good. “Are you the one who is to come,” he asks, “or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
But then again, unlike you and I, John didn’t yet know how the story will end, or how God’s good Kingdom was already at work all around him.
Matthew 11:4-6, “Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Far from wasting precious time and energy, Jesus was hard at work embodying and bringing God’s good Kingdom to life in the lives of those around Him. He was already turning our pains and sorrows to joy… repairing broken bodies and broken hearts, and bringing together a new family, and setting free from both their despair and unruly desires, to share in the New Life of God here and now, and forever.
And not only that, John didn’t know what was coming… what would soon await the Christ.
John didn’t know that the One who was bringing sight to the blind, healing to the sick, and raising the dead would soon Himself face the rejection, humiliation, and the cruel death of the cross. That rather than bringing fire from heaven to burn up the wicked, Jesus would bear Himself all of the brutal consequences of our world’s unholiness and sin. John didn’t know that the Saviour had come to suffer Himself to set us sinners free.
John didn’t know the whole picture, but Jesus’ response opens up the way forward: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” what can John see and hear in that moment? Just prison walls, and his own doubts in the darkness. But John is invited to trust, not in what he sees, but in the message, the Good News being shared with him… the news of the sick made well, broken bodies remade, the dead raised to life… the joys of God’s Kingdom, come to earth at last through Jesus the Christ.
In his moment of despair and doubt, Jesus offers to John an invitation to believe… to trust and take heart… to rejoice in faith, confident in what the Living God is doing through Him, even when John can’t yet see it for himself.
And we too are invited to look to Jesus… to trust Him… even when things don’t look at all the way we had imagined. When we are tempted to just focus on all that is wrong with our circumstances, or to give up on God’s way, and simply chase after our own ideas of happiness… we can look to Jesus and find in Him God’s gift of life-giving joy, reminding us of all that the Living God has done, all that God is doing right now, even when we cannot see it, and of all that God’s promised to do in our own lives, and in our world.
Looking to Jesus, we can find joy, not just when everything is easy and as they should be, but even in the middle of life’s lowest moments, His joy helps us to carry on.
As the writer of the book of Hebrews puts in in Chapter 12:1-3,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
We don’t know every step of where our story is headed. We don’t know what challenges await us, or what temptations to give up on God’s way we will have to face. But whatever comes, God invites us to look to His Son, Jesus, and find in Him true joy.
To look to Jesus, and see God’s healing, life-giving power at work even now in His name.
To look to Jesus, and see God’s victory over the powers of despair and death once and for all, opening up the New Life God intends for His creation.
To look to Jesus, and know He is not far off somewhere… He is “God-with-us”. In the good times, and in the absolute worst times, to know He will never forsake us.
We are invited to look to Jesus, and to help each other continue to look to Jesus, and rejoice… trusting in the glorious future that lies before us in His Kingdom… so that we too can hold on to God’s way today and not lose heart.
I’ll end now with some words from Br. Roger, the founder of the Taizé monastic community:
“Don’t be afraid of sharing in others’ trials, do not be afraid of suffering, for it is often in the depth of the abyss that we discover the perfection of joy in communion with Jesus Christ.
Perfect joy is self-giving… It is sheer wonder renewed by the sight of the generosity of the Giver of all gifts, material and spiritual. It is thankfulness. It is thanksgiving.”
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 125.
 Br. Roger of Taize, Parable of Community (London, UK: Mowbray, 1980), 25-26.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School