Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sermon for August 31st: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #2: Priscilla and Aquila

Last year when I was on sabbatical leave in England I spent a week with my old friends Kath and Ken, in the village of Southminster in Essex, east of London. I’ve known Kath and Ken for over thirty-five years, and whenever I go to visit the place I lived as a teenager, they always offer me their hospitality. They are retired schoolteachers, and towards the end of his working life Ken also became a part-time priest. He’s the only man I’ve ever known to mow his lawn wearing a formal jacket and tie, and Nick can tell you all about his battery-operated salt and pepper shakers!

I got to know Kath and Ken in the early 1970s, not long after I first committed my life to Christ. My Dad, who was the minister in our church, was trying to start little house groups – small groups that met in homes to sing, pray, study the Bible, and support each other in their Christian life. Kath and Ken agreed to host one of those groups at their little house in Ely Close, and I attended that meeting. In fact, I remember it being one of the highlights of my week; I remember going to my high school on Thursday mornings feeling a little more excited because it was Thursday, and our house group would be meeting that night, and we would be meeting God together there. When our family left England at the end of 1975, that meeting was still going strong; in fact, it went on for about twenty-four years, with only a slight disruption when Kath and Ken moved two doors down the street!

I thought of Kath and Ken this week as I was reading the story of Priscilla and Aquila in the New Testament. Like Kath and Ken, Priscilla and Aquila excelled in the ministry of hospitality and often opened their home for Christians to meet together and worship. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s start from the beginning of their story as we have it in the Book of Acts.

Paul calls them ‘Prisca’ and ‘Aquila’, but in Acts Luke calls the lady ‘Priscilla’, a less formal variant of the same name. This Jewish couple appear to have originally hailed from the northern coast of what is now Turkey, on the Black Sea, but in the middle part of the first century they were in Rome. The Roman historian Seutonius tells us that the Emperor Claudius ordered the Jews to leave Rome at this time, ‘because of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus’. ‘Chrestus’ seems to be a corruption of ‘Christus’, or ‘Christ’, so it seems as if these disturbances were connected with the fact that Jewish Christians were proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, or Christ, in Rome, and that other Jews who did not believe in Jesus were agitating about it, as they often do in the pages of Acts. Since there were about forty thousand Jews living in Rome at the time, it seems rather unlikely that Claudius threw them all out, but he probably did send away the ones who were deemed to be most active in the so-called ‘disturbances’ – and presumably, this would include the Christian leaders. We can therefore assume that Priscilla and Aquila were not only Christians, but also leaders in the church, when they were expelled from Rome.

They went to Corinth, which is found on the little isthmus that joins the Peloponnesus to the mainland of Greece. They were tentmakers, and so they probably just rented a house large enough to carry on their trade, set up shop and got down to it. And before too long they met up with the most famous tentmaker in the history of Christianity, the Apostle Paul. We can guess that when Paul arrived in Corinth he went to a meeting of the tentmakers’ trade guild, since he wanted to ply his trade in the city as a means of supporting himself, and there he met Priscilla and Aquila. He discovered that they were not only fellow-Jews but also fellow-Christians, and the next thing we know, the three of them are living and working together, an arrangement that continued for about eighteen months.

The routine during those eighteen months is fairly clear. During the week, the three of them worked together at their trade. Every Sabbath day, Paul went to the synagogue and argued with both Jews and God-fearers – that is to say, Gentiles who had come to believe in the Jewish God but had not gone the whole way and been circumcised – trying to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah. After a while they got fed up with him and kicked him out of the synagogue, and so he went next door, to the home of a guy called Titius Justus, one of the God-fearers, and did his preaching and teaching there. Many people came to hear him and a lot of them believed and were baptized.

So we see here a pattern in Paul, Aquila and Priscilla that we’ve already met in Barnabas last week: the pattern of the amateur, self-supporting missionary, the person who has a trade and earns their living at it, while doing their evangelistic and pastoral work in their spare time. Not that we should assume that no evangelism or pastoral work took place during working hours! In 1 Thessalonians 2:9 Paul talks about how he worked hard night and day so as not to be a burden to his converts, while he proclaimed to them the word of God. The passage can be understood to mean that the proclamation of the word took place at the same time as the working hard night and day, and knowing Paul, that would seem to be in character for him! So we can imagine these three friends working together, chatting with their customers, taking every opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with them. We can imagine them also chatting with young Christians who came into the shop to sit with them for a while, because of course, while the tent-makers’ hands were busy, their minds were free to engage in conversation with all who came, whether they were evangelizing non-Christians or building up new Christians in their faith.

Aquila and Priscilla are mentioned in several other places in the New Testament, which we’ll get to in a minute, and almost everywhere they appear there’s also word of ‘the church that meets in their house’. In those days, of course, there were no church buildings as we know them today; Christian congregations met wherever they could find the space, and this was usually either outdoors or in the homes of members who were wealthy enough to have a bit of extra room. We need to remember this when we get fascinated with having bigger and bigger churches; it’s important to keep in mind that everything the New Testament sees as essential to ‘church’ can be done in a living room! Anyway, I think it’s reasonable to assume that in Corinth, too, this hospitable Christian couple opened their home so that Christians could come together to worship and to be instructed in the faith.

And we should not assume that Paul was the only one who did the instructing. Priscilla and Aquila were involved too, and probably others as well. There’s an example of this later on in Acts 18. We read that eventually Paul set off to go back to Antioch, and Priscilla and Aquila traveled with him as far as Ephesus on the west coast of what is now Turkey, where they stayed. We don’t know why they did that, but we can assume that they simply rented a place again, set up shop, and were soon busy plying their tent-making trade, as well as sharing the gospel as usual.

Then along comes a man called Apollos. He seems to have been an impressive person, Jewish by birth and by faith, but educated in Alexandria where there was a long tradition of philosophy and oratory. We read that he was very eloquent and spoke with burning enthusiasm; he seemed to know a lot about Jesus and spoke accurately about him. At some point he’d heard John the Baptist preach and been baptized by him, but he’d never been baptized as a Christian or received the gift of the Holy Spirit himself. We might guess from this that he’d left Palestine before Jesus’ death and resurrection and knew nothing about the call to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them, or about the promise of the Spirit. This is confirmed in the next chapter when Paul meets some people who seem to have been converts of Apollos, who admit that they have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.

So Apollos’ teaching was persuasive, but it was a persuasion that came from oratorical skill rather than from the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was a faith that included a lot of accurate information about Jesus, but was a bit short on personal experience. And Priscilla and Aquila noticed the difference. We’re told in Acts 18 that ‘(Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately’ (18:26). The result seems to have been entirely successful; Apollos accepted what they said – and presumably was baptized and received the gift of the Holy Spirit himself – and before long he was off to Corinth, where he became a very influential Christian leader.

Notice how Luke, with his interest in the place of women in the ministry of Jesus and the early church, quietly names Priscilla ahead of Aquila in this account of early Christian teaching. People who oppose the teaching ministry of women in the church on the basis of isolated texts from Paul seem to ignore what the practice of Paul actually was in the stories we have in Acts. Here we have a husband-and-wife team, in ministry together, with Priscilla sharing fully with Aquila in the teaching of Apollos. And these two people were close associates of Paul! Apparently he’s not quite so dead set against women in ministry as some people would like us to believe!

Eventually Paul came back to Ephesus for a couple of years, and while he was there, some time around A.D. 53-54, he wrote a letter to his old friends in Corinth. Aquila and Priscilla are mentioned in that letter; at the end, when he’s passing on greetings, Paul writes: ‘The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord’ (16:19). Of course they would; they had lived in Corinth for a while and probably knew some of the Christians there personally. But here we see this lovely addition: ‘and the church in their house’. Hospitality to Paul, hospitality to new converts, hospitality to Christians who needed a place to worship: that was a huge part of the ministry of this couple.

We see the same thing again a few years later when Paul writes his letter to the Romans. Priscilla and Aquila seem to be back in Rome now – they got around, didn’t they? In Romans 16:3-4 Paul writes, ‘Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house’. We have no idea what Paul is referring to when he talks about Prisca and Aquila ‘risking their necks’ for his life, but what is clear is that once again, in the city of Rome, they have opened their home to host a church.

So this is the story of Priscilla and Aquila as we have it in the pages of the New Testament. Now, what strikes you about them? What do you think we can learn from them as we try to do the Lord’s work in our own very different environment?

I remember some years ago an Alliance pastor friend of mine telling me that some people in his congregation saw their work as simply a way of making a living to support them in their Christian ministry. I get the sense that this was true of Priscilla and Aquila as well: they made tents to put bread on the table, but the thing that really fired them up was making disciples for Jesus! And there’s something to be said for this attitude. Yes, in our church here we try to emphasise that we can all serve Christ by being faithful to him at our place of work, and that we have a responsibility to do our work in a way that honours the Lord. And some of us, because of the sort of work we do, have an enormous opportunity to make a difference for the Kingdom of God, by our words and our actions.

But we need to be careful about this too. In our society there’s such an enormous amount of attention given to what people do for a living. When someone asks me, “What do you do?” I don’t think they normally expect me to say, “Well, I have coffee with Marci and play guitar a lot!” Rather, they expect me to say, “I’m the pastor of a church”. So often our whole sense of identity is caught up in our job, and it’s here that Aquila and Priscilla can give us a healthy corrective. I’d be very surprised if their primary sense of identity was built around their tent-making. It seems clear to me that what really got them out of bed in the morning was making disciples and helping them grow.

I don’t want to keep restating the obvious, but let’s remember again that this couple were not seminary-trained full-time ministers or missionaries. They had an enormous influence on the life of the early church, but they had that influence without being ordained as we know it, or wearing clerical collars or being called ‘Reverend Aquila’ or ‘Reverend Priscilla’. They show us yet again that people in business, people in the trades, people in the working world can have an enormous impact on the lives of people by being intentional about evangelism at work and at home.

I say ‘at home’, because of course the primary way Aquila and Priscilla did this work was in their ministry of hospitality. Whether it was giving Paul a place to stay so he could do his work, or inviting Apollos back to their place for coffee after synagogue so they could tell him more about Jesus, or the many times when they simply hosted a church in their home – this couple obviously saw their home as something given them in stewardship by God to be used for the ministry of the kingdom. Which is what reminded me of Kath and Ken, my friends in Southminster, and the way they have offered their home over the years as a place of love and ministry and growth for Christian people.

So let me close by asking you this: how might you use your home as a place of ministry for the kingdom. Some of you have very large homes, big enough for Bible study groups to meet in. Have you thought of starting a Bible study group in your home? Have you thought of having neighbours in and engaging in conversation that might eventually lead to opportunities for evangelism?

Some of you have much smaller homes, perhaps too small for a study group to meet – although sometimes we can get a bit too self-conscious about this. Those of you who have been to our home know that we live in a little townhouse, and yet every couple of months we cram a dozen people into the living room for a music night! And I remember that Kath and Ken’s house in Ely Close was about the same size as ours! But still, for some of you, it’s more realistic to think of having someone over for coffee, making time for them, time to listen and offer support and friendship and perhaps a bit of Christian guidance. Jesus had those one-on-one conversations with people at times, and they were always enormously significant.

So let me leave this with you. As we thank God for the wonderful ministry of Aquila and Priscilla, and as we think of the way they used their home for God’s work, let’s ask the Lord to guide us about how he would like us to use our homes for the ministry of the gospel and the work of the kingdom. And if any of you have any ideas you’d like to talk about, I’d be delighted to hear from you!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sermon for August 24th

‘Bible People You May Not Remember’ #1: Barnabas – Investing Your Life in People

Today I want to talk with you about a man who seems to have made a decision to invest his life in other people. He seems to have been a wealthy man, but very early in his life as a Christian he apparently decided not to cling to riches, but to give them away and to focus on people instead. For the rest of his life, whenever he appears in the pages of the New Testament, he is taking people under his wing and helping them grow in their faith in Christ. His name – or at least, the name by which we know him best – was Barnabas.

Barnabas was born on the island of Cyprus into a Jewish family. He seems to have been living in Jerusalem in the early days of the Christian Church, and he seems to have been a wealthy man, a property owner in fact. We can guess something about his character from the nickname the apostles gave him. He was originally called ‘Joseph’, but the apostles gave him the name ‘Barnabas’, which means ‘son of encouragement’. ‘Son of’ was an Aramaic idiom referring to the character of the person: for instance, the rather bad-tempered brothers James and John were given the nickname ‘sons of thunder’ by Jesus! So if Barnabas was called ‘son of encouragement’, we can guess that this has something to say to us about the kind of man he was.

Barnabas is first mentioned in the Book of Acts in connection with his generosity. The early Christians in Jerusalem practiced a form of voluntary communism; those who owned land or goods sold them and brought the money to the apostles to be distributed to those who were in need, and in this way, Luke tells us, there were no needy people among them. Barnabas is mentioned as an example of this; he sold a field that belonged to him, brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Luke, the author of Acts, gives us no insight into the mental processes Barnabas went through in making this decision, but perhaps it won’t hurt for us to speculate a bit. Imagine yourself making such a decision. On the one hand, there’s land and security, the ability to better care for yourself without asking for help from others, and presumably to provide for your family as well. On the other hand, there’s this new community, full of joy and love, focused on Jesus of Nazareth who died but whom the apostles claim is alive. You’ve put your faith in him and been baptized, and you’ve been taught by the apostles the things Jesus said about the dangers of the love of money and the need to care for the poor. And yet – it seems so risky just to give a huge chunk of land away! Do you have the faith to do that? Are you willing to be obedient?

I wonder what your decision would have been. I’m not claiming – and neither is the New Testament – that every Christian needs to sell everything they have and give all the money away (we’re not even told that Barnabas sold everything). But I am sure that wealth brings the danger of idolatry, of worshipping and relying on something other than God. And I’m also sure that the command to care for the poor and needy rather than living a life of selfish luxury is right at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. And Barnabas faced up to this. From that point on, his life was invested in people, not money and possessions.

The next time we meet Barnabas in the pages of Acts is after Paul – then known as Saul – had become a Christian. If you know the story, you know that Saul’s conversion was rather dramatic. He had actually been on the way to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, when he had a life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus himself. After he began to spread the message of Christ he came down to Jerusalem and wanted to meet with the disciples there, but they were understandably afraid; after all, this was the man who a few months before had been hunting them down from house to house, throwing them into prison, and voting for their execution! Naturally, they suspected that it was all a trick.

Except for Barnabas; he was the man who was willing to give Saul the benefit of the doubt. He took Saul to meet the disciples and told them the story of how he had met Christ on the Damascus Road, and the changes that had taken place in his life. And so Saul began to spread the Christian message in Jerusalem, until a plot against his life led the apostles to send him back to the safety of his hometown, Tarsus, in what is now southern Turkey.

Some time later some Jewish Christians from Cyprus went to the city of Antioch in northern Syria and began to do something that was very controversial in those early days of the Church: they began to share the good news of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, with people who were not Jews, inviting them to believe in him and follow him. A large number of people took them up on the invitation and became Christians: indeed, Antioch was the city where the word ‘Christian’ was first invented! The Jerusalem apostles heard about what was happening and they sent Barnabas down to encourage the new believers and build them up in their faith. Here’s what Acts 11 says about Barnabas and what he did:
‘When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord’ (11:23-24).
But Barnabas realised that the work was too much for him alone. We need to remember that very few of these early Christian missionaries were full-timers. We don’t know what Barnabas’ trade was, but we do know that his practice, wherever he went, was to work for a living with his hands and do his Christian ministry in his spare time. And so he decided to go to Tarsus and get Saul, and enlist his help in the church in Antioch.

I can guess that this was not just because Barnabas needed help. After all, if qualified help was the only issue, there were plenty of apostles in Jerusalem who had been Christians for a lot longer than Saul, and were presumably more capable than him. But I’m guessing that Barnabas had caught a glimpse of the gifts this young man possessed, and thought to himself, “I’m going to help him learn to use those gifts to serve the Lord”. In other words, once again, Barnabas was choosing to invest his life in people: the young Christians in Antioch, and the young former Pharisee who he was going to train to be an evangelist and a pastor.

Well, let’s go on with the story. Acts 13 tells us that one day the church leaders in Antioch were fasting and worshipping the Lord together, when the Holy Spirit gave a message to someone there: ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ (13:2). So they fasted and prayed and laid hands on the two of them, and then sent them off. That was how missionary work was done in those days: no seminary education, no pension plan, no salary, just prayer and fasting and off you went, supporting yourself by working along the way!

So Barnabas and Saul set off, with Barnabas’ young cousin John Mark as their helper. They went first to Barnabas’ home of Cyprus, and then crossed to Asia Minor and spread the gospel in a number of cities there. In every city, they first preached in the Jewish synagogue and then, often after they’d been thrown out, they shared the message with the Gentiles as well. And their mission was successful; in every city little churches sprang up, and the missionaries appointed elders to look after them, just like the elders in a Jewish synagogue.

Somewhere along the way the student became the leader: the team had originally been ‘Barnabas and Saul’, but by the end of the trip Luke refers to them as ‘Paul and Barnabas’. Also, John Mark didn’t stay with them for very long; soon after they crossed to Asia Minor he left them and returned to Jerusalem. Paul’s view was that he had deserted them, and this was to be significant later on.

At this point in the story the chronology gets a bit difficult. Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells us about an incident that is not recorded in Acts. The central act of Christian worship in those days was a shared meal. We call it the ‘Eucharist’ today, but we mustn’t imagine that it was much like our Eucharist; it was more like a pot luck supper, with prayers and readings and the ceremonial bread and wine added. In Antioch, and presumably in the new churches Paul and Barnabas had founded, Jews and Gentiles ate these meals together, which, strictly speaking, was against Jewish law, because the Gentiles didn’t keep kosher.

That was all very well, and in fact even Peter came down to Antioch and took part in these fully integrated fellowship meals. But then some more traditional Jewish Christians came down to Antioch, and they were scandalized by what they saw. Didn’t the law say that people should be circumcised and keep kosher? And so, in deference to them, Peter withdrew from the integrated fellowship meals – and so did Barnabas. To Paul, this was totally unacceptable. In Christ Jews and Gentiles were one, and when Jesus sent his missionaries out to make disciples of all nations, he said nothing about circumcision and food laws. I can well imagine the line Peter and Barnabas would have taken. “Look, Paul, we agree with you, alright? But these guys from Jerusalem don’t see it that way! To them it’s unfaithfulness to God. So can’t we just compromise a bit and have separate meals while they’re here? When they’re gone, we can go back to the way we were doing it before”.

But between Paul and the Judaisers, as they later came to be known, there could be no compromise. Eventually a council was held in Jerusalem, which for the most part decided in favour of Paul’s view. That’s why we don’t practice circumcision and kosher and all that today, and I for one am grateful for that! But it’s also sad that a breach took place between Barnabas and Paul. When they went out again to do missionary work, they went separately. Luke says it was because Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance and take him with them again, while Paul didn’t trust the young man who had already deserted them once. That sounds in character for both of them, but I can’t help thinking that underneath that surface issue was the mistrust between the two great missionaries because of the issue of food laws and shared meals. Toward the end of their lives, it’s possible that there was a reconciliation; in his letter to the Colossians Paul speaks respectfully of both John Mark and Barnabas. But as far as we know they never worked together again.

This is the story as the New Testament tells it. Let me conclude with a few words of application. What does the story have to say to us today?

Firstly, I note the fact that effective Christian ministry doesn’t need to be done by full-time professionals. Barnabas was never a full-time professional preacher. He was a tradesman who loved Jesus above all else, and he was willing to give of himself, out of his own spare time and his own resources, to share the Gospel and build up the church. He was far more like a lay reader than a modern priest. His life situation was much more like yours than mine.

So you don’t need to go to seminary to be a missionary. You don’t need to wear a clerical collar to spread the gospel. You don’t need to be a full-timer to build up the church and make disciples. You simply need to be a disciple yourself, and be willing to help others along the way. You can do that. I can do that. The same Holy Spirit has been given to us, and he is enough.

Second, I note the sort of person Barnabas had become, through the work of that same Holy Spirit. What sort of person would be willing to give Saul the benefit of the doubt and take the risk of bringing him into the Christian fellowship in Jerusalem? What sort of person would be willing to give John Mark a second chance even though he had let him down once before? What sort of person would be given the nickname ‘son of encouragement’? Surely, a person who believed in other people, and who always saw the best in other people. Some people see failings and mistakes, but Barnabas saw opportunities. He saw the potential in people, and he was willing to take time and invest himself in the lives of other people, so that they could become everything that God dreamed for them to be.

Many years ago Daniel McDougall, who worked in a shipbuilding office in Scotland, shared his faith with a much younger man in the same office. Eventually the young man, whose name was Archie Fleming, gave his life to Christ. Archie had another Christian friend called David Patterson, who took a keen interest in him and helped him learn to pray and read the Bible. Eventually David took him along to evangelistic meetings and gave him his first opportunity of sharing his faith with other people – something that was terrifying at first for young Archie, but later became easier for him.

In July 1909 Archie Fleming went to Baffin Island to work as an Anglican missionary. In the years to come he undertook some amazing missionary journeys by dog sled, sharing the good news of Jesus with people who had never heard of him before. Many years later he became the first bishop of the Diocese of the Arctic, and a much-loved figure among the Inuit of the north. But none of this would have happened if two other men, Dan McDougall and David Petterson – neither of whom was a full-time minister – hadn’t shared their faith with him and helped him take his first steps in ministry. They invested their lives in Archie Fleming, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So let me close by asking you this question – and I’m especially thinking of those of you who are older in the Christian faith, those who have been following Jesus for some years. Who are you investing your life in? Which younger Christians are you taking under your wing and guiding as they learn to follow Jesus in their daily lives? If you are ‘Barnabas’, who is your ‘Saul’? Who is the person in whom you can see such great potential, despite their obvious faults, that you find yourself thinking, “I’m going to do all I can to help her grow as a Christian”?

That’s what Jesus meant by ‘making disciples’. It’s a job he gave to the whole Christian church, not just to priests or ministers. Barnabas did it superbly well, and that’s probably the most important thing we can learn from him.

Monday, August 25, 2008

25th - 31st August 2008

Monday, August 25th
Office Closed

Tim’s Day Off

Friday, August 29th
7.30 pm --Wedding rehearsal & after rehearsal lunch in basement.

Saturday, August 30th
Wedding of Zachary Strathdee & Lindsay Russell.

Sunday, August 31st - Pentecost 16
9.00 am - Eucharist
10.30 am - Eucharist

Growing Prayer @ St. Margaret’s

Church Families:
• Wayne & Leslie, Taylor & Morgan Pyra
• Brian & Margaret, Maureen, Douglas & Daniel Rac

Weekly Prayer Cycle: Sunday School Teachers - Marlene Aasen, Sarah Chesterton, Morgan Cromarty, Michelle Lobreau, Peter Rayment, Catherine Ripley & Beryl Rice

St. Margaret’s News

Thanks for your donations. Our totals to August 17th, 2008 are:
WIN HOUSE TOTAL - $4443.00

Back to Church Sunday Pot Luck - Invite your friends along to join us Sunday 7th September with a Pot Luck after the service. For the Pot Luck if your last name begins with A-M please bring main course and those with last names beginning with N-Z please bring dessert. If you are able to help with the set-up or clean-up for this day please let Tim Chesterton know. Thanks.

WIN House needs our help!
They have women, mothers, and children starting their new lives in their new homes, and most importantly, without an abusive spouse/partner. WIN House, at this time, needs:
• Pots and Pans
• Linens for Bed,
• Bath and Kitchen
• Small Appliances ie toasters, coffee makers, kettles etc.
PLEASE let's show WIN House how much we care. Bring any items that you may have to donate to the church and they will go to help women and children start their new lives in a loving and safe home. For more information please speak to Kathy Hughes.

Thursday Morning Bible Studies - Back September 25th.

Sunday School - Back on Sunday September 7th.

Wanted: One nursery supervisor. Responsible for organizing the nursery environment and nursery workers. If you like small children and are a good organizer, this may be the job for you. Anyone who is interested should call Michelle Lobreau.

Male Choristers Welcome: The Edmonton Christian Male Choir is inviting
Christian men of all ages to join in singing to the glory of God. The Choir
rehearses every Monday night from 7:25 to 9:40 p.m. beginning on Monday, September 8, 2008. Rehearsals are held in the chapel at the Orthodox Reformed Church of Edmonton, 11610 - 95A Street. For more information, call Tony at (780) 474-5798, or visit us on-line at

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fall Sermon Series: Bible People You May Not Remember

Aug. 24th: Barnabas: The Encourager
(Acts 4:32-37, Acts 9:26-40, Acts 13-15)

Aug. 31st: Priscilla and Aquila: Together in Ministry
(Acts 18, Romans 16:3-5)

Sept. 7th: The Woman Caught in Adultery: Transforming Grace
(John 8:1-11)

Sept. 14th: Nathan: Speaking the Truth to Power
(2 Samuel 11 & 12)

Sept. 21st: Thomas: the Doubter
(John 11:1-16, 14:1-6, 20:24-29)

Sept. 28th: Ruth: the Faithful Outsider
(Ruth 1-4)

Oct. 5th: Onesimus and Philemon: Slave or Brother?

Oct. 12th: Thanksgiving

Oct. 19th: Esther: In the Right Place at the Right Time

Oct. 26th: Mary and Martha: Faith and Action
(Luke 10:38-42, John 11, John 12:1-8)

Nov. 2nd: Andrew: Relational Evangelist
(John 1:35-42, 6:1-14, 12:20-26)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon for Pentecost 14: Genesis 37-50

Some Things God Wants You To Know When You’re Suffering

Let me start by telling you a story about a man who suffered. We started reading his story in our Old Testament readings last week, and we read a bit from the end of the story this morning. The whole tale is well worth reading; you’ll find it in Genesis chapters 37-50. But for this morning, let me give you the Coles notes version of it.

In the book of Genesis we read that the patriarch Jacob had two wives and two concubines. With these four women he had a total of twelve sons and a daughter. Most of them were the children of his wife Leah, but she was not his favourite. The wife he loved the most was Leah’s sister Rachel, and Rachel had waited a long time for her children. Joseph was her firstborn, and she died in childbirth with her second son, Jacob’s baby, Benjamin.

Jacob apparently never learned any psychology, because not only did he have a favourite wife, but he also had a favourite son, Rachel’s son Joseph, and he let the rest of the family know it in no uncertain terms. Not surprisingly, the knowledge that he was his father’s favourite turned young Joseph’s head a bit and he enjoyed playing on his favourite status with his brothers. He was apparently quite a dreamer, and enjoyed recounting his dreams. Once, for instance, he dreamt that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, and all the other eleven sheaves stood up and bowed to his sheaf. Another time he dreamt that he was a star in the sky, and the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed down to his star.

Jacob was troubled by his son’s attitude but didn’t seem to realise that he was contributing to it himself. For instance, he spent a lot of time working on a coat for Joseph to wear. We call it ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’ although the original Hebrew word simply means ‘a long sleeved coat’. But the point is that he was the only one who got such a coat from his father. Not surprisingly, the other brothers became more and more jealous of him, and their jealousy simmered, waiting for an appropriate moment to boil over.

The moment came when ten of the brothers were away keeping their father’s sheep. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, and they seized their chance. Their first plan was to kill him, but Judah, brother number four, talked them out of that one. Instead they sold him as a slave to some slave traders. They took his coat from him, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and took it back and showed it to their father. Not surprisingly, Jacob believed his son had been killed, and he was stricken with grief.

But Joseph was not dead. The slave traders took him down to Egypt where he was sold into the household of an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar, a captain in Pharaoh’s guard. The author of Genesis tells us that ‘The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man’ (Genesis 39:2). Apparently he was a hard worker and something of a charmer, and before too long he was a sort of butler, in charge of the running of Potiphar’s house. And eventually he came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife who had something of a roving eye. She tried to seduce him, but he refused; he pointed out his master’s trust in him and said, “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”(Genesis 39:9).

The lady in question tried several times to get Joseph to go to bed with her, and he always refused. Eventually she got so annoyed that she accused him to her husband of trying to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph out of his household and had him imprisoned. C.S. Lewis points out that this was a rather feeble punishment for those days, when executions were so common, and he speculates that Potiphar might have been a little skeptical: “I don’t suppose for a moment that Joseph did it, but I can see I’ll have no peace until I get him out of the house!”

Anyway, Joseph was now in prison, and the cycle repeated itself. Once again, his natural charm and ability asserted itself, and before too long he was the jailer’s right hand man. ‘The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper’ (Genesis 39:23).

After some time the King of Egypt threw two of his officials into prison. One night they both had dreams, and the next morning they were troubled by them. In those days everyone accepted that dreams were significant and needed to be interpreted, and the two officials wanted someone to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph noticed their distress and said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (40:8). So Joseph interpreted their dreams and his interpretation turned out to be correct; one of the officials was pardoned and restored to his job, and the other was hanged.

After a couple of years the King of Egypt himself had two dreams one night. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows coming up out of the river. They were followed by seven scrawny cows who proceeded to eat up the fat ones. In the second dream the King saw seven good ears of wheat on a stalk, which were immediately swallowed up by seven thin ears. The king was disturbed by this dream, and when he told the official who had been in prison with Joseph, the official remembered Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream and recommended him to the King.

So the King sent for Joseph. Joseph told him that God was informing him of the future: Egypt was about to go through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. So it would be prudent, Joseph said, to make some preparations now for the famine. The King agreed, and proceeded to appoint Joseph to his government and put him in charge of making the preparations!

Sure enough, the land went through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but because Joseph had been storing up food, Egypt was okay. Canaan, however, was not, and Canaan was where the rest of Joseph’s family was still living. Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob sent the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to buy food. They saw Joseph there but didn’t recognise him – we can speculate that he was much older and also shaved and dressed as an Egyptian.

Joseph, however, recognised his brothers and proceeded to put them through a series of tests to find out if they had changed at all. He accused them of being spies, and when they denied it and told him about their family, he arrested one of them, Simeon, and told the others to go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had stayed with their father in Canaan. Then he would know that they were telling the truth. They did this; on their next trip they brought Benjamin. Joseph contrived to frame Benjamin for stealing something from him, and when he arrested him, the other brothers all protested that their father would die if he lost Benjamin too. Judah even offered to take Benjamin’s place and live as Joseph’s slave.

At that point Joseph couldn’t keep it up any more. He made himself known to his brothers and there was an emotional reconciliation. He told them to go back, get the rest of the family and bring them down to Egypt where there was plenty of food for them all. So they went and got Jacob and the rest of the family, and all of them came down to Egypt. The king gave them land in Goshen, the best part of Egypt, and so Jacob and his family were saved from starvation.

The story of Joseph is an illustration of how God’s plans are brought slowly to their fruition; as Joseph says to his brothers at the end of the story, “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good”(50:20).

But it would be fair to say that this was not obvious to Joseph while he was going through the suffering. Looking back later, yes – he could see the hand of God at work, but I doubt if it was as clear to him when he was thrown into prison for his refusal to commit adultery with his master’s wife. No doubt he asked himself at that point why he bothered trying to be a godly person – as we all do in those kinds of circumstances.

What is the story telling us about suffering and how we deal with it?

The first thing is that our suffering is not a punishment. Now we might say that Joseph’s conduct at the beginning of the story, when he was lording it over his brothers and enjoying his favoured status, was simply asking for trouble. Nonetheless, later on, when he was thrown into jail in Egypt, it was because of his refusal to sin, rather than because of any wickedness on his part. God was not punishing Joseph, and this is very important for us to remember.

Indeed, for us Christians it’s even clearer than it was for Joseph, because Jesus has died for our sins. Over and over again, when Christian people go through suffering, they come to their pastors and cry out “Why is God doing this to me? I’ve tried to be a good person - why is he punishing me?” The answer is - he isn’t. Whatever else our suffering might be, it’s not a punishment for our sins. How do we know that? Because Romans 8:1 says ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. No condemnation! So whatever else our suffering may be, it is not a punishment from God.

The second thing God wants us to know when we suffer is this: our suffering cannot frustrate God’s purpose for us. We are a part of God’s plan for the human race, and he is going to bring that plan to its successful conclusion.

When human beings chose to disobey God at the beginning of our history, part of God’s response was to choose a people to be his special messengers to the world. By their life together they were to model for the whole world what God’s ways were like. At the climax of their history, God himself came and lived among them in Jesus, and he started the next phase of God’s plan - the choosing of a new people, both inside and outside the borders of Israel, to be his messengers to the world.

The Church of Jesus Christ is God’s new Israel, called to model for the whole world what God’s kingdom looks like, and called to spread the Good News of Jesus to all people. So you and I aren’t just isolated individuals living our lives in the middle of the accidents of history. We’re a part of God’s great plan, and God is not going to allow evil to derail that plan. Sometimes when we suffer we forget that; we think that God’s plan is going to be somehow hindered by what’s happening to us. But the Bible gives us lots of examples of how God can even bring good out of the evil things that happen to us.

This story of Joseph is one of those examples. Joseph’s experience agrees with what Paul says in Romans 8:28: ‘And we know that God makes all things work together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose’ (NRSV margin). Suffering is a great mystery, very difficult for us to understand, but somehow God is still able to bring about his purposes for us even when we suffer. To quote Joseph’s words to his brothers again: “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good”(50:20)

In Romans 8:38-39 Paul says ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. You know, it sounds terrible when I say it, but these verses are not strictly true. Before you kick me out of the pulpit for contradicting the Bible, let me explain what I mean. Paul is right; by themselves these things can’t separate us from God’s love in Christ - unless we let them! Unfortunately, so often when we go through suffering we do allow these things to drive us away from God; we get so wrapped up in the suffering and we allow it to make us bitter and full of hate and self-pity.

The thing that impresses me most about the story of Joseph is that he didn’t do that. Surely if anyone had an excuse to indulge in despair and to rail angrily against God, Joseph did! But that was not his response. In every negative circumstance he found himself in, he simply accepted it without question and began to do his best to be faithful to God wherever he was – even in the deepest dungeon. And God honoured that.

Joseph’s story is assuring us that our suffering is not a punishment sent by God. It is reminding us that our suffering cannot frustrate God’s plans for us. And it is inviting us to turn to God in our suffering, to be faithful to him whether we feel like it or not, and to ask for his help moment by moment. As we learn to do that, we gradually discover that Paul is right after all, and there is absolutely nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord..