Monday, November 29, 2010

Sermon for November 28th (first Sunday in Advent): Isaiah 2:1-5

God’s Vision for the Future

In days of struggle and darkness when all hope seems to be lost, it’s often artists and musicians and poets and orators who stir people up with a vision of a better future. In the dark days of Word War Two when it seemed as if there was no end in sight, Vera Lynn sang a song that inspired people and gave them hope that better days might be coming. It went like this:

There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover

Tomorrow, just you wait and see

There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after

Tomorrow when the world is free

The shepherd will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again

And Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again

Of course, when Vera Lynn sang this song there were Spitfires and Hurricanes flying over the white cliffs of Dover, Jimmy’s little room had probably been destroyed by a bomb, and the valley where the shepherd had kept his sheep might well have been fenced with barbed wire and turned into a minefield. But the song inspired people because it gave them vision, a picture of better days ahead, and in the strength of that vision they were able to press on toward this future.

This is what good leaders do – they articulate a vision that motivates people to work together to achieve something good. Isaiah of Jerusalem was such a leader; he lived in a turbulent time when the nation of Judah was beset by powerful foreign enemies and its very existence was threatened, but he gave people hope by sharing a powerful vision of a future time when all people would walk in God’s ways and live in peace together. He may not actually have written these words himself; they appear almost verbatim in the book of Micah as well, and it may be that both Isaiah and Micah were quoting from an earlier piece of writing by an unknown author. But what they had to say certainly shaped Israel’s view of God’s future; the word that Israel used for it was ‘shalom’, which means not just peace but also well-being, harmony, wholeness. While Jesus does not quote directly from this passage in Isaiah, his vision of the kingdom of God and of the call to peace was probably inspired by it.

So let’s take a look at this passage in Isaiah 2:1-5. Let’s explore what it tells us about the future of God’s world, and then let’s ask ourselves what we are called to do about it in the present, in the here-and-now.

What is the future vision God is holding out to us in this passage? Surely it’s a vision of peace and harmony between the things God has created - humans, animals, the natural creation and so on. Everything and everyone God has created will live together in love and justice. Isaiah says:

In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob’ (vv.2-3a).

In this vision of God’s kingdom, the nations of the world will acknowledge that God is real, and that God is the ruler of his creation. In our present reality, the mood of most nations is a sort of practical atheism, by which I mean that even if people say they believe in God, they don’t see him as actually relevant to their lives, and to the political and economic decisions they make. But this will change when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fulness. Isaiah says that people will come streaming to the Temple. The temple was the symbol of God’s presence among his people, so Isaiah is saying that in days to come, God’s presence and God’s vision for the world will be central in the life of his creation. As Christians, that’s what we all long for; that’s where we’ll find the fulfilment of our deepest longings and hopes.

Another thing this reading tells us is that in the Kingdom of God, everyone will walk in God’s ways. The Garden of Eden story in Genesis speaks of our human rebellion against our Creator. When the snake tempts Adam and Eve to take the fruit, what he tells them really boils down to the idea that they’ll be better off choosing their own way instead of listening to the voice of God. That idea runs through human history right to this present moment; we’d all much rather choose our own path than submit to God’s will. Like Frank Sinatra, we want to be able to sing about our life that “I did it my way”!

But when the Kingdom of God comes in its fulness this will change. Look at Isaiah 2:3: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. We will finally be willing to let the Lord guide us, to listen to his teachings and to walk in the paths he has chosen for the people he created.

Parents sometimes get intensely frustrated at their children; it seems as if they’re determined to repeat all the mistakes of the previous generation! They love their children so much and they want so much to spare them pain and suffering, but sometimes they just won’t listen. But have you ever considered how frustrating it must be to be God sometimes? He created us, he loves us through and through, and he knows what kind of life will make for happiness, fulfilment and peace for everyone and everything on earth. So in his love for us he sends prophets, teachers, and wise leaders to point the way for us; eventually he comes himself in the person of Jesus to show us the way and to die to make it possible for us to follow it. Yet still, all too often, we don’t listen.

Isaiah tells us that when God’s Kingdom comes in all its fullness, all people will listen to their loving Creator. As we learn in the Lord’s Prayer, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then God’s Kingdom will come. In the Kingdom we will willingly and joyfully submit to God’s will and shape our lives by it. And one of the effects of that will be the peace we all long and pray for. Look at v.4:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Now here’s something interesting: Isaiah doesn’t say that in God’s future kingdom there will be no disputes. Disputes aren’t the problem; it’s the way we handle them that’s the problem. We resort to violence and war because of our fear, our greed, our lust for power over others, and so on. The difference in the Kingdom of God will not be that we have no more disputes, but that we will refer our disputes to God and we will abide by his decision. As a result there will be no more need to learn the arts of war.

So this passage tells us that when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness, everyone will acknowledge God, everyone will willingly walk in God’s ways, and the result will be peace. This is what we mean by ‘the Kingdom of God’; this is what the Reign of God is like. Jesus announced the coming of this Kingdom, and he saw his life, death and resurrection as inaugurating it. He sent his Church out into the whole world to announce it, and to call all people to give their allegiance to him as ‘Christ’, which means God’s anointed King.

The completion of this process of course is still in the future. Jesus told his disciples how it would spread at the beginning of the book of Acts:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” Acts 1:6-8).

So Jesus sends out his Church to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, to the end of time – and, as John Stott says, we have no liberty to stop until we reach both ends.

This leads us to the second question I want to ask this reading: What are we meant to be doing about this vision in the here-and-now?

In the Christian church there have been two extreme answers to this question. On the one hand there are some Christians who are optimistic about the possibilities of human transformation right now. Their idea is ‘We are God’s instruments on earth; building the Kingdom of God is up to us’. People who take this view work hard to improve society, to reform evils and bring justice and so on. At the other extreme we have people who say that human nature is not improvable. There’s no point in trying to make the world a better place; it’s going to be evil until Jesus returns. So all we can do is try to get as many people as possible to accept Christ so that there’ll be lots of us around at the Second Coming of Jesus.

Well, I think myself that the truth lies between those two extremes. I agree that the world will never become perfect until Jesus returns. Human sinfulness is such that our selfishness will inevitably spoil even our best projects to improve the world. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. And it’s especially important for Christian people to work together to model for the world what God’s Kingdom is like. We should be doing all we can to make sure the Church is a community of justice and peace, a community of forgiveness and grace, what Keith Miller calls ‘an outpost of the Kingdom of God’. And we do that by following Isaiah’s words in verse 5 of our reading: ‘O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!’

When I was on sabbatical leave in 2007 I read some of the writings of Alan Kreider, a wonderful Mennonite scholar who has made a special study of the process by which new Christians were nurtured in their faith in the early church, and I also had the chance to meet Alan and discuss this with him. I learned from him that this passage from Isaiah 2 was a key passage in the church in the first three centuries of the Christian era, before the Roman Empire took over Christianity. New converts were encouraged to memorise this passage, and meditate on it often. And this was not just because they saw it as a lovely vision of hope for the future. No, they also saw it as having a bearing on their present experience as Christians. When they read the words, ‘Out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem’ (v.3), they saw the work of the early Christian missionaries as part of the fulfilment of that prophecy: Jesus had sent them out to proclaim the gospel in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. To them this passage was not just about the future; rather, they saw the future as having already begun in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the mission of the church.

‘Walking in the light of the Lord’ means having the courage not to relegate these words to some time in the future, which means that we don’t have to do anything about them right now. No – we refuse to cop out in this way. We recognize that God is calling the Christian Church right now to be a community that lives by these values and practices. We are to be a community of people who acknowledge that God is real and who make it our number one concern to discover his will and practice it together. We are to be a community of people who turn away from fear and selfishness and greed, and live in love and simplicity and generosity instead. We are to be a community of people who not only refuse to kill each other, but also turn away from anger and resentment and malice, and strive for reconciliation with one another and with all people. We don’t wait until the future, when God makes it easy and safe for us to do this. We take the risk of doing it now.

Our old friend Lloyd Robinson, who some of us remember in this congregation, used to talk about ‘living into the Kingdom of God’. What does that mean? Well, the illustration I’ve often used comes from those ancient days when VHS was gradually taking over from Betamax. Some of you are old enough to remember those days, yes? In the early days, when videocassette recorders were first produced, the most popular format was Betamax. But then along came VHS. At first no one paid much heed to it; it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But gradually, quietly, it became the dominant format, and eventually Betamax completely died out.

At the moment we’re living in a Betamax world – a world in which the values of evil and sin seem strong, almost impregnable. But the VHS revolution has quietly begun – in other words, as Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’. And Jesus calls us, metaphorically speaking, to take the risk of buying our VHS machines now, while the whole world is still using Betamax! In other words, even though our world may be dominated by the values of selfishness and fear and greed and sin, to the extent that it may even be a dangerous thing for people to actually try to practice the teaching of Jesus – yet still, we, the Church of Jesus Christ, are called to take that risk. Instead of living out of the values of the old kingdom of evil, we’re to live into the values of the new kingdom of God.

And this is what the season of Advent is all about. In Advent we celebrate this hope; we look forward to the day when this vision becomes a reality and God’s kingdom comes as God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. But we don’t stop there; we make it our business to live out this hope in our lives now. The kingdom of God is at hand! And so I say to you, as Isaiah said to his people: “O followers of Jesus, come – let us walk in the light of the Lord”.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Baptisms at St. Margaret's, November 6th 2010

On November 6th we baptised William Brydges Rose and Claire Anne Greenwood. William and his Mom and Dad were visiting us from the United States; William's grandparents live in Edmonton and we enjoyed helping the family get together for the baptism. Claire was actually baptised by her Grandfather. the Rev. David Greenwood from St. Thomas', Fort MacMurray; Claire and her Mom and Dad are members of St. Margaret's. Here are a few photos from the occasion (courtesy of Claire's uncle, Rob Joseph, and William's Mom, Anne Vargas-Prada).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sermon for November 21st: Luke 23:32-43

The Suffering King

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie The American President, with Michael Douglas and Anette Bening. In one scene from the movie - a scene that seems almost prophetic now - Douglas’ character, President Andy Shepherd, has to respond to a terrorist attack on American troops by retaliating against a Libyan command building. He’s obviously uncomfortable with this action, and one of his aides reassures him that this will be very good for him because he’ll be seen to be ‘acting presidentially’. Shepherd then comments on the tragedy of the fact that ordering a strike that will kill innocent janitors and deprive their families of husbands and fathers is seen as ‘acting presidentially’.

The question behind our Gospel for today is not about ‘acting like a president’ but ‘acting like a king’. How does a King act? In this Gospel reading Jesus is referred to four times in kingly language - and we need to remember that the words ‘King’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ all mean essentially the same thing. Three of these references have a question mark beside them; the speaker is questioning whether Jesus is in fact a king after all. In verse 35 the leaders scoff and say “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one”. In verse 37 the Roman soldiers mock Jesus: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”. And in verse 39 one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. But in the fourth reference to Jesus as King the penitent criminal expresses his faith in Jesus’ kingship: “Jesus, remember me when (not if) you come into your kingdom” (v.42).

How can a man hanging on a cross be God’s Messiah, the chosen king of God’s people Israel? After all, the model for the Messiah was David, the great warrior king who defeated the Philistines and established Israel as a great power. During the reign of David Israel finally got some respect from her neighbours! David was ruthless toward his enemies; we’re told that on one occasion he lined up the Moabite men and put to death every third one of them, just to put the fear of Israel into them. On the ‘David’ model, the victories of the King are signs that God is with him, but only a false Messiah would be executed!

But there was another voice in the scriptures of Israel, and the leaders allude to it in today’s reading when they speak about ‘the Messiah of God, his chosen one’. This is a reference to Isaiah chapter 42: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’. This is the first of four so-called ‘Servant Songs’ in Isaiah in which we read about a mysterious figure who not only acts as God’s messenger to the nations but also willingly goes through suffering and offers his life on their behalf. In chapter 50 the Servant says ‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting’. And in a famous verse from chapter 53 Isaiah says of the Servant ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’.

This is the model that Jesus accepted for his ministry. He is a King who willingly goes through suffering, rather than inflicting it on God’s enemies, and he gives his life on behalf of his people. This has major implications for followers of Jesus. Not only does the King suffer for us; he also offers us a pattern of faithfulness in suffering.

The King suffers for us. The New Testament teaches us that through the Cross of Jesus we are reconciled to God, and the various authors develop several models to help us understand this. They see Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, just like the Old Testament sacrifices in which the animals were seen as taking the place of the guilty one and dying on his or her behalf. Again, they see his death as a ransom price paid to set the slaves free. These are just two of the many pictures of Jesus’ death in the New Testament. Luke, the author of today’s Gospel passage, offers us no theory of how the Cross ‘saves’ us; instead, he shows its power by pointing to the things Jesus does while he is hanging there.

Firstly, Jesus offers forgiveness from the Cross. In verse 34 he prays for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. What’s the big picture that Luke wants us to see here? It’s the picture of how our Creator comes and lives among us in Jesus, and what do we do to him? We turn against him and nail him to a Cross. This is a picture of our human rebellion against God. But what is God’s response to our rebellion? Instead of taking out his vengeance and wrath on us, he responds with mercy and forgiveness. In effect, he says to us ‘You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you’.

An Anglican priest, John Gunstone, talks about how as a boy he went to his first confession in his Anglo-Catholic parish. He says, ‘In Anglo-Catholic parishes, candidates for confirmation were expected to make their first confession to a priest, and this I duly did, kneeling at a prayer desk at St. Lawrence’s. On the curtain in front of me (behind which the vicar was sitting…) was pinned a black and silver crucifix. Although I was only 9 years of age, it dawned on me that the forgiveness of my sins was possible only because of Christ’s death on the Cross’. This, of course, is why I make the sign of the Cross when I say the words of absolution each week in our service, and why some of you make the same sign on yourselves. We are reminding ourselves that we can come to the Cross of Jesus, ask for forgiveness, and be assured that we have received it.

Secondly, Jesus promises paradise from the Cross. The dying criminal says to him “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Jesus replies “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). Of course, all humans are searching for paradise. Pop singers sing about how they’ve found it in the arms of the person they love; politicians promise it to us if we only vote for them. But Jesus guarantees it to the dying criminal as he hangs on the Cross; in the original language he says ‘Amen I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’. When Jesus says ‘Amen I tell you’ it is the most solemn promise he can make.

So these two pictures - Jesus offering forgiveness and promising paradise - tell us that blessedness, reconciliation with God, the life that God planned for us - these things come to us, not through the King’s strength and power, but through his weakness and death. Somehow the second criminal was able to see this. Like him, we’re invited to come and experience the power of the Cross for ourselves.

But there’s more for us yet in this Gospel. We’ve discovered that the King suffers for us, but it’s also true that in this passage the King gives us a pattern of suffering. In the writings of Luke - that is, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts - Jesus is seen as the model Christian, whose example we are to follow. What model does Jesus give us here of how we advance the cause of God’s kingdom? It’s a model of accepting unjust suffering and of responding to it not with violence and anger but with love and forgiveness. When Jesus does this, his suffering is not pointless but very fruitful; it results in salvation for the whole world!

In Luke’s second book, Acts, a man called Stephen follows this pattern. His story is told for us in Acts chapters six, seven and eight. He has a powerful ministry as a preacher and eventually is arrested by the Jewish ruling council. At his trial his words make the leaders so angry that they eventually mob Stephen, take him out of the city and stone him to death. As Stephen is dying he prays for his murderers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”, and then he dies.

But Stephen’s death is not a waste. Two things happen as a result. First of all, that day a great persecution breaks out against the Church, and many Christians are forced to leave Jerusalem. But this is not a disaster, because Luke tells us ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’ (Acts 8:4). The Jewish ruling council wanted to stamp out the movement, but what they actually did was to take a dandelion and blow on it, scattering seeds everywhere. But even more significantly, Luke gives us the little detail that when Stephen was stoned ‘the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. This is our first introduction to the man who became the great apostle Paul. Why does Luke mention him here? Surely because he wants us to see that Stephen’s death was significant in the journey that eventually led Saul to become a Christian himself.

In Acts 14:22 this same Paul, now a Christian, tells his new converts a basic truth about the Christian life: ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God’. So you see - in Luke’s vision of Christianity suffering is an inevitable part of Christian discipleship and Christian mission, and it is also enormously fruitful.

The Church has often forgotten the example of Jesus and Stephen. In its history the Church has often burned heretics and those of other faiths, and these actions have caused untold harm to the cause of the Gospel. But this is not the whole story. Let me give you a fairly recent account of a group of Christian missionaries who understood the way of Jesus. In the early 1950’s five American missionaries living in Ecuador sensed the call of God to proclaim the Gospel to the Auca people. The Aucas were totally isolated and were feared by all of the neighbouring tribes; there were many stories of the savagery with which they had killed people who tried to enter their territory. Nonetheless, these five friends decided that the time had come to attempt to spread the Gospel among them. One of the five, Nate Saint, was a pilot, and he began flying over the Auca villages in his little mission plane, dropping gifts and sending messages. The five also encountered a young Auca woman who had left her tribe and through her they learned a few words of the Auca language.

Eventually, in late 1955, the five missionaries decided that the time had come to attempt physical contact. Nate had found a sandbar on the Cururay River, close to one of the Auca villages, which seemed suitable as a landing site. On January 6th 1956 they did one more flight over the village, shouting to the people to come and meet them on the Cururay, and then landed on that sandbar and set up camp. The next day three Aucas came to meet them and visited with them for several hours. All seemed to be going well, but on Sunday January 8th radio contact with the five missionaries was lost. Their wives and children waited anxiously, but eventually it became clear that the Aucas had killed them all.

However, this is not the end of the story. There isn’t time to tell the full tale of how it was three family members of the five dead missionaries - Rachel Saint, Betty Elliot and her young, suddenly fatherless daughter Valerie - who, with the help of the young Auca woman Dayuma, continued the efforts to reach these people with the Gospel. Instead of leaving in anger, they continued to exercise the love of Christ in forgiving those who had murdered their loved ones. And their mission was successful; through their witness many Aucas eventually accepted the Gospel.

Let’s sum up what Luke’s story of the Cross is saying to us today on Reign of Christ Sunday:

First, let’s remember that Jesus our King provides for the needs of his people through his death. All of our deadliest enemies - our guilt, our fear, our slavery to sin, even death itself, ‘the final enemy’ - all of them are utterly defeated at the Cross. And we are given the opportunity to imitate the penitent criminal. Like him, we are invited to recognise our own guilt. Like him, we’re invited to recognise that it was not for any crimes he had committed that Jesus was dying, but rather that he was dying for us. Like him, we’re invited to cast ourselves on the mercy and grace of Jesus, in the assurance that our prayer will be heard, just as his prayer was heard.

Secondly, as followers of Jesus, let’s remember how his kingdom advances. It doesn’t go forward with glory and trumpets. It doesn’t advance by enforcing Christian morality by government legislation. It doesn’t go forward by our building the biggest and most impressive church in the city with the latest sound system and the flashiest advertising.

No, the most powerful way for us to help in the advancement of God’s kingdom is to do as Jesus did, as Stephen did, and as the five missionaries to the Aucas and their families did - to respond to hatred with love and forgiveness. This may seem like foolishness to us, but Paul said ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Let me remind you of some more words of Paul:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them...Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14, 17-19a, 21).

As we think on these things today - on what Jesus has done for us through his Cross, and on what his example tells us about how we can best work for the spread of his kingdom - I think the best way for us to conclude is simply to sing along with the dying criminal ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sermon for November 14th: Luke 21:5-19

‘Faithfulness in Difficult Times’

Those of us who are over the age of forty would probably all agree with the statement that we now live in a different world than the one we were born and grew up in.

I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, in a little country that was on the front line of a potential nuclear conflict. To me, the Iron Curtain seemed to be a permanent fixture of European life; I never expected to live to see it come down. But in 1989, down it came, and the world as we knew it changed beyond recognition. For a few years, the fear of a nuclear holocaust was lifted, and we all thought that the world had changed for the better. But then the clouds began to gather again, and on September 11th 2001 they burst into a spectacular thunderstorm that seems to have engulfed the world ever since. We all thought that the end of the Cold War would make the world a safer place, but I suspect that none of us feel much safer. Enemies are no longer easily identifiable by the uniforms they wear; the person sitting beside us on the bus could now be the one who blows us up in an act of terrorism. This is the grim new world we live in.

Notice the language we’re using here. I said at the beginning that ‘the world we live in today is not the same world we were born and brought up in’. Now, literally, that’s not true: it’s exactly the same world. But we use the ‘new world’ figure of speech because things have changed so much that it seems like a different place to us. All the old familiar political and social landmarks are gone, and we don’t know how to find our way in this new order of things. So we talk about ‘living in a different world’.

There was a phrase that was commonly used in the time of Jesus for this idea: ‘the end of the age’. Bible readers in our day often think that this phrase means ‘the end of the world’, but in fact it usually doesn’t. When Luke wrote his gospel, it’s highly likely that his first readers had already lived through ‘the end of the age’; they had seen the Jewish Temple reduced to a pile of rubble and the city of Jerusalem destroyed by the Roman armies. They had been brought up to believe that the Temple was a sign of God’s presence among his people, and that God would protect Jerusalem from the pagans. When that Temple came down, it must have seemed to them like a combination of the World Trade Centre and Canterbury Cathedral being destroyed at the same time. It must have shaken their faith to the core; what on earth had happened to God’s promises to care for his people?

So Luke wrote chapter 21 of his gospel to remind his hearers that Jesus had predicted this event. Not only that: Jesus had predicted all sorts of grief for his followers, so if they found themselves in trouble, that didn’t mean that God’s plan had somehow gone wrong! No –the kingdom of God was confronting the kingdoms of this world, and the kingdoms of this world weren’t jumping for joy about it. But the Christian response to this wasn’t to give up in despair; rather, they were called to be faithful to Jesus, and to continue to testify about their faith at every opportunity.

This passage starts with Jesus making a startling prediction about the Temple: ‘You see these stones? They’re all coming down! The time’s going to come when none of them will be left standing’. The disciples are shocked, and they ask him ‘When will this be? And what sign will we be given that it’s about to happen?’

Notice carefully how Jesus answers. A lot of people look at this passage in a fairly superficial way and conclude: ‘Jesus foretells wars and earthquakes and signs in the heavens and persecution of Christians; when these things happen, they’re signs of the end of the world’. But in fact that is exactly not what Jesus says. He says in verse 9, “Do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately”. In other words, these things aren’t signs of the end of the age – they’re just ‘business as usual’. This is the context in which we live: days of war and unrest, earthquake, deadly disease, prejudice and persecution. That’s the context in which we are called to follow Jesus.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the things Jesus describes as ‘business as usual’ for his followers. One of them is the arrival of false prophets. He says in verse 8, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The end is near!’ Do not go after them”. We know all about these false prophets; throughout Christian history we’ve had people who’ve set dates and drawn timelines and confidently asserted that the Antichrist was Napoleon Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler or Henry Kissinger or even the Pope. ‘Business as usual’, Jesus says; ‘don’t take any notice of them’. False prophets have been around since the beginning, and they’ll continue to be around until the end.

Two more pieces of ‘business as usual’ follow: wars and natural disasters. Jesus says in verse 9, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately”, and in verse 11 he talks about earthquakes, famines and plagues. Throughout history people have looked at these events and thought, “Surely this means that the Lord is coming again soon”, but here Jesus says, “No – it’s just business as usual in the fallen world we live in”. And even astrological signs don’t mean much; in verse 11 Jesus cautions his hearers not to read too much into ‘dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’. Don’t take any notice of your horoscope: it’s just the movement of gas giants in space, folks!

Another piece of ‘business as usual’ for the church is persecution, and Jesus talks about it in verses 12-19. He says that his followers will be persecuted by both religious and political authorities, and as we read the story of the early church in the book of Acts we can see that he was right – synagogue leaders, high priests, Jewish princes and Roman authorities all joined in the persecution of the early Christians. And around the world today, this is reality for many of our Christian brothers and sisters as well.

The persecution will even reach into their own families; “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers”, says Jesus, “by relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death” (v.16). My friend Howard Green used to be an Anglican priest in Japan, and a few times during his ministry there he baptized young teenagers from Buddhist families who had decided to become followers of Jesus. In that situation, Howard told me, it was common for the families to disown the children. This is tough, and Jesus knows it is tough, but it doesn’t mean the end of the world is coming; this also is ‘business as usual’, the sort of suffering that Christians have experienced all through our history.

As I read this passage I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speech in which he said that he had nothing to offer but ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’. “Follow me”, Jesus says, “and you’ll go through wars and insurrections, earthquakes and famines, persecutions from the religious establishment and the government and even members of your own families”. That sounds appealing, doesn’t it? This is the Gospel of Christ: thanks be to God!

Where is the good news in this passage? When our world seems to be falling apart, what can we count on? Two things, and we’ll look at them in reverse order.

First, in verses 18 and 19 Jesus says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (vv.18-19). This reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10, where he tells his disciples, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. He then goes on to say, “And even the hairs of your head are all counted” (vv.28, 30).

Obviously, in the context, this does not mean that God will save followers of Jesus from being killed for their faith. We know from history that this is just not true. In the two thousand years of Christian history, hundreds of thousands of Christians have paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to Jesus, and they continue to do so today in some parts of the world. No - what Jesus is doing here is taking away the fear of death for his followers. Yes, we may die, but we will not be lost; God will keep us in his care, and on the last day we will rise again with Jesus and live with him forever in the new heavens and new earth that God is going to create.

And this is tremendously important for us in the face of the normal troubles we face in this broken world – wars and natural disasters, plagues and deadly diseases and the fear of aircraft falling out of the sky and so on. I think Bishop Victoria spelled it out well for us in the days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. She was interviewed in the media several times, and her message was always the same: I’m hoping for healing, but if it’s not to be, I’m in God’s hands and that’s good. Or, as Paul put it, ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living’ (Romans 14:8-9). Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey used to tell the story of a woman dying of cancer who he visited as a young priest; when he came into the room she smiled at him and said, “Don’t look so worried, vicar – I’m only dying!”

So the first promise is that whether we live or die we can count on God to keep us in his care, and we know that ultimately we will not be the losers. And secondly, Jesus says, we can count on him to give us the words we need. He tells his followers that when they are brought before the courts and put on trial for their allegiance to him, they shouldn’t worry about what they are going to say: “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to contradict” (v.15).

This promise was fulfilled in the story of the early church. In Acts chapter four we read that Peter and John were brought up before the Jewish ruling council and questioned about their faith. The apostles spoke fearlessly about Jesus, and the council members were surprised by this. We read, ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus’ (Acts 4:13).

You and I aren’t likely to find ourselves hauled before courts for our loyalty to Jesus, but we may well find that from time to time we’re put on the spot by friends and relatives. Maybe we get religious terrorism thrown in our teeth, or the other objections that people commonly make to Christian faith. When that happens, we’ll sometimes be surprised at how the Lord gives us the words we need. And sometimes we won’t even be aware of it until long afterwards. I’ve had the experience a couple of times of people telling me that something I had said had made a real impression on them, even when I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Perhaps a person was attacking the Christian faith, and I said a word or two in defence of Jesus and his Gospel; the argument continued, and I didn’t think I was making any impression at all, but later on I found out that the message had gone home, even though the person tried to ignore it at the time.

The disciples of Jesus who first read the Gospel of Luke had lived through terrible events which shook their world down to the foundations. We might feel today as if we’re living through the same sort of events as well; wars and rumours of wars, climate change and super bugs, and an atmosphere of increasing hostility toward Christian faith. Other Christians before us have gone through this sort of thing, and much worse. This passage calls us to three things:

First, ‘endurance’: ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls’. The word here is sometimes translated ‘perseverence’. It means that when the times get tough you don’t give up on your faith; you keep getting up in the morning, saying your prayers and reading your Bible and doing the things that Jesus told you to do, and helping your fellow Christians to do the same.

Second, ‘trust’. God has promised to keep us in his loving care; in the strength of that promise we can keep on following Jesus and leave the consequences in God’s hands.

Third, testimony. When Jesus is talking about his followers being put on trial for their faith; he says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v.13). When following Jesus gets us into trouble, the prudent person will shut up about their faith; Jesus, however, doesn’t call us to be prudent but to be bold, and to speak our word of witness whenever we have the opportunity.

Follow Jesus faithfully; trust God to keep us in his care; take every opportunity to speak a word of witness for Christ. These are the things Jesus is calling us to in this passage. May the Holy Spirit give us the will and the strength to do them. Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sermon for November 7th: Ephesians 2:8-10

God’s Masterpiece

Today in the Christian year we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is actually on November 1st, but recently the custom has grown up of celebrating it on the first Sunday after November 1st, and since baptism is part of the process of becoming a saint, it is particularly appropriate that we celebrate baptisms on this feast day. Sainthood has been in the news again recently, both in Canada and in England. Over in England Pope Benedict recently presided over a ceremony moving John Henry Newman one step closer to being recognised as a ‘saint’, and here in Canada we’ve recently seen the canonisation of Brother AndrĂ© Bessette as a ‘saint’ in the Roman Catholic Church.

But I have to say that I’ve always been unhappy with this use of the word ‘saint’ to mean a particularly good Christian, one whose way of life is superior to the ordinary, run of the mill believers like you or me. This understanding of ‘saint’ is completely foreign to the Bible. In the New Testament, you don’t become a saint by being recognised by the Church as being a cut above the rest in terms of your goodness or love. Rather, you become a saint by putting your faith in Jesus and being baptised. The word ‘saint’ in the New Testament doesn’t describe a special kind of Christian - rather, it describes any member of God’s people. The letters of Paul are regularly addressed to ‘the saints of God in such and such a town’ - meaning not the especially holy minority, but all of them. If you are a Christian, then in New Testament language you are a saint. And so the Feast of All Saints is your feast – the feast that celebrates the untold millions of ordinary baptised Christians who have put their faith in Jesus and followed him.

As we think about what it means to be a saint today I want to direct your attention to three verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in chapter 2:8-10:

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life’.

I want to look at this passage with you under three headings: ‘Grace’, ‘Masterpiece’, and ‘Way of Life’.

First, grace. We start with grace, because that’s where the whole New Testament starts. As most of you have heard many times over, grace is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t have to earn’. The writers of the New Testament tell us that God is a God of grace, which means that God loves us with an unconditional and indestructible love. God doesn’t love us because we are especially deserving specimens of humanity. God doesn’t love us because we’ve tried our best to obey the Ten Commandments. God loves us because it’s his nature to love. Even if you are an enemy of God, you’re not exempt from his love. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that God sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike; that’s why we Christians are commanded to love our enemies, because God also loves his enemies and reaches out to bless those who hate him.

Philip Yancey is one Christian writer who has returned over and over again to the theme of grace and has written eloquently about it. One of his best books is called What’s So Amazing About Grace? I heard Philip speak about this just before the book was published; he said that he had originally wanted to call the book What’s So Amazing About Grace and Why Don’t Christians Get It?, but his publisher wouldn’t let him do that! But I think it would have made an excellent title, because many Christians really don’t ‘get’ grace. We seem to think that we have to earn God’s love by being good, and if we succeed in this, we are then allowed to sit in judgement on other Christians who haven’t succeeded in reaching our high standards of goodness.

Jesus once told a parable about this; we heard it a couple of weeks ago in our regular Sunday lectionary. He told about two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee went right up to the front of the Temple and prayed out loud, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there. After all, I fast twice a week and give you a tenth of all my income’. But the tax collector didn’t dare come to the front of the temple; he stood at the back, crying out over and over again, ‘God, be merciful to me, because I’m a sinner’. In summing up the story, Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went home in the right with God and not the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”.

The point of the story is not that the Pharisee was bad and the tax collector was good. Actually, the Pharisee was probably a very good man and the tax collector was probably a thief and a rogue. But the Pharisee was full of himself, whereas the tax collector was honest about his sins and asked God for forgiveness. And God did forgive him, and welcomed him, because God is a God of grace.

Paul says, ‘By grace you have been saved through faith’. ‘Faith’ doesn’t mean ‘right belief’; it means ‘trust’. When I am saved by grace through faith, it means that I accept the fact that my troubles are too big for me to deal with all by myself, so I take the hand of Christ and cast myself on his strength and love to bring me through. My sins are too big for me to overcome all by myself. My fears are too overwhelming. My hurts go too deep. So in faith I come to Christ and say, “Lord, this is too big for me, so I’m going to put my hand in yours and trust that you will guide me into the right pathways and give me the strength to do what you want me to do”.

That’s what Michael and Kristen, and Jeff and Anne, are doing this morning, on behalf of their children Claire and William. Claire and William aren’t old enough yet to be able to consciously put their faith in Christ, so their parents do it for them. As the children grow, the parents teach them by word and example about the wonderful grace of God and about how we respond to it by putting our trust in him. In a nutshell, that’s what baptismal promises are all about.

So we start with grace. Grace means that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing we can do can change that. All we can do is believe it, and put our trust in Christ in response.

The second word is ‘Masterpiece’. Now you might wonder where I got that word from, because it doesn’t appear in the NRSV translation of our text for today. But take a look at verse 10: ‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life’. ‘For we are what he has made us’ is actually a pretty lame translation of the original. The Greek word is ‘poema’, from which we get the word ‘poem’. Older translations say, ‘For we are his workmanship’; other versions have ‘handiwork’, but ‘poema’ is often used in Greek for a great masterpiece created by a wonderful artist. That’s what you are: God is the great artist, and you are his masterpiece.

Now I want to be clear that Paul is not talking here about God’s work of creating us in the first place. It’s absolutely true, of course, that God has created each one of us in his image, and that this image is good. Yes, we are his masterpiece in the sense of being created by him, but what Paul is talking about in this passage is the new creation in Jesus. The Bible talks about us having an old sinful nature that is going to pass away one day, but the Holy Spirit is also creating in us a new nature, patterned after the character of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul means when he says ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works’. Faith and baptism were the beginning for us of this new nature.

Some of you here came to faith in Jesus later in life after you had worked quite hard at creating highly effective forms of misery for yourselves! This is the position John Newton was in when he wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’: ‘Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me’. Some Christians are shocked by that word ‘wretch’, but Newton used it purposely; he had been a slave trader, and in many other ways he knew he had rebelled against God and put himself at the centre of his own life. And most of us have times when we feel wretched, don’t we? We not only fall short of God’s standards; we fall short of our own, too. We try so hard, but we fail over and over again. We long for a power greater than ourselves to remake us so that we can be the people we long to be.

And that’s what the Holy Spirit is doing in you. He’s creating a masterpiece in Christ Jesus: he’s forming a new person, with Jesus as the template. And when God looks at you and me, he doesn’t see all the failures and the disappointments; he sees the masterpiece, and he is pleased with it. Or, to put it another way, in our baptism God says that we are his saints, and when he looks at us, that’s exactly what he sees.

There’s a lovely example of this in the gospel of John. One of the first disciples of Jesus was a man called Andrew, and the first thing he did was to find his brother Simon and bring him to meet Jesus. Now we actually know quite a bit about Simon: he was the sort of guy who makes promises and then finds he can’t keep them, or starts speaking before his brain is in gear – enthusiastic, but not very reliable. But that’s not what Jesus saw when Simon came to him. Here’s what he said: “You are Simon son of John, but I’m going to give you a new name: Peter, which means ‘the rock’”. I’m sure Simon knew that he wasn’t actually very rock like, but Jesus didn’t see the failures and disappointments, you see: he saw the masterpiece that he was going to create in Simon Peter.

So God reaches out to us in his grace, his unconditional love, and we respond with faith and trust in Jesus. God then sets this process in motion in our lives: the creation of a masterpiece, a new person, patterned after the character of his Son Jesus Christ. And what does this look like? Look again at verse 10: ‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life’.

At the beginning Paul told us that we are not saved because of good works: in other words, we don’t have to earn God’s love by doing good things. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often taunt Christians with this: ‘You Christians think that the only legitimate reason for being good is because you’re scared of going to hell’. Not at all; God doesn’t rescue me because I’m good but because he is good. And so I’m free to learn a new way of life based on doing good – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for all that God has done for me, and because I trust that this new way of life he’s teaching me really is the best way.

What is this new way of life? What are these good works? Of course, there are many passages in the New Testament that describe them. One of the most famous of those passages contains the two great commandments that Jesus gave us: to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. And of course, Jesus spelled this out for us in more detail in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven.

Paul spent a lot of time teaching his converts how to follow Jesus in their daily lives. Here’s one of my favourite passages of his, taken from his letter to the Romans:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21).

That’s as good a description of how to live as a follower of Jesus as any I’ve heard. It might seem a tall order, but of course we need to remind ourselves that this is going to be a lifelong journey for us. We are called ‘saints’, but we are also called ‘disciples’, a word that means ‘apprentices’. We have been apprenticed to Jesus and we are in the process of learning a new way of life from him. None of us has arrived at that destination yet; we’re all on the journey. Today God is setting our baptismal candidates on that path; all of us Christians are on that journey of faith with them.

Let’s go round this one last time. Our Christian life starts with grace: God reaching out to us in love, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. We respond to that love in faith, and God begins the process of recreation – making a new ‘me’, a ‘masterpiece’, patterned after the character of his Son Jesus Christ. And this leads to a new way of life as I put the example and teaching of Jesus into practice in all I do and say.

That’s the journey our baptismal candidates are starting today. That’s what it means to be a saint. May God guide and strengthen us all in that journey.