Sunday, March 30, 2014

What Can We Expect From A Relationship With God? (a sermon for March 30th on Psalm 23)

Some years ago Philip Yancey wrote a very fine book called Disappointment with God. In the book he told lots of stories of people who had come into Christianity expecting wonderful things from a relationship with God, but had ended up being disappointed. Some had left the faith altogether; others had stayed, but their faith felt like an empty shell to them.

One of the problems Philip mentioned in the book was the language we use. We often use phrases like ‘having a personal relationship with God’, but for many of us, what we experience day to day in our relationship with God feels very different from other relationships we enjoy. We can’t see God. We can’t hear God. Our prayers are not very often conversational; they feel more like monologues. And although we believe that God does things in our lives, those things aren’t very often completely unambiguous; we interpret them as God’s actions, but others might interpret them differently.

So what can we expect from a relationship with God? Let’s take this question to our psalm for today, probably the best-known psalm in the Bible, Psalm 23.

The Bible tends to address the question of what we can expect from a relationship with God by the images it uses for God. The reality of God is far too big for us to take in with our limited human understanding, so the Bible uses images to help us grasp parts of that reality. For example, we read that God is like a strong rock, a safe place where we can stand in the storm. God is like a castle where we can be protected from the rage of the enemy. God is like a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them from a fire. God is like the best of fathers, providing for his children, teaching them and disciplining them in a just and loving way, and so on.

Psalm 23 uses two images for God. It might surprise you to hear me say this, because we’ve grown up thinking of this as the shepherd psalm, but if you look closely at it you’ll see that the shepherd image is not the only one used in these verses. In verses 1-4, yes, it’s God as the shepherd who provides for his sheep, leads them in right paths and protects them from danger. But at the end of the psalm, in verses 5-6, the imagery changes; now God is a gracious and hospitable host, welcoming us to a sumptuous meal in his house and then inviting us to move in there with him for the rest of our lives. What do these two images tell us about what we can expect from a relationship with God?

First, we can expect God to provide for our needs. The lovely pastoral imagery of verses 2-3 might sound like therapy for the soul to us, but in fact it talks about how the shepherd provides for the mundane daily needs of the flock.
‘He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul, and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake’. (vv.2-3, BAS version).

‘Green pastures’ are places where there’s lots of good grass for the sheep to eat. ‘Still waters’ are places where it’s easy for the sheep to drink because the water flows slowly, so there’s no danger of them being carried away by it. ‘He guides me along right pathways’ means that the shepherd leads his flock in the right direction, away from danger and toward safety and good pasture. And when the writer says ‘he revives my soul’ he’s probably thinking of the word ‘soul’ in its colloquial sense of ‘life’: ‘he restores my life’ – in other words, ‘he keeps me alive’!

So the writer is inviting us to think about the daily necessities of life: food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink, a safe and warm place to live and so on. God our shepherd provides all these things for us. He has created the earth in such a way that there are adequate resources for everyone to live a simple and basic life, if we will use them wisely and share them justly. He gives us strength to work and families to share with so that we can enjoy the necessities of life. And because there are people in the world who don’t yet enjoy those necessities of life, he calls us as followers of Jesus to live on less than those around us, and to give generously so that everyone has enough and no one has too much.

You notice that at the moment I’m not talking about what older writers used to call ‘special providences’ – that is, times when we have a specific need, and we pray about it, and God comes through for us in an obvious and dramatic way. I believe in special providences, and I think most of us Christians experience them from time to time. But I’m trying to help us open our eyes wide to the totality of God’s provision for us. It’s not just in those dramatic moments when he responds to an obvious need with an obvious answer; it’s also in the mundane daily experiences of putting food on the table, saying grace and really meaning it.

So the first thing Psalm 23 tells us we can expect from a relationship with God is that God will provide for our needs. The second thing is that God will lead us in the right paths. Verse 3 says, ‘He guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake’. Obviously, when we’re talking about the shepherd, this means guiding his sheep to the places where they will find the pasture they need, and guiding them away from dangerous cliffs and other places where they could be in harm’s way.

What does it mean for us as Christians to say that God will lead us in the right paths? How does God guide us, and how do we discover God’s plan for our lives?

It seems to be that in the Bible there are three main ways of talking about this. First, there’s God’s general plan of life for all his people, which is given to us in his commandments, and especially in the teaching and example of Jesus. Secondly, there’s his master plan to heal the world and bring in his kingdom, which we know is going to come to fulfilment because he can even take the evil things that people do and bring good out of them in the end. And thirdly, there are those occasions when he has specific tasks he wants individuals to do. In the Bible he doesn’t usually have any difficulty telling them what those things are; he sends them a dream, or a prophetic word, or someone brings them a message from God.

What’s the most important aspect of this for me as an ordinary follower of Jesus? Without question, it’s the first one. For me, the most relevant way that God guides me into right paths is by his wise laws and commandments which he has given to us in the scriptures and especially in the life and teaching of Jesus. So I might go to God and say, “God, I really want to know what you want me to do with my life?” And I suspect the answer might be something like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. How’s that to be going along with? Have you got it mastered yet?” And if I have the chutzpah to say, “No sweat; I got that all down pat last week!” he might say, “Well, how about this one: love your enemies and pray for those who hate you!” And I might gulp and say, “OK, sorry I asked!”

All humour aside, do you see where I’m going with this? If I want to know what God wants me to do with the rest of my life, the most important answer to that question is that God wants me to learn to follow his commandments, especially the teaching and example of Jesus. There’s plenty for me to be going along with there! And if there is more, I need to stop fretting and trust that God is well able, in his own time and his own way, to make that plain to me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep busy with the stuff he’s already told me in the scriptures.

So in a relationship with God, we can expect that God will provide for our legitimate needs, and guide us in right paths. The third thing we read about in this psalm is protection from danger. The psalm alludes to dangers in verse 4:
‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’.

Now there is no doubt that we as Christians do look to God to protect us in times of danger. Whenever Marci and I are apart and I know she’s driving around the busy streets of Edmonton, I pray that God will keep her safe; I know that there are car accidents every day, and sometimes there are fatalities, and I want God to protect her from that. Also, when we go on long trips we pray before we leave, asking God to keep us safe on the road.

It’s natural for us to pray like this, and I think God is happy to hear those prayers. But if you’re like me, and if you think this through a bit, you might find this a bit troublesome. We’ve all heard of people who somehow survive a car accident, or avoid getting on an aircraft that crashes, and they say ‘Someone must have been looking out for me’. But whenever I hear that, I find myself thinking, ‘What about the poor souls who didn’t survive? Does that mean God wasn’t looking out for them?’ We know that God does sometimes answer the prayers of his people in a positive way, so that the sick are healed and the hungry are fed and the hostages are rescued and so on. But at other times things don’t seem to work out as well; the fatal disease claims another Christian life, or the Christian in the refugee camp starves like thousands of others, despite their prayers, or the hostages are killed by their captors, despite the thousands who were praying for them.

So what is actually promised to us as Christians? What sort of ultimate protection from danger are we offered?

I think what I can cling to without reservation is the promise that in the end nothing can take us out of God’s hands, not even death. In John’s gospel Jesus says,
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).

Because we have this promise, we know that we can never view death in quite the same way. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that even death, the most powerful enemy of the human race, was not strong enough to defeat Jesus. No doubt on Thursday and Friday his friends and family were praying desperately that he would not be killed by the Romans, but their prayers did not seem to be answered. On Saturday, they may even have thought that there was no God to answer them; they felt abandoned, and wondered why they had been let down.

We sometimes feel that way today too; it’s as if it’s still Good Friday, when the enemies of God have free rein to do as they wish. But the famous Baptist preacher Tony Campolo once preached a great sermon called, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!” Yes, it is! Jesus has been raised from the dead, and has promised that one day we too will be raised with him. Then it will be seen that his promise is secure: nothing, not even death, can pluck us out of his hand. And so even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil; God’s rod and staff comfort us.

So this psalm tells us that in a relationship with God we can expect God to provide for our needs, to guide us in right paths, and to keep our lives in his hands, even in death. The fourth and final thing I see in these verses is that in a relationship with God we can expect that there will always be a welcome for us in God’s presence. Look at verses 5-6:
‘You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’.

This psalm is often used at funerals, in conjunction with the words of Jesus from the gospel of John, ‘in my Father’s house are many mansions’, which is interpreted as being about going to heaven. So it’s easy for people to think that when the psalmist talks about ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord forever’, he’s talking about dying and going to heaven.

Well, he’s probably not. ‘The house of the LORD’ here does not mean a mansion in the sky where we live with God forever. To the writer of the psalm, the house of the Lord was the place where God was worshipped in Jerusalem – later on, the Temple; it was a symbol of God’s presence with his people here on earth. The writer was saying, “I will live my whole life in the presence of the Lord, and I will experience his goodness and love forever”.

Look again at those last two verses of the psalm. What’s the image here? As we’ve said, it’s the image of the gracious host. He has prepared a sumptuous feast for us, a table full of good things to eat. He has invited us to his house to share in the feast. When we arrive, following the hospitality customs of the day, the host anoints our heads with oil as a sign of welcome. And there’s so much wine to share that it’s as if our cup is overflowing throughout the whole meal.

But how does it end? It ends with the writer saying, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. In other words, the host isn’t just inviting you for an occasional feast; the host is inviting you to move in with him and enjoy his hospitality every day of your life.

That’s what God is like. We’re no longer guests at his table; we’re members of his family. As members of his family, we’re always welcome in his presence. Whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, we are welcome at his table, today and every day.

What can we expect from a relationship with God? This Psalm tells us four things: that he will provide for our needs, guide us in right paths, keep our lives in his hands, even in death, and welcome us in his presence our whole life long. I’m sure you’ll agree that these are wonderful promises. So let’s press on to know him, so that in our relationship with him we may learn to enjoy these good things he wants to give us.

Friday, March 28, 2014

March 31st - April 6th, 2014

March 31st, 2014
Office is closed.
April 1st , 2014
7:30 pm  ‘Meeting Jesus’ Bible Study #10
April 3rd, 2014
7:00 am Men’s & Women’s Bible Studies at the Bogani Café
2:00 pm Women’s Afternoon Bible Study @ M. Rys Home
April 6th, 2014  Lent 5
9:00 am Holy Communion
9:45 am  Coffee between Services 
10:30 am Holy Communion and Sunday School  

The next Lunch Bunch will be April 10th, 11:30 a.m. at St. Margaret's Church.  Stan Gerber will be sharing pictures of their recent trip to Hawaii.  Please join us for a time of fellowship.  Everyone is welcome.  If you would like to attend there is a sign up sheet in the front foyer or you can contact Julie Holmes at 435-4208 or Lesley Schindel at 989-3833.

Easter is Coming!!!!!
Palm Sunday:  April 13th @ 9:00 & 10:30 am
Maundy Thursday: April 17th @ 7:30 pm
Good Friday: April 18th @ 10:30 am
Easter Sunday: April 20th @ 9:00 & 10:30 am 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

True Worship (a sermon for March 23rd on Psalm 95)

A few years ago I was attending a pastors’ conference at Regent College in Vancouver, and one of the speakers was Marva Dawn, who is a very provocative writer about many aspects of Christian life and worship. She told us the story of how a young man came up to her after the service one day at the Lutheran church she attends. “I didn’t get anything out of that service!” he complained. “Good!” she replied; “We weren’t worshipping you!”

As I said, Marva likes to be provocative! But I actually found that story very refreshing – a very helpful corrective to modern views of worship that tend to be entertainment-focussed. And it’s natural that we should think of it in terms of entertainment. After all, we come here each week and sit in rows of chairs facing the front. Up front there’s a stage, and on the stage people are dressed in costumes, speaking ritual words and performing strange actions. What does that look like, to a normal twenty-first century human? It’s a concert! It’s a play! It’s entertainment! And so the first question in our mind is naturally “Was the entertainment good? Was it fun? Was it exciting?”

But if we understand that we’ve come together to worship God, then that changes everything. Now the most important question is no longer “Did I get anything out of that service this morning?” Rather, it’s “Did God get anything out of that service this morning? Did God enjoy it? Did he like the things we said and the way we said them? Was he pleased with how well we all participated, and with the attitude of our hearts?” And that’s where our psalm for this morning, Psalm 95, is very helpful.

The first thing we see in this psalm is that true worship is focussed on God. But sadly, it’s often true that our services are focussed on anything but God.

Sometimes we focus on the leader – the pastor or priest or lay reader. Is he interesting? Is she entertaining? Some people won’t even come to church if there’s not a priest leading the service – one person told me that he made a point of not coming when I wasn’t here, as if he thought I’d be pleased to hear that!

Sometimes we focus on the form of worship. Can we find the right place in the book or the bulletin? Do we like the music? Is it the good old hymns, or is it exciting rock and roll? And what about the church architecture? Do they have chairs or pews?

Sometimes we focus on our feelings? What am I getting out of this? Does the service make me feel happy? Is it inspiring and uplifting and so on?

The biblical view, however, is that worship is for God. We come together each week to give to God the best that we can offer of our praise, our prayer, our singing, and our listening to his Word. Look how this psalm helps us to focus our worship on God by using four metaphors for him.

First, God is ‘the rock of our salvation’ (v. 1). The ‘rock’ metaphor, of course, points to God’s strength, God’s reliability, and our security in him. So this metaphor encourages us to lift our eyes up from our problems, worries and fears, and to fix our minds on the strength and reliability of our God.

Second, God is ‘a great king above all gods’ (v.3). Of course, when this psalm was written the author assumed that there were other gods, and last week we saw that even today there are other gods that tempt us: things like money and possessions, success, nationalism, and so on. The writer is reminding us that the one true God is supreme over all these other pretenders.

Thirdly, God is the creator of everything that exists. Verses 4 and 5 say:
In his hand are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have molded the dry land.
So we go from one extreme to the other: from the deepest caverns to the highest mountains, and from the wetness of the sea to the dryness of the land. And notice how the word ‘hands’ is repeated at the beginning and end of this section: ‘In his hand are the caverns of the earth…his hands have molded the dry land’. The writer is reminding us that God’s ‘got the whole world in his hands’, as the song says.

Fourthly, God is the shepherd of his people. Verse 7 says,
For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.
This of course reminds us of Psalm 23, that we will be looking at next week: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ – and also of the words of Jesus, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11).

So as we come together to worship, this psalm encourages us to focus on God – our rock, our king, our creator, our good shepherd. How are we to respond to him? Verse 2 says ‘Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving’, and verse 6 adds, ‘Come, let us bow down and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker’. This is the proper response to the greatness of God: to bow before him in praise and adoration, and thanksgiving for all his blessings to us.

But what’s the nature of this worship? What impression do we get of it as we read the psalm? This leads us to the next thing: not only is our worship focussed on God, but it is also joyful and lively. Look at verses 1-2:
Come, let us sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.

‘A loud shout’! Doesn’t sound very Anglican, does it? When I was a boy I used to sing in the church choir, and every Sunday evening we would chant the service of Evensong using the traditional chants. But when we got to the line, ‘and make thy chosen people joyful’, the way we chanted it often made a mockery of the words themselves – it sounded more like a funeral dirge than a prayer for joy!

Of course, we must add that there is also a place for sadness and lament in Christian worship, and God is not telling us to pretend that we’re happy if we’re not. Personally, I’m glad that we use the psalms each week in our worship, because the psalms help us to be honest about this: many of them, as you might have noticed, are laments, or prayers in time of trouble. But nonetheless, it remains true that in general, focussing on God is meant to lead us to joy: ‘Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation’ (v.1).

In this context we need to think for a minute about the place of music in our worship. The psalms of course were originally written in Old Testament times to be sung. Those of you who are familiar with traditional Anglican chant will know that it tends to make the psalms sound sombre, but if we pay attention to Jewish music today, we might suspect that originally the psalms sounded rather different! Michelle Guinness, a Jewish woman who married an Anglican minister, says that one of her first reactions to Christian worship was to say, “What on earth have they done to our psalms? How have they made them sound so miserable?”

So it’s good for hymns and songs to be lively and full of joy in the Lord. But of course, we also need to remember that the number one issue is not whether we enjoy a song, but whether God enjoys it - and I suspect that his enjoyment is most likely tied to the attitude of our hearts as we sing to him.

So our worship is meant to be full of joy: joyful hearts, and also joyful faces. Somebody once said, ‘Looking happy in church? That is suspicious behaviour!’ But I contrast that with my experience as a young Christian when I used to attend a Thursday evening prayer and study group. Those were wonderful times of experiencing the presence of God and the power of God, and I used to look forward to them all week long. I remember my excitement on Thursday mornings, thinking, “Tonight’s the night!”  Why was I joyful? Because the presence of God in that group was so obvious, and I looked forward to it every week. And if God is really here, as we say he is, then let’s not be afraid to express our joy to him.

How do we do that? How do we express our joy to the Lord? Well, that leads us to the next thing: our worship is not only focussed on God, and not only joyful and lively, it also involves both our souls and our bodies. Look at verse 6:
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker.

Marci and I once attended a prayer and praise meeting in an Anglican church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. We were singing the song, ‘His banner over me is love’, and the leader was encouraging us to do the actions. Our bishop, Vicars Short, was there, and he was doing his best to do the actions, but he did them in a very restrained and minimalist sort of way, barely lifting his hands over his head at all! And this from a bishop who wasn’t afraid to lift his hands high when he was praying the Eucharistic Prayer!

The whole person should worship God – not just the mind and heart, but the body too. And so, for instance, it’s right for us to kneel and bow as a sign of respect for God; this is perhaps especially appropriate when we confess our sins. I note however that kneeling as a sign of respect for someone is less common in the world these days; nowadays we tend to stand to show our respect, and this was common in Bible times too – standing in the presence of the King. So in our worship we stand to praise God and give thanks to him, when we say the Eucharistic prayer, for instance, or when we sing our hymns. And at times we also sit to listen carefully to God’s word, or stand for the gospel to show our respect for the words of Jesus.

Other gestures are also commonly used in worship. Many people like to make the sign of the cross to remind themselves that we receive all our blessings from God because of Jesus and his death on the cross for us. That’s why priests and pastors use the sign of the cross when they say the blessing at the end of the service. Other people like to raise their hands when they pray, which was a common way of praying in the Bible. And then, of course, there are the sacramental acts that almost always include some bodily action. So we pour water over someone in baptism, and we eat the bread and drink the wine of Holy Communion. We anoint the sick with oil, and we often lay hands on people when we pray for them.

So don’t be shy about using your body in worship! Remember the woman who expressed her love for Jesus by breaking a jar of perfume, anointing his feet, and drying them with her hair? I suspect we might have been embarrassed if we had been there, but Jesus wasn’t embarrassed – he commended her. Her actions reflected the desire of her heart to show love for Jesus, and we also can use our bodies to show our love for God in worship.

So we’ve seen that worship is focussed on God, joyful and lively, and involves the use of both souls and bodies. Lastly, true worship involves listening to God’s word. Look at verse 7:
Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!

In our services of worship, too, we want to listen carefully for God’s voice. And so each Sunday we read the set readings from Old Testament, the Psalm, the New Testament, and the Gospel, and each Sunday we have a sermon as well. I have to say, also, that the modern obsession with short sermons is just that: modern! When John Newton wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, most sermons were an hour long! In the second century Justin Martyr wrote about early Christian worship; remember that in those days people had to get up before dawn to worship, because Sunday was a working day like any other. Nevertheless, Justin says this: ‘the writings of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles are read, as long as time allows, and then the leader exhorts us to imitate these good things’.

Why is this biblical content in our worship important? Because verse 7 reminds us that God is our shepherd, and the thing about God’s sheep is that they listen to the voice of their shepherd. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:27). Personally, I think that loving God and worshipping him involves paying far more attention to what he wants to say to us than to what we want to say to him. That’s why the Bible readings and the sermon are not an interruption of our worship, but a vital part of it. And of course, we’re told not to harden our hearts: the message we hear is to be received and put into practice, which is an act of worship that lasts longer than the service.

So to recap: worship is supposed to be focussed on God, as an act of praise and thanksgiving to him, and of course this is especially true of the Holy Communion service, which focuses on Christ’s great love in laying down his life on the cross for us. In worship we’re called to give ourselves unreservedly to God – souls and bodies, hearts and minds and wills – listening carefully to his Word and quick to obey the message we hear. This is true biblical worship!

So let’s end by asking ourselves: Do I need to get my focus off of myself, and onto God? Do I need to stop asking ‘What did I get out of that service?’ and start asking ‘What did God get out of it?’ Do I need to be freed up to express joy with my whole person, speaking enthusiastically, singing joyfully, using soul and body to worship God with all my heart? And do I need to pay more attention to the voice of the Good Shepherd in the Bible readings and the sermon, remembering that Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:27), and that the psalmist says, ‘Oh that today you would hearken to his voice! Harden not your hearts’ (7b-8a).

May God help us all, as we join together every week in offering him the true worship that is his due. Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Program

For those wishing to attend all or part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events in Edmonton March 27th-30th, you can find information and a full schedule here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

March 24th - 30th, 2014

Events This Week
March 24th, 2014
Office is closed.
3:30 – 7:30 pm  Loshbough Music Rental
March 25th , 2014
7:30 pm  ‘Meeting Jesus’ Bible Study #9
March 27th – 29th, 2014
Truth and Reconciliation Events: see bulletin boards for
more info.
March 27th, 2014
7:00 am Men’s & Women’s Bible Studies at the Bogani Café
2:00 pm Women’s Afternoon Bible Study @ M. Rys Home
March 29th 2014
4:00 pm  Spaghetti Church
7:00 pm  Malankara Church Rental
March 30th, 2014  Lent 4
9:00 am Holy Communion 
10:30 am Morning Worship and Sunday School 

We will be having our 2nd annual Garage Sale on May 24th, 2014!!!!
Please start saving your old items for this fundraiser. There will be more information to come in the near future.

The Centre for Family Literacy is looking for Adult Tutors at the Whitemud Crossing Library. There are many newcomers who are in need of tutoring 1-2 hours per week. Please contact Monica Doherty at 780-421-7323 if you are interested.

We are inviting you and your children to join us for Spaghetti Church Saturday March 29th, 2014 from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm. We would like to invite you to participate in this event! We do have a signup sheet policy as food is prepared for all who will be coming, so please let us know if you plan to come (including the number of people who will be coming and, if you have not attended before, the ages of the children), or sign up on the sheet at the back of the church.

Roster for April

April 6th, 2014  Lent 5
Coffee between services
Greeter/Sidespeople:  The Schindels           
Counter: D. Schindel/D. Sanderson                                   
Reader: M. Rys                                   
(Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8: 6-11)
Lay Administrants: T. Wittkopf/C. Aasen
Intercessor: D. MacNeill                                   
Lay Reader: E. Gerber            (John 11: 1-45)                       
Altar Guild (purple). Major/A. Shutt
Prayer Team: L. Sanderson/S. Jayakaran                       
Sunday School (School Age): M. Aasen
Sunday School (Preschool):  M. Eriksen
Kitchen: - 9:45 am  The Woytkiws           
Music: W. Pyra
Altar Servers: A. Jayakaran

April 13, 2014  Palm Sunday
Greeter/Sidespeople:  T. Willacy/ T. Cromarty           
Counter: T. Willacy/B. Popp                                   
Reader: D. MacNeill                                   
(Isaiah 50: 4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2: 5-11)
Lay Administrants: G. Hughes/E. Gerber                                               
Intercessor:  L. Thompson                       
Lay Reader: L. Thompson            (Matthew 21: 1-11)                       
Altar Guild: (red) M. Woytkiw/K. Hughes
Prayer Team:  K. Hughes/M. Chesterton                       
Sunday School (School Age): M. Cromarty           
Sunday School (Preschool):  T. Laffin
Kitchen: The Popps
Music: E. Thompson           
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

April 20th, 2014  EASTER SUNDAY
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Hughes           
Counter: G. Hughes/R. Mogg                                   
Reader:   C. Aasen                       
(Acts 10: 34-43, Psalm 118: 1-2,14-24, Colossians 3: 1-4)
Lay Administrants: L. Thompson/D. MacNeill                       
Intercessor: B. Popp                                   
Lay Reader: B. Popp (Matthew 28: 1-10)                       
Altar Guild (white) M. Lobreau/T. Wittkopf
Prayer Team: E. Gerber/S. Jayakaran                                      
Sunday School (School Age):  K. Durance           
Sunday School (Preschool): M. Rys
Kitchen: V&J Goodwin
Altar Servers: A. Jayakaran

April 27th, 2014  2nd Sunday after Easter  Possible Baptisms
Greeter/Sidespeople: B. Cavey/T. Wittkopf           
Counter: T. Wittkopf/B. Cavey                                   
Reader:  S. Watson                                               
(Acts 2: 14-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1: 3-9)
Intercessor: M. Rys                       
Lay Reader: D. MacNeill (John 20: 19-23)                       
Altar Guild (white)P. Major/MW(L. Schindel)             
Sunday School (School Age): M. Cromarty
Sunday School (Preschool): T. Laffin
Kitchen:  M. Chesterton
Music: R. Mogg                       

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where Will My Help Come From? (a sermon for March 16th on Psalm 121)

Marci and I started our married life in a little village in northeastern Saskatchewan in which almost every member of our congregation was a farmer, or married to a farmer, or a retired farmer, or connected to farming in some way or other. We quickly learned what farmers have known all their lives: that the success of farming is insecure at the best of times. You can spend a lot of money putting seeds in the ground in the spring, watch it grow nicely all summer long, and then at the last minute have the whole thing ruined by an early frost, or a Fall that’s so wet that you just can’t get out on the land to harvest it.

Of course, that’s where crop insurance comes in. I don’t know many farmers who would put a crop in without taking out crop insurance; there’s just too much money at stake if things don’t work out. So if the weather is good and the crop grows, all well and good; if things go badly, at least the insurance is there to help you make it through the winter. It’s just common sense.

Farmers in Bible times didn’t have crop insurance, but there were measures that were commonly taken in the ancient world that seemed just as much like common sense to them as crop insurance does to modern farmers. Let me tell you about one of them.

In most cultures in the ancient world - including the Canaanites who lived in the land before the people of Israel - there were many gods you had to pay attention to. In theory, the Israelites didn’t believe in those other gods; they believed in Yahweh, the one true God, who made heaven and earth. But in practice, they were surrounded by nations who had many gods, and they were always being tempted by them. And if they looked up to the hills, the chances are that there would be ancient shrines on top of them, places where the old gods of Canaan had been worshipped for centuries.

Ancient people thought it was just common sense to pay proper attention to those gods. If you moved to a new country you needed to find out about the local gods, so you could keep their laws and offer them the sorts of sacrifices they liked; then they would bless you and not send you bad luck. If you were a Greek and you were going for a sea voyage, it made sense to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of the sea; if you were setting out on a military expedition against your enemies, you would offer a sacrifice to Ares, the god of war.

So if you were a farmer, and you had just finished seeding, it was a good idea to get the local fertility gods on your side, to make sure they would send you good weather and make your crop grow. But these fertility gods, even though they were very powerful, were a little forgetful, and they needed reminding why you had put your crop in. So what you did was to go to the nearest temple or shrine and have sex with the temple priestess in the sanctuary; the gods looked down and saw what you were doing, and it reminded them about fertility and all that, and so they remembered to bless your land and make your crop grow.

That sounds both crazy and irrelevant to us modern people; we can’t believe that anyone would be fooled into thinking it would work, and anyway, we don’t worship idols any more, so it’s not really relevant to us, is it?

Well, actually, it is. If an idol is a statue of wood or stone that we pray to, then no, we don’t have any of those around here. But what if an idol is anything other than the one true God to which we give our first allegiance and loyalty? What if it is something to which we sacrifice our health, our family life, our sense of right and wrong? What if it is something we instinctively turn to for help in time of need? What if it is something we expect to give us ultimate happiness? What if it is something we expect to save us from death? Well, then the list of potential idols, or false gods, gets rather longer.

There are so many false gods in our modern world. There’s the obvious one, money and possessions. People think that money can protect you from danger, can make you healthy, can make you happy, and can give you a sense of meaning in your life. Also, many people have made huge sacrifices to wealth – perhaps by living somewhere their family is unhappy in order to get a better-paying job, or by damaging their health by overwork and unhealthy habits in order to be successful. So many good things in life get sacrificed on the altar of ‘The Economy’; it’s almost as if it’s become my sacred duty to consume, so that I can keep the false gods happy!

Well, this is only one of the false gods out there competing for our attention; it’s not hard to think of others. Success is closely connected to wealth and, once again, many people sacrifice health and family on its altar. Our nation can be a false god, demanding our unconditional obedience even when its commands contradict the teaching of Jesus. Instead of turning to God in times of trouble, people can turn to alcohol or other drugs to deaden the pain and help them make it through stressful situations. The list goes on: so many good things that God has made can become idols if we put them in the place of the one true god in our lives.

Why am I talking about false gods this morning? Because they appear in our psalm for today. You might not have noticed them, because they aren’t directly mentioned, but they are definitely alluded to. Here are the first two verses of the psalm (121:1-2) in the NRSV translation:
I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

It sounds as if the writer of the psalm is looking up at the beauty of the hills around him and being reminded of the one who created them, but that’s probably not the case. What’s probably happening is that he’s looking up at the hills and seeing, on top of them, temples to those ancient pagan gods. Gods and goddesses were commonly worshipped on top of hills and mountains, for the obvious reason that hilltops were closer to the heavens. So the writer is weighing up his loyalties. “Where does my help come from? Does it come from the false gods worshipped at the hill shrines? No – they are too feeble to help me. My help comes from a much stronger source: ‘Yahweh, the LORD, who made heaven and earth’”.

Well, that seems like common sense to us, but a moment’s thought will remind us that the false gods had a couple of advantages in popular imagination. For one thing, the Lord was invisible and they were not. Pagan generals who invaded Jerusalem and went into the holy of holies in the temple for a look at the God of Israel were usually astounded to find that there was nothing in there; they were so used to the idea that a god needed a visual representation in order to be worthy of worship. And we have the same problem today. How can you worship the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth, when you can’t see him and you’ve got no proof that he’s there? Money is tangible; you can see it mounting up in your bank account, or feel it jangling in your pocket. Success is obvious for all to see. Popularity, health, youth – they’re all visible, and tangible. But trusting in an invisible God? That’s harder to grasp.

For another thing, the false gods were popular: everyone worshipped them, so in order to trust in them you really didn’t have to make a choice; you just went with the flow. And so it is today: everyone assumes that you will go along with the worship of wealth, or that you will be willing to set aside your religious convictions if your country asks you to, or that you will set aside the regular worship of God to make room for Sunday sports or family activities. Go with the flow, and no effort is required. But if you choose to worship the one true God and to follow his Son Jesus Christ, you will find yourself being asked to make difficult choices all the time.

Why should we do this? The psalm seems to make exactly the same sort of extravagant promises as the false gods do. Verses 7 and 8 say,
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Other verses are even more extravagant; verse 6 says,
The sun shall not strike you by day, neither the moon by night.

There are some people, of course, who believe these verses, and others like them, in a very literal sense. They believe that if they follow the one true God he will protect them from all misfortune and shower them with all blessings in a material sense. He will keep them from getting sick, and will protect them from their enemies in times of war; he will bless their businesses and make them successful and wealthy.

This works out fine, of course, until misfortune strikes. A marriage breaks up, or a business fails; a bomb explodes and kills in a random fashion; a routine medical examination uncovers a life-threatening illness that doesn’t seem to be responding to treatments. When things just don’t seem to be working out, people who believe God has promised them health and wealth find their faith in trouble. Maybe they even find themselves asking, “Is this my fault? Have I done something especially bad to annoy God, so that he’s punishing me or trying to get my attention? Or maybe I’ve been praying to empty space all along, and there really is no God after all?”

I would like to suggest to you that what the one true God actually promises us is something less tangible, but far more real and lasting. It’s probably never been expressed quite so well as in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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 (Romans 8:35, 37-39).

‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God’. At first glance it sounds like such a wishy-washy promise: ‘You may die of cancer or get killed in an earthquake or starve in a famine, but nothing will be able to separate you from God’s love’. It’s easy to scoff at an intangible promise like that and ask what difference it can possibly make.

Until, that is, you see it making a difference in someone’s life. I think of my good friend Joe Walker, who died of cancer a couple of years ago at the age of 47; he was diagnosed in June and he died in the middle of August. Joe believed in prayer but he didn’t believe prayer was an unconditional guarantee. What he did believe was that in some sense, God was in control, and he needed to learn to trust God and not feel sorry for himself. I remember at Joe’s funeral that his wife Alisa described how, in the last weeks of his life, he had gradually let go of all the things that were important to him. He was a great reader and loved discussing books; he was a guitarist and he loved to play music; he was a wonderful writer and his blog was a real inspiration to many of us. But gradually, in the last few weeks of his life, he let go of all those things; in the end, all he had left was God, and the love of God.

And so I think again of Paul’s words, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. In Joe’s time of need it would have been pointless to turn to the false gods of money or wealth or popularity or success or any other false god on offer. Only the one true God could help him, and although God did not heal him, it was obvious to those around him that God was his rock in a time of trouble.

So today, Psalm 121 is giving us some material for reflection and self-examination. It’s reminding us that the false gods are all around us, and their voices are very seductive. Am I believing them, trusting in their extravagant promises, giving them my first loyalty, looking to them for the ultimate joy and satisfaction that only the one true God can give?

Let’s have the courage today to look into our hearts to find out just who is sitting on the throne and calling the shots. And if it’s anything or anyone other than the one true God, let’s have the courage to dethrone them, and turn again to the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who, in the truest sense, will ‘keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore’ (Psalm 121:8). Or, to use the words of Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).