Category Archives: Faith

God in Community


2759742066_57d26d0948      In the popular 2007 book The Shack, a man named Mack went into the woods to the scene of the greatest tragedy in his life to meet God. He wasn’t sure what to expect but he did meet God there in a very special way. He met the Trinity, three persons in community; there is a large black woman who goes by Elousia but allows him to call her Papa, which was Mack’s wife’s name for God, a small Asian woman named Sarayu, a gardener who was somehow never quite in focus, and a relaxed Hebrew handyman, complete with tool belt, named Yeshua. When Mack asked which one was God they answered in unison, “I am!”

Who is God? What is God? If there are three, how can we say there is just one God?

      In The Shack, author Wm. Paul Young gives names to the Trinity. The parent figure is Elousia. The word Elousia does not appear in that form in the Bible. One source says that the author combined the Hebrew name for God, El, with the Greek ousia which means being. So, being God, or the great I Am. The Spirit is named Sarayu a word that has several meanings including being the name of a river. It is a Sanskrit name which means “moving fast”, “air”, “wind” And the young handyman is Yeshua which, in Hebrew, is a shortened form of Joshua, and is derived from the verb “to rescue”, “to deliver.”

      We read just last week about the tongues of flame and the inspiration which allowed people to preach the Good News in languages they had never learned. We know that there is only One God, not three. In the light of the New Testament, we know that God’s word is Jesus and that the wind or breath of God is the Spirit. They are one!

      The word Trinity does not appear at any point in the Bible. In today’s Psalm, an emphasis is given to the majesty of God. “O Lord, our Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth.” While it doesn’t mention anything about a trinity, it starts us off in considering to what extent God is an undefinable entity. The Lord is so awesome that the only way we can try to express it is in sharing and repeating all the marvels that have occurred at his hand.

     In Romans, Paul speaks of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within 5 verses. The Spirit is God’s love poured into us, Jesus was our means of access to Grace, and it is God’s Glory we share. Jesus is God’s grace, the Spirit is God’s Love and God is I Am.
In John, there is a brief explanation of the relationship amongst the godhead. The Spirit of Truth will reveal to us what Jesus had not, but not in the Spirit’s words but those given to it by hearing what is of God. And since what God has Jesus also has, and the Spirit speaks it may be inferred that they are one…clear?

      The term Trinity was introduced by a third-century theologian, Tertullian, to underscore the “oneness” of God. The doctrine of the trinity was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed which was agreed upon at the meeting of the church council in 381 CE. This creed affirms the Holy Spirit as, “the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. Who, with the Father and the Son, is worshiped and glorified.” Saying that the Holy Spirit and Son are glorified is an acknowledgement that they are God.
The Celtic symbol of Trinity is called the triquetra and consists of three equal and intertwined loops, one continuous line with no beginning and no end. The Trinity shows the potential of a dynamic communion and loving relationship open to us all through the communion of the three parts of the trinity. God seeks a relationship with us and the relationship among the trinity is a powerful example of what our relationships can be, and what our relationship with God will be someday.

      In my own life and as a teacher, I have been brought face-to-face with the destructive nature of some human relationships. One student whom I had taught for several years came to me one morning in tears having had a break with family. In the hour we spent together before I had to teach my next class, the student shared more of her story of the past 10 months at home than I had previously known. I listened, tried to reflect what I was hearing to give openings to continue, and I felt frustration over the fact that I could do nothing to improve the situation. Over the years of teaching, I have seen too often the results that jealousy, blame, the importance of seeming to be in charge and in control, (these all too human traits) can have on family members.

      There is none of this to be seen in the relationship among the Trinity. In several places, including the Great Commission, we are called to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is no sign of jealousy, power struggle or priority here. The Spirit was the final sign of our adoption by God. As we are told….we are heirs, with Jesus, of the inheritance of God.

      The Presbyterian Church is a part of the Reformed tradition and a part of that is a focus on the Trinity. There are some Christian churches out there which we might call “Jesus only” churches. In their services, you will hear little mention of God the Father or Spirit; just Jesus. There are also some “Spirit” churches in which strong emphasis is put on the Spirit. Likewise, of course, there are God churches which either do not recognize the Trinity or at least do not focus there. We were told, however, to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In our services of worship, you should hear at least some reference to all the parts of the Trinity each week. We pray to God in the name of Jesus, and we call on the Spirit to inspire and sustain us in our faith.

      The formula of the Trinity reminds us of the mystery of God which will never be fully understood in this world. No matter how much we study about it, nor how much thought we put into this, God transcends us and our ability to name Him. But we can say, in the words of The Lorica by Steve Bell…

I bind unto myself today the gift to call on the Trinity
The saving faith where I can say Come three in one, oh one in three.
Be above me, as high as the noonday sun.
Be below me, the rock I set my feet upon.
Be beside me, the wind on my left and right.
Be behind me, oh circle me with your truth and life.

Readings were: Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-15, and John 16:12-15

Young, William P, Wayne Jacobsen, and Brad Cummings. The Shack. Newbury Park, Calif.: Windblown Media, 2007. Print.

Are you ready for Baptism?


  Pentecost Banner 

      In John 14 we read that Jesus promised that God would provide a friend for us so that we would never be alone. This friend was the Spirit of Truth. Today is the season of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. Happy Easter everyone, and happy birthday!

     In his Interpretation series book Acts, William H. Willimon discusses a number of views and perspectives on the Pentecost reading. It is interesting to note, as he does, that the actual event of Pentecost is far overshadowed the sheer number of verses, by Peter’s immediate interpretation of the events for those shocked disciples and for the even more bewildered crowd. One of the interesting things he spoke about was the value of looking for parallels between the creation story, the birth of Jesus, and the birth of the church. The Spirit was the instrument of God’s power in all three of these events. Setting aside the creation for a moment, both the birth of Jesus and the birth of the church were foretold in the works of the OT prophets. They were both made possible through the power of God and through the work of the Spirit. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. The church was the culmination of the promise of Easter and was given life and inspiration by the breath and flame of the Holy Spirit.

     The Pentecost scene in Acts concludes with the first Christian sermon proclaimed by Peter. Peter’s sermon followed a three-step pattern which is common in the church even today. He explained the day’s events in terms of scripture, he proclaimed The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he encouraged all in attendance to be baptized.

     In The Message translation, Acts 2 says, “Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.” The power that had breathed creation into being empowered the disciples on the day of Pentecost. They had been in hiding since Jesus arrest and crucifixion, had been with Jesus for 40 days, had the scriptures opened to their understanding, but were still not ready to proclaim the message without this gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of wind and flame.

     Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is generally thought of as God’s presence in us. In the reading from John today, Jesus called the Spirit an Advocate which may be translated as: “Comforter”, “Counselor,” “Helper.” He also refers to it as the Spirit of Truth and tells us that not just anyone can receive the Spirit because not everyone sees and knows the Spirit. We are only able to receive the Spirit through first knowing and believing in God (God being in Christ and Christ in God).

     Why was the Holy Spirit represented in the Biblical account of the birth of the church as wind and flame?  We first met the wind in Genesis 1:2 where the wind swept over the waters. Winds can do many things; they may blow, stream, issue, freshen, gather, bluster, sigh, moan, scream, howl, and whistle. The wind has been called a breath or an aura. We have read throughout the Bible stories with winds, perhaps most notably the two stories of Jesus and the disciples on the sea in a storm. In both cases, Jesus was able to calm the storm and the disciples marveled over his having power even over the wind.

     Fire has frequently been used as a symbol of the presence of God in the Bible. We see God in the burning bush as the fire that burns but does not consume. This very image is used as the symbol of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The Jews were led by God in the form of a pillar of fire in the desert at night. We know that fire is one of the main reasons for the success of the human species on our planet. We cook with it, we heat our homes with it. We think of flames, blazes, conflagrations, but we also think of enthusiasm, verve, kindling, igniting, inspiring, and arousing.

     There were Jews and proselytes from all over the world, which is to say from every direction, in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. If each one spoke in their native languages they would have been unable to understand each other because, since the days of Babel, there were many different languages. Most of the people in the Roman Empire were able to speak Latin or Greek in order to communicate, but still, they had not been able to hear the message of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection in their own native languages until this event. To hear the good news in terms familiar to you since birth. Centuries later, this was the goal of Luther who wanted the Bible translated so that the common people could read it for themselves. This desire to meet the word in our own tongue continues. We have the Bible in its original Hebrew and Biblical Greek, King James English, contemporary language of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s etc. and as of Nov 2014 the Bible Society has translated the whole Bible into 531 languages, and 2,883 languages have at least some portion of the Bible; the work on translation continues.

     What was the big news that the disciples began telling in many different languages when the Spirit entered them? This is the good news…that God sent his only son to be one of us. That Jesus suffered and died on the cross to atone for our sins that we may have eternal forgiveness and that Jesus, who returned to the Father in heaven asked God to provide us with a comforter, a supporter, and inspiration to stay with us forever…the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ was and is in the Father and the Father was and is in Christ. Those who believe will continue in the mission of Jesus in the world. Jesus will do whatever we ask in His name so that the Father will be glorified through Him.

     Many of us, here today, were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Some of us were baptized as babies, some later on or even as adults. This is the third section of Peter’s sermon, “repent and be baptized every one of you…so that you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
Are we ready to begin a new life today? Are we ready to have the Spirit blow through us, and through our lives, consuming all the dust and waste in the incinerators fire, and refreshing us as a gentle breeze in the summer? For those who may be new to the Good News, are you ready to let that spark ignite into action? Are you ready to follow Peter’s challenge and be baptized? For those of us who have been there and done that, are we ready to be aroused, to feel again the enthusiasm for the work of Christ? How do we receive this gift? Believe in God, and in the precious gift of his son Jesus Christ, and open your heart and you mind to the indwelling Spirit and begin to feel the warmth of the flames in your soul.

Food, Power, and Minions #3


Show Me The Power!

wilderness_temple

In the first of this series I mentioned that Luke’s is the only Gospel in which the temptation at the temple is placed last. As Fred Craddock points out in his commentary, Luke modeled his Gospel after the life and ministry of Christ and so it made sense that his temptations should lead from home, to the world, and then to the temple in Jerusalem just as Jesus began at home, travelled throughout the countryside including some Gentile areas and ended up in Jerusalem (Craddock 1990). That is just where we find Jesus and the devil this morning, standing 150 feet up, at the pinnacle of the temple.

Why did the devil take Christ to Jerusalem? Jerusalem was the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel (at other times just Judah) and later of the Roman Province of Judea under Herod the Great. It is into Jerusalem that Jesus would ride to the cheers of the crowds on Palm Sunday; in an upper room in Jerusalem that he and his apostles would celebrate the Passover feast; from Jerusalem that he would be led up to be crucified on Good Friday; and to that same upper room that he would return after his resurrection.

Why did they go to the temple? The temple was his father’s house. It was the symbol and center of the Jewish religion; the house of God, the only proper place to make sacrifices to God. It is where the chief priests and many Pharisees, who would later take the role of Christ’s enemies, were to be found. It was the site of teaching, prayer, worship, sacrifice, cleansing, and absolution. They were on the pinnacle of the temple which, in Jesus’ time, would have been the top of the Holy Place, the most important part of Herod’s temple.  This structure was open only for the priests to light the lamps and give incense offerings, and it housed the Holy of Holies which could only be entered once each year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.

Why the pinnacle of the temple? In almost all religious traditions in ancient times, mountains and the tops of human-made mountains such as ziggurats and temples were considered to represent the seat of the gods and the place where people could find themselves closest to them. Moses met God on the mountaintop, Jesus frequently went up a mountain to pray, Jesus’ transfiguration was at a mountaintop, and Jesus was crucified on a hilltop. In colloquial speech we refer to moments of great revelation or closeness to God as ‘mountaintop experiences.’

            So, what did this temptation mean? The temptation was a chance to show proof of God’s power, to avoid a 98% chance of death with a show of supernatural power and beings, God’s minions/angels. Would this produce real faith in those who were witnesses or would this sort of coerced faith be short lived and situational? As we have seen throughout the Old Testament God’s shows of his power through the plagues in Egypt, the holding back of the Red Sea, the manna and water from the rock in the desert, and his presence in the cloud on the tabernacle, led to great declarations of faith which were followed all too soon with challenges. ‘You are the one God, full of power, but what have you done for us lately?’

Having been shot down twice by Jesus quoting scripture, this time, the devil takes his temptation directly from scripture, 

“‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone (Ps 91:11-12).”

If you go to the Psalm you will see that he conveniently stopped his quote just before the part about defeating the serpent and crushing its head under his feet.

            We have all sorts of assurances of God’s power and faithfulness in the Bible. In this morning’s Psalm we read of powers such as; forming light, creating darkness, bringing prosperity, creating disaster, making the earth, creating mankind, stretching out the heavens, marshaling their starry hosts, and making  ways straight. We have assurances because we believe, but if we have to test it do we really believe, and then why should the promises still apply?

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul reminds people of Israel’s history of testing God who said, “you…have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice (Numbers 14:21),” Paul wrote,

“We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor 10:8-11).”

 

Living Faith’s statement on unbelief states that, “For some today “God is an empty word indicating no reality they have ever consciously known. They do not believe there is a God (Living Faith 9.3.1).” These people, if seeking at all, are looking for proof that God is real in the worldly meaning of real. Something you can touch, see, feel. It next states that, “Many find it hard to believe in a loving God in a world where so many suffer. Unbelief threatens many with despair, the feeling that nothing really matters and that beyond this world is emptiness (Living Faith 9.3.2).”

Jesus answered the devil, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Luke 4:12).”‘ Paul told the Corinthians, “We must not put Christ to the test (I Cor 10:9).”  Like Jesus, we need to be resisting overfilling ourselves but allow the Holy Spirit to fill us, we need to resist grabbing for power over others and instead seek to serve, and we need to allow the assurances of God to be enough for us. We need not wait for pigs to fly.

“We have looked upon God in the sanctuary, beholding his power and glory. Because his steadfast love is better than life, our lips will praise him (Ps 63:2-3).”

 

Craddock, Fred B. 1990. Luke. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press.

Living Faith A Statement Of Christian Belief. 1984. Kelowna: Wood Lake Books Inc.

Food, Power, and Minions/ Today Woodstock, Tomorrow the World!


http://www.lesechos.fr/medias/2014/07/03/1002787_multinationales-du-conseil-les-maitres-de-linfluence-85676-1.jpg

 Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, filled by the Holy Spirit and being tempted by the devil. As I write today we have been in the wilderness of Lent for 10 days. The first of our series focused on the devil’s first test, the personal temptation to turn stones into bread to satisfy Jesus most basic physical need, hunger. The hungry crave fullness. Let’s turn to the second temptation, the political temptation to seize authority and glory.  “Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will be yours.’ (Luke 4:5-7)
Power is the ability to influence and control others while, at the same time, withstanding outside influences which would control you. Just as the hungry crave food, the oppressed crave power, control over their own lives and those of others. This applies equally to people suffering from actual oppression such as the Israelites who were being enslaved in Egypt or civilians in Sudan today, and perceived oppression like an employee who is angry because the employer has blocked social media sites from their computer network.
Israel became a nation in the conventional sense when they convinced Samuel to anoint a king over them like the other nations had. Prior to this, Samuel was preparing to pass his authority as a judge of Israel to his sons but his sons did not follow in his ways. Samuel was upset that the people asked for a king but God pointed out that it was their rejection, not of Samuel, but of God as their king. Once they had a king, the Israelites soon discovered that human rulers were perhaps subject to even more temptation than the judges had been, as the judges looked to God for direction. As predicted, human kings took away much of their autonomy.
“He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattlec and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.” (1 Samuel 8:11-17)
The Messiah was supposed to come to preach, to heal, to prophesy, and to defeat the devil. In short, he would free the oppressed. Many expected this to take the form of political uprising, use of conventional power to throw off the yoke of Roman rule which, at the time, covered the world from modern day Great Britain, most of Europe, Northern Africa, Egypt, and most of the Middle East. Even if he had liberated Jerusalem from Roman authority, they would have remained surrounded by the Roman Empire.   
We may tend to think of this whole story as a quick succession of temptations and answers in this story, because that is the way that they read. But this is the story of the temptation of Jesus, not the testing. We are told right up front that Jesus was tempted, really tempted. Jesus was, as we often are, there with his finger on the trigger or the button to accept. Focused on his mission of bringing peace and healing to the world, Jesus must have thought of all he could have do with rule over all the kingdoms. There could be peace, he could make taxation fair, put in social programs to feed the poor and provide health care for the sick. He could do it all and with no need for him to suffer humiliation or pain.
God’s power is expressed in creation, healing, and judgement.  The devil offered Jesus worldly, human power. All Jesus needed to do was bow down and worship the devil. But what he was offering wasn’t really power, but submission. “Would Jesus submit to the ruler of this world in order to achieve good for the people of this world?” (Craddock 1990, p 56) No he would not. Once again Jesus answered the devil with scripture saying, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Luke 4:8) Real authority rests with God. God can give and take human authority as he did throughout the history of his people from Moses to the Judges and the Kings. God even granted provisional authority to Satan in some instances; that is how he was able to make this offer to Jesus in the first place. The devil offered Jesus kingship, God granted Jesus authority to teach, to heal, to cast out demons, to forgive, and to grant eternal life.
One interesting thing that Fred B Craddock points out in his commentary is that temptation is hardest to resist for the most able. “We aren’t tempted to do what we can’t do, but what we are able to do.” (Craddock 1990, 56) Who are those super villains in comics, out to rule the world? They are not limited, know nothings, they tend to be brilliant individuals who have had some success gaining control who then find themselves driven mad with hunger for more! Today Woodstock, tomorrow the world!
I am just guessing here but most of us don’t feel very powerful. Over what, or whom in your life do you have power? For me there would be very little problem with temptation to storm the world of sport, since I am really not athletic. As a teacher, I have power over my students in terms of when and where they can be and what they are to be doing in class, but as I point out to them it I more a perceived power than real power. If they all decided to do something else, there is no way I could stop them. I could inflict consequences after the fact as a show of power. I could give in to the temptation to be stricter, to take away freedoms they normally have in order to keep control, or I could continue to balance demands and freedoms to our mutual satisfaction.
What power do we have? We have the power of free will, of choice, which was given to us by God. We have the power of the Holy Spirit helping us to remain focused. We have the power of Scripture which, we know from Luke’s focus on it, includes the idea that scripture is adequate to generate and sustain faith and that without it even miracles would be of no use. (Craddock 1990,56) And we have the power of assurance that the devil, the tempter, has already been defeated through Christ. As Paul reminded the Philippians,
20…our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (Phil 3:20-21)
Lindsell, Harold, and Verlyn D Verbrugge. 1991. NRSV Harper Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House.
Craddock, Fred B. 1990. Luke. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press.

Food, Power, and Minions #1


On The Menu                    spiritual-emptiness

 

This is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent has traditionally been a time used to prepare people for Baptism, and confirmation of faith, and for those already confirmed in faith to reflect upon their Baptisms. Good Friday and Easter are the most important observances of the Christian year. Preparing for these events is not, at least for those not leading in worship, about outward trappings but inner awareness and grounding. It should not be like wedding planning; deciding on venues, making guest lists, what food to serve, and decorations. The readings for the first Sunday in Lent always include the story of Christ’s temptation.

Christ’s temptation reflects the experiences of Moses’ 40 days on the mountain with no food, Israel’s 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and Elijah’s 40 days in flight to the mountains. In Luke’s Gospel, the story of the temptation of Christ particularly draws Israel’s wilderness experience first into the life of Jesus and beyond that into the life of the church. Just as Luke focused his gospel on the path of Jesus’ ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem he changed the order of the temptations so that they culminated with the Temple in Jerusalem. The three temptations in the Gospel lesson, and which I used for my sermon series title, are Food, Power, and Minions and address three themes; personal or social temptation, political temptation, and religious temptation. Today, as we begin our preparations, we will focus on the personal temptation.

Jesus was in the wilderness and was tempted for 40 days. Luke tells us that in that time he ate no food. When the Devil began his testing it was on a personal level. How many of you could go 7 days with no food at all? I know I couldn’t! Jesus was famished. As a human being, his deepest drive must have been to meeting this most basic physical need, but though he had no food he was full. He was full of the Holy Spirit. So, when the Devil suggested he turn the stone into bread, he quoted from Deuteronomy 8 saying, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

Was this test really about food? If we have eaten enough we are full. If we have not eaten we are hungry. When our consumption runs amok we are guilty of gluttony. But do we only hunger for food? There are, of course, too many in our society today who are physically hungry. From our side their need is clear and the solution is food. Though this is a much more complex issue, we are not going to focus on that today.  It seems that we are all hungry; hungry for more, hungry for new, hungry for the best, just that one more thing will make us fulfilled!

Let’s look at the context of Jesus’ quote. Deuteronomy is the final sermon of Moses. He and the Israelites are now on the border of the Promised Land and he is preparing them for their future, reinforcing all that God had commanded them through him. In Chapter 8, Moses is said to them,

2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut 8:2-3)

Theologian Fred E Craddock says of today’s passage that the Devil chose the perfect time for this testing of Jesus. The narrative in Luke chapter 3 ends with Jesus’ baptism and the words, “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.” (Luke 3:23)  Before his ministry had time to take shape; before sermons; before casting out demons; before healing the sick; the Devil wanted to see if he could influence or sabotage it.

In a brilliant work of satirical writing called The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis has letters written by one of the Devil’s main demons, Screwtape, to an apprentice or sorts named Wormwood. If you haven’t read this book I would highly recommend it! The letters are one side of a supposed correspondence between the two on the issue of how best to ensure that Wormwood’s patient (victim from our point of view) goes to hell. He gives instructions on how best to distract a patient from any attention to the word of the Enemy (God) and leanings in the way of becoming and living a Christian life. In one letter Screwtape notes that gluttony, one of the deadly sins, is perhaps the easiest to encourage given that it is not actually restricted to quantities of consumption but also on luxury. So we are lulled easily into thinking that just because we have a relatively moderate consumption of food, fashion, and leisure activity etc. is not enough. When we stare at the open fridge full of food and see, “nothing to eat,” we should not be too quick to congratulate ourselves on choosing not to snack.

Note that he was full of the Holy Spirit throughout the story, that this did not protect him from being tempted. Temptation is a basic human condition. Luckily we have, as did Jesus in the wilderness, the Holy Spirit with us and the word of God to work against the Devil’s temptations. As we leave here today and go through our weekly routines remember the words from one prayer I found for the first Sunday of Lent.

“You declare, “It is written,” and Satan flees. Teach us the power of your Word. Remind us that Satan cannot stand before the blinding glare of your Father’s revelation…We are not weak and helpless before him after all. We have your strong Word to defeat the Tempter.” (Kuntz, 1993)

 

 

Baptism of Christ: First ask why


3631902258_3fab33242d_mThoughts for Baptism of Christ Sunday

Read Luke 3:15-22

Think back to your own baptism if they were old enough at the time to remember it, or the last baptism you witnessed to. If you have not been baptized, fear not and read on.

The other day I attended the Presbytery workshop based on the book Your Church Can Thrive by Harold Percy. I was glad to be attending but it didn’t occur to me that I would be finding anything in that time which would find its way into my message for the next day, but there it was. One of the first major points Percy made was that it is important, before getting to how to make change, to ask why we do what we do. So that is what came to church with me this morning.

First, we ask, why?

Why was Jesus baptized? Really, think about it? Had he sinned? We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is the Son so it doesn’t really seem like he should need to be baptized. On one hand, the answer to this one is simple, he didn’t need to be baptized but he chose to be baptized! Christian writers over the years have been uncomfortable with the idea of the divine being baptized. In the 2nd century Ignatius stated that he was already pure and so the purpose was to purify the water. Justin Martyr explained that he was baptized “for the sake of humanity.” One might also say that it was a symbol or affirmation of his true humanity.

Why do we baptize? According to Living Faith we baptize as a sign and seal of our union with Christ and with his church. Through it we share in the death and resurrection of Christ and are commissioned to his service.

Secondly, we ask, what?

What was baptism in Jesus’ time? In the Old Testament immersion had been a form of returning to ritual cleanliness. In the New Testament, John announced “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” or purification of the body after the soul was cleansed by righteousness. Before immersion in a river John required prior repentance and performance of good deeds.  In Jesus’ day baptism was a radical, counter-cultural act. Luke highlights this with his mention of the fact that Herod was made so nervous by John baptizing people in the Jordan, and people questioning whether John may be the Messiah, that after John called him out on his marriage to Herodius he had him arrested, imprisoned and eventually killed.

Jesus was already an adult when he went to the river where John was baptizing. Since it was just a couple weeks ago that we celebrated the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, it is sometimes hard to remember that there was no cute little white dress, or white suit, candles and Godparents.

Jesus’ baptism was public but with no big hoopla or special notice. In Luke’s account it is just slipped in. John explains to the people there that he is neither worthy to unlace the Messiah’s sandals, nor able to baptize with anything but water; while the one who was coming would baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. The actual “story” of the baptism is no more than one line stating that the people and Jesus had been baptized and then it jumps to an undetermined time later when Jesus was praying. It is at this point that heaven opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We are given no indication that anyone other than Jesus himself is witness to these signs and statements.

What is baptism in the Presbyterian Church in Canada? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Presbyterian Church. Living Faith 7.6.3 “By the power of the Holy Spirit God acts through Baptism. It is the sacrament not of what we do but of what God has done for us in Christ. God’s grace and our response to it are not tied to the moment of Baptism, but continue and deepen throughout life. It is a sacrament meant for those who profess their faith and for their children. Together we are the family of God. 7.6.5 Baptism assures us that we belong to God. In life and in death our greatest comfort is that we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Lastly, we ask, how?

How do we decide to be baptized? As Christian parents people make the decision to raise their children in the church and the first step in that is to have them baptized. One PCC document says that, “When people seek baptism later in life, it means that the Holy Spirit, as a guide and friend, has moved them to claim the grace and love of God in Christ, and faith in a new way. It is a courageous action.”

How are we baptized? Living Faith 7.6.2 “In Baptism, water is administered in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The water signifies the washing away of sin, the start of new life in Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

How are we meant to live out our baptisms? 7.6.4 “Baptism is also an act of discipleship that requires commitment and looks towards growth in Christ. Those baptized in infancy are called in later years to make personal profession of Christ. What is born may die. What is grafted may wither. Congregations and those baptized must strive to nurture life in Christ.”

We begin when the Holy Spirit ignites a passion in us. We seek to discern our vocations, we seek to grow in our knowledge and understanding of the ways of Jesus, and we attempt to live in such a way that people see Christ in our lives.

The thing with seeking to answer the big questions is that more often than not we are left with a whole list of new questions. This can be very frustrating, especially if we want to leap right into the action phase of a project. Remember that we are not alone. We have our church family and most importantly we have God. Jesus said he would always be with us through the Holy Spirit. We can continue to have conversations with others and it is vital that we continue the conversation with God in prayer. When we face the next question in living out our baptisms go back to the beginning, start with why and listen for God’s answer.

 

Your Church Can Thrive: Making the Connections that build healthy congregations by Harold Percy, Abingdon Press 2003

Living Faith -https://www.google.com/url?q=http://presbyterian.ca/resources-od/&sa=U&ved=0ahUKEwjuiavu-Z_KAhUkUKYKHX1TCjQQFggEMAA&client=internal-uds-cse&usg=AFQjCNFxxynHAbwDAa92okqQqlWM4Kj4SQ

 

Heroes of the Bible: Three Men and a Furnace


How many of you knew when you saw the title that I would be reflecting on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? One source I read called this story a farce, with everything so exaggerated as to make it ridiculous. As I was reading it I found myself almost laughing at the repetition of the whole list of different officials or the long list of instruments. Farces are fun, but as you are aware the best political cartoons while farcical are very telling. This story is certainly one of the saving power of God it is also a story about three heroes who stood up for what they believed despite potential dire consequences!

This story is from the time of the Babylonian exile. The king at the time was Nebuchadnezzar II. At that time the Babylonian empire had control of vast areas from modern day Iraq, some of Persia, the Holy Land, and , at its height, all of Egypt. It was impossible for one man to rule such a vast area so Nebuchadnezzar had scores of governors, and lesser officials each with their own authority and territory and one of them was Daniel. After having a dream interpreted by Daniel the king was very happy and granted Daniel’s request to appoint his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to high offices.

We pick up here with today’s story. The king had a sixty cubit tall idol constructed and made a decree that everyone must bow down to the idol when they heard certain music  (a long and specific list of instruments and the ensemble) and that anybody who failed to do so would be thrown “immediately” into the furnace.  With the king’s decree in place some of the Babylonian officials noticed some people not bowing down as ordered. This information was passed on to the king, that some Jews were not complying and naming Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who had recently been raised to positions of authority (presumably over Babylonians).

Despite the edict saying they would be immediately thrown into the furnace, the king had the men brought to him. They were questioned and then they were given a choice of following the decree or being thrown into the furnace. They answered first that they didn’t need to defend themselves to him and then that they would not bow to the idol. Just saying that they didn’t have to answer to the King was a major thing, and the they chose the furnace! Furious the king had them bound by his strongest men, the furnace heated to seven times its usual temperature (again an extreme unlikely to be possible), and had them thrown in.

The result was not what Nebuchadnezzar had expected. First his strong men who threw our friends into the furnace were themselves consumed by the fire. Then the king saw those three men, no longer bound and joined by another, walking around in the furnace. Taken aback he checked with others to confirm that he had indeed had three and not four men cast into the furnace. (the comic double take) Then he noticed that while the friends looked just as they had, the fourth man “had the look of a god”.

He called Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire. They came out with no sign of having been anywhere near a fire. They didn’t even have that nice campfire smell. “Therefore (the king makes a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins…” Dan 3:29

Did these three men have a superpower that made them fire resistant? Of course not! Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, their Hebrew names, went by the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were exiles from Jerusalem, educated, thanks to the Babylonian schools, and friends of Daniel. Through that association they had been named as officials of the province of Babylon. With positions of power they were living well, and yet they were not free to go home to Judah. As God had instructed the exiles, they had built houses and planted crops and blended in with the population of the day. Unlike most of the Jews these three, and Daniel presumably, had not taken up worship of the gods of their Babylonian captors.

For the most part furnaces are used in metaphorical ways in the Bible to represent a variety of things such as; God’s judging and testing, a refining fire to strengthen or to reform the people of Israel, and to represent the presence of God. We also associate that kind of fire with condemnation, like the fires of hell. The type of furnace being referred to in the story is probably one for smelting and refining metals and would therefore be both large and very hot, though I doubt it could be heated to seven times its regular heat without it breaking down. Nor do I think it likely that they had a furnace so large that four grown men could walk around in it.

I don’t think that the idols and furnaces which we face in our own lives are very different from those in today’s story. We have lots of idols and furnaces don’t we? We are rarely ordered to bow down but rather encouraged by clever marketing etc. But there are people in our world today being forced to change religion. In some African and the Middle Eastern countries groups like Boko Haram are actively forcing people, through kidnapping and threats of death, to convert from Christianity and Judaism (or any other religion) to Islam. As Matthew warns in 10: 18, disciples, “you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.” He continues in verse 28 to say, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” For those who endure to the end will come through the furnace unscathed!”

So what was the superpower that these three men shared? What was it that made them heroes? Their superpower was the conviction of their faith. They chose the fire, not because they assumed that God would save them, but because they would not break faith, they would not deny the god of their ancestors. They were what some sources call catalyst heroes. In a way like mentors, they acted heroically but they didn’t change much themselves, rather they brought about change in others. In this story the other is Nebuchadnezzar who, though not giving up his gods, comes to acknowledge and respect the God of Abraham as the only god who could have delivered in this way (Dan 3:29).  In terms of the author’s purpose for this story it seems likely that the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was used as a catalyst to change the Jews to return them to the worship of the Almighty God.

While the steadfastness of our heroes’ was a catalyst to change, it was of course God himself who protected them from the fire in the furnace. Unlike Nebuchadnezzar God doesn’t really need us to worship him as without us he still has the whole of creation to praise him. As to his fiery furnace, we read in the Psalm this morning that God’s fire consumes his adversaries. Our heroes firmly stood on the ground of, and then were cast into the fire for the Almighty God not because they trusted that he would save them, but because they believed that he was the one true god. Nobody enjoys the furnace, the refining process. But when we find ourselves being coerced into worshiping other things let’s join Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in jumping from the frying pan to the fire!

Scripture refereces:

Daniel 3: 1-30

Psalm 97

Matthew 10: 16-33

Nel, Marius North-West University, (Potchefstroom) Daniel 3 as satirical comedy file:///C:/Users/Cathy/Downloads/263-791-1-PB.pdf

Types of Heroes (Adapted from Vogler, 1999, pp. 41–44) http://www.waunakee.k12.wi.us/faculty/lcarothers/ModernLiterature/LessonBeforeDying/Types%20of%20Heroes.pdf

To Stay Or To Go/ Serving One Master


Coda and ShaniI am currently living with my sister for a couple of months and I decided to bring my dog along with me. (he is the little one on the left) It has been interesting watching as they learn to interact with each other as well as with my sister and me.

One of the more interesting things is their figuring out to whom they should be listening. When I tell Coda it is ok to go ahead and eat Shani takes it as her permission as well etc.  Today I was listening from upstairs as my sister did a little training session with the two of them together.  At one point she was trying to get Coda to learn to play dead at the same time as having her dog practice.  It was quite entertaining and I could picture in my head as one would be just about to be rewarded and the other (mostly Coda) would pop up.  My sister told me that one time she called for Coda to do position (between her legs) and Coda started towards her and she looked down and discovered Shani there instead.

This all got me thinking about our struggle to remain obedient and faithful to God. ” ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:24) Not to imply that we are dogs, but I believe we are in exactly the same quandary as our two little dogs. Which one are we supposed to listen to when one is saying “stay” and the other is calling “come”?  For the dogs I suspect there is a combination of inclination to follow the one they know the best but often overtaken by the one most likely to give them a treat.

In our society almost everyone in the commercial world is offering treats of one kind or another; fancy car, softer/firmer skin, guaranteed weight loss, popularity etc. Even if falsely advertised, the rewards of our world are right there in front of us. They are visible and we see other people who have them and wish we could as well. Those rewards are lacking though. They do not include a deeper bond with anybody, they don’t involve a greater understanding of self.

God is the one we know the best as well as the one who has given and offers the best reward.  The problem is that the gifts are neither visible nor tangible. While the gift of new life is already given, it is only immediately present if we are choosing to live it.  God’s call is more subtle, quieter, and easily drowned out by the others clamoring for our attention but we need to listen more closely and stay when he says stay, or go when he says to go.

Word of Mouth


Word of mouth

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My family and I have a bathroom renovation project underway and when I was looking for someone to do the work I did as I usually do and asked Dad.  After that I asked my friends on Face Book for their opinions of and experiences with different contractors.  Similarly, when our washer died I put out a request for comments on top load washers versus front load models.  In fact on any given day you can find requests for advice on road conditions, where to go to get things, and whether or not a movie is worth seeing.  None of these things are likely to change our lives but are examples which show that we place greater value on the experience and opinion of our friends than on the advertisements which would have us believe that every product is better than all the other products which in-turn are also better… So what about spiritual questions, things that will change our lives?  What would you seek and whom would you follow?

 

In our Gospel reading today John must have been ‘wired for sound’! He had just experienced what he knew was the highest point of his ministry, he had fulfilled his destiny. It was not his own accomplishment, it wasn’t that he would be thinking what a great job he had done, but it was still a great day.  If it had happened today he might immediately get out his cell phone and tweet something like, “Best day of my life, baptized Son of God, heard God’s voice and saw the spirit, time to retire, can die happy!”

In the other Gospels this is where the baptism story ended and they moved away from the Baptist and the area around the Jordan, one immediately, to the temptation of Christ and the beginning of his ministry.  John chose instead to continue the narrative of Baptist’s activities.  In a sense the author gave him time to tweet and for people to respond to his news.  While the other Gospels gradually reveal Jesus’ identity, John front loads the story with details of Jesus’ true identity.  In very short order he identifies Christ by several of the titles which had been ascribed to him by the church over the years; Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah.

 

Last week we read of the baptism itself and today, the actual baptism itself is not narrated in John, we take up the story on the next day. John the Baptist saw Jesus and told all who are in the area just what had happened and how important this man was!  In a tradition in which sacrifices were made for thanksgiving, for atonement of sin, etc. it would have caught people’s attention when the Baptist referred to Christ as, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  It may have brought out memories of the Passover lamb whose death and the painting of its blood protected the people in Egypt.  For us, and indeed for the early readers of John’s gospel, this speaks to his crucifixion and resurrection, his atonement for the sins of the whole world.  At the time of the Baptist, however, it may have brought to mind Abraham who said God would provide the lamb for the sacrifice.  At the least it would have indicated his purity but oddly would also carry a picture of weakness; important because of the role of the unblemished lamb in sacrifice, but weak because a lamb is helpless to defend itself from death on the altar.

 

The Baptist had been out in the wilderness preaching and calling people to repentance, but never taking credit or making himself out to be important.  In John’s gospel this event followed a scene in which the Baptist was questioned by religious authorities.  He had denied being Elijah, being The Prophet (Moses), and being the Messiah. He had in fact always been saying, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”  He had never made much of himself but pointed ahead to that man. He explained that he had been baptizing with water in order to reveal the man to Israel.  He related the sight of the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remaining on Jesus, and that God had told them this would be the sign of the man who was coming. He made a statement worthy of a court trial, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

 

It is likely that most people who heard him talking about Jesus considered it to be at least a bit far-fetched and perhaps attributed it to John’s strange ways.  “After all, he lives way out here away from people and doesn’t eat properly, he was probably delirious with hunger, or maybe he is going mad.  A spirit came and settled on a man and this is the big news? Hardly!”

 

The next day, then two days after Christ’s baptism, two of the Baptist’s followers were there when again he saw Jesus.  Again he identified Jesus and he testified that he was the Lamb of God.  These two men then left John, up until now their spiritual leader, and followed Jesus. Jesus asked them what they were seeking and told them to come and see.  Before he had taught them anything they called him Rabbi which means teacher. They went to where he was staying and spent the day with him.  Only one of the two is named in this account, Andrew the brother of the man known to us as Simon Peter.  Andrew ran off to find his brother and passed on the exciting news, “We have found the Messiah.”  When they got back Jesus identified him by name and says he will be called Cephas’ or Peter.

 

So following the line of information

  1. God tells John of his mission

  2. God tells John how to recognize the one to come after

  3. John witnesses the sign Lamb of God

  4. John tells all who are around Lamb of God

  5. John repeats this to two of his followers Son of God

  6. One of the followers, Andrew, goes to tell his brother Messiah

If we were to continue this line it would lead us all the way to this place and thousands like it where the Word is being proclaimed today.

 

The three readings I chose to use this morning are very different in form, the Psalm being a poem or song, 1 Corinthians being a letter, and John being a story.  They are all about saving help, God’s faithfulness, Christ’s salvation, steadfast love, mercy, and evangelism.

 

 

In the Psalm we read a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from dire personal circumstances as well as the pattern of God’s works of salvation for the people of Israel over the ages.  The author does what most of us would do after being rescued; he gives thanks and praises his deliverer.  He doesn’t do this in private, but in the congregation, he tells everyone! In the 11 verses we read we go back and forth between the personal story and praise to God for his faithfulness, and the communal stories of the past and expectations of the future.  The other feature of the Psalm is that it expresses God’s desire for a relationship with us rather than sacrifices. God doesn’t want the rites of religion, he wants our seeking and having his laws written on our heart.

 

Much of the writing of Paul that is included in the Christian cannon is in the form of letters.  There was a very ordered format for letters in his time and he certainly followed it.  First you introduce yourself, then identify the recipient, give thanks, and then you move on to the content.  Our reading this morning was the introduction to a much longer letter which would address some pretty major issues with the church in Corinth.  Without reading further, however, one would be unlikely to realize there was any problem or concern. The focus here was on their unity in that they were all called by Christ, that they were all empowered by the Spirit, that they all shared the same testimony to the grace of Christ and the faithfulness and steadfastness of God. Paul gives thanks for the congregation which was equipped with the tools they needed to continue this testimony, to pass on the word.

 

So, we have established that word-of-mouth is the most effective way of getting information out to people. Given this it is hard to imagine why do we rely so heavily on the Bible itself to get the Christian message out?  How can we offer Christ and invite people to come and see what a life of following Jesus might be like. (Daniel Ogel…GBod)?

 

People are only willing to inquire about faith and follow if they are themselves open to it. It is spiritual hunger which compels people to search for new possibilities. It is their dissatisfaction with where they are in their lives and in their spiritual life which forces them to go in search of something new.(Daniel Ogel, GBod.com0 John the Baptist pointed the way to Jesus, “don’t focus on me or the trappings of the church or liturgy, look to Jesus himself and be open to a relationship with him.  Jesus invited the first two disciples to, “come and see” where he was staying, to actually walk in his ways.  Both of these approaches to seekers are models of evangelism.  “Instead of beating people over the head or intimidating them to confess their faith, John and Jesus point to what God is doing and invite people to check it out. It’s a pretty compelling strategy for faith-sharing and evangelism.”(Daniel Ogel, GBod.com) and far less awkward than starting a conversation with a person by asking them if they know Jesus, or if they are a Christian and then launching into a “sales campaign.”

 

So, what did you post on Face Book this morning before leaving for church?  Did you post that you were going to church? Great! When we share our lives as Christians with people, just as that, our lives, we open a door. If we get out the bat, quote scripture and tell people how they should live and what they should believe, we are more likely to scare them away. What will you post later in the day?  Whether we have good days or bad what people will notice is our patience and hopefulness in God and maybe that will be enough to make them ask where we get that patience and hopefulness and then we can invite them to come and see.

 

 The readings for this sermon were; 1 Cor 1:1-9, Psalm 40:1-11, John 1:19-42

Opening The Eye of The Needle/ The Gift of The Gospel


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     Believe it or not…! Would you believe that … ? Most of the time that we are faced with that sort of statement or question it is either preceded or followed by some extraordinary tale. Can you believe that a deer climbed through a window and was running around in the legislature chambers?  Can you believe that she lost 80 pounds in just a month on this new diet? I can’t believe they are charging so much for a loaf of bread!

        Belief is a very fundamental thing and yet in the same way as we have taken to talking about “loving cheese” we have to some extent reduced the power of the word believe.  It isn’t that we are misusing the word believe, but it is rarely used for the foundational issues.  However, if I were to ask you what your beliefs were, I don’t think you would respond with your take on the latest happenings at work, the latest gossip, or the latest scientific discovery.  Ultimately our beliefs are the foundation of our identity, the guiding principles behind all our life decisions and actions.

 

        C.S. Lewis, well known author of the Narnia series as well as many excellent books on theological issues, grew up attending the Church of England with his parents.  From his earliest days he believed in God.  At some point in his teens this belief went away and he became an atheist.  Not just a quiet atheist, he was what I ironically term a devout atheist.  Not sufficient to just not believe himself, he argued all the really good reasons why there was no God with anyone who would listen. 

        Despite this belief, or lack there-of, he continued to feel that there was something else, occasionally glimpsed out of the corner of his eye or sensed behind his back.  After years of atheism, a stage of dabbling with the occult, he was surprised to find that what he had been glimpsing and sensing was indeed God.  During the period of time when he did not believe, he made no pretense of belief.  He was wholly and enthusiastically an atheist.  When he believed he was wholly and enthusiastically Christian and shared that belief in his writing.  C.S. Lewis, for whatever else one may say about him, was not a fence sitter!

 

        Elijah was the only prophet of God who had survived king Ahab’s killing of prophets of God and all those who refused to worship Baal.  In the community of Israel at that time some people were either wholeheartedly worshiping Baal, the storm god of Syria, or somewhat secretly worshiping God.  There were many, however, who sat on the fence. They worshiped God but had Baal figures and Asherah poles, symbols of the Canaanite mother goddess, as well.  There was even a belief among some of the descendants of mixed marriages with the Canaanites that God was the replacement for the father god El, the husband of Ashera and so it followed that Asherah must be God’s wife.

        We read in I Kings 18:20-39 of a standoff at Mount Carmel.  On one side there were, according to other writings about the event, 400 prophets of Asher and 450 prophets of Baal.  On the other side there was Elijah, the sole prophet of God.  It was time for people to get off the fences and stand firmly on one side or the other.  Either they would believe in “their god”, or they would believe in “the Lord.” Elijah proposed a sort of duel.  Both sides would prepare a sacrifice but not set fire to it.  The Baal prophets would then pray to him to light the fire and Elijah would pray the same to God.  The one who lit the fire, he said, “is God.”

Let’s look at the odds shall we?  They had, altogether, 850 prophets, an altar already standing, first choice of bull, and a head start.  Elijah gave them all day. They began in the morning and by noon Baal had not started a fire under the offering.  Elijah mocked them but did not set about to make his offering right away.  By the time they were nearing the evening sacrifice and meal they had pulled out all the stops, to the extent of cutting themselves with swords and lances.

Elijah was alone, he went second in choosing his materials, had to build an altar since the original lay in ruins, had a definite time limit pressing, and then on top of that he dug a trench around the altar and had water poured over the wood and bull until it filled up the trench.

Have you tried starting a fire with wet wood?  A betting person surely would put the odds seriously in favour of Baal.  When it came time for oblation Elijah called people to come closer to his altar.  He prayed to God in the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel not for justifying himself or saving his life but so that all would know that God is Lord!  After this fairly simple prayer, “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”  The people saw, believed, and worshiped, repeating the words, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

       

        Recently on the Newnham Campus of Seneca College in Toronto the General Assembly; ministers, elders, and guests from Presbyterian churches across Canada, gathered to worship.  There had great music, they gathered, confessed their sins, were nurtured by the Word, listen to a reflection on the Word, and respond with communion and prayers. After the service they  settled down to the order of the day which was to address issues of doctrine, logistics and mission which will set the course of the national church for the next year.  This is the court of the church that must meet and agree upon any statements of the church, like The Living Faith.

        Paul wrote a letter to the Christians living in Galatia, some of them would have been Jews and many gentiles.  He and his companions had presented the Gospel to them.  They had believed, been baptized, and were living according to the Gospel message.  There were no general assemblies; there was no formal church structure or any written documents to guide their growth as the church.  By the time Paul was writing this letter people had started to try to formalize things and a group of Christians began to add their own interpretations and provisos to the Gospel proclamation. 

        Paul was horrified by the notion that some of the Jewish Christians were teaching that in order to be Christian people needed to submit to “the law” and a part of that included a requirement that men be circumcised.  This may not seem like such a big deal, but to Paul it was the same as throwing out the Gospel and creating a gospel of human creation.  Does this sound familiar?  It is much like the situation with Elijah and the Baal prophets.  Elijah knew there were no other gods, that, as it says in Psalms, “all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.”  Paul says the Gospel is in the same way that the Lord is God! The Gospel wasn’t created by man but given to man by God.  He refers to the other teachings as gospel only to have a way of addressing the issue. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel.”

        To Paul the Gospel was not something taught by Jesus during his lifetime, but given to us by Jesus.  It was nothing less than the full power of God, there was no need for any human action or intervention for God to give this gift.  It represents freedom, an opening up of salvation to all, it opens the eye of the needle so that we may all pass through. The law based gospel these people in Galatia were presenting denied the total power of God and effectively closed the eye of the needle right back up.

        What is the message to us today?  Those of us here this morning are all at some stage of believing the Gospel.  Some may just be hearing it for the first time, some hearing it anew, some struggling to hold on to their belief, and others feeling full of and freed by it.  The Gospel is the good news of God’s saving act in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For it to make sense to all different people it needs to be translated and interpreted to them in various ways.  While, unlike the Galatians, we have the written New Testament full of the stories of Jesus and of the birth and growth of the early church, we truly receive the Gospel only from God. 

        The claims of the Gospel are wild and defy logic and human nature.  In some ways we trap it, and tame it with our written word changing it into ideology.  Let us, rather, choose to believe the Gospel.  Let us truly accept it and stand in awe of its wildness!