Tag Archives: God

The longest Psalm/ mindless repetition?


3631902258_3fab33242d_mI follow a reading plan through which, in 365 days, one reads the whole Bible. Most days there are 2-6 chapters to read each day. One day in June I came to a day that had only 1 chapter to read. Twelve columns later I had read the entire 119th Psalm in one sitting. The next day I looked for more information on the Psalm and read that it was intended to be read, like a devotional book in our day, rather than sung or recited. I continued thinking about this, the longest psalm, for days, weeks. I started thinking about the fact that we only ever encounter short sections of 119 in the lectionary cycle, and wondered how to include it all in one, or a series of services. So here we are!

This Psalm is different from other Psalms, not only because of its length, but because it was most likely written out rather than developed orally, and its focus is not on God’s acts and his rule over the world, but rather on his word or the Torah. This Psalm is a highly structured piece of poetry. There are 176 verses, 22 strophes or stanzas, each of which could stand alone with no problem!  The whole thing is an acrostic with each section beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I bet we have all been asked to write an acrostic poem at some point in our school years. “Write your name down a page and then have each line start with that letter.”

Every line of this poem has essentially the same message. How many of you have heard, or said, “You call that music!?! They just keep saying the same words over and over!” Much as people may complain over hearing the same thing over and over again, repetition is not always a bad thing. Think of music.  Composers work hard to keep a balance between repetitions, essential in order to hold the piece together as a single unit, and contrast to give variety. The first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is based entirely on one short rhythmic pattern and one interval; three eight notes and a half note, and a descending major third. It holds together so well, in fact, that even people with little or no music training could respond to the first pattern with the next.

With all 176 verses saying basically the same thing, the repetition is well in hand.  So where does the psalmist provide variety? First with vocabulary. In the Hebrew there are eight central words (seven when translated to English) used throughout the Psalm to give subtle tweak to the meaning of the one word, Torah, which could have been used in all cases. There are two different Hebrew words that translate as word, and then law, judgments, testimonies, commandments, statutes, and precepts. Rather than tell of God’s mighty acts, these highlight two aspects of God’s word, his directives for our lives, and his promises to us.

Second, variety comes from the form of each statement. Within this one Psalm you can find examples of all the types of Psalms; individual prayers for help, “94 I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts,” petitions, “116 Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope,” expressions of ones troubles, “95 The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your decrees,” assertions of trust, “103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” and vows of praise, “175 Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me.

            In the Interpretation Series book Psalms, James L. Mays lists four key points about the psalmist’s single-minded focus on God’s word. The first is that “God’s instruction is important because it is God’s.” This is a fairly simple statement. Having already read all the other Psalms which talk of God’s power in creation, in redeeming his people time and again, and in his rule over all the nations, readers of this Psalm should be ready to consider God’s word first in everything. The fact that he had to continually redeem his people is testimony to the fact that people did not, in fact, put it first but got caught up in the words of man, in the statutes put in place by human rulers and the tempting statements of believers in other gods. The Psalmist knows well that God’s word is most important, and yet throughout 119 we read that even he struggled with this. Pick a random verse after verse 8 from this Psalm and find the word used for Torah. What word goes with it? These nouns are always prefaced with the word, “his,” or “your” in order to maintain the readers focus on God. In the introduction and conclusion sections it says things like, “the law of the Lord,” or, “his statutes.” He never said our laws, or the laws, or the commandments.

May’s second point is that “The word of God requires obedience and faith and does not accept legalism.” Obedience is not a strong suit for many of us, and we know that we will fail in being completely obedient, but God’s word calls us to obey anyway. With respect to legalism, it is all too easy to lose focus on God himself and start watching out for any little infraction to his law in order to judge and punish the person responsible. This became so prevalent that perhaps it is why, long after this Psalm was written, Jesus simplified things into the New Commandment, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). Only God is to judge.

The third point is that, “God’s word is given but never possessed; we need to seek and study constantly and pray for teaching and learning.” So we read the Bible, at least in worship, and before we do so we ask that he reveal his message to us, that he use the word to teach us and that he help us to learn. I think of a part of Tevye’s song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were a rich man…If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to shit in the synagogue and pray. Maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the Holy books with the learned men seven hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all!” The usual connotation of the word rules would be of limits on freedom and on punishment. But, like Tevye, the writer of Psalm 119 clearly did not see the Torah as an onerous duty, but as a source of delight.

92 If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my misery.
93 I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have given me life. 

May’s fourth point is that, “The word comes from God, but must become a part of us, it requires a conversion of the heart.” This Psalm itself is an example to us of what that means. “The author had a theme that filled his soul, a theme as big as life, which ranged the length and breadth and height and depth of a person’s walk with God.”(John H. Stek) And so his Psalm is not some arbitrary exercise in acrostic poetry but a pouring out of his heart. It is not a lifeless, repetitive annoyingly long reading, unless we make it so.

By the end of the service today we will have heard, read, or sung, not quite the whole Psalm, but at least a part of every strophe. Remember that God’s word is important, that much is required of us, that we need to study and reflect on it, and that we need to allow it to seep in and become embedded in our hearts, a part of us.

 

Abingdon Press.,. New Interpreter’s Study Bible-NRSV. Abingdon Press, 2003. Print.

Barker, Kenneth L and Donald W Burdick. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995. Print.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994. Print.

 

Grace; what do we do with it?


Tool BeltSumming up the last three sermons about Grace; Grace may be defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; grace is available to all people, over 7 billion in the world today; and there is nothing we can do to receive grace for ourselves except make ourselves open to that forgiveness, and trusting that it will come.   

Since we have been justified by faith and forgiven for our sins, what are we meant to do going forward? Many people have questioned the doctrine of grace earned by faith alone as it seems to imply that, since we are already justified, we have no need to be good, or do anything in the world.  This is, of course, not the case.  As children of God, forgiven through Christ, we commit ourselves to live a Christ-like life.  As our Epistle reading this morning reads in The Message, “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.  Pursue the things over which Christ presides.  Don’t shuffle along eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.  Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is.”   What does this life look like?

In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace Philip Yancey talks about, “tracing the roots of the word grace, or charis in Greek, and finding a verb that means “I rejoice, I am glad.”  He goes on to say that, “In my experience, rejoicing and gladness are not the first images that come to mind when people think of the church.  They think of holier-than-thous.  They think of church as a place to go when you have cleaned up your act, not before.”  As people of grace, we want our lives and our church to reflect this rejoicing and gladness, and we want people to feel free to join us no matter where they are on their journey of faith.

In our readings last week we read the story of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray in the words we now refer to as the Lord’s Prayer.  It is in this prayer that we run up against the first requirement of leading a Christ-like life.  Jesus instructed them to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  The first part is all good, forgiveness of our debts, grace, is central to our lives. The problem appears in the form of one of the shortest, and in this case most powerful, words in our language, “as.” Forgive us like we forgive. It is a powerful word because while we are happy to be forgiven, there is a clear link here between our forgiveness by the Father and our own forgiving of our friends, neighbours, and enemies. Our first task as Christians is to forgive, to pass the grace along, and this is definitely a counter-culture way of thinking. 

Yancey quotes Elizabeth O’Connor who puts the dilemma this way, “Despite a hundred sermons on forgiveness, we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven.  Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be.” The human tendency would be to brood over wrongs, hold grudges, plot revenge, and pray that the bad guys get their just deserts in harsh punishments. I have no intention of making forgiveness sound easy in this sermon.  It is not. I pray the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime and I often find myself tripped up in the middle and having to go off on a tangent to try to bring myself around to forgiveness for someone else before I can pray the remainder of the prayer. Luckily we have God to help us with our natural tendency towards unforgiveness.

Forgiving others is an emotional and spiritual challenge which we work out mostly internally and through the help of the Holy Spirit.  In more practical terms, let’s look at some of the other things we should be doing as recipients of grace, and to be as Christ-like as possible. I referred last week to the ‘means of grace’ which are a gift from God rather than a checklist to be completed in order to receive grace.  Steven Manskar describes them as, “… how we grow and mature in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength….This means of grace are divided into two general categories: works of piety and works of mercy.”  There follows a nice concrete list…

Piety                                                              Mercy

prayer (private and family)                   feeding the hungry

public worship                                           clothing the naked

the Lord’s Supper                                     caring for the sick

reading & studying the Bible                visiting the jails and prisons

Christian conference                               sheltering the homeless

fasting or abstinence                               welcoming the stranger

                                                                        peacemaking

                                                                        acting for the common good 

These are all things Jesus did and taught his disciples to do, not in order to receive forgiveness but because they were forgiven.

 In reading through several recent issues of the Presbyterian Record I saw many examples of these acts of piety and mercy; I read of the power of prayer; of many different styles of worship from Sunday mornings in the established churches to worship around the campfire at one of our many summer camps; I saw ads for different colleges and universities and the elders institute offering both Christian conference and study, I read of assistance given to people from Fort McMurray and the congregation there, of women’s retreats,  of congregations sponsoring refugees from Syria and Namibia, of young people identifying needs in the community and starting a program to help, of the church signing a joint statement stating that the church would work to implement the articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous; the discipleship is there, it is active and vibrant throughout the national church.

 Is discipleship active here at St. Paul’s?  I believe that it is.  You put an emphasis on worship through our Sunday services 52 times each year.  You regularly meet to share the Lord’s Supper and include in that everyone who attends worship. Worship is based on the reading and interpretation of the Word, and make available monthly books for daily devotion.  Meeting in Bible studies, coffee hours etc. there is a chance to share experiences, questions, and insights with each other.  You are always ready to welcome people to the congregation, collect for food banks, lead services and help with birthday parties at the Carleton Manor, send birthday and Christmas cards and fruit trays to seniors, celebrate PWS&D Sunday, support the Atlantic Mission Society and Presbyterians Sharing. 

Manskar stresses in his article the need to maintain a balance in our works rather than to, “always gravitate toward those that suit our temperament or personality. For example, an introvert may naturally be drawn to …private prayer, Bible study and fasting…and will tend to neglect worship, conference and works of mercy…while an extroverted person will naturally be drawn to those works of piety and mercy that suit his/her temperament but will neglect time alone with God in prayer and reflection.  Could we challenge ourselves to stretch and increase our involvement even in the areas with which we are less comfortable?  This is a question upon which every individual needs to reflect in prayer, and which our congregations need to discern in order to gain a vision for their continuing ministry within the community.

 In a world of ever bigger barns, as individuals and congregations we need to avoid the trap of the greedy farmer, filling our barns with stuff for ourselves rather than with God.  We need to look beyond ourselves to where Christ is looking. To the needs of those in hunger, in pain, in trouble with the law, everyone we meet, for as it states in Colossians, “Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing.  From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ. “

 We will know we are getting it right when people see a church which is active, vital, open and welcoming; a place to come for help, as well as to offer help, and a place to grow in the love and service of Christ. 

 

Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”.Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002. Print.

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Grace; how do we get it?


checklistIn case you have not read the last two posts, we have been talking about grace.  The first week we defined grace as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God which means that, “God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love” (Yancey). And last week we focused on the issue of whom this grace is for.  Our answer from Colossians was that “God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing…”

 For today, we change our focus again and look at the issue of what we need to do in order to receive God’s grace for ourselves. Today’s quick answer is, say yes, thank you! “In his article entitled Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship, Steven W. Manskar said,

 “This life (of Christian discipleship) begins with forgiveness of our sins. When we acknowledge who we are (sinners in need of forgiveness), we can begin living into the lives God desires for us as his beloved children.  With forgiveness comes freedom – from sin and death – so that we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love those whom God loves; as God loves them, in Christ.  All this is God’s gift to the world – grace.”

 As we hear in that description, before we can receive forgiveness of our sins we need to admit that we are sinners in the first place.  This is why our service of worship always includes a confession of sins.  If we feel that we are justified in all our acts without God then we will not need grace at all. This admission of our sinful nature is also a part of the summary of Louis B. Weeks’ chapter on following Jesus in his 1941 publication To Be a Presbyterian, 

“In the sequence of trying to follow Jesus we are first enabled to repent, to recognize the sinfulness in which we exist and call upon God for forgiveness. We are then permitted to sense that God does not count our sin against us, because Christ intercedes for us.  Then we experience the falling away of sin, the restoring of our relationship as children of God.  Finally, we move in the process of following Jesus.”

Having accepted that we are in need of forgiveness, we move on to receiving the gift.  First, as a gift that is offered freely and without price, it must be received and accepted as a gift.  As our Gospel reading says today, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Think for a moment about the last time someone gave you a compliment. Maybe they thought you looked good, your clothes were nice, or your work was well done. How did you feel? Happy or proud right? Or maybe you felt awkward or undeserving. Does this sound familiar to anyone? “That is an awesome shirt!” “Oh, I’ve had it for ages.” or “I got it from a bag of things my friend was getting rid of.” Somehow in our society we have come to think that accepting a compliment with a simple thank you is somehow prideful, and pride must be avoided. If we have this much trouble with a simple compliment imagine the challenge in accepting that all the things of which we are most ashamed in our lives have been erased with no penalty.

 Some theologians say that if we are seeking God, it is only because God has planted in us the desire to seek him, and that it is God rather than man who seeks relationship.  God is looking for us, desires a relationship with us, and has grace waiting for us when we are ready to accept it, all we really need to do is ask, or knock and then stay on the step expecting the door to open.  When you ask for something, as I tell my kids all the time, you need to be prepared to accept the answer whether it is positive or negative. In this case you ask in faith knowing that the answer will be yes.  I think that when we ask for grace, in this context, what we are really asking for is God’s help with accepting the gift.

The reformed tradition of Luther and Calvin teaches us that justification, being made right with God through forgiving grace, is received through faith alone, that we do not need to make ourselves good enough through doing the correct number of good deeds in order to receive God’s forgiveness. In fact, none of us are capable of making ourselves good enough for God. Remember that grace is freely given and unmerited.  In our humanity and in this world of corruption and greed, it is difficult for us to accept that anything is freely offered, that there are no strings attached. 

 “Congratulations, you have won a free trip to the Caribean…”

The idea that anyone, even God, can love us despite our sins and flaws seems ludicrous and then adding that there is nothing in it for them is just more than we can fathom.  We have so much trouble forgiving ourselves and those who slight us in any way that it may be beyond our imaginations that God would forgive even the direst of sins.

Manskar points out that, “we are not always faithful, patient, or available to God.  God provided us with the means of grace, gifts given to help us make time and space for God in our lives.”  One of these means is in prayer, both private and public.  Through prayer we can ask for help with accepting grace.  Where faith is the only requirement for justification, we can follow the example of the father of an epileptic boy in need of healing who said, “”I believe; help my unbelief!”  We might pray the words of our call to worship from this morning, “May we drink deeply, and receive your grace. May we stand in trust, and receive your strength. May we open our hearts, and receive your healing love.” In public and in private we can not go wrong by praying the way Jesus taught in today’s reading from Luke.

 Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

 The bottom line today is that there is nothing we can do to receive grace for ourselves except for making ourselves open to that forgiveness, and trusting that it will come.  Our real struggle will be with our human nature and our inclination to doubt.  For help with that we have but to ask. In the words of John Wesley;

“O that we mayst all receive of Christ’s fullness, grace upon grace;

Grace to pardon our sins, and subdue our iniquities;

To justify our persons and to sanctify our souls;

And to complete that holy change, that renewal of our hearts,

Whereby we may be transformed

Into that blessed image wherein thou didst create us.”

Grace, what is it?


Kingsclear-20110612-00079

I really started thinking about grace one summer, around nine years ago, when I was visiting my sister outside Montreal.  She said that she had heard the term used in church for years but realized she didn’t think she really understood it. I had been doing some theology courses and she asked me what I knew about it. I shared the little bit I knew about the grace of God as shown in the forgiveness of sins, but it felt a bit lame, lifeless somehow.  A seed had been planted. Since then we have both watched out for books and articles on grace. One of the first books I read was Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.

When dealing with a concept such as grace, people often start with the word itself.  I was surprised that when I Googled for definitions of grace the first seven definitions were secular; it wasn’t until the eighth definition that God was connected with the word.  Of course, from my egocentric view of the world, it is hard for me to imagine why the people writing these dictionaries didn’t understand that without God’s grace the other meanings might not exist and certainly wouldn’t be as powerfully positive.

As a noun, grace is defined as; elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action; a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment; favour or good will; a manifestation of favour; mercy/clemency/pardon; favour in granting a delay or temporary immunity; an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable granted to the debtor before a law suit can be brought.

When I look in my five volume Bible dictionary, the entry for grace is ten columns long. I will spare you the details. Theologically, grace is defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them; a virtue or excellence of divine origin.

For most people, even those who are not Christians, the first thing they are likely to think of when asked about grace would say that it is the thing you say before you eat a meal.  This was definition 10 in the dictionary listing. The next most familiar references may be the many idioms in English.  We think of ‘falling from grace’ when we have done something wrong or disappointed someone; of having grace to do something like hold the door open for someone; of being in someone’s good graces; of doing things with bad grace making it clear even as we comply with a request that it is against our will; and the very familiar idiom, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”

In an article entitled “Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship”, Steven W. Manskar says of grace. “Grace is God’s unmerited, unconditional love and acceptance freely given to all.  This grace is incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This grace is free, but it is not cheap.  It comes to us at great cost to God: the suffering and death of God’s Son on a Roman cross.  We must always remember and be reminded that the grace God gives is a costly grace.”

We read a story of grace in Luke 10:25-37.  A familiar story in which we usually focus on the fact that a Pharisee was trying to trick Jesus once again, and that we are to love everyone, not just those who are the same as we are, but there was grace.  The poor beaten up naked man lying in the ditch did nothing whatever to deserve anyone’s help.  We don’t even hear that he cried out, presumably he was little able to do that as he was left “half-dead”. 

The first two people who walked by were religious men a priest and a Levite.  We read that they went by on the other side of the road. Perhaps they were afraid of being seen with this naked man, afraid that he might indeed be dead and would cause them to be unclean, or perhaps they were just busy and distracted and didn’t want to take the time.  Imagine them muttering to themselves as they continued on their ways, “there but by the grace of God go I.” They may have been thinking about grace, but did not carry it through beyond themselves to their neighbour.

This Samaritan man, who by rights should not even have been seen talking to a Jew, covered his body, cleaned his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn.  He cared for him until morning and then, without promises of being paid back, he arranged for his care at the inn until he recovered, even if it ended up costing him more than he had already given, which according to one source was enough money to pay for a month’s stay at an inn at the time.  This story illustrates grace; unmerited, unconditional love, free but not cheap.

Amos 7:7-17 seems, on the surface, to present a view of God who was vengeful, the antithesis to grace.  In this passage God sent his prophet Amos to bring a message of doom.  When the king attempted to make Amos stop doing what God had told him to do, the message became even worse.  Having already allowed for intercession on their behalf, God said this time that he would not pass over Israel again. They would have to pay for abandoning the faith and practice of their ancestors. The judgement declared was focused on three places; the high places where they had been worshipping false gods, the sanctuaries where they were no longer worshiping, and the house of the king whose line was to be destroyed by the sword. 

During a discussion about what makes Christianity unique, at a British conference on comparative religion, C.S. Lewis summed it up, “Oh that’s easy. It’s grace.”  It is in Christianity alone that we find the love of God poured out for us freely without merit.

So, what is grace?  After 69 pages Yancey “…attempts something like a definition of grace in relation to God.  Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more-no amount of spiritual callisthenics and renunciation, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.  And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder.  Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.”

Defining grace may be very difficult, but experiencing grace, if we are open to awareness of it, is not.  John Newton, a reformed slave captain, certainly knew what grace was in his life.  He knew just how low he had gone, and knew the feeling of being lifted out of that dark place and being given a new start.  He did not write a definition of grace, but he wrote of his experience in the now famous and well-loved hymn with which we began our worship today;

Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

 

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”. Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.

Just keep moving/ Elijah not Dory


the-long-road-home         Let’s review the events that precede today’s Elijah story. Elijah was a prophet of God, and like other prophets was not bringing the messages Ahab, king of Israel, wanted to hear. Ahab wanted approval for the Baal worship which he and most of Israel had adopted from his wife Jezebel; but they brought warnings. The warnings went unheeded and eventually, God brought a drought on the land. Ahab ordered that all prophets of the God of Israel be rounded up and killed. Elijah ran and escaped, ending up in the home of a widow and her son all of whom were fed by God. After a time, God sent Elijah back to Ahab. As he was coming close he ran into Obadiah, a close advisor of Ahab who remained faithful to God. Obadiah had great news to share. Not only had Elijah escape the killing, but Obadiah had managed to hide away 100 other prophets of God! Even though the people of Israel were not faithful, Elijah was not alone in his faith in God.

            Following that, there was the scene on Mt. Carmel where he challenged the prophets of Baal and God sent a consuming fire to show his presence and his power. The people acknowledged God as their god and king, and at Elijah’s order set about to capture and kill all of the prophets of Baal who were present. Then Elijah called on God to send rain, and boy did it rain! Both Ahab, in his chariot, and Elijah, on foot, headed back at high speed for Jezreel where today’s story begins just as they were shaking off the rain.

            When Ahab told Jezebel that Elijah had all the prophets of Baal put to death, she was furious and cursed him, saying that he would be dead in 24 hours. Despite God’s great display of power on Mt Carmel, and grace in ending the drought with fresh rain, Elijah was terrified and ran for his life. The primal survival instinct kicked in and he was off. He ran to Judah, the kingdom ruled by Jehoshaphat, when he got as far as Beersheba he left his servant behind. After one more day’s journey, he couldn’t go any further! He sat down under a broom tree, a big tree which is almost always pictured all alone on a barren plain,  and he prayed to God saying, “I’m no better than my ancestors.” and asked God to end his life. He must have been exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and feeling like a failure. He went to sleep with no intention of doing anything more and was woken by an angel with food and drink ready for him, a cake baked on a stone and a jar of water, just what he had asked from the widow of Zarephath, and which God had continued to provide for them.

          After eating, He didn’t do anything else, like hiding for instance, but went back to sleep. When he was woken a  second time he  was not only fed but told that he would need food to sustain him for his journey. Remember, Elijah was planning to lay there until he died, but he didn’t seem to have batted an eye at the statement that he will be on a journey. The writer doesn’t give any indication that he received directions for this journey. It was almost as if a sleepwalker set out and, with no further food, walked south for 40 days and nights until he arrived at Mt Horeb. He spent the night in a cave, possibly the one in which Moses had stayed and met God. There. at the end of his flight from Jezebel’s anger, Elijah met God.

          God asked why Elijah was there. Elijah poured out his story of service, feelings of isolation and failure and God told him to go out on the mountain because he would pass by. From inside the cave, where he had stayed, Elijah observed a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but God was not in any of those. It wasn’t until silence fell that Elijah wrapped his face in his cloak and stepped out. Once again God asked Elijah why he was there and Elijah replied just as he had before. This great display of power, the events at Mt Carmel, and the 40 days of testing on his journey had done nothing to shift Elijah’s state of mind, and yet when God told him to return and head to Damascus he set out without questions.

          Today is Aboriginal Sunday and I want to tell you about a friend of mine.  Hugh Akagi is the chief of the Schoodic Band of the Passamaquoddy nation. He lives in St Stephen.  In the year 2013, there were approximately 300 known Passamaquoddy people residing in New Brunswick. Hugh was elected as chief in 1998 and is the great grandson of a Passamaquoddy hereditary chief, John Nicholas. There is no question that Hugh is an indigenous person, and yet, when he is in New Brunswick he is not recognized as one.  He used to joke that when he drove from the US into Canada he felt himself becoming invisible. It is a neat image, but not funny by any stretch!

          “Traditionally, the Passamaquoddy lived seasonally on both sides of what is now the international border (Canada/USA) and traveled freely from place to place. They are recognized as Indigenous Peoples by the United States government, but the Canadian government has denied their Indigenous Rights under Canadian law. The Government of Canada does not recognize the Passamaquoddy Peoples as Indians, entitled to be registered under the Indian Act. Neither Canada nor the Province of New Brunswick recognize Passamaquoddy Aboriginal Rights nor Aboriginal Title to land.” ((“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”) The nation and band have continued to work for recognition in Canada. In a letter to the NGO Committee of the United Nations, he stated, “As Native people we will continue to practice our traditions and culture and we will defend to the end our right to exist and we will resist any attempt to separate us from our homeland, our ancestors and our heritage.” (“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”). Given the lack of change on this issue, it is reasonable to assume that Hugh has had some “Elijah moments” over the years, but the band continues to work for recognition.

          At Mt Carmel, “Elijah had won, but it hadn’t brought him peace.” ((Miller) Somehow he felt that he had failed at his life’s work and he was despairing and ready for it all to end. One component of depression is not being able to see the future, not looking forward to anything, no way forward, no way out. Elijah so no way forward so he sat down ready to die. But even though he couldn’t see a way, he trusted God. He asked God to let him die, but when God had other plans he moved on, not seeing the way himself but letting God direct him.

          We all have times in our lives when we are tired, discouraged, when we can only see the walls that hem us in. No matter what our problems are or have been, no matter how loud and chaotic our lives become, God is present and has plans for us. Elijah took the long journey back to Israel, to the wilderness of Damascus, anointed the next kings of Judah and Israel, and passed on his ministry to a successor. Hugh is still fighting for recognition for his people. We may need to take breaks, to hide in a cave for a little while sometimes, but we also need to maintain hope and trust in God.

We may not know the way forward for us, but Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light…” (John 14:6) Follow him!

 

Miller, Dr. Susan. “June”. Churchofscotland.org.uk. N.p., 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.

“Passamaquoddy Recognition: Background Information”. Newbrunswick.quaker.ca. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 June 2016.

Ahab/ king or cranky toddler?


          Phenomenal cosmic power; itty bitty living space! This may not ring a bell for all of you, but it is one of the greatest lines from Disney’s Aladdin. It is part of Genie’s explanation of the highs and lows of the gig of being a genie. He also lists certain provisos and quid pro quos to the wishes he can grant. He can’t kill anybody, he can’t bring anyone back from the dead, and he can’t make anyone fall in love with someone else. Not only that, the only way for him to gain his freedom is for a person to use one of his 3 wishes to free him.

          In the discussion from Starters for Sunday Fourth Sunday after Pentecost from the Church of Scotland, there are five themes identified for this week. From Power, Justice, forgiveness, restoration and grace they draw the discussion to the key theme, woven through the story of Naboth’s vineyard, of the sovereignty of God.

            Today we read about King Ahab again. This time, though, he was being more of a petulant toddler than a king. The first people to read this scripture were probably the Israelites who were in exile and it is likely that it was written to explain to them why God had allowed their exile.

            Ahab and his wife Jezebel had gone to stay in their secondary palace. Apparently, he liked gardening but when he saw the vineyard of Naboth next door he wanted to buy it from him. Naboth refused to sell the land of his ancestors. Not only was this his “family farm” but the vineyard had been granted to his ancestors when the Israelites arrived in the promised land, and when God granted that land he made it clear that the land was for their use in perpetuity, but that it didn’t belong to them. They were told that it was never to be sold permanently. Naboth was being faithful to the will of God when he refused the Ahab. He was, unlike Ahab much of the time, being obedient to the real sovereign of Israel, God.

          When Ahab could not convince Naboth to sell him the land, nor trade it for even better land he was disconsolate. Most kings would not have even offered a purchase or trade, brutality was the norm for kings of the day. I don’t say that to justify Ahab in any way, but rather to highlight the difference with kings of Israel and Judah who did not rise to power through their own actions or by birth but through God’s anointing. There were a few provisos and quid pro quos. The king must not consider himself better…than any other Israelite and he must not use his position to accumulate wealth for himself (Deut 17:14-20). God made it clear that they were to live in accordance with his commandments, remain faithful to him, and imitate his heavenly rule.

          When he returned from the vineyard, Ahab moped, pouted, and refused to eat. Not only was he not getting his way, but as a king he had expected to be obeyed without delay and this made him feel powerless. When she noticed him moping around the palace more like a toddler than a king, Jezebel couldn’t take it. She asked what the problem was, told him to stop being such a baby and eat, and then set about to get him the vineyard.

            Unbothered by loyalty to God (she worshiped Baal) niceties or ethics, she arranged to have Naboth killed. Not only did she do such a vile thing, but so did all the people and advisors who went along with her plan. Naboth died at the hands of the townspeople for trumped up charges of cursing God and king. When he was dead the elders and nobles got word back to Jezebel that Naboth was dead and she, in turn, informed her husband and told him to go take possession of the vineyard. Problem solved!

          Ahab was Israel’s king. When God agreed to have a king anointed for Israel he warned them that life under a human king would not be a bed of roses. He knew, as do we through experience that powerful people and powerful institutions may start out working for the greater good, but too many turn to using their power for personal gain of one kind or another. Some want more and more power, today New Brunswick, tomorrow the world! Some use their power to belittle and diminish others like bullies on the school ground or in the workplace.

          After Ahab took possession of the vineyard, God sent Elijah to him to pronounce his judgement for this crime. He told Ahab and Jezebel that they would die horrible deaths. “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (v 19). Our reading stopped at that point, but the story continues. Ahab actually repents and lives a more godly life for a while, but in the end he and Jezebel are killed and their bodies are dumped in the vineyard they had stolen where they would be torn apart by wild animals.

A story

King Canute was once ruler of England. The members of his court were continually full of flattery. “You are the greatest man that ever lived…You are the most powerful king of all…Your highness, there is nothing you cannot do, nothing in this world dares disobey you.”

The king was a wise man and he grew tired such foolish speeches. One day as he was walking by the seashore Canute decided to teach them a lesson.

“So you say I am the greatest man in the world?” he asked them.

“O king,” they cried, “there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!”

“And you say all things obey me?” Canute asked.

“Yes sire” they said. “The world bows before you, and gives you honour.”

“I see,” the king answered. “In that case, bring me my chair, and place it down by the water.”

The servants scrambled to carry Canute’s royal chair over the sands. At his direction they placed it right at the water’s edge.

The King sat down and looked out at the ocean. “I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?”

“Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,” cried his entourage

“Sea,” cried Canute, “I command you to come no further! Do not dare touch my feet!”

He waited a moment, and a wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.

“How dare you!” Canute shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!”

In came another wave lapping at the king’s feet. Canute remained on his throne throughout the day, screaming at the waves to stop. Yet in they came anyway, until the seat of the throne was covered with water.

Finally Canute turned to his entourage and said, “It seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him.”

          Even some of greatest of Israel’s kings were, as are the rest of us, flawed. Regardless of who has earthly power over us, God is our sovereign, our true king to whom we owe our loyalty and obedience. Whether we find ourselves in positions of power or not, we are called to live out our lives in justice and love. This leaves us with two big questions. The notes on Church of Scotland starters for Sunday states them this way; “what does justice mean when we try to live it out relationally?” and, “what does it mean to live both justice and love in our lives?” As Presbyterians in Canada we have answer to that in our statement of faith, Living Faith section 8.4.

God is always calling the church to seek that justice in the world which reflects the divine righteousness revealed in the Bible. 

God’s justice is seen when we deal fairly with each other and strive to change customs and practices that oppress and enslave others. 

Justice involves protecting the rights of others. It protests against everything that destroys human dignity. 

Justice requires concern for the poor of the world. It seeks the best way to create well-being in every society. It is concerned about employment, education, and health, as well as rights and responsibilities. 

Justice seeks fairness in society. It involves the protection of human beings, concern for the victims of crime, as well as offenders. It requires fair laws justly administered, courts and penal institutions that are just and humane. 

Justice opposes prejudice in every form. It rejects discrimination on such grounds as race, sex, age, status, or handicap. Justice stands with our neighbours in their struggle for dignity and respect and demands the exercise of power for the common good.

Of Nightmares and Pardons


   Kingsclear-20110524-00031  If you asked a person what was their worst nightmare, children’s answers may include; scary animals or bugs, being abandoned, getting lost, kidnapped, or trapped. As we grow older the focus may change to include being unable to do anything to save a loved one. This isn’t something we usually talk about during worship. Who wants to think about nightmares? For many of the people from Fort McMurray they may have lived through their worst nightmares in the past month and I pray that those refugees who are crowding onto questionably seaworthy boats to flee real life nightmares have faced the worst already.

     In 1Kings 17:8-24 and Luke 7:11-17, we read two parallel stories of women living their own worst nightmares. Situated in cities miles apart and some 690 years apart in history. Both women are widows who had only one son. They both came in contact with a strange man at the gate of the city and both stories end with sons being brought back to life and being returned to their mothers. In the end, both healers are hailed as prophets of God.

     There is some significance to the setting of the stories. Zarephath was a city on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in Phoenicia between Tyre and Sidon in what is known as Lebanon today. In this area people primarily worshiped Baal. This would have been enemy territory for Elijah. Nain was further south inland in Galilee, near Nazareth, where people primarily worshiped God. In theory, Elijah faced the greater challenge, bringing a Baal worshiper to believe in God, than did Jesus who was working in the very heart of the Land of the people of God.

     The women met Jesus and Elijah at the city gates. If this were a modern story with no walled cities and dozens of roads leading into the city, they might have met downtown, or in a city square. City gates served a number of purposes in the Middle East throughout Biblical times. The most obvious of these being an entrance to a walled city and thus, as a part of the defense of the city, they would be guarded.

     The woman in Zarephath was at her worst the day she met Elijah. God had sent Elijah to continue his hiding in a place that wouldn’t be expected. When he asked the woman for a drink and then something to eat he opened the floodgates to her story. She was a widow with only one young son. Due to the drought and her poor circumstances they were down to their last bit of flour and she was fully expecting that she and her son would die of starvation after they had eaten this last bit. Elijah assured her that the Lord God of Israel will not allow the jar of meal or the jug of oil to run out until the drought was over. What a relief she must have felt, pardon from a death sentence!

     She was relieved, but she was still uncomfortable having this man of God living with them. And then her son got sick and died. She was, perhaps, more grief stricken at this time than she would have been earlier. She had already come to accept that they would die, and was prepared. But now, coming as it did after the great relief of the pardon, she was angry and she lashed out at Elijah. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

      The second woman lived in a small, little-known town near Nazareth with her only son. We approach these city gates just after his death. A large group of mourners is coming out of the gate, possibly blocking the way. Her son is on a stretcher and the mother and other women follow crying and wailing. No one says anything to the large group of people waiting to enter the gate. No notice is taken of Jesus or his followers. But Jesus takes notice. He sees the woman, bereft and alone in the world now that her final provider has died. He feels compassion for her and, as we would be inclined to do, he says, “Don’t cry.” What else would he have said in that moment? Are there words that can take away the pain? 

            While Psalm 30 speaks of crying out to God, being heard, and being revived, neither woman asked for help. The woman in Zarephath, having already given up hope once, blamed Elijah for making God take her son from her. She wasn’t about to ask him for anything, let alone God! This woman was very much in the anger stage of grief. The woman at Nain was more likely in the depression stage. Her adult son, her sole provider, was dead and was about to be buried. All hope was lost, his death was the end for him, and for her as well.

            Despite the anger and depression; despite the hopelessness felt by both these women, God was not finished in their lives. In Zarephath, Elijah took the boy from his mother and took him upstairs. He cried out to the Lord! He asked that the child’s life be returned. God listened to Elijah and the boy revived. In Nain Jesus did something shocking. He reached out and touched the body on the stretcher. He told the man to get up, and he did. The man sat up and began to speak! Elijah took the boy back downstairs and, “gave him to his mother.” Jesus took the young man and, “gave him to his mother.”

            The reactions to these events were proclamation and praise. The woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”(v24) The crowd around the city gate with Jesus were amazed and, “glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!” (v16)

       By restoring these sons to life God did far more than heal one person. He brought life back to mothers and sons. Life, hope, and a future. God, through Elijah and Jesus, was with these women through their worst nightmares and brought healing and hope and he is with us also. We may not walk out of our nightmares with the kind of healing that happened in these stories, but we do have hope, and healing will come.

            “Burton-Edwards suggests in his notes on 1Kings 17:8-24 that the Lord God’s command to Elijah to “Go now to Zarephath” and live there with the widow in Sidon is basically a call to go and live with a vulnerable person. The command is not to go and do something FOR your neighbors who are vulnerable, but to go and BE WITH those persons. In other words, be in real relationship with them, which implies mutuality: spend time with them, love them, treat them as people from whom you have as much to learn as to teach, and from whom you need to be fed as much as you need to be feeding. (service planning notes GBod.com)

     In the words of a familiar hymn;      

             My hope is built on nothing less

             than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

             I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

             but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

 

             When darkness hides his lovely face,

             I rest on his unchanging grace;

             in every high and stormy gale

             my anchor holds within the veil.

God is that present hope in our worst nightmares, lean on him, and cry out to him! “May the God of hope fill us with joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we abound in hope!” (Living Faith 10.7)

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.

Hitting the Road With Jesus


the-long-road-home          Today we leave behind the devil and his temptations and take to the road. For Jesus, the road is his ministry and the road to Jerusalem which will end with the cross and the resurrection. And for the Israelites, it was the road to the Promised Land. When Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope, he dipped his artificial leg in the Atlantic Ocean in St Johns, Newfoundland with the plan to run across the country. Terry began his run with a ritual, just like we mark the seasons of our lives with baptism to represent the beginning of life in the family of God, graduation as the end of a journey for education, and the beginning of a whole new journey.

            In Joshua, we read about the second celebration of the Passover. The night before they began the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites followed God’s directions to mark their lintels and door frames with the blood of a lamb and to follow certain procedures in their meal. This ritual, called the Passover, marked their houses, allowed their children to live, and marked the beginning of their journey to the Promised Land. They were free, no longer slaves, but transitions in life aren’t instantaneous! They include space (the road) and time (for us 40 days, for Israel 40 years). When Moses led the people out of Egypt they surely expected to travel directly to the Promised Land, but they were barely through the sea when they began to complain. Rather than 250 miles in one month they were destined to lead an unsettled existence in the wilderness for 40 years. The miles multiplied as the time went by, they needed the time to make them ready, “to grapple with the promise of God to see the Promised Land” (“A Plain Account: A Free Online Wesleyan Lectionary Commentary” 2016)

          After all their time in the wilderness, they finally crossed the Jordan. We meet them there this morning. Keep in mind that these men, women and children were not the same ones who had left Egypt. Not a single one had ever been to Egypt, they were never slaves, and they were born and raised in the wilderness. They had never known a settled life, had never grown crops, and they had not carried out the ritual of Passover. The first thing they did in the Promised Land was not to set up defences, not to charge the nearest city, but they repeated the ritual that had begun their journey. Though Passover has been celebrated ever since this ritual marked the beginning and the end of their transition to a new land and a whole new way of life.

          Congregations with pulpit vacancies are on the road to renewal. From the final services and farewell parties, they head into the wilderness stage of the vacancy. There is no way for to know how long the search will take. There are so many steps to go through: dealing with various supplies in the pulpit, committee meetings, review the membership rolls, reflection on priorities and vision, writing of the congregational profile, and then considering candidates. During vacancies in the churches to which I have belonged, I was always torn between feeling frustrated at how long it took and concern over finding the correct person. In a paper on Joshua 5:9-12 Hannah Beers said, “our desire to know the final outcome limits our ability to see how God is working in the present…Throughout the wandering Manna was miraculously provided for by God and the Israelites did not want for food.” (“A Plain Account: A Free Online Wesleyan Lectionary Commentary” 2016), and “On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land,” (Josh 5:11).

A Broken Stradivarius

One of the greatest ambitions of any violinist is to play a Stradivarius. Meticulously handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari these very rare violins produce an unrivalled sound. So you can imagine the excitement of acclaimed British violinist Peter Cropper when in 1981 London’s Royal Academy of Music offered him a 258-year-old Stradivarius for a series of concerts.

But then the unimaginable. As Peter entered the stage he tripped, landed on top of the violin and snapped the neck off. I can’t even begin to imagine how Peter Cropper felt at that moment. A priceless masterpiece destroyed!

Cropper was inconsolable.  He took the violin to a master craftsman in the vain hope he might be able to repair it. And repair it he did. So perfect was the repair that the break was undetectable, and, more importantly, the sound was exquisite.

The Academy was most gracious and allowed him to continue using the Stradivarius. And so night after night, as Peter drew his bow across those string, Peter was reminded of the fact that what he once thought irreparably damaged had been fully restored by the hand of a Master craftsman. (“A Broken Stradivarius | Stories For Preaching” 2016)

 

While Terry Fox never got to dip his leg in the Pacific Ocean, God was at work. Through Terry’s days on the road and his struggles he inspired the nation and a generation. For 3,339 miles, from St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost city on the shore of the Atlantic, he’d run through six provinces and now was two-thirds of the way home. He’d run close to a marathon a day, for 143 days. No mean achievement for an able-bodied runner, an extraordinary feat for an amputee. He raised $24.17 million on his own run. The first memorial Terry Fox Run was held in September of the year he died. More than 300,000 people walked or ran or cycled in his memory and raised $3.5 million.  The master craftsman was definitely at work on this road with Terry (Schrivener 2016).

Remember that the master craftsman is also working on our own roads of life: through relationships, jobs, education: from endings to new beginnings; on our journey to forgiveness, and to Easter; God reminds us of our identities as his forgiven children through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Lent prepares us for and Easter prepares us for the transition through death to the new lives waiting for us, but we can’t get there without the pain of Good Friday.

 

 

“A Broken Stradivarius | Stories For Preaching”. 2016. Storiesforpreaching.Com. http://storiesforpreaching.com/?s=A+Broken+Stradivarius&submit=Search.

“A Plain Account: A Free Online Wesleyan Lectionary Commentary”. 2016. A Plain Account: A Free Online Wesleyan Lectionary Commentary. http://www.aplainaccount.org/#!Joshua-5912/bhul0/56d3c27c0cf2154b8027d5fc.

Schrivener, Lesley. 2016. “Terry Fox & The Foundation – The Marathon Of Hope”. Terryfox.Org. http://www.terryfox.org/TerryFox/The_Marathon_of_Hope.html.