10 June 2018

Sermon – “Out of the Depths” (Psalm 130)

This past week, the news media had about all they could handle with the G-7 summit in Quebec, the Ontario election, the Washington Capitals’ win of the Stanley Cup and the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. But all those stories were quickly overshadowed by two others—the deaths of two of the world’s most highly successful people: Kate Spade, whose handbag designs became a multi-million dollar business, and Anthony Bourdain, the travelling gourmet, whose books and TV shows have enjoyed almost universal popularity for the past two decades.

Tragically both deaths were by suicide and they served to underline a growing concern among health professionals. It is the rising rate of suicide in our society today. According to a recent article in USA Today that rate has risen by nearly thirty percent in the past two decades. Among middle-aged men the increase is even more alarming at forty-three percent. As I look at these statistics, I am forced to ask myself, what is it that makes life for some people so bleak that there is nothing left to live for? What has entrapped them to such an extreme that they are not able to see any other way out than to end it all?

The psalm that we read a few moments ago begins with the lament, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord…” The words express the desperation of a person who is drowning. They are not unlike those we hear from the lips of the prophet Jonah as he languished in the belly of the great fish: “In my distress I called to the Lord… From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help…” (Jonah 2:2). Life has carried him far beyond the point where he can any longer contemplate helping himself. All he can do is shout for dear life and hope that someone will hear him and come to his rescue. Tragically there are some people for whom that is not an option. They feel they are caught in a swirling vortex that will drag them down only deeper and deeper.

There are seven accounts of suicide in the Bible, six of them in the Old Testament. Probably the best known, though, is that of Judas Iscariot. In remorse over the horror of what he had done in betraying Jesus to the authorities, he went out and hanged himself. And while the apostle Paul likely did not have Judas in mind, I believe his words to the Corinthians have something to say here. He writes about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance and contrasts it with a worldly sorrow that leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Well, where does all that bring us this morning? If my own experience is anything to go by, then there are times when most of us find ourselves “in the depths”. Sometimes the depths in which we find ourselves are the result of circumstances beyond our control—a severe illness, a long period of severe strain, an impossible situation at work or at school, a tragedy of one kind or another, a bereavement… And sometimes those depths are of our own making. I believe this morning’s psalm has something to say to each of us when we find ourselves in the depths, no matter what it was that landed us there.

I cry

The psalmist’s opening words (as you have probably already observed) are an expression of desperation. Listen to how Eugene Peterson renders them in The Message:

Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life!
     Master, hear my cry for help!
Listen hard! Open your ears!
     Listen to my cries for mercy.

It may not seem apparent at first, but hidden beneath the psalmist’s anguish there lies a conviction, and that is, that while his situation may be desperate, he still has one upon whom he can call for help. He is not alone.

I recently listened to a radio interview with Kate Bowler. She is a professor at Duke University Divinity School in North Carolina. Married to her high school sweetheart and with a two year-old child, she was given the news that she had stage-four incurable cancer of the bowel. I cannot begin to imagine what a devastating blow that must have been for her. Yet here is what she said:

I gave up most of the spiritual clich├ęs, I think—that every good thing was going to come back to me or that I could be, you know, the architect of my own life. But one of the only certainties I actually truly latched onto was the sense that in the worst moments that there can be an unbidden God and that I don’t have to earn it. And I don’t even have to like worry that I won’t have it—but that maybe the hope is that when we come to the end of ourselves, that we’re not alone.[1]

“The hope is that when we come to the end of ourselves, we’re not alone.” The hope that Kate Bowler cherishes in her soul is the same hope that enabled the psalmist to cry out from the depths. It is the hope in a God who is with us, no matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how high the flood.

Do not fear, [that same God says elsewhere through Isaiah]
     for I have redeemed you;
     I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
     I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
     they will not sweep over you…
Do not be afraid, for I am with you. (Isaiah 43:2,5)

More than that, the psalmist can rely on the God who is with him because that same God is a God of mercy. Underlying all the history of Israel and underlying the psalmist’s faith is the conviction that the God to whom he prays is the same one who revealed himself to Moses amid the cloud and thunder of Sinai as “the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7).

In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer there is a beautiful prayer that runs like this: “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Like the psalmist we can come to God in the confidence that no matter what the circumstances he is with us and that he is a God of mercy.

I wait

And so the psalmist prays. And he waits. According to my Hebrew dictionary, the verb he uses here means “to wait or to look for with eager expectation”. And if that were not enough, the psalmist tells us that that is exactly what he means: “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits…” Then he goes on to give us the most beautiful picture:

My soul waits for the Lord
     more than watchmen for the morning,
     more than watchmen for the morning.

Can’t you just picture it? The sentinel has been on the ramparts all night long. Rumours have been rising that an enemy is on the approach. What was that noise in the bushes? He strains his eyes to look out through the darkness of the surrounding countryside. His fingers grow numb in the frostiness of the chill night air. Then over the horizon there appears the first glimmer of dawn’s light signaling a new day. And the fears brought on by the shadows and the strange sounds of the night begin to melt away.

In the same way there will be times, seasons of our life when we find ourselves waiting—and sometimes with deep anxiety. But that does not mean that we are doing nothing. The Bible does not equate waiting with idleness. Those of you who know your Bibles well will recall that the apostle Paul had some rather harsh words for those who used waiting for the Lord as an excuse for laziness. His advice instead: “Never tire of doing good.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Besides this, I do believe that in those times of waiting (and indeed in times of suffering) the Lord can come to us in ways that we may never have anticipated and give us strengths that we never knew were there. I have seen it again and again in the lives of my parishioners. At times when I have sought to bring them comfort, I find that they already have a strength that is far beyond anything I can offer. I never cease to find encouragement in the words of Isaiah:

Do you not know?
     Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
     the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
     and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
     and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
     and young men stumble and fall;
but those who wait for the Lord
     will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
     they will run and not grow weary,
     they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

I hope

So it is that the psalmist says, “Put your hope in the Lord.” Notice that he does not say what to hope for. Rather, it is whom to hope in. And between the two there is a world of difference.

Somehow it seems to me that what this psalm is saying is that when we find ourselves caught in the depths, we do not control the outcome. Ultimately we are confronted with our own powerlessness. No doubt we have a preferred way in which we would like things to end up. But we cannot dictate that to God. We can only place ourselves in his hands in the faith that he is a God of mercy who loves us more than we could ever imagine. Allow me to give the final word to Kate Bowler:

Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life… But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive… Everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.[2]

I would love to trade the life I have for one in which I imagined I could always spend it with my husband and my son. But it did feel like cancer was like this secret key that opened up this whole new reality. And part of the reality was the realization that your own pain connects you to the pain of other people. I don’t know. Maybe I was just a narcissist before. But like all of a sudden, I realized how incredibly fragile life is for almost everyone. And then I noticed things like—and that felt like a spiritual—I don’t know—like gift.

It’s like you notice the tired mom in the grocery store who’s just like struggling to get the thing off the top shelf while her kid screams, and you notice how very tired that person looks at the bus stop. And then, of course, all the people in the cancer clinic around me. That felt like I was cracked open, and I could see everything really clearly for the first time. And the other bit was not feeling nearly as angry as I thought I would. And, I mean, granted—like I have been pretty angry at times. But it was mostly that I felt God’s presence. And it was less like, here are some important spiritual truths I know intellectually about God. There are four of them. I have a PowerPoint presentation. It was instead more like the way you’d feel a friend or like someone holding you. I just didn’t feel quite as scared. I just felt loved.[3]

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
     for with the Lord is unfailing love
     and with him is full redemption.

[2]     “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me”, The New York Times, 13 Feb 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?smid=tw-share
[3]     NPR interview, 12 Feb 2018

03 June 2018

Sermon – “The God who knows us” (Psalm 139)

It was my original intention this morning for us to look together at the Old Testament passage we read a few moments ago: the story of Samuel’s first encounter with God. The narrator opens the account with an observation that has to be one of the saddest statements in all of the Bible: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1). Generations had elapsed since the time of Moses and the great events of the exodus. The voice that had thundered from the peak of Mount Sinai was scarcely a faint echo from the past. The worship of the tabernacle had degenerated into a hollow ritual. And the great moral principles that had made them unique among the nations had largely slipped from the people’s collective consciousness.
From this sad overview of the spiritual state of the nation of Israel the camera focuses in on a young lad fast asleep in the large tent structure that served as the centre of Israel’s worship. And in the stark silence of the night we hear a voice: “Samuel!” The young lad stirs, sits up, rubs his eyes and answers, “Here I am.” He gets up and runs to his master, the aged priest Eli. “You called me?” he asks. But the old man replies, “It wasn’t me; go back to bed.”
A second time it happens. “Samuel…” A second time he gets up and goes to the old man. And a second time he is sent back to his bed. He has barely fallen asleep when it happens again: “Samuel!” But this time the old priest has begun to figure out what’s going on. It’s all rather like what we read in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Narnia has been trapped in winter almost since anyone can remember, as suddenly the snow starts to melt, buds appear on the trees, and spring flowers begin to sprout and blossom. “Aslan is on the move!” So old Eli instructs the lad, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Back to his bed the young Samuel goes—and sure enough the Lord comes to him again, “Samuel! Samuel…”

You know me

And this brings me to Psalm 139, which begins with the words, “Lord, you have searched me, and you know me…” I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that God knows us. After all, he is the creator of the universe! Several weeks ago Karen and I watched the film Citizenfour. It centres on the story of Edward Snowden and how government agencies in our western nations are increasingly able to snoop on seemingly every detail of our lives. 1984 is long in the past, but it appears that George Orwell’s catchphrase, “Big Brother is watching you,” has become a reality—and for many of us, who value our privacy and our freedom, it can be a frightening one.
So what does the psalm mean when it says, Lord, you have searched me, and you know me”? Well of course it includes the idea that God knows all about us. He knows what’s in our emails and our bank accounts. He knew our DNA long before Francis Collins and others were able to map the human genome. Furthermore, the psalm tells us he knows what’s going on inside our hearts and minds—and that can be a scary thought! But all of that is not the point. For the Hebrew verb “to know” is not just about knowing facts. It is about knowing someone personally, having a relationship with them.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” the Lord says tenderly to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). When Jesus speaks to his followers about his being the good shepherd, he tells them, I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10:14-15). So what we are talking about here is a personal knowing, an intimate knowing. To my mind we see it most poignantly in that scene outside the empty tomb on the first Easter morning. Mary Magdalene has come with her pounds of spices to anoint the body of Jesus. But the stone has been rolled away and the body has gone. Through her tears and the morning mist she sees a figure whom she mistakes as the gardener. “Tell me, sir,” she says to him, “where you have put him.” Then she hears the word that changes her life forever: “Mary…” (John 20:11-16)
“Mary…” “Adam…” “Emily…” “Alvin…” “Kewoba…” “Lolita…” “Gil…” “Brian…” “Samuel…” The Lord does not look on us only as a collectivity. He knows each of us by name. He knows our highs and our lows, our joys and our sorrows, our strengths and our weaknesses, our dreams and our secret fears—not to use them against us, but to come alongside us and to strengthen us along the journey of becoming the women and the men that he has created every one of us uniquely to be. And with that I have already arrived at my second point.

You hold me fast

That personal, intimate knowing of our hearts on God’s part inevitably leads to something more. So it is that we read in verses 9 and 10,
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
     if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
     your right hand will hold me fast.
When we read these words we need to remember that ancient near-eastern cultures gave particular significance to the right hand as opposed to the left. The right hand is the strong hand. The right hand is the useful hand. The right hand is the hand of blessing. It is for this reason that through Isaiah God promises the people of Israel, “Do not fear, for I am with you… I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). By the same token, when Jesus spoke about being struck on the right cheek, what he was referring to was a slap from the left hand, and that was a grievous affront. It was quite literally to add insult to injury. And so when we are failing or falling, it is with his right hand, the hand of strength, the hand of blessing, that God graciously reaches out to us and lifts us up and puts us in the place where we should be.
The apostle Paul expressed it memorably those magnificent verses in the eighth chapter of Romans when he wrote,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
The late Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance hit the nail on the head in an illustration that I have found myself going back to again and again. He wrote,
Many years ago I recall thinking of the marvellous way in which our faith is implicated in the faith of Jesus Christ and grasped by his faithfulness, when I was teaching my little daughter to walk. I can still feel her tiny fingers gripping my hand as tightly as she could. She did not rely upon her feeble grasp of my hand but upon my strong grasp of her hand which enfolded her grasp of mine within it. That is surely how God’s faithfulness actualized in Jesus Christ has hold of our weak and faltering faith and holds it securely in his hand.[1]
Torrance’s fellow countryman, the hymn writer George Matheson, put it lyrically in the successive verses of his hymn of 130 years ago: “O love that wilt not let me go… O light that followest all my way… O joy that seekest me through pain…”
As we read in the psalm, there is nowhere we can go, whether to the heights of ecstasy or to the depths of despair, or to the farthest place imaginable, that our gracious God is not able to reach out his hand to us and take us firmly into his grasp—and as we look at that hand we see on it the mark of a nail and the stain of his blood.

You lead me

All of these observations take us in the end, and as they should, to a prayer:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
     test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
     and lead me in the way everlasting.
If there is nothing else that we can learn from the verses of this psalm it is that we have a God whom we can trust to lead us through life, and trust to the uttermost.
Yet we would be horribly mistaken if we thought for one minute that following him turns our lives into a cakewalk. That is the false message being promulgated by the purveyors of the so-called “health, wealth and prosperity gospel”. The true gospel—and our faith—centres in the one who proclaimed, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” (Luke 9:23) and who warned those same followers, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). A couple of generations later one of those followers would reiterate the same warning: “Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
The Letter to the Hebrews dedicates an entire chapter to the stories of those who chose to follow God’s leading. It tells of some
who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated… They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:35-40)
Torture, floggings, stoning and imprisonment! All of this seems like a rather discouraging note on which to end a sermon. And it would be, were it not for two things: the companion and the destination. We have a God who promises, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Do you remember the story of Daniel’s three companions whom King Nebuchadnezzar commanded to be thrown into a blazing furnace for their refusal to bow to a graven image? When the king looked into the furnace, he saw not three men but four. They trusted in God’s promise,
Do not fear, for I am with you;
     do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
     I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
And were not Jesus’ final words to his followers before he departed this world, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20)?
When we come to the end of that journey (where the Lord has been with us at each step along the way) it will be to arrive at a destination to which nothing that we have ever experienced in this world can compare. It will be to set foot in the new Jerusalem, the very dwelling place of God, where God himself will be with us and we will know his unmediated presence, where he will wipe every tear from our eyes; where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away and everything will have been made new (Revelation 21:3-4). And our only possible response will be,
“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!” (Revelation 19:6-7)

[1]     The Mediation of Christ, page 83

20 May 2018

Sermon – “The Real Miracle of Pentecost” (Acts 2:42-47)

I wonder how many people had their TV sets switched on yesterday morning at 5 o’clock. That’s when the CBC coverage of the royal wedding began and for the next five hours I can only imagine that millions of viewers were glued to their screens, trying to catch a glimpse of this or that celebrity among the six hundred who were invited to the event.

Long before it took place, countless hours of television time had already gone into the anticipation of the wedding—and for the publicists it was all big money. While the costs of the wedding are estimated to top $36 million, it was expected to generate over $860 million in revenue. If it is anything to go by, memorabilia sales alone for the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton seven years ago amounted to more than $380 million.

By this time you may already have been asking yourself, “What is this preacher fellow getting at—and what does all of this business about royal weddings have to do with the Bible anyway?” Well, for Christians today is the anniversary of another big event, when three thousand souls were added to the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers who had come together that morning to pray.

Little could they have imagined when they gathered in the upper room that they would be swept off their feet (spiritually if not physically) by a “rushing mighty wind”, touched by fire, and speaking in languages never before heard from their lips! So completely strange was what happened to them that it is little wonder that it all began to attract a crowd of people who were no less amazed and perplexed than they were. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

So today, while the rest of the world is recovering from the royal wedding or preparing for Game Five in the playoffs between Vegas and the Jets, we Christians quietly celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. And quite rightly our attention is fixed on the miraculous events that occurred that morning: the mysterious whistling of the wind, the flames of fire that divided and settled on each of the believers, and the praises of God in all the varied languages of the known world.

It was a remarkable event—and I don’t know how many times I have preached on it over the past forty-plus years. Yet this year as I began my preparations, it dawned upon me that my attention has always been focused on the events in the opening verses of Acts, chapter 2. At the same time it began to occur to me that maybe what Luke wrote in the closing verses of that same chapter has even more to teach us about the real meaning of Pentecost and about the work that the Holy Spirit yearns to do in you and in me. So allow me to read them to you.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.


There are three aspects of this brief summary of the first days of the church I would like us to focus on. The first of them can be summarized by the word “devotion”. Luke begins, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

My Greek lexicon tells me that those words “devoted themselves” can be translated in a whole variety of ways: “persist in”, “attach oneself to”, “be faithful to”, “be busily engaged in”, “hold fast to”, “persevere in”, “spend much time in”. By now probably you get the idea. Those first believers were not prepared to allow anything to stand in the way of learning from the apostles or from coming together regularly for fellowship, worship and prayer.

Early in my own walk with Christ many years ago, my pastor encouraged me to begin memorizing Scripture. The first verses I ever committed to memory were Psalm 119:9 and 11, and I quote them as I learned them in the old King James Version:

Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?
By taking heed thereto according to thy word…
Thy word have I hid in mine heart,
that I might not sin against thee.

It seems to me that those early believers did exactly what Psalm 119 counsels us to do: they were taking God’s word to heart with an unshakeable commitment to the apostles’ teaching. Now of course they had no New Testament and they wouldn’t for a couple of generations. But they had the apostles themselves and they spent time learning from them, drinking in their words—and we’re not just talking about a weekly twenty-minute sermon or even a forty-minute one. Acts 20 tells us of an evening when the apostle Paul went on talking till midnight—to the point where one young man drifted into sleep and fell out the window!

But the point was that they could never hear enough. Like the two companions who met with Jesus along the road to Emmaus on that first resurrection day, I can only imagine that their hearts burned within them as they learned from the apostles and opened the Scriptures together.

Some years ago we had the privilege of hosting Ernest Gordon, who had been held captive in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma along what was known as the railway of death. Although he was not a believer at the time, he and some of his men began reading the New Testament together. It did not take long before they found that they could not put it down, for they had the amazing experience that the same Jesus whom they found on its pages was there among them.

Yet much of this seems so far from the experience of the church in our part of the world today. A recent study revealed that only forty-five percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Almost twenty percent say they never read the Bible—and that is about the same percentage as those who read it on a daily basis. [1] That seems a far cry from our early forebears who lived in the shadow of Pentecost, who could not get enough the apostles’ teaching. Would that the Holy Spirit would stir the same thirst in us today!


Those first believers showed a devotion to the apostles’ teaching. But Luke also tells us in verse 43 that “everyone was filled with awe”. Again, if you read that verse in the old King James Version, it would sound like this: “And fear came upon every soul.” The word in the original in fact is phobos. We find it in words like “claustrophobia”, the fear of small spaces, “acrophobia”, the fear of heights, and “arachnophobia”, the fear of spiders.

There was a German philosopher of a century ago called Rudolf Otto, who came up with the phrase mysterium tremendum—the sense of something so mysterious that it causes you to tremble. This, he said, is what happens to us when we come into the presence of the living God.

We see it in Moses as he tended his flocks in the wilderness and approached that strange bush that burned but was not consumed. The book of Exodus tells us that when Moses began to realize in whose presence he stood, “he hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Or think of Isaiah in the temple, as he gazed at the six-winged seraphs and heard their cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty…” and felt the stone floor shuddering beneath him. “Woe to me!” was all he could think to utter, “For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:3-4).

Or we can turn to the New Testament, to the story of the centurion who came to Jesus on behalf of his servant. “Lord,” he said to him, “I do not deserve you to come under my roof…” (Matthew 8:5-9) Think too of the occasion when Peter and his companions had just hauled in an enormous load of fish because Jesus had told them to let down their nets in spite of there being no fish. He fell down before Jesus and wailed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:1-10)

Our forebears in the faith had that same sense of awe as they gathered to learn from the apostles, to break bread and to pray together. The letter to Hebrews tells us,

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

How we need to ask God to inspire in us that same sense of awe—each time we gather to take time to come before him consciously and deliberately and ask him to open our hearts afresh to the unfathomable mystery of his love and power. I have no doubt that we would know more of the Holy Spirit’s presence if we did.


A devotion to the apostles’ teaching, awe in the presence of the living God—and a third characteristic of those first Christians I would like to emphasize comes in a word for which there is really no adequate English equivalent. It is the word koinonia. Most often it is rendered “fellowship” as we see it in this morning’s passage. But if you think of fellowship (as I suspect most of us do) as what happens over a cup of coffee after the worship service, then we have fallen woefully short of what the New Testament means when it uses the word koinonia.

What it really means is having something in common on a profound level—and Luke gives us a picture of how that works out in practical terms in those last verses of Acts 2. Let me read them to you once again:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…

Now for us who have been immersed from infancy in the independent-minded, freedom-loving principles western society, that is a strange and even frightening picture. It may relieve you to know I am not advocating that we seek to replicate detail for detail all the practices of the early church.

What I am saying is that there was a genuine sense of caring and sharing among those first believers that you would not have found outside the church. I remember some years ago a pastor friend telling me of a member of his church who was part of a small group that met for Bible study and prayer. The man happened to work for a tobacco company. Over time he became convinced that as a Christian he could not in good conscience continue to do this and he shared it with the group. To his surprise, they all agreed that if he felt that this was the direction in which God was leading him, they would give him any financial support he might need in order to make the change—and they ended up caring for him and his family for the better part of a year until he found a new job.

Those people knew the meaning of the word koinonia. It was our Lord Jesus himself who said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And so I don’t believe it was by coincidence that Luke concludes the day of Pentecost with these words: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

As we look back on the mighty, rushing wind and on the tongues of fire that came upon those first believers, may we pray not for them to happen again, but for what they led to: to a wholehearted devotion to the apostles’ teaching, to a life-changing awe as we gather in the presence of the living God, and to a sense of community that is costly and real. In a word, may the Holy Spirit lead us to being the authentic body of Jesus in the world today.

[1]     Ed Stetzer, “The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches”, Christianity Today, July 2015

18 March 2018

Sermon – “The Other Side of Repentance” (Psalm 51)

In this morning’s New Testament reading we heard the story of what may be one of Jesus’ best-known miracles. Mark gives us the picture of Jesus in a house with people crowding around him on every side, jam-packed right to the door. As Jesus is teaching, noises are heard from above, then dust and little bits and pieces start falling from the ceiling, a shaft of light opens up, and last but not least, slowly a man is lowered on a mat into the middle of the room. I can only imagine that everyone was wondering what was going to happen next. But I bet no one could have predicted that Jesus would do what he did, as he turned to the man and said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Then the reaction began to set in. Not a word was uttered. It didn’t need to be. The atmosphere of shocked condemnation could be felt throughout the room as much as the dust still hanging in the air. “Why does this fellow talk like that?” “He’s blaspheming!” “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
So what did it mean for Jesus to forgive that paralyzed man? What was he doing that seemed so radical, even heretical, to some of those in the room that day? To look for an answer, I want us to turn to the Old Testament passage we also read a few minutes ago, Psalm 51.
It is recognized as the greatest expression of penitence in all of Scripture. One Bible Commentary goes so far as to say, “As an expression of a heart overwhelmed by shame, humbled and broken by guiltiness, and yet saved from despair through penitential faith in the mercy of God, this poem is unsurpassed.”[1] No doubt that is why it forms the core of the Ash Wednesday service in many churches, including our own.
Of the 150 psalms in the Old Testament, half are attributed to King David. But of those seventy-five, only three contain a precise reference to the circumstances that gave rise to them. And curiously each of these arises out of a low point in David’s life. Two of them were composed during the uprising fomented by his rebellious son Absalom, when David was forced to flee for his life into the wilderness. The psalm we are looking at this morning, however, is the expression of what was undoubtedly the lowest point in David’s life—and unlike the others, it was a low point entirely of his own making.
Many of us will be familiar with the story of David’s infatuation with Bathsheba, the wife of his most loyal general, Uriah the Hittite; of how that infatuation led to adultery; of Bathsheba’s resulting pregnancy; and finally of how David cunningly engineered Uriah’s death in the field of battle. Had it not been for the courage of one man, the prophet Nathan, David’s treachery might never have been found out. Now we find David with his face to the ground, crying out through his tears, “Have mercy on me, O God…”
The psalm is a study in repentance. But that repentance would have been meaningless, were it not for a far greater fact—the fact of God’s forgiveness. The conviction that our God is a God who forgives is one that runs from one end of the Bible to the other. Way back on Mount Sinai God had revealed himself to Moses as “the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a). Centuries later this same truth is echoed in Nehemiah’s prayer on behalf of his wayward people: “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Nehemiah 9:17). And elsewhere in the Psalms we read, “But with you there is forgiveness…” (Psalm 130:4a).
But what does it mean for God to forgive? That is what this morning’s psalm is all about. And it comes to us in a series of verb clusters. If you have a Bible open in front of you, we’ll take a look at each of them in turn.

Wipe, wash, cleanse

You can find the first cluster in verses 1, 2, 7 and 9. It involves words that all have to do with “wiping out”, “washing away” or “cleansing”. The first of them, which our New International Version Bibles translates “blot out”, has to do with making a correction in a book, whether it was removing a stain or cancelling a debt. I am told that in the ancient world the way you erased something on a leather scroll was not by blotting, but by washing or sponging off the ink. So perhaps “wipe out” is a better translation than “blot out”—especially when you consider that the word is used elsewhere for wiping a dish clean.[2]
Later, in the writings of the prophet Isaiah we read of the Lord,
“I, even I, am he who wipes out
     your transgressions, for my own sake,
     and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:25)
So it is, when God wipes out our sins, not a trace of them is left—and this is made clear in the two other words that David uses in his prayer: in verses 2 and 7: “wash away” and “cleanse”.
When I was a boy there was a detergent called Omo. I haven’t checked the grocery store to see if it’s still on the market and I don’t think we ever used it in our household. But what I remember about it is the ads: “Omo washes not only clean, not only white, but bright! Omo adds bright, bright, brightness.”
Now in the ancient world there was no such thing as Omo. For clothes to be washed they had to be beaten on rocks. When I visited Haiti a few years ago I remember mothers doing this in a stream that ran by a school sponsored by our church—and I’ve never seen school children in such sparkling white clothes as I did there. So to quote one author the washing we’re talking about here is “not a polite rinse but a thorough scrub”.[3] And when it comes to the stain of sin, even that is not enough. As we read from the prophet Jeremiah,
“Although you wash yourself with soap
     and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
     the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign Lord. (Jeremiah 2:22)
Yet though we may not have the power to cleanse ourselves from our sins, we have a God who does. The Bible assures us,
If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
(1 John 1:9)
Though your sins are like scarlet,
     they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
     they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

Hide your face

The next expression that David uses—and you’ll find it in verse 9—is a curious one: “Hide your face from my sins.” What does it mean for God to hide his face from my sins? Way back at the beginning of creation Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they had sinned, and it didn’t work.
Last week our older son celebrated a significant birthday, and Karen and I presented him with an album of pictures we had taken of him over the years. Needless to say, we were careful to omit any that might be embarrassing or less than complimentary! One of the things I have said about myself more than once is that I have no desire to have to sit through the complete video of my life. There are just too many things that I have done, words that I have spoken, not to mention attitudes that I have harboured, of which I am ashamed.
So was David asking God to play pretend? I don’t believe so. In spite of the level of moral degradation to which his sin had plummeted him, David nevertheless still had a profound appreciation of the wonder of God’s forgiveness. That is, when God forgives our sins, he forgives them utterly. As we read from the prophet Micah, “You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Corrie ten Boom shed vivid light on this truth in an experience she had following the Second World War. Perhaps some of you have heard it before, but I’ll repeat it again because it is so memorable.
The year was 1947, and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. This was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombedout land, and I gave them my favourite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. And even though I cannot find a scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, NO FISHING ALLOWED.”[4]
“No fishing allowed.” When God forgives our sins, he forgives them fully, finally and forever.

Restore, rescue

We come now to our third set of words, the first of which is “restore”. If you check a concordance, you will find that the verb for “restore” is found more than a thousand times in the Old Testament. At its heart it means simply “turn around” or “return”. And so more often than not it is speaking about our human part in the process of repentance. Back in the dark ages when I was a teenager, our morning service at church would often begin with these words:
Seek ye the Lord while he may be found,
     call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way,
     and the unrighteous man his thoughts:
and let him return unto the Lord,
              and he will have mercy upon him;
     and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
(Isaiah 55:6-7)
Now you can see that these verses emphasize what is required of us in dealing with the sin in our lives. But when David uses this word it is the other way around. In verse 14, he uses exactly the same word when he calls upon God to “restore to me the joy of your salvation”. Why? Because David recognizes that without God’s sovereign intervention true restoration is not possible. The author of Psalm 126 had the same thought in mind when he sang, “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the desert” (Psalm 126:3).
Linked with that is another word David uses, this time in verse 14: “deliver”. I prefer to translate it, “rescue”, since when most people think about “deliver” these days, what they generally have in mind is a package from Amazon arriving at their door. At its root the word has the basic sense of pulling something out. As David cries out elsewhere,
I sink in the miry depths,
     where there is no foothold …
Rescue me from the mire,
     do not let me sink… (Psalm 69:2,14)
So it is that God finds us up to our necks in a substance that I won’t mention from the pulpit, and he reaches down and lifts us up and cleans us off and sets us on our feet again: another picture of forgiveness.
Now shift back to the little house in Capernaum and to Jesus’ words, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” In those five short words are concentrated all that I have been at pains to say for the last fifteen minutes. “Your sins have been wiped out.” “You are washed, cleaner than any human effort could make you.” “Your sins have been hidden in a place where even God himself chooses not to find them.” “You have been rescued, lifted out of a pit from which you could never have escaped on your own.”
Lent is a season of repentance. And today you and I have the freedom to repent because we have a God who forgives—and because we have a Saviour who cried, “Father, forgive them…” And those words were meant not only for those who stood beneath his cross, but for you and me today.

[1]     Leslie S. M‘Caw & J.A. Motyer, “Psalms”, The New Bible Commentary Revised, 1970, page 483

[2]     See 2 Kings 21:13

[3]     John Goldingay, Songs From a Strange Land, page 162

[4]    “The Face of My Enemy”, https://www.biblegateway.com/devotionals/night-light-couples/2016/04/22