27 December 2015

Sermon – “Simeon’s Song” (Luke 2:25-35)

Allow me to begin by saying with what a great sense of privilege it is that I come before you at All Nations this morning. My wife Karen and I have been worshiping here only a few short weeks after resettling in Halifax and your pastor and elders have entrusted me with what I regard as a sacred responsibility—to open the word of God with you so that together we may hear him speak to us and to our lives today. I hope that by his grace and power I can in some small way live up to that calling in the next few minutes this morning. And so let us begin by praying together… 
God, the Father of lights, by the entrance of your word you give light to our souls: Grant to us the spirit of wisdom and understanding; that being taught by you in holy Scripture, we may receive with faith the words of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I don’t know if any of you have had your radios on this morning. If you did, you might have noticed a distinct change in the music. Those Christmas tunes that have been blaring at us for weeks have suddenly stopped. No more rockin’ around the Christmas tree, no more chestnuts roasting on that open fire, no more holly, jolly Christmas, no more mommy kissing Santa Claus… All the anticipation that led up to that magical day has vanished for another year and tomorrow morning for many of us it will be back to work as usual.
For the rest of the world Christmas ended on December 25th. For the church, however, December 25th is only the first of twelve days of Christmas. And there are some who maintain a tradition of a forty-day Christmas season, leading all the way to February 2nd. And that is exactly the locus of the reading from Luke’s gospel this morning.
It is forty days after Jesus’ birth and Joseph and Mary have come to the Temple in Jerusalem to do what the Law required of them. In the books of Exodus and Leviticus there were two separate regulations regarding the birth of a child. One was that the first-born male in any family was to be consecrated to the Lord, as a remembrance of how the first-born males of Egypt had perished before the Israelites gained their freedom (Exodus 13:11-15). The other was that a woman was considered ritually unclean for forty days following the delivery of a child. At the end of that period she was to come to the priest with an offering of a one-year-old lamb and a young pigeon or a dove. The law also provided that if she was too poor to afford a lamb, she could offer two pigeons (Leviticus 12:1-8).
These Old Testament regulations form the context of our passage from Luke. Mary and Joseph have come to satisfy those two conditions of the Law: to consecrate their newborn son to the Lord and to make the offering required on behalf of Mary.
What Luke has given us in just three verses is a wonderful and touching picture of their faithfulness—a quality we have seen in both of them since we were first introduced to them at the outset of the gospel story. Certainly one of the themes that come through strongly in Mary’s story (and there are many) is faithfulness, beginning with her response to the angel announcing that she was to give birth to the Saviour, the Son of the Most High. Do you remember what she said on that occasion? “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” And her profound hymn, which she sang to her cousin Elizabeth and which Pastor Dave preached about a week ago in Advent, gives eloquent voice to her deeply rooted faith in God.
Joseph’s story on the other hand is found mainly in Matthew’s gospel and it too is a testimony of faithfulness—not least in his decision to go ahead and take Mary as his wife in spite of the fact that she was pregnant and he had had nothing to do with it. So now we find this couple continuing in that pattern of faithfulness as they come to present the offering prescribed in the Law.

The faithfulness of Simeon

It is at this point that a third character enters the picture: Simeon. And in Simeon the Bible gives us a third example of faithfulness. In our NIV Bibles he is described as “righteous and devout”. Frankly I find it hard to think of two more misunderstood words in the world today. I suspect when most people think of a righteous person, they think “self-righteous”. What pops into their minds is someone who is “holier than thou”. And to be devout isn’t much better. For many people it is just one step removed from being a fanatic. But neither of those things is what Simeon was. I think J.B. Phillips came closest to what Luke intended when he described Simeon as “an upright man, devoted to the service of God”.
Even more than that, Luke tells us, “He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him”. Can you remember when you were a child, longing for Christmas to come, so that you could dig under the Christmas tree and open your gifts? We don’t know how long Simeon had been waiting, but I suspect it was a very long time, not days or weeks or months or even years, but perhaps decades. God had given him a special revelation that he would not die before he had set his eyes on the promised Messiah. In my mind’s eye I can imagine him coming into the Temple precincts day after day, praying that this might at last be the day.
Then, out of the corner of his eye he sees a couple with their tiny baby. And something tells him that this child is the one. Had he had any inkling that the Messiah was to be a child? And what made him so sure that among all the people jostling through the Temple courts that this was the one? Luke doesn’t bother to tell us how he knew—the Bible is so often tantalizingly silent on those details—only that Simeon was moved by the Holy Spirit. And so as quickly as his old bones would move him, Simeon made his way over to Joseph and Mary, took the baby into his arms and began to praise God. I can imagine tears of joy flowing down his cheeks as he cried aloud,
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
      you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
      and the glory of your people Israel.
It doesn’t come across in any English translation, but the word with which Simeon addressed God in his song is almost unique in the New Testament. The usual word for “Lord” is kyrios and you will find it more than six hundred times. The word Simeon uses is despotes and you will find it used of God only three times. Elsewhere the word refers to slave-owners, who have absolute authority over their slaves. So it is that in the next line Simeon refers to himself as a slave, for that is what the word “servant” literally means. Thus we see in Simeon a man who has totally and utterly devoted himself to God, one who has laid himself before God as a servant and a slave, whose only desire is to serve him. Now all those years of faithful service, of prayer and patient expectation, have been fulfilled.

The rewards of faithfulness

In those few fleeting moments with the Christ child in his arms, God had rewarded Simeon for all those years of faithful waiting. Now at last he could know true peace, that beautiful shalom, of which the Old Testament gives us so many pictures, such as these words from Isaiah:
‘No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
     or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
     so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
     the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
     nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
     they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
     while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
     and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
     and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
     on all my holy mountain,’
says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:22-25)
Simeon’s words also echo those of Job who, after he had lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, still remained faithful to God. “My eyes have seen your salvation,” cries Simeon. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” declared Job after his sufferings had ended and he stood before the Lord, “but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).
There is a promise that runs through the Bible that our faithfulness to God will be rewarded, that it does not go unrecognized—not always in this life, as was Simeon’s privilege, but most certainly in the age to come. To the prophet Jeremiah God spoke these words: “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10). “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters,” writes the apostle Paul in the New Testament, “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). “Look, I am coming soon!” declares the risen, glorified Lord Jesus in almost the last words of the Bible. “My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Revelation 22:12).

The faithfulness of God

In Simeon and his song we have a wonderful example of faithfulness. Yet we would do both him and the Lord whom he served an incalculable injustice if we were to stop there. For the far greater reality that filled Simeon’s heart and caused it to overflow was the faithfulness of God. In his arms he held the confirmation of all of God’s promises. God, who had faithfully shepherded and guided his people from the calling of Abraham to the crossing of the Red Sea to the conquering of the Promised Land, through the reigns of kings good and bad, through times of disobedience and rebellion, through captivity in Babylon, had now come to his people in the person of this tiny baby. The sun that had long lain hidden beneath the horizon had finally begun to spread its rays across the sky, to bring its light not only to the people of Israel but to all the world.
Yet light inevitably casts shadows. As he gently returned the child Messiah to his mother’s arms, Simeon spoke more foreboding words, dark words about the falling and rising of many, about the child becoming a sign to be spoken against, about a sword that would pierce Mary’s soul. It is in those words that we discover that the faithfulness of God leads us not only to the birth of the Christ child, but also to his death. For in Christ we have a God who not only fulfils his promises, but whose faithfulness led him to the cross, to go to the very death for you and for me.
Our faithfulness (or perhaps I should say my faithfulness) is intermittent at best. Jesus is the friend who sticks closer than a brother, whose faithfulness has led him to take even sin, our death, upon himself. If we are to be faithful like Simeon, or like Mary and Joseph, it will be because we have a God who has first been faithful to us. The one who was held in Simeon’s arms now holds us in his, with hands scarred by nails—and we can be sure that he will never let us go.

28 September 2015

Sermon – “We told him to stop” (Mark 9:38-50)

My dictionary defines the word “paranoia” as “a serious mental illness that causes you to falsely believe that other people are trying to harm you”. It also gives this secondary definition: “a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others”. I just wonder if that isn’t what we see among Jesus’ followers in our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning.
Once again, we find them making their way through the towns and villages of Galilee on their way towards Jerusalem. I can imagine, as it was the pattern of his ministry right from the beginning, that people of all kinds continued to besiege Jesus from every direction. There were the sick and the handicapped, begging to be healed. There were those with all kinds of questions about God and about their relationship with him, desperate to find answers. And then there were the doubters and the skeptics, forever casting about for an opportunity to get a jab in here or a poke there, always wanting to shed doubts on Jesus’ credibility.
I suspect that at those times the disciples must have found themselves acting as crowd marshals, trying to make sure that those really in need had an opportunity to see Jesus and to keep things from getting out of control. (For example, do you recall how, when faced with a hungry crowd, Andrew brought a young lad to Jesus with a few loaves and fish; or how they had been pestered by a Canaanite woman whose daughter was in terrible suffering?) I suspect that there were also times when the disciples found themselves with nothing to do, when they could kind of kick about town. Had there been a tavern, they might have found themselves sitting down for a rest over a pint or two.


However, on this occasion I imagine the disciples somewhere on the edge of town when they see something strangely familiar happening. A little cluster of onlookers has gathered and as they come up closer they discover that their interest is focused on a man who is casting out evil spirits. Not only that, he is doing it in Jesus’ name. What are they to do? Who gave this man the right to do this? What was he doing stepping into Jesus’ territory?
Now let me ask a question: Does any of this sound the least bit familiar to you? I suspect that we don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find the same kind of paranoia (if you want to call it that) in the church today. I come from a family of died-in-the-wool Anglicans. My great aunt was a member of the Chancel Guild of the cathedral in Ottawa for forty years. When my uncle announced that he was planning to marry a woman from the United Church, the best that she could do was to mutter, “Well, at least she isn’t a Catholic.”
How contrary such an attitude is to the spirit of Jesus! When the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, there were those who tried to take advantage of the situation. Different people vied to fill the leadership vacuum that he had left behind. Some of the would-be leaders were motivated by selfish gain. Others thought that they could climb to power by denigrating Paul’s ministry. How did Paul react to all of this? Did he curse them? Did he call for their destruction? No. Here is what he said: “What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this, I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
We may not raise our hands and clap and shout “Hallelujah!” all the time in worship. But let us not be critical of those who do. We like to use a Prayer Book. But let us not look down on those who prefer to be more spontaneous. We prefer simplicity in our services. But let us not write off those whose worship involves elaborate ceremony and incense and icons. The key question is, is Jesus being honoured? Is the gospel being proclaimed? Are men and women being drawn into a living relationship with him? Let’s not confuse style for substance. Let us take to heart Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”


I wonder if you’ve ever heard the old saw that whenever you point a finger at someone else, there are always three pointing back at you. In the conversation that follows this incident, Jesus cautions the disciples not to be quick to criticize others without first taking a careful look at themselves. And the language he uses is stark and uncompromising.
In those days there were at least a couple of ways of grinding grain into flour. Much of the time this was done using a small hand mill, usually turned by women. However, that is not the kind of millstone that Jesus was referring to. What Jesus was talking about was an enormous flat, circular stone weighing hundreds of pounds that had to be turned by a donkey or an ox. Imagine having one of those tied to your neck and then being hurled into the sea!
And if that image were not powerful enough, Jesus goes on to speak about being cast into the fires of hell. The word which our Bibles translate “hell” is actually Gehenna, and Gehenna is the Valley of Hinnom, which runs along the west and south of the old city of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times this was where the worshippers of Moloch had thrown their children onto sacrificial fires. For that reason it was regarded ever after as cursed. In later years it became used as burial ground and in the time of Jesus the Romans used it as a site for cremation. And so you can picture this desolate place, abandoned and putrid with the odor of death.
Neither one is a pretty picture. And it’s not as though Jesus is threatening us with that kind of future. What he is saying is how high the stakes are—how important it is that we attend to the quality and purity of our own personal lives, not only for our own sakes but for the sake of those around us. Being a follower of Jesus is a round-the-clock, twenty-four-hours-a-day assignment.
How crucial it is, then, that we use all our faculties in ways that bring glory to God—and Jesus lists a few of them for us in this morning’s passage: our mouths, our hands, our feet, our eyes. The Bible elsewhere warns us how with the same tongue we can praise God at one moment and slice another person to ribbons at the next (James 3:9). We can raise our hands in worship and quickly use them to hurt and destroy. The same feet that bring us into the sanctuary can also lead us into places of darkness where we never ought to tread. And Jesus’ final warning about the eyes is particularly relevant to our own time, when pornography is so readily available from so many sources. We need to have in mind the words of Frances Ridley Havergal’s hymn of a century and a half ago:
Take my hands and let them move
at the impulse of thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
swift and beautiful for thee.
Take my voice and let me sing
always, only, for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
filled with messages from thee.


With this we come to what are some of the most difficult words in this morning’s reading, and perhaps some of the most difficult to understand in the whole of the New Testament: “Everyone will be salted with fire”? What did Jesus mean when he said this? Far better minds than mine have pondered over this for centuries. And to get at what Jesus was saying you have to understand how salt was used in biblical times.
First of all, salt was used as a preservative and a purifying agent. In a hot climate where there were no refrigerators, salt was what was used to keep food from going bad. Salt could also be used destructively. If you wanted to ruin your enemy’s fields so that they could not produce crops, the way to do it was to spread salt over them. Then nothing would be able grow there until the salt had been washed away by several rainy seasons. Thirdly, salt was used in sacrifice. “Season all your grain offerings with salt,” we read in Leviticus 2:13. “Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.”
So what was Jesus getting at when he said, “Everyone will be salted with fire”? When you think of it, fire also can have the same three uses. We roast meat and cook vegetables over a fire to purify and preserve them. We all know the destructive properties of fire, particularly after the wildfires this past summer that wiped out thousands of hectares of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. And of course fire was almost invariably used in sacrifice.
Now, if we put all three of these uses together, I think we can begin to arrive at something of an understanding of what Jesus was saying. First of all, then, there are the fires of trial and suffering that are a part of human life and not least of the Christian life. Yet painful as those trials may be (and I do not want to underestimate that in any way) the Holy Spirit is mysteriously able to use them in our lives to produce in us more of the character of Christ. Again and again in my pastoral experience I have been humbled to see how by God’s grace and through his power men and women have emerged richer, stronger and deeper as they have come through even the most terrible tragedies.
This morning we read from the book of Job in the Old Testament—and if you want to see an individual whose life was afflicted by tragedy, Job is the place to look. Through the loss of his property, his wealth, his children and finally his health, Job is reduced to the point where all he wants to do is die. Yet somehow Job can affirm, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that he shall stand at the last day… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 19:25; 42:5).
Yet I believe that there is also a deeper meaning. And it comes in the question that Jesus puts before his followers in the final verse of this morning’s passage: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?” How does salt lose its saltiness? It doesn’t happen today when we buy it neatly packaged from the grocery store. But in Jesus’ time, salt was taken from the deposits around the Dead Sea, and those deposits were filled with impurities. Gradually over time the salt would leach out, so that all that remained was a tasteless white powder—and that was what Jesus was talking about.
So let me ask, how do we become the salt that brings flavour and life to the world? Certainly not by criticizing others or writing them off as the disciples did. It will be as we put him who is life at the centre of our lives, as we allow Jesus to live in and through us, as we give ourselves wholly and entirely and without reservation to him.

20 September 2015

Sermon – “The Path to Greatness” (Mark 9:30-37)

This past week I was flipping from one channel to another on the TV, when up on the screen popped Masterchef. I had never seen the programme before and food always interests me, so I watched on for a few minutes while the three chefs prepared their delicacies. Now if you ask my wife Karen, she will tell you without a moment’s hesitation that her husband is no master chef. I do cook the occasional meal, but it is painful for her to watch on when I do. I’m slow. I make a mess. I use far too many dishes. And usually by the time the meal is on the table, something is too spicy or underdone or overcooked.
So I watched on with amazement as the three cooks prepared perfect cheese soufflés and a couple of other dishes, all with flawless timing. Then I began to think: Imagine the pressure. Always under the eye of the camera. Constantly being critiqued by the judges. Never knowing whether your dish is going to come out the way you hoped—whether you’ve achieved exactly the right combination of flavours, how you will score on presentation and a host of other unpredictables. Always on the knife’s edge. Always just one soupçon away from being eliminated.
Now take a moment to imagine what it would be like if the Christian life were like that. Sad to say, there are some people who think that way and we meet with them in this morning’s Gospel reading.
Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus had already told them that this was to be their final journey together—that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 9:31). Now for a second time he warns them: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

A great mystery

 “But,” Mark informs us, “they did not understand …” Of course they didn’t understand. There is a sense in which the cross of Jesus will always remain a mystery. Somewhere among my books that I am still unpacking there is one with the title, Why the Cross? And I can’t tell you how many times over the course of my ministry there are people who have asked me, “Why did Jesus have to die?” The apostle Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing… Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:18,22,23). Even Pope Francis has confessed that “the mystery of the Cross is a great mystery for mankind, a mystery that can only be approached in prayer and in tears”.[1]
So we really can’t blame the disciples. The apostle Paul and Pope Francis both had the advantage of hindsight. Like us, they could look back on the events of Calvary from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection. For those first disciples all of this was completely unexplored territory. Now wonder they didn’t know what to think!
But it is Mark’s next comment that I find really revealing. “They did not understand what he meant…” And then he goes on to add, “… and they were afraid to ask him about it.” What made them so afraid? Was it the fear of losing this man who had come to mean so much to them, whose words had become for them the word of life? Or was it the fear of just appearing to be stupid or ignorant? I know there is a great deal of that kind of fear in me. Or should we call it by its proper name—pride?
I’m not good about asking for directions along the road, even when I’m totally lost. When people offer me help, my first inclination is to thank them and say, “That’s OK. I can manage on my own.” We call it independence. Yet so much of what we call independence is really just pride going by another name. And I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the disciples’ unwillingness to ask Jesus what he meant also rose out of pride.
We don’t like people to think we’re ignorant or foolish. I remember many moons ago in my teen years rowing lazily up a little river in Maine with my three brothers. It was getting hot, so I decided to jump in for a swim. As I was enjoying myself in the cool water, some canoeists paddled by and one of them shouted over to me, “Do you realize you’re swimming next to a sewage outlet?” “Of course I do,” I replied, and waited until they were out of sight before scurrying back into our boat to row as quickly as possible back to our cottage and leap into the shower. Now that’s pride with a capital “P”!

Striving to be the greatest

But let’s move along in the gospel story. Jesus and the disciples arrive in Capernaum, the lakeside village that was home to Peter and Andrew and James and John. A chilly silence filled the air. At this point you need to realize that the roads in that part of the world were hardly what we would call roads today. In fact, they were little more than footpaths. And so it was not possible for a dozen or more men to walk along all abreast. They would have been strung out in a long line, singly or at most in twos and threes. While he had not been able to pick up the words of it, Jesus knew that the conversation among some of them earlier in the day had not been pleasant. So he asked them, “What was it that you were you arguing about along the way?” No answer—only an embarrassed silence. I suspect that none of them dared look Jesus in the eye, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. Once again the gremlin of pride comes into the picture.
The word for “great” in the New Testament is megas. You hear it again and again in English. A big personality on TV or in the movies is a star. And we call a really great star a superstar. But an even bigger star is a megastar. So it was that these men weren’t satisfied with just being ordinary disciples of Jesus. They were set on being mega-disciples. Their problem was that somehow they had come to think of following Jesus in terms of Masterchef. It had become all about performance, trying to impress Jesus, all the time constantly worrying as to whether they’d done enough or done it right. And part of that would inevitably have meant comparing themselves with the others around them. Following Jesus had become a competition.
What happens next is as though Jesus took a hand grenade, ripped out the pin and threw it into their midst. He was going to blow their whole world of pride and self-achievement apart. “Anyone who wants to be first,” he said to them, “must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Did you get that right, Jesus? Did I really hear you correctly? Let’s listen to those words again: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” And that is the pattern of discipleship as we find it in the New Testament.
You can see it in the life of the apostle Paul. Early in his ministry he describes himself in this way: “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle”. A few years later, this is what he has to say about himself: “I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people.” Then, finally, as he nears the end of his life, he describes himself as “the worst of sinners” (1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15). “If I must boast,” he writes elsewhere, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” And why? “So that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:9).
John the Baptist recognized this as he stood on the bank of the River Jordan. Of all the ministries in the Bible, his has to have been one of the most privileged—to have baptized the Son of God. Our Lord Jesus even pronounced that “among those born of women there is no one greater than John”. Yet John said of himself, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Luke 7:28; John 3:30). And who would you say is the greatest figure in the Old Testament? I have no doubt that Moses would rank high on anyone’s list. Yet the Bible tells us that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). “Of all garments,’’ wrote Bishop J.C. Ryle 150 years ago, “none is so graceful, none wears so well, and none is so rare, as true humility.”[2]

The servant of all

Just in case the disciples haven’t got the point, however, Jesus reaches over and brings a little child into their midst. Holding the child in his arms, he says to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
It is difficult for us to understand how radical Jesus’ words would have been. It’s not that children were not loved by their parents in those days, but they certainly did not enjoy the privilege that they have in our society today. They were taught; they helped with the chores; but by and large we could say they were invisible. So for Jesus to focus attention on a child in this way and to tell the disciples that to welcome such a one was their duty and privilege would have been something altogether new.
It was not that different from the time when he had honored Mary in Bethany for sitting among the men to listen to his teaching, or when he accepted the offering of the sinful woman who had anointed him with her tears (Luke 10:38-42; Luke 7:36-50). What Jesus was saying was that those whom we regard as the “least, the lowest, the last and the lost” all have their place in his kingdom and in his family. Here there is no status, no competition, no arguing about who is the greatest or the best. We are all here to serve one another and to serve the world in Jesus’ name.
And that brings us back in a circle to the opening words of our passage this morning—Jesus’ words, so puzzling to the disciples, about being delivered into the hands of men to be killed and after three days rise again. Here we have the very Son of God, the King and Lord of all creation, stooping down to share our human frame, to suffer and to die for you and for me on the cross. In the words of St Paul,
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave… And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
There on the cross the first became last. On the cross Jesus proved himself the true servant of all, to the point of taking the stain of our sin upon himself. He trod the path of humility to become the servant of all. And now he calls you and me to follow in his steps.

[1]        http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-approach-mystery-of-the-cross-with-pr
[2]        Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Mark, 187

13 September 2015

Sermon – “Who is Jesus?” (Mark 8:27-33)

I count it a particular joy to be with you at Trinity this morning and through this “interim” time as you seek the Holy Spirit’s leading towards a new rector. My experience of Trinity goes way back to 1974, when my wife Karen and I were visiting relatives in Nova Scotia and we came and attended the evening service in the former building on Cogswell Street. Some time after that, as many of you are probably aware, I served as rector of St Paul’s Church, just blocks away, for eighteen years, up until 2004. During that time it was my privilege to meet and work alongside a number of folk at Trinity, particularly in support of the Inner City Youth Club. Then, eleven years ago, I was asked to lead a congregation in Saint Paul, Minnesota; and now, after forty-one years of ordained ministry, we have returned to Nova Scotia to be amongst family and the many friends we made here during our previous time.
There are already a number of familiar faces here in the congregation and I hope to get to know all of you better (and you me) as we seek to minister together in Jesus’ name in this still new location with all its many exciting opportunities and possibilities. And as we worship and work and pray together, my chief prayer and desire is that we should also get to know Jesus better, in the words of St Richard, “to know him more clearly, to love him more dearly, and to follow him more nearly, day by day.”
There could hardly have been a better Scripture passage to set us on that journey than the one that was read from St Mark’s Gospel this morning. Jesus and his disciples had been together now for nearly three years. Some of them had looked on when he was baptized in the River Jordan. They had seen the Holy Spirit come down upon him like a dove; they had heard the Father’s voice proclaiming, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Others had been on the lakeside when they had responded to his irresistible call, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” They had watched amazed as he demonstrated his power over evil spirits, cleansed lepers, enabled paralyzed people to walk, walked on water, stilled a storm at sea, fed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and fish, and even raised the dead to life.

Who do people say I am?

Now, as they walked along the road Jesus stopped for a moment and turned to them and asked, “What are people saying about me? Who do they say I am?” I don’t think Jesus was asking the question to gauge his popularity level. It was not like what is happening all around us right now as we prepare for federal elections. Each day it seems that the pollsters and public opinion experts are coming out with new figures. (I understand that since the election was called last month there have been at least twenty-five national polls.) No, Jesus was not running for office. Nor was he attempting to measure his ratings in the arena of public opinion.
No, I believe that Jesus was more concerned to discover how much of what he had done and taught had really penetrated, to see if there might be some who had managed to “get it”. And of course the answers he received were many. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
Now John the Baptist had had a huge influence that was still being felt. People had come from far and wide to hear his fiery preaching. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates it in his version in The Message:
Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin… What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire. (Luke 3:7-9)
Then there were those who thought of Jesus as Elijah. Elijah, as many of you will recall, had been one of the greatest and most powerful Old Testament prophets. Added to that, in the years preceding Jesus’ ministry there had grown up a belief that immediately before the end times Elijah would appear again. So could it be that Jesus had come to bring in God’s kingdom?
In many ways things haven’t changed very much, have they? There are all kinds of opinions about Jesus floating around in the world today. In recent times Jesus has been depicted among other things as a clown, as the lover of Mary Magdalene and as the founder of a hallucinogenic mushroom cult. Even within the church there are those who cast doubt on his being God, on the truth of his resurrection, and on the saving power of his death on the cross.
Yet wide of the mark as many of those ideas may be, it is testimony to the fact that, nearly two thousand years after he first asked that question of his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Jesus remains a source of fascination around the world. He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine more than any other figure. Even as I speak there are thousands of Muslims who are putting their faith in Isa, as they call him in Arabic. Recently news has been coming from Berlin of a church that has suddenly grown from 150 attendees to 600 through Iranian Muslim refugees who have put their faith in Christ.[1]

Who do you say I am?

We live in exciting times, when as much as at any previous point in history and perhaps more, there is a huge interest in Jesus. Yet for each of us there is a more important issue—and it has to do with the second question that Jesus put before his followers. Not, “Who do others say I am?” but, “Who do you say I am?”
At this point I can imagine an embarrassing silence coming over the disciples. Can’t you see them looking back and forth at one another with blank faces? Who is this amazing man who heals the sick, stills storms and raises the dead? And equally importantly, who is he for me? These are questions not only for those disciples of long past, but also for each of us today. Who is Jesus?
In the end it was Peter who broke the silence. (It was always Peter who spoke first among Jesus’ followers.) “You are the Messiah,” he blurted out. I suspect that he didn’t even know where the words came from. Yet suddenly there they were on his lips. It’s not that he didn’t believe them. I believe that they arose from a conviction that all along had been growing within his heart. And now, for the first time, almost by surprise, like a baby chick hatching from its shell, out it came. “You are the Messiah.”
Now messiah, or mashiach, is a Hebrew word. It means “anointed”. And when you capitalize the “m”, it takes on a special meaning: the Anointed One. In Old Testament days pouring oil on a person’s head was a way of setting them apart, designating them for a particular function in the community. Among the people of ancient Israel there were three categories of people who received this special anointing. First there were the priests. As far back as the day when the Tabernacle was first consecrated for worship, God commanded Moses to take anointing oil and to pour it on the heads of Aaron and his sons, thus ordaining them as priests (Exodus 28:41; 29:7-9). And the practice continued across the years right through the Old Testament.
The second kind of person to be anointed was the king. When Saul, the first of Israel’s kings, was appointed, it was Samuel who “took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you ruler over his inheritance?’ ” (1 Samuel 10:1). And the same occurred in later generations for David and Solomon and those who followed them on the throne of Israel. And thirdly there were the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos and the rest, anointed to proclaim God’s word with faith and boldness.
Now put all three of these roles together—a priest to intercede, a king to rule and a prophet to proclaim—and what you have is not an anointed one, but the Anointed One, the Messiah. For centuries now the people of Israel had yearned and prayed and wept for the coming of this great figure. Now in Jesus he had come.

Who I say I am

Or had he? The problem was that over the centuries all kinds of legendary and mythology had become attached to the figure of the Messiah, specifically the notion that he would be a great military conqueror who would restore Israel to the greatness it had once known in the golden age of David and Solomon. All of this brings us to a third question, one that we don’t hear explicitly asked in this passage, but the one that is perhaps the most important of all: not, “Who do people say I am?” or, “Who do you say I am?” but, who does Jesus say he is? And the answer was one that Peter found unbelievable. Indeed it shook him to the core.
No sooner had those words come from Peter’s lips, “You are the Messiah,” what did Jesus immediately begin to do? He began to talk about suffering, about rejection, about being killed and rising again. I can only imagine than for Peter and those who were with him, this was the farthest thing from their notion of the Messiah. They were anticipating a great confrontation of power, a final conflict where the Romans and their puppet rulers in Jerusalem were finally put down.
However, Jesus had a greater foe in mind, compared with which Caesar and his legions were less than an ant or a butterfly. Jesus’ target was what the Bible identifies as “the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) and not least the sin that reaches into the very core of the human soul. The conflict in which Jesus was preparing to engage was not temporal but cosmic.
It was the Father himself who had revealed to Peter that the man standing before him was the Messiah. But what he could not possibly have understood at that point or brought himself to accept was that the Messiah’s path to victory would be through his own suffering and death. And Peter was not alone in that. For the world around us the cross of Jesus will always remain an impenetrable mystery, a stumbling block, an offense.
Yet we believe that it was on the cross Jesus revealed himself as the priest who offered not a bull or a calf or a turtledove but his very self (in the words of our Prayer Book) as the one “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”. We believe that it was on the cross Jesus began his reign as the king who has conquered not through “winning” but through the power of his own self-giving love. We believe that on the cross Jesus was the prophet who in his very self is the final and perfect expression of the height and length and breadth and depth of God’s unsurpassable love for you and for me.
“Who do people say I am?” “Who do you say I am?” “The Son of Man must suffer many things…”

[1]        http://www.christianpost.com/news/muslim-refugees-are-being-baptized-and-converting-to-christianity-says-berlin-pastor-144554/

23 August 2015

Sermon – “Born in a Battlefield” (Ephesians 6:10-20)

I am grateful for the opportunity to come and take part in the baptism of our youngest grandchild, Avery, and to Paul Friesen for his invitation to preach once again at St Paul’s after our eleven-year sojourn in the United States. They were a wonderful, spiritually stimulating time for us in many ways, but it is also good to be back in Halifax, which became home for us during my eighteen years as rector here.
Had we been using the old Book of Common Prayer, we would be hearing these words following Avery’s baptism:
We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock, and do sign him with the sign of the cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.[1]
It is a source of sadness for me that we haven’t retained these words, or something like them, in our contemporary forms of worship. I wonder if they weren’t dropped because our liturgical revisers sensed an incongruity between a defenseless baby cuddled in its parent’s arms and the blood and gore of a battlefield. If so, I don’t entirely blame them. Yet, when you think about it, that is almost exactly what the apostle Paul does in this morning’s reading from the last chapter of his letter to the Ephesians.
In the latter verses of chapter 5 and the first half of chapter 6, Paul has addressed his words to Christian households, to the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. The whole emphasis throughout those verses is on Christ-like submission and service. The nineteenth-century German Lutheran pastor Karl Spitte put the picture of the Christian family into idyllic form in his hymn that includes the words,
O happy home, whose little ones are given
Early to thee, in humble faith and prayer,
To thee, their Friend, who from the heights of heaven
Guides them, and guards with more than mother’s care!
Yet suddenly, from that blissful scene Paul drops us into the middle of a battlefield, with the image, not of a peaceful family home but of a soldier fully armed for mortal combat.

The Action

Why the sudden shift? Handley Moule, one of the great scholar-bishops of Durham, wisely observed a century ago that it is a common experience that “the evil powers often win their worst advantages against us Christians on the quiet and common ground of life”.
Where we are least upon our guard they are most upon their watch… Just at home, alas, it is only too easy for the Christian to be inconsiderate in deed and word, to be quick or sullen in temper, to indulge self in small but dangerous ways, while yet a tolerable face of consistency is maintained in more public and exterior matters.[3]
Do you recognize yourself in the good bishop’s words? I can certainly see all too much of myself in them. Even such a one as the apostle Paul confessed to the struggle between good and evil that raged within the confines of his own soul:
I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. (Romans 7:21-23)
The great Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made much the same observation when he wrote,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.[4]
As difficult as it may be to accept, little Avery has been born into a battlefield. At this stage in his life he certainly is not aware of it. But we ask his parents and sponsors to affirm on his behalf:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

The Adversary

I don’t know if it was intentional, but those words in many ways reflect the words that we heard from Ephesians this morning. There Paul warns us about the devil’s schemes, about the rulers, authorities and powers of this dark world and about the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
It is important to notice that Paul doesn’t write about evil only in vague, general terms. He speaks quite specifically about the devil. In our post-Enlightenment world we may find the Bible’s references to the devil strange, antiquated, even slightly embarrassing. We may be tempted to set them aside as part of a pre-scientific worldview. If that is the case, then we need to beware.
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” wrote C.S. Lewis in the introduction to his spiritual classic, The Screwtape Letters. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”[5]
C.E.B. Cranfield, one of the leading New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, has written,
Here we are up against something that presents many difficulties to the modern mind, which is apt to dismiss the whole subject as outgrown superstition. It is important to approach it with as open a mind as possible. To suggest that there may be more truth here in the New Testament picture than has sometimes been allowed is not to wish to turn the clock back on scientific progress or to open the floodgates of obscurantism. The question whether the confident spread of the demons’ non-existence has not been their greatest triumph gets tragic urgency from such twentieth-century features as Nazism, McCarthyism, and Apartheid. And lest we should be prejudiced by the memory of such horrors as the burning of witches, it must be said that they were due, not to taking the New Testament too seriously, but to failing to take it seriously enough.[6]
Even a casual reading of the New Testament should leave us in no doubt that to follow Christ will inevitably lead us into conflict with the spiritual forces of darkness. Satan’s desire is to bring us down, to tangle us in a web of lies—and at times those lies can be very powerful and enticing. Yet all the while we must never lose sight of the assurance that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

The Armour

So how does this work itself out in practical terms? How are we to engage in the fight? Paul uses the image of a soldier—one familiar to everyone in the Roman Empire—to show how it all happens. And it may seem odd, but he begins with the belt. For the belt was possibly the most important component of all. With it the ancient warrior bound together his loose-fitting clothes and so was able to manoeuvre with nimbleness and mobility. When we buckle on the belt of truth, we are encircling ourselves with certain truths about God and about ourselves, truths that we read in Scripture and that we affirm week by week in the creeds. At the same time we are committing ourselves to be men and women of truth, people whose “yes” truly is “yes” and whose “no” is truly “no”, people who really are who we say we are.
The next piece of armour is the breastplate. The breastplate covers and protects nearly all the vital organs, especially the heart. And for the biblical writers the heart stood as the seat of the will. “In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord,” wrote the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:15a). Though it is the breastplate of righteousness, it is not our righteousness, but Christ’s, that protects us, conferred upon us by the shedding of his blood on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:20,21).
Third come the sandals. Just it was important for a soldier to have proper protection for his feet so that he could cross any terrain no matter how rough without causing himself pain or injury, so too we are to have “our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace”. And so we are gospel people, good news people, leaving the imprint of God’s shalom wherever we go.
Then we are to arm ourselves with the shield—and the shield in question was a large piece of armour that covered nearly the whole body. That shield, says Paul, is faith. The word for faith in the New Testament is pistis, which can equally mean “faithfulness”. Thus I prefer to think of myself being armed not with my own faith, which is weak and faltering at the best of times, but with the faithfulness of God, which extends to the heavens and endures to all generations.
Fourthly there is the helmet of salvation. Clearly the helmet protects the brain—and how important it is to have minds that are formed and informed by the truths of God. Paul writes elsewhere of being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may be able to test and approve what God’s will is. He writes of taking every thought captive to Christ (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 10:5). How vital it is that we should be able to think Christianly, to develop our minds in such a way that we can respond effectively to the many intellectual challenges that the world places before us!
Finally, we are presented with the sword of the Spirit, which, Paul tells us, is the word of God. Commentators have long observed that up to this point all the armour has been defensive. The sword is the only offensive piece of weaponry. It was with the word of God that Jesus fought off the attacks of the accuser in the wilderness: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only…’ ” “It is written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” I well remember an adviser in my university days pointing out that a sword has two edges, but in most cases only one is blunt, and that is the edge facing away from us. We can be very adept at applying the Scriptures to other people, but if we have any right to do so, it will only be after we have learned to apply them to ourselves. And if the powers of darkness are to be defeated in our lives, that is the way it will happen.
All of what I have been trying to say in these few minutes is most profoundly and beautifully expressed in a hymn which we know as “St Patrick’s Breastplate”. And I’d like to use those words to pray for you and for me and for little Avery as he is enrolled as Christ’s faithful soldier and servant in the sacrament of baptism.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

[1]     The Book of Common Prayer, 1959, page 528
[2]     Hymn 340 in the Book of Common Praise (1938)
[3]     Ephesian Studies, page 322
[4]     Both quotes are from The Gulag Archipelago.
[5]     The Screwtape Letters, page 9
[6]     The Gospel According to St Mark, 75
[7]     Hymn 812 in the Book of Common Praise (1938)