31 March 2015

Sermon – "When Time Stood Still" (Mark 15:1-39)

If there is a distinguishing feature of Mark’s gospel (you might even call it Mark’s signature), it is the word “immediately”. You find it peppered all through its sixteen chapters. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, he immediately comes up out of the water (1:10). Then, immediately the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness (1:12). Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to become fishers of people and immediately they drop their nets and follow him (1:18). Jesus and his disciples go to Capernaum and immediately on the Sabbath he goes to the synagogue and teaches (1:21). Then, immediately, a man with an unclean spirit begins shouting and Jesus rebukes it (1:23). Immediately after that, Jesus goes to the home of Simon and Andrew and heals Simon’s mother-in-law, who is sick with a fever (1:29). A leper begs Jesus to make him clean. Jesus touches him and says, “Be clean,” and immediately the leprosy leaves him (1:40-43). At this point we haven’t even left the first chapter! In all, we find the word in forty-two places—ten times in the first chapter alone.
Thus it seems that throughout Mark’s gospel, far more than the other three, there is always a sense of motion—not of hurry, not of things moving more quickly than they ought or being out of control, but always moving. The final point at which we encounter the word “immediately” is in the opening verse of this morning’s Gospel reading. Unfortunately you won’t see it in very many of our English translations. However, rendered literally, Mark 15:1 sounds like this: “And immediately, very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, and the whole council, held a consultation…” And that is the last time we hear it. Suddenly, it seems, time slows down.

The foreknowledge of God

Mark compresses three years of Jesus’ life into fourteen chapters. He does not even give any account of Jesus’ birth. Now he devotes an entire chapter to just nine hours. I find myself asking, why is this so? One idea that comes to my mind takes me back many years ago to a winter morning when I was driving on the open freeway out in the countryside. Suddenly, a considerable distance away, I could see that all the traffic had come to a halt. I tapped the brakes and realized that I had no control whatever over my car. I was driving on black ice. I put the car into neutral and tried to steer it gently to the side of the road. But nothing I did had any effect. Unable to do anything to prevent whatever was going to happen, I found myself beginning to feel more like a helpless observer than a driver. As my car glided toward the vehicles ahead of me, I had an eerie sense that time had slowed down. The interval between first spotting the stopped cars far ahead and when I finally crashed into the back of a school bus that had gone off the road seemed not like the few seconds that it was, but minutes.
So I ask myself, is this the way that it was for Jesus’ disciples? As events took their course on that fateful Friday morning, there was a sense of inevitability, that now there was nothing they could do to intervene in the series of events that was unfolding before them. Looking back on it, we can say they should have known. On more than one occasion, going all the way back to the time when Peter had proclaimed him the Messiah, Jesus had warned them that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…” (Mark 8:32). At what should have been a celebratory event—the Passover meal—there had been the sadness that had hung over everything like an ominous cloud, when Jesus had taken the bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you,” and the wine with the words, “This is my blood, poured out for you and for many.” That same night, as Judas Iscariot entered the Garden of Gethsemane with the soldiers and a band of ruffians, who dragged Jesus away to the court of the high priest, they must have known in their hearts that things had gone beyond the point of no return. All that was left for them to do was to look on helplessly as Jesus was carried away to be crushed by the unstoppable wheel of fate.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people. (Isaiah 53:7-8)
What the disciples did not know, what they could never have conceived at the time, was that things were not out of control at all—that what was unfolding was not evil running unchecked, but the long-awaited plan of a loving Father. “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief…” wrote Isaiah centuries before (Isaiah 53:10). Or not many days later, as Peter himself would soon recognize and proclaim, “This man [was] handed over … according to the deliberate plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor? (Romans 11:33-34)

A fact of history

Let’s stop there for a moment. For I believe that there may be a second reason why time slows down at this point in Mark’s gospel. It stems from a curious incident the night before, as Jesus is being led away from the Garden of Gethsemane, and of the four gospels it is found only in Mark’s account. In chapter 14, verses 51 and 52, we are told about a young man who had been following along behind Jesus and the disciples wearing nothing but a linen cloth. The guards tried to apprehend him, but all they managed to do was to grab hold of the cloth and off he ran, naked, into the dark.
Practically ever since people have been asking, could this have been Mark? After all, it is not unlikely that the upper room where the last supper took place was in the home of Mark’s mother, Mary. Could he have sneaked out of the house and followed Jesus and the disciples across the Kidron Valley to the garden? Added to that, Mark would have been a very young man, likely not even have reached puberty, so he would not have been regarded as a threat by the authorities. Could it be then that what we have from this point on in the gospel is not a second-hand report of the events, but an actual eyewitness account? I grant that all of this is to some extent speculation, but it might explain why Mark goes into such detail at this point.
He carefully notes times—a detail we don’t find anywhere else in his gospel. At nine o’clock Jesus is crucified. At noon darkness shadows the whole land. At three o’clock Jesus cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” and then breathes his last. Why all the detail? Because Mark wants to make sure that we know that what we are reading about are actual events. The nails that pierced Jesus’ hands were hard iron. The wood on which he hung was rough and splintered. The pain that tormented his naked body ran through every nerve.
As we read the account of the Passion, we need to remember that this is not just a story, a myth that has been devised or a legend that has been passed down. What we commemorate over this Holy Week are actual events, testified to by eyewitnesses, that took place in real time. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” wrote the apostle Paul less than twenty years later, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands,” wrote St John, “we declare to you” (1 John 1:1). The crucifixion was a real event. The cross is real.

The fulcrum of eternity

There is another reason that occurs to me as to why Mark slows down at this point. Picture yourself on a train, speeding across the countryside. The train begins to decelerate. Then slowly, its brakes squealing and sparks flying from its wheels, it comes to a halt. You have reached your destination.
It is at the cross that the gospel also reaches its destination. It is at the cross that everything stops. All creation holds its breath and gasps as the Lamb of God breathes his last and bows his head. And a centurion, who knows nothing of the Bible, nothing of God’s centuries-long pursuit of his people, nothing about Jesus, looks up and exclaims, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” For the cross was Jesus’ destination also. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23,32).
The cross is the fulcrum on which the destiny, not just of humankind, but of the entire universe, turns. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). It is on the cross that sin is canceled, the powers of evil overthrown, the tragic chain of events that can be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden is reversed, and death becomes the gate to eternal life.
But we have not let the cross do its work until what is the fulcrum of eternity becomes the fulcrum of our lives as well. We can accept it as a fact of history. We can wonder at it as the ultimate act of sacrifice by a loving Savior. But until we bow before it and receive the grace and forgiveness that Jesus has wrought for us there, it can only be a symbol, a distant event shrouded by the mists of the past.
“I have been crucified with Christ,” wrote the apostle Paul, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The challenge of Holy Week, the challenge of the cross, is to allow what Jesus has done there to become a present reality for us, to accept in humble gratitude the terrifying but awesome truth that it was for me and for my sins that Jesus shed his blood and gave himself over to death. He died so that I might live…
What more is there to say, except to pray? And for that I would like to use the words of Isaac Watts. If you know them, perhaps you would like to say them with me.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ my God:
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

23 March 2015

Sermon – “The Eternal Priesthood of the Only-Begotten Son” (Hebrews 5:1-10)

Those of you who have been keeping up with the Encounter With God daily devotionals will over this past week have been reading from the Book of Leviticus. I am disappointed that Scripture Union has chosen not to follow Leviticus chapter by chapter, but is leaving large sections unread. On the other hand, I fully understand their predicament. It has been my experience that when people start reading the Bible cover to cover, even with the best of intentions and firmest discipline, there are many who fall by the wayside at Leviticus. Chapter after chapter is taken up with detailed instructions on the legal and sacrificial system of ancient Israel: burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, dietary laws, holy days, defilements and purifications, penalties and punishments. For us living three thousand plus years later, it is all a bewildering maze. Way back in the early third century the great biblical scholar Origen moaned, “If you read people passages from the Bible that are good and clear, they will hear them with great joy… But provide someone a reading from Leviticus, and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it were some bizarre food.”[1]
If Leviticus has an equivalent in the New Testament, it has to be the Letter to the Hebrews. The reason, of course, is that so much of the logic of Hebrews is built upon the ceremonies and regulations of the Old Testament Law. All of this makes Hebrews a challenging read. Yet, if we are patient and persistent, we will find in it some of the most precious gems that the Bible has to offer. In spite of his disparaging remark, Origen also wrote this about Leviticus: “We must entreat the Lord himself, the Holy Spirit himself, to remove every cloud and all darkness which obscures the vision of our hearts hardened with the stains of sins in order that we may be able to behold the spiritual and wonderful knowledge of his Law”[2]. And of course the same can be said for Hebrews. With these thoughts in mind, then, let us turn to the fifth chapter of Hebrews, and let us earnestly seek what the Holy Spirit may have to reveal to us there.
If we were to encapsulate the message of the thirteen chapters of Hebrews into a single phrase, it might be something like “Jesus, our Great High Priest”. The whole point of Hebrews is that it is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who is able to bring us into a relationship with God. Through his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus has done for us what no earthly priest could ever achieve—and as he is writing to a largely Jewish audience, the author of Hebrews naturally uses the Old Testament Law to make his point. So what does he have to tell us in this fifth chapter?

The sorrow of Jesus

The first qualification of priests, he reminds us, is that they are chosen from among the people. Priests are not some special breed of superhuman beings. They are not Captain America or Spiderman or Thor. They are ordinary individuals like you and me. And there is a reason for that. It is so that they may deal gently, that is, with understanding and sympathy, with those who are ignorant or who are straying in their faith. The word translated “deal gently” in verse 2 is found only in this one place in the New Testament. Literally, it means to have “measured feelings”—that is, not to fly off the handle or go berserk when someone comes to you with a problem or a failure. We all know people that we wouldn’t go to under those circumstances. It’s not that we are necessarily looking for someone to take our side, but that we want someone who is prepared to listen, who seeks to understand. And more often than not those are people who have tasted life, who have encountered some of the same obstacles, who are aware of their own weaknesses and foibles. And this is what we find in Jesus. As the old gospel hymn puts it,
Can we find a friend so faithful,
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
As evidence for what he is saying, the author of Hebrews in verse 7 takes us to a scene in Jesus’ life. It is of Jesus, his hands upraised in prayer, in the Garden of Gethsemane. “There,” he tells us, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…” I believe that those tears were not for himself, but for those he came to save, for you and for me, as he contemplated the tragic and wanton destruction of our sin and as he prepared to take that sin upon himself at the cross.
Three times in the gospel records we find Jesus in tears. The first was as he gathered with those who were mourning outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. There, John’s gospel tells us not only that Jesus wept, but that he was overcome with emotion. “Greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” is the way the passage puts it (John 11:33). The second occasion was as he approached the city of Jerusalem for what would be the final time. Luke tells us, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…’ ” (Luke 19:41,42). And now, in today’s reading, we find him in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepares to take the full brunt of our sins upon himself.
I suspect that, like his temptations, which certainly were not limited to three, neither were Jesus’ tears. I imagine him weeping for the paralyzed man by the Pool of Bethesda who had sat waiting to be healed for thirty-eight years; for the Samaritan woman at the well and her five failed marriages; for the man tormented by so many demons that they called him “Legion”; for the woman who secretly clasped the hem of his garment in the hope that she might be healed; for the rich young ruler for whom luxury was a greater priority than eternal life; for the Pharisees and the Sadducees and all the other religious officials for whom attention to details and perpetuation of traditions had become more important than a living relationship with God; and not least for his own followers, who demonstrated themselves again and again to be of such little faith. In Isaiah’s words, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). And I don’t think we are stepping outside the bounds of orthodoxy to imagine that our Great High Priest has shed tears for you and for me as well.

The suffering of Jesus

The second aspect of Jesus’ ministry on which this morning’s passage focuses is his suffering. We read in verse 8, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” When you allow yourself to think about it for a moment, this is a profound statement. As Son of God, I suppose we could say that Jesus knows everything that goes on inside the human mind and heart. As King David put it in Psalm 139,
Lord, you have searched me and known me…
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path…
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue …,
you know it completely. (Psalm 139:1-4)
In the Gospel of John we read much the same thing about Jesus. John writes, “Jesus … knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (John 2:24-25). Now it is one thing to know something about others through book learning or through what others have told you about them or even through observation and listening over long years. But we move things to an altogether different plane when we actually share their experience. Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen drew attention to this in his little book, The Wounded Healer. He wrote of
… the basic principle that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others. … In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?”[3]
Even though Jesus may have known all that it is to be human simply by virtue of being the divine Son of God, it was necessary that he also learn obedience through himself entering our human experience, actually suffering in his own person. Our season of Lent began with the account of Jesus being tempted by the devil. And the four gospels offer us glimpses of when he was tired, grieved, unjustly treated, hungry, thirsty and even angry. Yet Jesus’ full entry into our human experience would only come at Calvary, as he shared not only our life but also our death.

The salvation of Jesus

This, I believe, is what our passage this morning intends, as the author goes on to affirm that “having been made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. It may seem a little odd to us—perhaps even bordering on the heretical—to think of Jesus being made perfect. After all, wasn’t he perfect from the beginning? Wasn’t he the sinless Son of God? Doesn’t Hebrews itself describe him as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3)? All of that is true. And I believe that the key to understanding it and putting it all together is the verb that the author uses here. It is the word teleioo, which means to complete, to accomplish, to bring to an end. More significantly, it is closely related to the word that we hear from Jesus’ lips in John’s gospel, as he utters his final cry from the cross: “Tetelestai—It is finished.”
Jesus’ work was not completed, not perfected, until he had carried his cross through the dusty streets of Jerusalem, until the nails had been driven through his hands, until the beams had been hoisted up from the ground, until he painfully gasped for his last breath. At the cross Jesus did more than sympathize with us. He did more than personally enter into our suffering. At the cross he took the full load of it upon himself. It was there, on the cross, that Jesus completed the work he came to do. It was there that he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
The Communion service of the Kenyan church gives recognition to this in its exuberant final blessing, when we proclaim together,
All our problems… we send to the cross of Christ.
All our difficulties… we send to the cross of Christ.
All the devil’s works… we send to the cross of Christ.
As Jesus said to the Greeks at the festival who wanted to see him, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” As we enter Holy Week in a few days’ time, may each of us find ourselves being drawn once again to the cross of Jesus. There may we bow in profound adoration and thanksgiving before the one who is not only able to deal gently with our weaknesses, but who has taken our very sins upon himself to destroy their power and banish them for ever—Jesus, the source of eternal salvation.

[1]     Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, 17
[2]     Homily 1 on Leviticus
[3]     page 72

15 March 2015

Sermon – “Dead and Alive” (Ephesians 2:1-10)

In three weeks’ time, as the sun is just beginning to show its first rays over the horizon, a little band of us will gather for what has to be one of the most dramatic services of the church year: the Easter Sunrise Vigil. As we gather around the newly lighted Paschal candle and sound the first Alleluia since Epiphany, we will hear once again the remarkable vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. I can never hear that reading without feeling tingles going down my spine. So allow me to read it to you this morning.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live…,’ says the Lord.”
Of course Ezekiel’s immediate reference was to the fact that the nation of Judah had been conquered, its people taken from their land and transported into captivity in Babylon. Yet Christians have recognized in that dramatic scene a deeper lesson. It is not just ancient Judah that has been held in captivity. Jesus warned, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” (John 8:34) And in his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul reminds his readers that they had once been held captive and enslaved by sin (Romans 6:6,17).

Our condition

We find that same theme underlying the opening verses in this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians. There, Paul begins by reminding his readers of their natural condition outside of Christ. He lays it out in graphic terms and we will find that he does not leave a single stone unturned. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” The two words he uses for sin here each have slightly different shades of meaning. The first has to do with stumbling or straying from a path. Jesus warned, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 6:13,14) The second word brings with it the idea of falling short or missing the mark. Paul defines it for us in Romans 3:23, where he writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Putting the two together, we recognize that sin encompasses both intentional acts and unintentional failures. We recognized that fact it in our confession in this morning’s worship when we acknowledged, “We have left undone what we ought to have done, and we have done what we ought not to have done.”
Paul goes on to elaborate three ways in which this works out in our lives: following the course of this world, following what he calls “the ruler of the power of the air”, and following the passions of our flesh. It’s not quite the same order, but our Book of Common Prayer summarizes this in the three renunciations that precede a baptism. The candidate is asked,
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.
And so on the one side we have all the persuasive powers of the world around us—advertisers, peers, media and a whole host of others all attempting to pressure us into their mold. On the other we have the devil himself with his vast array of lies and deceit. And if that were not enough we have within us the capacity to choose and to commit unimaginable acts of evil. Bishop Handley Moule put it well a century ago when he wrote, “Man is not merely a sufferer; he is a runaway, a criminal, a rebel, a conspirator.”[1]
Uncomfortable as it is, Paul has held a mirror up to us. As we look on with Ezekiel at the valley of dry bones, we see ourselves and we cry, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

God’s action

At this point we come to what is the pivotal word in the passage. Indeed, I believe it may be the most important word in the whole Bible. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… We were by nature children of wrath… But…” “But God made us alive.” We will hear it again in this morning’s service as we kneel before receiving communion. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But…” “But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy.”
How has he done this? How has God brought us from death to life? Paul actually had to invent three words to explain what has happened. They are found in verses 4 and 6. God has made us alive with Christ; he has raised us up with Christ; and he has seated us with Christ. Do you see how each of these three actions corresponds with a stage in Jesus’ ministry? In a few moments’ time we will recite them in the Nicene Creed: “On the third day he rose again…, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father”—the resurrection, ascension and reign of Christ.
What Paul is telling us in this passage is these truths apply not only to Jesus. They apply also to those who put their trust in him. And so the Bible assures us that, just as Jesus has been raised from the dead, so too we are called and empowered to walk in newness of life. Just as Jesus has ascended into heaven, we know that he has prepared a place for us that we may be with him. Just as Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, so also we share the hope of reigning with him in glory.
In Christ God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. Dead bones do not come alive of their own will. So, says Paul, it is “by grace you have been saved”. Indeed, to drive the point home he says it twice. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
We heard this theme repeatedly from Bishop Bruce MacPherson as he spoke here last weekend about the living water that Jesus came to bring. He told of his own experience in the church as a young executive—how he thought that God must be proud to have him as a member of his church, to be serving in the vestry and on the finance committee. Yet it was only late one night as he came into the church alone and knelt before the cross that he came to the realization that it was all God’s doing, all through grace, and he received Christ into his life.
No doubt the Christians in Ephesus could all identify with that experience. The key, though, is to remember it, never to let it fade from our hearts and minds. As the people of Israel were preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he … who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, who made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know…” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18,15-16) By grace you have been saved.

God’s intention

Way back in university I had a friend who never tired of reminding us that we have not only been saved from, but we have also been saved for. It was an important lesson, and obviously it has stuck with me ever since. God has rescued us from the clutches of sin, the world and the devil. He has brought us back from death. These are wonderful truths, in which we glory. Yet they are only half the story. And to dwell on them as there were no more to it is to turn the Christian faith into something less than it is. It would be like an apple tree that doesn’t produce apples or a grape vine that doesn’t produce grapes.
Yes, God has saved us for a purpose—and we find that purpose in the final verse of this morning’s passage. Let me read it to you from the New International Version. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has saved us not only so that we might enjoy a place in heaven, but also so that we might join in his work in the world—so that we might be partners with him in making his new creation a reality within the old.
It is a bold claim. One of the criticisms leveled at the first Christians was that they were turning the world upside down. Wherever they went, things happened. We can think of Christians who have done that in remarkable ways down through the centuries, men and women like Francis of Assisi, or William Wilberforce who brought down the West Indian slave trade, or George Müller who was responsible for the rescue of more than 10,000 orphans, or in our own day Mother Teresa.
Few of us can aspire to that kind of greatness. Yet within our families, within our neighborhoods, on the job site or in school, we must believe that God has placed us there for a purpose, for his purpose. Let us never cease to be grateful to God, who has brought us from death to life. And let us never cease to be agents of that life, to share that life, to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for you and me to do.

[1]     Ephesian Studies, 67

10 March 2015

Sermon – “Sin” (Mark 14:53-72)

Here is another sermon from 40 years ago, which I preached at the Church of St James the Apostle in Montreal on 2 March 1975. 
For people who believe in the basic decency and nobility of mankind, reading Mark’s account of the trial of Jesus must be a painful experience. “Why,” they must ask, “wasn’t there someone to stand up and shout, ‘He’s innocent!’ for all to hear?” “Why wasn’t there anybody in that crowd of people who could have stood up and, in the name of humanity, spoken for Jesus? He might not have saved him from death. Indeed, he might have been crucified beside him. But why didn’t somebody do something?"
The sad fact of the matter is, though, that nobody did anything. There was not one finger lifted by anyone to prevent Jesus from taking that road which led to the cross. The silence of that day speaks with its own peculiar eloquence to us today. As we examine the trial of Jesus, we begin to see just how powerful the opposition to him was. The judgment had already been made long before the trial began. Mark writes that “the chief priests and the council sought testimony against him to put him to death”. This certainly was not a trial as we generally understand it. Rather, it was an excuse for a trial—a performance—to give the cruel acts of these people the appearance of justice.
Yet there is another sense in which that procedure was very much a trial—not of Jesus, but of the people who were condemning him. Jesus’ calmness under great pressure and the emotional and irrational behavior of the high priest suggest to us that it was not Jesus at all who was on trial, but the motives and actions of his prosecutors.
Who was on trial that evening? Not Jesus, but the rest of mankind. Who was found guilty? Not Jesus, for his innocence was obvious from the very beginning. Rather, the guilty party in this trial were all the people who condemned him: the chief priests and the council whose plan it was to put him to death from the very beginning; the false witnesses, brought in to tell lies about a man they hardly knew; the bystanders, who spat on him and struck him; the guards who beat him; and Peter, who in a moment of weakness denied him three times.
No one stood up for Jesus at the trial because no one wanted to stand up for him. That sounds like a terrible condemnation of the people present. Yet I can say it, not out of any feelings of self-righteousness, or any knowledge that I would have been the one to stand in Jesus’ defense. Quite the contrary, I am convinced that, left to myself, I would have been as condemnatory as any of them. The reason why no one spoke forth at the trial of Jesus, and why, I believe, even today if that scene were re-enacted nobody would object, is that basically, when left entirely to ourselves, we are all, each one of us, at enmity with God. That is not to say that we cannot love God with heart, mind, soul and strength as Jesus has commanded us. Rather, when left to our natural inclinations, we do not want to.
We are like Jonah, the prophet. When God commanded him to go to Nineveh to cry against the wickedness of the people there, Jonah immediately went in the opposite direction, to Tarshish, to flee from the burdensome task which the Lord had given him. We are like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus. He would gladly have followed Jesus had he not been told to go and sell all he had and give it to the poor. The willing disciple went away sorrowful, for he was very rich. In each case, life could be much more comfortable without God—and the demands and responsibilities which he places upon us.
This natural resistance which we all have to the things of God and the ways of God built up to a kind of crescendo at the trial of Jesus. The chief priests and the council were anxious to get rid of Jesus, for the power and authority they received through their form of religion by ritual and decree would disappear if Jesus’ more basis teachings of love of God and neighbor took hold of people. Life for them was made easy by religious laws, which sheltered them from the real demands of God; and Jesus’ teachings cut at the very root of that way of life.
When they finally condemned him, he was turned over to guards, who, in Mark’s words, “received him with blows”—not because he had done anything to warrant them, but because for them it was easier than taking him seriously, than treating him like a human being. To do so would have caused them to crack under the violent and impersonal style of life forced upon them by necessity. To understand their captives as any more than animals would be to reveal their own weakness and vulnerability.
Not far away there was Peter, who only shortly before had sworn his intention to die for Jesus, if need be. Now even he could not admit to a casual acquaintance with Jesus before a harmless servant girl. In the past few hours he had seen all his glorious dreams crushed to powder by Jesus’ arrest and trial. He had invested a great deal of himself in Jesus over the past years, and now it was lost. He was not willing to surrender what little of himself he had left, even if it was for God. He had lost too much already.
Thus, in many forms, man’s natural rejection of God in every age found a concrete expression in the unjust trial and cruel execution of Jesus. And we may ask ourselves, “Would things be different today?” “How long would Jesus last amongst the people of our age, and amongst us?” “What in us would cause us to reject Jesus?”
Are we like the chief priests, preferring to cling to the rigid statutes of an ethical religion, rather than encounter the living God? Are we like Jesus’ guards, failing to see the people around us as people because that may threaten our whole way of life? Or are we like Peter, who knew the joy of following Jesus, but in a difficult situation could not identify with him because he was not willing to accept the cost? Like me, you may see something of yourself in each of these people. Yet the question of how each of us rejects God is really one between ourselves and him.
We do not ask it in order to fill ourselves with manufactured feelings of guilt and self-condemnation. The story of the cross is not merely the story of man’s rejection of God. It is also the story of God’s forgiveness for men. Our own guilt as we stand before that cross should lead us, not to run from God in shame, but to run to him, and to the Christ who said, “Father, forgive them…”
There were no heroes at Jesus’ trial—people quick to rush to his defense. There are no heroes of the Christian faith—only saints, sinners forgiven and empowered by God to live for him. They are people like Peter and like you and like me, whom God takes in our weakness and uses in his strength. God grant us that strength which we do not have of ourselves, the strength to submit to and live for him.