20 November 2016

Sermon – “On His Majesty’s Service” (Colossians 1:1-14)

What a perfect day to celebrate an anniversary! I’m sure it wasn’t in anyone’s mind twenty-eight years ago, but this day is recognized in many church communities as the festival of Christ the King. (Some of you on your way here this morning may have noticed the sign outside St Thomas Aquinas proclaiming Jesus as King of all creation.) Many of those churches will be reading today from Colossians 1, beginning at verse 15, which runs as follows:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Those verses call us to look upwards to the incomparable splendour of the risen, ascended, glorified Lord Jesus Christ, enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. Few other passages in Scripture give us such an exalted picture of Christ, the unrivalled Lord of the church and indeed of all creation.
This morning, however, I want us to lower our sights a little, if you don’t mind, to look at the verses that immediately precede that passage. The apostle Paul is writing to his fellow believers in Colossae—and if I could hazard a guess, I suspect that that church still had a way to go before they would reach their twenty-eighth anniversary. But I believe we can learn some significant lessons from what Paul says both to them and about them. So, if you have a Bible with you, you might want to turn to the opening verses of Colossians, chapter 1.


First-century letters always begin with the identity of the sender, followed by the name of the recipient. And take notice of how Paul addresses them in this case. They are “faithful brothers and sisters in Christ”. Now it seems to me that we must understand that word “faithful” in two senses. The first could almost go without saying: that is, that the brothers and sisters in Colossae were people of faith, men and women who had put their trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. I have no need to tell you that faith in Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which the whole Christian life—and, by extension, the church—is built. The letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
I well remember a young man who had begun attending a church where I once served. He was a genuine seeker and his quest went on for months and months. He joined us for one of our annual church retreats and at the closing service I noticed that he came forward to receive communion for the first time. Afterwards I asked him about it and he said to me, “John, I could have kicked myself. All this time I have been thinking that Christianity was about knowledge. Today it finally dawned upon me that it’s about faith—and I took that step.” Yes, it’s all about faith, putting our trust in Jesus Christ.
Yet if that were all Paul meant by “faithful”, he could just as easily have left the word out. Surely there has to be more to what he is saying. Surely what Paul is referring to is not merely their initial act of faith that brought them to Christ and into the church, but also their ongoing faithfulness to him. That’s why the Bible speaks of faith in terms of a race. It’s more than just getting off the starting line. It’s running with perseverance, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, not giving in to exhaustion or to the world’s enticements, until we reach the goal.
This past week Maclean’s magazine published an article based on a recently conducted study of Protestant congregations in Canada. Their byline read, “An exclusive remarkable study finds that mainline Protestant churches that focus on the Gospel and prayer are growing, while those that don’t are in decline.” I consider that as something of a no-brainer, don’t you? However, the study concluded that churches were considerably more likely to be growing where the pastor and the congregation agreed with the statement, “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” read their Bibles on a regular basis, believed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers” and upheld that it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians”. The study also found that about two thirds of the attendees at churches where these statements were affirmed were under the age of sixty, whereas two thirds of those at churches that did not were over sixty.[1] If our churches are to prosper and grow, then faithfulness to Christ and to the gospel make all the difference.
Twenty-eight years ago First Congregational was born out of a spirit of faithfulness—out of a desire to be faithful to God’s word and obedient to Jesus Christ. God has blessed you over those years and I have no doubt that he will continue to bless you as you continue in faithfulness to Christ and to contend “with everything you have in you for this faith entrusted to us as a gift to guard and cherish” (Jude 3, The Message).


At this point we need to go farther. We need to recognize that faithfulness is not limited to adherence to a set of doctrinal standards or theological propositions. I know churches that are like that and they can be every bit as deadly as those that have left doctrinal standards behind—perhaps even more so! No, true faithfulness will inevitably lead us to action, or what Paul in this morning’s passage calls fruitfulness.
Twice he speaks about bearing fruit. In verse 6 he points to the gospel, the saving good news of Jesus, bearing fruit in their lives and growing throughout the whole world. Then in verses 9 and 10 he tells of his ongoing prayer that they “may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work…”
In all the world I can’t think of anything that I find more delicious than fresh fruit. What is usually the first section you encounter as you enter a supermarket? The fresh fruits. The grocery marketers know what they are doing when they place them right at the entrance. I remember when we lived in Halifax previously I planted a peach tree in our back yard. What a delight it was in late August to go out and pick a ripe, luscious peach warmed by the afternoon sun! So too, I believe, a church that is fruitful brings delight to the heart of God—Christian men and women and children in whose lives are seen those marvellous fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, what the New English Bible calls “the harvest of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
It is clear from what Jesus taught his disciples in John 15 that this kind of fruitfulness is a consequence of faithfulness: “I am the vine,” he says to us, “you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:5,8). It is as we remain connected to Jesus, as his life flows into us and through us, that we are able, as Paul teaches us in this morning’s passage, to “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God”.
In its final chapter the Bible gives us a beautiful picture of the river of the water of life flowing through the city of God. “On each side of the river stood the tree of life,” John tells us, “bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Fruitfulness in the Bible is not just a matter of personal enrichment; it’s about making a difference in the world.
From the beginning you at First Congregational chose not to follow an isolationist route. Instead you chose to be fully engaged both with the wider Christian community (for example through Jesus to the Nations and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) and with the world (through such ventures as Sunday suppers and the Crisis Pregnancy Centre). There can be a sacrifice in that. It means that resources are often spread thin, people sometimes stretched to their limit. But I want to say that the sacrifice is worth it. And you here this morning are the living proof.


And so we have faithfulness and fruitfulness. And to these we can add a third “F”: fortitude. In far more ways than I can number the world is a very different place from what it was twenty-eight years ago. (And why should we expect otherwise?) The church that once was prominent on Canada’s social landscape has long been relegated to the sidelines. Indeed we are off the map altogether. A generation ago the church may have been regarded as outmoded or even comical. Today in many places Christians encounter overt hostility. I don’t need to tell you. You know as well as I do that as often as not nowadays Christianity is associated with narrow-mindedness, bigotry and intolerance—and, sad to admit, we have to take some of the blame for that.
Yet what we face in North America does not begin to compare with what many of our sisters and brothers are encountering in other parts of the globe. Last Sunday was the World Day of Prayer for Refugees. I am encouraged by the strength shown by our fellow believers in other parts of the world who find themselves under considerably greater pressure than we can imagine. When I was here a few weeks ago I told you how my previous congregation was “invaded” by more than a hundred Karen refugees from Burma. Some of them had spent their entire lives in a refugee camp. Others had been shot at and even shot, sliced with machetes, seen their relatives and neighbours murdered before their eyes. Their suffering for the cause of Christ at the hands of an authoritarian government is little known, and it has gone on for nearly seventy years. Yet their witness for Christ continues to burn brightly and in spite of vicious persecution the church continues to grow.
Their experience is replicated by believers in many other parts of the world, most notably in North Korea, Syria and Iraq. Compared to them, what we face in Canada are minor irritations. Nevertheless, it is easy to become disheartened. In our passage this morning, however, Paul says just the opposite. He challenges us to be strengthened—to look to the Holy Spirit to give us endurance and patience. He encourages us to remember that the darkness that surrounds us must inevitably yield to the kingdom of light. He reminds us that the frustrations of the present cannot begin to compare with the glory that awaits us.
As you look ahead to the next twenty-eight years, who knows what may await you around the corner? But one thing you can be sure of. You serve the King of heaven and earth and his will will not be thwarted. May you continue in faithfulness to him and to his word, in fruitfulness as you serve him in the world, and in fortitude as you learn to depend more and more on the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’d like to conclude with an old prayer that has been traditionally used on this Sunday and that seemed fitting for us this morning.
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

08 November 2016

Sermon – “A Birthday Prayer” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)

Allow me to begin by saying what an honour and a joy it is to be among you at First Congregational this morning on the occasion of your pastor’s birthday. Doug Mott and I go back a long way. I treasure not only my friendship with him and Ann but also the privilege of having watched First Congregational grow from a little gathering in the Police Club to the vibrant community that you are today, playing a significant role in making a difference for Christ in this city.
Not many of you may be familiar with the name of Terry Fulham. But thirty-five years ago he was a major figure in the church renewal scene in North America. Over the course of a few years, under his remarkable teaching and leadership, he had seen his congregation at St Paul’s Church in Darien, Connecticut, grow from a couple of hundred worshippers to nearly three thousand. And people were flocking from all over to find out how it happened.
In response to this Terry Fulham and St Paul’s offered regular renewal conferences for clergy and for lay people. I was leading a church in suburban Montreal at the time. Darien was an easy six-hour drive away, all on Interstates, and so in the fall of 1982 I decided to make the journey.
Now one of the things about St Paul’s in Darien was that they were a praying church. And so if you wanted to participate in one of their conferences you had to register several weeks in advance so that they could have time to pray for you—and I mean really pray. There were a couple of things I was praying about too. One was that I would have a chance to get together with a gentleman named Peter Moore, who headed up a very effective ministry called FOCUS in a number of the east coast prep schools. The other was that I would have an opportunity to meet up with a man who at that time was writing a national syndicated column from an explicitly Christian perspective. Both of these men lived in Darien and both worshipped at St Paul’s.
Well, what should I find when I registered but that I had been booked in to stay at the home of Peter and Sandy Moore throughout the time of the conference? When I asked Peter about the possibility of meeting up with the columnist, he said to me, “Why he’s a member of our home group. You’ll be meeting with them tomorrow evening.” Clearly God was answering both my prayers and those of the good folk at St Paul’s. He had prepared the way before me in what I thought was quite a remarkable manner.
Yet there was a further surprise in store for me. That was that I would be sharing my room with another Canadian, a young associate pastor from a congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Now I don’t think it will take you too long to figure out who that was: none other than your own Doug Mott. I had no idea of the significance of that meeting and the conversations we enjoyed after the conference each day until three years later, when I moved to Halifax and began to serve as rector of St Paul’s Church. And who was one of the first people to welcome me? Of course—Doug Mott.
One of the most precious and significant aspects of our friendship over the years that followed was to share together in a pastors’ prayer group that met over coffee every second Tuesday morning. Over my more than eighteen years in that group I don’t think there was a single one of us who did not go through some significant struggles. There was often laughter, there were sometimes tears, but there was always prayer. The result was that for most of us there was almost nothing that we would allow to get in the way of those precious Tuesday morning times. We were united in the unbreakable bonds of the fellowship of prayer and common ministry in Jesus’ name.
Now here we are, and more than thirty years have flowed under the bridge. Yet I know that you still have the same passion for Christ and the same desire to be of service to him, that you had all those years ago. Indeed, if anything, it glows only brighter. And so, what to preach on, on this significant birthday? Well, the verses I believe that the Lord has given to me are these, from 2 Thessalonians 1:11 and 12. They are the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Christian believers in Thessalonica, and I hope they may become the prayer of all of us for you on this auspicious occasion.
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a lot of prayer packed into those two little verses. But it seems to me that Paul is essentially praying for three things: that they may live up to God’s call on their lives; that they may see the fulfilment of their ministry and of their desire to serve Christ; and that the name of Jesus may be glorified in them. Let’s just pause there for a moment to take a brief look at each of them.

Made worthy

Paul’s first prayer for the Thessalonian believers was that they might be worthy of God’s calling. The word for “worthy” in the New Testament is axios. In the early church when the bishop was presenting a newly ordained priest or presbyter to the congregation, they would all exclaim in unison, “Axios! Axios! Axios!” to express their approval of the candidate. I can remember my ordination day and no doubt you can remember yours also, Doug. In my case I remember standing before the bishop as he read to me these words from the Book of Common Prayer:
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.
I think if I had had the least shred of wisdom at the time (and not the brashness of a twenty-something year-old fresh out of seminary), I ought to have made a dash for it right out of the service. I was having placed upon me responsibility for the spiritual well-being of men and women and children for whom Jesus had gone to the cross! I wonder, Doug, if you felt the same?
What does it mean to be worthy of our calling? If Peter and Andrew and James and John had had any idea of what they were getting into, would they have so quickly abandoned their boats on the shore of Lake Galilee in response to Jesus call to “Follow me”? Again and again they proved themselves not worthy of that calling: arguing over who was the greatest, asking to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who wouldn’t welcome them into their village, cowering before a servant girl and denying that he even knew Jesus, passing off the women’s reports of Jesus’ resurrection as nonsense… And the list goes on.
When it comes down to it, let’s be honest. Who really is worthy of God’s calling? Can anyone here this morning stand up and make that claim? I know for certain that I can’t. With the prodigal son I cry aloud, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am not worthy to be called your son.” But of course Paul’s prayer was not that the Thessalonians would make themselves worthy of God’s calling. It was that God would make them worthy. And between those two things there is a world—no, a universe—of difference.


The second part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that God might “fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power”. I find that an interesting combination of words: “every resolve for good and every work of faith”. I rather like the way Eugene Peterson put it in his translation in The Message: “I pray that he’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with his own energy so that it all amounts to something.”
The words suggest to me that essential to any church, any ministry, is a desire, a vision—we might even say, a passion. There was a fad not so long ago that every church had to have a “mission statement”. And that’s not always a bad thing. The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, many such statements are either so vague and general that they don’t lead you anywhere or they are so specific that they don’t allow for flexibility when circumstances change or the Holy Spirit is calling us to something new. A case in point is the church where I served until a couple of years ago. We found ourselves and our mission radically altered when our ranks were swollen by more than a hundred refugees from Burma.
We never know what surprises God may have for us around the corner. The apostles never dreamed that the church should grow to include non-Jews, or that persecution should only make the church stronger and not destroy it. And Doug, I can’t imagine that when you were first ordained you could have predicted all the twists and turns along the way that have brought you to where you are now.
Some of you may remember Tom Robinson, the founding director of City Centre Ministry here in Halifax. Tom was also the founder of the All Souls’ Clubhouse, an outreach and resource centre to young people in central London. In its early days Tom and his colleagues spent countless hours and gallons of sweat to put together an attractive facility that would house its various activities. Many years later, when he went back for a visit, he found to his horror that almost no evidence of that hard work remained. The building was a shambles. That disappointment quickly evaporated, however, when he visited some of the original members of the club, who were continuing to follow and serve Christ faithfully and devotedly. He was forced to realize that the Holy Spirit is not nearly as interested in building institutions as he is in changing lives.
Doug, I suspect that your experience is the same as mine—that God has taken my “good ideas” (as Peterson put it) and my very limited acts of faith and used them in ways that I might never have imagined. And so, “straining towards what is ahead,” as Paul writes elsewhere, “we press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12-13).


All of this brings us to the third part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: that the name of the Lord Jesus might be glorified in them. And really that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s not me or even the church in the final outcome. It’s Jesus that we’re all about. Like John the Baptist standing in the waters of the Jordan, we recognize that we must decrease if he is to increase.
One of the qualities I have always appreciated in Doug is that he is genuine. I know when he is annoyed about something, or amused, or discouraged, or overjoyed. And I believe that is a quality that the Holy Spirit has used in him (and continues to use) to make Jesus real to others.
Jesus is not going to be glorified by our trying to appear better or holier or more righteous than we are. That is the way of the Pharisees and it will always end in failure. No, as the Bible teaches us again and again, it will only be though God’s grace. By grace we are made right with him; by grace we have heard his call; by grace we have been raised to new life; by grace we are able to enter his presence; by grace we are heirs of eternal life; by grace we have been given the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit; and by grace that same Holy Spirit will somehow take our faltering words and feeble actions that the Lord Jesus might be glorified in us. This was a lesson that none less than the apostle Paul himself had to learn, when he wrote,
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Doug, I am grateful for the many ways in which the Lord has displayed and continues to display his grace in you. May he empower you to continue to use both your strengths and your weaknesses to draw others to him—and at this point I think the best thing I can do is to step aside and invite you all to join with me as we bring our brother Doug before the Lord in prayer.
May our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

07 August 2016

Sermon – “How to Lead a Double Life” (Luke 12:32-40)

A couple of weeks ago I took my grandchildren to see The Secret Life of Pets. If you find yourself in need of a good, rollicking laugh at some innocent fun (and you have some pre-teen children to take along with you) this movie is worth the price of admission. If you haven’t seen the trailers, the basic idea is that our pets—our dogs and cats, our guinea pigs and our budgies—live quite a different life when we’re not at home to see them and they get up to hijinks that we would never dream of. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
The Bible makes it very clear that as followers of Jesus you and I also, like those pets in the movie, live in two different worlds. At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that they do not belong to this world (John 15:19). A generation later the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi that our true citizenship is in heaven and that we are not to conform to the pattern of this world (Philippians 3:20; Romans 12:2). And St John counsels, “Do not love the world or anything in the world …” (1 John 2:15).
What does all of this mean? Many Christian people have interpreted these and other passages as though we need to withdraw as much as possible from any involvement in the affairs of the world. That has led to the formation of monastic communities in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and groups such as the Amish and the Hutterites on the Protestant side. Yet I think that the more perceptive among them would readily admit that even they have not managed to escape the world completely, both from a social and an economic perspective, and more significantly from a spiritual one. They face the same issues and fight the same struggles as you and I do.
Well, if we cannot entirely escape the world, does that mean that we are forced to give into it? A clear answer to that can be found in the words of Peter: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12). So how does this work out in day-to-day life? I believe that that is exactly what Jesus was talking about to his followers in this morning’s reading from Luke’s gospel. The passage divides into three sections, so let’s take a few moments to look at each.

The Shepherd: Be fearless (32-34)

Jesus’ first words to his followers in this morning’s reading are, “Do not be afraid.” As the events in the months that followed would prove, those disciples would have plenty to fear. Jesus had already warned them at least twice that he would be rejected and suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities and that they too would be called upon to take up their cross. Besides that, in recent days his words had begun to take on a darker, more sombre tone—about a wicked generation that refuses to repent, about people who killed the prophets and then erected their tombs, about those who have power to destroy the body but not the soul…
Admittedly we do not live under the looming shadow of the cross as the disciples did. Nor do we live beneath the menacing eye of Roman oppressors. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one of the dominant motifs of our current age is fear. You have only to look at some of the most popular films over the past few years—Mad Max, Extinction, Hunger Games, Oblivion, Resident Evil, and The Maze Runner, to name just a few—all of them depicting the future world in grim, dystopian terms. You and I may not have gone to see them, but somebody did. These titles alone grossed over $225 billion at the box office. Think of how long it takes to board an airline flight since 9/11. Think of the climate of fear that has engulfed many European countries after the recent ISIS attacks, not to mention the fear which I believe is the overriding theme in the U.S. election right now, no matter which side you may happen to be on. It’s all over Facebook and the media, in the news columns and the op-ed articles, combined with positively frightening images of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with headlines to match.
In the midst of this Jesus says to us, as he said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” And notice how he refers to them. In spite of their being grown men, accustomed to the rough and tumble of the world, Jesus addresses his followers as lambs—“little flock”. Can you think of anything more vulnerable and defenseless than a little wooly lamb? At the same time we recognize that God has not placed us in a fierce and hostile world without any protection. That is precisely why Jesus speaks to his disciples as his “little flock”. He wants them to know that he is their Good Shepherd, and ours too. “Uncertainties are no cause for alarm or anxiety,” wrote New Testament scholar Fred Craddock.[1] We do not need to join in the prevailing paranoia that surrounds us because we know that we are in the hands of one who loves us more than we can ever possibly imagine, whose purposes for us and for his creation are only good, who will lead us even through the valley of death, and whose goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life. Immersed in an environment of anxiety and paranoia, Jesus says to us, “Do not fear.”

The Master: Be faithful (35-38)

In the second section of this morning’s passage Jesus gives us a picture. It is of a large household whose master has gone off to join in the celebration of a marriage. In our society that might mean an absence of a few hours—or if the wedding happened to be at some distance, perhaps a weekend or a few days. But in the context of ancient Near East you need to think big—bigger than an Italian wedding or even “my big fat Greek wedding”. We are thinking of festivities that could last for a week or longer, and so if the wedding were at any distance the master could be absent from his household for a considerable span of time. At best it would be a temptation for the servants to take a little time off. At worst it might provide an opportunity for an extended party time as long as the master was away.
It seems that that was exactly what Jesus had in mind. When Peter asked him about this parable, Jesus explained, “Suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk” (Luke 12:45). Obviously the parable is about the time between Jesus’ ascension and his coming again and the call to us to remain faithful during that time. Yet the pressure is always on us not to. We live in a society that less and less has any sense of moral responsibility to any power beyond ourselves. In that sense, the twenty-first century is not markedly different from the first, when the apostle Paul urged his fellow believers in Rome not to “let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but [to] let God re-mould your minds from within. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Listen to How Eugene Petersen puts this in The Message:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Much along the same lines, Paul wrote these words to his fellow believers in Ephesus:
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit…(Ephesians 5:15-18)
A few sentences later he reminds Christian masters that they have a Master in heaven—and both they and we are called to be faithful to him as we await his return. What shape that faithfulness takes will vary according to the gifts and responsibilities that God has entrusted to each of us. But the call remains the same, in the power of the Holy Spirit seeking to make God’s love and God’s good purposes realities in this world.

The Coming Son of Man: Be focused (39-40)

In the final couple of verses of this morning’s reading, Jesus shifts to a third image. This time it involves the owner of a house and a gang of thieves. You never know when thieves might try to break in, says Jesus, but you can make yourself ready in case they ever do. In the same way, he warns us, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” And so, if you will pardon the alliterations (but as a preacher I find myself powerless to resist them!) in the course of this morning’s reading Jesus has told us to be fearless, knowing that he is our Good Shepherd whose purposes for us are only good. He has encouraged us to be faithful to him as our Master, seeking to carry out his will in the world. And now he cautions us to be focused, as we know neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the Son of Man.
Back in biblical times protecting your belongings from a thief probably meant putting a bolt on your door. Nowadays it seems that most theft takes the form of white-collar crime and protection means using adequate security codes on your credit cards and computer. Not long ago that involved 56-bit encryption, which employs codes using more than 72 quadrillion (15 zeroes) permutations. However, nearly twenty years ago it was shown that a little desktop computer could hack it, and so the standard had to be increased to 128-bit. Yet even that hasn’t prevented the major security ruptures that we have witnessed in the last few years.
So what about the coming of the Son of Man? Jesus is going to come again and you and I need to be prepared. And what does that involve? Certainly not abandoning the world, as some might suggest, but quite the opposite: plunging into it, seeking to make God’s new creation a reality in the here and now. It could be through the beauty of art, literature or music. It could be in the social or political realm. It could be through such seemingly mundane occupations as farming, driving a bus, managing finances, teaching a class, raising children, caring for the elderly or any other of a million and more activities that human beings are engaged in. We speak of all of these pursuits as “secular”. Yet as they are offered up to Christ and his kingdom they take on a worth and a significance that are eternal. And it goes without saying that by necessity it will also mean praying, seriously seeking God’s will and cultivating our relationship with him, loving our neighbours, striving to know the mind of Christ and to reflect the heart of Christ in all we are and do.
As we seek to be people of God’s kingdom in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, may we be fearless, faithful and focused, as we rely on “him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

[1]        Luke (Interpretation Commentaries) 165

31 July 2016

Sermon – “The Lion Roars” (Hosea 11:1-11)

 What do you say to a congregation you’ve never met before, in a denomination where you’ve never served, and among whom you know barely a single soul? That’s the predicament I’m in this morning here with you at King’s Presbyterian. And if you have the answer, I’ll gladly surrender the pulpit to you for the next twenty minutes! More seriously, I am grateful both to my long-time friend and colleague, Paul Hutten, for his recommendation and for the graciousness of your Minister, Tim Archibald, for entrusting his pulpit to a stranger for a Sunday morning.
But back to my conundrum. What to preach on? Well, as an Anglican my fallback position is, when in doubt, go to the lectionary. And among the Scriptures that the lectionary offers for this particular Sunday in the church’s year is the reading you heard a few minutes ago from the prophet Hosea, chapter 11.
As I began to read through the passage, I felt a little bit like the teacher of the law that Jesus talked about in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus said he was “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).
Recently I came across the story of Terry Herbert, a metal detector enthusiast:
In July 2009, [he] decided to try his luck in farmland close to his home in Staffordshire in the English countryside. He came across an artifact, and bingo. Over the next five days, he found enough gold objects in the soil to fill 244 bags. An archeological expedition was hatched, and all told, the “Staffordshire Hoard” was found to contain some 3,500 pieces representing hundreds of complete objects. The cache of gold, silver and garnet objects from early Anglo-Saxon times represents one of the most important kingdoms of the era—and was valued at around $5.3 million.[1]
Like Terry Herbert, who I suspect may have walked past that Staffordshire field dozens, even hundreds, of times, I know I’ve read Hosea 11 many times. Yet in over forty years of ordained ministry I’ve never preached on it before. And as I began to comb through it, I also began to realize what a treasure I had been passing by again and again. As one biblical scholar has put it, “Here we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”[2] So let’s take the next few moments to see what God may have to say to us from these verses.

God’s abiding care (1-4)

The reading divides neatly into three sections, the first of which begins with a declaration by God himself: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…” As parents love their children, so God intimately, tenderly loves his people. You can see that love reflected in the series of verbs that follow: “I taught them to walk.” “I healed them.” “I led them with kindness and love.” “I lifted them to my cheek.” “I stooped down to feed them.”
Those who are parents in the congregation will remember how you cared for your own children, how you looked after them, fed them, taught them, bandaged up their cuts and scrapes, and no doubt shed the occasional tear with them as well. And if you haven’t had the privilege of sharing that kind of love as a parent, I suspect you probably received it as a child.
The eighteenth-century poet William Cowper beautifully expressed what we read this morning in a hymn that includes these words:
I delivered thee when bound,
and when bleeding healed thy wound,
sought thee wandering, set thee right,
turned thy darkness into light.
Can a woman’s tender care
cease toward the child she bare?
Yes, she may forgetful be,
yet will I remember thee.
Mine is an unchanging love,
higher than the heights above,
deeper than the depths beneath,
free and faithful, strong as death.
Of course Hosea was not the first to say what he did. In fact, the opening words of this morning’s passage hark all the way back to the time of the Exodus, when God commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh, “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son…” (Exodus 4:22). Nor would Hosea be the last. Years later the prophet Jeremiah would proclaim, “The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness’ ” (Jeremiah 31:3). And of course part of Cowper’s words came from Isaiah, through whom God reminded his people, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15). For me one of the places this truth is most poignantly expressed is in the Garden of Eden, when God looks on the human being that he has formed from the dust and bends down and breathes into him the breath of life. It is an arresting picture of the deep tenderness of God’s love for us, his creatures.
Of course as Christians we see this love taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ act of reaching out his hand a leper, who had not felt the warmth of a human touch for years, perhaps decades, spoke to him more about the love of God than any words even of the most eloquent prophet. Jesus’ act of stopping and turning to a woman who was too humiliated to do anything more than touch the hem of his robe said to her in a way that words could not, “You matter. You too are God’s precious child.” And calling down Zacchaeus from his safe perch up in the sycamore tree and going to his house to share a meal would teach him that God’s love does not exclude cheats and reprobates either.
John’s gospel tells us, “God so loved the world…” But that love is not just a theological construct or some feel-good wish. It is a love that is both personal and practical, a love that cares, touches, heals and even weeps for his people. Yet there is a whole other side to Hosea’s prophecy, as we shall see…

Israel’s persistent defiance (5-7)

In the second segment of Hosea’s prophecy the focus shifts from God to the nation of Israel. And what do we find? We move from a gently caring parent to a defiant and rebellious child. There is an important historical background to what Hosea wrote. The year was probably around 733 BC. Hosea was writing in the northern kingdom of Israel, centred in Samaria. The nation had already been attacked and conquered by the powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire and a couple of things had happened. Some of its citizenry had fled southwards to Egypt, while others of its leadership had thrown in their lot with their Assyrian conquerors. In either case, this represented not just a geographical move or even a political alliance, but a shifting away from God to embrace the rituals and practices and, more seriously still, the deities of those nations.
Equally seriously, even those who had remained had consistently refused to heed warnings of the prophets, who had repeatedly called them to repent and return to the Lord. Less than a generation before Hosea, Amos had warned them in these crystal-clear words (and here I read from Eugene Petersen’s earthy paraphrase in The Message):
This is what the Lord says:
Because of the three great sins of Israel—make that four—
I’m not putting up with them any longer.
They buy and sell upstanding people
People for them are only things—ways of making money. 
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
shove the luckless into the ditch.
Everyone and his brother sleeps with the ‘sacred whore’—
a sacrilege against my Holy Name.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
is piled up at the shrine of their god,
while they sit around drinking wine
they’ve conned from their victims…
I also raised up prophets from among your children…
but you commanded the prophets not to prophesy. (Amos 2:6-8,11-12)
The biggest problem facing Israel, Hosea and the other prophets argued, was not its Assyrian conquerors who had attacked from the outside, but the spiritual and moral corruption that was slowly but inexorably eating it away from within. In the New Testament we find Jesus saying much the same thing to the religious leaders of his day. Again, let me read it to you from The Message. “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds” (Matthew 23:27-28). As the prophet Isaiah lamented, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).
And so we see that some of the most telling condemnations that we find in the Bible are against God’s own people. We are quick to blame so many of the world’s woes on other people, be they politicians, Islamists, Hollywood, the NRA or whatever. But what about ourselves? We may not have bowed down before idols like Hosea’s fellow Israelites. But to what extent have we yielded to false values of the world around us? How much does what we profess here on Sunday morning bear an influence on what we do and the kind of people we are from Monday to Saturday? Does God look upon us in the same way that he did upon the people of Hosea’s day?

The final outcome (8-11)

There was a punishment prescribed for recalcitrant youths in the Old Testament and it was severe. Let me read Deuteronomy 21:18-21 for you:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
I’m not sure the sentence was ever carried out (I certainly hope not!), but I have no doubt that when Hosea proclaimed his prophecy against his people, both he and they were well aware of these words. As a nation they had brought upon themselves what was happening to them. They deserved to be wiped out. Yet God, who had brought them into existence, who had nurtured and cared for them, who loved them with an everlasting love, would not allow this to happen. “How can I give you up?” he cries. “How can I hand you over? … My heart recoils within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger… For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.” If we had time, we could spend hours just poring over these remarkable verses. In all of Scripture there are only a handful of other places where we are permitted to gaze so deeply into the heart of God. I think we could probably count them on the fingers of one hand. Like Moses we need to take off our shoes and hide our faces, for we stand on holy ground. We have entered the Holy of Holies.
But our moment of meditation is broken by a lion’s roar. And I suspect that those of us who are C.S. Lewis or Narnia fans will not be able to read these verses without thinking of Aslan. Do you recall the scene, towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the great lion says to the children, “And now to business. I feel I am going to roar. You had better put your fingers in your ears.” Then the story goes on,
And they did. And Aslan stood up and when he opened his mouth to roar his face became so terrible that they did not dare to look at it. And they saw all the trees in front of him bend before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind.
“The Lord will roar from Zion,” wrote the prophet Joel, “and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.” And then he goes on: “But the Lord will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel” (Joel 3:16). God roars—his hatred of evil and all that undermines and despoils his good purposes in creation is unabated. God roars—and the powers of wickedness and injustice will fall like a house of cards before him. God roars—and his children will know that they are safe once again.
“When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord.
The Lion has roared. May we hear his voice today.

[1]        http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/stories/6-incredible-treasures-found-with-a-metal-detector
[2]        H.D. Beeby, Grace Abounding, 140
[3]        “Hark, my soul, it is the Lord”