Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sermon – “An Alphabet of Praise” (Psalm 145)

 I will exalt you, my God the King;
     I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
     and extol your name for ever and ever.
So ran the opening verses of the psalm we read together a few moments ago this morning. And did you realize it? But as we walked through those first eleven verses, we walked through half the Hebrew alphabet as well? Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, he, waw, zayin… Psalm 145 is one of eight of what are known as acrostic psalms in the Old Testament, with the first word of each verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The longest and most complex of them is Psalm 119, where each line of each succeeding set of eight verses begins with the same letter of the alphabet.
The psalms encompass a rich variety of poetic forms. More importantly, they cover the entire range of human emotions, from overflowing joy and praise to deep sorrow and lament.
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord,
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept…
How can we sing the Lord’s song while in a foreign land?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The psalms were at the core of the magnificent worship of the Temple. But they were also composed for more humble circumstances, to be used both within the context of the family home and also on an individual basis. Some of the most loved psalms are the most deeply personal ones: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”
It is no wonder, then, that the psalms, which are so central to Jewish worship, should also have become essential to Christian worship from the very beginning. In the mediæval period this led to the incomparable music of plainsong and Gregorian chant. Sublime as that music is, it meant that for the vast majority of congregations the psalms became something to listen to rather than to be sung. And so one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the introduction of metrical psalms, psalms that could easily be sung to the popular tunes of the day.
The metrical psalms formed the backbone of Protestant hymnody for more than three centuries. In my mind’s eye I can picture great crowds of people gathering not only in churches, but in the marketplaces and public squares (maybe even in the taverns!) to join in singing the metrical psalms.
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie…
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell,
Come ye before him and rejoice…
Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ…
I can only believe that the church would be greatly strengthened today by a return to the psalms. How much would we be enriched if they were to take their rightful place both within our public worship and also in our private devotions! And so, with those thoughts in mind, I’d like us to turn for the next few moments to Psalm 145, which I have entitled “An Alphabet of Praise”. (Take heart, by the way. I don’t intend to preach through all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet—but just to highlight three themes that I see more generally emerging from this psalm.)

Our Mighty Creator

As David opens, he acknowledges that he is standing in the presence of the King of all creation. Indeed, he is astounded by the sheer majesty and awesomeness of God. “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise,” he sings. “His greatness no one can fathom.” “His greatness is unsearchable,” runs the old King James Version of the Bible. “God is magnificent,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation in The Message. “He can never be praised enough. There are no boundaries to his greatness.”
Whenever we begin to worship God, it is important to stop and to take time to recognize the one into whose presence we are coming. It is a temptation to rush into worship. Most of us lead busy lives. We have jobs. We have families. We have things to do. I remember before I retired, friends who had already retired warning me, “You’ll be so busy in retirement that you won’t know how you managed to do all the things you did before.” Frankly, I’m not sure I believed them. Well, I’ve been retired for a couple of years now—and they were right!
If we are truly going to offer God the worship he deserves, though, we need to take time to stop and to consider who he is—to be still, as another psalm instructs us, and know that he is God. We need to put behind us all the cares and busyness of life—the children that need attending to, the bills that need to be paid, the papers that are piling up on my desk at work, the emails that need to be answered, the lawn that needs to be mown and a thousand and one other preoccupations—and focus on him. To remember that we are entering the presence of the King of all creation, the Ruler of all that is. And I grant that that is not an easy exercise.
As David does this, he becomes aware that he is not alone in his praise—that his praise is just an echo of the praise of every generation and indeed of all creation. I know that I have had that sense as I have stood in some of the great cathedrals of Europe. As I gaze up at the ancient stained glass, as I see the places where the stone floor has been worn down by generations of worshippers, I become aware of the deep truth of what we say week by week in my own Anglican liturgy,
Therefore with angels and archangels
and with all the company of heaven,
we laud and magnify thy glorious name,
evermore praising thee and saying,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord most high!
David himself said this in his own words in Psalm 19 when he sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And do you remember that incident in the gospels when a crowd of Jesus’ followers began to burst forth with joyful praise to God for the miracles they had been witnessing? The Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell them to stop. But Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:37-40).
So this morning here at St James’ Church in Truro, Nova Scotia, we recognize that our prayers and our songs of worship are an echo of the praise that rings down a thousand generations and throughout the world today, as we stand in the presence of the Maker of the universe, supreme over everything that exists.

Our Gracious Provider

From his contemplation of God as his mighty creator, David moves in the psalm to a more personal level. In verse 8 he declares, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” Now those words were not original to David. They are found a number of times in the Old Testament. We first meet with them in the book of Exodus, when Moses has climbed to the peak of mount Sinai to meet with the Lord. Moses has had the audacity to ask the Lord to show him his glory but God answers him no, for no one may see his face and live. However, not long afterwards he does pass in front of Moses, proclaiming these words: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).
What David was doing was echoing the very words that God himself had used to describe himself. And the point is this: that our God is a god who reveals himself personally. And he wants each of us to know him on that level—not merely as the Creator of the starry skies, but as the one who loves and cares for each of his children, who calls us by name.
One of the things I didn’t take into account when we bought our house in Halifax a couple of years ago was how long it would take me to mow the lawn. It turns out that it takes more than two and a half hours. Rather than it being a nuisance, however, I’ve come to enjoy that time, as it gives me an opportunity, with the lawn mower buzzing and my ear protectors on, to shut out the rest of the world for a little while and to meditate and praise God. One song I found myself singing as I mowed this past week (and I can’t explain why, but that goes for a lot of things that pop into my head) was a hymn that I don’t think is in any of the hymnbooks any more—perhaps because it’s regarded as too sentimental. But maybe there are some of you who remember it from your childhood:
God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets his tender view;
If God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.
And then there’s the chorus:
He loves me too, he loves me, too,
I know he loves me too;
Because he loves the little things,
I know he loves me too.
So it is that David writes, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” One of the discoveries I was delighted to make this past week as I studied this psalm is that the word “compassion” here is used elsewhere to describe the tender love of a mother. In fact, it is related to the word for “womb”. And so we find that our heavenly Father watches over us and cares for us with a mother’s love.[1] We see this further in verses 15 and 16:
The eyes of all look to you,
     and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
     and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Our Faithful Protector

In this psalm, then, we look to God as our mighty creator, supreme over every being, and our gracious provider, who looks after our every need. There is one other thought that I would like us to focus on this morning, and it’s found in the final section of the psalm:
The Lord is righteous in all his ways
     and faithful in all he does.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
     to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfils the desires of those who fear him;
     he hears their cry and saves them.
King David himself could bear personal witness to God’s faithfulness in his life: in giving him victory over the giant Goliath, in protecting him from the jealous rage of King Saul, in forgiving him for his egregious affair with Bathsheba… No doubt if David were here this morning he could share numerous other evidences of God’s faithfulness in his life. And I’m sure that many of us would not have to think too hard to do the same.
Yet as we follow that path of God’s faithfulness from whatever direction, whether forwards from King David writing in 1000 bc or backwards from today in 2017 ad, it will inevitably lead us to a homeless couple in Bethlehem gazing in awe at a tiny child, to a preacher who reached out his hand to touch a leper, to a dying man hanging naked on a cross and gasping, “Father, forgive them…,” to a woman standing outside an empty tomb and stuttering in amazement to the man who stood in front of her (who she thought was the gardener), “Rabboni!” Years later the apostle Paul would reflect, “All God’s promises find their ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Like so many of the psalms, this one will have done its work if it draws you and me into greater gratitude, into deeper amazement, and into closer fellowship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—our mighty Creator, our gracious Provider and our faithful Protector. In the final words of our psalm,
Let every creature praise his name for ever and ever!

[1]  See note on Psalm 103:13 in the New Bible Commentary Revised, page 515.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sermon – “A Prayer for Canada” (Psalm 72)

“He shall have dominion also from sea unto sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” So runs the King James Version of Psalm 72:8, the psalm we have just read as our Bible passage this morning. I rather doubt that the psalmist had Canada in mind when he composed this prayer for King Solomon nearly three thousand years ago. Its connection with Canada can be traced to a Nova Scotian, George Monro Grant. A native of Stellarton, Grant became the minister at what was then St Matthew’s Presbyterian Church in Halifax. Described as a “romantic evangelical”, Grant was a great admirer of the famous American evangelist of the time, Dwight L. Moody. Like Moody, Grant’s sermons “stressed the importance of personal conversion and an active engagement in the world, and were centred theologically in the mystery of the Atonement”[1], Christ’s saving death on the cross.
It was in 1872 that Grant accompanied a member of his congregation, Sandford Fleming, on a three-month, five-thousand-mile journey to Victoria. This long expedition was in preparation for the proposed railroad that was designed to link British Columbia to Canada and draw it into Confederation. The following year Grant published a travel book based on the diary he had kept. He entitled it Ocean To Ocean—a direct reference to Psalm 72:8.
Seven years later, after a journey across Canada on the newly laid railway, it would inspire another Halifax Presbyterian, Robert Murray, to pen the hymn,
From ocean unto ocean
Our land shall own thee Lord,
And, filled with true devotion,
Obey thy sovereign word.
Forty years after that, in 1921, these same words in their Latin form were proposed by Joseph Pope (a Prince Edward Islander) to be included as the motto in the newly designed Canadian coat of arms. Today I suspect that few Canadians would recognize that the phrase emblazoned across the cover of their passports is from the Bible!
Way back in my university days I had a friend who liked to say when people would quote from Scripture, “A text without a context is a pretext.” For this reason, over the next few minutes this morning I’d like us to look together at the biblical context of our nation’s motto—at the verses that surround those words, “From sea even unto sea”. As we do so, we are going to find that there are three themes that emerge, themes that I would place under the headings of peace, justice and compassion. So let’s take a look at each one in turn.


First: Peace. If you are reading from the New International Version (as I am) or almost any modern translation of the Bible, you will not find the word “peace” anywhere in the psalm. Instead you will find the word “prosperity”. It’s there in verse 3 and again in verse 7. If you were to check out some of the older versions, you would find that there the same word is rendered “peace”. Underneath them both there lies that most wonderful of Hebrew words, shalom. “Shalom”—the very word itself sounds peaceful, doesn’t it? But I think recent translators have shied away from using the word “peace” because too often “peace” just means a standoff, an absence of war, while deep-rooted hostilities may still lurk in the background. So they opted for “prosperity”.
However, the problem now is that prosperity, just as much as peace, is an equally misunderstood word—and that is thanks, not in the least, to what has become known as the “health, wealth and prosperity gospel”. That so-called gospel is the farthest thing from the good news that Jesus proclaimed. Wasn’t it Jesus who said to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20)?
I suppose we have to leave that problem to the translators, but what does the Bible mean when it uses the word shalom—as it does in our psalm this morning? My Old Testament wordbook translates it as peace, prosperity, well-being, health, completeness, safety. One author has described it as “that full-orbed well-being of individual and society, in character and conduct, manward and Godward”[2] In fact it is all those things combined and brought together into one single, beautiful, all-embracing word.
Shalom is the picture that Zechariah gives us as he looks forward to the day when God himself will come to live and reign in the midst of his people:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there… The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew.” (Zechariah 8:4-5,12).
Again it is shalom that Isaiah wrote about in his poetic description of the new creation:
“Never again will there be in it
     an infant who lives but a few days,
     or an old man who does not live out his years…
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
     or plant and others eat…
They will not labour 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…
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 65:20-25)
It is a beautiful picture that the Bible gives us—and may it be the vision that we share for Canada: a land of peace, where people can live without fear of persecution, war, violence, discrimination or want. Certainly that has been the hope of the waves of immigrants and refugees who arrive in the hundreds of thousands every year.


However, peace cannot exist on its own. It must be accompanied by what the Bible calls justice or righteousness. So it is no coincidence that right alongside peace we meet those words half a dozen times in the first seven verses of Psalm 72. More than that, they crop up more than five hundred times over the course of the Old Testament. And why is this? Because justice is basic to any ordered society. And it is justice that makes peace possible.
Yet once again, as with “peace” and “prosperity”, those two key Bible words “justice” and “righteousness” are often skewed and misunderstood in our society today.
Many people in our day and age see justice as a matter of getting even with another person whom I perceive to have done me wrong. Yet more often than not that kind of attitude leads not to peace but to increased levels of hostility. And the public media only make this worse. They love to give us pictures of people with clenched fists and shouting so loudly you’d think their blood vessels were going to burst. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for anger. Indeed there are injustices that we would be wrong not to be angry about. But they will not be mended by getting even.
The same is true of righteousness. For many to be righteous means to regard yourself as morally better than other people—rather like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. Do you remember that man’s prayer as he stood looking down his nose at the tax collector praying next to him in the Temple? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). That is not righteousness. It’s self-righteousness, and there is a world of difference between the two. For righteousness is a matter not of being right, but of being in right relationships. What are Jesus two great commandments? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. That is what true righteousness is all about.
So what does the Bible mean when it uses the words “justice” and “righteousness”? As I have indicated already, the two unquestionably have to do with integrity, fairness and uprightness both in our individual lives and also more broadly across society as a whole. Yet even more they involve bringing people into right relationships with one another and not least with God.


In recent years this has led to a movement towards what is called restorative justice, where victim and offender are brought together, and the offender is encouraged to see things from the victim’s perspective. But there is a whole other side to biblical justice and that is that it always has a special eye for the poor, the needy and the downtrodden. And this again is reflected in the psalmist’s vision. Take a look at verses 12 to 14, where he sings of the king,
He will deliver the needy who cry out,
      the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
      and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
      for precious is their blood in his sight.
So we find that in the biblical pattern peace and prosperity cannot happen without justice and righteousness. And there is no real justice where there is not compassion for the have-nots, for the powerless, for those who live on the fringes of society. Job knew this centuries ago when he declared,  
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
     justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
     and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
     I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
     and snatched the victims from their teeth. (Job 29:14-17)
If you take the Bible seriously, you cannot have a truly just society without it being a compassionate society. I remember a conversation I had over lunch with a friend some years ago. An election was coming up and I asked him which candidate he would be inclined to vote for. His answer, I thought, was both biblical and wise. “I would always vote,” he told me, “for the party I believe would most benefit the poor.” How often do you or I think that way when we cast our ballots? I know what I want: I want to see the candidate win who will do the most for me. But is that what God wants? Not according to Zechariah, who warns us, “This is what the Lord Almighty [says]: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’ ” (Zechariah 7:9).
Ultimately as Christians we know that genuine peace, justice and compassion are to be found in one place and one place only—and that is the cross of Christ. It is by the cross that we are reconciled with God and one another and find real peace. It is through the cross that God’s justice has been finally enacted, as Jesus has absorbed into himself both the penalty and the power of our sin. It is from the cross that the mercy and compassion of God flow forth to redeem and transform both human lives and the whole of creation. And we plead for that day when Christ’s reign of perfect peace, justice and compassion will break forth, every time we pray, “Your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Yet between that time and this may we labour with all the strength that the Holy Spirit gives us to make this country into a land where those qualities of peace, justice and compassion are honoured and lived, from sea all the way to sea.

[1]     “Grant, George Monro”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography,

[2]     Psalm 72, New Bible Commentary Revised, 495

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon – “Here is Your Son” (John 19:25-27)

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful mother weeping,
     Close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish hearing,
     Now at length the sword had pass’d.
Oh, how sad and sore distress’d
Was that mother, highly blest
     Of the sole-begotten One!
Christ above in torment hangs;
She beneath beholds the pangs
     Of her dying glorious son.
Is there one who would not weep,
Whelmed in miseries so deep,
     Christ’s dear mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
     In that mother’s pain untold?
Those words are an excerpt from a nineteenth-century English rendering of a very long Latin hymn called the Stabat Mater. It focuses on the agony of Jesus’ mother Mary, during those dreadful hours she stood at the foot of the cross in company with three other women and the disciple John, watching powerlessly as Jesus’ life slowly, painfully slipped away from him.
Composer Antonín Dvořák’s rendering of the Stabat Mater takes a good hour and a half to perform. John’s gospel, on the other hand, presents it to us in half a verse, just ten words in the Greek. But of course behind the stark simplicity of John’s account there stands a whole story that goes back to the beginning of the gospel, a story that John does not tell, but for which we need to go to the Gospel of Luke.

Mary’s sorrows

In the opening chapter Luke introduces us to a young virgin, in all likelihood barely in her teens, who receives a visit from an angel. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! … Do not be afraid… You have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” “I am the Lord’s servant.” Mary replied. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Perhaps some of you are familiar with the more poetic rendering of her words in the old King James Version: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And this is where Mary’s pain, which culminates at the cross, begins.
For Mary knew that as an unwed mother she would be the scorn of everyone in Nazareth. She would risk rejection by the man whom she was to be married. She could even be subject to death by stoning. And it was only through another angelic intervention (this time to her future husband, Joseph) and the kindness of her cousin Elizabeth who invited her to the seclusion of her home in the hill country, that Mary was saved this threefold humiliation.
Now let’s skip over a few months, until after the time Jesus is born—forty days after, to be precise. Mary and Joseph have come to the big city, to the Temple in Jerusalem, to do what was required of the parents of every first-born male: to present a sacrifice on his behalf. Their intentions were interrupted by a man who suddenly seemed to come out of nowhere. His name was Simeon and Luke describes him as “righteous and devout … waiting for the consolation of Israel”. He took the baby Jesus into his arms, praising God. Then he turned to Mary and prophesied, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” And he concluded with these dark words, addressed directly to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
The next scene comes twelve years later, when Jesus and his parents are again at the Temple in Jerusalem. Assuming that Jesus was with some of the many neighbours and relatives who would have journeyed together, Mary and Joseph had travelled for a day before they began to worry. Then there was a hurried trip back to the city and another day of searching before they found him still in the Temple, conversing with the teachers of the Law. “Young man,” Mary scolded him, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.” To which came Jesus’ rather mystified reply, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” (Luke 2:48-49, The Message). Many have since wondered if Mary’s three days without Jesus were not a precursor to three infinitely more agonizing days that lay ahead for her.

Mary’s solitude

Until we come to the cross, that is where Mary’s story ends in the Gospel of Luke. But we do meet with her a couple of other times, once in John’s gospel and again in the writings of Matthew and Mark. In John it is the famous occasion of the wedding reception in Cana, a settlement located a few kilometers from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. When the party has embarrassingly run out of wine, it is Mary who takes the initiative to approach Jesus with the problem. “They have no more wine,” she informs him. To which Jesus replies in a sentence that translators have found notoriously impossible to render into English: “Woman, why do you involve me?” The words seem petulant, even rude. However, if you look at the bottom of the page in your pew Bible you will see that the translators have been careful to add a footnote stating, “The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect.”
While it may not have been disrespectful, it was not the usual word a son would choose to address his mother. So what is going on here? I think we can find the beginning of an answer in the other gospel incident involving Mary, the one found in both Matthew and Mark. This time Jesus was teaching in a local home. As usual a large crowd had gathered. The house was packed to the point where there literally wasn’t even elbow room. So when Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived, they were not able to make their way past the door. So they sent a message through and word got to Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” And how did Jesus reply?
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
The point Jesus was making on that occasion comes out even more clearly on another one, when from out of the crowd a woman cries out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” To which Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28). And if we want to go all the way, we could point to Jesus’ words in Matthew, chapter 10:
For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-37)
So what is happening here? Is Jesus rejecting family relationships altogether? Is he declaring war on the family? I don’t think so—and the answer begins to emerge as we stand with Mary at the foot of the cross.

Mary’s solace

There we see Jesus turning to his mother and addressing her with that same word that we heard at the wedding in Cana: “Woman…” “Woman, here is your son.” Then he looks at John and entreats him, “Here is your mother.”
Now traditionally from many pulpits you will hear a message about Jesus’ deep devotion and care for his mother. And if you have ever visited ancient Ephesus in Turkey, your tour guide would almost undoubtedly have brought you to the site of the house where John supposedly lived and looked after Mary in faithful obedience to his master’s dying plea (and, by the way, for which there isn’t the least shred of evidence!). That interpretation has an honourable lineage, going back to St Augustine in the fourth century. “The good Teacher,” he wrote, “does what he reminds us ought to be done. By his own example he instructed his disciples that care for their parents ought to be a matter of concern to pious children.” [2]
Now I have no intention of denying the fifth commandment or the many New Testament passages that give witness to the importance of the family. Yet what I do believe is that Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, is pointing to something far deeper and with far greater implications than the obligation to honour one’s father and mother. And it is this: that through his sacrificial death our relationships have been irrevocably altered. The words to Mary and to John point us to the horizontal dimension of the cross: that Jesus died to bring reconciliation not only with God but also with our fellow human beings. We have become members of a new family, knit together not by the ties of blood, but through Christ’s blood shed on the cross.
Think for a moment of this passage, from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26,28-29)
Or this, from Ephesians:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ… Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household… (Ephesians 2:13,19)
Or this, from the Letter to the Hebrews:
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 2:10-11)
Add to these verses the fact that more than a hundred times in the New Testament Christian believers are addressed as “brothers and sisters” and you begin to see that what we are looking at is not an optional extra, not an add-on, but a core feature of our Christian life. That’s why greeting one another with the peace and looking into one another’s eyes as we share the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Supper is so important. It’s why we pray for one another’s needs Sunday by Sunday. It’s why there is a ministry of deacons and why we engage in regular acts of service.
More years ago than I care to admit I remember listening to an LP recording (and there’s a hint as to just how long ago it was!) of New York socialite Gert Behanna. She had reached rock bottom after decades as an alcoholic when she received a little article in the mail entitled “It Is Never Too Late To Start Over”, by Samuel M. Shoemaker. After reading it, she did something she had never done in her life before. She went over to her bed and dropped down to her knees in prayer. But what to pray? “I thought there was a prayer I had to learn once,” she said. “What was it? And I got as far as ‘Our Father who art…’ and then I thought, ‘Our Father, not theirs, not just mineOurs…’ ”[3]
At the moment of her conversion Gert Behanna recognized something profound—that not only did she have a Father in heaven, but she also had a family on earth—sisters and brothers around the world. That horizontal dimension of the cross is every bit as important as the vertical.
When Jesus uttered those dying words to Mary and to John, he was not merely entrusting her to his young friend’s care. He was introducing both of them to a new family—a family brought into being not through the pains of a mother in labour, but by the agony of the cross. As we look to that cross this morning, Jesus also bids us look at one another, and with profound thankfulness to recognize in the eyes and faces of those around us the members of our family. “Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother.”

[1]     Edward Caswall (1814-1878)
[2]     Tractate 19.2 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon – “What does he mean?” (John 16:16-24)

I wonder how many of you may have seen Martin Scorsese’s film Silence when it was showing earlier in the year. Sadly, it has received far too little attention and was a failure at the box office. Yet I believe it is one of the most profound films to have been released in years. I won’t tell you too much about it, except to say that it is based on a novel by Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo.
The story takes place in the late 1600s, with two Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe journeying to Japan to try to find their former mentor and fellow priest, Father Ferreira, who is rumoured to have abandoned his faith in the heat of the vicious persecution unleashed against Christians. Suffice it to say, the film is gruelling to watch, as the situation becomes bleaker and bleaker for the two priests, not to mention the Japanese peasants and villagers who have embraced the Christian faith.
Here at First Congregational you have been making your way through what are almost Jesus’ final words, spoken to his disciples as they shared their last supper together in the upper room. I can’t help but think that, as in the film Silence, there must have been an overpowering, almost palpable, sense of foreboding, indeed of bewilderment, as Jesus donned a servant’s towel and washed the disciples’ feet, as he warned that there was one among them who would betray him, as sent Judas Iscariot off into the night, and not least as he used the bread and wine of Passover to speak of his own body being broken and his life’s blood being shed for them.
No wonder, then, that the evening was filled with confusion and questions: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” “Lord, who among us would ever betray you?” “Lord, where are you going that we cannot follow?” “Lord, how can we know the way?” “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” And now, in this morning’s passage, “What does he mean? We can’t make head or tail of what he’s saying.” (Notice that at this point the disciples’ confusion has reached the stage where they don’t even bother to address their questions to Jesus any longer, but to one another.)
So it is that into the midst of this gloom and confusion Jesus speaks once more: “In a little while you will see me no more…” “You will weep and mourn…” “You will grieve…” Hardly words to instill confidence and hope! Yet I believe that as we look into them, as we take time to examine them, we will find that they are words bursting with a richness that is scarcely possible to fathom. So let’s turn in our Bibles to John 16, verses 16 to 24.

The Wonder of the Cross

The passage begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more…” As I’ve suggested already, these words must only have added to their confusion. Twenty centuries later we have the advantage of hindsight. It is clear to us that what Jesus was speaking to them about was his death on the cross. Within a few short hours Jesus would be forced away from them to be humiliated in a series of mock trials before the religious council and the secular authorities. He would be savagely beaten and then subjected to the cruellest form of execution the Roman Empire had managed to devise—the slow, painful process of hanging exposed on a cross gradually to asphyxiate to death. By the time it came to that, however, all but one would have left the scene. Both through the wicked actions of the authorities and through their own weakness, the time was swiftly coming when the disciples would indeed see Jesus no more.
In my mind’s eye I can picture them on that first Good Friday going back to the places where they were staying or possibly to the upper room, their bowed heads and stooped bodies bearing silent witness to the profound dismay and utter bewilderment that filled their hearts. “You will weep and mourn,” Jesus warned them. “You will grieve…”
Yet little did they know that as their hearts were being ripped apart, so too was the veil of the Temple, the thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies—revered as the very dwelling place of God—from the rest of the Temple. So holy was this place that only the high priest could enter it, and he only once a year, on the Feast of the Atonement (Yom Kippur). He would have a rope tied around his waist, so that if he happened to die or become incapacitated while performing his duties he could be dragged out and nobody need enter to rescue him.
What happened that day on a physical level, dramatic as it was, was only a sign of what was also taking place on a cosmic level. Through his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus had breached the separation between God and humankind that had been a reality since the days in the Garden of Eden.
Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you…” (Isaiah 59:2) Now, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, the church can proclaim, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain…, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings…” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Clearly all of this was far beyond the grasp of the disciples. Indeed theologians today still ponder over it with amazement. American preacher Fleming Rutledge spent eighteen years working on her more than 600-page book The Crucifixion. New Testament scholar Tom Wright, who himself has just published a book on the crucifixion, has written, “I am under no illusions that, even if I were to write a thousand pages on the subject, I would never exhaust it.”[1] Surely in the end our response to Jesus’ death on the cross can only be one of amazement and praise. In the words of Isaac Watts,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The Wonder of the Resurrection

However, back to the disciples in the upper room… Jesus had warned them that their hearts would be filled with sorrow. But he also promised that they would be filled with exultation. “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me… You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” And so the scene shifts from Good Friday to the first Easter morning, from Calvary to Joseph of Arimathea’s garden. If those first disciples could not come to terms with Jesus’ crucifixion, how were they to handle his resurrection?
It was only with great difficulty and after considerable persuasion that they came to believe the reality of Jesus’ resurrection after it occurred. They dismissed the women’s reports of the empty tomb and the angels as old wives’ tales. When Jesus appeared before them in the upper room, they at first assumed he was an apparition. So no wonder Jesus’ words about their sorrow being turned to joy and about not seeing him and then seeing him only left them befuddled and confused! I know for certain that I would have been.
Yet within a few short weeks they would be proclaiming, “You … put [Jesus of Nazareth] to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:23-24,36). The resurrection points to Jesus as an individual utterly unique in the course of history. And that alone would have been enough to blow the disciples’ minds—or anyone’s mind for that matter. But dare I say that that is only the tip of the iceberg?
Look at what Paul writes in his famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). You see, Easter was only the beginning. Because of Jesus’ resurrection we can look forward to that day when, as Paul again writes, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
It’s Jesus’ resurrection that assures us that all the injustices, all the seemingly pointless suffering, the atrocities and the horrors that human beings are subject to will one day be gloriously, mysteriously redeemed. Climatologists warn us that human existence may come to an end when our pollution of the environment reaches the point where human life is no longer possible. Astronomers warn of a collision with a comet of the proportions of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Still others see us all being sucked into the oblivion of a black hole. None of them is a pretty picture. But Jesus’ resurrection tells that there is more, that God has greater plans for his creation than we could ever imagine—in Paul’s words, “that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Now that does not mean that we are not to seek justice, to minister to the downtrodden, or to care for the environment. Quite the opposite: Jesus’ resurrection calls us to be outposts of that new creation that is to come, to be glimpses, even if ever so weak and glimmering, of the light that is to be revealed.

The Wonder of Communion

If all of that were not enough, Jesus reveals a third point of wonder for the disciples. The first is the wonder of the crucifixion; the second, the wonder of the resurrection; and I was going to call the third the wonder of prayer. But on reflection I think it is better to call it the wonder of communion. Listen to Jesus’ final words in this morning’s verses:
Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
On the surface it almost seems like some magical formula—the kind of thing we read about in fairy tales: “Make a wish and all your dreams will come true.” Yet I suspect that all of us have had enough of an experience of prayer to know that that just isn’t the case. Nor is it what Jesus is speaking about here. For prayer, as we all know, is not some mechanical formula—put a loonie in the slot and down slides a candy bar. No, prayer is a conversation, and like all conversations it is an expression of a relationship.
When we begin to see it in this way, we also begin to recognize that asking something in Jesus’ name is not just a matter of tacking those words onto the end of a petition—“… in Jesus’ name. Amen”—as though that makes our prayer valid in a way that it wouldn’t be without them. No, it seems to me that to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray the prayer that Jesus himself would pray. And that in turn means that a significant element of prayer is seeking his will. It means coming to him and allowing him to come alongside us, and to be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane as the disciples soon would be, where they would hear him utter, “Father, not my will, but yours, be done.”
In that gift of prayer, that gift of communion, of being able to come into his presence, of knowing that he is with us even when we are not conscious of it, Jesus has given us something again that we will never fathom, never understand, yet to those of us who have entered into its mysteries, a gift more precious than words could ever express.
The disciples asked, “What does he mean?” And like them, our minds will never fully grasp the mysteries into which our faith in Jesus leads us. But more importantly he who has died for us, who is the first-born from the dead, and who is ever-present with us—he has grasped us, and he will never let us go.

[1]     “The Cross and the Caricatures”, Fulcrum, Eastertide 2007,