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Easter Sunday Message: April 4, 2021

Message for Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021

John 20:1-18

I come to the garden alone,

while the dew is still on the roses;

and the voice I hear,

falling on my ear,

the Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me,

and He talks with me,

and He tells me I am His own,

and the joy we share

as we tarry there,

none other has ever known.

I have no doubt that most of us recognize this as being the first verse and chorus of the old gospel hymn, “In the Garden”.  This is a very popular hymn and I know this full well from first-hand experience; in the days before the pandemic this hymn was a regularly requested favourite when I led worship services at both Allendale and the hospital.  But while this is one of the most well-known and best loved gospel hymns of all time, it is also something more.  While many of us don’t realize it, it is also an Easter hymn.  To quote Austin Miles who wrote both the words and the music:

“One day in March 1912 … I drew my Bible towards me; it opened at my favourite chapter, John 20.

My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall.  As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches.  A woman in white, with head bowed, hand clasping her throat as if to choke back her sobs, walked slowly into the shadows.  It was Mary.  As she came to the tomb, upon which she had placed her hand, she bent over to look in, and hurried away.

John, in flowing robe appeared, looking at the tomb; then came Peter who entered the tomb, followed slowly by John.

As they departed Mary reappeared; leaning her head on her arm at the tomb, she wept.  Turning herself, she saw Jesus standing, so did I.  I knew it was He.  She knelt before Him with arms out-stretched and looking into His face cried, ‘Rabboni!’

I awakened in full light, gripping the Bible with muscles tense and nerves vibrating.  Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed, the poem exactly as it has since appeared.  The same evening I wrote the music.”

This is the story behind the composition of “In the Garden” and as I have already mentioned, it is just as much an Easter hymn as the ones that we would normally be singing this morning.  As I thought about this hymn though, I realized something.  Whether Miles realized it or not, when he wrote this hymn he focused on something very symbolic about the resurrection; namely that it occurred in a garden.

It may seem a bit odd to us but many cemeteries in the ancient world were places of both death and life.  On the one hand the cemeteries were of course places where the dead were buried; on the other hand though many of them served as public gardens as well.  This is because most cities in the ancient world did not have parks or wide-open spaces as we do.  This being the case, many cemeteries were laid out to be places of beauty or as parks as we understand the term.  They offered a quiet, beautiful, peaceful spot away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.  Yes, the cemeteries were places of the dead but at the same time, with their plants and trees, they also spoke of life.  In fact, the place where Jesus was buried served this dual function.  On that first Easter morning then, in that cemetery-garden, both life and death came together. With the resurrection of Jesus that place of death and endings became a place of new life and a new beginning.   Indeed when we think about it, what better, more fitting and symbolic place could there have been for the resurrection to have taken place than in a garden?

We have a couple of flower gardens at the manse and they are filled with all sorts of different plants, perennials and annuals.  I sometimes marvel at how different the yard looks at different times of the year.  In the summer, the gardens are so bright and colourful with such as the tiger lilies, peonies and daisies.  In the fall as the other flowers have died off, there are the mums and sedum.  Then comes winter and it all looks so bare and dead.  But then, either in late winter or the earliest days of spring, life returns.  The snowdrops are the first to peak up out of the ground.  They are small and hug the ground yet while it is still so cold there they are, the first signs of spring and the new season of life yet-to-come.

Now this is what Christ and his resurrection means for us.  Just as the snowdrops so-to-speak triumph over the season of cold and death proclaiming the life soon to follow, so too has Christ triumphed over death and proclaimed our own life yet to come.  The tremendous promise of Easter is that Christ is risen, we are risen!  As St. Paul wrote: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” or, as a more modern translation puts it:  “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead as the guarantee that those who die in him will also be raised”.  Perhaps this story may help illustrate this:

There was once a missionary who spent years with a tribe in a remote part of Brazil.  A disease broke out that ravished the tribe and many of the people were dying.  There was a medical centre not that far away but in order to get to it, the people had to cross a river.  The river could easily be forded but the people were convinced that it was filled with evil spirits.  There was no way that they would ever cross it!

The missionary explained that he had crossed the river in order to get to them in the first place but that had no effect.  He then told the people to gather by the riverbank.  He put his hand into the water.  “No spirits” he said, but they weren’t impressed.  Then he waded out into the water and splashed some on his face, but the people still weren’t convinced.  Finally losing patience, he submerged himself and swam across.  When he got to the other side, he stood up and raised his fist in triumph.  At that sign of victory, the tribe’s people cheered and crossed the river.  He had proved that there weren’t any evil spirits and that they had nothing to fear.  He had seemingly defeated the power of death and shown them the way to life.

 

Now this of course is really a story about us and the meaning of Easter.  Like the tribe’s people, we too fear the prospect of dying.  We too want to get to the other side where life is to be found, but we are bound by our fears.  How can we cross the river of death?  On that first Easter however, Jesus, in a manner of speaking crossed the river, emerged on the other side and raised his fist in triumph.  And because he has gone before us, we need not fear to follow. Consider this story:

A very sick man turned to his doctor as he was preparing to leave the examination room and said, “Doctor, I am afraid to die.  Tell me what lies on the other side?”

Very quietly the doctor said, “I don’t know”.

“You don’t know?  You are a Christian and you do not know?”

The doctor was holding the handle of the door and from the other side came the sound of his dog scratching and whining.  When the doctor opened the door, the dog sprang into the room and jumped up on him with an eager show of gladness.  Turning back to the patient, the doctor said, “Did you see my dog?  He has never been in this room before.  He didn’t know what was inside.  He knew nothing except that I, his master was here, and when the door opened, he sprang in without fear.  I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing … I know my Master is there and that is enough.”

What lies on the other side?  What happens when we have run our earthly course?  None of us really know.  What we do know however is that our Master is there and that is enough.  And this is what we celebrate on this, our most triumphant holy day.  Christ is risen, we are risen!  We need not fear the grave, and we shall be with our loved ones forevermore in a mode of existence that we can barely even begin to imagine.  In the end all shall be well, and this is all because of what happened on that very first Easter morning, in the garden. Thanks be to God!

Good Friday Message

Message for Good Friday – April 2, 2021

Matthew 27:27-54

We are now coming to the end of what many of us call Holy Week.  It began last Sunday when we remembered Jesus’ entry into the Holy City, and since then what happened in the days that followed; the cleansing of the Temple, the Last Supper, the betrayal, and the trial all leading up to what we remember today, the crucifixion.  As I thought about all of this during the last while, it occurred to me that in many ways the story of Holy Week resembles a Greek Tragedy.

In a Greek Tragedy, which is a type of play, everything that happens is pre-ordained and the characters have no real choice or control at all, they are merely actors playing their assigned roles.  Now quite often this is how many of us tend to think of what happened during that first Holy Week.  It all seems to be so pre-ordained, and everything just had to happen the way it did.  Jesus for example just had to leave Galilee where he was safe and go to Jerusalem despite the dangers posed by the religious authorities.  Then Jesus simply had to enter the city like a victorious king drawing attention to himself.  After the parade, Jesus then just had to drive the money changers out of the Temple and so incite the religious authorities to a murderous fury.  And as for the authorities?  They simply had to arrest Jesus and seek his death, while Judas for his part simply had to betray him.  Quite naturally too, the disciples had to run away, while poor Peter simply had no choice when he denied ever knowing Jesus three times.  And as for Pilate, he had absolutely no choice at all either and simply had to be a moral coward and wash his hands of the whole matter, sentencing Jesus to death.  And turning back to Jesus himself?  He of course had no choice and he simply had to die on the cross like a common criminal forsaken by all.  As I said earlier, this is the way in which we usually think of the events of that first Holy Week.  It was like a Greek Tragedy, but was this really the case?

I don’t think so; indeed by insisting on the inevitability of it all we reduce Jesus, Judas, Peter, Pilate and all the others to being nothing more than characters in a play playing their assigned parts.  If we do this we lose sight of their humanity and even the reality of what happened.  The truth is that what happened during that first Holy Week, including what we remember today, was not inevitable.  Rather what happened was a result of choices and decisions.  Jesus for example did not have to go to Jerusalem and could have chosen to stay in Galilee where he was safe.  Even when he arrived at Jerusalem, Jesus could have chosen to enter the city quietly instead of riding in in triumph drawing all sorts of attention to himself.  And while the religious authorities were fed up with Jesus, they did not have to seek his death; they chose to.  And it is the same with all the others.  Judas didn’t have to betray Jesus, he chose to.  The disciples didn’t have to run away, they decided to.  Peter did not have to deny knowing Jesus, he chose to.  Pilate did not have to sentence Jesus to death, he chose to.  To return to Jesus, he freely chose to die on the cross and, as the scriptures tell us, that was not an easy decision.  If we deny Jesus and all the other participants in that first Holy Week freedom of choice, then we deny their humanity and reduce them to being nothing more than robots.  Yes, Jesus’ death on the cross was a part of God’s great plan of salvation but even so, there was nothing inevitable about it; what happened was also due to human choice and decision.  And so it is with us and our lives too.

Contrary to what we may sometimes think or assume, our lives are not like Greek Tragedies where everything is pre-ordained.  In his infinite wisdom God has created us as human beings and part of being human is the ability to make moral choices.  One author writing years ago about that first Palm Sunday put it this way:

“If the man in Jerusalem had treated the disciples who came for the donkey as we often treat God’s calls for help, the conversation might have been:

‘Here, what are you doing with that colt?’

‘The Lord has need of it.’

‘What do I care?  I need it myself.’

That is rough language.  We would never put our refusals of God’s demands in such blunt terms.  But there is no doubt about the refusal.

God needs our time.  ‘Sorry, but my time is limited.  Besides, it’s mine.’

God needs our strength.  ‘Sorry, I can’t take on a single thing more.  I’m almost exhausted as it is.’

God needs our mind.  ‘Sorry, but I have all I can give my attention to and more.  I have troubles enough of my own to think about.’

What sort of priority does God get with us?”

What sort of priority does God and other people get with us?  Or perhaps we should ask, what priority do we choose to give God and others?  Sometimes God and others are our number one priority.  We may not feel like worshipping, praying, giving, going to that meeting, making that phone call or visit, but we do.  Yet while God and others are sometimes our first priority, how often are they our second, third, fourth, or perhaps even last?  To return to the events that we remembered this past week, do we ever act like Judas saying that we love Jesus, all the while betraying him and everything that he ever taught and stands for?  Do we ever act like Peter and are so afraid and so uncertain, lacking the courage of our convictions?  Do we ever act like the religious authorities and are full of anger or perhaps even hate?  Or what about Pilate; have we ever acted like him?  We see something wrong in the world around us but wash our hands of it all, reasoning that it’s not our fault or our responsibility?

Sometimes in life’s journey we make the wrong choices and yet the good news and promise of what we remember today is that we can be forgiven.  It doesn’t matter what bad choices we’ve made or how mixed up our values and priorities have been.  It doesn’t matter because Jesus was crucified for our spiritual healing, or as Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins on his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.  By his wounds you have been healed.”  Forgiveness and salvation, restoration and a new beginning are always ours for the asking.  They are simply because of what Jesus freely chose to do that first Holy Week so long ago.

 

 

March 28, 2021 – Palm Sunday Message

Message for Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021

Mark 11:1-11

In a short sermon that was printed in a 2006 issue of the magazine “The Christian Century”, Thomas Long, who was the highly respected professor of preaching at Emory University in the States, posed this question: “Who were the two disciples that were sent to get the donkey on that very first Palm Sunday?”

I must admit that I had never given this any real thought before and my initial reaction was who knows and who cares?  As Long quite rightly points out though, in his gospel Mark uses only eleven verses to describe what happened on that first Palm Sunday and of the eleven, five, or almost half, are concerned with getting the donkey.  In fact Mark tells us more about the getting of the donkey than he does about the actual triumphant entry itself.  This really doesn’t seem to make sense but for his part Long is convinced that Mark did this to make a point; Long believes that the reason why Mark did this lies in what happened a little while earlier.

Jesus and his disciples were making their way to Jerusalem and slowly but surely the tension was building.  Everyone knew that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem there would be a confrontation with the authorities, but what would happen next?  The disciples, like most people, expected that since Jesus was the Messiah he would drive out the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God here on earth in all of its glory.  To be sure Jesus had often spoke about going to Jerusalem to die and then to be raised on the third day but, by and large, the disciples either didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them or else failed to take him seriously.

As they got closer to Jerusalem two of the disciples, James and John, started to fret.  What would their position be once Jesus had established the kingdom?  They decided to ask him but, like a little child, they decided to come at it sideways.  “We want you to give us whatever we ask for” they asked.  Well, as any parent knows, when a child asks this you can be certain that the answer will probably be ‘no!’.  Jesus though asked them to be more specific.  “When you come into your glory” they asked, “let us sit on your right and on your left”.  In other words, we know that you are number one but we want to be number two and number three!  We want to be more important than the other disciples!  It certainly didn’t take long for the other disciples to find out what James and John were up to, and to say that they were angry would be an understatement; indeed they were absolutely furious!  I wonder what Jesus must have thought, seeing his disciples bickering like a bunch of jealous children over who was most important.  As he so often did though, Jesus took advantage of the situation to teach them.

Jesus noted that in the world of the Gentiles the rulers lorded over everyone else.  That however wasn’t the way it was to be amongst his followers.  In the Kingdom of God, those who served others and put others first would themselves be first.  They could consider himself for example.  He was the Christ, the Messiah, the very Son of God and yet he didn’t go around expecting everyone to serve him.  Instead he served others; he taught, he healed and he had even come, as the old gospel hymn puts it, “to yield his life an atonement for sin, to open the lifegate that all may go in”.  Putting others first is what Jesus and his ministry was all about, and so it should be with his followers as well.  Instead of being so worried about who was number one, number two, number three and so on, they should just get on with helping others.  And this brings us back to what happened on that first Palm Sunday.

In his short sermon Long wonders about who was sent to get the donkey and he believes that it was James and John, the two disciples who had earlier been so worried about who was most important.  Long of course can’t prove it but he is absolutely convinced that Jesus specifically sent those two disciples to make a point.  Was it an honour to go get the donkey while all the rest of the disciples were getting ready for the grand entry?  Not really.  To quote Long himself:

“Though no one knows what these two disciples were thinking, I’m very confident that they had imagined for themselves a grander and more noble role on this day than being on donkey detail.

Some glory they were now experiencing!  Jesus is to go head-to-head with the principalities and rulers; striding into the city, his disciples at last having a chance to be vindicated before the whole world.  And here are Jesus’ two disciples, sent out looking for a stable from which to rent a donkey.  This is not an inspiring story of how great it is to be a disciple of Jesus!”

 

No, it is not an inspiring story about how great it is to be one of Jesus’ disciples but it is certainly a realistic one.  This is to say, were the two disciples thrilled to be on the donkey detail?  Quite likely not.  Were there other things that they would have preferred to be doing that morning?  Quite likely so and yet, as ordinary, trivial, or mundane a job as it was, it still had to be done.  If there wasn’t a donkey then Jesus couldn’t have entered Jerusalem in triumph fulfilling Zechariah’s ancient prophesy:

 

Lo your king comes to you,

Triumphant and victorious is he.

Humble and riding on an ass,

On a colt the foal of an ass.

 

Without a donkey there could not have been a grand entry and without the entry there wouldn’t have been the confrontation with the authorities.  And without the confrontation there would not have been a cross.  And without the cross there would not have been a resurrection.  It all came down to the two disciples who were on the donkey detail and surely there is a lesson in this for all of us.

When we speak about the Kingdom of God, we usually think of heaven and the life yet to come.  This is understandable but what we must also remember is that the Kingdom isn’t just something we look forward to in the future; it is also here and now as well.  The Kingdom of God is also here on earth and is made a reality wherever and whenever people act like Christ and put others first.  This is the Kingdom of God here on earth, and its rise or fall depends upon us and what we choose to do each and every day.  Do we have many if any great opportunities to do something spectacularly wonderful for the Kingdom?  Probably not but we certainly have lots of little opportunities to do so, and it is through the ordinary and mundane, being on the donkey detail as if it were, that the love and the presence of God is made real in the world around us.  We may sometimes be tempted to think that we can’t make much of a difference and that our lives don’t really matter, but nothing could be further from the truth.  That in fact may be one of the lessons of the present pandemic.

The past year has been a very difficult and challenging one for most people but one thing that the pandemic has done is bring out the best in many people.  To be sure, in a few instances the pandemic has brought out the worst in some people, hoarding and queue jumping the vaccination lineup come to mind, but in many more instances it has brought out the best.  I think for example of the mother with a child in Sick Kids Hospital.  To put in the time while there she knit a number of items and decided to auction them off with the proceeds going to the hospital; it was her way of saying thank you.  When the online auction was held the items brought in far more money than what they were really worth.  Or to use another example, there is a segment every weeknight on a local TV newscast entitled “Toronto Together”.  It tells uplifting stories of what people are doing, great and small, for others.  I am sure too that if we each gave it some thought, we could think of many other examples.  None of these acts of caring and sharing may dramatically change the world, but they do make a difference, especially in these difficult and challenging times.

There is not and cannot be a kingdom of God here on earth without each of us doing our own everyday tasks acts of caring, and we remember that today.  To return to the event that we remember on this Palm Sunday, were James and John happy to be on the donkey detail while all the rest of the disciples were getting ready for the big celebration?  Probably not and yet without them, Palm Sunday and all that followed would have never happened.  And so it is with us; the things we say and do this day and every day matter, they really do, even when it seems as if we too are just on the donkey detail.

Message for March 21, 2021

John 12:20-33

I was leading the worship service in my Brighton congregation a number of years ago and the theme of my sermon that morning was clarity of vision; seeing Jesus, ourselves and even the world around us as we really are.  The format of the service was very much like what we normally follow in both Boston and Omagh with the offering being taken up shortly after the sermon.  The organist, who was elderly, was a very capable musician and always tried to play a piece of music that tied into the sermon’s theme while the collection plates were being circulated.  She usually succeeded but I was totally unprepared for her choice that morning.  With the theme of clarity of vision in mind, she played a rendition of The Platter’s great hit from the late 1950’s, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.

Well, whatever else I may have expected her to play, that certainly wasn’t it!  It was all I could do not to burst out laughing and even now after all of these years I still smile at the memory; indeed it came to mind while I thought about today’s scripture passage.

It was just after the very first Palm Sunday and a group of Greeks who were visiting Jerusalem decided that they wanted to see Jesus.  We don’t know what their motivation was but they hesitated to approach Jesus directly.  They were Greeks after all and so not a part of God’s chosen people.  What they decided to do then was ask someone to intercede on their behalf and they asked Phillip to do so, quite possibly because he had a Greek name.  Phillip however didn’t know if Jesus would be willing to meet these foreigners and so he in turn asked his good friend and fellow disciple Andrew to ask.  This Andrew did but Jesus’ response to their request was very odd to be sure.  On the one hand Jesus didn’t say yes, that he would love to meet with the Greeks but on the other hand Jesus didn’t say no either.  Instead, Jesus launched into a long and convoluted explanation about why he was going to die soon and then be raised from the dead.

I don’t doubt that at this point Andrew and Phillip were shaking their heads in bewilderment.  All they wanted to know was whether Jesus was willing to meet the Greeks and a simple yes or no answer would have been sufficient.  Jesus’ response however was to talk about his impending death and resurrection.  What sort of answer was that?  Why it wasn’t an answer at all!  And yet while it may not be obvious at first, it was.

There is a well-known Christian song called “Open Our Eyes Lord” and the first verse goes:

Open our eyes Lord,

we want to see Jesus.

To reach out and touch Him,

and say that we love Him.

As I just mentioned, this song is a popular one, probably because it expresses the desire of so many people.  We want to see Jesus, experience him, and know him.  And yet even so, it seems as if this is so much easier said than done.  Indeed when I look at the bookshelf in my office, I see numerous books that offer to help me “see the real Jesus”.  At the end of the day though, there seems to be as many perceptions of Jesus as there are authors.   In fact, looking at all of these books it seems as if everyone who looks at Jesus sees someone different, and it is hard to escape the impression that many of these writers simply see whatever they want to see.  And yet having said that, we can still see the real Jesus.

To return to today’s scripture passage, Jesus’ response to those Greeks who wanted to see him is instructive.  If we truly want to see Jesus, then we must do so through the cross and the empty tomb.  This is to say, any account or interpretation of Jesus that does not take into account both Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is a distorted one.  The cross and tomb are, as if it were, like the lens of a pair of glasses.  If we take either lens or even both away, then we do not have an accurate picture and are not really seeing what is there.  And what do we see when we look at the cross and the empty tomb?

God’s amazing love for every single one of us, just as we are, faults and all.  In Good Friday and Easter we see a love that knows no bounds and defies all common sense and logic.  Why should God, the Almighty, even care about what happens to us human beings, never mind love us?  Who are we and what are we to him?  We are to God what tiny bugs are to us but even so, God still loves us so much that he died for our sins and has made it possible for us to be with both him and our loved ones forevermore.  Now this of course is a very familiar message to us and because it is, it may very well be that it no longer awes or excites us as much as it should.  Such wasn’t always the case though.

In the early days of our faith the very idea that God so loved the world that he gave his only son for our sakes was thought to be absolutely incredible.  People in the ancient world found it almost impossible to believe that a god would love his creatures so much that he would become one of them, never mind willingly die for their sakes.  And to willingly die by undergoing the most painful, shameful death imaginable, a death by crucifixion, and all this so that they might be forgiven and live with that god forevermore in paradise?  This was unbelievable; no god would ever do that and the Christians were absolute fools for thinking so!  Evidence of this point of view is to be found in underground Rome.

Amongst all the rest of the graffiti in the catacombs, there is one that depicts a donkey crucified on a cross with the figure of a man kneeling below it.  Beneath the drawing is the caption, “Silvanius worships his god”.

Now this is probably rather offensive to us but it does illustrate what the theologians call the great scandal of Christianity; the belief that God loves us so much that he willingly became one of us and died for our sakes.  Many people in the ancient world, like some people today, really wanted to believe this and yet they could not.  Still, this is the God that we dare believe in.

When we think about it, there is no logical or rational reason why God should love us so much; indeed when we think about our lives and the things that we’ve said and done there seems to be a lot of good reasons why God should not love us.  Yet, since when was love ever logical or rational?  And in addition there is no greater way to prove your love for someone than by being there, with them and for them.  This is something that the missionaries of days gone by learned the hard way.

Years ago when the missionaries set out to win the world for Christ, they initially met with failure and even rejection.  They didn’t understand why at first since they had the good news of the gospel to share!  They eventually realized though that it wasn’t necessarily what they were teaching that was the problem but rather how they interacted with the people who they hoped to convert.  They spent the day evangelizing and then they returned to their comfortable missionary compounds in the evening.  There they lived as if they were back in the UK or Europe.  It was realized though that this sent the wrong message.  If the missions were to succeed, then the missionaries would have to act like God and prove their love; prove it by living like them, living in the same type of homes as them and eating the same food for example.  In short, if they truly wanted to demonstrate both theirs and God’s love, they would have to become like one of them.

Now in a sense this is what God has done for us.  It may have been easy enough for God to say that he loves us but, as the cliché puts it, actions speak louder than words.  This is why the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The amazing mind-boggling love of almighty God is what the coming two weeks are all about.  The love of God for each and every one of us is what we see when we truly see Jesus.  And what is our response to such a love?  Perhaps Isaac Watt said it best in one of his hymns:

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

And so it does, and not just now at this special time of year either.

March 14, 2021

Message for March 14, 2021

Numbers 21:4-9

John 3:14-17

“The Snake Man”; this was my nickname for one of my classmates back in grade eight in public school.  He really didn’t like people much but his snakes were another matter altogether.  He loved them with a passion and would often bring them to school and let them slither up and down his arms and around his neck.  He also loved encouraging us classmates to do the same.  Like many others, and perhaps even most people, I don’t really care for snakes and so you can imagine how thrilled I was when he would start passing them around.  Truthfully, I didn’t want to have anything to do with them but on the other hand no one was going to call me a chicken either!  And so I handled them and let them slither around me although I must admit that I drew the line at kissing them the way he did!

It doesn’t seem to matter whether they be harmless garter snakes or dangerous threats like cobras or pythons, snakes often inspire an almost instinctive fear and revulsion in most of us.  This being the case though, it is fascinating to realize that back in the days of the Old Testament it was a bronze snake of all things that was the symbol of God’s healing.

At the time of today’s first scripture passage the Hebrews had left Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land.  The journey though was dragging on and the people were getting sick and tired of it all.  To be sure God was providing them with the manna and quails to eat but even that wasn’t good enough; eating the same thing day after day was so monotonous.  They were tired too of trudging through the desert, week after week, month after month, and year after year.  Perhaps it is no wonder then that the people started to complain and wondered if they should have just stayed in Egypt in the first place.

The Bible tells us that the people were plagued with poisonous snakes as a punishment for their faithlessness.  These snakes were called “fiery” because of the bright red inflammation caused by their bites and those who were bitten died. The people turned to Moses for help and he in turn turned to God.  God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on top of a pole.  Then, as in the words of an old hymn:

When the Hebrew prophet raised

The brazen serpent high,

The wounded looked and straight were cured,

The people ceased to die.

For hundreds of years afterwards that bronze serpent played its own unique role in the life of God’s people.  If a person was sick and in need of healing, they could go to the Temple in Jerusalem and gaze upon it.  Who knows they thought, perhaps they would be cured!  As time went by though, the people’s ideas about the serpent changed.  In the beginning the bronze snake had symbolized God’s healing, but then the people started thinking that it was the snake itself that was the source of their healing.  Many people in fact started treating the serpent like a god until it got to the point where one of Israel’s kings ordered that it be destroyed.  And yet while that bronze snake was gone, the memory of it lingered on for hundreds of years.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised then that even Jesus himself made reference to it.

It was late at night when Jesus was visited by a man named Nicodemus.  Nicodemus was wealthy, respected and a member of the Sanhedrin which was the powerful council that governed the Temple.  Nicodemus was seemingly a success but he also had a problem; he knew that he was sick, not physically but spiritually.  Despite all that he had and all that he had accomplished, he knew that there was something missing in his life, and so he paid Jesus a visit.

The result of this get-together was one of the greatest theological discussions of all time.  In it Jesus made reference to being born again and also uttered some of the most famous verses of the entire Bible:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  Jesus also spoke about how this was going to happen and when he did so he made reference to the famous, or perhaps infamous, bronze serpent of days gone by.  “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent for the physical healing of God’s people, so too would Jesus be lifted up for their spiritual healing.  This of course is what we remember on Good Friday.  In the words of St. Peter, “He himself bore our sins on his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.  By his wounds you have been healed.”  Christ died for our spiritual healing or more specifically, the forgiveness of sins.  I sometimes wonder though if this is a healing that many people don’t really think they need.

Sin is not a very popular topic nowadays.  Many people for example like to think that people don’t sin, rather they make mistakes, are misguided or sick.  Or perhaps people lack such as a good family life, good moral examples, a good education, a good job or something else.  In the eyes of many, sin does not exist and if there is no such thing as sin, then it follows that there is no need for forgiveness.  And if there is no need for forgiveness then there is no need for the cross either.  In short, if there is no illness then there is no need for a cure.  This is what many people like to think but if we give it some thought, how can we possibly say that there is no such thing as sin after what we see on the news or read in the newspapers every day?  Every time we watch the news or pick up a newspaper, we are confronted by the reality of sin.

Even on a more personal level, our very consciences tell us that there is such a thing as sin.  Who has never felt troubled because of something they’ve either said or done?  Truly St. John spoke the truth for all of us when he wrote:  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The sad tragic reality is that all of us are to some degree sick – soul sick.  But the good news and promise of the gospel is that we can he healed, if we want to be.  And this is the key; we want to be.  We don’t have to repent and be healed; the choice is ours.  Consider the life of Lord Kenneth Clark.

Lord Clark has been dead for almost forty years but he was one of the foremost art historians of his day and even now his influence lives on.  In his autobiography, Clark said that while visiting a beautiful church one day he had what he considered to be an overwhelming spiritual experience.  “My whole being”, he wrote “was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy far more intense than anything I had known before”.  But this flood of grace, as he called it, posed a problem.  If he allowed himself to be influenced by it then he knew that he would have to change the way he lived his life or, to put it another way, he would have to be born again.  But how could he?  The changes he would have to make!  As he almost sadly wrote, “I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course.”

Jesus once said that the truth will set us free, but it can only do so if we are willing and able to accept the truth about ourselves and have the moral courage to accept responsibility for what we have done or not done in life’s journey.  Only then can we be freed from the mistakes and bad choices of the past.  This perhaps is not what we really want to hear, but it is never too late to repent.  To return to the life of Lord Clark, in the days shortly before his death he was, so-to-speak reborn; he turned to God, repented, confessed and so was healed of what ailed him, not physically of course but spiritually.  And so it is with us.  We do not have to accept the healing that God so freely offers.  We can remain locked in a world of spiritual pain and heartache with no peace between us or within us, but why on earth should we?

 

March 7, 2021.

Message for March 7, 2021

Exodus 20:1-17

Matthew 5:17-20

          It now appears that after months of anticipation there is finally light at the end of the tunnel with the ramped up roll out of the Covid-19 vaccines.  There is also general agreement as to who should receive their vaccinations first, that it should be the older and most vulnerable members of society along with those whose occupations are deemed to be essential.  The rest of us will then follow.  In other words, the general consensus is that where one stands in the vaccination que depends upon their circumstances or situation; this is reflected by the anger directed at those who are perceived to be que jumping for whatever reason.  We generally assume that it is the circumstances of a situation that determines whether something is right or wrong; in fact such thinking is the basis for our modern morality and ethics.  While we may not realize it though, this is a fairly new idea.

The book, “Situation Ethics: The New Morality” was written by an Anglican professor named Joseph Fletcher more than fifty years ago. It created quite a stir at the time and now, with the advantage of hindsight, we can see that it was pivotal when it comes to our views on ethics and morality.

Up until his time very few people questioned the idea that there is an absolute right and wrong.  Some things were considered to be always right and some things were thought to be always wrong, end of discussion!  But not so, said Fletcher.  He argued that there is no absolute right or wrong; what is right and wrong all depends upon the situation or the circumstances.  To use an example, the Ten Commandments state that one should not kill another person.  Suppose though that you were threatened by a knife-wielding intruder.  Wouldn’t you take all means necessary to protect yourself and your loved ones, even if that meant killing the intruder?  And if you did kill the intruder, would that be morally wrong?  Or to use another example, the Ten Commandments state that a person should not steal.  Suppose however that your children were starving and that you had no money to buy food.  Would it be morally wrong to steal a loaf of bread in such circumstances?  Most of us would say no said Fletcher, and so there is no consistent right or wrong.  What is right and wrong all depends upon the situation or the circumstances.  Fletcher did however say that whatever we may choose to do, it should be based on love.

As I have already written, this book provoked a great deal of controversy when it first appeared but it has also had a profound influence on how most people today view morality and ethics.  Up to his time few people really questioned such as the Ten Commandments and that the Commandments were the foundation upon which ethical decisions were to be based.  Even if we didn’t always keep them in practice, we still paid lip service to the ideal that they should be obeyed.  After Fletcher’s book though, it seemed as if everything and anything was permissible; that everyone could do whatever they pleased.  After all, all they had to do was argue that it was done in the name of love and that the circumstances justified their behaviour.  This type of thinking is the basis for our modern ethics and morality but this being the case, what are we supposed to do with such as the Ten Commandments?  Should we still try and follow them or should we just ignore them?  Or perhaps we should just regard them as the ten helpful suggestions that may be followed or ignored as the circumstances warrant?

In this morning’s New Testament passage, Jesus made it abundantly clear that the Ten Commandments should not and indeed must not be set aside or ignored.   As Jesus himself said:

“Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Far from dismissing the Ten Commandments as being irrelevant, Jesus did the exact opposite and emphasized their importance.  Jesus in fact even said that it wasn’t enough just to keep the letter of the commandments but that we should also try and keep their spirit as well.

To use an example, one of the commandments states “Thou shalt not kill” or, to translate it more accurately, “Thou shalt not murder”.  This of course is obvious; the followers of Jesus most certainly should not go around murdering people.  Jesus however said that it was not good enough just to refrain from the act of murder, he took this one step further and said that his followers should not get angry at other people or insult them either.  To use another example, the Ten Commandments say that we are to refrain from the act of adultery.  Jesus though took this one step further too and said that we are to refrain from looking at others lustfully.  Far from being unimportant, Jesus insisted that the Commandments are to be kept in both spirit and in deed.  It is perhaps needless to say but this of course is far easier said than done.

One day a young boy and his friend were walking home from school and it was a bitterly cold winter day.  As they trudged along, they saw a car coming up behind them.  The one boy realized that the driver was his older brother’s wife.  “Great”, he said, “we will get a ride home now!”  Playfully he stuck out his thumb for a ride but his sister-in-law just smiled, waved her hand and kept on going!  When he got home he was half frozen, so he phoned his sister-in-law and asked her why she hadn’t stopped.  And what was her reply?  “Your brother told me to never ever pick up hitch-hikers!”

The letter of the law may have been kept but the spirit was missed altogether!  The truth of course is that it is impossible for us to always keep such as the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ teaching all of the time, in both letter and spirit.  Perhaps it is just easier then to opt for such as situation ethics and do whatever we wish, claiming that our choices and decisions are done in the name of love and therefore right under the circumstances.  Is this though really an option for us?

As the people of God and the disciples of Christ, we are called to at least try and keep God’s laws.  Realistically though, it is impossible for us to keep all of them all of the time, especially in spirit.  While it may be possible for example to refrain from murdering someone, it is a whole lot harder to never ever get angry at someone.  Or while it may be easy enough not to worship another god in the religious sense, it is a whole lot harder not to make such as money, possessions, our jobs or something else the god of our lives.  And who can travel through life without ever feeling at least a little bit jealous of others, their possessions or their accomplishments?

Jealousy can be so hard to avoid at times and I am reminded of the story about an old monk who lived a saintly life.  The devil sent some demons to tempt him to do something wrong but no matter how hard they tried, they failed.  When they reported their failure to their master, the devil told them that their methods were too crude.  Then the devil himself crept up behind the saintly monk and whispered in his ear, “Did you hear the great news?  Your brother has just been named a bishop!”  At that very moment the monk’s normally serene countenance was marred by a scowl of envy.

Truly it is impossible to keep both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law all the time.  Our failure to do this is, to use what is considered by many people nowadays to be a rather old-fashioned term, sin.  This is the bad news, but the good news and the great news even, is that all is not lost.  A wonderful reminder of this is found in the old gospel hymn, “Rock of Ages”.

Not the labours of my hands

Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;

Could my zeal no respite know,

Could my tears for ever flow,

All for sin could not atone;

Thou must save, and Thou alone.

 

This God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  We cannot help but be sinners because of our inability to follow Jesus’ teaching and keep such as the Ten Commandments all of the time in both spirit and deed. We are however forgiven sinners, and there is a world of difference between the two.

February 28, 2021

Message for February 28, 2021

Mark 8:27-38

I would like to begin this week’s message by asking a question: “How lazy is your brain?”  This question has been posed by a doctor who says that our brains are lazy by nature and that they get lazier as we age.

Our brain is of course the command centre for our bodies; it is our brains for example that tell us what to do whether it be to eat, talk to someone or do something else.  Our brains are always ‘on’ as if it were and they get tired of it.  What our brains do then, says the doctor, is look for the easy way.  Why consider new ideas or ways of doing things?  It is so much easier to just keep on believing or doing the same old thing!  Or why get up and go for a walk when it is so much easier just to sit and do nothing?  To add to this natural tendency to be lazy, our brains also get lazier as we grow older.  As the doctor said: “That’s why it can take a great deal of effort just to get out of bed in the morning for many older adults.  Your brain is telling you, ‘rest, relax, what do you have to get out of bed for?’”

The brain gets lazier as we age and when this is combined with the body’s natural aging process, the result can be a steep decline, both mentally and physically.  To try and limit this, the doctor insists that we need to challenge ourselves to learn new things and engage in various physical activities; in short, we have to make our brains work harder than what they really want to.

I must admit that I really don’t know how much truth there is in what the doctor is saying but I do know one thing; if his ideas have any merit to them, then our brains certainly don’t like today’s scripture passage!

It wasn’t long before Jesus began his final journey to Jerusalem and he asked his disciples, “who do the people say that I am?”  For their part the disciples certainly had no shortage of answers.  They replied that some people thought that Jesus was a prophet while others thought that he was John the Baptist or Elijah brought back to life.  Jesus then put his disciples on the spot and asked them what they thought; who did they think he was?  Always the impulsive one, Peter spoke up and said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.  Possibly to his own surprise, Peter found out that he was absolutely right.  After this Jesus went on to speak about what was going to happen to him when he arrived in Jerusalem; he would be arrested, suffer and be crucified.  Then he would be raised from the dead.  For his part, Peter wanted none of this.  There was no way that any of this could possibly happen to Jesus if he really was the messiah!  Like most people of his day, Peter thought of the messiah as being some sort of all-glorious, all powerful superman figure.  In response, Jesus rather severely told Peter off and said that what went for him would also go for all of his disciples for all time.  To truly be one of his disciples means being willing to bear a cross. Now to be sure, we are not, as Jesus did, expected to literally carry a cross to the place of our execution but we are, figuratively speaking, called to carry a cross.

More often than not, when we think about a person bearing a cross, we think of a person being saddled with some kind of burden such as poor health or a difficult relationship for example.  We usually think of the ‘cross’ as being imposed on a person.  That sort of thinking is fair enough and such things may be crosses to bear, but that is not what Jesus was talking about when he spoke about our bearing crosses.  The crosses he had in mind were the sacrifices that we are willingly prepared to make if we wish to be his good faithful disciples.

If we are honest about it though, (and perhaps it is in part due to our lazy brains!), this is not a message that many of us want to hear; indeed this is what the Biblical scholars call one of Jesus’ ‘hard sayings’.  It is called a ‘hard saying’ because it goes against our natural inclinations and even what our very society itself teaches.  Society generally encourages people to indulge themselves.  Why put yourself out or make sacrifices on behalf of others?  In fact this call to bear crosses can be a ‘hard saying’ for us within the church, even as we honestly aspire to be Jesus’ faithful disciples.  As we all well know, life is sometimes very hard and so when we gather for worship, or in today’s case read this message, we often want to be comforted and reassured.  We want to be reminded that God loves us, forgives us and is always with us.  We want to hear that with his help we will get through our troubles.  If we are honest about it, sometimes the last thing we want is to be challenged to take up our crosses; indeed quite truthfully we would much rather lay them down for a while.

Jesus of course knew full well how hard it can be for us to take up a cross and that is why, at another time in his ministry, he told some would-be followers to stop and think about what they were getting into before they committed themselves to him.  By way of example he said that it was like a king preparing to wage a war with a neighbour; would he go ahead and declare war if he didn’t have enough soldiers to win the battle?  Or suppose a person was going to build a new house; would the person go ahead and start building it if he or she knew that there wasn’t enough money to complete it?  Of course not!  And so, as Jesus said, we must count the cost before we commit ourselves to him and his ways.  And yet we have been called to be his disciples, to be cross bearers or, if we prefer to use a more technical name for it, crucifers.  Why?  A song written by David Will and sung by The Imperials says it well.  To quote the chorus:

‘Cause you’re the only Jesus

Some will ever see.

And you’re the only Words of Life,

Some will ever read.

So let them see in you the One in whom

Is all they’ll ever need.

‘Cause you’re the only Jesus

Some will ever see.

 

The glory and challenge of being a crucifer in fact confronts us every Sunday morning when we gather to worship.  There is a cross mounted on the front wall in both Boston and Omagh and that cross of course speaks to us about Jesus.  That cross reminds us about Jesus’ death but the fact that it is empty also symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection and, by implication, our own as well.  This symbolism is perhaps obvious but what may not be so obvious is the cross’ third meaning.  That cross on the wall is not just about Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is also about us and our lives as the followers of Jesus.  That cross is a visible reminder that we are to be like Jesus, to take up our crosses and be prepared to sacrifice for what we believe is right.  In fact the cross at the front of the church reminds us about the promise of Jesus himself:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

Indeed as Jesus went on to say, those who try and bear the cross will, secure in his love and forgiveness, be acknowledged by him before his Father’s throne in the life yet to come.  What more could we ask for?  We have not gathered to worship in person this morning, but if we had then we would have undoubtedly sung these words from the old gospel hymn “Take up Thy Cross” which provide a fitting note on which to end this message.

Take up thy cross and follow Christ,

Nor think till death to lay it down

For only he who bears the cross,

May hope to wear the glorious crown.

February 21, 2021

Message for February 21, 2021

Leviticus 16:20-22

Hebrews 10:1-10

As the story goes, there was once a manager of a minor league baseball team who got sick and tired of his centre fielder’s poor play.  It is said that one day during practice the manager got so fed up that he grabbed a glove and stormed out onto the field; he was determined to show him how to play the game.  The first ball hit towards the manager though took a hop and hit him right in the stomach.  The next hit was a high fly ball which the manager lost in the sun; he didn’t have a clue as to where it was until it smacked him in the forehead.  The third hit was a hard-line drive which went right towards the manager.  He put his glove up to catch it but missed; the ball passed right over the top of his glove and hit him in the face.  Angry and humiliated, the manager then stormed over to the centre fielder, grabbed him by the uniform and yelled: “You idiot!  You’ve got centre field so messed up that even I can’t do anything with it!”

By some incredible leap of logic, the manager blamed the ballplayer for his being hit three times; in other words he made him his scapegoat for his poor play. All of us of course sometimes act like that manager and perhaps even have our own favourite scapegoats that we like to blame for anything and everything that is wrong in our lives. Scapegoats in fact are what both of today’s scripture passages are all about.

One of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar was and still is the Day of Atonement.  It is a solemn day of repentance when people think about their sins, how they have wronged both God and others, and pray for forgiveness.

As a part of the ceremonies back in the days of the Old Testament, a goat was brought before the High Priest.  The priest would put his hands on the animal’s head and say a prayer of confession.  It was believed that through his doing this, the people’s sins were transferred from them to the goat; the people were no longer sinners, the goat was!  After the prayer there was a large festive parade during which the people joyfully escorted the goat out of Jerusalem.  The poor animal was then driven off into the desert where it would wander until it finally perished of hunger and thirst.  The people though had no pity for the scapegoat since, because of it, they now had a new beginning in their relationship with God and others.  They were now at peace with both God and one another.  That sense of peace and well-being however didn’t last.  Before long the cycle started all over again leading up to the following year’s Day of Atonement when a new scapegoat would be found.  But we might wonder though, what has this ancient ceremony to do with us?

Unlike God’s people of long ago, we don’t put the blame for the things that we’ve done wrong on a poor animal and then drive it off into the wilderness to perish.  Even so we do, in a manner of speaking, still have our scapegoats.  Take politics for example.  How often do we ever hear politicians accepting responsibility for their mistakes?  More often than not we hear things like, “it’s not our fault!”, “it is the previous government’s fault!”, “it is the economy!”  It is anyone’s or anything’s fault or responsibility but theirs.  Or to use another example, a sports team has a disappointing season.  Do the players accept responsibility?  Sometimes, but not often.  Rather the usual solution is to fire the coach and make him the scapegoat for the team’s less than stellar performance.  And if we are honest about it, we too have our own favourite scapegoats for whatever may be wrong in our own lives; indeed many of us sometimes love to play the blame game.

Now there are times of course when the target of our anger really is responsible.  Too often though we pass the blame and say that it’s someone else’s fault without ever really considering the truth of what we are saying.  It can be far easier and satisfying to blame other people for our mistakes rather than accept responsibility ourselves.  Yes, we do have our scapegoats but while this may be our way it certainly isn’t God’s.

I sometimes wonder if, in the eyes of God, we are more like squabbling children than mature adults when it comes to accepting responsibility for the things we say and do.  One of the great teachings of our faith however is that in the end we will stand before God and give an account of our lives.   And we will be held responsible too; passing the blame onto our favourite scapegoat won’t wash with God.  But while the prospect of giving an account may well fill us with fear and dread, it need not; it need not because we can and in fact will be forgiven because of the ultimate scapegoat who is of course Christ himself.

According to the author of the letter to the Hebrews, there was no longer any need for such as the Day of Atonement ceremonies including the poor scapegoat.  There wasn’t because, as this unknown author insisted, Christ is the ultimate scapegoat who has taken all of our sins upon himself and died on the cross.  In the words of St. Peter: “He himself bore our sins on his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.  By his wounds you have been healed”.  Christ has set us free from the burden and power of a guilty conscience.  In the words of an old gospel hymn, Christ is the one “Who yielded his life an atonement for sin and opened the life gate that all may go in”.  I like the way the writer Jim Taylor puts it:

“I had a writing course to teach in Ottawa just after war started in the Persian Gulf.  Suddenly, the Canadian capital became extremely security conscious.

I couldn’t get into the building without a pass.  The security guard took my driver’s licence and made someone come down to the lobby and sign for me.

But nor could anyone else get in without a pass.  At least a third of the staff seemed to have forgotten their passes.  They too had to hand over driver’s licences and have someone else sign for them.

And they were furious.  ‘I’ve been working here 17 years!’ stormed one man.  ‘I’m cleared for Top Secret documents!  You mean to tell me I can’t get in just because I forgot to bring a lousy card sealed in a piece of plastic?’

One woman refused to accept the new restrictions.  ‘There’s no one up there to sign for me,’ she said.  ‘I open up the offices.  If I’m not there, no one can get in.’

‘I’m only doing my job,’ shrugged the security guard.

‘You can’t stop me!’ she announced, heading for the elevators.  ‘I’m going up!’

The guard was out of her chair like a shot and in front of the elevator.  ‘You are not!’ she stated, with a firmness quite at odds with her former casual tone.

I thought we were going to see fisticuffs, but at that moment one of the other staff members arrived.  With a pass.

‘Thank God you’re here,’ the angry one spluttered.  ‘Sign for me so I can get in!’”

As Taylor goes on to write, this in a manner of speaking is what Jesus has done for us.  We may like to think that we have earned our way into heaven or deserve it because of our faithful and dedicated service.  The truth however is that our own efforts can never be good enough to merit the life everlasting as a reward.  We need someone who can ‘sign in for us’ and that is what Jesus has done.

This is the good news of Lent, Good Friday, Easter, and even the very gospel itself.  We don’t need to blame our scapegoats for our mistakes and shortcomings; we can act like adults and accept responsibility for the things we say and do.  We can because when we fail to live the lives and be the people that God has called us to be, we are forgiven.  We are through and by Christ, the one who willingly chose to become the ultimate scapegoat.  And that is what Lent is all about.

February 14, 2021.

Message for February 14, 2021

Mark 9:2-9

The Apocalyptic Jesus.  The Jesus Seminar.  Crossan’s Jesus.  The Gnostic Jesus.  The Pauline Jesus.  The Catholic Jesus.  The Nihilistic Jesus.  The Buddhist Jesus.  These are some of the chapter titles of a book that I have been re-reading lately. It is entitled “The Contemporary Jesus” and, as the chapter titles suggest, this book is all about what some scholars think about Jesus and his identity.  I must admit though that as I read it, I am not sure what to think; there are so many different interpretations of Jesus and most seem to have some truth to them.  Indeed reading this book it is easy to conclude that Jesus can be anyone or anything we want him to be.

Who and what is Jesus of Nazareth?  There is certainly nothing new in this question and in fact it goes all the way back to the time of Jesus himself.  Remember the time for example when Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do the people say that I am?”  The disciples had no shortage of answers.  Well they said, some people think that you are a prophet.  Other people think that you are John the Baptist raised from the dead while yet other people think that you are the great prophet Elijah returned and so a sign that the messiah will be coming soon.  Even during his own lifetime there was no shortage of ideas about Jesus’ identity and that is one of the reasons why the event described in today’s scripture passage took place.  It did so to settle the question of Jesus’ true identity once and for all.

One day not long before Jesus began his final journey to Jerusalem he took his inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John to the top of a high mountain.  While they were there something strange and wonderful took place.  Right before the disciples’ eyes Jesus was transfigured; his clothes became dazzling white and his face began to shine.  Then two other figures appeared beside Jesus and without ever being told, the disciples knew who they were.  The first was Elijah who was the greatest of all the prophets.  The second figure was the great lawgiver, Moses himself!  It is no wonder perhaps that the disciples were absolutely terrified.  Peter began to babble but while he was still talking the mountaintop was enveloped by a cloud.  Out of that cloud came the voice of God himself; “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him!”

Now there was no excuse for any doubt or confusion about Jesus’ true identity; Moses and Elijah were great but Jesus is even greater still since he is God’s very own son!  If we take today’s passage at face value then the debate over Jesus’ true identity was settled once and for all. Jesus of Nazareth is most certainly a prophet, a lawgiver and a wonderful teacher but more than anything else, he is God’s beloved son and we know this because God himself has said so!  “But so what?” some may ask.  It is nice to know that Jesus is God’s beloved son but what, if anything, does that mean for us and our lives here and now?  That brings us to the second part of what God said in today’s passage.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the confirmation of Jesus’ identity that we forget about what else God said that day on the mountaintop; “Listen to him”.  As important as it most certainly is to know who and what Jesus of Nazareth is, that is not enough.  We must also listen to him and that means taking his teaching seriously and trying to be like him.  And what was Jesus like?

One thing we know is that Jesus had an incredible sense of caring for the helpless, the weak and the less important members of society.  As I noted in a message a few weeks ago, children in Jesus’ day were of little importance and that explains why the disciples tried to stop some mothers from bringing their children to see him.  The disciples thought that Jesus had more important things to think about and people to see than to spend his time with a bunch of children.  That however was not the way Jesus saw it.  He insisted that contrary to what the disciples thought, the children were important and that if the disciples wanted to enter the kingdom of God, then they had to be more like the children.  Indeed the barriers that divided people in Jesus’ day meant little to him.

Back in those days for example the Jews absolutely hated the Samaritans and vice versa but Jesus didn’t hate the Samaritans; in fact he even made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories of all, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In that story it was the hated, despised Samaritan of all people who was the hero, and just as the barrier of race meant nothing to Jesus, neither did the barrier that divided the sexes.  We can think of the episode of the woman at the well for example.

One day Jesus met a woman at a well and asked her for a drink of water.  Now back then a man never ever engaged a woman in a conversation in public unless she was his wife or otherwise related to him.  This person though wasn’t just a woman, she was also a Samaritan and a notorious sinner to boot!  It is no wonder then that the disciples were shocked when they returned and found Jesus talking to her! Jesus did so however because when he looked at her, he didn’t just see a woman, a Samaritan or a notorious sinner.  When he looked at her, he also saw a hurting person who was shunned by all.  In fact it was his incredible sense of care and compassion that brought him into repeated conflict with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees thought that obeying the religious laws was all important and that included the stipulation about not working on the Sabbath.  The religious law of the day dictated that if a person was ill, one could only do what had to been done to keep that person alive; anything beyond that was work and therefore forbidden.  This explains why the Pharisees were so infuriated that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath when their lives weren’t in any danger. The Pharisees reasoned that the healing could have waited another day but that’s not the way Jesus saw it.  Why make a person suffer even one more day if they could be healed immediately, even if that day was the Sabbath?

While Jesus had an incredible sense of care and compassion and while he put people and their needs ahead of the social conventions and even the religious laws of the day, he also had a strong sense of right and wrong.  He certainly did not believe in what we call moral relativism; a world or society in which anything and everything goes.  We can think of Jesus’ response to the woman caught in the act of adultery.

Her accusers brought her before Jesus and demanded to know what he thought.  The Law said that she should die but if Jesus agreed with this, then what about his famed sense of compassion?  If however Jesus told them to let her go, then wasn’t he in effect saying that there is no difference between right and wrong and that everyone can do as they wish?  In his response Jesus did not say that the Law was wrong but he challenged her accusers: “Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone.”  What Jesus did was affirm that there is a difference between right and wrong but he also showed love and compassion; “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”  If we wish, we can also remember the time in the Temple when Jesus drove out the money changers because they were fleecing people in the name of God. In the face of such blatant wrong, Jesus was filled with a holy righteous anger, not because he was being wronged, but because others were. Truly as one person has said, Jesus was the man who lived for others and as he did, so too should we.

Who and what is Jesus of Nazareth?  In a sense this seems to be an abstract question with little relevance for our daily lives but our answer is crucial.  He is the Son of God and God has told us to listen to him which means trying to be like him.  It is not always easy to follow Jesus’ example but when we fail, as we all sometimes do, we can, secure in the knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness, pick ourselves up and try again.  And that of course is what next week, the first Sunday in Lent and the ones that follow leading up to Easter are all about; the amazing redeeming love of God for not only us but all his children.

 

February 7, 2021.

Message for February 7, 2021

Mark 1:21-37

Every once in a while a person tells a story that even years later sticks in my mind.  I remember one such story that was told by Cam Taylor when he was the minister at Knox Oakville when I was a teenager.

At the time of the story Cam was in university and spending his summer working as a waiter in the dining car of a CPR passenger train.  It was a very busy day and the dining car was full of hungry passengers.  The food orders were flying into the kitchen and it was obvious that the cook was finding it harder and harder to keep up.  The pressure kept building until the cook finally lost it.  As Cam told it, he walked in with an order for an outside cut of roast beef and right before his astonished eyes, the cook stuck the tray holding the meat out the window of the moving train, carved off a slice and then screamed “There, you have an outside cut!”

The poor cook had obviously reached the end of his rope and couldn’t take the stress any longer.  He experienced a total loss of control but what of us, do we ever feel like that cook?  Stress of course is an unavoidable part of life and there is even more stress today for many people as the pandemic continues.  Being human as he most certainly was, stress was also a part of Jesus’ life but unlike us at times, Jesus knew how to handle it.  Today’s passage tells us how.

It had been a long tiring Saturday for Jesus.  The day had begun with his leading the worship service in the local synagogue and part way through it he had been interrupted by a man who was obviously ill.  Even though it was the Sabbath and so all work including healing was strictly forbidden, Jesus had showed no hesitation and healed the man.  Jesus probably felt tired and wanted to rest after the service but when he got to the place where he was staying, he discovered that Peter’s mother-in-law was sick in bed.  Jesus however showed no hesitation and healed her too.  The day went on from there until it was time to go to bed but then what happened?

There was a commotion outside.  News of what Jesus had done that morning had spread far and wide and now it seemed as if everyone was there, demanding a cure for either themselves or their dearly beloved.  I wonder if Jesus in his humanity wondered if that day would ever end but even so, he did what was asked of him.

Now after such a long day who would have been surprised if Jesus had wanted to sleep in a bit the next morning, but what did he do?  Long before anyone else was up and moving, Jesus got up, went off, found a quiet spot and started to pray.  And Jesus stayed there praying for quite some time too, at least until Peter and the other disciples showed up looking for him.  It was obvious that Peter was more than a little bit surprised by Jesus’ behaviour but even if Peter didn’t understand why Jesus did this, we certainly do.  Prayer wasn’t just an option for Jesus; it was an absolute necessity.  It was prayer that gave Jesus the strength to preach, teach and heal.  It was prayer that enabled Jesus to cope with the many people who came to him with their insistent demands for help.  It was prayer that ensured that Jesus never experienced a total loss of control like the poor cook I mentioned earlier.  Prayer was the foundation upon which Jesus’ entire ministry and spiritual life was built.  And as it was with Jesus, so it is with us; having a strong vital prayer life is crucial to our lives as Christ’s disciples.

I remember well a devotion I heard decades ago when I was at a meeting of the presbytery of Lindsay-Peterborough.  Since Lindsay-Peterborough is such a large presbytery, it met during the day rather than at night as it could take some people a couple of hours to get to the meeting.  The meeting always began with a devotion and the one that morning was given by an older Scottish minister.  In it he asked us if we had taken the time to pray that morning before setting off for the meeting.  He said that if we hadn’t, then we had lost sight of our priorities.  He noted too that far too many ministers say that they are too busy for prayer, Bible reading and other ‘spiritual’ activities, thinking that there are far more important things to be done and more productive ways to use their time. He insisted however that prayer is absolutely crucial and that it must be a priority since it is the foundation upon which everyone’s ministries rest. He insisted too that there is already enough stress in life and that neglecting prayer just makes it worst.  And he was on to something too.

In a conversation I had with a woman years ago, she asked me point blank, why pray, what’s the point?  She said that sometimes we pray to praise God and tell him how great he is, but doesn’t God already know how wonderful he is?  We pray too to confess our sins but doesn’t God already know all about them?  Or what about thanking God, she asked?  Doesn’t God already know if we are grateful and if so, for what?  It’s the same with making requests as well.  Doesn’t God already know what is on our minds?  Quite reasonably she asked; if God already knows everything, and he does, then what’s the point of praying?

A little bit to her surprise I told her that she was right; God already knows about our sins, hopes, fears, dreams and needs.  But the point of prayer however is not to tell God what he already knows, because we do not pray for God’s sake we pray for our own.  To put it simply, regular prayer is our way of keeping in touch with the divine.  And prayer really isn’t hard either.  It’s like in this story.

An elderly man’s daughter asked the local minister to visit her sick father.  When the minister arrived, he found the frail man lying in bed with his head propped up on two pillows; there was also an empty chair sitting beside him.  The minister assumed that the old gentleman had been told about his visit and that the chair was for him.

“It looks like you were expecting me!” the minister said.

“No, who are you?” came the reply.

The minister apologized, introduced himself and then explained; “I saw the empty chair and I assumed that you knew I was coming.”

“Oh yes, the chair”, said the man.  “Would you mind closing the door?”

Puzzled, the minister did as he was asked.

“I have never told anyone this, not even my daughter, but for most of my life I never really knew how to pray.  I used to hear the minister at church talk about prayer but it went right over my head.  I abandoned any attempt at prayer until one day my best friend said to me ‘Johnny, prayer is just having a conversation with Jesus’.  My friend then suggested that I just sit in a chair and place an empty chair in front of me.  ‘Imagine’, my friend said ‘that Jesus is sitting on it.  Then just speak to him in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’”

“I tried it and I liked it so much that I do it a couple of times a day.  I’m careful though.  If my daughter caught me talking to an empty chair, she would think I am crazy!”

This is a nice, sentimental story but it also cuts to the heart of what prayer is and what it involves; prayer is simply having a conversation with God sharing whatever may be on our minds, no more, no less. There are many different ways of praying but ultimately it doesn’t matter how we pray, when we pray or where we pray; the important thing is that we do so.  It was prayer that gave Jesus the strength to do what he had to do and so it is with us.  It is through prayer that God guides, comforts, strengthens, and sustains us. It is prayer too that helps us to cope with the stresses that we all sometimes experience.  Is prayer an unnecessary and unproductive use of time?  Far from it; it is the foundation upon which the rest of the day and indeed our very spiritual lives rest. The time we spend in prayer in fact may well be the most important of the entire day.