Sunday, February 19, 2017

You Are Loved!

The theme of God’s love is one of our favourite themes. “You are loved!” It’s an incredible truth that God loves us without reservation or precondition. God loves you! God loves me!

This morning I want to explore one of the reasons that this love is so amazing and transformative. We’ll look briefly through the passage together and then consider the effect of God’s love in our lives.

The Text
28-30: In the verses before our passage, John states that God’s enemy (“the anti-Christs”) is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is the anointed One from God who brings us God’s salvation. Our passage, then, begins with an encouragement to persevere in the Christian walk so that we may be “confident and unashamed” when Jesus appears. This note of confidence is one I have missed in previous readings of this text. God loves us, so we are valued and esteemed—a thought we develop further below. Our position in God results in right living.

1-3: God’s love for us shows up when we have no right to expect it. People around us say we’re no good, but God loves us and cares for us. As we look at Jesus, we become more like him.

4-10: People who do what’s right get their ability to live rightly by living in Christ (another way of seeing “Look at Jesus; be like him.” People who do what’s wrong (“lawless people”—that is, people in whom God’s Law and God’s Spirit do not live) live “in the devil”. We struggle a bit with this idea, because we are not sure who or what the devil is. It is enough for us this morning to say that the devil is the enemy of God. Those who belong to God live rightly. Those who belong to the devil live wrongly. The final verse equates loving God with loving the brothers and sisters, which is a theme that John develops in verses 11 to 24.

One could develop the thought in verses 4 to 10 and ask what it means to avoid sin and lawlessness. John develops an interesting and helpful circular movement: God’s grace at work in our lives leads to right living, which leads to God’s presence more fully in our lives, which in turn results in greater righteousness. The experience of God’s presence and living the way God wants us to are intimately related in this cycle. Similarly, living outside of God’s righteousness draws us closer to God’s enemy, which leads to greater lawlessness, which in turn draws us closer to God’s enemy. The experience of rebelling against God and living badly also reinforce each other. These verses teach that “lawless” means to be without God’s Law, and thus without God’s Spirit.

But I want to go back to the beginning idea: God’s love expressed for us, making us God’s Children, and especially to this idea that God’s love makes us “confident and unashamed”. This idea about shame uses language we do not often use. We are more likely to think about how “breaking God’s Law” makes us guilty before God, so that we need God’s forgiveness in order to become “not guilty” before God.

This innocence-guilt paradigm gives an important truth, but it does not get to the deeper aspect of how we feel about ourselves. Although we do not often use the language of shame and honour as much as some other cultures do, the shame-honour paradigm digs deep into personal issues that often control the way we behave.

I have been reading Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials, by Jayson Georges and Mark Baker. Baker teaches at the Mennonite Brethren Seminary in Fresno, and Georges has worked for many years in Central Asia. They describe the way that the Bible uses honour and shame to describe our relationship with each other and with God, and the way that this understanding is worked out in ministry. Although they are writing especially for those cultures [most often within the Majority World] that operate on this basis, their insights apply also within our context.

Consider the way that shame works in our lives. A young mother is shopping at Superstore when her son throws a tantrum. She responds as calmly as she can, but inwardly she is fuming because of the way that passing shoppers look at her and her son. That is the effect of shame. His tantrum may be the result of a bad earache that she doesn’t know about. When she realizes what’s wrong, she takes steps to make it better, but the shame remains. You see that shame does not necessarily involve guilt, but has more to do with what others think of us. Our response sometimes is to say, “Ignore what others think.” But that response destroys community. What we think of each other is important.

A second example: A group of friends is talking about a controversial idea. All of them except one agree on one side of the issue. Those who agree don’t say anything out loud, but with a brief glance at each other they take action against the one who disagrees and “send him to Coventry.” Do you know that expression? Here’s a definition I found online: “To send someone to Coventry is an English idiom meaning to deliberately ostracise someone. Typically, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding someone's company, and generally pretending that they no longer exist. Victims are treated as though they are completely invisible and inaudible.” I have been sent to Coventry, although only briefly. It hurts, a lot. The hurt comes from shame, from a sense that one does not matter. You keep your head down and try to get out of the way.

I could multiply examples. This is stuff that many of us have experienced. The person who is shamed feels worthless. Being publicly shamed is probably one of our greatest fears. It’s one of the basic elements in the kind of bullying that occurs in our schools and workplaces. You may not see any physical violence, so you don’t realize how badly someone has been hurt. Georges and Baker suggest that shame normally involves sin—whether our sin in response to being shamed, or the sin of the one doing the shaming.

People in the Early Church came from the ostracized people of society. You remember Paul’s description of the Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

In a similar way John is writing to people who were used to being shamed in society, and he says to them: “When Jesus appears we stand before him confident and unashamed!” One translation renders “unashamed” as “not shrinking in shame”. When you feel worthless, you shrink away from the people around you and keep your head down. John says, when God loves you, you lift up your head with the kind of pride that God’s children feel in being God’s children.

Another way of saying this is that we shine with God’s glory. Glory is another word that we don’t use much in ordinary speech. We might say of a well-scored goal in hockey, “Oh that was glorious!” But such use of glory is a weak reflection of the meaning of God’s glory. Again, majority world cultures know more about this than we do in Canada. We blush at compliments or turn them aside, but John was writing to people who understood this language. His thought is that we glorify God by receiving God’s glory.

In a sermon on “The Weight of Glory”, C.S. Lewis writes:
The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised (i) that we shall be with Christ; (2) that we shall be like Him; (3) with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; (4) that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and (5) that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God's temple.
Lewis then wonders why God promises anything beyond the first. Especially, why the emphasis on glory? He continues:
There is no getting away from the fact that [the idea of glory] is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

But, in fact, the promise of glory is more along the lines of what John says here: “How great the Father’s love for us, that we should be called the Children of God. And that is what we are!” This is our glory—that we are God’s Children. This is what brings glory to God—that God loves us!

It’s all very strange, because the way that God loves us is by dying on a cross, which was the most shameful way to die possible. Status-conscious Roman citizens would not even discuss crucifixion, so great was its shame. Yet on the cross God reaches into our lives and finds us where we feel most alone and cut off and says, “I love you!” God is present when we experience the shame of failure or rejection or appearance and says, “I love you! You are my child. You share my glory.” God repeats to us over and over: “You are worth everything to me!”

I have observed in the past that self-esteem can be taught in a way that is harmful. When we teach our children that what they do doesn’t matter because we love them, we can make them into people who have no shame—where shame is the proper response to doing what is wrong. But this passage shows what it means to have real self-esteem, the honour that is available to every one of us. God loves you and God loves me. We are God’s Children. We are valuable, so valuable that Jesus died so that we can belong to God again. This is good news for every one of us.
Has someone hurt you in an argument, so that you feel disrespected and hurt? God loves you and takes your shame, so that you don’t have to carry it.
Have you hurt someone else, so that now you feel ashamed to show your face? God loves you and takes your shame, so that you can reconcile with your friend and love that person again. You and I cannot heal our own shame. God can and does heal us, so that we can love and honour each other.

The basic point of all of this is that shame leads us into sin—living with God’s Law in our lives. The cure for shame is God’s love: “You are loved!” God’s love then becomes the basis on which we live “confident and unashamed” in God’s presence, which shows itself most clearly (verses 10ff) in the way that we love each other.

This final thought is reinforced in a study that Jeff Banman did at Providence last year. He went through the letters in the New Testament reading all of the commands from Romans to Revelation. Then he grouped the commands into categories and looked at what kinds of commands are given most often. There were 39 commands about “living out your faith”, and 26 commands about “marriage and family”. There were 41 commands about not sinning, and 15 commands about having a good character. But more than any other category by far was this one: 96 commands about “how to treat fellow Christians.” Amazing: Love each other (in one form or another) is by far the most often stated command from Romans to Revelation. No wonder John says it here: “Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.”

Properly understood, God takes away our shame and makes us able to love each other in practical and straightforward ways. The reverse is also true. Often it is our shame that stops us from loving each other and keeps us apart. And the cure for our shame is God’s love.

A Final Application
Paul Dyck used to give us homework at the end of the sermon. Well here is John’s homework for us.
Is there someone who has shamed you? (We would say, “He/She dissed me.”) Treat that person with honour and respect, asking nothing in return. God’s love makes you God’s child, and makes the other God’s child also. Treat them as God’s child with God’s love.
Is there someone you have shamed or disrespected? Apologize—not formally without sincerity, but deeply, from the heart. Then honour them. Treat them also with the deepest respect.

“How great the Father’s love for us, that we should be called the Children of God. And that is what we are!”

Closing Prayer
Our Lord,
Thank you for your grace and love.
Thank you for the honour you have shown us, making us your children.
Turn our hearts to you and to each other, today and always.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

19 February 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church
1 John 2:28-3:10
God’s Children and Sin
28 And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Election Reflections 3

We’ve had several weeks now to experience the Trump presidency. Here are some thoughts, not necessarily better than other people’s or more insightful, but my own.

Basic thought: We are too quick to condemn our political opponents and too quick to pardon our political friends.

Case in point 1: I think that Trump’s executive order to stop immigration from seven Muslim-dominant countries was ill advised and poorly executed. Many of my political friends have condemned it more thoroughly—calling it, for example, a ban on Muslims, and saying that it favours Christians unfairly.

I assume that two factors come into this description. The first is the seven-nation ban, which builds on action taken previously by the Obama administration. I think that the ban is nonsense (refugees by definition come from unstable areas), but it is not a Muslim ban per se. The second is the privileging of vulnerable groups from these nations—such as the Yazidis and Christians in Syria and Iraq. These latter groups have found the normal route to refugee status almost impossible, and seeking to help them is not wrong in itself.

It makes sense to me to oppose Trump’s executive order, and I support the efforts of those who have challenged it in the courts. That is the proper route for the challenge, and both sides must honour the courts’ ruling. It does not make sense to me to condemn Trump for taking the action he did. He has long said that he wants to strengthen immigration policies. I disagree with him, inasmuch as the United States’ immigration policies are already robust. I think he is chasing shadows, but I don’t condemn him for doing what he said he would do. My disagreement just tells you that I would vote against him.

Case in point 2: Trump appeared at the national prayer breakfast and suggested prayer for Schwarzenegger in his role on “The Apprentice”, given the latter’s poor ratings. Schwarzenegger in turn suggested that they switch roles and make everyone happy. Some of us reacted against Trump, stating that he has devalued the prayer breakfast with his levity.

I think that Trump acted inappropriately, but thoroughly in character. Contrasting his style with Obama at the same venue only tells us that they are two quite different people, which we already know. I see little point in condemning him for his actions.

Case in point 3: The Democratic minority in the house and senate is using any tactic that it can to slow down the republican agenda and to hold up or defeat Trump appointees. My Republican friends point to this as evidence of liberal perfidy.

But surely this is what minority parties normally do. Certainly the Republicans spent the past eight years holding up and trying to defeat Obama’s legislative initiatives, going so far as to refuse any vote on a Supreme Court nominee for – was it 10 months?

The underlying dynamic seems to be a deep conviction that the other side has no good in them. Comments on news stories online reinforce this perception. The practice of “trolling” has become commonplace—calling other people names and trying to force them off the site, rather than engaging them and seeking a common way forward.

That dynamic of division then becomes the policy of both parties. Neither accepts a path forward that allows the other to live. Condemned to live in such a country we can look forward to more bitterness and division. Now Republicans try to get all they want and freeze out the Democrats. When Democrats regain control (as they will: our system routinely moves back and forth between the extremes in our country), they in turn seek to enact only their own policies and undo Republican initiatives.

The fact is that Trump’s actual policies may be wrong—I think that most of them are (to the extent that we know what they are, and to the extent that I understand them)—but it really is time to follow the Republican lead. My own standing as a member of the Democratic Party is not the issue. Learning to hear each other and work with and for each other is more important.

A first step towards such collaboration is for us to critique our own. I look forward to hearing my Republican friends acknowledge and challenge Trump’s tendency to stir up fear and mistrust, and I look forward to hearing my Democratic friends acknowledge and challenge party leaders when they delay without cause. We have learned to justify our own too well; now we need to learn to criticize our own and actually understand the other.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Who Wouldn’t Choose Life?

Last Sunday we looked at the war commands of chapter 7. I suggested that this passage is an example of indirect speech, where the writer says one thing and means another—a kind of metaphorical call to war against all other spiritual authorities in our lives, rather than a call to kill all of our human enemies.

Someone listening to me may have thought: That’s a really useful idea! Now I can get around any passage of Scripture I don’t like! All I have to do is say that it really means something else! How convenient ….

Of course, I do not believe that we can reinterpret Scripture for our own convenience. You should always be able to find clues in the text that tell you to read for the hidden meaning. The biggest clue is that the passage contradicts the rest of Scripture. Many passages in the OT call us to trust God rather than fight, and the teachings of Jesus lead us in the way of peace; so it makes sense that Moses was talking about something else other than killing the people around them.

Most Scripture is more straightforward. It says what it means, and often we can hear it clearly. Deuteronomy 30, in which Moses makes clear the point of the whole book, is like that. These verses are not indirect or confusing. In them Moses speaks clearly: Obey God, and choose life. Disobey God and receive death.

So we turn to Deuteronomy 30 and hear words that express Moses’ heart and deepest desire. This passage comes as part of the conclusion of Moses’ sermon to the Children of Israel, waiting to enter the Promised Land. In these verses he states the core of his message to the Israelites. Here, summarized in these 10 verses, is what he wants them to know and what he wants them to do, and here Moses speaks also to us.

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This call to choose life is what he has been getting at throughout the rest of the book. In the first chapters he reminds the Children of Israel what has led up to this point. The previous generation had come to this same point of entering the land, and they failed at this final step. As a result they spent 40 years wandering in the desert, until they died. Now the next generation, their children, face the same opportunity.

Moses reminds them of the Ten Words given at Sinai (chapter 5), which guide their lives as the People of God. He gives them the Shema (chapter 6), the great declaration of God’s internal unity, with the call to love God and to love the family of God. Then the war passage (chapter 7) we looked at last week comes as a commentary on the first of the Ten Words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me.”

In chapters 11 to 26, Moses restates some of the core laws that form God’s people as they enter the land. Finally in chapter 27 the action moves back to Moses’ sermon, with instructions on how to renew the covenant between God and God’s People. So we come to the passage we just read.

Our Verses
Listen to the flow of these verses.

“The Word.” Verses 11-14: Moses states that these commands (“what I am commanding you”—“this word”) are not some fancy ideal that they cannot live up to, but rather they are the very presence of God, which lives within them. This sentence is particularly important: “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.”

Consider other uses of this term, “the word”. In Genesis 1, God speaks, and creation comes into being. John refers to this creative word in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … Through the Word all things were made; without the Word nothing was made that has been made.” I believe that these commandments—this word in their mouths and in their hearts—echo this creative word of God, which becomes the very presence of God. This statement also prefigures Jeremiah 31: 33, “This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

Lie and Death. Verses 15-16: This word contains “life and prosperity”. Outside of this word lies “death and destruction”. The essence of this word is to “love God” and to “walk in obedience to God”. This statement sounds to me remarkably like the Great Commission: “Make disciples of all people, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commands.”

“Destruction.” Verses 17-18: Worshipping other gods leads to destruction. This idea is one we may struggle with; the reality of judgment is unpalatable to our minds. But here is another way to think about it. There’s a song popular in contemporary worship named “Great are you, Lord”, with these words: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, So we pour out our praise, We pour out our praise.” The song refers to physical air, but we might say with equal truth that God is the atmosphere, the air that we need to live spiritually, fully. God is indeed our very life. Then the choice to live apart from God must lead to death. We can no more live without faith in God than we can breathe without air.

If someone decides to live in a vacuum, we do not blame the air for failing to give him/her life. If someone decides to live without food, we do not blame the food for allowing him/her to die of starvation. What we call “God’s judgment” is the inevitable consequence of trying to live without God. It is not something God wants to do. As Ezekiel 33: 10-11 puts it, Son of man, say to the Israelites, “This is what you are saying: ‘Our offences and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?’” Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?”

Choose life! Verses 19-20 repeat the call to choose life and live in and for God. Moses was pleading with the Children of Israel to worship God alone—repeating again the First of the Ten Words, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Living with the Passage Today
The message of the passage is clear: Choose life, which means, choose to love and obey God. Walk with God. The laws in chapters 11 to 26 give some idea of what this life looks like. Here are three simple ideas that come through these laws.

1. One sees the fundamental importance of equity. There are various laws that emphasize the fact that all people in Israel stand equal before God. In a Christian understanding we say that everyone is equal t the foot of the cross, but here we see that such equality goes back to God’s relationship with the Children of Israel. Equality is basic to being God’s People.

2. One sees also the fundamental importance of caring for marginalized people. The Law of Levirate Marriage in chapter 25 is just one of many examples. In this law a childless widow, who had no political or economic power in Israel, is given specific legal rights to ensure that she has the ability to care for herself. She stands here for marginalized people everywhere. Caring for the marginalized and hurting of the world is basic to being God’s People.

3. Thirdly, one sees the fundamental importance of holiness—holiness in the sense of recognizing God’s purity and power, and adjusting our lives to allow God’s purity and power to flow through us. This is the point of many laws emphasizing “cleanness” in ways that don’t make sense to us. It’s a bit like trimming our sail to the wind, allowing God to take us where God wants us to go. Being holy and devoted to God is basic to being God’s People.

Each of these themes could be the full subject of another sermon, and I won’t try to spell them out more fully today. For today I emphasize that these points are response to God’s grace, not ideas that we must somehow work out well enough to earn God’s love. Moses speaks to us as he spoke to the Children of Israel: Choose life! Love God! Follow God! We are at a very different place in our corporate life than the Children of Israel were. They spent 40 years waiting for the older generation to die. We have come through a painful time in which many of our younger people have left. Many of us are the older generation, but Moses still speaks: “Choose life!”

Last Thursday I sat at a table with several other people at lunch. We were talking about hope and believing in God. It was a hard conversation, because many people see reasons in our world not to hope. One man talked about his divorce—about 25 years ago. He reached a point in which he asked God what he was supposed to do. He wondered if God was even there. He told us how he heard God speak to him, “Can you be faithful for 40 years, and then spend an eternity of joy with me?” He was then 30, and the number 40 meant “to the end of your life.” He replied, “Yes.” The darkness of that moment lifted. The pain and loneliness remained, but he found he had strength to live. He told us that he had to cry out for help each day, and hear God’s voice each day, and receive new strength each day. The 25 years since then have brought him a new family, and he admitted that sometimes now he forgets to renew that explicit willingness to serve God, but it hasn’t gone away. He chose life, and God gave him life.

As we talked around the table, one of the others recalled a phrase from Juergen Moltmann, in which Moltmann refers to the “crucified God.” [Born in 1926, Moltmann is a German theologian who was drafted into the German army at age 18, surrendered at the first chance he got, and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. There he lost his secular faith in Nietzsche and found faith and life in Christ.] As someone has said, God is a cross-shaped God. I think that means that we find God where there is suffering and pain. We learn to hope in God in those places of our lives where we cannot hope in ourselves. That is the place we are in now. We cannot bring new life to our church through any program or efforts of our own. Only God can give us new life, and Moses would say to us: Choose life! Love God! Walk with God!

This truth is one of the reasons I asked us to do our prayer rock exercise last week. Loving God often finds its first real expression in loving each other. So I wanted to see us praying for each other, demonstrating our love for each other in a tangible, concrete way.

Such love has the power to unlock life in amazing ways. I think of Greg Ogden. He has described the power of what he calls micro-groups to transform lives. He was in a group of three men who met weekly for over a year for prayer and study. One of them, a young man, was ready to leave his job and go out to see the world. Greg suggested to him that he try a short-term mission trip first. He did, and found a meaning to life that he had been lacking in working on Christ’s behalf. Soon after he returned home he met a young woman, and they got married. Then he was found to have cancer, which a few years later took his life. Greg met some of this young man’s high school friends coming out of his hospital room as he lay near death. All they could talk about was the spirit of love and courage that radiated out of him as he lay there—completely unlike what they had expected. The love that these three men experienced in their small group led to a transformed life, which in turn flowed from the dying man to his high school friends. There is power in God’s love beyond anything that we can possibly understand. (See here this site for the story, or Ogden’s book, Transforming Discipleship, pages 9-14.)


This is no promise that when we choose life our congregation all past hurts will disappear, but there is the promise that we will prosper and grow. I don’t know what that “growth” will look like, but I know that choosing to love God and walk with God is the path of hope. We walk together loving God and loving each other, caring for the hurting and marginalized, seeking God’s will and way every day, and God gives us life, fuller and better than we can ever imagine.

5 February 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church
Deuteronomy 30: 11-20

Saturday, January 28, 2017

O Look! An Elephant! (Deuteronomy 7)

Forty some years ago I spent a summer in San Francisco—10 weeks working in the housing projects and on skid row during the “summer of love”, 1969. “The Age of Aquarius” was a popular song on the radio: “When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars,/ Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars./ This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius …/ Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding./ No more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation. …” Well, it wasn’t. Violence and mistrust abound today. It seems that the age of Aquarius was really short.

Another song written that year made the charts the following summer. Lois spent a month that summer in Brooklyn at a Brethren in Christ VS Unit there and recalls hearing it play over and over again: “I said, war, good god, now, what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing./ Say it again, war, what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing, listen to me./ War, it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker, War, friend only to the undertaker …”

Protests against the War in Vietnam were on the rise, and the song resonated with many people around the world. It could almost be a Mennonite anthem.

And then we turn to Deuteronomy, and run into trouble.

The Real War (Herem) 
Text (Deut 7: 1-10)
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. 10 But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him.

We struggle with these verses because we hear them as a call to genocide. Placed alongside a passage such as Deuteronomy 3 (the total destruction of Og of Bashan) and 1 Samuel 15 (God’s command through Samuel to Saul to destroy the Amalekites completely, combined with God’s judgment on Saul for not doing so), this language grates harshly in our ears.

We want to sing that song from 1970—war is good for nothing—and embrace the age of peace and harmony that we sang about in the 1960s. Our question this morning is: What’s going on here? Do we do best by not reading Deuteronomy? Is there something here for us? The following comments are my beginning efforts to make sense of the passage and apply it to our lives. So here are some thoughts.

1) The Tension Remains: I do not say that we have no tension with this language. We face clearly the truth that God’s people used violence in the OT. That fact actually gives me hope. It is clear from the NT and from the teachings and example of Jesus that we are to embrace peace, and yet God was willing and able to work with people whose culture was steeped in violence. God moved them gently over centuries of interaction to the point where they (and we) could receive the way of peace as the way for God’s people.

Clues pointing in this direction are present in the OT from the earliest days. Abraham is sent to a far-away land, but not as a soldier. Abraham and Sarah travel in peace and avoid fighting whenever possible; they depend on God’s care. When their descendants do turn to fighting in the Exodus, God fights for them and they do nothing themselves against the Egyptians. In fact, their name (“Children of Israel”) means, “the people for whom God fights”. As Millard Lind says in the title of a book in which he explores the war texts of the OT, “Yahweh is a warrior.” The people’s future depends on God’s providential care, not on their military might. “Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses. We trust in the Lord.”

2) But the passage does not teach genocide: The tension (that they did fight) remains, but the further problem of a call to genocide does not. The verses do not call for genocide. We must take language for what Moses (in this case) intends to say, not for what we think the words must mean. The language of total destruction was part of the way that nations of that time normally spoke to say that they would defeat (or had defeated) the enemy.

Several considerations make it clear that “total destruction” does not mean genocide. In the verses we read, Moses tells the people not to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land who remain. Nor are they to adopt their religious practices. If they are all dead, how could the Children of Israel intermarry with them or worship their gods?

This thought is reinforced by laws in chapter 24 that tell how to make sure that “aliens” [gerim] are cared for through laws of gleaning. In chapter 10 Moses says that they are to care for these same gerim, including the inhabitants whom they have dispossessed, because they themselves had been aliens (gerim) in Egypt. In fact, God say to love them, using the same word we heard in the Shema for “Love God”. How could this mean to love the people you exterminated? Most likely, Moses never meant: Kill them all!

3) Direct and Indirect Communication: What then might he have meant? We need to understand communication among people like Israelites. They had what we call a “high context culture”. That is, the speaker means something slightly different than the words mean on the surface—what we call “indirect communication”. We come from a low context culture, in which people normally say what they mean—what we call direct communication.

An example from Zimbabwe when I was doing research there on the BIC churches in Bulawayo. I wanted to find Mlotshwa, a carpenter who had a shop in the city and was one of the founding members of the BIC in Bulawayo. I went (walking on foot) to the part of town where his shop was and asked someone on the street if he knew where Mlotshwa the carpenter had his shop. He said, “Keep going straight ahead. You will find it.” I walked for about two miles and decided I had missed it. I asked another man I met if he knew where the shop was. He directed me back to where I started and across the street. I was a couple of hundred yards away, and the first man had sent me on a long walk, two miles and back. What happened?

The Canadian in me says, “He lied to me.” But he was an African, using his culture’s way of answering my question. What he meant was something like this (in our low-context way of saying it): “No, I don’t know where his shop is, but if you keep looking I’m sure you will find it.” He intended to encourage me and not to deceive me, but I did not understand his indirect form of communication. Something like that is going on here.

4) So what did he mean? Gerald Gerbrandt suggests that we should read this language as a metaphor, stating strongly the extent to which the Israelites were to reject any other divine authority in their lives. Two chapters earlier, Moses reminds them of the Ten Commandments, in which God begins with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” Yahweh War in Deuteronomy 7, then, spells out the full extent of what it means to say, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

The NT uses similar images to indicate that we are in a war with the power of evil. So Paul could say, “Put on the whole armour of God” and then spell out some details of this war (Ephesians 6). We can read this passage in Deuteronomy as a similarly strong statement, emphasizing the danger that the Children of Israel faced as they encountered the worship of Ishtar-Aphrodite-Venus on the on hand and the worship of Baal on the other. The religious practices of the people in Canaan were interwoven into the fabric of daily life so thoroughly that Moses commanded them to put it all to death.

Moses’ words, then, become a call to treat the surrounding cultures as “dead to them”. We also, who have become dead to self (compare the metaphor, “I am crucified with Christ”—Galatians 2:20) now treat the culture around us as “dead to us”. We “devote it to destruction”.

We live in modern Canada. What about our culture poses danger to Christians today, like the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land? I suggest that two particular idols are particularly prevalent and powerful in our culture. One is the idol of sex: We have come to believe that sexual expression is the one true measure of life fully lived. Another is the idol of self: We have come to believe that personal fulfillment is our right, and that lack of personal fulfillment is the greatest tragedy we can experience. Both of these idols exaggerate biblical ideals for the Christian life. Both compete with God to take first place in our lives. Moses would say to us: Destroy your culture totally at precisely these points. Such “herem” requires the church to study our context carefully, in light of our commitment to God, and identify the idols of our lives.

One way that we can follow Christ and deny the idol of self is to commit ourselves to Christ and to community. In a context where we are tempted to be Christians whose spirituality is expressed individually, in isolation from other believers, we commit ourselves to the flawed, hurting, inescapable body of Christ. There we begin to live God’s reign together here on earth.

This brings me to the rocks you are holding. As you came in, you saw the table with rocks on it, and with the instruction to write your name on a rock and bring it with you into the sanctuary. Here is what I want to do with your names on the rocks. We will pass the basket, so to speak, and put our names into the basket. Then, as we leave the sanctuary at the end of the service, I am asking each one to take out a rock from the basket and take the rock home with you. I’m asking you then to pray for the person whose name you draw each day for the next month.

If you prefer not to participate, you can take your rock home with you. I hope you will take part, but I don’t want anyone to pray out of guilt or a sense of being manipulated. Rather, this is our opportunity to put on God’s armour and devote our individualism to complete destruction.

If there’s someone who didn’t get a rock and you would like one, hold up your hand and the ushers will bring you a rock and a Sharpie to write your name on the rock. [Give a moment to be sure everyone has a rock, and then have the ushers “take up the rocks”.] Once you have your rock with someone’s name on it, remember to pray for that person daily. If you like (and feel comfortable doing it), you might ask the person whose rock you draw, “How may I pray for you?” We need each other in this journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land.

This exploration does not solve our problems with the war passages of the OT, but it does suggest a way forward. God calls us to live in the world, using the patterns of the world. We are Canadians, and we live as Canadians. But Canada has its own idols that we must devote to destruction. In the past, when we moved from one country to another, the very fact of being migrants helped us to avoid worshipping the idols of that place. Today we are more at home, and therein lies our danger.

God calls us to live here in Manitoba, but God also calls us to live fully as children of God, praying always, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. … For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

29 January 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Giving Shape to Discipleship (Deuteronomy 5)

As I said last Sunday, Mennonites often avoid Deuteronomy because as Protestants (saved by grace) we avoid the Law and as Mennonites (committed to peace) we avoid the war texts. Both objections are, I believe, misplaced. In two weeks we will look at a primary war text in Dt 7. Today we look at the core of the Law, often called the Ten Commandments.

The Hebrew name for these commands is “the ten words”, from which we get the name “Decalogue” (Greek for “ten words”). To think of them as laws (“commandments”) is misplaced, because it reduces them to a law code for lawyers to argue over, when they are meant as a paradigm or picture to give us a glimpse of what life spent walking with God looks like. The Ten Words give shape to discipleship. They show us what a godly life looks like. So we examine them this morning to find out how we respond to God’s grace at work in our lives.

Introducing the Ten Words
Verses 1 to 5 introduce the Ten Words. Moses says to the people:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. (At that time I stood between the LORD and you to declare to you the word of the LORD, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.)

Note the importance of hearing. An old joke tells of three men, all hard of hearing, riding the train in London. One says to the others, “Is this Wembley?” A second replies, “No, it’s Thursday.” The third says, “I am too. Let’s get off and have a drink.” We may be hard of hearing with each other, but we dare not be deaf towards God. God the creative Word speaks into our lives, and God’s words are life. This way of saying, “Hear, O Israel”, is a standard formulation in Deuteronomy. It means, “Pay attention! This is important!” It implies a close personal relationship for giving the Ten Words. Although God spoke at Sinai to Moses, who was there with the parents of his present audience, “Moses insists, “God made this covenant with you. God spoke these words to you. I stood between because of your fear, but this is God’s relationship with you.”

As with the whole of the Law, the Ten Words show how the people are to respond to God’s saving act in setting them free from Egypt and bringing them to their new home. They do not earn God’s intervention; rather they respond to it by living God’s way. This fact parallels the way that we understand the work of Jesus in the New Testament. God sets us free from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. We respond by living God’s way in this world.

What follows, then, gives us the shape of discipleship for God’s people, Israel, just as the Sermon on the Mount gives us the shape of discipleship for Christians who follow Jesus today. With this in mind, we can hear Moses speaking to us also: God made a covenant with you—not just with those people from three thousand years ago. God has acted in your lives. These words show you how to live as God’s people.

The Ten Words
So we turn to the Ten Words themselves. Gerald Gerbrandt has a helpful table showing the ways that different groups have numbered them. Judaism has one set of numbers beginning with “I am the Lord your God”, Roman Catholicism has another, and Protestants a third. (See Gerbrandt, Deuteronomy, 131.) I will use the usual Protestant numbering, following Christopher Wright. (See Wright, Deuteronomy, 68-86.) We go through the ten words in sequence and then consider what they mean for us today, taken together.

First Word: You shall have no other gods before me. We meet God as Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There may be other spiritual powers, but God alone is the source of life, the creator of all, the one whom we follow when we say, “Jesus is Lord”.

Second Word: You shall make no carved image. The use of idols was common in the ancient world, and remains so today in many religions. Followers of Jesus [applying this commandment directly to ourselves] relate to God as a person, as Creator and Divine Parent, as Lord and Saviour. A basic reason that we do not make “images” is that we are ourselves made in God’s image (Genesis 1). We do not point to an idol to show God to those around us; we point to ourselves. This is an awesome and terrible responsibility.

Third Word: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Names were important in the OT. You remember the way that Jacob asks to know God’s name, and God asks, “Why do you want to know my name?” Jacob wanted to use God’s name to control God. When people today give their opinion about something, but claim that this is the word of the Lord, they transgress against this word from the Lord. Preachers are especially in danger here! We may too easily say, “Thus says the Lord,” when in fact it is only our own voice speaking.

Fourth Word: Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. As I said last Sunday, this word to Israel is revolutionary. They were to take a day each week to remember God, to remember who they were and God is, to renew the covenant with God under which they lived. Most importantly, they did so because they had been slaves of the Egyptians and were now God’s people. Therefore they also made sure that the slaves in their own homes could share the Sabbath with them. All people stand equal in God’s presence, from the lowest to the highest in the land.

Fifth Word: Honour your father and mother. This word speaks to the importance of family life and of community. The word is not directed primarily to children as children, but to everyone to respect and honour those who precede them. The word assumes that our old people are a great asset to the community and worthy of great respect. I saw an example recently of a retirement centre in the Netherlands. Young adults in a university nearby are given lodging in the community; their rent is to socialize with the elderly people there, providing companionship to people suffering from dementia, for example. This experiment is a wonderful way of living out the fifth word to honour our oldest “mothers and fathers” in the community.

Sixth Word: You shall not kill. I don’t think that the Israelites heard a prohibition of all killing in this word, but Jesus deepens our understanding in the Sermon on the Mount to include all violence against other people, not just murder.

Seventh Word: You shall not commit adultery. Again, family life is to be valued, and actions that destroy the family are condemned. Some people wonder if this word reflects a patriarchal view in which women were condemned for adultery and men could get away with it. The way that the fifth word, also lifts up the family, calls for respect of father and mother suggests rather that all violence against the family is in view here.

Eighth Word: You shall not steal. Respect for other people, within and outside of the family, includes respect for property as well.

Ninth Word: You shall not give false testimony. Such respect also includes a careful and consistent integrity that does not speak against other people for one’s own gain.

Tenth Word: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour. This word is remarkable in that it deals with the heart, rather than with external action. Jesus picks up on this interior nature of the Law when he deepens the provisions of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “You have heard that you should not kill another, but I tell you that one who hates another in his/her heart has become a murderer.” One not only avoids stealing (the eighth word), but one avoids even desiring what one might steal.

Bringing These Together
This is a quick survey of the content of the Ten Words. Remember that they are a picture of faithfulness, showing what discipleship looks like, not a comprehensive guide to how to live, nor are they meant to say all that God wants to say to us. Rather they grow out of God’s interaction with the Children of Israel, setting them free from slavery and giving them their own home in which to live.

Some observations, then, on the whole.
First, sometimes we want to turn these words into a list of rules to follow, but they represent our response to God rather than rules on how to get to God. We do follow them, but we follow them as our response to God’s work in our lives. If you are not a follower of Jesus, then these words are less important for you. They are good advice for everyone, but the first step is always to seek God’s face, to meet God ourselves.

Second, an observation comes from the dual focus in these words. They represent how we relate to God on the one hand and how we relate to our neighbours in community on the other. The vertical and horizontal dimensions are not two separate ways of being “good”, but rather they are bound together in every part of our lives. If you want to follow God, that includes treating each other rightly. If you want to treat each other well, that includes following God.

Jesus summarized the Law in the great commandment: “Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus shows us clearly that these two movements—upwards to God and horizontally to each other—are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. The Ten Words say the same thing.

My third observation is that these Ten Words give us a basic orientation to life that stands in great tension with the way that Canadians in general see life. Christopher Wright puts it like this:
It would be going too far to assert a strict sequential order of values in the Ten Commandments, but the overall impression seems valid. God’s priorities for human moral attention are: God, society, family, life, sex, property. It hardly needs to be pointed out that in Western society at least, modern culture has almost precisely inverted this order of priorities.

Consider the way that our culture treats sexual expression. We assume that life is most fulfilling if we experience a great deal of pleasure, and the highest form of pleasure is sexual. Therefore anything that interferes with sexual expression is wrong. I enjoy reading the advice column in the Winnipeg Free Press. It intrigues me how often the people asking for help refer to sex, and I observe that in her answers “Miss Lonelyhearts” assumes that sexual expression is simply good, unless it hurts someone. The Ten Words do not say she is wrong, but they do relativize sexual expression within the greater values of what is good for society and the family.

Similarly, our culture values making money and having lots of personal property. “Those who die with the most toys win,” we say. The Ten Words also value property, but place the good of the larger community and of each family above the acquisition of wealth.

Repeatedly in our world we find ourselves living by standards that are in tension with the Ten Words, and therefore also in tension with the values of God’s Reign in this world. Consider end of life issues that we face today in Canada. These are high on our radar, given the aging population of Canada. So the question arises about the right to end one’s own life.

If personal expression and the rights of the individual are greatest, then it makes sense to listen to the person who wishes to control the moment of his/her death. But if the first place is given to God, from whose hands life and death come, then we may look for other alternatives. The place that the Ten Words give to parents—to the oldest mothers and fathers in the community—suggests that we should at the least make their closing days as comfortable as possible. But a simple appeal to what the individual wants will carry less weight.

Hear me carefully at this point. I have given any answers any of the issues I have referred to. Rather I am saying that we must be clear about the basis on which we discuss and decide them. As followers of Jesus we observe that God has first place in our lives, and that we work out our relationship with God by valuing society, family, life, sex, and property in that order.

Our society answers these questions by valuing property above respect for life, sex above society, and what the individual wants above what the community wants. In our society’s view, God is a mostly irrelevant afterthought, which we do not bring into the conversation at all. For us, however, our whole conversation begins with God. God has saved us. God has made us. God has led us through the desert to the place where we now stand.

The precise shape that our discipleship takes requires careful conversation as a community, in which we help each other hear God speak. “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them.”

Steinbach Mennonite Church

8 January 2017

Text: Deuteronomy 5: 1-21
Moses summoned all Israel and said:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. (At that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
12 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
16 “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
17 “You shall not murder.
18 “You shall not commit adultery.
19 “You shall not steal.
20 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

21 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”