Sunday, September 18, 2016

Reading the Church’s Bible, 1

Introduction
One of the issues our congregation is dealing with is the basic question: How does the Bible function in our lives? The “Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective” gives this summary statement about the Bible:
We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life. Led by the Holy Spirit in the church, we interpret Scripture in harmony with Jesus Christ.
A clear statement, but we may still wonder what it means. This morning I want to reflect on Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3 and Jesus’ words in John 5. We could call this a consideration of Scriptural authority, or a reflection on the nature of the Bible. I have chosen to call it, “Reading the Church’s Bible” (after a course title at Providence Seminary).

Jesus
I start with John chapter 5. Jesus had healed an invalid lying beside the pool of Bethesda. This person had been an invalid for 38 years and was lying beside the pool hoping to get in “when the water was stirred” (verse 7). The episode closes with Jesus’ words, “Pick up your mat and walk” (verse 9). Because this healing took place on the Sabbath, some Jewish leaders asked him what he thought he was doing carrying his mat around—an action against the rules for keeping the Sabbath holy (verse 10). The resulting interaction led them to Jesus, and they started to attack him (verse 16).

Jesus said that his authority to heal and to forgive sins came from his Father, that is, from God (verses 17). The Jewish leaders realized that Jesus was claiming equality with God (verse 18), so that they “tried all the more to kill him.” Verses 19 to 47 give Jesus’ responses to their attacks on him. He observed that there were several testimonies to his identity as the Son of God: John the Baptist was one; his miracles of healing and forgiveness were another; the Scriptures themselves were another. In this context then we hear Jesus say, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Some people read this statement to mean that the Scriptures do not give life. I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying. I think he is saying rather: “You’re right—the Scriptures bring you to life; but if you were really studying the Scriptures you would realize that I am Life.” Later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). So the Bible is not our Life, but it brings us to Jesus, who is our Life. Without the Bible we have only our subjective experience of God’s presence, and Scripture shows us a more objective picture of who God is, as revealed in Jesus.

This is an important point, because the conversations we have been having in our church have an impact on our spiritual life with Christ. We pray earnestly, and we want to do God’s will, but we may find ourselves feeling the hurt of all that has been said and done. Our relationship with Jesus may suffer. When we feel the darkness of this world, we turn again to Scripture, not so that we can prove that we are right or that someone else is wrong, but so that Scripture can take us back to God, who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We read the Bible in order to meet Jesus.

Paul
The letters to Timothy were written late in Paul’s life. The verses we read give us almost his last will and testament. (Consider the 4: 6-8, which follows: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”)

Now Paul would not have said that reading the Bible was the centre of the Christian life. He expresses the centre of his own life elsewhere, for example in Romans 1:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
From a more extensive passage (2 Corinthians 5: 11-21), in which Paul describes his passion for the gospel, I note especially the following:
… Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. … All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the [ministry and message] of reconciliation…. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
The gospel of God, the ministry and message of reconciliation: This is the centre of Paul’s message and of Paul’s life. So then why does he refer to the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3? For the same reason that Jesus did in John 5. The Scriptures reveal God and God’s will for our lives. The Scriptures describe the gospel of God and give content to the ministry and message of reconciliation.

I want to focus now on the words he writes to Timothy in verses 14-17:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Timothy had studied the Scriptures from his childhood. He knew the Bible stories. He knew what we call the Old Testament thoroughly. Paul encourages him to continue such careful study, because the Scriptures make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Do you hear the echo of Jesus’ words in John 5?) Then Paul describes the Scriptures more thoroughly.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

You see, then, what the Bible is for. (Note that we extrapolate from Paul’s description of the Hebrew Scriptures to the Bible as a whole). It is for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness”, that is, it is useful for what we might call disciple-making. You remember that the Great Commission does not deal only with conversion (“baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), but also with nurture (“teaching them to obey everything I [Jesus] have commanded you.” So the Bible is intended to bring us to Jesus, and to teach us how to live as God’s children (as followers of Jesus).

Sometimes we look at the Bible as a manual of instructions for the situations we face in life. I have a manual in the glove compartment of my car. It is useful for a Toyota Corolla, but if you have a Ford Fusion, it won’t help you as much. The problem with manuals is that they work for one specific situation. The Bible is much more than a manual. The Bible describes itself as the Scriptures that introduce us to Jesus and to the good news that in Jesus God has reconciled the world to himself. As we walk with Jesus and read the Bible, we learn more and more about how Jesus wants us to live in this world.

A Simple Point and a Problem
All of this is fairly obvious, I think. Next week I will talk about the different kinds of writing that we find in the Bible—from songs to laws, from love letters to practical letters, from gospels to apocalypses. Today I want to note just one thing about all of this: The Bible is true. That is what Paul means when he says that the Scriptures are “God-breathed”. The Bible says what God wants it to say. This is a simple point, but sometimes it trips us up.

The problem is that we read the Bible as though it speaks with one voice throughout. The Bible brings us the Word of God from a wide variety of human authors. Peter says this about Paul (2 Peter 2: 16): “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Peter and Paul write quite differently, because they are different people. Similarly in the Gospels Luke writes a more educated Greek and John writes a simple Greek. The Scriptures are “God-breathed”, but they speak with human voices. Jesus is God’s Word—fully human and fully divine. So also the Bible is God’s Word—a blend of divine inspiration speaking with human voices.

The Bible uses the language and cultural forms of the human authors and their audience. If you have ever moved from one country to another, you have probably been surprised by something that does not mean what you expect it to mean. That also happens in the Bible. Here is a simple example, told to me by a friend from the Middle East. You remember the story of Lot in Sodom in Genesis 19. Because of Sodom’s wickedness, God sent two angels to Sodom to warn Lot to get out of town before judgment. Lot took them in as his guests and gave them supper. After they ate, the men of Sodom came to the house and tried to abduct these men (not recognizing them as angels). Then we read these words:
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
We read this story and wonder how Lot could consider giving his daughters to these terrible men. But my friend said something like this: “You think it means that he was willing to give them his daughters. But this is just how we talk in the Middle East. What it really means is that the law of hospitality is so strong that he could no more give his guests to these men than he could give his daughters to them.” In fact, we have a similar form of speech in our own culture; it is called sarcasm.

This change does not affect how we understand the whole story, but such misunderstandings can occur anywhere in the Scriptures if we read too quickly and don’t listen carefully. How do we avoid this problem? By reading carefully and repeatedly. I have a friend who did his Master’s thesis at Providence on the Gospel of Mark. The first step he took before trying to write the thesis was to read the gospel through in one sitting. Three times in a week. For ten weeks.

When we read over and over, we focus less on individual verses that we might take out of context, and we begin to hear the whole Gospel. We will still get some individual passages wrong, but we will get the whole message right. You see, alongside the many voices of Scripture, we hear always God’s Spirit speaking through the authors. It is one of miracles of inspiration that the whole Bible does tell one coherent story, speaking through so many different people. If you want to know that story and learn to live by that story, you have to read the whole Bible and listen to the whole Bible.

I think of my grandparents’ generation in the Brethren in Christ. Many people had only book: the Bible. For some their formal education stopped with Grade Eight, but they read the Bible. I have studied more than they—going on to seminary, but they read the Bible constantly and thoroughly. I suspect that they often read more clearly than I do.

A Concluding Thought
As we read the Bible together, we will sometimes disagree about what it says. We also disagree about how we can read the Bible. Some say that the Bible is plain and needs no interpretation. Others say that the Bible is complicated and we cannot understand it. Both are right. In its overall message the Bible is clear—even if we have some disagreements. In many places the Bible is complicated—but in fact those places are fewer than we might think.

We do sometimes disagree about what the Bible says. I have worked most of my professional life as a seminary teacher among people with whom I disagree. I am convinced that Jesus’ call to peace is integral to the message of the gospel. Reconciliation with God includes reconciliation with people. Most of my colleagues, however, see peace as a goal to work towards rather than a life to live now. They are not pacifists; I am. Yet we continue to work together. We live and work together as brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, saved by the blood of Jesus on the cross, gather around the communion table, reading the same Bible, willing to follow all that Jesus commands us to do.

The first thing that the Bible is meant to do, then, is bring us to Jesus. Then it teaches us how to live—using stories and examples from history. Precise lessons may be complex and we may disagree, but they always fit into the whole story of God’s reconciling ways. In our own struggles here and now, let the Bible call you back to Jesus, to walk with him until he returns.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
18 September 2016
Texts
2 Timothy 3: 10-17
A Final Charge to Timothy
10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

John 5: 31-47
Testimonies About Jesus
31 “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. 32 There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is true. 33 “You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. 34 Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. 35 John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light.
36 “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, 38 nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
41 “I do not accept glory from human beings, 42 but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
45 “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Forgiveness

Introduction
I understand that you [Grace Mennonite Church] are taking four Sundays to consider the Lord’s Prayer as it appears in Luke’s Gospel. That means that my focus this morning is on Jesus’ words here, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” I will begin by setting the context of the prayer in Luke, comment briefly on the prayer and the saying on prayer that follows, and then consider the idea of forgiveness as we have it here.

Luke’s Gospel
Luke’s Gospel divides naturally into the following sections: the first four chapters, culminating in Jesus’ beginning sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4); Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (chapters 4-9), which has miracles interspersed with some teaching; Jesus on the road to Jerusalem (chapters 9-19), which consists mostly of teaching, with some dramatic action; and finally the climax in Jerusalem (chapters 19-24), with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

This passage, then, comes near the beginning of “the road to Jerusalem”. Luke structures the Gospel so as to present much of Jesus’ teaching as a walk to Jerusalem. I am reminded of an Anglican catechism class described by Tom Sine in Mustardseed vs. McWorld. The class chose to do their instruction, leading up to confirmation, as they walked from London to Canterbury—a distance of about 70 miles. As they walked, they learned the catechism and concluded their instruction with the confirmation ceremony in the Canterbury Cathedral. A Japanese theologian (Kosuke Koyama) uses the phrase, “the three-mile an hour God”, God who walks with us at the ordinary pace of daily life. This is the God to whom we pray in this prayer.

The Context of the Prayer
Luke reminds us that Jesus prayed regularly and gave his disciples a pattern for prayer. Since this prayer (which we call the Lord’s Prayer) is that pattern, we can expect that he told them more than once. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the prayer as part of the Sermon on the Mount talking about how to pray. Here, Jesus gives the prayer as a response to one of the larger group of disciples who were walking with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.
In Matthew Jesus introduces the prayer thus: “This, then, is how you should pray.” Here he says, “When you pray, say.” The difference in wording is unimportant, reflecting Luke and Matthew’s memories as well as the different occasions on which Jesus taught them to pray. The disciple’s question reminds me of how often we have to say the same things before everyone hears them—which is not the point of this prayer, but a daily reality in community life.

The saying after the prayer has to do with praying for results, so that you might say the prayer focusses on spiritual power, where Matthew’s context focusses more on the relationship that the disciples have with God. In this context, then, Jesus tells his disciples—and us—to pray persistently and thus also to receive God’s blessing.

The Prayer
Luke’s version of the prayer is quite brief, compared to Matthew’s account: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.” The prayer begins with acknowledgment that God is God, and that our lives depend on God. Then follow three simple requests: 1) Meet our physical needs; 2) Meet our spiritual needs; 3) Protect us in a dangerous world.” We focus on the spiritual need for forgiveness.

Forgive, for we also forgive
We are more familiar with the prayer in Matthew, where Jesus says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” There God’s forgiveness appears to depend on our response of forgiving others. Here our attitude of forgiveness appears to be the grounds that somehow require God also to forgive us: “Forgive us, because we are people who forgive.” The difference is again unimportant. We are sometimes inclined to read a real difference where we have simply a way of expressing oneself. This morning I use both forms of the prayer interchangeably, as the prayer speaks about forgiveness.
A couple of rabbit trails:
1) You notice that Luke records the prayers as “forgive us our sins; we forgive others what they owe us.” The idea of debt (here and in Matthew) is of a moral obligation, but it is interesting that Jesus calls what we do against God “sin”, and what others do against us a failure to meet an obligation. Another sermon might explore the concept of sin more fully. Here I note only that the basic idea of “sin” is that it is rebellion against God. To pray “Your kingdom come” while insisting on being in charge of our own lives is the essence of rebellion.
2) Matthew records the prayer as, “Forgive us … as we forgive others.” Luke records the prayer as, “Forgive us … for we forgive others.” The difference is not to suggest that we earn forgiveness, but rather to remind us that the refusal to forgive others can become the obstacle to receiving God’s forgiveness. Alan Kreider has observed that the early church insisted that people wanting to become Christians had to show the “fruit of repentance” before they were allowed to hear the gospel. A curious fact! (See The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom.

“Forgive us,” we pray: God extends mercy. “For we also forgive”: We in turn are to extend mercy. One might express more fully thus: God treats us with kindness and mercy, which leads to a new life flowing in us and through us—expressed by treating those around us also with kindness and mercy. To put it more bluntly: God will treat us the way that we treat each other. I find this thought to be somewhat disturbing, because we often do not treat each other well.

Some Illustrations
Consider the following examples. I wonder what our world would be like, following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, if George Bush would have prayed this prayer before each strategy meeting determining the American response: “Forgive us our sins, because we forgive others their sins.” Could we have found a response to Al Qaeda that pursued justice (for example, through the World Court in Hague), but did not embrace vengeance? Treating even our enemies with kindness and mercy would lead to a very different world.

I think of another situation. During his undergraduate work at a school I won’t name, one of my students at Providence rented rooms in the basement of a house owned by a professor of “peace and conflict studies”. There were three rooms in the basement, which shared a common eating and sitting area. He told me how he and the other two students renting the basement would sit there listening to the professor and his wife fighting upstairs. The irony: that someone who could teach others how to move towards peace could not live at peace himself in his own house.
Please note: the fact of strong disagreements is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we must speak up, wherever or whatever the situation. But one can fight well, in ways that move towards peace and in ways that reflect the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.

I think of other situations that most people here are fully familiar with. Following the gathering of MC Canada in Saskatoon, we know of strong disagreements across the conference to which we belong. Again, as with the peace and conflict professor and his wife, it is not bad that we disagree—even disagree strongly. But the principle stated in the Lord’s Prayer holds true: God will treat us the way that we treat each other.

Our forebears knew this truth well. Some years ago I sang in a choir with Rudy Schellenburg directing. Our concert consisted of Low German folk songs, including one, “Mein Noba Klassen.” The basic idea of the song was a complaint about my neighbour, Klassen, who kept borrowing things from me and breaking them. We sang fervently that we could never forgive this thoughtless, careless neighbour.
“Our neighbor is angry at me because I did not lend him my new ax.
He borrows all kinds of things from me, there doesn't seem to be any purpose in it.
The other day he borrowed my wagon,
Then immediately broke the axle in two.”

The sting in the song came in the tune, a well-known hymn tune. The hymn appears in our own Mennonite Hymnal as #524, “What mercy and divine compassion has God in Christ revealed to me.” We sang our bitterness and unforgiveness to a tune that reminded us of God’s undeserved mercy. And the principle holds true: God will treat us the way that we treat each other.

Judgment and Grace
I find this truth to be more than a little disconcerting. If God treats me the way that I treat my brothers and sisters, I may be in trouble. I pray the Lord’s Prayer every morning as a part of preparing to live each day. I have focussed on different aspects of the prayer at different times—sometimes the beginning formula, “Your name, Your reign, Your will.” Sometimes I focus on this morning’s verse: “Forgive us (me) as we (I) forgive.” I have tried to live faithfully by this principle, not holding others’ faults against them and lifting them up to God for God’s blessing. But of course I fail sometimes, as I suspect all of us do. A critical spirit creeps in. I begin to judge others and I get angry with them for their blindness. Perhaps the most obvious place I experience this spirit is when I argue with my American friends who inexplicably (to me) support Donald Trump. I can understand supporting some, even many, of his policies; but to support the man himself? And as I argue, I hear the Spirit quietly reminding me, “The way you treat these friends is the way God will treat you.”

Such a difficult standard then stands in judgment on us. We all fail to extend forgiveness freely, to extend mercy and kindness to each other. If God judges us as we judge others (Matthew 7:1), we are in trouble! At that point the prayer becomes a plea for God to remake us and show greater grace than we have any right to ask for—grace that not only pardons and cleanses, but grace that transforms and remakes us as God’s children.

Some Closing Thoughts
As we continue to learn the path of forgiveness, a path we can walk only by God’s great grace, I offer a few closing thoughts about how we might act in times of conflict:
1. There are times we do disagree. This is not bad. We should practice a basic honesty that honours our own integrity as well as respects those around us. Nothing in the practice of forgiveness says that we should avoid conflict.
2. How we disagree is critical. We should not fight dirty. We should not tear the other person down. We seek the other person’s good, even as we disagree. The disagreement may be so strong as to say that we must separate, but even in the hardest times, we fight fair and act in love and respect.
3. To disagree well and treat the other person kindly, we assume the best about the person. I have heard people speak clearly in arguments—and then move on to judge the other person’s motives. Assume the best of the other person. Assume they also are seeking to follow Christ faithfully. If we assume the worst about others, we invite God to find the worst in us.
4. Act in good faith and in love for the other at all times—even when separating. I think of a congregation I know who divided down the middle over whether they wanted a pastor-led congregation, or a lay-led congregation. It was hard. Such separations are bitter, and there were many broken relationships. Those people who acted in love and good faith throughout found it easiest to forgive at the end. Those who were convinced that the others were trying to destroy the church and spoke most strongly found it hardest to forgive.

Remember, God will treat us the way that we treat each other. In this prayer, we not only recognize this truth, we go further and ask God to make this truth alive in our hearts and minds.

What Mercy and divine compassion has God in Christ revealed to me!
My haughty spirit would not ask it, yet he bestowed it full and free.
In God my heart does now rejoice. I praise his grace with grateful voice,
I praise his grace with grateful voice.

Your bounteous grace is my assurance, the blood of Christ my only plea,
Your heart of love my consolation until your glorious face I see.
My theme, through never-ending days, shall be your great redeeming grace,
Shall be your great redeeming grace.


Text, Luke 11: 1-11 (Jesus’ teaching on prayer)
11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’
Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

28 August 2016

Grace Mennonite Church

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Divine Wisdom—Human Wisdom

Our summer series focusses on some of the attributes of God and then asks how we show that quality in our own lives. According to Genesis 1, we image God. That is, we look like God, and we represent God in daily life in our world. This morning we look at God’s wisdom, and then seek God’s wisdom in our own lives. God’s Wisdom is a tricky subject to consider. We can imitate God’s love, and God’s commitment to justice and mercy. We can act like God as God’s representatives in this world in many ways. But God is the source of wisdom, and we cannot pretend to be like God in our wisdom. So how do we image the Wisdom of God?

We consider four separate passages of Scripture in an effort to move through the topic. The two OT passages state that God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding, but adds that we are to pursue wisdom anyway. The two NT passages show us what “wisdom” looked like in Paul’s ministry, which is the image of the cross. Given the constraints of time, I note only a small part of what each passage has to say, and then bring them together to ask what they say to us today.

Isaiah 40: 12-31
Isaiah 40 begins with the promise of restoration from exile. One can imagine people starting to ask questions. “Why did we have to go into exile?” “What was God doing all this time?” We also live in a world wracked by terrible tragedies that we cannot hope to understand. Perhaps like Job we wish we could call God to account for all the tragedies we see round us—from the truck driven into bystanders in Nice, France to personal losses and hurts that we have experienced.

Isaiah speaks to us: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counsellor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” Verse 28 puts it: “There is no searching of his understanding.”

Isaiah ridicules the worship of idols (verses 18-20). The way he begins this section is striking: “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?” Our summer series reminds us that we are the images of God. The image of God tells us two things: We are made in God’s likeness; and we represent God. This fact—that we are God’s images—clashes with the clear statement that we cannot understand God or God’s purposes in this world. It raises a basic question: How can we show the wisdom of God in our lives when we cannot grasp God’s wisdom? To get at the answer, consider this gap between us and God.

God is the Creator. Like the writer of a book, God is the author of our story. For us to comprehend God is as impossible as for the character in a book to understand the author of the book. The only way that a character could know the author is if the author puts such knowledge into the heart and mind of that character. Similarly, we cannot know God in and of ourselves. We can only know God through God’s self-revelation (which happens in the person of Jesus Christ).

Isaiah reminds us that we cannot understand the mind and purpose of our Creator. The book of Job makes a similar point. Job calls God to account, and God’s reply (Job 38) is essentially: “Where were you when I created the moon and the stars and the earth and all that is in it?” Job recognizes his folly in trying to comprehend God and repents in dust and ashes (Job 42).

So we cannot comprehend God, or God’s purposes, or God’s wisdom. Nevertheless we are God’s images; we are those who are supposed to show God’s wisdom to people in a confused and chaotic world.

Proverbs 4: 1-9
The book of Proverbs is part of what we call “wisdom literature” in the Old Testament. The book as a whole collects Proverbs from various areas of life and gives a picture of what it means to live wisely. Many of the proverbs are closely tied to the cultural setting of the people and may not apply in our setting, but the whole building of wisdom is based on the first nine chapters, which celebrate God’s Wisdom.

I want to note two points. The first is statement repeated often in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” Here is the first step in dealing with the problem of how to be images of God’s wisdom: Fear the Lord. We do not need to be afraid of God, but we hold God in awe and reverence. We live with the awareness that all of life is in God’s hands. This idea is behind two verses people often give as their life verses (Proverbs 3: 5-6): “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.” The second point is given in the verses we read from chapter 4: “The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” It may be true that we cannot comprehend God and that the wisdom of God is beyond our understanding, yet we are to pursue it. We are to give our lives to God’s Wisdom.
A side note: One commentator observes that this means we follow wisdom, the pattern or order of God’s creation. That idea makes sense to me, and leads (via 1 Corinthians 1) to the same conclusion as I come to below. My one hesitation about using this language is that it can lead to the way some have put it; “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” God does indeed have plans for our lives, but I resist the idea of a blue print so that each choice has one and only one right answer and wisdom consists of finding it.

In Proverbs 1 to 9 Wisdom is personified as a woman who is in contrast with Folly. Wisdom in Jewish thinking came to be seen as a description of God. Some commentators suggest that this view of Wisdom is behind the way that John 1 speaks of the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If this is correct—and I think it is—then “Get Wisdom” becomes “Follow Jesus!” John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection prepare the way for the Holy Spirit. I do not think we stretch the connection too far to render “Get Wisdom” as “Be filled with the Spirit.”
Another side note: This personification of Wisdom (Sophia) as a woman, who then becomes the lens through which we read about God the Word (Logos) is a useful corrective to our masculine imagery for God. God is fully personal (not of course, corporeal), but unbound by our gender limitations.

1 Corinthians 1: 18-2: 5
To build on these ideas we turn to 1 Corinthians. This is the first passage I thought of when I was assigned “the Wisdom of God.” God’s Wisdom is seen most clearly in the crucified Christ.
Note that Paul does not refer to the crucified and risen Christ, but simply to the cross. In 1 Corinthians 15 he expands on the resurrection, but here he begins with the cross alone.
The cross looks like weakness to the Jews and appears foolish to the Greeks, but, God’s weakness is stronger than human power, and God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. So, Paul says, his whole life and message can be summarized as “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. This summary echoes the words of Jesus, “Those who would be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me.” In Galatians 1 Paul says much the same thing, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, for Christ lives within me.” So then, to pursue wisdom means to lift up the cross and follow Jesus.

What does it mean to know the crucified Christ? What does it mean to take up our crosses and follow Jesus? Jesus went to his death on the cross for the salvation of the world. We are not able to save anyone; God’s saving work on the cross is Christ’s alone. Yet we still carry our cross and follow Christ. What can that mean? Jesus not only died to save the world, but he also received the violence of the world around him into himself, returning only love. I think that is what is going on in Paul’s words here:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Christ is God’s love in action, and we are to be “God’s love in action.” What does this look like? The Sermon on the Mount shows us what this active love looks like in our lives.  E. Stanley Jones wrote a book called The Christ on the Mount. In it, he writes this:
Jesus is not teaching passive resistance, but an active resistance on a higher level. The account does not say, “If a man smite you on one cheek, let him smite the other also,” but it does say, “Turn to him the other also.” It is this audacious offensive of love that forces the man to go further and thus to break down. He tries to break your head, and you, as a Christian, try to break his heart. In turning the other cheek you wrest the offensive from him and assume moral charge of the situation. You choose your own battleground, and your own weapons, you refuse his and compel him to stand on ground with which he is not familiar and to face weapons he does not know how to face. If a man compel you to go with him one mile, you are his slave; but if you voluntarily go with him two, then you rise from your slavery, confer a bounty on him and thus become his master. If he sues you at law and takes away your coat, you are his servant, but if you confer on him your cloak also, you assume the mastery by your own moral daring.

Allowing a man to smite you on one cheek, and letting him have the coat, and submitting to him when he compels you to go one mile does little or no good. The fact is that it does harm to the man who does it and to the man who submits to it. It is the other cheek, the cloak also and the second mile that do the trick. It is this plus that turns the scale. The one cheek, the coat and the one mile this is passive resistance; but turning the other cheek, giving the cloak also and going the second mile this is an active resistance on the plane of unquenchable good will. Passive resistance may reveal nothing but weakness; this active resistance of love reveals nothing but strength. (Abingdon Press, 1931: pp. 172-173)

You see the point. To embrace Christ’s crucifixion in our own lives means to live with Christ’s love flowing through us. If we take this love to mean that we do not resist evil, but passively accept whatever happens, we end up bitter and frustrated. Such negative silence in the presence of oppression leads to the kind of passive-aggressive actions we know all too well. Instead of such passivity, God calls us to respond to the evil around us with active non-violent love. This is hard to do consistently, and it appears foolish to the world around, which worships violence and human strength. But this is the wisdom and power of God.

In the Canadian Mennonite (May 9, 2016, p. 23) there is a story about Tulio Pedraza, who lived in Colombia. When Mennonite missionaries went to Colombia in 1949, Tulio and his wife, Sofia, were among their first converts. Tulio was a coffin-maker in the small town of Anolaima. Because of political and religious unrest in the country, the local Catholic priest mounted a campaign to drive Tulio out of business. He brought in a coffin-maker from another town to replace him. After some time, Tulio lost his business and had to survive with whatever small work he could get. Tulio’s response was to share his knowledge with the new coffin-maker and to sell him his own tools so that his business could succeed. Tulio refused to respond in bitterness to the continuing persecution, which targeted his children and threatened his life, but responded only in love. The article ends with these words:
He died peacefully in 1964. The rival carpenter who had been brought in to destroy the Pedraza business donated a coffin for his burial. Even though the funeral was a Mennonite service, the coffin maker attended, risking his own reputation in the community to honour a man who had shown him such unusual love, born from a deep faith.

This is the wisdom and power of God, to respond in humility and active love when others attack us. Human wisdom seeks to defend itself. Divine wisdom (which looks foolish) acts in love.

Philippians 2: 1-11
Earlier I suggested that “Get Wisdom” may mean “Be filled with the Spirit”. Philippians 2 makes explicit the link between the cross and the Spirit, which supports the connection between God’s Wisdom and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul begins the chapter with an appeal to the Philippians’ previous experience of the Holy Spirit, which produced encouragement, love, tenderness, and compassion. On the basis of this experience Paul urges them to greater unity, shown especially in the way that they care for each other: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Here is the key to imaging the wisdom of God. Human wisdom says, “Look out for number one.” Human wisdom says, “Take care of yourself first.” When the airlines give us their instructions as we get ready to fly, they say,
In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. … If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own mask first, and then assist the other person.
This is good advice in an airplane: Take care of yourself first. But God’s wisdom points in another direction: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Again we have the question: What does this actually look like? In the August edition of a magazine called First Things Matthew Schmitz wrote about “Donald Trump: Man of Faith”. (Note that I am talking now only about Trump’s theology. Who one should vote for if one is an American is another question.) Trump is a Presbyterian who grew up under the preaching of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Here is what Schmitz says:
Peale promised his readers ‘constant energy’ if they thought positively. Optimistic thoughts opened one up to a vital force coming directly from God. Negative thoughts, especially a tendency to dwell on one’s faults, could interfere with the divine charge. He warned those with active consciences that ‘the quantity of vital force required to give the personality relief from either guilt or fear’ was so great that it left ‘only a fraction of energy’ for going about one’s tasks. … For Peale, ‘attitudes are more important than facts.’ The man who displays ‘a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.’

You can see many of these ideas in the way that Trump has campaigned, but Schmitz makes a more important point:
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one. The self-sufficient faith Trump absorbed from Peale has no place for human weakness. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
(I must add that Trump is only exceptional in the clarity with which he lives this theology. It is in fact the way that many politicians on both sides of the political spectrum think and act.)

Paul tells us that reliance on human strength makes us unable to receive God’s strength, and reliance on human wisdom makes us unable to receive God’s wisdom. The centre of human wisdom is to place yourself at the centre of your life. The centre of God’s wisdom is to place God at the centre of your life, which means in practical terms taking care of each other’s interests before our own.

Conclusion
I like ending sermons with an illustration or application that makes the whole sermon clear. I can’t do that this morning—I do not have enough wisdom. Instead, I ask each one of us here this morning to work out how we can show God’s wisdom—loving God, following Christ, caring for each other. We are experiencing challenging times as a country, as a community, as a congregation. We need God’s wisdom to respond to all around us with the kind of love that draws each one closer to God. The conclusion of this sermon is for all of us to write as we talk around our tables and move into the future that God has for us together.



Steinbach Mennonite Church
24 July 2016

Texts:
Isaiah 40: 12-31
Proverbs 4: 1-9
1 Corinthians 1: 18-2: 5
Philippians 2: 1-11

Sunday, July 10, 2016

God's Wrath

Introduction
The attributes of God is a recurring theme in sermons, as it should be. Assigned this topic (God’s wrath) many years ago (1997) for a Providence chapel.  SMC is doing a series this summer, for which I am assigned to speak on the Wisdom of God. Recently I preached on the way that we see God through Jesus (“He is the image of the invisible God …), using the idea of Jesus as the fractal (a recurring pattern on various scales from infinite to microscopic).

One may ask why I come back to God’s wrath, when I could reflect on many other more uplifting themes. A basic reason is that our world is filled with so much anger and violence that we struggle to understand how we are to live—or even how we can carry on with any hope in a difficult and troubled world.

Text
With these thoughts in mind, we read Psalm 2.
Psalm 2
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’
10 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Comments
The flow of the Psalm is fairly clear.

1. Our world is full of rebellion. “The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed”. Examples today:
·         Shootings of the past week in the USA.
·         The turmoil in Zimbabwe (hardly heard here, in the clamour of our lives, but so difficult for those who live there).
·         We could multiply examples of personal conflicts, broken families, and so on.

Clearly the rulers of our world—including each individual—seek to throw off God’s rule (“let us break our bonds asunder”) and run our own lives, with catastrophic results.

2. God’s response to human rebellion is what we call “God’s wrath”.
As these words appear in Handel’s “Messiah”: “He who sitteth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn. The Lord shall have them in derision.” “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron. Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

You see, God is the Creator, the one who made us. The image of God as the potter and humankind as the vessel is used often in the Bible. If the dish or pot or vessel that the potter is making goes wrong, the potter destroys it and begins over again—like someone knitting who takes out the stitches when a piece goes wrong.

The point? God is the Creator. God is the Ruler. God reigns.

3. Before this destruction takes place, there is an important piece in verses 6 to 8:
‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.

You recognize where these verses appear in the gospel records: “You are my Son. Today I have become your father.” Matthew 3:17 records something like this about Jesus at his baptism (compare Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22). In Acts 1333 Paul applies this Psalm directly to Jesus, as does the writer of Hebrews (1:5 and 5:5).

This psalm was written originally about David’s line, but is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, referencing the king directly as “God’s Son”. So God’s wrath results in the giving of God’s Son.

You must understand that this is the way God normally works: Judgment always leads to grace. God’s wrath blazes out in service of God’s love.

4. The closing verses of the Psalm call on the kings of the earth to cease their rebellion and serve the Lord. “Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.”

The Psalm states an idea expressed in the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
God’s wrath is never intended to destroy us, even if our rebellion leads to our destruction. God always desires our salvation and our good. So deep is God’s love and desire for our salvation that God stepped in between us and the destruction our rebellion merits (compare Genesis 15:17).

Application
How do we live with these ideas?
·         God hates evil (evil=rebellion against God). We also should hate evil. Compare the response of my co-worker at Whistlestop, whose parents had separated. He hated their conflict—and rightly so. Compare Lauren—“I hate poverty!”: her response as a school nurse to seeing the effects of poverty in the lives of children.
·         God works to destroy human rebellion. We also should work against evil.
·         We must be careful in this work. We are not God. We are not the ones who should “dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”. God is able to show wrath within the context of perfect love. Too often our anger against wrong turns into anger against people. We are also a part of the rebellion, so as we seek justice, we do so with humility.
·         We can work for God and for good in this world, confident that the final outcome is not in doubt. Events around us may lead us to despair and apathy. God’s greatness and goodness can restore our hope and love.

An example:
·         Soup’s On and Community Outreach—both respond to the evil of homelessness, holding out God’s love and grace.

You can give your own examples. I think of Zimbabwe and my concern for her people. Despair is always nearby, but God’s love and God’s grace are greater even than the evil of the Zimbabwean regime.

Conclusion
When I spoke on this topic in the Providence Chapel back in 1997-8, I asked Henry Schellenburg and James Fast to sing the scripture, using the arias in Handel’s Messiah, drawn from Psalm 2. The next chorus after these arias is the Hallelujah Chorus, which answers the question from the first aria, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” The answer: “Hallelujah! He is King of kings and Lord of lords. The Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah!”


The Gathering
10 July 2016

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Fractals of God

Introduction
Last week I asked the question, “What is the church supposed to look like?” Using Ephesians 4, I noted the importance of community, a place where we can find safety and work out who we are, centred on the presence and work of God in Christ. The church then is centred on God in Christ—we are the temple in which God dwells, as well as being the body of Christ. This truth raises a further question: What does God look like? What are the characteristics or qualities of God, who is the centre of the church?

We could examine this question through a survey of systematic theology and the attributes of God. Although such a survey has real benefit and power, I prefer to approach the question through Colossians 1. (This sermon series should really have three parts—the church, which we looked at last week; Jesus in Colossians 1, which we look at today; and Jesus in the Gospels as part three.) Jesus is, Paul writes, the image of the invisible God. That is, if we wish to see God, we look at Jesus. Jesus shows us God. With this in mind, we begin by reading from Colossians 1.

Text

The Supremacy of the Son of God

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Paul’s Labor for the Church

24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Some Thoughts from the Text
Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written precisely to lift up the person of Jesus. The church in Colossae was probably about six years old when Paul wrote this letter. The Colossian church was an outgrowth of Paul’s ministry in the sense that his co-workers probably went there from Ephesus (about 100 miles west of Colossae) and started the church. Commentators suggest that Paul wrote from prison in Rome about 60 ad, to this church which had been established about six years before, and which disappeared a year later following an earthquake that destroyed Colossae.

The churches of that region faced a challenge that was common throughout the valley in which they lay. The basic challenge was this. The rise of mystical ideas, growing out of a form of Jewish mysticism, was enticing people in the region to leave Christian faith and start emphasizing a form of religion in which angels and powers and various other spiritual entities played a big part. Paul wrote this letter to the churches of the region as a whole, not just to the Colossians, to make the point that all they needed was Jesus. Jesus was all they needed to know God and receive God’s salvation.

1. This is the reason that the passage begins with these words: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Paul’s point is simple. If you want to know God, you look at Jesus. You don’t need thrones or dominions or angels or powers; all you need is Jesus.

Here is an image from mathematics to express what Paul is saying. (I tread lightly here, given my lack of mathematical understanding, and ask the real mathematicians out there to treat me kindly!) I learned the term that I am using from my son, who is a real mathematician: That is, “fractal.” Here is the Wikipedia definition of fractal: “A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. It is also known as expanding symmetry or evolving symmetry. If the replication is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar pattern. An example of this is the Menger Sponge.” The definitionfrom the Fractal Foundation web page says, “A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” (I encourage the reader to look up the MengerSponge and see how this process works.)

Using this image, then, I suggest that we think of Jesus as a fractal of God. God is the source of all natural phenomena, and the “self-similar pattern” captures what I am saying. On a micro-scale we have Jesus, accessible to our limited minds. On a macro-scale (beyond all other scales), we have God, so far beyond the finitude of our minds for us to comprehend anything. But when we look at Jesus, we see the pattern of God.

What does God look like? God looks like Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see what God looks like. Jesus expresses this same idea in words like, “I and my Father are one”, and “Those who have seen me have seen the Father.” Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.

2. Verses 16 and 17 tell us that Christ permeates every area of life.For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

To pursue the fractal image, the repeating pattern of God’s nature appears not only preeminently in Jesus, but also prospectively in all of creation. A hymn in the Mennonite hymnal puts it this way:
O love of God, how strong and true! Eternal, and yet ever new;
Uncomprehended and unbought, Beyond all knowledge and all thought.

O wide-embracing, wondrous love! We read thee in the sky above,
We read thee in the earth below, In seas that swell, and streams that flow.

We read thee best in Him who came To bear for us the cross of shame;
Sent by the Father from on high, Our life to live, our death to die.

We see God all around us, in the beauty of creation, in the way that people relate to each other (at our best), and above all else in the person of Jesus. This aspect of God’s self-revelation comes to us as judgment and hope. So much of human life is clearly in rebellion against God—which assures its destruction. Thus during the apartheid era, Black South African theologians told us that apartheid is against the nature of God, therefore they could be sure it would die.

This judgment also contains great hope—God is creating and re-creating in God’s image all the time, so that we can act in the ways that God calls us to. We may have failed often, but God is at work in us and in all of creation to repeat the divine pattern.

3. Verses 17 to 20 add that this re-creative process integrates life, helping to make sense of life. God does not answer all our questions about life. How often have we asked, “Why did so-and-so have to go through this experience?” Answering such questions could require understanding the mystery of evil. Why did Lucifer first rebel against God? Such questions are beyond human comprehension.

Although God does not answer all of our questions, God does help us to integrate all of our experiences into a coherent whole. Jesus did this by healing people in his earthly ministry and by identifying with “publicans and sinners”. We do not make life whole by avoiding trouble—against the contrast the modern notion: “We must change the system so that this event never happens to anyone again.” Certainly we try to make things better.  Prudence tells us that we should live wisely, not making problems by acting foolishly, but bad things will happen. It is in the nature of God to help us integrate such things into a coherent healthy whole. God is a healing integrating God.

4. Verses 20 to 23 give the reason that Jesus represents God to us: God’s purpose is to reconcile all of creation with himself. God is a reconciling God. God brings reconciliation through the cross of Jesus. Jesus died to bring peace—between God and human beings, and between people, so that we live at peace with those around us and with the whole of creation. What does God look like? God looks like peace and wholeness, brought to us in the person of Jesus.

5. The final verses (24-27) tell us that we join in the sufferings of Christ so as to experience the life of Christ. I think that Paul’s comment here (“I make up in my own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”) is a way of echoing Jesus’ words in Mark 8: “Those who would be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me”, and his own words in Galatians 2: “I am crucified with Christ … so that Christ lives within me.”

This idea reaffirms the comment above about fractals. Not only does Jesus show us the shape of God in his own life, but Jesus lives in us so that we can reproduce that shape in our lives as well.

But What Does Jesus Look Like?
If we want to replicate the shape of Jesus’ life in our own lives, we still may wonder what that looks like. Jesus is “the firstborn from among the dead” (v.18), so that we know we can follow his path. Jesus lives in us, he becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v.27). But what does he look like?

As I said, this should be another sermon to conclude this series, but here are a few comments briefly for the moment.

·         Jesus looks like God. This is what we have said above. In Jesus we see the very shape and structure of God.
·         Jesus looks like us. The Bible normally tells us when someone looked quite distinctive. So King Saul (for example) was a head taller than anyone else in his kingdom (1 Samuel 9). We read nothing of this sort about Jesus. Evidently he looked like an ordinary first century Palestinian Jewish peasant. This ordinariness is part of the promise that Jesus can live in us, giving us his life.
·         Jesus accepted people that no one else accepts. He accepted marginalized and rejected people—sometimes call “am ha’aretz”, the people of the land.
·         Jesus required repentance and a re-orientation of life to God. Jesus accepted the marginalized, but he also called them to follow him. Sometimes we think of Jesus as loving and gentle. Indeed he was, but he also had little time for those who wanted to hold on to their own way of life. Think of the way he called the Pharisees blind guides, leading the blind into a pit (Matthew 15).
·         Jesus created community. Reading the book of Acts again, one sees how remarkable the first church was. They took care of each other to a degree greater than any similar movement in history, and they provided care for people around them. Stephen Neill wrote a history of the missionary nature of the church in which he observes that the church in the first three centuries church grew faster than at any other time in history. One primary reason was the quality of their lives. Here is how he describes them:
In those days to be a Christian meant something. Doubtless among the pagans there were many who lived upright and even noble lives. Yet all our evidence goes to show that in that decaying world sexual laxity had gone almost to the limits of the possible, and that slavery had brought with it the inevitable accompaniments of cruelty and the cheapening of the value of human life. Christians were taught to regard their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The Church did not attempt to forbid or abolish slavery; it drew the sting of it by reminding masters and slaves alike that they had a common Master...and that they were brothers in the faith.

Conclusion
We could have surveyed the attributes of God far more comprehensively than this brief account this morning, but this is what we have Colossians 1:
·         God looks like Jesus.
·         Jesus looks like us. (This is a frightening and humbling reality!)
·         In Christ God is restoring all of creation—including you and me to its original goodness.
·         This recreation takes shape first of all in community and embraces everyone around us—not just people we think are good, but everyone who turns to Christ and receives his inner life.


To put it again in the image of fractals: Jesus is the fractal of God. Remember the definition? “Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” God shows us the very nature of God in Jesus, and then seeks to repeat the process in each one of us. What does God look like? I know we fall short, desperately short of this ideal; but God looks like you and me. Or more precisely, God is reshaping us to show God’s self to the world.


5 June 2016
Mitchell Community Fellowship
Text: Colossians 1: 15-27