Sunday, May 06, 2018

Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship

We are moving week by week through the “Minor Prophets” – shorter books than the “Major prophets”, but by no means minor in their message or importance.

We began with Jonah, who showed us “the God of the second chance”. Then came Amos, who went from his home south of Jerusalem to the Northern Kingdom to tell them that their religious idolatry, sexual promiscuity, and economic oppression falsified their offerings to God. God wants God’s people to thrive. Last week we heard about Hosea, whose radical love for his unfaithful wife gives us a picture of God’s love for God’s unfaithful people.

These three prophets ministered in the Northern Kingdom during a time of political and economic prosperity. Jeroboam 2 had a long and prosperous reign. They made it clear, however, that outward prosperity can conceal inward greed and rebellion against God. It may be that the watching people don’t see the inner corruption, but God does see it, and God sends the prophets to speak against it.

Today we move from the North (Samaria) to the South (Jerusalem). Micah ministers in the period just after Amos and Hosea, beginning in days of prosperity under Jeroboam 2, but continuing through his successors. The first verse of the book states: “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This dating carries his ministry through Jeroboam’s successors: Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah, and Hoshea.

Micah saw the prosperity of Jeroboam. Micah saw prosperity in Judah as well, if not as much as in Samaria, but he also saw something else. Amos had said during the height of Samaria’s prosperity that the Assyrians would destroy their nation, and it happened. Micah saw the end of the Northern Kingdom, and he saw his own country tremble before the Assyrian army. He experienced the terror of the Assyrian army camped around Jerusalem, before God destroyed it (2 Kings 18 and 19). Lord Byron pictured the scene in a poem written 200 years ago:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

This then is the background to the passages we heard read this morning. We consider them now briefly, and then ask what they tell us about the heart of God.

Micah 1: 3 to 7
In chapter 1, Micah tells the people that God’s judgment is on Samaria (the northern kingdom) and Jerusalem (the southern kingdom) because of their reliance on the high places – worship of false gods mingled with their worship of Yahweh. Given that he is speaking primarily to Judah, he uses the fact that they have seen the judgment on Samaria to warn them about the danger they face. He references primarily religious idolatry, but economic corruption is also a basic theme in his warnings to Judah.

Micah 4: 1 to 5
The passage in chapter 4 is one of our best-loved. Clearly it was one that the people of Micah’s day also liked, since Micah and Isaiah both use it. Probably they are both quoting a saying or hymn that people knew well.

The passage tells the people that God’s desire for God’s people is that they will be people of such goodness and peace that the whole world streams to them to learn how to know such peace and joy. People around the world look for such goodness within their own ‘gods”, but God’s people follow Yahweh alone, in Whom is peace and joy.
[Excursus: Missiologists call this “centripetal mission” of attraction, as compared to the “centrifugal” mission” of sending in the NT. Of course, God’s People are also sent in the OT (e.g., Abraham and Sarah sent to Canaan, and Jacob’s family sent into Egypt, and God’s New People in the NT are also to be a “city set on a hill”.]

Zion (or Jerusalem) is a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, so that this perfect peace, in which weapons are turned into agricultural implements, finds its fulfillment in the return of Christ at the end of all things. It stands as a beacon to inspire us to live the way that God wants us to live now, to be people of peace now. Ten Thousand Villages carries a line of jewelry made out of bomb casings, a sign of our hope in this life and the next.

Micah 6: 1 to 8
In chapter 6, in another of our favourite passages, God speaks like a lover. He says to us, “Remember the relationship we have had, the life we have lived together!” The prophet then speaks for God’s people, recognizing that our sin has polluted our worship and made it completely unacceptable. True worship is found in walking with God. Justice and mercy come from walking with God (which means, living with God). True religion flows from right relationship: Our faith is not a religion; it is a relationship.
[Footnote: I am borrowing this line from Bruxy Cavey and his book, The End of Religion. Of course, it is an overstatement. I teach World Religions, and that includes the religion called “Christianity”. But Cavey is right. The heart of the Christian religion is relationship with God, not the system of rituals we call “Christianity”.]
[Excursus: I was at a Theological Day with Joel Thiessen this past Friday (May 4, 2017), held at The Meeting House in Oakville,Ontario, where Bruxy is the preaching pastor. Thiessen’s presentation on those who enter “no religious affiliation on surveys (the “nones”) tied well into my thinking in this sermon.]

The point of all this is that God desires a relationship with us. The Law in the OT was always based on covenant. A covenant is something that seals and protects a relationship. True religion in the OT was never a matter of simply doing the right things so that God would have to bless the people. The transactional approach, trying to make God serve the people (what some call using God like a vending machine), is precisely what the prophets spoke against. Amos says, “I hate your tithes and offerings because you have broken our covenant!” Micah repeats it here: What does God want? God wants you to love justice and show kindness – and, most importantly, to walk with God. God wants us as lovers! That is the repeated thought in the startling imagery that we found in Hosea!

True worship relates with God; it is a relationship, not just ritual. True worship obeys and is better than sacrifice. True worship changes your life and mine. True worship changes the world around us through the power of love, acting in justice and mercy towards everyone around us.

Working It Out
Jesus told us precisely this, and we have heard it often enough. Jesus summarized the Law: “Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus had told the disciples that his new commandment was to love each other with the love they saw in him. This active love, this dynamic relationship, was what would show the world that they were Christians (John 13). But what do most people think of in Canada when they think about Christians? Joel Thiessen wrote an article in 2010 about the churches’ struggle to attract new people. Here is how he describes the way many people see the church:
Non-Christians perceive Christians, particularly evangelicals, to be hypocritical, anti-homosexual, sheltered within a Christian subculture, too political, judgmental, and motivated to make friends with non-Christians only because they wish to convert them. Christians are known not for what they stand for, but for what they stand against. They are perceived as closed-minded, arrogant, and highly exclusive relative to the surrounding culture.
Quote from Joel Thiessen, “Churches Are Not Necessarily the Problem: Lessons Learned from Christmas and Easter Affiliates”, p. 6. (Church and Faith Trends, Dec 2010, Vol. 3, No. 3). This paper was part of the reading for the Theological Day I attended.

This is awkward. What do the prophets do, if it is not to condemn sin in the world? What are prophets known for, if it is not for what they stand against? I have stressed the sins that Amos and Hosea and Micah condemned: sexual promiscuity, religious idolatry, and economic oppression. Only the last of these would gain any purchase in Canada today. We might agree that economic oppression is bad, but we would tell the prophet to mind his own business if he started rebuking us for what we think or believe or do “behind closed doors”.

But to hear the prophets this way is to miss what they were for. Their point was never only to denounce sin, but always to call people back into relationship with God. Amos wanted people to worship God rightly. Hosea wanted people to discover God’s love. Micah called people to renew their covenant with God and walk with the God who made them. This was their heartbeat, which reflected God’s consistent desire for God’s creation: “Love God. Love God’s People. Love God’s World.”

The task of figuring out how we do this is your homework. We need to work this out together, talking over coffee, working alongside each other, discovering the needs of our community and our world and meeting them in love.

Micah’s words were: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Start with the last of that series. We recognize that we are not very good at showing people God’s love, so we turn back to God in humility and with a deep desire for God to fill us. Read your Bible often, listening for God’s voice. Pray often, listening for God’s Spirit. Use the Lord’s Prayer or something like it over and over.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned Alan Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. He notes that worship and prayer were basic to the early church’s patient consistent walk with God. People spent time together praying and seeking God’s face. They prayed looking up, as if towards God, with hands outstretched. God was real to them, and God’s presence transformed their lives.

Justice and mercy (or as some translate it, kindness) flowed out of them because they knew themselves to be in God’s presence, wherever they were. These qualities were like their clothes, which they put on when they got up in the morning. One way that they reminded themselves who they were was by using the kiss of peace. Rich people would kiss poor people in the church, and poor would kiss rich. When martyrs were about to die in the arena, they would kiss each other as a visible sign of God’s love working within them. We don’t need to do what they did with these outward forms, but we do need their relationship with each other and with God. We love God, and so we love God’s people and we love God’s world.

What would it take for us to change the way that people around us see Christians? When it comes to witnessing, many of us probably adopt a policy of be as nice as you can, and maybe sometime someone will ask you why you’re so nice. Then you can say, “Because of Jesus!” J The trouble is that niceness is our national Canadian virtue. You know how we apologize when we trip over someone else. It’s their fault, and we say, “Sorry!” Someone asked, “If a Canadian trips when nobody is around, will he/she still apologize?” We are all participants in a national “I’m nicer than you contest”. So how nice would we have to be for people to notice?

You notice that Micah doesn’t say, “Be nice.” He says, “Be kind.” Put yourself out for people who are hurting. “Love justice.” Put yourself out for people who are marginalized. “Walk humbly with God.” Spend your life so close to God that you reflexively radiate God’s peace and love in every situation you find yourself.

As I said before, the actual shape of our lives is for all of us to work out together. Perhaps you can talk together a family or friends over lunch, working out what it means to radiate God’s love. Let me leave you with a prayer you have heard before, sometimes called the prayer of Saint Francis, which expresses in other words what I have been trying to say:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Note: I gather that this well-known prayer was probably not by St. Francis, and that it appears in various versions. The prayer is still worth praying.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
6 May 2018
Micah 1: 3 to 7
Judgment against Samaria and Jerusalem
Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling-place; he comes down and treads on the heights of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope. All this is because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the people of Israel. 
What is Jacob’s transgression? Is it not Samaria? What is Judah’s high place? Is it not Jerusalem?
‘Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble, a place for planting vineyards. I will pour her stones into the valley and lay bare her foundations. All her idols will be broken to pieces; all her temple gifts will be burned with fire; I will destroy all her images. Since she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes, as the wages of prostitutes they will again be used.’

Micah 4: 1 to 5

The Mountain of the Lord

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig-tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord
    our God for ever and ever.

Micah 6: 1 to 8

The Lord’s case against Israel

Listen to what the Lord says: ‘Stand up, plead my case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say. Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.
‘My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me. I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.’ 
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Story of Passports, continued

A few months ago, I traced our family's early life through passports. (Here is the link for that blog.)  Since then I have found two more passports in my desk -- newer than those, but from a time still long ago in our life as a couple.

The first one is the passport I carried to Zimbabwe in 1972. It was issued in Nov 1971, good for five years. I remember flying to Kenya and waiting a week in Nairobi for my work permit to enter Rhodesia. Returning to the States in Dec 1974, I spent a week in the UK, visiting Howard Hall (a friend in Manchester), going to a carols by candlelight in Westminster Cathedral (which, as it happens) is not Westminster Abbey, and forgetting to tell my parents when I would arrive. I landed in Chicago and called their home in Nappanee, Indiana. Collect, of course. Dad, mom, and Denise promptly got in the car and drove to O'Hare Airport to pick me up. we had supper in a diner beside the turnpike on the way home.
Two years after mine, Lois got her passport (also good for five years) to travel to Europe in 1973. She spent a year in Zaandam, Holland as a Menno Trainee, and visited Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, and other countries in Europe during that year. She also used it three years later to do her SST in Belize. Her passport picture shows Lois as I first met her. A good likeness!

We've travelled a lot since then, coming up on our 41st anniversary. But here's what we looked like when our journey together began, so many years ago.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

God’s Judgment, God’s Love

I could have enjoyed being a prophet. Prophets go casual, priests have to dress up. Priests wear a breast piece with something called “urim and thummim” on them. It makes even a three-piece suit sound comfortable. Prophets wear loose-fitting robes made of camel skin, or something like that. I could have enjoyed being a prophet.

Except that prophets speak for God. Priests represent the people to God, so they dress up and do all the right rituals. Prophets speak for God. They have visions and dreams and find themselves driven to say, “Thus says the Lord!” Jeremiah may have spoken for more prophets than just himself when he said, “Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:8f)

Amos was also driven to speak. He tells us that he was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (7:14). Rather, God gave him visions, and he had to share these visions with God’s people. In our study of the Book of the Twelve, Amos shares these visions from God with us as well.

Background and Message
Jonah, Amos, and Hosea were near contemporaries who all prophesied in the Northern kingdom of Israel. Israel had separated from Judah about 180 years earlier under Jeroboam 1, who tried to take the whole kingdom from Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. Judah and Benjamin stayed with Rehoboam, with their capital at Jerusalem. Jerusalem had Solomon’s Temple and a sense of being the centre of the Land for God’s Chosen People. Israel’s capital was Samaria, and Jeroboam established religious centres at Bethel in the south and Dan in the north (2 Kings 12) to keep the people from going to Jerusalem to worship.

In this account, we can see the beginnings of the Samaritan people we know from the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. When Amos lived, however, the two “kingdoms” were closely related, so that Amos can still refer to the people of the northern kingdom as God’s chosen people (3:2, quoting Exodus 19). We think of “kingdoms” with immigration officials similar to what we know when we enter the USA. Rather we should think of two general areas each under the control of a central authority, but with free movement between the two.

Amos came from Tekoa, a little south of Jerusalem, so it is a bit surprising that God calls him to go to Samaria – a bit like someone from Steinbach prophesying to the West Reserve, or an American telling us God’s word as Canadians. I wonder if there is an undercurrent reminding the people in the northern kingdom that they really belong to a united kingdom under Jerusalem.

When Israel separated from Judah, Israel became the stronger of the two kingdoms, economically and politically. Then both kingdoms came under sustained political pressure from the Arameans and the Assyrians (people to the north and west of them) until Jeroboam 2 came to power in Israel and Uzziah in Judah. During the reign of these two kings, Judah and Samaria both prospered, and Samaria (Israel) extended its borders almost as far as they had been under Solomon (2 Kings 14).

Amos prophesies in a period of prosperity and peace, when it appears that life is good, but his message is full of judgment and warning. What’s going on? Listen to a selection of his warnings throughout the book. These prophecies were spoken in Bethel, at the religious centre that Jeroboam 1 had founded and in the presence of the priest Amaziah, who preside over the ceremonies in Bethel.
·         Amos 2: 6 to 8 (prophecy against Israel, following prophecies against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab, and finally against Judah). Immediately the basic themes are evident: God judges Israel for economic oppression and sexual promiscuity and for religious idolatry.
·         Amos 3: 2 to 7. A series of questions with only one possible answer: God will judge Israel.
·         Amos 3: 14 and 15. Judgment announced.
·         Amos 4: 1 to 5. God hates economic oppression and corruption, especially when it is combined with religious observance. 
·         Amos 4: 6 to 13. God’s judgments have one constant purpose: To bring the people back to God.
·         Amos 5: 18 to 20. Those who think “the day of the Lord” will save them may find that “the day of the Lord” is God’s judgment on their sin.
·         Amos 6. You think that your present prosperity is proof of God’s blessing, but God will stir up [the Assyrians] to come and carry you away.
·         Amos 7: 10 to 17. Amaziah opposes Amos and summarizes his message precisely. Amos announces God’s judgment on Amaziah as well as on Israel. The shrine at Bethel is a basic example of Israel’s sin of idolatry. Worship of Yahweh was combined with worship of Canaanite gods.
·         Amos 8: 9 and 10. Even your efforts to praise God will judge you.
·         Amos 9: 11 to 15. The promise of restoration.

What is Judgment For?
As we see from the first judgment announced on Israel, Amos spoke primarily of three themes in his warnings: Economic corruption, sexual promiscuity, and religious idolatry. These are not so much separate themes as they are one combined charge. We hear them, and we may even approve of Amos’ message, but we struggle to deal with warnings of judgment. It goes against the grain of our ideas about God to think that God may destroy the people so readily. God is love. How can God judge so harshly?

In the passages we read before the sermon, we see God’s desire for Israel. 
1) Let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream. God wants a society in which everyone can benefit from the blessings God has given.
2) God will not destroy Israel completely, but rather will restore them when God has purified them. The end result will be a society in which everyone will prosper.

We see then that God wants God’s people to thrive, physically and spiritually. The same is true for us today.  God wants all people in our world to thrive, to experience God’s blessings fully. The way that Jesus said the same thing is this: “I have come that they [we] might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10). This abundant life is one in which we experience God’s good gifts in every area of life. God wants people to thrive, physically and spiritually.

You can hear God’s desire behind the judgments in such passages as Amos 4. For example, verse 6: “I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me.” The purpose of judgment was to turn people back to God. We hear this desire in Amos 5: 4-6: “Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing. Seek the Lord and live ….”

Some commentators take the closing promise of restoration to be a conventional addition to the message of Amos, relatively unimportant. I suggest rather that the conclusion shows what Amos has been building up to. This is the point of all that has gone before: God wants God’s people to thrive, physically and spiritually.

What Does this Mean for Us Today?
The key question in any sermon is, “So what?” What do we do with this message today? A basic step in answering the question is to listen to Amos as if he were simply speaking to us.

Do we struggle with economic oppression, sexual promiscuity, or religious idolatry? Do we benefit from a system that makes us rich at the expense of other people? Do we indulge ourselves sexually at the expense of other people? Do we use our worship to cover over our unease at the problems of our world, while benefitting from those problems?

Think about our economy. God wants people to thrive economically. We can work hard and yet live in ways that make other people’s lives worse. I think of an example from my own experience. I wanted to buy a car, and I saw one that I liked. The car dealer looked at it, and then looked at me. He told me that he couldn’t sell that car to me in good conscience, because he wasn’t sure that it would run well for me. He talked me out of the car I wanted to buy from him! [He might have accepted a reduced offer in good conscience, but I stopped looking at that car.] He illustrated the way God wants us to live. He could have done the opposite. He could have thought, “I’ve got a sale!” and sold me the car for more than it was worth. Instead, he kept faith with me and with God and let me know that it was not a reliable vehicle.

That car dealer showed us how we should actually live. Act in ways that help other people to thrive, physically and spiritually. In Amos’ context, that meant giving up something so that poor people could have it. In their economy, they did not create wealth so much as share it. If I have more land, it means that you have less land, or perhaps no land at all, so I have to share my land with you for us both to thrive.

In our economy, we can create new wealth. We don’t need a socialist system to get rid of poverty. We do, however, need basic honesty combined with a deep concern for the other person. I think of the way that some of our farmers have taken an interest in the people working for them – a basic concern for the other that should characterize all of our actions.

You notice that I have not named specific examples of economic corruption in our society. I suspect that there are others here who could name these more accurately than I can. I do however think of the way that both Americans and Canadians struggle with taxes. Americans have allowed a tax cut that disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Canadians allow a system in which those who have to live on EI can have their minimal resources clawed back when they take a minimum wage job. My concern is less to provide good economic critique than it is to encourage each of us to live for justice and righteousness that roll down in a mighty cataract like the Niagara Falls.

The Idea of “Habitus”
This concern brings me to the way that such a lifestyle characterized the early church. Alan Kreider has written a book called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. He notes that the early church grew at an average rate of about 40% a year for the first 300 years of its life – an amazing rate of growth. At the same time, the early church was not what you might call “seeker friendly”. Only professing Christians were allowed to attend the services. Deacons were responsible to keep out casual seekers and make sure that everyone present was already a believer. With that kind of restriction on attendance (due to the church’s context as a persecuted minority), one wonders how they could grow so rapidly.

Kreider’s answer is that the Christian lifestyle was so distinctive that people came to find out what was behind it. Curiously, the habits of life that the first Christians emphasized sound a lot like Amos. They were careful to worship God in Christ alone (no idolatry). They had strict sexual ethics (no promiscuity). And they were careful to be completely honest and peaceable. Moreover, they practiced these habits of life persistently – with what Kreider calls “patience”.

As people around them saw the patient endurance with which Christians practised the right way to live, a way that enabled others to live better as well, they were attracted to these communities with powerful overwhelming attraction.

To put it another way, they lived on the assumption that God wanted them to thrive physically and spiritually, which meant that they helped each other to thrive. Not only that, but they also helped everyone around them to have a better life. They were unafraid of death, so that when one city was devastated with the plague, it was Christians who treated the sick. Desperate families would put people with the plague out in the street, so that the family would not also get sick, and Christians came along and ran the risk of getting the plague by taking the suffering sick into their homes and treating them. This is the kind of life that God wants.

A Final Thought
A final thought, bringing this kind of lifestyle back into focus by thinking about God’s judgment. God wants us to live so that all of us can thrive, physically and spiritually.  The position of the promise of restoration at the end of the book promises even more. God not only wants us to thrive; God is working in our world so that we know that we will thrive, physically and spiritually. We were made for Eternity, an eternity of bathing in God’s good blessings.

We may be tempted to give up as we work with the problems of our world. Corruption and wrong appear to be stronger than any of our efforts to do what is right. But look again. God is at work all the time. God uses the worst events of our lives to bring about the end of all things in joy and peace and harmony. The end of the story is never in doubt: God wins in the end.

The terrible judgments Amos prophesied came true. Israel was carried away by the Assyrians. The king’s house was overthrown. The priesthood of Amaziah came to an end. The people found themselves in despair. But all of this judgment helped prepare the way for the Messiah, even when the northern kingdom separated from Jerusalem. Samaria became “Samaria” and “Galilee” in the NT. Jesus grew up in Galilee and called his disciples there and exercised a large part of his ministry there. The purification of the people helped to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.

Now we wait for Jesus to return, and while we wait, we live for justice and righteousness. We seek the overflowing power and goodness of the Lord, in our own lives, in the structures of our world, and in the lives of the people around us. We do all of this full of confidence in God’s final action to give all of us “abundant life”, life in which we thrive to the full, physically and spiritually. We do all of this, knowing that we are pilgrims in this world, on our way to heaven, our eternal home, where we will live in the full restoration of the reign of God.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
22 April 2018
Amos 5:21-24
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 9:11-15
11 “In that day I will restore David’s fallen shelter—I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins—and will rebuild it as it used to be, 12 so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the Lord, who will do these things.
13 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills, 14 and I will bring my people Israel back from exile. They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 “I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Glory of Shame


Everyone loves a parade! Two months ago, Donald Trump stated that he would like a really big parade in Washington, probably on July 4, to help lift everyone’s spirits in the United States. Other countries from France to North Korea have their own parades to show off their own military strength. Some of the best parades of all take place in England – the English know how to do pageantry right!

We have our own annual parade in Steinbach. We celebrate with tractors and flags, reflecting the community’s farming background and the present influence of immigration on our community. I remember our Pioneer Days’ Parade a few years ago, when I carried the flag from Zambia (where I was born), one of over 100 flags of different countries represented in Hanover.

Today, we started our service with our own little parade, but this is a parade with a difference. We remember Jesus and his “triumphal entry” parade into Jerusalem. Instead of tanks or warhorses, he had a donkey. Instead of soldiers, he had ordinary people cheering for him. Instead of a powerful speech, he went quietly into a room, where he washed his disciples’ feet (another unusual action for a leader).

We read the account in John 12 this morning, and we read a passage behind the events of Holy Week from Isaiah 50. We look at these passages, asking what’s going on in this unusual parade, and what it means for us.

John 12
The triumphal entry, as we call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, is recorded in all four gospel accounts. This event begins what we refer to as Holy Week. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it is followed immediately by Jesus cleansing the Temple of the moneychangers, an action that shows Jesus’ desire to renew the true worship of God. In John, the account of the cleansing comes near the beginning of the gospel, linking this renewal with the whole of Jesus’ ministry. By detaching the account of cleansing the temple from the parade, John provides a clear focus for the entry into Jerusalem: It leads directly to the cross of Jesus. These verses lead to several questions (among others):

  • Who planned the parade?
John’s account leaves the planning unclear. The first three gospels suggest that Jesus planned the entry, and the disciples carried out his wishes. John notes simply that there were many Jews in Jerusalem, present to celebrate the Passover. They were drawn into the parade by the enthusiasm of the disciples, and by the rumours of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11). The verses immediately after our passage make it clear that the Jewish leaders were afraid of Jesus’ evident popularity. They responded by putting their plans in motion, which led to his death.

  • Why did Jesus ride a donkey?
The donkey is a nice touch. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the king, a clear claim to be God’s Messiah. Such a claim could only cause concern among their Roman rulers, who were used to such triumphal parades. Any Roman triumph was led by the conquering Emperor or General, riding on a warhorse. Horses can be majestic creatures, and a warhorse is impressive, especially with a warrior king on his back. Jesus rides on a donkey, because he comes as the Prince of Peace, not as a warrior. Jesus enters Jerusalem peacefully, inviting the people to follow him.

  • What’s up with the palm branches?
The crowd gathered up palms from the streets, perhaps from outside of people’s houses, where they may have been placed in anticipation of the Passover Feast, or from the palm trees that lined the road. They were easily found, and the people used them with joy. They cried, “Hosanna!” “Save us!” Save from whom? Save from the Roman Empire! Clearly, they saw Jesus as a potential King, ready to overthrow their Roman rulers. Jesus rides the donkey, confounding their hopes and making it clear that the Messiah comes in peace to bring peace. The road to the cross is a road of pain and a road of peace.

  • What does it all mean, anyway?
Jesus knows where he is going. He is going to die. He is going to the cross. He is entering the place of pain and suffering, even as the people cheer for him. He comes in glory, but enters into the place of shame and suffering. As Anglicans pray every Friday, “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: ….” We will come back to this thought – that Jesus is going to the cross. This is the centre of our faith, from which all else flows.

Isaiah 50
This passage is one of four passages in Isaiah that we sometimes call “the servant songs”. Commentators have looked carefully at these passages, connecting them to their historical context, preparing for the return to Israel from Exile in Babylon and Persia. A proper consideration of the servant songs must wait for another occasion. This morning, I note one basic truth about them.

As someone has said, the Bible was written for us, not to us. That is, each book of the Bible was written to a particular audience in a particular historical context. Commentaries and biblical studies help us to discover this original audience and context, the people each passage is written to. Behind or beneath these specifics, there are principles from God, which are written for our benefit.

In our text this morning, Isaiah 50 is written to people in Exile, waiting for their salvation, for their return to their homeland. The prophet refers to the servant who suffers in order to save his people from Exile here and in Isaiah 53. The prophet probably means that Israel as a people is God’s suffering servant, and that their suffering also brings their salvation. Some suggest that Isaiah saw Jeremiah as a model of this suffering servant, which makes sense, given Jeremiah’s own difficult experience as God’s prophet.

In the New Testament, Jesus applies these passages to himself, and the early church clearly understood them to be prophecies about the suffering Messiah, whose work on the cross saves not only the Israelites, but the whole world. In Acts 8, for example, Philip explains Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch as applying to Jesus. In Luke 24, Jesus explains to the two disciples walking home to Emmaus how the prophecies of Scripture were fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

With this understanding, then, we hear the words in verse 6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.”

Handel’s Messiah has collected these verses (and others) from Isaiah and the Psalms to describe the cross of Jesus in a moving and remarkable piece of music. Hear the way that the librettist describes the cross, using OT passages:

22. Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1: 29)
23. Air: He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53: 3) He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 50: 6)  
24. Chorus: Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. (Isaiah 53: 4-5)
25. Chorus: And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53: 5)
26. Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53: 6)
27. Tenor: All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying: 
28. Chorus: “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.” (Psalm 22: 7, 8) 
29. Tenor: Thy rebuke hath broken His heart: He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort him. (Psalm 69: 20)
30. Tenor: Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow. (Lamentations 1: 12)
31. Soprano or tenor: He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgressions of Thy people was He stricken. (Isaiah 53: 8)
32. Soprano or tenor: But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption. (Psalm 16: 10)

The libretto is a profound and moving account of Jesus on the way to the cross, entering into the shame of the world on his way to glory. I encourage you to sit down and listen to it this whole section during Holy Week, preparing yourself for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

For Us, and For Our Salvation
All of this was written to the first readers of the Bible, but I said that Scripture is also written for us, even if it is not written to us. So, what does this mean “for us”? We can get at this question through another question. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? This question is really two questions: Why did Jesus have to die? Why did it take a cross?

The full discussion of these questions would take far too long, so I will just hint at it. We know that sin is in the world. Sin is rebellion against God. Sin is the source of all that is wrong in our world. When we ask why a loved one had to die, or why someone has cancer, or why marriages dissolve in anger and shouting, or why someone kills other people with a bomb in Austin, Texas, the answer is always, “Because of sin.” Not that a death is connected to a particular sin, but that human rebellion against God has brought about a world in which such things happen.

Sin, then, creates space where God refuses to come. God rules all that is. If we rebel against God and seek to live under our own control, we expel God from that space. The result is a godless place, filled with all that is wrong and twisted in our world. When we cry, “God, save us!” we are asking God to remove us from this godless place and reunite us with God. Reconciliation. Reunion. Joy and health and hope restored.

God saves us by taking our rebellion into the very being of God, where it is destroyed. God enters our rebellion, our sin, our worst fears and nightmares, and takes them into the very being of God. We call this destruction “death”.

We could describe this process in terms of a court where God will judge our sin, and a penalty that must be paid. That is one metaphor we can use, but I have been using the metaphor of destruction, a kind of battle that Jesus wins – sometimes called “Christus Victor”. We are trying to describe the indescribable, the reality of human sin against God, and the path back to life with God.

The death of Jesus, then, was necessary for Jesus to swallow up our rebellion and destroy it within himself, but why did it have to be a cross? Is it not enough that Jesus died? Consider this. If Jesus enters into and carries the consequences of human sin with his death – and his death was more or less normal, I can imagine someone saying that some exceptionally bad person is not covered by his death. We might say that Hitler, for example, was simply too evil for God to save.

Fleming Rutledge has written extensively about this question in her study of the atonement, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. She observes that death on a cross was the most shameful way for a person to die. The Old Testament Law states, “Cursed is he who dies on a tree” (Dt 21: 22f). Crucifixion not only killed the person, but it also blotted that person’s memory out of the family. A crucified criminal could not be buried with the rest of the family. Jesus died by the most shameful way possible, the most agonizing death possible in his context, a manner of death that cut him off from the rest of the world. As the tenor sings in Handel’s Messiah, “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” There is no one, therefore, who is beyond the reach of the cross. Jesus went to the deepest places of our existence possible and swallows up the consequences of our sin and rebellion in himself.

None of this would make any difference if Jesus had remained dead, but Jesus rose from the dead. Next Sunday we celebrate his resurrection, and this Friday we celebrate communion to remember his death, the great saving event of all human history. This fact gives us something else to do during Holy Week. We examine ourselves and prepare for communion as we gather on Good Friday and remember the great events that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem led to.

There is one final point. Jesus embraced the most shameful death possible, and then he transformed it into glory. Jesus’ death on a cross really did deserve a parade, because he transforms our shame also into the glory of redemption.

We make a mistake, however, if we think that Jesus died so that we do not have to die. Jesus died, and Jesus invites us also to die. “Whoever would be my disciple,” Jesus said, “must take up his/her cross and follow me.” Paul put it, “I am crucified with Christ.” This path – embracing the shame of people and situations around us – is the path that Jesus invites us to follow.

My father experienced clinical depression when he retired. Jesus tells us to embrace my father in his depression, not to back away because we don’t know what to say. I have friends who are convicted criminals. One has finished his jail time, and the other hopes to soon. Our natural instinct is to isolate them. Jesus encourages us to remain in relationship, and I thank God for church communities who relate to them, accepting their shame on the path to our mutual glory. Folk in our congregation have found the glory of God in relating to people on the margins through the SCO.

None of this means that we seek bad things and then embrace them with a cry of delight. Shameful things are shameful. We are right to shrink from them. Once we get past the natural instinct to pull our hand from the flame, however, we look again at the people around us and we enter into their pain and suffering with the presence of Christ. When we do, we discover that shame is the path to glory, and we pray again the prayer of Good Friday: 
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
25 March 2018

Scriptures: John 12: 12-16; Isaiah 50: 4-9a.

John 12: 12-16
Jesus comes to Jerusalem as king
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
    see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

Isaiah 50: 4-9a
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who will condemn me?

Monday, March 05, 2018


Remembering a friend’s death
            Reminds me of her fall.
Tripped on the step
            Hit her head and fell
                        All of a piece.
Lying on the floor
            A gurgle deep in her throat
                        The only spark remaining.
Dark avenue opening before me
            The Road alone in the dark
                        Drowning in darkness.

Today her flame burns well
            Ten years later
That night it flickered
            Almost went out
Today I remember it
            As a dream
                        A brief taste of
                                    My friend’s end.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

No Answers

No answers.
No speculations.
A long sometimes lonely road.

He walked that road before we knew him.
Two become one.
I cannot guess such loss.

He found a friend on the road.
Two become one, the unity of joy.
We knew them then, their rocky road broadening out into a high plain.

“Be careful when you shake his hand.”
A long arduous path from the heights
Descending steadily into a new darkness.
Joy is there in the darkness. Of course.
Joy is always there. So is darkness.
“Rage against the dying of the light” –
How do we rage, when light has died?

Two become one.
Separation at the end of a long journey.
We sing of hope we cannot see.
We claim new life we cannot feel.
Only questions
Untamed untameable thoughts
Continue in the dark.

The phone rings – another plea for money.
A voice says my name, then adds “Reverend”.
I guess I am. Preacher, teacher, answer man.

No answers.
No speculations.
A long sometimes lonely road.