Sunday, January 15, 2017

Giving Shape to Discipleship (Deuteronomy 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steinbach Mennonite Church

8 January 2017

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

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

Sunday, January 08, 2017

On the Boundary (Reading Deuteronomy)

Deuteronomy must be a candidate for “least read book of the Bible” among Mennonites. Why would we read a book that recapitulates the Law (the name itself means “second law”—i.e., a retelling of the law), when we are New Testament followers of Jesus, saved by grace through faith? Why would we spend time with a book that records God’s command to kill Israel’s enemies while sanctioning the dispossessing of the original inhabitants of the land? These are fair questions, and we dare not dodge them.

Yet Deuteronomy was basic to Jesus’ own life and message. Every reply that Jesus gives to Satan when he is tempted in the desert comes from Deuteronomy. At least one commentator thinks that Jesus spent his 40-day fast before the temptations meditating on the book of Deuteronomy. This book re-emphasizes the foundation of the covenant God made with the Chosen People, an incredible gift of grace for people who had no right to expect anything from the Creator of the universe. It is with good reason that Daniel Block calls his course on this book, “the gospel according to Deuteronomy”.

So we have answered our first objection [law against grace] already. This book is the place we begin to understand the gospel as we read it in the New Testament. In fact, one can say that if we do not grasp the message of Deuteronomy, we will find it hard to understand the message of Jesus. So we begin with a brief look at the background and structure of this book, and then listen to these first verses from chapter one.

This morning, then, I will introduce the book as a whole, with special attention to the first eight verses, which we have already heard in the Scripture reading. In the three Sundays following we will consider three passages: The Ten Commandments in chapter 5, the great Confession or Creed in chapter 6 (“Shema Yisrael”), and the call to what is sometimes called “holy war” in chapter 7.

Introduction: The Book
Deuteronomy records the words of Moses to the Children of Israel, just before they enter the Promised Land. Moses knows that this is the end of his journey on this earth, and he wants to be sure that the people he has led for so long know his heart before he leaves them. The first eight verses make this nature of the book clear: “These are the words that Moses spoke …” (verse 1); “Moses began to expound this law [given by God to God’s people], saying …” As commentators say, this is not so much a retelling of the Law, although it is that, as it is a sermon about how to live as God’s people.

The gospels also function as a sermon. For example, Matthew is structures around give sermons that Jesus preaches. In the first of these (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law (5:17): “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” Jesus intensifies and brings out the inner meaning of the Law. We should expect, then, to see the gospel in our consideration of Deuteronomy over the next four Sundays.

So Moses gives his closing words to the Israelites. He tells them again what God wants them to do (what we call “the Law”, or Torah). We should not think of this Law as a collection of rules for the Children of Israel to follow—like the Law Code of Canada. Rather they give a picture of what it means to be God’s faithful people in one particular context and point in time. Christopher Wright calls the Law “a paradigm” of what it means to follow God faithfully. We should expect then to find themes in the Law that lay the foundation for the themes we find in the gospel.

Moses sets this paradigm or picture of faithfulness within the story of the Wilderness Wanderings. He reminds the people of what has happened in their lifetimes. Verse 2 makes the point in a subtle and devastating way: “It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.” They have just spent 40 years wandering about the desert to complete an 11-day journey. Wow! Moses reminds the Israelites that they have stood here before. Once before they had stood on the boundary of the Promised Land. Once before God had told them to enter. On that occasion they failed, fearful of what the future would bring. As a result God sent them away from the boundary, until that generation should die. Once before Moses had said to them: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the LORD swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them” (verses 7-8). Now their children stand again on the boundary. Now their children again have the opportunity to follow God across the boundary.

So throughout the book Moses recites the story of their flight from Egypt, of God’s mighty saving action setting them free from slavery, and of the ways that they have experienced God’s grace, as well as showed their own rebellious side in response to God’s grace. The whole narrative sets up the kind of thing that Joshua says at the beginning of the next book: “Choose you this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Moses is challenging them to serve the Lord.

This Morning’s Passage
Verse 1 tells us that these are the words of Moses [think “Sermon”] to Israel just across the Jordan, preparing to cross the boundary into the Land of Promise.
Verse 2 reminds the audience of their own history, capturing God’s grace and their failure in the prosaic statement of an 11-days journey that took 40 years.
Verses 3 and 4 restate the book’s nature as the words of Moses, and the setting in point of time—after 40 years.
Verse 5, at the centre of the passage, emphasizes that these are the words of Moses, given on the boundary of the Land of Promise.
Verses 6 to 8 give God’s command: Cross the boundary and enter the Promised Land. Moses is remembering the original command. Now the children are given their opportunity. The closing formulation, reminding them of the way that this promise fulfills the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, connects the opportunity before them with the covenant God first made with the patriarchs.

This last thought highlights the shape of the book as a covenant between nations. Such covenants normally name the ruler who is in charge, and name the subjects of that ruler. Before the Exodus, the Children of Israel were in a covenant relationship with Pharaoh. It was a bad, but also a binding, covenant. Pharaoh was their ruler and provided homes and food for them. They were Pharaoh’s subjects and provided Egypt with labour.

God set them free from this oppressive relationship and now makes them God’s People. Deuteronomy is the record of this covenant, in which God is revealed as their absolute ruler and the Children of Israel are revealed as the People of God, who live by the rules of God. Consequently we have at the heart of Deuteronomy the forerunner of the basic Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord.” We pick this theme up when we look at the central confession of Israel in the Shema of chapter 6.

A Central Theme
This central confession leads us to ask what other themes are basic to the book as a whole. Remember that the Law in Deuteronomy is a paradigm for how God’s People should live rather than a set of individual rules that we try to apply directly to our lives. To put it another way, we don’t read the Law and ask which rules apply today. The answer to that question is: None of them. Rather the Law shows us themes and patterns that do apply today.

A basic and perhaps surprising theme is the way that the Law reorders all of life on the principle of everyone’s equality standing before God. Consider the call to war in chapter 7” We wonder how a good God could possibly order the Children of Israel to kill all of their enemies. We will look more deeply at this question in the fourth message of this series, but notice this basic point for the moment. In the laws that follow, Deuteronomy explicitly reminds the people how to relate to the people they now live with. But if they have killed them all, how can they relate to them? The answer of course is that God never intended to eliminate the inhabitants of Canaan, but gives guidance on how to live with them.

One point in the requirement of how to live with the inhabitants stands out to me. Some of these people ended up as slaves within Israel. Slaves and servants in the countries around them were second-class citizens. They had no right to participate in the great festivals of the land, but were there to serve their rulers. The Israelites had experienced that condition in Egypt. God tells them explicitly: You will treat the stranger and alien in your land, even your own slaves and servants, differently than that. The Sabbath is a Sabbath for everyone, including the marginalized people among you. The great festivals are festivals for everyone, including the aliens and servants.

Deuteronomy makes it clear that before God we are all one. When Jesus summarized the Law in his own ministry, he said, “Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus did not introduce something new to the Law in this statement, but drew out what was there from the beginning. God is our Ruler [“Jesus is Lord”], and all people stand as brothers and sisters in God’s presence. This radical equality was something new in their context. Egypt and Assyria believed that they alone were truly special, but the Children of Israel knew something deeper and truer: We are all one in God’s presence.

Living with the Text
How do we hear Deuteronomy today, especially listening to these first verses? We will come back to the note of God’s rule in the next three sermons. We will also sound the note of caring for marginalized people. This morning we return to the central idea of this passage: These are the words of Moses to the Children of Israel standing on the boundary of the Promised Land.

We have just come through one of the most difficult years in our history as a church. In a real sense we may feel as though we are wandering in the wilderness, and we may feel somewhat lost. We may ask ourselves what hope there is for the future. Moses speaks to us, just as he did to the Israelites so long ago: “You have stayed long enough [here]. Break camp and advance …; go … See, I have given you [your future].”

Our situation is different from the Children of Israel before the Jordan River. They had Moses, the prophet who spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend. We seek to hear God’s voice together, which is a difficult process. We have a committee working on structural issues. We have a pastor giving leadership. We have care groups and other informal gatherings providing support and direction for daily life. We have a Vision Council seeking direction from the congregation and from God for the future. In all of this we ask God to lead us—together, hearing God’s voice through each other.

We also face challenges that may remind us of the way that the spies who went into Canaan saw the situation: We see giants and obstacles that may overwhelm us. If we face the challenges ahead with our own resources and in our own wisdom, we will find that the obstacles are greater than our strength. But we have something else also. We have our relationship with God, who has brought us this far and will take us to the end. In Philippians 3 Paul talks about pressing on towards the goal of our high calling in Christ Jesus. In Hebrews 12 the author of Hebrews encourages us to run the race with the strength given to us by “the author and finisher” [NIV: “pioneer and perfecter”] of our faith.

Martin Luther put it this way in his great hymn:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,
Our helper, he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great. On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus! It is he!
Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he shall win the battle.”

You see what I am saying. We face many challenges, as did the Children of Israel. But Moses knew that God is greater than any obstacle, and that they needed to follow God into the struggles of the Land. So also we hold on to the reality of God’s presence, and we commit ourselves to God’s sovereignty and care. God is at work in us. You remember that the Children of Israel did cross the Jordan once when God told them not to. They had failed to follow God across. When the recognized their failure, they said, “Let’s go!” God said, “Not this time.” They went, and they were routed. We seek God’s direction; without God our efforts come to nothing.

While we were in the States we talked with my brother-in-law, who told us of a spiritual breakthrough in his life. After many years of struggling with the issue of anger in his life, God showed himself through what we can call spiritual warfare. Whatever one thinks of prayer to cast out demons, it is clear that he has experienced a new freedom, and that a long-standing struggle in his life has been healed. I am not advocating for or against the methods used, but simply noting that God is at work, and that God’s presence is available to you and to me as well. The world wants to destroy us; God wants to lead us into the future. We stand on the boundary and God invites us to follow into the Land of God’s promises. I repeat the invitation: Let’s cross the boundary together into the new life together that God is preparing for us.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
8 January 2017
Text: Deuteronomy 1: 1-8
These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan—that is, in the Arabah—opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. (It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.)
In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him concerning them. This was after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and at Edrei had defeated Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.
East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying:
The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Election Reflections

We are not quite at the official action of the electoral college, and the inauguration of Donald Trump follows soon after. I expressed some of my thoughts after the election here, and we have all had time to reflect more on what lies ahead.

I remain cautiously hopeful that the next four years will work out—at least so far as life in North America is concerned, but I admit to increasing anxiety as new directions take shape. So here is a brief sample of my thoughts (as much to allay my own fears by expressing them as by a sense that anyone else need read them).

1. I said before that I am concerned with the way that we the people have validated bullying and vulgarity with our choice. That sense has not decreased. An account of the Michigan recount suggests that the Republican playbook is made up primarily of using political and legal might to force the desired outcome, rather than any real desire to do what is right.

2. The recounts are an interesting idea—not because they might change the outcome (I don’t think the outcome is in doubt; the hanging chads from Bush-Gore were far more serious), but because how people respond to the idea shows again what they think. Trump’s response was to say: No recount; the only true result is that I won (the popular vote too, not just the electoral college). Clinton’s response was to say: We’ll co-operate. What else would she say? The real opportunity was for Trump to show that he believes in the basic integrity of the state officials running the elections. Clearly he doesn’t. Which suggests that he believes that he was the only honest person in the election. That attitude troubles me.

3. Trump’s lack of concern for facts continues to bother me. I am not sure that he is actually any different in this regard than most Democrats. We have adopted the idea as a country that perspective is truth. If that idea is correct, we have no grounds for saying that Trump is not speaking the truth, just because we don’t like his ideas. Both sides of the aisle tend to applaud the facts when the facts support the truth they want. Both sides of the aisle tend to pretend the facts aren’t there when the facts support the truth they don’t want.

This last point is perhaps where we could begin a national conversation [not national: big conversation involving lots of people, but national: lots of small groups of people talking and trying to understand what’s going on]. We need to decide what to do with facts. It is a fact that biologically we have two genders. It is also a fact that a small minority of people are biologically mixed. We have ignored the facts on both sides: one group of people ignores the fact of people born with two sets of genitalia; one group of people ignores the fact of gender entirely and makes it all a matter of how one feels inside. But if we go only by how we feel inside, on what grounds do we refute Trump’s positions. That we don’t like them? Then “might makes right” becomes our national motto.

Similarly with global warming. The facts are clear [the globe is warming, and we are helping make it so]. How we interpret those facts, what we do with them, is a further and vital conversation. I could continue with most of the hard conversations in our society. We retreat too quickly into calling names (homophobe; radical; whatever name you think of for those people you don’t like). Many people have observed that we need a return to civility in public discourse. Such civility, I believe, requires also that we admit both the factness of the data of life, and the importance of perspective and interpretation in handling that data.

The question of who hacked whom during the election is one such arena. The CIA says, “The Russians.” (I think the CIA is right on this one.) The FBI says, “Not so fast.” Okay, let’s acknowledge that good and intelligent people regularly disagree, and let’s abandon the defensive response that says, “Your interpretation can’t be right, because I disagree.”

In my own field of study we call this process of trying to understand the world around us “critical realism”, a recognition that perspective matters, and an admission that reality remains beyond our limited perspectives. We need each other to cope with an increasing complex real world. Trump’s administration is set to roll. I hope they open up their ears and minds for the journey, and I hope we do too.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

God’s Healing is at Hand

Christmas is a time of joy, but we know that many people walk in a bubble of darkness through this season of light. I think of my parents many years ago—a young couple in Zambia, who had just buried their eight-month old daughter to malaria. I had not yet been born, but I imagine them hearing the wishes for a good and joyful Christmas, and then returning to their space filled with loss and hurt. I think of a friend and his wife whose prospective son-in-law died in a hiking accident this past summer. As they walk through this Christmas, with one child just married and another child recently bereaved, I imagine that Christmas comes with a mixture of light and darkness. How do we anticipate Christmas when we are broken? Our friends wish us joy. How do we receive God’s joy when sadness and hurt overwhelm us? We turn to two texts—from Isaiah 35 and from Luke 1—to seek for guidance.

Isaiah 35: 1-10
35 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

As we have said before, this passage both points to the end of time and as well as to our lives today. Isaiah speaks to people who are facing an uncertain political and spiritual future. The road ahead appears to be a desert, but it will burst into bloom, and they will be filled with joy. Notice who receives strength and joy and healing: “the feeble hands”, “the unsteady knees”, “those who are afraid”, “the blind”, “the deaf”, and “the lame”. God’s joy and healing are there for the people who need it, and for no one else.

This text emphasizes God’s call for holiness (verses 8 and 9): “A highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; … The unclean will not journey on it; … but only the redeemed will walk there.” The call to holy living is important, but this morning I observe something else also in the text. These people who are in such great physical and emotional need find a way of complete safety, a place where “lions” and “ravenous beasts”, symbols of danger, are not present. Echoing last week’s text (Isaiah 11), it is the blind, deaf, lame, and oppressed who receive God’s full salvation. We turn, then, to Luke 1 and Mary’s Song, a passage we hear often at Advent.

Luke 1: 1-12
46 And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.’

Mary sings this song after Angel Gabriel told her that he child would be the Messiah, while she was visiting Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist. We have this interesting scene in which John “leaps” in Elizabeth’s womb as he senses the coming of Jesus in Mary’s womb. Then Mary sings her song. Her song sounds a lot like Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: 1 to 10, as she celebrates God’s saving action through the birth of her son, Samuel. This teenage girl celebrates the amazing truth that “the Mighty One”, that is God, has done great things for her—giving her a child before she slept with a man, a child who would save her people, indeed, who would save the world from the power of sin.

This salvation brings down rulers and exalts the humble. It fills the hungry and sends away the rich, leaving them empty. This salvation fulfills the promise that God made to Abraham when God first called Abram and Sarai to leave their home (Genesis 12). Like Isaiah, then, Mary sings of salvation and hope, which comes to those who are broken and empty and helpless here on earth. The climax and point of her song comes in these words from verses 51-53: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

The Upside-Down Reality of God
This pattern—that God fills the weaker and brings down the stronger—is a theme that runs the whole way through Scripture.

Consider Cain and Abel. Cain is the older brother (Genesis 4); Abel is the younger brother. We can debate why, but the pattern begins here—that God accepts the lower and rejects the higher.

Consider the patriarchs. Abraham’s first son was Ishmael, and his second son was Isaac. God’s line of promised salvation ran through Isaac. Isaac’s first son was Esau and his second son was Jacob. God’s line of promised salvation ran through Jacob. Among the 12 sons of Jacob (“the Children of Israel”), the oldest son was Reuben, but the line of the Messiah ran through the third son, Judah.

Even the way that Jacob’s wives and concubines bore these sons makes the point. Judah’s favourite wife was Rachel, and her son Joseph became great in human terms. One might expect the Messiah to come through Joseph, whose life in the Old Testament serves as a fore-runner of the life of Jesus. Instead, the line of the Messiah runs through Leah, who was the wife less loved (“When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive”: Genesis 29: 31). Even the priestly line (the Levites) comes from Levi, the son of Leah.

We could continue, but you see the pattern. God regularly chose to work through those who were less valued in human terms. The elder son was always the primary heir. The older son received “a double portion” when his father died, but God chose to work through the younger son and the less loved wife to bring about God’s plan of salvation for the human race.

We see the same pattern in Jesus’ ministry, captured in his well-known words, “the first will be last, and the last first.” What’s going on in this pattern? It reflects another statement with which Jesus described his own ministry (Mark 2: 17): “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Why does God turn us upside down when God heals us? Because those who are healthy don’t need healing. Because those who are righteous don’t need saving.

Thus Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor [in Spirit], for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven/God.” I remember a quote defining the poor as we meet them in the gospels: “The poor are those who need God’s help and know it.” [I don’t remember the source of the quote.] This truth helps us understand John’s words to the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3: 14-17): “These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

Talking About Ourselves
We are a people who value our ability to get things done. We are a people who value self-sufficiency. A basic reason that the church in North America has become weak is that we see ourselves as strong people, people who do not need a physician, people who do not need a Saviour. But of course we all need God’s help. When life crashes in around us, we realize that we are not able to take care of ourselves. When we see that, God can help us.

The principle is very simple really. We sometimes say, “God helps those who help themselves.” The truth is that God fills those who hold out empty hands. God heals those who embrace their brokenness and come for healing. If you don’t need God, God won’t help you. God helps you only when you discover and own your weakness and brokenness.

I began with the memory of my parents’ loss during their first term of missionary service at Sikalongo, in Zambia. They lost their second-born, their daughter, my sister, Dorothy. One of the consequences of that loss was to deepen their relationship with the people around them at Sikalongo. Many years later, in 2003, I went back to Sikalongo with Lois and our sons. When I met the principal of the school that is there now and he heard my name, he said, “Your parents were David and Dorcas. Your sister is buried there” (pointing to the cemetery.” There is a strong and rich bond that is created only when we have been broken and healed.

Sometimes we think that people who walk in darkness must be afraid of this season of light. But remember words of Isaiah (9: 2) “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Are you walking in the darkness of a broken relationship? God has healing and hope for you. Are you living in the darkness of death’s shadow? God brings light to you. Are you struggling to make ends meet? God brings hope for you. This is not a magic formula, but a call to lean on God and discover the life and light that God brings through the birth of Jesus in our lives. Are you walking in darkness? Come, walk in the way of God’s healing.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
11 December 2016

Sunday, December 04, 2016

God’s Harmony is at Hand

Last week we talked about God’s peace. Today we consider harmony”—a word similar to peace, but bigger. Harmony, as we see it in the passage from Isaiah 11, includes justice and righteousness, peaceful co-existence, the whole of creation living the way that God wants it to be. In its biblical form, Shalom carries a similar fullness, so that harmony may be a better word than peace to translate the idea of Shalom. This morning we want to explore this idea of harmony and hear God’s invitation to enter into a world that leads to complete righteousness and peace. We begin by hearing the text from Isaiah.

Isaiah 11:1-10
11 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

The form of Isaiah 11 is prophecy—someone from David’s line who will bring in the fullness of God’s will. Isaiah probably had in mind someone who was a king on David’s throne in the same way as the kings of Judah who reigned while he was alive. From our perspective today we see that these words, “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [David’s father]”, apply to Jesus, the “Son of David”. This is a Messianic passage. As we said last week, such passages have a double fulfillment—one that takes place in Jesus’ earthly ministry, and one that takes place at the end of time.

Isaiah tells us that this “fruit of the Davidic Branch” will be filled with God’s Spirit, which brings wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, through the knowledge and fear of God. God’s Spirit brings a constellation of joy and power:
  •          Righteousness for the needy;
  •         Justice for the poor of the earth;
  •         Judgment for the wicked.
This note of judgment is one we do not hear comfortably. Are we the needy, the poor of the earth, or the wicked. These are not comfortable choices. Further, the truth that God is love has persuaded us that God therefore will not act in anger to judge the wicked. But people who live in contexts of oppression hear these passages as words of hope: The wicked who oppress them will no longer have power to do so, and they will receive instead righteousness and justice.

The further fruit of God’s Spirit through the Messiah is a radical picture of harmony: Animals that normally live as hunter and prey become friends; children do not need to fear poisonous snakes. Of course this picture is a metaphor. I have heard the question, “How will the hunters survive if they can’t eat prey?” Of course this passage is not meant to say anything about eating meat or vegetables. We don’t need to break out the Arrogant Worms singing “The Scream of the Vegetable” to argue for eating a good steak. (“All we are saying is ‘Give peas a chance.’”)

Rather, Isaiah paints a dramatic picture to make clear the fullness of peace in which the whole of creation has turned to God. So perfect harmony—peace, justice, and righteousness—is promised to God’s people as we live in the presence of Jesus in our world, and as we look forward to the return of Christ bringing in God’s Reign in power and great glory, when the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of God “as the waters cover the sea.”

A hymn (number 638) in our blue hymnal pictures this well:
God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth unless God blessed the deed;
Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed;
Yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

We turn, then, to Matthew 3, in which John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ’s first coming.

Matthew 3:1-12
3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John came preaching the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting meant to act in ways that reflect the kingdom. No one could claim exemption based on their family or on their record within the established religious structures. The only acceptable step to be ready for God’s Reign was to turn around and walk towards God. Repentance is more than “I’m sorry I did that.” John says: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” To repent is turn towards God and live the way God calls us to live. The Sermon on the Mount gives a clear picture of what this fruit looks like. In Luke 3, Luke records specific teachings by John, which echo the Sermon on the Mount. To repent is to begin to follow the ways of God’s Reign.

You have heard this sort of thing before. The Hebrew word for “repent” is shuv: To turn around. The Greek word used here in Matthew 3 is metanoias: According to my Greek-English dictionary, “A change of mode in thought and feeling.” The common thread of change, of movement in a new direction, is much more than a simple, “Sorry.” If “sorry” were enough, Canadians would have done all the repenting John asked for and more, but “sorry” is not enough. Real change, leading to the real fruit of God’s Reign in our lives, is necessary.

Of course we are not able to produce such fruit on our own. We cannot live the way that God wants us to in our own strength. So we confess our failures (here’s where saying “sorry” comes in) and open our lives to the presence of God’s Spirit, as described for the shoot of Jesse in Isaiah 11, because it takes God living in us to produce the fruit of repentance.

Have You Ever Seen a Real Conversion?
We call this process “conversion”—the change from death to life, the change from living for the rulers of this world to living for the Ruler of all Creation. Have you ever seen a truly converted person? I think of someone like C.S. Lewis. Near the end of his life an American named Walter Hooper came to help him sort out his papers. Hooper described Lewis as the “most thoroughly converted man I ever met.” We know Lewis through the Narnia Series and his other writings, but Hooper was referring to his general conversation and lifestyle. Lewis had many small charities he had started: people he supported through various uncertainties in their lives. He was unfailingly generous in life and in his conversation. He produced “fruit in keeping with repentance”. This is what it means to enter into God’s harmony with all of creation.
(A brief quote to illustrate Lewis’ charities: “As book royalties mounted during the later 1940s, and continued to spiral upward thereafter, C.S. Lewis refused to upgrade his standard of living. Partly out of disdain for conspicuous living, but mostly out of commitment to Jesus Chris, he established a charitable fund for his royalty earnings. Neither the extent nor the recipients of C.S. Lewis’s charity are fully known. Indeed, he made valiant efforts to conceal this information. It is known that he supported numerous impoverished families, and underwrote education fees for orphans and poor seminarians, and put monies into scores of charities and church ministries.” From

I think of a quite different organization, A Rocha. A Rocha (which means “The Rock” in Portuguese) began in 1983 in Portugal, started by Peter and Miranda Harris. Harris has described their story in Under the Bright Wings and in Kingfisher’s Fire. He tells how they began their conservation efforts in Portugal as an expression of their worship for the Creator of the earth. Today their efforts have spread around the world, including to A Rocha Pembina, which began in 2000. In a real sense they are making visible Isaiah’s vision of a truly restored creation. They are producing “fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Last week I spoke about the movement of God’s Spirit within“the house of Islam”. David Garrison tells the story of Rafiq, a North African immigrant living in Paris in 2001, where he pursued his career as a musician. Garrison intereviewed Rafiq and tells his story in A Wind in the House of Islam (81-84, 96-97). This again is the story of a truly converted couple, whose lives are producing “fruit in keeping with repentance”.
(I do not tell the story here, but refer the reader to Garrison’s book. The story is of Rafiq and his wife Nora, and how Rafiq fell in love with Jesus through a crucifix in a cathedral in Paris, and a picture of the Good Shepherd; then wrote a musical of the life of Jesus. He returned to his home in North Africa, where he lives with his wife and children, writing music in French, Arabic, and the Berber language. The story is well worth reading.)

What About Us?

What then should we do during Advent? God invites us to turn from our lives of conflict and discord and embrace the harmony and peace of God’s Reign. When we do so, we find that God’s Spirit moves in us to bring about the kind of peace that Isaiah describes. We may still live in difficult situations, but at the centre of our lives God gives a wholeness and joy that lives in harmony with God. We become pictures of peace in times of storm, people in whom God’s goodness shines. God’s wholeness and harmony is at hand; come, walk in the way of God’s peace.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
4 December 2016

Sunday, November 27, 2016

God’s Peace is at Hand

Over the past month I have preached four times in Winnipeg at Grace Bible Church. GBC uses the lectionary, so I worked with the assigned texts, asking what they had to say to us today. One theme recurred in all four sermons: The already-not yet character of God’s reign on earth. It happens that today’s texts plunge me back into this theme, so we will consider it again this morning.

You know what I mean by “already-not yet”: God’s reign has come in the person of Jesus. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought the kingdom of God. You know that many of the parables in the gospel begin, “The kingdom of God is like …”, precisely because Jesus was teaching and preaching about the kingdom. Indeed, Matthew 4:17 describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with these words: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” And Mark 1:14-15 puts it this way: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

It is no surprise then when Jesus Luke records these words in 17:20-21: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” In the coming of Jesus God’s reign has also come to earth.

Not Yet
Of course, we look around us and see all of the problems in our world. Conflicts and violence are normal, and it is clear to us that God’s reign is not here in power. Instead, evil reigns in many places, so much so that we wonder if God has entered our world at all. Of course God has come: That is the hope of Advent. That is “the reason for the season.” That is what we want to talk about this morning.

The Texts
Isaiah 2:1-5
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
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 all nations will stream to it. Many peoples 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 the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. 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. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Although we hear this passage often in Advent, it remains a remarkable vision of the End. (Remember that “End” means both a temporal ending and a goal towards which we move. This passage is teleological, not simply prophetic.) Isaiah lived in a time when the nations around Judah threatened its existence. During his life Assyria came close to destroying Judah and Jerusalem. People admired the powerful empires around them. They did not admire this weak small nation on the crossroads between Egypt and Assyria.

Yet Isaiah can see a future when God breaks into the scene and draws the nations to Jerusalem. We see that in this perfect future several things are true:
·         Israel (Judah) has become a place of righteousness and peace. People will come to Israel in order to find out how to experience God’s perfect justice and peace.
·         This perfection is seen in the law of God internalized in the people’s lives, so that they don’t have to explain God’s ways; they live God’s ways.
·         This internalized law leads to the settling of conflicts between people, so that God’s law achieves its purpose in the world (cf Exodus 19: 5-6).
·         The end result of this perfect relationship with God is complete peace and harmony between people and with all of creation (cf Romans 8: 18-25).

This perfect future is a description of God’s Reign at the end of all things. But, as we saw earlier, Jesus saw his ministry as the beginning of God’s Reign. That is one of the reasons that Jesus taught the way that he did. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he calls his disciples to live in a way fully consistent with Isaiah’s vision of the End. Again we see the already-not yet nature of the kingdom. God’s Reign began with Jesus, but every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we acknowledge that it is not yet fully here: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Matthew 24:36-44
36 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

In his words about the last hour Jesus reinforces this awareness that God’s Reign is not yet fully here. Rather, he tells his disciples that they will live in a normal world, full of conflict and distress. The last hour will be like the days before it, in which people are eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Therefore, Jesus says, be ready for the last hour. “Be ready” means “live in the light of God’s Reign already here.”

What is “the last hour”? A few verses earlier (verse 30) Jesus had said: “”Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.” The coming of the Son of Man, that is Jesus, with power and great glory. What we call the Second Coming. If we would read other passages about the second coming, we would find descriptions of the way that this ordinary time—people eating and drinking, marrying and growing their families—is also a time of conflict and pain. In Luke 21: 9-10 Jesus puts it this way: “‘When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.’ Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.’”

This description of the time before the End parallels our passage: eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. That is, life will be moving along normally, with the usual events of our lives, and the usual problems of our world. The troubles Jesus describes are an accurate picture of human history in general. We are tempted to think that such problems and conflict must be the End of all things, and we hope for that end to come quickly. “Maranatha! Lord! Come quickly!” But we find ourselves living in this time of normality and stress, life and death and troubles and joys. The time in between; the “already-not yet”. What do we do with this time?

The hymn, “Lo He comes with clouds descending” captures this time and our anticipation of the final end with great clarity. Go here for the service in which the hymn appears, at about the 1 hour and 17 minute mark, or here for a YouTube of the hymn. YouTube also has the 2014 First Advent service as a whole here.

As we look around our world, we are well aware of the “not yet” aspect of God’s Reign. Problems between our First Nations and the rest of us remind us that we are not yet in a time of full justice and peace. We are less aware perhaps of the way that God has been at work throughout history. Let me tell you a bit about that stream of history that reveals God’s Reign.

I teach the History of Christian Missions. It is a story that always amazes me. Many of us identify the missionary work of the church with colonialism. We think that the church has acted from a position of power and forced colonized people to come into the church. That has happened. From the Crusades to the English missionaries in the British Empire, Christians have preached from a position of power. But more often the gospel has flowed along lines of weakness and gone throughout the world with the oppressed of the world.

We don’t have time for a proper review, so I say just this much. In the first five centuries of the church the people of England came to faith through travelling merchants and other migrants, until a large part of the country was effectively Christian. Ireland became a largely Christian island through the ministry of Saint Patrick, a British lad who was taken to Ireland as a teenage slave by Irish Raiders. In the next five hundred years England was conquered first by the Saxons, then by Scandinavian raiders, and finally by the Normans. The Saxons and the Scandinavians were not Christian and the church appeared to be in danger of a literal death. But the invaders captured women whom they made their wives, and they enslaved others of the local population. The women and the slaves converted their conquerors, so that when modern England was born it was effectively Christian. I could tell a similar story of Germany and of Scandinavia more fully, but that is enough to make my point. You see how it works. God’s Reign does not flow through the powers of this world, but through the weak and powerless. God’s Reign is here, and as people discover what God brings, they turn to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

What is it that God brings? What do we find in God’s reign that is so attractive that the powerful accept the gospel from the powerless? The answer is in the text from Isaiah: Peace, justice, a clear heart and mind following God. In place of fear and destruction we find peace and joy. This is still true today.

In A Wind in the House of Islam David Garrison describes the world (or House) of Islam as having nine geo-cultural rooms. The remarkable fact about this House is that there are unprecedented movements to follow Jesus in each of these rooms. In the first 14 centuries of Islam the movement has been all one way: From Christian faith to Islam. But in the first 12 years of this century somewhere between two and nine million Muslims have become followers of Jesus. This does not mean that they have joined the Western Church. They continue in their own communities—in Bangladesh and Somalia, in Pakistan and in Indonesia. These stories are inspirational indeed. Something that impresses me is the reasons that Muslims are coming to follow Jesus. As he has travelled throughout the Muslim world, Garrison has asked many why they have begun to follow Jesus. A common refrain goes something like this: “I lived in constant fear. We were afraid that we would die, and we hated those who we thought were trying to kill us. Now that I know Jesus, I am filled with love for all people. I am no longer afraid to die, and I live at peace with those around me.” This is a contemporary description of Isaiah 2! The nations will stream to this perfect fulfillment of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.

Please note that these stories are not a triumphalist claim that the church has won. As I said, most of these new followers of Jesus are not joining the church; they are forming new fellowships of people who follow Jesus within their own communities. Over time, they tend to separate from the mosque, but the point is that they follow Jesus. I long for a similar moving of God’s Spirit in “the House of Christianity”. I long for a similar moving of God’s Spirit throughout Canada and the United States.


Advent is the season to remember Jesus’ first coming, and it is the time to anticipate Jesus’ return. We can begin to show the peace and wholeness of Isaiah 2 now because Jesus has begun God’s Reign in our lives. Matthew 24 reminds us that the kingdom is still coming, but we know that it is also already here. “God’s peace is at hand. Come, walk in the way of God’s heart.”

27 November 2016
Grace Bible Church
Texts: Isaiah 2: 1-5, Matthew 24: 36-44