Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Strange Habit of Life

Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. Maybe people today think that we are crazy too, when we choose to follow Jesus the Messiah. I want to examine this idea through the gospel reading from Mark, as well as the OT and NT readings.

Mark 3
Why did people think that Jesus was crazy? The gospel text says, “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’”

Two responses to Jesus. What was Jesus doing that led his family to say, “He’s out of his mind”, and the teachers of the law to say, “He’s possessed by a demon!”? First, he was healing people and casting out demons himself. His actions caught people’s attention, so that crowds started following him to listen to his teaching and to see what he would do next.

Second, Jesus made implicit claims about his identity. In chapter 1 he cast out an evil spirit, who identified Jesus clearly before he left the possessed man: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” The people heard this spirit speak, and they started speculating about Jesus.

In chapter 2, four men dug a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching. They lowered their friend, a paralyzed man, through the hole in the roof, for Jesus to heal him. Jesus response was not a simple healing. Instead, he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven!” If the event in chapter 1 started people talking, this action poured fuel on the fire of their thoughts. “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Jesus did not back down, but referred to himself as the Son of Man, a title meaning “the Messiah”, as he healed the man’s paralysis. At the end of chapter 2, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, and refers to himself both as the Son of Man and as the Lord of the Sabbath.

These actions were the real reason that his family thought he was crazy. He claimed unity with God. He claimed a direct unique identity as one with God.

The Trilemma
C.S. Lewis described the problem that Jesus presents us with as a trilemma. Let me explain. Jesus claims to be uniquely identified with God. If he had lived in India as a Hindu of that time period, this claim would not have surprised anyone. One school of Hinduism uses the phrase, “I am God, You are God” to express the essential unity of all reality.  If they had heard Jesus talk about “the Son of Man” and “the Lord of the Sabbath”, they would have agreed.

But Jesus lived in the Roman Province of Judea, and he was a Jew. First century Jews had a clear understanding that God is unique. The great Shema of Judaism says, “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Any suggestion that you are I or anyone else was somehow uniquely identified with God was blasphemy. In Jesus’ life, his claim to one with the Father was a basic reason that the Jews had him crucified. The penalty for blasphemy is death.

So we come to Lewis’ trilemma. Here is how he puts it in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God

At this stage of his career, Jesus’ family did not accept the idea that he was God, but held to the idea that he was a crazy: a lunatic. The teachers of the law also could not accept that he was God, but held to the idea that he was allied with Satan. So, why did people (including his family) think that Jesus was crazy? They thought that Jesus was crazy because he identified himself as the one in whom God comes to earth. As he puts it in John’s gospel repeatedly, “I and my father are one.”

1 Samuel 8 and 2 Corinthians 4
Jesus made no effort to fit into people’s ideas of what he should be. He was simply himself: One with God; the Son of Man [i.e., the Messiah]; the Lord of the Sabbath. God’s people have been less ready to stand out from the crowd.

In 1 Samuel 8, the Children of Israel decided they wanted a king. The people living around them had a king, and they wanted to fit in. Samuel counselled against their choice. Giving their ruler the power of being king would lead to tyranny, he warned, but the people insisted: They wanted a king. God gave them a king – first Saul, and then David and his heirs. God even used their rebellion to prepare the way for the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, to come. But the point of the passage is clear: By deciding to be like the people around them, the Children of Israel rebelled against God. God wanted them to understand that God is king, rather than any human ruler.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul defends his authority as an apostle. The Corinthians were attracted to spiritual rock stars (Paul calls them “super-apostles”) who showed up in their midst, but Paul refuses to fit into their ideas of what he should be. Earlier in chapter 4, he refers to himself and the Corinthians as “earthen vessels”, that is, ordinary people who do not stand out from the crowd. Here he observes that their ordinariness is being transformed into glory.

We might wonder then: Do People Think We’re Crazy? They might! If people around us listen to our conversation and to our hymns and all that we say and do together, they might think we’re crazy. As with Jesus, their perception might come from our stated identity.

Look at the person beside you. Maybe you think they’re really cool or really dull. Maybe you wish they had sat closer to you or a few rows behind you instead. The fact is, however, that whatever else we think about each other, we all fit. We’re an ordinary group of Canadians, and no one would think twice about us, at least at first sight.

Then we start to sing and pray and read Scripture, and we say things like, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” We start to talk about each other as people who reflect God’s glory. Pretty soon we are referring to each other as kings and queens, divine royalty. We come close to outdoing Shankara, the great Hindu theologian of 1400 years ago, who said to his students, “You are god!” If people really understood what we’re saying, they might indeed say, “You guys are crazy!”

A hundred years ago, Vachel Lindsay wrote a remarkable poem called “General William Booth enters into Heaven”. He pictures the moment that the founder of the Salvation Army, renowned for his work among the world’s poor, died and went to heaven. Listen to part of what he wrote:
Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—  
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)  
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”  
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)  
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,  
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,  
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—  
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—  
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,  
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—  
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Lindsay continues with the transformation that overtakes the crowd in Heaven:
Jesus came from out the court-house door,  
Stretched his hands above the passing poor.  
Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there  
Round and round the mighty court-house square.  
Yet in an instant all that blear review  
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.  
The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled  
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.  
Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!  
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!  
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,  
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!  

The hosts were sandalled, and their wings were fire!  
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)  
But their noise played havoc with the angel-choir.  
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)   
O shout Salvation! It was good to see  
Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.  
The banjos rattled and the tambourines  
Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.

That’s us too! Look around at each other. Divine royalty following our master into the very presence of God!

What Does This Mean Now?
What sets this “good kind of crazy” off from the real crazy? I remember Jonestown. Jim Jones led a cult he called “The People’s Temple” to found a commune in Indiana, which moved to California and finally to Jonestown, Guyana. More than 300 people died when he led them in a mass suicide. I remember David Koresh. Koresh led a cult called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Koresh and 79 others died in an FBI raid. I have no interest in being part of a cult that elevates its leader beyond all reason and destroys the members’ ability to think.

How is the good kind of crazy different from this? Consider why Jesus’ family changed their minds about him – because they really did change their minds. They observed him throughout his ministry. They saw how he loved people unconditionally and worked on their behalf. They heard to his teaching and recognized the Spirit of God moving through him. The longer they listened and watched and paid attention, the more they realised that Jesus was not crazy, nor was he possessed; they realised that he was just who he said he was.

What’s Your Story?
I have referred to C.S. Lewis often. He began his adult life as a bitter atheist, convinced that God did not exist and angry with God for not existing. Throughout his 20s, his atheism was challenged at various levels, and he came to believe in God. He did not, however, become a Christian. As Alistair McGrath puts it, Lewis could not see what difference Jesus could make to our lives today. The stories about Jesus were just too far away to be relevant.

Then his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, said something that changed his mind. Tolkien pointed out (to use our 21st century language) that everyone lives by what we call a metanarrative. Alistair McGrath describes the story that people like Jean Paul Sartre and Richard Dawkins live by:
We are here by accident, meaningless products of a random process. We can only invent meaning and purpose in life, and do our best to stay alive—even though there is no point to life.
McGrath continues with the story of Jesus:
We are precious creatures of a loving God, who has created for us something special that we are asked to do. We have the privilege of being able to do something good and useful for God in this world, and need to work out what it is. (from Lunches with C.S. Lewis)

We discover what God wants us to do by paying attention to Jesus. Jesus is unique in the world’s history. No other “great teacher” claimed to be God. The Buddha was clear that he was not God. Mohammed and Moses would have been horrified at the idea. Jesus says that he shows us God uniquely in himself. He provides a way to live, a strange habit of life that looks crazy, but proves to be the door into the heart of God’s love.

How do we know if this story is true? Lewis tells us that the best way to know if a story is true is by seeing how well it makes sense of the rest of reality. If we are no more than “the meaningless products of a random process”, then we cannot make sense of anything. What Lewis found as a young man, atheist and angry with God for not existing, was that belief in God made sense of everything from his own misfortunes in life to the horrors of World War One. As Lewis famously put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
[Please note: This is not any kind of a developed argument here. You will have to go and do the work of understanding these ideas more fully on your own. A good place to start is Christian Smith’s book, Moral, Believing Animals, in which he describes several of the major metanarratives that people live by today. In this space, all I can say is that I found the story of Jesus to be true, and I have organized my life round it.]

As we read the story of Jesus, then, we discover how we are to live. We are not like the people around us (unlike the Children of Israel in 1 Samuel 8). We are ordinary people (like those in 2 Corinthians 4), who carry the glory of God inside of us. How do we do this? By choosing the story of Jesus to become the pattern for the story of our lives, a strange habit of life.

Like Jesus, we care for people who are hurting and broken. Like Jesus, we refuse to participate in patterns that are harmful and destructive. Like Jesus, we listen for God’s voice within – both within each one of us, and within the community as a whole, through the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, listening for God’s direction for each step of life.

People like the Branch Dravidians or the People’s Temple did not allow God to reshape their own stories with God’s story, told through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We live in that story, as God reshapes our lives. It may look crazy to the people around us, but it is in fact the source of all that is good and true in our world.

10 June 2018

Grace Bible Church

1 Samuel 8:4-20:
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.’ But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LordAnd the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.’
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. 20 Then we shall be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1:
13 It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

Mark 3:20-35:
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’ 30 He said this because they were saying, ‘He has an impure spirit.’
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting round him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’ 33 ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’

Sunday, June 03, 2018

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s …

We are nearing the end of a challenging and rewarding series on the minor prophets. Obadiah is so short that we read the whole book this morning! I will begin with the setting in which Obadiah speaks the word of the Lord, then consider Obadiah’s message. Finally, we ask how that message carries us deeper into God’s heart, and how we are to respond to God’s heart of love.

Obadiah speaks to Edom, that is, to the descendants of Esau. Remember Esau? Isaac’s first son; Jacob’s older twin. In Genesis 25, their mother (Rebekah) received this prophecy: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” So it was. Jacob took the promised land, and Esau lived in the hills South of Israel – the beginning of a troubled relationship.

Jacob cheated Esau of his inheritance and stole the oldest son’s blessing. When Esau pleaded with his father for his own blessing, Isaac said, “Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”

Jacob fled from his brother after gaining their father’s blessing and went north to Paddan Aram, where he established his family. When he returned to Canaan, he made a partial reconciliation with his brother, but there was no trust between them. They saw each other for the last time when they joined together to bury their father, Isaac. You can read the whole story in Genesis 25 to 36, which finishes with a list of the descendants of Esau (the Edomites). The list shows that the Edomites accommodated to the customs and gods of the land long before the Children of Israel (Jacob) did. They were still children of Abraham, but no longer children of the promise.

In the years that followed, the Israelites and the Edomites had the kind of relationship one could predict from their beginning. When Israel walked the Exodus route from Egypt, Edom would not help them. When Babylon carried the southern kingdom of Judah into captivity, Edom cheered. During the exile, Edom took over many of the towns of southern Judah, which the Children of Israel took back in the period of the Maccabees just before the time of the New Testament.

Obadiah spoke his prophecy just after the end of the southern kingdom of Judah. He was probably a contemporary of Jeremiah, who spoke so eloquently about the judgment coming through the Babylonians.

The troubled relationship of Israel and Edom survives in the New Testament in the person of King Herod the Great. He is called Herod the Idumean. Idumea is the Greek form of Edom, so the Herod who tried to kill Jesus in Matthew 2 was Herod the Edomite. You may recall that the Jews claimed that Herod was not really their king – because he came from Edom (Esau) not from Israel (Jacob). Given this long and troubled relationship between Israel and Edom, we turn to Obadiah’s prophecies.

The Text
·         Verse 1 sets the stage. The nations (in this case, Babylon) are getting ready to destroy Judah (that is, God’s Chosen People).
·         Verses 2 to 7 describe Edom’s own destruction. Edom lives among the rocks (that is, in the mountains – Petra, the great rock fortress, is in Edom), but their almost inaccessible home will be no protection against their foes. Even their friends will work against them.
·         Verses 8 and 9 describe the Day of the Lord, a glimpse of the final judgment, in which Edom will be called to account and destroyed.
·         Verses 10 to 14 detail Edom’s sins: They could have stood with their brother, Jacob, when the Babylonians attacked, but they stood on the side and rejoiced over Judah’s fall. Then they entered Judah’s towns and ransacked them, handing over any who had escaped the Babylonians to the invaders. “Because of your violence against your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame; you will be destroyed forever” (verse 10). This prophesies a more complete destruction than is usually spoken of, from which we can conclude that to betray one’s own brother is worse than to fail a stranger. I suggest also it refers more to a final destruction in the Lord’s Day than to destruction in the present, since the Edomites in fact continued in the land with the Israelites.
·         Verses 15 to 18 observe that the judgment at the End will bring a complete reversal of present fortunes. Those who trust in God will be elevated; those who fight against God’s people will be destroyed.
·         Verses 19 to 21 prophesy Esau’s final failure when everything belongs to God.

We can summarize all of this quite simply: God judges Edom for celebrating Judah’s downfall. This judgment suggests a basic principle: Don’t rejoice in your enemy’s distress. Rather, reach out and help where you can. God will judge everyone alike, restoring those who choose God, and destroying those who refuse God.

I said last week that the grim warnings in Nahum are the soil in which Jesus’ teachings grow. A life of violence begets violence; those who live by the sword die by the sword. Jesus teaches a path of peace in place of Assyria’s violent ways. Obadiah also is the soil in which Jesus’ teachings grow. Jesus says that those who mourn will receive blessing. In Romans 12: 9-21, Paul expands this blessing with words that Nahum could have spoken directly to the Edomites:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. …
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Living with the Prophet
So, God judges Edom for celebrating Judah's downfall. This judgment suggests a basic principle: Don’t rejoice in your enemy’s distress. Rather, reach out and help where you can. God will judge everyone alike, restoring those who choose God, and destroying those who refuse God.

We have been calling these warnings “God’s heartbeat of love for God’s world.” God loves eacg person so much that God will do everything possible to bring that person back into right relationship with God. God wants us also to love with God’s love. What do we do with this call to respond to God’s love, and to love the world around us with God’s love? A few words first about what we mean by love.

Some people think of “love” as a warm fuzzy emotion that bathes the recipient in a glow of warm acceptance. To put it another way, sometimes we confuse “love’ and “like”. Of course, loving someone and liking that person are closely related. If you say to me, “I don’t like my wife, but I do love her”, I will conclude that you may need to learn to like her again. Loving and liking often go together, and they should.

At the same time, loving and liking really are different things. “Like” is an emotion, a feeling, a response to people that comes and goes. There are times when parents don’t like their children, and when children don’t like their parents. But love continues throughout the whole relationship. What then do we mean by “love”?

I mean two basic things. One: I care what happens to you. Whatever hurts you also hurts me. Whatever brings you joy also brings me joy. Love includes a basic recognition that we belong together and that whatever happens to you also happens to me. This means that real love costs something. To commit myself to love you is hard, because now I can be hurt when something bad happens to you. Loving you makes my life richer, and loving you places me more at risk.

Two: I want God’s best for you. I am not satisfied with anything less than God’s best in your life. I want you to succeed – which means, find God’s will and live God’s way in all that you do. That is why I pray for my sons, “Lord, teach them to know you, and to love you, and to serve you.” My life is bound up with theirs, and all of our lives are bound up with God.

When we understand love this way, we see it is a choice that we make to love the other person. Sometimes our feelings are in sync with our will, and sometimes they aren’t, but we love consistently and completely. I can imagine the Edomites saying, “Why should we put ourselves in danger for the children of Jacob? Jacob cheated our father, and his children deserve whatever happens to them.” Through Obadiah, God says, “Love your brothers and sisters. Act for their good. I know that you have bad feelings about them, but they are your brothers and sisters, and you care for them.”

Love is a Choice
You see then that love is a choice we make, not a feeling that overwhelms us. Of course, sometimes feelings accompanying love do overwhelm us, and our culture has an idea of romantic love that sweeps you off your feet, but God’s love is deeper and more profound than a simple understanding of romantic love. God loves us, and so we love God and each other. God cares for us, and so we care for God and each other. God hurts when we hurt, and so we hurt with each other. God loves it when good things happen to us, and so we celebrate when good things happen to people we love.

This means, of course, that God wants us all to love God and live with God. Peter, a disciple who lived so close to Jesus, wrote in 2 Peter 3: 8 and 9: “Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Jesus wants everyone to live! God loves everyone. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten so, so that whoever believes on [trusts in] him should not die, but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world” (John 3: 16f).

This truth raises really difficult questions. If God loves us so much, why do bad things happen to anyone? This question gives birth to another hard question: Why do we not receive from God what is good? God does not want us to suffer. God wants us to know and experience good, but God has also given us the incredible power to say no to God.

John Wesley wrote a powerful hymn asking why people do not turn to God: “Sinner turn, why will you die?” He wrote 13 verses. Here is just one:
Sinners, turn: why will you die? God, your Savior, asks you why.
God, who did your souls retrieve, died himself, that you might live.
Will you let Him die in vain? Crucify your Lord again?
Why, you ransomed sinners, why, will you slight his grace and die?

This is deep mystery. There are answers, but they are not easy to express or to grasp. All I can say this morning is that God endured our grief and pain on the cross. God enters into our suffering and hurt at the deepest levels. Last Sunday I told you the story of Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl. You remember her words as she considered the story of Jesus: “I had never been exposed to this side of Jesus—the wounded one, the one who bore scars. I turned over this new information in my mind as a gem in my hand, relishing the light that was cast from all sides.”

One part of the mystery, then, is the question, “Why do humans choose evil?” This ability to choose is remarkable and dangerous gift. God evidently thought it worthwhile to let you and me choose to do God’s will and love with God’s love. Or not. We can decide to live for God, or to live for ourselves. As C.S. Lewis put it in a book on Heaven and Hell called The Great Divorce:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
That’s what the prophets are getting at: The heartbeat of God is the heartbeat of God’s love, and God wants us to say yes to God and love with God’s love.

God has put us here to sing and play God’s music. Jesus lived and taught and died and rose to bring us into the great choir (or orchestra or band) to sing God’s song. The trouble is that we are a generation that wants God to say, “your will be done” and does not want to say to God, “Your will be done.” We want to sing our own song, not God’s song. As one of favourite groups, the Mamas and the Papas, sings,
Nobody can tell ya there's only one song worth singing,
They may try and sell ya, ’cause it hangs them up to see someone like you.
But you’ve gotta make your own music, Sing your own special song,
Make your own kind of music even if nobody else sings along. (1968)

This is hard. I see real value in individualism, but it must be my own song within God’s song. Jesus put it this way in John 12:25, “Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” Or, to put it in terms of singing the Lord’s song, those who insist on singing their own song and not harmonizing with God’s song will find that they lose the gift of music altogether, but those who sing God’s song will have an eternity to make the most joyful music of all.

Obadiah describes what happens to people who insist on living only for themselves. Jesus shows us another way, loving God and loving each other with perfect love – caring for each other and desiring God’s best for each other. Love is a choice, and God wants us to choose love.

 3 June 2018
Steinbach Mennonite Church

Obadiah’s Vision
The vision of Obadiah. This is what the Sovereign Lord says about Edom—We have heard a message from the Lord: An envoy was sent to the nations to say, “Rise, let us go against her for battle”—“See, I will make you small among the nations; you will be utterly despised. The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,” declares the Lord. “If thieves came to you, if robbers in the night—oh, what a disaster awaits you!—would they not steal only as much as they wanted? If grape pickers came to you, would they not leave a few grapes? But how Esau will be ransacked, his hidden treasures pillaged! All your allies will force you to the border; your friends will deceive and overpower you; those who eat your bread will set a trap for you, but you will not detect it.
“In that day,” declares the Lord, “will I not destroy the wise men of Edom, those of understanding in the mountains of Esau? Your warriors, Teman, will be terrified, and everyone in Esau’s mountains will be cut down in the slaughter. 10 Because of the violence against your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame; you will be destroyed forever. 11 On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. 12 You should not gloat over your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble. 13 You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor gloat over them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster. 14 You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble.
15 “The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. 16 Just as you drank on my holy hill, so all the nations will drink continually; they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been. 17 But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and Jacob will possess his inheritance. 18 Jacob will be a fire and Joseph a flame; Esau will be stubble, and they will set him on fire and destroy him. There will be no survivors  from Esau.” The Lord has spoken.
19 People from the Negev will occupy the mountains of Esau, and people from the foothills will possess the land of the Philistines. They will occupy the fields of Ephraim and Samaria, and Benjamin will possess Gilead. 20 This company of Israelite exiles who are in Canaan will possess the land as far as Zarephath; the exiles from Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the towns of the Negev. 21 Deliverers will go up on Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau. And the kingdom will be the Lord’s.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

No Escape!

We have reached Nahum – not a book that many of us read often! A sign of how rarely we read it is my own confusion as I prepared. Two weeks ago, I looked up the texts, made some notes, and sent my focus statement and sermon title to Daniela. Then, at the end of the week, I did some more preparation. I found a problem immediately! I had read Habbakuk, assumed that it was Nahum, and sent Daniela information that was completely wrong!

When the preacher doesn’t even know which book he’s in, you can guess that we don’t read these books very often. So I sat down and read and reread Nahum, and wrote this sermon. We’ll see if it makes sense now!

Nahum 1: 12-15
We began with some verses from chapter 1:
12 This is what the Lord says: “Although they have allies and are numerous, they will be destroyed and pass away. Although I have afflicted you, Judah, I will afflict you no more. 13 Now I will break their yoke from your neck and tear your shackles away.”
14 The Lord has given a command concerning you, Nineveh: “You will have no descendants to bear your name. I will destroy the images and idols that are in the temple of your gods. I will prepare your grave, for you are vile.”
15 Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, Judah, and fulfill your vows. No more will the wicked invade you; they will be completely destroyed.

Nahum prophesied to and about Nineveh (Assyria), with a few comments directed to Judah. He conducted his ministry after the fall of Samaria and the Northern Kingdom, and anticipates the fall of Assyria to Babylon. In this fall, Nahum sees God at work, judging Nineveh just as God had also judged Samaria.

The name “Nahum” may mean “comfort” (like Naomi in the book of Ruth – “comfortable” or “pleasant”). The comfort this comforter brings is cold comfort. It is the comfort of God’s certain justice, rendered against Assyria, Israel’s great enemy. Verse 1 tells us that he was an “Elkoshite”. We’re not sure what this means, but it could place his home either in a part of Israel controlled by Assyria, or even in Assyria itself, so that he knew from firsthand experience about the great country ruled by Nineveh,

In chapter 1, then, Nahum introduces God as one takes vengeance on all God’s enemies: “The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it. Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger?” (vv 5-6) Verses 7 and 8 contrast God’s goodness with God’s judgment. The whole book is unrelenting in portraying God’s judgment, so that verse 7 almost feels out of place: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.” In fact, I suggest that this note of goodness and grace is the key that helps us understand the whole book of Nahum. We will return to this idea at the end.

Then come the verses we heard read: Nineveh will be completely destroyed, and Judah will be secure and free. Assyria’s reliance on other gods is the basic problem, combined with their violence against the nations around them. In verse 15, we hear again of hope for Judah: Judgment brings salvation. Along with verses 7 and 8, this promise of hope to Judah is a candle within the darkness of Nahum’s prophecy. This flickering light reminds us that God loves the world, and that God’s judgment is always experienced within the context of God’s love. God’s wrath serves God’s love.

Nahum 2: 1-6
An attacker advances against you, Nineveh. Guard the fortress, watch the road, brace yourselves, marshal all your strength! The Lord will restore the splendour of Jacob like the splendour of Israel, though destroyers have laid them waste and have ruined their vines.
The shields of the soldiers are red; the warriors are clad in scarlet. The metal on the chariots flashes on the day they are made ready; the spears of juniper are brandished. The chariots storm through the streets, rushing back and forth through the squares. They look like flaming torches; they dart about like lightning.
Nineveh summons her picked troops, yet they stumble on their way. They dash to the city wall; the protective shield is put in place. The river gates are thrown open and the palace collapses.

Nahum pictures the destruction of Nineveh. (You can almost hear Jonah cheering in the background.) This time, unlike their response to Jonah’s prophecies, the people of Nineveh rally themselves to fight, but they fail. The palace collapses! Assyria is destroyed.

You notice that their destruction appears to equal Israel’s restoration (v 2), a thought that does not sit well with us as pacifists. This is a problem in the text for us to deal with. For the moment, we simply observe that Assyria has lived by violence, and now they die by violence. At one level, the message of Nahum is that no one who embraces violence will escape violence. The only sure path of salvation is to embrace the Lord.

Nahum 3: 18-19
Chapter 3 continues the message, a wholesale condemnation of Assyria the violent. The chapter ends with these words:
18 King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber; your nobles lie down to rest. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them. 19 Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?

We hear the message of peace here in its negative form: Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. There is no escape. God’s hand rests on everyone, for good or for evil.

We see, then, that everyone belongs to God, not just the “Chosen people” of Israel, and God judges everyone. A defining, although understated, point that gives this truth meaning is that God’s desire to save also applies to everyone (1:7). God’s invitation – and God’s warning – is for everyone! Nahum then repeats the basic point that we have made throughout this series: The heartbeat of God is one of love, a love that encompasses all people and all of life. This point, however, raises a question that we must deal with. To get at the question, let’s paint a scenario for our congregational life.

Just Pretend
Let’s pretend that we have a practice of asking questions during or after the service. Someone who has a question might text it to Lee, who would put up his hand and say, “Daryl, we have a question here from the congregation. Someone here wants to know why you keep saying that every passage we read talks about God’s love. The plain meaning of the words states that God is going to destroy them, and you say, ‘That’s God’s love at work!’ What’s going on?”

Our imaginary questioner has a point. A basic principle of reading the Bible is to start with the plain meaning of the text. We look for some deeper meaning only when something in the text forces us to. For example, 1 Corinthians 14 tells us that women should keep quiet in church. But 1 Corinthians 11 says that women should cover their heads as a sign of their authority to prophesy (like I am doing now). This apparent contradiction makes it clear that something else is going on besides either covering their heads or keeping quiet. The larger context makes the actual meaning clear.

So what is it in this passage that tells us we should look for a deeper meaning? The answer is fairly simple, and it comes in two steps.

One: We read the Old Testament through the light of the New Testament. As St. Augustine said, “The New is in the Old contained; the Old is by the New explained.” That is, when we read the minor prophets, we hear what they say in light of the New Testament. Further, we read both Old and New Testaments through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

The centre of Jesus’ life and teaching is that God loves the world so much that Jesus came to die for the world. Jesus also speaks judgment, but his words of judgment are always in the service of God’s grace and love.
A brief note: Some people think that Jesus taught a message of love, and Paul came along and changed the message to one of judgment. The fact is that Jesus speaks more judgment than Paul does, and Paul gives us wonderful verses like those found in Romans 8 (“What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing!”) Paul wrote the love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. When we read Jesus fully, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount, we find that he teaches God’s judgment, always in service of God’s love.

Two: Hear again how strange the verses of hope in Nahum sound. In the middle of warnings that Assyria will be destroyed, the prophet reminds Judah that they will be saved, for “the Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.” These verses in chapter 1 (7, 8, 12, and 15) are so different from the rest of the book that one wonders if someone added them later. Some readers might want to take them out, because they don’t fit, but it is precisely these verses that connect the dramatic warnings of the prophet to the larger theme of God’s love. They force us to listen to the prophecies of judgment within the larger theme of God’s love.
Listening to the text this way, we hear God say clearly to us: No one can escape from God’s judgment, and no one can escape from God’s love. We live in a dangerous world, and embracing violence and strength (the world’s way) leads only to more violence and destruction. God invites people to place their trust in God, in whom alone they can find peace.

An Example from our Violent World
Recently I read an article from Christianity Today (April 20, 2018). It begins with these words:
You have seen my picture a thousand times. It’s a picture that made the world gasp—a picture that defined my life. I am nine years old, running along a puddled roadway in front of an expressionless soldier, arms outstretched, naked, shrieking in pain and fear, the dark contour of a napalm cloud billowing in the distance.
My own people, the South Vietnamese, had been bombing trade routes used by the Viet Cong rebels. I had not been targeted, of course. I had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those bombs have brought me immeasurable pain. Even now, some 40 years later, I am still receiving treatment for burns that cover my arms, back, and neck. The emotional and spiritual pain was even harder to endure.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi tells her full story in a 2017 book titled, Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace. This article is a brief excerpt. She tells how she survived the bombing. The photographer took the children to the hospital after he took the picture. The doctors did not think she would survive, but she did – after 17 surgeries over 14 months.

She tells us that her parents were leaders within the Cao Dai religion. Here is her description:
Cao Dai is universalist in nature. According to a description on, it recognizes all religions as having “one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness,” or pretty much any other deity you could imagine. “You are god, and god is you”—we had this mantra ingrained in us. We were equal-opportunity worshipers, giving every god a shot.

Looking back, I see my family’s religion as something of a charm bracelet slung around my wrist, each dangling bauble representing yet another possibility of divine assistance. When troubles came along—and every day, it seemed, they did—I was encouraged to rub those charms in hopes that help would arrive.

For years, I prayed to the gods of Cao Dai for healing and peace. But as one prayer after another went unanswered, it became clear that either they were nonexistent or they did not care to lend a hand.

 She was nine years old when the bombs dropped. Over the next 12 years she looked for help to deal with the crippling physical and emotional and spiritual pain she bore. She writes:
In 1982, I found myself crouched inside Saigon’s central library, pulling Vietnamese books of religion off the shelves one by one. The stack in front of me included books on Bahá’í, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Cao Dai. It also contained a copy of the New Testament. I thumbed through several books before pulling the New Testament into my lap. An hour later, I had picked my way through the Gospels, and at least two themes had become abundantly clear.

First, despite all that I had learned through Cao Dai—…, that there were many paths to holiness, that the burden of “success” in religion rested atop my own weary, slumped shoulders—Jesus presented himself as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). His entire ministry, it seemed, pointed to one straightforward claim: “I am the way you get to God; there is no other way but me.” Second, this Jesus had suffered in defense of his claim. He had been mocked, tortured, and killed. Why would he endure these things, I wondered, if he were not, in fact, God?

I had never been exposed to this side of Jesus—the wounded one, the one who bore scars. I turned over this new information in my mind as a gem in my hand, relishing the light that was cast from all sides. The more I read, the more I came to believe that he really was who he said he was, that he really had done what he said he had done, and that—most important to me—he really would do all that he had promised in his Word.

That Christmas Eve, Kim Phuc found herself in a small church in Saigon. The pastor spoke simply, of the gift we give at Christmas, and of the greatest gift ever given, when God gave God’s Son, Jesus. She writes that she was desperate for peace and joy to replace the bitterness and desire for death she felt so deeply.
So when the pastor finished speaking, I stood up, stepped out into the aisle, and made my way to the front of the sanctuary to say yes to Jesus Christ. And there, in a small church in Vietnam, mere miles from the street where my journey had begun amid the chaos of war—on the night before the world would celebrate the birth of the Messiah—I invited Jesus into my heart. When I woke up that Christmas morning, I experienced the kind of healing that can only come from God. I was finally at peace.

Kim Phuc still lives today with the physical consequences of that horror-filled day when the bombs rained down on her village, but she adds something of vital importance: “Today, I thank God for that picture. Today, I thank God for everything—even for that road. Especially for that road.” (As a side note to her story, she lives today in the Toronto area. She defected to Canada in 1996 and became a citizen in 1997. She has established the Kim Phuc Foundation International for healing children of war. In an interview with NPR, she said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”

This overwhelming wonderful grace of God lies deep in the foundations of Nahum’s life and message. He speaks the words of warning clearly – to Nineveh, and to everyone who lives by violence and deceit. The warnings serve to remind us that no one can escape God’s judgment, just as no one can escape God’s love. When we turn to God, not away from God, we are reminded that “Nahum” means “Comfort”. Nahum’s comfort is true. “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”

Steinbach Mennonite Church
27 May 2018

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.