Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013

We sit in rows of simple church-like chairs
In sacred space made common with singing;
Projected words our sign to form a choir,
Wordless picture signs our silence, listening

To words and songs from others' throats and lips.
I've heard too much divine made commonplace,
Carols and poems--their meaning slowly slips
Out of mindless sitting in sacred space.

Wordless picture shows a common theme--
Joseph's arm steals round the blessed mother
As mother holds her baby. How dare he?
So intimate with Ultimate Other?

   The common song shattered by simple care,
   Fragments of awe, divinity laid bare.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joseph: More Mystery

I just finished shovelling the snow off the driveway. As I worked, I thought more about Joseph, following yesterday's sermon.

Joseph was a dreamer. Each of his actions followed a word from God sent by an angel in a dream we know Joseph the dreamer in the OT too. Joseph, son of Jacob, appears in Genesis 30 as one whose birth means that God is adding to Jacob's family. He begins life as part of a bizarre contest (bizarre at least to our way of thinking) between Leah and Rachel to see who can have more children. But he begins known as the dreamer, the one whose dreams--and whose ability to interpret dreams--lead to the salvation of Jacob's family, "the Children of Israel".

Joseph, husband of Mary, appears in Matthew 1:16, as the son of Jacob. So when he starts hearing from God in dreams, we can expect salvation to come to Israel. Here is where the story changes from its clear OT parallel.

Matthew likes to make subtle points through simple stylistic variations. So in Matthew 2 he makes the point that King Jesus supplants King Herod with a simple stylistic change in the way he refers to Herod. He calls Herod "King", until the magi find and worship the baby Jesus. After that he refers to Herod only as "Herod". Jesus is king, and Herod is dethroned.

So when Matthew never records any words from Joseph's mouth, we can assume that is an important point of style. Matthew sets Joseph up to be important--son of Jacob; God's words in dreams. We expect Joseph to do something! But he says nothing. He does what he is told, like a servant who hears and obeys. He has added the family into which Jesus is born, and then fades into obscurity.

Why? Because the focus is on Jesus--the one who saves, not on Joseph--the one who is added. Think of what happens to the light bulb when the sun comes up. It almost disappears in the light of the sun. Jesus is the light of the world, and all other sources of power fade into obscurity.

There's much more in the story than this; but I was done shovelling the driveway, and that's enough for now.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Mystery Man: Joseph

Preached at SMC for the Third Sunday in Advent, 2013
Matthew 1:18-25
Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Last July our son got married. Lois and I were delighted. We love our son, and we love our daughter-in-law. The wedding was wonderful—held under a tent beside a cornfield, with lots of hymn singing (eight hymns), followed by a reception in the barn overlooking the field. At the wedding I learned again what I had discovered four years before when Nevin got married: The father of the groom is the least visible person at the wedding. Everyone is looking at the bride and the groom, as they should be. The father of the bride is often close to tears during the father-daughter dance, as is the mother dancing with her son. The father of the groom dances with no one. At Vaughn’s wedding Lois and I walked down the aisle with him to release him into this new relationship, and then Lauren’s parents walked down the aisle with her to do the same. But in the end the father of the groom is almost invisible. As he should be.

Joseph reminds me of the father of the groom. He is almost invisible. You remember Mary: When the angel came to her they talked, and afterwards she sang her wonderful “Magnificat”. Joseph? He said nothing. The angel did all the talking. Joseph is the quiet one who does what he’s told. Go over the story with me again. The facts are clear enough, but may surprise us.
·         Mary and Joseph were “pledged to be married”. As Marg said last week, this suggests that Mary was a young teen. Joseph could have been any age. Some commentators suggest that he was an older man who had been married before. The text doesn’t say so, but it doesn’t rule it out either. He could have been a young man himself. This seems more likely, given the travelling they did; but again, the text doesn’t say.
·         The time between a pledge and the marriage could be a year, but often these come close together, and today normally come in the same ceremony. In this space of time, Mary conceived a child. When Joseph found out, he was naturally upset; but rather than humiliate Mary, he decided “to divorce her quietly”. This decision is a surprise: Their culture was a shame and honour culture. You may have heard of a family in Ontario in the recent past, in which the brothers apparently killed their sister because she was in love with someone from outside their community. She had brought shame on the family. So Joseph was acting very much against his culture by seeking not to embarrass her.
·         Joseph was “faithful to the law”. The King James says: “a righteous man”. The original word means “just”, usually in the sense of one who keeps the law. Some commentators take it to mean “righteous” in the sense of “good” or “kind”. That makes sense of Joseph’s desire not to hurt Mary.
·         As Joseph thought all of this through, an angel appeared. You notice that Mary had Gabriel the archangel (Luke 1). Joseph just got an angel. When Gabriel came to Mary, he inspired fear and began with the words, “Don’t be afraid!” Joseph’s angel was more practical: “Don’t be afraid to marry her.” The comments above about shame and honour explain what Joseph is afraid of: The shame Mary has brought on them.
·         The angel gave his reason: “She is pregnant because God (the Holy Spirit) made her pregnant.” Who would blame Joseph for being skeptical? The angel continues: “Name him Jesus”, a name that means “God saves”. Matthew doesn’t give us Joseph’s response; he just explains that all of this fulfills prophecies given long before. The fact that Joseph was asleep—a vision in a dream—reminds us of Joseph the dreamer in the OT.
·         The last verse says it all: When he awoke, Joseph did as he was told. I went to our NT professor at Providence and asked him what he could tell me about Joseph. He replied, “Joseph did what he was told.” That could be his epitaph.

Matthew 2
We meet Joseph again in chapter 2. The magi—wise men from the East—came looking for the baby boy. They found Mary and the baby in Bethlehem. No mention of Joseph, of course. In verse 12, an angel appeared to Joseph again in a dream and told him to get up and go to Egypt to escape from Herod. Joseph didn’t say anything. He just got up and took Mary and the baby to Egypt. He did what he was told.

At the end of the chapter, Herod died, and another angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him to go back to Israel. The text is to the point: “So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” He didn’t even wait until morning. In a further dream an angel warns him of possible trouble from Archelaus, so the family went to Galilee, to Nazareth.

We could go through Luke 2, in which Joseph is present at all the same things as Mary—taking her to Bethlehem; watching the shepherds come. Mary pondered all that had happened and treasured them in her heart (2:19). Joseph didn’t say anything. Jesus is named. Usually the father would give the name, as Zechariah did for John in Luke 1. But Joseph doesn’t even get credit for that—Luke 2:21 says, “He was named Jesus.”  He is there when Jesus was circumcised. He is there when Jesus stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem. But when they go back and find him, Mary is the one to talk to Jesus and ask what he had been doing. Joseph didn’t say anything. He just did what he was told. Joseph disappears from the story after that. Mary is there during his ministry and at the cross. Maybe he died; at any rate we hear no more of him. People thought he was the father of Jesus; but he knew better. He was the invisible man in the background, the one you tend not to notice at the wedding.

So What’s the Mystery of Joseph?
Out theme is “mystery”—the mystery of Mary and Joseph and the baby, this incredible mystery when God comes in a human baby. What mystery is there about this invisible man? He fades out of the picture; what else is there to say?

Joseph could have failed the salvation project at many points. If he had not gotten the family up in the middle of the night, Herod’s soldiers might have caught them. If he had been less careful in their return Archelaus might have finished the job his father started. If he had been too afraid to take Mary as his wife, he could have failed right at the beginning. But Joseph did as he was told, and the salvation project went ahead the way God intended.

That’s the mystery—that God regularly chooses the least likely people to do the biggest things. The sort of thing described in “Lord of the Rings” when a hobbit has to carry the ring of power into the land of Mordor to destroy it in the mountain of fire. As one of the characters (Elrond) says, “Who of the wise could have foreseen it?” None, especially if they were really wise!

Paul says the same thing in the language of Scripture:
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:26-31)

God works through the weak and the foolish to do what God chooses to do. That’s the mystery and the wonder of Joseph! He is sometimes called “the hidden saint”, because his life disappears from the gospel records. When did he die? We don’t know. Some suggest that he died when Jesus was a teenager, and they note that he would have died in Mary’s arms with Jesus by his side—a blessed death! But that is speculation. The text tells us nothing. His life is hidden.

Some Examples
Many people who do God’s will are almost invisible. God delights to work through the weak and the foolish. I found a sermon on Joseph by a Catholic priest named James Martin. He says:
During the first few months of my Jesuit novitiate, I worked at Youville Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, run by the Grey Nuns, a small Catholic order, which tended to the seriously ill. Those who lived there suffered from a variety of illnesses: cancer, dementia, degenerative muscular diseases. Many were surprisingly young. For example, young men who had suffered brain injuries resulting from car or motorcycle accidents. One mother used to come by daily to visit her 20-year-old son, to feed him, read to him and sit by his bed. Here was a life entirely hidden from the world, in a lonely hospital that few knew about, even in the area. (“Youville? Where’s that?” I was asked by even long-time Bostonians.) One winter’s afternoon I came in to find the mother combing her son’s hair. “Doesn’t he look handsome today?” she said with a radiant smile.

There you see the hidden saint: A mother combing her disabled son’s hair. In my first pastorate I also had a hidden saint; her name was Bessie. Bessie was a bit cranky and very strong-willed. She had a son named Billy. Billy had cerebral palsy and was confined to his bed. I used to visit Bessie and Billy, and she would tell him about his life. She said that the doctors had told her that Billy would live only to his 20s. But she was stubborn and would not take him to a hospital to live out his days. She cared for him in their home, caring for him and talking with him. I listened to their conversations. I have no idea what Billy said—I couldn’t understand anything. But Bessie and Billy understood each other very well, and she would interpret for me. The doctors may have said that Billy would live into his 20s, but when I knew them, he was over 40 years old. Bessie and Billy: Saints from my first church, hidden from the world, but completely visible to God.

The Takeaway
I said that the father of the groom in a wedding is almost invisible. You do what you’re told. You carry chairs, help with decorations, roll the silverware—whatever is there to do, you do. The parallel is Joseph’s lesson to us. We do what God tells us to do. One reason that Joseph could do this is that he was remarkably tuned into God. Like Joseph in the OT, he was open to God’s voice in dreams. When the angel came to him, he didn’t need the reassurance: “Don’t be afraid.” The only fear he had to overcome was the fear of doing what he should do. When God spoke to him, he obeyed. That’s the takeaway from our sermon this morning: Be in touch with God. Walk so closely with God that when God speaks to you, you’re ready. You hear, and do. The hiddenness of Joseph reminds us that God’s actors in our church are not necessarily the visible people here this morning. Some of us are preaching, leading singing, leading worship, standing up at the front in one way or another. I don’t think Joseph is up here. He’s standing somewhere in the background waiting for God to speak. When God speaks, he does what he’s told.

This is only one note in the great mystery of the gospel. God’s call comes more than just through dreams. We need community. We need a deep awareness of God’s Word Written. We need each other. And we need the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. But running through all of these like an invisible thread of vitality is the mystery of God’s work at the margins, God’s presence in our weakness and helplessness.

Robert Southwell has expressed this truth in a wonderful Christmas poem, set to music by Benjamin Britten. Southwell was a Catholic priest in England from 1586 to 1595. Because the monarchy was trying to stamp out the Catholic Church in England, to be a priest was to be in constant hiding, knowing that every time he went to hear confession from someone, he might be arrested. Indeed, in 1592 he was caught, and tortured, and executed in 1595 at 33 years old. The reality of his hidden life gives special poignancy to the words of his poem, “New Heaven, New War”. Here are some of the words:
This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarm├Ęd wise the gates of hell he will surprise.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight, stick to the tents that he hath pight [pitched].
Within his crib is surest ward, this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Southwell expresses the mystery of the gospel, found where human strength and success would never look. When we go to that place, we find God at work in a baby, and we find Joseph, the hidden saint, the man who did what he was told. Will you be like Joseph? Will you be so close to God, that when God speaks, you do what you’re told?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Life as a White African (Providence Chapel: 27 November 2013)

Our semester theme is journeys, and today I want you to travel with me through a journey of identity.
I am a White African. I was born in Zambia 63 years ago and moved to Zimbabwe when I was four. My grandparents went from Pennsylvania to Zimbabwe in 1921, so my father also grew up there. I have lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for 22 years of my life—including the first 15. At the core of my identity I am a White Zimbabwean, who now lives as an American and Canadian in Manitoba.
What does it mean to be a White African? At one level, it is simply to be human. What I say of myself all of us may be able to say. To be an African is to be human, like Asians and Europeans and Australasians and Americans. We are all sinners, and we are all created as God’s images in the world. At another level, this is my particular version of the human story.
1. To be a White African is to be broken.
Zimbabwe is a broken country today. The past five years have stabilized somewhat, but the first decade of this century saw inflation rise to several million percent a year—such numbers are almost meaningless: they mean that the price of anything would double every day. The present government is filled with corruption and violence. Politically and economically we are broken. I am a White Zimbabwean, which means also that I am a White Rhodesian. About 120 years ago White Settlers moved into Zimbabwe and took over the country. Over the next five years the indigenous people of Zimbabwe fought two wars to throw the settlers out; but the outcome was over 80 years of White rule.
When I was seven years old, I went to boarding school with the children of White commercial farmers in Rhodesia. The settlers had many good qualities, but they were also deeply racist. I imbibed that racism freely until I was 15 years old. To a great extent I have learned new ways of thinking, but I know that deep down all of us live with a personal story that shapes us in ways that we can’t even see. When I refer to the problems of the present, I know that I belong to the White Settler history that created the conditions for today. I grew up with people who assumed that Black people were children, and that they needed White people’s help to grow up. The problems of the present have roots in the past, and I am part of that past.
Zambia’s history is different, but the White contribution to its history is similar. The two countries were known as Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and the White minority ruled both countries. Northern Rhodesia received its independence in 1964 and took the name Zambia; Southern Rhodesia had to wait another 16 years for independence in 1980. Zambia is further down the road to economic and political health, but it has had its own share of problems from the colonial past. To be a White African is to be broken, to know that the evil I condemn has its roots in my own being.
2. To be a White African is to be proud of my country.
Zambia and Zimbabwe share many cultural themes with the rest of southern and south-central Africa. One of the best known of these themes is the concept of Ubuntu. Roughly translated Ubuntu means Humanness. A common proverb in Zimbabwe says, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”: roughly paraphrased as “a person becomes fully human only in and through community.” I need you to make me a real person. You need me to make you a real person. The individual is not the centre of society; people in community are the centre.
Some years ago our nine-year old son expressed a desire to move back to Zimbabwe, which we had left when he was five years old. I asked him, “What’s the difference between Zimbabwe and Indiana?” He replied, “Well, in Zimbabwe they treat people like people.” Wow! He nailed it.
In North America we live in isolation, and sometimes we help others. We can be very generous, but in the end we are a calculating culture. In Africa we live in community. When someone we know needs help, we don’t ask how we can help; we just help. I asked a friend how you know when to stop helping. He said, “You don’t ask. You just keep helping out, and when they refuse your help you know they no longer need it.”
I have a Zimbabwean friend in Winnipeg. More precisely, my parents and his parents were good friends, but that ties us together. His wife died a week and a half ago. Last week I went in to visit, while they make plans for the funeral. The difference between how we face death in Africa and in North America strikes me. In Africa, we face death together. When someone dies, you do not leave the bereaved person alone; we all grieve together. When the one who died is buried, we lower the casket into the grave and fill up the grave ourselves, each one taking turns. Here we leave the bereaved alone with their grief—we say, “They need their space.” And at the graveside we commit the body to the grave and leave, so that the professionals can lower the casket and fill in the grave.
Both North America and Africa have their strengths and their weaknesses. One strength of being an African is our emphasis on the person in community. Our orientation to the importance of person over the importance of task is a valuable lesson for task-oriented Western culture; just as the West’s preoccupation with procedures can help Africa overcome systemic corruption.
I could draw out other themes, but this is enough to say: To be a White African—to be an African—is to be proud of the people and place I call home.
3. To be a White African is to know that our real home is in Heaven.
A well-known song in Zimbabwe goes like this: “We are pilgrims on this earth. We are going to our home in Heaven. Even if our life on this earth is full of trouble, we are going to our home in Heaven.” One of the implications of this truth is that we can live by the standards of Heaven, we can live in God’s reign here and now on earth, because we know that Heaven is the ultimate reality, and the violence and oppression of this world is only temporary. This is a profound truth—that pilgrims of God walking through our earthly homes can live well regardless of the trouble around us.
You see, all of us from Africa are Africans—Black Africans indigenous to the continent; Asian Africans who came down the east coast; White Africans who came from the West; Lebanese Africans who came from the Middle East. We are what Johnny Clegg calls “Scatterlings of Africa”, gathered together on this continent and now scattered out across the earth to all the continents of the world. And scattered across the world we bear the gifts of Africa—especially the gift that we become truly human when we are bound together in community.
This is a reality that comes to fullness in the church, in the family of God, the body of Christ. That’s why I asked for Ephesians 2 to be read earlier—out of the two people of Zimbabwe (Black and White) God has made something new and united: the People of God. This is our reality on the most Christian continent in the world.
I think of the church that I come from in Zimbabwe. Our name in English is “Brethren in Christ”, taken from Paul’s greeting in Colossians 1: “To the faithful brethren in Christ in Colosse” (KJV). But in Ndebele this name takes on deeper meaning: Abazalwane bakaChristu”. Literally, “Brethren in Christ”, but this word “abazalwane” means more than just BIC. If I call someone umzalwane, I mean that this person who comes from the same womb as I do. Abazalwane: “people from the same womb”—in Christ.
You look at my skin and at the skin of a Black Zimbabwean, manifestly from different mothers. But we are from the same womb in Christ. We are truly brothers and sisters, bound together at the deepest most fundamental level possible—in Christ.
You see, I met Jesus in Zimbabwe in 1962, in a White Baptist Church in Bulawayo among people who loved the Lord but were racist to the core. I was baptized into the church in Bulawayo in 1964, in a Black BIC Church with 30 some other Black young people. In 1974 I grew greatly in the presence and filling of the Holy Spirit as I knelt with over 100 black brothers and sisters as we sang, “Woza Moya oyingcwele”: Come Holy Spirit. Four years later one of those black brothers (S. Ndlovu) stood beside me as one of the groomsmen at my wedding.
I became a pastor in Bulawayo in 1988 in a Black BIC Church with my brothers and sisters there. In 1992 we returned to the USA to stay, which meant that I was leaving home. It was the preaching of Shadrack Maloka, a Black South African, at our General Conference that helped me to lay aside my desire to stay in my Zimbabwean home, as we sang together words from the Lord’s Prayer, “Mayenziwe intando yakho”—Let your will be done in my life.
To be a White African is not the same experience for every White person from Africa. For me, it is to be broken, to be aware of great good in the people around me, and to be brought into the presence of God’s healing power that makes all of us one family, children from the same womb. It is really, then, simply to be human—because all of us in every country and culture are broken, aware of goodness, and needing God’s healing. I thank God for healing me and giving me himself through Africa.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Who is this guy?

Luke 1: 68-79
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Luke 23: 32-43
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Colossians 1: 9-20
9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

The essential question in these passages concerns the identity of Jesus. Zechariah’s song lets us know that someone is coming; something is about to happen. The cross show several responses to the one who came. Paul tells us clearly who Jesus is and what hinges on knowing him.

Luke’s Gospel
When John was born, Zechariah names him, and at that moment receives his sight back. His song is a prophecy sent from God concerning John, and concerning the one whose way he prepares—Jesus the Messiah.

Zechariah sings: God has come to his people to redeem them, to save them, to rescue them and enable them to serve him through David’s line. The note of “David’s House” lets us know that this refers to the coming Messiah. We hear this song as it applies to us—that God is here to redeem, rescue, and save us, and to empower us for service. John, then, will be a prophet of God to prepare the way for God’s Messiah, the son of David, to come, so that people will know him and his salvation and so that they will see his light.

Zechariah’s song sets us up for the question that recurs in the gospels: “Who is this man?” In Luke 3:15-16 and 21 Luke implies that John introduced Jesus to his followers. In Matthew 3:13 and Mark 1:9 the identification is stated more clearly; it is stated most clearly in John 1:29-34. This introduction begins the question that Jesus repeatedly forced on those who met him: Who is he?

Luke answers the question in chapter 3 with John’s implied statement that Jesus is the Messiah, and with the baptism and genealogy, which show that Jesus is the Son of God. The question recurs then in Jesus’ ministry over and over.
5:20-21—Jesus heals the paralyzed man, and the Pharisees wonder, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy?”
6:11—Jesus heals the man with the shrivelled hand; the Pharisees and teachers of the law begin to plot against him. They had started to answer the question with rejection.
7:6-9—The centurion answers the question with his affirmation that Jesus has been sent by God.
7:16—Jesus raises the widow’s son. The crowds answer the question with the affirmation that Jesus is a mighty prophet.
7:39,49—The Pharisee questions his identity as a prophet, but the other guests are wondering about his ability to forgive sins and may go further that saying he is a prophet.
8:22-25—Even his disciples begin to wonder, “Who is this who commands even the winds and the waves and they obey him?”
Chapter 9 comes to the climax: “18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ 19 They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’ 20 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’”

The road to Jerusalem (which begins in Luke 9:51) is then the road to the resolution of this question, asked over and over again: Who is this man? Who is he? Finally in Luke 23:33 we meet the two criminals who were crucified. One of them says: Can’t you save us? (Implying that he was a fraud.) The other says: Remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Accepting that he is the king of the Universe.) This is the question for us today as well. Who is this man? Is he the centre of reality, as he claimed, or was he a teacher who said some good things, but who was for the First Century only? 

Colossians 1
Paul tells us what the early church understood all of this to mean, as they reflected back on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This passage stands along the other great Christological passages of the NT in John 1, Philippians 2, and Hebrews 1.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus is the one who shows the invisible God to us. Jesus is the one in whom God’s creation takes place—cf John 1: “In the beginning was the Word … By him all things were created.” Jesus is the one who sustains and preserves the whole of creation. If you know Jesus, you know God. If you do not know Jesus, you do not know God!

Verse 17 is wonderful: “In him all things hold together.” Some translations say, “cohere”. One translation that I found renders this phrase as “in him everything makes sense.” God in Christ is the one who makes sense of life for us and brings everything into a coherent whole.

Some people today say that there is no organizing principle to reality, but nobody lives as though there is none. Everyone lives as though life is about something. What’s life about? What’s going in our universe?

Agnosticism/Atheism: Some say that material physical life is all you have. There is no God; there is no religion based on reality. You have what you feel and think, and that’s all you have. I wonder if anyone can truly live their life on this foundation. If I am the centre of the universe, and everything was made for me, I conclude quite quickly that life really is meaningless. I know that I am too small and unimportant to serve as the lynchpin of reality. Some people say that they can’t accept Christian (or any other) faith unless it jives with their own beliefs and preferences. That approach really does make reality revolve around me. Narcissism is a psychologically unhealthy characteristic and a philosophically unsound approach to life.

Some people say that they can’t accept Christianity because of the tragedies they see around them: What we sometimes call the problem of evil and suffering. C.S. Lewis has observed that the problem of suffering is a difficult problem for the Christian to deal with, but that the problem of good is even harder for the atheist or agnostic. If God is not there, and if God is not involved in our world, where does beauty and good come from? At a Steve Bell concert recently we listened to Steve singing, “Why do we hunger for beauty?” An amazing song, and a vital question.

A friend of mine on the Internet posted a moving video from 1988 of a BBC show that told of Sir Nicholas Winton, a man who personally saved 669 Jewish children from death under the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. Where does such courage and goodness come from, if there is no God? If there is no source of beauty, where does beauty come from? If there is no source of goodness, where does good come from?

Other Religions: I teach World Religions. There is much to admire in Buddhism and Islam and Judaism. I find Hinduism more puzzling. There are also major problems with each—in my own estimation there are more problems with each one than there are with Christianity.

As a simple example, I find Islam profoundly moving in many ways, with a devotion to God that is compelling and beautiful. But the simple fact remains that its founder was a warrior, as compared with its close relative, the Baha’i faith, whose founder was a pacifist. In a world racked with war, a warrior founder is problematic. I could go through each religion in some detail, noting its strengths and weaknesses; but my concern is to lift up Jesus—not to lift up Christianity, but to lift up Christ.

Chasing the Question Today
The fact is, of course, that we can’t deal with these issues adequately in this setting. We need a different setting in which advocates of different worldviews present their own position as favourably as possible, with each of us listening sympathetically and critically. We need to avoid the kind of response to each other that Dawkins specializes in—seeking to ridicule the other rather than engage what they say. All of us are tempted to such ridicule, as if we can end the discussion with a brief and witty bomb that blows the other’s position to bits.

I believe that when one does truly begin to seek truth, one finds Jesus in the path waiting for us. I do not make this as a claim that one can prove beyond all doubt, but as the conclusion that many people have found. Alister McGrath began his academic life as an atheist, who in the pursuit of truth found God. We just saw the 50th anniversary of the death of CS Lewis, who is another example of one whose pursuit of truth and beauty led to God.
Lewis, JFK, and Aldous Huxley all died on the same day. Peter Kreeft has written an imaginative construction of the three of them in the waiting room of heaven (Waiting for Heaven)—Lewis the Christian, Kennedy the humanist, and Huxley the mystic. As they wait for the door to what lies beyond to open, they discuss the merits of their views of reality. It is a penetrating analysis of these three options.

Our society has made Christian faith profoundly unpopular. I know a Philosophy professor who kept his Christian faith quiet until after he achieved tenure, recognizing the problems that openly expressed faith creates in today’s academy. You may recall the sociological study of parenting outcomes and sexual orientation done by Mark Regnerus last year. Much of the condemnation of his study came for ideological reasons condemning Christian faith and traditional family roles. I am not saying anything about the merits of the study; the discipline of sociology will repeat and refine his research and over time observe its strengths and weakness. I am observing only the hostility to Christian faith found in much of the academy and of our society.

How do we respond to such hostility? The way forward is not to fight—to fight atheists, or fight other Christians, or fight Muslims, or fight anyone, but to search together for God and for truth. Let me give you an example of someone who found Christ, completely against the run of her beliefs and expectations. The following is excerpted from the November issue of Christianity Today.
Kirsten Powers is a Democratic commentator at Fox News: Just seven years ago …. if there was one thing in which I was completely secure, it was that I would never adhere to any religion—especially to evangelical Christianity, which I held in particular contempt. …. After college I worked as an appointee in the Clinton administration from 1992 to 1998. The White House surrounded me with intellectual people who, if they had any deep faith in God, never expressed it. Later, when I moved to New York, where I worked in Democratic politics, my world became aggressively secular. Everyone I knew was politically left-leaning, and my group of friends was overwhelmingly atheist. …. Life … seemed pretty wonderful, filled with opportunity and good conversation and privilege. ….
To the extent that I encountered Christians …. they were saying something about gay people or feminists. …. So when I began dating a man who was into Jesus, I was not looking for God. …. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my West Village apartment when he said, “Do you believe Jesus is your Savior?” …. Oh no, was my first thought. He’s crazy. When I answered no, he asked, “Do you think you could ever believe it?” He explained that he was at a point in life when he wanted to get married and felt that I could be that person, but he couldn’t marry a non-Christian. I said I didn’t want to mislead him—that I would never believe in Jesus. Then he said the magic words for a liberal: “Do you think you could keep an open mind about it?” Well, of course. “I’m very open-minded!” Even though I wasn’t at all. ….
A few weeks later I went to church with him. …. When we arrived at the Upper East Side service of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I was shocked and repelled by what I saw. …. We were meeting in an auditorium with a band playing what I later learned was “praise music.” I thought, How am I going to tell him I can never come back? But then the pastor preached. I was fascinated. I had never heard a pastor talk about the things he did. Tim Keller’s sermon was intellectually rigorous, weaving in art and history and philosophy. I decided to come back to hear him again. …. Any person who is familiar with Keller’s preaching knows that he usually brings Jesus in at the end of the sermon to tie his points together. For the first few months, I left feeling frustrated: Why did he have to ruin a perfectly good talk with this Jesus nonsense?
Each week, Keller made the case for Christianity. He also made the case against atheism and agnosticism. He expertly exposed the intellectual weaknesses of a purely secular worldview. I came to realize that even if Christianity wasn’t the real thing, neither was atheism. I began to read the Bible. …. After about eight months of going to hear Keller, I concluded that the weight of evidence was on the side of Christianity. But I didn’t feel any connection to God, and frankly, I was fine with that. …. Then one night in 2006, on a trip to Taiwan, I woke up in what felt like a strange cross between a dream and reality. Jesus came to me and said, “Here I am.” It felt so real. I didn’t know what to make of it. I called my boyfriend, but before I had time to tell him about it, he told me he had been praying the night before and felt we were supposed to break up. So we did. Honestly, while I was upset, I was more traumatized by Jesus visiting me. …. When I returned to New York a few days later, I was lost. I suddenly felt God everywhere and it was terrifying. More important, it was unwelcome. It felt like an invasion. I started to fear I was going crazy. I didn’t know what to do, so I spoke with writer Eric Metaxas …. “You need to be in a Bible study,” he said. “And Kathy Keller’s Bible study is the one you need to be in.” I didn’t like the sound of that, but I was desperate. My whole world was imploding. ….
I remember walking into the Bible study. I had a knot in my stomach. In my mind, only weirdoes and zealots went to Bible studies. …. When I left, everything had changed. I’ll never forget standing outside that apartment on the Upper East Side and saying to myself, “It’s true. It’s completely true.” The world looked entirely different, like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy. The horror of the prospect of being a devout Christian crept back in almost immediately. I spent the next few months doing my best to wrestle away from God. It was pointless. Everywhere I turned, there he was. Slowly there was less fear and more joy. The Hound of Heaven had pursued me and caught me—whether I liked it or not.
That is the great gift of the seasons ahead of us—Advent and Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby into our world and anticipate his return at the end of all things. As C.S. Lewis puts it in the closing lines of his remarkable novel, Till We Have Faces, “I ended my first book with the words ‘no answer.’ I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

When Everything Goes Wrong

Isaiah 65: 17-25
New Heavens and a New Earth
17 “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.
20 “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

Luke 21: 5-19
The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” 7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” 8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

The Sundays in November immediately preceding Advent share a common theme—that of preparing for the End. Last week we read from Haggai and 2 Thessalonians, hearing the reminder that God’s coming at the End of All Things will shake the nations and bring in God’s reign in all its power and glory.

We said last week that the End is what gives meaning to the present, and that preparing for the End means living rightly in the present. Our texts today have similar themes. Today we build on what we said last week to explore further how we live today, when so much is wrong and God’s presence is so hard to see, given the reality that Jesus is coming again. Life is hard and full of suffering, and many people conclude that God is either not there, or God is a source of pain, not to be trusted.

Some Situations
The year was 1986. John and Jane were expecting triplets after years of trying for children. The doctor had given Jane pills to release several eggs at one time, and she conceived triplets. Then in May they were born—too early. We learned that there were actually four babies. One was still born, and the second died that first day. I was their pastor, and together we held a brief funeral and committed the small bodies to the earth. A week later the third baby died, and two weeks after that the last baby died also.

What do you say at the committal service, as you lay the body of the last baby in the grave? I had no words then. I have no words now. John and Jane have since had three more children, and they have a good family; but the losses they experienced remain. Jane told us much later that it took her several years to stop being angry with God. I don’t blame her. I thank God she and John have come through that time with their faith in God intact.

We ask, “Why should they experience such loss?” Sometimes we try to the answer the question with logic: “Medical researchers developed the treatment for infertility; they chose to use it. If God had intervened and stopped the natural processes to avoid the tragedy, on what grounds should God intervene? If we believe in human free will, when do we decide that someone should not experience the consequence of their choice?

But the question is not really a plea for understanding. The question is a cry of pain, and a plea for mercy and strength and comfort. We respond not with some attempt to answer the question, but with our presence, grieving and weeping and suffering together.

We need go no further than this year, this month—to the Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan. At last count around 3,600 are known to be dead, with up to 9 million affected by the typhoon (one in 10 of the people in the Philippines). The scale of this catastrophe is almost beyond description, and relief agencies and governments are scrambling to make any appreciable impact on the devastation there.

Again people wonder why this happened. Again we can answer with logic: Perhaps typhoons are more serious now given the problems with overpopulation we are experiencing around the world and given the impact of human activity on the climate. But the questions are not really a search for full understanding. Rather they are our humanity showing through. We cry out in pain together and we weep together. We hurt with the people of the Philippines, and we send what aid we can, because what hurts them hurts us all. And the question of why God allows such things continues to echo in the background as we struggle to deal with the hardships of life.

Our Passages
Isaiah 65 pictures the End of all things as a time when all such hardships are done away with. He does not see the End as something to do with the Second Coming, because he does not have a picture of two comings of the Messiah in his mind. You notice that Isaiah’s language pictures a revived earth, continuous with our own history. As the picture becomes clearer in the NT, we see a return of the Messiah, which brings all things to their conclusion.

In Luke 21 the disciples ask Jesus if the coming of his kingdom is at hand. Jesus replies, “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.

You heard this same note last week. Paul told the Thessalonians (who thought that the anti-Christ had come) not to let themselves be deceived. We want to jump ahead to the end and skip this life. Jesus tells his disciples “13And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

We have a task to do before the End: To witness to Jesus in all that we say and do—in spite of the certainty of suffering that we face; and to stand firm whatever happens to us.

Living with the Pain of Today
So how do we live today? How do we encounter the kind of loss John and Jane faced? How do we respond when typhoons and other disasters strike? Given what we have been saying, let me suggest some simple steps.

1. The kind of opposition that Jesus describes is unlikely to come our way. We are not likely to be hauled up before the courts of Winnipeg and threatened with death if we maintain our allegiance to Jesus. But we live with constant opposition nonetheless. If you read the comments on news stories on the Internet, you often see such comments as this (in response to CNN’s report on the Typhoon):
"The Biggest Threat to all Religions…………………..Da Truth! Common Denominator between All Religions………..$$$$$$."
"What do you expect from one of the most corrupt/evil organizations that has ever been?"
"Lawyers that are willing to protect pedophiles don't come cheap."

There is a concerted effort by many people—including parts of the media—to picture religion in general as the source of our world’s evil. They would respond to John and Jane by saying, “Abandon religion! There’s nothing good in it!” They respond to the Typhoon with cynicism and abuse. Jesus says in reply: Don’t fight them, and don’t give in to them. Do what is right. Speak what is right. Stand firm!

2. So much for those who have come to hate religion, especially Christianity. But those who love the Lord can be just as bad in their way. Instead of using tragedy as a reason to attack religion, they give consolation too quickly. When Jesus said, “Stand firm”, he did not mean, “Tell people that tragedy doesn’t hurt.” When Isaiah looks forward to the new heavens and earth, he does not mean that present problems are meaningless. The Bible is full of lament that shows us how to grieve; the truth of future good does not simply remove present pain.

So we avoid false sympathy or easy answers. Present pain still hurts, and standing firm does not pretend otherwise. Let me suggest two ways that we stand firm:
·         In your own ties of suffering, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Walk all the way through. Don’t try to shortcut the pain that we experience. If you experience the kind of devastating loss brought by the typhoon, the valley of death’s shadow will be long and hard. The experience of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress is evidence of how long and hard the valley is. Walk the whole way through it. There is no other path that comes out the other side.
·         When it comes to other people’s times of suffering, walk with them as far as you can. As Paul puts it, “Weep with those who weep. Grieve with those who grieve.” No easy answers. No false sympathy. Simply walk through the valley with those whom we know are there.

I think that you actually know all of this as well as I, perhaps better. My first Sunday preaching here was a Thanksgiving Sunday four years ago. I remember the empty seats in the middle of the sanctuary where people who had been part of one body once sat. The hurt that you felt, and that I shared that morning, was too deep to describe properly. We have experienced healing; but the path through valley of death’s shadow is long and hard.

I could name other experiences from within, but you already know them. We know within ourselves that life can be amazingly hard; and we know that the only way through suffering is the road ahead—to walk one step at a time the path God lays out for us.

3. To repeat the point from last week, we can hope, because we know the End of the story. The End of a story tells us what the beginning and middle mean. When the detective gathers the characters of the story around and identifies the culprit, everything else that happens in the story begins to make sense. As the detective unravels all the different parts of the action, you begin to see how everything fits together.

I need to know the end in order to enjoy the rest of the story, so I read the end of detective stories first—just as I watch the end of movies first. The End tells you what the rest means! When you read Isaiah 65, you see that God’s plan is for our complete health and joy. When you read Luke 21, you see that we have a hard path to walk until the End. These two realities are basic to the way that we read the story of our lives. Seen from one perspective we have the reality of suffering that so distresses us; seen from another perspective God is working out his purposes in our lives and in our world.

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.

March we forth in the strength of God, with the banner of Christ unfurled,
That the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world:
Fight we the fight with sorrow and sin to set their captives free,
That earth may filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

A Closing Word
I remember once reading a conversation with some African Christians during the apartheid years in South Africa. The White apartheid government appeared to be so strong that the struggle against it was hopeless. The African Christians were asked, “How do you keep on going in the struggle against apartheid?” They replied, “We know that God is good, and we know that apartheid is evil. What is evil cannot last in the presence of God’s eternal goodness, so we know that apartheid will die, no matter how strong it appears.”

They were right. Apartheid is gone, dead, and buried. Injustice still continues in South Africa, and the valley of death’s shadow can be a long walk indeed, but we can walk that valley with courage, experiencing the worst that life can throw against us in this world. Because we know the End of the story. We know that God wins in the End.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Getting Ready for the End

Grace Bible Church
10 November 2013

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

The Promised Glory of the New House

In the second year of King Darius, 1 on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The Man of Lawlessness

1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? ….

Stand Firm

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

I find preaching just before Memorial Day more of a challenge than some people do. I was drafted to serve in Vietnam, but served with my church instead (three years in Zimbabwe) as a Conscientious Objector). But perhaps those who serve in the military and I are closer than we think. Certainly it is true that the American President who has been the most peaceful since World War Two was also a general in the army. Eisenhower knew war well, and knew the military well, and knew that all of us are searching for peace. So we remember all those who served in war, knowing that for most of them their great desire was for peace. As is mine.

We have two texts this morning—from the Minor Prophets (or The Twelve) as we sometimes call them, and from the letters Paul wrote to the young churches of his day. A note common to both of them is a focus on the End of time, so this morning we ask of these passages: How do we prepare for the End of all things?

Haggai 1 and 2
Chapter 1, Verse 1: The introduction dates the events precisely (520 BC), as part of the return of the Jews from exile in Persia (where they had been taken from their exile in Babylon). God speaks to Zerubabbel (the Jewish leader) through Haggai.
Verses 2 to 6: The people have returned from exile, built houses and planted their fields; but the crops are poor and the economy struggling. They have not rebuilt the Temple.
Verses 7 to 11: God identifies their problem as their failure to build his Temple: Because they have focussed on themselves and not on him, they have received his curse and not his blessing.
12: Zerubabbel and the people respond in repentance, turning to God and his Temple.
13 to 15: God speaks through Haggai to the people: “Now I am with you [and so you can receive my blessing]. They began the process of rebuilding the temple.

Chapter 2, Verse 1: About seven weeks later the Word of the Lord came again through Haggai.
Verses 2 to 5: God speaks to Zerubabbel: Things look bad, and life is hard; but be strong because my Spirit is with you.
Verses 6 to 9: The Lord says, “I will shake the earth and turn everything upside down. The wealth of the nations will be given to my Temple, and I will give peace to the earth.
You notice the phrase, “in a little while”. This phrase reminds me of phrases such as “that great and glorious day of the Lord”. It points us to the End of all things, when all is made right and evil is finally destroyed completely. Handel gets it right when he links this passage with Malachi 3:1 in his aria, “I will shake all nations … and the desire of all nations shall come, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in …”

2 Thessalonians 1 and 2
Chapter 1, Verses 1 to 2: Greetings from Paul, Silas, and Timothy to the Church of the Thessalonians. [Written, at a guess, about 50 AD from Corinth.]
Verses 3 to 4: We thank God for your faith and love, and perseverance while being persecuted.
Verses 5 to 10: Your suffering shows that you belong to God. God judges all people justly, and will do so when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire”. He will punish those who oppose him and reward those who believe in him and persevere in their belief.
Verses 11 to 12: Therefore we pray that you will continue in faith and good works.

Chapter 2, Verses 1 to 4: This great day [when God will judge the earth] has not yet come. Some people say that it has, but it has not! The marker of the End will be that “the man of lawlessness” will set himself up in God’s temple.
[Verses 5 to 12: The “man of lawlessness” is already at work, held back by Christ so that his work is hidden. Christ will let him loose at the End, when he is ready to destroy him. You must choose, then, whether to follow Christ or the Man of Lawlessness.]
Verses 13 to 17: What to do while we wait for the End: Meanwhile God has chosen you and called you through the work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. So stand firm and hold fast to Christ’s teachings. Jesus himself will give you the strength to do so.

Synthesis through Patterns
Pattern 1: Go through the past 100+ years. The first decade of the last Century was a time of great optimism (compare the motto of Edinburgh 1910: “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation!”), which gave way to conflict and despair in the next decade. The 1920s were known as the Roaring Twenties for their vitality, and were followed by the Great Depression and a second world war. We think of the 1950s as a golden age in North America, but the 1960s, which opened with the hopes of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”) were the transition to the 1970s, a time of searching and struggle. Reagan proclaimed that the 1980s were “morning in America”, and the 1990s continued a time of optimism. But following 9/11 we entered a phase of struggle and searching for meaning that we have not yet exited.

Pattern 2: A Chinese Christian perspective on Chinese history pictures 6000 years of history through the cycle of: Prosperity >>> Corruption >>> Chaos >>> Powerful New Ruler >>> Prosperity >>> ….

Pattern 3: The OT has a similar pattern, which we can see also in the NT: God’s grace >>> Human rebellion >>> Divine judgment (which contains within it the seeds of new grace) >>> Human repentance and return to God >>> New grace >>> ….

The Pattern in our passages: Similar to these, in its movement between hope and judgment, salvation and rebellion, but portrays the end of the cycle: God’s grace >>> Met with weakness (Haggai) and persecution (Thessalonians) >>> Which sets the stage for God’s final victory over evil. The Thessalonians misread the cycle and thought that they were at the very End. Paul reminds them that he had told them before in 1 Thessalonians that the End is coming, but has not yet come.

The End is what gives the cycle meaning. Throughout the whole of history—in good times and in bad—God is at work to bring his kingdom in fullness and power. Like the Thessalonians (and like the Jews of Haggai’s day), we want to take a shortcut to the End; but Paul and Haggai called on them—and on us—to be strong, to persevere, to continue to live rightly today. The Thessalonians were so ready to skip to the End that they had stopped working and living for today. Paul said, “If you don’t want to work, you don’t get to eat!” This is not a general rule, but a reminder that we are to follow Christ faithfully in the day that we are given. We live in light of the End (with the truth that God is in final and complete control), even while we wait for the End (in times when God’s control is not so visible).

Some Basic Truths
From this quick overview we note several basic truths about life waiting for the End of all things.

1. God is Love, and God is Fire! Haggai’s phrase (1:8) is echoed in the way that Paul tells us Jesus will destroy the Man of Lawlessness with a breath. God’s love and God’s wrath go together. They express his holiness and his all-consuming care for us, bound together in one God. The truth of God’s wrath is actually good news. Do you hate the evil that is in the world? Good! So does God! If the spectre of oppression around the world bothers you, remember that God also hates it. God hates the way that wealthy upper caste Indians use their privilege and power to enslave those we sometimes call the Dalits—keeping them in degrading occupations with no opportunity to build any kind of better life. God hates the way that some businesses profit from other people’s misfortunes. God hates the way that some husbands (and some wives) abuse their children. God hates evil; so should we.

This image of God’s wrath is one we sometimes overlook. Think of it this way. God is the spiritual air that we breathe. If you want to live beyond this life, you must live in the atmosphere of God’s holiness. What would happen is you left the air of this world and sailed into space without a space suit. You would blow up! Not because space hates you, but because we are not made to live in space without any pressure around us to hold us together.

Similarly, if you try to live beyond this life with God, but refuse to take on God’s nature, you will experience God as fire, burning you up. Because God is love, he has made a way for us to approach him. Haggai called on the people to place God first in their lives. Paul called on the Thessalonians to continue to trust Jesus and to live in the Spirit of Jesus. When we do so we discover the truth that God is love—eternal, everlasting, infinite love.

2. Don’t Try to Predict the End. Every so often someone comes along and says that Jesus will return tomorrow or the next day. They point at the place we are in the cycle of history and read some passage of Scripture, and then they tell us when the End will be. Paul in our passage is almost as sharp as Jesus in Acts 1: “It’s none of your business when the End comes!” said Jesus. Paul says, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction… . Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?” Or, to put it more briefly, stop listening to those people! We already dealt with this issue! One of our local preachers is telling people that the End will come before he dies. Such speculation is wrong—forbidden in Scripture.

The trouble with this kind of speculation is that it so often leads to people giving up trying to change what is wrong and do what is right. In Haggai’s day, people wondered if the End was real. Haggai reaffirms it: “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the dry land, and the desire of all nations shall come!” In Paul’s day, people thought that the End was already there, and so they stopped working or trying to do anything other than wait. Paul told them to get back to work and live for God.

3. That last part is the point. Paul tells the Thessalonians to obey Jesus and to trust God, filled with the Spirit of Jesus. The best way to get ready for the End is to live rightly in the present. Someone has asked, “What would you do differently today if you knew that you would die tomorrow?” The answer should be: The same thing that I plan to do now. You don’t wait until the End to start to live rightly. Live for Jesus today.

In both passages you notice references to the Spirit. In the OT such references do not have in mind the developed understanding of the trinity that we have today; rather it means that God himself energizes someone. In the NT the term is developing, and when Paul refers to the sanctifying work of the Spirit, he means that God himself is fully present in the believer to help us live the way he is calling us to live.

Sometimes we describe this presence as “the fullness of the Spirit”. I like the way that Charles Price describes what it means to have faith—a description that fits the fullness of the Spirit as well. Price uses the example of his first airplane flight, going from London to Johannesburg as a young man. On one side of him in the plane was a woman who was terrified of flying. She had just enough faith to get on the plane, but was full of fear. He himself was a bit afraid, but knew the statistics that show flying to be safe. On the other side was a businessman who had made the flight many times. He was full of faith and hardly even noticed the takeoff and landing.

In a similar way, to be full of the Spirit means to trust fully in the Spirit. We have God’s Spirit as a result of conversion: repentance and forgiveness opens the door to God’s Spirit. But throughout our lives we learn to trust him more and more—that is being filled with the Spirit: Relying on God at every step for all that we do. That is how we prepare for the End of all things. Rely on God at every step for all that we do.

A Closing Word
I have wondered sometimes how people in dreadful situations continue to live. How do people in Haiti continue to live? How do people who come out of abusive families make a family of their own? How do survivors from the residential schools break the cycle of generational pain they have experienced and build a new life? I think it has to do with understanding the End. We know that at the End God will come in power and fullness. God will shake the world and turn everything upside down—or rather right side up. The world is upside down now, but we know that whatever is wrong, whatever is bad will come to an end. It cannot survive when God comes. As the words from James Lowell’s great poem puts it:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.