Friday, October 31, 2014

Looking for God? Jesus!

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46
Sermon in a Sentence: Jesus is the key who brings together judgment and love into a coherent whole.

Last week I said that God is good, and that God is incredibly patient and kind towards us. I did not spend any time making the case for God, but simply assumed our common faith as Christians. This morning I want to make one small part of the case to believe. The basic argument is that we meet God in the person of Jesus. Walk through our passages with me to see the case we can make. 

Deuteronomy 34
On the face of it, Deuteronomy retells the story of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, giving us a second telling of the Law (hence the name: Deutero Nomos). More precisely, the whole book is set in the days before the Children of Israel enter the Promised Land. Following a series of cursings pronounced on those who disobey God and blessings on those obey God, the Israelites are given the choice to choose life—that is to choose God and live. 

Then God takes Moses up on to a mountain, where he sees the land in which the people will live, but which he will not enter himself. Here in our passage, we have his obituary:
7 Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. 8 The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over. 9 10 Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt – to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. 12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
Since then no prophet has risen like Moses: This came to be one of the defining characteristics of the expected Messiah; that the Messiah would be the prophet like Moses—“whom the Lord knew face to face, who did signs and wonders.” You can file this information for when we come to the Gospel passage. 

1 Thessalonians 2
In 1 Thessalonians Paul recalls the founding of the church in Thessalonica (recorded in Acts 17). Following beating and imprisonment in Philippi (which led to the conversion of their jailer and the beginning of a church in Philippi), Paul and Silas and their companions came to Thessalonica. When Paul’s opponents found out where he was, they tried to capture him, but only succeeded in causing trouble for Jason and his friends. Luke tells the story:
6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go.
No wonder Paul describes their memories (16): “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” 

In chapter 2, then, Paul tells why he performed the actions he did (vv 3 and 8): “we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition, for the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you.  … So we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” 

The gospel of God stands at the heart of all Paul’s actions, the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. In the story told in Acts 16 to 18, where this account comes from, Paul’s preaching always told about the cross of Jesus, and about the resurrection of Jesus. This then brings us to the Gospel reading. 

Matthew 22
The Gospel reading takes place as the climax to a series of questions with which the Jewish leaders tried to trap Jesus. This time they try to embroil him in an ongoing rabbinical discussion on the meaning of the law, so one asks him: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” It’s a good question, one which the rabbis debated back and forth. Jesus’ answer places him squarely in one group of rabbis who saw the answer in just this way, but Jesus has a different agenda than they do. 

So he asks them a question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They reply immediately, “The Son of David.” Then Jesus quotes Psalm 110, used by the Children of Israel to inaugurate a new king in the line of David. And he twists their tail with the question: “How can David call his own Son ‘Lord’?” The implication is that the Messiah is truly the Son of God. They get the point and abandon the debate. We don’t hear from the Jewish leaders again until chapter 26, where they plot the death of Jesus. 

The Question
The question that Jesus raises echoes in our ears and hearts today. Whose son is the Messiah? Who is the Messiah? Is he simply David’s Son, a Jewish ruler to throw out the Romans? Or is he God’s Son, the Saviour of the World, the One in whom God comes to his creation uniquely and for all time? That would indeed be a prophet like Moses, so close to God that he can say, “I and my father are one.” That would indeed be one who could inspire the Thessalonian Christians to endure bitter persecution, finding life beyond any torment the authorities could bring. 

Who is the Messiah? He is Jesus? Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. But knowing him as such is harder today than ever. How do we process these questions today? This is a hard one. The Bible seems really remote to many people. These passages we read were written between 2000 and 2600 years ago, at a guess. When Matthew describes these encounters Jesus had with the Jewish leaders, we may reasonably wonder what that could have to do with us. In the short time available this morning, I can’t hope to make the case for Jesus fully, but I can hint at it.
The World Needs More than We Have
This past week we had a chapel speaker who described his own faith journey from rejecting religion entirely to being a committed follower of Jesus. He told us how he partied every night while an engineering student at University of Waterloo. He told us how he ended up on Christmas Eve 1991 lying in an Emergency Unit at the hospital, with his insides hammered from constant binge drinking. As he lay there, he wondered, “There has to be more to life than this. There has to be more to life than senseless partying and spending Christmas Eve alone in the hospital.” 

Where do you look for more? A growing group of people hold out the answer of atheism, saying that there is no God and that this world is all we have. It’s a pretty bleak answer, and prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins are pressed into strange statements about the origin of life in order to hold on to it. As our speaker told us in chapel, people who set faith against reason and claim to be atheist usually are addicted to themselves. There are honest atheists, who seek to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But I think of Anthony Flew, the most prominent atheist philosopher in the 20th Century. In his last years he concluded that there must be a God, and stated that there really is no other way to explain the reality we live in. 

If atheism is often a cover for our addiction to self, perhaps there are other alternatives. I find myself looking at their founders.

Hinduism and its Children
The great religions of Asia (Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on) present one option. It is enough here to say that neither Gautama Buddha, nor the Mahavira, nor the founder of the Sikh faith, nor any other great leader in these religions claimed to be one with God. The claims Jesus makes for himself are quite unique.
Islam and Judaism
No Jewish leader would have dared to claim what Jesus claimed for himself; still less would Mohammed have claimed to be one with God. I remember the way my teacher of world religions (Matt Zahniser) put it. Matt told us that the great religions of Asia see all reality as one. We are one with God in a sense, because we emanate from God. We flow out of God and back into God. They are, as he put it, incredibly intimate religions; they assume we can be intimate with God, but they lose the greatness of God. If human evil is simply an expression of God, we live in a pretty bleak world. 

Matt went on to say that the great monotheistic religions of the world see the greatness of the Creator, separate from his creation, which God will judge at the end of time. In them God is Ultimate. God is great! God is beyond us, beyond our comprehension. This picture preserves the goodness and greatness of God from human evil; but it also makes it hard to come close to God. 

Then there is Jesus, God come in human form, God the Father who speaks as the Lord to God the Son, the one who lived and died and rose in human history. Matt said to us, “You see what happens? Jesus is God, the Ultimate; and Jesus, the little baby, is God. The Intimate. He is the intimate ultimate—or the ultimate intimate. The only question is: Is this all true? 

The Importance of History
I get the difficulty. The OT and NT range between two and three thousand years old. What could all of this really old stuff have to do with our lives? Without exploring them further, I have to say simply that the age of the documents is a red herring. The question is: Did Jesus really come from God? Paul’s conviction that Jesus really was “in very nature God” derives from his conviction that Jesus who was crucified also rose from the dead. If the documents that describe the resurrection are reliable, then we have to work out the implications. 

C.S. Lewis has observed (I don’t remember where) that a basic part of his own movement to Christian faith was a comment from a non-Christian historian at Oxford University, who said to him in casual conversation that the NT documents were as historically reliable as the best documents of that time for Greek or Roman history. Lewis saw the implication. If these stories are telling the truth, then a man who claimed to be God was executed and then rose from the dead. The only way to explain this, if the accounts are telling the truth, is that God has entered human experience. How long ago is irrelevant for such a wonder! 

So What?
The arguments on both sides of these questions require developing in much greater depth. Let me assume for this morning that the Christian answer is right and that Jesus is precisely who he claims to be: the Son of God, one with the Father. What difference does this make? 

Human history is headed somewhere. Our lives mean something.
If Hinduism is true, the basic meaning of life is: Live the best way that you can, and you may return in a better state in the next life.
If Atheism is true, you may as well enjoy yourself as much as you like, because you really are the only god—and therefore the only goal—that you have. 

But if Jesus is the source of life and goal of life, then we listen to Jesus to know how to live. In the chapters that follow Jesus gives some clear ideas: Live for God and live for others; live in the fear of the Lord with no fear of other human authorities. We look for the ways that people have become separated from God—like our chapel speaker laid up in Emergency on Christmas Eve—and seek to reconcile them with God, to show them Jesus, to be Jesus with them and for them. 

Consider doctors and nurses fighting the Ebola virus in West Africa. As those who come from North America return home, some people accuse them of being selfish because they endanger us in North America. How short-sighted and selfish a response! But completely understandable if God is not among us in Christ, and finally in each other. 

I remember an old TV show on Sundays—Hymn Sing! Many who are part of this church helped to bring hymns to the whole country as an expression of their love for God, come to us in the person of Jesus. 

I think of people who work in Winnipeg’s North End to change social structures that help to keep people in poverty and despair—as their expression of love for the Jesus who lived and died and rose for us in our own brokenness and pain. 

I think also, ruefully, of several weeks ago when I failed to live in the light of the risen Christ. I was on my way to Toronto on Air Canada, and as we waited to board the plane I felt more and more impatient. The official holding us back from boarding called one group, then another, as the rest of us “champed at the bit”. When he finally set us free to board the plane, I put on my strongest face of disapproval. We don’t need words to show when we’re upset! As he checked my boarding pass and I went on past him, he said, “You’re welcome!” Clearly he had read my expression all too well. 

As I went on up the passage to the plane a song from our church came unbidden to me, “May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ dwell in you, and whatever you say and whatever you do, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and gave us new life in him.” I wanted to run back and say, “I’m sorry!” But too late. The passage was full behind me, and I went on into the plane with the song sounding softly in my ears, rebuking me. 

If this Gospel is true, then we learn to say that Jesus is Lord, and Jesus directs every step. “The Lord said to my Lord”: People in that day said that Caesar was Lord; the Jews held on to their own God; but Jesus goes beyond both. Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. If you want to find God in this messed up broken world, look to Jesus. When you find Jesus, you find God.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Life without God? Impossible!

Texts: Exodus 33:12-23 (Moses and the Glory of the Lord); 1 Thessalonians 1 (Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ Faith); and Matthew 22: 15-22 (Paying the poll-tax to Caesar)
Sermon in a Sentence: God seeks patiently endlessly to draw us back to himself and remake us in his image.
The Problem: A Question of Authority
You know the gospel text well enough. The series of challenges that start here develop the question that the Jewish leaders ask Jesus in chapter 21: “23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’” Jesus would not answer him, but replied with his own question and with parables, which the leaders recognized would undermine their authority; and they ramp up their campaign against him.
So they ask him whether or not they should pay tax to the Roman Empire. Taxes were no more popular in Jesus’ day than they are now. If Jesus says, “Yes”, the crowd will object; if Jesus says, “No”, the Roman government will object.
Instead Jesus asks to see the coin used to pay the tax. When they observe Caesar’s image and inscription on the coin, he defuses their question with the saying: “Give back to Caesar’s what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Rather than speaking about taxes—which he relativizes with this saying: pay taxes because they really are not that important—rather than speaking about taxes, he shifts the question to a new question: “What belongs to God?”
I note in passing that we could use this question to explore a two kingdoms theology: We live in the realm of God’s reign, and we live in the realm of human authorities. So we ask what activities belong in which realm. Such explorations are interesting, but irrelevant to Jesus’ words here. Jesus’ concern is with the reign of God.
This question, as in all the exchanges throughout Matthew 21 and 22, reveals the essential problem with the Jewish leaders: Their authority had come to replace God’s authority, and Jesus is calling them back to God. To see how he does so with this epigram, turn to the two Scriptures that preceded the Gospel reading in our service this morning.
Exodus 33
To hear these verses from Exodus 33, we need to review briefly the life of Moses to this point.
Chapter 2: Born to a “Levite woman”; hidden at home for three months, then placed in a papyrus basket [ark] in the Nile River, where Pharaoh’s daughter found him. She raised him as her own, with his birth mother caring for him, and adopted him as her son (v. 10). When he grew to manhood, he killed an Egyptian who was whipping a Hebrew slave, and ended up fleeing into the desert, where he lived with Jethro and married J’s daughter, Zipporah. They had a son, Gershom [“a stranger here”].
Chapter 3: While he is tending Jethro’s flocks, he comes to Mount Horeb—the mountain of God, where he sees a burning bush. There he encounters Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who sends him back to Egypt as a reluctant saviour for the Children of Israel.
In the chapters that follow we have the delivery from Egypt, led by Moses and Aaron—the plagues; the crossing of the Sea; Wanderings in the Sinai Wilderness; Manna and Quail and water from the rock; and finally they return to the mountain of God, here called Mount Sinai.
In chapters 20 to 31 Moses and Joshua ascend the mountain, and Moses receives the Law—the Ten Words (20) and various laws to help the people live as God’s holy and priestly kingdom (20-31). Finally we come to the present scene.
In chapter 32 Moses comes down from the mountain and finds the Children of Israel worshipping the golden calf, which Aaron had made for them. Punishment falls on them and God threatens first to destroy them, and then to abandon them. Our chapter contains Moses’ intercession for the rebels.
Verses 1-10: Go with us! No! Please!
Verse 11: The Lord spoke with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with a friend.
Verse 13: “Teach me your ways.”
Verses 14-18: Go with us! I will (17). Show me your glory! (18)
Verses 19-23: Agreed, but only my back.
You see, Moses knew that life without God is impossible. Without God we die. If you had said to him, “Give to God what belongs to God”, he would have said, “That is everything! That is life itself!”
1 Thessalonians 1
Look now at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians with me.
Verse 1: Greeting—Paul’s standard greeting to fellow believers.
Verses 2-3: Thanksgiving—Again, Paul’s standard expression of gratitude for God’s work in their lives.
Verses 4-11: Paul recalls the way that the gospel came to the Thessalonians (see Acts 17)—in persecution, centred on Jesus the Messiah, crucified and risen.
For us this morning, especially verses 6 and 7: You imitated us and the Lord, and so became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
Who did Paul imitate? Christ! (1 Corinthians 11:1, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”)
Who did Paul want to know and be like? Christ! (Philippians 3:10-11)
Who do we imitate? Christ! We want to know Christ and be like Christ.
Bring this to bear on the question: What belongs to God? God, who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, is the centre of our lives. Everything comes to us from him and belongs to him. What do we “render” to God? Our very lives. Our self-identity. All that makes you and me who and what we are.
Like Moses, like Paul, like the Thessalonians, we seek to see God and know God and become like him. Guess what! God wants the same for us. We desire God because God draws us to himself. Moses sought to see God’s glory because God drew him to himself. One of my deepest beliefs is that God works endlessly, patiently to draw us to himself and make us like Christ.
A Story
Let me tell you a story. Two years ago an OM worker named Mike came into my class on Missions Strategies and talked about the kinds of ministries that he does in various parts of the world. At the end of the class he asked us to pray for his father, who was near the end of his life but still did not know the Lord. Mike had been visiting him and wanted to encourage him again to turn to God before the end.
Two weeks ago Mike came into my class again and told us more stories about his work in various parts of the world. It was good, exciting stuff, but I had a more important question. At the end of the class, I asked him about his father. Mike lit up. “He died a few months ago, but the last 30 days of his life he was a changed man. An old minister finally got through to him, and that old minister reaped where so many others had planted and watered. So Dad knew a joy in his final days that he had never known through his life.”
I think that story about Mike’s father tells us all about God’s love and patience and care. God loves us, and God works in our lives until the day we die drawing us to himself.
My Own Experience
I have told my story before and will repeat it only briefly now. I remember clearly a deep encounter with God when I was 24, and then God’s presence working within over the next 30+ years. Then about five and a half years ago through a time of personal darkness, and in a series of dreams, I found that God had been waiting for a little over 34 years to finish what he began in me back in 1974. You see, God is patient and loving and kind, and God waited for the right moment to finish that piece of work. Truth: God’s not done working in me yet!
This is not a theodicy—an explanation for the hard things that come in our lives. Last week, as I visited my father in Pennsylvania, I visited also a High School friend who is slowly dying of ALS. I don’t know and cannot explain why Jeff’s life should end in this way. My reflections on these Scriptures are not meant to answer the mysteries of life and death.
Rather they are a simple affirmation that God is good, that God loves us, that God works patiently, endlessly, to draw us back to himself and remake us in his image. I think of the Russian Mennonites, singing “In the rifted rock I’m resting”, as they experienced bitter persecution leading up to their emigration to North and South America. They sang of God’s love and care while they suffered, not because all was pleasant in their lives.
So when Jesus tells us to return to God what belongs to God, we give him ourselves and rejoice. Hear the way that the writer of Chronicles tells it, in 2 Chronicles 7, when Solomon dedicates the temple:
1 When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2 The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshipped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures for ever.”
I wish I could see God’s glory so clearly, so that as the old hymn has it, “May they forget the channel [you and me], seeing only him.”
You see, without God, life is impossible. Without God, there is no life. And with God, death itself will die.