Saturday, March 28, 2015

Flying Mayhem

A plane went down in the Alps. Pilot-driven into the mountainside. We struggle to understand what such things mean. I think we must say at the outset, the effort is too great for us. We cannot understand such things; but we try anyway. At some level we must try. So here are four thoughts in what scholars call a chiastic structure:
A. An abstract statement, which we dare not apply directly to the situation at hand.
B. A concrete reflection, which we must act on.
B1. A concrete reflection, which we must act on.
A1. An abstract statement, which is true, but not an excuse or a way around the situation as we experience it. 

A. An abstract truth. At some level such terrible events do not change the essential algebra of life. We live, and we die. Throughout our lives we learn how to die. All of life is, at one level, preparation for dying. All of us die. An early death does not make death more likely for any person. A terrible death does not make death more certain for any one of us. 

We have learned to avoid the reality that all of us will die. Rather, we learn to see life and death steadily, without either romance or despair. “I will encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in my arms.” So Claudio in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. Claudio alternated between such high sentiments and an almost squalid effort to persuade his sister to do whatever would prevent his execution, even at the cost of her own honour. But the words express a worthwhile attitude towards life in this world. 

Now a simple application of this truth to the airline disaster trivializes the pain and heartbreak of the families who have experienced such incredible loss. It is a truth we need to internalize. It is not a word of comfort to those who experience loss. 

B. Job’s friends had the right idea when they first encounter their old friend in his distress. “When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” 

They had the right idea! They went wrong when they started to try and make sense of what had happened. So with this disaster, we grieve with those who have suffered loss. The stories come out—singers on their way to a concert, students on their way home, a girl condemned to death because her host made an emergency run to get her passport. One after the other we read stories that make us weep. To grieve together is right. 

B1. Perhaps the hardest thought for me is to think of the co-pilot’s parents. I cannot imagine their struggle, their pain, as they process what has happened. I do not understand. I cannot make sense. I cannot even paint a picture in my mind of the space in which they find themselves.

If they were my friends, I would turn again to Job and seek only to weep with them and hold them and grieve together. Dust and Ashes. Covered with dust and ashes. Would we seek God? Job did. Perhaps we would. I don’t know. But first we would grieve, and grieve some more. 

A1. The thought of God introduces a perennial question for Western people like me. We wonder where God is in such events. We wonder if the event itself is not just another nail in the coffin of belief in God. 

So my final thought brings no comfort to those who are grieving, but it is basic to my own understanding of life and death. Those who think the airline disaster is just one more piece of evidence that there is no God do not see what their own outrage suggests. Why do we think that this tragedy is so terrible? If there is no God, if life is just the few moments out of all eternity that we spend here on this planet, what does it matter if the time ends sooner or later? What does it matter if I die peacefully or fearfully? 

My sense that this tragedy represents a great evil in our world only makes sense if there is something good and true, measured against which this tragedy is seen to be a tragedy. I need God—or at least a Good beyond this natural world—in order to see that what is here is bad. The analogy has been given: In order to see that a line is crooked (that the crash in the mountains is a tragedy), one must have a straight line with which to compare it (a real good beyond the tragedy). 

It’s an old line of reasoning, and all the better for being old. But it brings no comfort to the bereaved. When we experience such events, from the assassination of JFK to the destruction of the Twin Towers to the downing of a passenger plane in Ukraine—when we experience such events, all we can do is hold each other and weep and grieve together. 

As we weep we wait also for God to break in and show us something to give us hope. But for now we hurt, and we wait.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cut to the Heart

As we work our way through Lent to Holy Week, we have a series of texts taken from the lectionary for the Lenten season. Last week our text came from John 3, verses that we associate with the experience of conversion. 

This morning one of the texts in the lectionary, which we did not read together, is found in Psalm 51: 1 to 12. Hear these words:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Conversion includes the basic steps of confession and repentance. We admit our sin and turn to God for healing and forgiveness. Let’s talk briefly about this idea of “conversion”. 

Calling ourselves sinners does not resonate with us in Canada today. We have worked hard as a society to convince each other that (in the title of a book from 1969) “I’m okay; you’re okay.” We have become better at seeing ourselves as victims than seeing ourselves as sinners. Besides, the idea of giving up control of our lives repels us. We have worked hard for our independence. So instead of beginning with the idea of sin, let’s use a different word. Our world is broken. We—and people around us—are full of bitterness and hostility. 

Social media has done us the great favour of revealing our broken condition. When a news story comes out, we resend it to our friends, with an amazing array of angry and hurtful comments. I could choose almost any story at random from CBC online and read the comments. The anger and hostility within our society are strong, even if it comes from a minority of people. I wish I could say that this is an American disease, and that Canadians are really just nice people who apologize for any possible offence, but I can’t. This is us. We are a broken and hurting people. 

The first step in dealing with a physical wound or disease is to clean it out. You cannot heal something by leaving the infection inside. The first step in dealing with an emotional or mental wound is to clean it out. You cannot heal emotionally or mentally if you will not look clearly at yourself and acknowledge what you see. The first step in dealing with our bitterness and anger and brokenness as a society is to admit that society is made up of individuals—of you and me, and that it is the individuals who are broken and hurting and bitter. We must look clearly at ourselves and admit who we are. We can call this “confession and repentance.” 

A Deeper Covenant
Conversion is just the start. To see what conversion begins, we look at the idea of covenant. God reached out to Adam and to Noah and to Abraham and to Moses with the covenants of the OT, and then Jesus brought the new covenant that Jeremiah describes in the verses we read earlier. This idea of covenant is consistent from first to last. God wants to make us over in God’s image. 

Jeremiah 31 pictures the restoration of Israel from their exile. God promises Israel and Judah that they will live again in their own land. They will plant their fields and reap a good harvest. They will know joy greater than the sorrow and pain of their Exile from the land. The promises reach a climax in verses 31 to 34. Hear again the way that Jeremiah describes it:
31 ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.
33 ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ 

These verses form the longest OT quotation in the New Testament (Hebrews 8: 8-12). Jeremiah is speaking to the people of Israel, to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah taken into exile by Assyria and Babylon. The writer of Hebrews suggests that the fulfillment of this prophecy—the days of restoration that are coming—is found in the person of Jesus, and therefore also in the church as God writes the new covenant on our hearts. 

Written on the Heart
The covenants are consistent in their goal, but different in form. The Old Covenant was written on tablets of stone (for example, Deut 9, where Moses repeatedly refers to the stone tablets of the covenant). Now God chooses to write the covenant on people’s hearts. Writing at about the same point in time, Ezekiel makes a similar point, for example, Ezek. 36:36, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” 

This contrast does not mean that the old covenant was a formality doomed to failure. God’s desire was always that this covenant would be internal and alive. Just before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses spoke to them (Deut 31: 11-14),
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.  It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it. 

Yet, for whatever reason, the Law remained an external word. People did not internalize it or follow it, but they rebelled against God. So God promised to write the Law and the Covenant on the hearts and minds of the Chosen People. Hebrews 8 makes it clear that the way God wrote this covenant was through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. That is why we celebrate communion with the words, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22: 20). Jesus writes the new covenant on our hearts with his death on the cross for us. 

Pursue the Image
Look now more closely at this image of writing God’s Law on our hearts. We think of the heart as the seat of the emotions. When a soccer player scores a goal and runs towards the stands, he sometimes makes a heart shape with his hands to the fans, “I love you!” But in the OT the heart is the seat of much more than just your feelings. Several weeks ago we read Daniel 2. Verse 30 (NIV) states, “As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.” The NIV gives the meaning accurately, but the New King James Version gets closer to the original: “…that you may know the thoughts of your heart.” 

You see, in the OT the heart was the seat of what we would call the mind and will. So God’s covenant written on our hearts does not mean that we enjoy it and feel good about it all the time; it means rather that God’s will and character are at the centre of our will and the choices that we make about life. 

The image of writing on the hearts is a painful one. The idea that God is willing to cut into our bodies and write God’s character and will on our hearts sounds like it could hurt! You remember Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. Shylock the moneylender agrees to lend Antonio the merchant the money he needs to survive, providing that Antonio agrees to pay a pound of his flesh, cut from the heart, if he can’t pay the loan back. Shylock’s purpose is clear. He wants to kill Antonio. God has the opposite goal in writing on our hearts, to give us life; but the operation sounds painful. Cutting into our flesh and inscribing God’s New Covenant on our heart? That hurts! 

Of course it is a metaphor, a figure of speech. But the pain it suggests is real—the pain of giving up control of our lives and giving up our addiction to our own selfish desires. God will do whatever it takes to fill us with the character and will of God. Like a surgeon who will not stop until he has cut every bit of the cancer out, like a counsellor who keeps probing our secrets in spite of our fears and tears, God cuts into our lives—both cutting out the infection of our rebellion and brokenness, and transplanting a new heart and mind and will. 

My Own Experience
I look back over my own life walking as a child of God. I grew up in a family who loved God. My parents were godly people, and from the beginning I knew I wanted to follow Jesus. Even so I followed my own will and rebelled against God, as we all do. 

There were several critical moments in my early life, one when I was 12 years old, another when I was 15, and a third when I was 18, in which I looked clearly at myself and asked God to forgive me and make me his child. An encounter with God’s Holy Spirit when I was 24 sealed my commitment, and I committed myself to follow God all of my life. But of course I also kept drifting back to my own interests and desires. I had given my “heart” (in the sense of my will and mind and commitment) to Christ, but my own “heart of stone” was resilient. I think of a critical period in my life (among many others) when God “cut his covenant into my life”. 

It was in 1993 when I finished my doctoral studies and started looking for a position teaching missions. I found nothing. I found only three positions of any description that I could apply for. None of them went anywhere. I took a position as a half-time interim pastor at a Brethren in Christ Church in Garrett, Indiana. Now if I had been seeking more pastoral ministry (I had been a pastor already for eight years with the BICs), that would have been fine, but I was looking for a teaching position. I enjoyed bi-vocational ministry, but I had been expecting to move into teaching missions, not returning to pastoral ministry. 

As a half-time pastor I did whatever else needed to provide for my family. I taught occasional missions courses at AMBS, which I enjoyed. I also delivered pizzas for the pizza shop in our small town, which made me wonder if I had been wrong to think that God was leading me into teaching in the area of missions studies. It was a difficult time. 

Then in June 1996 Jon Bonk, the missions professor at Providence, told me that he was leaving Providence and encouraged me to apply for his position. I did. It took 11 months more, but eventually I interviewed for the position—in May 1997 as the crest of “the flood of the century” went through Winnipeg. A week later, as I was at the pizza shop delivering pizzas, Lois called me and said, “Your pizza delivery days are over!” 

I do not understand why God had us wait for four years in Indiana, but perhaps part of the experience was God writing on my heart his promise of care and direction, and teaching me to trust him and follow him whatever happens. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.” The key is how we respond to these times—by turning to God in increased trust and reliance (“I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts”), or with bitterness and frustration. Do we allow God to work in us as God wills? 

I see the same pattern of God writing on my heart at other times in my life. The actual experience is hard. God’s surgery sometimes hurts. But the result has been that I can rest in God’s care and faithfulness. 

A final thought
Last night I received an email that an old high school friend had died of ALS. Jeff (class of 1967 at A-C High School) had walked the path from full health to his grave, spending two years confined to his bed. I visited him whenever I went back to Pennsylvania—the last time was this past Christmas Day. 

Was God writing on Jeff’s heart through this journey? I think so. I do not minimize the pain and struggle he felt, or that his family shared with him. But this morning I believe that God was with him, and I think that Jeff understands the words from an old hymn, “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing”, better than I do.
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ.
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy!
God is writing on our hearts because God wants us to live forever with him in greater joy and wonder and delight than we can possibly know. Now and forever.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
22 March 2015
Lent Week 5

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Cat and Mouse

The title for my thoughts this morning comes from a line in C.S. Lewis’ writings. He says something like this: When people talk about man’s search for God, they might as well talk about the mouse’s search for the cat. 

Of course the mouse spends its time hiding from the cat, and the cat is relentless in its search for the mouse. In one sense that is a precise picture of our relationship with God, who searches for us lovingly and relentlessly. This is the dynamic that the English poet. Francis Thomson,  described in his famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven”, which begins:
I Fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.” 

It is a wonderful poem, and whether you use the image of the hound of heaven or of the cat and the mouse, we spend our lives hiding from God, and God never gives up searching for us. But this anticipates our conclusion.  Return to the texts with me and see how we reach this conclusion. I will focus primarily on Numbers, with brief references to Ephesians and John.

Numbers 21: 4 to 9
The Bronze Snake
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. 

This passage has long troubled me. Often enough God calls on his people to do things that our reason wonders at, but this one feels wrong to me for one basic reason. This journey through the desert began with the commissioning to be God’s people, a holy nation. As part of that commission the people received the Ten Words (Exodus 20), which begin with the clear statement that God alone is God, and that the people should never make an image of God. The people themselves were God’s images, God’s representatives in the world, and they dared not make or worship anything other than God himself. 

Yet here God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole for everyone to gaze on. Perhaps this is not a call to worship, but the temptation to move from looking at the snake to worshipping it was inevitable. Indeed, in time the bronze image of the snake received a name and was worshipped. Hear the writer of Kings in 2 Kings 18:
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. 2 He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 3 He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. 4 He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)
Do you think God did not foresee this danger? Of course God knew what would happen, and yet God told Moses to make the bronze snake and mount it on a pole. 

I can offer several possible solutions to this problem, but I don’t like them. One possibility is what a friend of mine (Eric) calls “learning to read resistantly”. By this he means that we look for themes in the text that help move us away from problematic ideas, such as the call to genocide when Samuel tells Saul to show his obedience to God by killing all of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). Genocide is such a problem that my friend argues the text cannot mean God commanded it. 

Now in the case of 1 Samuel 15, Eric may be right, but it does not seem to me to explain much in this brief story. God says, “Make the snake and mount it.” Moses does so. People look at the bronze snake and are healed. I don’t see material here for “resistant reading.” 

Another possibility (which Eric applies to the passages such as apparent calls to genocide) is that Moses did not really understand God properly. Whatever God said, he didn’t really mean for them to make an image of a snake, which then became a temptation to idolatry. But when people look at the snake, they are healed. It seems clear that God brought the sickness as punishment for the people’s complaining, and that God healed them of their sickness when, in obedience, they looked up at the bronze image of a snake. 

One could argue that there is no problem. One could say that the bronze snake was in fact good, and only became bad later. This idea may be true, but is inadequate. The risk of idolatry was real, as the people’s later worship of Nehushtan shows. God knew the people and knew what they would do. Why would God run the risk of idolatry to cure a plague of complaining? 

A Way Forward
I was talking with my colleague Cameron one day and put the question to him. He made a suggestion that I find persuasive and helpful. The people’s problem was that they complained constantly rather than living in an atmosphere of trust and dependence on God. The snakes that appeared and bit them were God’s punishment for their sin of ingratitude and complaint. These sins in fact represented a severe form of rebellion against God. The people trusted themselves rather than trusting God. They wanted a God whom they could control, not a God who called them to full obedience. Then the punishment bit them, and they found themselves facing death. In their extremity they cried out for help, and God gave them a way out. 

The way out is to make an image of their sin. The image of their punishment, the bronze serpent, is in fact an image of their sin. When God said, “Look at the bronze snake, and I will save you,” he was giving them a path to healing. “Look at yourselves honestly, and I will heal you. See what you have become and acknowledge what is inside you, and I will heal you.” The image became an idol over time. The Egyptians and the Canaanites both used snakes as part of their worship, so this drift from positive healing to idolatry is understandable. But the initial step is one that we must always take to receive God’s healing. We can be healed only when we acknowledge our sin, the deadly sickness that would separate us from God. 

Earlier you heard the soloist sing, “Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown.” This song is named “Wrestling Jacob”, and uses Jacob’s encounter with God to portray Charles Wesley’s own conversion. The theme of the song is that Jacob will not let go of God as they wrestle together, but the critical moment in that wrestling match occurs when God says, “Tell me your name.” Jacob replies, “Jacob. Twister. Deceiver. Cheater. I am Jacob.” Only when Jacob admits his own sinful nature can he begin to understand God’s profound unutterable nature: “Thy nature and thy name is love.” 

This pattern is true in every area of life. Do you struggle with alcoholism? Until you can say, “My name is Jacob, and I’m an alcoholic,” you cannot be healed. Are in bondage to pornography? Until you admit your bondage, you cannot be set free. Are you addicted to shopping, spending so much that it threatens your marriage? You cannot break that addiction until you admit your addiction. Whatever the sin is in your life that threatens to destroy your life, God can heal it. God wants to heal it. But you have to admit it and own it and look steadily up at the bronze image of your sin and say, “That’s me.” 

Ephesians 2: 1 to 10

Made alive in Christ

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. 

Paul does not lay out the pattern that we saw in Numbers 21, but he makes clear the source of healing and forgiveness. “By grace you have been saved, through faith (not from yourselves, but God’s gift), not by works, so that we cannot boast.” 

Note the progression: “When you were dead in your sins … Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ.” God came to the Children of Israel in the desert, complaining and bitter. If we could see ourselves clearly, every one of us has tried to push God out of our lives. In grace and mercy and love God refuses to leave and continues to work within us. Some might say, “I have always known that I belong to Jesus and want to follow Jesus.” At some level I know that this is what I say. But looking deeper into ourselves, we can see the desire to follow our own will and our resentment of God’s will. 

C.S. Lewis described his own experience like this:
Remember, I had always wanted, above all things, not to be “interfered with.” I had wanted (mad wish) “to call my soul my own.” … Doubtless, by definition, God was Reason itself. But would He also be “reasonable” in that other, more comfortable sense? Not the slightest assurance on that score was offered me. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. … 

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words … compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.  

John 3: 14 to 21
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. 

We know John 3:16 by heart. We remember that verse 17 reminds us that God desires to save the whole world. Verse 14 links back to the passage in Numbers, giving a foretaste of the crucified Christ in the bronze serpent. But note especially verses 20 and 21. 

The best response to evil is to bring it in to the light of truth. This basic principle illuminates the principle I suggested from Numbers. The necessary step to healing is to see oneself clearly, to allow the truth of who I am to be brought out into the open. Only when we admit honestly what lies within can God heal our sin and our hurt. And that is precisely what God does. 

This truth is one that applies at every level of life. God wants to save us as individuals and heal us as a society. Such salvation and healing requires confession and repentance. Do we want to heal the bitterness of political discourse in our world? We must look clearly at the depths of anger within ourselves. Do we want to remedy poverty in Winnipeg? We must bring the sources of poverty into the open, the way that Harry Lehotsky has helped to do in the North End and West End. Do we want to see God’s Spirit move within this congregation, and in our families, and within each one of us? We must expose our deepest fears and secrets to each other—within appropriate boundaries, not an airing of dirty laundry for shock value, but shining the light of God’s truth into every corner of our lives. 

The good news is that God presents us over and over with the opportunity to do just this. The problems we struggle with are also the bronze snake lifted up in the desert. God says, “Look openly and honestly at yourself, and I will heal you.” Like Wrestling Jacob, we admit our name, and we find also that God’s name and nature is love. 

This has been my own experience. I have looked inside myself, and I do not like what I see there. I have no interest in airing my dirty laundry. It is enough to say that I have seen myself clearly in the light of God’s holiness, and it is an ugly sight. Yet God reached out to me and showed me love beyond understanding, “pure, unutterable love.” 

“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee. 

“Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea.
’Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me. 

“I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee!
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul;
Always thou lovedst me.”

Grace Bible Church: Fourth Sunday in Lent
15 March 2015
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Driving Toronto Crazy

Last weekend I went to TO for a board meeting. (Operation Mobilization Canada—always a good experience.) I flew in to Toronto Pearson International, rented a car, and drove to my host’s house in Oakville. Therein lies a story. (Nansi indaba, as they say in Zimbabwe.) 

I got a Chevrolet Sonic, nice small car with 1400 kms on it. About 8:30 in the evening, I cued my host’s address in to our GPS and got ready to roll. The first check was the GPS’s struggle to locate a satellite through the concrete of the airport garage, but I knew to head south on 427 so I headed south. 

Eventually the GPS succeeded and instructions began to appear on the screen. Second check. I was busy trying to remain calm in Toronto traffic with my nerves attuned to driving on the prairies. In Manitoba, the sudden appearance of five cars constitutes a traffic jam. There were more than five cars around me, making it hard to focus on the GPS screen. 

Then I realized what part of my trouble was. Although I like the GPS voice, especially if I can get a nice soothing English accent, my family finds it annoying, no matter what the accent. (I need the one Lauren had—a South African mammy berating you for not doing what she clearly just told you to do.) Since Lois does not like the voice, I had it muted. With all the cars around me I couldn’t get the voice back, and the screen was hard to focus on. 

Third check. Bright lights behind me, closing in fast. I reached up to the rear view mirror and adjusted it to make the bright lights softer, more harmonious with my need for calm. There were several buttons on the mirror I had not noticed. Then came a voice I did not want, not the GPS for sure. “This is OnStar.” “You have begun your OnStar call. What would you like?” I could see no off button. Silence didn’t work: “I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you.” Words didn’t work—I tried, “Off”: “I’m sorry. I don’t understand you.” Repeated apologies, making me truly sorry! 

Finally, almost distraught, I took the next exit, pulled over to the side of the road, and turned the engine off. The screen on the car radio gave me an option to turn OnStar off. I did so gratefully. Then I took stock of my situation. I tried to un-mute the GPS, unsuccessfully. (Not sure why. It un-muted fine the next day.) Then I looked at the screen. The GPS wanted me to turn around. Oakville evidently did not lie in my future if I kept driving down the road. 

I turned around and followed the GPS onto 407, the Electronic Toll Road (ETR). I gather that the ETR charges a flat rate of $15. I’ll find out when the charge comes through. But I needed to get to my host, so for my own sanity I took the ETR. Fifteen minutes later I pulled up to the address in Oakville and relaxed. Give me the prairies any day. And a GPS that has a voice.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

It's Not Just For Us

This is the first Sunday in Lent. You know of course that the season of Lent is a time of preparation for celebrating Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, just as Advent is a time of preparation for celebrating Christmas.

Often people give up something for Lent. I have a cousin who decided to give up fast food, which has been a particular problem for her. I applaud her choice, but I must add that we should understand what we are doing. This is not an opportunity to move towards a better lifestyle (although it’s good when we do so), but to get ready for Easter. You remember the words from Malachi 3, sung in Handel’s Messiah: “And he shall purify the sons of Levi … that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” In Lent we purify ourselves so as to receive within ourselves God’s righteousness and to offer it back to the Lord.

I wrote to my cousin to thank her and encourage her. I added that whenever she craves fast food, she can take that craving as a spur to prayer. Purifying our hearts is even more important than purifying our bodies, so that as we gather to celebrate at Easter we are ready to offer ourselves to God. So you give something up for Lent as part of releasing God’s grace within.

We are looking at passages over the next six or seven weeks that help us in this process of preparation. We look today at God’s covenant with Noah and ask how it helps us get ready. The sermon title asks: What if it’s not just for us? The answer of course is that it—God’s covenant and God’s purifying of our hearts—is not just for our sake, but for the sake of the whole world.

Some Observations on the Passage
·         Verse 8: God renews the covenant with Noah and his sons. In the social context of Genesis God spoke with the father and sons, representing the family as a whole. In our social context God makes the covenant with each one of us. This covenant follows the covenant made with Adam and Eve (Gen 1 and 2) and is followed by the covenant with Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12, 15, and 17) and finally with Moses and the whole Children of Israel (Ex 19 and 20).
·         Verse 9: God’s covenant with Noah and his family continues with their descendants. Thus it includes us today as well, although we are also under the new covenant with Christ (cf Jer 31). Jesus tells us that the new covenant fulfills rather than abolishes (Mt 5)—so the concerns of the covenant with Noah are contained and met within the new covenant.
·         Verse 10: “and with every living creature on the earth.” This covenant involves the whole of creation. Paul draws on this understanding in Romans 8:
19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
Clearly then the covenant is not just about us, nor is it just for us; the whole of creation is drawn into this covenant made between God and Noah.
·         Verse 11: The covenant begins with God’s grace. God has judged, and now God redeems. So great is God’s grace that we receive this incredible promise—that in spite of all the human sin and rebellion that will follow, God will not again destroy all life, but rather will take our sin and death into himself in Christ on the cross.
A side note: The story of Noah and the ark and the great flood is one that we often think of as a children’s story. I can think of few stories less calculated for children (unless we think of some of the grimmer of Grimm’s fairy tales). We can tell it to our children, for they learn quickly enough that this world is filled with evil, and they need to know that God hates evil. But the focus should be on God’s saving power in great trouble—the eight people and many animals saved, not on the destruction of those who died. We sang “Noah he built an arky, arky” with our sons, but we must be careful not to trivialize the great and terrible truth that God hates sin and acts with an unrelenting love to remove evil from the God’s people. The reality of God’s judgment is true and we must never forget it, but neither should we approach this account as a simple children’s story.
·         Verses 12-17: The rainbow is a constant reminder of God’s saving grace. When we see sun dogs on a bright cold morning, we can remember God’s wonderful saving grace. When we see the rainbow after a powerful storm full of destruction, we can remember God’s wonderful saving grace. In the storms of life that threaten us, we know that God is present and active, showing us love and tenderness and grace, bringing us hope and life for the future.

·         Finally I want to go just outside the verses we read to verse 7: “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” Here we see the actual content of the covenant God made with Noah. The same is stated in verse 1, followed by the difficult idea that plants and animals, indeed the whole earth, will live in fear and dread of the human race. Noah is told that they should not eat anything with its life blood still in it, nor should they kill any other human beings.
All of this echoes the covenant that God made with Adam in Genesis 1:
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 9 echoes Genesis 1, and the following basic ideas apply in both passages:
·         That we are God’s image is part of the covenant. I will return to this point shortly.
·         Adam and his family, and Noah and his family, and all of us together, are put in charge of the earth. Let me reflect on this point first.

We are put in charge of the earth. I know a Christian brother who thinks that “being put in charge” means that we can do whatever we want with the earth. When I said to him that Lois and I try to minimize our ecological footprint (whether or not we succeed), he said, “Good! Then I can drive my gas guzzler twice as much!” You may have heard of diesel trucks called “coal rollers”, which store up diesel and release it in a big cloud of smoke when the driver passes a Prius. I don’t care what vehicle you drive, but I’m really getting at the underlying attitude that says, “God gave me this world to do whatever I want!” Think for a moment what it means to be put in charge. We are given the world in trust. At the end of all things God will take the world back from us and demand an accounting. You remember in the parables what happens to the servant who did not take care of his master’s property? He was thrown into outer darkness.

What do you call someone who is put in charge of the physical facility? At SMC we call them “trustees”. What if the trustees said, “Wonderful! Now we’re in charge!” And then they would start to go around and trash the building. I guarantee they wouldn’t remain trustees for long. In fact we have been well served by our trustees, because they know that they are put in charge for the benefit of all the other people who use the church building.

God’s covenant with Adam, and with Noah, and with all of us, is for us to take care of God’s world for the sake of all the people in the world, indeed for the sake of Creation itself. We have often failed, so that the words, “They will live in fear and dread of you,” have become reality. God forgive us.

Back to the idea of God’s image. You know of course why the Ten Commandments begin the way they do:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
The reason that we make no graven images or representations of God is that we are God’s images. We represent God in this world. Paul says that we are Christ’s Ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5). We speak and act so that people can hear and see God at work. You see, then, that both parts of the covenant are for the sake of the world around us, not just for our benefit. God has called you and me to live for the benefit of the whole world.

But Wait! There’s More!
All of this, of course is in the end really for God’s glory. Why did God bring the judgment of the flood in the first place? Human sin rebelled against God’s goodness and glory. Human rebellion cannot live in the presence of God’s glory. So God cleansed and restored and prepared the earth for God’s glory. That is why, in the New Testament, Jesus came and died for us—to make us able to live in the presence of God’s glory (2 Cor 4:1-7).

We heard this note in the sermons from Daniel. Remember Daniel 9?
17 “Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. 18 Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”
We regularly say the same thing when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” In the end God’s covenant with Noah, and with us, brings glory to God.

Back to Lent
This brings us back to the idea of the Lenten Season. I said that we are preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter, and we are preparing ourselves to offer ourselves in righteousness, purified for God’s glory.

We often set our goals for life too low. We have become reasonably good, certainly better than we once were, and we think, “That’s enough. I don’t want to be too radical.” Consider instead what God wants you to be. That will be for your benefit certainly, but it will also be for the benefit of all whom you come in contact with, and the change will be for God’s glory.

C.S. Lewis put it this way in a book called Mere Christianity, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.” A Musical called “For Heaven’s Sake” turned this quote into song:
Aim for Heaven and earth will be thrown in./ Aim out beyond the Now and Near.
Aim for Forever and there will come a day/ When you’ll find Forever is here.
If you would save your life,/ Then you must choose
To give away your life,/ For what you lose
Out at end of time is what you win!

Oh aim for heaven, aim for heaven, aim for heaven,/ And earth will be thrown in.”

A Closing Thought
We have entered the season in which we purify ourselves as we draw closer to the cross. We are also facing questions and issues as a congregation that challenge us and scare us, as well as present us with opportunities to find God in new and powerful ways.

I encourage all of us to remember that God called you and me to life in Christ and in this community for the sake of the whole church and for the sake of the world around us. Embrace God’s covenant and live for God, and for God’s people, and for God’s world.

I think of a friend at Providence, a friend and a brother in the Lord. H teaches philosophy, and sometimes we talk about the meaning of the Christian life. I am a pacifist. In 1968 I was drafted to serve in Vietnam. I did not go to Vietnam because I am a CO. H served in the Canadian military. During his service he became a pacifist so he left the military. But since his service days he has come to the conclusion that God has a place for the use of military force.

He and I have talked about this issue many times, as he describes how he believes that Christians may find themselves compelled to use fatal force in the act of loving God and as an act of love for the world around us. I reply that I seek to follow Jesus, and Jesus tells us not to fight. We disagree, but I know that my covenant with God is for Hendrik’s sake as well as my own, so our disagreement does not separate us. He knows the same, because his covenant with Christ is also for my sake, so our disagreement does not drive us apart. We disagree in love. God's love within us turns us towards each other and towards the world around us. In the words of a simple song by Steve Bell, "Whoever loves God loves all that God loves ... Think about that."
We follow Christ for the sake of the world and for the glory of God. I challenge us today to do so in all of our conversations and the issues that we face together—to live for Christ, and for each other. God’s work in your life is not just for you. God’s work in my life is not just for me. God’s covenant with us is for all of us, and for the whole church, and for the whole world. In the end, it is most of all for God himself. “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever, Amen.”
Steinbach Mennonite Church
22 February 2015
It’s Not Just For Us
Text: Genesis 9: 8-17