Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Election Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

God’s Healing is at Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steinbach Mennonite Church
11 December 2016

Sunday, December 04, 2016

God’s Harmony is at Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have You Ever Seen a Real Conversion?
We call this process “conversion”—the change from death to life, the change from living for the rulers of this world to living for the Ruler of all Creation. Have you ever seen a truly converted person? I think of someone like C.S. Lewis. Near the end of his life an American named Walter Hooper came to help him sort out his papers. Hooper described Lewis as the “most thoroughly converted man I ever met.” We know Lewis through the Narnia Series and his other writings, but Hooper was referring to his general conversation and lifestyle. Lewis had many small charities he had started: people he supported through various uncertainties in their lives. He was unfailingly generous in life and in his conversation. He produced “fruit in keeping with repentance”. This is what it means to enter into God’s harmony with all of creation.
(A brief quote to illustrate Lewis’ charities: “As book royalties mounted during the later 1940s, and continued to spiral upward thereafter, C.S. Lewis refused to upgrade his standard of living. Partly out of disdain for conspicuous living, but mostly out of commitment to Jesus Chris, he established a charitable fund for his royalty earnings. Neither the extent nor the recipients of C.S. Lewis’s charity are fully known. Indeed, he made valiant efforts to conceal this information. It is known that he supported numerous impoverished families, and underwrote education fees for orphans and poor seminarians, and put monies into scores of charities and church ministries.” From http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/40)

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

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

What About Us?

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

Steinbach Mennonite Church
4 December 2016

Sunday, November 27, 2016

God’s Peace is at Hand

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

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

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

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

The Texts
Isaiah 2:1-5
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Election Reflections

Thanksgiving 2016—two weeks and a bit after the Election. Time for a few thoughts on what we have done this time

1. My candidate (to the extent that I had one) lost. That’s not unusual—I think I have voted for the loser in most elections, including for John Anderson, independent candidate in 1980. So being on the losing side does not disturb me as much as it might.

2. I feel one great grief: Trump made a point of acting the bully and braggart. We rewarded his display of petulance and anger by giving him the presidency. My grief is more for legitimization of bullying and for what that legitimization than for any of the issues at stake in the election.

People use words like misogyny and racism, hatred of women and of other ethnic groups. I don’t know if Trump acts like this in ordinary life (although his own words suggest that at least the maltreatment of women is part of his life). I do know that he acted as though these are acceptable ways for Americans to act. We agreed. For that I am sad.

3. I am less concerned about most of the policies a Trump Administration may pursue. Our political process works by giving both sides of the aisle input, and now it is the Republicans’ turn. One may observe that they played the obstructionist for the past eight years (“the party of no”), which subverts the process. But it is still their turn.

My one qualifier to this sense of acceptance is Trump’s stated extremism on immigration. He may moderate his stated views so that they are also more reasonable, but he has stoked fear of Muslims and Mexicans in ways that remain a problem for our country and for the world.

4. I appreciated the ease with which the Indiana government made it possible for Lois and me to vote. There has been much said about depressing the vote. Our experience was that a Red state made it as easy for these two Blue voters to participate as we could ask for.

5. Recounts. A good idea! The move to electronic voting seems cool, but a paper trail is more secure. In Manitoba we still mark paper ballots. It’s just harder to hack a paper ballot. I like that. So doing an intensive audit of votes in close races is good; it can promote confidence that the process is still fair.

I have many more thoughts, but this is enough. I am grateful this Thanksgiving for the many benefits I and my family have received. I am not always sure they are “blessings”, because “blessing” includes a clear awareness of God’s Reign; but we have at least received many good things living in North America. And I am grateful.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

D-Day: The Invasion Begins

On June 6, 1944 Allied forces began the operation to land in Europe in Normandy (which we commonly call D-Day). The invasion of Europe took another year of dreadful fighting before the war was won, but in a real sense, once the landing was complete the war had been won. That is why Germany fought so hard to prevent it, and why the Allies took such losses to accomplish it.

I used to think that the D stood for Dunkirk—from where Allied forces had been evacuated four years before, but Dunkirk is about 400 kms. away. I gather that in fact D just stands for D as in Day. “Today’s the day!” In a real sense, D-Day is also a metaphor for the conflict between God and the Enemy. As C.S. Lewis has said in a well-known quote: “Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

We live in the stage between D-Day and V-Day, between the coming of Jesus into the world and his final return in power and great glory. That is what I want to speak about this morning. That is the image or metaphor I want to use to consider the Scriptures we have heard this morning. We will look at Isaiah 65, 2 Thessalonians 3, and Luke 21.

Isaiah 65:17-25
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.

At the end of Isaiah’s prophecies we find this vision of the goal to which all of history is moving: New heavens and earth, with evil eradicated. It appears to me that Isaiah is not describing the time beyond Time, but something that he anticipated within human history. All will live to a full age, with perfect justice and peace for people, the Land, and all who live in it (including the animals). People will still bear children and die (at a full age), but life will be as God intended it to be.

If we try to turn this into a millennial period of perfection, as some do, I think we misunderstand Isaiah. He is portraying perfect peace and justice, a full Shalom that God intends for those who follow him. We do not need to harmonize this with other prophecies of the end, but rather listen to what God wants. This passage describes a world in which the Sermon on the Mount is actualized in all of its goodness, and we have become finally what God intends us to be.

We know from Scripture more generally that this complete actualization of God’s Reign comes at the end of all things. At the same time, the fact that Isaiah portrays it as taking place within history lets us know that this is a goal we are to work towards now, not simply a description of what we will find when Jesus returns. We work towards perfect peace and justice now, although we do not see God’s full Shalom. Nevertheless we live the life that Isaiah describes because God has invaded human history and this description is the place God is taking us: the new heavens and new earth.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.

As I observed last week, one of Paul’s concerns in 2 Thessalonians is to counter the idea that the Day of the Lord had already come. Some people at Thessalonica had stopped working and sat idle, waiting to see Jesus. Paul reminds them to get back to work and live. Connecting Paul’s words here with the vision of Isaiah 65, we might say it this way: Instead of waiting for the Day of the Lord to drop out of the sky (which makes you a burden for everyone around you), work to do what is good. Paul lifts work up as necessary for true community: “To work is to pray.” I am extending his idea to do good by working well. So, Paul says, never get tired of doing what is good. Because the new heavens and earth are coming, you are supposed to live well now—live in the reality of the new heavens and earth.

Again, the perfect peace and justice portrayed in Isaiah 65 are not simply end-time realities we can anticipate and wait for, but present realities we can demonstrate to the world around us now. To put it another way, the kingdom of God is coming in fullness and power; the kingdom of God is also already visible—however imperfectly—wherever Christians embody God’s reign. Just as Jesus is the incarnation of God, to the church is intended to be the incarnation of God’s reign.

Luke 21:5-19
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.”
In the days just before his crucifixion, Jesus took his disciples into the temple and told how it would be destroyed. His words suggested to them the end of time, and Jesus both confirms and transforms their ideas about the End. The destruction of the temple means that the end is coming, but it will not come right away. The troubles Jesus describes are an accurate picture of human history in general. When I was in school, I remember reading about Pax Britannica—the 19th Century seen as a time of peace. But if you lived in Zimbabwe and South Africa as one of the indigenous people, it was not a time of peace. Nation rose against nation, and droughts and natural disasters made life difficult. Similarly, the 20th Century was filled with two world wars and other conflicts, such as those in Korea and Vietnam. In 2000 we anticipated a new millennium of peace and instead the events of 9/11 ushered in continuing conflict and fear.

In such times the human response is to be afraid. God’s people, however, live within the peace that God brings. Even when an election in the United States appears to ratify fear and power as the best ways to confront the troubles of our days, God’s people continue to embrace love and peace and justice. Such a stance brings us into conflict with the authorities. Jesus says, “Don’t worry about that. I will give you words to say and courage to endure.”

The common theme in each passage, especially in the way that I have drawn them out, is the coming of the End, which gives us a reason to live rightly now. The End is a time of perfect peace and justice, and God wants us to live God’s Shalom now, in our contexts of violence and fear.

We can work for God’s peace and justice because the end is certain. We are part of God’s people bringing God’s peace and reconciliation to a hurting and divided world. To return to the idea of D-Day and the quote from C.S. Lewis with which we began, we are a part of God’s action invading the world that is in rebellion and bringing it back into God’s reign. The decisive event comes from the reading in Luke. As Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple, he is talking also about his own death and resurrection: D-Day, in the metaphor I have been using.

Working It Out
What do we do with this? How do we live, if God has invaded a world in rebellion against the reign of God? Remember Lewis’ point: We live in a war zone. The war is between good and evil, God and Satan. One could even say that we are the war zone. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” Along the same lines Chuck Coulson wrote the following:
In my book Being the Body, I tell the story of Nazi mass murderer and Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann. Kidnapped in 1960 by Israeli agents, he was put on trial in Israel. One witness against him was an Auschwitz survivor named Yehiel Dinur. Dinur entered the courtroom and stared at Eichmann. Their eyes met. After a few tension-filled moments, Dinur broke down and began to shout and sob. Why? Was it the memories of Auschwitz? Was Eichmann evil incarnate? No, as Dinur explained on 60 Minutes, it was the fact that Eichmann was an ordinary man. Dinur saw so clearly that sin and evil are part of the human condition. “I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am capable to do this . . . Eichmann is in all of us.”

Our passages combine the hope of God’s triumph with the call to work and live in this world precisely as God’s people—to live in light of the New Heavens and New Earth. We decide which side we are on: the side of good or the side of evil.

The point of the D-Day metaphor is to make it clear that this war between good and evil is a civil war—between God who made all things and a created derivative power of evil. Once God invaded the world and established a beachhead through the cross and resurrection, we can see that the war is won. Just as the final victory of the Allies was certain once they had established a foothold on the continent, God’s victory in our world is certain. In truth, God’s victory is far more certain than the Allies’ victory was, for the Allies and the Axis powers were both alike human and part of creation, whereas in the end evil cannot win against God.

One can illustrate this certain victory with many stories. I told you some of them last week, from David Garrison’s study of the House of Islam. These stories are inspirational indeed. Consider the story of a businessman in the Arab world. He made his fortune as a billionaire, and then his wife, whom he loved dearly, died. He lost his will to work and sold his business. His health declined and he ended up in emergency surgery for a blocked artery. He tells how, as he went under the anesthesia he cried out the name of “Jesus”, and was filled with peace. In a dream he saw Jesus and his wife, welcoming him to Heaven. Just before he reached them, they receded and he returned to the hospital room. The surgery had been successful. But the vision of his wife with Jesus drove him to read the Bible and over the next few years he brought 70 other families (besides his own) to faith in Jesus. They continue to read and study the Bible together. When Garrison asked him if his wife knew Jesus he said, “Oh yes.” She had an icon of Jesus and Mary, which she had treasured throughout her life, although she never spoke about Jesus.

There are many such stories. In light of what we have said this morning, we can say that Jesus is present in the House of Islam. Jesus has landed! D-Day has come! Although we look at the Muslim world and see much fear and enmity of the West, inside that fear and conflict Jesus is at work. I do not conclude from this that the church has done something great. Rather I would see a similar movement in the House of Christianity. I want to see God’s Holy Spirit blowing throughout our land as well. We also are filled with fear and distress. We also wonder if God is still at work, or if somehow the enemy of God has won the victory. Jesus has landed! D-Day has come! In his death and resurrection Jesus has won the victory, and we can live in the fullness of God’s peace and joy today.

Seven and a half years ago I went through a time of darkness, which I wondered if I would ever escape. In fact, God brought me through into light. Thinking of our theme this morning, I see that time as are-discovery of D-Day, a re-awakening of my desire to see Jesus and walk with Jesus. Here is a description of that darkness and coming to light, which I wrote in the months after the event. (You can read the original blogs here, and here, and here.)

In some sense the six months at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 were the most difficult of my life. In objective terms I see no reason to have experienced a particular crisis. There were professional pressures of working in a tight economy. There are the personal pressures of living in one’s 59th year. But many around me have had more real difficulties to deal with than I. For whatever reason I came to the edge of some sort of crisis in February, which found the beginning of resolution in March. Lent was a season with more than usual meaning this year.

Resolution began with two dreams and with a voice in the silence. The following lines describe something of the experience – a journey into darkness to find God’s limitless love, patience, and grace. I do not yet understand what happened, or why. This record of the path through the undergrowth (of my life) to the cliff overlooking a pit, the cross beside the road, the sea, and the circle around the ashes is an effort to keep the whole in mind long enough for it to form the journey of the coming months and years.

Four brief descriptions of that struggle, in verse.
One: The Path
The path wandered through the undergrowth,
A pathless way deeper into the darkness.
Wandering unwilling, compelled, pressed, constrained
I stumble like a sloth into the dark.
It did not seem so dark at first,
this crosspath; but as I walk on
Through under-undergrowth, the need grows
To break clear, escape
Some cataclysm, a burning.
Wandering aimless and looking for freedom/ I, trapped in fear.

Relentless the pathless path wanders down
The growth of many year, shapeless fears
Forming in the darkling gloom.
So many years of growth underfoot
Obstructing, clutching, pulling.
At last I break free into a clearing
At the edge of a cliff, and find
Only darkness burning deep within the pit of myself.
A pathless path balanced on the edge of time.

Two: The Cross
Beside the road stands a cross, unheeded, unneeded.
People hurry past, hardly looking.
I stand, lending my weakness to keep the cross
From falling.
I am not needed, not heeded – let me go!
A building close by beckons, offering safety, privacy,
A chance to slip out of the light, a place to hide.
I cannot leave.
Unnoticed, unneeded, I want only to go and change.
I promise to return …
There is no escape,
Compelled to stay, to stand by the cross beside the road.

“I want nothing between us.”
Immediate fervent assent
To live at the cross by the side of the road.

Three: The Sea
A dream
Floating in a dream
Floating in the sea.
Completely secure, endlessly rocking
Floating in the calm and stormy sea of love.

Four: A Voice in Silence
Circled around the ashes
Waiting for a sign,
We sat in silence, ritual simplicity.
My friend gave up coffee for Lent,
Waiting for a sign.
My friend gave up wheat and wine,
Waiting for a sign.
We sat in silence, ritual simplicity.
Circled round the ashes I heard (can I say “heard”)
A voice in silence.
“There is no more. I have done all. Receive.”

The imposition of the ashes.

13 November 2016
Grace Bible Church

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election 2016

"Father forgive me, for I have sinned." I almost feel like going to confession. I had decide some years ago not to vote in American elections when I don't live there -- a decision strengthened by taking Canadian citizenship (dual American-Canadian). I decided when we moved here to vote in the country where I live and not in both the USA and Canada.

So I did not vote in this election. I almost have non-buyer's remorse. Almost.

But I can still say who I would have voted for (in my case, by absentee ballot in Indiana).
President: Clinton. I would have voted for Kasich given a chance. Character is important enough to me to vote against Trump. The character charges against Clinton seem to me to lack substance. (Benghazi: She should not tell us what she knew and did -- giving such information would be irresponsible. Computer server: Good grief! So she made a bad computer choice. Welcome to the world of people over age 60!) I dislike a second candidate from the same family, and I object to her dismissal of republican opponents as "deplorable", But Trump's short temper and readiness to operate by insult and threats makes him unfit (in my estimation) for the presidency. (See Ana Navarro's opinion piece on CNN for a devastating critique.

Senate: Evan Bayh (if I remember the candidate's name correctly). Indiana is so solidly Republican that it needs a Democratic senator.

On the whole I would like a "hung" government -- a Democratic president with a Republican congress -- with one proviso: that they learn to collaborate. We need Republicans and we need Democrats, and we need to learn to work together. If Trump wins, he will have to learn to be a different person. If Clinton wins, she will have to learn to respect and trust Republicans. Perhaps the friendship that has grown between the Bush family and the Obamas can serve as a model: Admit that those with whom we disagree are honourable and worth listening to.

A vote for Gary Johnson seems worthwhile to me: The Libertarian critique is worth taking on board, even if its vision of limited government is unrealistic. A vote for the Green candidate? Well, I have voted Green at least five times so far ....

Who will win as the votes are counted tonight? I hope we all will. I doubt that any of us will. I believe that Trump will be less able to destroy than we fear (even the president's power is limited). I believe that Clinton will be hamstrung by an uncollaborative Republican congress. I hope that I am wrong.

Neither candidate, neither party, can save the country. The candidates at all levels reflect the people who are voting, and we need to examine ourselves more than we need to denounce them. They have articulated our fear and anger and angst and unwillingness to compromise. As a Christian, I believe that only God can heal our personal fears, enabling us to work together to move into a better future.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Shaking of God’s Presence

I must tell you up front that the title (“Already—Not Yet”) you see in the bulletin and the direction that the sermon takes may be only loosely related at best. I had Remembrance Day in mind for the Already: that aspect of the coming of God’s Reign that was inaugurated in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. We remember what has been. As we remember the heroism and courage of those who have died in service of their country, we remember the even greater love expressed in God’s gift of Jesus, the Son of God, who came and died and rose “for our sin and for our salvation”. I had All Saints Day in mind for the Not Yet: that aspect of God’s reign that still remains to come in fullness with the return of Jesus. As we anticipate reunion with our loved ones who have died, we think of that great crowd of witnesses before whom we run our race.

Then I read the texts again as I attended a conference this week, and the combination of the texts and the conference gave me the direction that we will go this morning. If it fits with my first thoughts above, that will be a gift of God’s grace. So we turn to the texts and ask what they say to us today.

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
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.”

In contrast with the prophecy we read last week from Joel, Haggai gives precise specifics: In the second year of King Darius; on the 21st of July (to use our seventh month); Haggai speaking to Zerubbabel. The generality of Joel allows us to hear prophecy as applying to all of us; the precision of Haggai reminds us that God works in specific space and time with actual people. In Haggai the context is set in Judah among those who had returned from exile in Babylon. Cyrus ordered the return (Ezra and Nehemiah), and Darius continued it. Now Haggai encourages the exiles to proceed with rebuilding the Temple (verse 3). Verses 6 to 9 then describe a shaking of the nations that leads to the rebuilding of the Temple as the symbol of God’s full presence with God’s People.
Note: The NIV says, “and what is desired by all nations will come”, while other translations talk about the treasure of the nations being brought into the Temple. I work with both ideas in my remarks.

The full presence of God’s glory brings in God’s peace—which suggests that we have here a picture of the final consummation of all things. Similar passages in Isaiah and Micah talk about beating swords into ploughshares and the lion and lamb lying down together. These are all images of a peace beyond human understanding.

So we move on to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
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? …
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.

Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonians (writing with Silas and Timothy) somewhere around 50 a.d., so that these are perhaps the first books of our New Testament to be written. Chapter 2 focusses one of Paul’s primary concerns in these letters: To respond to those who thought that Jesus had already returned. He says that instead of “the Day of the Lord” (verse 2), they are in a period of rebellion in which the “man of lawlessness” is being revealed. This time of trouble [compare to Haggai’s “shaking of the nations”] has begun, but also still lies primarily ahead.
Note that the verses in the text refer to the future coming of the rebellion and of the man of lawlessness, while I take this period of rebellion to have already occurred. I base my reading on the way that verse 7 speaks of the period of lawlessness as having already begun. This already-not yet quality of the rebellion parallels the already-not yet character of God’s reign.

Verses 13-17 then encourage the Thessalonians to live according to the gospel and the teachings of Jesus, so as to share in “the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the end of all things. That is, as in Haggai the shaking of the nations leads to the establishment of the Temple, which is the body of Christ.

Luke 20:27-38 recounts a controversy concerning the reality of the resurrection.
27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

Linking Luke’s account of the controversy of the resurrection with the first two passages, one notes that the internal religious debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees shook the Jewish people so that the living God was revealed to them. God is indeed the God of the living and not of the dead—God of the Jewish People in Luke’s Gospel and our God as well, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of our time and all people in the world today. We will not say more about this controversy, but move to a synthesis based on this idea of “shaking”.

There are many pieces one could explore in these passages. “The God of the living and of the dead” is a theme worth pursuing, but we leave it aside today. The theme of the “man of lawlessness” (or the “man of sin”) is also of interest, a figure I take to be roughly synonymous with the anti-Christ, a recurring character in human affairs rather than simply a figure at the end of time. I take this figure to be someone who presents himself/herself as a follower of Christ and at the same time undermines God’s reign by acting completely against God’s reign—you can fill in names that fit the description yourself. Again, I leave this theme aside to return to Haggai’s words about the shaking of the nations so that the desire of all nations shall come.

Haggai 2:6-7 states: “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. 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.”

Paul puts it in 2 Thessalonians 2: “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. 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.” Note that I understand Paul to be pointing at what they saw around them—not to say that therefore now the end is here, but to say that the end of all things has begun (what we have called the “already-not yet”). The letter as a whole makes it clear that the return of Christ has not come. We are to live in anticipation of the End, but not to assume that it has occurred.

Common to both of these is the theme of shaking—the sense of chaos and threat that is common to our day as well. In “The Messiah” Handel combines Haggai with Malachi 3, thus: “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.”

The Old Testament uses this theme repeatedly—that God shakes, purges, refines us in order to bring about what is good in us (the desire of all nations). Thus the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”, suggests a purging and refining action to that fire: “When through the fiery trials they pathway shall lie,/ My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply./ The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design/ Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” The hymn writer goes beyond Isaiah 43 (his source for the image of the fire), but captures accurately the sense of this idea through Scripture.

The Contemporary Scene
This brings me to our experience in the present. We sense the shaking of the nations, from a rattled economy to political fears, from unstable regions where violence prevails to the reality of personal loss. I think of a friend whose mother just died: She and her husband are plunged into grief and loss without warning, shaking their world to its core. When C.S. Lewis died, his old friend Tolkien said, “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age—like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

This is the way of our world. No matter how secure we feel at any point, threats lie around the corner and we can find our world shaken to its core. When that happens, we find out what we truly desire; we find out what is “the desire of the nations”—or at least what it is we most desire. What is “the desire of the nations”? In Haggai it is the Temple, the symbol of God’s presence. In our world, it is the presence of God the Creator, who comes to us in the person of Jesus, the Son of God. I speak as a Christian, and I know that those who are not Christians will not agree that I have expressed their desire. They may be right. I can only say what I believe to be true.

David Garrison has written a book on this theme title, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God Is Drawing Muslims Around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ. He states that in the years before 1900 there was perhaps one effective movement of Muslims into Christian faith. In the 1900s there were perhaps 10 such movements. In the first 12 years of this century there have been, by his count, at least 69 such movements. His web page states (http://windinthehouse.org/):
In this new global study, Dr. David Garrison reveals that the first Muslim movement to Christ did not occur until the 19th century, more than 1000 years after Muhammad’s message first echoed from the minarets of Medina. This first movement was followed by a further 10 Muslim movements to Christ in the late 20th century. But something now is happening. In the first 12 years of the 21st century, we have already seen more than 60 new Muslim movements to Christ!

Leaving aside questions of how he defines a movement, it is clear that across the Muslim world God is shaking the nations, and some people within these countries are discovering Jesus the Messiah, Isa al-Masih.

I encourage you both to read the stories and to increase your own interaction with Muslims and other immigrants in Canada. I warn you also that they bring us the temptation to respond with a sense of triumphalism. We may cheer as if we are playing a game of football and our side just scored a touchdown. That kind of response undermines “the desire of the nations”. This is not a game, but an intense search for meaning and power to live in our world. We are being shaken, and God wants to bring us closer to Jesus, God’s Son—to reveal Jesus within us.

That is my closing word to you. Embrace the shaking of the world around us and of our own inner worlds as part of God’s work to bring to completion our desire to know God better. Paul prayed for the Thessalonians, and I pray for you: That God will teach you to know him better, to love him more fully, and to serve him with your whole hearts, until the Day Christ appears.

Grace Bible Church
6 November 2016