Sunday, December 10, 2017

Life hurts, but ... (Let it Be So)

We know the passages we heard this morning well. We have heard them many times before, so that we may have trouble grasping how deeply they probe into our human condition. In the reading from Isaiah, we hear the prophet’s commission to speak words of comfort and new life. In the reading from Mark, we hear how John the Baptist intentionally grounded his ministry in these same words of comfort and new life.

At the centre of the readings, we see the affirmation with which Mark begins his gospel: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” I have a friend from Afghanistan who was arrested once on his way back into the country, carrying Mark’s Gospel on MP3 players. He told how his luggage was searched at the airport in Kabul and the guard found the MP3 players he was carrying. The guard asked what these players were for, and my friend said they were for his friends. Then the guard began to push buttons until the player began in the Dari language: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” When the guard heard these words, he held the player up in the air and yelled, “I got one!” Uniformed people came running from every direction, and my friend spent the next week in jail being interrogated, before they allowed him to spend time with his friends.

The guard had it right: These passages are more revolutionary than we realize. They recognize the broken condition of our world, and they call us to healing and new life when we have lost hope that such is possible. Listen to the texts with me.

Isaiah 40
The Children of Israel had spent 70 years in exile – from about 600 years before Christ to about 530 BC. Now their exile is about to end. The prophet tells the story.
Verses 1 and 2: Through the prophet, God announces comfort and relief. Israel’s sin has been paid for, and Israel therefore receives tender comfort in place of a bitter and painful time. The proclamation makes a statement and raises a question.
1) Although not all misfortune in life comes directly from our own sin, in Israel’s case, her exile was indeed the result of her own rebellion. Exile was the just reward for Israel’s rebellion.
2) The just reward has been paid, which asks a question: Why can’t God just forgive Israel? The people were truly sorry for their sin; isn’t that enough? Why must she “receive at the Lord’s hand double for her sin”? We will return to this question.
Verses 3 to 5: A voice [I assume, God] calls out the announcement:
1) Prepare the way for the King to come [if you prefer, roll out the red carpet]! Remove all obstacles in his way. The way the prophet phrases this announcement highlights the size of the obstacles and suggests that in fact such a massive engineering project is something that only God can achieve, but God calls on God’s people to do it. In fact, God has already done it, as verses 1 and 2 say.
2) God’s coming reveals God’s glory, which everyone in the world will see.
Verses 6 to 8: The voice bases our confidence in God’s coming on the permanence of God’s Word. Human actions and words are temporary; they die. We die. Isaiah puts it starkly: God breathes on us, and we die. As human beings, we are made for this earth and for a short time.
God does not die. God does not end. God will do what God intends to do. The reference to God’s Word – “the word of our God endures forever” – is picked up in John’s gospel as “the Word made flesh”. It is no accident that we read this prophecy of the Return to the Promised Land in the Advent Season. We wait for God’s Word, who is eternal and forever.
Verses 9 to 11: All of this is for our benefit. God is coming – to gather us in, gently and forever. It may be that we, as human beings, are made for a short time on this earth, but we as God’s people [his flock] are made to be with God forever.
So the voice announces God’s coming with a shout: “Here is your God!” Shout it from the mountain tops! Shout it from the roof tops. God is here, and our lives are changed forever!

Now of course the Return from Exile was less dramatic than this announcement. God’s presence was veiled again over the next 500+ years until Jesus was born. For a few years, Jesus shone on earth, and the first church burst into life, but then the veil fell again over the light of God’s presence. God is here, but God’s presence is often veiled. We are waiting again for God to come, waiting again for God’s Return.

Mark 1
Verses 1 to 3: Mark’s gospel begins, as we noted earlier, with the title, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Mark then connects this good news with the passage from Isaiah 40. He uses this connection to call on the people of his day – and of Jesus’ own day – to prepare the way for God to come.
Verses 4 to 8: In verse 4, Mark defines the preparation as repentance. The work that was already done [repentance and forgiveness] in Isaiah 40 is the work the people now need to do. They immediately set to work, confessing their sins and receiving John’s baptism.
Mark mentions John’s unusual diet and dress, but only in passing. Rather, he moves directly on to the message: “You are repenting, as is right. Now the Messiah will come, and he will give you God’s Holy Spirit.”
God’s coming is both political and spiritual – all of life is changed when the people repent of their rebellion and turn to God.

Why This Emphasis on “Repent!”
We have this basic situation in both passages. Life is hard. At least some of the problems the people face, they can trace clearly to their own choices. The people recognize that they have disregarded the people they should have listened to, and more importantly, they have rebelled against God. They repent, but, for some reason, they must “receive at the Lord’s hands double for their sins.” We have the old saying about sin, “it must be paid for.” Why? Why can’t God just forgive? Why did they have to pay?

You have heard of the various scandals in the USA, as well as in Canada, about sexual harassment. The most high profile situation this past week involved the senator from Minnesota. I will not detail the actions that led to his resignation, but note only his careful and thorough apology at the beginning to the first and most serious of the accusations. One of the facts that becomes evident is that there is no apology good enough to prevent the senator from paying the price. The old saying is true, “It must be paid for.”

Another recent apology comes from our Prime Minister to the First Nations of Canada, most recently to survivors of Newfoundland’s residential schools. As we waited for the apology, I read a comment from one of the survivors, who said that he was not impressed with any words Trudeau might say. He was waiting for actions, he said. To put it another way, “‘Sorry’ isn’t enough; it must be paid for.”

We know this in our own lives. Words are easy, and an easy repentance does not deserve forgiveness. If we know this in our own lives, why would we expect any less of God? True love will not accept easy words of repentance. God knows us too well to accept what we don’t mean. Rebellion must be paid for so that the rebels mean it when they end their rebellion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this kind of thing in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge – the act of following). He writes:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

We can see Bonhoeffer’s idea of costly grace in both Isaiah 40 and Mark 1: Salvation is created as God comes on the scene – that is grace, and salvation comes because the price has been paid – that is costly.

What is the price? Real repentance. Real change. Isaiah calls on God’s people to prepare the way by removing all obstacles to God’s coming. Mark makes it clear that the work of preparation is confession and repentance. The trouble is that human beings cannot in themselves repent deeply enough. The abusers (whether making unwanted sexual advances, or abusing children in the residential schools) both apologize and self-justify. That’s the way we are. Only God can dig deep enough into our souls to bring about the full repentance necessary for God’s grace to have its full effect.

Working Our Advent Theme
How does all of this work with our Advent Theme? Last Sunday Julia Thiessen started us off with the theme “Let it be.” She spoke about the way that we find the light when we are willing to stir up trouble, embracing the darkness and broken bits of our lives. Next Sunday Lee will speak on the theme, “Let it be whole”, and on Christmas Eve on “Yes, Let it be now.”

Out theme this morning is “Let it Be So.” The focus statement states: “We long to be comforted, we long for change. Moving from uncertainty and fear, we call upon God to make things ready – the mountains leveled, the paths made straight, our hearts prepared.” Life is hard and full of pain, but God is coming. How do we prepare the way for God to work in our world?

1) We recognise God’s part and our part: We call on God to move mountains and fill in chasms. We call on God to do what we cannot do. In turn, God calls on us to do our part, which in Mark is “Repent”. Sometimes we think that we can fix whatever is wrong with us. Such thinking is simply wrong. We are not wise enough or strong enough to fix our world, so we call on God to do what we cannot do. Sometimes we think that God has to do everything for us. Such thinking is equally wrong. God enables us to deal with the problems around us, so we get to work and do what we can. As Garfield Todd (a former missionary and Prime Minister in Southern Rhodesia) said, “When Jesus came to Lazarus’ grave, he asked the young men to move the stone from the tomb. We do what we can, and we leave it to Jesus to raise the dead.”

2) We take responsibility for ourselves: Part of what we must do is repent of our rebellion. We are at fault for some of the problems around us. We ask God’s Spirit to show us where any resistance to God’s ways is at work in us, and then we repent and wait for God’s Spirit to go to work. God changes us and works through us when we confess our failures.

3) Look at the whole world: This is not just a matter of individual spiritual health: “Is your heart right with God?” The brokenness of our world is bigger than we can see. When God comes to set things right, God looks at the hatred and division of our political systems as well as broken relationships in a small town. God cares for the whole of creation as well as for hurting people in Steinbach.

A Story
This past month a group of six people from Providence travelled to Kachin State in Myanmar. Our President, David Johnson, led the group to participate in a ceremony in the Kachin Baptist Church, conferring an honorary doctorate on Samson Hkalam, president of the KBC. Samson studied at Providence 20 years ago, and he has provided critical leadership for his people through difficult times.

A bit of background: There are about one million people in Kachin State, of which 400,000 belong to the KBC. There are 18 divisions (we would call them “municipalities) in Kachin State, but the Burmese government has placed no Kachin administrators to govern them. The Burmese military controls the area, and there is a low grade ongoing civil war between the Kachin people and the Burmese government. As a result, there were somewhere around 80,000 IDPs in Kachin and Shan states (two states in Myanmar bordering China).

The KBC today hosts a number of camps, some of which members of the Providence group visited – 2,000 in one camp and 1,400 in another. The church has also collected money to build a hospital in the main city the group visited, since the government has not provided one. The church is engaged in a long-lasting major effort to provide for people in every area of life, when conditions under government control have deteriorated significantly.

Go back 40 years. In 1977, the KBC celebrated their 100th anniversary. Following the celebration, the church decided to appoint 300 evangelists to spend three years travelling around Kachin State in evangelistic work. They gathered the young men together, but they discovered that many of these men were scruffy, using drugs, drinking to excess, and clearly unsuitable for the work they had been called to do. But when they tried to send them home instead, the young men refused to leave. They said that they had been called and would do the work. So the church gave them some directions: No more drinking or drugs and get cleaned up, and then they gave them 40 days of intensive training.

The numbers are intentionally significant, our group was told: three years, for the three years of Jesus’ ministry; 300 young men for the number in Gideon’s army; and 40 days for Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. The result of their ministry was also significant. God has used these 300 young men to bring almost half of the Kachin people into the church. God has used their ministry to prepare them to deal with the problems they now face, especially the overwhelming need of the internally displaced people among them. They prepared the way for the Lord to come, and God came. Not the final return of Christ yet, but God came and is at work among the Kachin people.

God is still coming in Kachin State. Dave taught the pastors from the book of Romans, and Stan taught them from the book of Nehemiah. They asked hard questions, “How can we forgive our enemies [in this 20+ year-long civil war]?” Stan’s thoughts went back to our own Mennonite history in Russia, in which the State tried to kill our own people, and we have had to learn to live for peace – and to forgive.

God is ready to come in our lives also. We live on a much smaller scale than the one I have just described – in Steinbach, a small city of 16,000 people. But people here also need God’s presence, and we prepare the way for God’s entry into their lives, and into our own lives as well. Live is difficult and hard, but God is coming to bring comfort and strength and new life. Let it be so!

Steinbach Mennonite Church
10 December 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
40 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Imagination and History

I am going to talk about imagination and history. I am not talking about imagining what happened in order to write historical fiction. One uses the imagination in historical fiction, but I am not looking at that task. Nor am I using “imagination” as a code word for “guess”. Sometimes we do guess at what happened and then seek confirmation, but I am not looking at that task either.

Rather I am listening to the texts I read with my imagination alive to notes that the recorder of the event may not have recognized in order to set questions for further inquiry. I am using especially my training in cultural studies to hear echoes from reports written over 100 years ago.

I am in the process of researching and writing a history of Brethren in Christ World Missions. I worked with the BIC in Zambia and Zimbabwe for seven years. My parents in their turn served with BICWM from 1946 to 1965. Before them, my grandparents were with the mission from 1921 to 1929. It is important to note that I am investigating and writing the history of my own home church, so that the reader can be aware of any bias or special pleading in my work. I am using the written reports that the missionaries sent to the home church to provide the basic story.

The story of BICWM breaks naturally into three periods:
1896 to 1920, Beginnings and first missionaries: The BIC sent their first missionary party to Zimbabwe in 1898. The first period of work culminated with World War One, and I take the story up to the influx of new missionaries following the war, in about 1920.
1920 to 1945, Institutionalization of the mission in Africa and India: The period between the wars, culminating in World War Two.
1945 to 1980, Apex and Withdrawal: The 1950s were the high water mark of BIC missions in Africa and India, with work beginning also in Japan and Nicaragua. The withdrawal of missionaries from Zimbabwe during the Liberation War there marks the shift into a new pattern of missionary outreach that continues today. I end my story when the North American missionaries returned home from Zimbabwe.

The Love Feast
I want to look at an incident in 1899, less than a year after the missionaries entered Zimbabwe. In the middle of 1898, four pioneering missionaries arrived at Matopo Mission: Jesse and Elizabeth Engle, Alice Heisey, and Frances Davidson. The following May they were joined by Clifford and Sara Cress and by Isaac Lehman. These seven missionaries immediately held what the Brethren in Christ call a Love Feast.

The basic process of a Love Feast is as follows: A common meal (or several meals) eaten together, a baptismal service (if there are any candidates for baptism), a service of “washing the saints feet”, and finally a communion service. This first Love Feast in Zimbabwe was significantly abbreviated, given that it was held among the seven pioneer missionaries only, with the Ndebele people looking on. Here is Clifford Cress’ description of the event, written for the Evangelical Visitor ( the BIC church paper, issued twice a month):
"Before the appointed time all were in their places and then followed a solemn and impressive season as we seven in childlike simplicity and love poured water into basins and washed each others’ feet, the kiss of love following. The usual Scriptures were read in the Zulu tongue and then followed the commemoration of the death and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was an occasion long to be remembered, probably never to be forgotten by us and the congregation who sat before us in silence and for the first time in their darkened lives witnessed these solemn ceremonies. Some were aged and silvered for the tomb and yet had never seen these blessed and precious services: and until our workers told them had never heard the story of the cross. Many tears were shed throughout the entire day and at eventide we felt that God had indeed been with us. As the sun was lowering toward the western mountains the natives gave us a farewell salutation and one by one began winding their homeward way among the rocks and trees that line the valleys."

We see the following elements of the Love Feast in this account: Washing the Saints’ Feet, and the Lord’s Table. The common meal and baptisms were not a part of this first celebration.

Cress himself may have had similar questions as I do, most importantly: What did the Ndebele people watching them think that this ceremony meant? Consider again what the assembled people saw.
1) The four missionary women would have gathered in one place, and the two missionary men would have gathered in another.
2) The participants removed their shoes and socks/stockings. The three men would have washed each other’s feet – one kneeling before the other, placing the other’s feet in the basin of water (one at a time) and washing them, then drying them with a large towel tied around his waist. The second would repeat the process with the third, and the third would complete the circle with the first.
The four women would also have formed a circle. The first would have knelt before the second and washed her feet, the second before the third, the third before the fourth, and the fourth would have completed the circle. In each case, once the feet have been washed and dried, the two participants would have stood and embraced and kissed each other on the cheek.
3) All six would then have proceeded to the Lord’s Table for the communion service. The lead minister (Jesse Engle) would have prayed over the bread (a special, unleavened bread used at communion services). Traditionally, each one serves the next, so we can assume that they passed the bread down the row, and that the last person probably served Engle to complete the process. Then Engle would have prayed over the cup, which would have been juice (what kind of juice in their context, we do not know), and then passed the cup down the row in the same way as the bread. We do not know if they used individual cups or a common cup.

So we have the question, “what did the watching people think this meant?” This is where we must use our cultural imagination.

To gain some insight into this question, we consider briefly the history and religious culture of the Ndebele people. The Ndebele migrated from Botswana to southwestern Zimbabwe in the late 1830s. A small group of the larger Zulu People within the KwaZulu Natal area of South Africa had migrated north and west under their leader, Mzilikazi, who fled from the threat posed to him and the Ndebele by Tshaka, the king of the Zulu People. They moved first to modern Botswana, where they incorporated a large number of Tswana and Swazi people. Under further threat from the Boer farmers who were also seeking control of the area, they move further north to the area around modern Bulawayo in southwestern Zimbabwe. 

In the 60 years between establishing their new home and the arrival of the first BIC missionaries, the Ndebele established control over a large territory and brought into their population the people who already lived there. Their basic social structure included a strong military focus, which made them a formidable force opposing the expansion of White Settler society.

White Settlers were on the move in any case. In 1888, Cecil Rhodes negotiated permission for his agents to explore for gold and other minerals in the area north and east of Ndebele territory. The Ndebele ruler then was the son of Mzilikazi, named Lobengula. Lobengula saw clearly that this movement from Cecil Rhodes’ emissaries would cost him control of the Ndebele homeland, but also could see no way to resist it. As he foresaw, White Settlers moved into the area east of his homeland, and in 1893, they provoked hostilities with the Ndebele People. This conflict ended with Lobengula’s death, and the Ndebele People retreated into the Matopo Hills, south of Bulawayo. Three years later, they rose up against the White Settlers, who had built a new city on the ruins of Lobengula’s capital. At first it appeared that they might throw the Whites out of the country, but reinforcements sent by Rhodes in South Africa eventually forced the Ndebele to hide in the Matopo Hills, until finally, in October 1897, they made a peace treaty, allowing the White Settlers to take control of the country. Less than a year later, the BIC missionaries – good pacifists all – arrived in the Matopo Hills, in the very centre of the place where the Ndebele had taken final refuge from the White Settlers.

So much for a brief overview of the historical background. The cultural and religious background is also complex. We do not have time to look at it properly, so I will note simply three basic features of traditional Ndebele culture and religion.
The Ndebele believed in a creator God, remote from people and accessible only through the ancestors.
The ancestors – those who had died recently – remained in close contact with those still alive.
The whole of life was seen as thoroughly spiritual. Many things had a spiritual cause – from early death in a family to sickness to drought to excessive rainfall. The normal response to such events was a ritual involving the spirits of the ancestors and mediated by the spiritual specialists (diviners and herbalists).

Put your imagination to work as you read/hear about the first Love Feast.

1) The Ndebele watching the event knew the White Settlers first as people who had dispossessed them of the land. That dispossession had begun, but was not nearly complete, when this Love Feast took place. The site of the Love Feast was the home of the people who had been killing White Settlers less than two years before, and defending themselves against attack less than a year before. Yet here were White people, taking off their shoes and socks and carrying out a ceremony that could hardly have looked more different than anything the invading settlers did.

The first baptisms took place within the next few months, and then the people saw these white missionaries embracing the newly baptised members of the church and giving them “the kiss of love”. Again, they would have recognized an important ritual, and they must have wondered about these strange amakhiwa who looked like the soldiers they had fought against, but who embraced them as brothers and sisters.

2) As a deeply spiritual people, the Ndebele recognized rituals when they saw them, so they would have understood that the missionaries were doing something significant. Most of their own rituals involved communicating with the ancestors, so they might have interpreted the words about remembering what Jesus said in that light.

3) As a spiritual people, the Ndebele would have assumed spiritual causes and consequences to having been dispossessed of control over their land. They may have wondered if they were watching ritual activities designed to give the White settlers the power to have entered their land against their united opposition.

These are the kinds of questions that I have put down on paper to guide further research into the coming of the first missionaries and their contact with the host people in the Matopo Hills. Clifford Cress clearly saw that the Love Feast was strange to the observers. I wonder if the missionaries fully understood just how strange all of this would have looked. I suspect that one central dynamic was to set the missionaries apart from the White settlers as different, and perhaps as worth developing a relationship with. I keep reading, and asking questions, and talking with the BIC Church in Zimbabwe, searching for answers to the questions of historical imagination.

Daryl Climenhaga
30 Nov 2017

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Great Mystery of the Incarnation

Each Christmas Eve I listen to the Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge, broadcast on the BBC. They read nine “lessons” or scripture passages, interspersed with Christmas hymns that tell the story of the gospel. From Genesis 3 (the Fall) to Genesis 22 (the covenant with Abraham) the gospel story unfolds. Through the prophecies of Isaiah 9 and 11 and the fulfillment in Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 2, the story rolls forward. Finally, the last reader stands up and reads John 1:1-14, “St John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation”.

This passage unfolds the core of the gospel for us and shows us more clearly perhaps than any other Scripture what stands precisely at the very centre of the gospel of Jesus Christ: the incarnation of God appearing in human flesh.

The Text
Walk through the text with me, and then we will ask what this passage says to us in the context of the study you have undertaken of looking at the religions of the world.

Verses 1-3: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. John intentionally echoes Genesis 1. I remember studying Hebrew many years ago with Millard Lind. First he had us open our Hebrew Bibles and begin to sound out the first sentence. Soon we had memorized the first verses:
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ:
Bereshit bara Elohim et ha shamayin ve et ha aretz.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

We are so used to hearing these verses that we don’t realize how incredible, how amazing they are. As we studied Genesis, Millard assigned us to read the creation stories of other nations in the ancient Near East. I read the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish): The god Marduk fought with the goddess Tiamat (representing chaos) and killed her. He divided her body in two, which made the earth and the sky, and from her blood made the first humans. A gory and bloodthirsty story. In the Egyptian creation stories we read, creation of the earth and of people and animals came primarily through sexual activity. (I assume you prefer a G-rated sermon, so I will say no more!) I remember my sense of surprise as I read and wondered how one could worship these gods. The stories were designed primarily to prove that Babylon or Thebes (or wherever) was the centre of the earth, and that their god was the chief god.

After we read these different creation stories, we came back to Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the deep. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Simple, elegant, clear: God spoke the word, and it was so. As John puts it, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word creates and gives life.
Verses 4-5: In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The Word that gives life also gives light. We live because God, the Word made us. We see how to live because God, the Word, shines on us and in us.

The note of conflict between light and darkness reminds us that we are, as C.S. Lewis puts it, living in occupied territory:
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 to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. [From Mere Christianity.]

This conflict is a basic element in our understanding of various religions in this world. Some people see these religions as demonic and think that our conflict is with them. I suggest rather that religions in general (including Christianity) are human efforts to find God. We are in conflict with darkness, with the Prince of Darkness, who is active in every part of our world, including the religious bits. In the incarnation of Jesus, we have God’s light shining into the darkness of Satan’s rule, driving the darkness back and showing us the way back to God.

Verses 6-13: There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

John the Baptist came to show people “the true light”, that is, Jesus. We see again that this light is our path back to God. John tells us that this Word, who is also the Light of the World, made the world and owns the world, including the people to whom he came. But “the world”, his own world, refused to accept him.

This narrative sets up the great affirmation of the possibility that God has made for us in “The Word”: All who receive [Jesus] also receive the right to become “children of God”. This statement parallels the great affirmation that Jesus makes later in the gospel of John, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Sometimes we use this verse to argue that Christianity is the only way to God. That is not what John says, either in 1:12 or in 14:6. He says that Jesus is the only way. Not the church, not our religion, not any human path, but only Jesus.

This verse is also behind the claim that Bruxy Cavey (pastor of the Meeting House in Oakville, Ontario) is supposed to have made: “Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is a relationship.”
[Note: Bruxy is stressing the priority of relationship over religious system; of course, Christianity is a religion, but life – real life in God – is a relationship with God.]
This is what sets Christianity apart from all other religions: God came in human flesh to make us God’s children, a part of God’s family with Jesus as our older brother. I come from the Brethren in Christ Church. We struggle with the gender implications of “brethren”, but our name in Zimbabwe gets it right: “Abazalwane baka Kristu” – “those who come from the same womb in Christ.” We are God’s family, God’s children, saved and held by God’s eternal love. So we come to the critical verse, the great affirmation of the incarnation.

Verse 14: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. This is the heart of the Christian faith. God became human and lived with people. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who lived about 2000 years ago. Physical Anthropologists (who reconstruct skeletons from bones) tell us that the average Jewish male at that time was about five feet tall. Contemporary records tell us that most men had short hair (compare Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 about men’s and women’s hair). So Jesus would have looked to us like a short dark male, more like a First Nations man than like most of us here.

This reality is beyond our ability to understand it: God compressed into a human body; God living with people using their-our language and eating their-our food. This is something absolutely different from any other religion. Add to the general picture this reality: Jesus was born into a lower class family (although he was the descendant of kings) and lived in a marginalized area of the Jewish homeland. Remember that Nathaniel asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” This is worse than being called “yon-sied”!

Why did Jesus come? So that those who recognized and acknowledged God in human flesh should themselves also become “children of God.” So that you and I and everyone else in this world could be reconciled to God. The gospel is summarised best in John’s Gospel:
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3: 16-17)

This is the gospel of love. We turned against God (“his own did not receive-accept him”). Death is the natural consequence of our rebellion. All of the problems that we see in our world grow out of this fundamental fact of human nature: We have turned against God and try to set ourselves in God’s place. The good news of the gospel is that God came in our flesh to die our death and give us new life. This gospel of love and forgiveness is unique to Christian faith, and it all flows out of “the great mystery of the incarnation.”

What Do We Do Today?
You have been looking at Christian faith and other religions of the world. The real question is not, “Which is better, Christianity or Islam-Hinduism-Buddhism-Secularism-and so on?” The real question is, “Have you met Jesus?” Jesus came into this world, God in the flesh, to bring us into relationship with God.

The growth of the church is a secondary issue. When people who are now God’s Children through the work of Jesus on the Cross come together, we form the church, but Jesus died to make us God’s Children, not to make the Winkler EMMC Church the biggest (or smallest) church in the West Reserve. When we meet someone who does not know Jesus, our desire is to introduce them to Jesus.

The church may be God’s instrument to introduce them to Jesus, but the point is that they meet Jesus. My wife and I have had several immigrant friends in Steinbach. I play soccer regularly with some Syrian Muslims. We became good friends with a couple from Bangladesh, also Muslim. There are other friends also – from a variety of religious backgrounds. We do not try to convert them. We do share Jesus openly. That means that our lives must already be walking with Jesus, so that our friends can see and hear Jesus in our interactions and conversations.

I teach World Religions at Providence. We compare religions and ask how they meet similar needs. We look at how Muslims deal with death ceremonies and compare it to the way that Hindus approach death. We ask how different religions respond to gender issues. This morning I am making a quite different point: I want to help everyone to meet Jesus.

Here in Winkler, as in Steinbach, we can be hospitable and welcoming to people who enter our community. We can invite them for meals. We can provide them with affordable rentals when housing is tight. Do you have a basement that you could spare? Consider using it to host someone from outside of Canada. When we live together, they see what is most important to us.

If they do not see Jesus when they live with you, then we have a different problem. We can become like my friend in Atlanta, Georgia. He plays indoor soccer regularly. He has never told his teammates that he is a Christian, but when these hard-drinking rough-speaking guys get in trouble, they come to him for spiritual help. Why? Because they see Jesus in him.

I want to bring our thoughts back to “the great mystery of the incarnation”. This past June my father died. He was 98 years old, living in Pennsylvania. Two weeks before he died, I visited him for his birthday. When I got back to Manitoba, my sister called me and said that Dad had been diagnosed with aspiration – with each swallow he took some fluid into his lungs, which meant that his lungs were filling up with fluid.

There is no treatment for this when the patient is 98. Dad made the decision to stop eating, which allowed his lungs to clear, but meant that he died from lack of nourishment. On Thursday, three days before he died, my sister was visiting him, and he told her a joke (a bad pun) about dying. It was a very old joke, for a very old man, and reassured us more than anything else could that he did not fear death. He was fine!

Then on Friday my sister visited again. She offered to read the Bible to him. He said, “Yes.” She said, “What shall I read?” “John.” “Which passage?” “Start at the beginning.” She did, just as we read this morning. Then she got to verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Dad roused himself at this verse and exclaimed, “Isn’t that wonderful!”

Amen! This is wonderful and amazing. God became one of us and lived with us so that we can become “like God” and live forever with him. This is the very centre, the joy and crown, of our faith!

Winkler EMMC
26 Nov 2017

John 1: 1 to 14
The Word became flesh
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Obedience of Faith

When I read these passages, I saw immediately a specific theme that ties our three passages together, a particularly Anabaptist-friendly theme. In Judges 4, Barak is meant to show his faith by doing what God tells him to do. In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul encourages followers of Jesus to show their “faith, love, and hope” in the way that they live. In Matthew 25, Jesus identifies using what God gives us as the critical piece in our response to God. We show our faith by the way that we live. Paul calls this “the obedience of faith”, and as Mennonites we rejoice! God wants us to do what is right, not just say what is right – orthopraxy, not just orthodoxy!

Then I went through the passages more carefully. This basic point still held as I read more carefully, but I realized that there are perhaps some surprises in the texts. Join me in a brief examination, followed by an application to our lives today.

Judges 4
Judges is a hard book for us to read, given our own history in Canada with First Nations. We are those who have dispossessed them, and we should feel discomfort with narratives of possession and dispossession. I will not wrestle with that question today, but note it in order to bracket it.

Chapters 1 to 3 of Judges set a pattern that holds throughout the book: Israel “followed other Gods”, so God gave them over to the consequences of their actions [cf Romans 1] – a pattern of disobedience > punishment > repentance > grace [REPEAT] – that applies to the book of Judges as a whole. This pattern actually begins with the first chapters of Genesis and describes the relationship between God and humankind from Genesis to Revelation. It is in fact the basic structure of the whole of Scripture.

Chapter 4 shows this same pattern.
Verse 1: Rebellion.                  Verse 2: Punishment.              Verse 3: Repentance.
Verses 4-7: Grace.
In the following verses, Barak is judged for obeying hesitantly. Deborah says that he needed to obey confidently. An old illustration of the way that faith requires obedience is the story of the French acrobat, Charles Blondin, walking a tightrope across the Niagara Falls. According to the story (which I cannot verify), he pushed a wheelbarrow across the tightrope above the Falls. Then he asked the crowd if they believed he could push a person across the rope. They said yes, but when he asked for a volunteer, no one would get in the wheelbarrow.

The point is simple: Real belief issues in concrete action. If I refuse to sit on a chair that might break beneath me, you can be forgiven for not believing me when I say that I think the chair would hold me. Looking at what we actually do tells people what we really believe. So God wants in us “the obedience of faith” – a life given wholly to God, lived on the basis of that total commitment.

1 Thessalonians 5
Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians around 50 AD, that is, about 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the questions that the letter deals with is the timing of what we call “the second coming”. Most of the first Christians expected Jesus to return in their own lifetimes, and when the return was delayed, they began to wonder what was wrong.

In the verses before our passage, Paul reassures them. Some were afraid that those who died might not see the return of the Messiah, so Paul tells them “the dead in Christ will rise first, and then those who are still alive will join them in the air with the Lord.” Paul says: “Encourage each other with the hope of Christ’s Return and of our reunion with him and with those who have died.”

Paul knew that the Thessalonians’ thoughts would immediately turn to working out when the End would come, so he begins our passage with that question.
Verse 1: Don’t worry about the “times and seasons”. His caution reminds one of the disciples in Acts 1, who ask Jesus if his promise of the Holy Spirit means that this is the End of time. You remember Jesus’ response: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons that the Father has set in his own authority.” Rather they are to seek God’s Spirit, and then to witness to the reality of life in Christ in the power of God’s Spirit. Paul has the same concern here. [Think also of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36, “No one knows the hour …”]
Verse 2: It remains true that Jesus will return, and that his return will be unexpected.
Verse 4: So we live constantly expecting the unexpected – the return of Christ.
Verses 5-6: The children of the light [that is, Christians] are watching for Jesus.
Verse 7:  Those who are asleep [that is, non-believers] are not watching.
Verses 8-10: Our light (since we are “children of light”) is “faith, love, and hope”, which is our salvation through Jesus and his death.
Verses 10-11: So we live with Christ and build each other up.

One can hear Paul saying: “You keep asking when Jesus will return. You need to live on the basis of his return – and living rightly is more important than working out when the return will be.”

Matthew 25:14-30
So we come to the “parable of the talents”. A quick definition: A talent is a unit of money – a very large unit of money. One commentator suggests that a talent was about 15 to 20 years’ worth of wages for the average worker – somewhere between half a million and a million dollars today. Five talents then might be about $3 million dollars, and two talents about $1 million. Even the single talent given to the third servant is a significant amount.

We often have heard this parable as a call to use our own abilities (talents, in another sense of the word) faithfully for God’s benefit. That reading is not wrong, but also is not the central point of the parable. Note the response to the two types of servants. The first and second servants, who use their “talents” to increase the master’s wealth, receive this blessing: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” The third servant is judged: “throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The parable before this one in Matthew 25 deals with the return of Christ, and the parable after it deals with the judgment at the end of time. This parable, therefore, points towards the end of time. The parable of the Ten Maidens (verses 1-13) has the basic point that we are to be ready at all times for Christ to come. Our parable this morning parable says that, when Christ comes, he should find us at work doing what he has called us to do. The parable of the Sheep and the Goats (verses 31-46) tells us that the content of what our work is to care for people around us. [I have oversimplified, and I know that “the least of these, my brothers” refers to the disciples; but I think the point holds.]

We hear Jesus call us, then, not just to do what God calls us to do, but to do so in light of the end of all things. We are to live, remembering that each day may be our end. Do you remember an old gospel hymn from 50 years ago?
Jesus may come today, Glad day, glad day!
And I would see my Friend; Dangers and troubles would end if Jesus should come today.
Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?
I’ll live for today, nor anxious be; Jesus, my Lord I soon shall see;
Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?

I may go home today, Glad day, glad day! Seemeth I hear their song, Hail to the radiant throng, If I should go home today.           Refrain

Why should I anxious be? Glad day, glad day! Lights appear on the shore, Storms will affright nevermore, For He is “at hand” today.      Refrain

Faithful I’ll be today, Glad day, glad day! And I will freely tell Why I should love Him so well, For He is my all today.   Refrain

This is not great poetry or hymnody, but it gets the point. I will live today the way God wants me to live, knowing that today may be “the crowning day”.

What do we do with this idea? I suggest two basic thoughts.

1. The first is the obvious one with which we began. Belief is only worthwhile when it shows itself in action. Some Christians say they believe in God and testify to the new birth, but they do not show this new life in their actions. Our passages make it clear that such an approach is unacceptable. Jesus’ words (throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth) make us profoundly uncomfortable.

We want Jesus to be “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Instead, we have Jesus who can say to the goats in the parable that follows, “Depart from me, you who are cursed!” As C.S. Lewis says of Aslan in the Narnia series, “He’s not a tame lion.” Those who say, “I believe”, but live badly, are playing with fire. As Mennonites, we have lived by this understanding: True evangelical faith shows itself by doing what Jesus says, not just by affirming it. (Cf Menno Simons’ hymn, “True Evangelical Faith.”)

2. The second thought is perhaps a surprise, but it is clear enough in our texts. It also reinforces our understanding of how we are to live. Paul’s letter and Matthew’s parable both point us beyond simple obedience and remind us that we are to live in light of the End of all things.

We have a natural tendency to want to live in the present, to be relevant to our day and age. In one way this is good. We are careful to analyze our context and make sure that we speak to the needs of the day. Darrell Whiteman, my advisor at Asbury, used to say, “We must exegete our context as well as Scripture.” But there is also a bad way to use our context. Sometimes we let the society around us set our agenda. Two simple examples: War, and Individualism.

For the first, when our country goes to war, everyone starts working out how we can legitimate violence against others. Soon we find ourselves thinking that it’s really okay to fight against the enemy – whether the enemy is the Germans in World War Two or the Viet Cong in Vietnam. We persuade ourselves that faithful Christian living includes killing people. That is wrong. We are to live as followers of the Prince of Peace, even when our country is at war.

For the second, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that the individual is the basic building block of Canadian society. So Article 15 begins: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law …” Several of the articles begin by stressing “each individual”. The Liberal party of Canada makes this priority even more explicit on its web page: “The Liberal Party of Canada is committed to the view that the dignity of each individual man and woman is the cardinal principle of democratic society and the primary purpose of all political organization and activity in such a society.” In saying this, they are not different than the conservatives or socialists. They are simply Canadian.

It all sounds so good. Would any one of us want to live somewhere that did not respect individual rights like this? Probably not; I know I wouldn’t. And yet I wonder – I wonder how this emphasis on the individual lines up with the Christian’s first commitment to God, expressed in an equal commitment to others. “Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

Hear me clearly. I am not speaking for or against the Charter. I am not speaking for or against society. I am asking us to be careful about who and what we live for. We do not live for Canada. We do not live for the Charter. We live for God – first and last and only.

Think of it this way. Any good business decides what it lives for, and then evaluates its processes according to whether or not they help the business move towards that mission. The passages in Thessalonians and Matthew remind us of our “goal”, or “mission”, or “vision”, or “end”. We are to be people who use our abilities to prepare for the return of Christ by living like Christ.

I ran across an example recently. Alan Barnhart is a businessman from Tennessee, who has used his ability to make money in the service of God’s reign. (See addendum below for the full story.)

Although our passages don’t quote the Sermon on the Mount, we can hear the echoes of Jesus’ words. We are people who replace a strict justice with all-encompassing love for God and for others. We are people who die ourselves in order to live for Christ, because we know that Jesus is coming back – and we are ready for him! “I’ll live for today, nor anxious be; Jesus, my Lord I soon shall see; Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?”

Feature from Spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine
By Liz Essley Whyte
In 1986, Alan Barnhart was 25 and planning to go into business with his brother. An evangelical Christian, he wondered what Scripture had to say about the profits he hoped to make. So he combed the Bible for whatever advice it had to offer about money. That’s when he came across verses like this:
“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…”
“It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven…”
No matter where he turned, it seemed to him that Scripture was sending a very clear warning: Money can be dangerous. “I read all these verses, and I thought: ‘I want to be good in business, and I’m competitive,’” Barnhart says. “But I didn’t want to make a lot of money if doing so would damage my life. And I could see where it really could.”

So Alan and his brother Eric decided to do something unusual: They vowed to cap their income, earning no more than the middle-class members of their Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday school class did, and give much of their company’s profits to charity. In their first year of business, they gave away $50,000—more than Alan’s salary.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the results are even more tremendous: The Barnharts oversee a $250 million crane and rigging company, and they’ve donated nearly $100 million of its profits to charity. Moreover, in 2007 they decided to go even further. They gave the entire company away. Though they still run its daily operations, the National Christian Foundation (NCF) now owns Barnhart Crane & Rigging. The brothers will never reap its accrued value; they kept none of it. “That’s one of the things that make Alan and Eric so rare: they decided to give it all away,” says NCF president David Wills. “That was their wealth. They didn’t have three other companies. That was it.”

Simple living
Alan Barnhart is a modest man, with a soft Tennessee drawl. He wears jeans and cotton oxfords to work. He started giving interviews about his philanthropy only after others convinced him to do so.

“‘Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ For the first 15 years that was our thinking,” Barnhart says. But “people challenged us, [saying] what’s happened to your company is pretty unusual…. God has done amazing things through your company, and you need to tell people all that you’ve done with what God’s done.” He is quick to emphasize that his salary cap was not a vow of poverty. “We have vehicles and air conditioning. It was not a Mother Teresa lifestyle.”

To make sure they stuck to their limit, the Barnharts told their associates at the company about their income pledge, enlisting others to hold them to their promise. He and his brother allowed themselves cost-of-living adjustments, and salary increases when children were born. Alan has six children; Eric has five. Alan and his wife Katherine are the Barnhart family spokespeople, while Eric is the brainy, quiet engineer, friends say.
One of the best things about their lifestyle choice, Alan says, is that his children did not grow up wealthy. “There’s great benefits to a kid to hear the word ‘no,’ and the theology of the Rolling Stones: ‘You don’t always get what you want,’” he says. The Barnhart kids didn’t get trips to Disney World, or even treats at the grocery store. Instead their parents took them to developing countries to see the wells, churches, and farms their gifts had enabled. “It wasn’t about things. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about wanting. I taught them the joy of giving early. I taught them the joy of contentment,” Katherine says.

And the Barnharts taught their children about God. They speak of Him often. “It is God who has led us in this, and it is He who multiplied us,” states Katherine. Though donors of many religious—and non-religious—backgrounds give generously, and interpretations of Scripture’s teaching on wealth differ, the Barnharts stand out in their willingness to act on what they believe God has called them to.

Profit with a purpose
Using business skills to serve God through “constructive work” and “ministry funding” is at the heart of the purpose statement posted on the Barnharts’ company website. The brothers’ attempt to directly harness capitalist plentitude to do spiritual work is further explained in one of the company’s “core values,” which proclaims: “Profit with a Purpose—We will attempt to make a profit and will invest the profit to expand the company and to meet the needs of people (physically, mentally, spiritually).”

In practice, about 50 percent of all company earnings are donated immediately to charity. The other 50 percent are used to grow the business. The firm has been run that way since the beginning.

And the Barnharts don’t even allow themselves the luxury of choosing where their company’s gifts should go. A group of 55 employees and spouses decides where to distribute half of the money made every year by Barnhart Crane & Rigging. Each employee in the group—which is dubbed GROVE, God’s Resources Operating Very Effectively—develops a relationship with one or two grant recipients, researching their effectiveness and vetting their requests. Under NCF ownership the group will continue to give away company earnings.

Katherine says the group actively searches for the best people addressing a problem, rather than giving money only to groups with powerful fundraising arms. GROVE volunteers take small grant requests to a six-member committee for approval; requests for more than $100,000 go before a 12-member board that meets quarterly. Most of the donations boost international development and Christian ministry in Africa, the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia, where the group sees needs larger than those at home. “That’s where God is really working,” says Joye Allen, GROVE administrator. The group focuses its giving on five causes: Christian evangelism, church planting, Christian discipleship, leadership training, and ministering to the poor.

GROVE’s biggest grants—millions of dollars’ worth—have gone to Hope International, which provides microfinance in the developing world; the Seed Company, a Bible translation group; and Strategic Resources Group, an umbrella organization for Christian ministries in the Middle East. Though the bulk of its giving is overseas, the group has also given domestically, to places like Repairing the Breach, which works with youth in rundown Memphis neighborhoods, and Citizens for Community Values, which helps women escape the sex trade.


Steinbach Mennonite Church
19 November 2017
Texts: Judges 4:1-7, 1 Th 5: 1-11; Mt 25:14-30

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Will You Let Me Be Your Servant?

Our son and his wife chose this song for their wedding:
Will you let me be your servant,/ Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I might have the grace,/ To let you be my servant too.

As it happens, we didn’t sing the song at their wedding; the copyright holders wanted several hundred dollars for us to sing the hymn. Instead we sang “Be Thou My Vision”. But I remember that they felt these words said something that they wanted as they exchanged their wedding vows.

Some people feel that these words are too clichéd and they prefer to avoid the hymn. We’ll come back to the hymn at the end of the sermon, seeking to express something of the words of Jesus in the gospel reading this morning.

Joshua 3
We will scan the first two passages that we read and focus more closely on the gospel reading. Joshua is the account of the way that the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land and took possession of it. In some ways it is a hard book to read, because we realise (if we are paying attention) that for someone to possess the land, someone else is dispossessed. Living in a country with a colonial history, where we can identify with the possessors and the First Nations have ben dispossessed, it is good for us to feel uncomfortable about this process. At the same time, we should not project our own conflicts back on to the biblical text. We read it, recognizing that it is descriptive, not prescriptive, and as we read, we listen for what God tells us.

The first six verses of Joshua 3 locate the action of entering the land within God’s plans for the Children of Israel. We note that God is taking care of them, and we can appropriate that lesson for ourselves as well. Whatever the situations of our lives, whether in good or bad situations, we can be sure that God is caring for us.

This does not mean that God wills (in the strong sense of that word) everything that happens to us. It does mean that God cares for us in everything that happens to us. Given the many different experiences of this congregation, that is good news.

In verses 7 to 17, the Children of Israel enter the Land of Promise. These verses highlight two things: 1) This entry was indeed at the expense of the existing inhabitants; and 2) God performed a miracle of creating dry land for them to cross.

For the first: We must understand the way that the Hebrew language worked. In verse 10 we read: “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you [the inhabitants of the land].” But we know from the rest of the book of Joshua that these inhabitants remained, and that the Children of Israel lived among them. The point is that they would have a place to live, and that they would know that God was with them. Reading the book of Judges makes it clear that they did not simply take the land with a kind of ethnic cleansing. The point again is that God was with them – just as God is with us as we move into new territory in our lives.

For the second: The point is not that the Jordan was not so big a river that they could not have forded it – although the author reminds us that the river was in flood stage. Rather, the dry land was a way of reminding them that God set them free from Egypt and that God is taking them into their new home. The point again is that God is with them.

So we turn to 1 Thessalonians 2.

1 Thessalonians 2
Paul planted the church in Thessalonica (see Acts 17), with a number of both Jews and Gentiles responding to his preaching. Agitators from other places where Paul had preached stirred up the city officials against him, and Paul had to move on quickly to his next stop, Berea.

So the church there was born in persecution, a memory Paul alludes to in the verses we read. He observes that he spent his time preaching, as well as working to support himself. He cared for the Thessalonians the way that a parent would, comforting and encouraging them.

As we read these verses combined with the passage from Joshua 3, we can conclude that God wants us also to care for each other, to comfort each other, to encourage each other. We also “cross the Jordan River”, not just at the point of death, but in the various transitions of our lives. God is with us, not just directly through God’s Spirit, but also indirectly through each other.

So we come to the passage in Matthew 23.

Matthew 23
At one level these verses are straightforward. In verses 1 to 12 Jesus states that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law enjoy the honour they receive from the people. They do much that is good, but in order to receive honour. God will give honour not to those who seek it, but to those who serve.

The trouble is, we think of Pharisees as hypocrites, as bad people. So deeply ingrained in our language is this usage of the term that to call someone a Pharisee is to call them clearly and precisely a hypocrite. So let’s ask first, who were the Pharisees?

A quick survey of Jewish history before the time of Christ. You remember that Israel was established as a kingdom first with Saul and then with David as King. David began his rule around 1000 before the birth of Christ (1010 BC). His grandson, Rehoboam lost control of the kingdom, which was divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms around 930 BC. The northern kingdom was taken into captivity by Assyria about 200 years later (722 BC), and the southern kingdom was taken into captivity by Babylon about 120 years after that (597 BC).

For the next several centuries the Jews who remained in Palestine lived as part of the Empire (first Babylonian, then Persian, then Macedonian). In 539 BC, Cyrus, the Persian ruler allowed Jews who wished to do so to return to Jerusalem, but they remained as part of the Persian Empire. Then came Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, who conquered Persia and ruled briefly until his death in 323 BC (only 33 years old). So we see 200 years of life under various empires, leading up to the period after Alexander.

Alexander died quite suddenly, leaving no strong ruler, which led to 40 years of war between rival generals in his army. Eventually the empire was divided into four major blocks – with the Seleucid kingdom, which ruled from Persia, controlling Palestine. The Seleucid Empire lasted until 63 BC, when it was conquered by the Roman Empire. Because it came from the Macedonian Empire, it was a major force for spreading Greek ideas and the Greek language throughout the ancient world.

Now we come to the events that formed the Pharisees. The Seleucids ruled Palestine quite strictly, taking steps to eliminate Judaism and force everyone to “Hellenize” – to become culturally and religiously Greek. In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes (then the Seleucid ruler) forbade Jewish religious exercises, leading to the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC. Under Judah Maccabee the Jews threw the Seleucids out of Palestine and for the next 100 years they ruled Palestine as an independent Jewish State. This state came to an end when Rome asserted its authority over Palestine in 63 BC.

The Pharisees, then, grew out of this situation in which Jewish identity had been seriously under threat. The descendants of the Maccabees were the Priests and Sadducees. They stressed political involvement and sought to live at peace with the ruling powers around them. In one way the Pharisees were like the Maccabees – they were “separated ones”, who were set apart to work for and defend and apply the Law of Moses. In another way they were their opposite – they rejected the political struggles of the day in favour of understanding how to live as God’s people.

They were good people living in difficult times. They cared deeply about God’s Will and worked hard to understand how to live in a confused and dangerous world. When Jesus speaks about them in Matthew 23, everyone listening knows that he is describing good people! Add one more piece to this positive picture. Jesus spoke in the manner of the Pharisees – using teaching methods that made sense to people who saw him as a rabbi. Paul describes himself as a Pharisee often throughout his life – a description that does not change after his conversion outside the city of Damascus. The problem that Jesus identifies is not that being a Pharisee is bad; the problem that Jesus identifies is that being a good person can make us forget who we really are. Who would be most like the Pharisees today? (In this passage, the Pharisees were the preachers, occupying the pulpit. Oh dear!)

What Was Wrong?
With this background we return to our passage.
·         Verses 2 and 3 state the positive: The Pharisees (and “the teachers of the law”) sit in Moses’ seat. They are the defenders and explainers of God’s Law, so they are worth listening to. Listen to them and obey them.
·         Then comes the negative in verses 3 to 7: The Pharisees say what is right, but they have become proud. They do good things for show, and their pride undermines the good that they do. [We can assume “some of the Pharisees” – this is a condemnation of pride, not of being set apart for the Law.] This failure reminds me of a line from the play “A Man for All Seasons”: “The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
·         Verses 8 to 12 make the application to the disciples: You should heed the Pharisees’ teaching, but reject their pride. Instead of the hierarchy and honour that they seek, you live with a stance of radical equality. The principle comes at the end of the passage: “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
·         This principle is not so much a matter of structures as it is a matter of heart attitudes. We see the kind of attitude to others that led the first church to hold their goods in common and to help each other, so that “there were no poor people among them.”

What was wrong? The Pharisees, good though they were, had become proud – focussing on their own honour and status. Jesus calls his followers to exercise humility – focussing on each other’s needs.

Being a Servant
Exercising humility and being a servant is harder than it sounds. A servant cares most for what the master wants, not for his/her own needs. Have you ever observed the way that a good server in a restaurant acts? He/she is constantly aware of what the people sitting at the table are doing. When you want a glass of water someone materializes at your elbow with a pitcher. When you are ready for your empty plate to be taken away, a good server removes it almost without your realizing it. You hardly notice the best servers, because they take care of you unobtrusively and thoroughly.

Will you let me be your servant? Will you let me meet your needs with that kind of concern and constant care? This question could actually define a really unhealthy relationship if it were not followed up with, “Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.” The first question goes with this second question, “Will you be my servant?” I remember my counselling courses in seminary. We talked about the danger of a fused identity, in which (for example) parents live out their dreams through their children. Being someone else’s servants actually requires a healthy sense of self, so that we love and care for others out of an awareness of our own identity as God’s children.

Living It Out
We have many ways in which we can practice this kind of mutual serving. Does someone you know have a deep concern about life in the church? Be their servant by making sure that there concerns are heard and dealt with. Does someone you know face problems in their life? Be their servant by helping them work out how to meet their needs. Does someone you know have a passion to help people in the larger community? Be their servant by sharing their passion and helping them meet those needs. You could restate any example I give reversed: Do you have a concern in the church? Someone else in the church can be your servant to help meet that concern. But I would prefer to state it the way I did, seeking the ways that we should serve the other.

I must admit that I do not preach this sermon lightly. I find the implications a bit overwhelming. Lois and I are presently experiencing the implications of living as servants on behalf of another person. We know a young immigrant woman who has asked if we will help her in adjusting to life in Canada. We are helping her to find a place to live. Does that mean that we should open our home up if she cannot find one? If we are servants, perhaps it does – whether or not it is convenient. We are helping her find a car. Does that mean that we help to buy it? I don’t think so, but it does at least mean that we help her negotiate market relationships in a new country.

I think of an essay by Jon Bonk on mission strategies that he wrote 18 years ago on the benefits of thinking small in our ministry outreach. I heard him describe the way that the ministry of hospitality [one such ministry, within everyone’s reach] has worked in his life, as he and his wife extended hospitality to various people, including a Chinese family who lived with them in New Haven, Connecticut for several years. On the one hand, they experienced a remarkable movement of God’s presence through “being servants”. On the other, they lost control of part of their lives, as is true for servants.

Bring the passages together.
·         Joshua: God was with the Israelites as they entered into the new experience of the Promised Land.
·         1 Thessalonians: God wants us to take care of each other, comforting and encouraging each other.
·         Matthew: God has made us into a community of radical equality, in which we show leadership and honour by serving – giving each other honour as we meet each other’s needs.

God takes care of us by making us each other’s servants.
Will you let me be your servant? Will you be my servant too?

We are pilgrims on the journey,
We are brothers on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load

I will hold the Christ light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven
We shall find such harmony,
Born of all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony.

5 November 2017
Remembrance Sunday; Communion Sunday

Joshua 3: 7 to 17
1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13

Matthew 23: 1-12