Sunday, February 26, 2017

Glory That Cannot be Shaken

Hebrews 12 begins with an encouragement to “run the race set before us”, knowing that all those who have preceded us are cheering us on. Verses 4 to 13 suggest that at least some of the hardships we face are actually God’s discipline to make us stronger, so that we can run this race. You might think of it as spiritual “resistance training”. Verses 14 to 17 repeat the encouragement to live rightly, which means here live holy lives of peace. So we come to verses 18 to 29.

Our Text
Verses 18 to 21: The Children of Israel came to Mount Sinai to receive God’s Law. This was an awesome and terrifying experience. Mount Sinai: mountain of fear.
Verses 22 to 24: In contrast, we [the readers of Hebrews, as well as we who are here this morning] have come to Mount Zion, the New [Heavenly] Jerusalem. We are invited to join those whose names are written in Heaven, saved by the blood of Christ. Mount Zion: mountain of joy.
Verses 25 to 28: Those who would not accept the Law at Mount Sinai died outside of God’s salvation. If we refuse the invitation to enter Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem, we also will die outside of God’s salvation. The shaking of our lives that we experience removes all that would keep us from God, so that we can receive God’s reign, which cannot be destroyed. So we worship God “with reverence and awe”.

Chapter 13 is the conclusion of the book of Hebrews. Coming just before the conclusion, chapter 12 reinforces the primary point of the letter: that following Jesus is the entry to the Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem. Jesus is better than Moses. Jesus is better than the angels. Jesus is better than the Law. Following Jesus is the way of life.

Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish-background followers of Jesus [probably in Rome, sometime before 70 a.d.] who were facing persecution. They wondered if their earlier path following the Law was not better than the life they are facing now as persecuted believers in Jesus. The writer shows throughout the book how Jesus is, in fact, the way to God.

In the middle of the book, chapter 6 makes it clear that anyone who tries to go back to the old covenant of the Law cannot do so. They forfeit their standing in God’s reign if they do so. Once they have given themselves to the new covenant in Jesus, they cannot go back. Instead, in the rest of the letter and in our passage this morning, the writer encourages them to continue in the way they have been walking and to follow Jesus to the end. If they do so, they receive a “kingdom that cannot be shaken”; they become part of God’s eternal reign in Heaven.

What Does This Mean for Us?
It’s one thing to see what a passage meant to its first readers; it’s quite another to see how the passage applies to us. So what does this text mean in our lives today?

This is what I hear in Hebrews 12: God’s presence is awesome and terrifying, but God is the only source of life. We are invited into God’s presence to be the inhabitants of Mount Zion—the New Jerusalem. Mount Sinai shook with the presence of God, and indeed God shakes our lives also, until everything else that we might build on is destroyed. As we sweep aside the fragments of failed foundations, we find the only foundation on which God can build in our lives, and that is Jesus Christ. Two primary thoughts from this restated summary: 1) We build on Christ alone, and 2) We receive glory beyond measure as God takes us into God’s reign (that is, Mount Zion). Or to combine them into one statement: When we build our lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ, we receive more honour and glory than we can possibly imagine.

Developing the Idea of Glory/Honour
As I said last Sunday, I am in the process of discovering the theme of shame and honour in the Scriptures. The people to whom the New Testament was written understood this perspective well; they did not have to dig into the passage to hear it. They knew immediately that God was offering them honour beyond human deserving.

I said last Sunday that we experience shame when we feel disrespected, and that shame leads us into conflict and other kinds of sin. Honour is the reverse side of shame. When we experience God’s love, we receive God’s honour and we know we are good. Out of this received sense of honour, we extend respect and love to people around us, which brings reconciled relationships, a practical outworking of God’s love in our lives. Shamed people shame people. Honoured people honour people. When God honours us, we can honour others. When we shame each other, the shame spreads.

God’s love gives us honour and glory that we could never earn. So we read: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, … to Jesus … . Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”

Do you hear what we receive? We receive glory! We join the angels in joyful assembly. We join the “church of the firstborn” [where firstborn means “most honoured”]! Our names are written in Heaven! We receive the eternal kingdom of God, which can never be shaken or destroyed.

This whole idea sounds strange to our ears. We have been careful not to compliment each other too much, lest we make someone proud. Humility is important to us, and rightly so, but here God gives us honour alongside the angels and the saints of old. What is going on?

The Place of Honour for Christians
The truth is that everyone needs to feel respected and loved—that is, honoured. Every culture honours the people in their society who live by the values of that society. The question is: Who do we honour as Christians? What values do we esteem?

Last Sunday I mentioned Georges and Baker’s book, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures. They note that another word for “honoured” is “blessed”. Hear the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 using the idea of honour and glory.
You are honoured when you are poor in spirit …
You are honoured when you mourn …
You are honoured when you are meek …
You are honoured when you hunger and thirst for righteousness,
You are honoured when you show mercy …
You are honoured when you are pure in heart …
You are honoured when you make peace …
You are honoured when you are persecuted because of righteousness …
You are honoured when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your commitment to follow Jesus.

This reading does not suddenly unlock all of the secrets of the Beatitudes. We still must work out what terms like “poor in spirit”, “meek”, and “pure in heart” mean. But this reading does show us that these terms express the values of God’s reign in our lives. When we “come to Mount Zion”, these are the values that God’s reign plants in our hearts.

The Sermon on the Mount is at the heart of our values as Mennonites, so the Beatitudes above tell us what is most important in our lives. These values—such as humility [in the sense of caring for other people as much as for ourselves], peacemaking [accepting insult and shame without returning it in kind], and righteousness [discovering how to follow God fully as Jesus’ disciples]—are quite different from those of the world around us.

Consider the way political systems work. When our side wins an election, we do everything we can to undo what the other side has done. We see this clearly in the USA in the past series of presidential elections. Obama tried to undo Bush’s legacy and put his own in place; now Trump has immediately moved to dismantle Obama’s legacy. Those who lost are shamed repeatedly with the reminders that “you lost” and “elections have consequences”. The idea of building relationships with our political enemy is not part of our national consciousness. Now that I am a Canadian, I see that the same dynamics are at work in our political process. I remember when we moved to Canada 20 years ago, I met a colleague from McMaster Divinity School who was a staunch Liberal. He told me how his father had chased a Conservative canvasser from his front door, yelling at him, “I have never voted Conservative and I will never vote Conservative!” Shaming the other is a basic part of our cultural repertoire.

In contrast, we who follow Jesus do not honour the person who chases their political enemy from their front door. Rather we honour the person who embraces their political enemies and makes them their friends. We honour peacemakers. We hold to our standards of what is right, without shaming the person who disagrees with our standards.

An Example of Shame and Honour
Shame can destroy people, but it can also be used in ways that restore people to community. When we shame people in order to destroy them, we can call that “disintegrative shame”. Such shaming is bad and not worthy of God’s people. When we shame people in order to restore them [like God’s discipline in Hebrews 12, used to strengthen God’s People], we can call that “re-integrative shame”, used to help each other live rightly.

Georges and Baker give an interesting example of re-integrative shame from a school classroom in Fresno, California. One of the children in the classroom kept hitting the other children. Every effort to restore order and a good learning environment failed. Finally the teacher tried something she had heard of from her cultural studies. She gathered the children into a circle. The misbehaving child refused to join the circle. Then she asked the children to say what the misbehaving child was doing that they did not like. One after another told how he had hit them, with other children agreeing that they did not like this behaviour. Finally the misbehaving child cried out, “I’m tired of hearing you say all these bad things about me!” So the teacher asked the children another question, “What are kind things we can do to each other?” They shared their ideas, while the misbehaving child sat outside the circle.

Then the teacher brought the child into the middle of the circle and asked each one to say something positive about the child. They could pass their turn, if they couldn’t think of anything to say. At first they were confused; it is hard to go from accusing to complimenting! But a few got the idea, and the others quickly picked it up. The misbehaving child sat in the middle of the circle, basking in the glow of the class’s compliments. His behaviour for the rest of the day was much better.

You have to think through what we might be able to do with such an example. We are not an elementary school classroom, and you can’t take the example and apply it simply. But the basic idea of using shame properly [stating what it is we do not like, such as hurting other people and refusing to work together without trying to destroy the other person], and of using honour properly [building the other person up by praising them for the good that they do and for their good qualities].

What does all of this have to do with the passage we read? The truth is that we cannot extend honour to each other unless we feel valued ourselves. We cannot lift each other up unless we have been lifted up ourselves.  Shamed people shame people. Honoured people honour people. Hear our text again: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, … to Jesus … . Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”

We are part of the church of the firstborn. We are those whose names are written in heaven. God has received us! Jesus has made us his own! Every other source of personal honour will be shaken and destroyed by the hardships and problems of life. God uses our difficult times to get rid of all false foundations for our lives. What remains is the invitation to come to Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem. What remains is the one true foundation, which is Jesus Christ.

When God invests us with the glory of God, we can lift each other up and discover the goodness that God has placed in each of us. This is a glory that cannot be shaken. This is a glory that lasts for eternity.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
26 February 2016
Text, Hebrews 12:18-29
The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

You Are Loved!

The theme of God’s love is one of our favourite themes. “You are loved!” It’s an incredible truth that God loves us without reservation or precondition. God loves you! God loves me!

This morning I want to explore one of the reasons that this love is so amazing and transformative. We’ll look briefly through the passage together and then consider the effect of God’s love in our lives.

The Text
28-30: In the verses before our passage, John states that God’s enemy (“the anti-Christs”) is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is the anointed One from God who brings us God’s salvation. Our passage, then, begins with an encouragement to persevere in the Christian walk so that we may be “confident and unashamed” when Jesus appears. This note of confidence is one I have missed in previous readings of this text. God loves us, so we are valued and esteemed—a thought we develop further below. Our position in God results in right living.

1-3: God’s love for us shows up when we have no right to expect it. People around us say we’re no good, but God loves us and cares for us. As we look at Jesus, we become more like him.

4-10: People who do what’s right get their ability to live rightly by living in Christ (another way of seeing “Look at Jesus; be like him.” People who do what’s wrong (“lawless people”—that is, people in whom God’s Law and God’s Spirit do not live) live “in the devil”. We struggle a bit with this idea, because we are not sure who or what the devil is. It is enough for us this morning to say that the devil is the enemy of God. Those who belong to God live rightly. Those who belong to the devil live wrongly. The final verse equates loving God with loving the brothers and sisters, which is a theme that John develops in verses 11 to 24.

One could develop the thought in verses 4 to 10 and ask what it means to avoid sin and lawlessness. John develops an interesting and helpful circular movement: God’s grace at work in our lives leads to right living, which leads to God’s presence more fully in our lives, which in turn results in greater righteousness. The experience of God’s presence and living the way God wants us to are intimately related in this cycle. Similarly, living outside of God’s righteousness draws us closer to God’s enemy, which leads to greater lawlessness, which in turn draws us closer to God’s enemy. The experience of rebelling against God and living badly also reinforce each other. These verses teach that “lawless” means to be without God’s Law, and thus without God’s Spirit.

But I want to go back to the beginning idea: God’s love expressed for us, making us God’s Children, and especially to this idea that God’s love makes us “confident and unashamed”. This idea about shame uses language we do not often use. We are more likely to think about how “breaking God’s Law” makes us guilty before God, so that we need God’s forgiveness in order to become “not guilty” before God.

This innocence-guilt paradigm gives an important truth, but it does not get to the deeper aspect of how we feel about ourselves. Although we do not often use the language of shame and honour as much as some other cultures do, the shame-honour paradigm digs deep into personal issues that often control the way we behave.

I have been reading Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials, by Jayson Georges and Mark Baker. Baker teaches at the Mennonite Brethren Seminary in Fresno, and Georges has worked for many years in Central Asia. They describe the way that the Bible uses honour and shame to describe our relationship with each other and with God, and the way that this understanding is worked out in ministry. Although they are writing especially for those cultures [most often within the Majority World] that operate on this basis, their insights apply also within our context.

Consider the way that shame works in our lives. A young mother is shopping at Superstore when her son throws a tantrum. She responds as calmly as she can, but inwardly she is fuming because of the way that passing shoppers look at her and her son. That is the effect of shame. His tantrum may be the result of a bad earache that she doesn’t know about. When she realizes what’s wrong, she takes steps to make it better, but the shame remains. You see that shame does not necessarily involve guilt, but has more to do with what others think of us. Our response sometimes is to say, “Ignore what others think.” But that response destroys community. What we think of each other is important.

A second example: A group of friends is talking about a controversial idea. All of them except one agree on one side of the issue. Those who agree don’t say anything out loud, but with a brief glance at each other they take action against the one who disagrees and “send him to Coventry.” Do you know that expression? Here’s a definition I found online: “To send someone to Coventry is an English idiom meaning to deliberately ostracise someone. Typically, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding someone's company, and generally pretending that they no longer exist. Victims are treated as though they are completely invisible and inaudible.” I have been sent to Coventry, although only briefly. It hurts, a lot. The hurt comes from shame, from a sense that one does not matter. You keep your head down and try to get out of the way.

I could multiply examples. This is stuff that many of us have experienced. The person who is shamed feels worthless. Being publicly shamed is probably one of our greatest fears. It’s one of the basic elements in the kind of bullying that occurs in our schools and workplaces. You may not see any physical violence, so you don’t realize how badly someone has been hurt. Georges and Baker suggest that shame normally involves sin—whether our sin in response to being shamed, or the sin of the one doing the shaming.

People in the Early Church came from the ostracized people of society. You remember Paul’s description of the Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

In a similar way John is writing to people who were used to being shamed in society, and he says to them: “When Jesus appears we stand before him confident and unashamed!” One translation renders “unashamed” as “not shrinking in shame”. When you feel worthless, you shrink away from the people around you and keep your head down. John says, when God loves you, you lift up your head with the kind of pride that God’s children feel in being God’s children.

Another way of saying this is that we shine with God’s glory. Glory is another word that we don’t use much in ordinary speech. We might say of a well-scored goal in hockey, “Oh that was glorious!” But such use of glory is a weak reflection of the meaning of God’s glory. Again, majority world cultures know more about this than we do in Canada. We blush at compliments or turn them aside, but John was writing to people who understood this language. His thought is that we glorify God by receiving God’s glory.

In a sermon on “The Weight of Glory”, C.S. Lewis writes:
The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised (i) that we shall be with Christ; (2) that we shall be like Him; (3) with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; (4) that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and (5) that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God's temple.
Lewis then wonders why God promises anything beyond the first. Especially, why the emphasis on glory? He continues:
There is no getting away from the fact that [the idea of glory] is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

But, in fact, the promise of glory is more along the lines of what John says here: “How great the Father’s love for us, that we should be called the Children of God. And that is what we are!” This is our glory—that we are God’s Children. This is what brings glory to God—that God loves us!

It’s all very strange, because the way that God loves us is by dying on a cross, which was the most shameful way to die possible. Status-conscious Roman citizens would not even discuss crucifixion, so great was its shame. Yet on the cross God reaches into our lives and finds us where we feel most alone and cut off and says, “I love you!” God is present when we experience the shame of failure or rejection or appearance and says, “I love you! You are my child. You share my glory.” God repeats to us over and over: “You are worth everything to me!”

I have observed in the past that self-esteem can be taught in a way that is harmful. When we teach our children that what they do doesn’t matter because we love them, we can make them into people who have no shame—where shame is the proper response to doing what is wrong. But this passage shows what it means to have real self-esteem, the honour that is available to every one of us. God loves you and God loves me. We are God’s Children. We are valuable, so valuable that Jesus died so that we can belong to God again. This is good news for every one of us.
Has someone hurt you in an argument, so that you feel disrespected and hurt? God loves you and takes your shame, so that you don’t have to carry it.
Have you hurt someone else, so that now you feel ashamed to show your face? God loves you and takes your shame, so that you can reconcile with your friend and love that person again. You and I cannot heal our own shame. God can and does heal us, so that we can love and honour each other.

The basic point of all of this is that shame leads us into sin—living with God’s Law in our lives. The cure for shame is God’s love: “You are loved!” God’s love then becomes the basis on which we live “confident and unashamed” in God’s presence, which shows itself most clearly (verses 10ff) in the way that we love each other.

This final thought is reinforced in a study that Jeff Banman did at Providence last year. He went through the letters in the New Testament reading all of the commands from Romans to Revelation. Then he grouped the commands into categories and looked at what kinds of commands are given most often. There were 39 commands about “living out your faith”, and 26 commands about “marriage and family”. There were 41 commands about not sinning, and 15 commands about having a good character. But more than any other category by far was this one: 96 commands about “how to treat fellow Christians.” Amazing: Love each other (in one form or another) is by far the most often stated command from Romans to Revelation. No wonder John says it here: “Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.”

Properly understood, God takes away our shame and makes us able to love each other in practical and straightforward ways. The reverse is also true. Often it is our shame that stops us from loving each other and keeps us apart. And the cure for our shame is God’s love.

A Final Application
Paul Dyck used to give us homework at the end of the sermon. Well here is John’s homework for us.
Is there someone who has shamed you? (We would say, “He/She dissed me.”) Treat that person with honour and respect, asking nothing in return. God’s love makes you God’s child, and makes the other God’s child also. Treat them as God’s child with God’s love.
Is there someone you have shamed or disrespected? Apologize—not formally without sincerity, but deeply, from the heart. Then honour them. Treat them also with the deepest respect.

“How great the Father’s love for us, that we should be called the Children of God. And that is what we are!”

Closing Prayer
Our Lord,
Thank you for your grace and love.
Thank you for the honour you have shown us, making us your children.
Turn our hearts to you and to each other, today and always.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

19 February 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church
1 John 2:28-3:10
God’s Children and Sin
28 And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Election Reflections 3

We’ve had several weeks now to experience the Trump presidency. Here are some thoughts, not necessarily better than other people’s or more insightful, but my own.

Basic thought: We are too quick to condemn our political opponents and too quick to pardon our political friends.

Case in point 1: I think that Trump’s executive order to stop immigration from seven Muslim-dominant countries was ill advised and poorly executed. Many of my political friends have condemned it more thoroughly—calling it, for example, a ban on Muslims, and saying that it favours Christians unfairly.

I assume that two factors come into this description. The first is the seven-nation ban, which builds on action taken previously by the Obama administration. I think that the ban is nonsense (refugees by definition come from unstable areas), but it is not a Muslim ban per se. The second is the privileging of vulnerable groups from these nations—such as the Yazidis and Christians in Syria and Iraq. These latter groups have found the normal route to refugee status almost impossible, and seeking to help them is not wrong in itself.

It makes sense to me to oppose Trump’s executive order, and I support the efforts of those who have challenged it in the courts. That is the proper route for the challenge, and both sides must honour the courts’ ruling. It does not make sense to me to condemn Trump for taking the action he did. He has long said that he wants to strengthen immigration policies. I disagree with him, inasmuch as the United States’ immigration policies are already robust. I think he is chasing shadows, but I don’t condemn him for doing what he said he would do. My disagreement just tells you that I would vote against him.

Case in point 2: Trump appeared at the national prayer breakfast and suggested prayer for Schwarzenegger in his role on “The Apprentice”, given the latter’s poor ratings. Schwarzenegger in turn suggested that they switch roles and make everyone happy. Some of us reacted against Trump, stating that he has devalued the prayer breakfast with his levity.

I think that Trump acted inappropriately, but thoroughly in character. Contrasting his style with Obama at the same venue only tells us that they are two quite different people, which we already know. I see little point in condemning him for his actions.

Case in point 3: The Democratic minority in the house and senate is using any tactic that it can to slow down the republican agenda and to hold up or defeat Trump appointees. My Republican friends point to this as evidence of liberal perfidy.

But surely this is what minority parties normally do. Certainly the Republicans spent the past eight years holding up and trying to defeat Obama’s legislative initiatives, going so far as to refuse any vote on a Supreme Court nominee for – was it 10 months?

The underlying dynamic seems to be a deep conviction that the other side has no good in them. Comments on news stories online reinforce this perception. The practice of “trolling” has become commonplace—calling other people names and trying to force them off the site, rather than engaging them and seeking a common way forward.

That dynamic of division then becomes the policy of both parties. Neither accepts a path forward that allows the other to live. Condemned to live in such a country we can look forward to more bitterness and division. Now Republicans try to get all they want and freeze out the Democrats. When Democrats regain control (as they will: our system routinely moves back and forth between the extremes in our country), they in turn seek to enact only their own policies and undo Republican initiatives.

The fact is that Trump’s actual policies may be wrong—I think that most of them are (to the extent that we know what they are, and to the extent that I understand them)—but it really is time to follow the Republican lead. My own standing as a member of the Democratic Party is not the issue. Learning to hear each other and work with and for each other is more important.

A first step towards such collaboration is for us to critique our own. I look forward to hearing my Republican friends acknowledge and challenge Trump’s tendency to stir up fear and mistrust, and I look forward to hearing my Democratic friends acknowledge and challenge party leaders when they delay without cause. We have learned to justify our own too well; now we need to learn to criticize our own and actually understand the other.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Who Wouldn’t Choose Life?

Last Sunday we looked at the war commands of chapter 7. I suggested that this passage is an example of indirect speech, where the writer says one thing and means another—a kind of metaphorical call to war against all other spiritual authorities in our lives, rather than a call to kill all of our human enemies.

Someone listening to me may have thought: That’s a really useful idea! Now I can get around any passage of Scripture I don’t like! All I have to do is say that it really means something else! How convenient ….

Of course, I do not believe that we can reinterpret Scripture for our own convenience. You should always be able to find clues in the text that tell you to read for the hidden meaning. The biggest clue is that the passage contradicts the rest of Scripture. Many passages in the OT call us to trust God rather than fight, and the teachings of Jesus lead us in the way of peace; so it makes sense that Moses was talking about something else other than killing the people around them.

Most Scripture is more straightforward. It says what it means, and often we can hear it clearly. Deuteronomy 30, in which Moses makes clear the point of the whole book, is like that. These verses are not indirect or confusing. In them Moses speaks clearly: Obey God, and choose life. Disobey God and receive death.

So we turn to Deuteronomy 30 and hear words that express Moses’ heart and deepest desire. This passage comes as part of the conclusion of Moses’ sermon to the Children of Israel, waiting to enter the Promised Land. In these verses he states the core of his message to the Israelites. Here, summarized in these 10 verses, is what he wants them to know and what he wants them to do, and here Moses speaks also to us.

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This call to choose life is what he has been getting at throughout the rest of the book. In the first chapters he reminds the Children of Israel what has led up to this point. The previous generation had come to this same point of entering the land, and they failed at this final step. As a result they spent 40 years wandering in the desert, until they died. Now the next generation, their children, face the same opportunity.

Moses reminds them of the Ten Words given at Sinai (chapter 5), which guide their lives as the People of God. He gives them the Shema (chapter 6), the great declaration of God’s internal unity, with the call to love God and to love the family of God. Then the war passage (chapter 7) we looked at last week comes as a commentary on the first of the Ten Words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me.”

In chapters 11 to 26, Moses restates some of the core laws that form God’s people as they enter the land. Finally in chapter 27 the action moves back to Moses’ sermon, with instructions on how to renew the covenant between God and God’s People. So we come to the passage we just read.

Our Verses
Listen to the flow of these verses.

“The Word.” Verses 11-14: Moses states that these commands (“what I am commanding you”—“this word”) are not some fancy ideal that they cannot live up to, but rather they are the very presence of God, which lives within them. This sentence is particularly important: “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.”

Consider other uses of this term, “the word”. In Genesis 1, God speaks, and creation comes into being. John refers to this creative word in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … Through the Word all things were made; without the Word nothing was made that has been made.” I believe that these commandments—this word in their mouths and in their hearts—echo this creative word of God, which becomes the very presence of God. This statement also prefigures Jeremiah 31: 33, “This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

Lie and Death. Verses 15-16: This word contains “life and prosperity”. Outside of this word lies “death and destruction”. The essence of this word is to “love God” and to “walk in obedience to God”. This statement sounds to me remarkably like the Great Commission: “Make disciples of all people, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commands.”

“Destruction.” Verses 17-18: Worshipping other gods leads to destruction. This idea is one we may struggle with; the reality of judgment is unpalatable to our minds. But here is another way to think about it. There’s a song popular in contemporary worship named “Great are you, Lord”, with these words: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, So we pour out our praise, We pour out our praise.” The song refers to physical air, but we might say with equal truth that God is the atmosphere, the air that we need to live spiritually, fully. God is indeed our very life. Then the choice to live apart from God must lead to death. We can no more live without faith in God than we can breathe without air.

If someone decides to live in a vacuum, we do not blame the air for failing to give him/her life. If someone decides to live without food, we do not blame the food for allowing him/her to die of starvation. What we call “God’s judgment” is the inevitable consequence of trying to live without God. It is not something God wants to do. As Ezekiel 33: 10-11 puts it, Son of man, say to the Israelites, “This is what you are saying: ‘Our offences and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?’” Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?”

Choose life! Verses 19-20 repeat the call to choose life and live in and for God. Moses was pleading with the Children of Israel to worship God alone—repeating again the First of the Ten Words, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Living with the Passage Today
The message of the passage is clear: Choose life, which means, choose to love and obey God. Walk with God. The laws in chapters 11 to 26 give some idea of what this life looks like. Here are three simple ideas that come through these laws.

1. One sees the fundamental importance of equity. There are various laws that emphasize the fact that all people in Israel stand equal before God. In a Christian understanding we say that everyone is equal t the foot of the cross, but here we see that such equality goes back to God’s relationship with the Children of Israel. Equality is basic to being God’s People.

2. One sees also the fundamental importance of caring for marginalized people. The Law of Levirate Marriage in chapter 25 is just one of many examples. In this law a childless widow, who had no political or economic power in Israel, is given specific legal rights to ensure that she has the ability to care for herself. She stands here for marginalized people everywhere. Caring for the marginalized and hurting of the world is basic to being God’s People.

3. Thirdly, one sees the fundamental importance of holiness—holiness in the sense of recognizing God’s purity and power, and adjusting our lives to allow God’s purity and power to flow through us. This is the point of many laws emphasizing “cleanness” in ways that don’t make sense to us. It’s a bit like trimming our sail to the wind, allowing God to take us where God wants us to go. Being holy and devoted to God is basic to being God’s People.

Each of these themes could be the full subject of another sermon, and I won’t try to spell them out more fully today. For today I emphasize that these points are response to God’s grace, not ideas that we must somehow work out well enough to earn God’s love. Moses speaks to us as he spoke to the Children of Israel: Choose life! Love God! Follow God! We are at a very different place in our corporate life than the Children of Israel were. They spent 40 years waiting for the older generation to die. We have come through a painful time in which many of our younger people have left. Many of us are the older generation, but Moses still speaks: “Choose life!”

Last Thursday I sat at a table with several other people at lunch. We were talking about hope and believing in God. It was a hard conversation, because many people see reasons in our world not to hope. One man talked about his divorce—about 25 years ago. He reached a point in which he asked God what he was supposed to do. He wondered if God was even there. He told us how he heard God speak to him, “Can you be faithful for 40 years, and then spend an eternity of joy with me?” He was then 30, and the number 40 meant “to the end of your life.” He replied, “Yes.” The darkness of that moment lifted. The pain and loneliness remained, but he found he had strength to live. He told us that he had to cry out for help each day, and hear God’s voice each day, and receive new strength each day. The 25 years since then have brought him a new family, and he admitted that sometimes now he forgets to renew that explicit willingness to serve God, but it hasn’t gone away. He chose life, and God gave him life.

As we talked around the table, one of the others recalled a phrase from Juergen Moltmann, in which Moltmann refers to the “crucified God.” [Born in 1926, Moltmann is a German theologian who was drafted into the German army at age 18, surrendered at the first chance he got, and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. There he lost his secular faith in Nietzsche and found faith and life in Christ.] As someone has said, God is a cross-shaped God. I think that means that we find God where there is suffering and pain. We learn to hope in God in those places of our lives where we cannot hope in ourselves. That is the place we are in now. We cannot bring new life to our church through any program or efforts of our own. Only God can give us new life, and Moses would say to us: Choose life! Love God! Walk with God!

This truth is one of the reasons I asked us to do our prayer rock exercise last week. Loving God often finds its first real expression in loving each other. So I wanted to see us praying for each other, demonstrating our love for each other in a tangible, concrete way.

Such love has the power to unlock life in amazing ways. I think of Greg Ogden. He has described the power of what he calls micro-groups to transform lives. He was in a group of three men who met weekly for over a year for prayer and study. One of them, a young man, was ready to leave his job and go out to see the world. Greg suggested to him that he try a short-term mission trip first. He did, and found a meaning to life that he had been lacking in working on Christ’s behalf. Soon after he returned home he met a young woman, and they got married. Then he was found to have cancer, which a few years later took his life. Greg met some of this young man’s high school friends coming out of his hospital room as he lay near death. All they could talk about was the spirit of love and courage that radiated out of him as he lay there—completely unlike what they had expected. The love that these three men experienced in their small group led to a transformed life, which in turn flowed from the dying man to his high school friends. There is power in God’s love beyond anything that we can possibly understand. (See here this site for the story, or Ogden’s book, Transforming Discipleship, pages 9-14.)


This is no promise that when we choose life our congregation all past hurts will disappear, but there is the promise that we will prosper and grow. I don’t know what that “growth” will look like, but I know that choosing to love God and walk with God is the path of hope. We walk together loving God and loving each other, caring for the hurting and marginalized, seeking God’s will and way every day, and God gives us life, fuller and better than we can ever imagine.

5 February 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church
Deuteronomy 30: 11-20