Essential Traditional Folk Songs #5: ‘Scarborough Fair’ (versions by Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, and Emily Smith)

Most people don’t know that Simon and Garfunkel got ‘Scarborough Fair’ from Martin Carthy. Paul Simon learned the song from Martin in the early 1960s in London, and, sadly, went on to record it on ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ without admitting that he was copying Martin’s arrangement, or even acknowledging that it was a traditional song and not his own composition (the story of how they reconciled that quarrel is told in this newspaper article). The song goes back a long way in the English and Scottish folk traditions; it was originally called ‘The Elfin Knight‘.

Here is Martin, now one of the grand old gentlemen of the English folk music world, with his own performance of ‘Scarborough Fair’ from his 1965 album ‘Martin Carthy‘ (which, by the way, you can hear in its entirety on YouTube here); this was the arrangement that Paul Simon heard.

For those who want to know more about Martin, check out his website here. He is one of the best loved figures in the world of traditional English folk music today.

Mainly Norfolk has a good page about ‘Scarborough Fair/Wittingham Fair/The Elfin Knight’ here. There’s also a brilliant history of the evolution of the song called ‘Tell Her to Make Me a Cambric Shirt’ – from ‘The Elfin Knight’ to ‘Scarborough Fair’ which is well worth reading.

Martin Carthy learned this song from Ewan MacColl, one of the most influential figures of the folk revival of the 1950s in England. Here is MacColl’s recorded version of the song, from the LP ‘Matching Songs of the British Isles and America‘ (1957).

But the joy of traditional folk music is that these songs continue to evolve. Emily Smith is a wonderful Scottish folk singer; she has taken a different version of the ‘Elfin Knight’ tradition, reworked it and written a wonderful new tune to it. It is found on her 2011 album ‘Traveller’s Joy‘. Here she is:

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #4: Fairport Convention sings ‘Tam Lin’

Today we have an old Scottish ballad of the ‘fantastical’ variety. ‘Mainly Norfolk’ tells us ‘This is a truly magical ballad. It was first mentioned in The Complaynt of Scotland in 1549 but no words were published until Herd put a fragment into his Ancient and Modern Scots Songs in 1769. It never seems to have been collected outside Scotland’. It is sung for us here by the great Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, from their album Liege and Lief, which first appeared in 1968.

Mainly Norfolk has an excellent page on Tam Lin here; it includes a copy of the lyrics as Sandy Denny sings them in this recording, along with several other versions. Fairport Convention have left out quite a few of the verses to make the song shorter; some of the other versions give a fuller account. For more information than you can possibly imagine, check out Abigail Acland’s comprehensive Tam Lin pages here. Alternatively, if you want the Coles Notes version, Wikipedia will do quite nicely!

Of course, the beauty of traditional folk songs is that there are many, many versions of them. One that was recorded at about the same time as the Fairport version is this excellent a cappella take by Anne Briggs (one of my favourites, despite its length); it is found on her 1971 solo recording ‘Anne Briggs’, and can also be found on ‘The Collection‘.

And here’s a much more recent re-imagining of the song by the excellent American duo Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer; they recorded this on their recent CD ‘Child Ballads‘.

Fairport Convention are surely one of the most influential folk-rock bands of all time; this Wikipedia article tells their story, and their official website is here. More information about the late Sandy Denny can be found at her official website here.

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #3: Chris Wood sings ‘Cold, Haily, Windy Night’

This song exists in at least two main versions: ‘Cold, Haily, Windy Night’ and ‘Cold Blow and the Rainy Night’. I first heard it in the second version; it was recorded by Planxty on their 1974 album ‘Cold Blow and the Rainy Night’ with a rather different tune. But here Chris Wood sings it in what I think of as a more traditionally English version.

Chris introduces this as a song about young love but of course it is actually one of the many traditional folk songs in which the man has his way with the woman and then leaves her to deal with the consequences. As usual, Mainly Norfolk has a good summary of the recording history of the various versions of this song. As Malcolm Douglas at Mudcat Cafépoints out, the song as we now know it is more of a compilation of verses from various traditional sources, rather than a traditional song in its own right.

Chris Wood’s website is here.

For those who might be interested, I created my own version of this song and wrote a new tune for it; you can hear it on my CD ‘Folk Songs and Renovations‘. Listen to the whole track on Bandcamp here.

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #2: Maddy Prior sings ‘Dives and Lazarus’

Maddy Prior is a legend on the English folk music scene, having been the lead singer of ‘Steeleye Span’ and then gone on to front several bands of her own as well as undertaking numerous solo projects. Her website is here. I believe the musicians are Benji Kirkpatrick and Giles Lewin.

Dives and Lazarus is an old folk ballad based on the biblical parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. As usual, ‘Mainly Norfolk‘ has a good summary of the song’s recording history in England. Two nineteenth-century versions of the text are given in Child’s ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, but Child also notes possible earlier versions dating back as far as 1557. The tune is a well-known one and is often sung in Ireland to a song called ‘The Star of the County Down’.

There are other excellent renditions of this song, including this much quieter and more reflective version from Martin Simpson’s 2001 CD ‘The Bramble Briar’. This live version by Nic Jones is very poor recording quality but is also quite valuable – the tune is slightly different from the Prior and Simpson versions. The Young Tradition recorded a very fine unaccompanied version on their 1965 album ‘The Young Tradition’; it can be found here. Note their use of the name ‘Diverus’ rather than ‘Dives’, which is also well known in the tradition.

Essential Traditional Folk Songs #1: Jean Ritchie sings ‘Barb’ry Allen’

There are many, many versions of this song, with many different tunes. Samuel Pepys knew it and referred to it in his diary in 1666 as ‘the little Scottish song Barbara Allen’. There is a good summary of its recording history and some interesting background at Mainly Norfolk.

Jean Ritchie of course sings an Appalachian version. For information about her, see the Wikipedia article here. She is currently 91 and has been known to leave comments on the Mudcat Café website. I see her as perhaps the greatest living Appalachian folk singer.

After a Sad Day in Ottawa: Reflections by Willard Metzger

Will Metzger at Mennonite Church Canada offers these thoughts in response to yesterday’s events on Parliament Hill:

After a Sad Day in Ottawa

Like many Canadians I find myself in a place of sadness following the senseless violence in our capital city. I resonate with the voices that lament the sense of loss for our peaceful context. I share the anxiety of how this act of violence might result in our day to day affairs being weighted with new forms of fear through heightened security measures. 

I feel sad. I feel a loss. 

I mourn that the life of another can be disregarded so easily – and an innocent father is gunned down. 

I mourn that the rhetoric of revenge is seen as the best way to re-establish a sense of calm and confidence. 

I mourn that religion has become so tainted that the Loving Creator can be grossly misrepresented by acts of violence. 

I mourn that our global family is divided by systems of defence and self interest rather than a common commitment of seeking the good for all.  

I pray for mercy. I pray for healing. I pray for peace. I pray that the good in all of us may triumph over the tendency for evil in each of us.

I don’t want people to die having to defend me. I don’t want people to die trying to get the public’s attention. I don’t want people to die seeing each other as enemies. Surely as a global family we can find new and better ways of working for the common good of the earth and all its inhabitants. 

I will mourn for awhile. My prayers will feel heavy for awhile. My heart will ache for awhile. 

May the light of God’s love blind hatred and revenge and give us all a vision for the dawn of a new day filled with the power of a love for all our neighbours. 

A prayer in response to the events on Wednesday, Oct. 22

Ottawa, Ontario

-adapted from a prayer received from Ottawa Mennonite Church

Our God,

We call you Light of the world, but today we feel the weight of night.

We call you Wisdom, but today we have so many unanswered questions.

We call you Prince of Peace, but today we feel surrounded by violence.

We call on you in our fear, our disbelief, our sadness, and our helplessness.

Hear our cries.

Hold us as we remember the sounds, images, and experiences of Wednesday.

Hold the families of all those killed and injured in our capital city.

Hold families around the world who experience violence and instability.

Remind us to hold each other as we gather in our homes, schools and workplaces in the coming days.

May we seek your wisdom as we try to respond to the questions of our children, which echo our own questions. Why do people kill each other? 

We are people shaped by your story of peace. May our responses to the events in our capital city be formed and informed by this identity.  

May we seek your light as we find our way through the dark. 

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayers.

Conversion and Growth (a sermon for October 19th on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

Today we start a series of New Testament readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which was written to a group of people who had only been Christians for a very short time – perhaps only months. Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Thessalonica in about 50 A.D.; they came there from Philippi, where they’d been thrown in jail because of their missionary activity. But they were stubborn, so they set right about spreading the gospel again. They found a Jewish synagogue, and for three successive Sabbath days they went there and shared the good news of Jesus with both Jews and Gentiles; they pointed to the Old Testament texts that suggested that the Messiah had to die and rise again, and they said, “It’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth; he’s the Messiah”.

Some people believed them – a few Jews, and many, many more Greeks – and so a little church was formed. But the Jewish leaders got jealous and formed a mob; they tried to find Paul and Silas, and when they couldn’t, they found Jason, who had been hosting them, and they took him and a few other Christians before the city council. ‘These guys are breaking the emperor’s laws!’ they said; ‘They’re saying there’s another king, called Jesus!’ So the other Christians quickly sent Paul and Silas away for safety, and the young church had to face a time of persecution without the help of their founding missionaries.

We know that Paul was worried about his new converts and he tried to get news about how they were doing. Eventually he took the risk of sending his young assistant Timothy back to see how they were doing. When Timothy returned, Paul was overjoyed to find that all was well, although the new church did have a few questions they wanted to ask him. So right away, Paul sat down to write them a letter, one of the first letters he ever wrote, and that’s the letter we read from this morning.

It can be hard for us to connect with this letter, for two reasons. First, the people Paul was writing to had a definite ‘darkness to light’ conversion experience. Most of them had been worshipers of idols, but when they heard the message Paul preached, they left their false gods behind and turned to the one true God who had been revealed to them in Jesus. They would have agreed with John Newton’s words: ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see’. But many of us haven’t had this sort of experience. We’re followers of Jesus, but we came to it much more gradually; perhaps we’d even say we’ve been following him our whole life long.

Secondly, their church was very different from ours. Paul uses the Greek word ‘ekklesia’, which we translate ‘church’, but which actually meant a gathering, or even a town hall meeting. Their church had only been in existence for a very short time – probably less than a month – when Paul had to leave it behind. There were probably only a few of them, and I expect they met in the round in someone’s living room. They had no organization, no priests, no access to any written scriptures, no liturgies or anything like that. All they had was faith in the one true God, commitment to his Son Jesus Christ, a real experience of the Holy Spirit, and a shared memory of the things Paul had taught them by word and example. And you know what? That was enough; the whole world, Paul said – slight exaggeration, perhaps – was telling the story of their conversion.

What can we learn from them today? I suggest two things. First, we can learn what a Christian conversion might look like, and second, we can learn what Christian growth looks like.

First, what does a Christian conversion look like? The classic description of Christian conversion is the one I already quoted: ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see’. John Newton, who wrote these words, had been a godless sailor and slave trader, but he had a gradual conversion experience which started when he went through a horrendous storm at sea, and eventually he came to faith in Christ and commitment to him. He would have identified strongly with the metaphor Jesus used of a ‘new birth’; that would have been a good way of describing what he had experienced.

For many of us in our church today, perhaps, our experience was not so clear cut. Some of us have had moments of epiphany when it seems like our eyes have been opened to new truth about Jesus. Some of us can identify decisive moments in our Christian journey, others perhaps can’t. So does the story of the Thessalonians have anything to say to us? Yes, it does.

Try to imagine what their conversion was like. Their city was full of temples to the Greek and Roman gods – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Ares and the rest. Every civic event would begin with a sacrifice to the gods. Almost all the meat sold in the marketplaces would have come from animals that had been offered in sacrifice in the temples. The trade guilds held their meetings in the temples and started with worship of the gods. Even farmers planting fields went to the temples to pray that the gods would grant them fertility; not to have done that would have been as nonsensical to them as refusing to buy crop insurance would be to farmers today.

To them all this worship of idols seemed good and right and true. To be asked leave all this behind would be as if a preacher today told us we had to give up our cars, computers, and cell phones. Most of us would have a hard time imagining how we were going to live our lives without those things.

So what happened to these Thessalonians? Look with me at verses 9-10:

For the people of those regions report about us the kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

This was their conversion story: they turned away from false gods, and put their faith in a true and living God who had been revealed to them in Jesus.

Now you may not think it, but today we are surrounded by false gods. All of them are calling to us, demanding that we trust them, give them our loyalty, and make sacrifices to them. There’s the false god of money and possessions, which often demands that we sacrifice our time and our relationships so that we can have all that it offers. Closely related to it is another false god called ‘success’. A third false god is called ‘nationalism’, and sometimes it asks us to sacrifice our lives and the lives of our enemies to its thirst for blood.

For some of us, the desire to be liked and respected by others is a kind of false god. Maybe we feel insecure inside; maybe we’re not sure who we really are. But if we can just get others to like us and approve of us, we think that ache inside will go away. So we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, sacrificing our true selves as we try to be what others want us to be. But it never works. False gods never can deliver on their promises, because they aren’t real.

We Christians believe that there is one true God, who one who created the universe and everything in it. But we also believe that he came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. We believe that Jesus is our most accurate picture of what the one true God is like. So conversion is a process of turning from false gods to the one true God, and giving our allegiance to his anointed king, Jesus the Messiah.

The Thessalonians made that decision at their conversion, but they probably had to keep on making it. Every day when they walked through the marketplace the voices of the false gods would be calling them back. And it’s the same for us today. Think of the false god of materialism. It has its priests – the advertisers who spend their lives trying to make us discontented so we’ll buy more stuff. “If you just buy this”, they say, “You’ll be happy; you’ll finally find what you’re looking for”. And so you and I need a daily process of conversion – turning away from the lies the false gods tell us, and turning back to Jesus and the Father he has revealed to us.

What are my favourite false gods? What are yours? John Newton’s friend William Cowper wrote a hymn about them once; one of the verses goes like this:

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne
And worship only thee.

So this passage shows us first of all what conversion looks like: a continual process of turning away from the lies of false gods, and putting our trust in God our Creator, the God Jesus has revealed to us. Secondly, it shows us what Christian growth looks like. Look at verses 2-3 with me:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s first hearers were probably largely illiterate, and Paul knew that he’d probably be moving on pretty quickly to start new churches in different cities. We can see in some places in his letters that he was pretty good at developing little summaries to help new Christians remember the important things about their Christian faith, and one of those summaries was this little triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’. We’re probably most familiar with it from 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love’. We find it here in a different order: ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. These new Christians were like newly-planted trees; they needed to grow, but grow in what? In these three cardinal virtues: faith, love, and hope.

First comes faith. To Paul, this means believing the promises of God and trusting the God who made the promises. Paul liked to tell the story of old Abraham in the book of Genesis; he was a wrinkled old man and his wife was long past child bearing age, but God promised him descendents, and Abraham believed him, and God credited it to him as righteousness. But this faith wasn’t just a feeling ; God commanded Abraham to leave his home in Haran and go to the land of Canaan, and Abraham obeyed and went.

Likewise in the New Testament, we can think of Jesus walking on the water, holding out his hand to Peter and saying ‘Come’. The feeling of faith wasn’t enough; Peter had to take the step out of the boat, risking a soaking! Or we think of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus; it says ‘Jesus saw their faith’, but what he actually saw was the action that their faith prompted.

True faith always leads to action; it leads to a changed life. A few months ago my cardiologist said to me, “Mr. Chesterton, you can get off these blood pressure and cholesterol pills in a couple of years if you want; it’s all to do with getting serious about diet and exercise”. I believed her, too, but belief wasn’t enough; I had to put into practice the things that she said. Those changes were the evidence of my faith in her. And I guess that when it came to the Thessalonians, the evidence of their faith was that they didn’t go to idol temples to offer sacrifices any more.

What is the evidence of my faith in Jesus? What’s the evidence of your faith in Jesus? If we were on trial for our faith, would there be enough evidence to convict us? And how can we grow in our ‘work of faith’? What’s the cutting edge, for you and for me?

Faith comes first, but the next thing Paul mentions is love. Faith is directed toward God and Christ, but love is directed toward others. The Greek word for love that Paul uses is ‘agapé’, so he’s not talking about feeling love for someone; he’s talking about a way of life in which we do what’s best for others, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s what Jesus is doing when he washes his disciples’ feet, or when he gives his life on the cross for us.

It’s an active virtue; Paul talks about our ‘labour of love’. In the early church, it sometimes meant sharing their possessions with each other, rich members helping poor members so that all were equal. This is the love that brings neighbours together to build barns for each other; it takes people into hospitals and jails to visit the sick and the prisoners. It took Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for lepers; it takes other people to work in AIDS clinics or to cook meals for church members who are sick. All of this is serving others in the name of Christ.

In his first letter John says, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). People today are tired of empty words; they want to see actions. What is our labour of love? What’s mine, and what’s yours? What are we doing to actively love others? How can we grow in this?

Faith is directed toward God and Christ; love is directed toward other people. Hope is the third thing, and it’s directed toward the future. In the Creed we say, ‘Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead’, and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. In other words, we know that there’s still something lacking in our experience of God’s plan in our lives; even though we know and follow Jesus, there is still a lot of evil in the world, and in us as well. Those early Thessalonian Christians experienced that; they’d only been followers of Jesus for a few weeks, and they were being persecuted already! What kept them going through that? Paul pointed to their ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Studies of concentration camp inmates have shown that those who can hang onto their hope have a better chance of survival. We Christians are called to be people of stubborn hope, because we believe that if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, then nothing is too hard for him. We believe his promise of a better future, so when the present looks dark, we can still have joy in him. And so we don’t give up on people, because we know that God hasn’t finished with them yet.

Is this you? Is this me? Are we people of stubborn hope? And how can we grow more steadfast in our hope?

Let’s go around this one last time. First, the false gods are all around us, and they are tempting us all the time. Some of their lies are frankly incredible; I think of the cult of celebrity, which is nonsense when you think of how many celebrities are in rehab, or are jumping from relationship to relationship; why on earth do we want to be like them? And so our Christian life is a constant process of naming their lies for what they are, and then turning once again to the one true God who Jesus has revealed to us. What is your favourite idol? What is mine? How can we be steadfast in turning away from them and turning to Christ? How can we help one another to do this?

Second, our Christian life is about growing in faith, love, and hope: the faith that changes our lives, the love that shows itself in hard work to help others, and the stubborn hope that keeps us serving God and loving people, because we believe in God’s future. Which of these three characteristics are we strongest in? Which do we need to work on? How can our brothers and sisters in Christ pray for us and help us grow in faith, hope, and love? Let’s take a moment of silence to think about those questions, and then we’ll pray.

Preliminary thoughts on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This is not a sermon; this is my preliminary thoughts on the passage I hope to preach on this coming Sunday. I post them here in case they are helpful to others too.

The founding of the Thessalonian church is recorded in Acts 17.1-9. There we read that Paul and Silas, fresh from their experience in the Philippian jail, had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia and arrived at Thessalonica, ‘where there was a synagogue of the Jews’. Paul went there as was his custom, and for three successive Sabbaths he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise on the third day, and asserting that Jesus is in fact the foretold Messiah. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, and so did a large number of ‘devout Greeks’ (i.e. ‘God fearers’?), including some prominent women in the community.

But the other Jews became jealous of Paul & Silas’ success (no doubt they themselves would have claimed loftier motives!), and they formed a mob; they couldn’t find Paul and Silas, so they attacked Jason’s house, where the apostles had been staying, and dragged Jason and some of the other brothers before the city council; they accused them of ‘acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying there is another king named Jesus’ (which gives us a good insight into what the apostles’ message actually was – a proclamation of the ultimate Lordship of Jesus). So that very night the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas away to Beroea.

So what we can say for sure is that their ministry in Thessalonica was very short, perhaps as short as three weeks. It was enough, however, to plant a self-governing and self-supporting church based on the message of Jesus as King and Messiah.

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

This is a standard Greek-style greeting, but Paul has modified it by adding distinctly Christian elements. The Thessalonians might see themselves as ‘the ekklesia (‘assembly’) of the Christians in Thessalonica’, and they would be right; their geographical location is indeed in Thessalonica, the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia. But they have a primary location which is even more important: they are ‘the ekklesia of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘In’ is not just a location, but an experiential connection; yes, they are Thessalonians, connected by history and culture to their race and people, but more importantly, they are Christians, connected by grace to God the Father and his Son Jesus the Messiah, God’s anointed King. This is in fact their primary identity now.

Greek letter writers wished their hearers ‘eirene’ (‘peace’), but Paul characteristically adds ‘charis’ (‘grace’) first. This is God’s unconditional love, which could not be bought or earned, but is poured out on us as a free gift through Jesus and his death and resurrection: this is the greatest experience that Paul can wish for his Thessalonian friends, that they would know themselves to be loved unconditionally by a God who gave himself for them on the cross. And the result is ‘peace’ with God and with others.

2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Here is possibly the first time that Paul uses his familiar triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’, or, in this case, ‘faith, love, and hope’. One assumes that, in planting churches which are going to need to be self-supporting and self-governing, in an illiterate age when very few people would be able to read the Jewish scriptures or any rudimentary written records that the apostles might leave with them, Paul has given some thought to developing memorable summaries of Christian essentials for his new disciples to memorize and practice. This is one of them – the so called ‘three theological virtues’.

Faith is first – it means, to Paul, both believing the promises that God has made and trusting in the God who made the promises. In Galatians (written probably either shortly before or shortly after this letter) he pays a lot of attention to the idea of faith as ‘believing what you heard’, but we know that this is not just intellectual assent but also a life-changing commitment. If I believe what my doctor is saying to me, I will put into practice the things she says. And so Paul talks in Galatians about ‘faith working itself out through love’, in Romans about ‘the obedience of faith’, and here in 1 Thessalonians about ‘your work of faith’. Faith and works, in other words, go together. In Mark 2:5 Jesus ‘saw the faith’ of the four friends by their action of bringing the paralyzed man to him for healing, and Peter demonstrated his faith by the action of getting out of the boat and walking on the water to Jesus (Matthew 14:29). So faith always shows itself in action – sometimes strenuous action – hence ‘your work of faith’.

Faith is directed toward God (or Christ), but the next theological virtue, love, is directed toward people: ‘your labour of love’. ‘Love’ here is ‘agapé’, so it is not a feeling but a way of life – sacrificial love – the love that does what is best for the other, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not – the love that Jesus shows when he washes his disciples’ feet, or when he dies for them on the cross. And so this also is an active virtue; it leads us to ‘labour’. In the early church, it often took the form of Christians sharing their possessions with one another, helping those among them who were poor, bearing one another’s burdens and so on. This is the love that causes people to rebuild barns that have burned down, visit the sick and the prisoners, care for lepers, work in AIDS clinics, take meals for those who are sick, and generally serve others in the name of Christ.

The third theological virtue is hope: your ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. If faith is directed toward God and love to one another, hope is directed to the promise of the future, when the Lordship of Jesus Christ will be revealed to all. At the moment it is hidden, known only to those who believe in him and follow him, but this state of affairs is only temporary. So these Christians can be ‘steadfast’ in the persecutions they are experiencing right now, because they believe God’s promise about the shape of the future. They also believe God’s promise about their own future: whatever happens to them, they are safe in Jesus (Paul will expound on this a little more in 4:13 – 5:12).

4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The rest of the passage focuses on the Thessalonians’ experience of conversion, which was fresh in their minds and Paul’s mind too. What is the essence of conversion according to Paul? Well, the essentials are at the end of the passage: to become a Christian is to ‘turn to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’.

This is a very Jewish message; Isaiah would probably have cheered for it! The whole of Isaiah 40-55 resonates with the idea that Yahweh the God of Israel is the one true God, the creator of heaven and earth, who was not made by human hands like false gods of wood or stone. His is higher than us, his thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and we cannot possibly understand him unless he reveals himself to us. So true conversion is to turn from anything less than this – a lesser god than the creator of all, a more tangible god than the invisible Lord of the universe – and to put our faith in the one ‘living and true God’.

Idols, of course, were everywhere in Thessalonica; the city would have been full of temples to Greek and Roman gods; the trade guilds would have had their meetings there, the meat in the marketplace would have been offered in sacrifice to the gods, and civic occasions would have begun with acts of worship to the gods. So for Christians to throw away their idols would have been tantamount to modern Christians throwing away their computers and smartphones – most people would not have been able to conceive of life without them. This was a real act of faith on the part of the new Christians: to give up tangible gods they could see and handle, and instead to worship an invisible God who has been revealed in a person they have never met: Jesus.

So for us contemporary Christians, conversion means turning away from the false gods of our own day: money and the things it can buy, success, sexual prowess, youth, nationalism, the good opinion of our contemporaries, and the many other idols that tempt us – the things we turn to for help when the chips are down. Whatever it is that we put at the centre of our lives other than the true and living God, conversion means removing that false god from God’s throne, and turning resolutely to the one true God who Jesus has revealed to us.

‘The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee’ (William Cowper).

The false gods do not satisfy, because they can’t deliver what they promise. However the subtle thing here is that Jesus does not satisfy immediately either, because at present his kingdom is still in conflict with the kingdoms of the world, who do not recognize his lordship. So Christian faith is future-oriented; we’re not only to ‘turn’ but also to ‘wait’ – ‘to wait for his Son from heaven’ (10a). As Bono sings, ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ – I’ve grasped it in Jesus, but I haven’t experienced it fully yet, and so I wait for the day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

This is conversion. Now – how did this happen? Well, Paul says, it wasn’t just as a result of evangelical razzmatazz – a clever preacher putting on a good show. No – ‘our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’ (v.5a). How does Paul know this? He knows it because of the miracle of conversion: these people who had been raised and steeped in idolatry have turned their back on all that they have known and loved, and instead embraced an invisible God and a Messiah they have not seen, and even though their conversion led to their being persecuted, they were still full of joy in their new faith. This is not ultimately explainable by human effort, Paul says; it can only be attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit.

And so, Paul says, ‘you became imitators of us and of the Lord’ (v.6). The primary imitation, of course, is of Jesus, but once again, the new converts know little of Jesus and they can’t seen him. They can, however, see the evangelist who is sharing the gospel with them, and they can see the sort of life he or she lives. And so it is very important that the evangelist truly models their life on the teaching and example of Jesus. The evangelist is an acted parable of Jesus Christ to his or her converts, making visible and tangible the sort of life that Jesus lived and calls us to live. So we who are in Christian ministry need to make sure that our way of life communicates the reality of Jesus, and not just our words. This is how new Christians grow – not primarily by attending classes, but by watching the discipleship of older Christians, and by imitating it.

This is the miracle of conversion – people who were steeped in idolatry have turned away from it, and have chosen instead to worship the one true God revealed to us in Jesus, and to wait for the coming of his Kingdom rather than putting their hope in the tangible blessings promised by false gods. They have received this word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; they have devoted themselves to imitating Christ, and they are learning the way of faith, love, and hope. And this story has been told elsewhere; people in Macedonia and Achaia have heard this story of conversion and have been inspired by it. And this has made Paul’s job easier; when he preaches about Jesus, people know what happens when someone becomes a follower of Jesus: ‘You know, just like those people in Thessalonica!’

Okay, time to look at what the commentaries have to say…

On Avoiding the Dangers of Prosperity (a Thanksgiving sermon on Deuteronomy 8:7-18)

I don’t very often announce titles for my sermons, but today I want to do so. My title for today is ‘On avoiding the dangers of prosperity’.

It might come as a big surprise to you that prosperity can be dangerous. It certainly isn’t a message that our politicians want us to hear, because they are committed to the position that prosperity is a pure and unadulterated ‘good thing’, and must be cultivated at all costs. Our economic masters don’t want us to hear it either, because their entire strategy is to encourage in us an attitude of discontentment with our current level of prosperity, so that they can sell us more things.

Nonetheless, when I read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, it sometimes sounds to me almost as if he’s talking about radioactive materials; they can do a great deal of good if they’re used properly, but you have to be extremely careful how you handle them if you want to avoid being poisoned. And the authors of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy have the same viewpoint. To them the prosperity of the nation of Israel is a blessing from God for which they give thanks, but it also has potential dangers. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it? That’s the theme of our Old Testament reading for today.

First, let’s get the context. The Hebrew slaves have been set free from their bondage in Egypt, they’ve received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, and they’ve then spent forty years wandering in the Sinai desert. They are now standing on the borders of Canaan, their promised land. Their great leader Moses is an old man and is about to die, and he has gathered the people together to give them what you might call his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Deuteronomy is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses, in which he restates God’s laws to the people and encourages them to remain faithful to their God. Listen to what he says in verses 7-9:

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.

No doubt this sounds pretty mouth-watering to the Israelites as they stand on the borders of Canaan. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses outlines for them in the following verses. They might go into the Promised Land, settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land and then get so used to it that they forget it’s a gift from God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.

Today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we may need to guard against a similar danger. Despite our recent economic woes, we still live in one of the most prosperous societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased exponentially.

When I was a little boy, going out to a movie was a big thing. We were not very well off financially and it wasn’t something we did very often; I remember going to see ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Sound of Music’, but that’s about it. We also didn’t have a TV in my home, but my grandparents did, so part of the fun of going across the road to visit them was being able to watch Fireball XL5 or Thunderbirds on my grandparents’ TV (in black and white, of course)! But nowadays, being able to watch TV shows or movies on demand on the Internet is taken for granted, and people feel deprived if they can’t do it. Also, when I was a little boy one bathroom per house was the rule, and in hotels you assumed you’d have to share a bathroom with others. Not so nowadays! And so it goes on – microwaves, personal computers, smart phones – all these very new things have become part of the standard expectations of most people.

I enjoy these things, I give thanks for them, and I don’t relish the thought of living without them. Nonetheless, from a spiritual point of view, not all is well with this picture. First of all, in this prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. And second, of course, not everyone shares in the prosperity. Twenty-five years ago the average CEO of a large American corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.

Our Old Testament reading for today points out this danger to us, and gives us three strategies for dealing with it.

Strategy number one is to ‘Remember’. When I first came to St. Margaret’s nearly fifteen years ago, we did a number of ‘Meet the Rector’ evenings at which we used an exercise called the ‘Four Quaker Questions’. Two of the questions were “Where did you grow up and what were the winters like?” and “Describe the house you lived in? How was it heated?” So we spent time sharing stories about our roots with one another. A couple of things were very interesting to me. Firstly, many of us grew up in circumstances much more humble than those we now enjoy. Second, many of us have very fond memories of those simpler times.

Moses’ first strategy for the Israelites to protect themselves against the potential dangers of wealth is to remember where you’ve come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, he says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.

Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”.

The interesting thing is that the people for whom the Book of Deuteronomy was written had no personal memory of the slavery in Egypt or the desert years of Israel. In writing these stories down and passing them on, the authors of Deuteronomy were encouraging the cultivation of a kind of ‘ancestral memory’. The same thing happened when Israel celebrated the Passover every year; they re-enacted the night before they left Egypt, so that the younger generations could, in a sense, enter into the experience for themselves.

Those of you who have visited Fort Edmonton Park will probably have seen the house Premier Alexander Rutherford lived in during the early part of this century. The interesting thing to me was that many of us in this congregation now live in larger houses than the Premier of Alberta lived in less than a hundred years ago! I think that Moses would encourage us as a society to remember where we have come from. Our present standard of living is not something we enjoy as a human right; most people on the face of the earth do not, in fact, enjoy it. It is a privilege, and it should lead us to thankfulness to God.

And that brings us to Moses’ second strategy for dealing with prosperity. Verse 10 says, ‘Bless the LORD your God’. In other words, we are to continually thank God for all the blessings we have received.

Thankfulness is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to cultivate it; I believe we live in a culture that has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Instead we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments of course provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.

Thankfulness is an antidote to this. The way Moses tells it here, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. He doesn’t say, “Feel thankful”; he says, “You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, isn’t a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words, you see, have the power to transform us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.

This isn’t just about saying grace at our daily meals – although that’s important. It also includes making a habit of including a good dose of thanksgiving in our daily prayers, and pausing often during the day to say “Thank you” to God. It includes experiencing the truth behind the words of the old chorus: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. I challenge you to do that: count your blessings, name them one by one. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Do it until it becomes a habit. It’s a habit with the power to change our hearts.

So Moses has given us two strategies to guard against the dangers of prosperity: we’re to remember where we’ve come from, and we’re to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. The third strategy is to keep God’s commandments. Look in verse 11: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage, is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received.

But I have a question: which commandments are we talking about here? When we hear the phrase ‘God’s commandments’, we tend to think in terms of the Ten Commandments and other laws about personal morality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the Law Moses was commanding the Israelites to obey was much bigger than the Ten Commandments. It is embodied in the first five books of the Bible, and it includes not just laws about personal morality but also laws about building a just society.

For example, when you were harvesting your field you had to leave some grain standing at the edges so that the poor could glean a living from it. You had to let the land lie fallow every seventh year and rely on God sending you a bumper harvest in the sixth year. When you sold land, you had to offer it first within your own family so that equality of wealth between families was preserved. And every fifty years the Year of Jubilee was celebrated. In this year all land was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The ideal was equality; that society as a whole should prosper, and not just individuals in it.

My point in bringing this to your attention is not to suggest that we should revive the entire Jewish civil law. Rather, it is to remind you that God’s law has never been solely about personal morality; it also requires that we work toward the creation of a just society, where the rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.

Today at St. Margaret’s we gather to give thanks for all the blessings we have received from God. Moses encourages us to cultivate this habit. We ought to verbalise this as often as possible – both to God and to others. So let me encourage you to be intentional about growing the habit of thankfulness. My observation, over thirty-six years in pastoral ministry, is that people who make thankfulness a habit are happier people who enjoy their lives more.

But the other side of thankfulness is to show our gratitude by making sure others also enjoy the fruits of prosperity. Today at St. Margaret’s we’re doing this by our offering of non-perishable food items for the Food Bank. We’re also doing it by our special offering today for our World Vision child sponsorship fund.

But of course it can’t end there. We’re encouraged in the Scriptures to move through our lives with our eyes wide open, ready to see the needs of others and look for ways to help them – not just in our community, but in the world at large as well. This is another way we show our thankfulness to God for all the blessings we have received.

Prosperity can be a blessing, but we have to handle it carefully. We have to remember where we have come from; we have to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we have to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, we have to learn to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being poisoned by it! May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us to use what has been entrusted to us according to the will of God.

How God Reveals Himself to Us (a sermon on Psalm 19)

Imagine a great sculptor who has been working for a year on a sculpture; it was commissioned by city hall, and it will be located in front of the building for the public to enjoy. The day finally arrives; the people gather around the sculpture – which is covered by a veil – the mayor and council members make their speeches, and then the sculptor steps forward and pulls a string. The veil falls to the ground, and the sculpture is revealed to the public in all of its glory for the first time.

If one of the New Testament writers had tried to describe a moment like that, the word he would have used for it is the Greek word ‘apocalypse’. We’re used to hearing that word in the titles of films like Apocalypse Now, and we forget what it means in the original. In our English New Testament, the word ‘apocalypse’ is usually translated as ‘revelation’. Something that was hidden from us before has now been revealed. That’s an apocalypse, a revelation of God to us.

We can’t discover God with our five senses, and therefore the ordinary scientific methods of research don’t work when we’re trying to get to know God. In fact, we could never discover anything about God at all, unless God had decided to reveal himself to us. Our psalm for today, Psalm 19, shows us two ways in which God is revealed to us, and then ends by giving us a hint about how we ought to respond to God’s revelation.

But before we dive into it, let me remind you what we’re reading here. Even though the book of Psalms is printed in our green service books for convenience, it’s actually a book of the Bible, and so you’ll also find it – in a slightly different translation – in our pew bibles. So the psalms are the oldest part of our service; they were in fact the hymns and songs that the Israelite people used in worship when Jesus was attending the synagogue. When we pray the psalms together we’re adding our voices to the prayers and songs that were used by the Old Testament people and by Jesus and his earliest disciples. Personally, I find that a very moving thought.

So let’s turn again to the psalm we read a few moments ago, Psalm 19; we’ll use the translation in the Book of Alternative Services, which is actually a pretty good one for this psalm. Let’s look first a verses 1-6, where we’re taught that God reveals himself to us through the things he has made.

Stories about experiencing the presence of God through nature are as old as humankind and almost as universal. Speaking for myself, I find that when I’m hiking in the mountains and I’m confronted with the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, I get a really important perspective on what God is like. As I’ve said before, I tend to do a lot of my praying in small rooms, and so I can very easily slip into thinking of God as ‘a being who lives in small rooms’. But then I climb a mountainside, and I’m brought face to face with the grandeur of God – God’s sheer ‘bigness’, if you like – and my own relative smallness. In the truest sense of the word, it’s an awesome experience.

Perhaps the writer of Psalm 19 had a similar experience, which he has recorded for us in verses 1-6. Maybe one night he went for a walk under a clear, starlit sky. This was ancient Israel, remember, so there were no street lamps! Perhaps during his walk he sat down on a hillside and spent half an hour just looking up at the night sky. Of course, he didn’t know astronomy as we do today, but still, the majesty of what he saw brought a sense of awe and wonder at God’s creative power.

Perhaps the next day he went out again at dawn and was captivated by the experience of sunrise. The sun seemed to leap into the sky so enthusiastically – it reminded him of a wrestler jumping into the ring, or a bridegroom emerging from his wedding chamber with a new spring in his footsteps! All of this, too, taught him about God’s creative power.

What does the writer learn from contemplating God’s creation? In verse 1 he tells us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. When I lived in the Arctic I discovered that the word ‘glory’ is a tough one to translate into central Arctic Inuktitut. The word that’s often used in the prayer book is kaumanek, which means something very close to our English word ‘shining’. I think this is actually a pretty good translation. After all, when you experience ‘shining’, you know that a source of light is present. And in the same way, the writer is telling us, when we experience creation we know that the Creator is present. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of the mountains, or the vast distances of the ocean, or the glories of a prairie sunset – when we look at this as believers, we get a sense of the power and majesty of the Creator who could make all this. The creation is a sign of God’s glory.

Hebrew poetry often uses parallelism: that is, the second line says the same thing the first line does, but in a slightly different way. So it is in this verse: we read that ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork’. ‘Firmament’, to the ancient Hebrews, simply meant ‘the dome of the sky’, but it’s God’s handiwork – in other words, his creativity – that I want to focus on. Every artist puts something of themself into their work, and every picture tells you something about the artist who created it. What does creation tell us about God? Let me respond by quoting to you some questions from Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering:

‘Why are there so many kinds of animals? Couldn’t the world get along with, say, 300,000 species of beetles instead of 500,000? What good are they?

‘Why is it that the most beautiful animals on earth are hidden away from all humans except those wearing elaborate scuba equipment? Who are they beautiful for?

‘Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God’s creation – zebra, swallowtail butterfly, crystalline structure – excels at abstract art?’

God is undoubtedly the most prolific creator we know. In fact, I sometimes get the sense that God enjoys creating totally useless stuff, just for the fun of it! Does that idea do something to the way you think about God?

So the first half of Psalm 19 shows us God revealing himself to us through creation. This is often how people first get a sense of the existence of God as well; many of us had our first experiences of God through the natural world. But by itself this is not enough. It gives us that vital sense of the glory and creativity of God, but doesn’t give us God’s wisdom for daily living. It doesn’t tell us how we ought to live our lives to reflect the glory of God in the world. For that we need the second source of revelation the psalmist is going to tell us about: God reveals himself to us through the things he has said in the scriptures.

We can learn a great deal about people through observing them. We can learn whether they are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, old-fashioned or up-to-date. We might even be able to learn something about what they do for a living, or about their religious beliefs. But if we really want to get to know someone, sooner or later we’re going to have to talk with them, and listen to what they have to say. A person’s words reveal their thoughts in one of the most intimate ways we know.

The Old Testament writers all believed that God has spoken to his people through what they call ‘the Law and the Prophets’. In them, God has not only revealed what he is like but also what he wants us to be like. The Hebrew word that we often translate ‘Law’ is ‘Torah’, which actually means something like ‘instruction’. In Psalm 19 it is described in several ways: God’s ‘law’ and ‘testimony (v.7), his ‘statutes’ and ‘commandments’ (v.8), and his ‘judgements’ (v.9).

The psalmist thinks that the people of Israel are the luckiest people on earth, because God has given them this Torah. In verse 7 he points out that it gives them ‘wisdom’ – in other words, it teaches them the appropriate way to live in any given situation. In verse 8 it brings them ‘light to the eyes’ – in other words, it helps them to see the path that God has set before them. It brings revival and joy to the human soul, and it warns them of ways of behaviour that are dangerous for humankind.

For me, the most telling of these sentences is the end of verse 11: ‘in keeping them’ – that is, God’s commandments – ‘there is great reward’. Listen to that sentence carefully; it’s a bit different from the popular view. The popular view is ‘Well, keeping the Ten Commandments is tough, but you’ll get a great reward’. But that’s not what the writer says. He doesn’t say ‘For keeping them there is great reward’, but ‘in keeping them there is great reward’. In other words, it’s not “Well, if I learn to be unselfish on earth I’ll get a great reward in heaven”. No; the writer’s view is “As I learn to live in unselfishness, I’ll gradually discover that here and now it is the most rewarding way of life”. The good life that God reveals to us is its own reward.

You see, these commandments aren’t an arbitrary set of rules God has revealed to us. Some religions do really seem to believe this. Muslims, for instance, believe that many of the pleasures they think of as sinful in this life will in fact be given to them as rewards in the next life. The Muslim writer Yahiya Emerick says ‘Nearly all the pleasures of Earth are regulated or even forbidden for a Muslim, so their reward for obeying God in this life is guilt-free indulgence in the next’.

On this view, you see, these things aren’t really wrong in themselves – if they were, they would be forbidden to us in the next life as well – and the only reason for avoiding them in this life is to be able to enjoy them in the next. But the Biblical view is different. These things are harmful for us. In warning us about them, God is doing us the biggest favour imaginable. And in describing the ideal godly life for us, God really is showing us the most rewarding way of living.

For us Christians, of course, this revelation doesn’t stop in the Old Testament scriptures. John calls Jesus ‘the word of God’. He embodies God’s speech for us; his life is a concrete embodiment of the Torah. His teaching brings out the deeper meaning of the Old Testament commandments, and he sums them up for us in his two great commandments to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we faithfully follow Jesus, we are living out the deepest meaning of God’s Old Testament Torah.

So we have these two sources of revelation, the works of God and the words of God, creation and scripture. And we need them both. We need to look for God in creation to get a sense of God’s grandeur, God’s ‘bigness’ if you like, and the sheer fun that God takes in artistry for its own sake. But we also need the scriptures for clarity about God’s inner thoughts and God’s will for us as human beings. Perhaps temperamentally we all tend to incline toward one or other of these sources of revelation, but I would encourage you to seek a proper balance between them.

However – and this is the final thing – we also need to consider our response to what God shows us and says to us. In our Sunday services, after we have heard God’s word proclaimed to us, our response is to say ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’, and to ask for God’s forgiveness and strength to do better. In other words, God’s revelation often makes our shortcomings clear to us, and encourages us to ask for help to learn the new way of life.

 That’s what we see in verses 12 and 14: ‘Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults… Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’. The writer recognizes his own faults, and he asks God’s help to avoid them in the future and to live an acceptable life.

This is the purpose of God’s revelation, in creation and in scripture. I’m told that in the intelligence community they sometimes talk about the ‘need to know’ principle – you won’t be told something just to satisfy your curiosity, but only if you ‘need to know it’ to be able to do your job properly. Well, there are a lot of things we’d like to know that aren’t in the Bible – the answer to the mystery of evil, for instance – but God doesn’t seem to think that we ‘need to know’ them in order to live our lives properly.

We don’t go to Scripture to satisfy our curiosity about everything. We go to seek God’s wisdom for our daily life. Let me close by pointing you again to the prayer in verse 14: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’. I suggest that whenever we go to God’s revelation, either in his works or his words, we go with that prayer. That’s the way to get the most benefit from what God reveals to us.