Our God is an Awesome God (a sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8)

In the English language we often use the word ‘awe’ to describe our encounters with the beauty of nature. I remember the first time Marci and I took the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain in Jasper and then climbed to the top. It was one of the few days in the year when the air is absolutely clear, and we were able to see all the way to Mount Robson. Mountain ranges were stretching away on either side of us into the distance, and far below us we could see the Jasper town site and the various lakes and rivers around it. I could only feel a sense of awe at what I could see all around me.

The words ‘awe’ and ‘fear’ are sometimes used in the New Testament to describe people’s reactions to Jesus. Frequently, in response to a miracle or a healing, we read about people having a sense of awe at the mighty acts of God. What they were seeing was way outside of their previous experience, and certainly outside their control, and they were shaken by it; that’s what the New Testament means when it says that they were ‘afraid’.

But I think most of us today would prefer not to use words like ‘fear’ and ‘awe’ to describe our relationship with God. For the most part, we’ve tamed God down; we’ve restricted him to the pages of a service book and the walls of a church building and the hours of a Sunday worship service. And so when we read about an experience of God such as the one Isaiah recounts in our first lesson for today, we find it hard to relate to what is said there.

Also we’ve been told many times that it’s wrong for us to fear the Lord; Jesus apparently did away with that, and all we should feel nowadays is a warm fuzzy feeling of being unconditionally accepted. The God who many people believe in today is more like a cuddly teddy bear than the awesome creator and Lord we read about in our Old Testament reading today. And so it’s probably a healthy corrective for us to focus on Isaiah’s story for a few minutes and think about what it has to say to us about the God we are worshipping today, on Trinity Sunday.

First let me set the scene for you. We’re told that Isaiah had this transformational encounter with God ‘in the year that King Uzziah died’ (v.1). Uzziah died in approximately 740 B.C., after an exceptionally long reign of fifty-two years. During his reign the little kingdom of Judah had enjoyed a time of relative peace and independence, but it was not to last. At about the same time as his death, Tiglath-Pileser III became the king of the mighty Assyrian empire, and he began a period of aggressive expansion in which he did his best to absorb all the little independent states in Syria and Palestine. From then on, in Isaiah’s lifetime, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah lived under the threat of Assyrian domination.

So Isaiah was living in a period of change; it was the end of a golden age and the beginning of a time of instability and fear. Israel and Judah felt small and vulnerable against the might of Assyria and its king. And in this context, God gave Isaiah a vision of who the true king really was, a vision that emphasized God’s power and majesty and holiness – which was exactly the message Isaiah and his countrymen needed to hear. Isaiah seems to have had this vision of the glory of God in the temple; perhaps he had gone there to pray or to take part in a sacrifice.

So what does the vision tell us about the Lord, the God of Israel?

First, and most obviously, Isaiah encounters a holy God, one who cannot be adequately described, one in whose presence awe, and even fear, is an appropriate response. Look at verses 1-4:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance around him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory’.

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

Notice that Isaiah does not attempt to describe the Lord’s appearance. This is a common feature of accounts of appearances of God in the Bible; they seem to describe the edge of the field of vision, and the ‘court personalities’ around God, but not God himself. It seems as if the authors have accepted the fact that there is no human language available for them to describe the awesome God who they have seen. The most that Isaiah can bring himself to say is that the Lord’s throne was ‘high and lofty’, and that ‘the hem of his robe filled the temple’. I don’t know if any of you have seen the coronation photographs of Queen Elizabeth from 1953; she is a fairly small figure but is wearing an absolutely enormous cloak, which stretches all around the platform on which she is standing. And so Isaiah sees God as the high King of all kings, with a massive cloak that stretches around him, so huge that it fills the entire temple building.

Truly there is no language that we can use, or no picture we can create, that can adequately describe God. The Bible uses all sorts of images for God: the rock of our salvation, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of the armies of heaven, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the true heavenly Father, and so on. But none of them is big enough to give us a complete picture of what God is like. Quite possibly, if we actually saw God face to face, our brains wouldn’t be able to take him in.

In Isaiah’s vision even the ‘court personalities’ around the king seem pretty impressive. The Hebrew word ‘seraph’ means ‘fiery one’. Each of the seraphs has six wings, but they only use two for flying. With two they cover their eyes, because the Bible says you can’t see the face of God and live. With two more they cover their feet, which is a polite Hebrew euphemism for the private parts, because the Old Testament cautions priests against appearing naked before the Lord. They are calling out to each other in a song of worship: ‘Holy holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’. And this is not a quiet song; Isaiah says that the threshold of the temple shook at the sound of their voices, and the whole house was filled with the smoke from the incense and the sacrifices.

The living God is truly awesome! Earthly rulers may be impressive, but they pale into insignificance beside this holy God. And this isn’t just an Old Testament emphasis. The gospels tell us that when the disciples saw Jesus transfigured before them on the mountain they were awestruck, and in the Book of Revelation, when John saw the risen and ascended Jesus he says ‘I fell at his feet as though dead’ (Revelation 1:17). This is God: loving and merciful and tender to all, yes indeed, but also awesome and holy, the Creator of the galaxies, the one who is completely untouched by evil, and is determined to drive it out of his creation.

Then comes the second thing we learn from Isaiah’s vision: Isaiah encounters a forgiving God. When Isaiah sees God in all his majesty and awe and holiness, the effect on him is dramatic. He has seen God with his own naked eye, and the people of Israel have been taught from the time of Moses that no one can see God and live. The seraphs cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (v.3); the word ‘holy’ means ‘separate’, ‘different’, ‘removed from all evil’. God is completely good and holy and righteous; he’s totally opposed to sin, and Isaiah has always been taught that it’s a fearful thing for a sinful human being to come into the presence of this holy God. And Isaiah is very aware of his own sinfulness. And so we read in verse 5 that he cries out, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’

Fortunately for Isaiah, the Old Testament had a way of dealing with sin; it took place in the very temple where Isaiah was standing. Animals were offered to God in sacrifice on the altar, and as their blood was shed, forgiveness was poured out upon God’s people. These sacrifices are alluded to in the next part of the reading, verses 6-7:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out’.

The animal sacrifices were burned before the Lord, and this is the significance of the burning coal that the angel takes from the altar and applies to Isaiah’s lips; it’s the power of the sacrifice bringing forgiveness to Isaiah. The coal is a sort of sacramental sign of this, bringing it home and making it real for him.

The New Testament tells us that those animal sacrifices were like a signpost pointing to the perfect sacrifice that Jesus would offer when he gave himself freely on the cross for the sins of the whole world. That sacrifice touches each of us when we turn to Jesus in faith and ask for God’s forgiveness. And in our New Testament era God uses sacramental signs to help us, too, just as the coal was used to help Isaiah: the signs of baptism and Holy Communion. Each time we come to the Lord’s table in faith and receive the bread and wine, it’s as if the angel says to us as well, “See, this has touched your lips, and so your sin is forgiven and your guilt is wiped away”.

When we understand Holy Communion in this way, it can be a powerful thing for us. We might find ourselves coming up to the Lord’s Table very aware of our own shortcomings; we know very well that we haven’t loved God with our whole heart, and we haven’t loved our neighbour as ourselves. Perhaps there are particular things on our conscience, weighing us down and causing us to be afraid. And we’re very aware of the fact that God is a holy God, as Isaiah tells us in this reading.

But nevertheless, we take comfort from the fact that Jesus died for sinners, and we all qualify. We remember how he turned to the criminal who died beside him and assured him of salvation: “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. And so we come forward to the Lord’s Table; we stretch out our hands in faith to receive the gift the Lord has for us. Our hands are empty; we come as needy people, asking the Lord’s forgiveness. And somehow the miracle happens again: we eat and drink as Jesus commanded us, and God’s gift meets with our weak and trembling faith, and perhaps we even sense a weight lifting from our shoulders. “Go in peace”, says Jesus; “Your sins are forgiven”.

Will we feel that every time we receive the sacrament? No, probably not. Is it true, whether we feel like it or not? Yes, it definitely is. When Jesus first gave the cup of Holy Communion to his disciples he said, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28). We may not be able to understand it, but we trust the promise Jesus gave us. Queen Elizabeth 1 is reputed to have written this little verse:

‘Twas God the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what the word did make it;
That I believe, and take it.

So let us come, whenever we celebrate Holy Communion, so that we may meet this forgiving God that Isaiah tells us about.

But there’s one more element to Isaiah’s experience that we need to notice: Isaiah encounters a sending God. He has a message he wants to send out to people everywhere, and he is looking for messengers to take it. And so in verse 8 we read, ‘Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah accepts the call of God to be a messenger. He has seen the awesome God of Israel; he has experienced the forgiveness and cleansing from his sins; now he must take the message of God to others. God does not promise that his messenger will have an easy life; far from it. Our reading stopped at verse 8, but if we continue to read we see that God gives Isaiah a very discouraging prediction: he’s going to speak and speak, but the people aren’t going to listen, to the point that Isaiah will be saying to himself, ‘It seems as if the more I speak, the less they want to listen – it’s almost as if my words are turning them away from God, not toward him’. When God’s message goes out, people do not always turn to him with joy, and if we’re not having much success – if people are not responding and our church is not growing – this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing anything wrong. It may be that we’re speaking the truth, and people are finding that truth too hard to stomach!

God is still looking for messengers today, as he did in the time of Isaiah. The good news of Jesus needs to be announced to everyone, and God has chosen to speak it through human mouthpieces. If you have experienced the wonder and joy of forgiveness and new life, as Isaiah did, then you too are called by God to share that news with others.

‘Whom shall I send?’ Where might he be sending us? To most of us it will be to our families and friends, our work colleagues and neighbours. You may be the only Bible those folks will read; when the Lord wants a word spoken to them, are you willing to be the one who speaks it?

In 1981 the words of this text inspired a Jesuit priest, Father Dan Schutte, to write a song that has become a classic. Here’s the first verse

I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

God is holy and awesome, far above anything we can imagine, and completely free of evil and sin. But this holy and awesome God is also the one who forgives our sins; he came among us in Jesus and poured out his blood for all of us on the cross so that the burden of sin could be lifted from our shoulders. And if we have tasted that free gift of forgiveness, then we also are sent out, like Isaiah, to tell others about God and to help them come closer to him for themselves. God says to you and me today, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I hope you will join me in the words of Isaiah: “Here am I; send me”. Amen.

Bert Jansch plays ‘Blues Run the Game’

We haven’t had any music at ‘Faith, Folk and Charity’ for a while, so here’s the late great Bert Jansch (formerly of ‘Pentangle’) with his cover of Jackson Frank’s ‘Blues Run the Game’.

Bert’s website is here. He died in 2011, at the young age of 67.

What’s the Church for?

Over at Seth’s blog yesterday he was referring to the question ‘What is school for?’ I think there are far too many churchgoers who have never asked themselves the question ‘What’s the Church for?’ Church leaders tend to avoid it too.

To some people the answer seems obvious. Church is for Sunday morning: running inspiring worship services that hold my attention and don’t go on too long. Church budgets seem to bear this out too; just count up the dollars that go, directly or indirectly, to running Sunday morning (or whenever you have your main worship service). Factor in that a good proportion of your pastor’s time goes to preparing for worship each week.

Other people might say, ‘the Church is there to help me in times of need’. Counselling is expensive, but at the Church, it’s free. And sometimes churches ‘help’ people (i.e. people call up with financial needs, real or spurious, with the expectation that the church will have a fund somewhere that they can draw from).

Still others might say, ‘the Church is there to provide rituals to mark the major transitions of life’. Christen our kids when they’re born. Marry them when they get older. Christen their kids when they have them. Officiate at funerals when people die.

Well, okay, but where does Jesus fit in? Where does the Gospel fit in? Why did God think the Church was a good idea? What was in God’s mind when he decided to call people together to be the Church? (If Church is not somehow the plan of God, we may as well quit now, don’t you think?)

I have two things to say about that question. First, the New Testament tells us that Jesus spent a lot of time announcing ‘the good news of the kingdom of God‘ – that is, the reign or rule of God. Despite appearances, the real ruler of planet Earth is not Google or Microsoft, Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama, Halliburton or Monsanto. God is the true king, and although he has allowed humans free will, he will not allow the human tendency to screw things up to go on forever. Every single one of us is accountable to him, and the day will come when he will set the world to rights and heal all its hurts. In fact, he has already begun that process through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and that process continues to this day. The Church exists to serve God’s Kingdom, to model of it for the world around, and to spread it to others.

Second, the way the Kingdom spreads is through the transformation of human lives by holistic discipleship. What is ‘holistic discipleship’? It’s simply this: human beings learning to follow the teaching and example of Jesus in every part of their daily lives – not just church and family life, but work, leisure, finances, politics, community activities and so on. The New Testament says, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord of all’; that means no part of my life can be outside the sphere of his Lordship.

The Church exists to announce the Kingdom of God, to invite people to become disciples of Jesus, and to help them learn to practice that in their daily lives. There are many other things we do, of course, but they are all secondary to this. And when we’re evaluating ourselves, this ought to be the question we ask: ‘How are we doing in our primary work of spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God, making new disciples for Jesus, and helping those disciples put his teaching and example into practice in their daily lives, so that the world can be transformed?’

Reality is not simple

A couple of weeks ago we elected a new provincial government in the province of Alberta, and the new cabinet was sworn in on Sunday afternoon. They lean to the left, which is rather unusual, given that their predecessors, the Progressive Conservatives, had been in power for forty-four years. Here in Alberta, we don’t exactly have a history of favouring socialism. All sort of jokes about flying pigs and the climate of hell were making the rounds of social media for a few days.

The new government, of course, wants to make income taxes more progressive, to increase the corporate tax rate, and to put the minimum wage up from ten to fifteen dollars an hour over a three year period. It can point to economic studies showing the benefits of these ideas. Of course, conservative-minded people can also point to studies backing up their opposition to these ideas. Economics, it turns out, is not an exact science. Equally intelligent people can take diametrically opposed positions on what will work and what won’t. People who disagree with me are not being malicious (much as I would like to think they are!); they look at things differently, that’s all. Their points of view seem self-evident to them – just as my point of view seems self-evident to me!

It’s the same in the field of medicine. I, as a layman, would like to think that every illness has a prescribed course of treatment that will always, infallibly, produce a good result, but of course, reality is far more messy than that. There are many illnesses for which we do not yet have a satisfactory cure. And many of the cures that we do have work some of the time, but not always. People are different; drugs or surgical procedures will not always produce the same results in different bodies.

This seems to be the way it is on planet earth; we like to think that knowledge is cut and dried, black and white, clear for all to see, but in fact, it’s not. Scientists will tell you that human beings and human societies – not to mention wider ecosystems – are incredibly complex. Climate, ecological systems, economic principles, family structures, human personality – they all seem to be far more complicated than we had ever imagined.

People sometimes get impatient with complexity in the area of religion. “Surely, if there’s a God, he’s simple and straightforward”, they say. “All these complex theological ideas can’t really have anything to do with God, can they?”

Why not? If God invented matter – if he dreamed up DNA – if he designed all the millions of different species currently existing on earth – if he created the vast distances of inter-stellar space – and, for that matter, if he knows every single human being he has ever created on this pin-prick of a planet, and even knows our thoughts – well, he must be far more complex than we can ever imagine. For from making him too complicated, theology is probably erring on the side of being overly simplistic.

If there is a loving and powerful God, how does he balance his desire to see his good and wise plan for his world come to fruition, with his complimentary desire to honour the free will he has given to his creatures?

Where did evil come from? Was it somehow created by God? If not, is it possible that something else exists that was not created by the Creator of everything? And if evil was created by another creator, why did that other creator want to create evil? Was that other creator made by the one true God, and if so… well, you get the problem!

If God is a God of love, why does the world appear to have been set up in such a way that life forms prey upon each other, and the stronger and more savage usually win the day? ‘Nature is red in tooth and claw’; if nature is our guide to ideal existence, why do we think it’s good and honourable to care for the weak and the old rather than put them out of their misery, as nature does? So in what sense are God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are…understood and seen through the things he has made’? (Romans 1:20).

These are complex questions, and the God we believe in must be bigger and more complex than anything we can imagine if he has the answers to them. But then, as one of my teachers used to say, “God being the almighty creator of the universe, and you being one of his creatures, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are a few things in the mind of Almighty God that you can’t understand!”

Isaiah expressed it long ago when he spoke on God’s behalf:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8-9 NRSV).

Or, as a very wise Christian theologian once said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God”.

Nonetheless, we are called to try our best to understand it. Jesus told us that we ought to love the Lord our God, not just with all our heart, but also with all our mind. We are thinking beings, and often we get ourselves into trouble by not thinking things through carefully enough before we act. “Measure twice, cut once” is the carpenter’s rule. “Think carefully before you speak or act” ought to be ours.

But there is a limit to our thoughts, and all thoughts of God will run off into mystery sooner or later. At the end of the day, there comes a time to close the theology books and say our evening prayers to the God we will never fully understand – because, if we did, we would be equal with him, which is obviously impossible. And so we bow before him and pray as the psalmist taught us:

‘O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child that is with me.

‘O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore’ (Psalm 131 NRSV).

Who are the must-reads?

Seth Godin had a great blog post on Thursday about knowing who the must-reads are in your field. It ended with these words:

We would never consent to surgery from a surgeon who hadn’t been to medical school, and perhaps even more important, from someone who hadn’t kept up on the latest medical journals and training. And yet there are people who take pride in doing their profession from a place of naivete, unaware or unlearned in the most important voices in their field.

The line between an amateur and professional keeps blurring, but for me, the posture of understanding both the pioneers and the state of the art is essential. An economist doesn’t have to agree with Keynes, but she better know who he is.

If you don’t know who the must-reads in your field are, find out before your customers and competitors do.

Too much doing, not enough knowing.

So the question is, for us pastors, who are the ‘must-reads’ in our field? And how do we decide?

The reason I ask this question is because we have a fair amount of latitude in our work. An old clergy friend of mine once told me that you can do the absolute non-negotiable tasks of an Anglican parish priest in about 24 hours a week. If you work twice that many (as many of my colleagues do), you have a certain amount of freedom in deciding how you’re going to spend the other 24 hours. And many of us will tend to spend it on projects and tasks that interest us, rather than asking ‘What would be of most benefit to my parish?’

Do we make decisions about our reading the same way? Instead of asking ‘Who are the must-reads to better equip me to do the work God is calling me to do in this parish?’ do we ask instead, ‘Now, what would I most like to read next?’ ?

I suspect that’s how we often make that decision. I know that’s true of me.

So my questions are:

  1. Who are the ‘must-reads’ for us as pastors?
  2. How do we decide who goes on that list?
  3. How do we make sure that we don’t neglect the classics that have stood the test of time in favour of the ones who happen to be making the waves today?

Please discuss…

The Three Baptisms (a sermon for Pentecost)

This morning as we celebrate the baptisms of Doug and Gideon, I want to think with you for a few minutes about the word ‘baptism’ and what it means. Jesus actually uses the word ‘baptism’ to refer to three different experiences that Christians have, and all three are important.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ originally had a very simple meaning: to dip, or to immerse. It wasn’t necessarily in water; ancient Greek chefs made pickles by ‘baptizing’ them in vinegar, and if they’d had fondues, they would have used the word ‘baptizo’ for that as well! When it comes to water baptism, Jesus is obviously using the word literally for dipping or immersing people in water; the other two meanings are metaphorical, but no less important.

Let’s start with baptism in water. We know that Jesus commanded his disciples to do this. In Matthew 28:18-20 he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.

The early Christians obeyed this particular command to baptize right from the beginning. In our reading from Acts today we heard of the Holy Spirit filling the followers of Jesus; a crowd was attracted, and Peter preached the good news of Jesus to the crowd. Later on in the chapter, some of the people were convinced by what Peter said, and they asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, ‘“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”…So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added’ (Acts 2:38, 41).

So the act of becoming a Christian in the early church always included not only the inward actions of repentance and faith, but also the outward action of being baptized. Some people think of this as strange, but in fact it isn’t strange at all. We humans have always used physical signs in this way. We don’t just say hello to each other, we shake hands as well, and some people will formalize a deal by shaking hands on it. At a wedding we don’t just promise to love each other, we join hands, give and receive rings, and exchange formal kisses. Athletes attending the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games carry the flag of their country, and they know it’s not just a piece of cloth; it has a very special meaning to them. These are just three examples of our human tendency to use physical signs and give them a much deeper meaning.

Baptism in the early church was such a rich symbol that all sorts of meanings were discovered in it. As we’ve seen, Jesus connected it with becoming disciples; it was a sort of enrolment in the School of Jesus. It was also an obvious sign of cleansing – washing away sin and evil through God’s forgiveness, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, and starting a new life with Christ. Paul also talks about it as a sort of death and resurrection, and immersion was a particularly good symbol of that: going under the water was like dying with Jesus to the old way of life, and coming up out of the water was like rising with him to the new way of life. Sometimes in the early church, new Christians would symbolize that by taking off their old clothes before being baptized, and then putting on new clothes when they came out of the water.

Sometimes people denigrate symbols, but I think that most of us know how powerful they can be. For instance, many of us in church today are wearing wedding rings. There’s no law that we have to do this, but we choose to do it – we choose to wear on our fingers a symbol of our love for our husband or wife, and our commitment to them. I think that most of us would agree that these rings are very important to us. Yes, they are a symbol, but we’d never say, “They’re just a symbol”. We know how powerful that symbol is, and what it means to us.

Baptism is like that. It’s so powerful a symbol, in fact, that the New Testament often talks about it as actually accomplishing what it symbolizes. For instance, in John chapter 3 Jesus says ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5); baptism with water is seen here as an essential part of the process of new birth. And in Galatians Paul points to both faith and baptism; he says, ‘For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ (Galatians 3:26-27).

So the Holy Spirit uses two things – our faith, and the act of baptism – as a means of bringing us to new birth in the family of God. This is true, even though faith and baptism might be separated chronologically. A baby might be baptized, and then later on come to faith in Christ. An adult might come to faith and then later on be baptized – perhaps even after many years! But the two things belong together theologically; neither of them is complete without the other. Peter didn’t just tell the crowd to repent and believe in Jesus – he told them to be baptized as well. But on the other hand, we don’t just baptize people – we ask them questions about their faith as well.

So this is the first baptism – baptism in water. But there’s a second way Jesus uses the word ‘baptism’: he talks about baptism in the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, chapter 1, we read these words: ‘While staying with (his disciples), he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And in verse 8 he goes on to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

In the next chapter, as we read this morning, the Day of Pentecost arrived and they were all together in one place, when suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a mighty rushing wind that filled the whole house where they were sitting. And they saw little flickering tongues, just like flames of fire, resting on each one of them. And then all of them were aware of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and they found themselves speaking in different languages that they hadn’t learned before, speaking about God’s mighty acts of power.

This was obviously a very powerful experience that changed their lives – a real encounter with the Spirit of the living God. But it was not the only time they experienced this. Two chapters later – and we don’t know how much time had elapsed in between – they were meeting after some of them had been imprisoned and flogged for preaching about Jesus. In their place we might have prayed for safety, but they didn’t – they prayed for boldness to keep spreading the message of Jesus, and they asked God to keep confirming it by sending signs and wonders. And then we read that, ‘When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31).

So this is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. A person being baptized in the Holy Spirit is being immersed or plunged into the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is not just a fanciful metaphor. Many people who have had these powerful experiences of the presence of God report that this is exactly what it felt like: they felt as if they were totally surrounded and filled with the love of God and the power of his Spirit.

What’s it like to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? I suspect there are many different answers to that question. To some people it’s probably the same sort of dramatic experience that these early Christians had. To others, it may be something quieter and less tangible, but it’s obvious its happened because of the changes in their lives. I still love the way my dad described it to me years ago; this is what he said:

On Shrove Tuesday 1971, I was part of a prayer group and all the members knew that I was waiting, in obedience to the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Two of the group asked me if I would like them to pray with me. I agreed and they prayed but nothing happened. I was trying to will myself into the experience but that isn’t how it happens. So, in my heart I prayed, “Well, Lord, I’ve waited twelve years, I can wait longer, if that’s what you want”. And that was what the Lord was waiting for… And so it happened. My heart was bursting with a joy and peace and love I had never known before.

The way I would describe it is that it’s like standing under a great waterfall but the water not only cleanses the outside but pours through the whole body, soaking and enriching every cell. It’s realizing that every drop of that water is the Spirit’s power filling me to overflowing with the love of Jesus.

So you see, it’s not just something that happens in the pages of the Bible. I’m sure there are probably hundreds of thousands of people around the world today would who would testify that they, too, have experienced what Jesus promised: baptism in the Holy Spirit.

But here’s the thing: water baptism is within our control, but baptism in the Holy Spirit is not. Only God can baptize people with the Holy Spirit, and only God can decide what form that baptism will take – whether it comes with deep emotions or not, or whether it’s accompanied by miraculous acts, like those early Christians suddenly finding themselves speaking in languages they’d never learned. Jesus told his church to baptize people in the name of God, but he told them to ‘wait’ for baptism in the Holy Spirit. We can’t make it happen; we can only wait for it, praying that the Holy Spirit will fill us, and that God will make us open to whatever it is he wants to do in us by the work of the Holy Spirit.

So we’ve talked about baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit. But there’s a third way the word is used in the New Testament: the baptism of suffering. In Mark chapter ten, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to him with an audacious request: ‘“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able”. Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared”’ (Mark 10:37-40).

Jesus is referring to the cross, of course. On the cross he would drink the cup of suffering on our behalf, and he would be plunged or baptized into suffering, just like a ship in a storm being overwhelmed by the waves. This baptism is like the ‘taking up our cross and following Jesus’ that Jesus talks about elsewhere. To be baptized is to be baptized in the name of Jesus, and not to be ashamed to own that name.

And not everyone is going to be glad that we own that name. Around the world today many of our Christian brothers and sisters are persecuted for following Jesus. In some countries it is a capital offence to convert to Christianity, and everyone knows it. In many of those countries, if you obey the command of Jesus to be his witnesses, you will be thrown in prison and possibly executed as well. Here, in the tolerant west, we don’t suffer that sort of persecution, but I would suggest to you that if we obey some of the more controversial commands of Jesus – loving our enemies and praying for them rather than pouring hatred and violence on them, for instance – we will also experience some of the scorn and derision that followers of Jesus have always experienced.

So I want to say to all of us who have been baptized, and especially to Doug and Gideon who will be baptized in a moment, that in our baptism we take the name of Jesus Christ – we are called ‘Christians’ – and Jesus calls us not to be ashamed to own that name. Of course, he’s not asking us to be self-righteous, as if we were saying “I’m a Christian, so I’m better than those who aren’t”. That would be completely foreign to the spirit of Jesus! But equally, he’s calling us to walk into those situations where we know that the name of Jesus is not respected or honoured, and not to be ashamed or fearful to say, “I’m marked with that name; I belong to him”.

Let’s go around this one last time. In the New Testament there are three experiences that Jesus describes with the word ‘baptism’.

Water baptism is something we do in obedience to him. Through faith and baptism we become followers of Jesus; we are washed from sin and born again into the family of God. Once it’s done, it doesn’t need to be done again; Paul says in Ephesians that there is ‘one’ baptism. In joyful obedience to that command of Jesus, we will baptize Doug and Gideon this morning.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit isn’t something we can do; it’s something we can pray for and wait for. And I hope that all of you will pray for it and wait for it. If you’ve never experienced anything like it, I hope you will keep on praying for it. Don’t try to make it happen; don’t try to manufacture some sort of powerful emotional experience. None of that works, because it’s not real. True baptism in the Holy Spirit is a gift of God. And unlike water baptism, it is repeatable; as we’ve seen, the early Christians experienced it more than once.

Baptism in water is something we do; baptism in the Holy Spirit is something we pray for and wait for. But the baptism of suffering is something we’re ready for. We don’t go looking for it, and no one in their right mind asks for it. But when it comes our way, we accept it – I’d even go so far as to say, we accept it with joy, like the Christians in the book of Acts, who, we’re told, ‘rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name’ of Jesus (Acts 5:41). It’s not a sign that we’re doing something wrong; it’s an inevitable consequence of faithfulness to Jesus in a world that does not recognize his authority. So when we experience it, let’s ask God to strengthen us to endure it, and to be faithful to the one who has called us to follow him as baptized Christians.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Which enemies?

As a Christian pacifist, I regularly get asked, “So what should we do about ISIS, then?” Years ago the question was “What should we have done about Hitler, then?” but it’s basically the same issue.

I’m sure those are very important questions, but I think there are more urgent ones for most Christian pacifists to consider.

We have this human tendency to jump straight to the huge issues. and they are huge, but the thing is, I don’t face them every day (well, actually, I don’t face ISIS any day, but I understand that if I lived in the Middle East I’d have more of a sense of urgency about the question). And it’s not that the huge issues aren’t important; it’s that sometimes they can be a tempting distraction from the slightly smaller issues, that I do face every day.

For me, making decisions about ISIS isn’t a daily occurrence. But every day, I have to decide what to do about the family member who ignores me. About the driver who cuts me off in traffic. About the work colleague who seems to think it’s their calling to make life difficult for me. About the church member who talks about me behind my back.

When I think about what “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you” means, maybe I should start a little closer to home. And maybe Matthew 18:21-35 would be a good scripture passage to meditate on.

Is it just about rewards and punishments?

The other day I was having lunch with an agnostic friend. He’s the kind of agnostic friend who pushes me to give honest answers to real questions, and I like that.

We’re both quite involved in trying to make things better for the least fortunate people on the planet, and somehow (I can’t quite remember how), we got to talking about why we do that. And then he said something that completely floored me. He said, “I can see how being religious would be a real help there, because you believe that after you die, you’re going to be rewarded for the good you’ve done. That would be a really effective motivator”.

The reason those words surprised me so much is because I can’t honestly remember the last time this entered my mind. If the truth be told, I never think about eternal rewards when I’m contemplating doing some good deed. And conversely, when I’m being tempted, I never motivate myself to avoid temptation by thinking about potential eternal punishments. To be honest, I actually don’t find that to be a very effective deterrent.

So what do I think about? Why do Christians try to put the teaching of Jesus into practice, if it’s not out of a desire for heaven or out of fear of hell?

I can’t speak for all Christians, but for myself, I can say this with some certainty: it’s because I genuinely believe that Jesus is right. I believe that the way of life he taught and demonstrated – love of God and neighbour, not storing up too many possessions, forgiving and being reconciled, caring for the poor, speaking the truth, faithfulness in marriage and so on – is the best and most rewarding way to live. And I believe that as more of us follow Jesus and learn that way of life, then life will get better for everyone and everything on planet earth.

Jesus taught us a short way of expressing that, in the form of a prayer. It goes like this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.

That’s why I follow Jesus. It’s not because of rewards and punishments. It’s because I’m convinced that on the day that prayer is fully answered, life on God’s green earth will be a dream come true. And I want to be one of the ones who helps make that happen.

Send in the peacemakers

tienanmentank-395In Tom Wright’s book ‘Simply Jesus’ he says,

‘The work of the kingdom, in fact, is summed up pretty well in those Beatitudes. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, the peacemakers, and so on’.

I think this is profoundly true, but I think we often miss it. The change brought about by the military strongman, or the CEO of a corporation, or the powerful president, is obvious for all to see. What we don’t see so obviously is the difference made day by day by the courageous acts of love performed by ten thousand ordinary, flawed, nervous, insecure human beings who  put one step in front of the other and do the things they think God is asking them to do, whether they think they’re going to work or not, just because they believe it’s what God wants of them.

Jesus doesn’t change the world from the top down. He changes it from the bottom up. In fact, he might not even bother with ‘up’. The bottom works just fine for him. Here’s what he has to say on the subject:

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NLT).

What do you think? Does God need to get the thrones on side to change the world, or can he do it with the poor in spirit?