Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

All You Need is Hate

In the 1980s I was introduced to the poetry of Steve Turner, in a thin Hodder paperback called ‘Up to Date’. I was captivated by his sparse, uncompromising lines, and I thought then (as I still do now) that there was more about Christian discipleship in those pages than in many a book of biblical theology.

Here’s an example.

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(Book Info: Steve Turner, ‘Up to Date’, Hodder, 1983. Now long out of print, but you can get it for lots of money second-hand!).

Sheep Need a Shepherd (a sermon on Mark 6.34)

It’s a sure sign to us baby boomers that we’re getting older when we realize how many of our favourite musicians are either dying or retiring! When I was a teenager I became a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, so I was particularly struck by the fact that Paul Simon is officially retiring from touring this year, at the age of 76. I’ve always admired his ability to write a good song, and one of my favourites has always been ‘America’. Some of you know that it describes a bus trip across the continent in search of ‘America’, and toward the end we hear these poignant lines:

‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping;
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.

At the time he wrote these words Paul Simon was already an enormously successful songwriter. And yet, in the midst of his success, he confessed that he was empty inside, that he was lost and couldn’t find his way. I suspect that there are many more people like him: financially comfortable, competent, successful, but inwardly empty and desperately trying to find a way to fill that emptiness.

I think that’s the sort of thing Mark had in mind in our gospel reading for today when he wrote these words:

As (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)

Jesus saw the people he met as being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ – they had no leader, no guide to show them the way. I suspect things are not so very different today. But what happens to sheep without a shepherd? Let’s think about this for a minute.

First, sheep without a shepherd can’t find their way.I didn’t see too many shepherds where I grew up in inner-city Leicester, but of course we all knew about how shepherds used sheepdogs – often border collies – to drive their sheep in the right direction. However, in the time of Jesus shepherds didn’t drive their sheep, they went out in front of them and led them. Without the shepherd, the sheep would start going off in all sorts of different directions and getting lost. And that’s true of people too: we go off in all sorts of directions and get lost, and we desperately need a wise shepherd to show us the way.

Life today is like a gigantic multiple-choice question; there are so many choices open to us and it’s so difficult to choose the ones that seem right for us. We can make choices about our values: what’s really important in my life? Is my life about getting as wealthy as possible? Is it about success in business? Is it about experiencing the greatest possible degree of happiness or pleasure? In other words, what’s the goal of my life, and how do I know I’ve chosen the right goal?

Is there a way to live my life in such a way as to be in harmony with what I was created for? In other words, are there ethical standards, moral laws, rules or guidelines to follow as I go through life? Are there right things to do, and wrong things to avoid? How do I know which is which, and where can I find a reliable guide to choosing one from the other?

And what about God? Churchgoing may be on the wane today, but spirituality certainly isn’t; many people are fascinated with it and are intensely interested in finding a way to connect with the spiritual world and with God, whoever God may be. But how can I find God? There are so many paths on offer; are they all equally valid? If I think so, what do I make of the fact that some of them tell me that I can serve God by flying planes full of people into tall buildings, or by bombing abortion clinics? How can I find a true path through this maze, a path that will help me to connect with the true and living God and find his will for me?

We all need shepherds to guide us in finding answers to these questions. But who are our modern shepherds? Who are the voices we turn to for guidance? Newspaper columnists? Political leaders? Celebrities? Motivational speakers?

I have a friend who is an Alliance Church pastor. A few years ago he left pastoral ministry for a while and began to travel across the country as a motivational speaker. When he was on his way through Edmonton once we met for breakfast, and he told me that a lot of his Christian ministry these days was to other motivational speakers. “It’s pretty sad, really”, he said; “They stand up before large audiences and share their five steps to a successful life, but when you get to know them as individuals you discover that a lot of them are as messed up as everyone else!”

So where do we go for help? We go to Jesus. In all of this confusion, the clear voice of Jesus speaks to us from the pages of our scriptures: “Follow me”. God has not left us shepherdless; he has come among us in the person of Jesus to show us the way. Jesus said, “I am the Way”. God’s revelation to us in the pages of the Bible comes to its clearest focus in Jesus as we read about him in the gospels. Jesus promises to lead us to the Father, and to guide us about the sort of life we should be living in God’s world. I find it interesting that in today’s gospel, Jesus’ response to the people’s shepherdless state was instruction: ‘he began to teach them many things’. Still today, if we follow his teaching, we will find our way.

For many years now I’ve been suggesting a prayer that I think gets right to the heart of what being a disciple is all about. It goes like this: ‘Jesus our Master, teach us today to see life as you see it, and to live life as you taught it’. I think if we live our daily lives in the spirit of that prayer, God will honour our request, and Jesus will show us the way.

First, then, sheep without a shepherd get lost and can’t find their way – but Jesus says “I am the way”, and he promises to guide us to the Father and to the way of life that is the Father’s will for us. Secondly, sheep without a shepherd can’t find pasture and food.A big part of the shepherd’s job is to make sure that the flock gets adequate nourishment. Nowadays most sheep live their lives behind fences, in fields belonging to their owners, but that wasn’t the case in the time of Jesus; in those days sheep were pastured on the open range. It was the shepherd’s job to lead them to fresh pasture where they could find the food and water they needed.

Speaking of food, I’ve seen statistics claiming that the average Canadian goes out to eat more than anyone else in the world. Today in Canada we are experts at feeding our bodies with the most varied and delicious foods – some of them nutritious, some of them perhaps less so! But have we lost the skill of nourishing our souls?

Physical food gives us the strength to continue our bodily existence, but we are not only physical people – we are also souls, people with minds and hearts and emotions. ‘Soul food’ is food that feeds our inner life, food that gives us the strength to be the people we want to be and know we should be. Where do we find this food?

Over the next few weeks our gospel readings will be addressing this issue as we read through the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. In John 6:35 Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In some mysterious sense, Jesus himself is our soul food; Jesus lives in us, by his Holy Spirit, and nourishes our inner life. Our conscious faith and dependence on him every minute of the day is what keeps us going as Christians. Coming to him and believing in him is what satisfies our souls.

Do you find this idea difficult to grasp? You’re not alone; many people find it hard to get their head around this. It’s a bit too abstract for us, so God in his compassion gives us a concrete sign of it: the sacrament of Holy Communion. The old Anglican prayer book uses the phrase, ‘feed on him in your heart, by faith, with thanksgiving’. That’s hard for me to do in an abstract way, but I hear those words, in the prayer book, when I’m actually holding out my hand to receive the bread of Holy Communion. Scripture teaches us that as we receive the bread and wine with faith in our hearts, so we are fed spiritually by the life and power of Jesus. We are coming to his table to receive our spiritual food. This isn’t the only way that he comes to us, of course, but he has promisedto meet us here. Are you spiritually hungry, thirsty, tired, burdened? Come to the Lord’s Table and be refreshed!

So Jesus our shepherd is leading us into God’s will for us, and he’s nourishing us so that we can have the strength to do it. But there’s one more thing about sheep without a shepherd: sheep without a shepherd have no defence against danger.

Sheep grazing out on the free range are exposed to many different dangers. There are steep cliffs and ravines; there are wild animals out to kill and eat their prey; there are thieves and robbers out to steal the sheep for themselves. And we as human beings and Christians are also exposed to spiritual dangers. In the first letter of Peter we read these words:

‘Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).

The New Testament writers assume that there is an enemy of our souls who wants to separate us from God forever. He does this by tempting us to leave the path Jesus is leading us along and to take a path we’ve designed ourselves. Right at the beginning of the biblical story he tempted the first humans to ‘be like God’ – in other words, to choose their own path rather than sticking with the one God had chosen for them. That temptation continues to be a powerful one today. 

In this situation, where is the safest place for me to be as a sheep? The answer is, in the flock, behind Jesus my shepherd, doing exactly as he tells me to do. When I do that, I put myself in the position where he can defend me; otherwise, I’m all alone. That doesn’t mean our shepherd never comes to look for the ones who stray – the gospels assure us that he does. But it would be much better if we didn’t stray in the first place. 

So we need to stay in the flock with the shepherd. In other words, we need to be part of the Christian community, and fully a part of it – not just half-heartedly, when it’s convenient, when it doesn’t clash with our busy schedule. It’s here that we listen to the word of the Good Shepherd, here that we experience his presence together and are fed with his body and blood. We are a community of people following Jesus together, and in that community is the safest place for us to be. 

Let’s go around this one last time. 

Jesus looks out on the world and has compassion for everyone he sees, because so many are like sheep without a shepherd. He wants to be our shepherd. How do we take advantage of this?

First, Jesus leads his flock to the Father and teaches us how to live, so we need to learn to listen to his voice and practice what he says. So our prayer is, ‘Lord Jesus, help us know the Father as you do. Help us listen to your words. Help us to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it’. 

Second, just as the shepherd leads his sheep to pasture, so Jesus is the nourishment we need for our souls. So we learn to depend on him day by day, and to rely on his presence to sustain us on the way. Most especially, we come to his Table regularly to receive the spiritual food he offers us here. 

Third, just as the shepherd protects his sheep from danger, so Jesus protects us from the attacks of the evil one. And we make it easier for him to do that by staying close to him and to his flock – his Church.  The closer you are to Jesus and his community, the safer you are from the attacks of the enemy. 

Let me close with some more words of Peter. In his first letter he writes:

‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:25)

May this be a living reality, for all of us, as we follow our Good Shepherd.

On Starting with Jesus

Rant ahead. I think of Anglican Christianity as being rather fixated on the idea that God became a human being and lived among us in Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’). This is the centre of our faith. It’s why we stand for the reading of the Gospel every Sunday. We don’ do that for any other reading of the Bible, and we certainly don’t do it for the sermon – but we do it for the Gospel reading. Heck, some of my Anglo-Catholic friends bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned!

So I can take for granted that when I read John 1.18 – ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ – Anglican heads are going to be nodding. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “In God there is no unChristlikeness at all”. That’s what we believe.

Okay then! I’ve been researching confirmation courses and inquirers’ courses produced in the Anglican family (this is because I want to revise my [now out-of-print] 2003 book ‘Starting at the Beginning’). And here’s what I found! Some of the confirmation courses have great long screeds about the church and the sacraments, how to pray and so on, but they barely mention the story of Jesus at all! The best known inquirers’ course, the Alpha Course, simply assumes that people already know the story of Jesus, and just starts asking doctrinal questions about him: Who was he? Why did he have to die? etc.

Is this a responsible way for us to provide basic instruction about our faith in 2018? I know a lot of non-churchgoing people, and most of them are very unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. They certainly don’t have access to the background knowledge they need to help them understand the story (they don’t for instance, know what the word ‘Christ’ means, which is rather fundamental – if you don’t know that, you’ll certainly miss the point).

Surely, in 2018, anything claiming to be an inquirers’ course or confirmation course ought to be firmly based on the story of Jesus? Surely it ought to begin by re-telling that story, and exploring why his life and teaching is so important for us?

The worldwide Anglican Communion is currently emphasizing discipleship; they’re calling it ‘living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life’. So what shape is that, again? I ask, because recently two well-known Anglican bishops have each issued a suggested ‘rule of life’ to help their people follow Jesus more closely. But I haven’t seen much acknowledgement that Jesus has actually already given us a rule of life; we can find it in the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-32), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), among other places.

What would a Jesus-centred Rule of Life look like? Surely it would begin with the idea of seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and then explore the practical ways Jesus gave us to live that out. Things like avoiding anger and practicing reconciliation, being faithful in marriage, telling the truth at all times, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, practising prayer, fasting and giving to the poor, not storing up luxuries for ourselves, not judging others, and doing to others as we would have them do to us (see Matthew chapters 5 – 7).

What I want is a course about basic Christianity that is intentionally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We want people to come to know God. We believe that God is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus. So why isn’t our basic Christian instruction focussed, to the point of obsession, with the life and teaching of Jesus?

Note to self: We need to do better.

 

 

 

Summer rambles (in mind, heart and body!)

I haven’t done one of these for a while, but here it is, in no particular order.

Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a strong doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have no particular quarrel with this, although my evangelical tradition has a slightly different way of understanding it (see my internet friend Peter Carrell’s post here, if you’re interested, although you will need to get through a bit of theological jargon). But over the past few years I’ve come to a strongly experiential appreciation for the doctrine of the Real Presence of God in his creation. I DSCN1805have to honestly say, I often am more aware of God’s presence in the cathedral of nature than I am in the cathedral of wood or stone. I have reflected on this a lot as I have been out walking lately, in Whitemud Ravine and in Elk Island National Park. There have been times when the presence of God seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch him.

Heresy hunters, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not a pantheist, and I understand that God is different from God’s creation. What I experience was well described by the great evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

‘The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything’ (quoted in Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World‘, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018; chapter 4).

Speaking of Bruce Hindmarsh, I’ve really been enjoying his new book on early evangelicalism. My spiritual tradition gets a bad rap in the world today and I love going 512CP34YQtLback to investigate its early roots. A few years ago I read a superb book by Hindmarsh about the life and work of John Newton. His new book goes further; it examines the evangelical awakening of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in connection with the history of science, law, art, and literature of the time. This is new ground for me; nowadays (especially in North America) evangelicalism is not, shall we say, usually associated with an appreciation for science and the arts, so it may come as a surprise to read about John Wesley’s attempts to educate his followers in the discoveries of contemporary science, or the astronomical explorations of Isaac Milner and John Russell. I’m about two thirds of the way through the book now and I’m sure it will become one of my favourites.

Speaking of books, Marci and I have started reading Dante’s Inferno together, in the Mark Musa translation. I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy twice before, but this is the first time through for Marci. We’re both really enjoying it.

I’m used to the word ‘love’ being used in the New Testament as a translation for the Greek word ‘agapé’ – meaning unconditional, action-oriented love, not feelings or affections – so it took me a while on my first trip through Dante to realize that he almost always uses it  in the sense of ‘eros’ – not what we now call ‘erotic’ love but love that is a response to some beauty or worth in the beloved, love that desires to possess the beloved for itself. Dante shares with his theological contemporaries the idea that sin is fundamentally disordered love – we want the wrong things, and we want them in the wrong way. It took me a while to get my head around the way he uses this language, but now that I understand it, it makes a huge amount of sense to me. It reminds me of Tony Campolo’s sermon ‘Who Moved the Price Tags?’, with his illustration of the world as a department store window in which someone has changed all the price tags so that the cheap stuff is expensive and the expensive stuff is cheap. That’s what’s happened in the world, Campolo says: a lot of the things God values are not valued at all by humans, and many of the things we humans value aren’t important at all in God’s eyes. Disordered loves, you see.

And now for something completely different. Black terns are not very common – not as common, say, as the common tern. On Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park common terns are very common indeed; if you walk the shoreline or go out in a canoe you’ll see them swooping and diving, and you’ll hear the splash as they hit the water in search of their prey. They move fast and they’re notoriously difficult to photograph because of that (hence the lack of photographs here!).

Marci and I were canoeing on Astotin Lake on Monday morning and we suddenly DSCN2326noticed that the terns that were diving and swooping around us were not white – they were dark-coloured. They were black terns! That was an exciting moment; I have never seen a black tern in my life before, so this was a lifetime first. We also got to see a whole flotilla of pelicans (see photograph!), which apparently were not stressed at all about the presence of a canoe in close proximity to them. And we also got close to the island in the lake where the cormorants roost and got to watch them flying and diving from the tall trees where we normally see them (from the shore, through binoculars). Truly, the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Which leads me to the poem I’ll close with: ‘God’s Grandeur’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Amen!

The Challenge of Costly Discipleship (a sermon on Mark 6.14-29)

It will be nineteen years next month since I was interviewed by the search committee for the position of rector of St. Margaret’s. It was a memorable interview in many ways, but one thing I especially remember was a question I was asked by Murray Tait, who was People’s Warden at the time. He said, ‘Do you consider it to be part of your job as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but also to challenge us?’

Preachers often have difficulty with that question – after all, we’re dependent on our congregations to pay our salaries, and it can be so tempting just to tell people what they want to hear! And yet we know that passing on the challenge of Jesus is also an important part of our calling. The message of Jesus won’t always sound like good news, especially when he calls us to leave selfish ways behind and put God’s word into practice in our daily lives. How do we react to that challenge? Today’s gospel tells us about two people who were challenged by God’s message, and how they reacted to it. 

I need to clarify that the Herod in this story is not Herod the Great, the one who tried to get the wise men to lead him to the baby Jesus in the Christmas story. Our Herod is his son, Herod Antipas; Herod the Great had divided his kingdom between his sons, and Antipas got Galilee, where Jesus was brought up. 

There are two things you need to know about Herod Antipas. First, he was a puppet ruler; he kept his throne because it suited the Romans to have him there. Because of this, keeping the peace with Rome was always a priority for him. But secondly, like his father, he really wanted the people he ruled to recognize him and accept him as their legitimate king. You see, the Herod family weren’t really full-blooded Jews – they were Idumeans, and this was one of the reasons they were very unpopular with the Jewish people; how could God’s true anointed king not be one of God’s chosen people, the Jews? 

And the choices Herod Antipas made in his personal life didn’t help the situation. Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had met her at his brother’s house; the two had become infatuated with each other and had left their previous spouses to marry each other. It’s actually not clear whether a formal divorce ever took place between Herodias and Philip; in Jewish law a woman had no right to divorce her husband, and there was a lot of controversy at that time about the proper legal grounds for a husband to divorce his wife. It’s fair to say that a large percentage of the population of Galilee saw Herod and Herodias as living in sin – and, to them, this was further evidence that Herod Antipas simply could not be God’s true anointed King. 

And this was why Herod Antipas had to arrest John the Baptist. Our text says ‘John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”’(v.18). We shouldn’t understand from this that John and Herod had enjoyed a quiet fireside chat over a glass of wine, discussing Herod’s matrimonial woes! No – when it says ‘John had been telling Herod’, it means, ‘telling in public, in his sermons’. And if John was saying this about Herod’s marriage, the people would have understood him to be denying that Herod could be God’s true anointed king – which, of course, would have been an act of sedition on John’s part. At this point – as a ruler interested in keeping his throne – Herod had to arrest John.

But now comes the curious twist: Herod had a soft spot for John, too! In fact, he was more than a little afraid of him, knowing that ‘he was a righteous and holy man’ (v.20). Even more curiously, we read that Herod ‘liked to listen to (John)’ (v.20). It sounds as if there was an internal struggle going on in Herod; he was angry at what John was saying, and yet deep down he knew there was truth in his words.

But Herod and John were no match for Herodias; she was a manipulator, determined to get what she wanted, and she wanted the Baptist dead. A dance on Herod’s birthday gave her the opportunity to get what she wanted. Our NRSV translation opts for a minority reading of the text and identifies the dancer as ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’. However, this makes no sense; there is no evidence that Herod had a daughter who was also called Herodias. The majority of manuscripts identify the dancer as ‘the daughter of Herodias’ – presumably by her marriage to Philip. The Jewish historian Josephus gives her name as ‘Salome’. Herod, an impetuous man, was so infatuated with her dancing that he made a rash vow promising to reward her with anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. This was Herodias’ opportunity; the girl asked for advice from her mother, and her mother had no hesitation about using her daughter as a pawn: she was to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. ‘The king was deeply grieved’, but felt bound by his oath, and that was the end of the matter. 

Now – what can we possibly learn about Christian discipleship from this grizzly story?

Well, let’s look at the three main characters. Let’s start with Herodias. Here’s a woman who sets out to get what she wants and doesn’t mind who gets hurt along the way. She’s not afraid to use power to better her own position, and if people try to stop her, she crushes them mercilessly. 

It’s possible that her own personal insecurities were fuelling her determination to have her own way. She knew her marriage to Herod was doubtful in the eyes of the people, and she knew Herod was hungry for their approval. She knew he had a soft spot for John the Baptist. And she knew if he chose to listen to John’s message, she stood to lose her marriage and her position as the wife of the Tetrarch of Galilee. You can imagine how she must have felt. 

Of course, that’s often the way it is with bullies – they often have a deep-seated insecurity inside, an insecurity they’re determined not to reveal to anyone. So they overcompensate; they come across as forceful personalities, and if you dare to stand in their path, they trample you down without mercy. To them, the world’s a ‘dog eat dog’ sort of place, divided into winners and losers, and they’re determined to be the winners every time.

The lengths Herodias was prepared to go to in order to get what she wanted are quite shocking when you think about it. Do you think it was a pleasant experience for a young girl to be presented with the head of John the Baptist on a plate? But Herodias was quite prepared to put her daughter through this trauma in order to get what she wanted. Apparently she saw people, even people she loved, as pawns to push around so she could get her own way.

Sad to say, this sort of thing isn’t unknown in the Christian church. We Christians can be just as determined as anyone else to get our own way, and I sometimes think Christian congregations are particularly vulnerable to the activity of bullies. This is because we try to be kind to everyone, and so bullies can throw their weight around in a church for a long time before someone confronts them with their behaviour and challenges them to stop it. 

And of course, if we’re ever going to grow as Christians, we dohave to stop. Herodias saw herself as the lead actor in her own play; everyone else existed for her benefit alone. But if we’re ever going to grow in the Christian life, we have to learn to take ourselves out of the centre of our own universe and give that place back to the one to whom it rightfully belongs.

So Herodias exemplifies the person who uses power to get what they want. But now let’s turn again to her husband, Herod Antipas. He’s a fascinating character! If ever there was a man with conflicted emotions, it was Herod! Deep down inside, he knew what was right, but over and over again he showed himself unable to do it.

It started with the arrest of John the Baptist. As a shrewd politician, Herod knew that if he was going to keep his throne he had to arrest John, but he seems to have felt guilty about the fact. He liked to listen to John! No doubt John talked about the things he’d always talked about – the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the need for people to turn their lives around so they could get ready for that Kingdom. John had never shied away from spelling out specifics, and no doubt he continued to do so when he talked with Herod; no doubt he told Herod “It’s wrong for you to have your brother’s wife”. We read that Herod was ‘perplexed’ about this, but I don’t think this means he was ‘perplexed’ about what John meant. No one could miss John’s meaning! No – he was perplexed about his own response to the message he was hearing: would he obey, or not? He knew what he should do, but he couldn’t summon up the moral courage to actually do it.

And of course the same thing happened when Herodias’ daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist. No doubt Herod saw immediately that he’d been in the wrong in making such a rash oath, but he cared too much for the good opinion of those around him to retreat from it. Once again, he knew what he ought to do, but he didn’t do it.

Most Christians will recognise themselves in Herod. We all ‘like to listen’ to Jesus and his message – we do it here every Sunday – but we’re often ‘perplexed’ about putting it into practice. It seems so costly! It’s so hard to actually do the things Jesus says. Nonetheless, if we’re going to grow in our Christian lives, we have to face the fact that it isn’t enough just to ‘enjoy listening to’ the Christian message. Jesus told us that if we do that, we’re like a person who builds their house on the sand: the rains come and the floods rise and beat upon the house, and down it comes. Obedience in theory won’t help us build a life that can stand up when the storm comes; only obedience in practice will do the job.

So the story’s telling us we have to be willing to take ourselves out of the centre of our own lives and commit ourselves to following God’s anointed king, Jesus. It’s telling us we have to be willing to put Jesus’ teaching into practice, rather than just listening to it and agreeing with it in theory. And the story’s warning us: if we do this, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending for us.

John the Baptist was a faithful and honest man of God. He’d given his entire life to the proclamation of God’s message. He’d spoken the truth fearlessly and seen huge crowds responding to his words, accepting baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to God’s kingdom. He’d pointed to Jesus, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And then he’d followed God’s call to speak the truth to powerful people, and he’d come to a sticky end. 

Mark – and the early Christians who read his gospel – didn’t see this as something strange. Mark wrote for Christians in Rome who were being savagely persecuted by the Emperor Nero. They understood that this was part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Two chapters later in Mark, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In all likelihood Jesus meant this saying literally; many of those who followed him would take up their crosses and go to the place of execution, just as he had. To be a Christian meant being unafraid to nail your colours to the mast, identify yourself publicly as a follower of Jesus, and accept the consequences. 

Of course, we know the final outcome is very different. In the short term, Herodias is victorious and John is dead. But a decade later Herod was deposed from his throne by the Romans and ended his life in exile in Gaul, while John was already looked on as a hero by the growing Christian movement. Even more than that, as Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). John lives in glory today, and one day he’ll be raised to live with Jesus forever, and I’m sure he has no doubt that he made the right decision. But – when he was looking at the executioner’s axe, I’m sure he was just as scared as we would have been in his place. 

Speaking of fear – one last thing. In his brilliant little book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that the virtue of courage – which he calls ‘fortitude’ – is something we need whenever we try to practice one of the Christian virtues. Here’s what he says:

Fortitude includes both kinds of courage – the courage that faces danger as well as the kind that sticks to it under pain…You will notice, of course, that you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.

I know what he means. You believe God is calling you to do something, but you can see the possible negative consequences. You might not literally lose your head as John the Baptist did, but you might lose some financial security, or some comfort, or the good opinion of your friends. You can’t help feeling some fear and anxiety about that. So are you going to let the fear control your actions, or are you going to do what’s right? That’s where the rubber hits the road!

Don’t make the mistake of praying that God will give you a feeling of courage. Courage isn’t a feeling; courage is the habit of doing the right thing, even when you’re afraid of the consequences. There’s an old saying: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers”. And the content of the prayers is simple: “God, you’ve called me to do this difficult thing, but I can see the path ahead is going to be hard. Quite frankly, I’m scared. So can you please help me not to let fear control me? Help me do what you’re calling me to do, and give me a sense that you’re with me in it”. 

I can’t begin to count the number of times in my Christian life I’ve had to pray a prayer like that. And I’ve learned from experience that the prayers don’t take the difficulties away, but they do give me a sense that I’m not alone. “I am with you always”, says Jesus, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He was with John the Baptist, and he’ll be with us too. So let’s pray for the courage to follow him as faithfully as John the Baptist did.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788): ‘Author of Every Work Divine’

I came across this hymn lyric in Bruce Hindmarsh’s brilliant book ‘The Spirit of Early Charles_WesleyEvangelicalism‘, in a chapter describing the attitude of early evangelicals (the Wesleys, Jonathan Edwards,  George Whitfield) toward the emerging science of their day. It turns out that they were very curious about it and wrote extensively on the subject.

I find this lyric interesting. It is addressed to God the Holy Spirit, who traditionally is seen as being involved in creation (‘and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ – Genesis 1.2 KJV). However, in today’s evangelicalism I think it would be rare to find much discussion about the Holy Spirit’s role in the creation and sustenance of the universe; the emphasis would be almost entirely on the Spirit’s role in the work of human salvation. This lyric, then, is a salutary reminder to us of the attitude of an earlier generation: ‘Author of every work divine who dost through both creations shine’ (i.e. the old creation of the universe, and the new creation in Christ). The Spirit is not only the God of grace, but also the God of nature.

Charles Wesley: ‘Author of Every Work Divine’

Author of every work divine,
Who dost thro’ both creations shine,
The God of nature and of grace,
Thy glorious steps in all we see,
And wisdom attribute to thee,
And power, and majesty, and praise.

That all-informing breath thou art,
Who dost continued life impart,
And bidst the world persist to be;
Garnish’d by thee yon azure sky;
And all those beauteous orbs on high
Depend in golden chains from thee.

Thou dost create the earth anew,
Its Maker and Preserver too,
By thine almighty arm sustain;
Nature perceives thy secret force,
And still holds on her even course,
And owns thy providential reign.

Thou art the Universal Soul,
The plastick power that fills the whole,
And governs earth, air, sea, and sky;
The creatures all thy breath receive,
And who by thy inspiring live,
Without thy inspiration die.

Spirit immense, eternal Mind!
Thou on the souls of all mankind
Dost with benignest influence move;
Pleas’d to restore a sinful race,
And new create a world of grace
In all the image of thy love

‘Are We Too Familiar with Jesus?’ (a sermon on Mark 6.1-13)

When families get together, sooner or later the legends start coming out. Perhaps one of the family members has done quite well for themselves in the world – made a real success of their career, or become a well-known politician, or something like that. If that’s the case, it’s quite likely that at some point during the family gathering someone with a wicked sense of humour is going to say, “Do you remember that time when Jack did ____?” Everyone will collapse in fits of laughter, the person in question will be suitably humiliated, and the family gathering will continue!

There’s a story about me that used to get regular airings at family gatherings years ago. It concerns a time in my mid-teens when I was sent down to the local laundromat to take some dry-cleaning to be done; it included stuff like the blazers and dress pants my brother and I had to wear for school uniform. Now, to be quite honest, at that time I was completely oblivious to the distinction between laundry and dry cleaning. And I must have been incredibly dense, too, because I never stopped to ask myself why I would be sent to the laundromat to do ordinary laundry, when we had a perfectly good washer and dryer at home. But anyway, I stuffed all those clothes that needed dry cleaning into the washer and dryer at the laundromat, took them home afterwards, and then experienced a rather spectacular family explosion. I didn’t do too badly out of it in the end; I got a new school blazer. My brother didn’t do quite so well, he got to wear my shrunken blazer, with black leather extensions to make the arms a little longer. I don’t think he’s ever forgotten that.

I expect that’s the sort of story the people of Nazareth were remembering about Jesus when he came to preach in their synagogue:

‘They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3).

“This is just Mary’s boy? Do you remember the time Joseph sent him to drop off a plough at Avram’s house, and he went dreaming his way through the field and dropped it off at Amminadab’s instead? Do you remember when he was little and he looked so cute? Do you remember the scrapes he got into? Too bad he’s gotten big ideas about himself now; I wonder where all that came from!”

In Mark’s story, this passage comes at the end of a section about the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee. It started in chapter three, when Jesus chose the Twelve. Immediately following that, we heard about how his immediate family were so worried by the things they were hearing about him that they came to take him home, because they were convinced he’d gone out of his mind. Then we had a chapter of parables, like the farmer scattering seed in his field, and a number of miracle stories, like the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the stilling of the storm on the lake. Now, at the end of the section, we’re back to the same two themes: those who have known Jesus since he was a child don’t believe in him, but his disciples do believe in him. Consequently, he sends them out on a mission in which they are able to do some spectacular things because of their trust in him. 

The theme of faith and unbelief has been simmering all through this section of Mark. Jesus is the farmer who is scattering the seeds of God’s message wherever he goes, but not all of them come up – in other words, not everyone hears with faith. The disciples and Jesus get caught in a storm on the lake; the disciples are afraid, but after Jesus stills the storm he says to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). Jesus delivers a man from the power of evil spirits by casting the spirits out of him and into a herd of pigs. The pigs run off the cliff and drown in the lake, and immediately the people of the area beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood! Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood, who we heard about last week, are able to believe in Jesus and experience his healing power, but the people of Nazareth won’t believe, and as a result Jesus can’t do much to help them. 

Let’s look at little more closely at this. What does it mean to say that the people in Jesus’ hometown didn’t believe in him? What exactly were they saying about him? In a nutshell, it was this: “He’s nobody special! We’ve known him since he was a child; why does he suddenly think he’s better than we are?”

I think this attitude to Jesus is alive and well in the contemporary world: “He’s nobody special!” Many of the people I meet in non-Christian circles feel the same way about Jesus. I was having coffee with a friend a while back, and we got talking about the Christian message. My friend has no patience with the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. He said, “Christ makes much more sense to me when I think of him as a man”.

I didn’t have time to give an adequate response, but what I wanted to say was something like this: “You know, I have exactly the opposite experience. When I read the Gospels, it’s when I try to think of Jesus as just an ordinary man that he makes no sense to me at all!”

What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus wasn’t just a first century self-help guru wandering around giving sage advice about how to live. Jesus actually believed some very weird things about what was happening through his ministry! The heart of Jesus’ preaching was not ‘love your neighbour as yourself’; rather, it was an announcement that because he was present, the Kingdom of God was at hand. 

In other words, Jesus believed God was working in a unique way through his ministry to set the world free from the dark forces of evil. He believed God was working through him to establish a kingdom of justice and peace, in contrast to the kingdoms of exploitation and violence and injustice that everyone was so familiar with. Not only that, but he also believed some very strange things about his own coming death – which he seemed to know was coming. He said he was going to give his life ‘as a ransom for many’, and his blood would be ‘the blood of the covenant’ – which was the sort of language Jewish people used when they offered animal sacrifices to atone for their sins. 

Speaking of the things he said, what about this sort of stuff: “My friend, your sins are forgiven”? In Judaism there was a clearly defined way of receiving forgiveness for your sins: you went to the temple and you offered a sacrifice. Now here is Jesus acting and talking as if his presence makes the temple unnecessary! And, of course, that wasn’t the only strange thing he said. He claimed to be the one who had sent the prophets and preachers of the Old Testament. He said that if you had seen him, you had seen the Father. And so it goes on.

What I wanted to say to my friend was this: ‘When I think of Jesus as just a man, he doesn’t become a good man in my mind: he becomes either a bad man or a lunatic. Today, a man who was just a man, but who said and did the things Jesus said and did, would be referred for psychiatric attention. We certainly wouldn’t have trusted him as the pastor of a church; he was far too unbalanced for that!’

So it seems the people of Nazareth were correct: if Jesus really was just the hometown boy, and nothing more, then they were right not to be impressed. Religious fanatics were two a penny in those days; they arrived on the scene, and before too long they were put in their place – usually by the Romans, with nails.

I want people to take the New Testament picture of Jesus seriously – to realize that if he’s just a man he makes no sense at all. He only makes sense if he’s morethan just a man – if he’s a prophet, or even, dare I say it, the Son of God. If Godhas come among us in Jesus to show us the way, and to live and die for us, thenJesus makes sense. Of course he still challenges us, and turns our notions of what’s real and what’s not upside down – but then, if God is coming to us in him, we’d expect that, wouldn’t we? 

But I can’t stop there. So far this reading of the text has been very comfortable for me, hasn’t it? In this interpretation, I’m the faithful one, and my friend is one of the faithless Nazarenes who didn’t accept Jesus’ authority. But that’s a slightly inaccurate way of reading the text. After all, the whole point of the story is that the Nazarenes were Jesus’ own people, his flesh and blood: they ought to have been the ones to recognize him and welcome him. But that’s exactly the opposite of what actually happened; as John says in his Gospel, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11).

Who are Jesus’ family today? Who are the ones who ought to be the closest to him? Surely it’s us, his church? In Mark 3, when Jesus’ family came to take him away, he looked around at the disciples and the people sitting listening to him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34b-35). So perhaps we need to ask the question, have webecome too familiar with Jesus? Are we so comfortable with his story that we don’t see it for the dynamite that it really is?

Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God, an upside-down kingdom where the little people would be honoured and the proud tyrants brought down. He taught his followers not to accumulate money and possessions, but to give generously to the poor and needy instead. He told them to love their enemies and do good to them, and to pray for those who hated them. He told them that the point of life wasn’t riches or success or popularity, but learning to love God with all their heart and love their neighbours as themselves. He told them to be a people who were known for their honesty and integrity. He reached out to lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans – the people on the margins of society – and he taught his followers to do the same. 

So often, we Christians miss all this. So often, our way of life bears little resemblance to the way Jesus taught us to live. Could it be that we’re just too familiar with this stuff, and so subconsciously we screen it out? Jesus was quite clear that he had come to show us the way, but it sometimes seems that in the past two thousand years we’ve been so busy building impressive churches for him that we’ve got no time to actually follow the way he showed us! 

And what’s the result? In Mark 6 we read, ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them’.Now that’s a rather strange sentence! I don’t know about you, but if I could lay my hands on a few sick people and heal them, I’d think of that as a pretty impressive deed of power! So what did Mark mean when he said that Jesus could do ‘no deed of power there’?

Here’s what I think he meant. The gospels are clear that Jesus’ miracles are signs pointing to the coming of the Kingdom of God. When the kingdom comes in all its fulness, evil and sickness and injustice and death will be no more. The miracles point to that future reality.

What would have happened if the people of Nazareth hadbelieved in Jesus? Would there just have been a lot more healings? No – the entire community would have been transformed. People with resentments would have forgiven each other. Rich people would have given away most of their wealth to people who didn’t have enough. Some impending divorce actions would have been cancelled. People would have stopped hating Roman soldiers and started inviting them for meals in their houses. The whole community would have started practicing love and contentment and reconciliation and peace and justice. Now there’s a deed of power for you!

And here’s the tragedy of what we’ve often done to Christianity in the western world. Because of our lack of faith, we haven’t actually done the things that Jesus told us to do; we’ve tamed Christianity down, and the result is that all he can do is lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. In other words, yes, some people do come to church, and they are helped by what they find there, but the world isn’t transformed as Jesus had intended when he started his Kingdom revolution in the first place. The world stays pretty much the same. 

So here’s the challenge of this text: we, the church, have often become like the Nazarenes in the time of Jesus. We think we know him well, but we’ve dulled the sharp edges of his message and avoided the challenges. So this text is calling us to faith – realfaith, faith that trusts Jesus so much that it follows his example and obeys his commands. When we do that, then Jesus is able to do the ‘deed of power’ he wants to do – transform the world into a place of compassion and justice, a place of reconciliation and peace. 

So – have we become too familiar with Jesus? If so, maybe it’s time for us to take a fresh look at the gospels and think about what Jesus was really up to when he sent his followers out to announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. One Mennonite author says that the movement Jesus started was ‘the original revolution’ – a nonviolent revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. Let’s not allow familiarity with Jesus to dull the sharp edges of that revolution in our lives. Let’s pray for the courage to trulybelieve in Jesus, and to show our belief by doing the things he taught us to do.

‘Out of the Depths’ (a sermon on Psalm 130)

When I was in college my Old Testament professor used to say, ‘the rest of the Bible speaks tous, but the Psalms speak forus’. I think this is true, and I’m really glad that we use them week by week in our Anglican worship.

The Book of Psalms is a book of prayer songs written by Old Testament people. Some of them perhaps date as far back as the time of David, a thousand years before Jesus; others are more recent. In the psalms we find the whole breadth of human experience and emotion – joy and suffering, praise and anger, love and hate – every part of our human life, even the nasty parts, all presented to God in prayer. I hope you’re getting to know the psalms, and I hope you read them regularly. This extraordinary collection of prayers is telling us that everypart of our human life can be prayed; there’s no experience and no emotion that can’t be brought up in our conversations with God. The psalms invite us to behonest and beourselves in our prayers. God knows all about us anyway, so we may as well tell him the truth.

Today’s psalm, Psalm 130, is definitely speaking for us in our troubles. It speaks of a painful aspect of our human experience, when we say to ourselves, “I’m in trouble, and it’s my fault:I’m the one that caused it”. So we’re not only dealing with despair and difficulty, but guilt as well. If we’re religious people, we may find ourselves thinking “God must be punishing me for what I did”.

This was a common view in Old Testament times – the idea that if you were suffering, you had obviously done something wrong, and God was punishing you for it. Of course, this view  is still with us; we still hear people who are going through hardship asking, “What have I done to deserve this?”

But even in the Old Testament not everyone agrees with this, and when we turn to the New Testament we come across a completely different view. In John chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples look at a man who was born blind, and they ask Jesus, “Who sinned – him or his parents?” Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Throughout the gospels Jesus lives out a message of grace– God’s unconditional love for all people – people like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the bandit who was crucified with Jesus, and even Peter who denied three times that he even knew Jesus. In each case, instead of sending trouble on the sinner to punish them, Jesus reaches out to them with the message of God’s steadfast love.

Psalm 130 is one of those places in the Old Testament where we catch a glimpse of this truth. Let’s explore it together. I’m going to base my comments on the NRSV translation in our pew Bibles.

So let’s start by asking ourselves, what is the writer of this psalm experiencing? Look at verses 1-2:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

The ‘depths’ are a common Old Testament metaphor for suffering, despair, and depression. The writer is talking about the ocean depths, or maybe the floods: ‘Lord, I need your help! I’m in the depths of despair here!’

Our readings for today give us examples of these depths. In our first lesson, David is crying out to God in grief for his dear friend Jonathan, who has been killed in battle with the Philistines. We know that grief is one of the hardest things we go through as humans. The death of someone we love – and the continual experience of their absence – is something we find it very hard to get through.

In our Gospel reading, one of the characters in the story is about to experience that grief. Jairus has a little daughter, and he’s frantic with worry about her; she’s very ill – at the point of death. The serious illness of a much-loved child is one of the great fears of all parents; if you’ve ever lost a child, you know how black those particular depths can be.

There’s also a woman who has been suffering hemorrhages for twelve years; she’s spent a lot of money on doctors, and we can guess she’s prayed a lot too, but nothing has changed. Twelve years is the age of Jairus’ little girl; all the time that Jairus and his family have been enjoying their lovely daughter, this poor woman has been suffering, and there’s been no relief. A long, chronic illness, and years of unanswered prayer – that’s a very, very dark valley. Some of you here today have been walking that valley.

In 2 Corinthians 8 there are hints of another dark valley. Paul is organizing a relief fund in all his Gentile churches to help the Christians back in Jerusalem, who for some reason are going through a time of severe economic hardship. Very few of us in this church have to deal with that sort of thing; even if we’ve been out of work for a while, we usually haven’t had to worry about where our next meal is coming from. But of course there are people in the world who are overwhelmed with worry about that; they have no idea whether or not they’ll be able to eat today.

These are some of the ‘depths’ that Bible people experienced – bereavement, chronic illness, unanswered prayer, crushing poverty. They’re all with us still, along with many other hard circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us.

I wonder what ‘depths’ you are experiencing that are causing you to cry out to God in fear or desperation? Maybe it’s the depths of grief at the loss of a loved one, or panic as you find yourself in serious financial difficulties. Maybe it’s the pain of the breakup of a marriage, or conflict with children or parents. Maybe it’s the unexpected diagnosis of a serious illness – perhaps a mental illness – that you just can’t find relief from. Maybe it’s a sense of guilt at some things you’ve done, and a fear that God has turned his back on you and abandoned you.

These are all common human experiences that many people go through, whether they’re Christian or not. Sometimes it’s harder for us as Christians, because we’ve been told that if we follow Christ, God will always bless us and look after us. So we find ourselves asking, “Have I done something wrong that he’s punishing me for?” Or again, we’ve been taught that we’ll always be joyful if the Holy Spirit lives in us, and now we’re not feeling that joy.

So how does the writer of Psalm 130 deal with this experience? What does he have to say to God? Where does he find hope in the midst of despair? Let me point out a few things to you.

First, the writer arrives at what seems to us to be a blindingly obvious conclusion, but it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to get there without some help. What’s is it? Simply this: If God was sending thunderbolts to strike sinners dead, there’d be no one left standing. Look at verses 3-4:

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

We tend to think of ‘sinners’ as people who are guilty of some particularly heinous sin – and what we classify as a ‘heinous’ sin changes with our culture. To some people, it’s anything to do with sex; to others, it’s anything to do with social injustice. In the Middle Ages, it was daring to charge interest when you lent money to anyone!

But we can’t be so selective in our definition of sin. In most of our services we confess our sins together: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”. This is based on Jesus’ two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we’ve neglected to do this, then we’re sinners. And as soon as you start defining sin to include the good things we don’tdo, then we know we’re all included. As Paul says in Romans 3, ‘Allhave sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ – which is pretty much a New Testament Christian way of saying exactly what our psalm writer said.

That’s the first thing the psalmist reflects on: everyoneis a sinner, so whatever else my troubles might be, they can’t be God’s punishment for my sins – if they were, everyone would be going through the same punishment. The writer then goes on to reflect on three aspects of God’s character that give us hope.

First, God is a God of forgiveness. Verse 4 says, ‘But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’. The wording seems strange to us, but this ‘with you’ language is actually the writer’s way of pointing out different aspects of God’s character; he might say ‘there is courage with you’ or ‘there is patience with you’. So in verse 4 we have ‘forgiveness’, and in verse 7 we read ‘For with the Lordthere is steadfast love, and with himis great power to redeem’. And these three ‘with you’ characteristics turn out to be just the things that give us hope in our despair.

So – first, forgiveness. Of all people, we who follow Jesus don’t need to be in any doubt about that. Over and over Jesus met people who were in despair over their guilt, and he assured them of God’s forgiveness. He reached out to people who were considered to be the worst sinners, to the point that he was even described by his enemies as the ‘friend of sinners’ (they didn’t mean that as a compliment, by the way!). He taught us that God is like a father who welcomes his prodigal son home after he’s wasted all his property, or like a king who forgives an embezzling servant a debt bigger than the entire revenue of the kingdom. Paul says, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). ‘There is forgivenesswith you, so that you may be revered’.

Secondly, God is a God of steadfast love.The Hebrew word is ‘chesed’, which means ‘stubborn love’, or ‘love that never gives up’. And so the NRSV has this wonderful translation, ‘steadfast love’.

What’s it telling us? It’s saying that God has made a covenantwith us that he will not break. In that covenant he’s adopted us as his children, forgiven our sins, given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and promised that nothing can ever separate us from his love. His love for us is patient, stubborn, steadfast and sure, and we can count on it. His love will never let us go. Never.

So God is a God of forgiveness, and God is a God of steadfast love. Thirdly, God is a God who comes to the rescue.The NRSV uses the old word ‘redeem’; it says in verses 7-8, ‘…and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’.

The word ‘redeem’ is often used in the Bible to mean paying a price to set slaves free, or rescue them. But it’s also used in a military sense: God rescuing his people from a hopeless situation by what the Bible calls ‘the strength of his right hand’. Our psalm writer asks the question ‘What are the enemies that are too strong for me to defeat all by myself?’ And the surprising answer is, ‘My sins’:

‘…and with (the Lord) is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (vv.7b-8).

In other words, our own sins – or ‘iniquities’ as the psalm calls them – can be our worst enemies. How many times have we made New Year’s resolutions about dealing with our bad habits, and how many times have we broken them? And, on a less humorous note, how many times have we said of someone, “He’s his own worst enemy?” Positive change is very, very difficult for us humans; if eternal life is a reward for good behaviour, we’re in a desperate situation indeed.

Very, very difficult – but not impossible – at least, not with God. Jesus says, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God’ (Luke 18.27). ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6). Sometimes the Spirit’s power delivers us from the things that are binding us. Sometimes the Spirit gives us the strength to keep going, even though we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes the greatest gift the Spirit give us is the sense that we’re not alone – that God is with us – that right down here in the depths, when we’re tempted to despair, God will never let us go.

We’ve seen that God is a God of forgiveness, a God of steadfast love, and a God who rescues us from the sins that bind us. What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is two words: ‘Hope’, and ‘wait’. Look at verses 5-6:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

This is honest and realistic; the writer isn’t promising that the answer to our prayers is going to come instantly. Whatever this ‘flood’ is that’s threatening to overwhelm him, he’s not expecting that God will instantly taking it away. Far from it: he’s expecting to have to wait.

This lines up very much with life as I experience it. My Dad once said to me, “I’ve been impatient all my life, so every time I’ve really wanted something, the Lord has made me wait for it!” And I remember that in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable to encourage us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’ (Luke 18:1); there would have been no need for him to tell that parable if we always got everything we asked for right away!

So – keep on praying, and don’t lose heart. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope’. Whatever trouble we’re going through, let’s keep bringing it to God in prayer, confident that God is not punishing us, because he’s a God of forgiveness and steadfast love. This trouble we’re going through isn’t a big stick he’s using to beat us up or punish us. Rather, he’s walking through our dark place with us, just as he came and lived and died as one of us in Jesus, experiencing all the trouble that we go through as human beings, all the way to death on a cross. So we can come to him with confidence, knowing that nothing can ever change his steadfast love for us.

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