Stars or Servants? (a sermon for Oct. 21st on Mark 10.32-45)

I’d like to begin this morning with some words from the bestselling Christian author Philip Yancey:

In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the people who dominate our magazines and our television programs. We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.

Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger than life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.

I have also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for twenty years among the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients in rural India. Or health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town of Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.

I was prepared to admire and honour these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somewhere in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the ‘peace that is not of this world’.[1]

Stars and servants: that’s what today’s gospel reading is all about. As Yancey notes, our world today holds up the stars for admiration. But so did the ancient world. I learned this week that the phrase in the letter to the Philippians where Paul says ‘though (Jesus) was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’ (Philippians 2:6) was actually a political phrase in the ancient world. It was used by the Romans to describe people who aspired to political leadership: ‘He thinks he’s equal to a god’. In fact, in the ancient world you were really only a ‘person’ if you were a star. Ordinary people like you and me were non-persons; we didn’t count.

So people in the ancient word were every bit as obsessed with the cult of the star as we are today. But then along comes Jesus. He has a strong sense of his calling as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, the King who will set God’s people free. That’s what the word ‘Christ’ means. But at the same time he sets himself against the cult of the star. To him, the call to serve God was a call to suffer and die. And so he sets his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem, where everyone knows the opposition is gathering its forces against him:

He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32b-34).

Why is he doing this? Because it goes to the core of what he believes he’s called to do. Look at verse 45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”.

This was actually the third time Jesus had warned the twelve about what was ahead for him. They had probably assumed he was going to Jerusalem to claim the throne of David. But Jesus had already told them twice before that this was not going to happen. It was rejection and death that awaited him in Jerusalem, not power and glory.

James and John seem deaf to this. They seem completely unaware of how incongruous it is – right after Jesus has been talking about his suffering and death – to come to him and ask him for power-positions in his government. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v.37). How could they be so deaf? How could they ignore the clear implications of what Jesus was saying?

But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really so surprising; in fact, we do it all the time. There are many sayings of Jesus we ignore. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”. (Luke 6:30) “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28). “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33)

I don’t know about you, but I find these words of Jesus very challenging – too challenging to allow them much time at the forefront of my mind. More often than not, I try to pretend they’re not there. I’m not saying this to boast about it or recommend it; I’m just trying to be honest about it. My point is simply that this is what most Christians do: when Jesus says something to us that doesn’t fit into our world view, or that hits too close to home, we screen it out.

That’s probably what James and John had done with Jesus’ words about going to Jerusalem to be executed. They believed he was the Messiah. God would not abandon his Messiah to his enemies; he would protect him and give him victory. That was what they believed. And so when they heard Jesus saying he was going to be handed over to the Gentiles to be mocked and spat upon and flogged and killed, they screened it out. “You know Jesus – he’s always saying weird things! Whatever he means by this, it can’t be literally true!”

But Jesus rebukes them for their request:

“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?” (v.38).

‘The cup’ is a common symbol in the Old Testament. Here it is in Psalm 78:

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draft from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 78:8)

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like a very tasty drink to me! More like a poison pill! This cup is a symbol of God’s judgement poured out on the wicked, and Jesus says he’s got to drink from this cup.

And of course in Genesis the flood is God’s judgement against the wickedness of humanity. ‘Baptism’ in Greek is ‘baptizo’, and it sometimes means ‘to be overwhelmed by a flood’. The sixteenth century Anabaptists sometimes talked about having to go through ‘the baptism of blood’; they were thinking about the times when Jesus warns us to expect suffering and rejection because we follow him. Not everyone will be happy that we follow Jesus; some people will be very upset – just as they were upset with Jesus himself.

James and John seem pretty confident; when Jesus asks if they’re ready for this, they say “We are!” But then Jesus goes on to say, “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 at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (vv.39-40).

It’s often been pointed out that the only other time in the gospels where being at the right or the left of Jesus is mentioned is when he is hanging on the cross with two bandits crucified on either side of him, one on his right and the other on his left. To share Jesus’ glory isn’t a glorious experience; his glory is the cross, where he allows himself to be killed rather than inflicting death on others. Those who want to be close to Jesus have to be willing to join him in that place where they choose love even if it costs them their lives. If you want to be with Jesus, that’s where you have to be. James and John literally don’t know what they’re asking.

But Jesus is determined to make it clear to his disciples. So he calls them all together and spells it out for them again. Here are his words, this time in the Revised English Bible translation:

“You know that among the Gentiles the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Let’s be clear about this: Jesus isn’t saying, “If you want to be great, be a servant of all, and God will reward you by making you great”. If this were true then service would only be a temporary position; once we’d done enough serving to earn our reward, we could cast off our servant role and sit down on our thrones!

But that’s not what Jesus means. What he’s telling us is that service is greatness. Among all the roles the Kingdom of God has to offer, there’s no higher position than to serve others. Serving is what God does when he comes among us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; he’s God’s anointed king. But his whole purpose is to be a servant; this is why he came. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB)

I’m not talking about allowing others to enslave us. Forced slavery is a very evil thing. What I’m talking about is our offering of ourselves in loving service to others, of our own free will. One of the prayers in our Book of Alternative Services begins like this: ‘O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom’. This is what we’re talking about. We were created to serve; when we freely offer ourselves in loving service to God and to others, we find a freedom we’ve never known before.

All this is bringing us back to the central truth Jesus taught us: that the meaning of life is love for God and our neighbour, in response to God’s love for us. James and John weren’t focusing on God and their neighbour: they were focusing on themselves, their own advancement, their own glory. I don’t need to tell you we’re getting some pretty high-profile examples of this behaviour in international politics right now!

But this isn’t the way Jesus is leading us. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB) Jesus surely had the right to be a star if he wanted, but he chose to be a servant instead.  And in the end, he was not the loser for it.

So what would it mean for us to follow him? What if today, instead of asking Jesus for the best seats in the house, we asked him to show us the person he wants us to serve? Not for any gain we could get out of it, but just because this is the way of love?

In fact, we might not even need to do that. The truth is, I probably don’t need Jesus to tell me who I’m being called to love. Those people are already right in front of me. I already know who they are. I simply need to make the decision to love them as Jesus loves them, and to do it not just in words, but in actions. I’m guessing that when Jesus says, “Follow me”, this is pretty much at the heart of what he’s talking about.

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

[1]Philip Yancey: Where is God When it Hurts?(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1977, 1990), p.45.

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Why Have You Forsaken Me? (a sermon on Psalm 22)

The great writer C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer when he was sixty years old, after only three years of marriage. It was natural for him to turn to writing to help him through the grieving process, and the journal he kept after Joy’s death was eventually published; he called it A Grief Observed. At one point in the book he talks about how he had been taught as a Christian that if he needed God’s help all he had to do was ask and God would be right there. But now, when he desperately needed it, no help seemed to be coming. Rather, it was as if the door had been locked and bolted in his face. At the time of his greatest need he felt completely alone.

I think every honest Christian can identify with Lewis here. It’s true that some of us have stories of going through difficult times and how God gave us a special sense of his presence to help us. Perhaps he even delivered us in some miraculous and unexpected way. Those are wonderful stories and a great strength to our faith as we look back and remember them. But sooner or later most of us experience what Lewis went through: we’re in a time of great need and it seems as if God’s nowhere to be found. Our prayers are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back down at us. The skies are empty and barren. God, if there is a God, seems to be a million miles away.

That’s where our psalm for today starts. If anyone tells you Christians never have those kinds of experiences, ask yourself why God inspired Psalm 22 and gave it to his Church as a prayer for us to pray. The opening words are:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).

This is a psalm in which the experience of godforsakenness is explored thoroughly – and as you may remember, this was the psalm Jesus used when he hung on the Cross. So let’s look a little more closely at it together. It might help you to have it open in front of you as I speak; it’s on page 728 of the B.A.S.

Many of you know I hang around with songwriters a lot, and I hear quite a few hard luck songs. Some of them are carefully constructed but some are not: they sound like they’ve been scribbled down exactly as the words tumbled out of the songwriter’s brain, with no attempt to arrange them in an artful way.

Psalm 22 falls into the first category; It’s carefully arranged, with a real order to it. Let me point it out to you.

The psalm falls easily into two parts; verses 1-20 are the complaint, and verses 21-30 are the thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. The first section also falls into two parts; the first half, verses 1-10, is a sort of ‘A-B-A-B’ structure, in which complaints about God’s absence are followed by remembrances of how it wasn’t like that in years gone by. Look at the structure: verses 1-2 are the complaint, verses 3-5 the remembrance, verses 6-8 the second complaint, and verses 9-10 the second remembrance. Then in 11-20 the psalmist uses animal symbolism to talk about how his enemies are gathering around to gloat over him and destroy him.

Let’s think about this a little more closely. In the passage I read a moment ago, verses 1-2, the psalmist complains that God has forsaken him, and no matter how much he prays and groans and cries out for help there seems to be no answer. But then in verses 3-5 he goes on to say:

Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.

Do you understand what the writer’s doing here? At first glance it seems as if he’s turning from the black mood of verses 1-2 and putting his trust in the God of Israel. But when you look more closely you can see that’s not the point. What he’s actually saying is, ‘There are all those stories of how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’

The same thing happens a few verses later. After the psalmist complains about the fact that God’s treating him like an insignificant worm, he goes on to recount how people mock him and throw his faith in his face:

All who see me laugh me to scorn;
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him”.(vv.7-8)

The implication is, ‘He hasn’t rescued you, so obviously he doesn’t delight in you after all, does he? You thought you were some sort of special Christian, did you? Well, think again!’

‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-10 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since before he was born; ‘You were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and he asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned like this?

Note that this isn’t a private grief; it’s public. His enemies taunt him; they gather around and threaten him, like a herd of wild bulls or a pack of rabid dogs. Whatever this trouble is – and it isn’t spelled out anywhere in the psalm – whatever it is, he’s in mortal danger and it seems as if there’s no one to rescue him.

Well, which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? Think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who just don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong after all – perhaps I’m really nothing to God. Or maybe God’s just some sort of cosmic monster doing experiments on us, not the loving Father we thought he was’. You see, for some people the worst thing this sort of suffering does isn’t to stop them believing in God but to stop them believing in God’s love for them.

Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that. It doesn’t try to give rational answers; it simply enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. This is the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. This is the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to even show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. This is the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of God’s companionship in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.

And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. We read that as he hung there, ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’(Mark 15:34). As Jesus was growing up he would have learned the psalms by heart. Now in his hour of greatest need the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the God he felt had abandoned him.

You see, the early Christians developed a new way of reading what we call the Old Testament. They came to believe Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the story had been leading up to all along. And because of that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the highest revelation of God’s love and God’s will, and that the whole story up ‘til then had been pointing to him.

So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him”’ (vv.7-8), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of Jesus hanging on the cross and the chief priests mocking him, ‘saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God, let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’”’ (Matthew 27:42-43). They read verse 16, ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’, and thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing’ (v.17).

Maybe you think this is a little fanciful; yes, we can see there are some similarities, but the writer of the psalm wasn’t really writing about Jesus, was he, hundreds of years before? Surely he was writing about some suffering he was going through himself. All these connections are co-incidences, aren’t they?

You can think that way until you get to the last part of the psalm. In this part, the psalmist thanks God for the deliverance he has experienced, and then he promises to tell all his brothers and sisters in the congregation about it. He says he’s going to encourage everyone who fears the Lord to praise him and all the Israelites to stand in awe of God. Furthermore, he’d obviously made a vow that if God delivered him, he would show his gratitude by caring for the poor, and he’s determined to do that.

So far so good, but now look on. He says in verses 26-27, ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations’.And then, even more extravagantly, he says in verse 28, ‘To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him’ – that’s the dead, of course! So he’s saying, ‘Because of what God has done for me all the Gentiles from far away will start worshipping Israel’s God, and even those who have died will bow down to him’. This is some spectacular sort of deliverance, don’t you think, if it’s going to have this sort of dramatic effect? It’s certainly more than ‘Thank you, God, for helping me get over my feelings of low self-esteem!’

Jesus cried out to God on the Cross, and God delivered him – not from the suffering, but through the suffering and death to the bright new morning of the resurrection. And because of his death and resurrection the Gospel message went out beyond the borders of Israel to the ends of the earth, and people from every nation have come to believe Jesus is God’s anointed King. Those who would have been lost in death have found their hope in him because of his promise of resurrection and eternal life. And ‘The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the Lord shall praise him’ (v.25). ‘My descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done’ (vv.29-30).

So this psalm speaks to us of Jesus, who went through the terrible experience of Godforsakenness on the cross. He cried out to his Father for help and it seemed there was no answer. So when it seems to you as if there’s no answer for your prayer – when it seems as if the skies are barren and there’s no God there to help – this psalm assures you that you’re not alone. God himself has experienced Godforsakenness. God the Son looked for help from God the Father, and, from that time in the Garden of Gethsemane Thursday night until the resurrection morning on Sunday, it seemed as if there was no answer. He carried the burden of human sin and evil on his own shoulders, alone, with no one to help him. So we can pray the words of this psalm with him, confident that he knows the worst of what we’re experiencing, and more besides. As Hebrews 2:16 says, ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested’.

One more thing. The suffering on the cross made no sense when Jesus was going through it, but looking back on it now we know it was taken up into God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world. And I believe one day we too will see that not one second of our suffering has been wasted. That may be an incomprehensible thought to us right now – I have no idea how it can possibly be true – but God is infinitely bigger than my ideas, and one thing we know about the God of the Bible is that he specializes in bringing good out of evil. Evil won’t have the last word. Love will have the last word, and when we finally see God face to face all our pain and all our questions will be swallowed up forever in love.

Note: quotations from Psalm 22 are from the version found in the Book of Alternative Services and are versified according to this translation. All other biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Thanksgiving sermon 2018

When I was a little boy growing up in England, hedgehogs were a familiar feature of the countryside. They aren’t very spectacular creatures. They’re small and prickly, they tend to go out at night and sleep during the day, and they aren’t especially smart. They’ve never handled traffic very well; I’m pretty sure I saw more of them dead on the road than living in the grass. But they were everywhere, and they were loved.

And now they’re dying out. Numbers are hard to estimate, but a 2006 study suggested that the population might have dropped by 50% since the 1990s, and by 2025, they may well be extinct. It’s hard to pin down a single cause for this: removal of hedges, paving over of gardens, use of chemicals have all been suggested, and it’s likely that a combination of factors is behind it all. But one thing is clear: all of these factors are to do with human activity.

Closer to home, let’s think about the woodland caribou in Jasper National Park. This is also a population in decline. There are four separate herds, three of them quite close together in the southern part of the park. Two years ago, numbers for these three herds were estimated at just over fifty animals. One of them, the Maligne range herd, was down to three animals. Two of the biggest factors were road collisions and packed snow trails – both of them related to human activity. And yet, people routinely ignore speed limits designed to protect these animals. I’ve driven on the Miette Hot Springs road at 50 kilometres per hour and seen cars speed past me doing at least 80.

Why am I talking about these things today? Why is it important to us, as people of faith?

Today is Thanksgiving, possibly the one festival in our church year that is firmly connected to the natural creation around us. In many countries Thanksgiving is actually called ‘Harvest Festival’, a time to give thanks to God for the fruits of the earth and the goodness of the Creator who provides for our needs. And given the speed with which we humans are wiping out other species and destroying the natural environment around us, developing a good theology of creation isn’t a luxury for us; it’s vital for our survival. To be blunt: we need Thanksgiving just as much as we need Christmas and Easter. ‘In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1.1). Before God was our Saviour or our Redeemer, God was first of all our Creator. And that mattersto us as Christians. It matters a lot.

This morning, let me suggest to you five biblical virtues of people who know themselves to be created by God and placed in a world created by God.

The first virtue is humility, and it’s especially important to our concept of ownership. Listen to the words of Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2).

If I create a work of art, it belongs to me unless I sell it or give it away. The same applies if I’m a developer or builder and I build a house. This principle is universally acknowledged: if you create something using your own resources, what you have created is your property.

And yet we human beings refuse to recognize this principle when it comes to the Creation itself. We talk about owning land. Premiers of Alberta have been known to announce that the oil under our feet ‘belongs to the people of Alberta’, as if we created the dinosaurs and the process by which they died and were fossilized. We assume that we have the right to decide the fate of animals and birds, as if we designed and created them and have kept them alive by our own skill.

A biblical theology of creation starts here. The earth does not belong to us. Buy and sell land all you like, that doesn’t make you its owner. God has never sold it or given it away. Genesis teaches us that God has entrustedthe earth to our care, but that’s a different thing altogether, something we’ll come to in a minute when we think about the meaning of stewardship. But the caribou belong to God. The hedgehogs belong to God. God took a lot of care in designing them, and they matter to him. What does that mean for how we approach them? Does it make a difference? If not, why not?

So the first virtue is humility.The second one is attentiveness.

 

In our gospel reading for today Jesus says “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). I’m a casual bird watcher myself, so I’m delighted to find Jesus recommending my hobby to his disciples! Seriously, I know that’s not the point Jesus is making: he’s wanting us to learn trust in God from the creatures around us. But I note that he assumes his followers will noticethe birds around them. Nowadays, I don’t think that’s necessarily a sure thing.

We are the most connected generation in the history of humanity – in one sense. Through the wonders of Facebook I’m connected to friends and relatives all over the world; I can see their family photos, read what they’re up to and join in their political arguments to my heart’s content! But in another sense, we’re the mostdisconnected generation. Few of us grow our own food anymore, so we’re disconnected from the natural processes of life. Few go out in the country for walks. And even in the city, I’ve been amazed how many people just don’t look around them. The path that leads down from the LRT station near my house goes past some beautiful trees and shrubs, and in the Fall the colours are spectacular. But most people seem far more interested in their cell phones than the colour of the oak leaves!

God is the Creator. If we love God, shouldn’t we take an interest in what God has made?

There was a time when theologians used to talk about the two books of revelation God has given us: the book of scriptureand the book ofcreation. Yes, we learn about God from the words of the Bible, but we also learn about God from the colours of a sunset, or the vast distances of space, or the amazing creatures that live at the bottom of the sea. If we’re just not interestedin these things, surely there’s something missing in our spirituality?

So let me encourage you to be attentive to God’s creation. Enjoy the colours of Fall. Learn the different species of birds. Delve into the amazing mysteries of DNA and how it works. Walk a woodland trail in the river valley. Smell the smells of the outdoors.Pay attentionto what’s going on in the natural world around you. After all, our lives literally depend on it.

So the first virtue is humility, and the second is attentiveness. The third, of course, is gratitude.

 

And surely we Albertans have more cause to be grateful than almost everyone else on the face of the planet! Our province contains some of the most amazing scenery in Canada. And I’m not just talking about the mountain parks, although they’re spectacular enough. I’m talking about the amazing sunsets we get on the prairies. I’m talking about all the places in our province where you can go canoeing or swimming, or cross-country skiing, or sailing, or hiking through the bush. Last week Marci and I went to visit Elk Island National Park with my aunt and uncle from Ontario: they were wowed by the sight of a whole herd of bison, which they described as ‘magnificent creatures’.

We can see all this. We can also enjoy the benefits of oil and gas reserves buried beneath our feet, reserves that have given us the highest standard of living in Canada. Children growing up in our province today live in luxury that would have been unimaginable to children three generations ago, and we take it for granted. And, of course, we enjoy a level of safety and security billions of people around the world can only dream about. Few of us expect to be caught up in a civil war or an incident of ethnic cleansing.

In 1 Thessalonians 5.18 Paul says ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’. Notice that he says nothing at all about our feelings. He doesn’t command us to feelgrateful. He commands us to dosomething: to say thank you. He knows that the act of saying thank you, and making a habit of it, has a transformational effect on us. Yes, our words often reflect what’s in our hearts, but they also have power to changewhat’s in our hearts. If we build thanksgiving into our daily prayer time, whether we feel like it or not – If we make it a daily habit to think of things we’ve received and to thank God for them – in the end we’ll feel more thankful and more positive.

By the way, this doesn’t only apply to saying thank you to God. To give a smile to a waiter in a restaurant and say “Thank you for looking after us so well” can make that person’s day – but it can also transform ourmood as well. I can tell you from experience that when I say that word of gratitude, it makes mefeel better, not just the other person.

We’re talking about the biblical virtues of people who know themselves to be created by God and place in a world created by God. We’ve talked about the humilitythat acknowledges that the world belongs to God, not us. We’ve talked about the attentivenesswe cultivate as we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We’ve talked about developing the habit of gratitudeand the effect it can have on other people and on ourselves.

The fourth habit is care. Genesis 2.15 says ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’ (NRSV). The word translated ‘keep’ has the sense of ‘take care of’, ‘guard’, ‘protect’. The Revised English Bible translates it ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and look after it’.

There’s a word in common use in churchland today that’s intimately connected to that word ‘care’: ‘Stewardship’. Simply put, a steward is someone who looks after someone else’s property for them and runs it on their behalf. So, in the middle ages, if the lord of the manor was away for a while, his estate would be entrusted to the steward who would run it in his master’s name and on his behalf. He had all the authority of the lord of the manor, but the estate didn’t belong to him: he was entrusted with it, and was responsible to the Lord of the Manor for how he took care of it.

So the symbolic language of the book of Genesis says ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and look after it’ (Gen. 2.15 REB). In other words, our first call as humans made in God’s image is to look after Gods earth on God’s behalf. Before our call to love one another or care for the poor or share the gospel, the first call given to humans is the call to be good stewards of God’s creation.

So you see, what we refer to today as ‘green’ issues aren’t something peripheral to our call as Christians. God has taken great care to fashion this earth and everything in it. For millions of years it got along without humans, but then the time came when God decided to fashion us in his image and entrust us with some of his authority. I expect this was a bit like parents asking their small children to help them with some project; God knew he could do it better, but he wanted us to grow and learn, so he entrusted it to us. And so as we make decisions today about our carbon footprint, about the sort of cars we drive and the number of flights we take, about how we look after animal habitat and whether or not our actions are helping drive wildlife species to extinction – well, these are spiritual issues. These are discipleship issues. When we see the Lord face to face, this is one of the things we’re going to be asked about: ‘How well did you do in taking care of the earth I entrusted to you?’

So we’ve talked about the humilitythat acknowledges that the world belongs to God, not us. We’ve talked about the attentivenesswe cultivate as we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We’ve talked about developing the habit of gratitudeand the effect that can have on other people and on ourselves. We’ve talked about learning to be responsible stewards, to take goodcareof this good earth that God has entrusted to us.

The fifth habit is generosity, and it surely needs very little explanation to people in this congregation, because you are amazingly generous! Perhaps, though, the connection with thanksgiving needs to be explored.

We give thanks for something we receive as a gift. We give thanks for our food because we know so many factors in its production weren’t under human control, beginning with the existence of life itself, the gift of a breathable atmosphere, the fruitfulness of the earth, the gift of abundant harvests and so on. Yes, human energy and expertise were involved, but in the last analysis, our food comes from God.

This weekend many of us will enjoy family feasts with tables piled high with delicious food. We do this to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we thank God for all these blessings. Well, if we thank God for them, we surely can’t ignore the loud and clear teaching of the Bible that God is especially the God of the poor and needy, and he calls those who have much to take care of those who have little. This was a major element of the teaching of Jesus. He even went so far as to say that when we refuse to help those in need, it’s really him we’re refusing to help.

So we can express our gratitude to God this Thanksgiving not just in showering our love on our families but also in looking for ways to help those in need. Once again, this isn’t a peripheral activity for those who like that kind of thing. In Matthew chapter six Jesus lists three basic disciplines of people of faith: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. It never occurred to him that anyone would embark on a journey of faith without practising those three disciplines.

Let’s go around this one last time. We Christians are human beings who know ourselves to be created by God and placed in a world created by God. Therefore it’s appropriate for us to cultivate an attitude of humility, reminding ourselves that the world belongs to God, not us. We cultivate the habit of attentivenessas we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We cultivate the habit of gratitudeas we practice saying ‘thank you’ to God and to the people around us. We cultivate the habit of responsible stewardship, taking good care of this good earth that God has entrusted to us. And finally, we who have been given so many good gifts by a generous God also learn from God the habit of generosity, learning to find joy in giving to those in need and seeing it as a way of serving Jesus himself.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s think of these things and resolve to put them into practice. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bible translations I have read cover to cover

My usual way of reading the Bible is to follow a ‘lectionary’, or system of daily readings (here is an example). Although lectionaries have the advantage of presenting bite-sized portions that are easily readable in a few minutes, they rarely cover the entire Bible.

However, a few times in my life I have read a particular translation all the way through from cover to cover.

The-Living-Bible-Paraphrased-by-Kenneth-Taylor-0340152044In the 1970s I read the original Living Bible, paraphrased by Ken Taylor. Nowadays I don’t recommend this version because it has many inaccuracies, but it was easy to understand and really got me started as a Bible reader.

 

In the late 1990s I read the entire New Revised Standard Versionholy-bible-with-apocrypha-slika-97655151, including the Apocrypha. This was the first time I’d read a reputable modern translation cover to cover. My big takeaway: some of the passages we’re very familiar with (for example Isaiah 9.2-7 at Christmas) make way more sense when they’re read in context and you can see the whole sweep of the story.

 

1_5In 2011, in honour of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version, or Authorized Version, I read it cover to cover, including the Apocrypha. My big takeaway: it was far easier to read the KJV than I thought it would be, and some of the renderings were simply delicious.

In 2016 I used the One Year Bible to read the entire New InternationalP3120015 Version (2011 revision). The OYB gives you a daily portion from Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs; through the course of the year you read the whole Bible once and the book of Psalms twice. I find it takes me about fifteen to twenty minutes to read each day’s selections, depending on whether or not I stop and think about them. I really enjoyed this read.

9780521509404_p0_v2_s550x406I’m beginning to think I’d like to read all the way through the Bible again, in a translation I’m not so familiar with. Possible candidates might be the New Living Translation, the Common English Bible, or the Revised English Bible. I enjoy the One Year Bible method but it doesn’t include the apocrypha, so if I read the REB I’d have to supplement the daily readings, or maybe replace the second time through the book of Psalms with a reading of the Apocrypha.

I really recommend the discipline of reading the whole Bible cover to cover. There’s nothing to compare with the experience of getting the whole sweep of the Bible story from beginning to end. And nowadays we have so many good English translations that you could read a different one each year for twenty years and still not run out of options!