The God who looks for the lost (a sermon on Psalm 14 and Luke 15.1-10)

I suspect that when we read our psalm this morning, some of you had a strong negative reaction to it. I’m thinking especially of verses 2-3: let me refresh your memory by reading them again to you, this time in the New Living Translation:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven upon the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one.’

Really? No one? Not Jean Vanier? Not Mother Teresa? Not the people who put in hundreds of hours a year volunteering at Hope Mission or Habitat for Humanity? Not the parents who run themselves ragged week by week trying hard to make life good for their kids? Not the counsellors who answer emergency calls in the middle of the night to listen to people who are on the verge of suicide? What on earth is the psalmist talking about? Did he get out of the wrong side of bed that morning? What had happened to him, to give him such a negative view of the human race?

Let me say two things right away. First, to read the Bible with your brain in gear means that you begin by asking yourself ‘What kind of literature am I reading here?’ Obviously, if you go to your local library and pick out a volume of poetry, a copy of the Criminal Code of Canada, a history of Alberta, and the latest novel by Stephen King, you know you’re reading four very different kinds of books. You’ll have to read them very differently if you’re going to understand them and enjoy them.

And it’s the same with the Bible. The Bible is a library of books written over a span of about fifteen hundred years. It contains letters, hymns and poems, biographies, historical chronicles, and the criminal code of ancient Israel, to name just a few genres. Reading a poem or hymn is not the same as reading a sermon or theological essay or a law book. And Psalm 14 is a poem. Poets use vivid imagery to make a point, but they don’t always expect you to take their images literally. Sometimes they’re just being imaginative, and sometimes they’re being intentionally provocative.

Secondly, I think I can begin to understand the mood the psalmist was in. I’ve been in it myself for a couple of years now. For a long time I’ve been in the habit of skimming the pages of my newspaper as I eat my breakfast, but lately I’ve noticed that I’m getting more reluctant to do that. It feels more and more like a really negative way to get ready to go to work. I read about Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin and all the other political leaders who seem so blatantly unfit to lead their people. I read about corruption scandals and murders, wars, acts of injustice and oppression, and the refusal of so many people to take climate change seriously. I read these things and I say to myself, “Has everyone turned away from virtue and goodness and become totally corrupt? Is there, in all the world, any such thing as a single uncorrupt politician? Is there anyone left who’s in it for other people, not to build their own kingdom?”

But then I look into my own heart and try to face up honestly to what’s there. I think about some of the things I’ve done in my own life, things I’m ashamed even to remember. And I think of the famous story of the writer G.K. Chesterton, who was responding to a newspaper article with the headline, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ His letter to the editor was very simple. ‘Dear Sir: I am. Yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton.’

I think this is what the psalmist was grappling with here. I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with the words in Genesis chapter one: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV). But if he was, I’m sure he must have been struck by the contrast between these two visions of human nature. On the one hand, Genesis sees us as the pinnacle of God’s creation: we were the last thing he made, the climax, the thing every other creative act had been leading up to. Here was a being made just like God, like a daughter or son made in the image of their parents! Surely such a being would show the love and compassion and creativity and sense of justice of God? Wouldn’t you think so?

But then, how do you explain the rest of the Book of Genesis? Within two chapters you have Cain murdering his brother Abel. And the rest of the book talks about faithlessness, family intrigues, jealousies, and acts of manipulation and violence. How can a creature like that be made in the image of God?

Today we maybe feel the same way. Our human knowledge has expanded enormously over the past century. It’s now within our power to do all kinds of good in the world, using technologies our grandparents couldn’t even dream about. So why is it that the story of humanity feels very much like it always has? Wars and rumours of wars, thefts and murders, acts of greed and corruption, the rich exploiting the poor, people dividing up by race or religion or skin colour or political opinions—we can find it all in the Bible, and we can find it all in the latest edition of the Globe and Mail. Most people who think the Bible is out of date have never read it. When you read it, much of it feels depressingly familiar.

It seems to me that a Christian who reads the scriptures thoughtfully and prayerfully is forced to discard two simplistic views of human nature: one that says all human beings are basically good, and one that says all human beings are basically bad. If all humans are basically good, how do we explain the acts of evil committed by people brought up in loving homes by good parents who gave them the best possible moral guidance? How do we explain the fact that even the best possible projects for the improvement of the world seem to run aground, over and over again, on the rock of human selfishness and self-interest? But on the other hand, if all humans are basically bad, how do we explain the incredible acts of kindness and generosity we see around us every day?

We humans are made in the image of God, the best of all parents. And like a good parent, God doesn’t force us to do his will; if he wants us to grow and mature, he has to allow us the freedom to make our own choices, in the hope that they will be good choices. Is there any way to offer that freedom without the possibility that humans will make the wrong choices? I can’t imagine any way that could happen. Growth in maturity involves forming the habit of rejecting the way of hatred and injustice, and choosing the way of love and goodness. It has to be a meaningful choice: one in which making the wrong choice has real consequences.

The Bible tells the story of how so often we humans have made the wrong choice. It’s as if sin and evil is an infection that comes into our systems at a very early age. Some theologians would say we have it before we’re born, although the Bible doesn’t very often speculate about that. But the reality is that humans are made in the image of God, but are also infected with evil and selfishness. We have our better angels, but we also have our inner demons. We do acts of kindness and love, but we’re always tempted to be selfish and angry and judgemental and cruel, and we struggle with that every day.

And that struggle is made doubly difficult if we don’t have God’s help. Our psalm began with the phrase, ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God”’ (v. 1 NRSV). That might give us warm fuzzy feelings about ourselves: we’re not atheists, so we’re not fools! But we need to think again. In the ancient world atheism was almost unknown, so it’s highly unlikely that the psalmist was describing literal atheists here. What he was likely describing is people who act as if there is no God:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God…Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD?’ (vv. 2, 4 NRSV).

The fools are the people who tell the census taker, “Yes, of course I believe there’s a god of some kind—doesn’t everyone?” But then they don’t do anything about that belief. They don’t let their belief in the existence of God influence a single moral decision they make. It doesn’t change the way they spend their money. It doesn’t change the way they treat a poor person, or a person of a different race. It doesn’t have any effect at all on the way they vote in an election. And they certainly don’t put any energy into trying to build a relationship with God. They’ll work their fingers to the bone to get an expensive university education; they’ll incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get exactly the home they want, but how much time and money are they prepared to put into learning how to know God? No, the psalmist says, ‘they ‘do not call upon the LORD’ (v.4 NRSV).

And this is where our gospel reading starts. God loves his people and longs for them to know him. He wants them to seek him with all their hearts, but they’ve demonstrated over and over again that they won’t. So what does he do? His people are lost and they don’t even seem to know it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge that they’re lost. “We’re fine—nothing to see here—move on, please!”

How do we respond to people like that? The Pharisees and scribes have a very judgemental attitude toward them. They’re not at all happy with how much time Jesus is spending with them. ‘And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15.2 NRSV). As far as they were concerned, it was up to the lost sheep to find their shepherd. After all, they were the ones who got lost! It was their fault! Why should God go looking for them? It wasn’t God who strayed away!

But I suspect Jesus saw things differently. He knew that most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! They were so concerned about the need of the present moment—grass—that they took their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with people. Often, we don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment—a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there—that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

And so God doesn’t wait for the lost sheep to find him. He knows that’s not going to happen. Psalm 14 says that the Lord looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek after God, but there aren’t. Our track record there is not very good.

But fortunately for us, God doesn’t leave it at that. After centuries of trying to get our attention through prophets and preachers, he sends his Son to us, the one who is the perfect image of the Father. The Gospel of John tells us that God himself comes to us in his Son. ‘In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God…So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.’ (John 1.1, 14, NLT).

So Psalm 14 isn’t the last word on the subject. It’s a true word, but by itself it’s not complete. Psalm 14 brings us face to face with the bad news about ourselves—what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except that he uses a stronger word than ‘mess’!). We can’t pretend this doesn’t exist; we can see it all around us.

But the Gospel gives us another word: God doesn’t wait for us to seek him. He came among us to seek us. That’s what Jesus was doing. By his life and teaching he was demonstrating for us what a life of love and godliness is like. He was showing God to us through every word he spoke and every action he took. And he was reaching out to the last, the least, and the lost, going the extra mile, doing all he could to bring the love of God within reach to every human being.

That’s who Jesus is. That’s what God is like. That’s what the Gospel is. We may be more messed up than we like to admit, but we’re also loved more deeply than we’ve ever dared to imagine. Jesus came all the way from heaven to earth and gave his life on the Cross for us. He says, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul says in Galatians ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home. That’s what the Gospel story is all about. Human failure doesn’t have the last word. The love of God has the last word. That’s why the Gospel is Good News.

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‘What’s In It For Me?’ (a sermon for Sept. 1st on Luke 14.1, 7-14)

The Serendipity Study Bible is an old edition of the New International Version, designed to be used in small groups. For every passage of the Bible, it has a set of discussion questions in the margins. We often use those questions in our Wednesday afternoon study group, and when I’m doing my sermon preparation I often start by working through those questions for the passage I plan to reach on.

When I looked at the Serendipity Study Bible questions for Luke 14.1-14, this was the first question: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, which house would you choose?’ I wonder how you would answer that question? For me, what I’d like is to go to a small concert hall where a guitarist I admire is playing, and be able to sit right in front of the stage so I can see what he’s doing with his fingers. With some guitar players, I don’t think I could do what they’re doing, but I understand how they’re doing it. But there are others for whom I have absolutely no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing! So I like to get really close, so I can see exactly what they’re doing with their hands. I still might not be able to play it, but at least I can try!

That’s pretty harmless, of course, but in some situations this desire for the front seat might be more insidious. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats—people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they’re going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, they aren’t actually thinking about the other people at all. Their first question is always “What’s in it for me?”

Let’s refresh our memory of the story. Jesus goes to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. There are two things you need to know about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the house were left open all the time, and it was common for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on—especially if well-known people were there and it was likely there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing: in the Gospels, these dinner parties are often occasions for teaching and discussion.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables; the first is about not taking the highest place, and the second is about who you ought to invite when you give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord Caiaphas, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return, and everyone will be able to see that I move in the best social circles in the city.” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are being spoiled by people’s self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place.There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi, of a time when he was invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. In those days before photo technology, people were a lot less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his ragged brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Nowadays we don’t often see this happening in a literal way. I’ve attended lots of wedding receptions and I’ve never seen someone marching boldly up to sit at the head table, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” But the attitude Jesus is talking about is still common. Let me point out two common examples of it.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who have a deep-seated need to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Don’t misunderstand me: real leadership, offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognized and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second example of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Many people are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they’re constantly checking a mental mirror, to see how they look in the eyes of others. The root cause of this is usually insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things. But the trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations that prompt them to do it for us.

What I want to say to you this morning is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that. As another friend of mine likes to say, “God loves you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it!”

Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us, and relax in it. You don’t have to rush to get first place. And of course, you don’t have to rush to get last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to first place in the end! No—the Gospel way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, you can relax, enjoy the feast, and share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that.

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace.

In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000, which was a huge amount of money twenty-nine years ago!

But then something unexpected happened. On the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception, she found she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit most of the money she had paid.

How here’s where it gets interesting. It turned out that ten years before, this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet, but now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honour of the groom”, she said—and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.[1]

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look again at verses 12-14:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so—that’s always enjoyable for me.” But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. I think he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

Many years ago when Marci and I were living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, we happened to read this gospel passage, and we were especially gripped by verses 12-14. I knew there were many parts of the teaching of Jesus I’d done a poor job of putting into practice, but I had to admit this was one passage I’d never even tried to put into practice! So Marci and I talked about it, and then we invited a particular family from the community to come and join us for dinner. The husband had been in and out of jail—in fact, we strongly suspected he committed a crime every Fall so as not to have to spend the winter in Aklavik. Both husband and wife were from families with a very high incidence of alcoholism and criminal activity of one kind or another. But they came, with their kids, and we had a meal together.

I have absolutely no memory of how the evening went, but it sticks out in my mind because it’s the only time I’ve tried to literally practice what Jesus says in this gospel reading. I don’t know if any of you have tried it; I’d be interested to hear if you have!

And to think of a less dramatic example, I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation—perhaps for a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way—a way of freedom from slavery to self-interest. If we learn to live by his vision, we can interact with the people around us without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get them to admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to them and loving them. We can initiate relationships with others, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category. I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who live the way Jesus is inviting us to here, and their lives challenge and inspire me.

We don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this situation, this relationship, for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we can learn to live our lives in the same spirit, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.

[1]I first read this story in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Bent Out of Shape (a sermon on Luke 13.10-17)

Have you seen the spoon bending trick? That’s the one you do by holding a spoon between the palms of your hands with the bowl sticking out at the bottom, and then making it look as if you’re bending it, when in fact all you’re doing is dropping the handle between your palms. It’s quite impressive if you’ve never seen it before! It really does look as if you’re bending that spoon, and it’s quite surprising at the end to discover that it’s still straight.

One of the reasons it’s such a convincing trick is that spoons are quite easy to bend. Most of us have done it at one time or another! Quite often we do it when we’re trying to scoop rock-hard ice cream out of a pail. The handle of the spoon’s not strong enough, so back it bends, and hey presto! – you’ve got a useless spoon! Don’t try using it for soup, or you’ll spill it down your shirt front! When a spoon’s all bent out of shape, it’s not much use for anything.

Of course, we sometimes say that peopleare all bent out of shape. This might be a literal thing. When I lived in Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories there were two elderly women in the community who were literally bent double. I suspect they’d spent their whole lives carrying heavy loads on their backs, as well as bending down and crawling in and out of small snow houses. However it happened, it was now impossible for either of them to stand up straight. If they were sitting on a chair they could look straight ahead; if they were standing up, they really had to twist their necks to be able to see ahead of them.

And it doesn’t have to be that extreme. All of us, as we get older, suffer from aches and pains and find movement more difficult—and more painful—than we did when we were young. Sometimes we laugh about it: you know the old story about the man who bends over to tie his shoelaces and then thinks “What else should I do while I’m down here?” But sometimes the pain is much more intense and debilitating, and people find the suffering more and more difficult to bear.

But ‘getting bent out of shape’ isn’t only a term we use for physical ailments. Sometimes we use it for people who get all wound up about issues. We have our share of that in the church! You decide to change the colour of the carpet, or—dare I say—replace the pews with chairs, and some people ‘get all bent out of shape’! It happens whenever the familiar is replaced with the unfamiliar, whether it’s furniture, or hymn books, or music styles, or prayer books, or whatever you like.

Often people get all bent out of shape about things that aren’t ultimately important, and maybe we can laugh it off. But sometimes it’s more serious. Sometimes when church leaders decide to speak out about social justice issues, some church members disagree, and occasionally they get so bent out of shape that they leave. And to use a slightly different illustration, I think of a person years ago who invited a friend to church; the friend had no shoes with her, so she came barefoot. In those days the church was a bit more conventional, and some people got bent out of shape about it; the welcome was not, shall we say, overly enthusiastic. This is what happens in this sort of situation: people get hurt. Sometimes, sadly, when people get bent out of shape they keep others away from the healing love of God.

When we listen to today’s Gospel reading, it seems at first as if there’s only one person ‘bent out of shape’: the woman who had been bent double for eighteen years. But when we look a little more closely we see that in fact there are two people bent out of shape in this reading: one in body, the other in spirit. Jesus was able to heal one of them, but the other wasn’t willing to accept healing, because he wasn’t even aware how twisted he was in spirit.

Let’s picture the situation. It’s the sabbath day, so all sorts of restrictions apply. The Old Testament command was simply ‘For six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:9-10). But the problem with a command like that, of course, is that people immediately start asking questions about it. What exactly is ‘work’? Is cooking work? Lighting a fire? Can you walk, and if so, how far? These aren’t facetious questions; they’re the questions of sincere people who want to know what it means to obey God in their daily lives.

The teachers of Israel developed traditions and regulations about the Sabbath Day to help those people. Those regulations continue to this day. In Chaim Potok’s excellent novel The Book of Lights,the hero is an Orthodox Jewish chaplain serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The winters are bitterly cold and the chaplain is living in what we used to call in the Arctic a ‘tent frame’, lit by an oil stove. The stoves are turned off during the night, and he wakes up on winter mornings to sub-zero temperatures. But he’s forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath Day. Remembering this, his assistant, who is not Jewish, digs out the snow from the entrance to his tent and comes in to light the fire for him.

Jesus, of course, was constantly running into this sort of thing. We shouldn’t imagine that Jesus was on a campaign to abolish the Sabbath. Far from it: as far as we can tell, he went to synagogue every Saturday and used the day as a day of rest, just as the Law commanded. But the hundreds of man-made regulations were irksome to him. He told his followers that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath, and that it was permissible to do good on the Sabbath.

So here is Jesus, on the Sabbath Day, in the synagogue. The men and women would be seated separately; the young children would be with the women, but boys over the age of twelve who had gone through their bar-mitzvah would be with their fathers in the men’s section. The Sabbath service consisted of readings from the Torah scrolls, a time of teaching based on the readings, and prayers together. The teaching wouldn’t all be done by professional rabbis or synagogue elders; it was their responsibility to make sure teaching happened, but they were free to invite anyone to expound the Law if they thought he was competent enough (I say ‘he’ because in those days it was always a man). Jesus was a well-known teacher, so he had obviously been asked to read from the Torah scrolls and then comment on them. This might have been previously arranged, or it might have just been a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. Jesus would come to the front, remain standing to read from the Torah, and then sit down to teach.

The first person we meet in the synagogue is a person whose body is all bent out of shape. Let me read verses 10-13 to you from the New Living Translation:

One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue,he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!”Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

I can imagine Jesus sitting at the front of the synagogue, looking out over the congregation as he teaches them. His eyes scan the crowd, noticing the expressions on the faces of the people. Some are happy, some are irritated, some are anxious, some are angry. And then he sees a face etched with suffering. Normally that face can only look down at the bare earth, but in the synagogue the woman is sitting down, so she can look at Jesus eye to eye. Maybe Jesus can read the longing in those eyes: if only God could heal her! Eighteen long years she’s been looking down at the ground; she’d love to be able to look up at the sky again!

And so Jesus stops his sermon and calls her to the front of the synagogue. This, of course, wasn’t a normal part of the procedure, and we can imagine the synagogue elders doing a facepalm when they realize what’s going on. But to Jesus, this wasn’t unusual; he’d had violent encounters with evil spirits in synagogues, and healed people there as well. “Woman,” he says, “you are set free from your ailment.” And then he lays his hands on her, and immediately she stands up straight. Can you imagine how she feels? Can you imagine the joy of being able to look up at the roof of the synagogue? No wonder she begins to praise God! She isn’t bent out of shape anymore!

But now we meet a person whose soul is all bent out of shape.The leader of the synagogue gets angry. “There are six days of the week for working,” he says. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath” (v.14, NLT). Apparently it was okay for Jesus to teach the Law on the Sabbath, but not to behave like a doctor. Doctors and their patients had to wait!

But Jesus has no time for this sort of hypocrisy; he knows the Sabbath legalists aren’t consistent. So he says, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water?This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” (vv.15-16, NLT).

These Sabbath legalists remind me of the people in that church who got bent out of shape about the young person who came with no shoes on. There are rules about these things! People should dress respectfully! They shouldn’t bring coffee mugs into church! Little children should sit quietly with their parents, not run around and make noise! Gay couples shouldn’t hold hands in church! What’s the world coming to?

But Jesus has a different agenda. The Sabbath Day is a day to meet God. It’s a day for people who feel burdened by life to lay down their burdens. It’s a day for hurting people to find healing. When it comes to the Sabbath, as they say, ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’, and not get buried under the details!

So how does this apply to us today?

First, like this woman in our gospel reading, sometimes our bodies get bent out of shape.And I have to acknowledge right away that when it comes to healing the sick, human beings don’t have the same excellent track record as Jesus. In the gospels Jesus goes around showering healing all over the place. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor, with all kinds of sicknesses: they all come to him, and all of them get healed. The only ones who don’t get healed are the ones who won’t come to him, because they don’t have faith in him. But if they have faith—or even if their friends have faith on their behalf—Jesus is willing and able to heal them. He’s the strong Son of God, and the Spirit of God is working through him in a powerful way.

Since the time of Jesus Christians have not stopped praying for sick people to be healed, but even in the book of Acts the record isn’t so spotless. Often people are healed, but sometimes they aren’t. Even a great apostle like Paul has a bodily ailment—a ‘thorn in the flesh’, he calls it—that isn’t healed. He also has sick colleagues who he presumably prays for, but who continue to be sick. And today we pray for the sick, because that’s what we’re commanded to do, but we have to be honest and say they aren’t always healed as we would wish. Some people are helped by God by being healed; others are helped by a sense of God’s presence and support even in the midst of their suffering. But all are invited to reach out to God and ask for his support and strength.

However, sometimes it’s not our bodies that get bent out of shape: it’s our souls. Often this is not our fault; it’s a result of sins that have been committed against us. Think of a puppy who’s been trained up with lots of punishment, and then watch the adult dog cower in fear whenever its master approaches. There’s a wound inside, and the dog is forever scarred by it. Some people are like that, too: they’ve been wounded inside by the sins of others, and they spend their lives in fear, afraid to speak or act because they’re terrified of what people will say or do in response.

God wants to reach into these poor folks’ hearts and heal their wounds. This doesn’t usually happen in an instant. Usually it takes a long time. It involves lots of prayer, and also lots of love on the part of the people of Jesus. We’re called to be a community where people with wounded souls can find the love and healing they’re looking for. Unconditional love is the indispensable ingredient in that healing.

Sometimes, like the synagogue leader in this story, our souls are bent out of shape because of the way we see the world. The God we believe in is an angry judge who demands detailed obedience to all kinds of commands, even though they don’t always seem to make sense and don’t always seem very important. This God is the God of a certain kind of people with a certain skin colour and creed, and not the God of others. This God likes all the people we like and hates all the people we hate. His values exactly coincide with our own.

If this is us, we need to ask Jesus to open our eyes, because we’re as blind as anyone he healed in the gospels. The god we believe in isn’t the real God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—he’s an imaginary idol we’ve made in our own image. We need to learn to believe the truth that John taught us in his letter: God is love. ‘Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4.8 NLT). We need to remember how Jesus summed up the Law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Everything else is just window-dressing.

Jesus lived his whole life on the principle of love: love for his Father in heaven, and love for the people God sent him to save. Anger and hate always bend us out of shape. Usually the process starts with anger and hate we receive at the hands of others. This anger and hate has the effect of making us in its own image, so that we live in anger and hate as well. Religion is no guarantee that this won’t happen; religious people seem just as capable of anger and hate as anyone else, unless they constantly remind themselves of the law of love, and ask God to help them walk in it and live by it.

If our souls are bent out of shape, Jesus wants to see us free, so we can stand up straight and see the world as God sees it. When that happens, we’ll rejoice like we’ve never rejoiced before. ‘When Jesus laid his hands on the woman, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (v.13), and ‘the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing’ (v.17). When Jesus brings God’s healing power into our lives, the result is always joy, praise, and freedom. May it be so today, for you and me. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus Saves (a sermon on Luke 8.26-39)

One of the most beautiful titles given to Jesus in the Bible is ‘Saviour’. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves us from something too powerful for us to control. We might think of a person in the grip of an addiction of some kind: perhaps an alcoholic or a drug addict. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Step two goes on to say, ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ This illustrates for us what it means to have a saviour, a rescuer, a deliverer.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is the Saviour of all who call on him. He doesn’t differentiate between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich or poor. As Paul says in our epistle for today, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) And today’s gospel reading is a powerful example of that.

Jesus and his disciples have just come through a storm on the lake. The disciples thought they were lost. Many of them were experienced fishermen, but even they were afraid as the waves rose and the winds howled and the water began to swamp the boat. They cried out to their Master for help, and then an amazing thing happened. He simply spoke a word of rebuke to the wind and the waves, and immediately the storm ceased, and there was a calm. The disciples were astounded: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (v.25). It’s as if God was giving the disciples a bit of preparation for what was about to happen. It’s as if God was reminding them that there was more to their Master than met the eye.

So now they land on the other shore, in Gentile territory; this is actually the only time in Luke’s gospel that a trip to Gentile territory is mentioned. As soon as Jesus steps out onto the land he’s met by someone we would probably have described as a madman. Luke describes him as ‘a man who had demons’. He’s totally naked, dirty and wild-looking, and he doesn’t live in a house, he lives in the local graveyard. Luke gives us a bit of his history in verse 29:

‘Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

Henry Wansbrough describes the man like this:

He is exiled from all civilisation, living in the haunted abodes of the dead and not even properly dressed. His strength is daunting and uncontrollable, and as soon as he has broken his bonds he rushes off into the hideous desert, the eerie home of evil spirits. What makes it almost more tragic is that the attacks seem to have been periodic, presumably with periods of lucidity in between. It was only when the attacks came on that people would fetter him in an unsuccessful attempt to restrain him. But he always ended up in the wilds. Such periodic derangements to a friend whom one thinks one knows are easily ascribed to a powerful and evil spirit alien to himself.[1]

A feature of stories of unclean spirits in the gospels is that they always know the identity of Jesus. Humans don’t; some believe he is the Son of God, some believe he’s an imposter, many don’t know, at least not at first. But it seems the unclean spirits are in no doubt about the identity of their great enemy, and this is true here. As soon as he sees Jesus, the man screams out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (v.28).

But Jesus is determined that the demon has to leave, and he’s already begun to command it to come out of the man. He asks the man his name, but it seems that the man is no longer in control of his personality. A voice from inside him shouts out ‘Legion!’—‘for many demons had entered him’, says Luke. A Roman legion has five thousand soldiers, so that was quite a horde of unclean spirits! They see a herd of pigs feeding on the steep hillside by the lake, and they beg Jesus not to send them straight back to the abyss, but let them go into the pigs. Jesus agrees, and immediately the entire herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and is drowned—a dramatic visual aid to convince the man that his old enemies are gone and vanquished forever.

But of course, we can’t expect the pig farmer to be pleased! The swineherds run off to town and tell everyone, and a great crowd comes out to see what’s going on. When they arrive they see a poignant scene.  No doubt the man is a well-known figure in the area, but he’s been completely transformed. Luke says he’s ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.’ (v.35). But the townspeople are afraid, and no doubt the owners of the pigs are angry, as we would have been if our property had been destroyed like that. They don’t rejoice over the man’s deliverance. No: they ask Jesus to leave them. They’re afraid of what might happen next if he hangs around!

What does Jesus do? Maybe they’re afraid that a man with that kind of power might force himself on them, but that’s not Jesus’ way. He gets into the boat, and the man who had been healed begs to be able to go with him. This is usually a request Jesus honours, but this is the only time in the gospels where he refuses: he’s got a more important plan for this man. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, Luke says, ‘proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Some modern readers of this story find the demonic element hard to take. Evil spirits aren’t part of our contemporary world view, and they give the story a kind of legendary feel. We would be more comfortable if this man was described as being mentally ill, in the grip of some sickness of the mind that has him hearing voices and shouting in a strange voice and exercising surprising feats of strength.

Other modern readers aren’t so sure. American psychiatrist Scott Peck, the famous author of a book called ‘The Road Less Travelled’, also wrote a book called ‘The People of the Lie’ in which he told some stories of his own encounters with what appeared to be evil forces, and how he had dealt with them. And Christians who minister in the developing world frequently tell stories of these sorts of ‘power encounters’ and what comes of them.

It all comes down to a question of our world view. Do we believe we live in a world that has unseen spiritual elements in it, elements that can act on people in our own dimension of reality? Well, obviously we do, because we believe in God, and God fits that description quite well! Do we then also believe in angels? It’s clear to me that many people today, Christian and non-Christians, do in fact believe in guardian angels, and they even have names for them and pray to them! Even if we don’t go this far, angel stories are part of our Christian scriptures—the angel who announces the conception of Jesus to Mary, for instance—and we don’t tend to be offended by those stories, even though we don’t fully understand them.

So if we grant that such creatures might exist, and if we remember that God seems to give free will to all his creatures, it’s not illogical to suppose that there may in fact be ‘fallen angels’: angelic beings who have chosen to rebel against God and work for evil purposes in the world. Certainly Jesus believed that and acted on that belief, and so did his early followers.

But even if we don’t believe that—even if we believe that Jesus and his disciples were people of their day with a pre-modern world view, and that this man was suffering from a particularly severe mental illness—that still doesn’t detract from the amazing miracle Jesus was able to perform. Psychiatrists spend years of therapy with people like this, and sometimes the improvements are only marginal. Jesus simply speaks a word of command, the evil forces leave the man, and almost immediately he’s dressed and in his right mind, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus and begging to be allowed to follow him. Jesus is truly the Saviour of all, even the last, the least, and the lost!

So what does this story have to say to us today?

We began by reminding ourselves of the beautiful title given to Jesus in the gospels: ‘Saviour’. I say it’s a beautiful title, but sometimes we Anglicans are ambiguous about it. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves people from forces or situations from which they couldn’t save themselves. But when we hear about people claiming that Jesus has ‘saved’ them, we sometimes get uncomfortable. “I’ve been saved,” they say, and they might even ask us, “Are you saved?”

Why does this make us uncomfortable? Maybe it’s because when they say “I’ve been saved,” what we hear them saying is “I’m better than you.” But if you think about it, that’s not what they’re saying at all. Imagine a person swimming out from a popular beach, going out too far and getting caught in a powerful current. Imagine a lifeguard going out to rescue them from this desperate situation.  ‘Desperate’ is exactly how the swimmer feels. She’s maybe even given up hope; she’s sure she’s going to drown. But then the lifeguard comes and brings her back to safety on the shore. She’s overwhelmed with gratitude; “Thank you for saving me,” she says. Is she claiming to be better than the others? Far from it; she’s been silly enough to get herself into a situation so dangerous that she was powerless to deliver herself from it! Only the skill of the lifeguard has saved her life.

We’re told in the New Testament that the cross of Jesus has brought the forgiveness of God into our lives. If God won’t forgive us our sins, we’re truly in a desperate situation, alienated from the only one who can give us the help and strength we need. And even in this day and age, many people believe that God can’t forgive them. Their sins and failures weigh heavily on them; they’ve tried to change, but the power doesn’t seem to be in them. I’m not talking about obvious things like murders and sexual assaults, although some people obviously are guilty of these things. I’m talking about our selfishness and self-centredness. We know it spoils our lives and the lives of people around us, and we try desperately to change it. But so often we fall back into the same destructive patterns of behaviour.

Can God forgive us? Can God give us strength greater than our own, so that the destructive forces in us can be cast out and drowned in the sea? Whether or not we literally believe in demons, we often use that word metaphorically, don’t we? We say of someone that ‘his demons got the better of him’, and we all know what that means.

The Gospel is Good News: it tells us that Jesus is the strong Son of God. By his cross he brings the forgiveness of God into our lives. Paul says ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting their sins against them.’ And if we’re reconciled to God, then the presence of God can be a present reality in our daily lives. God can breathe the Holy Spirit into us, and we can have access to a power greater than our own, rescuing us from those destructive patterns of behaviour, transforming us into people who love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and who love our neighbour as ourselves. And that’s a miracle, no less than the rescuing of the man with the legion of devils.

What’s our response to this story?

Some of us are afraid, like the townspeople. Jesus has only just arrived, and already he’s destroyed a herd of pigs! What’s next? What’s he going to demand of us? If we follow him, how much more meddling is he going to do? Is he going to tell us how to use our money, or how to vote in the next election, or how to treat the dodgy-looking characters we run into on Whyte Avenue?

This fear is very real, even to religious people. Many religious people are fine with religion as long as we’re in control of it! We like the Sunday service, but we also like knowing when it’s going to end, because, you know, we live busy lives, and God needs to stay within his boundaries and not break out! That’s the problem for these Gentiles in our story today. They were fine with the gods as long as they stayed at arms’ length! But Jesus was bringing God too close! And maybe you feel that way too. Maybe this story is getting too close to home for you.

The neighbours are afraid, but the man himself has been delivered. He’s clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and the thing he wants more than anything else is just to go and be with Jesus. And maybe, a few months down the road, Jesus was glad to see him and hear about all the things God had been doing in his life since he was saved. But not right away. Right now the story is buzzing in the air, and the last thing Jesus needs to do is take the prime witness off the scene. Jesus and his disciples are being sent away, but the man is not. He can stay and tell the story, and who knows how many other lives will be changed as a result?

Let me close with three last points of application.

First, as I said at the beginning, Step One of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Do you sometimes feel powerless over some force within? You wish you could be different, but something’s got you chained. It might be a fear. It might be a destructive habit that’s hurting you and the other people in your life. Francis Spufford describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’ (he actually uses a far stronger word than ‘mess’!). Do you know about that? Would you like to be set free?

Second, do you believe that Jesus is in fact the Saviour, not just of the world, but of each individual in it, including you? Step Two of A.A. says ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ ‘A power greater than ourselves’—what a beautiful description of the Holy Spirit! Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him, and the Spirit will get to work in our lives producing his beautiful fruit. Galatians says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (5.22-23) That’s what God can do in us, if we ask him to fill us with the Spirit, and if we then keep in step with the Spirit day by day. Are we ready to ask him?

Third, as you begin to experience this work of grace in your life, you will find yourself in a social situation that gives you opportunities to share your story. Jesus might not be welcome, priests and pastors might not be welcome, but you are! Yes, we’d love to go off with Jesus on retreat for a while, just to bask in his presence, and he may well allow us to do that. But he’s going to teach us and shape us on the road as well, in our ordinary lives, among our friends and colleagues. What’s our call? “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And what did the man do? He didn’t just talk about God; he sharpened the focus. ‘So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1.8b). Witnesses tell what they have experienced. If you are a Christian, then the presence of Christ in your life is making a difference. That difference is your story. You don’t have to be delivered from a legion of devils. Your story might be as simple as the hope Jesus gives you that the future doesn’t have to be the carbon copy of the past. Whatever your story is, Jesus needs you to share it. That’s how his kingdom goes forward, one story at a time, one heart at a time.

[1]Henry Wansbrough: Luke (Daily Bible Commentary); Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers; 1998.

Good News about Jesus (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter on Acts 5.27-32)

I’ve often noticed that when a new baby is born, no one in the family has to be reminded to spread the good news! The parents make the initial announcement and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls and then, just when they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Auntie Susan—you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always call her ‘Auntie’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Auntie Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard—your mom called me an hour ago!”

That’s how it happens with good news—no one needs to tell us to spread it. When we’ve had a wonderful experience that enriched our lives, no one has to tell us to share the story. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony was fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be—I know you’d enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? We would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on. 

We sense that excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the time of the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.

It’s appropriate that every year in the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them hadn’t actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experienced him as a living presence in their lives when they went out to share the gospel with others.

Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. This story probably takes place several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem: sick people are being healed and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the members of the religious establishment are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ. 

Morning comes and there’s consternation in the ruling council: where are the apostles? Apparently they’re back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them a tongue-lashing: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28). 

This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Christian message, the Good News. What does he have to say?

First, he affirms that Jesus is Lord. In verse 31 he says, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour”. The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as ‘leader’ often means ‘Prince’ or ‘Ruler’. So the good news Peter proclaims is that Jesus is the true Ruler of the world.

Around the world today many people feel as if they have no control over their own lives. They feel helpless in the face of what are often called ‘forces beyond our control’. They might be workers who’ve lost their jobs because of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know the feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name. 

In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ had a face and a name: he was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful and his cult was spreading around the Mediterranean world. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’: after all, he was the Lord of the known world and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees: the rich families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. Most of the members of the ruling council—the people who had arrested Peter—were part of that group.

Now, in this context, Peter and the other apostles made this great Gospel announcement: “The world has a new King, Jesus the Messiah, the one who will bring justice and peace for all. He’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true his rule is hidden at the moment, but don’t be deceived by appearances: he will have the last word! Not Caesar, not the Sanhedrin, not the High Priest, but Jesus! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”

The true ruler of the universe is Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian. Our baptism is our citizenship ceremony, the moment we placed ourselves under the authority of this new King. Or, for most of us, the moment our parents placed us under his authority—an authority we accepted for ourselves when we were confirmed. 

What does that mean for us? It means no prime minister, no premier, no multinational business, no philosophy or ideology, can have more authority over us than Jesus. Following his teaching, seeking first the Kingdom of God—it’s our joy and delight to make these things the highest value in our lives. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian.

But we might ask, “How do we know all this? How do we know Jesus is Ruler and Saviour of all?” And the answer is, we know because God raised him from the dead.In verse 30 Peter says, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” 

Peter was there, of course. He was one of the first to be called to follow Jesus. He’d spent three years following him around the country, getting to know him better, sharing in his mission. He’d come to believe Jesus was the Messiah: the king like David who God had promised to send, the king who would set God’s people free from foreign oppression and establish the earthly kingdom of God. And what would be the sign of this? The sign would be that God would give the Messiah’s armies victory against God’s enemies.

But this didn’t happen. Jesus showed no interest in military or political power. And when the time of the great confrontation finally arrived, God didn’t deliver him—God abandoned him. At least, that was how everyone saw it. Instead of leading a victorious army in the name of God, Jesus was hanged on the cross, the symbol of Roman oppression. When the apostles saw that, there was only one conclusion they could draw: Jesus was a false Messiah and they’d been wasting their time. 

But then on Sunday morning the reports began to come in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. Peter and John confirmed it. Later on, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive, and she brought the message back to the astonished apostles. That afternoon a couple walking out to the village of Emmaus met Jesus on the road. In the evening ten of the eleven were gathered in the upper room where they’d eaten the last supper, and suddenly there he was among them! They knew he wasn’t a ghost, because they touched him and saw him eating a piece of fish. 

And so the appearances went on for the next seven weeks, and the apostles gradually realized what it meant: God had vindicated Jesus. Jesus was the true King. Jesus was so powerful that even death couldn’t keep him down. And now all who followed him were promised a similar resurrection. So they had no fear of death: why would they? They ignored the threats of the rulers and told everyone they met that Jesus was alive and was Lord of all.

Jesus is alive from the dead. He’s won the victory over the ultimate weapon used by all oppressors to keep people in their place: death itself. God has made him the true Ruler of the world and Lord of all. Now: what does that mean for us? Two things: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Look at verses 31-32:

“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Forgiveness of sins is the central message of the Gospel. It’s what scandalized people about Jesus when he walked the earth: the fact that he wandered around announcing forgiveness to the most unlikely people, the rich and the poor, respectable and outcast, great and small. The message of the Cross is that God loves his enemies and refuses to take revenge on them. All who repent can be forgiven. All they need to do is turn to God and ask.

At first the apostles didn’t realize how wide this was meant to be. Peter talked about Jesus giving ‘repentance to Israel’. But gradually as time went by the apostles became convinced that God had a much wider group in mind. Jews and Gentiles—worshippers of the God of Israel and worshippers of the Greek and Roman gods—the message was meant to go to everyone. God wanted everyone to have the chance to hear this good news and experience the joy of Jesus for themselves. 

Forgiveness of sins is still central. Many people today are burdened by their guilt. It’s like a huge weight on their backs, bearing down on them. Never mind God’s standards: they can’t even measure up to their own standards! “How can God ever love me? How can I be sure God would forgive me?” The Christian answer is clear: Jesus said it, and God confirmed it by raising Jesus from the dead. So you also can be raised from the deathly hand of guilt to the new life of forgiveness and peace with God.

And you can also experience God’s presence in your life today. That’s what the Holy Spirit means. Ancient Israelites may have seen the wind as a sign of God’s presence. And so when they looked for a word to convey their sense of God’s presence with them, they found the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, which means ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. Their scriptures told them that at the moment of creation a wind from God moved over the waters, and when God created humans he breathed into them the breath of life. The Spirit is God’s breath. He lifts us up from spiritual death and breathes God’s new life into us.

Today I want to invite you to take a deep breath! Jesus Christ is the true Ruler of the universe. God has shown this by raising him from the dead. He is alive forever and is longing to pour out the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who will believe in him. Today Brad and Lizelle are going to stand up and profess their trust in God and their desire to live this new life. They want Blake and Sophia to experience it too, which is why they’re bringing them for baptism.

But the promise isn’t just for Blake and Sophia and Brad and Lizelle: it’s for all of us here. Your sins are forgiven! God’s Spirit is the breath of life in you! Jesus is alive forever, and so there’s no need to fear the power of death. We can go boldly from this place, full of joy in our Risen Saviour, full of confidence in his Holy Spirit who lives in us. So take a deep breath, and then go and share this good news with someone who needs to hear it!

Wandering in the dark and walking in the light

‘Once again Jesus addressed the people: “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall wander in the dark; he shall have the light of life.’” (John 8.12 New English Bible).

The REB revisers changed this NEB translation to the more common ‘no follower of mine shall walk in darkness’, but I’m struck by the vividness of the NEB rendering: ‘wander in the dark’. I’ve done a lot of that wandering in the dark, trying to find the right way forward. It might be a relational issue with a friend or loved one, or a problem in my parish that I need to find a solution for, or a time when my relationship with God seems to have gone dry and barren, or my struggles with my own sins and weaknesses. I seem to spend a lot of time wandering in the dark.

Today’s psalm includes the familiar verse ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119.105 REB). What the psalmist says about the Torah, or Law of God, John’s gospel applies to Jesus: he is the Word of God, so he is the light of the world. His light shines in the dark places and shows us how to live, how to love, how to serve God, how to be a blessing. The opposite of ‘wandering in the dark’ is following Jesus. Lord Jesus, help us today to intentionally shape our lives after your teaching and example. You have shown us the way, so now help us to follow it—to follow you—so that we may have the light of life. Amen.

All change!

One of the Pharisees, called Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Council, came to Jesus by night. ‘Rabbi,’ he said, ‘we know that you are a teacher sent by God; no one could perform these signs of yours unless God were with him.’ Jesus answered, ‘In very truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he has been born again.’ ‘But how can someone be born when he is old?’ asked Nicodemus. ‘Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘In very truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from water and spirit. Flesh can give birth only to flesh; it is spirit that gives birth to spirit. You ought not to be astonished when I say, “You must all be born again.” The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit.’ (John 3.3-8 REB)

‘New birth’ is a metaphor for transformation, or, more accurately, for the beginning of a process of transformation. Many people today equate it with ‘accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour’. I have nothing to say against accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour, but it seems clear to me that many who have done it don’t appear to be in process of transformation. Meanwhile, there are others who have a less clearly defined conversion experience but are obviously changing and becoming more like Jesus every day.

‘The wind blows where it wills’. You can’t control the Holy Spirit or tie him down. All you can do is open yourself up to his work in faith. Faith—trust in God—is the key to all this. We aren’t going to decide where this journey leads. God is the one who decides that. Faith is taking his hand and going with him on that journey, trusting that he knows best and that the end result will be blessing for all. We can’t see the end yet, so we have to take it on faith.

God, thank you for the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the likeness of Jesus. It really is like being born all over again, it’s such a huge change! What’s the next step in that change process for us? Help us not to be afraid of it, but to trust you and cooperate with your Spirit, so that the work of the Kingdom may go forward in us. Amen.