The Jesus we needed to hear about in 2020

I don’t often confess this to my musical friends, but one of my all-time favourite songwriters was neither a producer of commercial hits nor a writer of traditional folk songs. He was a former slave-trader who later became a Christian minister and one of the most prolific hymn writers of the 18th century. His name was John Newton.

Most people encounter Newton today without realising it, as he is the principal author of the popular hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ But ‘Amazing Grace’ was far from the only hymn he wrote. In fact, when he was the pastor of the church in Olney in Buckinghamshire, he and the poet William Cowper committed themselves to writing a hymn a week, to be taught and sung at their weekly Tuesday night prayer meeting. Many of those who attended would have been illiterate, so Newton and Cowper taught them the lyrics verse by verse. And some of those hymns had a whole lot of verses!

Today is the Feast of the Naming of Jesus. As a Jewish boy, eight days after birth Jesus would have been circumcised as a sign of entering into God’s covenant people, and on this day he would also have been given his name.

Accordingly, the Gospel of Luke tells us that on the eighth day after his birth Mary’s son was circumcised and given the name ‘Jesus’, the name the angel had specified for him. ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshua’, as it would almost certainly have been pronounced by Jewish people at the time) means ‘Yahweh Saves’ (or ‘God to the rescue,’ as I once heard it translated!). Before the time of Jesus, the most famous Israelite with that name would have been Joshua (it’s the same name in Hebrew), who led the Israelite military campaigns when they were occupying the promised land. Indeed, the words ‘save’, ‘salvation’ and ‘saviour’ are most often used in the Old Testament in a military sense.

But I’ve been thinking, on this feast on the Naming of Yeshua, about what his name means for Christians. And in this respect, I find myself thinking of the words of one of John Newton’s hymns. I give them as Newton originally wrote them; today we most often sing a slightly amended version.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

These verses are a wonderful statement of Newton’s faith in Jesus. Newton was an 18th century evangelical, which meant among other things that he had a strong belief in the utter lostness of humanity apart from God, and of the need for atonement for human sin to be made on the Cross of Jesus. One of the sayings of Newton’s old age was ‘I have forgotten many things, but two things I have not forgotten: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.’

So the Jesus in whom Newton put his faith was not so much the wise teacher, the disciple maker who led his followers into a new way of life. This was not a strong emphasis of the 18th century evangelicals, who tended to get their ethical teaching from the epistles rather than the gospels. No—Newton’s Jesus was the Saviour, the one who died for his sins, the one who brought him forgiveness and strength and comfort and peace, the one who soothed his sorrows, healed his wounds, and drove away his fear.

In recent years I’ve often thought that this 18th century evangelical Christ is a severely truncated version of the New Testament original. He tells people to come to him when they are burdened, so that he can give them rest, but he doesn’t very often tell them to sell their possessions and give to the poor, or to love their enemies, or to avoid storing up for themselves treasures on earth. Evangelical Christianity talks about accepting Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, but to be honest, in most cases, the emphasis is on the ‘Saviour’ part.

This may be a weakness, but on the other hand, as we turn the page on 2020 , I find myself thinking that it may be exactly what we needed to hear in this year of pestilence and plague. Most of us went through our days in a constant state of fear. Most of us were carrying much heavier burdens than we were used to. Most of us, when we stopped and took internal stock, discovered a low-level sense of sadness and grief that had become our constant companion, even when we weren’t dominated by it. Many of us were familiar with sorrow, many were tired, and the thought of death was hard to ignore.

So maybe this could have been the evangelical movement’s big moment. Sadly, of course, much of the evangelical movement in North America was paralyzed by several decades of culture wars, leading up to the presidency of Donald Trump. They were obsessed with the appointment of right-wing judges, more restrictions on abortion, restoring school prayer, and the preservation of America’s so-called ‘Christian heritage’ in the face of ever-increasing immigration. There wasn’t much bandwidth left for Jesus the lifter of burdens, the provider of rest for the weary, the healer of wounds and the driver away of fear.

But there’s still time. Vaccines are trickling in, but it will take many months for them to reach enough people to begin to provide herd immunity. There are many months of fear and loneliness and Covid protocols still ahead. So maybe, as we go into this year of our Lord 2021, my evangelical sisters and brothers might consider giving the culture wars a rest, and spending some time with the Gospel message that has historically been the heart of our tradition: that Jesus is the Saviour who soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fear, and that the music of his name has the power even to refresh our souls in death.

So let’s sing with John Newton (see below for the very slightly amended words).

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
And drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

Things I’d like to tell the 1978 version of me

I wrote this two years ago on the 40th anniversary of my commissioning, the day I began full time ministry. I think it still stands.

Things I’d like to tell (or remind) my ‘forty years ago’ self.

  1. God loves you. You can believe that.
  2. Praying is important
.
  3. Loving is equally important.
  4. Never rain on someone’s enthusiasm for Jesus
.
  5. This is not about career advancement or comfortable jobs, it’s about sharing the Gospel
.
  6. Decide what’s important and do your best not to get distracted by what’s not important
.
  7. God is real. We forget this sometimes, and then we think we have to do God’s job.
  8. Grace means there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less, and nothing we can do to make God love us more. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is going to change that (thank you, Philip Yancey).

That’ll do for now.

I’m not OK—you’re not OK—and that’s okay

I’m dating myself here, I know, but back in the late 1970s when I began my ministry, I’m OK, You’re OK was still a very popular self-help book. Based on the psychology of Transactional Analysis, it outlined several different approaches people take in their relationships with each other. “I’m OK—you’re not OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re not OK”, and finally (you’ve guessed that this is the one the book recommended!), “I’m OK—you’re OK.”

I was discussing Transactional Analysis one day with a good friend of mine and he made what I thought was a very wise comment. He said, “The problem is that they missed out the best option: ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.'” I have never forgotten that. To me, it was a profound statement of the Christian experience of grace, which is that God loves us with a fierce and stubborn love that absolutely refuses to let us go. We all fall short of what we ought to be ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’, but God is patient with us, refusing to abandon us. And God calls us to the same love for each other. Hence, ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.’

I’ve been thinking about this lately in connection with a statement I read in Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection: ‘Everyone is basically doing the best they can.’ I love that statement. It’s encouraging us to be gentle with each other. We all have complicated stories, and they’ve shaped us into the people we are today. None of us has a perfect story, so none of us is a perfect person. Knowing that about ourselves, and hoping others will be gentle with us, we ought to be gentle with them too.

But is it really true that everyone is basically doing the best they can? To answer that question I need only look into my own heart. No, I don’t always do the best I can. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m getting older now and I have to be aware of my energy levels. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m selfish and lazy, and my natural inclination is to aim for a pass mark rather than the best mark I could achieve. Am I proud of that? Of course not. Is it reality? Absolutely.

I remember a conversation with my friend Steve London about this subject. We’re both lovers of the Anabaptist movement, which has a high vision for Christian discipleship. It emphasizes how each of us is called to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives, including the tough stuff like loving your enemies, living a simple life, caring for the poor and marginalized, telling the truth, and seeking first the Kingdom of God.

But Steve and I both realize that we fall far short of that, and we’re also lovers of Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel, which basically takes the view that all of us fall short, and without God’s grace we’d be sunk. I know this is true too. Yes, we should all be trying harder, but at the end of the day it so often feels as if it’s two steps forward and one step back—or sometimes one step forward and two steps back. But God’s mercy and grace is the safety net, and when I fall, it’s there to catch me. Or rather, he’s there to catch me.

So we have what appear to be two contradictory visions of what it means to be a Christian. There’s the discipleship vision, which calls us to press on as followers of Jesus, working hard to put his teaching into practice in our daily lives, so that we’re transformed into his likeness. And there’s the ragamuffin vision, which basically seems to say that we’re ragamuffins today, we always will be, and so will everyone else, so we’d be wise not to be too hard on ourselves or other people.

How do we reconcile these two visions? Are they totally contradictory?

It occurred to me a while back that they’re really not.

The ragamuffin vision is profoundly true. I am not OK. I try to be, but I fall short. There’s never a day when I don’t need to pray the prayer, “I have not loved you, God, with my whole heart, and I have not loved my neighbour as myself. Please forgive me.” And I can pray that prayer with confidence, because God is a God of indestructible grace, patient and gentle, ‘slow to anger and abounding in love’.

But where does the discipleship vision come in? Well, it seems to me that, when it comes to putting the teaching of Jesus into practice, some of the toughest parts of it are about forgiving one another and being patient with one another. In other words, the ragamuffin vision assures us that God loves us in the midst of our failures. And the discipleship vision challenges us to love other ragamuffins in the same way we’ve been loved—in the midst of our ragamuffin-ness.

And at the end of the day this is what matters. Business leaders may exhort me to ‘be my best self’, but I really don’t think my best self has anything to do with metrics and sales figures. My best self is to do with love, patience, gentleness, compassion, kindness, and generosity. It’s about forgiving others and refusing to give up on them. And the Christian gospel tells me I can do these things with the help of the God who refuses to give up on me.

One of my favourite Bible passages goes like this:

‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.’ (Ephesians 4.31-32, New Living Translation).

I think this gets right to the heart of the matter. God help us to live by it, for our own comfort and the comfort of others.

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.