God, the Anguished Parent (a sermon on Hosea 11.1-11)

I suspect I’m not the only parent in church today who remembers being nervous about the impending birth of their first child. Becoming a parent can be joyful and exciting, but it’s also an invitation to a life of worry and anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, and a strong sense of your own personal inadequacy! I don’t know too many parents who really believe, deep down inside, that they’re doing a good job. We all feel like we’re struggling to keep our heads above water.  And yet, as we saw last week, when Jesus is teaching us how to think about God, he invites us to say, “Our Father…”! In other words, Jesus’ favourite metaphor for God’s activity in our lives is parenting.

There’s a common caricature of the Old and New Testaments that says that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and scary God of judgement, and the God of the New Testament is a warm and cuddly God of love. In fact, of course, there are plenty of passages about judgement in the New Testament, too—anybody remember who actually gave us the parable of the sheep and the goats?—and the Old Testament has some tender and loving passages. And one of the most beautiful Old Testament passages about the love of God is our first reading for today, Hosea 11.1-11.

Of all the Bible writers the prophet Hosea is most adept at describing God for us in human terms. And he gives us some striking images while he’s doing it. In last week’s passage, God commanded Hosea to go marry a prostitute, and he obeyed; he married Gomer, and it didn’t take her long to be unfaithful to him. And so Hosea’s marriage became like an acted parable of what it felt like for God to take Israel as his lover, and then have her cheat on him. Philip Yancey says Hosea gives us the striking image of ‘God the jilted lover’!

This week we’re still using family images, but now we’re into a parental metaphor. This week our image is ‘God, the anguished parent’. Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? In this passage from Hosea, God’s heart is laid bare for us.

Hosea begins by describing the people of Israel as children of a loving God.‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’ (v.1). God saw the Israelites suffering as slaves in Egypt, and sent Moses down to lead them out of slavery to freedom. He sent the ten plagues on the Egyptians and finally forced Pharaoh to let the slaves go. He defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led the people on their long journey through the wilderness. When they were hungry he gave them manna from heaven and quails to eat. When they were thirsty he brought water out of a rock for them. And through it all, he taught them his ways through the Ten Commandments and the other laws he gave them.

In verses 3 and 4 we see God describing Israel poetically as a much-loved child.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them, and fed them.

Note how this image usually works in the Old Testament. We’re not yet at the idea of each human as a child of God. Here we’re talking about the nation as a whole as God’s son. But nonetheless, the language is vivid and compelling. We see the parent watching anxiously as the toddler takes her first wavering steps across the room. Suddenly she falls down, but before she hits the ground she’s scooped up into the arms of her mom, who quickly soothes away any hurt.

That’s what God was like in the early days. Israel took their first wavering steps as a nation, and God hovered over them, picking them up every time they stumbled and soothing away their pain. God is like a mother overwhelmed with love; she can’t help but hold her child cheek to cheek, communicating security, love and peace.[1]

In the New Testament, of course, Jesus’ favourite image for God is ‘Father’. In fact, it’s almost the only name he uses for God. And he invites his disciples into this relationship too, teaching us to pray ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Note that gender isn’t the issue here; God isn’t a male as opposed to a female God. It’s the loving, caring parental relationship that counts. Even if we’ve had a bad experience with human parents, we’re invited to imagine the best possible parent and think of God in those terms: one who always loves us, always provides for our needs, always guides and teaches us and corrects us when we go the wrong way, one who protects us from harm. And for all this, of course, the framework is God’s steadfast love.

But now we come to the hard part. Israel isn’t only seen as the children of a loving God; they’re also seen as wayward children.

We know that no parent is immune from having struggles with their kids. Our church is named after St. Margaret, who was the mother of eight children. She’s recognized as a saint, but even she didn’t have a perfect record—at least one of her children turned out very badly, so we’re told! And we can go even higher than that. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the father of the prodigal is meant to represent God, and he certainly comes across as a wise and loving parent. But still, his son rebels against him and takes off for a far country where he wastes all the money his father gave him in what Luke calls ‘dissolute living’ (Luke 15.13).

Israel’s rebellion against God is spelled out in verse 2:

The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

What a contrast with Jesus, the Son of God! In the New Testament, Jesus’ whole life is defined by his close relationship with God, his heavenly Father.  But in the Old Testament, we could say that Israel’s life as a people was largely shaped by their rejection of God. This is the major story of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, and even back into the earlier books that tell the Exodus story.

The specific form their rebellion took was idolatry: the worship of things that are not God. In other words, they rejected their ideal parent and ran off with another one – and then another – and then another – and so it went on. Note this: God isn’t giving in to a fit of jealousy here, like an insecure parent who complains because his child doesn’t worship the ground he stands on. No—idolatry is poisonous for us as humans, because so often we humans become like the things we worship.

We can see an innocent example of that in fans of rock bands who sometimes dress up in the same kind of gear their idols wear. I’m old enough to remember Bay City Rollers fans from the 1970s, all dressed up in tartan like the boys they loved so much! But far less humorous is the story in the Iliad of the Greek king Agamemnon, leader of the army that was trying to cross the Aegean sea to fight against the city of Troy. But the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and the Greeks were getting incredibly frustrated. Eventually Agamemnon’s prophet told him the only way he could get a favourable wind was if he would offer his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to the gods. And Agamemnon did that. He worshipped savage gods, and he became savage, just like them.

This sin is also mentioned in the Old Testament: some of the Israelites were influenced by worshippers of the god Molech, and they began offering their children in human sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yahweh is appalled by this: “I never asked this,” he says, “nor did it ever enter my mind!” And there are other things that seem to go hand in hand with idolatry in the writings of the prophets: injustice, cruelty, oppression of the poor, sexual immorality and so on. Apparently, to reject the God of Israel is to reject his moral and ethical teaching too.

This is not ancient history. In case you hadn’t noticed, idolatry is alive and well today. When we turn to created things and ask them to fulfil God’s role in our lives, we make them into false gods. Many people do that with money and possessions, or success, or popularity. In the scary world we live in, nationalism is a powerful idol for some people: loyalty to their country is the highest ideal they can think of.

In our culture these are powerful God-substitutes that call us away from the worship of the one true God. Christian conversion, to St. Paul, involves turning away from these idols. Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians: ‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead’ (1.9-10).

This turning from idols to the one true God isn’t just a one-off thing. False gods are constantly tempting us. Think of how many times we fall for the ads that promise us ultimate happiness if we just buy their product. We’ve seen again and again that they’re peddling lies, but still we give in! So daily conversion involves intentionally turning away from the lies of those false gods, and turning back to the one true God who alone can give us what we’re looking for.

We’ve seen that we’re the children of the living God, but we’re also wayward children who tend to stray away from him and worship false gods. So how is God going to respond? Is it going to be judgement or forgiveness?

Let me read verses 5-9 again, only this time from the New Living Translation:

“But since my people refuse to return to me,they will return to Egyptand will be forced to serve Assyria.War will swirl through their cities;their enemies will crash through their gates.They will destroy them,trapping them in their own evil plans.For my people are determined to desert me.They call me the Most High,but they don’t truly honour me.

“Oh, how can I give you up, Israel?How can I let you go?How can I destroy you like Admahor demolish you like Zeboiim?My heart is torn within me,and my compassion overflows.No, I will not unleash my fierce anger.I will not completely destroy Israel,for I am God and not a mere mortal.I am the Holy One living among you,and I will not come to destroy.”

Here we are really gazing into the pain in the heart of God, aren’t we? What parent hasn’t felt this way? “I can’t believe she did this! How could she betray my trust like that? If I let her get away with it, her feet are going to be set on a path that leads to a very bad place. I need to stamp this out right now! But wait—if I do, she’s going to be really hurt! She’s going to think I’m rejecting her, and she’ll hate me for it. How can I possibly cause her pain? I can’t bring myself to do that. But if I let her get away with it…”

In this section we see God mulling this over. He contemplates sending them away into exile, but then he recoils from this thought. In fact, he sounds like a parent who says rash things in the heat of the moment, then thinks it over and in the morning gives a more measured response. Are there any parents here who have done that? I know I have! “No”, God says, “if I behaved like that I’d be acting just like a mortal—a human with a temper problem!” God will correct us, but in love, not in anger.

In one of his books Philip Yancey talks about a conversation he had with a Japanese friend about the love of God. His friend told him that in his culture father-love and mother-love are complimentary but different. Father-love is the love that pushes children to achieve and makes demands on them. Mother-love is the safe place they can return to when they’re exhausted or lonely or demoralized. Philip’s friend felt that his culture had over-emphasised the Father-love of God but under-emphasized God’s mother-love. We can see this tension in the verses we’ve just read.

How does God balance these two kinds of love? Surely this demands infinite wisdom on God’s part—a wisdom all parents long for! Sometimes children misinterpret parental discipline. “You hate me! I hate you back!” If you’re a parent, this pierces you to the heart! We don’t hate our kids—if we did, we wouldn’t care. No—it’s because we love that we feel the need to correct and train our kids. But the overall framework for all of this is the deep, deep love we have for them. Balancing the contrasting demands of the different kinds of love is what makes parenting such a tough gig. Ask God—he knows all about how tough it is!

 So we’ve seen that we’re children of a loving God, but we’re also wayward children. We’ve seen the dilemma God has—balancing what Philip Yancey’s friend called father-love and mother-love is a tough gig. Finally let’s look at verses 10-11, which deal with responding to God’s call.

‘They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.’

These two verses have a poignant quality to them. They remind me of a parent shaking her head over her children, saying “One day they’ll smarten up!” We can hear the sadness in her voice; she sees the pain her child is putting himself through because of his choices, and she longs for him to change his mind and change the direction of his life.

Our NRSV Bibles translate this in the third person: ‘They shall go after the Lord.’ But the New Living Translation puts it in the first person: ‘For some day the people will follow me.’ We hear God saying, ‘Some day—I wish it was today!’

God is committed to respecting the free will of his people, so what can he do? He can call—and I think that’s what the lion’s roar in verse 10 is all about. The lion is roaring to signal to his kids that the street lamps are about to come on, so it’s time to come home! The kids have been having fun, so the call is a bit of a shock. “Whoops—I guess we stayed out too long!” So they come ‘trembling’, says the reading—they’re expecting a scolding!

Remember again Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The son asks for his inheritance, then goes off to a far country and wastes it all. When it’s all gone, and a severe famine comes to that land, he gets a job feeding pigs. That’s when he comes to his senses, and decides to go home. He makes up an apologetic speech to give to his dad, and I’m sure he practices it many times on the way home. Why? Because he’s expecting to encounter anger, not welcome.

But to his surprise, he encounters not anger, but joy. His father gives him a bear-hug and a kiss, sends a servant off for new shoes and new clothes, and throws a feast in his honour to welcome him home. Jesus says this is how God treats us when we come home to him. We’re wayward children, yes, but we’re still his children, and nothing can change that fact. ‘They shall come trembling…,’ says God, but ‘…I will return them to their homes.’

The heart of God is our home. We’ve seen that God’s heart is full of love for us, a love stronger and wiser and fiercer than the love of any parent who has ever lived. We’re constantly being tempted to stray from that home, but God is constantly calling us back. The welcome feast is spread out for us this morning. Let’s come home again to the heart of God.

[1]I’m indebted for this image to Paula Gooder, Hosea to Micah (The People’s Bible Commentary, BRF, 2005).

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‘Teach Us to Pray’ (a sermon on Luke 11.1-13)

When I was a teenager and a fairly new Christian, a man called Vijay Menon came to our church to lead an evangelistic mission. During the few days he was at our church he stayed at the rectory, where I lived, and I quickly became aware of his prayer life. Vijay was an early riser; he got up every morning at 5 o’clock, made himself a cup of tea, and then spent the first couple of hours of the day in Bible reading and prayer.

This made a big impression on me. I’d already been having prayer times in the mornings, but they tended to be rather rushed. Vijay’s example challenged me to be more intentional about those prayer times, and to get up a bit earlier to give myself more time. He never gave me any verbal instruction about prayer, but his personal prayer practice was a real inspiration to me.

I expect something like that happened in today’s gospel. In those days, what we now call ‘private life’ was non-existent. Very few people had private bedrooms unless they were very rich. Jesus and his disciples would have lived in very close quarters with each other, and I expect they would have shared prayer times together. We know from the gospels that Jesus was also in the habit of praying alone, but when he did it, he had to go off by himself into the country and find a lonely place.

Our gospel begins by telling us that ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place’ (Luke 11.1).I tend to imagine this happening in the open country, with Jesus taking himself off to the edge of the group, closing his eyes and raising his hands and focussing on his Father. Perhaps he took a substantial period of time doing it. Maybe his disciples noted his intensity, the sense that he was in conscious contact with God, the sense that something supernatural was going on. Something about it got their attention and aroused their curiosity. And so, when he was done, one of them said, “Lord, teach us to do that!” The result was what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.

So what does Jesus teach here about prayer? I’m not going to make this easy for you this morning; I’m going to point out six things in these verses. Maybe you should write them down!

First, he teaches us that it matters who is praying.This is a prayer for disciples. Disciples are people who are following Jesus, learning to see life as he sees it and live life as he taught. And this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus experiences God as his loving heavenly Father. Jesus lives his life to bring honour to God’s name and to spread God’s kingdom by his words and actions, by his life and death and resurrection. Jesus speaks words of forgiveness, gives bread to the hungry, and wins the victory over the tests and temptations of the devil. Do you see the connections with the Lord’s Prayer? As I said, this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

We disciples of Jesus are called to follow him and imitate him. So he teaches us to relate to God as a loving parent. He teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and value it ahead of riches or success or anything else in life we might long for. He teaches us to share our bread with the hungry. He teaches us to forgive one another and even love our enemies, and to stand fast when we’re tested and tempted by the forces of evil. This is the life we’re learning to live as disciples, and it’s the life we’re learning to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If we’re consistent disciples, our prayers and our lives will agree with each other. Living the life of a disciple will help us pray this prayer, and praying this prayer will help us live the life of a disciple.

So it matters who is praying: disciples of Jesus. Second, it matters that you pray with others. Nowadays many people think of prayer as something we do by ourselves. ‘You don’t have to come to church to pray’, people say, and we get the sense that what they mean by prayer is a person sitting quietly at home with a cup of herbal tea, hands spread out, eyes closed, praying to God in the individuality of their own head.

But true Christian prayer is not individual. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray alone—of course we should! But even when we pray alone, we’re not really praying alone. Every pronoun in the Lord’s Prayer is a plural pronoun. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (Luke 11.3-4). This is the prayer of a community. When we pray it, we’re joining a community of disciples all over the world, addressing our heavenly Father together.

Prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. Prayer alone is an extension of our prayers together. But whenever it’s possible for us to gather to pray, we should do that. That’s why Sunday worship is meant to be a priority for Christians. It’s not something we should relegate to the ‘if I’ve got nothing better to do’ part of our schedule. The letter to the Hebrews says ‘Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews 10.25). We are a community of disciples, gathering together around the Lord’s Table, like a family coming together for a weekly meal—not just to enjoy each other’s company but also to join together in prayer to the God we have in common.

Prayer together keeps us steady. If the only prayer we have is individual prayer, it’ll be easy to neglect it. We’ll find all kinds of excuses why we can’t do it. Too busy. Too tired. Too discouraged. Too stressed. But if we have a commitment to meet together and pray, the commitment will carry us.

So it matters who is praying, and it matters that you pray with others. Thirdly, it matters who you pray to.“What on earth do you mean?” you ask. “Surely God is God? Who else would you pray to?” Yes—but it matters what you think about the God you’re praying to. Some people think the God they’re praying to needs humans to fight and kill each other so as to bring him honour. Others think God doesn’t really care about us. I heard of a Christian who once asked a friend what he thought about God. The reply surprised him: “The way I see it, God’s got a lot on his mind. World hunger, global warming, wars in the Middle East, AIDS and all that. So the best thing I can do for God is to stay out of his way.”

It makes a difference if you think you’re praying to a God who only has so much time and attention to give, doesn’t it? If you’re in competition with everyone else’s needs, who’s to say whether or not the answer to your prayer is going to be made on a Friday? That’s not a very encouraging thought, is it?

But Jesus encourages us to think of God as the best and wisest of parents or friends. He uses two parables to bring this message home. First, if your friend suddenly finds herself in need of some extra food because of unexpected company, you’ll help out without question, because she matters to you. Second, if your child comes to you and asks for some food, you’re not going to give them a scorpion instead of an egg, are you? We’re sinners, but even sinners like us know how to care for our friends and our kids! How much more will the heavenly Father care for us, his beloved children?

God is like the best and wisest and most selfless father or mother we could ever imagine. God provides for our needs. God guides us and helps us grow in wisdom. If that’s what you believe about God, you’re going to have no hesitation going to God in times of need and asking for help. And especially when you’re seeking first the Kingdom of God, so that the things you’re praying for are also the things Godis longing for—if you feel that way, you’re going to be quick to turn to God for help.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, and it matters who you pray to. Fourthly, it matters what you pray for.

The Lord’s Prayer is divided into two simple sections: God’s priorities, and our necessities. God’s priorities come first. We don’t come charging into God’s presence and immediately present our prayer shopping list. First we think about who we’re praying to, and we pray about the things that are important to God.

So we pray that God’s name will be hallowed. If we love God, then God’s good name matters to us. To slander someone’s good name is to smear their reputation in the world. So this is a prayer that God’s name would be known and loved and honoured in the world.

Obviously more than just the name is at stake here. Before I met Marci I had never known anyone by that name. Now, it’s the most precious name in the world to me—because I love the one who bears it. So for us to say ‘Hallowed be your name’ is a form of praise and an expression of love. John Newton wrote, ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear!’ Obviously in this hymn, the name of Jesus is sweet because the person of Jesus is loved so much.

So we pray that God’s name will be loved and honoured, and we also pray that God’s kingdom will come. Matthew’s longer version of the Lord’s Prayer explains this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ So we are praying that God’s perfect rule of love and compassion, justice and peace will be established on earth. This is a prayer that everyone in the world will have enough and no one too much—that the good earth God has created will be respected and cherished—that people will treat each other as friends and not enemies—and that all over the world people will love and honour God above everything else.

So we focus on God’s priorities first of all. But then we turn to our necessities. Jesus mentions three things: food, forgiveness, and deliverance from times of testing and temptation.

‘Give us each day our daily bread’ (v.3). This is a very simple prayer. It’s not a prayer for lottery wins or plane tickets or expensive holidays or success in business. It’s a prayer that we will know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from. In other words, it’s a prayer that we will enjoy the necessities of life. Note: that we will enjoy the necessities of life—not I, but we. So to pray the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer that will have the necessities of life, but that everyone on earth will enjoy them too. And of course, we can’t pray that if we aren’t prepared to change our lifestyle to help make it happen.

‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’ (v.4). We are in need not only of food but also of forgiveness, because we all stand before God as sinners. The language of debt is used here, because love is a debt we owe to God and our neighbour. The great commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. How are we doing with that? The truth is, of course, that every day we fall short, and so every day we need to come to God for forgiveness. And we also commit ourselves to being people who extend forgiveness to others as well. Jesus is very clear about this: the people who can come to God and ask for forgiveness are the people who are willing to at least try to forgive those who have sinned against them.

‘And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (v.4). The Greek word can mean both times of testing and temptation; you have to decide from the context what the meaning is. I suspect that in this prayer it means ‘Don’t bring us to trials too hard for us, and when we’re in the middle of them, help us get through them.’

So it matters that we pray for the right things. We can pray that God’s name will be honoured and God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. We can pray for the necessities of life for ourselves and others, for the forgiveness of our sins and for God’s help in times of difficulty. And we can also pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says at the end of the passage: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (v.13). These are the prayers that Jesus promises God will hear.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, it matters who you pray to, and it matters what you pray for. Fifthly—and this breaks the pattern a bit—it doesn’t matter that your prayers are long or exactly worded!

The Lord’s Prayer is short. Yes, it’s more of a pattern than a prayer, and we’re expected to add to it when we use it—to fill out each petition with our own particular concerns. But it’s not a long prayer, and it would seem to indicate there’s no particular virtue in praying long prayers.

Also, there are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer. The one we use in church is based on Matthew’s version, which is a little longer. Luke’s version misses out some of the familiar petitions. Interestingly enough, some time in the early Christian centuries someone was so bothered by this that they changed Luke’s version and added the extra words from Matthew. When the King James Version was translated in 1611 those changed manuscripts of Luke were all the translators had, so in the King James the Lord’s Prayer is basically identical between Matthew and Luke. But in the centuries since then archeologists have discovered older copies of Luke, without the additional words. So most modern translations use those older manuscripts and give us the shorter version in Luke.

What does this tell us? It tells us that Jesus didn’t always teach this prayer in exactly the same way! He didn’t see himself primarily as giving a fixed, rote prayer for his followers to pray for the next two thousand years, although there’s nothing wrong with us praying it together. But Jesus saw it primarily as an outline of things we should pray about. When we pray by ourselves or in small groups, we should feel free to fill out the outline.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that we pray with others, it matters who we pray to, it matters what we pray for, but it doesn’t matter that our prayers are long or exactly worded.

One last thing and then I’m done. This has all been fascinating, but if all you do is listen to it and then do nothing, it’s not accomplishing very much. So the last thing is simply to say it matters that you pray. You learn to talk by talking. You learn to ride a bike by riding a bike. And you learn to pray by praying.

If you already pray every day, this prayer can help you focus on the things that really matter. But if you don’t already have a prayer discipline, the most important thing you can do is to go home, look at your schedule, write yourself in a daily prayer appointment, and then keep it. And keep on keeping it. The things we do every day have a transformational effect on us, far more than the things we do occasionally.

We have asked the Lord to teach us to pray. He’s done as we asked. The next step is up to us.

‘The Image of God’ (a sermon on Colossians 1.15)

Today is a joyful celebration of new life in Christ. Today, in a few minutes, Holly is going to commit herself to Christ in faith and baptism, and then she and Craig are going to offer their son Henry to receive baptism as well. I think the last time we celebrated the baptism of a mother and her child at the same service at St. Margaret’s was nineteen years ago, so it’s not something we see very often! But it’s a beautiful witness to the decision of a family to put God at the centre of their lives and follow the way of Jesus together, and so we rejoice with them here today.

Baptism in the New Testament is like a beautiful diamond with many facets. We turn it around and examine it closely, and the light falls on a different facet each time. Sometimes baptism is about being born again into the family of God. Sometimes it’s about dying with Christ on his cross and being raised with him in his resurrection—that symbolism was very powerful when adults were baptized by total immersion, going down into the water and coming up again. Sometimes it’s about God making a covenant with the person being baptized, and baptism being the sign and seal of that covenant. Sometimes it’s about repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Most of the language used about baptism in the New Testament works better when it’s an adult being baptized, as Holly will be baptized today. That shouldn’t surprise us; after all, most of the New Testament books were written by the first generation of Christians. They remembered what it was like to be without Christ in their lives. They remembered how they came to believe in Christ, and how they were baptized into his family. So they loved using the language of dying and rising again, or being washed from your sins. That language really resonated with their experience. They looked back on their conversion to Christ using the sort of imagery Paul uses in the two verses immediately before our reading from Colossians today, where he says,

‘For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.’ (Colossians 1.13-14 NLT)

But what does baptism mean for a person who experiences it the way Henry is going to experience it today, right at the beginning of his life? I think the New Testament text that best fits Henry’s experience is the one from the end of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations. Let me remind you of what he says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NRSV).

A disciple is a learner—we might even say, an apprentice—someone who is intent on putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily life. Adults can decide to do this, of course, but parents can also decide to make this the centre of their lives with their children. We love Jesus and we want to learn to follow him, and as we’re learning day by day, we’re also passing on what we learn to our children and grandchildren, by our words and by our example. So a family that brings a child for baptism is a family that has decided to follow Jesus together.

But why would we want to do that? Why would we specifically want to follow Jesus? After all, there are many different religions out there in the world today. We have many different options to choose from. What makes Jesus so special? Is it just because we live in Canada, and historically Canada has had a Christian tradition? Or is it something more than that?

I want to focus with you on one verse from our reading from Colossians this morning: the first verse of the passage, Colossians 1.15. Here it is:

‘He (that is, Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’.

That’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it, rather literally, from the original Greek. The Common English Bible gives what I think is a good paraphrase of it:

‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’

This is amazing language for our author to use! We’re not exactly sure when the letter to the Colossians was written. Many scholars think it was written by Paul the apostle, as it claims, which means it would have had to be written before the mid-sixties A.D., since Paul was probably executed by the Roman Emperor Nero about that time. But other scholars think it was written at a later date, by a disciple of Paul, perhaps a decade or so after Paul died. Even so, we’re talking about no more than forty-five years after the death of Jesus—and likely quite a bit earlier than that—and someone is already using astonishing language to describe the carpenter from Nazareth who’d been executed as a rebel against Rome by Pontius Pilate.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean. C.S. Lewis died on November 22nd1963, so that will be fifty-six years ago this coming November. Lewis continues to be a very popular Christian writer. His Narnia stories have been made into movies several times over the years. His books still sell in the millions. Many people have been inspired by him and some have become Christians because of his writings. There have been dozens of biographies and studies about his life, to the point that you’d think there would be nothing left to say, but no, people are still writing them! So it’s safe to say that Lewis was an impressive man and a great religious leader and teacher.

But no one has ever said of C.S. Lewis the sort of thing that we read in Colossians:

‘C.S. Lewis is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.’

It would be unthinkable that anyone would talk about Lewis like that. After all there are still people alive who knew him! His character flaws are well documented, and if anyone tried to teach that Lewis’ life was some sort of special revelation of God, Lewis and his friends would have been the first ones to protest. “I’m just a man,” he would have said, “and a sinner too. Please pray for me!”

When these verses from Colossians were written there were certainly people still alive who had known Jesus well. Many of them were Jewish people, and Jewish people were very strict about not worshipping anyone but the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. They were also very strict about not making images or idols. How could you possibly make an image that would sum up everything that God is? The whole universe can’t contain the likeness of God, so what hope does an image have of doing it? And so Jewish people were told quite clearly in the Ten Commandments not to make any sort of image to bow down and worship.

But now here is Paul, using that image language about Jesus, calling him the Son of God, and going on to say, ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’ And none of Jesus’ early followers protested that, despite the fact that it cut right across their Jewish sensitivities. Why is that? Surely it’s because, the more they thought about their experience of Jesus, the more they realized that this was the only sort of language that was adequate for him.

The Anglican bishop of Toronto is called Andrew Asbil. Andrew’s father Walter was also an Anglican bishop in the Diocese of Niagara in Ontario. About twenty years ago, long before Andrew became a bishop, I was at a national church meeting in Toronto where he was one of the speakers. The person introducing him said, “I want to introduce Andrew Asbil to you today. Some of you know his father Walter, and you’ll agree with me that you now know exactly what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’!” And it’s true! If you put photographs of Andrew and Walter beside each other, the likeness is uncanny!

But of course most children bear the likeness of their parents to some degree. And children also inherit some of their characteristics from their parents. The older I get, the more I realize that some of my deepest convictions about what it means to be a Christian priest come from my dad, who was a priest before me. And I chuckle sometimes when I hear some of the things my daughter says to her children, and I realize that she heard the very same words coming out of my mouth when she was growing up!

“Like father, like son.” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Many of you have heard me tell the joke about the little girl in Sunday School who was trying to draw a picture of God. Her teacher was surprised. “But no one knows what God looks like!” he said. She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And when Jesus was done living his life of love for God and others—even going so far as to love his enemies and pray for those who hated him—when he was done living a simple life with few possessions, focussing only on God and the people God loves—when he was done crossing boundaries and loving people no one else had any time for—when he was done healing the sick and raising the dead and welcoming sinners and teaching us what God had in mind for us when he created us in the first place—well, when Jesus was done all that, now we know what God is like. God is like Jesus.

Let’s be clear what we mean here. We’re not saying that God hasn’t revealed any truth about himself to anyone in any other religion on the planet. That would be absurd. God hasn’t left himself without a witness anywhere. There are good and wise things taught about God in many different religious traditions. But at one point in the history of the planet, as St. John says in his Gospel, ‘The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1.14 NRSV) God has come among us in Jesus, to live and die as one of us. That’s why we follow him.

But there’s one more thing we need to remember about this verse in Colossians. Jesus doesn’t only show us what God is like; he also shows us what humans are meant to be like. ‘He is the image of the invisible God,’ says Paul. But you remember in the Book of Genesis, when God creates human beings, he says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1.26 NRSV) and the writer goes on to say,

‘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)

Scholars have speculated for years about what it means to say that we humans are made in the image of God, but the simple answer was staring us in the face all the time. Five chapters later in Genesis the same language is used when Adam has a son. ‘He became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’. (Genesis 5.3). Parents have children in their image. God created humans in his image. We were meant to grow up to be like God, just as children grow up to be like their parents.

But so often we choose to disobey God, and the rest of the Bible is a sad record of that. We break our relationship with God, we’re alienated from others, we hurt the people we love, and we bring devastation to the natural world God created. This is still going on today. Yes, we’re still made in God’s image, but we struggle with evil and wickedness as well. We human beings are a mixed bag, capable of incredible love but also incredible cruelty. Our whole lives long, we struggle with this.

But Jesus shows us the way. Yes, he is God come to live among us, but he’s also a real human being. He shares our struggles. He knows what it’s like to be a refugee and have to flee from death squads with your family. He knows what it’s like to have to earn a living by the work of your hands. He knows what it’s like to have to share a small house with siblings, and later on, to be misunderstood by them, and called ‘out of his mind.’ He knows what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty, to love people and be rejected by them, to be gossiped about and slandered, and ultimately to die a painful death for a crime he didn’t commit.

Jesus wasn’t removed from our life; he lived it to the full. But somehow, when we read his story, we find ourselves drawn by him. Through all the difficulties, he seems to know God is with him all the time. He doesn’t get sidetracked from doing God’s will. He reaches out to the poor and the sick and the marginalized. He treats women and children, and lepers and Roman soldiers, and tax collectors and sinners, as if they matter to God. He inspires us, and we find ourselves wanting to be like him. That’s what being a disciple is all about: learning from Jesus what it means to be truly human, made in God’s image.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus shows us what God is like. So if someone tries to tell us that God is pleased by people who plant bombs, and force children to become soldiers, and fly airplanes into buildings to kill thousands of people, we know that’s wrong. Jesus has shown us what God is like. “God is love.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” If you want to know God, come to Jesus.

But Jesus is also the image of what it means to be human. He teaches us that loving God and loving your neighbour is the secret of life, and as we watch him, we realize he’s right. Jesus is truly alive, in a way we rarely see in others. He can teach us how to be truly alive.

Today, Holly and Henry are setting out on this path. As they get closer to Jesus, Jesus will teach them to know the God who loves them. And Jesus will also show them what it means to be a real live human being, the way God had in mind when he first created human beings.

But this reminder is for all of us, not just Holly and Henry. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He’s the best picture we have of what God is like. He’s also the best picture we have of what humans are meant to be like. So let’s follow him, so that we also can be transformed into his likeness.

Shaking the Foundations (a sermon for July 14th on Psalm 82)

In November 1989, after twenty-eight years of separation between east and west, the authorities in East Germany ordered that the gates of the Berlin Wall be opened permanently. The following year this wall that had divided the city for so long was demolished. It was a huge event at the time; some would go so far as to call it earth-shaking.

When we use that word ‘earth-shaking’, we know we’re speaking metaphorically. We’re not talking about a literal earthquake! What we mean is that this event is so significant that all the things we’ve assumed for so long are no longer certain. Things are being shaken up! And of course, this might be a good change, or a bad change, or a bit of both.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall we’ve experienced a few more earth-shaking events. There was 9/11, when the people of North America experienced for the first time in almost two centuries what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a foreign attack on their own soil. A few years later there was the crash of 2008, when the world’s markets plunged into chaos and hundreds of thousands of people lost jobs and homes and livelihoods. More recently we’ve experienced the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, which has brought a huge amount of uncertainty and unpredictability into the relationships and alliances and trade agreements in the world. Over on the other side of the pond, of course, there was the Brexit vote and all the chaos that followed it. And for the last few years we’ve experienced more and more extreme weather events, including massive floods and forest fires, and I think many of us are realizing that the effects of climate change are coming a lot faster than we thought they would.

So it feels as if our country and our society, and maybe even the whole world order, is being ‘shaken up’ in a way we haven’t seen perhaps since the Second World War. And one of the frightening things about it is that for most of us, there doesn’t seem to be very much we can do about it. The power is concentrated in the hands of a few. True, we have the power to fire the government on election day, but my one little vote doesn’t count for very much, does it? Especially in a ‘first past the post’ election system! Survey after survey has shown that since the 1980s the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger all over the world, including our country. And in politics, money is power, and without money you can’t get power. And most of us feel powerless.

Into this situation comes today’s psalm, Psalm 82. The gift of the psalms is that they allow us to pray in any situation we find ourselves in. If you’re depressed, there are psalms for you. If you’re thankful and joyful, there are psalms for you. If you’re mad and you just want God to send a thunderbolt to wipe out your enemies, there are psalms for you! And if you feel powerless, and you think the people who claim to be running the world just don’t seem to know what the heck they’re doing, there’s a psalm for you: Psalm 82! Let’s look at it together, not in the Book of Alternative Services translation, but in our pew Bibles, the New Revised Standard Version (page 542 in the Old Testament).

Psalm 82 seems strange to us because it assumes a mythology we no longer believe in. The Canaanites in Old Testament times assumed there were many gods—some of them in charge of territories or nations or cities, some of them in charge of particular activities, like war or love or fertility. But every now and again, the gods got together and had a council, where they talked about what they were doing and made decisions together. This council was presided over by El, the king-god of the Canaanite pantheon.

‘El’ was also a name that the ancient Israelites used for their God, Yahweh. In the early part of the Old Testament the people still assumed that there were many gods, not just one. The Ten Commandments don’t say there is only one god; they say ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ It’s only later in the Old Testament period that people began to believe that the Creator of the world was the only god, and that others were mere human creations. But the Israelites did believe that their god was greater than all the others, so it would be natural for them to assume that he was ‘El’, the ruler of the council of the gods.

And that’s the picture we have in this psalm. Look at verses 1-2:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgement:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

This is the world as ordinary ancient Israelites experienced it: they were victims of injustice, and they saw wicked people coming out on top over and over again. And they found themselves asking, “Who’s running this world anyway? If it’s the gods, they’re doing a pretty bad job! Someone should fire them!” Which actually is what happens toward the end of the psalm, in verses 6-7, where God tells the other gods that their days are over:

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’

We think of gods as immortal, but apparently their immortality can be taken away from them by Yahweh, and that’s what Yahweh threatens here. ‘You gods are doing such a terrible job that I’m going to remove you from your seats on this divine council, and in fact you’re going to lose your lives as well.’

So this is how the ancient Israelites would have understood this psalm. But interestingly, by the time the Gospel of John was written several hundred years later, Israelites aren’t understanding the psalm in the same way. In John chapter 10 the Jewish leaders get angry with Jesus because he’s calling God his father; he’s a mere human being, but he’s making himself equal with God. Jesus’ reply quotes from Psalm 82 and it assumes that the word ‘gods’ is used metaphorically in the psalm for human rulers:

Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:34-36).

Jesus’ reply only makes sense if the word ‘gods’ is being used in the psalm in a metaphorical way. In other words, the psalmist is actually talking about earthly kings and rulers, who strut about and think of themselves as godlike beings—which, of course, many Roman emperors were already doing in Jesus’ time, and maybe we can think of some political leaders who are doing it today!

I would guess that what’s happened is that by the time John’s Gospel was written, most people in Israel no longer believed the old Canaanite mythology of the many gods who sat in council together. They believed there is only one God, the Creator and preserver of all that exists. And so they have reinterpreted the old psalm in the light of their current beliefs, seeing it as a rebuke from God to the tyrannical and unjust rulers of the world. And I think that interpretation works for us today, too.

So what is God’s charge to the rulers of the world—the presidents and prime ministers and dictators and provincial premiers, and the generals and the CEOs of multinational corporations and the rest of that privileged club? Nowadays we tend to think the first job of rulers is to make their people rich, but apparently that’s not God’s priority. God looks down from heaven and sees the desperate situation of the poor and needy. Look at verse 5:

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I think about people who were living securely in their homes and then found themselves in the midst of a war zone, so that they had to run away across borders and move into a refugee camp where they were totally dependent on the generosity of others. I think about people who can’t understand the complex system of the world economic order; the only thing they know is that it seems impossible for them to make a living. I think of farmers in the two-thirds world who grow cash crops like coffee and tea and make a pittance for them so that we in the privileged world can enjoy cheap coffee. I think about people whose lives have been shaped for generations by the injustices of colonialism—including, of course, the indigenous people of our own country.

So what does God want the rulers to do? Look at verses 2-4:

How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

This is God’s priority for the rulers of the earth. You can search the Bible from end to end and you will never find any instructions to rulers and leaders regarding economic prosperity or job creation. When God speaks to rulers in the Bible, his message is boringly constant: Stop preying on the weak and the helpless, and be their protector instead.

But most rulers in human history haven’t done this. They become rulers because they love power, and if they didn’t start out that way, they soon learn the ropes! As the old saying goes, all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely! True, some start out with good motives, but the system isn’t set up to reinforce those motives, and they have to fight all the time to keep their eyes on the better way. Others have never been interested in the better way: they’re in it to line their own pockets and further their own standing in the world.

What does the psalm have to say to these tin-pot dictators? Look at verses 7-8:

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you.

These closing verses remind us that there are three things these power-hungry rulers forget. And maybe we forget them too. After all, in a democracy, we are the rulers! If we don’t like what the governments are doing, we can turf them out on election day! But how do we decide whether to turf them out or not? Are we judging them by the standard God sets: protecting the weak and the helpless? Or are we judging them by the standard of whether or not they’ve made the richest people in history even richer?

Three things not to forget:

First, don’t forget that you’re not going to live forever!

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’ (vv.6-7).

This seems like common sense, but it’s amazing how many people seem to go through life on the assumption that they will be the first person in history never to die! I see people accumulating possessions as if there’s some sort of prize for the one who leaves behind the most toys for their descendants to fight over. I see people devoting themselves to things that aren’t going to matter one bit to them when they’re lying on their death bed.

Jesus tells a story about a man like that in Luke chapter 12. He’s a rich and prosperous farmer, and his crops do so well that he can’t find room to store them. “I know what I’ll do!” he says. “I’ll knock down my grain bins and build bigger ones, and then I’ll take life easy, I’ve got lots of stuff laid up for many years, so I can eat and drink and be merry.” But listen to the end of Jesus’ story:

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God. (Luke 12:20-21).

So this is the first thing the psalmist is saying to the rulers, and maybe to us as well: don’t forget you’re not going to live forever! The second thing is this: Don’t forget the world doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to God. In verse 8 the psalmist says to God, ‘All the nations belong to you.’ So often we’re like children, running around saying ‘Mine! Mine!’ We say it about the land we live on, despite the fact that Psalm 24 says ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.’ We say it about our possessions, despite the fact that the Bible teaches our wealth has been entrusted to us for God’s purposes, not given to us to feed our own selfishness. And the people in our lives don’t belong to us; they aren’t here for our benefit! They are the children of God, made in his image, each one precious in his sight, no matter their age or gender or skin colour, or country of origin or religion, or political opinions or sexuality or anything else. The world and everything in it belong to God, not to us.

So don’t forget you’re not going to live forever, and don’t forget that the world doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to God. And the third thing not to forget is this: don’t forget that there’s a day of judgement coming. Verse 8 says,

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

It sounds strange to us that the psalmist would pray for judgement day to come soon! Most of us nowadays are afraid of the idea of judgement. We don’t like the Old Testament God of anger and punishment! We prefer the New Testament God of love and forgiveness and mercy! Although in fact there’s lots of love and forgiveness in the Old Testament too, and Jesus has a lot of things to say about judgement! Let’s not forget who told the parable of the Sheep and the Goats—a story in which those who have refused to care for the needy don’t end up in a very good place!

Most ancient Israelites saw themselves as the victims of the world system. They were the ones who were oppressed and exploited by foreign armies and unjust Israelite kings and rulers. Their prayer was that God would change this horrible wold system and bring down his judgement on the rulers and oppressors. So judgement day wasn’t something they feared: it was something they prayed for.

Let me suggest to you that we should pray for it too. Yes, of course, we need to be aware of our own sins and failures, and our need for forgiveness. But let’s also remember that if there’s no day of judgement, then oppressors and dictators and child molesters, and greedy people who care only for themselves and not the poor and needy—all those folks get the last word, and nothing ever changes. Is this what the kingdom of God looks like? Of course not. There has to be judgement, so that there can be a change in the situation. That’s one of the things we’re praying for when we use the prayer Jesus taught us: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So let me suggest to you that this is a powerful psalm for us to use today when we look around at all the evil things that are happening in the world. Yes, there are more than enough powerful people strutting around like little gods, throwing their weight around and lining their own pockets. If we’re angry about them, this psalm can give us words to pray. But let’s not forget that, at least in our country, we elect them! So what we pray for them, we pray for ourselves too. Don’t forget you’re not going to live forever, so make sure you spend time and energy on what really matters. Don’t forget that the world belongs to God, not you. And don’t forget that no matter how powerful we think we are, God is going to have the last word—and that is actually good news.

Freedom in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Galatians 5.1, 13-25)

Some of you here today are old enough to remember a song that began with these lines:

I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In an octopus’ garden in the shade.

And then a bit later on in the song came these lines which sum up so much of what the sixties were all about:

We would be so happy, you and me,
With no one there to tell us what to do.

‘No one there to tell us what to do’! What a congenial line for our modern ideas about freedom. Slavery means having to do what someone else tells you. Freedom means being able to do exactly what you want. This was the idea that fired up the sixties generation. Cast off the restrains of the past! No one gets to define you except you! Make your own choices, follow your feelings, follow your heart.

Of course, that didn’t always go well for people, even in the sixties. Another very famous song from that era includes the line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ That songwriter was a little soured on the ideals of the counter-culture, I think! A lot of people who cast off all constraints and did whatever their instincts told them discovered after a while that instincts can make a pretty tyrannical slave-driver. People schooled in the ways of unbridled self-indulgence too often ended up in chronic substance abuse and addiction, and some of the wreckage from that is with us to this day.

So what actually is freedom? Freedom from what? Freedom forwhat? And how do we achieve it? What does the New Testament have to say about freedom, and how we can experience it?

To answer this question, I want to talk to you today about four words and what we mean by them. You can find them all in the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we read this morning. The four words are ‘freedom’, ‘flesh’, ‘law’, and ‘Spirit’.

So let’s kick things off with the word ‘freedom’. In Galatians 5:1 Paul says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’

Paul didn’t come up with this idea of Christian freedom by himself; he got it from the teaching of Jesus. In John chapter 8 Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (v.31). His hearers are confused; they’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so what can Jesus mean by “You will be made free”? Jesus explains:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (vv.34-36).

So now we can see what we need to be set free from. Jesus wasn’t talking about a literal slavery with a human slave-owner. He was talking about the inner slavery we experience when we’re under the power of sin. Sin can exert a powerful control over us; we like to think we’re free, but along comes temptation, and with hardly any struggle at all, we give in to it. We get into the habitof giving in to it. Habits are like deep ruts worn in our brains, and every time we travel those ruts, we make them deeper. Once made, they’re very hard to break. Sin takes advantage of that, and it makes us slaves.

I need to say again that I’m not just talking about obvious, spectacular sins like murder or theft or adultery or anything like that. Sin is primarily selfishness or self-centredness. Instead of making God the centre of our lives, we claim that spot for ourselves. But the trouble is, we aren’t very good at ruling our own lives. We have the human propensity to mess things up. We spoil relationships, we spoil good intentions and shining dreams, we mess things up for others and for ourselves. Human history is a long, sad record of how good, well-meaning people screwed things up, for themselves and for others, over and over again.

The word Paul uses for this tendency is ‘the flesh.’ When he uses that phrase, he doesn’t mean what we mean today by the old-fashioned phrase ‘sins of the flesh’. That’s clear in the list he gives in our reading from Galatians; some of the sins he mentions are connected with the body, and they include sexual sins, but some of them are to do with our inner attitudes, too. The list is found in verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

It’s obvious that if we live lives like that, real human community is going to be impossible for us, because human community depends on a willingness to put others ahead of ourselves. And that’s why the Octopus’ Garden definition of freedom will never work. “We would be so happy, you and me, with no one there to tell us what to do.” Well, that sounds fine, but what if what I want to do infringes on the well-being of others? Human history gives us the answer to that question, and maybe our own history does, too. Lasting relationships can’t be built on a foundation of selfishness and self-centredness.

How do we respond to this? How can we be set free from the power of the flesh so we can experience true freedom? Jewish people in the time of Paul would have had a ready answer to that question: we’re set free by obedience to the Law of Moses, which was given by God on Mount Sinai to guide the life of his people.

The Law of Moses included not only the Ten Commandments and other moral laws, but also detailed instructions about how they were to worship God. They were to circumcise their sons as a sign that they were part of God’s people. They were to keep the sabbath day and do no work on it, and observe all the special holy days in the Jewish calendar. They were to stay away from unclean food—there was a great long list of all the foods considered ‘unclean’—and cook the clean food in specific ways, being especially careful not to eat meat with any blood in it. They were to offer all the prescribed sacrifices of animals and grains. And so the list went on.

In the time of Jesus some people had become very legalistic about this. The Pharisees believed that if all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly, God would reward them by sending the Messiah to set his people free. So they worked hard to strictly enforce the Law. And it is hard work! There are 613 commands in the Law of Moses; it’s hard enough to remember them all, let alone obey them!

Paul was convinced that this was a dead end. It wasn’t that the Law was a bad idea; it was just that the flesh was so powerful that it made it impossible for people to obey the Law perfectly. You and I have experienced this; we probably experience it every day. We start the day with good intentions, but it doesn’t take us long to mess up. No external Law can make us good; we need internal change for that to happen.

Today there are religious people who forget about that, and become legalists. Some of them are moral legalists: they try to live up to strict standards—usually about sex—and look down on others who don’t measure up. Actually, deep down inside they know they’re not measuring up too, and this terrifies them. Their idea of God is the angry schoolteacher with the big stick, standing over them, waiting to punish them for every single failure. God is a vindictive perfectionist.

Some religious people are ritual legalists. In Paul’s day they were sticklers for circumcision and keeping the sabbath and the food laws and observing all the prescribed rituals of Judaism. And today people can be obsessed with how exactly to follow the church year and the details of liturgy and worship, and neglect the more important parts of the teaching of Jesus.

Let’s step back for a minute. We’ve seen that freedom is what God made us for, but that freedom has been severely impacted by what Paul calls ‘the flesh’—our human propensity to mess things up. Some people try to address this issue through legalism: just give me some commandments to obey, and I’ll work hard, grit my teeth, pull myself up by my own collar, and make myself a better person! ‘Good luck with that!’ says Paul. ‘I tried that, and it didn’t work!’ So what’s the answer?

Paul does two things here: he clarifies the goal, and he tells us how to reach it.

In verses 13-14 he says, ‘For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ This is what we were designed for: to love one another, not just a feeling, but a decision to do good for others, to serve others, to be a blessing to others, whether we feel like it or not, whether they deserve it or not.

This is what we were designed for. A railway train is never more free than when it’s running on tracks. That’s what it was designed for, so in running on tracks it’s being true to its own nature. If the train had free will, it might get frustrated by this and decide to attempt to jump the tracks and run across a field. But as soon as it tried that, we know what would happen! A train wasn’t designed to run across a field. Freedom is doing what you were designed for, living in harmony with the nature God gave you.

So we will find true freedom by giving ourselves to others in love. But the flesh doesn’t like this. The flesh is selfish and self-centred, and we’ve discovered just how strong it is. How do we overcome it? Paul give us the answer: God helps us overcome the power of the flesh by giving us access to a greater power, the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. Look at verses 22-25:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the one who breathes God’s life into us. In John chapter 3 Jesus tells us that we are born again by water and by the Spirit. We can’t control the Spirit, Jesus says: the wind blows where it will, and that’s the way it is with the Spirit of God. But you can pray for the gift of the Spirit, and God loves to give that gift. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit came on the church with power; Jesus called it being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’. The same experience appears several times in the pages of the book of Acts, and in his letters Paul encourages us to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Jesus says, “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11.13)

So we need to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we then need to ‘live by the Spirit’. I actually love the way the NIV translates verse 25 of today’s reading: ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ And if we do that, the Holy Spirit will gradually grow in us the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (vv.22-23).

But he won’t do this by magic. He’ll do it in the school of hard knocks. Let me tell you how this works. You’re driving home from work, and you find yourself stuck in heavy traffic. The flesh gets upset; all those drivers are in my way! How dare they slow me down! So when we live by the flesh, we’re going to get angry and swear at them. We know the Law of Moses doesn’t approve, but the Law’s no help in restraining our bad temper.

So what do we do, as Spirit-filled Christians? We pray that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit and help us be patient, and then we fix our minds on God and take advantage of the opportunity for a bit of enforced leisure time! Maybe the Spirit whispers in our ear, “Hey, you’re always saying you don’t have enough time to pray. Well, you’ve got a few minutes here, and God’s listening!” And as we keep in step with the Spirit, day in and day out, we find the Spirit growing in us his fruit of patience. That’s how it works.

Today we baptize Malachi and Josephine, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will bring them to new birth in the family of God and mark them as God’s children. We pray that the Holy Spirit will fill them and help them grow as followers of Jesus. When they face struggles and difficulties, we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide them and help them become more like Jesus day by day. We pray that the Spirit will teach them that being a Christian isn’t just about obeying rules and hoping we’ve done enough to avoid God’s punishment. The Christian life is about having the breath of God in us, the Spirit of God, the power greater than ourselves and greater than the flesh. In John’s Gospel Jesus breathes on his disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Today, we pray that he will breathe on Malachi and Josephine, not just now, but every day as they grow and learn to follow Jesus.

But what about us? Are we living in that freedom that Jesus promised us? This is the reason we became Christians. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ says Paul in verse 1. So let’s pray every day for the Holy Spirit to fill us. Let’s turn to him for help when we struggle with our human propensity to mess things up. Let’s ask him to grow his fruit in us and then co-operate with him as he answers that prayer. And as we do this we’ll experience a growing sense of true freedom: not freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom to do what we were designed to do—to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. May this be so for you and me as we keep in step with the Spirit.

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.

The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity

A great philosopher was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. The philosopher replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course we can’t know for sure, but it seems as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternal significance – in fact, a longing for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. A popular book in the 1950s was called Your God is Too Small. Our ancient ancestors certainly had this problem. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in that way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancestors for this, because I suspect many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure—a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’—or a heavenly pharmacist who spends his time trying to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals. This is to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament. It’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name God revealed to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’. Most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of the ancient people ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.’ As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that appeared by chance out of nowhere. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’. In Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth—we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads were all made by God.

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too—over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being—approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA, and the intricacies of the human eye, and the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of God—of God’s wisdom, God’s creative power, God’s artistic skill, God’s love of outrageous colour combinations—have you looked at a sunset lately?—and God’s fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by God, and God continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him—our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun, our eyes screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worshipour glorious God, and we can follow his instructionfor our lives, including the particular call he has given to us human beings as we try to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe—telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him—there is a dreadful silence—no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life—‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4)—‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too—I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains. I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this, because for good or ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. And we are God’s children! God the Creator has made many different kinds of creatures, but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it we’re called to do? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands.’ Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment. We’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. God calls us human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and massive extinctions of wildlife species, it’s become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked. We are still placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less?

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet. Why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person—‘Come, let us sing to the Lord—but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into God’s creation regularly, we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us. He’s not going to revoke our job description. His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me? And if the answer is ‘no’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.