Coming Home (a sermon on Isaiah 40.1-11)

The word Isaiah speaks in our first reading for today is spoken to people who feel the situation they’re in is hopeless. I wonder how many of you have felt as if things are hopeless?

I think about the person who gets into debt so deeply they can’t see a way of ever getting their head above water again. Or the person in an abusive relationship in which they’re being hurt over and over again, and they can see no way out. I think about the parents who realise they’re in a negative rut in their relationship with their child and can’t see any way of changing it – or the teenager who wonders if his parents will ever understand him. These people are on the verge of giving up all hope – or maybe they’ve already done so.

Sometimes this is complicated by guilt; the situation’s hopeless and it’s my fault. Think of the alcoholic or drug addict who can’t see any way out, but he also knows all the suffering he and his family have gone through is his own fault. Think of the person who struggles unsuccessfully to control her temper and can’t see any hope of change, all the time being aware of the damage she’s caused to other people’s lives. “I’ve ruined it now and there’s no way it can ever be fixed”.

That’s the kind of situation God’s people were in when our Old Testament reading was written. They’d chased after other gods made of wood or stone and worshipped them. They’d abandoned God’s ways and oppressed the poor and needy. Over hundreds of years God had tried and tried again to call them back to him; he sent a long line of prophets to try to persuade them and warn them about what would happen if they didn’t repent. A few responded, but most ignored God’s call.

Eventually God allowed foreign armies to come against the land and defeat the Israelites; the leaders and educated classes were taken away as prisoners into exile in a foreign country and their land was given over to others. The temple in Jerusalem – which they saw as a sign that God was with them – was destroyed by the Babylonians. And the people who were taken away to Babylon thought God was so angry with them that he would never again accept them as his people.

Into this hopeless situation God sent a prophet to speak a word of comfort. We call him ‘Isaiah’, but he’s probably not the same prophet that wrote the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah as we now have it; those chapters were likely written many years earlier. God gave this ‘Second Isaiah’ a word of hope for people who lived in hopelessness and despair. You can find it in our first reading for today, from Isaiah chapter 40. Let’s start by looking at verses 1-2:

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’.

The prophet brings the people an incredible message: despite all the sins they’ve committed, despite all the suffering they’ve been through, God still cares for them. And God is coming to them now with a message of comfort and hope.

That comfort and hope comes in the words of three ‘voices’ that the prophet mentions in verse 3, verse 6, and verse 9. We’re not told who the speakers are. Likely they’re just a poetic device the prophet uses; one of the things we know about Second Isaiah is that he’s a wonderful poet. Let’s explore what he has to say by listening to these three ‘voices’.

The first voice is a promise of homecoming. Look at verses 3-5:

‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”’

So this is a promise of a homecoming. For more than a generation the exiles had been living hundreds of miles away from their home. We can get a sense of how they felt in one of the most poignant psalms in the Bible, Psalm 137:

‘By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land?’

I can only imagine what it felt like for them. When I was seventeen my family moved from the U.K. to Canada. At the time I wasn’t too pleased with the move; I had good friends back home and I had no desire to start over again at the age of seventeen in a completely unfamiliar country. Making friends wasn’t easy for me in those days, because I was a pretty shy guy. Eventually, of course, things brightened up, and now, forty-two years later, I’m very happy in this foreign land!

But let’s change the illustration; let’s think of the children of the residential schools, taken away forcibly from their homes and their families, forced to live in a completely unfamiliar boarding school system, forced to forget their own languages and customs and learn a completely alien way of life. I can’t begin to imagine how awful that must have been for them.

But for Israel it was even worse, because they had a very strong belief that Jerusalem was the city of God and the Temple was the place in Jerusalem where God’s presence was strongest. If you wanted to meet with God, you went to the Temple; you could be sure he’d be there! But how could you ‘sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land’?

How does this translate into our experience today?

I would suggest to you that the truest and most secure home any human being can have is the presence of God. God is our Creator, our rock, our loving parent. To live in God is to be truly at home in the most complete sense of that word. Every other home will disappoint us eventually; only when we find our home in God will we be fully satisfied. “You have made us for yourself”, Saint Augustine prays, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”.

So what does Jesus say to us?

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

I don’t think Jesus is especially talking about death here. We don’t have to wait until we die to find our home in God. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Do we have to wait until we die to ‘come to the Father’? Of course not; we can come to the Father right now.

So that’s the first announcement of Advent for us Christians: our exile is over. Jesus has come to take us home to the Father. Advent is an invitation for us to find our true home in the presence of God.

Let’s go on to the second voice. The second voice is a promise about the dependability of God’s promise. Look at verses 6-8:

‘A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever’.

The issue here is a simple one: Who can you count on? When the chips are down, who will come through for you? Is there such a thing as a human bring whose promise is utterly reliable? The prophet doesn’t think so.

We live in an age of great scepticism when it comes to the promises of politicians. Most of us suspect that they have no intention of keeping them. They want us to vote for them, so they say what they know we want to hear, but it’s all a con game. Of course, that’s an outrageous generalisation; there are good and sincere politicians who genuinely want to make a difference. But generally speaking, when political promises are broken very few people are surprised.

And even when people make promises with every intention to keep them, there’s still a problem: we human beings aren’t in total control of our lives. We’re not gods; we’re ordinary mortals. The prophet uses the illustration of blades of grass. A blade of grass isn’t in control of the hot desert wind that dries up the ground and causes all growing things to die of thirst. Neither is it in control of the man who comes striding across the field, flattening everything under his feet without even thinking about it.

We human beings are like that. I lost a good friend who died of cancer at the age of forty-six, leaving behind four children under the age of twelve, one of whom had Down Syndrome. It was his intention to be there for those kids into a ripe old age, but that wasn’t the way it turned out. No fault of his, but he was unable to keep those promises.

So who can we trust? In verse 8 the prophet says ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever’. God’s promise is totally dependable. He promised to bring the Israelites home from exile, and he kept that promise. He promised to send a Saviour for all people, and he kept that promise. He has promised to bring us to his Kingdom, and he will keep that promise as well.

Of course, sometimes God’s promises seem a little slow in fulfilment to us poor mortals. The people were taken into exile in 586 B.C. and their return began about fifty years later. In those days a fifty-year lifespan was a long one for ordinary people; very few of the original exiles would have lived to see the journey home. I sometimes wonder what it means when we pray to God – who lives outside of time – and ask him to hurry up! One of the most common phrases in the Old Testament is ‘wait for the Lord’; apparently it was common knowledge that he takes his time, since he has plenty of it! My Dad used to say “God knows I’m impatient, so he’s made me wait for almost every important thing in my life!”

I think part of the call of Advent to us who live in an age of great materialism is this: be sceptical about the extravagant promises mammon makes to us. Advertisers promise us that if we just buy their product we’ll find true happiness and fulfilment, but in the end that’s a lie. What we’re looking for we can only find in God; only he can give us what Jesus calls ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). So the prophet calls us to believe the promise of God and to turn to him for what we’re looking for.

We’ve heard two voices: a promise of a homecoming, and an assurance of the dependability of the promises of God. The third voice is a promise of the presence of God himself with us. Look at verses 9-11:

‘Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’.

Remember, the prophet is talking to people who assumed that God had abandoned them because of their sins. This was the only way they could make sense of the disaster that had happened to Jerusalem. ‘If God had truly been with us the Babylonians wouldn’t have been able to destroy us. So God must have left us’.

But now the prophet tells them ‘Here is your God’. And the image he uses emphasises the tender and loving nature of God: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11). Yes, God is coming to live among them again – and not as an angry judge, but as a tender shepherd caring for the weakest and most vulnerable members of his flock.

God is not far away from us; he is present with us and lives among us. This is what the coming of Jesus means. Matthew says that the birth of Jesus was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23-24). Never again will God be a stranger to human life; he has lived it to the bitter end just as we do. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14: ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’.

So the Advent word is a call to look to Jesus. As I said last week, he’s the human face of God. In him, God has come to us and he has never left us since then. And because of him God’s Spirit lives among us. When we gather here week by week, that’s what we’re celebrating: Emmanuel, God with us. That’s what Jesus means.

So this Advent message is full of comfort and hope for us. Jesus came among us to lead us home to God – the one place in the universe where we can be completely secure. The Bible uses the old word ‘abide’; to ‘abide’ somewhere is to make it your home. ‘Abide in me’, Jesus says. Where God is, there we are home, and we believe that God is in Jesus, so we are at home in Jesus.

Jesus came to us as the fulfilment of the promises of God. False gods make all kinds of false promises to us – perfect happiness, eternal youth and so on. But we know we can’t rely on those promises. Only in God can we find what we’re really looking for. So we’re called to be sceptical about the promises of the false gods, but to put our trust in the Word of God, who is Jesus.

And Jesus is ‘God with us’, our Good Shepherd. God has not abandoned us and he never will. We may not always feel his presence, but our feelings are not a reliable guide. They’re influenced by all kinds of factors; some we’re aware of, some we’re not.

But the presence of God with us is deeper than our feelings. I heard a phrase at a clergy conference a few years ago that really struck me. The speaker said, “We sometimes talk about asking God to come into our hearts, but we might just have it backwards. What the gospel tells us is that God holds us in his heart!”

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’ (v.1). I can’t think of anything more comforting than the thought that God holds us – you and me – in his heart. Our true home is the heart of God. We live there now, and we’ll live there forever. Ponder that one for a while, and ask God to help you experience it as a living reality.

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

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‘Restore Us, O God’ (a sermon for Advent Sunday on Psalm 80)

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year. Happy new year, everyone! Advent isn’t just about preparing for Christmas, although of course in our culture that’s what December – and, increasingly, November too – is all about. Yes, in Advent we go back to the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and try to imagine ourselves waiting in expectation and longing for God to fulfil them. But in Advent we also look forward to what the New Testament writers called in their language the parousia – the appearing of Christ at the end of the age, the time when (as the creeds say) ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end’.

It’s really appropriate that Psalm 80 is our psalm for today. Psalm 80 is a psalm of longing – or even a psalm of desperation. The second half of verse 17 in the BAS version says ‘Give us life, that we may call upon your name’. ‘Give us life’ is translated in many Bibles as ‘revive us’ and this verse became a great theme for revival movements – times of great spiritual power in the history of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to work in a special way among the people of God. Revivals often led Christian people to share their faith with their neighbours so that new people came to faith in Christ. But the revivals didn’t usually start there; they started with a reawakening of faith in the hearts and lives of Christian people. And that’s what Advent is meant to be all about, too.

If you’ll look at the psalm on page 812 of your BAS, the first thing I want you to notice is the refrain that’s repeated three times, in slightly different form each time. Verse three says, ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. This is repeated in verse seven. Verse 19 adds the name ‘Lord’: ‘Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’.

But I want you to look carefully at a different verse, 14: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts’. The word ‘turn’ here stands for a Hebrew word that we often translate ‘repent’. Normally in the Bible the word ‘repent’ is applied to human beings; we’re called to turn away from our sins and turn back to God. But occasionally in the Old Testament it’s used for God; God is said to change his mind and repent of his anger toward his people. That’s what the people of God are praying for here. “God, your face is turned away from us. Won’t you turn back to us?” This ties in with the phrase that’s used in the second half of the three refrains: ‘Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. The ‘countenance’ is simply ‘the face’. We might paraphrase this as “God, won’t you smile on us again? It’s been so long since we’ve seen your smile!”

I suspect we all know what that feels like. Sometimes you might go to a close friend and ask “How are you?” and they reply, “Well, I’ve had better days”. We can all identify with that in one way or another. Small communities are having a hard time surviving in these days of urbanisation. Many churches are struggling and they look back nostalgically to the days when they had full pews and big Sunday Schools. And for us as individuals, too, there are times when God seems a long way away from us. We go through financial struggles and problems at work – maybe even loss of a job and a livelihood. Many of us are feeling the effects of advancing age. We go through debilitating illness. We lose people we love. We have worries about our kids and our grandchildren. We go through family conflict and heartache. Yes – ‘we’ve seen better days’.

In Psalm 80 the community reminds God of those better days in verses 8 to 11. Israel was like a grape vine that God brought up out of Egypt and planted in the good land of Canaan. The people filled the country and flourished, and for many years it seemed God was really blessing them.

But now what has happened? Verses 12-13 say ‘Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have gazed on it’. This sounds like one of the invasions that took place in the eight and sixth centuries B.C., when God’s people were defeated in battle and many of them taken away into exile. We can imagine the writer of the psalm standing in the ruins of Samaria or Jerusalem, looking around and shaking his head. “God, why have you done this to us? Why have you abandoned us? We are your flock and you are our shepherd. We are your vine, and you are the owner of the vineyard. We are your firstborn son. How can this have happened to us?”

Other passages in the Old Testament give an explanation for this. They talk about how Israel turned away from God to worship false gods and practice injustice and oppression. But this psalm doesn’t go there. It doesn’t assign blame, or if it does, it throws the blame on God. We can hear the anger in the people’s voices. “God, where are you? How come you didn’t help us? Please, come now and rescue us from this desperate situation we’re in. How long are we going to have to wait?”

So what is the psalm calling us to today, as followers of Jesus? Three things.

First, the psalm is calling us to prayer. The psalms are the prayer book of the people of God. We use them as prayers, and also as models for prayer. Are you afraid to tell God how you really feel? The psalms encourage you not to be afraid. Are you wondering if your little troubles are important enough to pray about? The psalms encourage you to pray about everything. And the psalms speak for us when we can’t find the words to speak. I’m grateful to have been praying the psalms in church and outside church for as long as I can remember. The psalms are my school of prayer.

And we need to learn how to pray, don’t we? Every single one of us, at one time or another, has felt that life is just too much for us. And we know, deep down inside, that human planning and ingenuity can only go so far. Sometimes the changes we need are just beyond our power to achieve. We’re desperate for help. And that’s a good place to be. Ole Hallesby once said that the two essential conditions for prayer are faith and desperation. I’m sure most of us don’t have any difficulty supplying the ‘desperation’! But we might feel intimidated by our lack of faith, so Hallesby adds that if we have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for his help, that’s all we need!

So this psalm is calling us to prayer. Second, this psalm is calling us to turn. As we’ve seen, in verse 14 the people beg God to turn back to them: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine”. “Turn to us and let us see you smile on us again”. But the turning is a two-way street. In the refrain, the people ask three times “Restore us, O God of hosts”, but the Hebrew word translated ‘restore’ includes the little syllable ‘shub’ – repent. In fact, you could translate it ‘Make us to turn, O God’.

This might seem strange to us. After all, we’re familiar with the call to repent. We know we need to turn away from our sins and distractions and turn toward God and his will for us. But we usually see it as something we have to do. But here it’s a prayer we pray to God: ‘Make us to turn, O God’.

I would suggest to you that this is an honest and realistic prayer. Change is hard, whether it’s the change of trying to lose weight, the change of trying not to be so bad tempered, the change of learning patience, the change of being more careful about how we talk to other people. Those habits have created neural pathways in our brains, and they live there like deep ruts on a gravel road – the car tires just keep falling into them!

One of my favourite writers, Francis Spufford, describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’. Actually, he uses a much stronger word than ‘mess’ – one I won’t repeat in this pulpit! But when I first read that phrase I gave a grunt of recognition. That’s me! I have an incredible talent for messing things up, for hurting people, for spoiling relationships. And I find it incredibly difficult to change! So any hope that’s based on my ability to do things differently isn’t going to get me very far, because that ability is severely hampered by human weakness.

So the psalm acknowledges that we can’t do this alone; we need God’s help. “Make us to turn, O God”, isn’t a cop-out. It’s not asking God to do something that we should do ourselves. It’s a humble acknowledgement that if we want to change our lives, our human strength isn’t up to the job. We need to come to God in desperation and faith and cry out for God’s help.

So the psalm encourages us to pray, and the psalm encourages us to turn to God. Finally, the psalm encourages us to hope in Jesus. You need to look carefully to see this, but once you’ve seen it, it’s all over the psalm. It’s actually quite striking how Jesus takes up metaphors in this psalm and uses them for himself and his work.

‘Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’ (v.1). ‘Shepherd’ in the Old Testament is a metaphor for ‘king’. But who is the Good Shepherd in the New Testament? It’s Jesus, of course. In John 10 he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.  He talks about calling his sheep by name, leading them out, guiding them, feeding them. In Psalm 23 David prays ‘The Lord is my shepherd’; in the New Testament ‘the Lord’ is Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus has been called ‘the human face of God’. So when the people pray, ‘Make your face shine on us, O God’, Jesus is the answer to that prayer.

And what about the ‘vine’ metaphor? The psalm talks about Israel as God’s vine, planted in the land to produce good fruit. But who is the true vine in the New Testament? Again, it’s Jesus. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1). In the Old Testament the prophets talk about God looking for good fruit on his vine, but only finding bitter grapes – in other words, his people didn’t produce the fruit of good and holy living that he was looking for. But Jesus is the fruitful vine. And what does he say to us? “Abide in me as I abide in you”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there. So we make Jesus our spiritual home. We live in fellowship with him. We listen to his words and put them into practice, and with his help – and only with his help – we can produce the fruit God is looking for.

The third metaphor is the ‘son of man’. Verse 16 says ‘Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself’. In the original context this is a metaphor for Israel – Israel is God’s firstborn son – but in the gospels Jesus takes it and uses it for himself; it becomes his favourite way of talking about himself. In other words, Jesus is the true Israelite; he’s the chosen one of God. He’s the one who shows us what it means not just to be God, but also to be truly human. When we look at Jesus, we’re looking at God’s dream of what a human life is like. In him – as we make our home in him – it’s possible for us to truly repent, to truly love, to truly pray, to truly be faithful to God.

So let’s go round this one last time. This psalm calls us to pray – not just as individuals, but as a community. We pray as desperate people, people who realize that life is often too much for us, that we aren’t up to the task, that we need help. But we also pray as people of faith, people who know we’ve been invited to turn to Jesus and ask for help. Are you desperate? Have you got enough faith to simply turn to Jesus and ask for help? Then you can pray!

This psalm calls us to turn – or, to be more accurate, it calls us to ask God to help us turn. We know that often we get distracted by too many things, and sometimes our lives are consumed by stuff that’s got nothing to do with loving God and loving our neighbour. So we ask God to help us turn from that, and turn back to God.

Advent is a time to be more faithful in prayer and to be more intentional about turning to God. But lastly, it’s a time to look to Jesus. He’s the human face of God. In him God has shown the light of his countenance to us – he’s made his face shine on us – we’ve seen the smile of God in him. He’s our Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice”, he says. So we take care to hear his voice, and where he leads, there we follow.

 

May it be so for us. In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What Happens To Us After We Die? (a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

What’s going to happen to me after I die? This is one of the questions human beings have pondered throughout history. We go through life, we work hard to achieve something, we find someone to love and if we’re fortunate we build a family and experience good and positive and lasting relationships. But what does it all mean if it all ends in death? What’s the point of learning, if my brain’s just going to go demented and then die out? What’s the point of love, if sooner or later you’re going to lose the one you love? Is it really possible that all these years of laughing and working, eating and sleeping, learning and loving are going to end up in nothing more than the decay of my body in the grave? Human beings have always pondered that question.

The Christian faith is firmly on record as teaching that there is life after death. In the Nicene Creed – which goes back in its earliest form to the fourth century A.D. – we say, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. But what does this mean? What do we actually believe about life after death?

Not surprisingly, the early Christians asked these questions just like we do. One of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written was Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians; many scholars think it was written around 50 A.D., about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians in Thessalonica were worried about what had happened to their fellow-believers who had died: were they all right? Yes, says, Paul; there’s no need for you to grieve as if you had no hope. We believe that just as Jesus died and rose again, so God will raise the dead with Jesus. We who are alive when the Lord comes again, he says, won’t precede those who have died; when the last trumpet sounds, they will be raised, and we’ll all meet the Lord, and we’ll live with him forever. So encourage each other with these words.

Now that’s an odd answer, isn’t it? Nowadays if Christians were feeling doubtful about life after death, we’d expect their pastors to talk to them about going to heaven. But Paul doesn’t mention heaven at all; he talks about being raised from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. What’s that all about?

I find it helpful to try to figure out what question the Thessalonian Christians were asking Paul. When you read Paul’s answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question was, ‘Is there life after death?’ Rather, it seems to have been something like this: ‘Paul, you taught us that even though Jesus’ rule over all things is hidden right now, one day it’s going to be plain to everyone; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and his kingdom will come in all its fullness. But some of our brother and sister Christians have died without seeing this. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to miss out on seeing the Kingdom of God?’

Let’s look a little more closely at how Paul deals with that issue. What about these Thessalonian Christians who have died? Where are they now? And what’s going to happen to them in the future?

Where are they now? 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Or at least, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. But there’s a little footnote that tells us that the NRSV has made a little change in the translation, presumably to make Paul’s meaning clear. Apparently Paul didn’t actually say ‘died’ – he said ‘fallen asleep’: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep”. This is a very common New Testament metaphor for death: falling asleep in Christ.

Why do the biblical authors use this ‘sleep’ metaphor? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, from the point of view of the observer there are some similarities. The sleeper is usually lying down; their eyes are often closed; there’s no activity going on. And the same is true of the dead.

But the second reason is more important: sleep is temporary. The sleepers are going to wake up! And that’s what’s going to happen to those who sleep in death, too: one day they are going to wake up. They are going to be raised from the dead.

From the perspective of the observer it looks as if the dead are asleep; what does it look like from the perspective of the ‘sleeper’? Do they experience ‘dying and going to heaven?’ Do they see a great light and go through a tunnel and all that?

A lot of people are surprised to hear that the New Testament doesn’t actually have a lot to say about ‘dying and going to heaven’ – if by ‘heaven’ you mean ‘a non-physical existence far away from this earth where we will live a life forever as disembodied spirits’. That idea actually comes more from Greek philosophy, not Jesus and his apostles. Christian teaching about life after death is different; we stand up week by week and say “I believe in the resurrection of the body” – our bodies, that is, not just Jesus’ body.

But what about heaven? Well, you can make strong arguments from the New Testament for two different points of view. One would be a variation on the ‘heaven’ idea: we die, we go to be with Jesus in Paradise, and we wait there with him until the day of resurrection when we will resume our physical existence in a renewed heaven and earth. The other idea would be that when we die, we fall asleep. And you know how it is when you’ve had a really good sleep: you don’t remember a thing about it! The next thing you know, you’re waking up and it seems as if no time has passed at all, except that you feel refreshed. That will be us: we will fall asleep in Jesus, and it will seem to us that the next thing we know is resurrection day!

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know for sure which of these views is the right one, and I don’t worry about it, because the thing they both have in common is that what happens immediately after death is only temporary. The really important thing – the life after life after death – is the coming resurrection.

So let’s go back to 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul says,

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever (4:16-17).

Now I need to say at this point how easy it is for modern people like us to get distracted by the strange mythical language of these verses: the trumpet sound, being caught up in the clouds, meeting the Lord in the air and so on. Some Christians have taken them literally, but I don’t think the earliest readers would have done that. Paul was using the symbolic language of Jewish apocalyptic literature – literature that was designed to bring hope to people who were oppressed and were looking for God’s intervention for a better future.

Apocalyptic literature had well-known codes. For instance, if you were an early Christian and you were listening as someone read from the book of Revelation or the book of Daniel, you’d hear a lot of talk about ferocious beasts. You’d know right away that they weren’t literal beasts; they were symbols for evil empires. That’s how apocalyptic literature worked. In the same way, back in the early 1980s, if you saw a political cartoon in the newspaper with a bear in it, you knew it wasn’t meant to be a literal bear: it was a symbol for the Soviet Union. A man with a top hat with the stars and stripes was ‘Uncle Sam’, the U.S.A. If you didn’t know the code you’d be confused, but if you did, you’d understand.

The problem nowadays is that when we read this kind of thing in the Bible we don’t know the code. So in today’s passage we don’t realize that when Paul talked about the sounding of the trumpet and going to meet the Lord in the air, he was using the symbolism of a royal visit, or even a coronation. If the Roman emperor came to visit Thessalonica, the leading citizens of the city would go out to meet him with great pomp and ceremony, with fanfares and the sound of trumpets. But they wouldn’t stay out there with him – they’d lead him back into the city to meet his other subjects there.

This is what Paul is talking about. Jesus is Lord of all, Lord of heaven and earth. At the moment his reign is hidden, but one day it will be revealed. Paul uses the symbolism of clouds and sky because it was the most exalted symbolism available to him, and also because it was used in the Old Testament for the same thing. But the idea isn’t that the true believers are snatched up to be with the Lord so they can spend the rest of eternity floating around with him in the sky. In the Book of Revelation, when the last day comes the City of God descends from heaven to earth. We’re not escaping from the world; we’re welcoming our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of love, as God’s anointed King of all creation! And when he comes, or when he appears, he will bring others with him: those who have ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and are now awakened to share with him in his eternal kingdom.

In other words, our Christian hope isn’t a selfish one: it’s not just about ‘what will happen to me after I die’. It’s about the future of God’s entire creation. And that future will involve bodies and matter, not just souls and spirits. When the last day comes God isn’t going to abandon matter as a bad idea and opt for a purely ‘spiritual’ world. No: the Bible tells us God is going to ‘make all things new’; God is going to heal the wounds of creation and restore it to his original dream. And he’s going to raise his people from the dead so they can enjoy life as he originally conceived it, before evil entered his world.

Of course, this raises many questions that we haven’t been given answers to. For instance, I’ve sometimes been asked ‘Where are we going to put everyone?’ After all, a lot of people – billions, presumably – have died and gone before us. If they’re all going to be raised, where are we going to find room for them all on this little earth? I don’t have an answer for that question, except to say that there are a lot of things God hasn’t told us about his future plans, and it would be foolish of us to speculate.

What we do know is that the Christian hope is about the renewal of this world.  It tells us that the future of this world is in the hands of God and not of the forces of evil and destruction; the last word will be God’s word, not the words of tyrants or mass murderers. The symbolic language of the book of Revelation tells us that when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth God will make his home among us and live with us forever. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more; and God will say, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:2-5).

That’s our hope, and so we can face death with a different attitude. We don’t pretend death isn’t a huge blow; Paul doesn’t tell his friends in Thessalonica not to grieve for those who have died. What he says is that they don’t need to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’ (4:13). People who don’t have the hope of resurrection grieve because they see death as the final separation. But we Christians are encouraged to trust that beyond that separation there will be a great reunion, on that bright morning when God renews his whole creation, when Jesus is acknowledged by all as Lord of heaven and earth, and when the human family finally finds the peace and justice we’ve been longing for, for as long as we can remember.

You and I, and our loved ones who have died in the peace of Christ, have been promised that we will see that day. We’ve got reserved seats at the coronation. Thanks be to God!

Adopted and Adapted (a sermon on 1 John 3.1-3)

I heard a story once about a minister and his wife who had tried for years to have children, and eventually had decided to go the adoption route. So they adopted a little girl and they were very glad to have her in their family. As she got older they told her she was adopted, but she couldn’t always remember the right words to use when she was telling her friends about this. One day the minister was sitting in his study working on his sermon, and his daughter ran into the room with the friend she’d been playing with. “Daddy”, she said, “I forget – was I adopted or adapted?” “Adopted, my dear”, he replied; “We’re still working on the adapting part!”

I’d like to suggest that we Christians are in a similar situation, and our epistle for today gives us both sides of that story: we’ve been ‘adopted’ into the family of God as his dearly loved children, and God is now working on the ‘adapting’ process – the process of becoming like our older brother in the family, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is an appropriate theme for us today, as we baptize Sophia Lynn into the family of God. In the Church Year November 1st is All Saints’ Day and it’s such a wonderful festival that when it doesn’t fall on Sunday, we celebrate it on the following Sunday so we won’t miss it! So today we remember all the people of God through all the ages, the saints who belong to him. But we’re thinking about ourselves, too, because part of the message of ‘All Saints’ Day’ is that we are indeed ‘all saints’ – all of us are the people who belong to God, which is what the word ‘saint’ means. All who believe and are baptized are adopted into God’s family and become one of his saints; Sophia joins that family today. And then comes the ‘adapting’, which will last for the rest of her life, and our lives too.

So let’s start by thinking about adoption. Let me read two verses from our epistle reading for today; these words may well have been written by the apostle John when he was a very old man.

‘See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! (1 John 3:1, New Living Translation).

I’m blessed to be the uncle of two adopted children, Elizabeth and Stephen. My brother and his wife adopted them when they were babies, a couple of years apart; now, of course, they’re young adults, and we enjoy watching their exploits from afar on Facebook! I’ve known families where adopted children are seen as second class, but that’s emphatically not the case in our family: Ellie and Stee are full members just the same as our own kids. And it’s the same for us in the family of God. We have been adopted into the greatest family possible, as children of the High King of Heaven.

Now some will ask, “But why do we need to be adopted? Aren’t we born the children of God? Aren’t all people God’s children?”

I would answer that question by saying that we all know terms that change their meaning depending on how they’re being used. ‘Child of God’ is a term like that. It’s used in several different ways in the Bible. The most important one for us as Christians is its use to describe Jesus: he’s the ‘Son of God’ by nature, what later theologians came to call ‘the second person of the Trinity’, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three persons in one God. In the truest sense of all, Jesus is the Child of God. So if you mean ‘a son like Jesus’, it’s true to say ‘God the Father only has one Son’.

But a second usage includes everyone God has made. In the Old Testament book of Malachi the prophet says ‘Are we not all children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God?’ (Malachi 2:10 NLT). This passage clearly teaches that all people, by virtue of their creation, can call themselves the children of God – whether they know it or not.

But there’s a third sense which is common in the New Testament. People who are children of God by virtue of their creation can also enter into a more intimate child-to-parent relationship with God because of Jesus. In the introduction to his Gospel, John says ‘But to all who believed (Jesus) and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn – not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God’ (John 1:12-13 NLT). So God comes to us in Jesus with the offer of reconciliation and new life. We accept the offer in faith and commit ourselves to following him as his dearly loved children. And baptism is the sign and symbol of that adoption.

Later on, of course, children like Sophia have to make their own decisions about what to do about their baptism. Are they going to continue as followers of Jesus or not? No one can force that decision on them. Wise Christian parents will teach their kids what it’s all about in such a way as to whet their appetite for more, but in the end the decision will lie with the child themselves. I was baptized at the age of six weeks, in late December 1958. Later on, at the age of 13, I made a conscious commitment of my life to Jesus, which was my own personal moment of spiritual awakening. It was as if, in my baptism, God said to me “You are my beloved child”, and thirteen years later I nodded my head and said, “Yes I am, and I’m glad about that; thank you!”

It’s an amazing thing to see yourself first and foremost as a child of the God who made the universe. There’s a phrase out there that people use from time to time that I find really offensive: “How much is he worth?” What they mean is “How much money does he have?” but no Christian can be happy when that’s expressed in terms of worth, as if someone who has a million dollars is worth more than someone who has nothing. God has an entirely different measure of our significance and worth: we are his children by creation, and we have also become his children by adoption into his family. When you know this about yourself it doesn’t matter so much what others think or say about you. God says to us what he said to Jesus at the moment of his baptism: “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy” (Mark 1:11 NLT).

So that’s the first thing – the adoption. Now let’s move on the the second part – the adaptation. Let me read verses 2-3 to you; I’m reading again from the New Living Translation which is a bit different from the pew Bibles:

“Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure” (I John 3:2-3).

When I read a mystery novel I sometimes find I’m being tempted to turn to the last page to find out ‘who done it?’ Of course, that’s not a good idea – it spoils the suspense of the book. But in other situations, looking ahead is good – when we’re planning a route for a trip, for instance, it’s good to know what destination we’re aiming for, because those who aim at nothing usually hit it! So old John has looked ahead and seen the destination we’re aiming for as Christians: “But we do know that we will be like (Jesus), for we will see him as he really is” (2b). This is our destination: to see Jesus face to face, and to be transformed into his likeness.

The Old Testament tells a story of Moses coming down a mountain to meet the Israelites after he had been talking with God face to face. He didn’t realize that the prolonged time with God had had a physical effect on him – his face was shining. When the people saw it they were afraid, and Moses had to put a veil over his face to lay their fears to rest.

That’s a parable of what a meeting with God does to us, if it’s a genuine meeting. We can’t emerge from it unchanged; we meet him, and we’re transformed by the meeting.

John says this is what will happen to us when we see Christ face to face at the end of our journey: “We will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (v.2). We will be ‘like’ him in two senses: first, we will enjoy the same glorified resurrection body that he currently enjoys. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we will be transformed on the inside, so that we are thoroughly good, holy, loving people, just as Jesus is.

So that’s the destination. Now – what’s the route like? How do we get there from here?

Sometimes on a long journey the terrain and the climate can change dramatically in the space of a few short miles. In southern Alberta you can be driving on the bald prairie for a long time, but then when you get near Drumheller you suddenly find yourself dropping down into the badlands, surrounded by cliffs and hoodoos. It’s a very quick transition! But most transitions are more gradual than that; it’s a long time before we notice the difference.

In John’s vision, that’s the sort of journey we embark on when we become Christians – a journey of gradual transformation. He says in verse 3 “And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he (that is, Jesus) is pure”.

What does he mean, “keep themselves pure”? Well, back in chapter 2:6 he says “those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did”. This is how we purify ourselves: by living day by day as Jesus lived, so that gradually we become like him. We learn Christ-like habits, and those habits help us become Christ-like people. One day we will be ‘like’ him in an absolute sense; but for now, we’re on a journey of gradual transformation toward that goal.

In order for us to develop those Christ-like habits it’s important for us to come face to face with the Jesus of the Gospels on a regular basis. Every Sunday we have a gospel reading – this morning it was the Beatitudes – and as we listen, we see once again the kind of person Jesus is, the things that are important to him, the priorities he sets, the way of life he teaches his followers. But we shouldn’t be content with just Sunday reading. We’re privileged to have Bibles in English available to us in many translations. Bible reading should be a regular part of our Christian life, and in that reading the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should have a central place. And as we read, we can pray for God’s help: “Loving God, help me today to see life as Jesus sees it and to live life as he taught it”.

There’s no guarantee that this will be easy; in fact, Jesus warns us that it will be difficult, and that not everyone in our lives will be jumping for joy when they see us doing it. Nonetheless, this is our call as baptized Christians. It’s the call that Sophia will need to hear as she grows up. It’s the call that Andrea and James and Deb accept today as they bring her to baptism: the call to “live their lives as Jesus did”.

We know what’s involved. We’re called to seek first the Kingdom of God as our highest value, above everything else. We’re called to turn away from greed and live simple lives, uncluttered with a lot of luxuries. We’re called to care for the poor and needy. We’re called to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, to speak and live by the truth at all times, to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbour as ourselves – even when the neighbour is of a different race or religion or socio-economic background than we are. And we do all this with the help of the Holy Spirit, who fills us each day and gives us strength to follow Jesus. This is the process of adaptation as members of the family of God.

It’s important to be patient with ourselves on this journey. We live in an instant world where we want everything now, if not sooner. But the Scriptures are full of stories of people who had to wait for God to work in their lives – and that process of waiting molded them into patient people. In the Parable of the Sower Jesus says, “And the seeds that fell on good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest” (Luke 8:15). When we read that verse, we tend to notice the ‘huge harvest’ part, but miss out on the word that comes first: patiently!

So, sisters and brothers, we are baptized Christians, and so we are God’s saints. We are children of God by creation and also by adoption. Our destination is to see Jesus face to face and be transformed into his likeness, and we’re on our way to that destination. While we’re on the way, our call is to do our best, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to ‘live our lives as Jesus did’ (1 John 2:6). So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to be faithful to what our baptism is all about, so that every day people will see the way we live our lives and be reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Tripolar Spirituality (a sermon on Matthew 22:34-40)

Today I want to talk to you about ‘Tripolar Spirituality’. If you don’t have a clue what that means, don’t worry about it – you will when I’m done! 

The words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ are very slippery; they seem to change their meaning depending on the company they keep. I hang out with a lot of people who would probably describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. When they say they’re ‘not religious’, they mean they don’t identify with any specific religious tradition like Christianity or Islam, or any organized religious institution. But what do they mean by ‘spiritual’? That depends on the person. Some mean they believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with our material universe. Some mean they believe in some sort of God, although they would resist any attempt to define that God. Others simply mean they believe there’s more to life than material success – there’s feelings and relationships, art and music and all these other things that make life worthwhile.

The word ‘spirituality’ doesn’t appear in the Bible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t use it. We need to be careful, though, because it’s such a slippery word. The Bible resists any notion of a spiritual life that’s just about spiritual thrills, or that sees this material world as less important to God than some other, non-material place. In the Bible true spirituality is always earthed in present reality. It’s not just about feelings but loving actions. 

In today’s gospel reading Jesus puts these loving actions right at the centre of God’s will for us. He’s standing in the Temple in Jerusalem; in two or three days he will be hanging on the Cross. The members of the religious establishment have been challenging him and asking him all kinds of trick questions to try to trap him into saying things that will get him into trouble. In today’s reading an expert in religious law is the one asking the question: “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Jesus is quick with his reply – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had answered this question several times over the course of his ministry:

Jesus replied, “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments’ (Matthew 22:37-40, New Living Translation).

So the essential centre of the spiritual life, in the teaching of Jesus, is loving relationships.

The word ‘love’ in the original language is ‘agapé’. For those of you who don’t know, I should explain that the Greek language the New Testament was written in has several different words for love. There’s ‘storge’, which means the affection that members of a family have for each other – parents and children, brothers and sisters and so on. ‘Phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’, is usually about friendship. And of course there’s also ‘eros’, which doesn’t just refer to what we would call today ‘erotic’ love – it means the love that responds to some beauty or goodness in the beloved.

Agapé is different – it’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the last supper. It’s the greater love that causes someone to give their life for their friends.

Now I want you to notice that in Jesus’ teaching this love-centred spirituality is tri-polar. In other words, it’s a relationship between three entities – the self, the neighbour, and God. These three relationships can’t possibly be separated in the teaching of Jesus. If one of them is missing, what we’re talking about is not true biblical spirituality; it’s some aberration of it.

Let’s explore this for a minute; in fact, let’s build it from the ground up.

Let’s start by thinking about monopolar spirituality. Monopolar spirituality has only one focal point: the Self. It’s all about me! 

In monopolar spirituality there isn’t necessarily a god out there anywhere. There might be, and there might not be, but even if there is, he’s secondary to the main character on the stage: me! To the person who takes this approach, spirituality is primarily self-exploration.

This seems strange to us, but there’s a logic to it. What would motivate a person to want to explore this kind of spirituality? Often it’s the failure of the materialistic approach to life. They’ve trodden the well worn path – get a good education, get a good job, work long hours, earn good money, buy the nice things everyone says you deserve – but they’ve found something’s still missing inside. Maybe at first they didn’t want to believe it; maybe they resisted it. But eventually they admitted to themselves “I’m not happy. The conventional way of living isn’t satisfying me. There’s a great big hole inside, and I need to learn how to fill it”. 

So they think about it, and they come to the entirely accurate conclusion that in the end who you are is far more important than what you own. But they’ve spent so long defining themselves in terms of work and success and possessions that they aren’t really sure who they are, so they go on this journey of self-exploration. “I need to get to know myself; I need to find out what’s really important to me. I need to learn to like myself and love myself”.

I don’t want to be dismissive of this; I think it can be very valuable. And I also want to point out that people who take this approach aren’t necessarily ignoring the other people in their lives. In fact, their motivation can be very good. They might say, “There’s no one in the world I can change except myself, so I want to work on myself so that I can be the best possible ‘me’ for the sake of the people I love”. Which of course is true and admirable.

But it does fall short of the spirituality Jesus commends to us in today’s gospel. And if it’s left to itself, monopolar spirituality can be a prison in which the whole focus of my life is me, and everyone else is just a supporting actor in my play. And in the end it will disappoint us, because we weren’t meant to live unto ourselves alone. 

Alright, so let’s go on to bipolar spirituality. Bipolar spirituality has nothing to do with bipolar disorder, which we used to call ‘manic-depression’. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness, a personality disorder in which the person alternates back and forth between two poles – euphoria and depression. Bipolar spirituality is spirituality that takes place between two entities – God and the self, God and me. In bipolar spirituality the focus is on my private relationship with God. God loves me, and I learn to love God and live my life in relationship with God. Other people may be present but they’re not essential; in fact, they might even be a distraction.

So a person who’s into bipolar spirituality will be very interested in disciplines and habits that help them grow their private relationship with God. They’re happy to read the Bible by themselves and they might get very good at it. They learn how to pray alone, and maybe they learn how to use silence and meditation to develop a close sense of God’s presence with them. Maybe they discover that silent retreats can be helpful, and off they go for two or three days to a retreat house where they don’t talk to anyone else – they just explore the silence and listen for the voice of God. Maybe, if they’re not careful, they even start to see their neighbours and their family as a bit of a distraction from God – something they have to get away from if they’re really going to feel God close to them. 

I’ll let you in on a little secret: some of the classic books of the Christian tradition were written by people who were masters of bipolar spirituality. But when it comes to teaching us how to live in families with small children who take up all our possible time for silence – or how to live as a Christian when we’re trying to hold down a demanding job – they don’t have much help to offer. Nor are they really all that interested in making this world a better place for others. They’ll do it – they’ll even do it gladly – but they see it as an optional extra, not an essential part of their spirituality.

I’ve learned a lot from bipolar spirituality through the years; you could say it’s my native country. I was a classic introvert when I was a child – so shy that when we had visitors I was the one who would slip off to my room, close the door and read a book. I’m quite happy in my own company and it’s natural for me to pray alone and read the Bible alone. And I’m sorry to say I’ve sometimes fallen into the trap my friend Harold Percy once described in these words: “I can have a great relationship with God all by myself, as long as people don’t keep getting in my face!” 

The skills we can learn from bipolar spirituality are good ones – how to pray and read the Bible for ourselves, and how to listen for God in silence. But they aren’t enough. Why not? Because the New Testament writers clearly indicate that we’re designed for something more. Do you want to love Jesus? Well, in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats Jesus says we do that by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners and caring for those in need. This is part of our spirituality; it’s one of the ways we love God. ‘If we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?’, says John (1 John 4:20, NLT), and he goes on to say, ‘And he has given us this command: those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters’ (1 John 4:21 NLT). 

And not just Christians, of course. In Luke’s version of this gospel passage the two great commandments are followed immediately by the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable a foreigner – one outside the Jewish faith – reaches across the religious boundary and helps a Jewish traveller who’s been beaten up and left for dead on the roadside. This man, Jesus said, was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits. So the call to love your neighbour crosses boundaries of race or nationality or religious tradition; anyone who needs our help is a neighbour to us.

So Christian spirituality isn’t monopolar or bipolar: it’s tripolar spirituality. It’s about the relationship between God, my neighbour and myself. It starts with God. John says, ‘This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other’ (1 John 4:10-11, NLT).

God is the source of all love. He pours out his love on us, sending us all we need for daily life on this planet, and then he comes among us in Jesus as one of us and offers himself on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins. We’re all in debt to that love. We’re alive because of it. We have eternal life because of it. That’s the solid ground everything else is built on.

So we respond to God’s love by loving him back, and we do this in actions, not just feelings. We ask his guidance for our daily lives. We learn to live by his commandments. We learn to pray and spend time with him, and listen to his voice as it comes to us in the pages of the Bible and in the silence. We love him, says Jesus, with all our heart and soul and mind – thinking and feeling and choosing, all in the service of God.

And that service leads us to others. Just as God loves us, he also loves every single person on this planet. Everyone is made in his image; everyone is special to him. And he has a special care for the poor and needy: that comes loud and clear through Old and New Testaments, through the voices of Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and his Apostles. We can’t be in right relationship with God if we refuse to be in right relationship with others. So we learn to spend time with others and listen to them; we learn to be kind to them and serve them in practical ways. We learn to forgive them and receive forgiveness from them. And as Christians we come together with them to pray and hear God’s word and share the sacraments. 

This is Jesus’ vision of what life is all about. The expert in religious law asked him which commandments were the greatest; today we might ask “What are the most important things in life?” Jesus responds by telling us what he thinks life is really all about. 

So let’s learn to live this tripolar spirituality of love – God, my neighbour, myself in right relationship with each other. This morning perhaps we need to ask ourselves ‘Which pole is the weakest for me?” Am I absorbed in God and my neighbour but so neglectful of myself that I sacrifice my health and ultimately my ability to help others because I don’t pay attention to my own physical and mental and emotional well-being? Am I what’s sometimes called a ‘second-commandment Christian’ – really into caring for others, but nervous and unsure of myself when it comes to relating to God? Or am I a ‘me and God’ sort of person who sometimes unconsciously sees others as a distraction from my true spiritual life?

Where are you in this picture? Where am I? What help do I need to grow in the area I’m weakest in? Who should I ask about that help? Let’s think about these things in silence for a moment, and then take it to God in prayer.

Conversion and Growth (a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

Today we start a series of New Testament readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which was written to a group of people who had only been Christians for a very short time – perhaps only months.

Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Thessalonica in about 50 A.D.; they came from Philippi, where they’d been thrown in jail because of their missionary activity. But they were stubborn, so they got busy again right away spreading the gospel. They found a Jewish synagogue and for three successive Sabbaths they went there and shared the good news of Jesus with Jews and Gentiles; they pointed to the Old Testament texts about the Messiah and said, “It’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth; he’s the Messiah”.

Some people believed them, and a little church was born. But the Jewish leaders got jealous and formed a mob; they tried to find Paul and Silas, and when they couldn’t, they found Jason (who had been hosting them) and they took him and a few other Christians before the city council. ‘These guys are breaking the emperor’s laws! They’re saying there’s another king, called Jesus!’ So the other Christians quickly sent Paul and Silas away for safety, and the young church had to face a time of persecution without the help of their founding missionaries.

We know Paul was worried about these baby Christians and he tried to get news about how they were doing. Eventually he took the risk of sending his young assistant Timothy back to see how they were doing. When Timothy returned Paul was overjoyed to hear all was well, although the new church did have a few questions they wanted to ask him. So right away, Paul sat down to write them a letter, one of the first letters he ever wrote; that’s the letter we read from this morning.

It can be hard for us to connect with this letter, for two reasons. First, the Thessalonian Christians had had a definite ‘darkness to light’ conversion experience. Most of them had been worshipers of idols, but when they heard the message Paul preached, they left their false gods behind and turned to the one true God who had been revealed to them in Jesus. But many of us haven’t had this sort of experience. We’re followers of Jesus, but we came to it much more gradually; perhaps we’d even say we’ve been following him our whole life long.

Second, their church was very different from ours. Paul uses the Greek word ekklesia; we translate it ‘church’, but it actually meant a gathering, even a town hall meeting. Their ekklesia had only been in existence for a very short time – probably less than a month – when Paul had to leave it behind. There were probably only a few of them, meeting in the round in someone’s living room. They had no organization, no priests, no access to written scriptures, no prayer books or anything like that. All they had was faith in the one true God, commitment to Christ, a real experience of the Holy Spirit, and a shared memory of the things Paul had taught them by word and example. But apparently that was enough! The whole world, Paul said, was telling the story of their conversion.

What can we learn from them today? I suggest we can learn first what a Christian conversion might look like, and second, what Christian growth looks like.

First, what does a Christian conversion look like? The classic description of Christian conversion is ‘I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see’. John Newton, who wrote these words, had been a godless sailor and slave trader, but he had a gradual conversion experience that started when he went through a terrible storm at sea, and eventually he came to faith and commitment to Christ. He would have identified strongly with the metaphor Jesus used of a ‘new birth’ – that would have been a good way of describing what he had experienced.

But for many of us in our church today our experience was not so clear cut. Some of us have had moments of epiphany when our eyes have been opened to new truth about Jesus. Some of us can identify decisive moments in our Christian journey, others perhaps can’t. So does the story of the Thessalonians have anything to say to us? Yes, it does.

Try to imagine what their conversion was like. Their city was full of temples to the Greek and Roman gods. Every civic event would begin with a sacrifice to the gods. Almost all the meat sold in the marketplaces would have come from animals that had been offered in sacrifice in the temples. The trade guilds held their meetings in the temples and started with worship of the gods. Even farmers planting fields went to the temples to ask the gods to grant them fertility; not to have done so would have been as foolish to them as refusing to buy crop insurance would be to farmers today.

To them all this worship of idols seemed good and right and true. To be asked to leave all this behind would be as if a preacher today told us we had to give up our cars and computers and cell phones. Most of us would have a hard time imagining how we were going to live our lives without those things.

So what happened to these Thessalonians? Look with me at verses 9-10:

For the people of those regions report about us the 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 – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

This was their conversion story: they turned away from false gods and put their faith in a true and living God who had been revealed to them in Jesus.

Today we’re surrounded by false gods. They demand our trust and loyalty – and sacrifices. There’s the false god of money and possessions, which often demands that we sacrifice our time and our relationships so we can have all that it offers. Closely related is another false god called ‘success’. A third false god is called ‘nationalism’, and sometimes it asks us to sacrifice our lives – or the lives of our enemies – to its thirst for blood.

For some of us the desire to be liked and respected by others is a kind of false god. Maybe we feel insecure inside; maybe we’re not sure who we really are. But if we can just get others to like us, we think the ache inside will go away. So we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, sacrificing our true selves as we try to be what others want us to be. But it never works. False gods can never deliver on their promises, because they aren’t real.

We Christians believe there is one true God who created the universe and everything in it. But we also believe he came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. We believe Jesus is our most accurate picture of what God is like. So conversion is a process of turning from false gods to the one true God, and giving our allegiance to his anointed king, Jesus the Messiah.

The Thessalonians made that decision at their conversion, but they probably had to keep on making it. Every day when they walked through the marketplace the voices of the false gods would be calling them back. It’s the same for us today. Think of the false god of materialism. It has its priests – the advertisers who spend their lives trying to make us discontented so we’ll buy more stuff. “If you just buy this”, they say, “You’ll be happy; you’ll finally find what you’re looking for”. And so you and I need a daily process of conversion – turning away from the lies the false gods tell us, and turning back to Jesus and the Father he has revealed to us.

So this passage shows us first of all what conversion looks like: a continual process of turning away from the lies of false gods, and putting our trust in God our Creator, the God Jesus has revealed to us. Secondly, it shows us what Christian growth looks like. Look at verses 2-3 with me:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Most of Paul’s first hearers were probably illiterate, and Paul knew he’d be moving on pretty quickly to start new churches in different cities. So he got pretty good at developing little summaries to help new Christians remember the important things about their Christian faith. One of those summaries was this triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’. We’re probably most familiar with it from 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love’. We find it here in a different order: ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. These new Christians were like newly-planted trees; they needed to grow, but grow in what? In these three cardinal virtues: faith, love, and hope.

First comes faith. To Paul, this means believing the promises of God and trusting the God who made the promises. Paul liked to tell the story of old Abraham in the book of Genesis. He was a wrinkled old man and his wife was long past child bearing age, but God promised him descendants; Abraham believed him, and God credited it to him as righteousness. But this faith wasn’t just a feeling; God commanded Abraham to leave his home in Haran and go to the land of Canaan, and Abraham obeyed and went.

In the New Testament we can think of Jesus walking on the water, holding out his hand to Peter and saying ‘Come’. The feeling of faith wasn’t enough; Peter had to take the step out of the boat, risking a soaking! Or we think of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus; it says ‘Jesus saw their faith’, but what he actually saw was the action that their faith prompted.

True faith always leads to action; it leads to a changed life. A few years ago my cardiologist said to me, “Mr. Chesterton, you can get off these blood pressure and cholesterol pills in a couple of years if you want; it’s all to do with getting serious about diet and exercise”. I believed her, but belief wasn’t enough; I had to put into practice the things she said. Those changes were the evidence of my faith in her. I guess that for the Thessalonians, the evidence of their faith was that they didn’t go to idol temples to offer sacrifices any more.

What’s the evidence of my faith in Jesus? What’s the evidence of yours? If we were on trial for our faith would there be enough evidence to convict us? And how can we grow in our ‘work of faith’? What’s the cutting edge for you and me?

Faith comes first, but the next thing Paul mentions is love. Faith is directed toward God and Christ, but love is directed toward others. The Greek word Paul uses for love is ‘agapé’, so he’s not talking about feeling love for someone; he’s talking about a way of life in which we do what’s best for others, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s what Jesus is doing when he washes his disciples’ feet or when he gives his life on the cross for us.

It’s an active virtue; Paul talks about our ‘labour of love’. In the early church it sometimes meant sharing their possessions with each other, rich members helping poor members so all were equal. This is the love that brings neighbours together to build barns for each other; it takes people into hospitals and jails to visit the sick and the prisoners. It took Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for lepers; it takes other people to work in AIDS clinics or to cook meals for church members who are sick. All of this is serving others in the name of Christ.

In his first letter John says, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). People today are tired of empty words; they want to see actions. What’s our labour of love? What’s mine? What’s yours? What are we doing to actively love others? How can we grow in this?

Faith is directed toward God and Christ; love is directed toward other people. Hope is the third thing, and it’s directed toward the future. In the Creed we say, ‘Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead’, and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. In other words, we know there’s still something lacking in our experience of God’s plan; even though we know and follow Jesus, there’s still a lot of evil in the world and in us. Those Thessalonian Christians experienced that; they’d only been followers of Jesus for a few weeks and they were being persecuted already! What kept them going through that? Paul pointed to their ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Studies of concentration camp inmates have shown that those who can hang on to hope have a better chance of survival. Christians believe that if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, then nothing is too hard for him – and because of that, we can be people of stubborn hope. We believe his promise of a better future, so when the present looks dark we can still have joy in him. And we don’t give up on people, because we know that God hasn’t finished with them yet.

Is this you? Is this me? Are we people of stubborn hope? And how can we grow more steadfast in our hope?

Let’s go around this one last time. First, the false gods are all around us; they are tempting us all the time. Some of their lies are frankly incredible; I think of the cult of celebrity, which is nonsense when you think of how many celebrities are in rehab, or jumping from relationship to relationship; why on earth would we want to be like them? So our Christian life is a constant process of turning once again from these false gods to the one true God Jesus has revealed to us. What’s your favourite idol? What’s mine? How can we be steadfast in turning away from them and turning to Christ? How can we help one another do this?

Second, our Christian life is about growing in faith, love, and hope: the faith that changes our lives – the love that shows itself in hard work to help others – the stubborn hope that keeps us serving God and loving people, because we believe in God’s future. Which of these three characteristics are we strongest in? Which do we need to work on? How can our brothers and sisters in Christ pray for us and help us grow in faith, hope, and love? Let’s take a moment of silence to think about those questions, and then we’ll pray.

Giving Up Our Feeble Excuses (a sermon on Matthew 22.1-14)

I suspect that a moment ago, when our gospel reading ended with the words ‘This is the gospel of Christ’, a few of you had difficulty replying ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’. You might even be thinking “I was told the word gospel meant ‘good news’. How is it good news that God loses his temper, destroys people and burns their city? How is it good news that people get bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? How can that possibly be the gospel of Jesus Christ? It sounds more like Donald Trump on a Tweet storm!”

Usually when we react viscerally to a scripture reading like this, it means we need to find a different way into it. Sometimes when we look at something from a different direction, the view can suddenly be transformed. So instead of taking the role of God’s judge and jury in this reading, maybe we should take a different point of view. Maybe we should put ourselves into the story as the ones who refused the invitation to come to the wedding banquet. Maybe the question we should be asking is “Why do we do that? Why refuse God’s invitation to the greatest joy imaginable to human beings? And what sort of feeble substitutes do we prefer instead?”

Let’s set the scene for a minute. This Gospel reading follows on closely from the second half of Matthew chapter 21. The scene is the temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. The chief priests and elders have come to Jesus where he’s teaching in the temple courts. “Who gave you authority to do this?” they ask.

In reply Jesus reminds them of his baptism by John at the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit filled him and the voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son”. He then begins a series of parables. The first concerns two sons. The father came to each of them and asked them to go work in his vineyard. One of them said he would, but then did nothing about it. The other refused, but later changed his mind and went out to work after all. “Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John”, Jesus said; “They turned away from their sins and accepted his message, but you people did nothing about it, despite all your fine words” (see Matthew 21:23-32).

Then comes a second parable, a well-known one in ancient Israel. A landowner has a vineyard and he lets it out to tenants, hoping for a share of the crop as his rent. “Ah”, the hearers would have thought, “We know this story – it’s in Isaiah! The landowner is God, and the tenants are the leaders and people of Israel”. But then Jesus gives the story a twist: when harvest comes the tenants refuse to pay the rent. When the landowner sends servants, they beat them up, and when he finally sends his son, they kill him and throw his body out of the vineyard. Remember, this story is told in the Temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. Let the reader understand!

Jesus ends the story by asking the question, “When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. Good thinking, priests and elders! Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (see Matthew 21:33-46).

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is the Son of God, sent by God to the tenants of his vineyard, asking for the fruit of holiness and faithfulness. But what does he get instead? Leaders who are in love with their own power. People who assume they’re on the inside track with God, but there’s very little real love of God in their hearts, and very little practice of love in their lives. They have the name of God’s people, but actually they love something else more than God. And because of that, the vineyard will be taken from them and given to someone else. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the message of Jesus had gone out to the Gentile world, and Gentiles were pouring into the church, full of the joy of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. But the majority of the original invitees – Israel – continued to reject Jesus and his message.

And that brings us to today’s parable. A wedding banquet was a common symbol for the kingdom of God in the time of Jesus. This is the marriage of earth and heaven! For so many people God seems far away; his presence is just a dream they long for, not a daily reality! But Jesus has come to change that; he’s come among us to reconcile us with God and one another. Already the work of reconciliation has begun; Jesus has gone to the Cross out of love for all people, forgiving us rather than taking revenge on us. Now the invitations are going out to all the world: Come to the feast! Any day now, it’s going to take place!

In the time of Jesus there were no clocks, so you couldn’t say “Come to the wedding banquet next Saturday at 3.00 p.m.” Preliminary invitations would go out, but when the actual day came people just had to make sure they were ready. When the food was cooked and everything was prepared, the servants would go out again: “The feast is ready – come and enjoy it!”

That’s what happens in Jesus’ story. The original invitees are the people of Israel, and especially their leaders. They know there’s a seat at the banquet for them, ready to be claimed. But when the time actually comes, suddenly they aren’t interested. “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them” (vv.5-6). Luke’s version of the story goes into more detail:

‘But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come”’ (Luke 14:18-20).

So these are folks who have accepted the original invitation, but when the day arrives, they suddenly find that they have something better to do. Their love for the King and his Son takes second place: there’s business to take care of, land to buy, people to please. God will understand, won’t he?

Let me ask you: who is really being hurt here?

Consider this: Long before anything existed – long before there was even a ‘long before’ – there was God. God has always existed. God is three in one and one in three, a perfect community, full of love and totally satisfied. It’s impossible to imagine God being dependant on us for happiness. God had no needs that God could not take care of. All joy, all love, all life, was in God, to a degree that would fry our brains if we tried to imagine it.

But then God decided to create. And what God created was vast. We can’t even take in the sort of numbers involved. Millions of light years. Billions of stars. Fourteen billion years between the big bang and us. Stars spinning. Planets orbiting. We feeble little humans have only begun to explore it all, even with all our modern scientific knowledge.

This is the God who in joy decides that earth needs five hundred thousand species of beetles! The God who puts the most beautiful creatures on the planet down in the depths of the ocean where it’s totally dark, where no one can see them except him. The God who designed the incredible mystery of DNA. The God who created Mount Robson, who thought dinosaurs were a cool idea, who defies artistic rules and paints the skyline in orange and gold in incredible sunsets.

Wouldn’t you love to know a God like that? I mean, it’s a scary thought, given how much power he must have, but the thought of actually having a relationship with that God – learning from him – living your life in his company – doesn’t it get your heart beating just a little bit faster?

Well, the Bible says, that’s exactly what God wants! That’s exactly why God created you! God wants you to live for all eternity in his presence. He created you for the pleasure of knowing you, and he wants you to have the pleasure of knowing him. And as you begin to know him, you will gradually discover that it’s the most absorbing and thrilling and fulfilling experience you can have in your life. Getting rich can’t compare to it. Being successful can’t compare to it. Sex can’t compare to it. They’re all fleeting and temporary pleasures. What he’s offering is something that starts much more quietly and unobtrusively, but gradually grows into a joy we can’t begin to imagine right now. When Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself, he’s saying “This is what life is all about. Find this, and you’ll find the very reason you were born. Nothing less than this will satisfy”.

But to be honest, I don’t always believe him.

In a sermon preached during World War Two, C.S. Lewis said these words:

‘It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’

We’re offered the wedding banquet, and we choose the five yoke of oxen instead. I mean, oxen can be cool, but do you really want to choose plodding through a muddy field behind oxen, rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet? Really?

Well, this is me. Maybe it’s you, too, I don’t know, but I know for sure that it’s me.

Let’s get real here. Let me tell you about a conversation that plays itself out in my head from time to time. “I’m late this morning, Lord, and I’ve got work commitments. I’m going to have to take a rain check on prayer this morning”. “Why are you late, Tim?” “Well, I accidentally stayed up too late last night, Lord, and I overslept this morning”. “Why did you stay up late, Tim?” “Um, I’d rather not say, Lord”. “Come on, Tim – are you seriously trying to fool me. You do remember who I am, right?” “Oh – all right, I was on the computer, Lord!” “Doing what, Tim? Reading about the suffering of refugees, or feasting your mind on thrilling theology?” “Er – not exactly…” “Well, then…?” “Oh, if you must know, I was on Facebook! Someone on Facebook was wrong, and I had to correct them!” “And what time did you finish correcting them?” “2 a.m.!”

So who’s suffering in this scenario? Me, of course. I’m the one building the mud pie in the slum. I’m the one choosing the muddy field and the five yoke of oxen rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet.

I’ll tell you what I think: I don’t think God has to cast me into the outer darkness. Usually, I’m the one who casts myself there. I choose the oxen in the muddy field, and then I experience the consequences of it. God doesn’t take away my joy; I can do that all by myself.

So in this parable Jesus is giving us a loving warning: choices have consequences. I’m sorry, Great Big Sea, but there is no such thing as living ‘consequence-free’! If I choose to live my life without taking time each day for prayer, the consequence is going to be that God is a distant rumour to me, not a living Father. If I only go to church on Sunday when I don’t have a better offer, then I’m going to miss out on the consistent experience of listening to the scriptures, praying with God’s people and being fed with the Body and Blood of Christ. If I choose the couch and the TV rather than caring for the lonely and cultivating better relationships with my family members, then I’m going to experience more and more loneliness and depression myself.

This is not about fear of punishment. It’s about being offered everlasting joy, and choosing something less than that. I wonder what your favourite joy substitute is? And I wonder how it stacks up against the King’s wedding banquet?

So here’s the challenge. The invitation has been sent out. It’s in your hands and mine. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) or “in all its fullness” as the NIV says. The banquet table is set. Your seat is reserved. Now’s the time to come.

Don’t put it off. Don’t leave it to tomorrow – or when the kids get a bit older – or when you retire and have more time. You have all the time in the world to do the things God is asking you to do.

He does not ask you to do the impossible.  We all have the same number of hours each day; we all make choices about how we use them. The question is not about how I’m going to use next week, or next year, or ten years from now. It’s about what I’m going to do today. Mud pies in a slum, or the joy of the beach and the ocean? Five yoke of oxen in a muddy field, or the wedding banquet of the king? The joy of gradually growing closer to the God whose love keeps all of creation in existence, or the quiet desperation of realizing that my favourite excuse isn’t nearly as attractive as I thought it was?

Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Who knows whether or not they have a tomorrow? I don’t, and neither do you. The only day we have is today. So today, let’s accept the invitation from the king and come to his wedding banquet.