‘Sir, We Wish to See Jesus’ (a sermon on John 12:20-33)

I think if Jesus had been running for political office and we had been on his campaign team, there would probably have been times when we would have taken him aside and said, “Lord, you need to be more careful what you say to people. Take that rich man who showed an interest in following you – he would have made a very useful member of our team! But why did you have to challenge him right from the beginning to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and come and follow you? Why couldn’t you have introduced that subject more gradually? And what about the man who told you he wanted to follow you, and you said, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but I haven’t got anywhere to lay my head?’ Why couldn’t you have kept that information from him for a while? If you had, he might still be with us! If you keep shooting yourself in the foot like this, Jesus, you’re never going to get elected!”

Today’s gospel reading is another example of this sort of straight talk from Jesus. In the Gospel of John it comes right after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. He and his disciples have come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival; Jesus has climbed onto a donkey and ridden in procession through the city gates like a king coming into his capital, with his disciples waving palm branches and the crowd cheering and shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). It must have been an impressive sight.

And so we come to today’s gospel. Why don’t you look it up with me?

It begins with these words: ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (12:20). Greeks? What were they doing there? Passover was a Jewish festival, celebrating the ancient story of how God had set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. It was the most nationalistic of all Jewish festivals; in this story, Gentiles were the enemy, and you wouldn’t expect Gentiles to come as pilgrims to participate in it.

But here’s the thing: all over the Mediterranean world in New Testament times, there were little pockets of Gentiles – Greeks and Romans – who had become attracted to the religion of Israel. They were disillusioned with the Greek and Roman gods and they were hungry for something more, something real. In the faith of Israel, they found the story of one true Creator God who wanted his people not only to worship him, but also to live a moral and ethical life, and many of them found this attractive. So they adopted parts of the Jewish religion – they joined in the worship of the synagogues, and tried to follow the commandments – but without going all the way and being circumcised, which was more of a challenge to them! These people were known in New Testament times as ‘God-fearers’, and they were fertile ground for the Christian message as the missionaries took it out into the Gentile world.

What’s this got to do with us today? Well, I sometimes think we live in similar times. For generations our society has been offering traditional idols for our worship and satisfaction. Advertisers have been telling us if we just buy their products, we’ll be happy and healthy and young forever. Politicians have been promising that if we just elect them they’ll build the new Jerusalem and we’ll all be happy together. National leaders have demanded our allegiance and told us we’re either for them or for their enemies. We’ve been told that if we just worship the idols of money and possessions or fame or success or beauty or youth or popularity, we’ll find the satisfaction we’re looking for. But we haven’t found it, and more and more people are beginning to question these popular idols. More and more people are looking for a spiritual dimension to their lives. Some are even willing to name that spiritual dimension as ‘God’. They may not be ready to join an organized church, but they’re coming to believe that without God there are no ultimate answers to the questions they’re struggling with.

However, there are barriers they face. Christianity’s been around for a long time so they don’t expect to find anything new and relevant in it. Church has all kinds of puzzling traditions that are precious to the insiders but very confusing to outsiders. There are words and phrases we use all the time that people just can’t wrap their heads around. And there’s the fear factor, too; I don’t know if church people are really aware how scary it is for someone who hasn’t been to church for years – if ever  – to cross the doorstep. These are just a few of the barriers spiritual seekers face if they’re going to look for answers in the Christian church.

The Greeks in today’s Gospel reading faced some barriers, too. When they got to the temple they would have found themselves relegated to the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles were forbidden from getting any closer to the God of Israel, on pain of death. And this court was where all the money changers and animal sellers plied their trade, so it wouldn’t exactly have been a quiet place to pray.

But then along comes Jesus. Perhaps the Greeks have seen his procession into the city with the crowd around him. Perhaps they’ve heard about his miracles and his teachings, and they want to know more.

So they come to one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip of Bethsaida. ‘Philip’ is a Greek name, and Bethsaida is an area of Galilee where a lot of Gentiles live, so perhaps these Greeks feel a sense of connection to Philip. They go to him and say some of the most beautiful words written in the gospels: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21).

I love it when people say that to me! Perhaps not in so many words, but the meaning’s clear: “I want to learn more about Jesus! Why do you think he’s so special? Why do you follow him?” Of all the jobs I get to do as a Christian, that’s the one that thrills me the most – helping people get a clearer picture of Jesus!

But Philip isn’t quite so sure about their request –  we aren’t told why – so he takes it to Andrew, who has a reputation for introducing people to Jesus. In fact, the first person he introduced to Jesus, his brother Simon Peter, has already become the leader of Jesus’ band of followers. True to form, Andrew has no hesitation; “Let’s go and tell Jesus about it”, he says.

Spiritual seekers need their Philips and their Andrews – someone who can help them get to know Jesus better. Usually it will be a friend – someone they know and trust.

Michael Peers was a student in Ottawa in the late 1950s; he had been raised in a totally non-Christian household, but he had a growing curiosity about God. A student friend invited him to a service at a local Anglican church; Michael was attracted to what he saw there, and eventually he decided to become a Christian. He went on to become a priest, and in 1986, like Simon Peter, he became the leader of the band of Anglican followers of Jesus in Canada – the ‘Primate’, as we call it – a position he held ‘til his retirement. But it would never have happened if his student friend had not invited him to church. Michael had his ‘Philip’ or ‘Andrew’, and he often told that story in gratitude for what his friend had done for him.

Back to our Greeks. At this point in the story, if Jesus had been a fisherman and we were giving him advice about reeling in a fish, we might have said, “Go gently, now, Jesus – don’t jerk the line too fast, or you’re going to lose your fish”. In other words, “Don’t hit these Greeks with a bunch of demands right off the top. Tell them all about how you’re going to enhance their lives. Keep the issue of the cost ‘til later, when they’re already on the hook and just about landed!”

But Jesus is incapable of doing that; he’s honest and straight in his expectations of those who want to follow him. You can never accuse him of hiding the cost or making the small print too small to read. Follow his reasoning with me here:

He starts by telling the crowd what’s ahead for him. At first it sounds good: he says in verse 22, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. But then as he goes on, we become uncomfortably aware he has a different definition of glory; his glory’s all bound up with his suffering. He uses the illustration of a grain of wheat falling into the ground. It looks as if the farmer’s throwing it away; it falls into the soil and it’s buried there, which is a kind of death; you think that’s the end of it. But a few days later a shoot springs up, and then a plant, and the plant begins to bear fruit, and suddenly the grain of wheat that died has multiplied.

Jesus is taking about his death on the Cross. He’s going to be rejected by the very people he came to save: the world will throw him away and bury him. But three days later a new resurrection shoot will begin to appear, and then the message will go out, and people will begin to turn to him. In verses 32-33 Jesus says, ‘“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. He said this’, says John, ‘to indicate the kind of death he was to die’.

For Jesus, there could be no ducking the Cross. The Cross was not a tragedy; it wasn’t a derailment of God’s plan; rather, the whole story from the very beginning had been leading up to this moment. As God has been rejected by people all over the world, so Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, would be rejected and nailed to the Cross. The people of the world put him there, and as he says in verse 31, ‘Now is the judgement of this world’. The best the world had to offer – the Roman empire, the Pharisees, the high priests and Sadducees, the Jerusalem crowd – all combined together to reject Jesus and kill him.

But in an extraordinary turnaround, that moment of defeat and death became a victory for the love of God. Jesus refused to strike back; he offered only forgiveness and love from the Cross. And so he embodied for the whole world the fact that love is stronger than hate, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Anger and rejection were turned on him, but he responded with mercy and forgiveness and grace. This is what God is like. This is what Jesus’ death on the Cross demonstrates for us.

So there’s good news in the Cross! But there’s also challenge, and Jesus wants to be up front with this challenge to these Greeks who think they might want to follow him. So in verses 25-26 he says, “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour”.

In other words, the way of the Cross isn’t for Jesus only; it’s for his followers too. Those who choose to give their first loyalty to Jesus will always be an offence to earthly leaders who demand absolute obedience. The early Christians experienced this when they refused to offer incense to Caesar as a god; this wasn’t just a harmless religious ceremony in those days; it was a pledge of allegiance. To say, “Jesus is Lord” always carries the corollary, “and Caesar is not”. Whether Caesar is our political leaders, our employers, the media, the global economy – whatever it is, people who want to follow Jesus need to realize from the get-go that not everyone will be jumping for joy about this; there will be a price to pay.

Throughout Christian history there have been people who have willingly paid the ultimate price for their allegiance to Jesus. But those of us who aren’t asked to do this are not ‘off the hook’. We’re all called to ‘die to self’ – in other words, to be willing to let go of our desire to have everything we want, to have a comfortable and easy life with ourselves at centre stage. It’s a happy coincidence that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ at the centre of it; when I’m at the centre of my own life, that’s what sin’s all about, because the throne at the centre of my life rightfully belongs to God. Those who want to follow Jesus must be prepared to face this challenge.

So Jesus is calling his followers to a different kind of glory. Today, all over the world, crosses are emblazoned on church buildings, which is a bit weird, if you think about it – imagine if we all started wearing little silver electric chairs on chains around our necks? And yet, it’s true that the Cross is Jesus’ moment of glory. The one who called people to love their enemies and do good to those who hated them did just that himself, accepting the worst the world could do to him and responding with forgiveness and grace. The one who called people to trust God did just that himself, trusting that if he allowed himself to fall into the ground like a grain of wheat, the Father wouldn’t allow him to be trodden underfoot and forgotten. And so it was; the Father raised him from the dead, an act that gripped his followers and sent them out to spread the good news of his victory all over the world. Today, two thousand years later, we are still telling the story – glory indeed.

So what’s this gospel telling us today?

First, it’s telling us to be on the lookout for those spiritual seekers. They’re all around us, if we’re prepared to listen. They may have all sorts of intellectual questions about God, or they may just feel like God’s a million miles away from them, and if there’s a way to get closer, they want to find it. The conversation’s not going to be a short one – not nowadays, when people have so little cultural memory of what Jesus is all about. We can’t be in a hurry. But if we’re willing to engage on their turf – not necessarily expecting them to come to church, but being willing to go where they’re comfortable and take their questions seriously – amazing things can happen.

Second, this gospel is giving us some guidance about those conversations. We may start in all kinds of interesting places, and it might take a long time to get to the point, but as Christians we do have to get to the point sooner or later, and the point is Jesus. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Jesus is the unique son of God who has come from God to show us the way to God. He’s the clearest picture of God we can find. And that picture is clearest of all at the Cross. At the Cross we see, not a God who tortures and kills his enemies, but a God who’s willing to endure torture and death at the hands of his enemies rather than stop loving them. The face of Jesus on the Cross is the face of God for this world today: a God who isn’t far from us, but suffers with us.

Third, we dare not downplay the difficulties. Evangelists in the past have told a lot of lies about this. They’ve talked about how being a Christian makes them happy all day long, but they haven’t talked about their struggles to follow the hard teachings of Jesus, or the times their friends have ridiculed them or rejected them. People need to know right up front that it’s not always easy to be a Christian. We owe them that.

Fourth, we in this church need to make this a priority for our ministry. All kinds of organizations can do all kinds of good in our city, but not many can show people the way to Jesus. We need to make this a priority: to know Jesus and follow him ourselves, and to make him known to others. The Jesus we follow began his ministry by calling people to follow him so he could teach them to fish for people. He ended his ministry by sending them out to lift him higher, so that he could draw all people to himself. This was obviously a priority for him. It should be for us too.

Be excited about Jesus. Be connected with people who don’t know him. Be on the lookout for spiritual seekers. Take their questions seriously. Help them understand what Jesus shows us about God. Tell them the truth about the challenging bits. Walk in the light of Jesus yourself and shine that light for others. That’s what today’s Gospel is calling us to do.


Does God Love Me? (a sermon on John 3:16-17)

I want to start this morning by telling you a true story.

Many years ago, a bishop named Maurice Wood was fast asleep in his house at about three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang beside his bed. He reached for it and put it to his ear, and said a rather sleepy ‘Hello?’ And the voice of the man on the other end of the line said, “Is this the Bishop’s house?” “Yes”, Maurice replied. “Is this the Bishop?” “Yes it is”. “Bishop, can I ask you a question?”

For a moment Maurice didn’t reply, and then he said, “Have you any idea what time it is?” “Yes – it’s about three o’clock in the morning”. “Oh – right! What’s the question?” “Bishop – does God love me?”

And then Maurice realized that for this man at this moment in his life, this was the question – the question that was so important that it didn’t matter that he had to wake the Bishop up at three o’clock in the morning to ask it.

“Does God love me?” I suspect that, deep down inside, many of us have that same nagging question. Do I matter to God? Does God know my name? Does God love me?

Let me take you to two verses from our gospel reading for today, two verses in which we hear the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here they are:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17 NRSV).

So the fundamental truth that these verses announce to us is the truth of God’s love. God’s love led him to decide not to condemn the world. Instead, God’s love led him to give a gift – a free gift – the gift of ‘being saved’ through Jesus Christ. God offers this gift to each person, and God invites each of us to receive it.

What is this love like? It’s not a conditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. It’s not a reward for performance. The word John uses in the original language is ‘agapé’, which is a very unusual word in ancient Greek. It’s like the Old Testament word that’s translated in our NRSV Bibles as ‘steadfast love’. It’s not primarily a feeling, and it’s not based on feelings. It’s a decision that God makes to pour out his love on us, not because we are lovable but because God is love. It’s the love Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Another word often used for it in the Bible is charis, which is usually translated ‘grace’; it means a free gift, with no strings attached.

This is where we start with God. Philip Yancey says that what grace means is that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that.

So let me ask you – do you believe that?

If we really believe that, we can let go of the everlasting burden of having to win God’s approval. We can let go of the anxiety that if we put even one foot wrong it’s all up for us. We can have the sense that instead of standing over us with a big stick waiting to beat us up for our failures, God is standing beside us in Jesus to lift us up when we fall down. More than that, God is living in us through the Holy Spirit – the one Jesus describes earlier in John 3 as the ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ of God – giving us the oxygen of grace that we need to live the Jesus Way. If we really believe that God loves us, we can go home from church today in the sure knowledge, not just that God lives in our hearts, but that God holds us in his heart – which is surely the safest place in the world to be, now and through eternity.

So how do we know this is true? How do we know God loves us?

Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. This doesn’t just mean ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son’ – although that surely is good news! But it doesn’t give us the full range of meanings in the original. ‘God so loved the world’ is an archaic construction, which actually means ‘God loved the world in this way’. In other words, we’re not just taking about how much God loves us; we’re also talking about the form his love took on this one occasion, or the method he chose to show us his love.

‘Tim so loved his wife that he took her out for dinner on their anniversary’. Well done me! But what does that actually mean? Yes, of course, it means “I loved her so much that I wanted to give her a wonderful evening out” (and I hoped very much that her definition of ‘wonder’ included an evening with me!). But it also says something about the form my love took on this occasion: ‘I loved her in this way: I took her out for dinner on our anniversary’.

So what form did God’s love for us take? ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. The gift of God to the world was to send his Son into the world, ‘not…to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (v.17).

We can think of this as describing the mission of Jesus in all its fullness – the mission that began when ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). This ‘Word’ of God, according to John, was somehow at the same time God himself, and was also ‘with God’ – obviously John’s trying to describe a mystery far above our understanding. But what a gift God gives to the world! To come and live among us himself in the person of his Son, as one of us – to share our human life in all its frailty – all out of love for us. If God cared enough about the inhabitants of this planet to actually make himself vulnerable and be born as one of us, then surely that would be compelling evidence that ‘God loved the world’.

But in fact, our text is going further than that. Earlier in the passage, it refers to the story we read in our Old Testament reading today – the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The people are wandering in the wilderness, grumbling and complaining to God about having nothing but manna to eat all day long, and suddenly they find themselves being attacked by poisonous snakes. They’re being bitten, and some of them are dying. So Moses prays for the people, and God tells him what to do: ‘“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live”. So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it up on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live’ (8-9).

Verses 14-15 of our gospel refer to this story: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. When Jesus uses the ‘lifted up’ language, he’s referring to his cross. The parallels with the text from Numbers are actually quite striking. The thing the people feared most of all was the snakes that were biting them and causing them to die, but Moses made an image of the very thing that they feared, and it became for them a means of salvation. And in the same way, in the time of Jesus the cross was a symbol of cruel and violent death, but it became for us Christians a means of forgiveness and salvation. And just as the Israelites had to personally appropriate the salvation God was offering them – they had to ‘look to’ the bronze serpent – so now people are called to personally appropriate what Jesus has done for them by looking to him in faith, by ‘believing’ in him, or ‘putting their trust in him’.

This is ‘how’ God loved the world so much – he loved us by coming in the person of his Son, allowing human beings to do their worst to him – rejecting him, whipping him, mocking him, driving spikes through his wrists and feet and hanging him up on a cross until he died. He did not judge the people who did this to him. He didn’t blast them with thunderbolts or call on twelve legions of angels to wipe them out. Instead, he forgave them: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.

So the Cross became the most vivid demonstration imaginable of God’s love for the whole world. God loves the world in this way: when we reject him and mock him and scourge him and kill him, he rejects our rejection. He does not overcome evil with evil; he loves his enemies and continues to love them. The arms of Jesus are open wide on the Cross in welcome to all: Come to me – whoever you are, whatever you’ve done – come to me, and I will give you rest.

That’s how we know God loves us; we know because of Jesus.

But there’s still more. To what end does God love us? What’s his goal for us? The text says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. ‘Eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on forever’; it means ‘life as God dreamed it for us when he first created us’.

We sometimes tell people ‘Get a life!’ Most of the people we say that to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we all understand instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still miss out on the deepest meaning of life, life in all its fullness. The writers of the New Testament all believed that the way to ‘get a life’ in the fullest possible sense is to put your faith in Jesus and follow him. God becomes human in Jesus, not just to reveal God to us, but to reveal our humanity to us as well. As we look at him, as we follow him, we discover the life we were originally created to live.

It’s important to keep focussed on this; if we don’t, we’re going to be tricked into thinking that Christianity is all about the things we’re not allowed to do! ‘You shall not do this!’ ‘You shall not do that!’ ‘Don’t touch!’ ‘Wet paint!’ ‘Keep off the grass!’ From time to time, Christians have fallen into this trap of overemphasizing the things Christians are asked to avoid, but not focusing enough on the amazing and wonderful things we’re promised. A friend of mine used to say, “I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and who created you for the sheer joy of knowing you!” Does that sound like life to you? I know it does to me!

So we’ve talked about the central, bedrock truth of God’s indestructible love for us – for each one of us. We’ve talked about how God demonstrated it: God loved the world in this way, by giving us his Son to live out his love for us, even to the point of death on a Cross. We’ve talked about God’s goal in this process: that we should receive life in all its fullness, which is what the Bible means by ‘eternal life’.

One last question: how do we tap into this for ourselves? How does it become part of our personal experience?

Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. It’s by believing in him that we move into that abundant life that he promises us.

This is not just an intellectual thing. I might say, “I believe that Bishop Jane exists”, and very few of us here would disagree with that proposition! But it’s an entirely different thing for us to say, “I believe in Bishop Jane”. It means we trust her, we have confidence in the direction she’s leading, and we’re willing to go along with her on that journey.

So to believe in Jesus is not just to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It means that we’re willing to put our life on the line for him. I think of Jesus walking on the water and calling out to Peter, “Come”. Believing in Jesus, for Peter, meant getting out of the boat and walking toward him. It was an act of commitment.

For many of us, faith is a journey, but I would like to suggest that sometimes it’s also a decision. When two people love each other they obviously experience love as a journey, but traditionally we’ve also believed that there comes a point where the journey is strengthened as people make commitments to each other, to love each other for the rest of their lives. We call that a marriage, and we still believe it’s a hugely important step in a love relationship.

When I was thirteen I made a commitment of faith to Jesus. The language I used was ‘giving my life to Jesus’. Did I understand at the time everything that would imply? Of course not. But the decision I made that day – in response to the good news I had heard – that decision shaped the course of the rest of my life.

People make these decisions in a thousand different ways, and no one really should dare to lay down a single pattern. Even in our baptism services we ask people to articulate that decision. When parents bring children for baptism we ask them ‘Do you turn away from sin and evil? Do you accept Jesus as your Saviour, and will you obey him as your Lord?’ Of course, the problem is that no one ever says ‘No’ in a baptism or confirmation service! We’d have to stop the service if they did! And so it’s easy for people to read words off a page just because the service tells them too. That’s why it’s sometimes helpful for Anglicans, who have read these words from service sheets for years, to be challenged to pray them from the heart, at a time when no one’s listening. ‘Yes, Lord, I will turn away from evil and sin. Yes, I will put my life in your hands. Help me to trust you and follow you’.

My friend Harold Percy used to say that the Gospel is an invitation from God to us: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand: RSVP!’ If we understand that invitation – if we can even imagine Jesus giving us that invitation – sometimes the most powerful prayer in the world is the simple word ‘Yes’.

So let me close by asking you: Can you hear that invitation today? Can you hear, in your heart, the voice of Christ saying ‘Follow me?’ Have you perhaps heard the good news of God’s love in a fresh way today – a way that’s tugging at you inside. “I want to be part of that in a way I never have before”?

If so, listen to that voice. Take time today to get alone with God and pray. You don’t have to use any particular form of words; God knows what’s on your heart. Simply thank him for the free gift of love he’s given you, and give yourself back to him in return, in faith and love.

Let us pray.

God, you loved the world in this way: you gave your only son, so that each one who believes in him may not perish, but may have life in all its fullness. Help each one of us today to put our faith in you, whether for the first time or the thousandth time, and to put our lives in your hands, so that we may ‘get a life’ – the life that you long so much to give us. This we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

‘Acceptable in Your Sight’ – a sermon on Psalm 19

The psalm we read this morning ends with a heartfelt prayer: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’.

This prayer has been familiar to me since I was young, because it used to be a common one for preachers to use in the pulpit before they started their sermons. I must have heard my dad pray this prayer hundreds of times when I was growing up, and I’ve prayed it myself too – often, sadly, without thinking very much about it.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it really speaks for me. My actions sometimes bother me, yes, but my thoughts and my words bother me more. There are times when the best I can do is to put on an act – you really wouldn’t want to hear what my thoughts are saying! And there are so many times when I speak without thinking and then live to regret it. There are so many words I’d give anything to be able to call back.

This is where we need to start with this psalm; this is where the writer is going from the beginning. How can the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in God’s sight? The answer he gives us is that we need a vision of God’s glory and a grasp of God’s will for us. And we get this through God’s revelation of himself to us in creation, and in the word he has spoken to us.

So, let’s turn again to the psalm we read a few moments ago, Psalm 19; we’ll use the translation in the Book of Alternative Services, which is actually a pretty good one for this psalm; it’s on page 725. Let’s look first at verses 1-6, where we’re taught that God reveals himself to us through the things he has made.

Stories about experiencing the presence of God through nature are as old as humankind and almost as universal. Speaking for myself, the older I get, the more I experience them – although I think children experience them frequently too. On Monday Marci and I were walking in Whitemud Ravine with our daughter Jacqui. As you might remember it was a beautiful afternoon; the sky was clear and the sun was bright on the snow, and we saw chickadees and nuthatches, a downy woodpecker and a great big pileated woodpecker, and of course lots of squirrels! And I felt as if I could just reach out and touch the hand of God. The presence of God was all around me in the things God has made.

I think the writer of Psalm 19 had similar experiences. Maybe one night he went for a walk under a clear, starlit sky. This was ancient Israel, remember, so there were no street lamps. Perhaps during his walk he sat down on a hillside and spent half an hour just looking up at the night sky. He didn’t know astronomy as we do today, but still the majesty of what he saw brought a sense of awe and wonder at God’s creative power.

Perhaps the next day he went out again at dawn and was thrilled by the experience of watching the sun rise. The sun seemed to leap into the sky so enthusiastically – it reminded him of a wrestler jumping into the ring – or a bridegroom emerging from his wedding chamber the morning after his wedding, with a new spring in his footsteps! All of this taught our psalmist about God’s creative power.

What does our writer learn from contemplating God’s creation? In verse 1 he tells us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. When I lived in the Arctic I discovered that the word ‘glory’ is a tough one to translate into central Arctic Inuktitut. The word often used in the prayer book is kaumanek, which means something like our English word ‘shining’. I think that’s actually a pretty good translation. After all, when you experience ‘shining’, you know a source of light is present. And in the same way, when we experience creation we know the Creator is present. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of the mountains, or the glories of a prairie sunset, or the chickadees flitting around from tree to tree in Whitemud Ravine – when we look at this as believers, we get a sense of the power and majesty of the Creator who could make all this. The creation is a sign of God’s glory.

Hebrew poetry often uses parallelism: the second line says the same thing the first line does, but in a slightly different way. So in this verse we read ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork’. ‘Firmament’, to the ancient Hebrews, simply meant ‘the dome of the sky’, but it’s God’s handiwork – in other words, his creativity – that I want to focus on. Every artist puts something of themselves into their work, and every picture tells you something about the artist who created it. What does creation tell us about God?

I found these questions in Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering:

‘Why are there so many kinds of animals? Couldn’t the world get along with, say, 300,000 species of beetles instead of 500,000? What good are they?

‘Why is it that the most beautiful animals on earth are hidden away from all humans except those wearing elaborate scuba equipment? Who are they beautiful for?

‘Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God’s creation – zebra, swallowtail butterfly, crystalline structure – excels at abstract art?’

God is undoubtedly the most prolific creator we know. In fact, I sometimes get the impression that God enjoys creating totally useless stuff, just for the fun of it! Does that idea do something to the way you think about God?

The first half of Psalm 19 shows us God revealing himself to us through creation. But by itself this isn’t enough. It gives us that vital sense of the glory and creativity of God, but it doesn’t give us God’s wisdom for daily living. It doesn’t tell us how to live our lives to reflect God’s glory in the world. For that we need the second source of revelation the psalmist is going to tell us about: God reveals himself to us through the things he has said in the Scriptures.

We can learn a lot about people through observing them. We can learn whether they are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, old-fashioned or up-to-date. We might even be able to learn something about what they do for a living, or about their religious beliefs. But if we really want to get to know someone, sooner or later we’re going to have to talk with them and listen to what they have to say. A person’s words reveal their thoughts in one of the most intimate ways we know.

The Old Testament writers all believed that God has spoken to his people through ‘the Law and the Prophets’ – the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Scriptures God has not only revealed what he is like but also what he wants us to be like. The Hebrew word we often translate ‘Law’ is ‘Torah’, which actually means something like ‘instruction’. In Psalm 19 it is described in several ways: God’s ‘law’ and ‘testimony (v.7), his ‘statutes’ and ‘commandments’ (v.8), and his ‘judgements’ (v.9).

The psalmist thinks the people of Israel are the luckiest people on earth because God has given them this Torah. In verse 7 he points out that it gives them ‘wisdom’ – it teaches them the appropriate way to live in any given situation. In verse 8 it brings them ‘light to the eyes’ – it helps them see the path God has set before them. It brings revival and joy to their soul and warns them of ways of behaviour that are dangerous for humankind.

For me, the most important of these sentences is in verse 11: ‘in keeping them’ – that is, God’s commandments – ‘there is great reward’. Sometimes we think what that means is, ‘Keeping the Ten Commandments is tough, but you’ll get a great reward for it’. But that’s not what the writer says. He doesn’t say ‘For keeping them there is great reward’, but ‘in keeping them there is great reward’. In other words, it’s not “Well, if I learn to be unselfish on earth I’ll get a great reward in heaven”. No – the writer’s view is “As I learn to live in unselfishness, I’ll gradually discover that here and now it’s the most rewarding way of life”. The good life God reveals to us in the Scriptures is its own reward.

And of course for us Christians, God’s revelation doesn’t stop with the Old Testament scriptures. In the Gospel of John Jesus is called ‘the Word of God’. He embodies God’s speech for us; his life is a concrete embodiment of the Torah. His teaching brings out the deeper meaning of the Old Testament commandments, and he sums them up for us in his two great commandments to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we faithfully follow Jesus, we are living out the deepest meaning of the Old Testament Torah.

So we have these two sources of revelation, the works of God and the words of God, creation and scripture. And we need them both. We need to look for God in creation to get a sense of God’s grandeur, and the sheer fun that God takes in artistry for its own sake. But we also need the Scriptures for clarity about God’s inner thoughts and God’s will for us as human beings. Perhaps temperamentally we all tend to incline toward one or other of these sources of revelation, but I would encourage you to seek a proper balance between them.

However, we also need to consider our response to what God shows us and says to us. In our Sunday services, after we have heard God’s word proclaimed to us, our response is to say, ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’, and to ask for God’s forgiveness. In other words, God’s revelation makes our shortcomings clear to us and encourages us to ask for help to learn the new way of life.

That’s what we see in verses 12-14 of our psalm:

‘Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offence. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’.

This is where we started from this morning: our great need for transformation, so that our words and thoughts and actions reflect the glory of God rather than our human propensity to mess things up. How do the things we’ve heard this morning help us with this?

First they give us a vision of the glory and wonder of God. We humans can only see a very small part of this in this life, because our vision just isn’t up to anything more. We’re tiny little created beings trying to take in the glory and wonder of the Creator of everything that exists. ‘Who can see God and live?’ ask the Old Testament writers – and that’s not only because we’re sinners and God is holy, it’s because we’re humans and God is God!

But nonetheless, God does give us little glimpses. And here’s the thing: once we sense the touch of God, were spoiled for everything else. Once you’ve experienced something of the wonder of God’s presence, you know that nothing on earth or in heaven can ever take its place. No substitute will ever do. That’s what this revelation of God does for us: it shows us how cheap and inadequate our false gods really are.

Second, the things we’ve heard this morning give us a vision of God’s purpose for human life. In the Scriptures – and most of all in Jesus – God has shown us his design for us as humans. At the centre of it all is love and faithfulness. We’re called to live in love with one another – our neighbours, our family members, people like us and people different from us, our friends and even our enemies. And we’re called to make commitments to each other and keep those commitments – to be people others can count on to be there for them, just as we can count on God to be there for us. Simply put, the Scriptures show us that God designed the human race to be a community of faithful love, and to use all our ingenuity to find more effective ways of living that out.

But thirdly and finally, we’re all conscious of our failure to live up to that. ‘Who can tell how often he offends?’ asks the writer in verse 12; ‘cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me’.

You see what the psalmist is doing here? He’s admitting that just getting good information is not enough. We can be inspired by the vision of God and of God’s will for us, but we’re going to keep getting tripped up by our human weakness, our human propensity to mess things up. And so we’re going to need God’s forgiveness, day by day, and we’re going to need God’s help to move forward.

This is where the New Testament Gospel comes in. We’re promised in the Gospel that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And we’re promised that if we look to God and pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, the Spirit will fill us and give us the inner resources we need, so we can be people who are learning to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways.

So let’s open our eyes to the glory and grandeur of God as we see it all around us in God’s creation. Let’s open our eyes to the wisdom and guidance of God as it comes to us in the Scriptures and in Jesus. And let’s turn and ask for the forgiveness of God when we fail, and the strength of God to get up on our feet again, so we can be transformed into the image of God that we see most clearly in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Into the Wilderness with Jesus (a sermon for Lent 1 on Mark 1:9-15)

I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘trackless wilderness’? I wonder if you’ve ever been in one?

I’ve never really experienced a hot desert, but I’ve got a lot of experience of the cold variety. We lived in the Northwest Territories from 1984 to 1991, and while we were there I made many hunting trips out on the land. Aklavik, our first Arctic home, was an hour by snowmobile from the Richardson Mountains. The trail there led through small trees at first, but eventually as we climbed, the trees disappeared and we were in a ‘trackless waste’. The locals didn’t think of it as ‘trackless’, of course – they knew it well! One friend I was hunting with asked me if I was okay to find my way back to Aklavik by myself. “There’s a road you can follow”, he said. That didn’t make any sense to me, until I remembered that the Inuktitut word for ‘road’ can also mean ‘trail’, and a skidoo track in the snow was a trail to him!

We’re not told where the particular ‘wilderness’ was that Jesus went out to for forty days, but it’s traditionally been assumed that he went south into the Negev, or south-west into the Sinai Desert where the Israelites had wandered for forty years before entering the promised land. Mark’s gospel tells us very little about what happened during Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage; we turn to Matthew and Luke for more details about the devil’s tests, but Mark has nothing about that. What he does tell us is that, first, it was the Spirit who led him out there – the word actually used is ‘drove him out’, a surprisingly forceful word; second, that while he was there he was tempted – the word can also mean ‘tested’ – by Satan; and third, that he had company while he was out there – wild beasts and angels!

So what’s it all about, this wilderness experience? And why has it been such a strong symbol for the Christian journey for two thousand years since then?

I already mentioned the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness with Moses for forty years. But Moses himself had first met God in that same wilderness, at Mount Sinai, where he was looking after his father-in-law’s sheep; he saw a burning bush and had a dramatic encounter with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites heard God speak and received the commandments and the rest of the Law through Moses.  They had to wait there a long time – forty years – before entering their promised land.

Later on in the Old Testament we read of how the prophet Elijah was on the run from the wicked Queen Jezebel who was trying to kill him. We’re told that he took a forty-day journey into the wilderness, fasting all the time, until he came to Mount Sinai, where Moses had met God. There Elijah too had an encounter with God’s ‘still, small voice’; he heard an encouraging and challenging word of God, and he was strengthened to go back and continue his struggle. These are just three of the many wilderness stories in the Old Testament.

So there’s a long tradition in Israel’s scriptures of the wilderness as the place you go to meet with God. It’s also a place of repentance. The Israelites had to wander there for forty years instead of entering immediately into their promised land, because of their lack of faith, their grumbling and complaining, and their idolatry. John the Baptist appeared in the Judean wilderness ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). And Matthew and Luke give us stories of Jesus being tested by the devil, tempted to take unholy paths rather than following the hard road of the cross; he intentionally turned from those dead-end paths and chose to do the will of his Father instead.

What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a fruitful place to have an encounter with God? I think it may be the lack of distractions there.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Here we are in the middle of a bustling city. Our senses are bombarded with sights and sounds and smells, every day, twenty-four hours a day. Many of us check our email first thing in the morning, maybe even before we brush our teeth, and we’re doing it again many times through the day. On any given day there are many, many things we need to do, probably far more than we can reasonably fit into twenty-four hours. And we’re constantly being bombarded with ads telling us we don’t have enough stuff yet; there’s at least one more thing we need to buy, and then our life will finally be complete.

These are the voices we choose to listen to. But where in the midst of all that distraction do we take time to listen to God? When do we slow down and take time for unhurried reading of the scriptures? When do we turn off the noise, so we can make friends with the silence, not saying anything, just content to rest in God’s presence?

We can do that in the city, or the country, in the midst of our busy lives, but it takes practice and discipline to be able to do it well. But the wilderness is a place where there are very few distractions. In the wilderness, it can sometimes be much easier to hear the voice of God.

In the history of Christian spirituality there have been monks and nuns who have intentionally gone out to live in caves and huts in the desert, away from all distractions, so they could spend all their time in prayer. We call them ‘the Desert Fathers’ (there were some Desert Mothers too, but you don’t hear of them as often). Later on, of course, monks and nuns got a little more organised, monasteries were founded, and people’s time was regulated in a way that left lots of room for silence and contemplation. Many of the classics of Christian spirituality were written by people living in situations like that.

But you and I don’t live there. We aren’t monks and nuns. We live ordinary lives in the world, many of us work jobs and raise families, and somehow we have to muddle along and try to grow a relationship with God in the midst of our daily routines. So what does the wilderness have to say to us, when we can’t go there?

Well, maybe we can. Remember, the wilderness is about turning away from distractions so that we can pay closer attention to the still, small voice of God. It’s about turning away from earthly comforts for a while so we can experience the comfort above all comfort – knowing ourselves to be loved and supported by God. It’s also about turning away from distractions so we can come face to face with the truth about ourselves – the ugly as well as the good. Yes, there are strengths and loves, but there are also behaviours we’re addicted to, and we don’t discover that until we try to do without them for a while.

That’s where Lent comes in.

I don’t have time this morning to tell you the long history of the evolution of Lent. I will just say that from ancient times it was connected with Easter, and the preparation for the baptism of new Christians which took place at the Easter Vigil. For the final few weeks of preparation, the new converts went through an especially rigorous time of fasting and praying, and it became the custom for the whole congregation to join them in this time. Gradually this season became associated with Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage – Lent is forty days long if you don’t count the Sundays – and so it became a time of fasting and prayer and self-denial, with the goal of drawing closer to God.

That’s why we give things up during Lent. Giving things up is not a good in itself; there’s nothing especially meritorious about giving up sugar or alcohol or Facebook for Lent. But Lent is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves honestly about the things that are distracting us from God. Is that ‘comfort food’ becoming a snare for us? Do we turn to Facebook before we turn to the Bible in the morning? Is it time for us to intentionally ‘declutter’ our lives for a while so that there’s more room for God, more time to listen to him, less distraction when we do?

I’ve given up blogging and Facebook for Lent a number of times, and it’s always been beneficial for me. I get a lot of enjoyment out of social media, but it can seem like a very noisy and crowded world from time to time. It’s not for everyone, but for me, going on a blogging or Facebook fast has often been a very powerful spiritual discipline.

Let me suggest three questions we could ask ourselves when we’re thinking about possible wilderness disciplines.

First, what has gotten such a hold on me that I can’t imagine being able to live without it? Is it that wine bottle that lives in the fridge all the time, or in the cupboard above the stove? Is it that constant Facebook conversation? Is it the luxury of a daily latté at Starbucks? If we’ve become so dependent on something or some habit that we can’t imagine living without it – maybe that’s a sign we need to live without it for a while.

Second, where could my self-control muscles use a little exercise? Self-control is mentioned in the New Testament as a fruit of the Spirit – a virtue that the Holy Spirit grows in our lives. But my experience is that he usually grows it by exercise! When we’re trying to break a negative habit or form a positive habit, we’re always tempted to give up. Self-control grows as we practice not giving up. That’s why Lenten fasting is helpful too – it teaches us that most people don’t die of hunger when they miss two or three meals.

Third, what might be the biggest distraction from God in my life right now? What is taking up the time that I could be giving to quiet prayer and Bible reading? What’s filling my mind when I could be focussing on loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbour as myself? Where do my thoughts, money, and spare time go? Is it possible that might be my real god, even though I think I’m worshipping the one true God?

Let me encourage you to think about these questions. Don’t put it off. Take a copy of this sermon home with you – or look it up on our church website this afternoon. Remind yourself of these questions, think and pray about them, and make some decisions about Lenten disciplines that are right for you.

Finally, let’s remind ourselves of where we want to refocus our attention. What are we being distracted from?

We said on Wednesday that the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day this year was a good reminder that Lent is all about love. Jesus told us that the two great commandments were, first, that we love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and second, that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The meaning of our life is found in a strong relationship with God and a strong relationship with our neighbours – the people close to us, the people we meet every day, the people we’re able to help.

So it’s no good just giving things up for Lent and leaving it at that. We need to replace those things with better things. For instance, one of my Lent disciplines is a weekly two-meal fast – I miss breakfast and lunch and I don’t eat in between meals, so it’s almost a twenty-four hour fast. But I also make it a habit to take the lunch period, find a place where I can be alone, and spend the time in silent prayer, just sitting and listening, opening myself up to God’s presence.

So if you decide that watching TV while you eat supper is not a good thing and you want to give it up for Lent, what are you going to do in its place? If you’re living with your family, the obvious thing is to try to make supper more of a time of family interaction – conversation, storytelling and so on. And why not try ending the meal with a family devotional time, a short Bible reading and prayer?

Let me say this in conclusion: I have to confess that I really love Lent. It always arrives in the nick of time for me, as I’m getting too distracted by stuff that’s not important. So, let me encourage you to use this season to the full this year. Turn away from distractions and turn toward God. Trust me, you will be surprised at how much benefit you get from it.


Lent is All About Love (a Sermon for Ash Wednesday)

Ever since someone noticed that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, people on Twitter and Facebook have been having a field day. Most people seem to see it as something incongruous: Valentine’s Day is about romance and chocolate and pleasure and more than a hint of sex; Ash Wednesday is about self-denial and taking up your cross and going into the desert with Jesus and getting closer to God. What can the two possibly have to do with each other?

Personally, I’m much more interested in the connections than the contradictions. Valentine’s Day, we’re told, is all about love. And what’s Christian growth about, if it’s not about growing in love? How do we grow as Christians? You don’t need me to answer that one for you: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love our neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

Christianity is relational: it’s about growing in our loving relationship with God and our neighbour. And wise people know that life is relational too. It’s often been observed that no one on their death bed says to themselves “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office!” We all know instinctively that when we’re facing the ultimate test, that stuff’s not going to count for very much. What will count will the quality of our relationships – the quality of the love we’ve offered.

So I want to spend a few minutes with you tonight, as we begin our Lenten journey, unpacking this theme of love. How might we make this Lent all about love? I’m actually going to offer you three ‘L’ words tonight to hang our thoughts on: Love, Listening, and Labour, and all connected with Lent (I know, that’s four ‘L’ words…!).

So – love. “Love is all you need”, sang the Beatles, and then they broke up and proceeded to sue each other for millions of pounds. Obviously, love wasn’t all they needed – or at least, the sort of love they aspired to wasn’t adequate to guide them through the challenges of long-term relationships.

So let’s start by reminding ourselves that when the writers of the New Testament used the word ‘love’, they probably had something different in mind. “Getting the Love you Want” was the title of a well-known book of the 1980s, but nothing could be further from the Christian conception of love. We’re not about getting the love you want; we’re about giving the love God wants you to give. And when the New Testament describes this love, it always describes actions.

What does Jesus do to illustrate to his disciples what it means to “love one another as I have loved you”? He gets down from the supper table, removes his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes their feet. In their culture this was the servant’s job, but for some reason that night no servant had been there to do it. And of course, a few hours later he ‘loved them to the end’ (John 13:1) by laying down his life on the cross for the salvation of the whole world.

This is the most important thing for us as Christians. God is love, and we are made in the image of God, so growing in love is growing in God’s image. And that love is offered in two directions: to God and to our neighbour.

We love God because God first loved us. We don’t love God as a way of earning God’s love; God’s love for us is unconditional and indestructible, and Jesus tells us that he pours it out on the righteous and the unrighteous. We know ourselves to be loved by God, and in response, we offer our own – much smaller – love to God.

And then we love our neighbour. ‘Neighbour’ doesn’t just mean those in close proximity to us – family, friends, the people on our street. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? ‘Neighbour’ means people in need who we are in a position to help, both near and far away.

How do we love these people? I want to make a suggestion to you this Lent: let’s start by listening to them.

Most of us are much quicker to speak than to listen. This applies both in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. When we take time to pray, most of us take time to talk to God. We’ve got our concerns, things we want or need for ourselves, loved ones we’re anxious about and so on. And so we sit down to pray, and we start talking right away. “God please do this. God, please bless that person. God, if you want to know how to bless them, I’ve got some ideas I could give you”.

The same with other people. It’s scary to think how much of our conversation consists in showing off to other people. I’ve got such a good joke to tell you! You’re going to love this story! I’m going to share my political views on this subject and you’re going to see immediately that I’m right and you’re wrong!

And even when we do listen, how carefully do we listen? For instance, when I sit down to read the Bible – to listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice – am I open to the possibility that there might be something new for me today in the passage? Or do I  just think “Good Samaritan, yeah, yeah, I know that story, I know what it means”? Do I just read it quickly, and then pass on to sharing my shopping list with God?

Or when someone’s talking to us, how long are we prepared to listen before we interrupt? Ten seconds? Twenty if they’re lucky? Do we assume that after twenty seconds we know enough to respond helpfully to them? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience: we start sharing our struggles with someone, and they don’t really let us get finished before they’re launching into giving us their helpful advice, which is actually not that helpful, because they haven’t given us time to really go deep yet.

So how about this Lent we all resolve to do our best to become better listeners – to God, and to other people?

Some of us in our parish have decided to read the Gospel of Mark this Lent. Let’s not assume each day that we already know what God’s going to say to us in the daily passage. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us, and then let’s read it through, slowly and meditatively, two or three times. Which words or phrases particularly strike us, and why? What’s the passage saying to us about God? About ourselves? About life? About what’s important and what’s not important? What’s the passage calling me to put into practice? What difference would it make today if I tried to practice it?

We can also listen to God in silent prayer. Most people who do that don’t actually hear God speak in an audible voice, although some people do report that they feel they’re received some guidance and direction from God. But it’s mostly about quietening down and becoming more aware of the presence and peace and joy that God gives. Again, it’s not something that can be rushed. A lot of people find that about ten or twelve minutes in, they start to notice things they hadn’t noticed before. Are you willing to wait that long?

And let’s listen to others, and pay attention to what they say. A friend of mine used to do a little exercise: he’d get people together in pairs, and then one person had to listen carefully while the other took five minutes to describe something that had happened to them recently. When they were done the listener had to take three minutes to recount in as much detail as possible what they had heard. The first time I was the listener, I was amazed at how hard that was! We’re just not that practiced in listening!

And yet people long to be listened to! When we really listen to someone, we’re communicating to them that we value them, that we love them. I’m ashamed to admit how frequently I really don’t listen to Marci; she’s talking to me, but I’m doing something else or thinking about something else, and I only listen with one ear and a quarter of a brain.

This may be the most loving thing we can do this Lent: to resolve to become better listeners – to God, and to other people.

Finally comes labour. In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, ‘…remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3).

Labour of love – that’s a striking phrase! But it reminds us that biblical love is not primarily about feelings; it’s all about actions. Listening is one such action, but there are many others. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What’s the point of saying we love Jesus if, as soon as he tells us to do something we don’t want to do, we refuse to do it? That love isn’t worth very much, is it? It needs to have a little labour added to it, to make it real!

What does it mean to love our enemies? In Romans chapter 12 Paul quotes the Old Testament: ‘No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:20). And in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus spells out for us what Christian love looks like: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

What labour of love might God be calling you to this Lent? You don’t necessarily have to undertake some new relationship (although, I have to say, every prison chaplain I know is looking for more volunteers to go in and spend time with the inmates). But when we think of the people who are already in our lives, and we think of their needs, is there anything else we can do to love them in action? Or do we perhaps need to go first and listen carefully to them, so that we don’t assume we already know what their needs are? You see how these three ‘L’s tie together!

So – this could be our Lent. Let’s make these six and a half weeks until Easter a season of love. Let’s work on our relationships with God and our neighbours. Let’s make it our first priority to learn to become better listeners – to God, and also to people. And then let’s find new ways of putting our love into action – our labour of love – so that we can truly be a blessing to others as God has blessed us.


Listen to Jesus (a sermon on Mark 9:2-9)

I want to begin my sermon today by asking you this question: who do you listen to? Why do you listen to them? And what might cause you to stop listening to them?

Currently, a lot of people are listening to Donald J. Trump. I checked on Twitter and it says he has 47.5 million people following him. Of course, not all of them are actually listening to him, in the sense of seeing him as a reliable guide; in fact, I’d guess that a good number of those people are doing quite the opposite; they’re following his every tweet so they can catch him out when he says ridiculous things. But nevertheless, 47.5 million is a lot of people. It’s a lot more than the people Trump himself is listening to. Do you know how many people he follows on Twitter? Forty-five!

Sometimes we listen to people we’d be well-advised not to take too seriously, and sometimes we listen to people for the wrong reasons. But most of us have also made some very good choices about who we listen to. We’ve got friends we respect and trust, and we know they’ll give us good and thoughtful advice. We’d got spiritual leaders and mentors, maybe some favourite writers who have guided us well in the past. When we’re asking big questions about the direction we’re taking in our lives, it’s natural that we should consult them. Two of the authors I really look up to and respect are C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson; I don’t agree with them on absolutely everything, but I see them as wise and reliable spiritual guides and I take their advice very, very seriously.

In the time of Jesus, it would have been natural for Peter and James and John to look on Moses and Elijah in this way. Moses was the great founding leader of the nation of Israel. Moses was the one who had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through their forty-year desert pilgrimage to the edge of their promised land. God had spoken to the Israelites through him, and through him had come the Torah, the Law, which later grew into what are now sometimes called the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – which are pretty much the constitution of the people of Israel. It would be very hard for the first disciples of Jesus to imagine that anyone could be greater than Moses.

Elijah came hundreds of years later; he was the first great prophet of the kingdom of Israel. He was the one who stood up against the wicked Queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab and all the prophets of the false god Baal. Many prophets had since followed in Elijah’s footsteps but he was widely regarded in the time of Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, and people said that before the Day of the Lord came God would send Elijah back to them again. So yes: he was right up there with Moses. It would be natural for people to ‘listen to him’.

That’s part of the background to our gospel reading today. But we also need to read it in context of the passage that comes immediately before it. In the first sentence of today’s gospel Mark directs us back to what came before; he says, ‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves’ (Mark 9:2). Mark very rarely gives us time references in his gospel, and so when he does, we can be sure they’re significant. So the first question we should ask ourselves is ‘six days after what?’ The obvious answer is, six days after the events of the previous passage.

In Mark 8:27 – 9:1, we have a body of teaching that Jesus gives his disciples near the town of Caesarea Philippi. It begins with him asking the question, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You’re the Messiah” – in other words, “You’re the King God has sent to set us free, the one like David, the one who will make our nation great again”.

In the tradition of the day, the coming Messiah was seen as a glorious figure, a conquering hero like David. But what Jesus says next completely rewrites that script. He says that the Son of Man – another title for the Messiah – must suffer and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then after three days rise again. Peter, the very one who has just had a moment of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus in his turn rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, “for your mind is on human things, not the things of God”. He then calls the crowd and his disciples together and says, “If any want to be my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. If anyone tries to hang onto their life, they’ll lose it, but if they give it up for me and the gospel, they’ll save it”.

This is a hard word, and obviously causes Peter to rethink whether or not he wants to ‘listen to Jesus’. I think today we often misunderstand this passage. We think that ‘taking up the cross’ refers to going through suffering in general, so whatever my suffering might be, that’s my cross: it could be my difficult friend, my incurable illness, or even my domineering mother-in-law!

But that’s not what it meant in the time of Jesus. A person carrying a cross was a person who was going out to be crucified, and crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans used for rebels against the empire. Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I know you think I’m going to conquer the Romans, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Romans are going to conquer me! And if you want to follow me, you’ve got to be prepared be seen as a dangerous rebel, and to carry the cross as I’m going to carry it, and let the Romans conquer you as well!” In other words, instead of killing his enemies, Jesus was going to love his enemies to the point of death, and he was calling his disciples to walk the same road with him.

So this is the background to today’s passage. Can you imagine the confusion in the minds of the disciples? They’ve gradually come to understand that Jesus is more than just a wise human teacher or a prophet; he’s the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But now he seems to them to be taking a disastrous course. How could he be the Messiah if he was planning to be killed by his enemies? It couldn’t possibly be true. But if he was the Messiah, could he be wrong about this? Well, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah after all? Should they be listening to a man who might be a false Messiah? What should they do?

So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. When they reached the top, Jesus’ appearance was transformed, or transfigured, before them: his clothes, like Moses’ face, became dazzling bright – Mark adds the little detail that it was ‘brighter than any laundry you can imagine could ever bleach them!’ And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared there, talking with Jesus.

The disciples, of course, were terrified, as you would be if you saw a friend of yours suddenly transformed into a figure of dazzling light and talking with two people you knew to be dead! Peter blurted out the first thing that came into his mind: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Mark comments that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’.

And then comes another Old Testament resonance. In the story of Moses going up the mountain to meet God, God himself came down on the mountain in a cloud; later, when God led his people through the desert to the promised land, we read that he travelled with them as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’. Now the cloud comes down over the three figures, including the one that looks like a pillar of fire, and they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the cloud fades away, and the disciples see that Moses and Elijah are gone, and only Jesus is there with them.

So what did these three disciples get out of this amazing experience? And what is Mark trying to tell his readers?

Many scholars believe that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome, in the mid-sixties of the first century A.D. During that time Nero was the Roman emperor, and he was the one who launched the first great persecution of Christians. It happened after the great fire of Rome; the rumour went around that Nero had started the fire for his own amusement, and he needed a convenient scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians. “You know those Christians”, he said; “They’re always telling us that the world is going to end in fire! They’re the ones who did it!” And so began a terrible time for the church in Rome. Christians were hung on poles, covered in pitch and set on fire as torches to light Nero’s processions. They were crucified, as Jesus had been crucified. They were thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions. It seems likely that Peter and Paul both died in this persecution.

Mark wrote his gospel in the context of this time of great suffering. Part of his job in writing the story of Jesus must have been to make sense of what the Christians were going through. We can be sure that many of them were tempted to lose their faith. Why was God letting the Romans do this to them? Was Jesus really Lord, or was he powerless to help them? And shouldn’t they take up the sword and defend themselves?

You can be sure that when Mark reminded his first readers of the words of Jesus about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, he had their suffering in mind. He knew that many of them were in danger of losing their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. He was reminding them that Jesus walked the way of the Cross, the way of loving your enemies, and he had called his followers to do the same thing, because we believe in a God who loves his enemies and causes the sun and rain to fall on the good and bad alike.

So what is this story teaching us about who Jesus is, and what he is asking of us who follow him?

Here we have Moses and Elijah, these two revered figures from Israel’s past, standing on the mountain with Jesus. These disciples loved their Master, but I’m pretty sure that until now it had never entered their mind that he could possibly be greater than Moses and Elijah. To put it another way, they would not have expected the voice from heaven to say, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, but rather, ‘Here are the Law and the Prophets; listen to them!’

Nonetheless, the voice from heaven points not to Moses and Elijah, but to Jesus. Mark wants us to understand that he is the one the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to. In his life and teaching he fulfils the Law, and the Prophets foretold his coming. The Old Testament scriptures told the story of God’s people, and he is the climax the story has been leading to. So honour Moses and Elijah, yes, and the scriptures they represent, but ‘listen to him’ – listen to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

We Christians believe that Jesus is not just one great religious leader among many. We believe that he is the incarnate Son of God – that in him God has come among us in a unique way. We don’t believe that every other religious figure in the world is wrong about everything – in fact, we believe that God has spoken in many and various ways to people down through the ages. But we do believe that because Jesus is the unique Son of God, he is God’s highest and most accurate Word to us. Above all other, we should ‘Listen to him’.

We believe this in theory, but here’s the million-dollar question: Do we in fact ‘listen to him’?

For us today, we don’t very often hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us in an audible way. A few individuals do have this experience, and I’m sure it’s a very wonderful thing, but most of us don’t. Some people find that a problem. I had a woman ask me once, “So now I’ve given my life to Jesus, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do next!”

Fortunately for us, ninety percent of the will of God for us is the same for everyone. Jesus has come among us and spoken his word. He’s explained the Old Testament scriptures to us and applied them to our lives. He’s given us a clear picture of what God is like, and he’s also given us a clear picture of God’s will for us as human beings.

You don’t need me to tell you what that’s all about; you hear the gospels read every week, and I hope you read them for yourselves too. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, to forgive those who sin against us, even as much as seventy times seven. He told us not to accumulate possessions but to live simply and give to the poor. He told us that when we have something against a brother or sister we’re not to gossip about them but to go straight to them and talk it over. He told us that when we give a dinner party we shouldn’t only invite our friends and rich neighbours, but the poor and needy as well.

And it’s not just Jesus’ words; it’s his actions as well. The Book of Common Prayer tells us to bring the ‘teaching and example of Christ into our everyday life’. I think about the way he treated women and children as his equals. I think about the way he ignored barriers telling him who he should spend time with and who he shouldn’t. I think about the way he made prayer the centre of his life, sometimes even taking whole nights in prayer with his heavenly Father, and being willing to go on long fasts as he as seeking God’s guidance.

My friends, I don’t need a special, private word from Jesus telling me what to do. I could spend the rest of my life working on the things he’s already told us, and never get to the end of it!

I must admit – because I’m a sinner like anyone else – that there are times when I’m tempted to stop listening to Jesus. If you have two coats, give one of them away to someone who doesn’t have one. Does that apply to my two cars? My two very nice guitars? And how do I sell my possessions and give to the poor in a freezing cold province like Alberta? So it’s not always easy to know how to apply Jesus’ teaching, and this is where we really do need to pray and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit – which will often come as we talk these things out together.

This Lent we’re going to try very hard to listen to Jesus as a parish. I’ve sent out a list of Bible readings, five days a week, that will take us through the Gospel of Mark in the season of Lent and the first part of Easter. Along with the list of readings, I’ve given some suggestions as to how we might spend a daily time of Bible reading in such a way that we don’t just skim through the text, but really take time to listen to what God might be saying to us in it. I hope that, if you don’t already have a daily discipline of Bible reading, you might join us in this journey through Mark. If your email address is on our parish list you would have received the list of readings a few days ago, and there are some paper copies on the table in the foyer.

‘Listen to him’. But sometimes, sadly, it’s true that (in the words of Paul Simon) ‘A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’. I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that there are times when I’ve treated the words of Jesus in that way: I’ve heard what I wanted to hear and disregarded the rest.

So this Lent, I’m going to try to remind myself who Jesus is: ‘the word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). I’m going to ask him to help me really listen to him, with my whole heart, and to put into practice the things that I hear. I hope you’ll do the same.


The Story of Deliverance (a sermon on Psalm 111)

I think we often don’t realize how powerfully our stories shape us as people and as nations.

For example, in British military history the idea of the brave few who win a glorious victory over the many has been a recurrent theme. I think it goes back to Shakespeare, to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where the King says ‘We few – we happy few – we band of brothers’. Admiral Nelson took this up during the Napoleonic Wars, talking about his ship captains as a ‘band of brothers’ fighting against the superior numbers of the Spanish and French. And Churchill tapped into it in his famous Battle of Britain speech: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”. These stories reinforced in the British psyche the idea that it doesn’t matter if British forces are outnumbered, because they have a history of coming from behind to win.

I think in the Church we have to be very careful that we don’t get coopted by stories in the culture that are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus. Two of the most powerful are the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of the American dream. Redemptive violence tells us that violence is usually the answer: the way to defeat an enormous evil empire is for Luke Skywalker to wield his light sabre or fly his X-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star. The American Dream tells us that the key to success in life is ever-increasing wealth; to get richer means making progress and getting ahead, but not to do that is failure. These are powerful stories in our culture and they shape us in ways we often don’t notice. Unless we challenge them – and then the culture pours down scorn on our heads.

Psalm 111 reminds Israel of its founding story – the story of how God rescued a slave people from Egypt, led them safely through the desert, fed them with manna, gave them laws to shape their life together as God’s people, and then led them into their home, the promised land. Year by year by year, this story was told in the liturgy of Israel, especially at Passover time, and as the people heard it they understood once again who they were as a people, why God had called them, what God had called them to be. This story shaped their lives, which is why it was so important for them to come back to it again and again.

As Christians, as we read this psalm, we’re going to ask ourselves the question: What is our equivalent of the Exodus story? How does the Jesus story shape us like the Exodus story shaped Israel? What practices do we follow to allow it to shape us? And are we being faithful in those practices, or are we neglecting them?

The heart of the psalm is verses 5-9. Let me read them to you again from the NRSV:

‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name’.

Three incidents in the Old Testament story of the Exodus from Egypt are recalled here. First, in verse 5 the people remember how God fed them in the desert: ‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant’. Exodus tells the story of how the people came to Moses grumbling that there was no food for them to eat, and there were many thousands of them, all in danger of starvation. So God sent them ‘manna from heaven’, little flakes of a bread-like substance that fell on the camp every morning. The tradition in Exodus is that this food came to them every day for the forty years of their desert wanderings, until the day they crossed the River Jordan and entered the Promised Land: then it stopped. So God in his power and mercy kept them alive through the desert, and all through the years they celebrated this memory.

Second, in verse 6 the people remember how God led their armies into Canaan, drove out the Canaanites before them and gave them the land for themselves. ‘He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations’. The biblical story is a little unclear as to how this happened; Joshua gives the impression that it was sudden and decisive, while Judges seems to suggest it was longer and messier. But it was the universal belief of Israel that it wasn’t their own military prowess that had won this victory for them; rather, God had provided them with a safe home to live in.

Third, in verses 7-8 the people remember how God gave them his ‘Torah’, his laws or instruction, on Mount Sinai. ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness’. God didn’t give the Torah to Moses as a way of earning his love; he had already poured his love out on them freely when he rescued them from Egypt. But he wanted to shape them into a people who would shine his light for all the world around them, and the Torah was going to help them do that.

This psalm doesn’t specifically mention the coming out of Egypt itself, of course, or the crossing of the Red Sea; it assumes that story, which is retold poetically three psalms later, in Psalm 114. But if we take these four incidents in order, here is the story that shaped Israel: First, God rescue them from slavery in Egypt. Second, God provided supernatural food for them to eat in the desert so they wouldn’t starve (he also made water flow supernaturally for them). Third, God gave them the Torah to shape their lives as obedient people. Fourth, God led them into Canaan and gave it to them as their Promised Land.

I want to make two more comments before applying this story to us today as Christians. First, for Israel this story spelled out to them the character of their God: verse 4 says ‘the Lord is gracious and merciful’, or as another, more literal translation has it, ‘showing favour and merciful is the Lord’. In other words, the God of Israel is a loving and generous God. The book of Deuteronomy underlines several times that this love wasn’t something they had done anything to deserve: it was the free choice of God to make them his people and shower his love on them. The New Testament word is ‘grace’: love you don’t have to earn or deserve – it comes to you from God as a free gift, not because you are lovable but because God is love.

My second comment is to remind you that Israel reminded themselves of this story year after year. Where is this psalm recited? Verse 1 says ‘I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation’. In other words, the people of God are gathered together to worship God, and in that gathering this story is retold, to remind the people of who God is and who they are.

Verse 4 in our NRSV says ‘He has gained renown by his powerful deeds’, but many other translations say something like ‘He has caused his wondrous deeds to be remembered’, or ‘a memorial he has made of his wondrous acts’. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God commanded that year by year the people celebrate the Passover Festival as a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt. For thousands of years now Jewish people have been doing just that.

What about us as Christians? What story shapes us, and how do we celebrate it? Our story, of course, is the story of Jesus. If we were using the same categories as the Old Testament people, we might tell the story in four acts:

What is our deliverance from slavery? It’s Easter weekend: the cross and the resurrection, the story of how Jesus reconciled us to God by his death and gave us victory over evil by his resurrection. By Jesus’ death and resurrection we’re set free from guilt and fear. We find a new connection with God a new strength to do God’s will, and a new hope for the future. Easter weekend is Jesus’ great victory over the armies of Pharaoh. No wonder we celebrate it year by year.

What is our story of being sustained in the desert by manna from heaven and water from the rock? In 1 Corinthians Paul applies these stories to Christ, who is our nourishment on our desert journey through life. The Eucharist, of course, is a graphic picture of this: we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). So we celebrate the continuing presence of Jesus with us to sustain us on our journey, and especially his presence in the Eucharist.

What is our story of God giving us his Torah, his instruction, to shape our life as an obedient people? Surely this is Jesus coming among us as our teacher, by his actions and his words. Jesus gives us our clearest picture of what God is like and what God wants for us. His Sermon on the Mount and his other teachings spell out for us what it looks like to be a people who love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and love their neighbour as themselves. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3). In other words, the word God has spoken to us in Jesus is the highest and clearest word we have ever received, and it’s meant to shape us as a people.

What is our story of God leading his people into the promised land? We need to be careful about this one, because one of the discontinuities between Old and New Testaments is the place of violence. Jesus never commands his followers to carry out their mission by war and conquest. And we don’t have an earthly ‘promised land’; if we have such a place, it’s in the life to come. But where he is leading us is out into the world in mission for him. Jesus doesn’t send his soldiers out to conquer; he sends his missionaries out, armed with nothing but the gospel on their lips and the love of God in their hearts. As we share the Gospel and call others to follow Jesus, the whole world in a sense becomes God’s promised land.

How do we Christians respond to this story? Two final things: we retell it over and over again, and we live in awe of the God it reveals to us.

We Christians understand that it’s hard for us humans to concentrate on the whole story all the time. We need to go through it stage by stage, over and over again, giving our attention to different parts of it. As we tell it and retell it, it sinks into our subconscious and shapes us as God’s special people.

We’ve just gone through one of those special times – the story of Christmas. Once again we heard the story of how God came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. Luke told us of the manger in Bethlehem and the shepherds telling the story of peace on earth, good will to all. Matthew told us of the wise men and their star. John told us what it all means for us: the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Ahead for us soon is the other major festival in our story: Holy Week and Easter. We’ll focus again on the story of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection. We’ll enter into Jerusalem with him on Palm Sunday. We’ll sit in the Upper Room as he washes his disciples’ feet and gives them bread and wine to proclaim his death until he comes again. We’ll go with him to Golgotha on Good Friday and watch the nails pounded into his body and hear him cry out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we’ll go to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and join in the amazement of those first witnesses in the Upper Room as the Risen Lord appears to them.

But there’s a problem. Years ago, working people only got one day off at these high and holy days. Travel was difficult and no one went away. Nowadays, not so much. Many Christian people skip these central celebrations of our faith altogether. They go away to the sun, and the last thing they think about when they’re enjoying their holiday is going to church.

What does this mean? It means that year by year we miss out on focussing on these central stories that shape us as a community. Some people say, “But I can read them in the Bible any time I like”. To which I respond, “Yes, but do you?” It’s easier to get Bibles at this point in time than it has ever been, but I suspect that the Bible is actually read less and less. And anyway, it’s not the same as coming together as a community and focussing together on these central stories of our faith. So please don’t cheat yourself of this vital discipline. Even if you go away for the holidays, make sure your holiday time includes joining in worship with other Christians to celebrate the story of our salvation.

Lastly, we walk in ‘the fear of the Lord’. ‘Fear’ is perhaps not such a good translation these days; the idea of fear is usually connected in our minds with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word includes a larger range of meanings: ‘awe, reverent respect, honour’. The writer of the psalm sees no contradiction between talking about the grace and mercy of God in verse 4 and the fear of the Lord in verse 10, so the ‘fear of the Lord’ obviously doesn’t mean terror; rather, he says, it’s ‘the beginning of wisdom’.

In other words, if we have a proper attitude of awe and wonder and respect toward God, we will be in a better position to know how to live. Day by day, as life presents us with difficult situations, we’ll find that we know how to respond to them. Knowing this story – the story of God, of God’s love and God’s power – will give us a proper view of what life is all about.

I find this to be profoundly true: the light of the gospel doesn’t just illuminate God for us – it illuminates everything else as well. Things that were dark and murky become clearer and brighter. We see God as God is; we see ourselves as God sees us, and we see the world as God sees it. And seeing those things, we know what our next step on the journey ought to be. In the end, that’s what wisdom is all about.