‘The Lord looks on the heart’ (a sermon on 1 Samuel 15.34 – 16.13)

‘I never knew a guy who carried a mirror in his pocket
And a comb up his sleeve just in case
And all that extra hold gel in your hair ought to lock it
‘Cause heaven forbid it should fall out of place
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re special
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re something else
Okay, so you’re Brad Pitt
That don’t impress me much
So you got the looks, but have you got the touch?
Now don’t get me wrong, yeah I think you’re alright
But that won’t keep me warm in the middle of the night
That don’t impress me much’.

Well, there’s a first time for everything, and that’s definitely the first time I’ve ever begun a sermon with a Shania Twain lyric!

And of course, what makes this song very apropos is that even after years and years of being taken in by shiny looking con artists, outward appearances still do ‘impress us much!’ The politician with the bright smile and the bubbly personality is likely to connect with people and win votes. The rock singer who conforms to the current expectations of beauty is far more likely to sell albums than the one who doesn’t. And, to frame the issue in the words of our Old Testament reading this morning, the Lord may look on the heart, but we human beings are still very, very taken with the outward appearance!

Today in our Old Testament readings we begin the story of King David, the shepherd boy who became the shepherd of God’s people Israel. Let’s give a bit of background.

For many generations after Israel entered their promised land they had no king. They didn’t even have much of a unified central government. They had twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land; in theory God was their king, and when they needed help, God sent them leaders. We’ve traditionally called them ‘judges’, and certainly hearing cases and giving judgements was part of their job. But they also led the people in battle against their enemies.

The last and perhaps greatest of those judges was Samuel, who was probably born around 1100 B.C. It was in his days that the people came and asked for a king; ‘We want a king like the nations around us, to lead us in battle’. On the face of it this was a smart request. All the other nations had kings, and that gave them a military edge: a strong central government with a unified purpose that could raise up an army and give it strong leadership.

But the request didn’t sit well with Samuel. To him, it was a rejection of God’s leadership (and his own as well). And the authors of 1 Samuel don’t seem to be of one mind on the issue too; I get the sense that the book incorporates several earlier accounts with different viewpoints on this subject. But eventually God agrees, and there’s a process by which Saul of the tribe of Benjamin is chosen as the first king of Israel. One thing we’re told about Saul is that his appearance was impressive. ‘When he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them. Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him in all the people”’ (1 Samuel 10:23-24).

It’s not entirely clear how much territory Saul was actually king of; it may be that it was just the central area of Israel, the tribes of Ephraim and Mannaseh and their neighbouring clans. But what is clear is that he very quickly became a disappointment. His appearance might have been impressive but his heart was not obedient to God. I don’t have time to go into the story in detail this morning, and some of it is actually quite disturbing to us as Christians; it involves what appear to be commands from God to commit genocide against an enemy of Israel. These are tough passages and hard to reconcile with the teaching of Jesus.

Be that as it may, eventually Samuel speaks a word of judgement against Saul: “You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:26). But of course Saul still was the king, and so from that day forward Samuel’s position became more precarious; he was highly respected as a prophet and judge, but he was obviously on the outs with the king, and that’s never a comfortable position to be in.

And so we come to today’s passage, where God sends Samuel to anoint a new king. It seems like a foolish and dangerous mission: Saul is still on the throne, and choosing someone else to be designated as ‘the LORD’s anointed’ would be to make both of them a target of Saul’s hit squads. We can hear that fear in Samuel’s voice as he replies to the LORD’s call: “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (16:2). We can hear it in the voices of the elders of Bethlehem as they meet Samuel trembling: “Do you come peaceably?” (16:4). They don’t want to get involved in this power struggle!

But the narrative focus is on David, and there are four things we learn about him.

First, he was an outsider. Samuel went down to Bethlehem at God’s command, with explicit instructions to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be the next king. God already knew who the successful candidate was: “I have provided for myself a king among (Jesse’s) sons” (16:1). But when Jesse and his sons came to the sacrificial ceremony, they didn’t even bother to bring David with them. Jesse brought seven sons – ‘seven’ in the Bible is the number of completeness, so there was no need for any more. David was outside the number – he was the youngest, and he was out in the hills looking after the family’s flock of sheep. No one thought he was of any importance. No one considered that his attendance at the sacrifice would matter one way or the other.

But the God of the Bible seems to have a soft spot for outsiders. There’s a long Bible history of God choosing the younger son over the older, or the less impressive leader over the more impressive. Even Bethlehem itself was a strange choice; it was far to the south of Saul’s domains around Ephraim and Manasseh. It was a little village in the tribe of Judah, which seems to have been only loosely connected to Israel at the time. It would be as if we were looking for a prime minister of Canada in the days before Newfoundland joined confederation, and we decided to elect someone from a tiny fishing port in Newfoundland who wasn’t even really a Canadian citizen!

In the New Testament, Mary the mother of Jesus sums this up in these words: ‘(God) has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1:51-52). So don’t ever say “I’m not important, so God wouldn’t choose me”. If the world thinks you’re not important, that makes you a prime candidate for God’s choice! God isn’t impressed with the corridors of power; that ‘don’t impress him much!’ God works from the grassroots, with ordinary people like you and me.

So David was an outsider, and yet he was also God’s choice. Second, David was a shepherd. There are actually three different stories of David’s origins in 1 Samuel and all of them mention his role as a shepherd. Today’s passage has his father Jesse saying, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep” (16:11). In the next section David is chosen to play music for the king, to calm him down when he gets agitated; Saul sends a message to Jesse saying “Send me your son David who is with the sheep” (16:19). And the third story is the well-known tale of David and Goliath, where David specifically mentions his experience of defending the flock from lions and bears (16:34-35). Psalm 78 sums up this tradition:

‘He chose his servant David and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his servant Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with a skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).

So God didn’t call David to oppress or exploit his people; he called him to care for them like a good shepherd caring for his sheep and protecting them. This is a reflection of the character of God who is sometimes called ‘the Shepherd of Israel’ in the Old Testament. Jesus, of course, says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Do you know how to care for people, to love your neighbour as yourself? In God’s eyes, that makes you a good candidate for leadership. God has had it up to here with leaders who are only in it to enrich themselves and their families; that ‘don’t impress him much’! He’s looking for people who know how to love others – not just in words but in actions.

So David is an unlikely candidate to be king – which, in God’s sight, makes him a likely candidate. David was a shepherd and he brought a shepherd’s heart to the throne of Judah and Israel. The third thing we’re told is that David’s heart was in the right place.

In the first few verses of the story there’s a funny scene as the seven sons of Jesse are brought before Samuel one by one, for all the world like a police identification parade! Samuel has apparently forgotten how easily he was misled by Saul’s impressive appearance. He sees Jesse’s oldest son Eliab and thinks “Surely the LORD’s anointed is now before the LORD”. But God rebukes this thought: “Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance but the LORD looks on the heart” (16:6-7).

The implication is that David has a good heart. Nowadays, of course, we usually use the heart as a symbol of the feelings: ‘You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t’, sings Bonnie Raitt, and we know what she means. But in the Bible the feelings are located in the intestines (hence the King James Version’s lovely term for compassion: ‘bowels of mercy’!). ‘The heart’ means the inner person, the choices, the will. In this passage it probably means the inner character. Despite being the youngest and the least likely candidate, David was a boy of good character, and so God chose him to be king.

The books of Samuel never pretend that David was perfect; far from it. He was a human being with a healthy dose of the human propensity to mess things up, and he did it spectacularly on a couple of occasions. But it was not in David’s nature to be stubborn about his disobedience. When he was confronted with his sin he confessed and repented and asked for forgiveness.

So when we say God looks on the heart, we’re not saying that God is looking for a perfect heart, a perfect character. God would have no one, if that were the case. But God is looking for a loving heart, a humble heart, a teachable spirit, a faithful character. He’s looking for someone who strives to be the same person when people are watching and when they aren’t watching.

Expertise is important, but it can be taught. Character takes a lot longer. A few years ago a friend of mine was contemplating a career change, and he went to another friend who owned an oilfield service company and asked about a job. “I don’t really have much expertise, though”, he admitted. The owner replied, “Will you come to work on time? Will you give me a full day’s work for a full day’s pay? Will you show up on time after your days off – and without a hangover? I can teach you what you need to know, but I can’t form your character – that has to be present already”.

This is what God prizes. He doesn’t favour the insiders – he’s far more likely to choose people from the margins. He places a premium on for a caring and loving way with others. He’s not impressed with outward appearances: he cares about your heart, your inner character. And lastly, David is filled with the Holy Spirit.In verse 13 we read, ‘Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed (David) in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward’.

In the Old Testament there is no general promise that the Spirit of God will fill every believer. Kings receive the Spirit; so do priests and prophets and judges. The Spirit makes them God’s special servants, God’s tools, God’s mouthpieces. Ordinary people like you and me aren’t equipped with the Spirit; we experience his touch second hand, through God’s chosen leaders.

But that changes in the New Testament. The prophet Joel foretells a time when God will pour out his Spirit on everyone – young and old, men and women, slaves and free. This happens on the Day of Pentecost, when a group of a hundred and twenty believers – most of them unlikely candidates, just like David – are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak God’s word with boldness. From that point on, this becomes the birthright of the Christian: if you know how to give good gifts to your children, says Jesus, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).

My dad was a working class boy from an industrial city in central England; he left school at sixteen and never finished a university degree. Lots of people would have dismissed him, but God didn’t; my dad was called to ordination in his thirties and became a highly effective pastor and evangelist. There are many people alive today who became committed Christians because of his ministry, and I am one of them. He was an ordinary human being with weaknesses just like anyone else, but the Holy Spirit filled him and used him to bless others, and he became a good shepherd.

Today I want you to ask yourself “What’s stopping me from hearing God’s call?” Maybe you feel like an outsider. Maybe you think “I’m no leader”. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a particularly impressive looking person.

But in the end, none of that matters. God doesn’t look on outward appearances: God looks on the heart. God gives the gift of his Spirit to people just like you and me, so that we can do things we never thought we’d ever be able to do. Most of all, God gives us his Spirit to make us like his Son Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is always looking for willing sheepdogs to join his team, bringing his love and compassion to the world. Little David the shepherd boy became part of that team. You can be part of that team too. So don’t let a sense of fear or inadequacy hold you back. When you sense God calling you to some new thing, check it out with others to make sure you’re hearing it right, and then step forward in faith and say “Here am I, Lord; send me!”

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‘He has gone out of his mind’ (a sermon on Mark 3:20-35)

I have a high school friend who became a Christian when he was sixteen, mainly through the witness of a group of young people who went to our church at the time. He had not been raised in a Christian family and as far as I know he’s still the only churchgoing Christian among his siblings.

My friend has always been attracted to the idea of living a simple life, uncluttered by lots of possessions, and even today, as a married man with young adult children, he still tries to practice that. His sister in law once gave him a scolding about it; she said “Your brother and I can’t figure you out. You’ve got a good job and you make enough money to live well, but you live in a tiny little house, you don’t own a car, and your best suit came second hand from the Oxfam shop. We can’t understand this; is it something to do with your religion?”

In our gospel reading for today Mark tells us that my friend wasn’t alone: people had a hard time figuring Jesus out too!

Mark has a little literary device he uses to draw attention to a theme; he tells a story within a story. He starts story number one, then pauses half way through and tells story number two. At the end, he finishes story number one. The idea is to highlight the theme the two stories have in common.

That’s what happens in this reading. In story number one Jesus has returned home and he’s immediately swamped by a crowd of people. We can read between the lines that they’ve come looking for healing, and at least some of them appear to have unclean spirits in them. Jesus’ family hear about all the things he’s doing, and they immediately decide it’s time to give him a good talking-to. So, Mark says, ‘they went out to restrain him, for people were saying “He has gone out of his mind”’ (Mark 3:21). Incidentally, where our NRSV translation has ‘for people were saying…’, the original language just has ‘for theywere saying’, and most translations take that to be referring to Jesus’ family members. In other words, they looked at all the things Jesus was saying and doing, and they came to the conclusion that he was crazy.

That’s where Mark leaves story number one. Then he inserts story number two: some of the scribes who’ve come down from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being worse than crazy: the reason he can drive out the evil spirits is because he’s in league with their leader! Jesus and Beelzebul (another name for Satan) have joined forces! But Jesus replies forcefully to this accusation: it doesn’t make sense! Why would Satan join an alliance to defeat Satan! Jesus is waging war against Satan’s soldiers; why would Satan help him do that? No – if you’ve broken into the strong man’s house and plundered it, that must mean that you’ve already tied up the strong man! So if Jesus is plundering Satan’s house, what does that mean?

Jesus goes on to give them a stern warning: it’s a serious thing to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. To see the Holy Spirit at work through Jesus and to be so spiritually blind that you see it as the work of pure evil rather than pure love – well, a person as blind as that has probably lost the ability to admit that they’re wrong and ask for forgiveness. That’s likely what Jesus means when he says a person who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive; it’s that they have wilfully closed themselves off to that possibility.

So ends story number two, and then Jesus comes back to story number one. Jesus’ mother and brothers arrive, and the house is so full of people needing help that they have to send a messenger in to talk to him. “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (32). And then Jesus gives a startling reply. He looks around at the crowd and says “Who are my mother and brothers?…Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (33-35).

So a dividing line has formed. On the one hand we see the scribes and Pharisees and the religious establishment from Jerusalem; that’s no surprise. But now – to our amazement – we see that Jesus’ immediate family appear to have joined them, although their motives are different. The scribes say Jesus needs to stop what he’s doing because he’s working with the devil. His family say he needs to stop what he’s doing because he’s going crazy; he needs to come home with them and get well again, and be the nice, inoffensive religious man he used to be.

But on the other side of the line there’s a different group. These are the people who have heard Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand and have believed him. They’ve become his followers. Many of them have been healed by him. And we know from other places in the gospels that they aren’t just respectable Jews. There are tax collectors, prostitutes, maybe even people who work for the Romans. There are women and men. But what unites them is a deep desire to do the will of God, and a belief that Jesus is showing them how to do that, because God is with him. This belief has become the deepest conviction of their hearts. And because it’s their deepest conviction, they form a new set of family relationships with others who share that conviction. And these relationships quickly become deeper than anything they’ve experienced before, even in their blood families.

And the same thing happens today. People fall in love with Jesus; they hear his story and read his words and they’re captivated by his vision of God and God’s kingdom. And as long as it’s just a belief, that’s fine. But then they start practisingit! They start giving generously to the poor and needy, and even agitating for a better deal for them. They start loving their enemies and praying for those who hate them, instead of joining the warmongers who traffic in fear and hate. They start treating all people equally, whatever their race or level of prosperity or political opinions or sexual orientation. They take the side of the weak and the defenceless and the marginalized. In other words, they seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And they can’t shut up about Jesus; they’ve heard the voice of God speaking to them through him, and they’re convinced that they’ve met God through him, and they long for others to have the same experience.

So their friends and family members start getting embarrassed around them. “Religious opinions are fine, but why do you have to be so intense about them?” “You were a lot more fun before you got so holy!” “Do you realize how crazy you sound sometimes?”

There’s hurt on both sides of this story. Family and friends feel like they’re being left behind. You used to be with them all the time, sharing their opinions and values. Now something new has come into your life and it’s stealing you away from them. They feel hurt and betrayed; what is this evil thing that’s come into your life and separated you from them?

But the new disciple feels hurt too. “Can’t you see how much this means to me? It’s not that I don’t love you, but I finally feel like I’ve found what I was created for, and I really can’t understand how you can’t see it too! Why can’t you understand how much sense Jesus makes? If we all followed him we’d have justice and peace around the world tomorrow! You call this ‘crazy’, but to me it makes more sense than anything else I’ve heard in my life”.

Why this difference? Well, let’s focus on the accusation Jesus’ family members make against him: “He has gone out of his mind” (v.21).

Sometimes this accusation is true. There are many people who suffer from genuine mental illnesses. They’re delusional about the world and about themselves. They see evils and dangers where there are no evils and dangers. They believe things about themselves that are not true. There are all kinds of clinical and psychological reasons for this, and I’m certainly not qualified to go into them here today.

But what I want to point out is that when most people say to someone “You’re out of your mind!” that’s not what they’re talking about. They haven’t sat down and done a clinical diagnosis of the other person’s mental state. It’s a lot more likely that they’ve gotten frustrated because they just can’t persuade the other person to see things the way they do. “You voted for Justin Trudeau (or Stephen Harper)! Are you out of your mind?”

What’s happening when the accusation is made in this way is that two people have completely different ways of looking at reality. We can see this with Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed that the Messiah was going to come to set God’s people free, but God wouldn’t send him until all Israel obeyed the Law of Moses and all the traditional interpretations of that Law. God is a God of Law, and when we all keep his Law scrupulously, he will reward us by sending the Messiah. And because the Pharisees believed this, they did everything in their power to encourage people to obey every little detail of the Law of Moses and their interpretations of it. They were doing it for the good of Israel, you see!

But Jesus had a completely different way of looking at reality. He believed that God is a God of grace who pours out his blessings on all people. God was not going to wait until all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly; God had already sent the Messiah, and Jesus was he! And because God is fundamentally a God of love and mercy, the heart of the Law is love and mercy. So Jesus taught people that if they loved God with all their heart and loved their neighbour as themselves – their brother or sister, or the needy person on the road, or the enemy who was trying to kill them – they were at the centre of God’s will for them.

This certainly came across as crazy to a lot of people. It still comes across as crazy to us today. “What do you mean, I’m supposed to love my enemies? Do you know what that S.O.B. did to me? Do you know how badly he hurt me? How can you possibly expect me to forgive and love him? And by the way, have you seen what the Islamic terrorists are doing to people? And you think we should just go and put flowers in their rifles? What sort of a crazy hippy are you, anyway?”

And what about Jesus’ attitude toward possessions. “Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth”. How can I possibly live by that? Everyone around me has five or six computers and two cars and a house that cost them an arm and a leg, and if they can afford a holiday RV or a time share they go for it. Now you’re asking me to give up that dream and live a simple life? How can that possibly make sense? And you want me to give to the poor instead? Don’t you know how much those charities waste money?”

It’s not hard for us to find examples of what looks like irrational behaviour in the teaching of Jesus. And so we tone it down and make it more rational. “We’re not supposed to take him literally. He’s not really against us living comfortably. He doesn’t really want us to turn the other cheek – that was just a figure of speech. He’s not really in favour of loving the Romans – or the Russians – or whoever the latest evil people are. You know Jesus: he likes to say provocative things, but when you tone it down a bit he’s just a standard religious teacher who wants us all to be nice to each other, but in case not everyone agrees, we should hang on to our big bank balance and our firearms too”.

The problem is, that approach has never changed the world. It’s never brought us closer to the Kingdom of God. The world has never been changed by sane, moderate-sounding Christians whose message can be boiled down to ‘Let me suggest that we might all like to be a little bit nicer to one another, and then go to heaven when we die”. No: the world was changed by a Martin Luther King, who put his life on the line because he had a dream. The world was changed by a William Wilberforce, who said slavery should be abolished even if it brought the British empire to economic ruin, because it was a moral offence against the God who created all people in his image. The world was changed by a Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she believed in justice for black people. The world was changed by Jesus, who said and did the things he believed God was calling him to, even when people said he was out of his mind. And guess what: no one remembers the names of those scribes and Pharisees today, but around the world millions of people claim to be followers of Jesus!

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus refers to this incident; he says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25).

In other words, if you want to be a follower of Jesus, you have to get over your addiction to the approval of others. People who don’t believe in Jesus’ vision are not going to be able to understand why you believe in it and work for it. But this is where the old fashioned virtues of courage and persistence come in. William Wilberforce and his friends fought for two decades to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Twelve times during those years they introduced a bill on the floor of the House of Commons, and eleven times it was defeated. British heroes spoke against it. Admiral Nelson, the famous naval hero, wrote this: ‘I was bred in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field nor the Senate shall their just rights be infringed, while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies’.

What was that ‘damnable doctrine’? It was the idea that slavery was immoral and an offence against the God who created all human beings in his image. If that doctrine seems obvious to us today, it was because Christians like Wilberforce were not afraid to have people say “He’s gone out of his mind”. They weren’t prepared to be moderate; they were willing to be radical. They followed where Jesus was leading them, and they changed the world because of it.

Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). That sounds like the family I want to be in. How about you?

‘The Gift of Sabbath Rest’ (a sermon on Mark 2.23 – 3.6)

C.S. Lewis once said that there’s nothing that gives you a more deceptively good conscience than keeping rules, even if there’s been a total absence of all real love and faith in your life.

I think this is absolutely true. A few years ago, Marci and I were attending a course at Regent College in Vancouver with one of the world’s great New Testament scholars, Gordon Fee. Gordon is a Pentecostal, but he was scathing about the rules-based religion he was raised in. “We knew the rules”, he said; “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t swear, don’t dance, don’t play cards”. And then he paused, and said forcefully, “A fence-post could be a good Christian by that standard!” As Lewis says, merely obeying rules about what you’re not supposed to do is not enough – it needs to be based on real love and faith.

Nevertheless, questions about the rules continue to pop up all the time in the world of religious faith. In the time of Jesus some of those rules clustered around the question of what it meant to keep the Sabbath Day holy, and I think that’s still a vital issue for us to consider.

Let me give you a bit of background. In the Hebrew scriptures the Sabbath was originally meant by God as a gift for his people. When the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, there was no sabbath rest for them. They were building Pharaoh’s cities, and the job needed to get done. When Moses came and challenged Pharaoh to let his people go, Pharaoh’s response was to get even more strict with the slaves. Now they wouldn’t be given any more straw to make the bricks they used; they had to go find their own, but they were still required to produce the same number of bricks per day. So they had to work longer and longer hours, seven days a week, and we can imagine that many of them died under the harsh treatment of their taskmasters.

In that context, the sabbath commandment comes as a gift to the newly-freed slaves:
‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy as the LORD your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave…or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day’ (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

‘Remember that you were a slave in Egypt’. In other words, you Israelites can remember what it was like to be treated as an economic machine, with never a moment to call your own. Now you’re going to be delivered from that, because it wasn’t God’s creation intention for human beings to work like that. We need rest, and sleep. We need to form community and share love. We need to worship the one who made us. And so the Israelites weren’t just given permission to take a day off: they were commanded to do so. One day in seven they were to refrain from economic activity, so that they could rest and worship God.

But human beings being what we are, people wanted more guidance about exactly how to do that. So we’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath Day; well, what exactly is work? If we cook a meal, is that work? If we light a fire? If we clean the house? Are we allowed to go for a walk, and if so, how far? How many miles from home can we go, and by the way, what is ‘home’? If I go two miles the day before the Sabbath and dump a pile of my clothes at the crossroads, does that constitute an extension of ‘home’, and can I start counting the miles from there?

And so Jewish teachers, with the best of intentions, started addressing these questions. They knew people needed help with the practicalities, and so they gave it. By the time of Jesus, there were thirty-seven different categories of work that were specifically forbidden on the Sabbath Day, and many people took these human traditions as if they were themselves the commands of God – which they weren’t. By the time of Jesus many Jewish people had exchanged the tyranny of the Pharaoh for the tyranny of the Pharisee. Keeping the Sabbath had been intended to ease their burdens, but their traditions had had the opposite effect.

Jesus was aware of this, and he was constantly criticized by religious leaders for being too lax about keeping the Sabbath. We see this in our gospel reading for today, where Mark has brought together two stories about Sabbath observance.

In the first story Jesus and his disciples are wandering through some grain fields on the Sabbath day. The disciples start breaking off some heads of grain, rolling them in their hands to soften them up, and then eating them. All pretty harmless, but the Pharisees interpret this as ‘harvesting’ – ‘Look, they’re breaking the Law, harvesting grain on the Sabbath!’ So they confront Jesus with this: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (2:24).

In response Jesus reminds them of an Old Testament story. David is on the run from King Saul, and he comes to the sanctuary. He’s desperately hungry, and so he asks the high priest if he has any food. The priest replies that the only food he’s got is the sacred bread, which is baked fresh every day, placed in the presence of the Lord before the altar, and then taken away at the end of the day. Only the priests are allowed to eat it, but the high priest makes an exception in David’s case. And so the precedent is set, by no less a person that King David himself: the law can be broken in cases of human need. And then Jesus goes on to establish a principle about keeping the Sabbath: he says, “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’ (vv.27-28).

The second story is a sabbath healing story. Jesus goes into a synagogue and a man is there with a withered hand. The man doesn’t ask for a healing and Jesus could have ignored him, but obviously Jesus wanted to make a point. So he pointedly calls the man to stand out in front of everyone, and then he asks the people a question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (v.4). They don’t reply, and Mark says ‘He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart…’ (v.5). So he heals the man then and there. The last thing we read is that the Pharisees, who have been criticizing Jesus for using the sabbath wrongly, then proceed to use the sabbath to plot with the followers of King Herod to murder Jesus!

How do we apply this teaching to our lives today in 2018? In the time of Jesus it was the tyranny of the Pharisees that was burdening the people. There were so many laws to remember about what you could and couldn’t do on the sabbath, and someone was always at your elbow watching you, ready to criticize if you broke one of them! There have been times in Christian history – in Puritan England or Calvinist Scotland, for instance – when that strict Sabbatarian spirit has been strong, and people have felt the Sabbath Day to be a burden and not a blessing.

But that’s not our story in Canada today. We’ve largely cast off any restrictions on what we do on the Lord’s Day. We’ve cast off the tyranny of the Pharisees and run right back into the tender arms of Pharaoh and his slave-drivers! Nowadays it’s the pressure of work, work, work – produce, produce, produce – that so many of us feel. According to statistics, our bosses are richer than they’ve ever been, but they still kick up a big fuss at any demand to raise wages. People have to work longer and longer hours just to keep their heads above water. We’ve all got our computers and cell phones, and more and more employers are expecting their workers to be available round the clock. Take the sabbath off? We have a hard enough time taking an evening off! That little electronic device in our pockets is keeping us securely tethered to Pharaoh and his demands.

So how do we recover the blessing of the Sabbath command – that was given to us for our benefit – without going so far that we fall into the opposite extreme of the tyranny of the Pharisees? Let me suggest three things from the words of Jesus in this passage.

First, let’s recover the sense of the Sabbath as a gift from God. Jesus says, ‘the sabbath was made for humankind’ (v.27). God did not design us to spend our entire lives in economic activity. He gave us bodies that need a cycle of work and rest. We need sleep. We’re social creatures, with families and friendships that need nurture. We’re created beings, designed to live in relationship with our Creator. The sabbath is meant to carve out a space for us to do that.

Let’s recognize a difficulty, though. The sabbath commandment was given in the context of an entire society of God’s people. All Israel acknowledged God and the Law God had given to Moses, so a whole society could observe the sabbath day. That’s not the case today. Most of our contemporaries are not Christian and see no reason why they should observe a Christian holy day. Many of our employers feel the same way too – they want their businesses to be open on Sunday.

So it may not always be possible for us to observe Sunday as our sabbath. No worries – Sunday isn’t the original sabbath, anyway! The Old Testament sabbath was Saturday. The first Christians began observing Sunday as a special day because of Jesus’ resurrection, but for most of them in those early days it wasn’t a day off work; they met for the Eucharist before sunrise, and then went to work. And I expect in the next few years we’ll be getting even more creative about holding services at times around the edges of the working day.

So applying this command today isn’t about how we respond to the obligation some of us may have from time to time to work on Sunday. It’s about the times we do have a choice. Working 24/7 isn’t how God designed us. He commanded us to take one day off in seven, completely free from economic activity, to rest and worship. This is not an option; it’s one of his commands. And it’s meant to be a blessing, not a burden. So why would we refuse that gift?

The second principle we see in the passage is that ‘the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’ (v.28). So if we want guidance as to how to apply the command to keep a holy sabbath, Jesus is the one we can turn to. And one thing we know for sure about Jesus is that on the sabbath he went to worship with his people in the synagogue. Luke 4:16 says, ‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom’. Every available indication is that Jesus continued this practice his whole life long. So did his followers after his ascension; the Jewish Christians continued to attend synagogue on Saturdays, and they also established their own weekly pattern of celebrating the Lord’s Supper on the morning after the Sabbath – Sunday, the Lord’s Day.

In the days of the early church a very high premium was put on attendance at the weekly Eucharist. Christians saw this weekly sharing in the Lord’s Body and Blood as a lifeline. There are stories from the days when the church was a persecuted minority of how Christians would even sneak into jails to take the consecrated bread to their sisters and brothers who had been imprisoned there – risking their own lives and freedoms. That was how important they thought it was!

Nowadays that isn’t always the case. Many of us take the opportunity to get away on weekends, especially now when the weather turns nice. Nothing wrong with this, of course – but do we go to church while we’re away? Think of the benefits of this! We make contact with new communities of Christians. We receive the sacrament to strengthen us for the week ahead. We teach our kids that God is still important to us; he doesn’t take a holiday from us, so we don’t take a holiday from him. We get to hear a different voice in the pulpit from time to time. And our presence in the worshipping community is a witness to the fact that Christ comes first in our lives, even when we’re on holiday.

We can recover the sense of the sabbath as a gift. We can remember that Jesus is Lord of the sabbath and gives us guidance about how we use it – especially when it comes to joining with God’s people for worship. Finally, we can use the sabbath as a day for doing good. Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3.4). The answer is obvious – the sabbath is a day to do good and to save life.

So a day of rest is not necessarily a day to do nothing. We live busy lives and our weekdays are often frantic; we don’t often have time to do the good deeds we’d like to do – visiting a lonely relative, helping out a neighbour who needs some yard work done, visiting sick people in hospital and so on. I think of our team that goes to the Bissell Centre once a year to help serve a meal there to the folks at the Inner City Pastoral Ministry. I know of some churches – not usually Anglican ones, it has to be said – who cancel their regular Sunday service once a month and get involved in some sort of mission or outreach project together. These are all good ways of keeping a holy sabbath.

One more thing: I think it could be good to mark the beginning and end of our sabbath day in some way. In the Jewish tradition a day begins at sundown the night before, so the first meal of sabbath is actually Friday night. I’ve read of Jewish people expressing their sense of joy in the traditional observances at that meal – the lighting of the traditional sabbath candles, the special prayers that are said for the beginning of the sabbath, and so on. Customs like that can be very helpful and we might want to think of how we can develop some for ourselves. I know some Christians who observe the sabbath as a day free from electronic devices, which so often are Pharaoh’s tool to bind us to his service. A ceremonial turning off of your cell phone might be a very good way to start a sabbath day, don’t you think?!

So, to sum up: a sabbath day is a gift from God. It was given as a blessing for us, to bring us refreshment, rest, and reconnection with God and the people we love. It’s a day to worship, to put God at the centre of our lives, whether we’re at home or away. It’s a day to follow Jesus in living lives of love for others and doing what we can to be a blessing to them.

Nowadays a lot of people are trying to find ways to live a more balanced and healthy life. In that quest, I think the gift of sabbath might just be one of the best things Jews and Christians have to offer. But it has to start with living it ourselves. This is not about asking Canada to make laws about it. It’s about being willing to embrace it in our own lives and making it attractive to others. I know I’ve still got a long way to go on that journey, but I hope you’ll join me in it.

‘God of Power and Love’ (a sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8)

This past week I was away at our diocesan clergy conference, and on the last day of the conference – Thursday morning – Bishop Jane led us in a session on preaching. Part way through the session she asked us to reflect on what it was that we wanted to say in our sermons for this Sunday. And then she asked us a couple of even more interesting questions: whydo we want to say that, and how does what we want to say connect with our personal sense of passionfor God and God’s message?

Today is Trinity Sunday, and maybe the last thing you’re expecting to hear on Trinity Sunday is any sort of passion! Maybe you’re expecting a dry theological discourse about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Maybe there’ll be some clever sermon illustration – like the three leaves of a shamrock – or the fact that water can take the form of ice, or liquid, or gas. It all sounds a little forced and contrived, and at the end of the sermon your vision of God is somehow lessthan it was before, as if Einstein had been deluded enough to think that E=MC2can adequately sum up the whole of reality.

That’s notwhat I want to do here this morning. I want you to leave church this morning with a bigger view of God, not a smaller view. I want you to catch a glimpse of a God who is far beyond anything we can possibly understand or imagine – a God who can never be reduced to a neat formula. I want you to leave this morning excited about a relationship with a God like that. I want you to think to yourself “Wow! A God like that would be amazing to know – even if we can never adequately describe him! You could spend a lifetime getting to know him and hardly scratch the surface!”

I think we can catch some of that excitement from our Old Testament reading today, from the book of the prophet Isaiah.Let me set the scene for you. We’re told that Isaiah had this transformational encounter with God ‘in the year that King Uzziah died’ (v.1). This was a time of uncertainty and change for God’s people; Israel and Judah were feeling small and vulnerable against the might of Assyria and its new king, Tiglath-Pileser. In this context, God gives Isaiah a vision of who the trueking is, a vision that emphasizes God’s power and majesty and holiness.Isaiah seems to have had this vision in the temple; perhaps he had gone there to pray or take part in a sacrifice. What does the vision tell us about the Lord, the God of Israel? Look at verses 1-4:

‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance around him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory”.

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke’.

 Notice: Isaiah doesn’t try to describe the Lord’s appearance. That’s a common feature in stories of God’s appearances in the Bible; they describe the edgeof the field of vision, and the ‘court personalities’ around God, but not God himself. Why? Because the authors know there’s no human language adequate to the task of describing the God they’ve seen. The most Isaiah can bring himself to say is that the Lord’s throne was ‘high and lofty’, and ‘the hem of his robe filled the temple’. I don’t know if any of you have seen the coronation photographs of Queen Elizabeth from 1953; she’s a fairly small figure but she’s wearing an absolutely enormous cloak, stretching all around the platform she’s standing on. And Isaiah sees God as the high King of all kings, with a massive cloak that stretches around him, so huge it fills the entire temple building.

Truly there’s no language we can use, no picture we can create, that can adequately describe God. The Bible uses all sorts of images for God: the rock of our salvation, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of the armies of heaven, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the true heavenly Father, and so on. But not one of them is big enough to give us a complete picture of God.

Nowadays I think we have an even stronger sense of the majesty and indescribability of God than Isaiah did. Think of what we know about the universe today! The universe is about 14.5 billion years old, but God was there before the big bang, and through all those billions of years God has been present, sustaining the whole thing. Ever since the big bang, the universe has been expanding at incredible speed, and the distances are truly astronomical – pun intended! Alpha Centauri is one of the closest stars to us, but it would still take us four years, travelling at the speed of light – which we can’t do, of course – to reach it. The light from some of the stars in our night sky has taken millionsof years to reach us. And yet God created all that, and God holds it all in hands of love.

How can we ever begin to describe such a God? Isaiah uses the word ‘Holy’ three times: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6:3). The word in the Hebrew scriptures is ‘qodesh’ and it means ‘apartness’, ‘set-apartness’, ‘separateness’, ‘sacredness’. When applied to human beings it means ‘set apart for God’. A holy person is a person or nation God has set apart as his own special possession; the Church is ‘holy’ because we, its members, have been set apart by God as a people belonging to him.

But obviously when applied to God himself the word has a slightly different meaning. “Set apart”. “Separateness”. We might say the emphasis is on the differencebetween God and us. God isn’t just the biggest thing in all of creation; God isn’t ‘in’ creation at all. God’s love is the force that keeps the whole of creation going. He’s completely different from us: his love and knowledge and goodness have no limits.

How can I possibly understand such a God? How can I do anything but fearsuch a God? In God’s presence I must be smaller than an ant! Me trying to understand God is like an ant trying to understand quantum physics! That’s why the Israelites were forbidden to make graven images of their god. Any image you could possibly make of God is inadequate; no image can ever do justice to the original.

And yet, that’s not the end of what the Bible has to say about God. Isaiah thinks at first that it is. He sees the glory of God and his brain feels like it’s exploding; all he can think about is what a sinner he is and how angry God must be about his sins.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the king, the LORD of hosts!” (6:5).

I must admit to having a grunt of recognition here! I imagine what it might be like if God had hung a digital recorder around my neck, and on the day of judgement he just leaned forward and pressed ‘play’, and suddenly I’m listening to all the unkind and cruel and judgemental things I’ve ever said – all the lies I’ve told – all the times I’ve ever spoken without thinking – all the times I’ve put other people down – all the times I’ve said things to impress people. I’m well aware of the damage I’ve done over the years by my words. Truly, I’m a man of unclean lips. How can someone like me stand up in the presence of a holy God?

And yet there is cleansing with God. In the Hebrew scriptures the people offer sacrifices on the altar for the forgiveness of sins. In Isaiah’s vision there’s an altar there with burning coals on it: the angel picks up a live coal with a pair of tongs and touches Isaiah’s lips with it – which I can’t imagine would have been a pleasant experience! But the result is purification: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (v.7).

What are we saying to someone when we forgive them? We’re saying, “Yes, you’ve hurt me, but our relationship is worth too much to me for me just to throw it away. So I’m not going to hit back; I’m not going to cut you off; I’m going to continue to love you and be there for you”. In other words, forgiveness is an act of love.

‘Holy, holy, holy’ is Isaiah’s vision of God. But in our Gospel reading we hear another word for God: ‘love’.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).

What can we possibly say about a love like this? This earth is huge to us but it’s a pin-prick in the vastness of the universe. How could God care about one tiny planet in all his enormous creation? How could he care about the two-legged creatures who’ve been walking the face of that planet for a tiny part of the time it’s been in existence? And is it even conceivable that he could care for oneof those creatures as an individual: the one I call ‘Me’?

This is the big question in the human heart, isn’t it? Does God notice me? Am I so tiny in the enormity of the universe that God misses the fact that I exist? Or is it possible – can I begin to hope it’s true – that God not only knows I exist but loves me with a love so passionate that he was willing to come and live and die for me, and for every other ‘me’ that has ever lived on earth?

This is the amazing truth the New Testament writers want us to believe. John tells us about it:

‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son t be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:9-10).

In other words, the almighty creating power that gave life to us and everything else that has ever existed is first and foremost a power of love. Right at the centre of the universe is an awesome and holy being who isn’t a tyrant in love with his own power. Somehow, in a way that we can never fully take in, the holy God Isaiah describes is a God who is all love– pure, holy, just, righteous, faithful and unconditional love.

‘In this is love’, John says, ‘not that we loved God but that he loved us’ (1 John 4:10). God’s love is always first; its only because he loves that I can love. And I might work my whole life long to fill up my bucket with love, while all the time, God’s love is like a mighty ocean. That’s where I can fill my bucket!

The coals from the altar touched Isaiah’s lips and brought him forgiveness. Today the bread and wine of Holy Communion will touch our lips to remind us of Jesus’ love for us; we’re invited to eat and drink our forgiveness and healing. Yes, we’ve fallen short – we haven’t loved God with our whole heart and we haven’t loved our neighbours as ourselves – but ‘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 3:17). So you’re invited to come to him again today – to receive his forgiveness and healing – and to go from this place knowing that you are held in the loving embrace of the God who made you for the pleasure of knowing you.

And one more thing: you’re also called to tell others about this God who loves them.

In verse 8 we read,

‘Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

God is still sending people today. The love of Jesus needs to be shared with everyone, and God has chosen to share it through you and me.

In 1981 the words of this text inspired a Jesuit priest, Father Dan Schutte, to write a song that’s become a classic. Here’s the first verse

I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

Come to this God today. Don’t be afraid. He’s calling you to a journey of discovery. All your life long you’re going to be getting to know him, and you’ll never come to the end of him! There’s always going to be more to discover about God!

Come this morning; let the holy sacrament touch your lips and enter your body as the forgiving love of Jesus touches you deep down inside. And then go – you are sent, as disciples of Jesus, to spread his love wherever you go. God says to you and me today, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I hope you will join me in the words of Isaiah: “Here am I; send me”. Amen.

‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’ (a sermon on Acts 2:17-18)

One of my favourite movies is an old 1990 flick called ‘Almost an Angel’; the main character, Terry, is played by Paul Hogan, of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ fame. Terry is a criminal, but on the way out of a bank heist he sees a little girl about to get hit by a car, jumps into the road to save her and gets hit himself. To his surprise he finds himself in heaven talking to God – who looks remarkably like Charlton Heston. God seems to be a little surprised to see Terry – ‘It’s a long time since we’ve had a scumbag here’, he says – and then he tells Terry he’s being sent back to earth.

So Terry’s life changes as he sees himself as ‘almost an angel’ – “I haven’t got my wings yet”, he says. At one point later on in the movie someone asks Terry to pray for him. Terry frowns. “I could”, he says, “but it might not do any good. Last time I was talking to God, he called me a scumbag!”

I have to say as a clergy person that I gave a grunt of recognition when I first heard that line! I often get asked to pray for people! Many people seem to think that the prayers of a priest or pastor are automatically more effective than theirs. But we clergy know our own hearts, and so does God!

There’s an interesting story in the Old Testament book of Exodus. The Israelites have escaped from slavery in Egypt and have arrived at Mount Sinai where Moses first met God. God gives a dramatic display of power as he comes down on the mountain – lightning, thunder, billowing smoke, the earth shaking and so on. The Israelites are terrified, so they turn to Moses and say “Yougo up there and talk to him for us. We’ll wait for you down here! When you come back, we’ll do whatever he’s told you!”

I sometimes refer to this as ‘the cult of the mediator’. A relationhip with the living God is too demanding, too scary for ordinary people, so we set aside special, holy people and get them to do the hard work of relating to God on our behalf. They’re our ‘go-betweens’ – that’s what the word ‘priest’ means in many religions, including the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament there’s little expectation that ordinary people can know God: they’re just told to obey his commandments and show up to offer sacrifices – that’s it. Special people – kings and warriors like David or Samson, prophets like Moses and Miriam, priests like Aaron – they’re the ones who receive the Spirit of the Lord (by the way, ‘spirit’ in Hebrew is ‘ruach’ which also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’). Kings and priests were exclusively male in Israel, and were appointed by their bloodline – a hereditary power structure. Prophets were more of a wild card – God called who he wanted, men or women, rich or poor, scholars or farmers – and they spoke the word of God in God’s name.

The cult of the mediator is still strong today. Many people think it’s Christian, but it’s really not. Interestingly enough, the word ‘priest’ is never used for Christian ministers or pastors in the New Testament. Congregations are cared for by people called pastors, or overseers, or elders. But the word ‘priest’ is used in the Church in two senses: for Jesus, our great high priest, and for the whole Christian community together. The message is clear: This is not just for the lucky few! Everyoneis invited to know God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We see this on the Day of Pentecost which we read about this morning. It seems as if a hundred and twenty believers were gathered together in one place, and we don’t read of there being any kings or Jewish priests among them. They are male and female, blue collar and white collar – all social classes. Suddenly the Holy Spirit fills them – God breathes his new life into them, and they’re aware of his presence in them in a new and amazing way. This new life overflows with joy; they begin to praise God in languages they’ve never learned, languages the people around them can understand. And this new life also overflows in witness: the crowd gathers, and Peter begins to explain to them about Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 1 Jesus had promised them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (1:8) – and that was exactly what was happening to Peter.

Our first reading gives us the first part of Peter’s sermon. The believers had been accused of drunkenness because of the joy of the Holy Spirit, but Peter offers an alternative explantion. Look at Acts 2:16-18:

“No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy”.

‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’ (17). This doesn’t mean that everyone will automatically receive the Spirit; our God never forces himself on anyone against their will. What it means is that all mayreceive the Spirit if they choose. No one is barred because of their gender, their social status, their status as priest or lay person, their level of education and so on. All are now invited into that most intimate of all relationships – having the ‘Breath of God’ breathing in you.

The fact that this applies to both men and women is especially emphasized in Joel’s prophecy. We know that women were present on the Day of Pentecost; Acts 1 lists the male disciples and then adds ‘…together with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus…’ (1:14). Joel had foretold this – a day when the ministry of prophecy would be exercised equally by men and women – ‘…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour our my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’ (17-18).

We have to admit that this equality was only partially achieved in Bible times. In a patriarchal society it was natural that people saw what they expected to see, and so we don’t see an absolute equality of partnership of men and women in this minstry of declaring the word of the Lord. But we do see signs of it, and Luke, the author of Luke’s gospel and Acts, seems to have particularly rejoiced in it. It’s clear in this text that gender makes absolutely no difference when the Breath of God comes down!

Let me say one more word about what this means. Our Anglican Church is a structured church with clear lines of demarcation between ordained and lay people. So it’s natural we should think in terms of ‘who can get ordained’. For myself, I’m happy and proud to be part of a Church that ordains men and women equally, and I’m happy to argue the case with anyone who disagrees.

But this text goes far beyond that issue. To ‘prophesy’ in the Bible doesn’t mean ‘to foretell the future’ (although prophets do sometimes do that). Fundamentally, it means to be given a messge from God to speak to others in God’s name. Joel is saying that the day will come when all people can do this – men or women, young or old, slave or free – simply because God’s Breath, God’s Spirit, is in them. There is no hint of a difference here between clergy and lay people: the Spirit is given to all, so all can speak God’s word to one another.

Note that we’re not talking about lone rangers, people going off on their own to enjoy a one-on-one ‘me and God’ experience. We’re talking about the whole community gathering together in ministry, listening to the Word of God together, weighing up what’s said together, submitting to each other, serving together – because everyone shares in the gift of God’s Spirit.

Even slaves! Verse 18 says, ‘Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’. Slaves were the lowest social class – they were possessions, or tools, owned by others. But God values them as individuals, God breathes his Spirit into them, God makes them ministers!Imagine a first-century Christian aristocrat receiving a word of prophecy from his slave! That’s revolution! As Mary had foretold in Luke 1, ‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1:51b-52).

This is God’s intention: that the Gospel should go out to all people – Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. This message is not just about having your sins forgiven and being adopted as God’s daughters and sons, although that’s wonderful enough. No: it’s also about indwelling– about God being with us and in us. God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s Spirit will live in the whole Christian community, and all can minister in God’s name. There’s no hint of the cult of the mediator here. No one else can do the hard work of relating to God for you.Youare called to be filled with the Spirit, to learn to pray, to learn to listen to God’s voice in the scriptures, and to step out in witness for him. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). That’s your birthright as a baptized Christian.

A bit later on in the chapter, in verses 38-39, Peter gives the crowd an invitation:

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”.

The promise of the Spirit is for all who believe and are baptized. In Old Testament times the sign of God’s covenant with his people was circumcision, which was fine as far as it went, but it only went as far as half of the human race. In the New Testament the sign is baptism, which is offered to men and women alike. All can receive the Spirit and be included as equals in the covenant community.

The New Testament tells us the story of the first generation of Christians. Most of them heard the Gospel as adults; the Spirit worked in their hearts, and they put their trust in Jesus and committed themselves to him. They were baptized as adults and the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them.

There are very few stories in the New Testament of Christian families applying this to the upbringing of their children; this came later. Gradually, most Christians came to believe that it was right for children of Christian homes to be received into the community by baptism. The model here is of the community as a school of disciples, wth baptism as enrolment, even at an early age. Jesus told us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name  of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). So we baptize our children and enroll them as Jesus’ disciples so we can teach them to follow Jesus. The promise of the Spirit is given in baptism, but it also needs to be ‘lived into’ as we pray each day to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Today we include little Alex in this promise. As Ryan and Jenny bring him for baptism, he will take his place with us as a full member of the community that St. Paul calls ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. And when he’s been baptized we’ll pray for him in these words: ‘Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised him to the new life of grace. Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit’. We’ll also say ‘Give him…a spirit to know and love you’. In other words, he will need to learn that Christianity isn’t just about going to church and learning Bible stories. It’s about living in relationship with God – receiving power to live for God – finding joy in witnessing to others about God’s work in our lives. AllChristians are called to these things.

Including you and me. What is this saying to us as baptized Christians?

It’s reminding us that the Breath of Godis in us– but we need to breathe it in daly! It’s not enough just to breathe once – you have to breathe over and over again! So: let’s pray daily, even hourly, that the Spirit would fill us and strengthen us and guide us to live for God.

It’s reminding us not to settle for the cult of the mediator.That’s paganism, and even Old Testament Judaism, but it’s not Christianity. You’ve been offered the Breath of God – the very life of God in you. Why would you settle for an oxygen tank brough to you by someone else? Peter says, “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39).

It’s reminding us that the Church is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit.The English word ‘fellowship’ or ‘communion’ translates the Greek word ‘koinonia’ which means ‘to have something in common’, ‘to share together in something’. In the early chapters of the Book of Acts we don’t see lone ranger Christians going off on private projects for God. We see a joyful community doing God’s work together. By ourselves we don’t always find it easy to discern what God is calling us to. But the Holy Spirit is strong in the community,  so we come together, we talk things through, we pray, we wait on God, and the Spirit guides us. So we’re called to commit ourselves to this fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We’ve seen that the passage is reminding us that the Breath of God is in us. It’s reminding us not to settle for the cult of the mediator. It’s reminding us that the Church is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And finally, it’s reminding us to remember our call to be a ministering community, a serving community. Men and women, rich and poor, young and old, people of all backgrounds and races and classes: we’re all joined together as priests, prophets, witnesses, servants and ministers of Christ.

A pastor called Jon Wimber told a great story about this. He was the founder of the first Vineyard Church which became a community of thousands of people with a large staff and structure. One day a person called him in a state of some agitation. “Where is everyone? I’ve been trying to get hold of someone at the church for days! I met this man who was homeless, and we got talking, and I realized he really needed a place to stay and some food. So I called the church several times, but no one answered. Eventually I had to take him home to stay with me and give him some food myself. Don’t you think the church should help people like that?”

Wimber was quiet for a moment, and then he said one simple sentence: “Sounds like the church did”.

If you are a Christian, then you are the Church, together with all Christians. The Spirit – the Breath of God – lives in you, connects you to God, and equips you for the works of service he’s called you to. So: take a deep breath, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, and then step out in faith to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

Seeking God and Finding Jesus (a sermon on Acts 10)

C.S. Lewis tells a story of how one day he had a persistent feeling that he ought to go and get his hair cut, even though it was not very long since the last time he had done so. Eventually he gave in and walked down to his local barber. When he entered, the barber looked at him with surprise and said, “You know, I was especially praying that you would come in today; there’s something really important I was hoping to talk to you about!”

I suspect many followers of Jesus will be able to tell stories like that. But there are times when the guidance from God is even more spectacular. We read of one of those times last week, in the story of Philip and the man from Ethiopia in Acts 8. We had another one today, with the story of Cornelius in Acts 10. In our first reading we heard only the last few verses of this chapter, so I’m going to start by telling you the whole story. And I want to say right from the start that this is a story of twoconversions, not just one. On the one hand, a Roman centurion called Cornelius – already a believer in the God of Israel – is converted by the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes a Jesus-follower. But on the other hand, Peter and his fellow-apostles – who up until now have concentrated on Jewish people in their work of spreading the Gospel – are beginning to be converted to the idea that God wants them to reach beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles as well – in other words, to people like you and me.

Let’s set the scene. Peter and the other apostles have preached the Good News of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judaea and as far as the borders of Israel. They’ve even been adventurous enough to go to the Samaritans! Everywhere they’ve gone, people have heard them with joy and turned their lives over to Jesus. Little communities of ‘Followers of the Way’ are springing up all over Israel – people who believe Jesus is the Messiah who has come to set Israel free.

 But up ‘til now the message has only gone to Jewish people, or people like the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch who have some kind of connection with Israel. And the early disciples probably see that as a natural thing; after all, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the one God was going to use to set Israel free. The idea that Gentileswould be included in that plan might never have occurred to them.

However, as I mentioned last week, some Gentiles had become veryinterested in Israel. Throughout the ancient world at this time there were a number of people who’d become disenchanted with the traditional gods of Greece and Rome. They were attracted by the monotheism of Israel and the high ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. Some of them had begun to attend synagogues and practice the three duties of godly Jews – prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. They hadn’t taken the step of becoming full Jews by circumcision, but they hadcome to believe in the one creator God and were trying to obey his commandments.

Cornelius, the Roman centurion who lived in the town of Caesarea, was probably one of these ‘God-fearers’. And we read in Acts 10 that one day he was praying at three o’clock in the afternoon when an angel appeared to him: “Send for a man called Simon Peter; he’s staying in Joppa at the house of Simon the Tanner”. So Cornelius sent messengers to fetch Peter. That’s the end of scene one.

Scene twoopens the next day in Joppa. Peter is at Simon’s house, and towards noon he’s gone up to the roof to have some prayer while he’s waiting for the mid-day meal. Suddenly he has a vision. He sees a great sheet let down from heaven, full of all kinds of animals, including ones like pigs and other animals that Jews considered unclean and were not allowed to eat. A voice from heaven says “Get up, Peter; kill and eat”. But he recoils from the idea: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean”. The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (vv.13-15). This happens three times, and Peter is confused; is God telling him to break the Jewish food laws?

As he’s still thinking about this the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and as they pass on their message he begins to think hard. Can it be true? Is Godcalling him to go to the house of a Gentile? Jews wouldn’t do this, because of the danger of eating unclean food, but Peter begins to get the idea that God is leading him somewhere new. So off he goes with the messengers. That’s the end of Scene Two.

The next day they get to Caesarea, and when they arrive at Cornelius’ house Scene Three begins. Cornelius has gathered his friends and relatives there to hear what Peter has to say. He tells Peter the story of his vision, and now Peter begins to understand what God’s up to. He says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (34-35). He then begins to preach the good news to this Gentile crowd. He gives them a thumbnail sketch of Jesus’ life and ministry, how he went about teaching, preaching, doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil. He tells of how Jesus was crucified, but God raised him from the dead and the disciples are all witnesses of this. He tells them that Jesus is now ‘Lord of all’, and one day will be the judge of the living and the dead. And he tells them that everyone who puts their trust in Jesus receives forgiveness of their sins.

And now the amazing thing happens. As Peter is speaking, suddenly the Holy Spirit falls on the people who are listening to him! Peter isn’t even able to finish his sermon, because the congregation starts speaking in tongues and praising God! The disciples who’ve come with Peter are amazed that this kind of thing is happening to Gentiles – exactly the same as they themselves had experienced on the day of Pentecost! So Peter shrugs his shoulders and says, “They’ve received the Holy Spirit just as we did – I guess we’d better baptize them!” And when the baptisms are over he stays with Cornelius for a few days, no doubt to give him more instruction about what it meant to be a follower of the Way.

This story in Acts 10 had an enormous impact. Of course, it had an impact on Cornelius and his family and friends – they had finally found in Jesus what they’d been looking for all this time. But it also had an impact on the early Christians. You see, not everyone was happy with this idea of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, and for the next four chapters in Acts an enormous controversy rages on this very subject. But eventually those who are in favour of the Gentile mission win out, and the way is paved for the Christian message to spread around the world.

But what about us today? What is this story telling us about our mission as followers of Jesus? Three things:

First, God is at work.Nothing in this story happened by human initiative; God guided Cornelius to call for Peter, and God guided Peter to go to Cornelius. God is taking the initiative, leading people to faith in Jesus and leading his followers to those people to help them in their journey.

In fact, God had been guiding Cornelius for a long time. What was it that caused Cornelius to lose faith in the ancient gods of Rome? It must have been a shattering experience for him to realise he no longer believed in them, when he’d heard their stories from childhood. But somehow, he came to realise these false gods were unable to meet his deepest needs, and he began to look elsewhere for help. Somehow – we don’t know how – he found out about the God of Israel and was attracted to him. So Cornelius began to put his faith in this God and tried to practice his commandments. And now God was leading him even further, to faith in Jesus who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.

This same kind of thing is happening today. All around us there are people who are discovering that the false gods we worship in our modern society – money and possessions, success, youth, beauty, power, popularity, and so on – are not delivering the lasting happiness and fulfilment they promise. Some years ago, a British newspaper columnist named Bernard Levin wrote these words:

Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire – together with such non-material blessings as a happy family – and yet lead lives of quiet, and sometimes noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them, and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches.

He’s talking about the failure of false gods– and even though this can be a frightening and disorienting experience for people, it’s also a sign that God is beginning to lead them to himself. When people begin asking questions like “Why isn’t my success making me happy?” or “Why can’t I be the kind of parent I want to be?” or “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” – then we know the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. And the same Spirit is just as able to lead us ordinary Christians to these people as he was in the days of Acts. Our job is to listen to the guidance of the Spirit and let him lead us to these people. That’s the adventure of Christian mission!

So this story is telling us that God is at work, leading people to Jesus and leading his followers to those people. And this leads us to the second thing the story tells us: Jesus is the issue.Our mission is notjust to persuade people to ‘believe in God’. Cornelius alreadybelieved in God. He had already turned away from the idols of Rome and put his faith in the God Israel believed in, and he was already doing his best to live a godly life. But from God’s point of view, something was still missing.

Peter believed this strongly, and so in his sermon to Cornelius and his family he emphasises the central place of Jesus. It’s through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we’ve been reconciled to God. Jesus, he says, is Lord of all – the one through whom God’s healing and liberation come to people – the one who one day will judge the living and the dead. Peter is not saying that Cornelius’ faith in one God is wrong; far from it! He’s saying it’s incomplete; if Cornelius wants to experience the full salvation that is God’s will for him, he needs to put his faith in the one who God has sent as Messiah and Lord – Jesus.

A friend of mine was teaching a ‘Christian Basics’ course once when a woman made this comment to him: “I don’t like it when you talk about Jesus. ‘God’ is safe; I can make that word mean anything I want, but ‘Jesus’ is far too close and specific”. That’s exactly the point! In Jesus, God has come close and become specific. At a certain point in history God came to live among us in Jesus, and at the end of his life he sent out his followers to all people – many of whom already believed in God – to tell them to trust in himand follow him. Our mission today is to help people come to faith in Jesusand learn to follow him.

We’ve seen that God is at work, and Jesus is the issue. The third thing we see here is that the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’.When Cornelius and his family hear the message of Jesus, God does something supernatural in them. The Holy Spirit comes to live in them and fills them with new joy, and they begin to praise God and worship him in a new and living way. Jesus is no longer past history; the Holy Spirit has come to live in them and makes Jesus real to them.

This is what our mission is about today as well. It’s not just to get people to believe in God, and it’s not just to give them historical information about Jesus either. Rather, the Holy Spirit wants to help people connect with Jesus in a personal and experiential way.

In the story of Cornelius this personal connection was entirely at God’s initiative. Sometimes you hear stories about that today, too. Some people say, “Jesus has always been real and close to me; I never remember a time when I didn’t know him”. But there are also many people who haven’tyet found their way to a living faith in Christ. We have to help those people find what they’re looking for as they learn to follow Jesus.

So in this story we learn that God is at work, Jesus is the issue, and the Holy Spirit ‘seals the deal’. Let me close with one final comment.

The Church – and that means you and me, and all who call themselves followers of Jesus – must help Cornelius.We live in an age of great spiritual hunger. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). These are the words of our Master. Do we believe them? If we do, how can we fail to help people connect with the one who can satisfy their spiritual hunger?

But here’s the thing: We must not miss the fact that, humanly speaking, Cornelius was Peter’s enemy. He was a soldier of the occupying army, the invaders of Israel, the ones who were oppressing Peter and his countrymen. So even though Cornelius had shown unmistakable signs of genuine interest in the God of Israel, there would be a huge psychological barrier in Peter’s heart when it came to sharing the Good News with him. The Good News told Cornelius his sins could be forgiven. Do you think Peter wantedCornelius’ sins to be forgiven? Do you think Peter wantedto have to share the Lord’s Supper with this enemy soldier? I doubt it.

I wonder where you draw the line? Who are the people you’re reluctant to share the gospel with, because you assume they won’t be interested, or because you have a problem with their race or socio-economic group, or sexual orientation, or the way they dress, or the politics they believe in, or the sort of music they blare out at everyone else? “I want the luxury of continuing to be mad at their group, thank you very much; I don’t wantto share the gospel with them”.

Which barrier in your own heart is God calling you to cross – like he called Peter to cross the barrier of going to the house of the enemy, the Gentile, the oppressor? We’re called to share the good news of Jesus with everyone, by our words and our actions. If you’re honest, what are the current limits of ‘everyone’ for you? And what’s the Holy Spirit saying to you about that?

The Book of Acts is all about evangelism – but it’s not about the kind of reductionistic evangelism in which individual people give their hearts to Jesus and then carry on much as before, with Jesus as one of their accessories. That’s not what God’s doing. God is spreading the Kingdom one heart at a time, as people are captivated by the way of Jesus and learn to live it together. Different people – young and old, rich and poor, men and women and everything in between. Jews and Gentiles, Africans and Europeans, Asians and North Americans. Left and right. Liberal and conservative. Jesus is inviting them all into his new community, the community of disciples. Together this community is learning to pray: ‘Lord, help us to learn to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it’.

The Holy Spirit is leading people into this community. He’s led us into it. Now he wants to use us to reach others. The others will probably not look like us, but that shouldn’t surprise us. That’s how God works. And you and I, like Peter, are called to be part of that work.

‘On His Way Rejoicing’ – a sermon on Acts 8:26-40

A man came to a church one Sunday morning in a time of great need in his life. He’d had a well-paying job with an oil company, but had recently lost it to downsizing, and was now trying to make a living as a farmer. At about the same time, his wife had left him. He was feeling lost and alone in the world, and he knew he needed help.

He hadn’t been near a church for a long time, but he had a friend who was a churchgoer, who had once shared with him the story of his own spiritual journey home to Christ. So he decided to take his courage in his hands and go to the little Anglican church his friend attended. Now it so happened that there was a guest preacher at the church that day. One of the readings set for that Sunday was Jesus’ story of the lost sheep, and that’s what the guest preacher spoke about. The man said afterwards, ‘That was me; I was the little lost sheep, and I was coming home’. And so began a process that eventually led to this man becoming a Christian.

I know this story because I was the minister at that church – although not the preacher that Sunday – and I was the one who eventually baptized this man and became a spiritual mentor to him. But as I look back on that experience, what stands out for me is how God was at work. God worked through the friend who shared the story of his faith journey. God worked through the timing – having the man come to church on the exact Sunday when that lost sheep story was being read, and then having the preacher speak about that story. The timing was right, the Holy Spirit was at work, the people who needed to speak said what needed to be said, a welcome was offered, and a connection was made. And months afterwards, when we all gradually realized how beautifully it had been arranged, we shook our heads and marvelled at the way God works.

That reminds me of today’s reading from the book of Acts.

Let’s set the scene. At the beginning of Acts chapter 8 Saul of Tarsus arranges the violent death of Stephen – the first martyr, the first person to give his life for his faith in Jesus. Stephen was a member of a group of seven ‘deacons’ who served the Jerusalem church. His death marked the beginning of a time of persecution, and the majority of the early followers of Jesus fled the city for their lives. But they didn’t do what we might expect – they didn’t keep quiet about their faith. No: Acts tells us ‘Now those who had been scattered moved on, preaching the good news along the way’ (Acts 8:4, CEB). Please note: these weren’t professional preachers. They were ordinary Jesus-followers, moving to new towns and villages, setting up their businesses, and gossipping the gospel wherever they went.

Philip was one of these. He had been another of that group of seven deacons in Jerusalem. He went beyond the borders of Israel to Samaria. Samaria was suspect. The people there were partly Jewish but their bloodline wasn’t pure, and their religion was seen as heretical by the Jewish people in Judea and Galilee. But Philip had a huge impact there as he proclaimed the Good News of Jesus and healed the sick, and a large group of Samaritans became believers. You can read that story in Acts 8:4-25, just before our reading for today.

But then something strange happened; God told Philip to move on. I’m sure Philip must have been very surprised when he heard the voice telling him to leave the amazing work that was going on in Samaria, and go down to the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Why would he leave a place where there were many people wanting to learn about Jesus, and go off to a place where there was nobody? But nevertheless, off he went.

And what did he discover? The desert road wasn’t deserted after all. I imagine Philip walking along the road, and then hearing the noise of a carriage, or chariot, behind him. Riding in it is a man who’s obviously a person of some importance. The word ‘Ethiopian’ was often used in the ancient world to describe a black person, but in this case he seems to have been ethnically Ethiopian too. Being an important official, I expect he probably had some servants and guards travelling along with him.

Acts tells us    quite a lot about this man. Apparently he was an important official of the Kandake, or Queen, of Ethiopia; he was in charge of her treasury. So we can imagine him as a person of some wealth and power. But he’s also described to us as a ‘eunuch’. Eunuchs were often employed as government officials or servants in court circles in the ancient Near East; there was less risk of them getting up to mischief with women in the royal families. Also, since they couldn’t have children, there was less risk of them trying to overthrow their kings so they could establish their own dynasties.

So this man was a powerful royal official of Ethiopia, and he was a eunuch, deprived of the opportunity to establish a family and a household for himself. The third thing that’s very clear is that this man was spiritually hungry. We’re not told whether or not he was Jewish; we know that at that time, Jewish people could be found in many countries in the ancient near east. But we also know that there were non-Jewish people who had been attracted to the Jewish belief in the one creator God. They were called the ‘God-fearers’. Some of them went the whole way, allowed themselves to be circumcised and took on the whole Jewish law; they were called ‘proselytes’.

Perhaps this man was a God-fearer or a proselyte; we’re not told. But he had made the long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. When he got there, he may well have been disappointed. The law of Moses has a rather disturbing exclusive streak in it; Philip Yancey calls it ‘oddballs not allowed’. Eunuchs were among those oddballs; Deuteronomy 23:1 says they can’t be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, and Leviticus 17 says they can’t take part in offering the sacrifices. So the eunuch would have made the long journey from Ethiopia to worship at the temple, only to discover that he wasn’t allowed to worship at the temple. Can you imagine how that must have felt for him?

But he was determined. The text doesn’t tell us specifically that he purchased a scroll of the book of Isaiah while he was in Jerusalem, but he was obviously reading it for the first time on his way home, so it seems likely it was new to him. That scroll would have cost him an enormous amount of money – far more than a year’s wages for a day labourer. Nowadays people buy Bibles and then don’t bother to read them. Not this man! He believed this scroll was scripture from the God he was seeking, so he was reading it out loud in the chariot on his way home, trying to make sense of it. No one read silently in those days; everyone read out loud.

Wow! How nicely God had arranged everything! But it was going to get better still.

The Holy Spirit whispered in Philip’s ear ‘Approach this carriage and stay with it’ (v.29). We might have expected Philip to approach cautiously, taking his time, unsure of his welcome. Not Philip! Acts says, ‘Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah’ (v.30). He was reading from chapter 53, the Suffering Servant passage that we read every year on Good Friday. Such a good thing that Philip ran! If he’d walked, the eunuch might have been in chapter 55 by the time he got to him!

Philip and the eunuch got talking, and the eunuch asked Philip to help him understand what he was reading. This was where he’d got to in the passage:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?’ (Acts 8:32-33).

‘Who is the prophet talking about?’ asked the eunuch, ‘himself or someone else?’ Well, that question was a real gift for Philip! So he started from that passage, and shared with the eunuch the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Looking at those verses we can see how good that news was for the eunuch. Isaiah 53 was understood by Christians very early on as a prophecy of the death of Jesus on the cross. It talks about the Lord’s servant being despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It says that all of us have gone astray like lost sheep and the Lord has laid all our sins on his servant. The passage has been a rich source for Christians to meditate on the meaning of the death of Jesus.

But the section of the passage the eunuch was reading refers specifically to the ‘humiliation’ of the Lord’s servant: ‘In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.Who can tell the story of his descendantsbecause his life was taken from the earth?’ (v.33). Think of the man who had probably been made a eunuch forcibly, being robbed of his ability to have a family: ‘Who can tell the story of his descendants?’ What a humiliation for him! And then to go all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem only to be excluded, kept away from the worship of the God he’d come all that way to seek. Another humiliation!

Acts tells us that ‘starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him’ (v.35). It’s not hard for us to guess what good news about Jesus Philip would have told him. The death of Jesus was a sign of God identifying with sinners and sufferers all over the world. The Old Testament might have said ‘oddballs not allowed’, but Jesus appears to have believed the reverse: ‘oddballs especially welcome’! One of his favourite sayings was ‘the first shall be last and the last first’. The eunuch might have been turned away at the Temple in Jerusalem, but at the cross the arms of Jesus were opened wide to welcome allpeople back to God!

Well, this message obviously fell on fertile ground. This was what the eunuch had been looking for! This rich and powerful man had a great big empty space in his heart and he was seeking a true and living and loving God to fill that space. He didn’t need telling twice! And somehow, in all that desert, at just the right time, they came to a patch of water. “Look – water! What’s to prevent me being baptized?” So they stopped the carriage, and down they went into the water, and Philip baptized him, and then the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.

This is one of the most wonderful stories in the book of Acts, and it’s full of meaning for us today. What can we learn from it?

First, what’s God up to? The baptism of this eunuch comes a few verses after the baptism of the Samaritans who became Jesus-followers. A couple of chapters later, we have the first baptism of a Roman, Cornelius – we’ll think about him next week. The message of Jesus is spreading; it started with the Jewish people, but it didn’t stop there. It went on to those heretics in Samaria – and then to a spiritually hungry eunuch from Ethiopia – and then to the enemy, the hated Romans, Centurion Cornelius and his household. And within a few chapters Paul and Barnabas are taking the Christian message far beyond the borders, out among the Gentiles who worship idols of wood and stone. And everywhere the message goes, it finds a ready hearing in the hearts of people hungry for spiritual reality.

That’s what God’s up to. We make a border and say, ‘This far the gospel can go, and no further’, but God delights in going beyond that border. People who’ve been marginalized and humiliated and excluded – sometimes by the very churches they’ve come to in their search for spiritual reality – God is reaching out to those people. On Easter Sunday we heard how the angel said to the women at the empty tomb, “(Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 6:7 NRSV). We’re always playing catch up with Jesus. We’d like to keep him in the nice, safe circle of long-time followers, but he’s always reaching out beyond the borders to the outcasts and the humiliated and the marginalized and the sinners.

And some of them are willing to go to great lengths to learn about him. The three wise men came looking for the newborn king; they’d made a long journey from the east and may have been on the road for as long as two years. Even if you didn’t have to leave home, would you put two years of your life into a demanding spiritual journey? The eunuch had come all the way from Ethiopia; that’s two thousand five hundred miles, on a dangerous road, travelling by horse carriage or chariot. You’d be surprised to discover how spiritually hungry some people are, even in today’s world. When I let them ask me their questions, instead of presuming I know what their questions are going to be, I’m often amazed at the things that come up.

I teach a one-day workshop called ‘How to Relax and Enjoy Evangelism’. I’m very serious about the title. If we understand what Luke is telling us in today’s gospel, we’ll know there’s no need to get uptight about it. God is at work in people’s lives. What we need to do is learn to walk closely with God, so that when God gives us little nudges, we’ll be able to pick them up. God knows what he’s up to in the lives of our friends and family members and acquaintances. He knows the ones whose hearts are ready for a significant conversation. It doesn’t need to be a long one; in fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t. It’s always better to end the conversation while people are still wishing you’d keep going, rather than go on and on until you’re long past the point where they start wishing you’d shut up!

Likely you won’t very often get to be the last link – the one who leads them across the threshold to faith in Jesus. More likely you’ll be a link in the chain. But if you listen to the Holy Spirit and let go of your fears, you’ll be able to be the link you need to be. And who knows; one day you might help someone to the point where they go on their way rejoicing because for the first time in their lives they’ve come to know the joy of Jesus. And if you stand close enough so that some of that joy can spill over on you – well, that will be an experience you’ll treasure for the rest of your life.