‘God Meant it for Good’ (a sermon on Genesis chapters 37-50)

Our Old Testament reading for this morning is part of the story of Joseph – not Joseph the father of Jesus, but Joseph one of the twelve sons of Jacob, way back at the beginning of Israel’s history, probably around eighteen hundred years before Christ. The story of Joseph takes up the last 14 chapters of the book of Genesis and it’s well worth a read; I’m going to summarize it this morning and then draw some lessons from it.

Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob had two wives and two concubines, which of course was the way things were done in those days! With these four women he had a total of twelve sons and at least one daughter. Most of them were the children of his wife Leah, but she was not his favourite. The wife he loved the most was Leah’s sister Rachel, and Rachel had waited a long time for her children. Joseph was her firstborn, and she died in childbirth with her second son, Jacob’s baby, Benjamin.

Jacob apparently never learned any psychology, because not only did he have a favourite wife, but he also had a favourite son, Rachel’s son Joseph, and he let the rest of the family know it in no uncertain terms. Not surprisingly, knowing he was his father’s favourite turned young Joseph’s head a little, and he enjoyed playing on his favourite status with his brothers. He was apparently quite a dreamer, and enjoyed recounting his dreams. On one occasion he dreamt that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, and all the other eleven sheaves stood up and bowed to his sheaf. Another time he dreamt he was a star in the sky, and the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed down to his star.

Jacob was troubled by his son’s attitude but he didn’t seem to realize he was contributing to it. For instance, he spent a lot of time working on a coat for Joseph to wear. We call it ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’ although the original Hebrew word simply means ‘a long sleeved coat’. But the point is that he was the only one who got such a coat from his father. Not surprisingly, the other brothers became more and more jealous of him, and their jealousy simmered, waiting for an appropriate moment to boil over.

The moment came when ten of the brothers were away keeping their father’s sheep. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, and they seized their chance. Their first plan was to kill him, but Judah, brother number four, talked them out of it. Instead, they sold him as a slave to some slave traders. They took his coat from him, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and took it back and showed it to their father. Not surprisingly, Jacob believed his son had been killed, and he was stricken with grief.

But Joseph was not dead. The slave traders took him down to Egypt where he was sold into the household of an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar, a captain in the king’s guard. The author of Genesis tells us ‘The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man’ (Genesis 39:2). Apparently he was a hard worker, and before too long he was a sort of butler, in charge of the running of Potiphar’s house. And eventually he came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife who had something of a roving eye. She tried to seduce him, but he refused; he pointed out his master’s trust in him and said, “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (39:9).

The lady in question tried several times to get Joseph to go to bed with her, and he always refused. Eventually she got so annoyed that she told her husband Joseph had tried to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph out of his household and had him imprisoned. Here the cycle repeated itself. Once again, Joseph’s natural charm and ability asserted itself, and before too long he was the jailer’s right hand man. ‘The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper’ (39:23).

After some time, the Pharaoh – or king – of Egypt threw two of his officials into prison. One night they both had dreams, and the next morning they were troubled by them. In those days everyone accepted that dreams were significant and needed to be interpreted, and the two officials wanted someone to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph noticed their distress and said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (40:8). So Joseph interpreted their dreams and his interpretation turned out to be correct; one of the officials was pardoned and restored to his job, and the other was hanged.

One night a couple of years later the king of Egypt himself had two dreams. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows coming up out of the river. They were followed by seven scrawny cows, who proceeded to eat up the fat ones. In the second dream the king saw seven good ears of wheat on a stalk, which were immediately swallowed up by seven thin ears. The king was disturbed by this dream, and when he told the official who had been in prison with Joseph, the official remembered Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream and recommended him to the king.

So the king sent for Joseph. Joseph told him that God was informing him of the future. Egypt was about to go through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, so it would be prudent to make some preparations now for the famine. The king agreed, and proceeded to appoint Joseph to his government and put him in charge of making the preparations!

Sure enough, the land went through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but because Joseph had been storing up food, Egypt was okay. Canaan, however, was not, and Canaan was where the rest of Joseph’s family was still living. Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob sent the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to buy food. They saw Joseph there but for some reason they didn’t recognize him; we can speculate that he was twenty-two years older and shaved and dressed as an Egyptian, but we don’t know for sure what the reason was.

Joseph, however, recognized his brothers, and he proceeded to put them through a series of tests to find out if they had changed at all. He accused them of being spies, and when they denied it and told him about their family, he arrested one of them, Simeon, and told the others to go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had stayed with their father in Canaan. Then he would know that they were telling the truth. They did this; on their next trip they brought Benjamin. Joseph contrived to frame Benjamin for stealing something from him, and when he arrested him, the other brothers all protested that their father would die if he lost Benjamin too. Judah even offered to take Benjamin’s place and live as Joseph’s slave.

At that point Joseph couldn’t keep it up any more. He made himself known to his brothers and there was an emotional reconciliation. He told them to go back, get the rest of the family and bring them down to Egypt where there was plenty of food for them all. So they went and got Jacob and the rest of the family, and all of them came down to Egypt. The king gave them land in Goshen, the best part of Egypt, and so Jacob and his family were saved from starvation and the future of the people of Israel was saved too.

What does this story have to say to us today? Let me suggest three things.

First, suffering doesn’t mean God is punishing us for our sins. Now we might say that Joseph’s conduct at the beginning of the story, when he was lording it over his brothers and enjoying his favoured status, was simply asking for trouble. Nonetheless, later on, when he was thrown into jail in Egypt, it was because of his refusal to sin, rather than because of any wickedness on his part. God was not punishing Joseph, and this is very important for us to remember.

For us Christians this is even clearer than it was for Joseph, because Jesus has died for our sins. Over and over again, when Christian people go through suffering, they come to their pastors and cry out “Why is God doing this to me? I’ve tried to be a good person – why is he punishing me?” The answer is – he isn’t. Whatever else our suffering might be, it’s not a punishment for our sins. How do we know that? Because Romans 8:1 says ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. No condemnation. So whatever else our suffering may be, it’s not a punishment from God.

The second thing I see in this story is that often our lives only make sense when we look back on them. Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery; it was thirteen years before Pharaoh took him out of the prison and put him in charge of famine preparation for the whole of Egypt, and another nine years before his brothers came down to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph would have had to be superhuman not to have wondered during all those years what on earth God was up to, or even if God had forgotten about him. I’m sure that there were many times he cried out to God to deliver him, but it seemed to him that his prayers were not being answered.

And yet, God was at work during that time. Surely Joseph’s experience of suffering humbled him, and helped him learn to depend on God. By the time he was put in charge of famine preparation in Egypt he was no longer the spoiled brat who used to annoy his brothers so much. By the time he saw his brothers again, he understood what God had been up to in allowing him to go through that suffering: “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good” (50:20), he said to his brothers.

And not just good for Israel as a people – good for Joseph himself as well. The author of Hebrews says of Jesus, ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (Hebrews 2:10). I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking for people with strength and wisdom, I usually look for people who have suffered. I don’t look for people whose lives have been easy; I look for people who have learned endurance and patience by dealing with difficulty in their lives. I don’t believe that God sends suffering as a punishment, but I do believe that he uses it to mould us into wise, patient and compassionate people. I’m sure that’s what happened to Joseph. Looking back on his life, he could see what God had been up to, and that it had been good for everyone involved, including him.

The third thing I see in this story is this: our suffering can’t frustrate God’s purpose for us. We are a part of God’s plan for the human race, and he is going to bring that plan to its successful conclusion.

Throughout the story of the Bible God has been calling together a people – whether the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, or the Church of Jesus Christ in the New – a people who would model for the whole world what God’s kingdom looks like, and would take God’s message to everyone. So you and I aren’t just isolated individuals living our lives in the middle of the accidents of history. We’re a part of God’s great plan, and God isn’t going to allow evil to derail that plan. Sometimes when we suffer we forget that; we think that God’s plan is going to be somehow hindered by what’s happening to us. But the Bible gives us lots of examples of how God can even bring good out of the evil things that happen to us. This story of Joseph is one of those examples.

Suffering is a great mystery, very difficult for us to understand. Many of us have gone through intense experiences of suffering, or sat at the bedsides of friends who are suffering, which sometimes seems even worse. So I don’t say these things glibly or lightly; I’m fully aware of the dreadful – and seemingly random and senseless – pain that many people go through.

And yet, somehow, God is still able to bring about his purposes for us even when we suffer. As Paul says, ‘In all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). This is a truth that we often have to take on trust; we can’t see it when we’re going through the suffering. In many cases, I think, we won’t see it until we see God face to face and see our whole lives from his perspective.

In Romans 8:38-39 Paul says ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.  You know, it sounds terrible when I say it, but these verses are not strictly true. Let me explain what I mean. Paul is right; by themselves these things can’t separate us from God’s love in Christ – unless we let them! Unfortunately, so often when we go through suffering we do allow these things to drive us away from God; we get so wrapped up in the suffering and we allow it to make us bitter and full of hate and self-pity.

The thing that impresses me most about the story of Joseph is that he didn’t do that. Surely if anyone had an excuse to indulge in despair and to rail angrily against God, Joseph did! But that was not his response. In every negative circumstance he found himself in, he accepted it, and began to do his best to be faithful to God wherever he was – even in the deepest dungeon. And God honoured that.

Joseph’s story is inviting us to turn to God in our suffering, to be faithful to him whether we feel like it or not, and to ask for his help moment by moment. As we learn to do that, we gradually discover that Paul is right after all, and there is absolutely nothing – even death itself – that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Blessing (a sermon on Genesis 32:22-31)

I’m told by people who spend a lot more time on Twitter and Facebook than I do that there’s been a rash of posts recently that use the hashtag ‘blessing’ or ‘blessed’. You’d think that these posts would be mainly from Christians or people of faith, but a lot of the people using them don’t identify as being religious. Many people, including people who have only the vaguest idea of God, often have the sense that they’ve been gifted by something or someone bigger than themselves, and they want to show their gratitude – hence, the hashtag.

Blessing was a powerful idea in the ancient world. Ancient people had a lot more confidence than we do in the power of words to actually cause things to happen. In the first chapter of Genesis God speaks – “Let there be light” – and God’s word makes something happen: light comes out of darkness. And so it continues throughout the chapter: ‘Let there be a firmament’, ‘Let there be waters’, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky’ and so on. God speaks, and it is done.

In the Old Testament, humans are sometimes given the authority to speak powerful words in the name of God. The Old Testament priests are commanded to bless the people in God’s name: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace’ (Numbers 6:24-26). We still have this tradition in the Christian church today, where a priest or pastor will speak words of blessing over a congregation or a group of people.

The idea of blessing is an important feature of the story of Jacob. You may remember that Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and so probably lived about 1800 years before Christ. Abraham’s son Isaac married Rebekah, sister of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel; Bethuel’s family lived in Haran, which is near the modern border between Turkey and Syria – so a long journey from Canaan in the ancient world. That was the country Abraham had left behind when he first moved to Canaan.

Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the oldest, but Jacob did his best to beat him to the starting line! Genesis tells us that ‘The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel, so he was named Jacob’ (25:25-26). ‘Jacob’ sounds like the Hebrew phrase ‘He takes by the heel’ or ‘He supplants’. It’s a name that’s going to mark Jacob’s life; he’s going to see life as a competition, in which he has to grab a blessing for himself, or even trick others into giving him a blessing.

We’re told that Isaac and Rebekah had favourites. Isaac was sixty when his sons were born. Esau grew up to be an outdoor kind of guy who enjoyed hunting wild game, and Isaac had a taste for that kind of thing, so he liked Esau better. Jacob, however, was a quiet kind of guy who liked hanging around the tents the family lived in, and he was closer to his mother Rebekah.

The paternal blessing was a big thing in those days. Fathers had the authority to speak God’s blessing on their children, and the blessing of the firstborn was really, really important. The time came when Isaac got old and blind, and he thought he ought to give his oldest son the blessing while he could. So he told Esau to go out and hunt him some wild game and make a stew for him and bring it to him to eat; then he would give him the blessing of the firstborn. Rebekah heard this and she tricked her husband. She took a goat from the flock, killed it and cooked a stew; she took some of the goatskins and put them on the arms and shoulders of Jacob, and then sent him in to pretend to be Esau and get his father’s blessing. It worked, and Isaac gave the blessing of the firstborn to the younger son by mistake.

Esau of course was furious and threatened to kill Jacob, and so Isaac and Rebekah told him to go away to Haran, look for their relatives there, and look for a wife from the family of his uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. So Jacob set out on the long journey to Haran.

But on the way, something unexpected happened. He was tired one night and lay down to sleep, using a stone as a pillow. As he slept, he had a dream; he saw a stairway or ladder set up between earth and heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the ladder. Then God spoke to him: “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13, 15).

Interestingly, Jacob didn’t think he could trust God to keep that promise; he felt like he had to ‘grasp his heel’ or bargain with him. The next day when he woke up he set up the stone as a memorial – he called it ‘House of God’, or ‘Bethel’ in Hebrew – and he said, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come back again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God…and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you” (28:20-22). Sounds like he was trying to do a deal with God! I don’t know if Jacob really thought that God was so hard up for cash that he’d jump at the offer of Jacob’s tithe, but it certainly sounds like it!

Anyway, Jacob made the long journey to Haran, and there the first person he met was Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban. It seems to have been love at first sight for Jacob. Rachel took him back to her father’s house, where he was welcomed, and after a month Laban took him on as one of his regular workers, helping to care for his flocks of sheep and goats. They struck a deal (why does that sound familiar?): Jacob would serve Laban for seven years if he would give him Rachel as his wife.

Laban agreed, but what Jacob didn’t realize was that in his uncle Laban he’d met a trickster and manipulator just as good as he was. Rachel had an older sister Leah, and we get the sense she wasn’t as attractive as Rachel. After seven years was over, Jacob asked for his wife, so Laban duly arranged a marriage feast. There weren’t any special ceremonies in those days, as far as we can tell – just a feast, and then the bride was taken to her husband’s room for the marriage to be consummated. Somehow – we don’t know how – Laban was able to substitute his older daughter for the younger, and when Jacob woke up in the morning (maybe with a hangover?) – there was Leah! He was furious, but when he challenged Laban about it, Laban invented some excuse about it not being the custom in their country to marry off the younger sister before the older. “Finish Leah’s bridal week”, he said, “and then we’ll give you Rachel as a second wife – in exchange for another seven years of work!” So that’s what happened.

Clearly Jacob, who had learned the art of manipulation from an expert – his mother – was now experiencing what it was like to be on the receiving end of it from her brother. But his new situation wasn’t calculated to promote family harmony. Bluntly put, he loved Rachel but not Leah. Things got worse when Leah started having children right away, but Rachel seemed unable to produce any. Leah had four sons, and then finally in desperation Rachel gave Jacob her maid Bilhah: “Go sleep with her, and she’ll have sons that will be counted as mine”. This happened, and then Leah, not to be outdone, gave Jacob her maid Zilpah to do the same thing.

And so it went on for a few years, until finally, we’re told, Yahweh heard Rachel’s prayer and had mercy on her and gave her a son, Joseph – who, as you can guess, immediately became the apple of his father’s eye, being the son of the wife he did love, Rachel. Still, the score was pretty lopsided: six sons for Leah and two for her maid Zilpah, one son for Rachel and two for her maid Bilhah. In its patriarchal way the book of Genesis doesn’t mention daughters except for one, Dinah, daughter of Leah, who will figure later on in the story.

So you can imagine the conflicts and jealousies and insecurities that will plague this family throughout the lives of these people. Having been raised in a dysfunctional family in which he was his mother’s favourite while his brother was his father’s favourite, Jacob now successfully duplicated that kind of thing in his own family.

After a few years Jacob got a little discontented; he hadn’t had a raise in a long time! He confronted Laban about this, and made a proposal: the striped, speckled and spotted sheep in the flock would be his wages, while the plain ones would be Laban’s. Laban agreed to this, but then both of them came up with plans to try to cheat the other! And so it went on until eventually, after twenty years in Haran,  Jacob decided it was time to return home to Canaan with his family.

I don’t have time to tell you about the little drama that took place between Jacob’s family and Laban at this point – you can read about it in Genesis chapter 31. Suffice it to say that Jacob had two problems: how would he get away from his father in law Laban, and how would he be welcomed by his brother Esau? The second problem began to trouble him more when he got closer to home, and so he sent messengers ahead to tell Esau he was coming and to ask if he would find favour in his brother’s eyes. The messengers, however, came back to tell him that Esau was on his way to meet him, and he had four hundred men with him! This sounded rather like an army, and Jacob was understandably quite scared.

So Jacob split his family into four groups for safety and sent them across the Jabbok stream. He stayed behind, alone, and so we come to the mysterious episode we read about in our Old Testament reading this morning. A ‘man’, we’re told, came and wrestled with Jacob all night long until daybreak.

This story is told in a masterful way, with lots of hints but few direct statements. Who is this ‘man’? Why has he attacked Jacob? We’re not told directly. What we are told about is a little dialogue that happened between them as dawn was beginning to break:

‘Then (the man) said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob”. Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”. Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name”. But he asked, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved”’ (32:26-30).

This story connects with so many earlier features in the story of Jacob. Let me close this morning by pointing them out to you.

You could say that two things shaped Jacob’s life. The first was the dysfunctional family he was raised in, and which he successfully duplicated when he came to have a family of his own. What he learned when he was growing up was that parents have favourites, and if he was going to get his father’s favour he’d have to strive for it and trick him into it. So his mother trained him to be a master manipulator and never to expect to get anything for free. But one thing he didn’t learn was to trust people, and to trust that people would give him things freely, without him tricking them into it.

I suspect that many of us are like him. We’ve learned that we can’t trust life to give us what we long for. We’ve learned that life is a competition, and that the best manipulators are the ones who win. We’ve learned that blessing doesn’t come your way by itself; it needs to be earned.

So Jacob’s life was shaped by the jaded view of the world that he learned in growing up in his dysfunctional family. But the other thing that shaped his life was his two encounters with God.

The first encounter was in his dream at Bethel, when he saw the stairway to heaven. In that encounter, God made some promises to him. God told him: “I’m the God of Abraham and Isaac; I’m going to give you this land I promised to them, and your descendants will spread through it and fill it. I’ll be with you and protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you safely back to your own country, and I’ll never leave you”.

The problem is that Jacob couldn’t quite believe those promises. He couldn’t believe that they were a gift. He felt like he needed to bargain with God for them, or promise God a payback. And so he replied, “If you’ll do all these things for me…” (and I think in Jacob’s mind that was a very big ‘if’), “then you will be my God, and I’ll give you my tithes”.

We know Jacob better now, so we can guess why he replied like that. He’d never gotten anything in his life for free. He’d always had to compete with his brother for his father’s favour, knowing that Isaac loved Esau more than him. He couldn’t bring himself to believe in a God who offered him a gift; there had to be a catch somewhere!

And then, twenty years later, Jacob has his second encounter with God – the one we’ve read about today. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the blessing he received from his father twenty years before – the one he got by manipulation – wasn’t enough for him. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for! He obviously suspects that this ‘man’ he’s been wrestling with is more than just a man, so he asks him for a blessing: “I won’t let you go unless you bless me”. And the man responds by giving him a new name: no longer Jacob (‘he supplants’) but Israel (‘The one who strives with God’). You can hear the surprise in Jacob’s voice: “I’ve seen God face to face, and I’m not dead!”

Is Jacob a different person from this point on? Not entirely. He still falls back on his old trickster ways from time to time; the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. But he’s a humbler man than he was, and he has more of a sense of God’s presence in his life. And looking ahead, he’s also learning to see God’s presence in the past, too. In chapter 35 he says to his family, “Come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me on the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (35:3).

Let me leave you with this. Like Jacob, many of us have been raised with the idea that life is a competition. Nothing comes for free. Love has to be earned. If some people get ahead, others have to be left behind. So in order to get ahead, you have to learn to manipulate people. Maybe you even have to learn to manipulate God.

But that’s not the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us of a God who loves us before we ever do anything for him. He sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike. ‘We love’, says John the apostle, ‘because he first loved us’.

At the end of the service today, I will pronounce words of blessing on you. This is not my blessing; this is God, reaching out with his love to each of us. These words are for everyone here, with no exceptions. You don’t have to pay for them, before or after. You don’t have to manipulate anyone to get them. They come to you as a gift of God’s grace. All you need to do is receive them, and enjoy them, and say “Thank you”. I don’t know if Jacob ever fully learned to believe that. But I hope you do, and I hope I do too.

The Treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven (a sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

It’s good for us to ask ourselves sometimes ‘What are the things we treasure the most?’

Of course, for most of us, the answer will be about relationships, not material things. But still, most of us own a lot of material things! Maybe it’s not a bad thing to ask ourselves from time to time “If I had ten minutes to leave the house and I could only take a few things with me, knowing that I was going to lose the rest – what would I take?” Most people over a certain age think about grabbing photo albums – for younger folks, their photos are all on the iCloud anyway, so that’s not so crucial! But there might still be some family mementos or heirlooms that are particularly precious to us. And then there are things we love; I know I’d be trying to fit at least one of my guitars in if I could!

But deep down inside, I suspect most of us treasure relationships – with a spouse or partner, with children, with parents, with close friends. Love is what makes the world go round, and the people we love are the most treasured part of our lives.

Another angle on this is ‘What about communal things’? In other words, do our best treasures have to be things we own, or can they be things we share with others? For instance, one treasured part of my life is traditional folk music; I love learning these old songs passed down from one generation to another over hundreds of years, and I love passing them on to others in turn. The Way of Jesus is even more of a treasure to me – it’s what gives meaning and purpose to my life. These are not things that I own or even that especially pertain to me as an individual: they are common treasures, shared with many other people around the world and through time.

In two of the parables in today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as a precious treasure. Let me remind you of Matthew 13:44-46:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it”’.

Anyone who sells every single thing he owns to buy one pearl obviously treasures that pearl more than anything else in his life. We might even call him a fanatic; he’s obviously not doing it for the money, but because of some crazy attachment to the pearl. But what’s he going to live on? What’s his retirement plan? Is he insane? Unbalanced? Off his rocker?

It all depends on the nature of the pearl, doesn’t it?

So what is ‘the kingdom of heaven’? A lot of people today assume that when Jesus talked about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ he was talking about ‘going to heaven after we die’, but that’s not the case. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’, but when Mark and Luke tell the same stories, they have Jesus using the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’. The difference likely comes from the fact that Matthew was writing for Jewish people and they’re tend to be shy about speaking the word ‘God’, out of respect for God. But the two phrases – ‘kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God’ – mean exactly the same thing. They’re not talking about some faraway, spiritual place where we go when we die. They’re talking about God’s loving rule in this world, the world we live in, in the here and now.

This world at present is full of evil and suffering, but God is working to change that situation. Jesus talks about this change in the Lord’s Prayer, when he teaches us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. The second half of that phrase explains the first: when God’s loving will is done on earth, as it is in heaven, then God’s kingdom is coming. God’s kingdom is all about God’s loving will being done on earth, as human beings acknowledge God’s rule in their lives and follow his ways. That’s why Jesus once said to his disciples, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).

This is obviously not a geographical kingdom. You can’t see it on a map, like you can see Canada or the United States. This is a community of people that has spread around the world. They come from different races and nationalities; they speak different languages and have different cultures. But they are bound together by their allegiance to Jesus, God’s anointed king, and by their commitment to following the command of Jesus: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

What does this kingdom of heaven look like? Jesus told many parables about it, but I think it also helps for us to look back at the Old Testament scriptures that would have inspired Jesus and his early followers. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’ rarely appears in the Old Testament, but the idea itself is all over the place, especially in the prophets. Here’s Micah:

‘In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Micah 4:1-4).

So we see here a time when people all over the world will turn to God and seek God’s guidance. They will come streaming to Jerusalem to receive instruction from God and learn to walk in God’s ways. And the result will be that war will be no more; people will beat their weapons into farming tools and each of them will live in their own homes in safety.

This is obviously not talking about dying and going to heaven. This is a hope located firmly on this earth. There are still different nations and ethnic groups and from time to time they still have disagreements, but they accept God’s word on the matter as final and they live together under his rule.

Here’s Isaiah’s take on the same theme; he starts with the promise of a Messiah, a descendant of David the son of Jesse, who will be a good king over God’s people:

‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9).

This passage is not talking about some mythical future time when the biology of lions and bears will be changed so that they become vegetarians. The animals are symbols for natural enemies; in Isaiah’s time that would have been Israel and Assyria, or later on Babylon. Today we can think of the United States and North Korea, or Russia and Ukraine. The Messiah is a good king who comes to bring peace between nations. As a result of his rule, natural enemies are reconciled with each other and don’t prey on each other any more. There’s no more hurting or destroying, and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord – which, in the Bible, doesn’t mean knowledge about the Lord, but experiential knowledge.

So this is the pearl of great price that the man sold his house for. The Kingdom of heaven is the promise that God has set in motion a movement that eventually will lead to justice and reconciliation, peace and security. It will be an end to greed and selfishness, hatred and violence and war. It won’t be spread by compulsion; there will be no troops sent out to force other people to enter the Kingdom of God. Rather, an invitation will be sent to everyone, but the decision to come to the mountain of the Lord and receive his instruction will be a decision that everyone makes for themselves, of their own free will.

Interestingly, the early Christians did not see this as something that was going to happen only in some faraway future. They saw it as something that has begun to happen in the here and now. When the apostles and early missionaries went out from Jerusalem to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, they saw that as a fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that ‘out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’ (Micah 4:2). The early Christians turned away from all war and violence and lived out the command to love their enemies; in this way they were fulfilling the prophecy about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Yes, there is going to be a future fulfilment of this prophecy, but it would be a cop-out for us to consign it to the future. This is something we’re invited to live into now.

You see now why Jesus asks us to make this the greatest treasure of our lives, above everything else that we value? We’re talking about a world with no more hatred and violence, no more selfishness and greed; a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much. We’re talking about God’s original dream for the human race, living together in peace and caring for his creation as stewards of the earth.

How is this spread today? Matthew 13 is all about this question. At the beginning of today’s gospel Jesus gives us some hints:

‘“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

‘He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:31-33).

These parables both emphasise the gradual growth of the Kingdom, and its hidden nature. This is not spectacular! It doesn’t make the news; the world doesn’t notice it going on. I think about Jean Vanier leaving his naval career and moving to France to start a home with two mentally challenged people – the beginning of the L’Arche movement that has slowly and quietly spread around the world. I think about the way Habitat for Humanity started from small beginnings and has spread around the world to make life better for people who can’t afford housing. I think of the millions of people of faith around the world who quietly serve in food banks and volunteer and give consistently to projects to improve the lives of the poor. None of this is about coercion and force; it’s all about love and service.

The Kingdom of Heaven spreads one heart at a time. People hear the message of Jesus and they are gripped by it; they decide that this ‘pearl of great price’ is the greatest treasure they could possibly imagine. So they turn from their previous goals and commitments; they make a commitment to follow Jesus, and they ask him to teach them the ways of the Kingdom of God. They ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’. They make the Kingdom of heaven the number one value of their lives. And because they do this, the world is changed for the better.

This is what we commit ourselves to as baptized Christians. As parents bringing children for baptism, or as adults being baptized ourselves, our baptism is about our citizenship in God’s kingdom. As we grow, we learn to treasure that Kingdom above any other goal or aspiration in our lives. We learn to seek first the Kingdom of God. And we do our best to spread it: not by coercion or force, but by love and conversation.

This is what Jesus is all about. This is what we’re all about as Christians. Christianity is a Kingdom of God movement, and each one of us is part of it. So let me challenge you today to do as Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel: to treasure God’s kingdom above every other priority in your life, and to make it your number one value. As we do that, and as we live it out in our daily decisions and habits, the love of God will spread until ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9).

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

‘Isaac Prayed’ (a sermon on Genesis 25:19-34)

Some years ago a man in one of my previous parishes decided that he was going to read the Bible all the way through. Like many Anglicans he’d never really read the Bible for himself; he’d heard the readings in church on Sundays, but he only had a very vague idea about how it all fit together. He had a copy of the Good News Bible, which is a pretty easy translation to read, and he decided that last thing at night he’d read a few chapters and see how far he got.

I’m glad to report that he read through the whole thing over a period of about six months. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. When he was about half way through the Old Testament he and I were having coffee one day and I asked him how it was going. He said, “It’s not what I expected at all! I thought the Bible was going to be an inspiring and uplifting book, but it’s not! It’s full of people who fight and kill and commit adultery; it’s full of animals being slaughtered as sacrifices and so on. Am I supposed to see those people as a good example to follow? Because I really can’t!”

I know what he meant; the Bible is very honest about the sins and weaknesses of its heroes and heroines. If you think of the life of King David, there are stories of obedience to God and faithfulness and courage and all that, but there are also stories of disobedience and murder and adultery and abuse of power. Abraham is held up in the New Testament as the father of faith, but when we actually read his story in the book of Genesis we find his faith was often weak.

How could it be otherwise? The Bible is the story of God’s work through ordinary human beings, and human beings are a mixture of good and evil. We’re made in the image of God but also infected by sin; we do our best to create a good and just and beautiful world, but it seems inevitably to fall short of our dreams for it. I’m reminded of Francis Spufford’s definition of ‘sin’ as our ‘Human Propensity to F____ Things Up’! This is the material God has to work with, folks; yes, he rejoices in our gifts and strengths, but he often has to make allowances for our weakness and sinfulness as well.

In today’s Old Testament reading we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, who are the grandchildren of Abraham. Some of you will remember that Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait until their old age to have a child. God first spoke to Abraham when he was seventy-five years old, promising this childless couple that they would be the ancestors of a great nation. But it was twenty-five years before the promise was fulfilled, and Sarah gave birth to the miracle child, Isaac. This miracle motif comes up again and again in the Genesis story. In today’s story, we read that ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). The same thing happens in the next generation: Isaac’s son Jacob has several wives, but his favourite is Rachel. However, for many years she seems unable to have children, until finally the Lord hears her prayer and gives her the gift of a son, Joseph, who turns out to be the saviour of the whole family when the great famine comes upon the land.

Why is there this constant theme of barrenness followed by what seems like miraculous conception? What are the authors of Genesis trying to get across to us? I believe they’re trying to tell us that the creation of this family – which will become God’s people Israel – isn’t merely a story of human expertise and strength; it’s the story of God’s miraculous intervention into the history of the world. The world is going nowhere; like the womb of Rebekah, it’s barren. God created a world full of wonder, but human history has been poisoned by sin, and if we read the first few chapters of Genesis we can see sin in all its darkness and horror. If the world is going to be saved, it needs something more than human expertise and wisdom; it needs a miraculous act of God to begin to put things right again.

So what does God do? He doesn’t perform an act of judgement like the flood, or send a great military victory. What he does is to create a new community, a people who will learn his ways so they can be a light for the nations. In later years they came to see themselves as God’s chosen people, but that never meant that God was only concerned for them and not the nations around them. No – God’s original promise to Abraham said, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

You and I stand in continuity with that promise today. Our Lord Jesus Christ has come from the family of Abraham, and his gospel message has gone out to the whole world; the blessing promised to Abraham has spread through all the earth, just as God promised. And God has called the Church to carry on the work of spreading the light and love of God everywhere we go. As we love others in the name of Jesus and as we spread the gospel and invite others to follow Jesus, we’re taking our place in that great plan of God that started nearly four thousand years ago when wrinkled old Sarah had a baby and called him Isaac.

But sometimes that work seems to hit a roadblock. Sometimes churches seem to stagnate and get stuck in ruts. Sometimes we get focussed inward on our own survival or our own life, and don’t look outward in love to the world that God wants to bless through us. Sometimes we forget that the church is always only one generation from extinction; we forget the call to go out and make new disciples and we come up with all sorts of sophisticated reasons why evangelism is not such a good idea after all. Sometimes we get absorbed in the creation of beautiful buildings and splendid liturgies and forget that Jesus told us to serve him in the poor and needy. And sometimes churches are consumed by conflict – conflict in denominations, or at the local level between flawed and imperfect human beings who bring their insecurities and power struggles into the church with them.

What do we do when we hit a roadblock like this? Well, the leaders lead, the managers manage, the visionaries share their visions, the facilitators facilitate, and so it goes on. Dioceses send in consultants, and consultants help churches come up with plans, and committees set goals and objectives, and off we go. And let me hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with any of this.

Unfortunately, though, we sometimes forget what Isaac did when he and his wife Rebekah ran into the roadblock of childlessness. Genesis tells us simply, ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren’ (25:21a). This story is told in a very simple and straightforward way. It doesn’t say that Isaac went through a complicated liturgy, offering a thousand rams and a thousand lambs in sacrifice to God, like some of the later Israelite kings did. It sounds more like a child coming to her mom and saying, “Mom, can I have a piece of cake?” And Mom replies, “Of course you can! I’ll get one for you right now”.

Not that this prayer was answered quickly. This little detail in the text often gets overlooked, but Isaac prayed this prayer for quite a while. Verse 20 tells us that he was forty when he married Rebekah (we’re not told how old she was), and verse 26 says that he was sixty when Esau and Jacob where born. Given the probability of a couple of years of trying before he started praying the prayer, that’s still eighteen years of praying and not giving up. I’m reminded of the time in Luke’s gospel when Jesus told his disciples the story of the widow and the unjust judge; Luke says this parable was about ‘their need to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). And this is what Isaac did, for around eighteen years.

And by the way, Isaac wasn’t exactly a spiritual superstar. He comes across in the book of Genesis as a quiet man who is easily manipulated by his clever wife; later on in the next chapter she devises a plan to make sure that the younger son Jacob, who is her favourite, gets the paternal blessing from Isaac rather than his favourite, Esau, the older son. I get the sense that she knew her husband well, and she knew how to mould him to do what she wanted. And also in the next chapter we find Isaac doing exactly what his father Abraham had done; going to live in a foreign country for a while in a time of famine, being afraid that the locals would kill him and steal his wife, and so asking her to pretend she was his sister so this wouldn’t happen. So this isn’t a spiritual superstar we’re talking about here; this is just Isaac, who prefers a quiet life and enjoys taking his older boy out trout fishing on Saturday afternoons!

This is the sort of thing my friend came up against when he was reading the Bible through for the first time; this was what scandalised him so much. To be quite frank, in the Bible God doesn’t seem to be picky about whose prayers he hears!

Let me remind you of some of the people whose prayers got answered in the Bible: Moses, who killed an Egyptian and buried his body in the sand to try to hide the crime. David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, and then had the soldier killed so that he could take Bathsheba for himself. Solomon, a king who apparently had seven hundred wives. Nehemiah, who when he got mad at people didn’t just yell at them, but beat them and pulled out their hair. Paul, who before his conversion worked hard to stamp out the church by having Christians arrested and executed, and who even after his conversion doesn’t always seem to have been a particularly pleasant guy to be around.

So don’t think you have to be some sort of spiritual hero in order to pray and have your prayers answered. The prayers of the Bible aren’t the prayers of spiritual heroes; they’re the prayers of ordinary human beings like us, and some of them are definitely not nice people – if you doubt that, read some of the psalms! If God only heard the prayers of spiritual heroes, no one’s prayers would ever be heard.

So here’s the people of God in microcosm – the little family of Isaac and Rebekah. They believe God has called them to be part of the family line of his chosen people, but at the moment their future isn’t going anywhere, and so they do the best possible thing they could in the circumstance: they pray. Now let me ask you – do we do that?

What is the place of prayer in our life as a congregation? When we read the stories of the early church, it seems as if prayer was at the centre of everything they did. And I’m not just talking about formal, liturgical prayer – the sort of thing we do on Sunday mornings. I’m thinking about the day of Pentecost, when they had been meeting for long periods of prayer together over a ten-day period, and then the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the explosive growth of the early church began. I’m thinking about the times in the early chapters of Acts when they were being hauled before the ruling council and reprimanded for preaching the message of Jesus – and sometimes whipped as well. Their first response when they got home afterwards? Prayer together. I’m thinking about Acts 13, the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the early church, when Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch to spread the gospel in what is now Turkey. How did it begin? When they were meeting together for a long period of prayer and fasting, and somehow the Holy Spirit spoke to them: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

Prayer isn’t just about getting what we want from God. Of course, in Isaac and Rebekah’s case, that’s exactly what it was about: having the children they longed for. But prayer isn’t a slot machine and it’s not magic; it’s more about aligning ourselves with God’s will than it is bending God’s will to our own. The main benefit of prayer is that it draws us closer to the God who made us and who longs for us to know him better. And when we pray together – honest prayer, that is – it draws us closer to each other as well.

When I was the minister of the Church of the Resurrection in Holman in the high Arctic, we planned an evangelistic mission for our parish. We invited Terry Buckle, who twenty years before had been the minister in Holman, to come back and lead the mission. We planned evangelistic services every night of the week, and meetings in people’s homes during the day. We really wanted people in the community to hear the gospel message through Terry and give their lives to Christ.

But Terry said we should pray, so we did. We decided to have a prayer meeting on Friday mornings at 7.30 a.m. When I first announced this in church, one of the men said to me afterwards, ‘You meant 7.30 p.m., right?’ ‘Nope – early in the morning!’ So for six months we met every Friday morning to pray, usually about five or six of us. Officially, we were praying about the mission, but when people get together to pray you can’t keep them on topic, and before long all sorts of other stuff was being prayed about. When the week of the mission finally arrived we decided to pray every morning, but we moved it to ten o’clock which was coffee break time in Holman; people walked over to the church for half an hour, and each day about twenty people gathered there to pray.

The mission was great and people’s lives were touched, but the really great thing was that after it was over the people said, “We can’t stop this praying!” And so they decided to keep meeting at 10.00 on Friday mornings, and when I left Holman that prayer meeting was still going on. It was one of the most fruitful things we did in all the time I was in that community.

Prayer is really important for a Christian church, and as we think about our growth as a parish and our ministry plan, I hope we will look for more opportunities to grow in prayer and to pray together. I think this should be our first priority.

But prayer is also important for us as individuals. Sometimes as individuals we hit barren times in our lives, when all the joy seems to have drained away and nothing seems to be working out the way we want it to. At times like that, it can make a huge difference to turn to God and pray.

Remember, you don’t have to be a spiritual superstar to do this. Very few people in the Bible were spiritual superstars; they were just ordinary flawed human beings like you and me. And you don’t have to pray particularly long prayers, either. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, which is a very short prayer! Sometimes the best thing to do is just to get alone with God and spend time in silence, paying attention to his presence and his still, small voice in our hearts. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be very very simple. And if it seems hard at first, remember that we all had to start somewhere, and the universal testimony of Christians is that practice helps! And also remember what we said earlier on: Isaac prayed this prayer for a long time. Perseverance – patience – faithfulness for the long haul – what Eugene Peterson calls ‘A long obedience in the same direction’ – this is incredibly important. As Luke says in his gospel, we need ‘to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1).

‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21).

Are we ready to learn from Isaac’s example?

‘The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases’ (a sermon on Genesis 24)

I want to begin this morning by making a confession; there are times when I get very annoyed at the institutional church.

Shocking, but true! I’m a priest, I work for the institutional church, but at times it irritates me intensely. I look at its structures, its more elaborate buildings, its traditions and procedures, and its tendency to get anal-retentive about things that don’t seem to appear on Jesus’ radar screen at all, and I ask myself, “How did we get from the Sermon on the Mount to here?” I suspect I’m not alone in asking that!

Actually, throughout Christian history people have often asked this question – in fact, it was the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, which is five hundred years old this year. Christians have often gotten discouraged about the state of the church. We’ve often looked back wistfully to a day when it was simpler, smaller, and less institutional. The Book of Acts has been very attractive to us: we notice that in Acts there seems to be very little structure and planning and organisation and tradition, and yet the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work, the gospel spreads around the ancient world like wildfire, and thousands of people turn to Christ.

Of course, when we actually read the Book of Acts we find that all was not rosy in that particular garden either. Christian missionaries quarreled with each other and parted company. Jewish and Gentile Christians couldn’t agree on whether or not you needed to be Jewish in order to be Christian. People pretended they’d given all their possessions to God when secretly they’d kept something back. And we haven’t even mentioned the uncomfortable fact that Christians were always getting arrested and punished because of their loyalty to Jesus!

That’s the way it is with idealism. Idealism is important to us – it inspires us not to be satisfied with the status quo – but sometimes it can present us with an overly simplistic view of reality. Genuine reality is always more messy.

I want to suggest to you this morning that the Book of Genesis is to the Old Testament as the Book of Acts is to the New Testament. Later on in the Old Testament we get the story of the nation of Israel, which becomes a mighty empire with kings, armies, and bureaucrats, and a huge expensive temple with priesthood and sacrifices and laws about who’s in and who’s out. But in Genesis, all of that is still in the future. In Genesis, God chooses a single family – the family of Abraham – and guides its development over three or four generations. There’s a promise of much larger things to come – God tells Abraham his descendants will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore – but none of that has happened yet. There’s no priesthood, no written law, no traditions. There’s just God speaking, God calling, and people listening and responding.

Or ‘not’. Actually, often ‘not’. The people described in the Book of Genesis are every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as we are. They refuse to listen to God, they have feuds, they take moral short-cuts, and their family arrangements are very colourful by our modern Christian standards. And I’m glad about that. I’m all for a life of simple faith in God, but let’s be clear that no-one’s ever practiced it perfectly. No one’s even come near. Not even in the Bible. And especially not in Genesis or Acts!

Today in our Old Testament reading we have a rather confusing set of excerpts from the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Let me quickly put them in context for you by filling you in on the rest of the story.

Isaac’s mom and dad, Abraham and Sarah, were childless. Well, Sarah was, anyway; the Book of Genesis quietly admits later on that Abraham had concubines and had children by them, but none of them counted when it came to legal descendants. And this was a problem, because God’s founding promise to Abraham was that he would make of him a great nation, and ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Later on God told him his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.

But Abraham had to wait twenty-five years, until he was nearly a hundred years old, for that promise to be fulfilled. By the time Isaac was born, Sarah was well past the years of natural child-bearing; this birth was nothing short of a biological miracle. Those twenty-five years had not been easy for Abraham and Sarah. At one point, in a moment of desperation, Sarah had given her slave girl to Abraham so he could have a child by her; in Sarah’s view, God obviously needed a bit of help!

But eventually, against all the odds, Isaac was born, and it didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. The slave-girl’s son Ishmael was now a problem to Sarah, and she made sure he was driven out of the family home; no one was going to take precedence over her boy! Sarah conveniently forgot that the whole ‘sleeping with the slave girl’ idea had been hers in the first place!

And so we come to today’s story. Isaac has grown up and he needs a wife. Abraham’s family aren’t originally from Canaan; they’re from Ur of the Chaldees, near modern Iraq, and they came to Canaan by way of Haran, where Abraham’s brother and other members of his extended family still live. Abraham wants his son to marry someone in the family, not one of the local girls. And so he sends his servant back to Haran; he’s confident God will guide him to the girl he has in mind for Isaac.

It’s a long journey in the ancient world; four hundred miles by camel. On the way we can imagine Abraham’s servant doing a lot of praying. He prayed when he got to Haran, too:

“O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink’, and who will say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

And that’s exactly how it worked out. The girl who came down to the spring was actually Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Just as the servant had prayed, she offered to water his camels, and when he asked her about her family he discovered she was his master’s grandniece. She took him to meet the family, he explained his mission, and they agreed that she should go back with him and marry Isaac – marriage to a first cousin once removed being quite acceptable in those days. None of this nonsense about falling in love first, of course – in the ancient world, that expectation was frowned on!

If we carry the story on a bit, we discover that the basic family weirdness continues into the next generation. Like her mother in law Sarah, Rebekah has difficulty conceiving a child. Eventually Isaac prays for her, and she gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau’s a few minutes older, and when he grows up he becomes his dad’s favourite, because he’s a great hunter and Isaac enjoys the wild meat he brings home. But Rebekah has a soft spot for the younger one, Jacob, and eventually she manipulates her husband and deceives him into mistakenly giving his parental blessing to the younger son, not the older. This leads to anger and the threat of violence, and Jacob has to run away from home and go back to Haran for twenty years, where he can be safe from his brother. But more about that in the next few weeks.

What’s this got to do with us today?

Well, let’s go back to what I said a few minutes ago: Genesis is the Book of Acts of the Old Testament. Those were the days before Israel became a nation or an empire, just like Acts describes the days when the church was a movement and a community rather than an organization. Those were the days when the fire of personal faith burned hot and pure. Or so it seems to us, anyway.

We actually have no idea how Abraham heard the voice of the one true God, Yahweh, speaking to him. We don’t even know whether Abraham believed that there was only one true god; it seems unlikely, given that most people in his day believed in many gods. But we do know that Abraham and his family would have been a minority in worshipping Yahweh, and especially in not using idols in their worship. In the same way, the people in Acts would have been a minority; this message about Jesus was new, and most people didn’t believe it. The church consisted of small house fellowships scattered around the cities of the Mediterranean world. It wasn’t the majority world religion, like it is today. It was a lot more fragile than that.

And perhaps that fragility is where we can connect. Just in the stories I’ve told you this morning we’ve seen two instances where the community almost died. It was necessary for both Sarah and Rebekah to have children, so that the community of faith could continue. But it proved impossible, humanly speaking, for them to give birth to those kids. They needed a miracle to help them do it. The entire continuing existence of this tiny community of faith was a miracle from God. Without God, it could not have happened.

When he arrived in Haran Abraham’s servant prayed “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (24:12). That phrase ‘steadfast love’ translates the Hebrew word ‘chesed’; the King James Version has ‘loving kindness’, but ‘loyalty’ would also be a good translation. It’s not just that God loves Abraham and his family; it’s that he has committed himself to loving them, through thick and thin, whether they’re lovable or not. That’s what this little community of faith is based on: not human fertility or wisdom or achievement or organization or skill, but God’s steadfast love.

And that’s true of us as well. There are times when our community of faith feels very fragile. Lots of churches seem to be closing down these days, especially in small rural communities. Only two or three generations ago, that would have been unthinkable; we were building solid buildings to last for a century or more. No one expected that within a few years, barely anyone would be attending them any more. And even in our church, which is younger than most, when we look around on Sunday morning we oldsters seem to be rather better represented that you youngsters!

That worries us. And we certainly need to think about it and work to change it and make good and wise plans to address it. But let’s remind ourselves of this one fact: the continuing existence of the church is ultimately based on God’s steadfast love, not any human plan or wisdom or strength. God had to make it possible for wrinkled old Sarah to have a baby. God had to give supernatural guidance to Abraham’s servant so that he would meet the right girl at the right time. Yes, God’s people have to be faithful, but we also have to be full of faith – faith in the steadfast love of God!

And that love is steadfast, even when we’re not! The church is not made up of super-spiritual types – it never has been. Genesis tells us that when Abraham was afraid that the folks around him would kill him to steal his wife, he asked her to pretend she was his sister. Later on Sarah suggested her husband sleep with her slave girl to raise up children for her – and then when her own son was born, she drove out the slave girl’s son. Rebekah favoured her son Jacob, but Isaac favoured Esau. And Jacob didn’t learn; when he grew up and had kids, he had a favourite too, Joseph – with the result that his family was split apart by the resentment of Joseph’s siblings.

These are the kind of people God works with: flawed, imperfect people. He has no choice; there are no other kinds of people. God doesn’t only work with traditional families with two opposite-sex parents and 2.1 kids. He works with families like Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s. He works with blended families and single parent families, and single people, and gay couples, and those whose marriages are in trouble and who don’t dare admit it to their church friends. It’s perfectly possible to be full of faith and struggling with weaknesses and sins and failings at the same time. We all do it. But God is patient and steadfast, and he never abandons us.

Brendan Manning calls this ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ – the idea that we’re all ragamuffins, but God loves us anyway. But Genesis goes further: God loves ragamuffins, and uses them to build his church. The community of faith is made up of ragamuffins. I’m one of them. So are you. And that’s why we need to be gentle with one another. As Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). One translation says, ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. That’s what Abraham and Isaac, in all their flawed humanity, can teach us. They did all kinds of things wrong – they made plenty of mistakes – but they knew without a shadow of doubt that they needed God. They could not exist without God. Without God, the people of Israel would have died out after one generation. And without God, the Church of Jesus Christ will die from the inside out, even if for a while it still looks like a prosperous institution.

Fortunately for us, we never need to be without God, because the God we need has promised never to abandon us. Let me close with this wonderful promise from the book of Lamentations, written at a time when the city of Jerusalem had just been destroyed by its enemies, and many of its people taken away into exile. It was certainly not a time of great hope, and yet the author of Lamentations isn’t ready to give up on God just yet. Here’s what he says:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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

Loving Christ and Loving Canada – How Do They Fit Together? (a sermon for Canada Day weekend)

Those of you who know me well will be a little surprised that I’m preaching a sermon today about Canada Day. I’ve never been enthusiastic about the idea of combining Christianity and patriotism, and I’m very uncomfortable with the presence of national flags in a church. I think there’s been a lot of damage done in the past when Christians have tried to make love of God and love of country the same thing, and in the church I think we need to be absolutely crystal clear that our love for God is what we’re about, whatever our national loyalty may be.

I’m also a little uncomfortable with the idea of this being ‘Canada’s 150th birthday’. Canada didn’t begin with 1867; if it did, that means that people like Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson weren’t part of the story of Canada – not to mention the original inhabitants of this land. Our mayor here in Edmonton likes to remind us that we don’t have a one-hundred-year history; we have a ten-thousand-year history. To call this ‘Canada’s 150th birthday’ makes it seem as if the true Canadians are the ones who came from elsewhere, not the ones who had been living here for millennia before we arrived.

However, despite these personal misgivings, I want to spend a few minutes with you this morning exploring the whole idea of Christianity and patriotism. What does it mean for us to love Canada as Christians? Let me suggest four things.

First, I would suggest it means gratitude for this good land. In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses is addressing God’s people as they are about to enter their promised land, the land that would become Israel. Here’s part of what he says:

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).

We can well imagine a people who had been wandering the desert for forty years, hearing these words and feeling the excitement and anticipation: “Wow – that sounds like one beautiful country!”

Well, surely if anyone ought to feel gratitude for the beautiful country they live in, it’s us. This is a good land. It’s a land of majestic mountains and wide prairies, of lakes and forests and rivers and streams. It’s home to thousands of different species of wildlife, living in climates all the way from semi-desert to arctic and everything in between. It feeds not only those who live here but people in other parts of the world too. And we all know how rich its natural resources are.

I think we can get so used to the idea of Canada as a society, or as a political entity, that we forget this basic, bedrock reality: Canada is a land. First Nations people can help us here, of course, with their strong sense of the earth as our mother and the importance of our relationship with the whole of creation. But really, this idea has been in our scriptures from the very beginning. The second creation story in Genesis tells us that ‘The LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’ (Genesis 2:15); the word ‘to keep it’ could be translated ‘to guard it’. And the scriptures remind us that despite what our property laws say, we don’t actually own this land. Psalm 24 says, ‘The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers’ (Psalm 24:1-2).

So this good land belongs to God. He has allowed us to live here and enjoy it, and it’s appropriate for us to give him grateful thanks. ‘You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you’ (Deuteronomy 8:10). And it’s also appropriate for us as Christians to guard this good land the Lord has entrusted to us. It’s not a small thing if our use of the land is destroying it for future generations. It’s not trivial in God’s sight if the animal species he took such care in designing are being driven to extinction by human activity. If glaciers are shrinking so that the water supply is endangered, that’s something that Christians should be concerned about, because we will have to answer to God for our part in that. So we not only thank God for this good land of Canada, we also do all we can to protect and preserve it so that future generations can enjoy it as well.

To love Canada as Christians means to be grateful for this good land God has entrusted to us, and to do our best to care for it. Second, to love Canada as Christians means to do our best to contribute to its true well-being.

One of my favourite Old Testament verses is in the book of Jeremiah. It comes from a time when many of the Jewish people had been taken into exile in Babylon. Some of them were wondering if God was going to come to their rescue any time soon; would they be staying in Babylon for a long time, or would they be set free in the near future? Jeremiah was still living far away in Judah, but he sent a message to the exiles, and here’s the money quote:

‘But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jeremiah 29:7).

I think this is very relevant to us today as Christian citizens of Canada. We’re to take our place alongside other citizens of our country, seeking its well being and contributing to the common good.

But we will do this in a way that’s consistent with our Christian beliefs, and that won’t always line up neatly with what everyone else believes. For instance, some of the people around us may believe that the welfare of the country demands that we keep on getting richer and richer forever, but no follower of Jesus can accept that and at the same time be loyal to the teaching of our master, who told us not to store up for ourselves treasure on earth. We know that love and relationship, not wealth, are the most important parts of our human existence; Jesus told us that loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves is what life is really all about. And in the Sermon on the Mount he told us “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

So as Christians we will do our best to help build a country based on the values of love and compassion; that’s how we seek the welfare of our country. And love and compassion aren’t just about sentiment and feeling; they’re about justice for the oppressed and a fair deal for all, including the original inhabitants of this country – many of whom have told us that they don’t especially feel as if the past hundred and fifty years have been cause for celebration for them. We can’t ignore those voices; we have to take them seriously.

And this leads me to the third thing. As Christians, we’re called to live in gratitude for this good land, and we’re called to seek the welfare of this country where God has placed us. But we’re also called to speak a prophetic word where it’s necessary.

Some people feel that to speak any word of criticism at all it to be disloyal to one’s country. I don’t think any follower of Judaism or Christianity can accept that idea. Have you ever read the writings of the Old Testament prophets? Listen to Amos:

‘Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals –
they who trample the head of the poor
into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go into the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed’ (Amos 2:6-8).

Or how about this, from Isaiah?

‘If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail’ (Isaiah 58:9b-11).

In the New Testament, the book that probably comes closest to the spirit of the Old Testament prophets is the letter of James. Listen to him now:

‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you’ (James 5:1-6).

It’s a scorching passage, isn’t it? Obviously James and Isaiah and Amos didn’t believe that loving your country never meant speaking a word of challenge when they saw injustice and oppression. And so it’s right that we Christians should be in the front lines of those speaking out for the poor and needy, so that everyone who lives in this country gets a fair deal. This is not about trying to do away with the separation of church and state or imposing Christian morality by legislation. This is about values that are written on the conscience of every human being made in the image of God. This is what loving your neighbour as yourself looks like in a modern democracy, where everyone is entitled to speak out for what they believe.

I’m not trying to set out an exhaustive list for you this morning; that would take a much longer sermon than this! I’m simply suggesting to you a few things that I see in the scriptures that bear on this subject of loving our country as Christians. I’ve said that it includes gratitude to God for this good land we share, and doing our best to protect it. It means doing our best to contribute to the true well-being of our country. And it means being willing to speak a prophetic word of challenge when that’s necessary.

One last thing, and I think this is the most important thing of all. I think we love our country best when we love God more.

In the old 1980s movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell is a young Scottish athlete competing in the Paris Olympic Games in 1924. He’s also a devout Christian, the son of missionaries, who is going to go out to China himself as a missionary in a few years. Eric is a real character, by the way, who died in an internment camp in China in 1944.

Eric is entered in the 100-yard sprint, but he discovers that the heats for that race are going to be run on Sunday. He’s a devout Scottish Presbyterian and he believes that keeping the Sabbath requires him to withdraw from the race. The British Olympic committee – including the Prince of Wales – tries to persuade him otherwise. The Prince of Wales reminds him that sometimes we’re required to make sacrifices in the name of our loyalty to our country. Another crusty old lord on the committee says “In my day it was king first, God after!” – to which another member replies “Yes, and the war to end all wars bitterly proved your point!” But in the end Eric stands his ground; he runs in the 400 metres instead – a race he hasn’t trained for – and to everyone’s surprise he wins the gold.

Nowadays we might want to quarrel with Eric about whether running a race on Sunday is really such a big deal, but be that as it may, the core issue is our primary loyalty. The early Christians went out into the Roman world proclaiming the provocative message that ‘Jesus is Lord’. The reason this was provocative is that the title ‘Kyrios’ – ‘Lord’ – was already given to someone else: the Roman Emperor. To say “Jesus is Lord” implied “and Caesar is not”. Of course, Caesar was Lord of the political world, but Christians believed that his lordship was secondary to the true Lord of all, Jesus the Messiah, to whom Caesar would have to give account one day.

And this is also true for us as Christians today. We can’t give unconditional allegiance to any human government or authority; we can only give that to God. In the Book of Acts, the Jewish ruling council commanded the apostles to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter’s response was clear: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). As Jesus said: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

In a sense, to be a Christian is to be a dual citizen. I have both British and Canadian citizenship; I am a dual citizen. Fortunately for me, I’ve never been put in a position where I have to choose between those two citizenships, but it’s not hard to imagine how a situation like that could arise. And the same is true of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God and the earthly country that we belong to. There might come a time when our country might ask us to do something that was clean contrary to the way of life that Jesus is teaching us. And if that were to happen, our call as Christians is clear: Jesus is Lord, which means that Caesar is not. Let’s pray that we’re never put in that position; let’s also pray for the millions around the world who are put in that position, on a regular basis.

Let’s go round this one last time. Loving our country as Christians means being grateful to God for this good land of Canada, and doing what we can to preserve it for future generations. It means seeking the well-being of all who live here, and sometimes speaking words of prophetic challenge when they are necessary.

But most important of all, we love our country best when we don’t give it our ultimate allegiance. Ultimate allegiance is owed only to God, who will still be Lord of all long after Canada is only a memory. So by all means let’s sing ‘O Canada’ – but after that, let’s sing ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you’.

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

‘Thirsty for God’ (a sermon on John 7.37-39)

Tonight I’m going to be flying across the Atlantic to the U.K., but the first time I made that journey I was going in the other direction; it was September 1967, I was nine years old, and we were travelling by ship. Tonight it will be a journey of about eight and a half hours, but then it took five days to go from Liverpool to Montreal. When I think back on that, I realise again how vast that Atlantic Ocean is. That’s a huge amount of water!

Of course, centuries ago those trips took even longer. In the days of sail, ships were totally dependant on the prevailing winds. Sometimes, in calmer climates than the north Atlantic, ships would lie still for weeks on end because there was no wind. And sometimes, tragically, they ran out of drinking water during those times, and people began to die of thirst. It was this kind of situation that gave birth to the famous line in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. Some people were so crazy with thirst that they did try salt water; of course, this only made things worse, and they died even sooner because of it.

Psalm 42:1-3 says:

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”’.

In this passage of scripture, ‘thirst’ is used as a powerful image for our deep human longing for God. This longing isn’t satisfied by ideas about God, talk about God, or membership in organizations that work for God. It’s a longing for God himself, and for personal contact with God. When we have this longing, we realise that all the God-substitutes we so desperately embrace amount to nothing but salt-water; they only increase our deep inner thirst for the true and living God.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses this metaphor of thirst. The seventh chapter of John’s Gospel is built around the annual Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. This was a very popular feast, a kind of harvest festival. Over the years it had also acquired a sub-theme of longing for the end of this present evil age – the great final harvest, when God will bring in the Kingdom and the new age of his righteousness will begin – the time when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people.

Every day during the Feast of Tabernacles, water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam and carried in procession to the Temple while the words of Isaiah 12:3 were sung: ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’. Also the prophecy of Zechariah 14:8 would be read: ‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter’. This verse is a summary of a longer prophecy in Ezekiel 47: the prophet sees a vision of a river springing up in the Temple and flowing out into the desert, bringing new life and fruitfulness wherever it goes.

In this context – surrounded by all this imagery of water – listen again to the words of our Gospel reading:

‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified’ (John 7:37-39).

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his hearers, “All week long you’ve been enacting symbols about God’s salvation coming like water onto a thirsty ground. Well, I am the reality those symbols point to. Come to me, and drink deeply from those wells of salvation”.

 

Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

‘Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit…
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (Jeremiah 2:10-11, 13).

God’s people turned from the true and living God who was like a stream of fresh water, and instead they made idols for themselves that were like cracked cisterns, unable to hold water. This was their version of the becalmed sailors drinking salt water – it couldn’t satisfy. And today people still turn to idols – God-substitutes that claim to be able to fill God’s role, but actually they can’t.

One of the most common, of course, is materialism. We spend years trying to accumulate more and more stuff, even though the ‘more and more stuff’ we’ve already acquired hasn’t satisfied us. The one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win – they just die.

A second very common idol, often linked to the first one, is success. A lot of people gauge their self-worth with this one: if I can just get ahead in my career, so everyone will see I’m doing well, then I’ll find the satisfaction I’m looking for. Sometimes the worse thing that can happen to these folks is to actually achieve that goal; they feel satisfaction for a few days, maybe, but finally they realize it isn’t giving them the lasting happiness they were hoping for. They still haven’t found what they’re looking for – whatever it is.

A third idol that’s quite common is the liking and approval of others. This is especially seductive to people who have problems with self-esteem. ‘If I can just get people to like me and approve of what I’ve done, then that inner ache will go away; I’ll be able to relax and know I’m a worthwhile person, because other people like me. But wait – some of ‘me’ isn’t very likeable, so I’ll just hide my shadow side and pretend to be something better than I really am, so I can get people to like me’. This is the lie the idol persuades us to believe, but it never works. We still feel the emptiness, the spiritual thirst – and we also carry around the burden of having to continually fool people about who we really are.

Sad to say, the institutional church can also become an idol for some. The church is meant to be a community of faith, gathered around the living Lord Jesus Christ. However, some people have never made a connection with the risen Lord, and so they turn to the church instead. It’s unfortunately possible to go through all the motions of Christianity – church attendance, baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion – but stop there, without making a real connection with the risen Christ.

I think this might be the most insidious idol of all, and I’ll tell you why. People who worship this idol think they’ve tried Christianity and found it wanting. But in fact they’ve only tried ‘churchianity’. What they’ve had is the spiritual equivalent of a vaccination. You know how a vaccination works; you inject a tiny quantity of the disease into people’s bodies, and this awakens their immune system to protect them against the real thing when it comes their way. In the same way, people who worship the idol of ‘church’ have taken a tiny bit of Christianity to protect themselves against the real thing.

All these God-substitutes are nothing but salt water. In the end, they will only increase our spiritual thirst. Maybe you’re feeling that thirst today. Maybe you’re thinking “Yes, I know that nothing can take God’s place, and in fact I’m really thirsty for him”. Good – let’s think about drinking!

 Jesus says, ‘“Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (John 7:37b-39a). So the way to quench our thirst for God is to come to Jesus and drink. When we believe in Jesus – that is, when we put our faith, our trust, in him – he gives us the Holy Spirit who becomes to us like a river of living water in our hearts.

You might ask “How does this happen? How do I come to Jesus and drink?” First, we need to know that all followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit living in them. Paul says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you aren’t sure whether this verse applies to you, you can be sure. Simply pray, committing yourself to Christ in faith and asking him to live in you by his Holy Spirit. Then, if you haven’t been baptized at some point in your life, get baptized. If you’ve already been baptized, as most of us have, then the commitment of faith is all you need to complete the process.

Some people find this idea of a commitment of faith intimidating; they’re not sure they have enough faith to make it work. Don’t worry about that; Jesus once said that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough. Here’s how I see it. Imagine I’ve made a series of poor choices in my life and as a result I’m experiencing significant health issues. So in desperation I make an appointment to see my doctor. He examines me, and then he sits me down and says, “I know how we can get you out of this mess and back to heath. It’s going to take a while, but we can do it. Will you let me help you?”

How do you reply to that? I think the simple word “Yes” is enough, don’t you?

And this is where we’re at. We find ourselves struggling to connect with God and find the way of life we were designed for. We’re addicted to all sorts of negative behaviours and we know we’re chasing after the wrong things. So we go to Doctor Jesus and ask him to help us. His reply is, “Yes, I can help you. Will you follow me?” Faith is simply saying “Yes” to that invitation. That’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.

But of course, that’s not all it takes to continue the process. If we want to have our spiritual thirst quenched – to go back to the original metaphor – there needs to be a daily drinking. Let me suggest a couple of things for you.

First, pray daily to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Yes, we all have the Holy Spirit, but we need to ask him each day to fill us. I once heard a good illustration of this. An old fashioned gas furnace has a little pilot light burning inside, and that’s vital. That’s like the gift of the Holy Spirit we were each given when we became followers of Jesus. But that won’t be enough to heat the whole house! We need to turn up the thermostat so that the pilot light fires the burners. And in the same way, we need the Holy Spirit to fill us to overflowing.

Sometimes this happens in a dramatic way. That’s how it was for the apostles in our first reading today, when they experienced tongues of fire and speaking in other languages, and it was so dramatic that a crowd of people gathered to see what was going on. But it doesn’t always happen in a dramatic way – in fact, that’s not all that common. Mostly it’s quiet: a gentle sense of connection with God – a joy that’s there in the background even when we don’t notice it – the experience of finding ourselves equal to challenges we were sure would be too much for us.

So before you start each day, take a few minutes to pray and ask God to fill you afresh with the Holy Spirit for the day ahead. You’ll be surprised how much difference that simple prayer can make.

Then there’s the daily experience of keeping in step with the Spirit. In our pew Bibles, Galatians 5:16 is translated as ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. But the original Greek says ‘Walk in the Spirit’, and the NIV has the lovely translation ‘Keep in step with the Spirit’. I love that! It gives me the sense of the Holy Spirit as a companion walking beside me. I’m not sure which way to go, but the Spirit knows, and if I watch and listen, the Spirit will guide me.

One way the Spirit will guide me is through the Scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 90% of the guidance I need for living my daily life is already there in the Scriptures. There are lots of stories of people setting bad examples to avoid! And sometimes we come across good examples to follow. There are simple commands that revolutionize our lives: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – ‘Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you’ – ‘stop lying to each other’ and so on.

But there are also little nudges we get from the Holy Spirit sometimes. With me, it often takes the form of a person coming to mind, with the little thought that I need to call them or send them an email. Sometimes it turns out to have been a mistake, but more often than not it doesn’t. What I’ve noticed is that if I obey those little nudges of guidance, they tend to come more often. But when I don’t, they stop coming. Simple lesson there? If I want to experience more of God’s guidance, I need to be sure I pay attention when it comes!

One last thing. If we want to keep in step with the Spirit – if we want to drink of this ‘river of living water’ that Jesus is talking about – then we will want to pray. And when I say ‘pray’, I don’t just mean ‘Come to Jesus for five minutes every day with a shopping list of wants’.

We’re all busy people, but I have discovered that my days go much better if I start them in prayer, and if that prayer includes a healthy portion of silence. So I try to get here earlier than I need to most days, and then I can sit in quiet for a few minutes. I don’t necessarily say very much. I just sit in a chair and pay attention to the presence of God. Sometimes it’s a struggle; my brain is buzzing and there are so many internal distractions. Usually it takes longer than five minutes to get past them. Usually, after about ten or twelve minutes of silence, I begin to feel like I’m getting through. But I’m not trying; I’m just sitting and paying attention. And eventually, most days, I do get a deeper awareness of God’s presence and more joy as I go into my day.

Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7.37-38). Notice the direction here: out of the believer’s heart. We might have thought it would be the other way – into the believer’s heart – but it’s an outward flow. And so it is for us. When we come to Jesus and drink of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become a refreshing presence in the world around us. The blessings of God flow out from us, touching other people and giving them a sense of God’s love for them as well. That’s God’s will for all of us. I can experience it and so can you.

So – will you come to Jesus and drink?