Born Again (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent)

Last week I mentioned that the church has a communication problem when it comes to the words ‘temptation’ and ‘sin’; modern people don’t hear those words in anything like the way people did in Bible times. So we trivialize them, or laugh at them, or deny any implication that they might describe us. How dare you suggest we’re sinners! We’re just as good as anyone else!

We’ve got a communication problem this week, too. Our Gospel reading for today is from the third chapter of John, and in the traditional translation, it includes that dreaded phrase, ‘born again’. Whatever was in John’s mind when he first wrote that phrase – or whatever was in the mind of Jesus when he first used it – we can be sure that’s not the first thing people think of today. Today, when we hear ‘born again Christian’, we think ‘Oh yes – those are the people who voted for Donald Trump!’ And while I’m sure that there’s a variety of political opinion in St. Margaret’s, I’m also pretty sure that the majority of us are shaking our heads over Mr. Trump! So if born again Christians like him, how can it be good to be a born again Christian?

But in our gospel, Jesus doesn’t appear to think that being a ‘born again Christian’ is a bad thing. I mentioned this once to a woman who told me that she ‘didn’t like born again Christians’. I pointed out to her that, according to Jesus, there is no other kind of Christian. All Christians are, by definition, ‘born again’ – or, as our NRSV translates it, ‘born from above’ (the Greek word, ‘anothen’, can be translated either way). In John 3:3 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, and he adds in verse 5, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”.

So there’s a process we have to go through in order to enter the Kingdom of God. And remember, ‘The kingdom of God’ doesn’t mean Christians dying and going to heaven; it’s about the love and power of God healing and transforming this world so that it becomes the place God meant it to be when he created it in the first place, completely free of evil and sin. “Thy kingdom come” means “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Do you want to be part of that? I know I do! Well then, says Jesus, you need to be born again, born from above, born of water but also of the Holy Spirit.

How can we make sense of this today?

Let’s try to make sense of it by going back to our Old Testament reading. Let’s think about Abram – or, as he’s better known, Abraham. In later years Abraham was looked on as the father of the nation of Israel, but he didn’t start out living in what we now called Israel. His origins were further east, in a place Genesis calls ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, which most modern scholars think was in what is now southern Iraq, about two hundred miles southeast of Babylon. However, at some point in his adult life Abram and his family – including his father, his brothers, and their wives and children – left Ur. They had meant to move to Canaan – what is now Palestine or Israel – but for some reason they stopped in a city called Haran on what is now the southeastern border of Turkey, and lived there for a few years.

But when Abram was seventy-five, somehow (we don’t know exactly how), the God who created the universe spoke to him.

This is an amazing thing and we shouldn’t rush over it. I don’t know very much about the religion of Ur or Haran, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it was very similar to the religion of Babylon. Like most people in the ancient near east, the Babylonians worshipped many different gods; Abram would have been surrounded by their temples and idols as he went about his daily life. The civic life of Ur and Haran would have included community sacrifices to the gods, and everyone would have known about the things they should and shouldn’t do if they wanted to avoid offending them.

But in the Hebrew text, Genesis is very specific about who was speaking to Abram; it doesn’t just say ‘God’ in general, or one of the gods of Babylonian religion. It uses the name by which the Israelites later came to know the one God, the creator of heaven and earth: ‘Yahweh’.

‘Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…So Abram went, as Yahweh had told him…’ (Genesis 12:1, 4a).

Abram had none of the things we use to deepen our spiritual lives today. He didn’t have the Bible. He didn’t have the sacraments. He didn’t have the teaching of Jesus. He didn’t have a community of like-minded believers. He didn’t have multiple generations of spiritual ancestors whose wisdom he could draw on. He was surrounded by people who worshipped the ancient gods of Babylon, and yet somehow he heard the one creator God speaking to him. “Leave all this behind, and go to the land I will show you”. Leave everything you know, leave your safety and security. “Where to, God?” “Never mind that; I’ll show you on the way there!”

We know that Abram kept herds and flocks. I can imagine him scratching his head in confusion: “But God, I need to know where I’m going to find pasture and water for my livestock. I need a plan. I can’t just walk by faith; if I get it wrong, the animals will die and I’ll be ruined”. We don’t know whether or not Abram prayed that sort of questioning prayer, but we know from later stories about him that he was exactly the kind of guy who would have asked those questions!

In our gospel reading, Nicodemus misunderstands what Jesus means when he talks about being born again, or born from above; he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). But here in Genesis we have an example of of an old man being born again. In the ancient world, seventy-five would have been a very great age indeed. Abram probably had his retirement plan figured out. I’m sure he thought he was long past the time of life when he would be going on adventures. But now he’s supposed to leave all his security behind, and follow by faith the God who had spoken to him. Leaving the security of the womb, out into the dark and dangerous and unknown world. It was like being born. Or born again.

So what does the story of Abram teach us about what a new birth is all about?

New birth is obviously a metaphor for a decisive change in a person’s life – a break with the past and a new beginning, walking by faith in the God who calls us. It reminds me of what Paul says in Philippians 3:13:

‘But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’.

‘Forgetting what lies behind’. Abram was called to make a real break with the past, and with the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people around him. He would have stood out like a sore thumb in the world he was living in. “What do you mean, you don’t worship the gods? What are you going to do when your crops fail? What are you going to do when someone in your family gets sick? And if you stop worshipping them, they’ll get mad at the whole community and bad things will happen to us”. I can just imagine the sort of pressure Abram would have been under, in his old home of Haran and in the new land he moved to in Canaan. In those days it would be taken for granted that if you moved to a new country you learned to worship the gods of that country. But everywhere Abram went in Canaan he built an altar to his God, the Creator, the one who had called him.

In the Book of Acts, we read about how Paul planted a new congregation in the Greek city of Thessalonica, and three weeks later he had to leave in a hurry because of persecution. A while later he wrote a letter to the tiny congregation in Thessalonica. He reminded them of their conversion – their ‘new birth’, if you like. He says,

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

So that’s part of what it means to be ‘born again’ – we turn away from the idols everyone worships around us and turn to the true God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus. Nowadays, of course, those idols aren’t pagan gods like Ishtar and Marduk, or Zeus or Apollo. They’re more likely to be the idols of money and the things that it can buy, or popularity, or youth and beauty, or national security. Jesus himself refers to money as an idol when he says ‘You can’t serve both God and Mammon’. In the context, ‘mammon’ obviously means worldly wealth, but when you personalize a thing like that, giving it a name, you treat it like a false god, an idol. And money is obviously treated as an idol today. When they have a lot of money in the bank, people feel secure; they have confidence that bad things can’t do so much harm to them. They also have a sense that their life has a meaning or purpose; the grand narrative of our lives today is that increasing wealth means success, so if I’m getting wealthier, I’m obviously successful.

If we choose not to participate in the worship of mammon, we’ll look just as weird in the world today as Abraham did when he stopped worshipping the gods of his ancestors, or as the early Christians did when they refused to participate in civic sacrifices to the Greek and Roman gods, or to the emperor as a god. But that’s part of what it means to be born again. What’s the true god of our life, the thing we value more than anything else, the thing we rely on when the going gets tough, the thing that gives us a sense of security and purpose and meaning? Being ‘born again’ means to take the terrifying risk of dethroning that idol, and learning to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.

And that leads to the next thing: being ‘born again’ also means making a decision to adopt the priorities of God’s Kingdom. That’s why Jesus associates the two: ‘No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above’ (John 3:3). Jesus has told us what the values of the Kingdom are: we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And we dedicate ourselves to living and sharing God’s love with the people around us. I love the way God describes that call to Abram in our first reading:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2, 3b).

The kingdom of the world says it’s everyone for himself; it’s all about you as an individual, your rights, your success, your happiness. You are the king and god of all you see! But God’s kingdom says, “No! It’s about living each day with the intent of being a blessing to the people around you, a channel into their lives for God’s love and joy and stubborn hope.

So being born again means dethroning our favourite false gods, and committing ourselves to the Kingdom of God as our priority. A third thing we can say about it is that it’s two steps forward and one step back. A new birth is a beginning, but it’s not all plain sailing from that day forward. It wasn’t in Bible times and it isn’t today.

Abraham didn’t get it right all the time. When you read his story in Genesis chapters 12 to 25, it’s very honest about his doubts and weaknesses and failures. He has a hard time believing God’s impossible promise that he and his wife will have a son in their old age. He’s afraid of the people around him, and he tells lies to save his own skin. He lets himself be manipulated, especially by his wife. He’s not a superhero; he’s a real human being, just like us.

Last week we talked about our ‘human propensity to mess things up’. We break things, and people, and relationships. We’re given the freedom to make real decisions, but we seem to have an extraordinary talent for making bad decisions. I do it. You do it. We all do it. And this doesn’t instantly change when we become followers of Jesus. The day after we choose to follow Jesus, we’ve had exactly twenty-four hours’ training in the kingdom of God, and many years’ of training in the kingdom of the worship of money and success and selfishness! It’s going to be a long, gradual process, growing and learning and being trained as disciples of Jesus. A new birth is just that: a birth. After the birth comes the growing and learning. So we have to be patient with ourselves, and patient with others.

And we have to trust the Holy Spirit. That’s the last thing I want to say about being born again. It’s not something we can do to ourselves. We can’t make it happen. There’s no formula, no ceremony, nothing we can do to command the Holy Spirit to act. He’s like the wind: he’s not under anyone’s control.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

We humans tend to go through what we refer to as ‘phases’ in our lives. I went through my Star Trek phase, and my Bruce Cockburn phase, and my social activist phase, and when I look back on them now I shake my head a bit and think “Well, those were good things, but I probably went a bit overboard”.

But being a Christian, if it’s real, isn’t just a phase. When I was thirteen my Dad gave me a gentle challenge: “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” I went away that night, sat down on my bed in the privacy of my room, and prayed a simple prayer in exactly those terms: “Jesus, I give my life to you”. It wasn’t a dramatic experience; I didn’t see visions or really feel overwhelmed by the love of God. But when I look back on it now, I see it was one of the most important moments of my life. The Holy Spirit must have been at work; that’s the only thing I can say. That day I began a journey of learning to pray and listen to God’s Word in the Bible, learning to be a member of the Body of Christ, learning to do God’s will in the world. That journey has continued to this day. And I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit brought me to that moment. I have no other explanation for it.

And we can trust the Holy Spirit; he is God, and God is love. So don’t be afraid of this ‘born again’ talk. And don’t be afraid of what it means: dethroning your favourite idols, seeking first God’s Kingdom, moving slowly ahead in a ‘two steps forward, one step back sort of way’, all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit won’t lead you astray. He will lead you into the centre of God’s loving will for you, and that may be hard, but it will always be good.

Some things I’ve learned over the years about marriage

For Valentine’s Day, here’s a repost of something I wrote a few years ago. I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years when it comes to marriage and love, but hopefully I’ve learned a few lessons on the way that might be helpful to a few other people. For the record, back in October Marci and I celebrated our 37th anniversary. She is a very patient woman.

So, in no particular order, here we go:

  • You will have to choose between (a) making enough money to have the same lifestyle as your neighbours, or (b) having enough time to love your spouse and children. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have time to do both.
  • It’s not a good idea to live common-law before you get married. Statistics show that this dramatically increases the risk of your marriage ending in divorce (see here).
  • Be skeptical about 75% of what the media tells you about love and marriage. Most of the people who write those movies and songs haven’t been able to hold down a relationship for more than four or five years.
  • Similarly, be skeptical about how ‘normal sex’ is described in popular novels, movies etc. If you take that as the norm you’ll be setting yourselves up for dissatisfaction and failure. Technique is fine, but love is far, far more important.
  • Remember – love is a choice, not a feeling. If feelings lasted forever we wouldn’t need marriage vows. When the feelings start to wane in intensity, don’t be scared: this is normal. Do what you promised to do anyway, no matter what you feel, and eventually something deeper and stronger will start to grow. This is the most important secret of a lasting marriage.
  • Go out for coffee together regularly, and leave your cell phones at home when you do. The object is to get away from distractions and focus on talking.
  • Conventional wisdom tells us ‘lovers look at each other, friends look together at something else’. This may be true, but it hides a deeper truth: your love is more likely to last if it also includes friendship – if, in fact, your spouse is your best friend. And friends aren’t absorbed in each other, they’re absorbed together in something else. So find something you can both get absorbed in, and do it together. This leads to the next point…
  • A marriage needs a mission. Marriages in which the couple are totally focussed on each other, rather than on some form of service to others, are narcissistic marriages. For many couples, the major mission is raising their children to become happy and healthy adults. Don’t see the attention you give to this as competition for your marriage; it’s part of making your marriage less selfish and more loving.
  • Remember that when you learn to love God more than you love your spouse, you will then find that you are loving your spouse far, far more than you did before. It’s a paradox, but it’s true all the same.
  • Put the teaching of Jesus and the apostles into practice in your marriage. Make reconciliation with each other a priority, and if you have a problem with your spouse, speak to them about it first. You’re not perfect, so don’t expect your spouse to be perfect either; be quick to apologise and quick to forgive. Don’t let resentments fester; talk them through as soon as possible. Choose to stay together and work on your problems rather than getting a divorce. Don’t commit adultery with your eyes and your heart, and you probably won’t commit it with your body either. Tell the truth to each other. Live a simple life focussed on God and your neighbour, not on storing up earthly treasure. In other words, being a better follower of Jesus will make you a better marriage partner.
  • Don’t be passive about your marriage; don’t, for instance, take the attitude, “I hope it works out”. Instead, the two of you together take responsibility for making it work out. Expect this to be difficult, and don’t be intimidated by the difficulty.
  • Finally, a word for the guys from the character played by Dennis Quaid in the movie In Good Company. When asked by a younger man what his secret of a lasting marriage is, Quaid’s character replies, ‘You find the right person to get into the foxhole with, and when you’re out of the foxhole, you keep your ____ in your pants’. Every time I’ve shared that story in mixed company, the women have shaken their heads about how offensive it is, and the men have nodded their heads, knowing that ‘lowest common denominator’ wisdom is often a good place to start…!!!
(Credits: The first idea, about not having time for both getting rich and loving your family, is adapted from a statement by Mary Pipher in her fine book The Shelter of Each Other. And the idea about loving your spouse more if you love God first is something I first ran across in one of C.S. Lewis’ letters.)

What Does Discipleship Look Like?

follow%20jesus2‘Follow me’, says Jesus. In the ancient world, that didn’t just mean ‘walk after me down the road’. It meant ‘Become my disciple’. To Jesus, a disciple was an apprentice in the art of living in right relationship with God and others. It was not just about having a good time going to church, singing songs and saying prayers. It was about changing your way of life, turning away from evil and learning to do good.

What does this look like in practice? I keep asking myself that question, thinking of some of the specific things Jesus taught. Here are a few that come to mind.

Disciples have been captivated by the vision of the Kingdom of God. They believe that God is at work putting the world to rights, and that there’s a place in that plan for them. They believe that the loving rule of God is the highest possible good for the world, and so they seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness as their greatest treasure.

Disciples are the glad recipients of grace – God’s unconditional love. They know they have been forgiven and accepted by God, not because they are lovable but because God is love. They are secure in that.

Disciples are people of prayer. They have apprenticed themselves to Jesus and they say, “Lord, teach us to pray”. They have read about how their Master made prayer a daily habit; they long to go deeper in prayer and draw closer to God in this way.

Disciples are being formed by the story of God. They are growing in familiarity with the big sweep of the Bible story – creation, rebellion, Israel, Jesus and his Church, and the future fulfilment of the promise of shalom. As they read the Bible each day they are learning to see themselves as part of this story.

Disciples are people of love. Their Master teaches them that the two greatest commandments are to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. They are well aware of how far they fall short in this, but each day they are trying to grow in this life of love. And this love is unconditional, reaching out even to enemies and those who hate us.

Disciples are people of simplicity and generosity. They have been taught by their Master not to store up for themselves treasures on earth, and so they are content with few possessions and are learning to find joy in giving to others, especially those who are in the direst need.

Disciples are people of their word. It is unnecessary to ask them to take an oath to tell the truth, because everyone knows that they always tell the truth. And this includes being honest about themselves. They don’t try to pretend they are better or more impressive than they actually are; they are content to be known as ordinary sinners saved by grace.

Disciples are people of faithfulness. They are doing their best each day to be faithful to the promises they have made: baptismal and confirmation promises, marriage vows, promises to care for their children and elders, and in some cases ordination vows. They are members of a local congregation which is their primary spiritual home and they are faithful to that congregation.

Disciples are people who bear witness to Jesus and his love. They have been taught by their Master that it is part of their responsibility to share with others what they have learned of the Gospel of God. So they look for opportunities to share their story, and the story of Jesus, with integrity and respect.

Disciples are people who seek to bless the world around them. They live each day with the resolve to add to the sum total of love and goodness in the world, rather than adding to the sum total of hatred, greed, anger and selfishness.

Disciples are people of hope. Because they believe in a God who never gives up on the world and the people in it, they also can never give up. They believe the promise of the Gospel that one day the Kingdom will be revealed in all its fulness, and so they continue to work toward that day. They are, in fact, quite stubborn about faith, hope, and love.

Disciples are people of joy. They are growing closer to God each day, and are finding in God a joy that nothing else can touch. This doesn’t mean that they don’t ‘weep with those who weep’; neither does it mean they never weep about the struggles and failures of their own lives too. But underneath the sadness, there is still the joy of knowing God and being loved by God.

These are the initial thoughts that come to me. What do you think?

 

Do Unto Others

I don’t have a lot to say today in response to the fatal shooting at a Quebec mosque last night, or to all the evil policies coming out of the office of He Who Must Not Be Named in Washington. But somehow this Billy Bragg song (based on some words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke) seemed appropriate. This song can be found on Billy’s brilliant album ‘Tooth and Nail‘.

Upside-Down World (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12)

In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as if the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.

But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flown before.

Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world; the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us – things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.

The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’; in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life, and pronounces a blessing on them. Likely there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fit into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.

The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people with good long term marriages and people whose marriages are full of pain, or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?

There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.

 

In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.

Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes – the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers – she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Isaiah, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of a friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission he did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.

The kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful grief, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.

The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realize that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world and in their own lives. People like this are often laughed at and excluded. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look – there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.

The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the Son of God who came to bring peace between God and people, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group – the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.

So this is the kingdom of God – a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.

So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.

 

The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are – but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness – or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness – or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ – and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.

The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, get baptized into union with him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.

(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).

The Most Important Thing (a sermon on Psalm 27)

A famous tennis star of a previous generation was once asked the secret of his success. He replied “I only do one thing, and I don’t let anything distract me from it”.

I have no doubt that it was this sense of focus that took him to the top of his profession and made him the great tennis player that he was. But I can’t help wondering what it did to the rest of his life. How did his family and friends feel about being relegated to second place? What about his values, his health, and all the other areas of his life? It’s good to have a sense of focus, but surely it’s even better to focus on the right things.

I wonder what your focus is? What’s the main thing in your life? What’s the thing you’re prepared to make sacrifices for, the thing you wake up in the night thinking about? I once heard a person giving a talk about ‘Ideals’. He said something that’s stayed with me over the years: “Do you wonder what your personal ideal is? Ask yourself where your money, your thoughts, and your spare time go. That’s your ideal”.

Here’s another way of looking at it. If you could ask God for one thing, with the sure and certain knowledge that you would get it, what would it would be? Health for you and your family members? A million dollars? Long life?

Our psalm for today was Psalm 27. In this psalm the writer tells us what he asked of the Lord. Listen to these words from verse 4:

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.

To the people of Israel, the temple, or ‘house of the Lord’, was the place above all where the Lord was present. If you wanted to be absolutely sure that you would meet God, the temple was the place to go. So we could translate the psalmist’s prayer as a request that he would always live in God’s presence. We might paraphrase it like this:

One thing I asked of you, Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in your presence
all the days of my life,
to see your beauty,
and to know that I can always call on you for guidance.

I want to suggest to you this morning that this should be our greatest desire as Christians too – to seek God’s presence, and to submit to his guidance.

But why? Why should this be our greatest desire? What’s in it for us? And how would we go about achieving it?” Let’s think about each of these questions in turn. First, why should this be our greatest desire?

A few years ago in South America a small aircraft carrying a young American missionary couple was shot down by a fighter plane. It was a communication error, and the pilot of the plane and the young couple paid for the error with their lives. This is the kind of world we live in; our lives are shot through with grief and trouble. And that’s one of the main reasons for us to seek the presence of God. In verse 5 the psalmist says ‘For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble’.

But we have to be careful about this. It seems clear to me as I read Psalm 27 that the writer expected God to rescue him from the day of trouble. I think it was some sort of military trouble; perhaps he was facing an enemy army and the odds were stacked against him.  Look at verses 5-6:

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

 

It seems pretty clear to me that the psalmist had prayed to God to rescue him from his enemies, and his prayer had been answered exactly as he had asked: he had won the battle, and his head had been lifted up above his enemies all around him. And isn’t it wonderful when that kind of thing happens? You’re facing major surgery and you ask God to bring you through it, and he does! You’re facing a family difficulty, and you ask God to help you sort it out, and pretty soon everyone’s happy again! You’re facing a financial crisis – maybe you’re afraid that you’ll lose your job – and the crisis is averted, you keep your job, and everything’s okay.

Those are wonderful times, and we thank God for them. But of course, we’re also painfully aware that God doesn’t always seem to give the answer we desire, and often we don’t know why that is. In the New Testament we read that Paul prayed for sick people to be healed, and many times they were! And yet he himself had some sort of illness – he calls it ‘his thorn in the flesh’ – and even though he prayed three times to be delivered from it, he was not delivered. ‘My grace is sufficient for you’, God said to him, ‘for power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9a). And Paul goes on to say,

So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9b-10).

So yes – God will hide us in his shelter in the day of trouble. Sometimes that ‘hiding’ will take the form of rescuing us from the trouble. Sometimes it will take the form of giving us the courage and strength we need to go through the trouble in the knowledge that God is by our side. We don’t always feel this in an obvious way; sometimes what happens is that after the trouble has passed we look back and think, “Wow, I never thought I’d make it through that! I guess Someone must have been looking out for me!”

I wonder what your ‘Day of Trouble’ is this morning? A debilitating disease that has unexpectedly invaded your life? The loss of a loved one? Disappointments and worries about your children? Loneliness? The fear of death?

Grief and difficulty, you see, aren’t interruptions of normal life; they are normal life. And we are not adequate to deal with these difficulties by ourselves. Only with God at the centre of our lives can we face these storms. And this is one of the main reasons why we seek God’s presence: without God, we haven’t got a chance.

“Well then”, we go on to ask, “What do we hope to gain from this? What’s in it for me?” On the face of it this seems like an irreverent question. It sounds as if we’re evaluating God as consumers rather than approaching him as lovers! And yet the writer of Psalm 27 isn’t shy about mentioning the benefits of living in God’s presence. Let me point out two of them for you.

The first is salvation. In verse 1 we read ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?’ To the Old Testament people, ‘salvation’ meant primarily being saved from your enemies. One reason why they were so afraid when they lost battles was that they thought it was a sign that God was angry with them! But for us Christians, salvation has a different focus: it means being saved from our greatest enemies: the power of sin and evil, especially the sin and evil in our own hearts.

A couple of weeks ago Marci and I were reading an excellent book by a man named Francis Spufford; it’s called Unapologetic, and the subtitle is Why, despite everything, Christianity still makes surprising emotional sense. The first chapter is about sin, but he makes the point that the word ‘sin’ has lost a lot of its meaning for us today: we associate it primarily with sex and chocolate! So he suggested a substitute phrase to make clear what we’re talking about. His substitute phrase includes a swear word that I’m not going to use in this pulpit, but I’m sure you can guess what it is if I call it ‘the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up!’ – or, in his shorthand, the ‘HPtFTu’ – that’s as close to the swear word as I’m going to go!

We all recognize this, don’t we? We have this uncanny ability to do the stupid thing, the selfish thing, the hurtful thing, over and over again! Most of us can look back on the path of our lives and see all the people we’ve managed to hurt along the way, and all the situations we’ve made worse, not better. This is what we need help with! This is what we need ‘salvation’ from.

A Christian man whose family life was in a shambles once went away for a weekend retreat at which he discovered the presence of God in a new way, and committed his life to Jesus. A few weeks after he returned from the retreat his son came into his room one evening and asked, “Dad, what happened to you? You’re completely different!” The man said “Well, I realized that I wasn’t making a very good job of my life, and someone told me that if I gave my life to Jesus he would help me to make a better job of it, so I did”. After a moment’s silence the boy said “Do you think I could give my life to Jesus too?” That’s the kind of thing we mean when we use the word ‘salvation’.

The second benefit the psalmist mentions is guidance in living. In verse 11 we read ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path’. We seek God, in other words, because we want to know the best way to live our lives. There are so many different theories and philosophies of life, but surely it’s wise to assume that God the Creator knows the best ones! And so seeking his face involves seeking his will and submitting to his guidance. This is not a sad and solemn thing. Rather, it means learning the way of life which will bring the greatest peace and contentment in our Creator’s world.

And really, why wouldn’t we want to do that? One of the phrases we’ve learned from the business world is “Your current system is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re getting!” Ouch! That hurts! Of course, it hides the fact that in many cases we haven’t intentionally designed our current system; we’ve arrived at it by accident, by a series of passive choices that we didn’t really think about. But now it’s our system, and it’s producing the results we’re getting.

So how’s our life system working? How’s our plan for daily living working for us? Is it producing positive, life-giving results, or is it only contributing to our Human Propensity to Mess Things Up? If we’re not satisfied with this, surely it makes sense to go to God and ask for wisdom to learn a better way. ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path’ (v.11). And this is exactly what we’re promised in Scripture. Psalm 119 says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (v.105); in other words, God’s word will illuminate our life’s journey, guiding us about the direction we should take. And we Christians hear that word of God most clearly in Jesus. He says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

So we’ve seen the benefits of seeking God’s presence. There is the sheer joy of knowing and being connected with the Creator of the universe. Then there is the experience of salvation from sin, of having someone to turn to in times of trouble, and of being guided and taught the best way to live.

One last question: How do we achieve this desire of ours? Well, we can say for sure that it isn’t a matter of techniques or theories; it’s about our love for our Creator God. And again, as Christians we know that seeking God involves seeking Jesus. As Jesus himself said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

At the end of Psalm 27 the writer says ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord’. This is the heart of the matter. Be prepared to wait patiently until you get what you desire above all else. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t be satisfied with cheap thrills and quick fixes. Go to God in prayer day by day; tell him that you want him above all else, that you’re willing to do anything he asks and go to any length if only you can have this blessing. That is the kind of focus that will delight the heart of God, and in time you will begin to notice his answer to that prayer. When that begins to happen, you won’t need me to give you seven proven techniques for getting closer to God. More and more, you will find yourself experiencing God’s presence in your own life, and all the blessings the psalmist speaks about here will be your blessings too.

Does that sound like one of those unrealistic easy answers? It isn’t meant to sound like that. Last week I mentioned Rowan Williams’ statement that prayer is a bit like birdwatching. Birdwatching requires masses of patience. Sometimes you sit for hours and see nothing; all you’re experiencing is getting wet from all the rain! A lot of people give up early, and so they don’t see anything interesting. I have to confess that I’ve often been one of those people; I’m not a patient birdwatcher. But those who are patient tell me that, if you’re in the right place and if you wait long enough, sooner or later something interesting will happen. There will be the hint of a song or the flash of colour, and suddenly you’ll find yourself looking at something beautiful.

Prayer is like that too. We may go for long periods of time without much sense of God’s presence. We may only be praying out of obedience, nothing more; we’re not experiencing much else. We may feel like birdwatchers, sitting in the rain seeing nothing!

Well, carry on sitting, and carry on waiting! The psalmist says again, ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord’ (v.14). The one who quits early will not see the flash of colour – they won’t catch that hint of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s the one who continues to pray, continues to wait quietly in God’s presence, and keeps on doing that, day after day, year after year – that’s the person who will find the sense of God’s presence growing on them, slowly, almost imperceptibly, until one day they wake up and realize that it’s become the permanent backdrop of their lives.

May that be true for all of us.

Let me close by repeating the paraphrase of verse 4 that I offered you a few minutes ago. Let’s make this our prayer:

One thing I ask of you, Lord,
that will I seek after;
to live in your presence
all the days of my life,
to see your beauty,
and to know that I can always call on you for guidance.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

Books I Read (or Re-Read) in 2016

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2016, in the order in which they were read:

Ursula K. LeGuin: The Farthest Shore
The Rule of St. Benedict
Daren Wride: DNA of a Christ-Follower
Dante: Divine Comedy Vol. 1: Inferno
C.S. Lewis: The Weight of Glory
Dante: Divine Comedy Volume 2: Purgatorio
Elsie H.R. Rempel: Please Pass the Faith
Richard Giles: Here I Am: Reflections on the Ordained Life
Dante: Divine Comedy Volume 3: Paradiso
Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant and David Wright: Write, Publish, Repeat
John Clare: The Shepherd’s Calendar
Leah Kostamo: Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community
Dante: La Vita Nuova
Ursula K. LeGuin: Tehanu
Richard Foster: Celebration of Discipline
Ursula K. LeGuin: Tales from Earthsea
Ursula K. LeGuin: The Other Wind
John Goldingay: Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone
The Collected Poems of Oscar Wilde
Paul Torday: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Alan Jacobs: The Narnian
Dave Ferguson and John Ferguson: Finding Your Way Back to God
Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green: Recovering the Scandal of the Cross:Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Denny J. Weaver: Becoming Anabaptist
Tony Hillerman: Skinwalkers
Stuart Murray: The Naked Anabaptist
Tony Hillerman: The Blessing Way
Bill Bryson: Shakespeare: The World as Stage
A.N. Wilson: The Elizabethans
Harold Percy: Your Church Can Thrive
John Grisham: Gray Mountain
Wendell Berry: The Way of Ignorance
Brian Zahnd: Water Into Wine: Some of My Story
Simon Winchester: The Map that Changed the World
Joel B. Green: Conversion in Luke/Acts
Jonathan Merritt: Jesus is Better Than You Imagined
Hilary Mantel: Bring Up the Bodies
Andy Weir: The Martian
John Goldingay: Jeremiah for Everyone
Alain de Botton: The Course of Love
W.O. Mitchell: Who Has Seen the Wind?
Walter Brueggemann: The Prophetic Imagination
C.C. Humphreys: Plague
Joel B. Green: Body, Soul, and Human Life
Robert E. Coleman: The Master Plan of Evangelism
Peter Dale: A Poetry of Place
John H. Walton: The Lost World of Genesis One
N.T. Wright: John for Everyone: Part 1
Karl Vaters: The Grasshopper Myth
Patrick O’Brien: Master and Commander
William Cowper: Selected Poetry and Prose
Ann Cleeves: Raven Black
Tobias Haller: Reasonable and Holy
Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See
Brother Andrew: God’s Smuggler
N.T. Wright: John for Everyone: Part 2
Ann Cleeves: White Nights
Timothy Keller: Making Sense of God
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Wendell Berry: A Small Porch
W.O. Mitchell: Jake and the Kid
Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native
J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy
Kent Haruf: Benediction
David Augsburger: Dissident Discipleship
W.O. Mitchell: The Kite
Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles
C.S. Lewis: The Magician’s Nephew
Francis Spufford: Unapologetic
Holy Bible: New International Version (2011)

A few reflections in no particular order:

Most enjoyable read of the year? Definitely, hands down, with lots of space between it and the next-most-enjoyable, Dante’s Divine Comedy. In fact, I loved it so much I read it twice. My first time through I was using Mark Musa’s three volume, profusely annotated edition; I read each canto through once by itself, then re-read it, scrupulously reading every single footnote as well. The notes were enormously helpful; Dante is surprisingly earthed in the contemporary political/cultural/religious scene of his day, and he assumes a vast amount of knowledge of names and events, which Musa helpfully tracks down. But when I was done I re-read the whole thing without any footnotes in Musa’s one-volume edition (‘The Portable Dante’), which also includes Dante’s Vita Nuova – which I also enjoyed.

I loved Dante’s imagery (even though his cosmology is of course completely outmoded). Two theological points especially struck me. First, in the Inferno almost all of the punishments are in fact logical and natural consequences of the sins being punished. I think Dante’s point (or part of it) may be that sin is its own punishment. Second, Dante believed that sin is essentially loving the wrong things (I should explain that his concept of love is far closer to Eros than to the New Testament idea of Agape), and that our love-choices need to be educated by the light of reason and revelation.

His final canto in the Paradiso? I defy any Christian to read it without being overwhelmed by the beauty of what he is describing.

Honourable mention also of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I watched the movie on Netflix, really liked it, so bought the book and found it to be even better than the movie. I hope he writes some more good science fiction for us.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Definitely William Cowper’s Selected Poetry and Prose. I only have one word to describe these pieces: tedious.

Important discoveries:

The writings of Joel Green, especially his work in Body, Soul and Human Life which challenged a lot of my concepts of what a soul is (it turns out that it’s all in the brain and is intrinsically physical).

W.O. Mitchell. Oh my – why had I never read any of his stuff before? His descriptions of small town prairie life in the mid-twentieth century rang a lot of bells with my experience of Arborfield in the early 1980s (some of Mitchell’s heroes, had they been non-fictional characters, would have been the same age as our Arborfield old-timers when Marci and I first arrived there). Wonderful characters, superbly authentic dialogue, great storytelling – hugely enjoyable reads. I know I’ll read everything by him I can get my hands on.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was as illuminating and disturbing as I had been led to believe it would be. Superb book; I highly recommend it.

Karl Vaters’ The Grasshopper Myth is an excellent book about small church ministry (Vaters defines ‘small church’ as less than 200 people). I don’t know that there was anything in it I didn’t instinctively know already, but it was very helpfully set out in a memorable way. I will re-read it regularly along with Dave Hansen’s The Art of Pastoring and Eugene Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry.

I read a good bit of poetry this year: Dante, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, Wendell Berry, William Cowper, Peter Dale. Later in the year I got snagged in the massive Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, which I still haven’t finished (it’s 900 pages long). Hardy is brilliant, but he’s hard work and I find I can only take him in small doses.

Finally, I’m glad to say that I read the Bible all the way through again this year. I read the Bible daily, but I haven’t been very successful over the years in finding a Bible-reading plan and sticking to it. This year I chose the One Year Bible, and I picked the New International Version 2011 as my translation for the year. I really enjoyed the daily mix of Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs, and by the end of the year I had definitely formed a habit. I’ll do it again this year, I know, possibly with the New Living Translation. (Note: there are now four translations of the Bible I’ve read all the way through: the Living Bible, the New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, the King James Version with Apocrypha, and the NIV 2011).