Travelling On a Promise

TRAVELLING ON A PROMISE: Gen 15:1-12, 17 –18: Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Traveling in faith means traveling on a promise that hasn’t yet been completely fulfilled. If it had been, if we had already arrived at our ultimate destination, then we wouldn’t need faith any more. Because we would see with our eyes the completion of what we had previously only hoped for and towards which we had walked in trust and in hope.

The famous concert pianist with the international career no longer needs to practice in faith and in hope that one day all the effort will pay off. Because it is clear that it already has. When a project is realized, the building is finished, the war is won, then the need for faith disappears. Faith that something will happen or will come into being now no longer makes sense in relation to this particular project.  Who can doubt what is plainly evident to all? There it is. Just open you eyes and look at it. Take it in. The achieved reality is visible.

Most of our life, however,  we are traveling towards something rather than triumphantly resting on our laurels and accomplishments . Part of what that means is that we struggle with questions, frustrations and doubts about the destination at which we haven’t yet arrived. That is why we need faith in the promises that draw us forward  – because we don’t yet see the fulfillment for which we yearn. We may catch glimpses of the realization of promise that serve to sustain our hopes, but the empirical evidence is not all in. The future is not yet. That was true for Abraham, true for the Psalmist, true for Jesus and St. Paul. It is also true for us.

But without faith in a future that we can’t yet see, we wouldn’t travel very far. People without hope stop making plans for the future. They shrivel up and die. Or they abandon themselves to the grabbing whatever is immediately available in the moment. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die – which is about where we are a society. We don’t plan very much for the future. Because we doubt that it will amount to very much or that we will live to see it. Nor are we much motivated on the whole by convictions of some future life beyond the one defined and limited by biology and present brain activity. Let call it the “Après moi, le déluge”mentality.

We can imagine the future and we don’t’ want to be part of it.

For the children of Abraham, hope for the future is tied to covenant promise. We are people of the covenant. Beyond the bills that we pay and the contracts that we sign, our life is structured by covenants that look to the long-term future. Marriage, baptism, communion, weekly worship that keep us focused on the ultimate reality of God’s purposes for us and  the universe God loved into creation. We can catch glimpses and be  strengthened in our faith in God promises and ultimate purpose in concrete, particular, tangible sacramental moments.

What is it that keeps Abraham moving, journeying?  God’s Promise of land,  and  descendents to fill it. But how do we live within the promise of God when we can’t see its fulfillment or even obvious progress in the right direction? That is Abraham’s problem. In human terms, this covenant promise thing isn’t working out so well.

“The word of God has came to Abram in a vision: “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I’m your shield. Your reward will be grand!” That’s nice, he thinks. But Abram said, “God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless and Eliezer of Damascus is going to inherit everything?” Abram continued, “See, you’ve given me no children, and now a mere house servant is going to get it all.” Let’s call it the Downton Abbey  problem.  Then God’s Message came: “Don’t worry, he won’t be your heir; a son from your body will be your heir.” 

Then God took him outside and said, “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You’re going to have a big family, Abram!” And he believed! Believed God! God declared him “Set-Right-with-God.” God continued, “I’m the same God who brought you from Ur of the Chaldees and gave you this land to own.” Abram said, “Master God, how am I to know this, that it will all be mine?” Abraham wants to know how he can hold on to this promise through all of life’s discouragements. How can his faith remain strong? How can it be nourished?

And then the story goes weird on us. We don’t quite know what to do with this animal sacrifice stuff. Abraham receives instructions about finding a three year old heifer, goat, and ram, cutting them in half and putting them on a altar along with a dove and a young pigeon. We wonder how this is supposed to answer Abraham’s question about faith. He waits. It gets dark, and Abraham is filled with a sense of foreboding as he falls into a heavy sleep. God speaks to him again in a dream. And then, suddenly, fire strikes the altar and consumes the animal sacrifices that Abraham has brought to God. And Abraham hears God’s covenant promise of land for the promised descendents. They shall not be wandering nomads but are promised a place of their own, a land in which to grow and to flourish as a people.

What sort of answer is THAT? What is going on here, we wonder with the mysterious fire that descends from heaven to consume the assembled sacrifices?  The answer is worship. Worship is the context in which the divine fire descends and is experienced. That is the sign for Abraham that God’s promises are true and can be relied upon. That is what the story is telling us. The divine fire that strikes the altar he has prepared is enough for Abraham. It is a sufficiently powerful sign, one that seems real enough to him for him to keep walking in hope and in faith.

And that is what counts for God. Faith in God’s promise, faith in God’s good will and ultimate purpose and the chance to be part of it.  Such is the righteousness that God wants. In ways that we do not completely understand, God’s promise is made real to Abraham in worship.

Abraham obeys God’s instructions and prepares the sacrifice as he is told. Then mysterious fire descends from heaven. The fire of God’s presence provides the assurance that Abraham seeks. What happens serves to strengthen his faith God’s promise – the fulfillment of which he cannot see.  It that not what this story is telling us?

God speaks to Abraham when it is still thick darkness and nothing can be seen. But Abraham believes God anyway.  This is what faith looks like. This is what it means to be “Set-Right-with-God” to be righteous in God’s eyes. Abraham is not judged righteous for chopping up some animals and putting their carcasses on a stone altar – but because he believes God’s promises on the basis of an experience of ancient worship.

Animal sacrifice is what worship looked like in the ancient world – true in ancient Israel, true in Greece and Rome as well. In other parts of the world,  it got even stranger. We were not so far from that strange and alien world in the passage in 2 Samuel that Nancy read last week. As weird as it may seem to us, animal sacrifice is still central to worship in some parts of the world.

But the text says that what made Abraham righteous in God’s sight was not the killing of animals to propitiate whatever divine forces we imagine are out there so as to make them friendly towards us and guarantee a good harvest or whatever.

No, what impresses God, what God approves of is Abraham’s faith, his belief, his willingness to keep walking into a promised future that he couldn’t yet see because he trusts God to fulfill the covenant. Abraham responds to God’s gracious promise with faith. He trusts God trusts God to be God and that is the foundational reality of his life. Abraham has faith in the righteousness of God; he is convinced that God will make good on the words that have been spoken. So that is why God can use Abraham to be a blessing to the world and a willing participant and partner in God’s project for His creation.

So where do we find ourselves in this story about Abraham and God’s promises about an unseen future? Do we not look around as we get ready for an annual meeting and wonder about descendents? We have a magnificence estate, a worthy inheritance, we come from a long lineage, but we, too, suffer from Downton Abbey syndrome. Who is going to fall into the inheritance – if not our children?

So how is faith nourished and nurtured in the face of evidence that points away from the fulfillment of God’s promises?  That was Abrahams’ question and the struggle that we read in today’s Psalm as the Psalmist moves from a confident, but perhaps naïve and childish faith to one which has been tested and matured in the face of hardship. As in the case of Abraham, that progression to renewed faith on the far side of lament is tied to public worship in the temple. That is what keeps the psalmist going through the tough and challenging times when faith in God’s purposes is shaken.

So with our doubts and questions and uncertainties, we turn to next week and our communion service. All around us we hear people loudly telling others that they are “spiritual but not religious”. They don’t need any of this institutional church stuff to be close to God. A bit of private meditation or yoga does it for them. Well maybe. But I can’t help but wonder how deep such faith goes and what sort of testing it can endure.

In the Psalm we were listening to the words of someone who has been and still is in the grip of a life-threatening situation and who finds that, in reaching out to God, light breaks into his darkness, as it once did for Abraham so many years before. The Psalmist’s confident faith at the end of the Psalm is rooted not in the mystery of private feelings (about which nothing can be said). It is rooted and nurtured in the common life of the worshipping community. That is where security and faith to cope is found, faith that will aid and sustain him in the time of trial. ‘Spirituality without religion’ is popular today, but is often found inadequate, for we need ritual and community if our faith is not to die when it is tested.

This points us back to worship of the one true God, and to the communion service that we will celebrate together next Sunday. Obviously I am not going to go around this week collecting three-year-old animals and cutting them in half for the communion table. But the bread of life will be broken in half as a sacramental memorial of the ultimate sacrifice both offered and accepted by the Father in the Son, that sacrifice when the fire of heaven descended to earth in an unparalleled demonstration of divine power in weakness,  and resulted in the renewal of God’s covenant promise of a land for all of Abraham’s children – including (we dare say)  – Abraham’s children through Ishmael.

The empirical evidence is not all in. We walk by faith and not yet by sight. But the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” That is the covenant promise that sustained Abraham and Jesus as he set his face to what lay before him in Jerusalem and St. Paul in his missionary travels around the Mediterranean.

And it is what sustains us as we also turn out eyes to God’s Promised future. We don’t know all the details of how God’s future will be fulfilled.  Abraham didn’t know that either. Neither did Jesus or Paul, but they had seen enough to be able to believe and to walk in faith towards that which they could not yet see,  in the confidence that God is God and  is to be trusted as the ultimate Promise Keeper.

Just then some Pharisees came up and said, “Run for your life! Herod’s on the hunt. He’s out to kill you!” Jesus said, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now. Today and tomorrow I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick; the third day I’m wrapping things up. Besides, it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of prophets,
abuser of the messengers of God! How often I’ve longed to gather your children,
gather your children like a hen,
Her brood safe under her wings—
but you refused and turned away!
And now it’s too late: You won’t see me again
until the day you say,
Blessed is he
who comes in
the name of God.’”

The Transfiguration of Law

THE TRANSFIGURATION OF LAW: Exodus 34: 29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2; Luke 9: 28 – 43a.

Last week, Arlette, Anita and I went to hear Justice James Clarke read some of his poetry and to talk about his life as a judge and as self-described “wannabe” Christian. For me, at least, it was an afternoon well spent. I heard a voice ripe with a gentle wisdom, one chastened by hardship but aware of the place that good luck and grace have played in his life – a man humble in the face of life’s limitations and those realities (including perfect justice) that lie beyond us. I came away wanting to read and hear more from him.  Stories from his childhood or some of his poems may well turn up in a sermon. I just hope that he is not the last of his kind, and that there are still some judges like him being promoted to the bench.

He got me thinking about law; about where it comes from, its necessity and its limitations. Simply following the law doesn’t always add up to justice. The standard that criminal law applies is “reasonable doubt”. Quite often, Justice Clarke would go home at the end of the day suspecting that someone in his courtroom had probably been guilty of the offence with which they were charged, but being unable convict them because there was still some “reasonable doubt” about their guilt on the basis of the evidence presented to the court. There are lots of things that human beings simply do not know. Some people are very good liars; other people speak the truth in ways that sound fishy, hesitant and unconvincing. Sometimes you learn things after the trial that you wish you had known when it was time to render judgment.

We were told of of a case of an Jamaican elderly couple who had invested their life savings in a boat and a truck. They planned to finance their retirement using them to set up a business back home. Through no fault of their own, the ship on which their good were transported ran into heavy seas. Neither boat nor truck had been securely enough fastened to withstand the storm. When the cargo arrived in Kingston, their life savings was worthless wreckage. Their case came before Justice Clarke because, although they had engaged lawyer, their claim for damages exceeded the three month statue of limitations. It had been filed three days late. He had a sleepless night as he struggled to avoid handing down the verdict, but he could see no way to avoid it. The law, in this case, was clear – even though the result was not right, not fair.  They were entitled to no compensation. As a judge, it was his job to administer the law as he receieved it, not to make it up as he went along on the basis of his own sense of right and wrong. Life is unfair, partly because of  inecapable limitations in the law.

Although a measure of justice is available in Canadian courts, it is skewed in favour of the wealthy and the powerful. They hire the best lawyers, call in the high-powered experts and and can pay all their witnesses to turn up at court. At best human judgments are one-sided and incomplete. Imperfect. (Many of the Pslams involve an appeal to God from the vagaries and crooked ways of human justice.)

Christians recognize the law as necessary but also limited and provisional, an imperfect instrument that looks forward to the great court of appeal which is the Last Judgment, when the judge will be all knowing, the law not distorted by technicalities, justice will be pefectly tempered with mercy and we will have, in the Son, the best lawyer on our side.

Where does law come from? The Bible is clear. It comes from God. That is what the light on Moses’s face signifies. Moses has talked with God and his face shines because he has been in the very presence of God at the top of Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commnadments. Law is not something that human beings just make up for themselves.  It is not arbitrary. In some countries you are supposed to drive on the right side of the road, on others on the left. But beneath superficial differences there is a consistancy that is tied to the rational order of nature and the God of creation.

Ultimately, law comes from the God who has rightly distinguished between light and darkness, divided good and evil, right from wrong. But law doesn’t come to us directly  – but through human intermediaries like Moses or Mohammed.  And even Moses has not looked at God face to face (or at least the tradtion is clouded with ambiguity on this point)! His vision of God is real but veiled and indirect – as the law is a real although veiled and imperfect expression of God’s will and purpose. The law as it comes down to human beings from Mount Sinai is not to be mistaken for Godself, or turned into an idol.

Christians affirm that the law is not absolute. It is a guide, an approximation, a teacher, as we strive for the perfect righteousness of Christ. So there is no place in Christian faith for the equivalent of sharia law; no place for chopping off someone’s hand or head and then holding it up in triumph as the absolute expression of the will of Allah. No place for the endless scrutinizing of egg yokes and lettuce in supposed obedience to Torah, as in some versions of Judaism. There is a false legalism, says Jesus, which strains out insects and swallows camels.

In the Transfiguration, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law once given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and preached by prophets like Elijah. Jesus sums up that tradition in his own person. All the glimmerings of God justice’s converge and come to completion in Him who is and will always be the world true light and ultimate judge.

In his courtroom everything will be taken in to account because he is all-knowing, unconstrained by the “reasonable doubt” that attends all human endevour. In Him, we see what God’s perfect justice looks like. In Him, the Torah, once given to Moses in words on tablets of stone is made flesh, made incarnate, lived and continues as a living presence in our midst.

Our Old Testament lesson points to both the ultimate origin of Torah and the indirectness of God’s self-disclosure in the law. Study of the law, like the study of nature teaches us something of God’s nature and being. And yet there is something lacking which is only revealed in Christ. Only in Him, and not Moses, St. Paul insists, that we see “with unveiled face and behold the glory of the Lord.”

Paul says that some of his contemporaries –  in looking to Moses as the ultimate ruler, legislator and prophet – forget what the text in Exodus says about his face being ‘veiled’. There is something that gets in the way of complete sight, of a comprehensive understanding. Moses’ grasp of God’s purposes is limited, incomplete, imperfect. Only in Christ do we see God’s face directly.

That’s what the account of the Transfiguration is telling us. In looking on the face of Jesus, radiant with the divine light, we see the unveiled face of God. In Him the office of ruler (Moses) and prophet (Elijah) are combined and Luke is now going to show us how, in going to the temple in Jerusalem,  Jesus becomes the world’s true and ultimate priest.

Jesus is Israel’s prophet, priest and King. In human law courts, the judge who pronounces the just sentence of the law and priest or minister who points to the mercy and reconciliation of God are different people. But in Jesus the roles are combined in the one person, the one Lord in whom all things cohere. He is both Judge and Saviour and the one in whom the light of God’s presence is perfectly revealed and perfectly transparent. It all comes together at the Transfiguration.

Its all here.  The whole Trinity is manifest for the strengthening of the faithful says Martin Luther; “Christ, the Son in his glory, the Father in the voice which declares the Son to be Lord and heir, the Holy Spirit in the shining cloud or in the generating of faith.” God is this One who lies mysteriously above and beyond law or any other human appropriation or claim to divine authority. Here is God’s great Yes to the world.

That is why the Transfiguration is the favourite image in the Eastern Orthodox church, the image in which the good news for the world is summed up. Here is the mosaic in the orthodox monastery of St. Catherine, at the foot of Mount Sinai.

To say that Christ is the light of the world is to make a deep confession of faith about the world about the shape of reality. It is to say that here is the key to human relationship and human destiny. The appropriate response is to fall on our knees like Moses before the burning bush because we find ourselves on holy ground. It is not a confession to be made carelessly, thoughtlessly, casually. “Well, whatever.”

Which takes us back to the question of baptism. What does it mean to be baptized into such a faith?  It means, at the very least,  that we want to walk in the light and become people of light. To be called children of light. That is what the Christian life is about; becoming more and more filled, more and more transparent to the light of God so that we, like Moses and Jesus, begin to radiate God’s glorious light in a dark world.

That’s why in the olden days, saints were portrayed in paintings with halos. They had begun to reflect the glory of God. John Calvin writes, “During our whole life…God makes His glory to shine on us little by little. Our present knowledge of God,’ he says, ‘is indeed obscure and feeble in comparison with the glorious vision we shall have at Christ’s last appearing.” Our knowledge of God is obscure and feeble; God remains hidden, illusive and always just beyond our grasp but, in prayer, meditation and contemplation, we can glimpse fleetingly something of the glory of God in Christ. Over a lifetime of worship and obedience, of gazing at Christ, we will be transformed and  transfigured by God’s Light.’

The law – Torah – which comes from God and reflects God’s radiance on Moses’ face , returns in Christ to the light of perfect completion and perfection. The partial is overcome in the complete. What Paul says about the resurrection is anticipated in this story of the Transfiguration. “The glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.

The vision of transfiguration granted to the disciples anticipates the glory of the resurrected One. Here is the prototype of the new humanity into whom we are summoned by our Maker and Redeemer.

“The first man, Adam, was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

That is the contrast set out in the Transfiguration. Part of what it means is that human law, human justice, human courts, will be transfigured by God’s glory into a perfect righteousness and an absolute justice, freed from all of the constraints and limitations and compromises that human justice necessarily involves.

In Exodus, chapter 33, just before the text that Nancy read us, it says that Moses pitched his tent outside the camp. This tent became the place of meeting with the LORD, the place where a ‘cloud’ descended and the LORD spoke to Him. In the Bible, the cloud descending, the holy cloud, is the Shekinah, the sign of God’s Presence.

This is the story that obviously lies in the background of Peter’s unexpected suggestion (“not knowing what he said”) that he and James and John build three “booths” or “tents” for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. It is a silly suggestion because Jesus doesn’t need a booth. It is unnecessary because He is, himself, God’s “tent of meeting.” In the prologue of John’s gospel, we read, ‘And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.’  Jesus is where we encounter God and God dwells in our midst. He is where we are transformed and transfigured by the divine glory and prepared for life in the Kingdom. Or not.



Hometown Truths

HOMETOWN TRUTHS: Luke 4: 23-30

(image2) Some of you will remember this picture from last week. It was the backdrop to Joyce’s children’s story about Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth. People were excited because they had heard about Jesus’ ministry in the surrounding countryside and villages. There had been miraculous healings and reports of the extraordinary power of his preaching and its mysterious authority over hearts and minds. Now they were going to have an opportunity to see and hear for themselves this man whom they had known as Joseph’s son, the carpenter.

Imagine one of their own suddenly becoming so famous! There were some who said that they had known all along that he had extraordinary gifts. Others who professed to be surprized. Either way, they were all there on the Sabbath when he returned to the synagogue that he had grown up in. He was handed the scroll and asked to address to the hometown crowd. All eyes were fixed on him and the air was electric with excitement and anticipation.

He started off well with a wonderful text from Isaiah about God’s miraculous healing in the age to come, the Messianic Age.  “God’s spirit is with me. God has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor, to tell everyone that the prisoners are free, to give sight to the blind, to free people from their suffering, and to tell people about a new time. This is the year God has chosen.”

And then Jesus added, “Today these words have come true.” That’s when things start to go south.

(image 3) Within a few minutes the crowd so keyed up with excitement and anticipation become so enraged that they want to throw Jesus over a cliff at the edge of town! How did things go so badly so quickly? How did Jesus go from being the exceptional and famous local Jewish rabbi, to being someone that they wanted disposed of permanently? What had he done or said to provoke such a fierce reaction? The short answer is that Jesus would do what people wanted him to do – namely perform some miracles in his hometown and then explained why. He rejected people’s expectation of him and they very angrily rejected him.

(Image 4)  So let’s back up and run the tape forward more slowly. When Jesus had finished reading the text from Isaiah, with every eye transfixed on him, he quietly announced, “This passage of Scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.” I imagine that some of them in congregation went light headed. Giddy. Could it be true? Was Jesus really God’s promised Messiah? Had Israel’s time of deliverance, for which they had been waiting for generations, now come?  But in an instant, you could hear their minds ticking as reality once more took a grip on their minds… No, He couldn’t be. After all, wasn’t he Joseph’s son? The boy who worked with his father as a carpenter?

But then again, what if it were true? Imagine, what if God’s future for Israel had arrived and it was beginning right here in Nazareth with one of their own! What if  – for once – Nazareth wasn’t on the fringe of things but at the centre? Sophisticated Jerusalem Jews had always dismissed our village as an out of the way backwater, the world’s armpit.

But what if the Messianic Age really was happening right here and now and Nazareth was at the centre of the action for once? That didn’t sound so bad. Tell us more Jesus. But they wanted proof and felt entitled to it. After all, if he could do miracles for people in Capernaum and the surrounding villages, surely they were entitled to some miracles in his hometown. They were practically family. Jesus had grown up here. They knew his parents and his younger brothers and sisters. Charity begins at home, you know. You don’t need to go all the way to Africa to discover human need, Jesus. It is here right under your nose in your own neighbourhood.  So lets see some miracles. It is only right. The list of requests is starting to grow; the line up for miraculous cures is already starting form in people’s minds. Ingrown toenails, lumbago, failing eyesight, paralysis and poverty.. So what are you going to do about it, Jesus? What are you going to do for me? Prove yourself to us, if you are the One who is to restore the Kingdom of our ancestor David and establish God’s rule of justice and peace and prosperity.

Jesus can see the gears turning in their heads. He knows what people are thinking. So what are you going to for US – your own people, your neighbours in your hometown? You owe us. So begins by addressing the question that’s on everybody’s mind.

He says ‘I am sure that you will quote this proverb to me, “Doctor, heal yourself”. People in the crowd nod. You got it. Then Jesus pours cold water on them. He rejects their claim on him and their demand for proof. They have no rights to miraculous healing. Healings are entirely a matter of divine grace and to be received not as a response to any imagined right but in humble gratitude. Your attitude is all wrong.  In one of the other gospels it says that Jesus could perform no miraculous deeds in his hometown because of their unbelief.

Miracles can increase faith, where faith already exists. But in and of themselves miracles do not create faith. They create a circus. The ancient world –  was full of such miracle-merchants and magicians.  But for Jesus the miracles were not an end in themselves to prove that he was a wonder worker. That was the temptation in the wilderness with Satan that he had just rejected. Jesus turn these stones into bread; Jesus throw your self down off the top of the temple so that God can miraculously save you said the devil.

But for Jesus that get everything backwards. The healings were not end an in themselves. he was not just a wonder worker or a performer. Miracles pointed to the way in which God’s future was breaking into history for those which eyes to see and ears to hear. Without faith, not even the miracle of life from the dead would transform hearts and minds. The response Jesus sought to the good news of the Kingdom was faith and repentance, not consumer satisfaction after an assertion of rights or entitlement. The appropriate response to the miracles of God’s grace is humble faith and repentance. Lord depart from me for I am sinful man, says Peter. The faith that sees and responds to God/s miraculous power is the opposite of a consumer mindset in relation to God.

So where did the sense of entitlement come from in these people in Nazareth? Well they were Jews, God’s chosen people. If Jesus was really the Messiah then surely they were on the inside track, right? Who did God favour more then them? Did the covenant not bestow on them a special status? Who deserved miracles more than them? Who had stronger claims on Jesus or on God’s grace and favour than they did? Surely a few miracles is that least Jesus could do. They were owed at least that. If he could do it in Capernaum why not for his own folks? His neighbours?

That’s when Jesus really lets loose in his sermon. He says, “A prophet is never welcomed in his home town.” Then he reminds them of the history of God’s involvement with Israel just to challenge their sense of privilege and to disabuse them of any notion of special status or any sense of right or claim before God. To show them that God’s blessings cannot be owned or possessed by anyone, Jesus reminded his townsfolk of two incidents – one during the life of the prophet Elijah, and one during the life of his successor, Elisha.

In the time of the prophet Elijah, drought and famine covered the whole land but Elijah wasn’t sent to help the people of Israel. Instead, he was sent to Zarephath in Sidon – present day Lebanon. Who was it that Elijah healed? The child of a widow who lived in gentile territory.  Jews are by-passed by God. No Israelite was cured by Elijah, but only the son of a Gentile widow woman.

Or consider, says Jesus, Elisha. Once again, there were many Israelites suffering from a dreaded skin disease in his day. But who received God’s favour at his hand? It was Naaman, the Syrian! Another outsider! Once again, God had chosen to heal a non-Jew. God is not owned or controlled by anyone or any people. God is the Sovereign Lord and chooses whom He will. No group of people can claim Him as an exclusive right. God is not controlled by human beings. No one has special rights or privileges by virtue of some imagined insider status. Ghrace is grace. The utterly free gift of God to whomever he wills.

(image 5) That was a hard message for the hometown crowd in Nazareth to hear. It felt like a slap the face.  It is still a hard message for Jews to hear, or for anyone who thinks that they have some claim on God. Some sense that they ought to be at the front of the line because of …..well what exactly? Because of work done or time served or family connections? How dare Jesus question their claims, their sense of right or special status? They are furious. Off with his head. Throw him over the cliff. Crucify him. How dare he question our identity as God’s people in some special and exclusive sense. Of course we are entitled to special care and favour by God. If you can heal them surely you are more or less obliged to heal us.

Such attitudes are not confined to the Judaism of Jesus’ day. They are still very much with us and not just in Jewish circles but in and around the church. People don’t get this grace thing. They think in terms of rights, perks, entitlements. And they are angry when Jesus brushes such claims away with the back of his hand.

Should Jesus have been more diplomatic? Expressed himself more cautiously so as not to give offence. Or was the offence unavoidable? That is, I think, Likes message for us. There is a fundamental conflict here that can’t be papered over. Jesus will get away from the crowd this time, but the conflict will re-emerge. This story is heading for the cross. Evil will have its way before it is ultimately defeated at Calvary and Jesus is vindicated by the Father at Easter.

Strange notions of Jewish entitlement which are on display merge with similar notions of fights and entitlement in and around the church. Jesus rejects all of that and it makes people mad.

My family has been around this church for 30 years. Doesn’t that count for anything? Doesn’t that entitle me to some service around here?  Special consideration for me and mine? We’ve paid our dues and now its pay day.

Have you ever seen people get angry like that? Instead of people wanting, yearning humbly to be part of what God is up to in the world, now that the Messianic age has begun, they demand to be served. We want recognition. We want a miracle. It is our due.

Jesus refuses that demand. You are owed nothing. God confers his gifts as sheer grace. The result is explosive anger. People take the refusal as a personal affront. Jesus only narrowly escapes being lynched or thrown off a cliff. God protects him of this occasion. But the fundamental issue will re-emerge and eventually lead to his crucifixion.

The conflict between the Messianic Kingdom that Jesus proclaims and has begun clashed too strongly with popular expectation. The conflict cannot be evaded or finessed or made to go away with a bit of diplomacy. It is too fundamental.  The only way that Jesus could have avoided the conflict was by sacrificing the integrity of his call and ministry.  To be Israel’s Messiah and to walk the path marked out for the suffering servant led inevitably to anger, conflict and eventually crucifixion. His death was not an unfortunate accident. It was is the inescapable conclusion to his mission, his message and his identity.

We are not in a position to demand anything of God. God is not our own personal possession. We have no claim or entitlement to miracles or status or perks and privileges  or anything else. God turns all such human expectation upside down. The reward of discipleship is obedient participation in God’s rule. Period.

In God’s presence we are all beggars. When his power and grace are manifested in midst as they are when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion, the only appropriate response is humble faith and grateful thanksgiving. Thanks be to God for His boundless grace to undeserving sinners.

As it says in the invitation to the communion service . “Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak. Come not because any goodness of your own or any human qualification gives you a right or entitlement to come, but because you need mercy and help. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of baptism and communion are meant for you of you will receive them in humble faith.”

That is the hometown truth that which got people so upset when Jesus spoke it in Nazareth – and one that still gets people upset.





























The Vindication of Zion

THE VINDICATION OF ZION: Isaiah 62: 1-5; 1Cor 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11

If the Holy Catholic Church is, as we claim, the true Israel of God, then what will the vindication of Israel look like? Christians and Jews entertain very different hopes on the basis of the texts from Isaiah that we have been reading through Advent, the season of Christmas and Epiphany. It is clear that Jews have invested great hopes in the state of Israel as the fulfillment of prophetic promise. That is a big part of why any settlement of land claims in that part of the world is so extremely difficult. We are no longer in the realm of rational human politics, but of Messianic visions of what God is up to in the world. The ordinary give-and take of arriving at a deal becomes impossible because the whole future of the world is supposedly at stake.

Christians support the state of Israel for pragmatic political reasons but look to the global church for vindication of the ‘true Israel’ and the fulfillment of messianic promise. State of Israel or global church? Christians and Jews have placed their bets differently on how the book of Isaiah is to be properly read Where do you focus on the horizon of history in searching for the realization of God’s purposes?.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

What will vindication look like when God rejoices over his bride? That is what I want us to think about during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Let face it. The church – at least in this part of the world – has been in exile for a hundred years. We have been scattered and taken captive and subjected to foreign ideology and rule. We know what it is like to live in Babylon. Which is where the prophet of Isaiah was living and dreaming and composing his songs of hope about God’s future for his people. Like the exiles thousands of years ago, our landscape also looks forsaken and desolate at the moment. But try to picture in your mind’s eye what it would look like to be a “crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God; to be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married – as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Such is the hope in which we live because we believe the church to be the inheritor of those promises to ancient Israel. he see in Jesus the beginning and the foundation of their fulfillment. During this season of Advent the light that has shone spread to the ends of the earth. Jews of course, also draw hope from these words and maybe we are both right to do so. But the church lives in its call to share in the Mission of God and to proclaim the good news, manifested in Jesus, to the whole world.

So what will vindication look like for those who have held on and remained faithful to the covenant in Babylon, those who have not given up on God or given in to those voices which say that Christian faith is passé, obsolete in the modern world? Those voices that claim that the Bible had been disproven by science, superceded by psychology and psychotherapy or whatever? What will God’s future look like for them and how will they know it has come?

Almost a hundred and fifty years ago, here in Montreal when it was the undisputed centre and capital of Canada, the Rev. George Monro Grant preached an address to the meeting of the 1874 Evangelical Alliance. His subject was “The Church in Canada” Is such a thing possible, he asked? “ He answered the question in a way that reflects Isaiah’s prophetic hope.

“God will give us the church of the future. It shall arise in the midst of us, with no sound of hammer heard upon it, comprehensive of all the good and beauty that He has ever evolved in history. To this church, Episcopacy shall contribute her comely order, her faithful and loving conservatism; and Methodism impart her enthusiasm, her zeal for missions, and her ready adaptiveness to the necessities of the country; the Baptist shall give full testimony to the sacred rights of the individual; the Congregationalist his to the freedom and independency of the congregation; and Presbytery shall come with her massive, well-knit strength, holding high the Word of God; and when, or even before, all this comes to pass, that is, when we have proved our Christian charity, as well as our faithfulness, proved it by deeds, not words, who shall say that our Roman Catholic brethren, also shall not see eye to eye with us, and seal with their consent that true unity, the image of which they so fondly love? Why not? God can do greater things even than this. And who of us shall say, God forbid?”

Speaking personally, I think Grant got it right. That is what God’s future will look when Zion’s vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The future for the Church to which I look forward is an ecumenical one. That is why I have invested lots of time and energy over the years in that direction. We don’t know exactly how all the pieces will come together. We only catch glimpses. When the Anglican church in St. Bruno came to the end of the road, it sold its building to the Eglise baptiste evangelique and moved in with the Roman Catholics at St. Augustine’s. All those joint services and shared Lenten lunches helped to make that possible and for it to seem like the right thing to do. Denominations that were fierce, even bitter rivals in the past, find a way to live together and share the rent. What was not possible in the past when church were strong, has become possible after the experience of exile in Babylon and the years of living together in the wilderness. Cross and resurrection. That is the pattern of the Christian life.

Somebody has said that human beings rarely do the right thing until they have exhausted all the other options. That is probably true in the church, too. A hundred and fifty years is a long time in human terms. Two full lifetimes. It is not so long for God for whom a thousand years are as a day says the Psalmist.

It is to Grant’s interpretation of Isaiah’s vision for the ecumenical Church that I look in hope. God will draw us out of the institutional and denominational structures in which we have been scattered for hundreds of years. The church of the future will include the best of the various churches that once comprised a now vanished Christendom. That is what we see in our hymn book. The whole of Christian history and tradition summed up in the songs of praise between its covers. And when God’s future comes upon the Church in Canada with all of it power and fullness we will sing a new song of praise together that shall extent to the ends of the earth. 1925 was an attempt to grasp that future, but for various reasons it didn’t quite come off. But when it happens, we will rejoice in God’s love and know that His future is upon us.

The fact that the Church Union of 1925 was not the complete realization of those hopes, does not make the hopes themselves foolish or unrealistic or impossible of attainment. On the contrary, that is what it will look like for our vindication to shine out like the dawn, Zion’s salvation like a burning torch. That is how we will know that we have arrived in God’s future after a hundred and fifty years of hardship and travail, heartbreak and mourning. Because, let’s be honest. It has been tough and it still is.

Isaiah uses the poetic imagery of a wedding feast in singing about the return from exile and the promise of God’s future. In his song about the restored Jerusalem, God rejoices over Zion as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. And this same wedding imagery links Isaiah with John’s account of the wedding at Cana. John is telling us who Israel’s bridegroom is, and because He is Israel’s Messiah and bridegroom, he is also bridegroom to the whole world. So what does the ecumenical and global future of the Church look like?

Well consider Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The first thing to thing to be said is that Church is bound together in the affirmation that “Jesus is Lord”. That confession, made in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us a unified identity that is more fundamentally important than any of the things that may divide us. If we affirm in words and manifest in our lives that “Jesus is Lord”, then we are part of One Body, the body of our risen and ascended Lord whatever our differences.

One of the tragedies that beset the church over the past century is that while the acids of modernity where attacking the basics of Christian faith and identity in our society and challenging the fundamental affirmation that “Jesus is Lord’, Christians were preoccupied in internal struggles over secondary matters. Even worse, the gifts that God has bestowed upon the Church in all their rich variety became a source of division like the gift of tongues in Corinth had become divisive. If you don’t speak in tongues like us, if you don’t do things our way and share our particular gift, then you are not a real Christian whether you confess that Jesus is Lord of not.

Anglicans are very proud of their fine liturgical tradition. But it is a gift of God that became divisive and contributed to the acrimonious sinking of a proposed union with the United Church in 1970. Presbyterians fought viciously amongst themselves over the introduction of organs into our services of worship. Instead of God’s good gifts – the rich music tradition Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans becoming a common inheritance of the whole church in the nineteenth century, there were many Presbyterians who wanted to stick with the 150 psalms and the half a dozen tunes to which they were sung in Scotland. That was their tradition and no one was going to deprive them of it.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit”, says Paul. “And there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

This is how it is supposed to work, says Paul. The gifts for ministry that God has showered upon his Church are to humbly offered up for the common good instead of being matters of unseemly competition and a source of rancour and strife. Those who have been given the gift of tongues, for example, do not look down contemptuously on those who have not. Some Pentecostals will tell you that unless you have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, the proof of which is that you speak in tongues then you are not really a Christian. There are others who say that unless you believe that when the Pope speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals they he speaks infallibly, then you are not a real Christian. And yet others who say (as our Presbyterian ancestors did) that if you believe THAT, then you are worshipping the anti-Christ, and so on.

We live in a city that has been defined, historically, by linguistic and religious difference. Hugh MacLennan made famous the phrase “two solitudes.” But what if we were to think about our situation in terms of what Paul says to the church in Corinth.

Protestant and Roman Catholics have – or at least used to have – different strengths, different gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit. There was a rich tradition of prayer and contemplation in R.C. religious orders and fine examples of service in dedicated teaching and in caring for the sick. Such piety and dedication was and is impressive. Protestants on the other hand manifested, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a gift for free self-government without any hierarchical authority breathing down their necks and telling them what was and what wasn’t permitted. The result was strong growth in particular congregations an unleashing of energies of the whole people of God and a social dynamism that reshaped this city in lots of ways. Individuals were encouraged and empowered to explore their gifts find their particular vocations in God’s service.

In lots of ways Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were Yin and Yang to each other but, instead of them being mutually reinforcing aspects of a greater whole, they engaged in a mutually destructive rivalry that that encouraged society as a whole to push them both to the sidelines. If such nastiness was what Christian faith added up to, who wanted anything to do with it? One of the things that I have appreciated most about being in St. Lambert and, more generally, the South Shore is the degree of ecumenical co-operation, because I am convinced it is where the action is in our time. I know that progress is slow and change incremental, but I’m pretty sure it is in the right direction. But it is hard to get people to lift up their heads and to look to God’s horizon because we are pre-occupied with our own immediate communities and buildings and the challenges of survival.

A week tomorrow night, St. Francis of Assisi is screening a documentary film by Rev’d Dr. Matthew Anderson entitled “SOMETHING GRAND” , followed by a discussion. It is the story of a group of pilgrims setting out from France on the 800 km walk to Santiago de Compostela. In a half-hour of footage, we meet a diverse group of travelers, walk the walk with them, and ask some of the harder questions about what it means to faith and life to be a “21st century pilgrim”. Somebody says, Presbyterians don’t do pilgrimages. Martin Luther and Calvin didn’t approve of them. That’s certainly true. But the issues of the 16th century are not exactly the same ones that we face today . The lines are drawn in different places,.

What if we feel like discouraged exiles in the wilderness because we are blind to what the Holy Spirit is up to in our times. God can miraculously transform the water of dutiful religious obligation and faithfulness into something much more wonderful – the joyful wine of the Kingdom. We’ve been invited to a great banquet, a great wedding feast. So how come we don’t always feel the joy? Is there something getting in the way of the promised power of the Holy Spirit? Why not do something unexpected, something out of the routine and go see and discuss a film about people who have decided to go on a pilgrimage. We may discover riches that we didn’t know existed within the Holy Catholic Church. Gifts of God poured out on his people that can now actually be shared across denominational boundaries?. Riches offered up for the common good.

Instead of bemoaning the prospect of denominational collapse, perhaps we are being summoned to opportunities for a common life and witness that such a collapse provides? Maybe, like exile in Babylon, it is the path required for Zion’s vindication to shine out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”