Author: Scott McAndless

Jonah, the Passive-Aggressive Prophet

Posted by on Sunday, January 24th, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

Hespeler, 24 January, 2021 © Scott McAndless
Jonah 3-4, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

The one thing that everybody knows about Jonah is the big fish incident. Everybody knows that he got swallowed by a fish (or maybe it was a whale because it’s not like the ancient people of Israel knew the difference between fish and marine mammals) and that he survived and came out three days later. Many people think that that is the most unbelievable part of Jonah’s story, but they’re actually wrong. There is something that would have been far more fantastic for ancient Israelite readers than the whole whale of a tale. But in order to understand that, you need to understand more about Jonas’ story.

Jonah stood just outside the massive gates of the city of Nineveh. He looked through them and out over what seemed to be an endless sea of houses and industries, streets and a constantly churning crowd of people and beasts of burden. There were more people than Jonah had ever seen together in his life before.

His nose was assailed by terrible odours – the smell of tanneries and latrines, manure and burning pitch. But actually, the smell wasn’t what bothered him the most. To tell the truth, it was a bit of a relief to smell something that wasn’t the stench of rotting fish that he had been totally unable to get out of his clothes and skin and hair. No, he didn’t hate them because of the smell, had hated them because they were Assyrians.

These were not people, they were bloodthirsty animals, all of them. Just looking at them he could tell that they all loved nothing more than raping, pillaging, looting and killing. And, what’s more, he knew in his heart of hearts that they would never change. They had spread like a cancer over the face of the earth.

They had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and taken its people away into exile. They had come this close to doing the same to the Kingdom of Judah. And those were just two examples. How many other tribes and nations and peoples had suffered under the genocidal Assyrians? And yet Yahweh, the God of Israel, had sent Jonah to preach to them. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city,” God had said, “and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

It was all the same to Jonah, of course, if his God wanted to destroy the Assyrians. He had been praying for that for years. But he worried about the reason why God would want him to warn them. He knew that Yahweh was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” The thought that his God might just squander that kind of grace and mercy on the bloody Assyrians – well that just made him feel sick! He wanted nothing to do with it.

So Jonah had gone in exactly the opposite direction – had found a ship heading for Tarshish and got onboard. As he watched the shores of the Promised Land recede, he had been so sure that he was free, that he had escaped the presence of Yahweh.

He had been so wrong. He knew that what had happened to him next would haunt his nightmares, likely for the rest of his life. When he closed his eyes sometimes, he could still feel the movement of the unceasing waves in the storm. And the beast that had swallowed him, the sight of it would remain etched in his memory for the rest of his life just like the stench of it, he suspected, would never leave him.

And so when, by some miracle that he would never understand, he actually survived and saw the light of day again, he knew that active disobedience was no longer an option. But surely there was another way for him to make his feelings clear. Oh, he would go and he would do as he had been ordered, but God hadn’t said anything about how the job was to be done.

So here Jonah stood outside the gates of the great city. The message he had been given was clear and succinct. And, as a prophet who had often preached the word of the Lord to the people of Israel, Jonah knew a thing or two about how to speak persuasively and convincingly. He determined to forget everything he had ever learned about that.

So Jonah took a deep breath, straightened his tunic and took one step into the steady stream of foot traffic passing through the gate and... immediately stumbled into a burly trader. “Hey, watch it buddy. I’m trying to walk here!”

Jonah sprang back embarrassed and confused. He just felt so disoriented in the midst of such a mob of people. He mumbled a few words of apology which, of course, only seem to offend the trader even more. “Speak up, you Israelite hick. Don’t you know how to speak to your betters?”

Now that got Jonah mad and there really is nothing quite like an angry Jewish prophet. “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” he yelled, “Well, you know what? Um, uh, forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

The man just laughed, but Jonah, it seemed, had his message. He realized, with a prophet’s certainty that those were the words that Yahweh had sent him to deliver. But, there was nothing in his contract that specified how those words were to be delivered. So this is what Jonah did. He continued to walk into the bustling city and, as the day went on, he had various encounters with the locals and just sort of slipped the line into his conversation.

He purchased a little bit of street food at a small counter – it was nasty Assyrian stuff to his Israelite palate, but he was hungry so it would have to do. He haggled for a price and was sure that the savvy vendor was cheating him, and so, as he walked away he just casually said it over his shoulder. “Oh, and by the way, forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

By the end of the afternoon, he had given the message to about 20 people. He was feeling tired and parched and so he found a nice little ale house on a corner. He went inside to discover that it was filled with some locals who were taking a break. Jonah figured that he had been working pretty hard too, so he pulled up a stool and joined them.

About an hour and several rounds later, Jonah was feeling as if he was surrounded by a bunch of new friends. But, Jonah intended to be outside the city gates before nightfall so he swallowed the drags of his ale pot and sadly bid them adieu. “Hey, friends, it was nice to meet you. It almost makes me sad to know that...” And with that the entire room joined in the chorus, “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The laughter echoed as he went back out into the streets.

And that was it. The city of Nineveh was so huge that it took three days for anyone to cross it. Jonah had barely made it into the business district and had come nowhere near the royal palace and the heart of the government. He didn’t care. The orders that he had been given had been carried out to the letter and only to the letter. He had gone into the city and he had spoken the warning of the Lord. And now Jonah was determined to do one thing. He would wait and he would see it all happen. He would watch Nineveh burn and he would enjoy it.

But, inside the gates of the great city, something was happening that Jonah would never believe. Somehow all of the people who had met with Jonah during that strange day remembered what he had said. And they told a few friends and their friends told a few friends. Before long the words that Jonah had said so casually, “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” seemed to take on a truly menacing tone, as people overheard it being passed around on the streets and marketplaces. A few people started to become alarmed. Maybe there was something to this crazy warning?

Word began to spread to the upper classes and, before long, it was brought even into the palace of the great king. By this point it had also become mixed up with various rumors, that always seemed to swirl about the city, of the attack of this or that enemy. People began to openly speculate about whether the Assyrian Empire had finally gone too far in inflicting pain and suffering upon the nations of the world. And so, by the time it came into the king’s court, the king felt that he had no choice but to do something that would stave off the panic that was beginning to form. He could not afford another time of unrest.

So the king put on sackcloth and sat in ashes and made a show of repenting of many of the destructive policies of the empire. A fast was proclaimed throughout the city and people began to talk about a new beginning for the people of Assyria.

Jonah was ignorant of all this however. His message proclaimed, his assignment accomplished, he could have left and returned to his own country. But Jonah was not about to do that. Did I mention how much he hated the Assyrians? He had vowed to himself that he was not going anywhere until he had seen the complete and utter destruction that he had foretold. He found a nice spot on a hill overlooking the great city and built himself a small shelter. He settled in to wait to see it all come to pass.

Now, forty days is a very long time to wait for anything, but Jonah didn’t care. The sight of Nineveh in flames would be recompense enough for everything that he had put up with throughout this whole miserable affair. Oh yes, Jonah would wait.

But then, when forty days had come and gone, and the city was still standing, Jonah kind of lost it. “O Yahweh! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Yahweh, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

He sat and he sulked. And while he sat there feeling oh so miserable, a castor bean plant grew up and sent its vines to climb on the shelter that Jonah had built. And, when it spread its broad leaves, they sheltered Jonah from the sun and made his day almost feel pleasant. But then, the very next day, the castor bean plant turned brown and shriveled and died away. And on that day Jonah felt the heat of the sun all the more keenly. And that’s when Jonah got really angry and he cried out to God in frustration, “If you are going to treat me like this, then kill me now!”

Yes, Jonah was that angry. But even as his anger burned, a question began to bother him. Why was he so angry? He was angry about a plant – a plant that didn’t even exist a couple of days ago and he was angry that it was dead. It didn’t make any sense, but he really did care. He cared about that castor bean plant that had made one day of his life just a little bit less miserable.

And he began to wonder, if he could care that much about a bean plant, enough to want to die because it was dead, then was it really so ridiculous that the God of Israel might care about the people of a city, maybe especially the common people and even the animals who really had nothing to do with the policies of the Assyrian king and his armies – was it really so ridiculous that God might be willing to spare their lives?

I think it is perfectly clear that the ancient people of Israel for whom the Book of Jonah was written understood that the story was a fantasy. What would have convinced them of that? Not the part about the big fish. There was something far more ridiculous than that in the story. The most unbelievable part of the story was the mere idea that the Assyrians might have repented of all their evil.

They were almost universally despised, hated and feared. And they never showed any sign of having any regret for what they had done. They never repented and, in the end, they suffered destruction by the Babylonians in their turn. So the people who first read this story knew very well that it hadn’t happened and that it couldn’t have happened.

So what is the point of the story? I suspect the author is asking his readers to ask themselves a difficult question, “How great is the grace and mercy of our God and could it possibly even extend to people as evil as the Assyrians, if they were to repent? And Jonah, in all his passive aggressive anger, is the representative of the readers of this story who are scandalized at the very idea of God’s grace and mercy.

This book is meant to make us think long and hard about the hatred we hold for those who have hurt us or who have hurt the people we love. It is meant to teach us about how the grudges we hold eat away at us and keep us from being our best selves – how they trap us underneath a miserable shelter as we put our lives on hold waiting for the kind of punishment of our enemies that really serves no good purpose and only takes a little bit of the pleasant shade out of our world. This story is there to make you think again about the hatreds that you hold close to your heart and how very useless they are.

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What was Nathaniel doing underneath the fig tree?

Posted by on Sunday, January 17th, 2021 in Minister

Hespeler, 17 January, 2021 © Scott McAndless
1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

I really just have one question as I read our passage this morning from the Gospel of John. What on earth was Nathaniel doing underneath that fig tree? Because, whatever it was, it seems to have been really important. The simple fact that Jesus saw Nathaniel under there and was apparently able to deduce something essential about Nathaniel’s character from what he saw simply blew Nathaniel away. It led him to make one of the most extraordinary confessions about who Jesus was that you will find in all the gospels as he declared that Jesus was both the Son of God and the King of Israel!

But even more than Nathaniel’s response, I’m very curious about what it was that Jesus saw in what Nathaniel was doing because, whatever it was, it revealed to him that Nathaniel was, “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” The word that is translated as deceit there, also has a sense of cunningness and wiliness. It doesn’t merely mean a tendency to lie, but also a tendency to manipulate the truth in a self-serving way. The old King James Version translated this verse as, “an Israelite in whom there is no guile,” and that was also a pretty good translation, or at least it would be if people still used words like guile.

Now let me tell you something, I am getting a little bit tired of guile and deceit. I’m getting tired of those who use guile in order to hold onto their power or their wealth. I’m getting tired of leaders who seem to have decided that the people’s perception of the truth is far more important than what the actual truth is. I’m getting tired of political leaders who are like Eli in our Old Testament reading this morning, who knows very well that the people underneath them are breaking the rules – are taking the trips that no one else is allowed to take or are profiting from their positions – and yet are content to put forward a convenient fiction that they were simply not aware. I’m tired of promises that people make and have no intention whatsoever to fulfill. We seem to be living in a world where guile and deceit have been elevated to a science and I am getting very tired of that.

So wouldn’t it be really helpful if we could just have a way of looking at someone while they sat underneath a fig tree and be able to know just from that that here is a person in whom there is absolutely no guile or deceit? Why, instead of carrying out job interviews or political debates, we could just make people sit under the tree for a little bit and we could all just know that here was somebody who had integrity and complete honesty. Just think of the incredible benefit of such a straightforward test!

Now, some people might say that that could not work for ordinary people. I mean, sure, Jesus might have been able to discern something about the character of Nathaniel by seeing him under a fig tree, but that’s Jesus. Jesus, as Nathaniel himself confesses, is the very Son of God! Surely Jesus can see things that other mere human beings cannot. But Jesus himself says that it is not extraordinary that he saw this, which suggests that it really was something that was visible to anybody.

So what was Nathaniel doing under that tree? We have one possibility that comes to us from the traditions of rabbinic Judaism which developed strong traditions around the study of the Torah, that is to say of the law in what we would call the Old Testament. In rabbinic Judaism, there is a strong tradition of people (traditionally men) gathering to discuss the Torah. They will read the scriptures and then get into these extended discussions and arguments about the meaning and the application of various passages.

These sorts of discussions are famously contentious, so much so that it became a proverb that when you have two Jews you will have three opinions. But this is not seen as a negative thing, it is seen as a way of people engaging with the text and wrestling with that variety of opinions. And it is believed that deeper truth is always found by engaging in that kind of contentious discussion. What’s more, it is seen as a great blessing to be able to engage in such an activity, as Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof:

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack To sit in the synagogue and pray. And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.

And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all.”

So this way of studying the Torah is a longstanding beloved Jewish tradition and apparently, back in the Middle Ages, this activity was sometimes referred to using an odd phrase. It was called sitting underneath the fig tree. And so it has been suggested by some that that is what Nathaniel was doing, studying the Torah, when Jesus saw him. And there is something to be said for such an interpretation. That would be the kind of activity that might just indicate something about Nathaniel’s character.

But there is just one problem. There are no indications that this kind of activity was a part of common Jewish life in the time of Jesus. The study of the Torah became much more popularly and widely practiced only after the temple was destroyed in 70 AD. While the temple still existed, the focus of Jewish life was on that instead of on the scriptures which few could read (as literacy was very low) and even fewer could possibly obtain a copy. So it’s unlikely that Nathaniel was engaging in that specific activity, at least not as it later came to be practiced.

But I still think there might be a connection to that. Where, after all, did that figure of speech – speaking of studying the Torah as sitting under a fig tree – come from? It must come from the Scriptures themselves, specifically from a promise that is repeated a few times in the Old Testament. The promise goes like this: “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4) In many ways, that is one of the key promises of the Old Testament. It envisions a nation where every family has its own little piece of land with the iconic fruit trees that are common in that part of the world. It envisions an agricultural society where everybody has the basics of survival.

I know that might not quite sound like a utopia to us – we would probably look for a bit more than just the basics, but I guess that just shows you how tough life could be back then if their big dream was just to be able to have their own vine and fig tree. You know how we sometimes talk about the American dream, well that was kind of the Israelite dream. And apparently, as a part of that, their big dream for a bit of leisure time was to be able to sit down underneath their own fig trees for a while.

And that’s why it later became an expression for discussing the Torah. When, in later ages, Jewish men became prosperous enough to have a little bit of leisure time they, like Tevye, decided that the very best way to use that time was to spend it discussing the Torah. But, like I say, that was all in the future. What might it have looked like in Jesus’ day when literacy was rare and Torah scrolls even rarer?

I would suggest that, before people had to argue over the written words of the Torah, they just struggled with living it. In Nathaniel’s day that most basic Israelite dream of every Israelite family having a fig tree and a vine to live under had become way out of reach for huge numbers of people. People had lost their family farms and vines and fig trees. Huge numbers in the population were consigned to living as slaves or just getting by working as day labourers. But maybe what Jesus had seen in Nathaniel was that he was trying to keep that ancient Israelite dream alive.

It’s kind of interesting that Jesus refers to Nathaniel as an Israelite. Do you realize that that word is rarely used in the New Testament? It had become out of date, kind of like the dream of everyone having their own vine and fig tree had gone out of date, in Jesus’ day and the normal word that would have been used was Judean or Galilean – which is to say that they had begun to call themselves what the Romans called them. But Jesus sees Nathaniel as an Israelite sitting underneath a fig tree.

Nathaniel, I suspect, has been doing what he can to keep that dream alive. He has been reminding people of God’s promise – that “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” And clearly Nathaniel has not just been looking out for himself and his own fig tree, he has been shouting to all who will listen that it is God’s intention and plan that every family should be able to have that. He has been demanding what God has been demanding and he has been demanding it for everyone.

Nathaniel was clearly someone who didn’t hesitate to say what was on his mind. When Philip told him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael came right back with, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Those are not the words of somebody who lets the worry that they might offend somebody get in the way of speaking his mind! So when he saw all of the ways in which the nation no longer functioned as God had intended, you can bet that Nathaniel didn’t stop to calculate how dangerous it might be for him to speak up about that.

That is what Jesus saw – that is what he was referring to when he said that he saw Nathaniel underneath the fig tree. But, if we understand that, are we any closer to finding the secret method to discover the individuals among us – maybe especially the leaders and potential leaders – who are without guile and deceit?

Well, it likely never is going to be easy to discern. The human heart has ever been creative at finding new ways to deceive, but I believe that one thing we can do is be on the lookout for people who remind us of this character of Nathaniel in this passage. We need, first of all, someone who is believes in the promises of God – that is to say, someone who has not given into the cynicism of this world, who has not stopped believing that, even if it seems unlikely right now, there will be vines and fig trees for all, that God can make it happen. We need that kind of faith.

And we also need Nathaniels who are not in it just for themselves – not just for their own fig tree but who are willing to hold out for the whole community to have what they need to survive. Oh, how much we are in need of that these days!

And, yes, we need Nathaniels who are not afraid to speak up and share the truth as they see it – even if it is the truth about Nazareth that no one wants to hear – no matter what it might cost.

We need Nathaniels and the truth of the matter is that we can’t really wait for one to show up. We need to be looking for them underneath the fig trees of this world, which means we need to start spending time under those fig trees ourselves. That is why Jesus found a kindred spirit in Nathaniel, he was doing the same thing. To find Nathaniel, we need to be Nathaniel.

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Beginning in the Footnotes*

Posted by on Sunday, January 10th, 2021 in News

Hespeler, 10 January 2020 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11 (Click to read)

Most of the Old Testament of the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew. And that means that, since nobody actually speaks ancient Hebrew anymore, every time we read it, we are completely dependent on the work of translators. And the translators of the Bible have done an extraordinary job. The translations that we have are very good and quite reliable.

But the simple fact is that there is no such thing as a perfect translation from one language to the other. Whenever you translate, you are going to miss out on some of the nuance and the deeper meaning of the original text. What’s more, sometimes a word or a phrase can have more than one meaning and it can be impossible to know which one is intended. And that means that, sometimes, familiar biblical passages that we think we know well, may actually surprise us a great deal when we look behind the translations and we look at the translators’ footnotes in our Bibles.

I would like to show you what I mean this morning by taking a good look at one of the most famous passages in the Bible, one that you may have thought that you understood exactly what it meant. The opening passage of the Bible, the story of creation. It is well known and loved, but it is kind of notoriously difficult to translate.

Most everybody has heard the opening words of the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” That is how it is translated in the King James Version, and most other modern translations have nearly the same thing. And that is, let me stress, a perfectly adequate translation of the opening Hebrew words of the Bible.

It also has going for it the fact that it is a familiar translation and that we at least think we know what it means. It seems to mean that God’s first act of creation was to create the heavens and the earth. And since, in ancient Hebrew, there was no word for what we would call the universe, that phrase, “the heaven and the earth,” means, basically, that God started by creating the whole universe.

But here is the problem with that. The original Hebrew also has one other, perfectly acceptable translation. It is in the footnotes of the New Revised Standard Version. There you discover that this verse could also be translated as, “When God began creating the heavens and earth, the earth was formless and void.”

Now, that is a little bit different, isn’t it? It sort of implies that something was already there when God started this great work of creation. That doesn’t mean, of course, that God didn’t create everything. But it does mean that the creation of the heavens and the earth themselves are not really part of this seven-day creation story. They had already been established before the seven days began.

Now, as I say, each of these translations is equally possible. There’s no way to be sure which translation best captures the original meaning. But, I think, if you look at the entire passage, it actually does make more sense if you translate it as, “when God began creating…” Every other time God creates in this story, it follows the same pattern: God speaks, the thing happens and God calls it good – every time except for the creation of heaven and earth. That act of creation is not part of the regular pattern of this story. So the creation of heaven and earth stand apart.

We also need to look closer at the original form of the earth. We are told that it was “formless and void.” Now that is an interesting Hebrew phrase! The original Hebrew phrase is “tohu bohu.” Now if you ever wanted a Hebrew phrase to use to impress people at parties, that has got to be it. “The earth was tohu bohu.” It is a great phrase because tohu bohu doesn’t just mean formless and void, it could also be translated as chaotic and empty or as a confused wasteland. In short, it seems to be saying that at the beginning of creation, the earth was basically a neglected mess.

And, once you understand that, you begin to see the work of creation carried out by God in this story in a bit of a different light. You begin to notice that, in the work of creation, God is not just making things, God is clearly organizing things. God creates light but then separates it from darkness and organizes it. God separates the waters by creating the sky and then God separates the waters upon the earth. In other words, God is carefully putting the waters in their appropriate places.

God creates animals but then is said to have carefully sorted them out each according to their kind. A whole lot of God’s work of creation seems to be about putting everything that has been made into its proper place. It seems that a great deal of God’s work of creation is essentially to bring order and organization out of chaos and disorder. So the original tohu bohu state of the earth is quite significant.

The next phrase in the creation story also has multiple meanings. The New Revised Standard Version translates it as, “while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” But if you look up that one in other translations, you will often find the word Spirit there instead of wind. That is because in Hebrew, there is only one word, “ruach” that can be translated either as wind or breath or spirit and there is really no way to know which meaning is intended.

I actually prefer the translation “Spirit,” because it seems to make most sense in the context. After all, what is a wind from God if not the Spirit? There is also a question of what the significance of this reference to a ruach has to do with the creation story. The ruach is said to sweep over the waters that seem, at this time, to cover the whole Earth.

But that word that is translated as sweep could also be translated differently. It could also be translated as hover or even as brood. That is to say that it could be describing the action that a mother bird performs when she sits upon her eggs.

Now that is an interesting image, isn’t it? The Spirit of God was like a mother bird brooding over the waters. Especially when you consider that, within a few paragraphs, we will see something truly extraordinary springing from the water, for it is there, on the fifth day, that animate life will first appear: “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.’”

When a dove broods over an egg and five days later a living squab pops out of that egg, we know there is a connection. And so I wonder if we are not meant to assume that there is also a connection between the Spirit from God that broods over the waters and the life that appears there five days later.

And so you see that, if you look just a little bit closer at the original language behind this short passage of scripture that is so familiar, there is a great deal to be discovered. We get a fuller picture of a God who is not only bringing all things into being but who is also bringing about order and putting things in their rightful place. And we also, in these opening words get surprising new insight into the work of the Spirit or wind of God and the Spirit’s role in bringing forth life.

But I guess that the obvious question is what do we do with all of this? I personally do not think that, by looking a little bit closer into the Genesis creation story, we necessarily are going to come to a better understanding of how our planet and the life upon it came into being. Yes, this passage does affirm that God is the ultimate source of everything that exists and I don’t have any issues with that. But I do not think that we should make any conclusions about how it all came into existence.

I do not think that this passage confirms or denies the big bang theory or the theory of evolution. Nor should we think that we can take the seven-day framing of the story as an invitation to calculate the date of the beginning of all things. That is simply because this passage is really not concerned with such matters. I think it is clear, when you look closely at this passage, that it is meant to teach us more about the Creator than it is to teach us about the creation. It is about who God is, the one who brings order out of chaos the one who brings life out of churning water and maybe especially about the one who makes it all good.

No, this story is not really about something that happened six thousand or four and a half billion years ago (depending on who you talk to). In order to really understand what this passage is saying, you need to understand that it is talking about here and now and that it is talking about you.

Today, the first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally known as the Baptism of Jesus Sunday. On this day in the church, we traditionally do read the story that we read today from Mark’s Gospel of how Jesus was baptized. And in our reading from Mark’s gospel, the author does something really extraordinary. I’m convinced that he does it intentionally.

Mark writes this, “And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” There, in just a few words, we have all the imagery and words that we find in the opening passage of the Bible.

We have the heavens above and the earth below and upon the face of the earth we have the churning waters. We have the heavens split in two, just as they are split on the second day of creation. And, of course, we have the Spirit or wind from God (because, yes, in the Greek of the New Testament just like in the Hebrew of the old, there is only one word that means both wind and spirit) – we have a Spirit from God descending and hovering over the waters and here it is made explicit that the Spirit is like a bird brooding over these waters in the form of a dove.

And, of course, finally we have the voice of the Creator booming from heaven, demanding that a new creation come into being, as Jesus is declared to be the Son of God. It is all there, and I guarantee you that it is no accident. Mark has gone out of his way to take us back in the moment of Jesus’ baptism to the very beginning of all things.

Why? Because Mark wants us to understand that the baptism of Jesus isn’t just one moment in time. It is one of those unique moments in the history of the world when all times are brought together. And I think he wants us to understand not only that the baptism of Jesus took us back to the very beginning of time, but that it also took us forward. Mark wants you to understand that that moment when Jesus went down and came up out of the water was a moment of creation for him and for the new movement of the church, but also that there is a very real sense in which the baptism of every believer also took place in that moment of time.

He wants you to understand that you were there, that at whatever moment in your life you were truly baptized, that you were the one who was in those primeval chaotic waters and that God sent his Holy Spirit upon you to create you as a new being in Christ Jesus. What’s more, Mark wants you to understand that God, in creating you anew, wants to bring you out of the chaos of life in this world and set your life on a path that makes sense, that is focused towards what is good and right and just.

The new creation, is you. And it all came together at that moment in the Jordan River when Jesus went down into the waters and did it for you. It came together when Jesus rose from the waters a new being, and so did you.

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When the Crazy Man Grabbed Mary’s Baby

Posted by on Sunday, December 27th, 2020 in Minister

Watch the YouTube video version here:

Hespeler, 27 December 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40

It has been over twenty years, but I remember very clearly what it was like after the birth of our firstborn. Everything that led up to it had been frantic and chaotic as is often the case. For the birth, we had to rush to a hospital that was about two hour drive away. And then there was all of the stress and strain and frustration of dealing with the labour and birth, things that were completely unknown to us. And then came the struggles and the worries about feeding. It was all just so disorienting. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful and it was joyful, but you just have this sense of your entire world being turned upside down.

And so, what did we first-time parents crave once things began to settle down after all that? We craved some sort of return to routine and normalcy. We wanted to establish regular feedings, baths and bedtime routines. And we wanted to make sure that our child got everything that she was supposed to get in our culture. We wanted to make sure that our child’s first Christmas was just perfect. We insisted on that photograph with Santa Claus even if she was totally not into it. We wanted to make sure that our child had all of the right children’s books and children’s toys of the day. And of course, we had to take those monthly pictures to show how our child was growing. I mean, those were the kinds of things that parents did twenty years ago. I realize that the priorities might change in different eras of time, but that desire to make sure that your child gets all of the normal things that every child gets seems to be there for a lot of first-time parents.

And I suspect that this has been true for human parents since the dawn of time. I suspect that it was true for Mary and Joseph. After all of the chaos and disruption of traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the midst of a census, after all of the frantic worrying when they discovered that, when the time came for his birth, they had no place to lay their child and they had to resort to putting him in a feeding trough, after the strange visit from the shepherds who babbled how about visitations from singing angels, I suspect that they were looking for some way to establish some normalcy for their firstborn child.

And, in fact, that appears to be a central focus to our reading this morning from the Gospel of Luke. In this passage, we are told that Mary and Joseph took their son up to the temple in Jerusalem, just a short journey from where they had been staying in Bethlehem. And the obvious question is why. Why did Mary and Joseph do that at that time? And actually, that’s a question I really don’t need to ask, do I? Because Luke doesn’t just tell us once why they did this. I counted; he tells us five times why they did it. Five times in one pretty short passage.

He says that they did it, and I quote, in order to act, according to the law of Moses,” that it was what was “written in the law of the Lord,” that the sacrifice was “according to what is stated in the law of the Lord,” that they brought the child because it was “customary under the law,” and that, when they were done, “they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord.” Hmm, do you suppose that what they were doing had anything to do with fulfilling the requirements of the law?

Now let me tell you something about reading the scriptures. When, in the Bible, something gets repeated even just once, that is significant. You can be sure that biblical authors are trying to draw your attention to something when they repeat themselves. So I can tell you for certain that it is not by accident that Luke tells us five times that they were there because it was required of them in the law.

So the question is why does Luke want us to notice that? What point is he trying to get across? I suspect he is trying to tell us a few things. For one thing, he doesn’t want us to miss the fact that Jesus was raised as a Jew just like any other Jew of his time and place. It is possible that, by the time this Gospel was written, a number of Christians had started to forget that. He wanted his readers to understand that the foundation of their faith in the Old Testament scriptures should never be forgotten.

He was also trying to make the point that the Apostle Paul makes in our reading from his letter to the Galatians, that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law.” Jesus had to know what it was to live under the law in order to offer liberty that can in some way transcend the law.

But I also get the sense from this story of poor Mary and Joseph, both still reeling from all that they have experienced over the last little while, looking to find some sense of normalcy in their life by just engaging in the normal cultural practices of their people and making sure they do them right. It feels like a very human parenting moment to me. And I’m sure that they were really just looking forward to blending in, to the anonymity of the crowd at the temple – to just be like any other parents who had come to do what was required under the law and then to just be on their way.

And so, can you imagine what they must have felt when, all of a sudden, a crazy old man just started walking towards them and calling out to them. His name was Simeon, but they didn’t know that. He was old, so old that he literally expected that he might just drop dead at any minute. But he had been waiting for something and, somehow, he had had a vision or heard a voice or dreamed a dream that told him that if he got up and went into the temple on this day, he would see what he’d been waiting for all this time. Like I said, a crazy old man. And it’s hard to imagine that Mary and Joseph thought anything but that had he just walked up and took the child out of Mary’s arms.

It doesn’t say that he asked for permission to take the child, just that he took him. Did you notice that? You can bet that Jesus’ parents did. And as he stood there holding the infant, can you imagine how Mary hovered around and maybe tried to tell him how to support the baby’s head and be careful not to startle the boy? And then Simeon looked down at the child and essentially said, “Okay I am ready to die right now.” I can’t imagine that set their hearts at ease! I’ll bet Joseph asked himself if he shouldn’t demand that this nutcase put down his baby this instant!

And while all this was going on, another person came running up – a woman who, if it is possible, looked even more ancient than the man. She at least didn’t try to grab the baby but she, oddly, didn’t even speak to the parents. She just took one look at the boy and turned around to speak to everyone else who had come to the temple that day to tell them that the boy, this tiny little child, would bring about the redemption of Israel. Any thought that Mary and Joseph may have had of a retreat into normalcy and anonymity was going to be a lot harder than they had imagined.

So, does all of this have anything to say to us where we are right now? I think we all have moments in our lives when we, like young parents after all the excitement of the birth, crave a little bit of routine and a little bit of normalcy. That is natural. I think it is something that we’re all craving a fair bit right now. After celebrating a most unusual Christmas, after enduring so many months of unusual life, I think we would all like to find a way to get back to some sense of routine. And I do believe that God graciously does offer us times like that in our lives because God knows that we need them.

But the story of Mary and Joseph in the temple teaches us that there are times when God wants to guide us into a new way. The two people who come up to Mary and Joseph in the temple represent two ways in which God prompts us into new directions. Simeon, we are told did not usually hang around the temple, but he had been specially prompted by the Spirit to go there because God had something to show him. So Simeon represents the leadership of the Spirit.

I truly believe that God’s Spirit does have ways of doing that to us. God’s Spirit acts within us, ever prompting us to step out into new directions and to take new risks. I know we often don’t want to hear that voice speaking within us, we would like to play it safe and just go with what we know. But Simeon teaches us that great wonders and glory are to be found by listening to that disrupting voice within.

Anna, the old woman, is different. She is no stranger to the temple, in fact she basically lives there. She has done so ever since her husband died after seven years of marriage and she has been a widow for a very long time. But her presence there has had a very important purpose because she is a prophet. And that means something very particular. For centuries, the prophets in Israel have been those people who sat near to the institutional authorities – near to the kings and governors and priests – and who confronted those authorities to challenge them when they were wrong and to correct them.

So Anna may have spent her days in the temple, but I can almost guarantee to you and that she was not loved by the priests or other temple authorities. She was there to goad them and to speak the inconvenient word of the Lord. As a prophet, Anna was also different from Simeon in that she was not only dependent on that inner voice of the Spirit, but also on the traditions and laws that demanded that the people act better and especially that they take care of the most vulnerable among them.

Like I say, a lot of people are very uncomfortable around prophets like Anna. And it is precisely because they do not allow us to do what Mary and Joseph were trying to do – just get on with the routine of life and not think about the bigger questions that need to be addressed. But God sends us Annas. God challenges us with big ideas like, “the redemption of Jerusalem,” that Anna spoke to all the people about. This is not because God is angry at us, but rather because God loves us so much that God wants us to be the best that we can be, both as individuals and as a society together. So God will send us prophets to call us to work for these grand ideas.

I know that we are all like Mary and Joseph today. We would like to put aside the disturbing wonders of the times in which we live and just go back to ordinary life. But God will continue to speak to you through the Spirit and prompt you to step out and to risk.

I would counsel you to listen to that voice of the Spirit. You may have already heard it, but you have tried to suppress it and tamp it down. Give that voice a chance. And, while you’re at it, open your heart to listen to the Annas who are speaking in the world today and who are challenging us to address some of the injustices and systemic problems of our society because redemption is still needed for our city.

You might think that it is a bother and annoyance that God would ask these things of us, just like Mary and Joseph found Simeon and Anna to be a bother and annoyance, but it is actually a great privilege to receive such messages and to be given the opportunity to be part of the incredible things that I promise you God is actually doing in our world today.

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What if Mary couldn’t go?

Posted by on Sunday, December 20th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 20 December 2020 © Scott McAndless
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-55 (Click to read the scripture)

After the strange visitor had left her, Mary just sat there for a while. Her mind was reeling. How could it be that she, a nobody, a lowly woman from a small town, could possibly be described as being highly favoured? How could it possibly be said that the Lord was with the likes of her? Most of all, how could it be possible that she would be having a son?

Yes, she was young, but she was not an idiot. She knew how these things worked. She might be engaged, but she had barely even met Joseph. She had basically seen him from across the room while her parents and his had sorted out the whole matter that was to be between them. But that was it. Nothing else had happened. So how could what the stranger said be true?

Now, she had listened and nodded along as he had offered his explanation. What he had said had sounded completely crazy, but he said it with such authority and gravity that you couldn’t help but look into his eyes and agree with him. And he had confessed that, yes, what he was talking about actually was impossible. His argument, basically, was that the impossible was possible. So she had agreed and she had bowed her head and taken on the mission he seemed to be giving her. But now she was troubled because it seemed as if it was one thing to agree with the words, but it was another to actually feel as if it were true with all her heart.

But wait, wasn’t there something else that he had said? Hadn’t he spoken about another impossible thing? Oh yes, it was about cousin Elizabeth – poor cousin Elizabeth who for so long had struggled with her inability to have a child. And yet he had stated the impossible as a fact: she was already six months pregnant! Suddenly Mary knew what she needed in order to make all of this surreal experience into something that seemed real. It was one thing to hear the word that Elizabeth was pregnant, but it would be something else to be with a joyful Elizabeth. She needed to see her for herself. But, unfortunately, it was 2020 which meant that nothing was as simple as it might usually be.

Skype call initiates on screen. Mary is calling Elizabeth and when she answers, we see them both on split screen.

Elizabeth: Hello? Oh, Mary, it’s you! How sweet of you to call your old cousin.

Mary: I’m calling, Cousin Elizabeth, because I heard a rumour. Do you and cousin Zechariah have some news that you should share with the family?

Elizabeth: You’ve got me, Mary. I don’t know how you found out, but it’s true. I’m expecting a baby!

Mary: Congratulations! I know that you and Zechariah have wanted this for so long! But you wouldn’t believe what has happened to me.

Elizabeth: Actually, at this point, I think that I’d believe just about anything.

Mary: Okay, but this is all kind of thrown me for a loop. I can’t even explain what happened. But somehow, I can’t help but think that, if I could see you, if I could see the miracle growing in your belly, somehow that would make it all real. Maybe then it would make sense.

Elizabeth: Oh Mary dear, you know that Zechariah and I would love to have you come up here and visit. But I’m afraid that you just can’t come. The covid numbers up here in the Judean hill country are just too high and the governor has ordered people not to even visit their close relatives. We have to be sensible and safe, even if such wonders are going on.

Mary: Yes, of course you are right. I guess I’ll just have to sort through all of this on my own. But somehow, it seems, it is harder to live with miracles when you’re alone. Okay, bye Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Bye dear. Thanks for calling!

I have thought this year about that trip that the Gospel of Luke says that Mary took to the hill country after her visit from the angel Gabriel. It seems clear enough that the reason why she went had something to do with the angel’s suggestion that the fact that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant was a sign that nothing was impossible for God. Now, I don’t think that this was because Mary didn’t believe what the angel had told her about having a child. The story seems pretty clear that, by the time Gabriel had left, Mary had accepted the truth of what he was saying. So she wasn’t seeking proof, but surely she was seeking something. She wasn’t just going to throw a baby shower for her favourite cousin.

I think that Mary was understanding something that we often miss in our modern individualistic society. Our assumption is often that faith is an intently private thing. It is something between me and my God and it is really not anybody else’s business. But that is a very impoverished understanding of faith, and it often reduces the question of faith to a matter of the things that we intellectually believe to be true or false.

But while faith may begin in the intellectual mind, it is actually something that only becomes a powerful world-changing force for good in community. And I believe that that is what actually drew Mary out to the hill country of Judea. Luke doesn’t say anything about the relationship of Elizabeth and Mary other than that they were cousins, but there was clearly a deep bond between them. Mary didn’t just need to see if what the angel had said was true, she needed Elizabeth to help her sort through it all and to make sense of it.

We read Mary’s song this morning – the Magnificat – and what people often don’t realize about this song is that it’s not just the song of a young pregnant woman. It is a song that is rich in tradition and particularly in tradition that has been handed down among women from generation to generation. Her song contains explicit echoes of the song of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, of the story of the mother of Samson and even of the stories of the great matriarchs of the Jewish people, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.

These are obviously stories that she has heard, that have been told to her by older women like her cousin Elizabeth. These are the kinds of stories that women have told each other down through the centuries to help them make sense of the trials and tribulations of their lives, especially as they live in a world where they are so dominated by men.

It even makes me wonder whether, for some reason, Mary’s mother was no longer in her life at that point and Elizabeth had become a mother figure for her. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Elizabeth was that person who had passed women’s wisdom and tradition down to her young cousin.

So, when Mary was given life-changing information by this visitor in the form of a man named Gabriel, she may have believed, but she still needed help to sort it all through and I expect that it is exactly that that compelled her to visit Elizabeth.

And think about that for a few minutes. If Mary, the one chosen by God, this special vessel uniquely used by God to bring about the wonder of the incarnation and given a clear and unambiguous explanation of the whole thing by a messenger from God, needed the help of family and of a long-standing tradition passed down through the generations to really make sense for herself of what was happening to her, how much more do you or I need that?

And, in fact, I think it is something that we all experience especially at Christmas time. At this point in our lives, if we are practicing Christians, we have all heard the Christmas story hundreds if not thousands of times. We know where the baby was laid. We know the song that the angels sang to the shepherds and it has become our prayer for peace on earth among people of good will. We know the gifts that the wise men brought and what they were seeking.

So why do we gather to celebrate? Do we really think that the preacher might give us information about the nativity that we have never heard before? I mean, I may try to give you a unique angle, but I know I’m unlikely to teach you something completely new. No, we gather because we know that information, facts and data are not enough. We know that we have to experience it all collectively to make it real.

And that is not just when we gather in churches, by the way, but also when we gather in other ways. I know when we gather with our extended families, we may not spend a lot of time discussing the deep meaning of the nativity together. (I mean, that may depend on your family, but I suspect most don’t.)

But whether we talk about it or not, when we gather like that, we are living out the truths of the Christmas story – the truths of joy to the world, the truths of reconciliation with others who might see the world differently from us and the truths of unconditional love. We may think about such things in the quiet moments around Christmas, but we can only truly understand them when we experience them in community.

And that is exactly what makes this Christmas so difficult. If Mary had gotten pregnant in 2020, she wouldn’t have been able to travel to the Judean hill country to visit with Elizabeth. And so what are we supposed to do when we cannot gather like we traditionally would this year – not in the church, not with our extended families and friends. And what is Christmas without Mary’s Song, without a deeper understanding of what it’s all about that is cultivated in the community of two women who gathered together. I think there’s a real danger that, though we hear the Christmas story yet again this year, it just doesn’t get through to our hearts.

And what do we do about that? I know there are some out there who are saying that we should just ignore or violate the limitations on gatherings, that Christmas is too important and that we can’t let them stop us from getting together. But I cannot agree with that. The limitations that have been put in place are there for the sake of the protection of the community and especially of the most vulnerable, which has more in common with the Christian gospel than anything else we could possibly do at this season. No, it is right that we should behave in an exemplary fashion as much as we can.

But I don’t think that means that we must forgo the deeper experience of the Christmas truths. We are just going to have to be much more intentional this year, despite the limits, despite the need for physical distancing, to breach that distance as much as we can in other ways whether it be over the phone or over Zoom or with actions of compassion and care that can be shown over such distances.

The miracle of Christmas is real, and I’m not just talking about the miracle of a young virgin conceiving over two thousand years ago. I’m talking about the miracle that any one of us can experience this year. I’m talking about the miracle of hope in the midst of a time when there is too much despair. I’m talking about the miracle of life in the midst of too much death. And I’m talking about the miracle of light in the midst of the darkness of this world. I want to remind you that these miracles are all there for all of you and that all you really need to do is make a connection no matter what barriers might be there preventing it. I pray that you might know and experience these miracles this year.

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A Spirit Led Recovery

Posted by on Saturday, December 12th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 13 December 2020 © Scott McAndless – Advent 3
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Luke 1:46-55, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

So, a vaccine – or rather a few vaccines at this point – have been created. Distribution in Ontario will begin in a matter of days and, if all of the research and testing turn out to be correct, we may soon get to the place where our entire lives are no longer dominated by a tiny little thing called a coronavirus. This is good news, and I realize that it’s probably a little bit premature to celebrate too much – certainly far too premature to celebrate with large maskless gatherings – but maybe it is time to at least start thinking about what comes next.

I am sure that some people are expecting that, on the day when it’s finally done, the day when enough people are vaccinated and herd immunity is attained, that the crisis will just be over. Everyone will just get up in the morning and go back to living their lives the way that they used to. That is what everyone who lives through a crisis dreams of and it is understandable. Sometimes when you’re living through a crisis, the only thing that keeps you going is the thought of getting back to life the way you used to know it. And yet, I think we all realize on some level that that is not all that realistic. Because of the direct and indirect effects of this crisis, there are many things that will simply not go back to the way they were.

We have no idea how many yet, but we can be sure that, when this is over, there will have been many businesses that have long been important parts of our local and national economies that will simply no longer exist. People’s savings will have been decimated and their debts will be that much more unmanageable. People will lose their homes or be thrown out of their apartments. People will continue to struggle to find good jobs for some time to come. Women, in particular, seem to have fallen out of the workforce and will face many struggles to get back in.

Oh, the end of the crisis will go just fine for some people: the fortunate few. That is almost always what happens in the aftermath of a crisis. In fact, for those who have the resources and are willing to ruthlessly take advantage of the misery of others, there is a very good chance that they will make enormous profits out of the whole situation. Chances are, when this is all over, there will be a small group that finds themselves greatly richer and there will be a very large group that have simply fallen through the cracks of society and the economy. And the simple fact of the matter is that, when that is the situation, it makes an economic recovery for everyone that much harder. But, that is where we will likely find ourselves in the coming months.

But, of course, we are not the first people in history to face such a situation. In fact, it is the kind of thing that happens just about every time a society faces a major crisis and then has to recover. Take, for example, the great crisis of the exile for the ancient people of Judah. When their country was destroyed and all the leading citizens were taken away into exile by the Babylonians, well you can just imagine the kind of devastation that caused.

But when that crisis finally came to an end, and the people were able to return from that exile and start all over again, their troubles were hardly over. The country had been ruined. The economy was in shambles. They were trying to rebuild and they had almost no resources to do so.

And, under those circumstances, it was the poorest folk who struggled most of all. They had no savings and they went deep into debt. Meanwhile, the few wealthy people who had returned were in a great position to benefit from the misery of these others. They loaned them money, and then, when they were unable to repay, they seized their lands, if they had any, and then they seized the people themselves and turned them into slaves.

And given that that was the kind of thing that was going on, the economy only got worse and the whole thing was a real mess. As a very few people got very rich and the great mass of the people fell into poverty and slavery, the recovery was looking like a complete disaster.

But then, a prophet came along. And he came along with a stunning message. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me;” he cried out in the ruined city. “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, To bind up the broken-hearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And this was not just the ranting of a crazy person, it was actually a plan – a plan for a real recovery.

You see, there was an ancient law in Israel. Every fifty years, all debts had to be forgiven, all lands that had been foreclosed on had to be returned and all debt slaves released. It was called the year of Jubilee. It was a way – admittedly a radical and very disruptive way – but a way of making sure that people didn’t fall into permanent poverty and that the richest people were not able to exploit their misery, at least not forever.

Now, I do hear all of the objections that you are thinking about this idea of a year of Jubilee. I mean, can you imagine the havoc it would wreak in our economy if all debts were forgiven and all sales of land were undone? It is something that is quite unthinkable under our present economic system, though it may have made a bit more sense in the ancient agrarian economy of Israel.

But, even back then, it was likely problematic. So perhaps, many have suggested, the Jubilee was not practiced, at least not on a regular basis. Sure, it was a law, part of the law of Moses, but you can well imagine that it would have taken a strong will on the part of the authorities to make sure that such a law was actually implemented and you can also well imagine that there must have been times when that will was lacking.

And so, in the aftermath of the exile while the people were trying to rebuild their lives in the city of Jerusalem, it had probably been a very long time since there had been the will to hold a year of Jubilee. And there were almost certainly no authorities who would be inclined to implement the ancient law at that moment. And so, guess what happened. A prophet stood up and declared that he didn’t care that there was no king or priest or other authority who was going to implement a year of Jubilee.

Why didn’t he care? Because the Spirit of the Lord God was upon him. He might have been nobody, he might have had no power at all, but he had God’s Spirit and that was enough. And so he would speak up and demand that the Jubilee be proclaimed. And there is no doubt that a Jubilee is what he means when he speaks of, “good news to the oppressed. . . liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” It is clearly what he means when he proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And I have a lot of respect for that prophet for having the courage to do such a thing. I don’t think I’m the only one. You are probably aware that, according to the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus began his public ministry in his own hometown of Nazareth, he did it by taking this very same passage of scripture and applying it to himself, basically saying that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy.

That is to say that Jesus came at a moment in history when the people were facing the same kind of crisis of a country and an economy that were falling apart, this time mostly due to the greed of the Romans. And so, Jesus declared that he would be the embodiment of the same call of the ancient prophet. Though he also had no earthly power to do so, his presence in the world would bring about a new Jubilee.

But it is not something that is just there when Jesus announces it at the beginning of his ministry – it is something that runs through the entire Gospel of Luke, as we see in our reading from the Magnificat this morning. You see Mary doesn’t have to wait until Jesus returns to Nazareth to speak in synagogue to know that his mere presence in the world means that the impossible Jubilee is now possible. As soon as she can sense that she is pregnant she sings it: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The mere presence of Jesus in the womb of his mother is enough – the fact that he is coming into the world means that the reality of the world and how it works is being turned upside down and the rich and the powerful are losing their place and the poor, the neglected and the forgotten have taken that exalted place. The unthinkable is happening.

I worry about the recovery after this pandemic, I really do – not because I doubt the ability of medical science and research to come up with a vaccine that will get us out of this mess. I have no worries about that. But I do have worries about human nature and especially that our greed and our selfishness will mean that whatever wealth is available will stop circulating and remain in the hands of a few and so the recovery will be much less than it could possibly be and that it will leave far too many people behind. I worry because I suspect that our leaders, who, after all, owe so much to the rich and powerful, will not be able to oppose them.

But maybe, if I listen to the Old Testament prophet, if I listen to the mother of Jesus as her hands clutch the life that is just beginning to grow inside her, and if I listen to her son as he stands before the people in Nazareth, I will realize that we don’t necessarily need to wait for our leaders to wake up and realize what is actually needed. All it takes is someone who has the Spirit of the Lord upon them. And, my friends, that is and can be any of us.

When you think about it, it is kind of amazing to hear some of the voices that are being raised right now, voices of people who are essentially powerless and who, under normal circumstances, would never be listened to, and yet, those voices are being heard right now even though they are saying things that were previously unthinkable.

I’m talking about people who are saying that maybe it is time to forgive student loan debt. I’m talking about people who are saying, let’s take some of that money that has been used to militarize the police and instead redirect it towards mental health and housing and building up social capital. I’m talking about people who are daring to suggest radical ideas like a universal basic income. These words are not coming from the powerful and the influential, and yet they are being heard. I wonder, is it maybe because somehow the spirit of the Lord is behind such ideas right now because that is what is needed?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how much merit is in some of those ideas and whether they will work or not. But I absolutely welcome such voices being heard because I know that we will never get anywhere if we quench the voice of the Spirit of the Lord.

What’s more, I believe that we, as people of faith, really ought to be those who are most open to such things because it is right there in the scriptures that we profess to believe. And it is especially there in the story of the incarnation, in the meaning of Jesus coming into the world in the first place, into the body of his mother and into that synagogue at Nazareth. If the spirit of the Lord God is speaking through somebody in the world today, we ought to be the first to rejoice in that.

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The Press Conference

Posted by on Sunday, December 6th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 6 December 2020 © Scott McAndless – Communion
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8 (Click to read)

Good morning. It is Monday, November 9, 2020, and we take you now live to the headquarters of international drug companies, Pfizer and BioNTech for an announcement that that world has been waiting for:

Good morning, Scott, I am standing outside of the building where a stunning announcement has been made. The chief executive officers of Pfizer and BioNTech just came out to announce, and I quote, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says the corporation. “Speak tenderly to the world, and cry to it that it has served its term, that its penalty is paid, that it has already received from the deadly coronavirus a double portion of suffering.

“For unto us, a vaccine has been born and an inoculation has been given. And behold, it’s efficacy shall be established at 90%.”

That is the announcement, Scott, though I would note that there is a little bit of fine print. There are a few steps yet to be accomplished. The vaccine will have to receive final approval and, of course it will have to be manufactured in significant quantities. But that’s not even the most complicated part. The companies say that, in its original form, the vaccine will have to be stored at -80 degrees Celsius, which will definitely complicate distribution. There is also the thorny necessity of convincing the vast majority of a population that, over the last little while, has discovered that it has some reasons to be wary of political authorities and medical experts, to actually take a vaccine that might make them feel sick for a short time.

And so, between now and the time when a sufficient portion of the population can be vaccinated and herd immunity be attained, there is a whole lot of work to be done. Basically, to get from here to there, we’re going to have to build a distribution highway. And you know how you build a highway: “Every valley shall be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; The uneven ground shall become level, And the rough places a plain.” And I know that that sounds like a lot of work and that it’s going to take a lot of time, but, my friends, this really is still good news. Our salvation has arrived! Take comfort, O my people.

I have said it many times during this difficult year of 2020. Again and again as I open the scriptures during this year, I read familiar passages that I thought I understood and I see them in an entirely different light. And that is true yet again on this second Sunday in Advent. Every year around this time, the church traditionally reads from the fortieth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. We not only read it, but we also sing it or hear it sung as one of the most favorite arias of Handel’s Messiah. The passage is so powerful that you would think that it could not more deeply affect me this year than it has in the past, but it has.

This part of the Book of Isaiah was originally written to people facing a very difficult historical struggle. It is addressed to the people of Israel who have, for far too long, been living in exile in the land of Babylon. Forcibly taken from homes, they have been made to live in a strange land surrounded by strange gods and strange customs. It has been extremely hard for them. But, in this passage, the prophet comes to them with some exciting, good news.

Babylon has fallen (or maybe it’s just clear that it’s about to fall) and the Persian Empire is about to take over its territories. And that might not seem like a big deal, I mean, who cares if you exchange one overlord for another, but actually it is. The thing that makes that good news is that Cyrus, the king of the Persians, has a different policy about exiles. As far as he is concerned, if they want to go back home, they can. Yes, the good news of the moment is that the people of Israel can finally go back home.

And it is in that context that the prophet says, Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” He is announcing that the exile is over by saying that God has decided that the people have suffered enough.

But, like I say, I really found those words sounded very different to me this year after we have seen our society struggling with an extended period of suffering caused by a pandemic. And when that announcement of a vaccine came, it certainly seemed like the very same kind of announcement of comfort to a people.

So, the words of the prophet certainly hit me on a different emotional level this year, but there was also something else that really struck me, something that I hadn’t seen before. When these words of comfort appear, it’s like a sudden announcement that everything is going to change for the better. The announcement of the vaccine sounded like that too. But, after that initial euphoria, there comes a let’s-get-down-to-earth moment when we realize that there is still a long way to go before we get there, that the road is going to be difficult and that it might even get worse before it gets better. I think we’ve all been feeling that as well.

Well, the same thing happens in this prophecy from the Book of Isaiah. Because, you see, no sooner did the prophet announce this incredible, wonderful news that the exile was over, than the people had to deal with a huge realization. The people were in Babylon, and Babylon was a long, long way from Jerusalem. I mean, not only was it about a thousand kilometers in an age where most people travelled on foot, but it was a thousand kilometers across the biggest, most uncrossable terrain in the entire world – a vast desert.

So, immediately after announcing this enormous comfort, the prophet goes on to announce a gigantic work project: “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It was a highway for the people to return home and a very difficult highway to build: “Every valley shall be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; The uneven ground shall become level, And the rough places a plain.” That’s right, we need to bring in the bulldozers and level the whole terrain, and that’s all before you can even start to lay down the asphalt!

Now, to be clear here, this passage is not describing the construction of an actual highway to take the people home. This is poetry – a poetic way of saying that it’s going to be a long and difficult process that takes a lot of work to get the people home. But it is still a stunning change of tone from the original promise – we go from supernatural comfort to a major public works project that has to be completed before the promise is fulfilled.

But that is how life often goes. We are told that we get to go home, but then we have to build the highway to get there; the vaccine gets announced but there is all this other work to be done before its promise is realized. This is the kind of thing that keeps on happening and so this passage is forever new – forever speaking to the hopes and the frustrations of delays that people have to live with.

Which is, of course, why, when the author of the Gospel of Mark was trying to capture the mood in Galilee just before Jesus appeared on the scene, he turned to this very same passage in the Book of Isaiah. He describes John the Baptizer as, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Now, on the surface, it might seem that what has happened here is that Mark has just misunderstood the original meaning of the Book of Isaiah. The original prophecy said, “A voice cries, ‘Prepare the way in the wilderness.’” And Mark has changed that to “A voice in the wilderness cries, “Prepare the way.” That is pretty close, but it is not exactly the same thing and Mark makes that change because Mark does see John himself as the voice that is crying in the wilderness because John preached out in the wilderness.

But I do not think that this is simply a mistaken interpretation on the part of the gospel writer. It is rather his way of saying that the ministry of John the Baptizer was a fulfillment of what had been anticipated in the prophecy in Isaiah, not literally in the sense that John was building a highway out there, but certainly in the sense that John’s call had so much in common with that of the ancient prophet.

In fact, I think we should greet the message of John the Baptizer today in almost exactly the same way that the ancient exiles in Babylon greeted the ancient prophet’s message – which is to say, much like how we received the news of the successful vaccine trials.

When John announces, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” how should we react? We should greet that news – the news that God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ to show us the power of God’s love and salvation – with joy because that means that the end of the story is written. God will bring us home. Because of Jesus we can know for sure that God’s purposes will not be thwarted and that our destiny and indeed the destiny of the whole world is safe in God’s hands.

And yet at the same time we cannot help but recognize that there is still some highway building to do before we get from here to there. And now especially, during this season of Advent, we are living in that tension between the promise of the coming of Christ, a promise that is sure and certain, and the simple reality that we are not quite there yet.

Because of Jesus because of his incarnation, because of his extraordinary teaching and example, because of his death and his resurrection, God has accomplished it all. The world is reconciled to God in Christ. The kingdom of God is established in the face of all the powers, principalities and rulers of this world. And we are forgiven, renewed and reconciled to God. That work is all done. As Jesus said on the cross at the very last, “It is finished,” which could also be translated as, “It has all been accomplished.”

And yet we are still in that waiting place. That is, by the way, what the season of Advent is all about; it is about life in the waiting place. Because, while everything is in place for all of that salvation to play out, we are still stuck here preparing for it all to be rolled out, for the highway to be built through the desert, for the vaccine to be approved and manufactured and safely distributed. That salvation is there, we can almost taste it, it is in the sights in the smells of this season of wonder, but there is still that sense of not quite yet.

And as Christians we are called to live into that promise. We are called to offer hope to people, to let them know that God has done the work and it is completed. And we are also called to live as if it were already so, and, in so doing we will make it so. That is our job. That is how we build the highway through the desert.

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Mark and the awful, horrible, no good, very bad year

Posted by on Sunday, November 29th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 29 November 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:14-37 (click to read)

I’m going to ask you to use your imaginations here for a little bit. I want you to imagine a year, an entire year, that just went really badly. A year during which just about everything you could possibly think of to go wrong went wrong and a bunch of other things that you would never think of in a million years also went wrong. Say that that year began with terrible, almost apocalyptic bushfires in the far distant continent of Australia killing or displacing an unimaginable number of animals, something like 3 billion. And then say that, only weeks later, a terrible pandemic began to sweep across the globe shutting down ordinary life and leading, ultimately, to tens of millions of cases and well over a million deaths.

And then throw a few other things into this imaginary year – cases of what clearly appear to be racially motivated police violence leading to massive protests and in some cases rioting and violence. Throw in a sharply divisive election and a transition of power wrought with confusion and fear. Hey, while you’re at it, why not throw in a few murder hornets? You know just a wildly unrealistic awful, horrible, no good, very bad year.

And imagine that you were coming to the close of that year with some hope, of course, that maybe the next year would be a lot better but, at the same time, a fair bit of worry that it might just be a whole lot worse. So, say it was around the end of November of that year. What do you suppose the mood of people would be? And given that mood, that I suspect you can probably imagine, what do you suppose that somebody might write that could actually reach people, catch their attention and speak to them exactly where they were?

I ask that question today because it is the First Sunday of Advent which the church counts as the beginning of the year. And, as it is the beginning of the year, we turn, on this Sunday to a new part of the Sunday lectionary. Last year, our gospel readings were mostly taken from the Gospel according to Matthew. Starting today, we are going to turn to a new gospel: the Gospel of Mark.

And what an introduction to the Gospel of Mark we have in our reading this morning: the sun darkened, the moon dimmed and the stars falling from heaven and, indeed, heaven and earth entirely passing away. Now, I know that this passage in the Gospel of Mark is not necessarily everybody’s favourite, but I think that it is actually a very good thing that this very passage is actually our introduction to the entire book in our readings for this year.

Most scholars today believe that of all the gospels in the Bible, the Gospel of Mark is the oldest; it was the first one written. Now the reasons why scholars believe this are rather complicated and I’d be happy to get into the details at some other time, but for the moment, let’s just say that sometime around 70 AD, that is about four decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, somebody first came up with the idea of writing down the story of Jesus’ life and death, and this gospel was the result.

That immediately raises some questions – questions like, why then? Why, at that moment in the history of church, did someone finally feel compelled (or inspired by the Spirit) to write down the story of Jesus? Did it have something to do with the fact that the first generation of believers was, at that point, passing away and they felt a certain urgency to collect and write down their witness? That may have been part of it, but I am not sure that it was the main part.

No, I suspect that it had more to do with what was going on in the world at that moment in time. Because, as I said, the consensus is that Gospel of Mark was written sometime around 70 AD. And 70 AD was an awful, horrible, no good, very bad year. What’s more, 70 AD was only one in the midst of a number of awful, horrible, no good, very bad years from about 66 to 74 AD. So it actually doesn’t matter what exact year the Gospel of Mark was written, we can be pretty sure that it was written during an awful, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Let me just give you some sense of all the horrible things that happened during that period of time. It started in Judea when somebody made fun of the local Roman governor but, when the governor tried to find the people who’d made fun of him, they’d gone missing and so he just grabbed a whole bunch of people at random and crucified them which led to a bloody general uprising. During this period of time, the reign of the worst Roman Emperor ever, Nero, finally came to an end, but it led to the worst and most violent succession crisis that you can possibly imagine. Does that sound familiar?

During that crisis, one prominent Jew looked at one of the people fighting to be the next emperor (who happened to be in Judea killing Judeans at the time) and said, “Look, there is the messiah!” Now, can you imagine that? A powerful political leader hailed as the true messiah? Well, it happened.

And then, the whole countryside of Judea and Galilee blew up an open revolt against Rome which was brutally defeated by the son of the new emperor at the cost of thousands of lives and the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem.

During one of these horrible years, it is said the Christian church that was in Jerusalem was so alarmed by the whole situation that they up and ran, leaving everything behind them to escape the city – an episode that is likely referred to in our reading when Jesus says, “When you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter.”

That is the kind of thing that was going on while this gospel was being written. And again, I ask you the question, why, at that kind of moment, did someone decide to write this book. Do you suppose that it might have been because somebody decided that just such a book as this was exactly what was needed at such a moment as that? I suspect that this is exactly what happened. The Gospel of Mark was not written merely to record what happened to Jesus during his life, though it certainly did that, but it was also written to give comfort and guidance to some people who had just lived through an awful, horrible, no good, very bad year.

I think that is true of the entire Gospel of Mark, but it is maybe especially true of the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel which we read from today because it most directly references some of the very things that were going on when this book was written. So what was the message that the writer of the Gospel of Mark was trying to give to people who were living through such times?

Well, one thing is especially clear in this chapter. He wrote it to tell people that this had all been foreseen. In this chapter, he particularly highlights the very things that Jesus predicted would happen and that were now coming to pass. Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple and much of the strife that surrounded it. And so Mark underlines that prediction and, I suspect, doesn’t hesitate to add a few details from the things that he and his fellow Christians have recently lived through.

Now, what would be the point in doing that? How is that supposed to help people deal with all they are going through? Well one thing it tells people is that nothing that has happened is as random as it might seem – that it has all been foreseen.

Now, I don’t think that that is the same thing as saying that every bad thing that happens is a direct result of the will of God. I personally do not believe that God wills that bad or tragic things happen to anyone. But tragedy is an inevitable part of life in this world and our loving God is never far removed from the struggles that people are living through. And, yes, I do think that this was exactly the kind of message that people needed to hear when this book was written.

Think of that in terms of some of the things we’ve been living through. Does the mere fact that a lot of what we have been living through was actually predicted seem like a comforting thought to you? Because it is largely true. We have been warned very clearly for a number of years now that a devastating global pandemic was bound to come sooner or later. We have been clearly warned that the effects of global warming would lead to worse and worse hurricane seasons and worse and worse forest fire seasons and we have just lived through the worst of all recorded times in both cases. Certainly, the post-election strife in the United States that we are living through right now has been predicted over and over again over the last four years.

It has all been predicted, but does that make us feel any better about any of it? Not necessarily. But maybe it does give us an imperative to listen to those who make such predictions next time and to do what we can to prepare a whole lot better. It may not give us comfort but it gives us a sense of agency, of something we can do, and that is maybe the kind of thing we need right now. I think the Gospel of Mark provided something like that for its audience.

And, if there was a comfort to be found, it was to be found in the knowledge that somewhere above and beyond the troubles of an awful, horrible, no good, very bad year, there was someone who had a plan that looked beyond the troubles of the moment to something bigger, to the redemption of a troubled world and its ultimate healing. That also was a comfort to them and I think it can also be for us.

I suspect that there is a reason why God is leading us, through the Revised Common Lectionary, towards reflecting on the Gospel of Mark as an awful, horrible, no good, very bad year comes to a close and a new year begins. I suspect this gospel has some really important things to say to us exactly where we are right now.

I pray that, in the year to come, this gospel might give us some perspective on the difficult things that we have had to live through this year and that might linger in the year to come. Like I say, I don’t believe that it is God’s desire that bad things happen to us, but that does not change the fact that we have a God who oversees the events of this world, who cares and who is determined to bring some good out of the most troubling developments.

Of course, the other thing that the Gospel of Mark gives us is a picture of Jesus. As the first Gospel written (or at least the first one written that was not lost), Mark shows us who Jesus is in the midst of the struggles of this life. And the picture we get is of the Son of God but also of one who is not removed from the struggles of this world, who entered into them willingly and freely, who knows our difficulties and comforts us in them. Because, you see, Mark was determined to present the kind of saviour that people who have lived through an awful, horrible, no good, very bad year really need to meet.

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When did we see you?

Posted by on Sunday, November 22nd, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 22 November 2020 © Scott McAndless
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Salvation is by grace through faith. That is perhaps the most central teaching of protestant Christianity. And, in many ways, every sermon I preach, every study I lead is ultimately trying to explain what that teaching really means. The bottom line seems to be this: none of us are going to be able to earn God’s favour by being good enough. God is rather looking for us to place our trust in God and in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

And that makes the parable that we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew a bit of minefield for a good old-fashioned Protestant preacher. I have privately heard Christian preachers and teachers suggest that they really don’t like this parable and that they kind of wish that Jesus never told it because, of course, this parable depicts the final judgment. And when the people are divided and judged as to whether they have pleased God, there seems to be only one criterion that matters: those who have behaved in the right way are blessed and those who have behaved in the wrong way are condemned. It seems to be a textbook example of salvation by works and not by faith.

And, yes, the actions that are celebrated in this parable are all really good. I would absolutely love to see people welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those who need it. And obviously those are precisely the kinds of actions that do please God. But, at the same time, I do not believe that we, as people, can become more pleasing to God by our frequency or quality of such actions. So, what am I to do with this parable? How am I supposed to relate it to some of my central theological convictions?

Let me first say something about the whole notion of salvation. In the minds of modern Christians, we often make an easy connection between the notion of salvation and the whole question of who gets into heaven. For too many Christians, that is all that salvation means, a ticket to heaven someday after we die. But I just feel I need to say that this parable is not actually about who gets into heaven or into the afterlife and who doesn’t. It is a parable about who is already in the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven, in the Gospel of Matthew, is very clearly more about a present reality that people can live in right now than it is about what happens to people after they die. The key point is that those who do the things described in the parable are already in the reality of the kingdom of heaven and those who don’t aren’t. That is not to say that the kingdom of heaven does not have a reality or fulfilment beyond this present world. And I do believe that, in this world, we are meant to prepare for that ultimate reality, but the focus of this parable is on this present world.

So, that is one thing I always keep in mind as I read this parable. But there is also a second assumption about this parable that we easily make that I think needs to be challenged. On the surface, yes, this parable seems to be all about works, about what we do. The word faith is not mentioned. But I would like to suggest that, actually, this parable is all about faith.

Here is what I noticed on this time reading it through. When the Son of Man comes, and all his holy angels with him, and he separates the sheep from the goats, he addresses both groups in terms of what they have done. “I was this, and you did that” or “I was this and you failed to do that.” And there seems to be no discussion when it comes to what the sheep and the goats have done. The sheep do not push back against the Son of Man and say, “Wait, we didn’t do that kind of thing.” Nor do the goats push back and say, “Oh yes we did.”

No, the pushback all seems to be over one particular question and that question has to do with seeing. Both the sheep and the goats respond by asking, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison. . .” But here’s the thing: the Son of Man never asked them if they saw him. He only spoke of what they had done for him. He was not concerned at all about sight or recognition. And this is a significant point because the Bible has a lot to say about the relationship between faith and sight.

For example, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (5:7) And the eleventh chapter of Hebrews begins like this: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Clearly, seeing is not necessary to faith. It even sometimes seems to get in the way of faith. And yet these sheep and goats seem to be fixated only on what they can or cannot see, as we all often are.

So why does this parable shift from the Son of Man’s focus on doing the right thing to the sheep and goats’ focus on seeing? Because this story is actually more about faith than we realize.

What is the real difference between the sheep and the goats in this parable? The two groups actually have far more in common than we usually realize. You see, apparently, according to this story, Jesus is constantly present in this world. He is particularly present in the poorest of the poor, in the hungry, in the sick, the forgotten and the prisoners.

Now, the heart of God has always been with such people. Throughout the scripture we see God prioritizing reaching out and taking care of the most marginalized people in society. But apparently something new and something unique has happened because of Jesus, because of the incarnation.

Because somehow, in Jesus of Nazareth, God entered into the human experience not just in some kind of sympathetic understanding but actually in the form of a human body that could understand human suffering, there is a sense in which Jesus remains uniquely present in this world in the persons of those who struggle or suffer the most. I can’t explain that. I can’t even really claim to understand it, but I know that it is the truth.

But here is what we see in this parable, though Jesus continues to be bodily present in this world, nobody can see it. The sheep, those who intentionally set out to take care of those who live on the margins, confess that they did not see it. And the goats, those who did nothing, did not see it either. So both the sheep and the goats have their blindness to this reality in common. And the Bible tells us that, when there is not sight, that is when there is a great opportunity for faith. And it is in what these two groups do with this opportunity that we see their paths diverge.

And let’s focus in on the goats for a moment. What do they do with their opportunity for faith? They do not see the reality that Christ is present in the marginalized, but what do they do with that? They continue to insist upon relying on their flawed sight. They look at the people who are living on the margins of their society, and what do they see? They see, first of all, people who are not like them. They may belong to other racial or ethnic groups. They may not talk like them or dress like them, and so they conclude that they have less value.

Or perhaps they look at them and can only see the short term. They see how costly in the short term it is to provide income support or addiction rehabilitation or health care or shelter for them. They see all of that and they conclude that such a high cost cannot be justified.

And, of course, they completely fail to see that, over the long term, there are costs that are even greater. They do not see the cost of lost potential and how people who are given a little bit of support now can contribute enormously to the society down the road. They do not see how entrapping people into conditions where they feel they have no hope and no prospects for the future is bound to create even more costly problems down the road. None of that is particularly visible and they do not see it.

They, not seeing the truth that Christ is somehow alive and present in this world, become caught up only in what they can see. And so they have no faith whatsoever. They have completely missed the incredible gift that has been given by Christ, his presence with them in this world.

The sheep, on the other hand, also have failed to perceive the presence of Christ in those that they have encountered. The only difference is that for them, this failure to see the truth has not mattered. Whether they have seen it or not, they continue to act as if every person that crosses their path, every person for whom they can make a difference for the good, is an opportunity to serve the Lord that they love. They, lacking sight, have continued to walk forward in faith and in so doing they have embraced the reality of the kingdom of heaven because they are living in the reality of it.

Salvation is by grace through faith. What that means is that God saves us. God saves us from whatever we need saving from. Salvation comes in the form of healing, of hope, of redemption and forgiveness and, yes, it also comes in the form of defeating death which is the ultimate enemy. God gives all such salvation as a free gift with absolutely no strings attached. That’s what grace is. But we access that through faith. And faith, in that context, does not mean that we have to believe a bunch of things about God or about Jesus. Faith is not about intellectually accepting certain tenants of belief. It is about trusting in God’s grace and salvation and it is about especially exercising that trust even though we cannot see it.

And so, if you want to experience God’s salvation now, you need to start living in the reality of the kingdom of heaven. You need to start living in that reality even if you cannot see it and even if you cannot feel it. It is hard for us to do that, I know, because we are so dependent on our senses. But God’s reality is God’s reality and the only way we can learn to trust that is by exercising our faith. We live as if it is so, and in time we will begin to experience it. That is what those sheep were doing, they were living in the reality of the kingdom of heaven even though they could not see it.

And, yes, there is an ultimate reality of the kingdom that comes on the other side of death. I cannot pretend to be able to describe that reality or what we will experience there. And I do believe that our entrance into that reality is in the loving and gracious hands of God alone – the God who has opened our way to that reality in Jesus Christ. My personal belief is that God is willing to accept any level of trust to grant us access to that reality.

But I believe that this parable, the parable of the sheep and the goats, is about how we live in that reality as much as we possibly can in this present world. And the bottom line is that we live in that reality and we experience the real presence of Jesus Christ with us here and now when we live our lives like those sheep, depending not on what we can see but on the promises of God who has so graciously extended salvation to all of God’s children.

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