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Minister’s blog

Aunt Jemima’s Story

Posted by on Sunday, October 24th, 2021 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/kijxcA7SvKY

Hespeler, 24 October, 2021 © Scott McAndless
Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

The Book of Job is a deep theological and philosophical dive into a very difficult question that people have always struggled with. It dares to ask the question why bad things happen to good people. But, as we read the end of the book this morning, I am struck by another question that is just about as difficult to deal with. Of course, the book tells the story of all of these terrible things that happen to Job. He loses all of his possessions to marauding bands of warriors, all ten of his children, seven sons and three daughters, are killed in a tragic accident and he deals with sickness so severe that it leaves him in constant pain and suffering.

About Recovering from Trauma

Of course, all of that tragedy does set up the difficult discussion of the question of why these things happen. But that is not really what the end of the story is about. In many ways, the end of the story raises an issue that is just as important for our present circumstances as the question of why bad things happen. At least, it leads me to ask the question how we can recover from trauma, from our losses and the really bad things that happen to us.

In some ways, the end of the Book of Job is a perfect picture of recovery. After losing everything, including his own health, Job gets it all back. He recovers physically. He gets his wealth back. And this is presented as a precise calculation. Wealth, in that world, was mostly measured in livestock and so Job gets back precisely twice as many sheep, twice as many camels, twice as many oxen and twice as many donkeys as he had before. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence; there’s got to be a message in something as exact as that. In the same way, Job gets his children back and this is, once again, quite exact. He lost seven sons and three daughters and gets back exactly the same number of both. Again, this is no coincidence.

Recovery is not as Simple as that

So, there you go, right? Everything lost has been given back. Trauma over. All’s well that ends well. Except here is the problem. Recovering from trauma is never as simple as just getting everything you lost back. Never. And you might think, based on these details, that the Book of Job totally fails to reckon with that reality. It suggests a completely happy ending. But I’m not so sure about that. I think that if we play close attention to the story of that recovery, we might see how hard Job and the people around him had to work at it. But to understand that, I think we may need to consider the story from the point of view of somebody who lived it, maybe, say, as Job’s eldest daughter might have told it. That’s right, we need to hear Aunt Jemima’s story.

Job’s Sorrow

Aunt Jemima's Story

Come on, children. Come and sit at your Aunt Jemima’s knee because I have a story to tell you. You need to hear this story because my father, your great grandfather, Job, is coming to visit later this afternoon. You need to know this story before he comes. Your great granddaddy had some terrible things happened to him many, many years ago. He lost everything that he held dear, not only everything that he owned but also everyone that he loved. He had ten children in those days, seven strapping sons and three beautiful daughters. But he lost them all in one tragic accident. Oh, my beautiful babies, you have no idea how much Job wept for those children.

And your great granddaddy tried for days on end to understand why such things had happened to him. He knew he had done nothing to deserve such tragedy. He spoke to his friends trying to find an answer and, in the end, he spoke to God and God came to answer. Now, did God ever explain to Job why such terrible things had to happen to him? Not really. God just sort of overwhelmed Job by talking about all the complexity of the universe until Job just gave up his arguments. Sometimes, you see, we never do get a clear answer to that question of why bad things happen to us.

You Can’t Replace Children

But the good news is that your great granddaddy got through it all. He survived and came out the other end of all of his struggles. He got all of his possessions back, in fact twice as much as he had before. And, blessing of blessings, he had ten more children – seven sons and three daughters. I was the first of those children.

And this is what you need to know today, children. Job loves me and all his children and he loves his grandchildren and, you, his great grandchildren. He loves you so much. But when he comes today, it may not seem that way. Instead of smiling and laughing, he will probably weep when he sees you. He’ll weep because you remind him of those children that he lost.

No matter how many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren he has, they cannot possibly replace even one that he lost. Lost children never work that way, never have and never will. I know that sometimes people, trying to comfort someone who’s lost a child, will say that. They’ll say, “Can’t you just have another one?” That can sometimes be the hardest thing for a grieving parent to hear, because they know they just want the one they lost back.

Living with the Fear

What’s more, having once lost so much, Job also lives with a fear of losing it all again. That has made it hard for him to just enjoy the things that he has and to show love. Recovery from loss – especially the loss of children is just that hard. So be gentle and loving with your great grandfather, it is what he needs most of all.

The Trauma of Generational Loss

Children, I don’t think that many people understand how hard it is to recover from this sort of trauma, especially when a whole generation is lost. I heard about a tribe once – they lived far away from this land of Uz – but they were invaded by a foreign people who came in and occupied all their territory.

These new settlers treated the people who had been living there forever as if they were ignorant savages. They decided it would be better if their entire culture were eliminated. And so, they took all of the children of the people of this tribe away from their parents. They took them and put them in schools where they were not allowed to speak their language or practice their culture or religion. Many of these children were also abused in various ways.

The Challenges of Survival

But, much to the disappointment of the settlers, the original people survived. Many of their children died, but the people survived. But survival itself brought its own challenges. For the children did not know who they were anymore. And, when they had their own children, they had no parenting models to follow. So, even after the original destruction had come to an end, the effects of the trauma kept on being passed down from generation to generation to generation.

That’s exactly what Job didn’t want to happen for his family, and he worked hard to make sure it didn’t. And so, children, I’m going to tell you what measures he took because you might need to take similar measures some day.

Accept Help from the Right People

This is the first thing that Job did that helped him to recover. He accepted help. This is exactly where too many people fall short. When you’ve been through a really hard time, when you have struggled mightily and just barely managed to survive, there is a tendency to withdraw. After all, you don’t really want to talk about what you went through. That stirs up too many difficult emotions. And you can also feel this real need to be self-sufficient. But it’s just not going to work. Recovery, real recovery that lasts, always happens within a larger community of support.

So Job found that community of support. He had to be choosy. Not every friend was going to be helpful to him. In particular, the three so-called friends who came and argued with him that he must have deserved all of these bad things that happened to him, they weren’t going to be much help. So, he prayed for them, but then he just let them go on their way.

But then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all that he had gone through. They understood. And to them, Job could really talk about everything he had gone through and all of his emotions. And that, just that, was a necessary step for his recovery. It allowed him to begin to build his own story of what he had gone through and what it meant. And that became the beginning of a new story of who he was and where he was going from there.

Accept Other Kinds of Help

So, the sympathy and listening ears they brought meant a great deal. But they were also the beginning of his financial recovery as well as each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. So, my darling grandchildren, never forget that you need the help of good and trustworthy friends in order to recover from your trauma.

Job’s Emphasis on his Daughters

But there was something else that father Job did that truly saved the future generations of his family, something that I will never forget. It was about his children. He had seven new sons and three daughters. But here is the funny thing, if you go and look at the records of his family, you will not find the name of any of those sons anywhere. Now, Job loved his sons, there is no question about that! But he lived in a world that put all the emphasis on sons. They were the ones whose names were supposed to live on. They were the ones who were expected to build the future. But Job, after all he had gone through, decided that recovery for the future of his family needed to be led from someplace else.

Job had three daughters. I, Jemima, was his first born, and then Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. And you all know those names because your great-grandfather resolved that no one would ever forget his daughters. He knew that they would be the best leaders for the recovery from trauma. He even made sure that his daughters would inherit an equal portion of all his property with his sons, something that is quite unheard of in our world, as you know.

Women are a Key to Recovery

Job did all of this because he understood something that people too often fail to realize: there can be no recovery from tragedy if women are not a key part of it. There was a time when banks and development agencies tried to help whole countries recover from poverty or natural disasters by making investments, but they made a mistake. They chose only to invest in the traditional economic drivers like government and established industry. It was often not successful, sometimes driving corruption and embezzlement and often leading to a high failure rate. But they discovered something. When they gave loans to women, even very small loans to start some small enterprise, it almost always drove economic growth that helped the whole community.

This may have something to do with how women prioritize family and community and want to build for the next generation. It certainly has something to do with how women are often the carriers of important traditions that they keep and pass down, kind of like I’m doing when I tell you this story today. Well, Job understood this.

People told him that he shouldn’t make so much of his daughters, that he shouldn’t let them inherit alongside his sons. But Job knew better than anybody the trauma that he had been through, and in order to make sure that the scars of that trauma didn’t get passed down to the next generation and the next until it came to you, this was the wise decision that he made. If you ever get the chance to help people recover from trauma, you need to keep this in mind as well.

End of Story

Well, children, that’s the story that Aunt Jemima has for you today. Great granddaddy Job will be here very soon, so you all go and you put on your best clothes and wash your faces and get ready to greet him with the biggest hug any patriarch has ever received.

The Challenge of the End of the Book

I know that people often turn to the Book of Job as they try to process the very difficult question of why bad things happen. It is a useful book for that, even if it doesn’t give crystal-clear answers, probably because there are no crystal-clear answers. So, I’ve always loved the book for how it helps us to deal with that question.

But I’ve always had problems with the ending. Yes, it does say that, in the end, Job got everything back that he lost including a whole set of replacement children. But that always troubled me because I have tried to minister to many people who’ve gone through traumatic loss, and I know that just getting back what you lost is not the same thing as recovering. I also know that it never helps a parent get over the loss of a child when you suggest that they can just have another one.

But this time as I read the story, especially as I reflected on Jemima and her sisters, I realized that there is more to the story than that, and it really does lay out some of the steps that actually do help a person to recover from such devastating loss.

Dealing with your Trauma and Loss

So, if you have suffered that kind of trauma, or if you know someone that you love who has, I would counsel you to never underestimate the impact of the wounds and the scars that you carry. They are serious and they do not just affect you, they can also be passed down in your family. Be wise like Job and take steps to deal with your trauma. Find safe and supportive people that you can trust who will listen to you and help you process your experience. In some cases, you may need someone who has been professionally trained to do that. Do not be afraid to ask for help, we all need it sometimes. And make investments in the people who will build a better future for yourself and your family and everything you want to leave for the generations yet to come.

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Shrinking Camels

Posted by on Sunday, October 10th, 2021 in Minister, News

Watch the YouTube video here:

https://youtu.be/eqMWMoNod68

Hespeler, 10 October, 2021 © Scott McAndless – Thanksgiving
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

The story is told that, in Jerusalem in the early years of the first century, there was a gate in the city wall that was popularly known as the eye of the needle. This gate was apparently quite handy for those who engaged in the import/export trade – maybe especially those who engaged in it without wanting to bother paying annoying things like taxes and tariffs, if you know what I mean. The reason they liked this gate was because it was generally left open at night when the main gates were closed. As such, it offered an easy way to avoid the attention of customs inspectors.

Getting Through the Gate

But there was one problem. The gate was very small. And so, when a trader arrived at this gate with a camel train carrying all manner of goods that he wanted to take to market, he would quickly discover that it was so small that a camel bearing all of its burdens could not pass through it.

And so the merchant would have to remove every pack from the animal’s back. Then he would have to remove the beautifully engraved saddle that he had inherited from his father and even the fine metal bridles and bits that had been in his family for generations. The man would have to lay all of these possessions and assets of his on the ground and only then lead the camel towards the gate.

But even then, it was not possible for the camel to pass. Camels are quite unique as beasts of burden in their ability to bend their knees and get right down to the ground, and that is what the camel would have to do next. And it was only in that extremely humble position that the camel was able to crawl its way through the gate. Only then, could it stand again, and the trader could push all of his possessions through the gate, put them back on the animal and go on his way.

The Saying of Jesus

And it is said that, when Jesus turned to his disciples one day and said to them, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” that he understood and all his disciples understood that what he was actually referring to was not the eye of a literal sewing needle, don’t be ridiculous! No, they all understood that he was talking about that gate in Jerusalem.

And if they all understood that, then doesn’t that give us a perfect interpretation of that famous saying of Jesus? Because then it would mean that Jesus was saying that the problem is not really with our wealth and possessions. It is not really these things that prevent us from being part of the kingdom of God. The problem is our attitude towards our wealth and possessions. And if we, like the camel, can lay aside all of our earthly possessions without regret and if we can get down on our knees in thanksgiving to the God who has provided all of these things for us, well, then we too can pass through the gate and into the kingdom, at which point, I guess, we get all our possessions back too.

A Perfect Thanksgiving Application

It seems just perfect, doesn’t it? And wouldn’t that just make a beautiful application of this saying of Jesus on this day when we celebrate Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder that we can enjoy the good things of life, so long as we set aside a day like this on which we are truly grateful. You have maybe even heard that interpretation of this saying of Jesus before because it has been used in many sermons by preachers of all sorts. It is a very popular interpretation.

It is Bunk

There is just one problem. It is all bunk. The fact of the matter is that there was no such gate in the city of Jerusalem in the times of Jesus nor at any other point in time. Jerusalem is one of the most archaeologically investigated sites on the face of the earth, no such gate has ever been found. Even more significant, there is no mention of such a gate in any of the ancient records. In fact, nobody ever seems to have heard of such a gate until, in relatively modern times, the story I just told you began to circulate.

The Illustration that Took Off

So, do you know what I think likely happened? I suspect that, at some point, there was a Christian preacher much like myself who was struggling with this particular saying of Jesus because it is, of course, a really troubling saying. And he (let’s face it, given how long ago this likely happened, it was probably a male preacher) – he was looking for some way to make this saying relevant and palatable to the people in his congregation.

So, he made up a gate that never existed. He probably originally made it up just as an illustration. I’ll bet, in the original sermon, he did not actually say that the gate really existed. But, you know how people are. They always remember the sermon illustrations much better than they remember the actual point of the sermon. So, the story just spread around. And, before long, the actual existence of the gate was taken for granted. Nobody questioned it.

Looking for Loopholes

And I can understand why. Such an interpretation is so much easier to take than what Jesus was apparently really saying. In fact, the history of this particular saying of Jesus is a history of people looking for loopholes. I heard a joke the other day saying that Elon Musk, who is apparently now the richest man in the world, has been funding research lately on the miniaturization of camels and the magnification of needles’ eyes.

I heard that joke and I laughed, but then I thought about what the richest men in the world, men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, have been doing lately. They, and a few other global billionaires, have literally been engaging in a self-funded space race. It rather seems as if they have decided that, if they can’t fit a camel through a needle’s eye, they are just going to fly directly to the kingdom of heaven in rockets.

How Jesus would Reply to the Super Rich

I can’t help but wonder how Jesus might reply to such men and their quest today. I think that men like that actually have a lot in common with that rich young ruler that had come up to Jesus that day. We are told that this man came up to Jesus with this question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And notice that that question is very specific.

He doesn’t ask, for example, “Good teacher, how can I get into heaven?” Nor does he ask, “How can I be part of this ‘kingdom of God’ that you are always going on about?” Being part of the kingdom of God was all about how you lived out this life as a part of what God was accomplishing in the world. Getting into heaven was all about what happened after you died, but this man asks about neither of those things. This man just wants to straight up live forever.

What the Super Rich are Doing

That is what I see the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk doing these days. They’ve already got everything of this world they could possibly desire. I mean, these are men who have so much wealth that they literally could not possibly spend it all no matter what they did. The interest and return on investment they earn grows much faster than what they could possibly spend buying things. They’ve gotten to this place where possessions don’t actually mean anything anymore.

And so what do they seek? They seek eternal life. To quote a movie score, “(Fame) I’m gonna make it to heaven, Light up the sky like a flame. (Fame) I’m gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name.” And they think that using their wealth to conquer outer space is the way they are going to do that.

And I know that they’ve done their best to present what they do as being ultra cool and all for the sake of the future of humanity, but I really think most people see through that. I suspect that Jesus would have seen through it too. Had they come up to Jesus and said, “What must I do to live forever?” They would have probably cut Jesus off even before he started listing off the commandments and said, “Hey, did you hear that I went into space?”

But the story still would have ended with Jesus shaking his head and saying, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and use it to lift billions from poverty, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Little has Changed

These men remind us of just how little has changed since Jesus first spoke to that rich young ruler. The richest people in the world are still full of themselves. And even when they do things that they like to think of as trying to better the world, their extreme wealth tends to skew their perception.

Yes, today’s billionaires may think of themselves as saving humanity by providing us a path to the stars, but it’s pretty clear, from the way they go about it, that it’s all about them saving the world. Yes, Bill Gates, who was once the world’s richest man, may have given away huge quantities of money through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but when you look at how he set all of that up, he managed to keep a whole lot of control over how the money was spent so that it would align with his vision of what the world was supposed to be. He made sure that it was kind of all about him.

The Distortion Caused by Wealth

And I think that that is what Jesus is really getting at in his interaction with this rich young ruler and his saying about camels and needles’ eyes. There is no denying that you can do a lot of good with wealth. In fact, given all of the ways in which the world actually works, it is practically impossible to do good without access to wealth. That is why churches and non-profits actually have to invest a fair bit of energy into raising funds. But what Jesus is saying is that wealth itself has a power to distort even the noblest of goals. And the more there is of it, the more distortion may occur. I think that’s what we are seeing happening in the billionaire space race these days.

Jesus Asks for More

And Jesus was saying more than just that we have to take all of our belongings off of the camel and make the camel kneel down before going through the gate. He was saying that, if we really want to be part of the kingdom of God, which, remember, is all about what God is doing in this world to bring about God’s vision of peace and justice and goodness for all, then we have to let go of that distorting influence in our life. Wealth and the pursuit of it and the illusion of security that it brings, these are the very things that prevent us from being a part of the kingdom of God here and now.

And, while some can and will take Jesus’ advice to just give everything away to the poor, the practical truth of living in this world is that most of us will not be able to do that. But understand that, by not giving everything away, we are choosing the much more difficult path, indeed the impossible path. We have to deny the power that wealth has over us. The good news, however, is that God is so committed to bringing about God’s kingdom, that the impossible can happen.

Embracing the Impossible

So, yes, we are in a tough spot on this Thanksgiving Sunday. We do want to gather and celebrate the incredible bounty of harvest and all of the good things that God gives us in this world. And I would say yes, be truly thankful for all of these things today and every day. But do not forget to go beyond thanks to embrace the real challenge that your God gives to you today, to actually pursue the impossible reality of the kingdom of God.

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The LORD and the Attorney General

Posted by on Sunday, October 3rd, 2021 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/Z4WN9VZ4404

Hespeler, 3 October, 2021 © Scott McAndless – World Communion
Job 1:1, Job 2:1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

Have you ever considered that the mention of Satan at the beginning of the Book of Job is probably the oldest clear reference to the character of Satan that we have in the Bible. I know that people often assume that Satan first appears in the story of the Garden of Eden, but go back and read that story in Genesis 3 and you will notice that it never says that the serpent who appears to the woman is Satan, or even that it is a demon. It says that the serpent who spoke to Eve was just another creature made by God, albeit a very crafty one.

So Satan, as a distinct character, doesn’t really appear on the scene until we get to the Book of Job. But is that character who appears in the Book of Job really the same one that we come to know and hate in later Christian tradition? What is the story that really unfolds between the Lord and Satan at the beginning of this book? Even more important, what, if anything, does this character really have to do with the challenges we all face living today in this world? Today I would like to delve into one of the most classic tales of the Bible, one that leads us to one of the most elemental questions: why do good people suffer?

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time in the land of Uz there lived a man called Job. And Job lived a good life. He worked hard. He was an entrepreneur who ran all kinds of businesses like restaurants and hair salons. And he loved to have the public come into his businesses and he always treated them right and gave them exactly the kind of service that pleased them. He treated his employees well also, paying them a living wage. And he was always fair and kind in his treatment of them.

He was a faithful friend. He enjoyed going out with his friends and maybe doing some dining and dancing. He loved to go to sports events with them and cheer for the home team. He was generous to them, sometimes to a fault.

Job had a good life, but that just seemed right to everybody because he was a good person. That is how it’s supposed to work after all, isn’t it?

Meanwhile in the Heavenly Realm

Now, one day, Yahweh, the great high God of the Israelites, was hanging out with all of the other gods. They were coming to Yahweh and giving their reports, for they were under God’s authority. And while they were doing this, Satan also came.

“Well, well, well,” said Yahweh, “if it isn’t Satan, my old nemesis. If it isn’t the great dragon, that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray and who steals souls away and condemns them to outer darkness for all eternity.”

Satan or Hasatan?

“Wait, wait” said Satan, “what are you talking about? That’s not who I am at all. I am Hasatan, the Satan. Think of me as your Attorney General. I am one of your servants, the one who goes out and goes to and fro on the earth and walking up and down on it to see what all of those humans of yours are up to. I’m one of the guys on your team, remember, just like all of these other so-called “sons of God.”

“That whole idea of me as your adversary locked into a conflict with you for all eternity, that’s not an idea that’s even going to come into being until maybe hundreds of years after the writing of this particular story.

The Origins of Satan

In fact, some people think that it is a concept that was influenced by a dualistic way of looking at the universe – you know, a way of thinking where everything is seen as a conflict between two opposites: good and evil, light and darkness, black and white. Judeans might have picked up such ways of looking at the universe from the Persians during the time of the exile. But that way of understanding me as big bad Satan has still not yet even been envisioned.”

“Oh sorry, of course you are right,” replied Yahweh. “I guess that is a problem when you are an eternal being. When you are living simultaneously in the past, present and future all the time, sometimes it can be difficult to keep all of that straight. So, let’s start all over again and I’ll greet you properly.

“Welcome back home, Hasatan, my faithful Attorney General. I would be happy to hear your report on the doings of the people of the earth. Tell me, what do you think of my man Job? There is a good example of a faithful human, am I right? He always tries to do the right thing. He treats people fairly. And he only ever has good things to say about me. Doesn’t Job reflect really well on me, his creator?

A Deal is Made

“Well,” said Hasatan, “it is true that Mr. Job has nothing but good things to say about you. But why would he say any different? It’s like he lives a charmed life and everything he sets his mind to only brings him success. Let him experience a little bit of failure, some frustration and disappointment and then we shall see if he changes his tune.”

“Fine,” said Yahweh, “you have a devious mind, but that’s exactly what I like about you. Go ahead and do your worst. But do me one favour, don’t hit him directly, but you can mess things up around him.”

“Done,” cried the prosecutor. And he went out of the divine presence.

What Happened to Job

So, what did Hasatan need in order to accomplish his mission? Did he require incursions of marauding Sabeans and Chaldeans? Did he need tornadoes or hurricanes blowing in with all their destructive power? These are indeed the hazards that sometimes afflict us in this life. But Hasatan hardly needed anything as dramatic as that to accomplish his goals. He only needed a small thing – a tiny little virus.

The virus and the fear of the virus accomplished everything else. Public health officials shut down all of Job’s restaurants and his salons. His income dropped so drastically that he had to lay off all of his workers, which broke his heart. All of a sudden everything that had made him feel safe and secure, was taken away from him and he felt lost.

At the same time, he was also immediately cut off from all of his friends. He couldn’t go out and enjoy dinners or sporting events. He was trapped inside with no place to go and he felt as if his life was completely miserable.

But he said to himself, “Hey, at least this is something that we’re all in together and we’re all going to get through it together.” And so, in all of this, Job did not lose his goodness and righteousness.

Meanwhile, Again

So it happened that another day Yahweh, the great high God of the Israelites, was hanging out with all of the other gods. They were coming to Yahweh and giving their reports for they were under God’s authority. And while they were doing this, Satan also came.

So Yahweh greeted him. “Hey Satan. . . I mean. . . Hasatan, what do you say now? I saw that you did your worst to my good buddy Job and he didn’t crack. You might just be losing your touch.”

“Oh no, replied the Attorney General. “I did everything just right. If only your limitations hadn’t held me back, he would have reacted differently. Let me move directly against him and you will see that his façade will crumble like a house of cards”

“Yeah, whatever,” said the Lord, “Go ahead and do your worst.”

Phase Two of Destroying Job’s Life

So Hasatan went out from the presence of Yahweh and systematically destroyed any sense of well-being that Job still had. That sense that everyone was going through these difficult times together, the Attorney broke that down very effectively. He quickly spread misinformation by means of his favorite tool, social media. Soon it seemed as if even the most sensible precautions against the spread of a virus, like wearing a mask and distancing and even vaccines had become political footballs that people used to turn friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour.

All of this broke Job’s spirit. And then he too fell sick with the virus, even if it was a mild case (because, of course, he had done what he could to protect the community by being vaccinated).

Job felt discouraged and robbed of all strength, but still in this he did not curse God, still he held onto faith that, at least, he was not alone in all of this because his God was with him.

The Issues in Job

The Book of Job, if it were not in the Bible, would still be considered one of the great works of human literature. It is an extensive discussion, written in poetic form, of one of the most intractable questions that humanity has ever faced – why do bad things happen to good people? And most of the philosophical and theological discussion of that question takes place within the extended poetic section in the middle of the book in a series of dialogues between Job and three or four of his friends. But I wanted to focus today, instead, on the brief prose story that begins and ends the book.

More than Framing Narrative

I know that many people have dismissed this story, suggesting that it’s merely a framing narrative that sets up the much deeper discussion in the poetic section. But I’m not so sure about that. Yes, the poetic dialogues in the Book of Job do find their own resolution to the difficult problem of evil. But I do think that, in its own way, the prose story also tries to resolve this difficult question.

It all comes down to the character of Satan. He never reappears after the opening scenes, he never gets mentioned in the poetic dialogues. Nevertheless, he is the apparent instrument of Job’s misery. I cannot help but feel that if we could better understand the purpose of this character in the story, we would better grasp the author’s understanding of the problem of evil.

Satan’s Baggage

And we must, first of all, dispense with most of the cultural and later biblical baggage that comes with the name of Satan. There is no sense that this character is a powerful nemesis to God in this story. The opening scene in heaven makes it clear that he is on God’s team.

The opening scene shows the Lord, Yahweh, surrounded by figures who are called, in Hebrew, “the sons of God.” This is a Hebrew idiom. In Hebrew, when you said sons of man, it meant humans. When you said sons of God, it meant gods. So this story, which is quite ancient, actually reflects a time before the people of Israel had really figured out that Yahweh actually was the one and only true God.

And Satan comes as one of these gods who serve the high God, Yahweh. He is not called by the proper name Satan but he is rather Hasatan, which means the satan, or perhaps the adversary or the prosecutor. He is, in other words, the kind of person who, in a royal human court, dealt with legal matters and with the prosecution of individuals accused of crimes. So, he may not be a popular member of God’s court, but he is definitely part of it.

So What is the Satan?

So, if he doesn’t represent the personification of evil in the story, how should we see this Satan who is the author of all of Job’s misery?

Well, this is how I understand it. That opening heavenly scene in the Book of Job is pretty clearly not meant to be taken as a literal description of the state of affairs in heaven. The scene, with a high king who is attended by a court full of servants including his own attorney general, is clearly based on the real-life situation that the author would have witnessed in a king’s court where he, no doubt, personally served. And he means us to see it exactly as an observer in that world would observe a discussion between a king and his prosecutor as they looked into the affairs of one of the king’s subjects.

God and Human Suffering

Neither the king nor the advocate desires or intends for anybody to suffer. The satan, I suspect, simply represents an intractable truth about life – that things sometimes go wrong. Sometimes they go horribly wrong. And such misfortune may visit anyone. It does not fall exclusively on the unjust nor on the just. And of course we are tested severely when such things enter into our lives.

I think that this story affirms this basic, inescapable truth about life. I know we would like to affirm something different. We would like to affirm that all suffering carries with it meaning and purpose. But the presence of the Satan in the high king’s court seems to say otherwise. But that does not mean that we are lost and alone in the midst of the suffering of this world.

The other thing that this story affirms is that God, the high king, actually does care about our sufferings and, in the end, he draws near to Job when he’s at the worst of them. And that is not nothing. That is the central theme of the story of the Christian gospel, that God, in Christ, draws near to us when we are at our very worst.

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Covid Prayers

Posted by on Sunday, September 26th, 2021 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/08dnChxUe98

Hespeler, 26 September 2021 © Scott McAndless
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Last month, a twitter thread went viral. It was posted by twitter user @TepidButterASMR and started out by saying, “If you search ‘covid prayers’ right now in Facebook posts the sheer amount of posts is crazy.” It went on from there to screenshot a number of posts of people begging for prayers from their friends and followers as they, or their loved ones, were sick with Covid-19 and struggling for their breath in hospitals, on respirators, lingering, some of them, on the very doorstep of death.

Now, to see anyone in that kind of extreme situation is, of course, heart-rending. One can only imagine the kind of fear and despair that they were struggling with. You can certainly understand and appreciate their desire to reach out for support from other people, in whatever form they can find it. I honestly think we’d all be better off if more people did that.

Previous Posts

But the Twitter thread did not just document such requests. It also took the trouble to dig into some other previous posts made by the people involved. And it may not surprise you to discover that, in case after case, it turned up posts of vaccine skepticism, of people vowing that they would never get the vaccine no matter what, of people decrying all public health efforts to stop the spread of the virus including lockdowns, social distancing and the wearing of face masks. Oh yes, there were many references to masks as “face diapers” and many boasts about how they were the only person they knew who was brave enough not to wear one.

How we’re Feeling about Prayer

And, in many ways, that post is the perfect illustration of a lot of the ambivalence people in our society and even sometimes in the church feel right now about prayer. The Apostle James writes, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” And I do want to affirm the truth of that statement here this morning. I do believe that prayer is powerful and effective. But there is also no doubt that the truth of that statement is often put to the test in real-life circumstances. And the pandemic in which we are living right now is certainly one of those circumstances that tests us.

Flood Story

You have probably heard the story about the man in the flood before, but it bears repeating in this situation. It was a man who had a house built on a flood plain. And, in the face of a hurricane, the warning went out that the flood waters were rising and that everyone needed to evacuate immediately. So, a police car came around to this man’s house and told him that he had to leave for his own safety and security. But the man said no. “I have prayed and I believe that God will save me.”

Well, the flood waters rose and before long the man had to abandon the ground floor of his house as it filled up with water. He was up on the second floor of his house when one of his neighbours came by paddling a canoe. “They say that the waters are just going to continue to rise,” said the neighbour, “climb in the canoe right now and I will paddle you to safety.” But the man said no, he believed that God would save him.

Finally, the waters rose so high that the man had to climb onto his roof. As he sat there, wrapped in a soaking wet blanket, a Coast Guard helicopter flew by. The pilot called out over the loudspeaker and told the man that the waters were still rising and he would soon be overwhelmed. He offered to lower a rope ladder and take him to safety. But the man said no. “I have faith, my God will save me.”

So, the man died, swept away by the current. He went up to heaven and stood before the very throne of the king of kings. And the man said to God, “I believed in you completely. Why didn’t you save me?” “Well,” said the Lord, “I did send you a police car, a canoe and a helicopter. I’m not sure what you were waiting for.”

Does God Save People who make Bad Choices?

So it is certainly tempting to apply that parable to our present situation. We can ask the question, is that how God would reply to those praying for healing from covid? “I did send you public health measures. I did send you a vaccine so revolutionary and so quickly created that it almost seemed like a miracle. Why are you asking me to save you, when you have turned down everything I sent you?”

But I will tell you something, I actually don’t think that that is how God responds. I know there is all kinds of animosity out there against people who have willfully and without a medical reason resisted all efforts to control this pandemic. I feel that animosity sometimes too. It is maddening and frustrating. But I would certainly caution us against transferring our personal feelings to God. The God we have come to know through Jesus Christ is a God whose grace and mercy far exceeds anything that seems humanly possible.

God’s Boundless Grace

So yes, I actually do believe that God’s heart is open to the prayers of people who make foolish mistakes, who make bad decisions and are victims of misinformation. God’s compassion extends everywhere. Indeed, thank the Lord that God does not judge us and our decisions before considering our prayers because none of us would be heard on those terms. We all gain a hearing before the throne of God based, not on our own actions, but on the basis of what Christ has done for us. Can I get an amen?

None of that gives us a license to go out and do all manner of foolish things because we believe that God will bail us out, of course. Being a people of faith hardly means that we need to be reckless people who refuse to take reasonable precautions. But we should never deny the power of God’s grace to overcome even our most obstinate foolishness.

Prayer vs. Reality

But that is just one issue with what James says that gives us some trouble in these trying times. The promise of James that, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up,” is a wonderful promise, but it is a promise we often struggle with when we come up against the cold hard reality of life, maybe especially in these days. The simple truth of the matter is that many of those people who, in recent weeks, have been begging for those kinds of prayers, have not received the answer that they were hoping for, regardless of whether they did the right thing in terms of slowing the spread of the virus or not. Far too many have died, too many will continue to suffer with debilitating illness for some time to come.

Now, of course, the whole question of what to do about unanswered prayer is not a new issue in our time. It has always been there. But, with so many struggling in so many different ways, the question seems more urgent and more troubling than ever before these days. So I think we ought to answer the question, is the promise that James gives in his letter a nice sentiment that simply does not stand up to reality? The even more basic question is, why do we pray for people who are struggling if it doesn’t always work?

The Healing Power of Community

I believe that James is saying many important things about prayer in this passage, but one thing he is not doing is giving us a guarantee of a certain outcome when we pray. First of all, he is teaching us the importance of community in the trials of life. James does recognize, of course, that there is a place for individual prayer. He writes, Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” But when it comes to people dealing with some of the most severe problems, he gets a little bit more specific. “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

He is making it clear here that prayer is, at least in part, about activating the healing power of the spiritual community. You see, human beings, as much as we may value our individuality, are designed to be social beings. When one of us is sick, we are all weakened. And when we all come together, there is healing power in that.

This is actually something that has been demonstrated scientifically. In double blind tests, it has actually been shown that patients who have people praying for them actually have better outcomes than people who don’t. This is true even if they don’t know that there are people praying, or if the people praying for them are complete strangers to them.

Prayer Effective Independent of Theology

And here is something that is particularly interesting. The research also shows that it doesn’t matter what the people are praying or even what god they are praying to within what tradition. There is actually a power in community prayer that transcends any particular religion (even Christianity). And I do understand that. I think that James does too. When someone is really struggling, there is a real power in the community coming together on whatever terms.

For one thing, I know that we can all feel kind of powerless when someone we love is dealing with that kind of serious situation. The simple act of coming together, in some sense, and praying does give a communal outlet for that concern. It can replace that sense of powerlessness with a sense of purpose and of hope. And I cannot explain how, at least not in any scientific terms, that kind of energy going out from the community actually comes to have a positive influence on the person who is struggling, but I have experienced that kind of very real effect as I’ve watched the difference that it makes when people are prayed for.

God’s Intervention

So I really do believe that there is a power in prayer itself that is independent of the whole question of the intervention of God. But, of course, James does also tell us that God intervenes. “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” And I do believe that that is true as well. God does intervene and I have seen that many times. But I would caution us to be careful what we specifically take from that. Is James promising that, when we pray in this way, God will give us a specific outcome, the outcome we are looking for?

Salvation

I do not see him saying that. In fact, he seems to choose his words very carefully. “The prayer of faith will save the sick,” he says. And I hope you recognize that salvation, being saved, can take many different forms. Yes, when you are sick, being saved might mean being healed of your ailment. But that salvation might also take other forms. It might come in the form of the sick person finding peace, rest and being reconciled to their condition. Sometimes that salvation may come in the person being able to repair or be reconciled in an important relationship, even if they do not experience physical healing. Salvation may come in the form of everyone that this person loves being reconciled to an outcome to that illness that is ultimately inevitable. James promises that God saves, but, as we also must, he leaves it to God to judge what form of salvation is most needed given the situation.

Raising them up

James also makes this promise as a result of prayer, “The Lord will raise them up.” But once again, this seems maddeningly vague. It could mean, of course, that the sick person will rise from their sick bed. But I would also note that the Greek word for resurrection, anastasia, literally means to stand up. So, at least in some circumstances, James may be saying that even the sickest may fall back on the hope and expectation of the resurrection. But that too, I hope, can give us comfort as we pray for those who are seriously ill, knowing that our faith can actually be enough to ensure for them the hope of resurrection.

It’s not about how I React

I will admit that I can sometimes be rather skeptical when people who make bad choices, who do foolish things like refuse vaccinations that, at this point, are proved millions of times over to be hundreds of thousands of times less risky than covid itself – I will confess that I can roll my eyes when I see their requests for healing prayers. I might feel exasperated with them, but I am not God. God offers a grace to us that truly knows no bounds.

So I will never refuse to pray and I will never tell people not to pray. The power of prayer is real and effective. My advice to everyone is this. Listen to the science. Take your vaccinations. Most will experience them as an inconvenience at worst. Practice safe social distancing and wear masks when appropriate. And pray. Pray in the morning, pray in the noontime, pray in the evening and in the watches of the night. Prayer does matter, it is heard and it makes a difference.

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Who can find an Eshet Chayil?

Posted by on Sunday, September 19th, 2021 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/k77sAF08e9Q

Hespeler, 19 September, 2021 © Scott McAndless
Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8, Mark 9:30-37 (click to read)

Our reading this morning from Proverbs asks what sounds like a rather banal question at first glance: “Who can find a capable wife?” It could almost be the kind of question that exasperated young men might ask each other after several bad dates. “How on earth do I find a good wife, one who will take care of me and make me happy?”

But what if I told you that that is not really the question being asked in this passage? I mean, it is maybe a part of the question, but it is about so much more than that.

I am going to teach you two Hebrew words this morning, the two Hebrew words that begin that passage in Proverbs. The words are eshet chayil. Those are the two words that are translated as, “a capable wife” in the New Revised Standard Version, the thing that we are being asked who can find it. And here is the interesting thing about those two words. They can be translated as capable wife, but that is about the most boring translation that anyone could come up with.

Woman or Wife?

Let’s start with the first word, Eshet. That is the Hebrew word for a woman. It is, for example, the Hebrew word that Adam uses when he first sees Eve and says, “this one shall be called woman.” Now, Eshet can also mean wife because Hebrew doesn’t actually have a separate word for wife. You have to guess from the context whether it means the one or the other. So, for example, if you see a phrase like, “Samuel’s Eshet,” you would probably translate that as, “Samuel’s wife,” rather than, “Samuel’s woman.” But when you see the word all on its own, the general practice would be to translate it as “woman.”

So the question in this passage is, which case are we looking at? This is not entirely clear. For the most part, the passage speaks of this woman and what she does alone. And yet, there are a few parts of the passage that make it clear that she is actually married. So how should we translate it?

Misuse of this Passage

And here is where there’s this incredible advantage to preach about this passage over zoom because I can see some of your faces, and I know your eyes are glassing over. “Is he really going to talk about the ins and outs of Hebrew translation here?” you’re thinking. “I didn’t come here for a lesson in linguistics, I came here for a sermon that would help me to live my life better.” But we actually have to answer this particular question before we can figure out how this passage applies to your life. It matters, it really matters, whether this passage is talking about a wife or a woman.

It matters because of how some people have used this passage of scripture. They have sometimes used it to teach women that the only way in which they can live praiseworthy lives is by being wives and operating exclusively within a household. So it actually matters a great deal whether this passage is talking about a wife or a woman.

Capable?

Now let’s move on to the second word, Chayil. Once again, “capable” is a perfectly acceptable translation of that word. It does mean someone who is able to act and to do. But I am not sure that that translation really captures the flavour of the original Hebrew word. This is a word that is mostly used in the Old Testament to describe men. And, when it is applied to men, it is generally used to describe men who are strong and powerful warriors. It is usually translated as “men of valour,” or “mighty men.” And that makes me think that a translation like “a capable woman,” doesn’t quite capture how this verse would have been understood by the people who first read it. There is no question that there is a dynamism and power in this word that goes far beyond mere capacity or competence. This is an exciting woman, a woman who impresses and who kind of blows you away when you think about her. That is what this passage is talking about.

Woman of Valour

And so I do not think that a translation like, a capable wife, really cuts it for this passage. The traditional Jewish English translation of this verse is to call this person a “woman of valour.” And that, when you think about it, sounds pretty exciting. I mean, if you want a real challenge that you can take to heart, I don’t think you can do much better than that. And I am here today to speak specifically to you women of faith and say that, yes, this is something that you can aspire to. You can be and become a woman of valour.

So, the big question is what is that going to look like. What, in this passage, are we being told that women should aspire to? How can you become an eshet chayil? Now, as I said, people have often used this passage to try and convince women that they should just be content with being a competent housewife. That interpretation doesn’t just depend on whether you translate the first word as wife or woman, because the whole passage does paint a picture of what this woman of valour is like.

The Limitations of Patriarchal Society

And it is true that, for the most part, we see her acting and behaving like a typical ancient housewife. She spends a lot of her time providing food and clothing for her family. In addition, she apparently takes such good care of her husband that he spends all his time sitting in the city gates and hanging out with all the other guys. So, there are certainly some who have taken from this passage the message that the only way for a woman to shine is by being a wife and mother.

But I feel that that is a very shallow reading of the whole passage. Yes, the woman in this passage mostly spends her time at domestic chores, but I do not think that anyone should take from that that domestic duties are the only acceptable way for a woman to spend her time.

The Bible was produced in a society that did impose some severe restrictions on women. So, of course, the woman in this passage pretty much sticks to the limits that have been imposed upon her. But I do not believe that there is any sense in which that is what makes her a woman of valour. The limits that were placed on her, after all, would have simply been taken for granted both by her and by everyone else around her. These were not the things that made her extraordinary, and so no one would have seen them as making her a woman of valour.

Breaking the Limits

And so we need to look closer at the passage and, when we do, we should notice that this woman does not just stick to the strict limitations that have been placed upon her. We see that, for example, “She considers a field and buys it; With the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” Now, let me tell you, real estate speculation was not, in that world, something that was seen as an ordinary female activity. Nor was the management of crops. Yet this woman steps outside of what is expected of her, she pushes the boundaries, and this is clearly one of the things that makes her a woman of valour. She also engages in trade, bringing in food from afar, it says, and also creating goods that she sells through merchants. This kind of enterprise is certainly admirable, but it was not normally within the scope of what was considered womanly activities.

I think there is definitely an argument to be made that what the Bible calls a woman of valour, is not merely a woman who sticks to the duties that her society tells her that she is supposed to do. The Bible truly celebrates a woman who boldly steps outside of the limitations that are placed upon her.

Women of Valour

I know many women of valour in this congregation and, indeed, I have known them in every congregation that I have been blessed to be associated with. You are the women who often inspire me. I know that each one of you deals with limitations in your life. Fortunately, of course, we are deeply blessed to be living in a time when women are much more freely able to pursue all kinds of endeavours that once would have been denied to them. And our society has been deeply blessed by the contributions that have come from that freedom. But still, all of us deal with certain limitations. We deal with the expectations that are placed upon us by others. We struggle, some of us, with our own lack of self-esteem or the anxiety that holds us back. Sometimes, we deal with physical limitations or illness. But the women of valour that I see are those who don’t let those things limit them, who step beyond the bounds and who often act in excellence.

And the best part is, I believe, is that this makes being a woman of valour something that any woman can achieve. It doesn’t mean you have to have a certain mode of life. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a housewife, nor does it mean you have to have a career. You just need to trust God to break through whatever barriers are holding you back. It also makes being a person of valour something available to anyone at all.

This is because everyone deals with some limitations in some place in their life. They may be related to gender, age, infirmity or mentality, but we’ve all got them. But God encourages us to overcome such barriers as an expression of faith in God and faithfulness to our calling. And, what’s more, a reward is promised, “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, And let her works praise her in the city gates.” This, coming to us as it does from a society that usually severely limited women in their scope of action, is really quite an extraordinary statement.

Election Reflection

There is one other direction that this passage makes my thoughts go at this particular moment in time. I’m very aware, as I’m sure you are too, that tomorrow our country will go to the polls to elect the leaders who will guide our country over the next several no doubt very challenging years. And so I also cannot help but ask the question today, “Who can find a capable leader?” Or even better, who can find a leader of valour?

Now, I do not think that it is my place to tell you who you ought to vote for tomorrow. I will not even tell you who I intend to vote for in this forum. But I will tell you this, if you want a good description of the kind of leadership that we need, I think you could hardly do better than this description of a woman of valour in the Book of Proverbs. In some ways, it can be very helpful to think of our nation as one big household to which we all belong. And, in many ways, a good leader is going to have to look after our household much in the way that this woman looks after hers in Proverbs. So let me pull out just a few verses and let you consider for yourself how these might apply to the tasks that lie ahead for our federal leadership.

“She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away.” Wouldn’t that be helpful in thinking about international trade?

“She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” Talk about national infrastructure!

“She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.” Any good leader needs to think of those who fall through the cracks!

“She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” Oh, it would be good to have such an eshet chayil as we face the crises that I am sure are yet to come!

Wouldn’t we be blessed to have such leaders who maintained such priorities? I know it’s not going to practically happen in this election that there will be a literal woman of valour at the head of the party that will form our next government. I do pray that day will come soon. But maybe we can pray for the next best thing, a man who is almost as good as an eshet chayil, a woman of valour.

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Who do you say I am?

Posted by on Sunday, September 12th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/FeV_OqaU7lI

Hespeler, 12 September 2021 © Scott McAndless
Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38 (click to read)

You know, there was a time when I looked at the opening passage in the Book of Proverbs, the passage that we read this morning, and I thought that it was an exaggeration. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’”

I mean, I didn’t think that that was possible. I didn’t think that people would intentionally embrace a lack of knowledge. I knew, of course, that people could be wrong or mistaken sometimes. They might have misunderstood their lessons or been unable to get access to the right sources of information. But I assumed that people, if given the opportunity, would want to know the truth about the world.

Rejecting Wisdom

I realize today how wrong I was. For we are living in a time today when the majority of the population actually has much of the accumulated knowledge of the world almost literally at its fingertips. They can look it all up from credible sources on their phones. And yet, it seems like a growing number of people are simply not interested in knowing what is true, at least, not if it’s going to contradict what they’ve already decided they want to believe.

We are living in an age when people actively choose to get their knowledge about important things like the spread of viruses and the safety of vaccines from random videos on YouTube rather than from people trained in public health and epidemiology. We are living in an age when people are deciding not to do things simply because some authority figure told them they should do it. Once again, it seems that the Bible has found a way to apply very directly to the serious issues that we are facing in our times.

Jesus’ Question

It also reminds me of the time when Jesus turned to his disciples one day and asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” I don’t think that this question was just a matter of idle curiosity. Jesus understood that he was and would continue to be a polarizing figure. He knew that some people would just fail to understand who he was and what he came to do. But he also knew that there were some who would be only too happy to make Jesus what he wasn’t but rather what they desired him to be and what served their own purposes.

What People were Saying

And so that is what he was discussing with his disciples, how there were people who were looking for Jesus to be like John the Baptist and lead the people in a new conquest of the land of Israel. Or they were looking for Jesus to be like Elijah and confront the people who were in charge head on. Or they wanted Jesus to be like one of the prophets. That’s really convenient, of course, because whatever message you wanted to be spoken, you could probably find a prophet who had said something along those lines.

Jesus asked this question, in other words, because he knew very well that people were turning him into whatever they wanted him to be. And I would suggest to you that that is a process that is very much continuing to take place in our world today.

2021’s Most Famous Prayer

Take, for example, what I would consider to be the most famous prayer that has been publicly prayed in our world during this calendar year. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this prayer, but you need to. It was prayed by a group of people on the sixth day of January of this year and you can still go and watch the video of that prayer today. It all started when one of the people present cried out, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” to which the others called out, “Amen!”

And then another man, Jacob Chansley, raised a bullhorn to his lips and shouted, “Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space,” and immediately begin to lead such a prayer. He invoked the “divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent creator God.” He thanked this God for the police officers who, in his words, had allowed them into the building (even though the very same video shows a police officer telling all of the people that they needed to leave). Chansley above all thanked God for being able to “exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.”

Did you catch that prayer? It was, of course, prayed by a man whose face was painted red, white and blue, whose naked chest was covered with tattoos and whose head was adorned with buffalo horns. It was prayed on the floor of the United States Senate chamber by people who were there illegally, most of whom have since been arrested and are facing trial. And yet, they declared that they were there in the name of Jesus Christ. I think I know how those people would have answered the question that Jesus asks in the Gospel.

This September 6th Insurrectionist Jesus

“Who do you people that I am?” “Well,” they would have replied, “we know who you are, Jesus. You are the one who has given to us the divine right to decide how this country is going to be run and to make sure that people who are not like us don’t get any say.” They would have said, “You are the Jesus who made this country one that must be dominated by white Christian men – a country that always will be dominated by white Christian men. And they would have said this without any sense of irony whatsoever, without realizing that Jesus himself was not white and certainly not a Christian nationalist.

And I realize, of course, that those people who stormed the US capital in the name of Jesus, who carried their crosses and Christian flags, are rather an extreme case. Not everyone warps their image of Jesus to make him fit their agenda as much as that. But I do think that there is a sense in which we all do it. We all like to make our idea of who Jesus is speak louder than Jesus himself.

The Nationalistic Jesus

For many people, they don’t have to think about it, they would just answer that question of, “Who do people say that I am,” with a picture of a nationalistic Jesus. They just assume that their Jesus would automatically give reverence to the flag and support to the troops no matter what. They assume that Jesus is on their side in any war or international dispute. Above all they would say that their nation is uniquely blessed by God and so cannot do any wrong.

But Jesus would press us with the deeper question, “But who do you say that I am?” He would perhaps remind us of the time that he said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36) and all of the times when he described a kingdom of God that was over and against this present world's systems. And I’m certain he wouldn’t let us forget his warning that, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Yes, it is true that we, as individuals, can love our country and give all respect to those who serve in its armed forces, but when we start to drag Jesus and our image of Jesus into that, I think Jesus would make us look deep into ourselves and ask, “Is that really who you say that I am?”

Supply Side Economics Jesus

Of course, there are others who are only too happy to turn Jesus into a picture of their economic understanding of how the world works. They want a Jesus who says to them that if they are wealthy and prosperous and have good things happening to them, then it must simply be because they deserve it. They must have worked hard and been virtuous. Of course, it follows from that that if there are others who are poor or struggling, it must be because they also deserve it, because they have not pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps like the virtuous people have. Above all, they would say that Jesus is completely on board with their program of amassing as much wealth to themselves as they can.

But, I believe that, to these also, Jesus is asking, “But who do you say that I am?” He is reminding them that he is the Jesus who said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) He is also the Jesus who went on to say, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24) I have no doubt whatsoever that Jesus saw the value in hard work and the people who do it, but he also saw the flaws that were inherent in the system that meant there were many who could profit handsomely from the labour of others while some could never advance given the disadvantages they were saddled with

 And, of course, don’t forget that this is also the same Jesus who told the rich man that the only way for him to be part of what God was doing was to sell everything he had and give it all to the poor. (Mark 10:17-31)

Maintain the Status Quo Jesus

“Who do people say that I am?” For many people, the obvious answer to that question is that Jesus is the one who gives legitimacy to the present system of this world and the way things are done. Jesus is the one who makes sure that the system doesn’t change. Even with all of the turmoil we have seen in our society over the last sixteen months, I think many of us are still living with that expectation that at some point things will go back to how they used to be, which is to say, how they should be.

But Jesus turns to us and asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And he would remind us that he is the one who said, “The first shall be last and the last first.” (Matthew 20:16) And there is no way to understand that but that he was saying that he was here to overturn the established order of things. And he seemed to think that that kind of disruption was necessary for the kingdom of God to come into being.

Responding to Wisdom

The Book of Proverbs has this incredible image of this woman who is the personification of wisdom. She is offering to people what we all say that we desire – the wisdom that we need to work through life’s questions and problems. But, amazingly, she doesn’t have any takers.

But I think that I understand what the problem is now. It’s not that people don’t want wisdom, it’s that they don’t recognize her when she calls out because they are seeking for wisdom in all the wrong places – in the easy answers to life’s questions, in the answers that only conform to what they’ve already decided to believe. They especially seem to choose such an answer when it is so readily available on Facebook and Twitter. But if they knew what they were looking for, if they were able to recognize it, wisdom would actually be so easy to find. That is what the Book of Proverbs suggests.

Finding Jesus

It is kind of the same way with Jesus. People often complain that Jesus is absent from our world today. “Oh, if only we could hear his voice, maybe we would find our way through this present crisis!” But what if he’s actually out there standing on every street corner, maybe in the face of a beggar or someone struggling with mental illness or addiction. Maybe he’s right there in that person who’s fallen through the cracks of the system.

The problem is not that Jesus isn’t there in our world, it is that we are so busy looking for the wrong Jesus. We’re busy looking for the nationalistic Jesus or the capitalistic Jesus or the Jesus who will maintain the status quo no matter what.

“Who do you say that I am?” It is the question that Jesus continues to ask every single one of us. And maybe if we can just let go of our ideas of who Jesus is supposed to be and embrace some of the difficult pictures of who Jesus actually was and is, we can start getting somewhere.

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A Gleam Glows in the Gloom of the Grave

Posted by on Sunday, August 1st, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/5H1kV2OJ2aw

Hespeler, August 1, 2021 © Scott McAndless – Communion
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Psalm 78:23-29, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35

If you are like most readers, when you come to this passage in the Letter to the Ephesians, you kind of scratch your head. “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; He gave gifts to his people.” I mean, that part is weird enough. In the middle of a discussion about how Jesus gives gifts to the people of the church, the apostle pauses to pull out this obscure verse from Psalm 68, a psalm about how God fights against and destroys the enemies of Israel and he doesn’t even seem to have translated it correctly.

But then the passage goes from just plain weird to something that almost seems to defy reason. The writer begins to explain what he thinks the passage means: “When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.”

What? How does that necessarily follow? I mean, I will accept the great teaching of the philosopher Tyrone Davis who said, or rather sang, “What goes up, must come down.” But I cannot think of anyone, apart from the writer of this letter, who would declare it obvious that what goes up must have previously descended into the very depths of the earth, but that is what he says.

What did they know?

So, what is going on in this passage? The only way to really make sense of it is if the people who first received this letter knew some things that we, as modern readers don’t know. The fact of the matter is that, in this passage, the writer is referring to a story that the Christians in Ephesus and, indeed, Christians in most places at that time were already familiar with. It is a story that was very popular throughout the early Christian Church but that, for some reason, never really made it into the Bible apart from a few obscure references here and there. It even got a mention in one line of the Apostles’ Creed. But it was largely forgotten by the church in the ensuing centuries.

Even if it got a mention in a creed, it was not really a doctrine, it was just a story, a story that the church told to make sense of something that troubled them. Whether they actually took the story literally or not, I’m not sure. But, however they took it, it really helped them to work through what they believed. So I think that you really should know this story, it probably went like this.

The Gloom of the Grave

There is nothing but gloom as far as the eye can see. And that is the right word for it – gloom. You can’t really call it darkness because that would be something – something to notice, something to care about. Darkness is an absence of light, but this is an absence of meaning.

And in the midst of the gloom lie the souls of men and women. They had once known the pleasure of life, had felt the touch of the wind on their cheeks, the warmth of an embrace and the delight of a good laugh that starts in your belly and shakes your whole body. But all of that is now, for them, little more than a fading memory.

Three Souls

Here, every day is exactly the same as the last and so time has no meaning. But throughout that immeasurable passage of time, some of the souls come to huddle together, finding something like a connection in their fading memories of the life that they had known. For example, see over here where there is a huddle of three figures. They all come from different eras, but, down through the centuries, they have found some sort of kinship together. They have no names anymore, not even any real sense of identity. But they do have stories. They are stories of defiance and self-righteousness. The stories are all that they have, so they tell them over and over again until they hate the sound of each other’s voices and even of their own. But there is nothing else to do.

From the Time of Noah

One is speaking now in her raspy voice. “I remember how we used to laugh at that old fool, Noah. He used to go on and on about how the rains were coming, how that ark of his was the only way anyone could escape. But we told him, we told him that that ark was just some government conspiracy that was meant to control us and take away our freedom. We told him that the flood was just like the regular seasonal rains and it surely wouldn’t affect young and strong people like us, just maybe the old and infirm. I remember saying that it was my choice if I wanted to get on an ark or not.

“And I suppose that he was technically right. When those flood waters came, there really was no escaping them. But, man, did it feel good to make fun of silly old Noah. You should have seen the look on his face when he closed that door, we really showed him!”

From the Time of Babel

The man beside her isn’t listening to a word she says. He’s busy reliving the high point of his own glory days. “I was right there,” he cries. “I helped to carry the final load of bricks right to the top of that tower on the plain in the land of Shinar. And we knew that when we had set those final bricks in the mortar, we would have done it. We would have reached the heavens themselves and taken our place among the gods.

“Of course, it was just at the moment that everything went wrong. I turned to the man beside me to say what was on my heart. ‘This is it,’ I cried, ‘this the day when we take control of everything and can use it to serve ourselves.’ But the man looked at me as if he hadn’t understood a word that I’d said – which indeed he hadn’t. Then he responded with nothing but gibberish and I knew that we were undone.

“It all fell apart after that. We could never come together, never organize anything after that. But, for one brief moment, it seemed as if anything, even heaven itself, was within our grasp. I will always have that, and I will never let go of it.”

The Rebellion of Korah

The third member of the group is, if possible, even more despondent than the others. But he is no less fixated on his particular act of rebellion. “We just felt as if Moses was a little bit too full of himself,” he mutters. “Why should he be the only one who gets to decide what to do? Why should God only speak to him? Were we not also the children of Israel? Were not men like Korah and Dathan also princes among the tribes? Why should we not be able to offer incense within the tabernacle?

“And so, yes, we stood up for what we deserved. We demanded that Moses be taken down a peg or two. I still believe it would have created a better balance. But, no, before I knew it the ground began to shake and then opened up beneath us. The next thing I know, here I am and here I remain. But I will never let go of my belief that we were in the right.”

A Gleam in the Gloom

That is sort of just what it’s like in this place. No one can quite remember anything good or kind, but each one has some grievance or some memory of failed rebellion that he or she just can’t let go of. They all play them over and over in their minds until it is a kind of self-inflicted torture. But, since the only alternative they feel like they have is to give into utter meaninglessness, they cling to the self-inflicted torture. And so it is. As I said, every day is alike and absolutely nothing pierces the omnipresent gloom.

Except, what is that? Over there, in the distance? It is something that is not supposed to happen here. It is an event! And they are all so unaccustomed to even the possibility of anything happening that they all just fall silent with a total lack of understanding.

A Figure in the Light

But even more confusing is the nature of the event. It is light, something whose very presence in this place is so unthinkable that they have forgotten the word for it. All they know is that there is something assaulting their eyes, something so bright that it burns them, burns deep into their brains. And yet, somehow they just can’t stop themselves from looking towards it. And so it is that, through squinting eyes, they begin to perceive that there is something in the light, or rather that there is someone, no it is someone who is the light.

He is wounded. The blood drips from the places in his hands and his feet where he has been pierced. Another wound gapes in his side. And, on his head, a number of smaller wounds bleed that might have been made by sharp thorns. And yet, despite the wounds and the evident loss of blood, he does not look weak in any sense. On the contrary, he has all the strength and adrenaline of a man who is just won a hard-fought contest. The sense of power and victory that radiates from him is so powerful that they all turn to him expectantly.

A Message is Preached

He begins to speak. He speaks of freedom and victory. He tells of how the power of death, the power that keeps all of these souls in prison in this gloomy place, has been defeated. That power thought that it had taken him as well but it was wrong and he has come here to proclaim that the power of death has been broken forever and ever.

“And so, my sisters and brothers, my friends from all through the eons of time,” he continues, “you are free! There is nothing that needs bind you here now. In fact, the only thing that did bind you here were the grievances and the acts of rebellion that you have held on to, clinging to them because you have nothing else.

“But today something has happened that means you no longer have to cling to them. The love of God has been demonstrated like it has never been demonstrated before. It is a love that has brought God into the suffering of humanity in this world. And because such love is able to overcome any barrier, you can all let go. Nothing need hold you in this dreadful place anymore.”

The Procession of the Captives

And with that, the souls of the dead began to stir. They suddenly find that the chains of regret and fear, of remorse and failure, of grievance and rebellion are like nothing. They shake them off and they embrace a love that is so fierce and so pure that it makes them feel like young people dealing with their first brush of passion. They stand up, all of them, a mighty host. And the victorious conqueror, knowing that they are with him, turns and leads them all as they form up, rank upon rank, in the shape of a cross.

And as they emerge from the depths of the earth, a great cry echoes from the heavens: “Have you done it? Have you preached to those that sleep?” And from the throngs of souls, thousands upon thousands, who form that great cross comes the answer, a mighty “Yes!”

The Story the Church Told

Now, I will admit that I may have put some of my own dramatic flourishes on it, but that is the story that was told in the early church. It was the story of how, following his crucifixion and prior to his resurrection, Jesus descended into the realm of the dead to preach to those of all previous generations. We know that they told the story because, even if we don’t have the full text of it, we can find references to it in that passage I read from Ephesians. It is also mentioned in the First Letter of Peter which says that Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” But that is it, those are the only references that made it into the Bible.

But it is also a story we can find references to elsewhere. There’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps the oldest creed of the church, which only really makes sense if you know this story – the line between Jesus’ death and resurrection where it says that, “He descended into hell.” Finally, there is also a gospel, known as the Gospel of Peter (though nobody thinks that it was actually written by Simon Peter) that does include that rather dramatic final scene that I just ended with when the triumphant Christ emerges from the grave followed by a cross that speaks and answers the heavenly question, “Have you preached to those that sleep?”

Why did they Tell this Story?

So the story was known and it was popular, even if it was subsequently forgotten and mostly left out of the Bible. But I guess the question is, why did they tell the story like that? Again, I’m not sure that they took it as literal truth. But I do think that they told the story to help them grab hold of what they saw as an essential truth about Jesus. They knew what they had experienced in Jesus. It was love – love so powerful that it could transcend even the bounds of time. Because of that, they believed that the event of Jesus’ death was an eternal event that could have an effect on all people in all times.

But that kind of concept of timelessness is pretty hard to grasp, and so people need to tell stories to make sense of it. And so, I believe, they told this particular story in order to understand how the love shown through the crucifixion of Jesus could be so powerful that it could overcome the resentment, rebellion and regrets even of those who had lived in ancient times.

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David’s Walk on the Roof

Posted by on Sunday, July 25th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/b5eaaaC9c00

Hespeler, 25 July 2021 © Scott McAndless
2 Samuel 11:1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21 (click to read)

For centuries, Western Christianity was pretty sure that it knew what was going on in the story of David and Bathsheba. It was plain enough to see if you looked at the art and read the literature or if you listened to the sermons that were preached. It was obvious, everybody thought it was obvious, that Bathsheba was to blame – that she had intentionally set out to seduce David and lead him astray.

The scene where David sees Bathsheba bathing, was one of the classical scenes painted by many a western artist. And every one of them is the kind of painting that you probably wouldn’t show in a church because Bathsheba is always oozing with sexuality and seduction, she has clearly set out to target David with her feminine wiles.

Sebastiano Ricci's painting of Bathsheba

Leonard Cohen’s Take

That was the story and remained the story at least until 1984 when Leonard Cohen wrote what has probably become his most famous song: “Hallelujah.” The song doesn’t name Bathsheba in it, though it does name David so the reference is pretty obvious when Cohen writes, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof. You saw her bathing on the roof. Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. She tied you to a kitchen chair, She broke your throne, and she cut your hair. And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.”

That verse illustrates well how the story has been heard down through the centuries (at least, if you leave out the little bit where he makes reference to Delilah cutting Samson’s hair). It portrays David as the hapless and impotent victim while Bathsheba is the active one. David has strong faith but apparently just has a weak moment. She is the one who overthrows him, who breaks his throne.

Most of all, of course, she is out there bathing on her roof where she obviously knows that David is going to see her and be entranced. I love that Leonard Cohen song and where he went with it. But, in his references to the story of David and Bathsheba, he really did not stray far from the typical reading of the story that had persisted in Western society for a long time and still persists in many ways right up until today.

Another Story

And there is a reason why the story has been read in that way. It is not, as I intend to show you, because that is what the story actually says in the Bible. It’s because of another story that has long been told in Western society about men and women and how they relate to each other. It is a story that declares, for one thing, that men, at least if they are real men, have a natural drive that makes them aggressive and dominating. This drive is so powerful that, when presented with something alluring, they practically cannot control their response. This is the myth of male sexuality, and it is a myth that is reinforced every time you hear somebody say, “Boys will be boys,” and try to explain away aggressive or abusive behaviour.

At the same time, a story is told about women. The story is that women do not have the same kind of intense drives. Therefore, women need to take on the role of making sure that men are not overstimulated. They are encouraged to dress modestly and not revealingly, the idea being that if a woman shows too much skin, it is her fault if a man responds with sexual aggression. After all, he can’t control himself, but presumably she can.

A False Story

And I want to be clear here that that story is pure bunk. Men and women might feel their drives and desires a little bit differently, but there is no difference in intensity. Even more important, both men and women are quite capable of controlling their response to stimuli and of acting in a way that respects the autonomy of others. No one is powerless to stop themselves from harassing or abusing somebody else.

But that is the story that we have kept telling ourselves for a very long time with the predictable result that, when somebody is raped or harassed, the victim is often the one who gets all the blame. That is why we often ask what she was wearing or why she was where she was. It is why we are often more interested in her sexual history than in his. Meanwhile, the aggressor is often able to find some way to justify his (and yes, it is usually his) behaviour.

And somehow that Western story of the relationship between the sexes got read into the story of David and Bathsheba with the result that we have come to see things in that story that were never part of the original text.

Where was she Bathing?

Bathsheba at her bath by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Take, for example, the question of where Bathsheba was taking her bath. Everybody just knows that she was taking it on the roof of her house, that is to say that she was taking it in a place where she knew that David might see her because she intended to be seen. Isn’t it what Leonard Cohen sings in his song? But he certainly didn’t invent that idea. As I said, Western art has delighted to portray this particular scene down through the centuries, and you can be sure that that is exactly where the artists have placed Bathsheba, on her roof.

So, we all know where Bathsheba was bathing. There is just one problem, that is not what it says in the text. This is what it says: “It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.”

Who is on the Roof?

Who was on the roof there? Well, David of course! Actually, it doesn’t say where Bathsheba was bathing, but the obvious thing that we are supposed to assume, given the practices at that time, is that she was bathing where women would normally bathe at that time and in that culture. She was bathing in a closed courtyard, either the courtyard in the centre of her own house, or perhaps she is in a public courtyard that was maintained exclusively for women in the city for their monthly ritual bath that was required under the law.

Whichever kind of courtyard she was in, however, it was considered to be private space where she would be hidden from passersby on the streets. She certainly wouldn’t have been seen from the roof of any ordinary neighbouring house.

David’s Height Advantage

So why could David see her? Well, obviously because he didn’t live in any ordinary sort of house. His wealth and power meant that his palace towered over all the houses in the city so that he could peek into any courtyard he liked. And the suggestion of the story seems to be that, when David was feeling restless, he liked to go up on the roof of his palace and pass his time peeking into the houses of his neighbours – perhaps specifically looking for women taking their monthly ritual baths! So there really is no question; Bathsheba was doing nothing to entrap David’s gaze. David, in fact, was actually seeking to direct his gaze where it really didn’t belong.

Bathsheba’s “Consent”

But there is another part of the story where people have traditionally sought to blame Bathsheba and that is in the fact that, when David sends for her, she goes to him. Surely, it has been suggested, this is an indication that she had been seeking to ensnare him all along. If she didn’t want it, she should have just said no. Since she went, she must have consented.

But you only need to think for a moment before you realize that it is much more complicated than that. It says that David sent messengers to her. Well, who did he send? Did he send one of his warriors with a sword strapped to his side? One of his bodyguards, a muscle-bound enforcer dressed in leather? If you were a woman living alone in your house and you were confronted with a messenger like that, how free would you really feel to say no?

To be honest, even if David sent the mildest of messengers that he could find, Bathsheba would not have felt the freedom to say no because, no matter who the messenger was, she knew the kind of power the sender of the message had. She knew that he had the power to punish her and even to kill her if she said no. And any consent that is given under those kinds of conditions is not genuine consent. The reality is that Bathsheba had no opportunity and no power to say no.

Let’s Call it Rape

And so there really is no doubt about what David did to Bathsheba. We’d call it rape today. By every modern legal definition, that is what David did to her. The definition was a little bit different in ancient Israel where power of consent did not actually belong with the woman, but, even there, there is no escaping that that is what David did. And the Bible really was never ambiguous about that. Indeed, it tells us that the prophet Nathan confronted David with that very accusation.

So, I think it’s plain to see that when you examine the story of David and Bathsheba closely, it really doesn’t say what western society seems to have decided a long time ago that it says. That, for me, is one of the really powerful things about the Bible. It has this way of correcting our willful misinterpretations

Misusing the Bible

We often act like everything the Bible says has always been settled. “The Bible said it, I believe it and that settles it,” the argument seems to go. And people have used that approach to the Bible to support horrible things. The institution of slavery, people confidently taught, was right and good because that was how the Bible said it should be. The Indian Residential School system was a good thing, preachers taught, because the Bible taught that these people were merely savages that needed to be converted, by force if necessary. And women were evil temptresses who needed to keep their sexuality under control because the Bible said that Bathsheba led David astray by bathing on her roof.

People will indeed use the Bible to support all kinds of things, even evil things, that they have already decided to do. But the wonderful thing about the Bible is that it is always there, the original text still accessible, and we can always go back and look at the story within its wider context, and we suddenly realize that maybe these things were not quite as clear cut as we were taught.

Repentance

So I think it is time for us to repent of some of the things that we have said that the Bible said about sex, sexual assault and rape. Let me declare it here and now, women are not responsible for the sexual sins of men. We are, each one of us, responsible, no matter what the situation, to treat other people with respect as human beings created in the image of God. Our teaching around sexual assault should not be that women need to be modest or cautious, it needs to be that men must be respectful of the autonomy and value of women and of all.

We also need to teach that those who have more power, like David represented by his lofty palace had more power, need to be even more careful about respecting others. The greater your power, the greater your responsibility. There have been far too many stories of men, in particular, who have amassed power in this world – movie producers, comedians, politicians and many others – who have gotten away with abuse, harassment and rape simply because of their position. That needs to change.

And really the church should be at the forefront of asking for that change. But the problem is, there have also been all kinds of stories of powerful men in churches – pastors, teachers and other leaders – who have been doing exactly the same thing. Clearly the church is not immune from this problem, and we need to stop pretending that it is.

So, let us not fall into the trap of thinking that, just because we’ve always been told that this is what a certain passage or story from the Bible means, that is necessarily true. Why not let the Bible speak for itself. And where we have gone wrong, and where our interpretations have led to people being hurt and victimized, let us not fail to repent and to make the necessary changes.

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I Will Make you a House

Posted by on Sunday, July 18th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/eChi4ZGBc_I

Hespeler, 18 July 2021 © Scott McAndless
2 Samuel 7:1-14, Psalm 89:20-37, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

It just seemed obvious that that was what needed to happen. It was the necessary next step. For so much of their history, the people of Israel had lived an unsettled life. They had been displaced from here to there, first living as nomadic shepherds in the Levant, then taken away and made to live as slaves in a foreign land of Egypt, and then, even when they were released from Egypt, they ended up wandering around in the wilderness for forty years. So it only seemed right and sensible that, if they had a God who had chosen them and whom they had chosen, that such a God would not be tied down to one place either.

The Ark of the Covenant

And so the God that they encountered and came to know during those years was with them in many different locations. Being human, they still needed some way to focus their worship of such a God, and so, on God’s instructions, they created something. They created a box, a beautiful box covered in gold. And on the top of that box they built a seat.

Oh, it was a very fancy seat. It was constructed out of golden cherubim, unearthly winged creatures, but that did not change what it was. It was a chair, a throne, and they believed that their God would sit upon that throne. They couldn’t see God sitting there. God was invisible, and so insistent on not being seen that it was forbidden to make any image of God. But even if they couldn’t see it, that throne was the sign and symbol of the presence of their God with them.

But actually, the most important feature of the golden box, which, for some reason, we have come to call an ark, was on its sides. On its sides were fixed golden rings. And those rings were there so that you could pass long poles through them in order to carry God’s portable chair from place to place. Everything was designed for mobility. And whenever the box was put down in one place for a while, they would just pitch a tent to keep it in.

David Brings Stability

And that was how they knew their God. And that made sense to them. They were people without roots, so why did their God need any? And this continued to work for them even after they had entered into the Promised Land and began a more settled existence because, even then, leadership kept on shifting and changing and there always seemed to be some group or another coming along and invading or pillaging.

But when David established his kingdom and there was finally a period of relative peace and security, it seemed clear that it was time to make a change. So once David had established an administration and built a palace, the obvious next thing to do was to build a permanent residence for the God of Israel. In fact, this was so obvious that Nathan, the prophet and the man who never hesitated to question or challenge the king’s ideas, didn’t even have to think about it. He just said, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

Our Need for Buildings

And I think we can all understand that. When the Christian Church first emerged in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, it did not meet in what we would recognize as church buildings. They met in the homes of members, on factory floors and sometimes in open spaces on the edges of cities. The Letter to the Ephesians that we read from this morning was written to a group of churches that met in such places. They were an unsettled people – a people who lived mostly on the edges of society, so it kind of made sense that they would meet with their God in the many and varied places where they lived out their lives.

But something odd did happen to the church at some point. It didn’t happen everywhere all at once, but as the decades and then the centuries went by, in various parts of the empire, the church did find a certain measure of stability. There were local officials who tolerated them, even liked to have them around, and they offered to the church a certain amount of protection. And no sooner did that sense of being settled come, than churches began to construct buildings as special houses where they could experience the presence of God. They felt exactly the same impulse that David had felt, and, like Nathan, they never really even questioned whether it was the right thing to do.

Suddenly Churches Everywhere!

And then in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine finally made Christianity legal everywhere and there was no turning back. All of a sudden, such worship houses were being constructed everywhere and each one made more beautiful and elaborate than the next. And so it went from there with every church of every kind deciding that, if they wanted to encounter God in the midst of their settled life, what they needed was a special house built for that purpose. And that story culminates, for us, with the arrival of Scottish settlers in this place and their decision to build this beautiful house to encounter God right here in Hespeler.

But should we Just Assume?

But all that time, like I said, everyone just assumed, like David and Nathan, that it was the right thing to do. We enjoyed living a somewhat settled life in a house, so surely God would appreciate that as well. But David and Nathan forgot something, something that I think we often forget too. They forgot to ask what God actually wanted.

But God told Nathan anyways. The message came that very night. It doesn’t say whether Nathan was awake or asleep, but I’ve always imagined that it came in the form of a very troubling dream. But however it comes, God’s opinion is made very clear. “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God neither desires nor requires a house. This could not be made clearer. It doesn’t matter that the situation of God’s people has changed. It doesn’t matter how settled and secured they may feel, God does not require permanent housing in order to relate to those people wherever they may be.

So that is the first part of God’s answer. But I would note that it is not the whole answer. In fact, by the end of Nathan’s vision, we learned that God will allow for the construction of a temple. This is because God recognizes that, while God doesn’t need a temple, the people who are now living a more settled existence, just might.

Something Else Needed first

But there is something that must come first, and this is the stunning surprise that comes with Nathan’s vision. You see, David has just said that he wants to make a house for God, but God turns that around and says instead that God wants to make a house for David. “Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” David is interested in making a house of cedar, but God requires a house made of people, that is to say a dynasty, first.

What does that tell me? That tells me that God is much more interested in building up people than architecture. That tells me that God is much more likely to place God’s glory in people than in a building made of wood or stone.

Picked up in the New Testament

And to show you that this is not just a one-time thing but rather an ongoing priority for God, let’s make a quick visit over to our New Testament reading this morning. The Letter to the Ephesians was actually written to a group of churches in a large region, but it was a region that had a long and highly esteemed religious tradition. The temples in and around Ephesus were world famous for their beauty and the glory they brought to their gods. And so I can well imagine that the churches that received this letter felt rather self-conscious about their lack of a beautiful building in which they could meet with their God.

At that point in Christian history, having a church building was really just a pipe dream, but they must still have talked about it and longed to be able to make a house for God. But, in this letter, God writes back through the apostle to say there is something much more important than that they build a house. You are… members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

It is lovely that you want to make me a house, God says to them, but first let me build you into a house. It is the same answer that David got through Nathan.

God is not into Buildings

So, what can we take from all of this? One thing seems quite clear. The God that we worship, the God that David knew and the God that we have come to know through Jesus, is not as much into churches and temples as we probably assumed that God was. God never much felt the need for such things, at least from God’s own point of view.

Nevertheless, God does give in to David’s suggestion of a temple, at least after a certain delay. There seems to be a recognition in this that, while God doesn’t need buildings, sometimes we do. It seems to be helpful for us as human beings to have this place where we can gather and where God seems more present, even though, of course, there is no place where God is any less present. There’s also no question that buildings do sometimes create possibilities for ministry and outreach that would not be possible without them. So, God does recognize that they are useful to us.

God would Rather Make us a House

But, while God may accept our need for such buildings, there is a higher priority from God’s point of view that we need to take into account. God would much rather make us a house than that we should make God a house. God is wildly enthusiastic about building us up as a community together, about creating us as a people who go out and have a positive impact on the community around us, about creating unity among us despite whatever differences we may have. God is much more interested in building that than in houses of cedar or of bricks and mortar. God is so insistent on that, that God would rather make us a house before we get around to making God a house.

Getting Christians Back in Buildings

There is a lot of focus right now on getting Christians back into church buildings. Of course, I can understand why that is. Many of us have been worshiping outside of them for a very long time now. I suspect there may even be some fear that if we don’t get them all back soon, they may never want to come back. So I do understand the desire, but I am not sure that God is as desperate to get us back into buildings as we might be.

God Wants to Make Us a House

God never actually asked us to make God a house, though God did understand our desire to do so. But wherever we may be worshiping over the next while, do not forget what God’s priority actually is. God wants to make us a house. And I do believe that God has been doing that even as we have been away from our buildings.

We have certainly learned some new ways to connect with each other in our worship during these times. I don’t know about you, for example, but I found that some of the ways we’ve been able to connect through prayer during this season have been extraordinarily nourishing to me. I love that I am able to pray for the things that are on your hearts as we share requests in the zoom chat. This is one of the ways in which God has been building us in unity, making us a house. I certainly hope we don’t lose what we have learned as we begin to transition to ways of worshiping that are more closely connected to a building.

We have also been able to connect with people who simply cannot come to a building, or at least cannot come so often. I pray that we don’t lose that way in which God has been building us into a house either.

God’s commitments are clear. They are commitments to us as a people. My prayer, especially over the next season, is that we don’t become so obsessed with making a house where we meet with God, that we lose sight of God’s commitment to us. God wants to make us a house.

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