Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

Congratulations!

Posted by on Sunday, January 29th, 2023 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/FC_vwMB1asw
Watch YouTube sermon here

Hespeler, 29 January 2023 © Scott McAndless
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

In 1966, the American Bible Society published a book that would transform many people’s understanding of the Bible. That book was called “Good News for Modern Man,” and it was a translation of the entire New Testament into modern, everyday English. Despite what would be a rather problematic title today (What, is there no good news for modern women?), the translation was a tremendous success. Actually I would hold out that success as an important lesson on how much the English language has actually changed since it was first published.

Ten years later, the entire Bible was published under a better title, The Good News Bible. And the American Bible Society never looked back. Ever since their translation has remained one of the best loved and most widely used, though today it is often referred to as “Today’s English Version.” It is the translation that is used in our Sunday School and for the readings that are pre-recorded for our worship services. Joanne read from it today.

Copies in the Church

I know all of that publication history because the church that I grew up in had purchased several copies of Good News for Modern Man and, when the Good News Bible came out, they bought enough copies to place them in all of the pews.

And I remember that – oh boy, do I remember that! I remember that because, though I was just a kid, I happened to be in the room when a bunch of adults were discussing the new Bibles. They were not impressed!

An Overhead Discussion

And I remember exactly what they were talking about. They were talking about the very passage that we read this morning – the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. You know what they were upset about? They were upset about the very first word.

The translations that everyone had grown up with up until that point (both the King James and the Revised Standard Versions) had translated it like this: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But, the man who was talking complained, the Good News Bible had had the unmitigated gall to translate it like this: “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them!”

“Happy? Happy??” he cried, “that just has to be wrong. It doesn’t make any sense. It says, “the poor in spirit” (yes, he was still stuck in the old translation), and what does “poor in spirit” mean except that people are unhappy! So, it is just plain wrong because that would mean, “Happy are the unhappy!”

The Impression it Made

That diatribe made an impression on me and stayed with me. It is actually probably one of those formative events that birthed in me a deep desire to understand the Bible and what it is really saying. That is, of course one of the things that led me to seminary and to the kind of work that I do now.

In the course of my studies, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn some New Testament Greek. And, while I wouldn’t say that I am an expert, I did learn to read the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew for myself.

And so, if I were able to time travel back to that room where that discussion was taking place in the late 1970s, I could actually say something intelligent about that criticism of the Good News Bible. And do you know what I would have to say? I would have to say that, actually, “happy” is a perfectly good translation of the original Greek word into contemporary English.

Why Blessed may not be Best

The word in the gospel refers to people who are in a contented and fortunate state. Even more importantly, it was an ordinary everyday word. It was the word you would have used to describe anyone who was enjoying some good fortune. It would have been how you wished them a happy birthday or congratulated them on the birth of their child.

And here’s the problem, blessed is not an everyday English word. It is a special word that is normally reserved for religious situations or experiences. So, yes, happy is a good translation and probably better than blessed.

A Better Translation

But do you know what? There is actually a translation that might have been even better. But I suspect that the translators of the Good News Bible were a little afraid to use it. It would have been a little bit too much for those old men in the church where I grew up, but I’ll bet they considered it. A better translation might have been “congratulations.”

Oh, can you imagine how that would have gone over among those righteous religious folks of the late seventies? I can hear them now! “Congratulations? Congratulations! Now that’s just not right. How could Jesus possibly have said something like, ‘Congratulations you who are poor in spirit. Congratulations you who mourn, and you who are meek and you who suffer for doing the right thing’? Those are simply not things that anyone would congratulate anyone for. That’s just a bad translation.”

It Doesn’t Make Sense

And you know what? They would be right about one thing. Not that it is a bad translation, but that it doesn’t actually make any sense. No one would say something like that. But here is the thing: Jesus did. Jesus looked out across that crowd that had gathered at the top of the mountain and he literally congratulated all of those people that he saw who were weeping and mourning, who were poor, who had been abused and mistreated for no good reason. They were all present and he congratulated them all. That is what he was saying.

And the people who were standing in the crowd listening to him actually reacted much like those men in my church did. They were all looking at each other and asking, “Did that guy really just say what I thought he said? Is he really standing up there congratulating people for being poor, hungry, meek and persecuted? That just doesn’t make any sense!” You see, that is exactly the reaction that Jesus was trying to provoke when he said it.

Using Special Churchy Language

This is one of the problems that we have with many of our Bible translations. It is not that they aren’t accurate translations. Most modern translations are really good. It’s just that they often resort to special churchy language that seems to be so far removed from the lives that people are living day by day. But Jesus and the disciples never spoke like that. They always used real everyday language.

When Jesus spoke to the crowds, he was not trying to make them feel special spiritual feelings. He was not trying to elevate them so far into a heavenly plane that they were no earthly use. He was intentionally provoking them, pushing their buttons, as a way of getting them to look at everything in their lives from a completely different point of view.

Struggling with that First Word`

So, if you really want to understand what it would have been like to stand there on that mountain and listen firsthand to that most famous sermon ever given, you probably shouldn’t start by trying to figure out what by “the poor in spirit.” You shouldn’t start by asking when he said “blessed are the cheesemakers,” whether he intended for people to take that literally or “it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” (I’m sorry, I simply cannot do a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount without can at least one Monty Python reference.)

No, understanding the Sermon on the Mount starts with understanding the very first word – the word that is traditionally translated as “blessed” but that I’m suggesting we ought to translate as “congratulations.” You need to understand what Jesus is doing when he says that to you, because Jesus is saying it to you. That is the point.

Congratulations!

Jesus is looking at the very thing that you are struggling with right now. Are you tired this morning because you have just been working too hard? Jesus is looking at you and saying, “Congratulations!” Are you worried, maybe crippled with anxiety because you’re not quite sure how you’re going to pay the bills this month? Congratulations! Are you worried about your health? Congratulations! Grieving someone you’ve lost? Congratulations! Are you just so upset because there’s somebody who hasn’t treated you right? Congratulations!

Are you feeling any of those things or can you imagine going through such trials and somebody comes up to you and says, “congratulations”? Can you imagine how confused or maybe how mad you would feel towards someone who said such a thing as that to you? Well, that was exactly the kind of reaction that Jesus was trying to provoke with his beatitudes. And unfortunately, the saintly and religious language we use in our translations have hidden that provocation from us for many years.

The Reaction Jesus is Looking for

Jesus wants you to be confused and maybe even mad when you hear these things, but that is only the beginning of the reaction he is looking for. What he’s really aiming to do is to shock you into looking at all of those kinds of circumstances in your life in a very new way.

After you get over the initial confusion, Jesus is actually challenging you to look at the circumstances in your life that you are inclined to regret or even complain about. He wants to force you to ask yourself the question, “What, in this, could I possibly be congratulated for?”

Not Mere Optimism

Please understand that I don’t mean by that that you should just try to look on the bright side of the bad things in your life. Even more important, I’m not saying that you ought to just put up with the bad or evil things in your life.  There are far too many stories of people who put up with terrible things like abuse in the pursuit of spiritual goals. Jesus never called for that. He never said to be happy about being poor or hungry or persecuted. But he did congratulate the people who didn’t need to face those things alone because the kingdom of heaven had come for them.

What he is really doing here is challenging you to look at where God is at work in the things that are afflicting you. When for example, he congratulates you who are mourning, he is definitely not saying that grief itself is wonderful; of course it isn’t. He is saying that, if you are open to it, you will receive divine comfort in your grief. And that is something truly valuable.

An Opportunity to See God Work

And even when Jesus speaks of those who are being abused and mistreated for doing the right thing and not doing anything wrong, of course he is not saying that there is anything good about being in that situation. But I suspect that he is congratulating people for the opportunity they will see to trust in God as they speak out against the abuse, for example, or as they call out for change in systems that allow abuse to happen. The congratulations are for the fact that we can see God at work when we step out in faith and work for the kingdom of God in this world.

So, take a good look at the things that you do struggle with. Listen for Jesus’ congratulations and let that set you off on a quest to find how you can see God at work in and through the difficult things you face in your life.

Another Application

I do recognize that this can often be difficult to see when you are in the midst of such very personal trials. So let me suggest another application of this teaching of Jesus that is a little less personal but perhaps more powerful. We are in the middle of a process that involves, among other things, taking a good look at some of the challenges that the church and that this congregation face at this particular moment of difficult change.

And I know that, as we look at this, there’s a lot that feels very hard. We feel fearful about the future, and we feel immense grief and sadness for some of the things that we feel that we have lost in the church. Of course, these are not easy things to deal with.

But I would just challenge you with one thought today. What if Jesus is looking at all of us and all of these difficult thoughts and feelings we are struggling with and saying congratulations? Jesus is saying congratulations, but not because Jesus doesn’t understand how difficult this might all feel for us, but because he understands how exciting it is to be a part of the beginning of God doing something entirely new. And when you begin to capture the excitement of that, you will start to discover the true nature of the kingdom of heaven.

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Dear Paul

Posted by on Sunday, January 22nd, 2023 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/KxUHcpPueFs
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 22 January 2023 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

According the Book of Acts, the church in Corinth was founded by the Apostle Paul. It says that he stayed there for some considerable period of time and, during that time, a group clearly came together – a group that was united in their love of and faith in Jesus. I am sure it was a wonderful time when they felt very much in agreement with one another and there were no divisions among them. It felt as if they were “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose.”

But then Paul moved on. God called him to continue the work elsewhere. And I’m sure that, as he continued that work, he often paused and remembered those people in Corinth fondly and he smiled as he imagined them continuing to move forward with one mind and purpose.

Other Influences

But time went on and other people began to have influence in the church in Corinth. Apparently, the Apostle Peter, who often went by the name Cephas, stopped by for a while and that was a great blessing to the church. And then there was another man named Apollos, who was young and very charismatic, even if he didn’t really know as much as he thought he did. He spent time there too and a lot of people really loved him.

And eventually there was a woman named Chloe in the church at Corinth. She was clearly an important leader. And she looked around at the church one day and she noticed that people weren’t quite so “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose” anymore. She was a little worried that maybe the church had kind of lost its way and was spending way too much time disagreeing and arguing over things that maybe didn’t even matter.

Chloe Reaches Out

Someone writing a letter that starts, "Dear Paul..."

And so, she reached out to the founder of the church; she reached out to Paul. And it is that initiative that lies behind the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth. Either Chloe wrote a letter together with a few other people raising her concerns with Paul, or maybe she sent some people to find him and speak on her behalf. But however it happened, when Paul received the message from Chloe’s people that illusion that he had of a united church in Corinth working with one mind towards a unified purpose was shattered.

Our Ideas of Church

And it makes me wonder. All of us, in our dealings with the church, have ideas about the church. We carry around notions of the church’s purpose and meaning and how it operates. We carry around wonderful memories of when the church has been there to support and encourage us through trying times and we carry around painful memories of the times when the church has failed us or disappointed us too.

We construct stories about the church just like we construct stories about our families, our jobs and other important things in our lives. That is just typical human behaviour. But, every so often, we do need to take a step back and look a little bit more carefully at what we are doing, and it seems that Chloe’s letter provided Paul with the opportunity to do that.

What if Chloe Were to Write about us?

So, I was thinking, what if Chloe were to write a letter about our church to Paul. What kinds of things might she highlight? How might she help us to better understand what it is we are here to do?

“Dear Paul, I know that it was your intention when you, together, I suppose, with St. Andrew, founded St. Andrew’s Hespeler Presbyterian Church that we should all of us be in agreement and that there be no divisions among us but that we be knit together in the same mind and the same purpose. But I’ve got to tell you, Paul, that it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s right, there are divisions among us.”

Different Eras in our Life

“In fact, different people have come to be part of the church at different times. Some were baptized, some were born and some just came along and joined. But the thing is that the time when this congregation was most meaningful to them came at very particular points in the life of the congregation. What I mean is that each of us says, ‘I belong to the era of Wally,’ or ‘I belong to time of Kevin,’ or ‘I belong to Jeff,’ or ‘I belong to Scott.’”

If Chloe were to write a letter about our congregation, I wonder, would that be what she noticed? I mean, I am certain that she would highlight some really good things too. She would talk about the amazing outreach we do in the community. I’m pretty sure she would talk about some wonderful spiritual experiences too. But what if that is something that stands out for people who have spent a little bit of time with us?

Why the Church Exists

The church exists so that we can come together – so that we can be “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose.” And that unified purpose has to do with sharing good news with the world around us – sharing it in word and in deed. To put that another way, the church exists for the sake of those who are not in the church – or at least for the sake of those who are not yet in it. And so long as we are focussed on that purpose, it is probably not too hard to be in the same mind.

But, even if that is what the church is for, that is not always what we experience in the church. We also experience valuable things like friendships and encouragement. We get opportunities to exercise leadership. And we experience things that make us feel good or that help us through difficult times. And these are all very positive things and wonderful things that we get from the church.

They are not the main purpose, but they are benefits that come from being together with other people who are of the same mind. And these are definitely things that help us to be built up in Christ.

The Reality of Change

But the church doesn’t stay the same all the time. We might think that it should, but it doesn’t. And perhaps in the case of our congregation, that change is best symbolized by those periods of time that I just mentioned. And there were things about those times that were wonderful and that ministered to people in various ways.

And so what I think happens is that we tend to become fixed on those periods of time when the church responded to us exactly how we needed it most and we got that encouragement, companionship, influence and more.

But when that is where we get stuck, what happens? We become more focused on what we are getting from the church when it is responding to our particular needs in a direct way. We see that more than we see our participation in the ministry and that single purpose that we are supposed to have becomes more elusive.

I’m not saying that we’re not supposed to get things from the life of the church, of course we are. But when we spend our energy measuring that and finding it lacking, we will definitely begin to break down in that sense of unified mind and purpose.

Becoming Chloe’s People

So what do we do with all of that? It should turn us into Chloe’s people. We need to be willing to take a look at who we are and what draws us together and what may pull us apart. That is what we are trying to do even today. We are going to ask all of you in sessions today or at other times to tell us what you see about the unique strengths and calling that you find God has placed upon this congregation.

We are asking each one of you to participate in sessions where we ask questions like, “In what ways is St Andrew’s Hespeler a source of delight to God? What are our strengths, assets, opportunities? What do we do really well? What are our challenges? Our fears?” And, yes, we’re even going to dare to ask questions like, “What are some of the things in our past that have really had an impact on us?” As well as talk about some of the struggles in our present.

I hope you are not afraid to speak openly and honestly to such questions. Chloe’s people did and do you know what the result of that was? Paul wrote back one of the most important letters ever written – the First Letter to the Corinthians.

A Fresh Look

It is our hope and our prayer that, through this process, we will be able to get a fresh look at our congregation and fresh inspiration about what it is that God is calling us to be at this particular moment in time. That is exciting and I’m really thankful to everyone who has been willing to be a part of it.

But I suspect that, just as Paul was giving some warnings to the church in Corinth, he might caution us about this process as well. In some ways, this kind of process might seem very similar to what goes on in the world all the time.

Just Another Visioning Process?

For example, if you have companies that are finding that their business strategies aren’t working very well, they will hold some kind of retreat or visioning session to refine their mission statement. Political parties and other associations do the same thing. But there is something about when the church engages in such a practice.

In the world, the main concern that is usually there when you look at such matters is simple. All of the stakeholders are only interested in one thing: what they get out of it. A corporation or a company is only interested in what kind of value they can create for the shareholders. Political parties are only interested in how many votes they can get in the next election. And club members are concerned with the benefits that they receive from their participation.

It's Not About What’s in it for Us

That is how the world works. Everyone wants to know what is in it for them – what they can get out of it. That is the philosophy of the entire world in which we live. But Paul is quite clear in his communication to the Corinthians that the church does not work on such terms.

Do people get things out of the life of the church? Of course they do! They get growth and knowledge and friendship and more. But that is not why the church exists. It is not there only to meet the needs of those who participate.

That is why Paul says to them that he is kind of glad that he did not baptise many of them. It is not about what he was able to do for them or even about the relationship that he built with each of them. That would be to build a church that merely conforms to the thinking of this world.

A Foolish Message

But Paul says this, For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The church doesn’t exist for its own sake or for the sake of its members. That would simply be to conform to the thinking of this present world. The church exists for the sake of those who are not part of it, or at least for the sake of those who are not yet part of it. That is the logic of the church and, yes, it is foolishness as far as this world is concerned.

The church is called to be more than any other institution in this world. That is a high calling, and we ought not to be afraid to look closely and carefully at how we are living out that calling. So, be bold to share what God puts on your heart, be bold to ask for more and especially to ask what God is calling you to give. In this, I believe, we can be truly “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose.”

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A funny thing happened on the way home from Egypt

Posted by on Sunday, January 1st, 2023 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/UsNoArAfjxI
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 1 January 2023 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

I've long struggled with our reading this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, but not necessarily for the reason you might think. It’s not because of the whole incident of the slaughter of the innocents, as horrific as that is. Unfortunately, that is the kind of thing that has happened again and again throughout the history of the world.

What I have some issues with is the end of the story. Matthew tells us that when Mary and Joseph were on their way back from Egypt where they had taken refuge from King Herod’s slaughter, they made a sudden course correction.

Rerouting to Nazareth

They were heading back to their hometown in Bethlehem and they decided to redirect someplace else. “But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was ruling Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth.”

So, what is wrong with that? It does contradict the Christmas story that we know and love from the Gospel of Luke. Luke says that the family was always from Nazareth and that the only reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem was because they happened to have travelled down there for the census.

Here Matthew is saying something quite different – that the couple had always lived in Bethlehem but that, after they returned from Egypt, they made a new home in Nazareth.

You see, both gospel writers had a problem they needed to solve with their story. They knew that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, but they needed to tell a story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem because they knew that was where the Messiah had to be born.

Different Explanations

Luke solved that problem with his famous story of the census, Matthew with this story of a course change on the way back from Egypt. But none of that is what I have a problem with. I get that the gospel writers’ main concern was not to get all of the historical details of Jesus right.

They wanted to make sure that they got the important theological truths about Jesus across and as long as they could tell a story where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and came from Nazareth, they were not concerned that all the details of how that happened were correct.

A Lame Explanation

The problem that I have is this: Matthew’s explanation is kind of lame. He says that Joseph didn’t want to return to Bethlehem because Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, was ruling there. That much makes perfect sense. Herod had tried to kill the boy!

It’s the part about him choosing – indeed, being led by God – to go to Nazareth instead that bothers me. Because guess who was ruling over Nazareth: Herod Antipas, who was also the son of Herod the Great and the full brother of Archelaus. If he was trying to avoid dealing with a son of Herod, Nazareth was about the last place Joseph wanted to be.

Is Matthew a Bad Writer?

So, that’s my problem with this story. It seems to be such a weak explanation for why they ended up in Nazareth. Either Matthew was ignorant of the fact that Herod Antipas was also the son of Herod the Great or, worse, he was aware of it, and he was just hoping that his readers wouldn’t notice. That’s the kind of thing that makes me lose respect for a writer.

But I have been giving that a lot of thought lately. I think that Matthew is a better writer than that. He is not ignorant of basic history, and he always respects his readers. So, I actually think I’ve been unfair to old Matthew. And perhaps, if I give him the benefit of the doubt, I will discover that there is more to this odd decision to divert to Nazareth than meets the eye. What are we supposed to imagine that the story really was?

“Are we There Yet?”

Travelling along the King’s Highway that led up the coast of the Mediterranean from Egypt was exhausting at the best of times, but it was doubly so when traveling with a toddler. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” Jesus would ask until Joseph started to feel his sanity fray. What could he say but that there were still many days yet to go?

He didn’t blame the boy for being in a hurry. How many times had he told Jesus the stories of his hometown, of the house that he had been born in and the noble family that he belonged to. Of course, Jesus was eager to be there.

Doubts

But, the closer they got, the more doubts Joseph felt. They had fled from Bethlehem in Judah in such fear and disarray that he couldn’t help but feel anxiety at the prospect of returning.

True, Herod the Tyrant, the man who had tried to kill the boy (and succeeded in killing so many others) was dead. That news had been what had prompted him to even think of returning in the first place. The decision had been affirmed in another of those strange dreams that had unerringly led Joseph throughout this whole ordeal, so of course they had packed up and headed out.

But the news that they had picked up on the road had been less reassuring. The word was that Herod had bequeathed the rule of Judea to his son, Archelaus. That in itself was hardly surprising. Of course, Herod would have wanted to keep his kingdom in the family.

Archelaus Reveals his Character

It was the news about the character of this particular son that was alarming. Archelaus had not yet taken up his throne. Before that could happen, he would have to go to Rome to seek the Emperor’s approval.

But even as he prepared to leave, there had been a massive protest in the temple. The people demanded that those who had carried out some of his father’s worst atrocities be punished. Archelaus appeared before the people and promised that their concerns would be addressed.

But then he left and started drinking with his friends. A few hours later Archelaus had ordered the legions to enter into the temple where the protestors were still waiting for their demands to be met. The reports were that some 3000 of them were murdered when they refused to leave.

It really was not seeming as if the apple had not fallen too far from the tree when it came to Herod’s son, Archelaus.

Indecision

Joseph was tormented with indecision. Every step he was taking brought him closer to Judea and seemingly to the clutches of the son of Herod. Should he stop? Should he turn around? Had the dreams finally failed him?

More news from Judea was spreading. It seemed that Archelaus had now left Judea for Rome where he would plead with the emperor to receive his kingdom. But he was not the only one who was going!

Remarkable Opposition

Here was the surprising part. It seemed that a lot of people had decided that Archelaus would not make a very good king. It might have had something to do with those 3,000 dead bodies in the temple. That rulers have opponents is not necessarily news. You get into a position of power, and I can almost guarantee that someone will hate you for it.

What was really astonishing in this case was that people were doing something about it. An entire delegation had set sail for Rome to stand in opposition to the very idea of Archelaus receiving his kingdom. And here was the really amazing part, his biggest opponent was none other than Archelaus’ own brother Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. He was going to stand before the emperor and tell him that his own brother must never be king.

When Joseph heard that, it made his head spin. He was used to a world in which powerful people just got their way, in which no one would speak up to those who had power and demand that they do better. Was it possible that Herod Antipas was different? Could he actually be the kind of ruler that cared for his people?

A Late Night Talk

That night, once they had managed to get the boy to sleep, Mary and Joseph sat up late discussing the difficult choice that was before them. Joseph laid out all of his concerns to his wife who immediately understood, as she had been hearing all of the same rumours and stories that he had.

She, like any mother, had strong feelings about the need to protect her only son. “We already know that this Archelaus is the same kind of monster that his father was. He has shown it to the world. I don’t want to live away from Bethlehem – away from my family and yours. I don’t want to lose the house you built for us there either. But I will never feel safe if I know that Jesus is within the reach of a man like Archelaus.

“But I also know that Jesus has to be raised among his people and so I am not willing to go further afield than Galilee where I’ve heard there are many Jewish communities.”

“But what of the Herod who now rules there?” Joseph wondered. “He is no less a son of the Tyrant. How can we know that Jesus will be safe from him?

“We can’t,” Mary admitted. “But if he opposes his brother, who does such horrible things, how can he be worse than him?”

A Confirming Dream

Joseph at least felt better for having finally been able to put his concerns into words, but he still felt unsure about what to do as he prepared to sleep that night. Mary’s words had at least made him feel as if they might find a way through all of this. As he drifted off to sleep, it was Mary’s words, “how can he be worse?” that echoed through his mind.

He didn’t recall what he dreamt that night, but when he awoke, he just felt better about the Galilean option. And so, when the family finally arrived within bounds of Archelaus’ kingdom, they turned away from the main body of travelers (most of whom were heading toward Jerusalem) towards the north.

Nazareth

Nazareth was not a big place. It was little more than a village of maybe a couple hundred families in the Galilean hills. Surely no one, least of all the officials of Herod Antipas, would notice them in such a place.

Nazareth was small, but it was only a few hours away from the city of Sepphoris. That also recommended it. Sepphoris was Herod’s new capital, but he had only just named it as such, and it was still under construction. Joseph would be able to get work there on the various worksites. Even better, he could probably work under the table and there would be no documentation. It wouldn’t pay well, but hopefully they would manage to get by.

How the Choice Worked Out

They were right about Archelaus, of course. His rule over Judea quickly went from bad to worse and they often heard reports of his cruelty even in Nazareth. So extreme was his evil that, by the time that Jesus came to the age when he was responsible to keep the law, the Romans had taken his kingdom from him and exiled him far away in the west.

I wish I could say that Herod Antipas was better, and maybe he was from the Roman point of view. But he was hardly lacking in his own evil and cruelty. When John the Baptist spoke against him, he did not hesitate to arrest him and then take off his head. And when, eventually, Jesus did capture his attention, he vowed to kill him too. Of course, he wouldn’t get the chance, but that is another story.

So, I’m not entirely sure that Mary and Joseph’s choice worked out for the reasons that they had in mind. But, you know how it is, you have to make a choice because you are forced to. Somehow, it seems, the choices that we make have a way of working their own way out.

A Story for the New Year

It seemed to me that this story in the Gospel of Matthew was a good one to start a new year with. January is a time when people tend to look forward and look back and try to make the choices and resolutions that will set them on a good path for the future. That is all well and good, but we sometimes think that such decisions have higher stakes than they really do – as if our very lives depend on getting the choice right.

We feel like we are deciding between living under the evil King Archelaus or under the wise and good Herod Antipas. At first glance, the choice may seem that stark, but if you dig into the choice (just like if you dig into this story about the return from Egypt) it is rarely so clear.

People who Threaten to Move Away

We live in a world where we, like Mary and Joseph, feel as if we have little control over who will be in charge. You see that, for example, when people say things like “If Trump becomes President, I’m moving to Canada.” Or (here in Canada) when people say, “If Pierre Poilievre becomes Prime Minister (or maybe if Trudeau gets in again), I’m moving to the U.S.” People rarely do it, of course, because they don’t actually mean it. It is just a way of saying that you feel powerless about something.

Well Mary and Joseph did it – or at least Matthew tells us that they did. And I think that what Matthew may be really saying is that, even if their choice was based on insufficient information and so wasn’t really the choice that they thought it was, they were under the care of someone who not only had better information, but also had a plan to make it all work out.

Choices

Make your choices the best you can. That is all that any of us can do. But when you choose, don’t torture yourself over the options that you rejected. That doesn’t serve anyone well. Go forward with confidence, or to use another word for the same thing, with faith. Sure, things probably won’t work out exactly as you anticipated, but maybe they’ll lead to something magnificent that you never planned on.

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Christmas Signs

Posted by on Saturday, December 24th, 2022 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 24 December 2022 – 8pm Christmas Eve Service
Luke 2:8-14

https://youtu.be/7gnqtAwO_dU
Watch sermon video here

There is a famous Christmas story, I’m sure you have heard it. It is called The Gift of the Magi by O Henry. It tells the story of a loving young couple who both want to give the perfect Christmas gift to their mate.

The husband decides that he wants to give these beautiful pure tortoise shell with jewelled rim combs that will compliment his wife’s beautiful long hair. The wife, for her part, decides to give her husband a Platinum chain upon which to fasten the gold family heirloom pocket watch that he inherited from his father.

The Twist

The problem, of course, is that neither can afford to pay for these extravagant gifts. And so the wife decides to sell her hair to buy the chain, while the husband sells his watch to buy the combs. Both of them manage to give the gifts they want to, but at the cost of not being able to use the gifts that they receive.

It is a sweet little story about generous giving with a nice little humorous twist at the end. But it is perhaps a reminder that the gifts that we give can surely be a sign of our love. But then again, they can also be signs of other things, can’t they?

Another Couple

There was a young couple who were spending their first Christmas together. And the husband wanted to give the perfect gift to his wife.

The young wife had an ambition. She wanted to go to school and become a doctor. She had the marks to do it. And had earned scholarships that would make it, if not exactly financially easy, at least possible.

But her young husband wasn’t quite so sure about that. He was worried that if she pursued such a demanding degree, that she wouldn’t be able to take care of him, that she wouldn’t be the wife of his dreams anymore. He had been subtly trying to steer her towards a career that would demand less of her time and energy.

The Shopping Trip

And so he went shopping for a gift. After looking around all day, he had finally narrowed his choice down to two possibilities. One was a beautiful silk dress. He knew that this was just the kind of thing that would flatter her figure and appearance perfectly. She never really wore this kind of outfit, but he always just figured it was because she didn’t want to spend the money. It was, you see, a designer dress and very expensive.

His other option was one that he really wasn’t all that fond of. But he had heard her mention that it was something she really wanted. It was actually just an old used stethoscope. He found it in a second-hand shop so it wouldn’t cost much, but he could actually tell that it was really well made. But the gift seemed cheap to him.

The Gift Becomes a Sign

So, what do you think? Two gifts. One really expensive and all about making her fit his idea of who she was supposed to be. The other kind of cheap, but it would actually show, not only that he actually listened to her, but that he was willing to support what she really wanted.

And you probably have an idea which gift he ought to get. But I actually wanted to underline something else. Each gift would be a sign, wouldn’t it? Whichever he chose, it would be a sign about the health of their relationship and of where it might be going. And, honestly, the really expensive gift would probably be a bad sign, while the cheaper one might actually be a sign of hope for the future. So, you see, a gift can be a sign.

A Birth in an Odd Circumstance

And the angel said to the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” So, you see, a gift can be a sign. And that sign is not just about God sending his own son to save us, it is about the form in which that gift is given.

I know that many people have told stories and given sermons about the Christmas story down through the years. They offer various explanations for why Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem and for why it was that, when it came time for the child to be born, there was no room for the family and they had to lay the boy in a manger and wrap him in bands of cloth. But the author of this gospel does not really offer any explanation for it. He just says that this is what happened, he doesn’t say why.

The Explanation

No wait, that’s not quite right. He does offer one explanation. He says that all of it happened in precisely this way because it was a sign. It was a sign that the Saviour was born for a bunch of crude shepherds. It was a sign that the gift that was given was given with a deep understanding of people who struggle to find shelter or to put food on the table. It was a sign that the gift was given by a God who understands both the aspirations we carry in our hearts and the barriers we struggle to overcome to get there. It was a sign of the true nature of the gift.

That gift is a sign for you tonight.

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I Dream of Joseph

Posted by on Sunday, December 18th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/Ztz65Ip8KFM
Watch the Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, 18 December 2022 © Scott McAndless – Advent 4
Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

It can be difficult to come up with unique approaches and find ways to relate a Bible passage to the concerns and worries we are all dealing with in the world today. So let me tell you one of the things that I do.

Before I start working on a sermon, I often make a point of reading the texts as the last thing I do before turning off the light in bed at night so that I drift off to sleep with that reading in my unconscious mind.

I do this because I have come to understand that dreaming is not just nighttime Netflix. It is not just a little video that your brain puts on to keep your unconscious mind entertained for a few hours while your body rests. It is actually a vital activity that you need to function in the daytime world.

How we Process Information

All day, every day, you are assailed with thousands of pieces of information some of which are vital and some useless. Dreaming is a brain process that allows you to sort through all of that information and discard what you don’t really need. But even more important, it allows you to store the vital information, what your brain thinks you will need, in long-term memory. It does that in a very particular way.

Long-term memory works mostly by making connections. So, the best way for your brain to incorporate new information is to make connections between it and the things that you already know. And there’s one very important way that human beings make connections. They do it by telling stories. In fact, you might even say that story telling is the primary way in which we make sense of the world that we live in.

Why our Dreams are Strange

That might help you understand why it is that the dreams that you have can be these really bizarre stories that don’t even make sense in the real world. When you dream, your unconscious mind is frantically trying to spin a story that will somehow create a narrative link between the things you learned during your day and some of your other essential memories.

It might also help to explain the strange phenomenon that you have probably also experienced where you wake up suddenly, you’ve just come out of a dream and the story is so vivid and bizarre. And then, all of a sudden it seems, the whole dream is just gone.

That is because the point of your dreaming is not for you to remember the dream. That would be to create even more new information for you to integrate into your memory. No, the actual story of your dream is meant to disappear, but the key thing is that the connections that that dream made for you will remain and become a part of the way you look at the world.

Preparing to Preach

And so, when I go to sleep and my last thought is about a Bible passage that I want to preach on, it is my hope that that passage will enter into my dreams and, as a result, I will wake up having made some new connections between that passage and the real issues that I and many of us face in the world today.

So, let me give you an example. The day before I started working on today’s sermon, the last thing I did before turning out the light that night was to open up my Bible app and read these words: Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…”

Programing my Dreams

And then I turned out the light, fluffed my pillow and turned over into my favourite sleeping position. As I did so, I replayed again and again in my head that image of poor Joseph and his disappointment upon hearing the news that the woman his parents had chosen for him to marry was already pregnant. I thought of his indecision, how he hardly wanted to drag the name of this woman he barely knew through the mud, of the accusations that would surely follow. At the same time, he was battling with his desire to maintain his own honour within the community.

I did my best to keep all of these thoughts top of mind, but you know how it is when the fog of sleep begins to gather. I couldn’t help but allow my thoughts to turn to the other things that had been bothering me of late. Would I ever manage to be ready for Christmas? Would I find all of the gifts that I wanted to give? Would the people I gave them to really appreciate them?

And then, well, you know what it is like. Once you open up that door of worry in your mind, all sorts of other causes of anxiety begin to flood in. So, as I drifted off, many things were worrying my unconscious.

Oh, and there’s one other thing, earlier that evening I had watched the classic fantasy film, Willow, for the first time. And so, I began to dream.

My Dream

I was at the shopping mall. There were people everywhere and I remember feeling as if I had so much to do. But, as I moved about tending to my shopping list, other things seem to keep coming along to interrupt me and before long I was engaged in a new quest.  Instead of looking for Christmas presents, I seemed to be searching for a child, and not just any child but a child whose fate it was to save the whole world.

The quest very quickly took some strange turns. First Billy Barty showed up and joined me. Then, shortly after Warwick Davis appeared too. I honestly can’t remember all of it that clearly. I remember being worried about the mother of this child and what people might think of her. But somehow, by the end, everything had worked out and we had gathered together with Warwick Davis’s little children and we were celebrating with a modest little feast.

It was all so vivid when I first woke up, but then as I got out of bed and started going about my day, it faded so quickly. I think I only remember it because I tried so hard to do so I could tell it to you.

The full narrative still escapes me. But I was left with one connection that I do not want to lose. Somehow, despite the worries and the fears, despite rather vague feelings of anxiety that always seem to come at this time of year and despite all the confusion between Nelwyn, Daikini and Brownies, I was left with one key connection. Somehow, God is with us. And so, I awoke and began to write this sermon.

Matthew’s Story

A man who wrote a gospel, wrote it quite anonymously, but whom tradition eventually decided was named Matthew, was struggling with his narrative.

There had been others who had written gospels before him, one of which he undoubtedly used as a direct source, but he had decided that he wanted to begin his story a little bit earlier. He wanted to begin with an account of the birth of Jesus. This was something that had never been done before and so he was struggling with it a bit.

He only had a few basic pieces of information. He knew that Jesus was from Nazareth. He knew that he had to have been born in Bethlehem and that he was a descendant of King David because his Bible said that the Messiah had to be both of those things. He knew the name of Jesus’ mother and that he had been a carpenter. That is about it and it’s not a whole lot to build a birth narrative around.

But Matthew knew that there had to be something special about Jesus’ birth because he knew how special Jesus was. And so, he went searching through his Bible, what we would call the Old Testament, to find clues about how it must have happened.

Matthew Goes to Bed

He had been reflecting all day, for example, on the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, in the Book of Genesis and how he had been a dreamer and had gone down to Egypt. He didn’t really know what, if anything, that had to do with the birth of the Messiah, but it had always been one of his favourite Bible stories.

But that night, before turning in, he had been reading another favourite passage, one from Isaiah: “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.’”

Matthew blew out his lamp and drifted off to sleep.

Matthew’s Dream

He found himself back in the times of the sons of Jacob. The eleven brothers were at odds with their young brother Joseph because he was a dreamer who dreamt of the plans of God. And then, it seemed that Matthew and Joseph had entered into a quest together. They were seeking to save a virgin who had fallen under suspicion because she was pregnant.

In his dream, Matthew talked it over with Joseph who wanted to help out the young woman and save her from dishonour but didn’t know what to do. So, Matthew told him that perhaps he ought to sleep on it and he would have another dream to show him the will of God.

And so that is what Joseph did and, while Matthew watched, he dreamt of the woman and the Holy Spirit and he woke up knowing what he would do.

Matthew woke from his bizarre dream. And frankly, many of the crazier aspects of his dream faded quickly. But the strange connections that the story of his dream had made remained with him. The strongest connection of all, of course, being that Emmanuel meant God is with us. Soon after, Matthew took up his pen and he started to write, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…”

Joseph’s Dream

And so it is that we came to know that, when Joseph the intended husband of Mary, Jesus’ mother, was troubled by the whole question of how it was that the woman he was to marry was unexpectedly and strangely pregnant, he sought an answer to his dilemma in a dream. He drifted off to sleep thinking of the traditions of his people – of how God had sent angels to help his ancestors, of the incredible promises of the Prophet Isaiah. And he found the answer he was seeking.

The dream that he had, to be sure, was very strange. It involved an angel coming to him and telling him what to do. It gave him an odd image of a virgin who was pregnant from the Holy Spirit whatever that meant.

How important are the specific details of that crazy dream? I don’t know. It could just have been Joseph’s frazzled mind helping him to sort through a sticky dilemma. It could have been divine inspiration. Maybe it was both. What matters is that Joseph woke with a single connection: God is with us. Even more important than that though, he awoke and then acted immediately upon that connection.

Inspiration

I have long remained fascinated by the whole question of the inspiration of scripture. Christian theology affirms that the biblical writers were inspired as they wrote, and I have no quarrel with that. But I often wonder what we are supposed to understand by it. Take the case of the Gospel of Matthew. There really is no question that, whoever wrote that Gospel, used other books and texts and likely oral traditions as sources. One of those sources was the Gospel of Mark.

But he may have been the first to write an account of the birth of Jesus and he didn’t get that story from the Gospel of Mark, which only starts with Jesus fully grown. It is possible, of course, that he did have other sources for that birth narrative that simply no longer exist, but if he didn’t, I know where else he might have looked.

Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament

The author of this gospel clearly believed that the Old Testament was bursting full of information about the life of Jesus in the form of prophecy. Surely he would have not hesitated to draw from that source to fill in any details – details like the birth of a child to a virgin, of a man named Joseph who was led by dreams, maybe especially the detail that it was all about God being with us.

As far as the biblical author was concerned, these were totally legitimate ways to find information on the life of Jesus. And, honestly, who are we to say that they are not?

Making Connections

But it has still left me wondering about exactly where those connections came from. Wouldn’t it be quite awesome if the gospel writer actually left us a clue to his method by telling a story of Joseph who made his key connections as a result of a dream?

And where does that leave us? We also can be dreamers. I think we are also called to make connections that teach us new things about the nature and the love of God. But above all, like Joseph, we are called to take those connections and actually act on them in a way that affects history, that changes the world and that demonstrates for all to see that God really is with us.

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John’s Dashed Hope, Jesus’ Joy

Posted by on Sunday, December 11th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/2ULp-6BCWl4
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, 11 December 2022 © Scott McAndless – Advent 3
Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:46b-55, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

John had been so sure. He had looked around at what was happening in Judea and knew that it was all wrong. This was, after all, the land that God had given to his people in order to support them as they brought a message of peace and hope to the whole world. It was there to feed their families and their children and allow them to live out their relationship with their God.

But now, though they still lived in that land, it was as if they no longer truly possessed it. The land was in the control of foreign interlopers. And it was those foreigners, together with their collaborators among the people, who enjoyed the riches of a Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey. John knew that that was not what God intended.

A Model of Conquest

There was a biblical model for how the people could repossess the land – the Joshua model. After God had led the people out of the land of Egypt and after they had wandered for a full generation in the wilderness, they finally came to the border. They stood there on the eastern bank of the Jordan River and they looked upon that land in all of its beauty and splendour. Just one barrier remained: the river. Once they had passed it, the real work of possessing the land could begin.

And of course John knew – everyone knew – the incredible story of that crossing, how the Lord had led the people down the banks and into the river. And so holy was the passage of God with the people that the water parted before them, and they came out renewed and cleansed and ready to take possession of the land that God had given them.

And that, John decided, was what needed to happen again. Now, John knew that he was no Joshua. He was not the one to lead the conquest of the land. But he felt that he could do the first part.

John’s Baptism

And so, he called the people to come out to the Jordan River, and out they came! They came in such numbers that it seemed as if all of Judea and the whole city of Jerusalem had heeded his call. He brought them to the far bank, and he began to re-enact the great crossing. He took them one-by-one down into the Jordan and then up on the opposite bank. They came up from the water renewed and cleansed, ready to possess the land again.

And, yes, it was true that the water did not part before them as it had in ancient times. Instead, they were baptized into the waters of the Jordan. Perhaps the waters would part when the new Joshua came. But in the meantime, John felt as if he had done his part. He had prepared the way.

Yeshua

And now you can perhaps understand why John was so excited, one day, when an extraordinary man arrived at the Jordan. The first thing that John noticed about him was that his name was Yeshua. Someday someone would translate that name into Greek and it would become Jesus, but no one had ever called him that yet. In the local language, Aramaic, his name was Yeshua. The reason why that caught John’s attention was because that was the Aramaic form of the Hebrew name Joshua.

And, as John looked at this Yeshua who stood before him, he could not help but think that he might be the Joshua he had been waiting for – the Joshua who would lead a new conquest of the Promised Land. There was a charisma to him, he had a way of speaking with authority and power. Here was someone who really could command a new conquest.

John’s Promise

John had been promising the people who came out to him that, if they went through with his baptism, someone else would come to lead them. This is how he described that leader: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

As he looked at this man, Yeshua, John wondered if he might not be that man.

John Arrested

But things did not go very well for John after that. The Romans began to notice what he was doing, and it seemed like insurgency to them – which it kind of was. I guess they didn’t want to bother with him themselves, so they got King Herod of Galilee to take care of him. Herod also ruled over Perea on the east bank of the Jordan where John was operating. Herod didn’t need much convincing by the Romans though. He had heard that John had been saying bad things about his marriage. He gleefully arrested John and threw him in prison.

And it is one thing to believe that God is about to intervene and give your people back their land when you are standing boldly and free on the banks of the Jordan River. But it is quite another to hold onto that hope when you are locked in Herod’s dungeon, when you start to forget what the sun looks like and when you are fed so poorly that you begin to long for the taste of the grasshoppers you used to eat in the wilderness. John began to fall into despair.

The Most Discouraging Thing

But what particularly bothered him was what he was hearing about this Yeshua. The reports coming back about him didn’t make it seem like was busy clearing threshing floors and burning chaff with unquenchable fire.

Instead of taking on the Romans, he seemed to be spending all of his time helping out the sick, blind and lame. Rather than attacking the wealthy collaborators for profiteering off the occupation, he seemed to put too much effort into reaching out to the poor with encouragement and good news. What kind of Joshua was this? It was naive to think that the Promised Land could be retaken only by such acts of gentleness and kindness?

So John’s hope which he had placed in this man who seemed to have such potential, appeared to be dashed. It was that, more than the darkness and the dankness of his prison that had broken his spirit. If he could believe that that new conquest was coming, that the forces he had prepared in the waters of the Jordan would be led to victory, he would have been willing to put up with anything and even to die without regret. But this uncertainty was killing his spirit.

And that is why, when a couple of his old disciples came to visit him, he sent them to ask. He told them to find this Yeshua and say, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The Church’s Situation

In many ways, I think that the picture we have of John the Baptist in our reading this morning from the Gospel of Matthew is a pretty good picture of where we often feel in the church today. You know, there was a time not all that long ago when the Christian church felt as if it could just take over the whole of our culture and lead us all into a new Promised Land. Like John at the height of his popularity out at the Jordan River, the Christian Church could count legions of people spread throughout our society among its numbers. We had all been baptized and we were sent out to conquer the whole land in the name of Christ.

That was the mission and that is how we often spoke of it. Those were the heady days of Christianity and I know that many people still remember them. Indeed, many still think of the mission of the church in exactly those terms. But the last few decades of the Christian experience have shown us that we may be needing to rethink that mission. And, like John sitting in jail and stewing in his disappointment, we have been feeling a little bit depressed as we watch it.

General Decline

Over the last few decades, the church has not exactly gone from triumph to triumph. Various abuse scandals in various denominations – and there are none who have been entirely spared this, including our own denomination – have certainly tarnished the reputation of the church in the eyes of many. How can the church be part of a glorious conquest of society if it has been shown to be so very flawed?

And, of course, alongside of that we have seen that the continual growth in numbers of Christians has leveled off and fallen into decline. This, also, is something that has struck across denominational lines. I know you may have heard that it was just the mainline and liberal churches that were in decline, and that may have been true for a while. But most recently that decline has spread to the more conservative and fundamentalist churches as well. In the most recent years the decline has been right across the board.

I know there are always a few exceptions here or there, but the overall trend is pretty clear. Recent census reports showed us that, for example, Wales and England are no longer majority Christian countries. You can bet that many other countries are about to follow that trend. And it is not particularly because of immigration or the growth of other religions, though that has been part of it. In fact, the fastest growing religious group around the globe has consistently been that group who claim no religious identity whatsoever.

Falling into Doubt

What do we do with that as believers living in our society today? I suspect many of us, just like John, have fallen into all kinds of doubts and questions. Is this the movement that we were promised? Where is the promise of the triumph and continual growth of the church that’s going to transform our society? And so, like John, we would like to send to Jesus and ask, “Is this what you promised would come, or should we be looking for something else?”

And this is where Jesus’ answer to John is, I think, exactly what the church needs to hear today. When John asks Jesus where is the proof that he is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, Jesus doesn’t point to the kind of success that John experienced on the banks of the river. He doesn’t point to the size of his crowds, even though, of course, Jesus had drawn a number of disciples. The answer that Jesus sends back is this: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

The Sign of the Kingdom

What is the sign that we are part of what God is doing in the world? What is the sign that God is creating the conditions that bring about the kingdom? Only this, that the people who are living on the margins of society, the people whose plight is often forgotten by those in power, are experiencing healing and hope even when things look bleak. And if we, with our outreach and efforts to care for the people around us, are part of that work, then we are part of the kingdom. This is the work that God calls us to do. These are the signs of his kingdom. That is what Jesus is saying.

And yes, I do believe that if we do that kind of work with integrity, we will draw other people to join us, and our numbers will have an impact on society. But things like the overwhelming growth in numbers and attendance, these are not the proof of the coming kingdom. If we keep to the work that God has given us to do, we can count on God taking care of the rest.

A Subtle Jibe

Jesus does include the subtlest jibe at John the Baptist when he ends his answer by saying, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” People will take offense if we concentrate on reaching out to the poor and marginalized. They will say that that is not what victory for God’s kingdom is about. But they are wrong, and I would rather claim God’s blessing on our work by continuing to reach out with whatever resources our God places in our hands.

My friends, we ought not to despair for the future of the church. That is in God’s hands and that is always the best place for anything to be. And so long as we continue in that work, I believe we will find the joy that Jesus found in the work that he was doing, joy that can penetrate even the darkest prison.

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Building True Peace

Posted by on Sunday, December 4th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/Hys7CO56A4k
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, 4 December 2022 © Scott McAndless – 2nd Advent, Communion
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

Today is the Second Sunday in Advent and on this day we traditionally light the candle of peace. And that is why it seems so fitting that we should read a passage from the Book of Isaiah which puts forth an amazing vision of world peace: “The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them… The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

Our Usual Focus

Think about what that is saying. When we talk about peace, we usually focus on ending human conflict. We think of negotiating some sort of cease-fire or even a peace treaty between, say, Russia and Ukraine. We’ll talk about settling things like labour strife by negotiating an end to strikes or job actions.

Or, on a much more personal level, when we talk about peace, we think about eliminating all sorts of conflicts from our life. When no one is arguing or doing things that are upsetting everybody else, when everyone appears to be getting along, we call that peace.

A Cosmic Peace

Candles for the second Sunday of Advent. Building True Peace

But isn’t it interesting to see how the vision of peace we get in the Bible goes so much further? Any peace that is able to be found in the human sphere apparently overflows humanity to infect the whole of creation. And so, we see natural enemies like wolves and lambs and leopards and kids lying down in safety. Even the longstanding enmity between legless reptiles and humanity is apparently set aside and it is suddenly safe for children to play around poisonous snakes without fear.

I think this is saying something very powerful. It is saying that peace is about more than simply human concerns, that it is about healing and wholeness for the whole of creation.

You may have heard that the Hebrew word for peace is shalom. But what you might not know is that shalom doesn’t just mean that there are no hostilities. It comes from a Hebrew root that refers to peace, but also harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Shalom means all of that.  It is about the whole universe coming together to find purpose, meaning and completeness.

The Peace we Need

And that, my friends, is very much the kind of peace that we are desperately in need of in our world today. It is true that many different kinds of conflict are raging in our world today – a war in Ukraine, riots and dissent in Iran and China, labour battles here in Canada. There is also a great deal of tension over issues concerning the environment, the wealth gap and more in society.

On a personal level, I know that many people are dealing with enormous stresses in their lives that make everything feel anything but peaceful. So, isn’t it about time to create the peace that heals the whole world?

Starts with a Shoot

And, fortunately, our reading from Isaiah tells us about how such an ideal state of peace can be established. It all starts with a shoot. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Now, Jesse is the name of the father of King David. So, if a shoot is growing from the stump of Jesse, what that means is that somehow the house of King David has been going through some hard times. It has been, in some sense, cut off. It’s hard to know exactly what this is meant to refer to, but I assume what it means is that the prophet has been somewhat disappointed with the kings of the House of David when he gives this prophecy. He feels as if the main tree of David’s line has been cut down in some sense.

A Different Kind of King

But, he says, this new shoot – a new and different kind of king – is about to burst out of the wreck of the Davidic royal line.  And when this ruler comes, he will bring about the incredible reign of peace that is described in this passage.

And who is this shoot of Jesse? Most Christian readers will say that it is an obvious reference to Jesus, the Christ. That’s probably not who the prophet initially thought that he was talking about. He was probably very hopeful that such a child would be born to the House of David in his own day.

But there is something about this figure that he imagines that transcends expectations about what an ordinary political figure can accomplish. It’s not at all surprising that this passage became associated with the idea of a coming Messiah.

How Peace Can be Achieved

For it is this shoot who will accomplish the incredible peace that is described. And the very important question is how will he accomplish that. Because I’m going to tell you how we often assume that peace is made. As I said before, we often work from a definition of peace that sees it simply as a lack of conflict.

In international affairs, this is often achieved by placating, in some sense, the most powerful actors. For example, after Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, you might say that a certain peace was achieved when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The powerful, belligerent Russia was placated and so there were no more open hostilities between Russia and Ukraine for many years. We often call that peace in this world.

Problems with how we do it

And you probably see the problems with that practice of peacemaking. One of the biggest ones being that it obviously didn’t last. And this year Russia came back looking for more territory, seeking initially to annex the whole of Ukraine and plunging Europe and the whole world a lot closer to the dangerous precipice of open war. So, was that armistice in 2014 really peace? I don’t think so, but it is often the only peace we feel we can hope for.

This is not just true of international matters either, by the way. I think this is something that we often do in our personal lives. Because we operate on this idea that peace is a lack of conflict, many of us have dedicated ourselves to avoiding conflict in our lives at all costs. But avoiding conflict is not the same thing as embracing peace.

I sometimes catch myself doing this and I’ll bet you do too. When you know that a certain topic is going to lead to an argument, you just avoid that topic. When you see someone and you know they will have a complaint or be upset with you, you just avoid talking to them. When things get heated, you change the subject of conversation or maybe even just leave the room.

More than Avoiding Conflict

These are all methods of avoiding conflict, and there are certainly times when they can be useful strategies, but never make the mistake of thinking when you are doing such things that you are creating genuine peace. For that, let us look instead to the example of this shoot of Jesse and what he does in order to bring about the extraordinary peace that is described in our passage.

“His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear.” This is, of course, the classic image of blind justice. It is why the most common image for justice even today is a woman holding scales and wearing a blindfold. It is a powerful image that means that justice must be administered in a way that is fair.

Justice wears a blindfold so that she is not influenced by the race or wealth or power or standing of the people who come before her. If she were to look at these things, she would decide in favour of the powerful and important. But instead, she must decide what is right.

The Shoot of Jesse’s Justice

Of course, when we are oriented towards a peace that is merely a lack of conflict, this is exactly what we are not going to do. The easiest way to avoid conflict is to allow the powerful or the noisy people to get away with whatever they want. The shoot of Jesse intentionally does not look at any of these things and so administers a justice that is untainted. So equal justice is essential to the creation of true and lasting peace.

But that is not the whole story. The shoot of Jesse actually goes further than to administer equal justice. Isaiah goes on to say this: “But with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

This does suggest more than equal blind justice. For we are told that he judges for the poor and decides for the oppressed. He also seemingly takes into account the wickedness of those he judges and not just the case that they have.

Playing Favourites?

In some ways, this would appear to be a contradiction against the blind justice that has just been described. The shoot of Jesse is playing favourites! But I would suggest to you that what is being described here is a deeper commitment to equal justice.

It is a recognition that, if people are poor or oppressed, it is often because they have many invisible forces working against them. It recognizes that there are structures in society that keep people in poverty no matter how hard they might work as individuals. It recognizes that subtle racism or sexism or other prejudices can be at work to keep people in situations where they are oppressed or prevented from flourishing. It suggests a justice that seeks to redress such deep underlying issues.

Getting the Balance Right

And obviously it can be very difficult to strike a balance between dispensing equal justice to all and seeking to address structural injustices that are bigger than the individual cases that may come up. I don’t think any nation has ever managed to get that balance quite right.

But Isaiah suggests that the shoot of Jesse does. He refers to the blindness of justice first so that suggests that we must strive to serve equal justice first. And yet, in that priority, we must still find ways to create justice for the poor and oppressed.

The care we need to take to create a system that balances all of that out is something that we will need to constantly work on, but the overall principle that is at stake should not be missed. This passage is about the creation of the kind of justice that leads to peace in this world.

Building True Peace

And, yes, perhaps the ultimate peace that it describes will elude humanity – at least until Christ shall come. But that should not prevent us from getting as close to that peace as we humanly can. And the message of this passage is clear. If we aspire to achieve such peace, we cannot settle for merely avoiding conflict.

Conflict is sometimes unavoidable if you are going to do what is right. It is certainly going to be inevitable sometimes when you are standing up for a person in the minority or someone who is marginalized. You will have to enter into conflict of some sort if you are going to resist someone who is determined to exploit or oppress others.

Now all of that might not feel very peaceful. Sometimes making sure that what is right and just is done can feel very much like the opposite of peace. But remember always what the goal is. The goal is not just to avoid conflict but to create shalom which includes harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility for the entire universe.

None of that can happen without justice and fairness for all. And that is something that is worth struggling for.

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Ready or not

Posted by on Sunday, November 27th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/wogV2gQUvyw

Hespeler, 27 November 2022 © Scott McAndless – Advent 1
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

When I was about seven years old, Larry Norman, who was kind of famously called the first Christian rock musician released a song that would go on to mess me, and many other young Christians, up completely. It was called “I wish we’d all been ready,” and part of it went like this:

Life was filled with guns and war
And all of us got trampled on the floor.
I wish we’d all been ready,

Children died the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold.
I wish we’d all been ready.

There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.

A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone.
I wish we’d all been ready.

Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still.
I wish we’d all been ready.

There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.

Horrifying

This song, and Christian books I was reading at the time, presented a picture of the near future that was filled with horror and terror, even if it ultimately lead to a vision of victory for Christ and his followers. But one part of this was particularly disturbing. We were told that this terrible time predicted by the Bible would be preceded by an event called the Rapture.

When this happened, the faithful followers of Christ were to be snatched up into the air, taken away alive into heaven, where they would be spared all of the turmoil and suffering of the tribulation that was to come. And this was going to happen without warning, all of a sudden people would just disappear.

It was supposed to be good news, was supposed to comfort us with the idea that we would be spared the terrors that were ahead, but I didn’t really see it that way. It was more of a cause for anxiety. What if I was not worthy? What if I was not faithful enough? What if I was left behind?

A Disturbing Passage

The song was based on the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew. So, reading it again this week brought up all of those old anxieties for me. And I suspect that I am not alone. I know that succeeding generations of young Christians have grown up being traumatized by this idea of what is to happen at the end of all things and how we are to navigate it. I also know that various preachers and authors have used the idea to manipulate people by their fear. So, I felt the need to look at what is really going on in that passage.

After Jesus had been crucified on the cross and died, his early followers were surprised to experience him alive and among them again. But then he departed, he said, for a while. But he left with the promise that he would be back and that, when he came, he would set things right in the world.

Living in Expectation

And so those early Christians lived with a constant expectation that, at any minute, their Lord Jesus would return in power. So potent was this expectation that many of them basically put their lives on hold. They sold all of their possessions and gave them away to the poor and to the church. The Apostle Paul literally counseled people not to get married – not because there was anything wrong with marriage, but simply because he felt there wouldn’t be enough time to be bothered with it. Jesus was coming back that soon.

This expectation was pervasive, and it motivated many good things, but there was a problem. The weeks, the months and then the years went by, and Jesus didn’t come. And it is one thing to put your life on hold, to wait in constant expectation, for a short time, but it is very different in the long term.

Living in Crisis Mode

Ready or not peekaboo picture

Do you remember when the pandemic first started? Remember when things first shut down? We were all convinced that this was just going to last for maybe a couple of weeks, three tops. And then we would have flattened the curve and we would be able to go on with our lives. And it seemed all right to think of doing that for a few weeks because we were in crisis mode. People were being sacrificial and encouraging and doing everything they could to support others. It was kind of beautiful.

The Mood Turns Toxic

But, when things went on for weeks and then months and now years, that sense that we could just put our lives on hold all went away. We have learned that it’s just not sustainable as a society to live in crisis mode all the time. You kind of need to find a way to get on with your life. That is one thing we have learned through this pandemic.

I think there is a danger, and we have seen this throughout our experience with Covid, that when you keep a people in a state of uneasy anticipation for a long time, their mood can easily turn toxic. We have seen some of that happen as people turn against one another in the midst of the stress of the past few years and as they turn against medical and political authorities as well.

The Q-Anon Expectation

You have maybe heard about a similar problem that has developed among some extremists in our time. Over the last 5 years or so, there was this conspiracy theory that developed and spread far and wide in the world. It is called the Q-anon conspiracy theory. This theory states that many of the most powerful celebrities and political personalities in the world today are actually figures who perpetuate absolute evil.

According to people who follow this theory, they are pedophiles who traffic children all over the world for their own purposes and power. But this theory also came with a promise. At some point, very soon, an event would occur. It was called, “The Storm.” And when this happened, all of this evil would be exposed and the perpetrators would be rounded up, given a swift trial and imprisoned or maybe even executed.

And yes, it was promised that this storm was going to happen very soon. In fact, dates were set, signs were announced, and on various occasions the followers of this conspiracy theory gathered to watch eagerly for it all to happen.

Things Turn Toxic Again

And guess what, date after date passed, sign after sign was given, and the storm just didn’t happen. And what do you suppose happened to the followers of this conspiracy theory when everything they were promised didn’t happen or was inexplicably delayed? Did they just give up and go home? No, they didn’t. They stormed the US Capitol on January the 6th, they actually attempted to arrest police officers in Peterborough, Ontario a few months ago and they have gone on to do many other dangerous and disturbing things. It all boiled over in very dangerous excesses.

And that, my friends, is the crisis that the early church had to deal with. They had primed believers with this incredible expectation. They had them in a constant state of anticipation. Things that they promised did not occur, at least not as soon as they expected, and the emotions that they had stirred up boiled over in some potentially dangerous and certainly very disruptive ways. Good Christian brothers and sisters began to turn against one another, perhaps even to blame one another and maybe especially the leaders of the church for the delay. Who else were they to blame? They couldn’t really complain about Jesus, could they? And so, the delay became a very big problem for the church, a problem that needed to be solved.

When this Passage was Written

The passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew was not written in the early flush of the expectation of the return of Jesus though. Scholars believe that this particular Gospel was written somewhere around the end of the first century. And so, by the time this passage was written down, people had been waiting for almost seventy years. So that sense of waiting had definitely entered a more toxic phase.

And, though I do not doubt that the words behind this passage came from Jesus, I also know that the gospel writer did not hesitate to rework those words to address the particular needs of the church in his day. He clearly acknowledges the tension that they were all living with – the tension between being ready for God to break into your life at any moment and that basic human need to just get on with your life.

People Getting on with their Lives

So, he speaks of it in those terms. He talks about how the people in Noah’s time were getting on with their lives. For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so, too, will be the coming of the Son of Man.” He acknowledges the tension that the people have been living with. He recognizes that it causes enormous stress.

He then goes on to acknowledge the real crisis they are dealing with. “But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Unsustainable Crisis Mode

I’m sure you recognize the problem there. Of course, it is true that, if somebody knew that a thief was coming to break into their house at a certain hour of the night, they would be awake and ready. They would be sitting there holding their baseball bat and have 911 on speed dial. They might even call in all their friends so that they had support.

But that is just the problem, isn’t it? We don’t know the hour. The fact that we don’t know the hour has just been underlined when Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” But if you don’t know the hour, nobody can do that. No one can sit awake all night every night and continue to live and function. At some point you have to get on with your life. So that is the huge dilemma of the church of his day that the gospel writer is trying to address in this passage.

200 Centuries Later

He addresses the issue, but I’m not really sure that he solves it. And, of course, if people were dealing with that problem five decades after the death of Christ, where does that leave us over 200 centuries later? How do we work out that balance between being ready and getting on with our lives? I do believe that Jesus left us this teaching about being ready for a purpose. But I also believe that throughout the long history of the church, people have abused that teaching.

When I was a young man, being terrified by the songs of Larry Norman and the writings of Hal Lindsey, I do not believe that that was because those people were being faithful to what Christ was trying to teach. They were using people’s fears to try and manipulate Christians for their own ends. In fact, I have since learned that that whole idea of the Rapture that so terrified me does not actually come from the Bible. It is a weird theological idea invented about a century ago that no Christians had ever seen in the Bible before that. That kind of invention and use of terror is never what Jesus intended.

That is what Jesus is saying in this verse: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He was saying that nobody, no singer, no church leader or politician or conspiracy theorist, not even the angels of heaven nor Jesus himself has the power of knowledge of what is to come. That is exclusively in the hands of God. You should let no one manipulate you or use you because they claim to have such knowledge. Far too many in the long history of the world have forgotten that lesson and have paid a heavy price.

Keeping it a Message of Hope

The very idea of a return of Christ, the idea that God should finally break into all of the trouble of this world, is meant to be a message of hope. It is meant to be a reminder that God will not ultimately be satisfied with the shortcomings of humanity. God cares and will break through to bring hope. Those who manufacture fear in their followers have betrayed that basic hope. People do it because they think it will give them power and control over others, which is exactly what Jesus says we should not allow to happen. We must leave the control and timing up to God.

And in the meantime, we do live in that difficult tension between expecting God to break into this world and just getting on with our lives. That is not always easy. That might sometimes leave us feeling torn. But so long as we react to that tension with hope and not fear, I think we’re going to be okay. At least, that is how I have come to see it. The song that haunted me when I was growing up, does not disturb me anymore. I will trust in God for my future, and that was always what Jesus intended.

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Jesus, King

Posted by on Sunday, November 20th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/hdwIGL0w3iY
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler 20 November 2022 © Scott McAndless – Reign of Christ
Luke 1:68-79, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20 (video), Luke 23:33-43

The Prophet Jeremiah kind of famously never quite got along with most of the kings of Judah that he knew. He didn’t like them because they were bad leaders who were making bad decisions that literally led the entire nation into an unmitigated disaster. It ended with the city of Jerusalem destroyed and the people led away into exile.

Jeremiah Criticizes the Kings

The kings didn’t like Jeremiah either because he never hesitated to tell the truth about just how bad they were as leaders. Which is, of course, what Jeremiah is doing in the passage we read this morning. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.”

The shepherds in question are pretty obviously the kings of Judah. He is simply saying how disappointed God has been with their leadership which has resulted in the destruction of the nation and the scattering of the people. The point is clear: bad leadership leads to bad outcomes for the nation.

A Golden Age?

And I’m not sure that we could find a timelier message for the age in which we are living. For we, like Jeremiah, appear to be living in a golden age of really bad leadership. I mean, Jeremiah might have dealt with some really bad leaders, but were they really as bad as the recent Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who managed to lead her country into exile in a mere matter of 44 days? That is some pretty bad shepherding.

And I do not want to drag Canadian partisan politics into a sermon where it doesn’t really belong, so I’ll just say that none of our provincial or federal leaders of any party are looking particularly spotless in the light of recent events and leave it at that. I think we can share Jeremiah’s frustrations without getting into the specifics.

The Challenge of Christ the King

Today is Christ the King Sunday. And the thing about this day is that you really cannot deal with its themes without straying a little bit closer to political questions than we are normally comfortable with. For how can we talk about how Christ is our King without comparing him, in some sense, to the kind of leader that he’s supposed to be better than in this world? To refuse to do that is to strip the very notion of the kingship of Jesus of its radical power.

Jesus, as we know, was constantly talking about something that he called the kingdom of God (or sometimes the kingdom of heaven). And he chose that language very carefully. He was living and teaching within a kingdom that belonged to a man named Herod the Tetrarch. That kingdom was also part of a larger political entity called the Roman Empire.

Calling Worldly Leadership into Question

The central point of every parable he told and every saying he made about the kingdom of God was it was another way of doing things – a kingdom whose existence and nature called into question everything about the other kingdoms that people were living in.

The idea of the kingship of Jesus is there for the same reason. Everything about the leadership of Jesus is meant to criticise and put to shame the actions of this world’s leaders. So let us take a look at some aspects of Christ’s kingship today because I kind of feel as if our leaders could use a little bit of advice.

Who Identifies the Leader?

The lectionary gives us an odd passage to delve into that question today. Oh, the theme of Jesus’ kingship does come up in it, but it does not come up in the way you might expect. How do we usually find out that someone is identified as a leader? We expect that person to get up and announce it to us, don’t we? “Just follow me,” they will say, “and I will lead you!” And then that identity is confirmed when that leader’s supporters come to their rallies and their announcements and cheer. That is when we know that there is a leader among us.

The quintessential example of this, of course, is the former US president Donald Trump. Whenever he has been challenged as to whether he should be a leader, you know he’s going to point to one thing above all, the number of people who turn out to his rallies. He is the kind of leader who understood this right from the very beginning.

I believe that it has been confirmed that, when he began his presidential campaign with that now legendary ride down the golden escalator, the adoring followers who greeted him on that day were paid to be there. He just knew that it didn’t really matter why the people were there, he just had to show the world that video of adoring fans to convince the world that he was ready to lead.

Maybe this is something that Trump understood best, but, to a certain extent, it is something that all of our leaders are aware of. If there are no crowds, you just know that a certain person might be a politician, but they are not a leader.

Identified by Enemies

And that’s what makes this story in the Gospel of Luke so surprising. For who, in this story, tells us that Jesus is a king? Not Jesus and not his supporters and fans either; they’ve all run away at this point. No, ironically, it is Pontius Pilate who tells us. He orders his troops as they impose his sentence of death upon our Lord, to make sure they have fixed the charge that he has been accused of above his head as he hangs in agony. “This is the King of the Jews,” the placard proclaims.

But, of course, Pilate does not mean it; Pilate is making the claim mockingly. He is making fun of the very idea that Jesus could be a king. And, of course, the people in the crowd take up the same mocking tone at the claim.

What then does this teach us about the kind of leadership that we need? I think it certainly invites us to look for something other than the enthusiasm of adoring fans for confirmation of leadership ability. A good leader is not always a popular leader because the decisions and directions that are needed are not always going to be the popular ones. Leadership always has to mean more than popularity.

Leaders who Serve themselves

But there are others who also take up Pilate’s mocking tone. The people in the crowd watching begin to call out concerning Jesus, He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Andthe soldiers who are carrying out the sentence, even though they are foreigners who barely understand the local language, know that the people are making fun of Jesus because of his claim to be a king and so they join in calling, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

This mockery makes it quite clear that everyone present understands something about the way that leadership works in this world. They are understanding that people seek leadership and power in order, above all, to save themselves – that is to say, to benefit themselves. Any leader who fails to obtain benefits for themselves from their leadership role is just a fool and deserves to be laughed at.

A Servant King

But, once again, Jesus models a very different kind of leadership for us. If Jesus is a king, he is not a king who is there in order to benefit or enrich himself. Jesus is the very model of a servant king and nowhere is that made clearer than when we see him willingly choosing a mode of service so radical that he takes him to the cross where he gives up his very life for our sake.

Do we have such servant leaders among us today? I think we can perhaps say that they are somewhat rare. But I do believe that they still exist. And as followers of Christ the King, I think it is important that whenever we see a leader in this world acting selflessly, giving of themselves in service of the people that they lead rather than getting what’s coming to them, we need to pull out all the stops in celebrating them and honouring their contributions.

“Father, Forgive Them”

But if you thought of Jesus not seeking his own benefit from kingship was extraordinary, what about this? We are also told that, when Jesus was being most mistreated, this actually happened. “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” And Jesus had every reason not to be forgiving at that point. He was being nailed to a cross! He had the power necessary to hold a grudge against the people who crucified him and punish them forever. But Jesus chose not to do that. Jesus showed us that leadership is not about holding grudges. How many leaders today model something so different from that? Many seem to see themselves as having a privileged position precisely so that they can punish their enemies. Again, Jesus shows us a better way.

More than that, Jesus shows us that true power is found in forgiveness. Powerful people often think that they don’t have to invest energy into understanding what the people who oppose them are thinking or feeling. But Jesus understood that his deep understanding of the people who were victimizing him, his understanding that they didn’t even know what it was they were doing, showed a much deeper strength of character. And that is always what true leadership is about.

Brings Others Along

But Jesus’ final display of leadership in this passage is perhaps the most powerful. As he hangs there in agony, one of the people who has been condemned alongside him is only too happy to join in on the mockery. But another one of the thieves shows a great deal of understanding. He recognizes that Jesus has been unjustly condemned. And so, he makes of him what seems to be a huge request, “Jesus,” he says, “remember me when you come in your kingdom.” And to this Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

And I know that many readers have some theological problems with this part of the story. How is it that Jesus can grant to this man heaven without requiring anything of him? He does not require repentance of him; He does not ask any faith of him. He simply grants him what he asks. But this is, you see, the power of a true leader.

Such is the depth of Jesus’ power, his love and his service, that he is able to bring people along with him by the force of who he is. If people are well led, they will get to the destination. Things like faith and commitment and repentance which leads to a change in life, these things will follow if people are well led. But when there is no leadership, there is no vision, and no one can follow.

The Challenge of this Day

To call this Christ the King Sunday is to issue a challenge to all believers and even to the whole world. I don’t care who you are or what faith you may follow, if you aspire to be a leader – aspire to be a prime minister, a president or a good monarch – you will never stand up to the example given to us by Christ. The example of Christ calls into question whatever leadership I have been able to give in Christ’s Church, but it also calls into question whatever leadership you have given in the church or in the world.

None of us will ever measure up, but the example of Christ the King is there to help us understand what real servant leadership is about, and how it actually can and does transform the world. May the Lord send us such leaders. But perhaps the prayer ought to be, may the Lord make you and me such leaders.

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Jerusalem as a Joy and its People as a Delight

Posted by on Sunday, November 13th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/jAHcZKbXpdA
Watch the YouTube video of the sermon here

Hespeler, 13 November 2022 © Scott McAndless – Baptism
Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19 (click to read)

Six years less one month ago, we had a very special worship service here at St Andrew’s Hespeler. It was special because it was just before Christmas and we were reading some traditional Advent passages. But it was even more special because we got to celebrate a big event – the baptism of Blake’s big brother, Rylie.

And I just want to remind you and help you get a perspective on what we were thinking about and concerned about six years ago. You see, I keep all my old sermons. And so, I know exactly what I was talking about that Sunday six years ago.

Blake’s family had just returned from out west. Her parents had moved to Alberta after school because things were booming in the oil industry and there were tons of well-paying jobs. But six years ago, things were not looking quite so rosy out in Alberta. The price of oil had crashed on the international market and the Alberta oil patch was struggling. The employment situation was not quite so great and stable anymore.

An Apocalyptic Fire

But there was actually another disaster that was on our hearts and minds at that moment. A huge, and I mean apocalyptically huge, wildfire had swept through the Alberta city of Fort McMurray. It had left so much destruction in its wake that the pictures and the videos terrified us all the way here in Ontario. Do you remember that?

I remember it, especially because Blake’s family had just moved back to Cambridge from Fort McMurray. They maybe weren’t literally fire refugees, but it had been pretty close. And they certainly brought the scope of that tragedy home to us that day. So, I was trying, on that Sunday six years ago, to see what it was that God might be saying to us at that particular moment in time when there seemed to be a lot to be worried about. That wildfire, we were told, was like a once in a century event – something the likes of which we might never see again – and I wanted us to get some perspective on it.

A Child of Promise

I turned to the scriptures of the day, which spoke (fittingly) of a child of promise being born and how things would look different by the time he came of age. And I spoke about how we might look at things differently by the time that Rylie came to a certain age. This is what I said:

My Prophecy

“The world may change, but this child, like the one born in Isaiah’s time and even like Jesus, is a sign to us from God – a sign that means that God is with us.

“How do I know that? I know it because that is how God works. I know it because, by the time this child grows up and is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the world will have changed. I don’t even know how.

“Trump will not be president of the United States. Trudeau will likely not be our Prime Minister. The economy will have changed, and I wouldn’t mind if oil isn’t such a big part of it. We don’t know.

“But the key thing is that the things we are worried about now, the things we are afraid of, may not matter by then. Yes, maybe we’ll have new things to worry about, but even that may not matter because of one key truth that God has sent Rylie to remind us of: God is with us.”

Not a Great Prophet

I share that with you today with all humility to let you know that I probably would not make a fantastic prophet. I have no idea why I was so sure that Trump would no longer be president. As we know, that wasn’t necessarily a sure thing. And as for my prediction of Trudeau’s longevity in the office, I don’t seem to have gotten that one right. But, in my defense, I was thinking of a time a bit further out than six years.

And I actually think that the main point of my predictions still stands up. It is true that the things that we were so worried about six years ago are not the same things are worried about today.

What We Were Worried About

And, yes, in some ways that’s because things have gotten much worse. The images of the Fort McMurray fire aren’t quite so shocking today as they were then, but that is actually because there have been so many more wildfires some of which, such as the ones in Australia in 2020, were far more apocalyptic.

And, yes, we’re not so worried about a precipitous drop in the price of oil, but that is actually because the price is now so high that it’s a major driver of the inflation that is worrying us. The things we are anxious about certainly have changed, which means we probably should not invest so much into the specifics of what we worry about. But, alas, it seems, the constant is that anxiety itself never quite goes away.

But enough about the worries of six years ago. We are here today to celebrate something wonderful. We are here to celebrate Rylie’s little sister, Blake, and what her coming among us symbolizes today.

Today’s Worries

And yet, I still feel as if we can’t quite do that without acknowledging some of the anxieties and fears we are living with. I know that many of us look at young families just starting out these days and wonder how they are able to manage it.

With housing prices seemingly continuing to spiral out of control, we wonder how young families can afford to provide decent shelter for their children. With education costs so high, we wonder how they will be able to pay off what they borrowed to get their degrees. With prices so high, we worry about how parents can find the time to spend with their children when they are required to work so many hours just to make ends meet. These are huge issues for families in our times. And they affect us all, so we ought to be concerned about them.

So let us look once again to the promises that God gives to us. Let us take comfort in the faithfulness of our God. We read once again from the Book of Isaiah this morning, but the passage we read was addressed to a very different time.

Judah’s Families Under Stress

It was actually a time when the families of Judah were also under enormous stress. The people of Judah were, at that time, people who had been repatriated after being refugees in a foreign land. They had returned to a land that had been devastated by a series of disasters and they were trying to rebuild. It was a difficult time. They were surrounded by enemies, and they had to deal with a series of environmental and economic disasters. Any of that sound familiar?

Inflation of Biblical Proportions!

And do you want to know what one of those disasters was? It was out of control inflation. The Prophet Haggai was also active at this time and this is how he describes the situation: “You have sown much and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:6)

Hmm, it makes me wonder whether Haggai didn’t write that description of his feelings after walking through the aisles at Zehrs and taking a look at those prices! “You that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” Yep, that is what it feels like today.

The Bible is Always Relevant

So, these prophecies were written at a time, in particular, when the families of Judah were really struggling. They didn’t know if they were going to be able to pay their bills. They didn’t know if they were going to have houses to live in! There is something about the Bible, isn’t there, that makes it come up ever fresh and ever relevant to what we are living through in the moment.

So I think we ought to read the promises from Isaiah this morning as promises that speak directly to Blake and her family and indeed to all young families who are dealing with various challenges and trials in our society today.

God’s Delight

God speaks through the prophet and says, I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight.” That is a powerful message for our time. It tells you that God has a very different orientation when looking at our families than the world at large does.

You see very clearly these days that the world is busy judging us all in terms of our production and our efficiency. We are constantly reminded that our value is found in one thing only – what we can produce for the economy. For that reason, families are left constantly scrambling and working to justify their basic existence.

But it is refreshing to see that God’s point of view is so very different. Do you want to know why God values you and your family? It is not because of what you produce. It is not because of your efficiency. God made you as a delight. God created you because God found joy in you. Oh, how I wish we could absorb that lesson in our modern world.

A Housing Promise

But joy and delight alone are not enough to live on, as I think we all recognize. So, let’s see what else God is promising the people at a difficult time. “They shall build houses and inhabit them… They shall not build and another inhabit.” And if there is a message that our society is more in need of than that one, at a time when young families are scraping to pay the rent or afford that down payment and those mortgage payments, I’m not sure what it is.

And what does it mean to have a God who cares about the housing needs of our families? How comfortable should we feel in our homes if we know that their skyrocketing values means that many a family will never be able to afford one of their own? This is a huge problem without simple solutions, of course. But I think it is good and comforting to know that we have a God who cares about this very issue and will push his people to make the necessary change.

Who Benefits from Labour

But it is not just God’s concern for housing that we see here. He also promises, “They shall not plant and another eat, for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” That is another big issue we have in our society.

In far too many cases, the people who benefit most from the labour that people do is not the people themselves. With the way that wages are these days, often those who are on the lowest earning tier only find themselves falling further and further behind as they scramble to pay their bills and debts.

Meanwhile, the investor class and the ultra rich who do not need to labour in order to earn their bread are getting richer and richer. I think it’s kind of important that God puts Godself on the record here and says that families need to enjoy the fruits of their own labours.

Meeting our Potential

But, by far, the greatest promise that I see in the passage we read this morning is this: “They shall not labour in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well.” And that, more than anything else, speaks of God’s commitment to our families. God is determined to bless them. God is determined to ensure that every member of every household can achieve their full potential. And God demands the same commitment from us.

God’s Commitments to Families

Six years ago we had the opportunity to celebrate a family that had just welcomed its first child – a child who came out of a vision of apocalyptic fire. That child gave us hope for the future. Today we celebrate not only that child’s little sister but a family that is more firmly established here. I know that they have challenges before them, not because of anything particular in them but simply because most all families at their stage are facing the same struggles these days.

But let our readings this morning remind us of our God’s commitment to families. And let that also become a renewal of our own commitment to support the families of this congregation and this community in a trying time. We can be bold to take on that ministry because we should never doubt God’s commitment to it. And so, thank you, Blake, for reminding us of all of that today.

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