Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

Christianity under attack

Posted by on Sunday, February 2nd, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 2 February 2020 © Scott McAndless
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15:1-5, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

My friends, my brothers and sisters, I have some dire news for you this morning. The Christian faith, the Christian church and everything associated with the name of Jesus Christ is under attack. What is worse, the forces that are attacking it are likely to succeed in destroying it because they are unlike any other foe that we have ever faced.

A fist punching through a wall.

So, what is this enemy? What is this foe unlike any other? I know that some of you think that you know what I am going to say. You think that I might be warning of the dangers of secularism. You may be thinking that the greatest danger facing us has to do with the rising tide of people who are pleased to orient everything in their lives without any reference to God, without any reference to divine authority or writ. You may be thinking of the tendency of society itself to make every decision without giving any consideration at all to questions about God or religion.

Now, I will grant you that there are certain difficulties that the general secularization of society has created for the church in our times. Things were definitely easier for the church when the society deferred to it and when it reserved certain days of the week for the almost exclusive use of the church, for example. Things were easier when society and government listened when the church spoke simply because it was the church speaking. It was easier when being a Christian, in name at least, was the natural default for just about everyone. Oh yes it was easier! But surely the lack of ease is not possibly something that could bring about the destruction and end of Christianity. If it were as fragile as all that, Christianity would have passed away long ago. So, no, I do not think but the forces of secularization could possibly be the thing that is bringing about the demise of Christianity.

Ah, but some of you might say that the real threat that is destroying the faith today is the reality of pluralism. Pluralism is the name we give to the phenomenon of what we find ourselves in today: a society in which there is a plurality of religions and faiths. Where once, in North America, there was only Christianity in its various forms and almost nobody who belonged to another faith. I mean, there were a few Jews here and there but that’s about it. But today, it seems, it is far more likely that your new neighbours will turn out to be Sikhs or Muslims or Hindus than that they turn out to be Baptists or Catholics or Presbyterians. The mere fact that people who are followers of non-Christian faiths (or even no faith at all) are all over the place in our society means that Christianity no longer has that first place and the privileges that go with it.

So, is that the foe that will destroy our Christian faith? Is pluralism going to be what brings us down? No, that is not the danger I am talking about. I realize that the loss of privilege and a first place within society is hard. Sometimes it even feels like persecution. But actually, the simple fact that Christianity has to deal with some competition in the spiritual marketplace today should not worry us. Surely the Christian faith is strong enough that it can endure in the face of a bit of competition for the hearts and minds of people.

So, if it’s not secularism or pluralism, what is it? The true threat does not come from atheism or science or even from changes in societal morality. No, the true threats, the ones that are attacking the faith head-on, are Christians. And it’s not even that they are bad Christians – at least I don’t think most of them are – they are just frightened Christians. You see, they feel as if Christianity is under attack from all of those things that I’ve mentioned – the secularism, pluralism and other various trends that we see in the world. They feel as if they must fight against these things, must engage in what is called cultural warfare. The ironic thing is that by doing that, they are attacking the very essence of the Christian faith itself.

Let me show you what I mean. Just recently, Liberty University, probably the most important Evangelical Christian Education Institution in the United States created a new thinktank called the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty. It is a way to bring together Christian intellectuals to set the theoretical basis for the church’s interaction with the outside world.

Here is a part of Falkirk’s mission statement: “Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation.” Now think, for a moment, about what it is they are saying there. They are saying that in order to defend the faith against the things that are attacking it, things that they collectively call “leftism” (which I think is a very unhelpful term) but which includes things like secularism and pluralism – that, because these things are attacking Christianity in their view, we basically have to abandon the very teachings of Christ in order to fight back.

Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek; they’re saying that that’s foolishness and we ain’t going to do that. So, what is the real threat here? Is it the forces of secularization or “liberalism” if you prefer, or is it the people who are abandoning the very teachings of Christ and teaching people that they must abandon them because they feel threatened by these things?

The Apostle Paul predicted that this would happen, as he wrote to the church in Corinth: “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 simple truth is that the message of Jesus Christ is seen to be ultimate foolishness as far as the world is concerned. The message of the world is that the only way to defeat what is evil in the world is through strength, power and violence. It is the oldest story ever told but it is also the story that we keep telling all the time.

It is the plot of about half of the movies that are made. When there is something wrong, some evil that is being done, somebody is called upon to make it right. And whether that hero is James Bond or Iron Man or the Mandalorian, how do they make everything right again? Generally, they come in with guns blazing and start blasting away until all of the enemies have been destroyed. That is the wisdom of this world: only violence can answer violence, only power defeats the power of evil and the only way to win is by fighting back.

And, you know what, if that is how you see the world then, I’m sorry, but the message of Jesus is complete and utter foolishness. I’m not surprised that Christians who feel that they’re on some sort of battlefield have decided that they need to abandon everything he stood for.

But that is the very thing that threatens the foundation of the Christian faith, not only because it is a denial of everything that Jesus stood for, but even more because it robs us of the true power and wisdom that should be ours. For the kingdom of God will never be realized until we learn to live up to what Jesus called us to be.

We read one of the most famous passages in the Gospel of Matthew this morning: the beatitudes of Jesus, part of the Sermon on the Mount. The ideal of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus presents here is another example of the approach to the faith that some Christians are rejecting because they feel that they cannot afford it because the faith is under attack. But it is also more than that. What we have in this passage is the antidote to the line of thinking that led us into this problem in the first place. In many ways, the beatitudes represent the height of foolishness.

The key word, “blessed,” is a translation of the Greek word Maka,rioi. It is a word that indicates a state not only of blessedness but also of happiness and good fortune. Many years ago, when the Good News translation of the Bible first came out, they actually translated the beatitudes like this: “How happy are the poor in spirit...” People reacted to that translation at the time and said that they didn’t like it. I was just a kid at the time, but I still remember someone reacting to that translation and saying, “That doesn’t make any sense; being ‘poor in spirit’ means that you are unhappy! How can you be happy to be unhappy!”

But since that time, I grew up and studied Greek and biblical translation and I can absolutely tell you that “How happy are the poor in spirit” is actually a pretty good translation. It is what Jesus meant to say. He was congratulating these people. And he also meant for people to react in exactly the same way that that man from my church did; he wanted them to say, “this doesn’t make any sense.” That was the point of all of these teachings; none of it made sense according to the philosophy of the world.

But, by telling people to be happy because they were poor and meek and hungry and thirsty and despised, what Jesus was doing was redefining victory; he was redefining winning. You see, the mistake that defenders of the faith are making today is that they are defining the success of the Christian faith in the way that the world defines it. They are defining it in terms of power, in terms of dominance and in terms of influence. Jesus taught the opposite. He taught that the victory that mattered would come through service, through submission and through vulnerable weakness. When he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” What else could he have meant?

That is also what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” But think about what that means, it means that every time we think of the church getting ahead in terms of exercising power and influence within society and the world, we are actually self-defeating. Every time we try to win in the way that the world works, we move farther away from the success that God actually wants us to have. And the reason why this is so hard for us is because for something like the last sixteen centuries, that has been exactly what the church has been doing in Western society.

And, what’s more, the church was pretty successful at it as far as the world was concerned. We had the power and we had the influence and it was great! We even actually did do some good with all of that power and influence. The church created some of the best education systems, health systems, some of the most beautiful music and art the world has ever seen, just to name a few things. We should not be overly critical of that legacy, but that was never how Jesus defined success for his church.

Today it seems as if that has all changed and the church struggles with that loss of power and prestige. Of course, it does create some hardships, but it also creates a great promise. For the first time in over a thousand years it would seem as if the church has an opportunity to seek the kind of victory and strength that Jesus had in mind all along.

There are places in the world where Christians are under attack or facing persecution. Of course, we should do what we can to support them and help them and pray for them. But, generally speaking, North America is not one of those places where the faith is being threatened. It is not under attack except by those who would betray who Jesus was and what he stood for because they feel threatened by some of the ways in which the world has changed. The church is and always been in the hands of its only King and head, Jesus who is God’s anointed one. To suggest that Jesus cannot preserve his church despite some changes that may be occurring is the failure of faith on our part. And if we renounce the message of Jesus because of our fear and failure of faith, that will be the greatest failure of all.

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The Voice of the Lord

Posted by on Sunday, January 12th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 12 January, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

I believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. I believe that he is the Son of God and the one who has revealed God to us in a uniquely powerful way. But holding such belief can be a challenge sometimes. Being a believer doesn’t mean that you never have doubts or questions. Being a believer is not the same thing as being certain. And so I have thought, as I’m sure you have also thought at times, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to know rather than simply to believe? Wouldn’t it be nice to be presented with the evidence right there before your eyes and be put in the position that left you with no room to doubt?

Wouldn’t it have been nice, for example, to have been there for that episode we read about in the Gospel of Matthew this morning? There doesn’t seem to be any room for doubt in that scene. John the Baptist is so certain that Jesus is the one that he’s been looking for, that he even protests that it would be inappropriate for him to baptize Jesus because that would imply that, in some sense, Jesus was less important than John! But even the certainty of John is blown out of the water by what happens immediately following the baptism: just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Now, wouldn’t it have been something to witness that – to see the Spirit of God descending just like a dove flies down from the sky, to hear that voice speaking so clearly? I mean, surely that’s about as close to proof and evidence as you can get. And there clearly must have been a lot of people who were there. The gospel writers speak of large crowds going out to see John the Baptist despite his remote location. So hundreds, if not thousands, could have witnessed the incredible event. The result of such an experience must have been that huge numbers of Judeans and Galileans left that day in the certain and secure knowledge of exactly who Jesus was and what he had come to do.

Except, well, if you continue to read through the gospels from this point in the story, that’s not quite what seems to have happened, is it? Oh, there is no question that people are very interested in what Jesus does in his ministry. He is able to gather huge crowds most everywhere he goes. But, as interested as the people are in Jesus, they hardly seem very certain about what he represents. In fact, I seem to recall an episode later in the gospel, when the disciples report back to Jesus about what the people have been saying about who he is and there are all these crazy ideas floating around – “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:14) So apparently there were a lot of people speculating about who Jesus was, but, with all of that talk, no one seemed to be saying anything about the words that reverberated from heaven in front of all those witnesses. It wasn’t being rumoured all over the place that he might be the Son of God.

And, what’s more, we are told that even John – even the Baptist who Matthew tells us was so certain when Jesus was standing in front of him – was soon racked with doubts on that very subject. We’re told that, later, when he was in prison and waiting for his own execution, he became so discouraged that he sent word to Jesus asking him outright whether or not he was the one. Is that the kind of thing that you would ask after hearing the voice of God booming directly from heaven telling you exactly who Jesus was? I mean, if you have heard the voice, you have no need to second guess what you see Jesus doing afterwards, do you?

So, the story of the baptism of Jesus with its very public confirmation of who Jesus was, leaves us with a big question mark. If it all went down like that, why wasn’t everyone completely certain about who Jesus was throughout his ministry? I can think of two possible answers and I suspect that both are correct to a certain extent.

The first answer is that proof is not the fix for all our faith issues that we think it is. Just because, at some moment in your life, you are confronted with something that absolutely convinces you that God is real and that God is present in some powerful way, that doesn’t mean that you will never again doubt such realities. It is simply not true that, the more proof you have of something, the less doubt you will have about it.

Doubt is something that is simply in our human nature. And it is actually a gift and a very good thing. Doubt is what makes the researcher not just accept the established results of previous science, and instead push on and keep asking questions until a new theory and better answer is found. If humanity had never struggled with doubt, we would have struggled with far more ignorance as we settled for insufficient answers.

But we are sometimes tormented by doubt too. Even when you have been convinced of something that is really important to you – when you have been given ample proof, for example, that somebody loves you – you can still be racked with doubts about their love. Why? Simply because the answer to the question, “do they love me?” is so very important to you. Well, the things you believe about Jesus fall into much the same category. They are the kinds of beliefs that people build their lives around. And, because of that, it may not matter how much Jesus proves to you that he’s there and committed to you, you may still doubt it just because it matters that much.

So actually, I do not find it impossible that John and the others gathered at the Jordan River really did hear a voice booming down from heaven that identified exactly who Jesus was and yet could have still walked away from such an experience doubting what their eyes had seen and their ears had heard.

But that is all based on the assumption that everything that happened by the Jordan was plain for everyone to see, but as I look closer at what the passage actually says, maybe we ought not to be assuming that. Matthew is actually rather careful in how he describes the events of that day and the more I read it, the less certain I am about who saw and heard what.

In fact, you can kind of get lost when you delve into the grammar of Matthew’s description. “The heavens were opened to him,” it says, “and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” But who is he in that sentence? And is the he who saw it the same him upon whom the Spirit alighted? I suspect that Matthew quite intentionally kept all of that rather vague. Matthew doesn’t actually tell us who saw what.

Even more strange, he also doesn’t actually tell us who heard what either. All he writes is, “And a voice from heaven said…” You’ve all heard the classic philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, Matthew kind of leaves us with a similar philosophical query. What does it matter what a voice from heaven says if we don’t know who heard it?

But an even better question is what does the voice of the Lord resounding from heaven sound like, and how would you recognize it? There are, of course, many stories in the Bible of people hearing God’s voice. The Old Testament prophets, for example, are always talking about how God told them this or God told them that. And I always used to imagine that just like any other conversation except that you couldn’t see God when God was speaking, only hear. But the more I study the prophets, the less convinced I am that it worked like that.

As you look at how they operated, you realize that, most often, when they speak of what the Lord said to them, they are reflecting on the events happening around them or in the larger political sphere and are detecting some message from God in those things. It would seem that hearing God’s voice is a little bit different from most every conversation you have ever had.

We read a psalm together this morning, the beautiful 29th psalm, which is all about hearing the voice of the Lord. “The voice of the Lord is over the waters;” it declares. “the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.” But, as you continue to read, you start to wonder what exactly the voice of the Lord is as it does things like break cedars trees, make forests and mountain skip, flash with fire, shake the wilderness and make oak trees whirl. Soon it becomes clear enough, what the palmist is actually describing is a powerful thunderstorm and the effects it has on the countryside.

What the psalmist is saying is that, at least sometimes, the voice of the Lord can appear in the form of a powerful storm. But think of what that means for a moment. If God can speak through a powerful storm, then it is quite possible for one person to witness that storm and think, “Wow, that is a powerful storm,” and somebody else might see that same thing and respond, “Yes, Lord, I have heard what you are saying.”

The voice of the Lord is always and has always been open to interpretation. I have thought about that a lot recently as I have reflected on what has been happening in the world. Speaking of storms and God speaking through storms, how about the firestorms that have swept through Australia over the past few weeks. They have been huge and unprecedented. As of last week, an area of that country as large of all of Southern Ontario – from Windsor in the west to Tobermory in the north to Peterborough in the east – all of it has been destroyed by fire. That is huge – some would say apocalyptic – in scale.

There is no question that something significant has happened in Australia, but whether or not there is a message in it is a matter of interpretation. One person (such as, apparently the Australian Prime Minister) might look at the devastation and say, “Wow, that is terrible and horrible and everything, but we don’t really have to change anything about how we live.” And somebody else looks at the same thing and may hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Maybe it is time for everyone to make some serious changes.”

Now, one way of seeing this might be right, and the other might be wrong. Presumably either God is speaking or God isn’t. And I certainly have my thoughts about which interpretation is right. But, because everyone has a stake in what the interpretation is, there is no answer that is unmistakable, by which I mean people always seem to find ways to make mistakes when it comes to the voice of the Lord.

So, if you are looking for certainty about God, about Christ and who he is, the answer seems to be that it doesn’t quite work like that. If you were there on the day when John baptized Jesus (an event that I certainly believe really happened) I’m not sure what you would have seen. Maybe you would have seen a dove fly from a nearby branch, maybe the clouds formed some unusual formation. Maybe you might have even heard thunder or some other unusual sound rumbling from the sky. Somebody who was there saw all of that and heard the voice of the Lord in it, but would you have? And if you did, would you have believed? Maybe. I hope so, but still that would be different from being absolutely certain about who Jesus was.

I understand why you would like to be certain. It is natural. But clearly that is not how God works. And there is a good reason why. I actually don’t think that people operate all that well from a position of certainty. When people are completely certain about their position, that is when they turn into tyrants. That is when, even sometimes with the best of intentions, they can easily become persecutors or oppressors of those who disagree with them.

There is a humility that comes from struggling with doubt (at least when you’re honest with yourself about it) and so God doesn’t give us certainty. God invites us to faith and though it may be harder, I do believe that it is better.

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Trying Something New

Posted by on Friday, January 10th, 2020 in Minister

There is actually a whole lot to be said for doing everything in the way that it has always been done. Take a Sunday morning worship service for example. When I am planning a worship service that follows the normal weekly pattern, it is always a lot less work. I can just copy and paste what we’ve done before and then make some changes as needed. I know where to go to find hymns and prayers and other elements of the service. Even more importantly, there is a psychological comfort and ease in working according to pre-established patterns and forms.

But just try planning an unusual or innovative worship service. You find yourself basically reinventing the wheel. You have to go back and rethink the function of a prayer or a litany at a certain point in the service and then write the thing according to that purpose. That is a lot more work. And that is just when you’re preparing for the thing. The actual worship service itself takes even more concentration because it’s just a lot easier to lose track of what’s next and how it is supposed to go.

And if that’s true about a worship service, it is doubly true about any new or innovative project or event that you might consider in the church. The first time you do something, you have to invent or create just about every aspect of what you do. There is also much more potential for something to go wrong in some unanticipated way. After you’ve done a program a few times it can be so much easier and a lot less work.

For example, as you will see as you continue to read through this newsletter, we are about to embark on a bold new endeavour in the coming weeks; we’re calling it Hespeler Arts Palooza. Though this is something that builds upon some past successful events, the scope of what we are attempting is quite new and rather daunting. It hasn’t even started yet and we are already feeling the stress of it as we work on schedules and finding innovative ways to get the word out to the people we are trying to engage.

So, given that new is hard, you have to ask the question: why even try it? Why not just keep doing things the way that they have always been done? Of course, there’s also the added benefit that church people often take a great deal of comfort from what they are used to and what they have experienced before and are more likely to criticize or even complain when dealing with the unfamiliar. So why even bother trying anything new?

The reasons are many, but I would like to share a few with you from my perspective.

  • Just because something worked in the past, doesn’t mean that it is the best or only way to do it moving forward. In fact, since the church finds itself within a rapidly changing society – a rapidly changing world! – we find ourselves in a situation where what worked in the past might be increasingly irrelevant to society. But, if we never try anything new, we will never be able to compare what worked in the past with what works today.
  • Yes, there is a comfort to be found in doing what we are used to, but we must ask, is comfort what we are called to as followers of Christ? No. We are called to lives of faith and trust in God and stepping out and taking a risk by trying something new is indeed an excellent way to exercise our faith muscles.
  • While there is indeed comfort and ease in routine, there is an excitement that comes with trying something new. We cannot constantly be in such an excited state, of course, because it can wear us down, but seasons of excitement are needed to keep us engaged and interested.
  • New initiatives mean new ways to connect with people. Think of it in a travelling metaphor. When you are travelling over familiar territory with people that you know, the group tends to behave in very self-sufficient ways. There is no need to stop and ask anyone else for directions. You all know where and how to get the supplies that you need. But when you are travelling over unfamiliar territory, you are often forced to deal with other people and you have to deal with them in a place where you are not the expert. There is a humility and a mutuality that is found in unfamiliar territory, attitudes that would serve the world well in the coming in this young century.
  • But, of course, the most important reason for trying something new is that we are emulating our God who says:
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Getting the Beginning Right

Posted by on Sunday, January 5th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 5 January 2020 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 147:12-20, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18

You’ve had five days, so how are you doing?

You all know what it is like at the turn of the year. Everybody else is doing it, so you tend to look back and look forward and at least pause to think about what happened in 2019 and what you’d like to happen in 2020. Many of us even make resolutions – setting out our intentions to be different in the new year. And of course, the people who run gyms and personal training companies and dieting plans all know it. Every year they sign thousands of people up for the services that they provide.

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But, even though people always seem make the best of plans on the first of January, it seems just as common for people to struggle a bit on the follow-through. So, five days on, it doesn’t seem too out of place to ask how you are doing. How are you following through on that exercise regime, that diet plan, that other resolution that was going to revolutionize your life in 2020?

If you are doing well, that is great. But it’s only been five days; I think we all know that the real test is likely yet to come. And I don’t mean to mock anyone’s best intentions, but I don’t think it is any secret that, if you do follow through 100% on your New Year’s resolutions, you are definitely beating the odds. Most resolutions collapse into so much dust before the first month of the year is over.

It is almost as if making a decision on an arbitrary date on a calendar created by a man named Gregory doesn’t have the magical power to bring about all of the changes we really crave in our lives. Well, as much as I applaud everyone’s best efforts, I think that is exactly the case. But that doesn’t mean that the change you may want is out of reach for you. And actually, the instinct is good; the idea of making the change at the beginning of something is good. It is just that we may be reaching for the wrong beginning.

There is something very special about the way that John decides to begin his gospel story of Jesus. You see, the Gospel of Mark decided that Jesus’ story began when he was baptised – that you really didn’t need to know anything about him before that happened. Then Matthew and Luke came along and said, “Wait a minute, you have to go back earlier than that to understand Jesus. You have to know about what happened when he was conceived and born.”

Then it was like Matthew and Luke turned to John and said, “There’s no way you can start your story any earlier than that.” And John said, “just watch me!” He decided that you really can’t understand who Jesus is and what he did if you don’t go back way before Jesus was born – back to the very beginning of the world, in fact. “In the beginning,” he begins. And it is, of course, a very intentional echo of the opening of the Book of Genesis. But, instead of saying, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” he says, “In the beginning was the Word.”

Now, entire books – whole libraries – have been written about what John meant by that phrase, “the Word.” It refers, of course, to the fact that, in the Genesis story, God creates by speaking things into existence – by saying, “Let there be…” But it also means more than that. It refers to the biblical notion that the ideal of Wisdom (who is, interestingly enough, personified as a woman in the Proverbs) was actively present with God in the work of creation. (Proverbs 8:22-31)

Even more surprising, it is a reference to a central concept of ancient Greek philosophy. You see, John wrote his Gospel in Greek, and the Greek word he uses there, the word that is translated in English as word, is the word logos. But logos is not just the common, everyday ancient Greek word for a word. It was a special word for word that was mostly used by philosophers to talk about deeper ideas of meaning and understanding. That’s why we find it as a root in scholarly English words like biology, technology and logic.

So, in just the opening few words of his gospel, John introduces us to all sorts of interesting ideas and concepts about this world and how it came into being. But actually, the most amazing thing that he has to say about the beginning of all things is yet to come. He reveals – almost in passing, almost as if were a minor point – that this Word, this way that God spoke all things into being, this notion of divine wisdom, this organizing principle of Greek philosophy – was not something apart from God, but was, in fact, indistinguishable from God: “and the Word was God.”

But John is not quite finished blowing our minds, because there is one more key step in this story of the work of the logos in creation. A few lines later he reveals that the Word became flesh and it is clear, as you continue, that he is talking about the main character of this Gospel – that this pre-existing Word of God is one and the same as Jesus of Nazareth. And that statement left a puzzle that Christians have spent the ages arguing over and trying to understand – how could Jesus possibly be the totally human man who was known and loved by his friends in Galilee and yet also at the same time the pre-existing Word of God who was from the beginning and was also, somehow, God?

But I am not going to try and unravel all of the mysteries of the Holy Trinity today. In fact, I don’t really think that it is a mystery that can be completely understood by human thought and reason. I just want us to note, for the moment, that John believed that to truly understand Jesus and why he came and what he accomplished, you need to go back not just to his baptism, not just to his birth, but to the very beginning of all things.

And that brings us back to us and the struggles that we sometimes have to be and become the people that we want to be. As I said, we seem to feel this pull to want to make resolutions or to improve ourselves at the beginnings of things, like on the first of January. It is a correct impulse; the problem is just that we are looking towards the wrong beginning.

Here is what the Letter to the Ephesians says about you becoming your best person – the person that God always intended you to be. He says that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” He is saying that the story of your transformation didn’t start at the beginning of the New Year but rather at the beginning of time itself. And you may say, “How can that be? I wasn’t even around way back then. I think I would remember something like that.” And no you weren’t. The apostle is not suggesting that you were a pre-existent being who was there at the beginning of all things and you just don’t remember it.

But he clearly agrees with the author of the Gospel of John that Jesus is that kind of pre-existent being and, because Jesus was there and you are in Christ today, there is a sense in which you were there too. But Ephesians adds new depth of understanding to what it was that Jesus was doing there at the beginning of all things. The idea seems to be that Jesus began his great work all the way back then. Jesus’ work of bringing the human and the divine together, of wiping away everything that could ever separate you from God and of recreating you as the best person that you can be, is not tied to just one moment in time – not even the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross or of the resurrection. It is a project that has always been intended to take all of eternity to be fully realized.

And I think that this is one idea that has always been lacking in our plans to improve ourselves. Our thinking about making ourselves better is too future oriented. We try to become better people by suppressing who we have been – by seeking only to forget or overcome the mistakes or regrets of the past. This causes a problem because we end up trying to become brand new people who are completely disconnected from everything we have ever known or been. I believe that this is actually a formula for failure. You cannot embrace change without knowing who you are or where you have come from.

And that is why Jesus is able to engender the kind of change you truly need in your life. Jesus doesn’t just know who you may become, Jesus is also intimately connected with whom you have been. But I am saying more than just that Jesus is understanding of the mistakes and the errors that you’ve made in the past or the ways in which you failed to measure up to your best intentions. The Letter to the Ephesians is saying that Jesus was there when you – everything that you were ever meant to do or be – were just a gleam in God’s eye. Jesus was in on the planning phase of your life. And Jesus has been pulling for you to become the person you were intended to be ever since. In fact, Jesus likely has a better sense of who you are supposed to be than you yourself have.

Now, I do believe that this is a notion that has often been misunderstood and even abused down through Christian history. This notion that God has a plan for people’s lives, for example, has been used to make people stay in situations where they are abused or mistreated. Slaves, for example, were often told that it was God’s good will for them that they remain slaves. Women in abusive relationships often receive the same message to this very day: this relationship is God’s will for you and therefore you have to put up with the abuse. That is a lie!

The whole point of this teaching is not that you have to accept the situation into which you were born or in which you have been placed. That would be to say that the world or that society or that the economy is what has predetermined what person you are supposed to be. No, the point of this is that Jesus knows you better then the world knows you, better than your society know you and better than the expectations that other people have put on you. Indeed, Jesus also knows you better than you know yourself and that is how you can discover, even later in life, new depths or new understandings of what God is calling you to be. This is about you learning to be true to your true self no matter what the world might think or what the world might say.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the efforts that we make to change or improve ourselves especially at the beginning of a new year? The tradition of simply making New Year’s resolutions is, I believe, ultimately a self-defeating thing. If you set out into the new year armed only with your willpower to create a better you, you will inevitably fail sooner or later and the discouragement that follows will only set you back.

I would suggest that more is needed than just decision and willpower. You need to go back, not just to the beginning of the year, but to the very beginning. Jesus was with you there and I would suggest that you begin by meditating with Jesus on how God sees you and what God is calling you to be. Do not let the fear of what other people might think get in the way. Do not waste your energy trying to conform yourself to what other people think you should be, but be transformed into that vision that God has for you. That is how true change, the change that you may crave, will come into your life.

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I Suppose you’re wondering why you’re here today

Posted by on Sunday, December 8th, 2019 in Minister

Note: This sermon has also been posted as an audio podcast. Click on this link to listen and subscribe to the podcast: Retelling the Bible.

Hespeler, 8 December 2019 © Scott McAndless – 2nd Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

I suppose you’re all wondering why you’re here today. In particular, why you are in this rather desolate and lonely place on the shores of the Jordan River. I know you have come here from busy lives. Some of you came here from Jerusalem, the city that never sleeps. And many of you came from other towns and villages in Judea and even a few of you provincials came from Galilee. You all have things to do back there. It’s the busy season. But you have left all of that behind and come to this desolate place. What’s more, you have left behind that land, the PromiIsed Land that God gave to you as a people and the particular plots of land that have been passed down in your families for generations.

A river running through a body of water

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How could you do that, abandon the land of your own ancestors? Well, isn’t it obvious? The Promised Land is no longer your land. It’s no longer the land that God gave you because it is ruled by foreigners who serve only the gods of Rome and the emperor. It is no longer Israel but Roman Judea. Therefore, you stand here on the ancient and sacred border of the Promised Land as outsiders. You are just like the children of Israel back in the days of Yeshua who came to this very spot and stood on the banks of the river and looked into the land that God had promised them, and it was not their land.

And what happened to them? You all know the story. As Yeshua stood there before the people, God went before them and the priests stepped into the water of the Jordan River carrying the sacred Ark of the Covenant and the water stopped flowing. Right there, just upstream from this this very spot, the water stood up in a heap and the bed of the river ran dry so that the people might enter into the land that God had given to them.

Maybe you didn’t realize this when you left home, but you have come here today because it is time for that to happen again. Once again, God will make a path through this river for you. Once again God will give you back the land that is promised.

Now, it will be a little bit different this time. We do not have the priests with us here, for the priests have given in to the powerful of this world and they work with the forces of darkness. The priests and the temple are lost to us today. They do nothing but pacify the people so that the Romans may rule undisturbed. So the priests are not here to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the waters and so the river will not run dry. But this will not prevent us. This time you shall pass through the waters of the Jordan and you will enter into the land as new people.

In a few minutes, John, God’s messenger, the baptizer and the voice that cries out in this wilderness place will get around to this group. He will take you into the Promised Land. But, since you must pass through the water to do so, this is what you must do. To prepare yourself for the chilly waters of the Jordan River, you must repent. That is the only way for you to enter into the land as the force that will take it back. You cannot enter as the person you have been, you must enter as the person you will become.

Now, I hear some of you asking each other, what does that mean? How do I repent? I have spoken to a lot of groups like yours, and I know how you talk. I know that sometimes you seem to think that repentance is all about how you feel. Now, granted, I understand that some of you may feel bad about how you behaved in the past. You may have disappointed yourself or others. You may not have lived up to God’s expectations of you. If you feel guilty about anything like that, or if anyone has made you to feel guilty for it, that is fine. God forgives and sets you free from your guilt.

But I’ll tell you something, John is not particularly interested in your feelings of guilt. He’s not interested in the past. He doesn’t talk about wrath in the past tense, only in the future tense. We’ve all messed up in the past. John is interested in the now and in the future and that is what repentance is about.

Repentance is about changing your mind, changing your heart and, thus, bringing about a change in your actions. Repentance is about you, yourself, being and becoming the change that is actually needed in our land. But (and here I’m going to give you guys a bit of a warning) if any of you just happen to belong to the party of the Pharisees or the party of the Sadducees, well, John really doesn’t like you guys. I mean, really. “Brood of vipers,” that’s what he called the last batch of Sadducees that came through here. And, I want to let you know, that it’s not really personal. It’s not that he doesn’t like you. It’s not even that he really has any problem with the teachings or the practices of those two groups. In theory at least, he knows that the Pharisees are committed to follow all of the various commandments of the law. He knows that the Sadducees have committed themselves to serving God in the temple.

His problem is not with any of that. His problem is that you have been so willing to put all of that aside and work with those who would exploit this land and its people for their own gain so that they might be secure and comfortable. So I am warning you Pharisees and Sadducees, when he sees you, he will not just ask you to repent. He will ask you to show fruit worthy of repentance. He will demand that you show him in your actions that you have changed your minds about what really matters.

That is why you have come here. That is why you have left behind everything that is familiar and comfortable to come to this desolate place, because the time has come for us to take this country back. And I’m warning you, John will talk about this in some pretty wild terms. He will not just say that the tree of this nation is rotten and doesn’t produce any fruit. He will say that, right now, the axe is about to strike the root of the tree and it will be cut down and thrown into fire. Oh, John loves talking about fire! Don’t get him started.

But, I’ll tell you, I’ve been listening to his spiel for a while now, and I have noticed something. John willingly admits that he’s not the one who’s going to carry all of this out. He’s just here to prepare everyone, to prepare all of you to be part of it. But someone else is going to make it happen.

So, I thought a lot about that and I think I’ve figured it out. We needed a Yeshua to take this nation the first time. To use the old Hebrew language, we needed a Joshua. That’s why I believe that John is here to prepare the way for a new Yeshua – a new Joshua, or maybe for you Greek speakers in the crowd, a new Jesus. It’s all the same name. But actually what his name is and where he comes from doesn’t matter, this is about what he’s going to do. And what he’s going to do is take the nation back for God.

Now, it’s pretty clear what John thinks that’s going to look like. It’s going to be like the first time, with fire and destruction and death. I get where he’s coming from, but I’m beginning to think that he’s not quite right about that. This new Yeshua is going to be different, I think. I actually don’t think that it really worked the first time, taking this nation by violence. The new Yeshua, I think, will not take the country by violence, but rather by love, peace and hope. But whatever it is, just understand that John is just preparing the way for what God is about to do and you are here in order to prepare to be part of it. So, into the water you go!

I suppose you’re all wondering why you’re here today. In particular, why you are in this rather desolate and lonely place that it sometimes seems the world has forgotten. I know you have come here from busy lives. Many of you have demanding jobs and schedules. I know some of you are retired, but sometimes I look at your lives and think you might be even busier than those who work. Nevertheless, you have set all of that aside to come apart to this place at this time. Why are you here?

You are here, quite simply, because it’s time to take this nation back. And you may think that I’m talking about taking the nation back from the forces of secularization, but actually I’m not. Yes, it is true that this nation is less explicitly Christian today than it has been in the past and of course that does present certain challenges to Christians living in it.

But that is actually the kind of thing that the Pharisees and Sadducees were working on. Remember them, that brood of vipers? Their problem was that they were so obsessed with the place of their religion in the culture that they missed a much more insidious danger. They allied themselves with powerful political force, not challenging the evil that it did, in order to advance their tamed version of the faith, a version that would not disturb the powers-that-be and that allowed the mad emperor to do whatever he pleased without check or balance.

No, this conquest is different. It is about confronting the truly evil forces at work in our world – the forces of greed, of power for the sake of power, of hatred and tribalism. And, for that reason, the Yeshua that we follow will not lead us in a conquest of violence and hate but of love and hope.

You are here because you have been called here to be a part of the nation that should be. You stand on the borders of that new nation, on the banks of the river, to prepare to enter. And just like those pilgrims who came to the river in the days of the Baptist, you shall enter by passing through the water. Indeed, most of you have already passed through.

So there is one thing that remains for you. You must repent. And though I know that all of us carry around regrets for our failures and shortcomings in the past, repentance does not mean merely how you feel bad about those things. And, though I promise you that God does forgive and doesn’t seek to hold against you what has gone wrong in the past, repentance is not merely about seeking forgiveness for the past. All of that is merely the prelude to repentance.

True repentance is about how you choose to be today and tomorrow and in the weeks and months to come. It’s about how you change your mind and your heart and ultimately your actions so that you begin to live according to the change you want to see in the world. That is what it meant when you were taken and dragged through the waters of the river from one side to the other. That’s what it meant when you were baptized and that is what it will mean when you are baptized.

That is it. That is what you have come here for. I know that there are some who would add other things on top of that. They would tell you that there are certain things you have to believe, certain ideas that you have to sign on to. I have no problem with any of that. But the fact of the matter is that we are never all going to agree about all of those things. Where we must agree is here on the banks of this river. We are here because the new Yeshua has come and we are part of the army that will take back this land to a place of peace, hope and joy that will be for all.

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Besides this, you know what time it is

Posted by on Sunday, December 1st, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, Dec. 1, 2019 © Scott McAndless – Advent 1, Communion
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

You brought a sleeping bag and wore your long johns and your warmest coat, but after sitting out here for many hours, you are completely chilled to the bone. How many times have you asked yourself over the last few hours, are you crazy to do this? I mean, what kind of fools put themselves through this kind of trial of their own free will? If your boss ordered you to go out and sit on a cold sidewalk from midnight until six in the morning and then fight off a bunch of other people in order to get your hands on a certain piece of merchandise, you would refuse. You would file a grievance with the union. You might even just quit right there on the spot. But here you have chosen to do that very thing of your own free will.

A group of people standing in front of a crowd

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And why do you do it? Because your life actually depends on getting that particular piece of merchandise at a low, low price? No, not really. You do it because do you know that it’s just what people do. Besides this, you know what time it is. It is Black Friday and the doors will be opening in just a few minutes and those door crasher specials are waiting for you and you have vowed that this time you will get them. It is just what people do at this moment in time.

And that is just one example of people doing strange things at this time of year just because they know what time it is. You know very well that on December 19th, just a few minutes after midnight, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of people lined up to see the biggest movie of the year, which I’m guessing will be Star Wars, the Rise of Skywalker, and they will do it simply because it matters to them to be the first to see that movie on the day that it opens. It just will not mean the same thing the next day when it’s not the right time. This time of the year is, more than any other, the time when we do things just because this is the time when we do them. “‘Tis the season,” isn’t that what we say. We gather with friends and family at this time of the year, not because it is always the most convenient time to travel (travelling can be horrible!), but because you are just supposed to do it and you will drive through the snowstorm to get there if you have to because you know what time it is. We give gifts to people, not because they are things that they need but just because this is the time when we are supposed to do it.

And, you know what, so much of that is great. I do so look forward to so many of those things that we do just because it is the right time at this time of year. And while I am not particularly interested in some of those events that take place at certain times (you will never find me crashing the door at a Black Friday sale, for example) if those things do bring joy to you during this season, by all means go ahead and make the most of them. There is great power and advantage to be gained by knowing what time it is.

But there is a question that we need to ask, maybe especially at this season of the year: what if you are wrong about what time it is? What if what the world is telling us about what time it is is wrong? That’s not my question, by the way; it is the Bible’s. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives several examples of people who thought that they knew what time it was – who believed what the world was telling them about what time it was – but who were horribly and tragically wrong. Jesus speaks of the people in the days of Noah – people who were living just before a looming disaster but just did not recognize what time they were living in. If they knew what time it was, they would have been busy building ships like Noah and his family, but instead they were “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”

He speaks of two men working in the field and two women grinding grain at the mill when it is clearly not the time to take care of those everyday tasks but instead a time to be prepared for a looming disaster that takes one of the two in both cases. And of course, Jesus gives the example of the homeowner who thought that it was time to relax and go to bed when there was actually a thief who was casing his house and getting ready to rob it; it was a time to be vigilant and prepare to resist intruders. The point of all of these illustrations seems clear. You had better not just take for granted what the world tells you about what time it is. To get that wrong could be very dangerous, even fatal. So, the stakes are very high.

In fact, some of these passages we read this morning really seem kind of annoying at this time of year. After all, it is Christmas time. There are so many disturbing things that are going on in the world all the time, can’t we, just for this one season, forget all about that and celebrate and have a good time?

I don’t think that any of this means that we are just supposed to ignore whatever the world says about what time it is. By all means go ahead and plan your special times with family and friends. Enjoy those special times and events of the season. But Jesus would say that, even so, you ought to keep your eyes open for any indication that God is operating under a different timetable.

Jesus’ reference to the days of Noah makes me think of all of the ways in which we often deal with potential or looming disasters in our modern world. A majority of people, for example, accept these days that we are facing some serious environmental crises, but many go on with their regular activities and make their usual choices as if there really was nothing to be concerned about.

Yes, I know that there are some who will deny that there is anything at all to worry about, but it seems to me that the more common response is just to not think about it and to go on “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” as if the worrying signs all around them didn’t exist.

I believe that that is what the Genesis story of the flood is about. I think the point of the story is that the world was on a course for destruction and it was plain for anyone to see. The problem in that story wasn’t environmental destruction; it was the spread of deadly violence. But the reaction seems to have been the same.

And I know why we react that way; I do it too often enough. Sometimes you just have to act as if the terrible possibilities didn’t exist in order to get on with your life and keep from going insane. But Jesus may be warning us that there are consequences for failing to recognize what time it really is. So, yes, carry on with your life, by all means, but remember that your life does not simply stand alone. You are part of a much larger system and your actions and your activism matter. And, somewhere deep down inside, you really do know what time it is.

But I don’t mean to just talk about dire or looming threats here. I do not think that being a follower of Jesus means that we have to be people who are constantly thinking of the worst thing possible that could happen. In fact, it is mostly the opposite. Knowing what time it is in God’s timetable, also means joyfully embracing the opportunities that God places before us. What that means is that, when we are busily going on with all of the things that the world tells us that we must do, God will interrupt us.

And you all know what that is like! You have just managed to get a couple of hours out of your busy schedule to get to the mall and finally finish all that Christmas shopping, or you’re heading to the grocery store and you absolutely have to concentrate and get everything you need for the big meal this time when something just happens to break in and disturb your flow. Say it is an opportunity to help someone – someone who needs a little kindness or a little bit of help and you, all of a sudden, are in a position where you can do something.

Oh, that’s frustrating, isn’t it? Here I’ve got a million things to do and then something unexpected comes out of nowhere. It’s enough to make you cry. But if you know what time it is – if you are sensitive to God’s time – you know that those things don’t just happen by accident. They are God’s timing. And, if you see them that way, you will be able to respond with joy and your joy this season will multiply. If you don’t, they are just another annoying interruption and the frustration will multiply. That is the difference that knowing what time it really is can make.

I’m going to lay another case of God’s timing on you – another challenge. The world is telling you these days what time it is – it is a time to buy and buy and buy. It starts on Black Friday and continues on Cyber Monday and all the way to December 24 as we count down the real 24 days of Christmas as the world defines them. It’s about buying and then receiving on Christmas Day, a frenzy that will lead to many a meltdown between now and then.

But we have discerned God saying to us that it is a different time. After Black Friday a couple of days ago and Cyber Monday tomorrow, the next day will be Tuesday – Giving Tuesday. We have joined in the Giving Tuesday campaign this year because we believe that, while the world is saying that it is time to exercise purchasing power, God is saying that it is time to exercise the practice of generosity. And if you can hear what God is saying about what time it is, you will find the greater joy of this season.

I do not say this because I am afraid that St. Andrew’s is not going to be able to pay its bills. That’s not what this is about. Sure, we are behind, but it is God who will provide for the needs of this church as we remain faithful to the work God calls us to do, so I’m not asking you to give because we need it. We will be sharing with you some of the amazing things we do here at St. Andrew’s for our community and you definitely want to say after the service and join us in a celebration of those ministries, but this is not about making sure that you give to support those things.

Give prayerful thought about where God wants you to give and what God wants you to support. If it is not to St. Andrew’s, that is not an issue at all, but just don’t miss the opportunity that God is placing before you. I am calling on every single person here, on Tuesday or whatever day you can make it work for you, to give in some extraordinarily generous way as God has enabled you. I don’t want you to do it out of compulsion. I don’t want you to do it out of our need (that is in God’s supply), I don’t want you to do it grudgingly. I want you to do it joyfully because, besides you know what time it is.

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This is the king of the Jews?

Posted by on Sunday, November 24th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 24 November 2019 © Scott McAndless – Christ the King
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

“This is the king of the Jews?” The Gospel of Luke tells us that these were the words that were posted on the wood of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. And, since crucifixion was all about public display and warning others not to threaten the stability of the Roman Empire, it is plain enough why that sign was posted there. It was the charge upon which Jesus had been convicted. Pontius Pilate had sentenced him with the crime of sedition, insurrection and of threatening the sovereignty of the Roman Empire.

Jesus upon the cross

And yet I cannot help but wonder if, when Pilate ordered that those words be printed, he maybe didn’t say it like that, as a serious and solemn charge. I think that what he said was, “This is the king of the Jews?” as in, “Is this the best you can do? It this really what you call a king?” For Jesus had none of the trappings of a king. He did not wear a diadem or a royal robe. He had a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors (all of whom seemed to desert him when the going got rough) rather than royal retainers and trained bodyguards. And, though he spoke with such authority, he had absolutely no earthly power to back it up. He wasn’t a king; he was a joke, a farce, a minor annoyance at best. So did Pilate declare, or at least so he tried to convince himself.

But we know different, don’t we? We declare Jesus to be our prophet, our priest and our king. Today is the Sunday of the year devoted to his kingly power and position. But, if Jesus is king, he is a king unlike any others that we have ever seen in this world. So what does it mean, on a day like this, to claim Jesus as our king?

I find that there is a certain reluctance these days to talk about Jesus as a king. In many churches, the last Sunday before the start of Advent is not called “Christ the King Sunday” anymore, but rather “Reign of Christ Sunday.” I understand why people do that, of course. The word king is archaic; as modern people who have had no experience of an effective ruling monarch (Queen Elizabeth, after all, is explicitly banned from exercising any political power), we aren’t quite sure how to relate to the notion of a king.

But I actually think that there are some good reasons to hold on to the original language. Jesus lived, after all, for his whole life within an actual kingdom. He lived in the Kingdom of Galilee and the Peraea. (Actually it was technically a tetrarchy and its ruler, Herod Antipas, was technically a tetrarch and not a king, but that was actually something that made no practical difference to the people who lived under Herod’s rule.) That meant that every single time that Jesus used the phrase, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, and suggested (as he did all the time) that there were people living in the reality of such a kingdom, he was essentially denying the very real political reality that surrounded him. He was denying that he lived under the jurisdiction of King Herod Antipas. And if Jesus was, in any sense, a king, he was clearly a king who stood in sharp contrast to King Herod and everything that he stood for.

So actually, if you want to understand what it means to call Jesus your king and to belong to his kingdom, you have to look at the kingdom of Herod and understand it. You have to see what kind of contrast Jesus was trying to set up. For example, the kingdom of Herod was set up on one principle above all others: exploitation. Galilee contained a unique resource, the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake anywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world. Did you know that King Herod Antipas attempted to dominate the fish trade by controlling that lake?

During Jesus’ lifetime, Herod built an entirely new capital on the shores of the Sea of Galilee for the purpose of taking as much profit as he possibly could from the fishers on that lake. Fisherman like Peter, James and John followed Jesus because, when he spoke about an alternate kingdom, the kingdom of God, he challenged the authority of the kingdom of Herod that had been bleeding them and their families dry.

When Jesus fed the multitude in the wilderness by giving to the people of Galilee the bread and the fish of Galilee, he was doing it in direct defiance of King Herod who claimed all of the bread and fish of Galilee for himself and his buddies so that they could get even richer.

Jesus’ claim to be a king was not made in a vacuum, it was not something that only applied to spiritual things or to heavenly realities and it was not just about getting people to heaven when they died. It may have been all of these things, but it was also much more – it was the intentional opposite of Herod Antipas and everything that he stood for. What’s more, Jesus’ own contemporaries – both his disciples and his enemies – knew that that was exactly what it meant to call Jesus a king. It was clear to them.

It is going to take a little bit more work for us to sort out today what it means to call Jesus our king. It is not immediately clear what the kingship of Jesus stands in contrast to. But consider this description from the letter to the Colossians: “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Having Jesus as your king, belonging to his kingdom, means, according to this, being rescued and being transferred. In Jesus’ lifetime, that meant being rescued from Herod and the darkness of his plans, and transferred into the different reality of the kingdom that Jesus preached. Today we might understand that as being rescued from all the ways of this present world and the ways that they tend to darkness and being transferred to an alternate reality.

Think, for example, of the ways in which modern society drives people into relentless consumption. It’s a message that we are constantly surrounded with. If you have a problem, you need to buy something that will save you from that problem. If you are overweight and out of shape, for example, you need to buy yourself a gym membership or a piece of exercise equipment. And so people go out and do that, and then what happens? They don’t follow through. They never actually go to the gym and the exercise equipment gets stored in the attic until eventually it gets put in a yard sale. But that doesn’t matter, you see, because we have been convinced that the way you solve your problems is by buying something. The purchase is enough to save you.

And that’s true in many other ways. When people feel a spiritual lack in their life these days, what do they do? They go out and buy something. That’s one reason, for example, why the Bible remains one of the best-selling books in the world. They are constantly putting out new editions of the Bible because they know that people will buy them seeking to fill that spiritual hole. But, while the Bible is still the best-selling book in the world, it’s also one of the least read. People seem to assume that just purchasing one is enough to spark that spiritual revolution they know they need. But actually reading the book, or continuing to read it when the going gets tough, that’s where people drop out.

This is the philosophy of our society. And the relentless consumerism continues until what do we see? We see people buying and buying and buying until they can’t pay their bills and they go into debt. And does it solve anything? Usually not. But that doesn’t matter because the message we get back is that the next thing you buy is going to solve everything and so you just keep going. That’s one example of the darkness of our present age. Acknowledging Jesus as your king means that you get rescued from that relentless cycle and transferred to a different reality, the reality where you recognize that material goods are never going to fill that void that is within you. Are you willing to take Jesus as your king if that is what it means?

That is but one example of the darkness of our present age. Consider the extreme competitiveness of our time. People seem to be locked into a relentless battle to be seen as better than the people who surround them. In our capitalist society that is most often achieved through financial means; if you can manage to be paid more or to own more than your neighbours, you can see yourself as a winner. In some other arenas, money is not what is used to keep score. Sometimes it’s other signs of privilege or standing. But whatever it is, the competition and our modern world is relentless. People fall into depression and despair because they simply cannot keep up. This is a darkness of our present time. It drives things like inequality and poverty as some people inevitably get to claim much more of the resources of this world, even what they don’t actually need, to the detriment of others. And, in such a world, to take Jesus as your king means that you are rescued from needing that relentless competition to find your self-worth. It means being transferred into a kingdom where your ultimate worth is not based on how much you’re paid or what title you have but on the love that you receive from God and the love that you give.

But perhaps the greatest element of the darkness of our present age is found in the relentless desire to punish and seek revenge. How many wars are fought, how many people are vilified or ostracized because they belong to a people who, for whatever reason, somebody else has decided is the enemy. The ways that we hold on to past hurts and the wrongs that are committed against us are slowly tearing this world apart and yet we cannot let go of it because this enmity has become a part of who we are. This is the darkness of the kingdom of this present world.

But when you acknowledge Jesus as your king, you are rescued from that world and you are transferred to the kingdom of a king who had the greatest indignities committed against him, the greatest pain inflicted upon him and yet hung there and said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” His kingdom, the kingdom of the one “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” is a kingdom where we learn the power of forgiveness.

That does not mean, of course, that we continually have to let the people who have wronged us off from the consequences of their sins or their crimes, but it does mean that we are set free from that relentless need to take vengeance in order to feel good about ourselves. That need is a part of the darkness of this world and you have been rescued from that and transferred to the kingdom of the king of forgiveness.

That is the king that we serve. That is what it means to call Christ our King. And I fully realize that other people will look at that and incredulously say, “you call that a king?” The world won’t understand. The world is trapped in darkness. We belong to a different Kingdom because we have a different kind of king and his rule will last forever and ever, amen.

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Of Vineyards and Welfare Queens

Posted by on Sunday, November 17th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 17 November, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

In 1974, news and magazine stories began to appear about a woman named Linda Taylor in the United States. She was, apparently, quite a phenomenon. She didn’t work and collected welfare. In fact, it seemed, she collected a lot of welfare. If fact, she was eventually convicted of illegally obtaining 23 welfare checks using two aliases and was sentenced to prison. It was in these articles that a special name was coined for her and people like her, a welfare queen.

A person standing in front of a fruit

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A few years later, in his campaign to become president of the United States, Ronald Reagan took that term, welfare queen, and kind of ran with it. At his campaign rallies and speeches, the welfare queen became a regular feature. Linda Taylor was not just one person, in fact, he never mentioned her by name. She was but one example of many. Welfare queens were apparently everywhere, they were bleeding America dry and they were at the heart of everything that was wrong with America. Reagan never actually offered any proof or statistics about any of this, he just confidently proclaimed it and you had to believe it; he was so sincere. People certainly did believe him.

And thus, after coming to office, Reagan had a mandate to carry out welfare reform – something that quickly caught on and spread to many other places including Canada. The idea behind it was that welfare was not only a drain on public funds, it also actually harmed the poor people that it was supposed to help. It encouraged them to be lazy, to give up control over their own lives and led them into the fraud and crime represented by the welfare queen. The solution, therefore, was to stop giving welfare to people, at least not without requirements – especially the requirement that they had to work. This was not presented as something mean-hearted or cruel, but actually a kind of tough love, a way of doing what was best for people even though they might not like it.

At that time, and often afterwards, the scripture that was used by Christian supporters of these initiatives was the one that we read this morning from the Second Letter of Thessalonians. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” I am not sure, of course, that when Paul wrote those words what he had in mind was everything that happened with welfare reform. I do rather suspect that he was speaking pretty specifically to particular problems that were happening in that church in Thessalonica and not necessarily putting forward general principles. And I am not entirely sure that welfare reform has been an unmitigated success over the last few decades, but I do agree that there is some wisdom in this general idea. Setting aside particular circumstances, of course, I do think that people have a natural need to contribute to their own sustenance and well-being, to do so is to fulfill what you are called to be as a human being.

And yet, at the same time, I believe that the Bible would invite us to look a little bit deeper when we are thinking of problems like poverty and people being unable to eat. I am particularly drawn to our reading this morning from the Prophet Isaiah. It is a famous passage in which the prophet lays out his vision of the world as it will be someday. It is a vision of peace and hope for all peoples. So peaceful is this world that the prophet describes that The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” In other words, the peacefulness of the human world will overflow into the natural world until even predator and prey can dwell alongside each other.

But there is another element in this vision of a world perfected that may be even more important. Isaiah goes on to say: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat… and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.”

Think about that for a few moments. Think about the contrast between that and the “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” that we find in Second Thessalonians and in the world of welfare reform. When the prophet comes to imagine the perfect world, he doesn’t imagine a world where people don’t have to work. In fact, the people in this vision seem to be working very hard – building houses, planting vineyards and generally toiling all day long. The difference in this vision is that the people are working for themselves. It is their house, their vineyard and the work of their hands that they themselves are enjoying.

They are intimately connected to the work that they do and the outcome of their labour. There is no question that they will work. If they do not work, their vineyard or their field will not produce. Nobody has to tell them that those who do not work do not eat. If work has meaning and people are able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, you’re not going to see too many problems with people shirking work that just needs to be done.

So that is the ideal vision of the world as it is supposed to be that you find, not just in this passage in Isaiah but in many places in the Old Testament. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that that is how God designed us to live, with a close connection between the work that we do and the resulting production that provides for us life and sustenance. Under those conditions, I’m not saying that everything was perfect, but at least the connection between labour and being able to eat was not something that anybody could miss.

But then guess what happened, the world changed. It had already changed quite significantly by the time that Paul was writing his letters to the Thessalonians. The growth of slavery and the large-scale movement of people from the countryside into cities like Thessalonica, meant that entire generations of people had lived without ever seeing how their work produced anything of value to themselves.

Other people had seized control of things, like the land, that were able to produce what people needed and they only worked for those demanding masters, employers and patrons. Is it any wonder that there were some people in the church in Thessalonica who got carried away with the new freedom that they found in Christ and decided not to do any work because they didn’t have anyone forcing them to work? They had lost that connection and could no longer see how their failure to contribute impacted the whole community.

And if they struggled with the effects of that loss of connection, how much more has that become a problem for us in the modern world? We live in a society today where most people have become completely unaware of where the things that sustain them come from. Pork chops on styrofoam trays just appear on grocery shelves, fruit comes in rolls by the foot and who has a clue what Rice Crispies are made of? And the labour of very few is connected in any meaningful way to the production that sustains their lives. For the most part, we work to serve the profits of companies and corporations. We may live in fear that, if we don’t work or we can’t get a job, we won’t eat, but we no longer have a clear sense of how it is all connected.

Part of this, of course, just has to do with the complexities of modern life and modern economics. You do almost need a degree in economics these days to map out the chains of production and consumption, supply and demand. But it also does have something to do with how we have chosen to distribute the ownership of those things, like wealth and land and resources, that are the things that are able to provide to human beings what they need to survive. When these things are increasingly controlled by an elite few, you are bound to have problems as people fall into apathy, idleness and poverty.

This also has to do with what we truly value because everything in our economy seems to be screaming these days that we don’t really value work. Those who contribute their capital, their investment and their ownership generally expect to receive a much higher rate of return these days than those who merely contribute their labour. What is more, labourers are often seen as expendable – the first to get cut when there is any danger that profits will fall.

Now, before you all start to think that I am going to go off and start quoting from the Communist Manifesto here, let me say that I am not an idealist when it comes to economic systems. I know that we live in a capitalist society and I am okay with that. I don’t think capitalism is perfect – it certainly has some pitfalls – but I am not inclined to overturn it, though I’d like to see it work better for everyone. I’m not preaching economic systems here, I am just preaching what the Bible preaches, and that is economic justice.

Prophets like Isaiah really did dream of a world where every family lived under their own vine and their own fig tree, where they had the means to produce what they needed to live with their own hands and the work that they did all had meaning as a result. I know that we no longer live in a world where that is possible, but I still believe that we can be informed by that biblical vision and it can have an impact on how we deal with people today.

One thing I know is this: it doesn’t help when we simply treat people as categories and problems. In my work, I have often had time to deal with people who are unemployed or underemployed and don’t earn enough to live on. I know that it doesn’t help to categorize them as welfare queens or even as problems. I have known people who don’t work for various reasons, but few have been what I would call lazy. They may have issues that have not been resolved or injuries of mind or of body that are unhealed. They may have never been taught or given what they needed to be able to work and they may have missed out on certain opportunities, but they aren’t simply lazy, and I don’t really see what it helps anything to treat them as such.

People are not categories, they are people. They need to be treated as people. And if you take the time to get to know them and really listen to them (which may take a lot of time because they have often built up barriers around themselves) they may just let you in and you will see.

That is honestly one of the things that I really appreciate about the outreach ministries that we have here at St. Andrew’s. I know that we do give a whole lot of people free meals, extremely subsidised food to take home through the food bank and free clothing through Hope Clothing. But honestly, I do not think that these things are the most important services that we provide for people who live on the economic margins. We offer them a place and a context where they are treated as individuals. We sit beside them as they eat their meals, we enjoy their company as they select their food or clothing. We actually take the time to get to know them and their struggles and trials. I’m not saying that doing that will suddenly fix all of the problems in somebody’s life or enable them to make the jump to an excellent job tomorrow, but I am saying that it is in those kinds of personal connections that healing begins.

The problem is not that our welfare systems were too generous. Yes, there probably was some need of reform and improvements, but it is not true at all that welfare is a driver of poverty. The problem, you see, went much deeper than that. The problem was disconnection – disconnection from the land, disconnection from the means of production. We are not going to fix all of that simply by cutting people off even more from compassion and care, the solution and the hope is to be found in connection and that is something that we can all be part of.

You, simply by choosing to treat an unemployed or marginalized person as a person – by caring about them and their story – are part of the hope and the healing, part of the vision of God for what this world could truly be.

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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Posted by on Sunday, November 10th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 10 November, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21, 2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

I have a disturbing question for you here this morning. What if the Sadducees – the people in this morning’s reading from the gospel – what if they are right? No, I’m serious, they come up to Jesus because they don’t believe in the resurrection and they, just like all of the people you talk to on Facebook and Twitter these days, want to prove that they are right and Jesus is wrong.

And don’t get thrown off by the convoluted argument that they use. It seems rather silly – in fact it is kind of intentionally silly. They invoke a law that really doesn’t make sense to us. You see, in ancient biblical times it was seen as the duty of every Jewish man to have a son. This was because they believed that God had given the land of Israel very specifically to the families of Israel. That meant that every family had to produce an heir (a male heir because that was how that society worked) in every generation who would own a plot of land.

But, as we all know, things don’t always work out perfectly that way. Sometimes a man will die before he has sons. That’s just the reality of life in the real world. So, the Old Testament came up with the plan to fix that problem. It is a bizarre plan from our point of view, but apparently it worked for them. The dead man’s brother would take his widow and have a son with her, and this son would be the heir of the dead man.

Like I say, pretty weird, but it kind of made sense in their world. So anyways, these Sadducees come up with a somewhat ridiculous scenario in which an entire family of seven brothers dies one after the other after being married to the same woman one after another. Their argument is that there can be no resurrection simply because, in that society a woman was defined absolutely by her relationships, particularly her relationship with her husband. They think that there can be no resurrection because it will be unclear basically who she belongs to in the next life. You can’t have that!

So, we have lots of reasons to simply dismiss what they are saying. Their question is misogynistic, in that they assume that a woman has no identity apart from her husband, and it is based on an archaic law that makes no sense to us. But I’m not so sure that we should just dismiss what they’re saying. There is a kernel of truth in it.

Let me ask you this, who are you apart from your relationships? You are somebody, of course. You do have your own independent identity. But in many ways that identity has been shaped and formed by your relationships. You are who you are because of who your parents were and what they shared with you and put in you. You are also somebody’s sibling, somebody’s friend, maybe somebody’s mother or father. And, of course, there are particular relationships, like your relationship with your spouse, that have contributed much more than all the rest.

All of these relationships affect you, change you. Therefore, there is not just one you in this life but rather one long progression of yous as you grow and change throughout your life. So, who will you be in the afterlife? The person you were in the prime of life? What would it mean to be reunited in the afterlife, say, with your grandmother who may have known you and loved you when you were a child but who knows nothing about the person you have since become?

We remember today and tomorrow in particular those who served in wars and conflicts and in other very dangerous situations – giving special thought for those who went to serve and did not return, many of whom lie in graves far from home. We think with fondness of being reunited with them some day.

But, at the same time, you have to ask about what that reunion is supposed to look like. They say, you know, that the relationships that are formed in combat situations are unlike most any others. Men and women under fire together will form iron bonds with each other that will never fail.

In fact, so powerful are these relationships that it is said that, when it comes right down to it, they are what enable people to fight in impossible situations. In the heat of combat, soldiers won’t necessarily put their lives on the line for abstract notions of patriotism or nationalism, but they will not hesitate to do so for their friends who stand on the right and on the left of them. The bonds formed in combat have, without doubt, changed the course of many a battle.

And of course, when you speak of such meaningful relationships, it is only natural for those who stood together under fire to want to be reunited with one another. But do you remember the words that we often repeat at this time of year: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” That is what we say of those who did not come back from war. So, say that you have one comrade who is killed in World War II in Europe, dead and buried at, say 20, years of age. He doesn’t return and he doesn’t get to grow old. But his friends do. They return home, they marry and have children and have many things happen in their lives that change them and affect them profoundly. And then they die at 60, 70, 80 or more years of age.

They can be reunited in the afterlife, that’s what we believe, isn’t it? But what sort of reunion would it be between a 20 year old and an 80 year old who were once so close but who have now been so separated by life experience – one frozen in time while the other has changed profoundly? It is questions like that that make the afterlife so hard to conceive of. If I am to be raised after death, what person will be raised, the person that I was, the person that I am or the person that I will be one day. As a resurrected person, how will I then relate to those I have known before?

Well that is the issue that the Sadducees are actually raising with Jesus with their question, and it’s a pretty good one. But, fear not, for Jesus is not going to leave us hanging with this one. Jesus actually has an answer to the difficult question posed by Sadducees. Actually, there are two answers. First of all, Jesus says this: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Now what is Jesus saying here? He is not saying that there is no reunion with people that we love in the afterlife. What he is saying is that the relationships that we seek to re-establish in the afterlife just don’t work the way there that they do here. In other words, you may think that you know how it’s going to work and how we’re going to relate in the afterlife, but you are wrong. You have no idea.

And that is actually the biggest issue that we have in all our talk of a life after death: we don’t have a clue what it’s like. This is simply because we don’t have the minds to comprehend it, nor do we have the language to describe it. Everything that the Bible says, everything that anyone has ever said of the afterlife, is not and cannot be an exact description. At best, what we have are similes and metaphors. We cannot say what heaven is, we can only say that it’s kind of like this or kind of like that. But just because we cannot precisely describe it, that does not mean that it is not real. Just because we do not know how we will relate to one another after we are raised, does not mean that we will not be raised.

So, these words of Jesus are ultimately very helpful, but they might still leave us with some questions. If we can’t offer a precise definition of the afterlife, after all, doesn’t that make it a bit hard to take comfort in the very idea of an afterlife? And if we can’t precisely define the relationships that we’ll have with those who have gone on before, how can we be sure that there will be comfort in being reunited?

But, as I said, Jesus also has a second response to their question. He talks about that famous scene when God met Moses at the burning bush and said that he was “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Now, of course, by the time Moses came along, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been dead and buried for a very long time. Nevertheless, Jesus notes, God spoke of being their God in the present tense, not in the past. That is like if I were to say, I am the brother of Robert. When I use the present tense, it implies that my brother Robert is still alive (which indeed he is). So, Jesus is saying that God was saying the same thing about the patriarchs long after their deaths, that they were still alive. Therefore, the conclusion is, there must be an afterlife.

So, Jesus’ argument does make some good, logical sense. But I think the Jesus is doing more here then just offering a logical argument to counter that of the Sadducees. Honestly, I would be disappointed if that was all he was saying because who wants to build your argument for the reality of life after death on something as minor as the tense of one verb in one thing that God once said.

But no, Jesus is not saying that it’s just about the tense of the verb. He is saying that it’s actually about the nature of God. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” You see, the true promise of the resurrection is not found in which of seven husbands a certain woman was married to and what happens to that relationship after she dies, it is found in her God. Her relationships might change; she might change with time and experience, but God remains the same and to God she is always alive.

And God is not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also the God of the soldier who was killed in action and left in some graveyard on Vimy Ridge and he remains alive to God. The same God is the God of the soldier who stood in the line beside that other soldier but came home and married and grew old and had a whole lifetime. Their reunion is possible because both are equally alive to God.

I get to preach at a lot of funerals – I find it to be a great honour – and so I am often very attuned to the things that make people feel a bit better at such times. And I know that people do talk a lot about that idea of being reunited someday. I know that promise is real, but Jesus is right, we really can’t imagine what that future life is going to be like. It is far beyond our imagination and understanding. So how do I know that it is true? I know it because the same God who is there for us with each breath, giving us life and hope and meaning, is the God who will always be there for us. To God we are all alive, now and always and that it what provides for us the foundation of hope beyond this present existence. That is enough. That is everything.

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Warning: Your sons and your daughters will prophesy

Posted by on Monday, October 28th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 27 October, 2019 © Scott McAndless – Baptism
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

Did you know that locusts and grasshoppers are actually the same animal? Most grasshoppers live their whole lives without bothering anyone. But something very strange happens in their tiny little brains under some very particular conditions.

When there has been a bad drought, a serious lack of rain, and everything that has been planted begins to wither and die and then there is a break and the rains, long hoped for, finally begin to fall and there is a sudden and abundant new growth of greenery, in that very scenario, its like a switch is flipped inside some species of grasshopper and they become locusts. Nothing physically changes in the insect, but it is completely transformed in its behaviour. It breeds like crazy and begins to swarm and migrate in huge numbers. Locust swarms can grow so big and thick that they completely block out the sun bringing darkness in the middle of the day. That alone is terrifying, but its nothing like destruction that is wrought as these swarms devour absolutely everything that is green in their paths.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that from ancient times, people have had a tendency to blame the formation of locust swarms on the gods? Their arrival just seemed to be so mean and vindictive. You had just lived through a terrible drought, had watched everything that you had planted dry and wither away and then, when things looked the very worst, the rains had come and your heart swelled with joy as you watched everything turn green again and begin to sprout. And then, just when you began to dare to hope again, you see the sky turn black with locusts and watch as every living thing that grows is picked clean. Who wouldn’t, at that point, come to the conclusion that the entire universe (or at least some vindictive god) was out to get you?

Warning: Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy

So I understand why ancient people blamed God for locust swarms (even if I don’t agree that God operates like that). I understand because I understand how it feels to go through a very dry time, find a new reason to hope that things might get better and then have that little wisp of hope crushed. I’ve been through times like that and I wouldn’t be surprised if you had too. If you haven’t, I’ll bet you have a friend or loved one who has. And what do you say to someone who is feeling like that – who is convinced that God must be out to get them? Because I’ll tell you that the usual platitudes – “You’ll see, everything will work out,” “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” “Just look on the bright side,” – platitudes like that are just not going to cut it.

Well, guess who got the very difficult job of comforting and giving hope to the people of Israel who were feeling exactly like that in the aftermath of a locust swarm: a prophet named Joel. We read a part of his message this morning. How does he try to help the people? First of all, he teaches them that they should find comfort not in promises or optimism but in the very nature of God: I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,” God says, “the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.”

This is a pledge, a promise, grounded in Godself. “I will repay you,” God is saying, “everything that you have lost is on my account.” It is like the richest person in the world undertook to pay off all of your business losses or your debts. And I think that that is a message you do need to hear at that moment. When, rightly or wrongly, you have become convinced, because of the things that have been happening to you, that God is out to get you, the first thing you need is a corrected view of God. You need to understand that the creator of the universe actually seeks your good and not your harm.

I honestly feel as if this is one of the greatest battles that we face. Many people’s problems, their low self-esteem, their struggles with feelings of guilt or shame, their sense that they are never good enough, are rooted in the false image of God that people have given to them. If the image of God that was given to you by your parents or that was perhaps modelled by them was an image of a mean, judgmental and vindictive God, concluding that there must be something wrong with you simply make good sense.

And the only way that that attitude is going to shift is if you begin to see God in a different way. Joel begins to nudge the people towards that new way of seeing God with this pledge and promise, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

So that is Joel’s first response to everything that the people are dealing with – he begins to instruct them on who God actually is. But he is not done. Obviously, the people are going to need something more in order to recover from the emotional and physical blow that the locusts have dealt them. And so Joel gives them another remarkable but somewhat unexpected promise. Then afterwards,” God promises – after you have recovered from this terrible devastation – “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And that seems like a great promise. Just like God has poured out the rain that has brought the new growth, he is going to pour out his Spirit on all of his people. He is going to guide them directly and show them how to live with the ups and downs of life. But if you know anything about the history of prophecy and the movements of the Spirit, you will know that there might be something there to be a little bit concerned about. When God speaks; when the Spirit of God moves powerfully in individuals, it does tend to upset things.

From very early on, the church became very nervous about the movement of the Holy Spirit among the members of the church. It tended to be very disruptive. The Spirit often said things that the leadership didn’t really want to hear. And so, some Christian churches decided to shut that kind of thing down. Reformed churches like our own, for example, taught that the Holy Spirit basically stopped speaking to people once the scriptures had all been written. Other churches, like for example the Roman Catholic, were okay with the idea that the Spirit still spoke, but declared that the Spirit only spoke to those who were already established as leaders of the church.

So in difficult times, like in the aftermath of a locust swarm, the tendency is to clamp down, get everything back to normal as quickly as possible. What you don’t want is some new message from God that is going to shake things up and so if anyone is going to receive a message from the Spirit, you would rather that it be someone who isn’t going to shake up the status quo. You want the Spirit to speak only to established people, the elders, the old people who will be slow to embrace change when they receive a message from God’s Spirit.

Isn’t it rather interesting, therefore, that Joel promises the very opposite in his prophecy? The Spirit, he says, will be poured out all willy-nilly. It will be poured on the old but also on the young. It will be poured out on the sons but also on the daughters. Most shocking of all, Joel proclaims that God’s Spirit will be given even to the slaves, even to those who are least interested in keeping things the way they have always been.

There seems no doubt in what Joel is saying. After the locust swarm has passed, we will be not just going back to the way things used to be. We are meant to be inspired by God to seek out new directions, new messages and new beginnings and we are especially called to listen to what God might be saying through the youth and through those who have traditionally been cut off from power and influence.

I believe that in the church today, we are in a kind of post locust swarm situation. The church has been shocked in recent years to find itself in a world where the old assumptions and the old ways of doing things just don’t work the way that they once did. It used to be that we could just plant a few seeds, open the doors and expect near instant growth to occur. The last few decades, therefore, have felt a bit like the aftermath of a locust swarm for many churches. That’s why I think that Joel’s message is very relevant to us today.

We need to be reminded, first of all, that the image we have received of God in many cases – the image of a mean, vindictive God who is out to get us if we just step just a little bit out of line – is false and dangerous. But it also means that we need to be open to the second response that Joel offers: the promise of a new pouring out of God’s Spirit on God’s people.

A couple of weeks ago I used this passage from Joel to begin our session meeting. It was an unusual start to our regular meeting because we had invited our new youth group to join us during that time. So I pointed out to the youth group that the session is made up of a group of people called elders. And what is the meaning of the word elder? The word literally means old person. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of our elders here at St. Andrews are senior citizens. But it does mean, to a certain extent, that the members of session have been chosen and elected to be careful and small c conservative leaders of the congregation – people who won’t mess with the status quo too much. And Joel speaks of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the elders as they are called to lead God’s people. But, I pointed out, as much as we need the leadership of the elders, they cannot do it alone. God’s Spirit is also poured out upon the youth, Joel says, because they also are anointed to lead us especially at difficult moments when it feels like we’re in the aftermath of a locust swarm and God is urging us to find new ways to be relevant in a world where many things have changed.

That is why I’m so excited today to be celebrating the sacrament of baptism for Lily. Today we welcomed her into the life of this congregation. We heard the promises, made by her parents, that they will tell her about Jesus and give her the opportunity to experience the life of Christ’s Church as she grows up. That is something that is wonderful and that we can all look forward to. But I look forward to even more. We called down the presence of God’s Holy Spirit among us today, symbolically represented in this water. Just as the water was poured out on her head, I know that if only we leave open the possibility, God will pour out his Spirit upon her. That’s why she has been anointed as our leader today. She will lead us out into the world at the end of the service today.

Lily will grow up in a world that we can only imagine at this point. Who knows what changes are coming our way? Who knows how the environment, society and even Canada’s political system will change in years to come? Who knows how the church will need to change? We need new voices to guide us into that future, and God has chosen one such voice today. I know that you will cherish her and her presence in this congregation in years to come. That’s great. The bigger challenge that God lays before you today is will you listen to her and others like her in years to come when the Holy Spirit speaks to them and tells us what incredible new thing God wants to do among us and through us.

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