Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

Blind Assumptions

Posted by on Sunday, March 19th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch sermon here

Hespeler, March 19, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Fourth Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

The question that is asked at the beginning of our reading this morning from the Gospel of John is, in many ways, the oldest and most fundamental question of humankind.

Jesus and his disciples are walking along one day when the disciples notice a man by the side of the road. He is begging because he is blind and has been from birth. And so the disciples ask what, to them, seems to be a natural question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Full of Assumptions

And that is a question that is simply overflowing with unspoken assumptions. And these are not just assumptions about the man himself or about his family. These are assumptions about the moral and ethical nature of the universe itself.

The question just takes it for granted that, if anyone is faced with adversity, whether it be a disability or an illness or some other misfortune, that it must be somebody’s fault. Somebody has to be to blame, probably the person themselves or someone close to them.

They are Oblivious

But the really amazing thing is that the disciples seem to be totally oblivious to the fact that they are making an assumption. They are unaware. You might even say that they are blind to their assumption. They simply ask Jesus a question assuming that he’s going to give one of two answers – either the man himself or his parents.

It never even seems to occur to them for a moment that there could possibly be an answer outside of those two possibilities. That is how deeply ingrained the assumption is; they don’t even know that they’re making it.

But I honestly don’t think that we should be too hard on the disciples for making this assumption. They are not the only ones. Later on in the story, the Pharisees, who are perhaps the most important religious leaders in the local community, make it pretty clear that they are also labouring under the same unconscious assumption. When they are trying to argue with the now former blind man and he actually demonstrates that he is not ignorant and can hold his own in the argument, he makes them look bad. They finally end up shouting in frustration, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”

When these Assumptions Come out

It is at those very moments when we are really frustrated at our own unexamined shortcomings, that our deepest underlying beliefs and assumptions come out. So it is made clear that the Pharisees have been assuming all along, just like the disciples were, that this guy (or at least his parents) must have done something to make him deserve it.

So, the disciples make the unconscious assumption, the religious leaders make the unconscious assumption, but these are not the only ones. For this is an assumption that runs right through society until this very day. Oh, we often don’t say it. In fact, it has become rather rude to say it out loud, but that doesn’t seem to stop us from making the assumption all the time. If someone has suffered some tragedy or misfortune, we all pretty much assume the same thing. It must be their own fault.

All the Time

It happens all the time to victims of various crimes. You hear a story of someone who has been raped, for example, what are the questions that automatically come to mind? What were they doing there at that place at that time? If she was a woman, what was she wearing? What had she been drinking? What kind of lifestyle had she been living previously? These are all questions that come to mind automatically.

They are also the kind of questions that will be asked of that woman if charges are laid, and she is forced to testify in court. It is almost never said in so many words, but the underlying assumption behind all of those questions is that she must have done something to deserve this terrible thing that happened to her.

The Assumption Behind our Prejudice

It is also the fundamental assumption that lies behind so much racism and other forms of prejudice. When you see some racial group within society that seems to suffer from various problems whether it be endemic poverty, addiction or violence, the default assumption that we tend to fall back on is not that this has been caused by some sort of structural imbalance in society or past history of oppression that is affecting present generations.

No, it is always easier to fall into the assumption that there must be some sort of ethical failure within the community itself – that they don’t want to work hard or that they don’t have good families or whatever it might be. There must be some reason why and it must be their own fault. That is the assumption of the racist and I suspect it is an assumption that every one of us, no matter what our racial background might be, can fall into far too easily.

And, yes, even when we are dealing with people who are suffering from illness or disability, we may make this assumption without even being aware of it. I mean, of course we don’t want to think that it’s somebody’s own fault if they are sick or if they lost their sight or anything like that, but if we can find some sort of cause behind the problem that can somehow be traced back to something that they did, it’s like we relax. It’s like the world suddenly makes sense again.

Why we do it

And I think I know why we do this. We do this because the world is a very scary place. It is a place where bad things often happen for no particular reason – at least not for any reason that we can understand. And when the world doesn’t make sense, which it often doesn’t, we will grasp for any reason that we can find in order to force it to make sense.

And often the easiest reason that we can find is to blame the victims themselves for what it is that they are suffering from. They must have sinned in some way. It must be their own fault. It’s a terrible thought; of course it is. It’s just that at least it seems better than the alternative which is to give in and admit that we live in a universe where something really bad could happen to me or to somebody that I love for no reason at all.

And if I can just take it for granted that that man was born blind because somebody sinned, I can feel safe because I don’t think I have sinned in anyway that might make me deserving of such a fate.

Jesus Doesn’t Share it

So, the blind assumption is very common. But what is particularly notable in this story is that Jesus doesn’t share that assumption. In fact, he takes the assumption and rejects the entire premise behind it. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus replies. He forces his disciples to consider that there might just be something going on in this situation outside of their easy and comfortable assumptions. And with just those few words, Jesus tears apart most of our assumptions about the moral universe.

What if everything that is bad that happens doesn’t have to be somebody’s fault. What if it is actually not at all helpful to waste our energy finding someone to blame or to shame for everything that has gone wrong. In fact, what if our whole approach of finding a reason for why a bad thing happened is completely wrongheaded?

A New Way of Thinking about it

That is exactly where Jesus redirects the disciples’ thoughts. Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And I want to be clear on what Jesus is saying here. He is not proposing an alternate reason for why the bad thing has happened to this man.

I know it’s sometimes taken that way, but Jesus is not saying that it was God’s will that this man be born blind so that Jesus might do an amazing thing by healing him. He is not talking about cause and effect; he is talking about effect and opportunity.

God does not will for anybody to have horrible things happen to them. I believe that such things sadden the heart of God even more than they sadden our hearts.

Where we Need to Spend our Energy

No, instead Jesus is challenging them and all of us to look at such tragedies from a different point of view. As much as we would like to, we may never know why some things happen – not in this life anyways. And that is why we cannot consume ourselves in searching for scapegoats and people to blame.

But, Jesus is saying, in every problem, every tragedy, there is an opportunity for action. There is a possibility of revealing God’s works in this world for good. He is asking us to focus on that possibility instead of focussing on the question of who we can blame.

The Result: Enlightenment

And, of course, the whole remainder of this story is all about what happens when we make that shift. The result is, quite literally, enlightenment. The result is not only that the blind man is made able to see, but also that he is given great insight into who Jesus is – insight that far exceeds the wisdom of the Pharisees who think they are experts about such things.

So, you might say that, with his response to the disciples, Jesus is enlightening all of us about the true moral nature of the universe.

A Message for our Time

There is much in this story that speaks to us where we are in our lives at this time. We seem to be living in a moment, after all, where life is hard. People are struggling, I know that they are. They are having a hard time paying the bills. People are really struggling with difficult emotions and mental health challenges. Others are struggling to find better health.

We are seeing these things in our own lives or in the lives of the people that we love, and we often don’t know how to respond. The easiest response is usually the most ancient one. The easiest response it to ask, “Who sinned that such a thing should happen?” We look for someone to blame.

Blaming the Victims

And it often easiest to blame the victims themselves. If you are the one struggling, how easy it is to blame yourself. “I am too weak.” “I am too lazy.” “I made the wrong choices,” you repeat the litany to yourself. It is also stunningly easy to blame the people you love when they have their own troubles.

I’m not saying that there never are reasons for why people struggle and I’m not saying that they never have anything to do with it themselves. But I would say that those reasons are usually far more complex than our blame and shame reflexes would imply. Even more important, becoming fixated on those reasons, unless you are addressing them in a constructive way, will rarely get you out of the situation.

No, adopt the approach that Jesus takes. Focus instead on where, in this situation, there might be an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed. If you do, you may be amazed at the wonderful new thing that God brings about. Enlightenment in some form will follow!

Our Journey Together

This doesn’t just apply to our personal struggles, but also to where we are in our journey together as a congregation. We are in a moment in the story of this church when we are struggling with how our ways of being church just don’t seem to work like they used to. And we feel as if we are flying blind and don’t quite know what to do to meet our future.

And what is the temptation when we are living through such difficult times? The temptation is to look around to find someone to blame. “Who sinned,” we want to know, “that the church should be brought to such a state.” And we can usually find someone to blame and, oh, it feels so satisfying when we do.

But it doesn’t actually solve anything. The causes are always much more complicated than the simplistic blame we choose to lay. And the cycles of criticism that ensue are rarely, if ever, constructive. I wonder what Jesus would say when we asked who to blame, this person or that person for the struggles we are dealing with in the church?

“Neither,” he would say “but this present challenge has emerged so that God’s works might be revealed in us.” How might such a radical rethinking of the issues transform how we see the challenges before us today?

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So Abram Went

Posted by on Sunday, March 5th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, March 5, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Lent 2, Communion
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

In our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis, we are told that the Lord comes to Abram out of the blue with an incredible promise. “I will make of you a great nation,” God says, “and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

And let us just stop and savour that promise for a moment. These are, perhaps, some of the most important words in the Bible, for they are the promise upon which so many other promises are founded.

A Chosen People

This is the moment when the people of Israel become God’s “Chosen People.” And they become that despite the fact that none of them have even been born yet.

But at the same time, this passage doesn’t say that this special status is conferred as a privilege. It is not favouritism on God’s part. There is a very important purpose behind it all – it is “so that you will be a blessing.” Thus, the nation of Israel is called to exist as God’s people in order to be a blessing to all of the people of the earth.

A Blessing for us

But we don’t believe that this promise is only given for the people of Israel. It is also the promise that lies behind the foundation of the church. There is a real sense in which God has said to us, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” And we ought to claim that as God’s promise to us. God wants us to be a great nation and that we have a great name – that people might know us throughout this town and beyond as people who are significant and meaningful. If this is God’s promise given to Abram, it is given to us as well.

And yet, just like in the case of Abram, we must recognize that this blessing is not given merely for our own sake. If we, as a church, have any blessing, any particular status in the eyes of God, it is only so that we might bring blessing to the other people of the world. When we hoard God’s blessing to ourselves, we rob it of its true power. It is only when we take whatever we receive from God and use it to energize our ministry of reaching out and caring, love and compassion, that we will know the depths of those blessings.

But there is also something else that we must learn from Abram about activating such a blessing in our church. We must ask how Abram obtained such a blessing for himself.

How did Abram Earn this?

And it is very important to note that, up until this point in the Book of Genesis when God comes and offers this blessing to Abram, the patriarch has done nothing at all.

At this point in the story, he has simply been introduced as the son of Terah and as the husband of Sarai. That is all we’re told of him. He has lived with his father as his father has moved around. He hasn’t said anything. He has also professed no particular faith in the God who will become so important in his story. Abram is just a guy. He is a guy who is not really any different from any other guy.

This makes one thing perfectly clear. That God’s blessings are not given as something that we earn. There is not a single thing that we could do that would make God more inclined to love us and bless us. All of God’s blessings come to us as a result of God’s grace, the lovingkindness that God chooses to lavish upon us.

Abram’s Response

Yet there is one thing that truly does set Abram apart in this story and that is his response. When God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” we are told only one thing about Abram’s response. We are told that “Abram went.”

Did you noticed what is missing there? Where is the part where Abram hears that call and raises his objections? “Excuse me, Lord, but do you really expect me to walk away from everything that I am familiar with, everything that makes me comfortable?

I have my traditions and the ways I have always done things. And I have all kinds of wonderful memories of the things that have happened in this place. Why should I leave all of that behind for the sake of some big promise that you’re going to show me a new land that I know nothing about? How do I know that that’s a good trade? How do I know that such a costly journey will be worthwhile?

How We React to New Things

That is exactly how I would respond to such a command, wouldn’t you? I mean look, for example, at how we react in the life of the church whenever we consider doing something new or different. What are the reactions that you hear? “Oh, we’ve never done it that way before,” one will say. Or, “we tried that once and it didn’t work,” another will say, likely referencing something that is hardly the same thing.

And heaven help you if you try some new thing and it, in any way, seems to impinge on some program or activity that the church has been doing for thirty years and actually doesn’t really work today like it did thirty years ago because it’s no longer relevant to people. Such things, apparently, must be maintained at any cost, even if you must sacrifice the exciting new future that God is calling you to.

I speak in general here, of course, I’ve had enough experience with enough churches to know that this is the kind of thing that we do all the time. We value holding onto what is familiar and comfortable much more than we do embracing whatever new thing God might be calling us to do. It is just human nature.

He Just Went

But that is, of course, what makes Abram so extraordinary in this story. When he receives the call from God to leave everything that is comfortable and familiar and move into an unknown territory to receive an ill-defined blessing, he likely felt the same kinds of hesitations and doubts that you and I would. But he clearly did not let any of that get in the way of him making one singular response: Abram went.

And in those two words, the whole key to Abram is found: Abram went. The Apostle Paul praises Abraham in his letters (calling him by the new name that will be given to him later) as an extraordinary example of faith. But, when Paul says that, he is not thinking about faith in the same way that we usually talk about faith in the church today.

When we talk about faith, it usually means something like that we accept certain concepts and ideas and doctrines about Jesus or God or the world. But Abram’s faith did not consist in him believing or holding any particular beliefs. In fact, there are no indications that Abram believed anything in particular, at least, not anything different from anyone else around him.

The Meaning of Faith

When we talk about faith, we often mean that somebody simply accepts certain teachings without raising any questions or struggling with any doubts. When we talk about it, we often frame faith as the opposite of reason and suggest that if anyone has any doubts or critical thoughts, they cannot have faith. But there is nothing of that in this response of Abram. We are given absolutely no insights into what is going on inside Abram’s mind because, ultimately, that is not what matters to God. What matters to God is that Abram went.

Abram’s true expression of faith is simply acting on what God has promised him and doing that despite knowing that it will lead to a loss of what is comfortable and familiar and easy. Abram went.

A Listening Process

All of this is extremely important for us to understand because of where we are as a congregation in this moment in time. During this season of Lent, we are engaging in a listening process. We have raised some very important questions about where we are in the church right now and where we are going. And we are listening for God to speak on these questions. And I am going to tell you two things that I am certain of in this listening process.

I am certain that God will speak. And I am certain that God’s message will, in some way, be a promise that is for our blessing and for the blessing of the world through us. I know that because I know the God that we meet in the Bible does speak, does care and does offer us this blessing.

Will We Listen?

But there are two things that are uncertain in this process. One is whether or not we will listen, and the other is whether or not we will actually act on what we hear.

Listening is not automatic because it’s not easy for us to listen to God. It is not easy because we fill our minds and our hearts and our lives with so much noise that we don’t offer the opportunity for God’s voice to get through.

Psalm 46 encourages worshipers to “be still and know that I am God.” (v.10) When the prophet Elijah is given the opportunity to meet with God, the God that he meets is not found in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. God’s voice is only heard in “a sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:11-13) And so the reality is that unless we can teach ourselves to be in silence, we will generally miss the voice of God.

Learning to Listen

And so it is no accident that we have introduced into this season of listening various practices of prayer whose primary purpose is to teach us to find the silence. In Lectio Divina, you teach yourself to stop listening to everything else but what God might be saying to you in a certain passage of scripture. A meditative prayer takes a similar approach to focusing your mind only on what you hear the scriptures saying to you.

Through these and other practices that we are teaching you, you will learn to quiet your mind and to put aside the concerns of life to focus on the presence of God in a particular moment. This does not come easy. It is something you have to work at and practice, but I promise you that this is something worth learning because God does speak, and you really don’t want to miss the message when God does.

The Bigger Challenge

So, the listening is a challenge, but it is something we will work at. The bigger challenge is actually acting on what we hear. And that is a challenge because of all of the things I’ve been talking about.

It is a challenge because we have all kinds of reasons not to do what God is telling us to do in the life of the church. We’ve never done it like that before. We tried it once and it didn’t work. It will take away from the familiar old practices that we are used to and comfortable with and that we want to hold on to even though they actually don’t seem to work anymore. These are among our many excuses for not doing what God is telling us to do.

Abram’s Example

And that is why I am so thankful for the example of Abram today. When he heard the voice of God, he had every reason not to do what God told him to do. He could have complained and offered all kinds of excuses. But Abram went. Abram went and it changed the future and brought blessings to the whole world as a result. So, if we hear the voice of God, what will we do? That is the biggest question facing the church both here locally and globally today.

Abram went; what will you do?

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What is Heart Adultery?

Posted by on Sunday, February 12th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 12 February 2023 © Scott McAndless
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37 (Click to read this passage in both NRSV and GNT translations)

The passage that we read this morning from the Sermon on the Mount came from the Good News Bible. And I’m glad that it did because this passage, as it has been traditionally translated, has likely caused as much mental anguish as any passage in the Bible. I know that there was a time in my life when it caused me no end of feelings of guilt and grief. I suspect that I am not the only one.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is going through various laws and teachings from the Old Testament. He affirms these Old Testament laws, but then teaches his followers that he is expecting even more from them.

The Teaching on Adultery

And when he comes to the law concerning adultery, what he asks of his followers seems, at first glance, to be very extreme, at least the way it has usually been translated: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I don’t think we’re quite sure what to do with the teaching like this.

Jesus is suggesting that we can commit the most heinous of sins merely by entertaining a stray thought in our minds. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel as if I’m in complete control over the thoughts that come into my mind.

Serious Thoughts

I mean, if I get mad or really upset, I might entertain, if only for a moment, the thought of doing something awful to someone. I wouldn’t do it of course. I’m sure that none of us would. But what Jesus seems to be saying with this commandment is that that doesn’t matter. It is enough to have merely had the thought. That is just as bad as doing whatever horrible thing crossed your mind.

And, just in case you didn’t think that Jesus was serious about this, he goes on to add: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” And then he says the same thing about your hand. So, just in case you didn’t get it before, Jesus is saying that this thought crime he is talking about is so serious that it will get you sent to hell, directly to hell. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

A Specific Kind of Thought

But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that the language as traditionally translated, leads us to assume that Jesus is talking about a very specific kind of thought that is going to get you sent you know where. And we all think that we know exactly what kind of thought he is referring to. I don’t think I need to spell it out for you! The idea of the wickedness of that kind of thought is something that is encoded deep into our culture.

A Natural Kind of Thought

And what is the problem with that? The problem with that is that the kinds of thoughts and desires that we associate with that word are actually built into our very humanity. I would go so far as to say that we have been created by God to have such thoughts and desires.

That doesn’t mean that all expressions of such thoughts are bound to be good. It certainly doesn’t mean that such desires can’t become twisted or misdirected. But to feel such things, is simply a part of being human. It is something that has been placed within us in order to help us to propagate the species, form strong bonds and is part of an expression of who we are.

It is also something that is generally felt more strongly by people in their youth. And so, what has often happened is that young people have read this saying of Jesus and have struggled with immense feelings of guilt and even self-hatred as a result.

Some Very Negative Results

This has sometimes led to self-destructive behavior. It is also led some to suppress natural and healthy feelings and thoughts in a way that has been very unhealthy to themselves and can sometimes lead to relationship problems down the road. As I say, I think that this passage has had a lot of negative impact.

So, I have got to ask. Is this really what Jesus intended for us to understand with this teaching? Did Jesus really want us constantly monitoring our thoughts and diverting our eyes away from anything that might send our thoughts in some dangerous direction? Did he really mean to say that self mutilation was somehow preferable to having the wrong thoughts? I believe that these are very important questions, and you deserve to have an answer to them.

The Old Testament Law

What Jesus is doing in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is making commentary on the Old Testament law. He is not doing this in order to critique the law, but in order to encourage people to follow it according to its deepest intention. And so, he introduces this part of the sermon by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Three of the Big Ten

The particular law he is talking about in this section is, of course, one of the big Ten Commandments, the one that says, “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14) That is important to realize because, when Jews like Jesus quoted a short passage from the Torah, they would have expected their listeners to have the verses that surrounded the one that they quoted in their minds.

And do note that immediately after the commandment against adultery in the Book of Exodus, the very next commandment goes like this: “You shall not steal.” And then, two commandments later, we have the final commandment that goes like this: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”

Aren’t They all Saying the Same Thing?

There is something odd about these three commandments. There is a sense in which they all three are saying the same thing. The commandment against adultery means you shouldn’t take someone else’s spouse. The commandment against stealing means you shouldn’t take someone else’s stuff. But then we get to the “thou shalt not covet” commandment and, all of a sudden, we seem to be going over the same ground, don’t we?

Except now, instead of saying that you shouldn’t take your neighbours’ stuff, it is saying that you shouldn’t even want to take your neighbour’s stuff. And, since your neighbour’s wife is also included in the list of your neighbour’s stuff (which I know is problematic, but we’ll come back to that), this commandment also seems to cover the prohibition against adultery.

How you Obtain Other People’s Stuff

So, what is going on here? Are not all of these commandments in a sense saying the same thing? Well, not exactly. According to the Hebrew way of thinking, stealing somebody else’s things was bad, but stealing was not the only bad way of getting what properly belonged to someone else.

The Bible also teaches that if you get your neighbour’s property by doing things that we would consider perfectly legal, like lending them money, charging them excessive interest and seizing their property when they couldn’t pay, that was pretty much just as bad. It was also problematic if you managed to amass profits to yourself by taking away from others what they needed.

And so, the commandment against coveting was meant to address all of the ways in which people sought to take what other people needed to live. So, while stealing and committing adultery were really bad, the root of the problem was coveting. The root of the problem was greed and desiring what other people had that they needed.

The Word Translated as Lust

Okay, so why does that matter? It matters because Jesus jumps directly from talking about adultery to looking at somebody with a certain kind of desire. But the word that is translated there is actually the same word that is used to translate the word covet in the Ten Commandments. Jesus is actually making an explicit reference to the tenth commandment.

So, what Jesus is actually saying here is not that we need to be fearful of having certain thoughts, and that any such thoughts will immediately condemn us to hell. He is actually inviting us to shift our focus instead to the commandment against coveting. To put it another way, of course stealing and committing adultery are bad, but let’s not just focus on how we take other people’s stuff, lets focus on why we want what other people need.

The Real Problem

And the problem with why we want what other people need does not have to do with it being motivated by a certain kind of desire, at least not as that has been generally understood in western culture. It is actually about the way you treat things that other people need. It is about not being greedy when you deal with other people. That means, not robbing them by illegal means, of course, but it also means not seeking to take from them through unsavory or unethical business practices. It is about treating people properly by respecting what they need to thrive in life.

Treating Women Like Objects

Ah, but there is one other issue in all of this that we struggle with as modern people. The Old Testament law against coveting, as I mentioned before, assumes a woman is a mere object. The law lists, among your neighbour’s possessions, your neighbour’s wife. That certainly does not mean that women actually are merely objects. Of course not! It’s just that this law was written within a society where women were seen that way. And even divine laws like the Ten Commandments were filtered through the cultural understandings of the people who received them and used them.

But is Jesus saying anything about all of that when he points us to this commandment about coveting? I believe he is. The laws against adultery both in Old Testament times and in Jesus’ times were based on patriarchal assumptions. That is to say, they assumed that your neighbour’s wife was part of your neighbour’s property. The law had to be formulated according to the assumptions of the society, otherwise it would have made no sense to people. And so, adultery was considered to be a property crime.

Jesus Comments on the Assumption

But notice what Jesus does with that. When he says that you ought not to look at a woman with a covetous attitude – because that is what he is saying – he is in effect saying that it is wrong to look at a woman as a piece of property.

Now isn’t that interesting! And when we come to read it that way, we realize that what Jesus is really concerned about is not that we might entertain, however fleetingly, certain thoughts or ideas that are actually a part of the way in which we have been constructed to operate.

Jesus Ultimate Concern

No, what Jesus is ultimately concerned about is how we treat women, how we treat people. He wants to make sure that we do not treat people like mere objects. He is concerned that we deal with them as persons who have their own thoughts, needs and concerns. I would even say that there is, in this teaching, an implied criticism of the patriarchal society that Jesus lived in and the way that it operated.

So, what do we do with this passage of scripture that has caused so much misery for those who have strived to be the people that Jesus has called us to be? I think, first of all, that we can all relax a little. It was never the intent of Jesus for you to live in constant fear of the things that you might think. Jesus never taught you to be afraid of what you might see or how you might look at something or someone.

How you Treat People

No, Jesus was much more concerned with how you see people. If you are a man, do you see women, as possessions to be used and manipulated? Or do you respect them for the people God created them to be? And of course, that doesn’t just apply to women but anyone because it has always been so easy to fall into that habit of treating people like objects.

The notion that this is all about thinking the wrong way or looking at things in an unacceptable way has actually prevented us from dealing with the real challenges that face us, living with full respect for all of the people that we meet.

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Posted by on Sunday, January 29th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch YouTube sermon here

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

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

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

Copies in the Church

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

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

An Overhead Discussion

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

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

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

The Impression it Made

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

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

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

Why Blessed may not be Best

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

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

A Better Translation

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

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

It Doesn’t Make Sense

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

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

Using Special Churchy Language

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

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

Struggling with that First Word`

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

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


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

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

The Reaction Jesus is Looking for

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

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

Not Mere Optimism

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

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

An Opportunity to See God Work

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

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

Another Application

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

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

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

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Dear Paul

Posted by on Sunday, January 22nd, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

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

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

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

Other Influences

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

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

Chloe Reaches Out

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

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

Our Ideas of Church

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

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

What if Chloe Were to Write about us?

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

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

Different Eras in our Life

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

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

Why the Church Exists

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

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

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

The Reality of Change

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

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

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

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

Becoming Chloe’s People

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

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

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

A Fresh Look

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

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

Just Another Visioning Process?

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

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

It's Not About What’s in it for Us

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

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

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

A Foolish Message

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

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

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A funny thing happened on the way home from Egypt

Posted by on Sunday, January 1st, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

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

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

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

Rerouting to Nazareth

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

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

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

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

Different Explanations

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

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

A Lame Explanation

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

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

Is Matthew a Bad Writer?

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

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

“Are we There Yet?”

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

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


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

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

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

Archelaus Reveals his Character

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

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

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

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


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

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

Remarkable Opposition

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

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

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

A Late Night Talk

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

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

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

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

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

A Confirming Dream

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

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


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

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

How the Choice Worked Out

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

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

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

A Story for the New Year

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

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

People who Threaten to Move Away

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

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


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

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Christmas Signs

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

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

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

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

The Twist

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

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

Another Couple

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

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

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

The Shopping Trip

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

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

The Gift Becomes a Sign

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

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

A Birth in an Odd Circumstance

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

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

The Explanation

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

That gift is a sign for you tonight.

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I Dream of Joseph

Posted by on Sunday, December 18th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the Sermon Video Here

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

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

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

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

How we Process Information

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

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

Why our Dreams are Strange

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

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

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

Preparing to Preach

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

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

Programing my Dreams

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

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

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

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

My Dream

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

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

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

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

Matthew’s Story

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

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

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

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

Matthew Goes to Bed

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

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

Matthew blew out his lamp and drifted off to sleep.

Matthew’s Dream

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

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

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

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

Joseph’s Dream

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

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

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


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

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

Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament

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

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

Making Connections

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

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

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John’s Dashed Hope, Jesus’ Joy

Posted by on Sunday, December 11th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

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

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

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

A Model of Conquest

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

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

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

John’s Baptism

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

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


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

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

John’s Promise

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

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

John Arrested

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

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

The Most Discouraging Thing

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

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

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

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

The Church’s Situation

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

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

General Decline

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

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

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

Falling into Doubt

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

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

The Sign of the Kingdom

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

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

A Subtle Jibe

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

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

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