Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

Building True Peace

Posted by on Sunday, December 4th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

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

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

Our Usual Focus

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

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

A Cosmic Peace

Candles for the second Sunday of Advent. Building True Peace

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

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

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

The Peace we Need

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

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

Starts with a Shoot

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

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

A Different Kind of King

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

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

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

How Peace Can be Achieved

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

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

Problems with how we do it

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

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

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

More than Avoiding Conflict

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

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

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

The Shoot of Jesse’s Justice

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

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

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

Playing Favourites?

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

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

Getting the Balance Right

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

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

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

Building True Peace

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

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

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

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

Continue reading »

Ready or not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A Disturbing Passage

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

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

Living in Expectation

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

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

Living in Crisis Mode

Ready or not peekaboo picture

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

The Mood Turns Toxic

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

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

The Q-Anon Expectation

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

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

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

Things Turn Toxic Again

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

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

When this Passage was Written

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

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

People Getting on with their Lives

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

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

Unsustainable Crisis Mode

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

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

200 Centuries Later

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

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

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

Keeping it a Message of Hope

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

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

Continue reading »

Jesus, King

Posted by on Sunday, November 20th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

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

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

Jeremiah Criticizes the Kings

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

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

A Golden Age?

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

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

The Challenge of Christ the King

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

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

Calling Worldly Leadership into Question

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

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

Who Identifies the Leader?

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

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

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

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

Identified by Enemies

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

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

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

Leaders who Serve themselves

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

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

A Servant King

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

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

“Father, Forgive Them”

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

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

Brings Others Along

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

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

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

The Challenge of this Day

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

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

Continue reading »

Jerusalem as a Joy and its People as a Delight

Posted by on Sunday, November 13th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the YouTube video of the sermon here

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

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

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

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

An Apocalyptic Fire

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

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

A Child of Promise

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

My Prophecy

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

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

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

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

Not a Great Prophet

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

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

What We Were Worried About

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

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

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

Today’s Worries

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

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

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

Judah’s Families Under Stress

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

Inflation of Biblical Proportions!

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

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

The Bible is Always Relevant

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

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

God’s Delight

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

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

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

A Housing Promise

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

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

Who Benefits from Labour

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

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

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

Meeting our Potential

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

God’s Commitments to Families

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

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

Continue reading »

The God of the Living

Posted by on Sunday, November 6th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here!

There is an old chestnut that often gets taught to Sunday School children regarding the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke. When people reading this story wonder, quite naturally, who these Sadducees are, the explanation goes like this. The Sadducees were sad you see because they didn’t believe in life after death.

But there is something about that old saying that is not quite right. It implies that they didn’t believe because they were sad, because they were old spoilsports who didn’t want to believe in anything. It maybe even suggests that they were proto atheists who didn’t even believe in God.

Who were the Sadducees?

I just wanted to let you know that that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Do you want to know who the Sadducees were? They were members of the most elite and wealthiest families in that society. They had life pretty good. And far from being atheists, these families counted many priests and high priests among their numbers. They made their living serving and sacrificing to God. And, in fact, the reason why they didn’t believe in the resurrection was because they saw themselves, above all, as good Bible-believing Jews.

But here is the thing, the Bible, for them, was a very small well-defined thing. Most Jews at that time would have recognized, pretty much, the whole of the Old Testament as we know it to be scripture. But the Sadducees were far pickier. For them, only the first five books really counted as scripture – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – known as the Books of Moses.

No Resurrection in the First Five Books

And they had noticed that the notion of the resurrection just doesn’t come up in those books, like not at all. It doesn’t come up because nobody seems particularly concerned about it. People like Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses are completely focussed on this life and not on the next. God’s promises are also focussed on what happens here and now and in generations to come.

In fact, that is not just true of the first five books, it is actually true of a great deal of the Old Testament. The question of a meaningful afterlife just doesn’t come up. Oh, you can find it in a few places – the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel, for example – but those are books that were written quite late. In the oldest Hebrew literature, it is really just not there. So, in many ways the Sadducees were just trying to take the Bible seriously – something that we’re all supposed to do, right?

So Why did Everyone Else Believe?

But that doesn’t change the fact that, in the time of Jesus, the Sadducees were probably the only major Jewish group that did not believe in the resurrection. So, obviously, something had changed for most Jews by that point, but this change was not primarily based on what they were reading in their scriptures. So where did this conviction come from? Well, it turns out that I can tell you exactly where it came from. It came from a story.

Antiochus Epiphanes

About two centuries before the time of Christ, something terrible and horrible happened to the Jews living in the land of Judah. They were ruled over by the Greeks at that time. You have maybe heard of a famous fellow named Alexander the Great who conquered the world? Well, one of the places he conquered was the land of Judah.

And, generations later, the descendants of his generals still ruled over that land. And one of those rulers, Antiochus Epiphanes, was a bit of a jerk who was full of himself. And he had been having trouble with the Jews that he ruled over. And so Antiochus made a fateful decision. He decided that the problem was Jewishness itself.

Now, Antiochus did not set out, like certain other tyrants of history who shall remain nameless, to actually kill all of the Jews. His policy was not traditional genocide, but it was cultural genocide. He wanted to exterminate Jewish practices like circumcision and the Kosher diet and their strange exclusive worship of just one God. And so, he made all of that stuff illegal. But, much to his surprise, the Jews did not appreciate his policies. They resisted. And so, the king decided to up the stakes.

The Story of the Seven Brothers

And that leads us to the story that changed every Jew’s perspective on resurrection except the Sadducees. This story is told in the Second Book of Maccabees, a book that is not in our Bible but that is part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bible. According to this book, the king arrested an entire family of seven brothers and their mother. They were arrested on suspicion of, well, acting Jewish. And so, the king brought them before him and demanded that they eat a little bit of pork. The brothers refused.

What follows is a story so bloody and graphic that I don’t really feel as if I could tell it to you. Look it up and read it for yourself in 2 Maccabees 7 if you really want to know it, but you have been warned! In the story, the king has all seven brothers tortured to death. And the torture is particularly physical as he cuts off body parts and roasts them over the fire. And so all seven brothers die. And the woman, their mother, dies as well.

The Faith of the Brothers

But the bloody details are not what are important about the story. It is the reaction of the family that stands out. They are there because of their faith and because they do not want to betray it in the face of the king’s decree. And they are there, above all, because they trust in their God who told them to live in certain ways to save them.

And at first, this faith leads them to believe that their God will save them from what the king wants to do to them. Because the promises that they know about God are all promises for this life. That’s what they have learned from their scriptures.

But, of course, that is not what happens. One by one the brothers are painfully put to death. One by one they all watch horrified as various body parts are lopped off and thrown into the fire. And God does not save them. And so, they are left with a choice. Either God’s promises have failed, or they are going to have to understand God’s faithfulness in a new way.

A New Understanding

The terrible holocaust they are being put through convinces them that if God is truly faithful, then God’s promises must also extend beyond this present life. And if their enemies are going to destroy their bodies because they remain faithful to God, then God’s faithfulness and justice have to mean that God will give them those bodies back again.

Basically, they believed that if God had been able to create them in the first place, then surely God would be able to raise them up and create them as new bodies at the end of all things. So, the belief in the resurrection became established when people heard the story of what that family had experienced. And by the time of Jesus, it had become accepted by the great majority of Jews.

The Sadducees’ Version of the Story

And that is what makes it so hilarious when this group of Sadducees come up to Jesus one day to try and convince him that he is wrong about the resurrection, and they do it by telling him a story about seven brothers and one woman who all died. Oh, I’m sure they thought they were being clever, but I’ll bet their story went over with the crowd like a lead balloon.

Everyone in the crowd knew the story of King Antiochus and the seven brothers; everyone in the crowd believed in the resurrection because of that story. But the Sadducees thought that they had found the one weakness with that story. If only one of the brothers had been married, they argued, then for them to be raised from the dead would have broken one of the obscure laws in one of the Books of Moses because it would have meant that that one woman would be married to all of them in the afterlife.

It was a ridiculous argument of course, and I am betting that Jesus and everyone else were laughing at them as Jesus gave his answer. But do you want to know what they got wrong? They were trying to do their best to respect the scriptures as they knew them. But they forgot one key thing.

The Greater Truth

The scriptures are there to point us towards the truth. But the truth that they point to is not merely certain doctrines or laws. They point to the greater truth of who God is. And, as Jesus said to the Sadducees, who God is is the God of the living. A God whose essence is found in love and life itself.

The complete knowledge of such a God could never possibly be contained within the pages of a single book, no matter how extraordinary. Instead, the book points us to the experiences that others have had of God and to the experiences that we could potentially have. For it is only through human experience that we can come to know God, because human experience is all that we have.

So, the experience of the Jews who lived through the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanies led them to the new insight that their God was a God who would raise the righteous from the dead. In the same way, when the first Christians experienced that Jesus was still alive and with them after he had been crucified, that also taught them to trust in the God who would raise them from the dead.

When we are limited to what we find in the written word, when we allow that to dictate our experience, we will never know the fullness that God wants us to have.

The Suffering of War

On this Remembrance Sunday, we remember all those who suffered through the horrible trauma of war. We remember those who never returned. We remember those who came back broken in body and in spirit. We mourn the terrible loss and destruction that have been brought upon the earth as a result of war and we recommit ourselves to doing whatever we can to build a just and peaceful world so that no one will resort to war. I hope we can also commit ourselves to learning the lessons of wars and conflicts past. After all, as they say, those who do not learn from such histories are doomed to repeat them.

In the fires of the terrible affliction that the ancient Jews suffered under the Greeks, they discovered something important about their God. They discovered that their God was committed to them, not only for this life, but also beyond it. They learned that the God who had created them would give them new life again.

What have we Learned?

What have we learned, I wonder, as a result of the wars, police actions and peacekeeping that we have been involved in? You would hope, of course, as a result of our involvement in World War II that we might have learned something about the dangers of building a sense of nationalism out of ideals of racial purity and excluding the ones who are different. You would hope that, but sometimes looking around I do wonder if we are forgetting that lesson.

You would hope, based on our tragic experience in Afghanistan, that we would have learned something about using religion – any religion – as a tool for motivating terror and hatred. You would hope so, but I sometimes wonder what we have learned.

Growing in our Knowledge of God

But the most important lessons, I would still insist, are the lessons we learn about our God. I know there are many who learned faith in God in the midst of the trauma of conflict. I also know that there are many who learned that the image of God that they had been given was totally inadequate in the midst of such trauma. Both of those lessons are equally valid and essential.

I believe that the error that the Sadducees made was to think that they had come to the end of understanding who God was. They had a wonderful book, but the problem was that they believed that that book limited who God could be. Jesus challenged them to open up their minds to new possibilities about who God would be for them, even in the midst of the worst traumas of their lives.

But I suspect that the Sadducees were a little bit too comfortable in their lives, they had too many things going their way, so they were not open to learning something new about God. And that is kind of sad, you see.

Continue reading »

Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity

Posted by on Sunday, July 31st, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch a video of the reading and the sermon here

Hespeler, 31 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

You have heard, I imagine, the proverb that goes like this: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” It is a saying that is usually credited to Benjamin Franklin, who did indeed include it in a book that he wrote, but he was probably not the first to say it.

The proverb has remained popular because it just seems like good common sense. If you wake up early, work hard all day and don’t stay up all night in partying and frivolous pursuits, it promises, you will be rewarded, over time, with security and prosperity.

Capitalism’s Promise

It is, in many ways, the promise that we are given in our modern capitalistic society – which is likely something that Benjamin Franklin also had in mind. We set up our free market, free enterprise system with the hope and expectation that it will create an environment where, if people work hard and apply themselves, they should be able to prosper. It is, in many ways, a wonderful promise.

Very Ancient Idea

But, as I say, it is not a promise that began with Franklin. The fact of the matter is that the Bible, and particularly the Book of Proverbs, is full of very similar promises.

Here are just a few: “A wicked person earns deceptive wages, but the one who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.” (Proverbs 11:18) “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labour.” (Proverbs 12:24) “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” (Proverbs 13:4) “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23 “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

So we have the same promise given in the Bible as is often made in our society. You work hard and you work smart, and you will be rewarded. And, since it is in the Bible, these Proverbs also add a certain moral promise to the idea. There is something virtuous about hard work and so the material reward that we are supposed to receive is a divine reward.

Looking from the Other Side

But there is also another side to all of this. If, as all of these proverbs state, we can be certain that virtue and hard work will always be rewarded with success and wealth, would that not also mean that we can assume, based on someone’s situation in life, that we know how they got there. That is to say, if we see someone who is healthy, wealthy and wise, can we not assume that they must be early to bed and early to rise hard-working types? If we see someone who is richly supplied, well then, they must have been diligent, right? Any one of these Proverbs we can take and turn around and assume, based on that, that somebody must have deserved their good fortune.

And, yes, that would also mean that if someone is poor or disadvantaged or has just never managed to get anywhere, well, that surely must be because they are lazy, unwise and foolish, right? The logic seems to be quite inescapable.

When the Proverbs fail

And here is where we see that there might be a certain problem with this kind of proverbial thinking. What do we do when things don’t turn out that way, when good hard-working folk just don’t manage to get ahead because of circumstances beyond their control? And what if it really doesn’t seem as if the extraordinarily wealthy are more righteous and hard working than anyone else? What if, in fact, they turn out to be like that man in Jesus’ parable this morning, selfish and self-centred greedy jerks? What then?

It is a question that many seem to be struggling with in these times. You may have heard of some of the unrest that is taking place in the labour market these days. You have certainly noticed, I would imagine, the stories of restaurants and other enterprises that seem to be constantly complaining about how they can’t find anybody willing to work these days. Many businesses are severely understaffed and seem to be unable to find anyone willing to accept the jobs they are offering.

Turning Down Low-Wage Work

What you may not have heard about, however, is the other side of that problem. If you listen in the right ways and in the right places, you can hear the stories of the people who are not taking those jobs. And they will tell you why. They will tell you that they have been doing that kind of low-wage work for years, but, in all that time, it hasn’t mattered how hard they have worked. They have been going early to bed and early to rise, but it has not resulted in them getting any healthier or wealthier. And so now they are getting wise.

They are saying that they can no longer afford to live in the cities where they are employed to serve the people who live there. They can no longer afford to live elsewhere because they would have to travel to the city, and they can’t afford that. They are wise enough to calculate that if they moved to the place where the work is and took that low wage job, they would simply fall further and further behind financially as time went by. The promise of the proverbs seems to be broken. It’s enough to make you think that maybe we need to throw out the proverbs altogether.

Qoheleth Understands

But if you think that all of that is just a frustration of modern life, and maybe especially of younger generations today, you might have another think coming. There is an ancient biblical author who completely understands all of that. We are not quite sure what his name was. He calls himself Qoheleth, which is left like that in some translations and in others translated to something like “the teacher.” He also identifies himself as a king from the House of David, but that may just be a literary device, not necessarily an indication that he was a real king.

Certainly, the things that he writes about are not the struggles of kings who are trying to manage the rule of a country. They are the struggles of ordinary people who are just trying to hold on and make it in a world that doesn’t really seem to care whether they work hard or not, they just can’t get ahead.

Whoever he is, Qoheleth has obviously read the Book of Proverbs and has heard the promise that, if you work hard and apply yourself you will get ahead, and he has taken up his pen to say, “Hey, wait a minute, it just doesn’t always work out like that.”

Man, this is Vanity!

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” And, when he says that, I imagine him much like a modern millennial who looks at the system they are inheriting – a system where they graduate from school with a massive debt, get a job that offers them no security and finds that it is financially impossible for them to ever own a home. What do they say? They say, “Man, this is a load of… vanity!” And I know they don’t use the word vanity there, but that is maybe the closest word I could use in church.

And here I see Qoheleth echoing the sentiments of so many in the world today who have gotten so very tired of working for prosperity that never quite seems to arrive. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” You work and you work and you work and instead of getting ahead all you get is behind on your sleep. It does sound very much like something that somebody might write today.

Both Messages in the Bible

And I really just wanted to highlight that we get both of these messages from the Bible. I know that there are lots of people who think that they can turn to the Bible and get an absolute, unchanging nugget of truth that they can hold onto forever. And the truth that we get from The Book of Proverbs would be a wonderful truth to hold onto. If you could know for sure that you deserved all of the good things that came to you and if you could be sure that people who experience misfortune deserve that, man, that would put us all at ease for so many of these anxieties that we carry around with us.

But biblical truth doesn’t work like that. It is not that you can just pull out one text and say you have the perfect answer. What we are actually challenged to do is to find the truth in the tension between these two texts. We have to live with the truth proclaimed in Proverbs that everything happens because everyone gets what they deserve. And we have to live with the truth in Ecclesiastes that everything that happens is, well, vanity of vanities.

Jesus Works Out the Tension

And how you work out that tension is something that we all have to figure out for ourselves. And I do find it kind of interesting that we seem to see Jesus working it out in that parable we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus worked it out, as he usually did, by turning it into a story. “The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” he said.

Here is a man who has experienced great prosperity. According to The Book of Proverbs, we should know why he is so fortunate. Obviously, he must be good and righteous and must have worked hard to deserve such prosperity. And, sure, maybe that is how things should work out. But Jesus is clearly telling a story that is grounded in real life. And he sees that, precisely because this man thinks he deserves all of his good fortune and therefore intends to rest upon it, all of that will be proven to be vanity of vanities.

What do I think that means? I think it is true that each one of us owes it to ourselves in this world to do our best. To work hard, to live the best life possible and to be good to others. It is good that we should hope to be rewarded for such things.

But the reality is that things don’t always work out that way. What Jesus seems to be saying with this parable is that our greatest danger is to fall into thinking that the blessings we have received are given to us by anything but grace. So long as we begin to rely upon them, instead of on the one who is the ultimate giver, we will not find any meaning in any of it, not over the long term. We will also very easily fall into judging people unjustly when they don’t succeed. And that is vanity and a great evil.”

Continue reading »

Abraham’s Fantastic Conversation

Posted by on Sunday, July 24th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here.

Hespeler, 24 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:20-33, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13


here was a very popular legend that circulated in the early Christian church regarding James, the brother of Jesus. He is referred to a few times in the Bible and we see him as one of the key leaders of the church in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts. The legend that circulated had to do with how he died and what his death meant.

According to a number of sources, including the Jewish historian Josephus who was definitely not a Christian, James was highly respected, not only by Christians but by the entire populace of the city. They called him James the Just, or it can be translated as James the Righteous One. And he was kind of famous, not only for his leadership in the city but also for his intercession.

Old Camel Knees

The legend has it that James would spend so much time in the temple praying for the people and the city of Jerusalem, that he formed calluses on his knees so thick that people called him “old camel knees.” They may have made fun of the appearance of his legs, but everyone seems to have had a deep respect for what he did in the city.

But, according to the story, a certain faction of Pharisees in the city were concerned by the growth of the Christian sect. Since James was a famous observer of the strict Jewish law, they thought he might be an ally. They asked him to climb to the very pinnacle of the temple and address the people to warn them against the teachings of the Christians.

James agreed, but when the people gathered to hear him, he did not do as expected and refused to denounce belief in Jesus. Instead he cried out, “Why do you ask me about Jesus, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!”

Death of James

As you can imagine, the Pharisees were not pleased. They pushed James off of the top of the temple and he crashed to the pavement below. But the fall did not kill him, at least not yet. He struggled to his knees and there, in front of all the people, continued to pray, “I beg of you, Lord God our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing.” The enraged Pharisees quickly gathered a crowd and began to stone James.

Then one of the priests shouted, “Stop! What are you doing! The righteous one is praying for you.” But it was too late. A local fuller took one of the clubs that he used to beat laundry with and smashed James on the head, killing him with one blow.

The Results of the Murder

Since it is a legend, we can hardly rely on every detail of that story being true. But there is some reason to believe that it has an historical core. The detail that James was highly respected by all in the city, attested by a number of the sources, seems to be true.

But what I find especially interesting is what the Christian tradition says about the result of James’ murder. It declares that immediately after this happened, the Romans besieged and destroyed Jerusalem. The events were so closely related in time, the Christian commentator Hegesippus says, that “the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that [the death of James] was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem.”

You know what that tells me? It tells me that the early church (and perhaps many Jews) thought they had the answer to the question that has long haunted me whenever I read our story this morning from the Book of Genesis.

Abraham and the Strangers

Abraham was sitting outside of his tent one day when, all of a sudden, three strangers appeared before him. Now, according to the laws of hospitality that were practiced throughout the Ancient Near East, Abraham knew exactly what was expected of him. To offer hospitality – food and drink and a place to rest – was not just a nice thing to do for them. It was not just an option; it was an obligation.

And Abraham rose to the occasion most excellently. He begged the visitors to stay for a bit of water and a morsel of bread and then proceeded to lay before them an incredible feast that included an entire calf, milk, cheese and cakes that had been made (by Abraham’s wife, Sarah) from about 55 pounds of flour. (I am still not over that!)

After Dinner

But our story today focusses on what happened after that magnificent feast had all been consumed. Two of the travellers headed off towards the city of Sodom, but the other (who is finally revealed to be Yahweh, Abraham’s God) remains. And after a huge feast, what do you do? You sit back and indulge in a symposium, a theoretical speculative conversation. The discussion is about the hypothetical question of how the city of Sodom might have been saved.

The City of Sodom

The city of Sodom serves as the perfect representative, in the Bible, of a wicked city. Whenever a prophet or some other speaker in the Bible wants to talk about a place that is clearly worthy of judgment and destruction, they just bring out the example of Sodom. There’s no clear answer in the Bible about what made Sodom such a wicked place. In Genesis, the reception of visitors in Sodom is contrasted to the reception that they received from Abraham, suggesting that the failure to practice hospitality was what was wrong with Sodom. In fact, Genesis suggests that the city was so inhospitable that they had a practice of gang raping any strangers who came to town.

The prophet Ezekiel, however, ascribes the wickedness of Sodom to something entirely different: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

An Unreal Situation

The entire situation in the Book of Genesis is quite fantastic at this point. I mean, imagine the picture. Abraham and his God are just sitting around outside the tent and shooting the breeze while they digest their enormous meal. I don’t think that this is a realistic experience that anyone who has ever heard this story could imagine living through.

But it’s not meant to be realistic. It is an idealized conversation and so it only makes sense that it should have an idealized topic. We don’t actually know if the city of Sodom ever existed. There isn’t any good archaeological evidence. I mean, sure, maybe the story is based on a dimly remembered city that actually was destroyed in some cataclysm, but the thing about this story is that it doesn’t matter if the city actually existed. It is simply the perfect example of a wicked city.

Abraham Starts a Conversation

And so Abraham, fully recognizing the unreal situation that he finds himself in, opens the philosophical discussion.

“Listen, Yahweh,” he begins hesitantly, “let’s take it as a given, as you suggested to those two strange fellows who just left, that Sodom is indeed the wickedest place in the entire world, the wickedest place that ever has been and ever will be.”

“It is,” Yahweh replies with a nod.

“Okay,” Abraham agrees, “but no matter how bad a place can get, it can’t be true that everyone in that place is irredeemably evil themselves. Let’s say that, in this Sodom that you speak of, there were 50 people who were extremely righteous. If you were to destroy such a city, no matter how wicked in general, you would have to also destroy all those 50 righteous people. Now, you are supposed to be a God of justice, how could a just God possibly destroy 50 righteous people? I mean, what would people think?”

Yahweh shrugs. “Yeah, I guess that would look pretty bad. Okay, fine, if there were fifty righteous people in the wicked city, I wouldn’t destroy it.”

Abraham Haggles

Abraham smiles to himself. He is a man, after all, who has wandered all over the Ancient Near East. He has bought and sold goods in markets from Ur to Haran, from Salem to Egypt. No one, not even a God, could outwit Abraham when he starts haggling. The trick, you see, is to know what matters most to your opponent in the negotiation. Then all you have to do is appeal to that. Well, now Abraham knows that what Yahweh cares about most is his reputation for being just.

“Okay, it is true that no God is as just as you,” he replies. “But let’s just say that a mere five of those fifty righteous people were not there. Surely a just God like you would not consign an entire city to destruction just for the lack of five righteous ones?”

And, yes, Yahweh has to admit that he is indeed as just as all that. Surely 45 righteous ones would be sufficient.

God Cuts off the Conversation

It is indeed a bartering session for the ages as Abraham manages to get Yahweh down from 45 to 40 to 30, 20 and even 10!

But then something happens. After Abraham maneuvers Yahweh into saying, “For the sake of ten I would not destroy it,” we are told something a bit surprising. “And Yahweh went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.”

Why does it end so abruptly? Is this saying that Yahweh felt as if he had been completely outmatched by Abraham, the master haggler, and decided to cut his losses and just walk away from the negotiations? That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? But, as I say, this is a crazy story of a theoretical philosophical discussion. So, maybe that is how we are supposed to understand it.

Left Unsatisfied

But whatever the reason for the sudden end of the discussion, it certainly leaves us feeling very unsatisfied. We are told in no uncertain terms that 10 righteous people is enough to save an entire city, no matter how wicked. But don’t you want to know how far we can push that? What about five righteous ones? What about three or two? And what if you have only one righteous person? So, whatever else is going on in this sudden end of the discussion, it certainly seems to be designed to leave us wondering just how many righteous ones it takes.

The Conversation Continues

And people have been wondering that and continuing that philosophical discussion outside of Abraham’s tent ever since. In some Jewish traditions, they have these discussions about the role of what they call the tzadikim. Tzadik is the Hebrew word for a righteous person. And so various sects of Judaism will enter into debates about how many tzadikim exist and what their role has been in safeguarding the world from destruction. Mystical Hasidic Jews, for example, apparently believe that there must be at least 36 tzadikim – 36 righteous souls – living someplace in the world at any given time to represent humanity before God.

One Righteous Soul

But what about that one righteous soul, will we ever get an answer to the question of how he or she can save an entire city no matter how wicked it might be? Well, as I say, that seems to be the question that the early church thought it had an answer to. Because remember what James the brother of Jesus was famous for. He was called, by believers in Jesus and non-believers alike, James the Just. In Hebrew, that would have been Ya’akov the Tzadik. He is James the Righteous One

Everyone seems to have agreed that there was something about the incredible way that this man lived that was preserving the city of Jerusalem from destruction. And when the city turned against him and he was killed, the destruction of the wicked city was inevitable. They decided that it only took one. It only took James.

What we do with this Story

Now, as I say, that strange discussion in the Book of Genesis between God and Abraham is a fantastic one. It is full of hypotheticals and theoreticals. Maybe it is just a couple of old friends shooting the breeze after a particularly satisfying meal. I don’t think I would draw eternal principles of theology from it because I don’t find it a helpful image of God to see God as set on destruction because of wickedness and needing some righteous person to stand in the way and prevent that destruction. I don’t believe that God requires that. But maybe we do.

But, if there is a practical application, particularly if you find yourself living in a time when things just seem to be going so very wrong, when evil and greed and selfishness seem to be winning and the weak and the marginalized person and the outsider are paying the price, perhaps it is this: When times are evil, sometimes all we need is a James, one righteous person who lives out their righteousness in a way that touches the lives of others.

Sometimes what we need is someone whose compassion is so great that they intercede for others until their knees are so calloused that they look like they belong to a camel. Sometimes I really do believe that’s what we need to save us. And that can be anyone. It can even be you or me. God is actually calling us to step into that role.

Continue reading »

Dough Incidence?

Posted by on Sunday, July 17th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, 17 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
Video of the Scripture Reading

We are told that, one day, Jesus told his simplest, most straightforward parable of the kingdom of God. “To what should I compare the kingdom of God?” He said. “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” But maybe the parable is not quite as simple as we think. You see, I always assumed that the amount of flour in question was relatively small. You know, that “three measures of flour” was something like, say, three cups of flour. That is, after all, about how much flour it would take to make a decent size loaf of bread.

What is a Seah?

Imagine my surprise when, recently, I took a closer look at that parable. The word that appears there in the gospel is the word seah. Now, seah is a Hebrew word, a Hebrew measure that has simply been transliterated into the Greek text of the Gospels. So, I had to go and look up how big a seah was. The internet, as in many things, was very helpful. The internet told me that seah is about as big as a one and a half pecks. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find that particularly helpful.

I mean, maybe it would be helpful if I knew how many peppers Peter Piper picked when he picked a peck of them, but I don’t actually know how many peppers Peter Piper picked. So, I had to make a few more internet searches.

That’s a Lot of Dough!

I converted three times one and a half pecks into cups. That came out to 168 cups. And then, since we don’t buy flour in cups, we buy it by weight, I converted that into pounds. So, as a result of all of that searching, do you have any guesses how much flour that woman in Jesus’ parable took? Assuming that the flour had been sifted, which of course changes the volume, Jesus is saying that she took like 55 pounds, or, if you prefer, 25 kilograms of flour.

That would be 10 2.5 kg bags!

That leads me to ask a few questions. How much bread was this woman baking? And who did she have to feed? It also rather underlines the central wonder of the parable which is that a tiny amount of yeast is actually able to leaven such a huge amount of dough. Surely that was a point that Jesus was trying to get across by telling this story.

Sarah’s Baking

But here is something else that is really odd about that parable. It is not the first time in the Bible that that strange, enormous quantity of flour appears. It is actually the very same amount of flour – 3 seahs or, if you prefer, 55 pounds – that Abraham tells Sarah to take and make into cakes in our reading from the Book of Genesis. The exact same amount! Isn’t that a weird coincidence?

But here is the thing: I am not a big believer in coincidence when it comes to reading the Bible. I think that this has to be on purpose. Jesus seems to have been intentionally wanting his listeners to remember and connect this parable to what was, to them, one of the most famous Old Testament stories – the story of the time when Abraham unknowingly played host to God.

So maybe, just maybe, we will never understand what Jesus was trying to say about the kingdom of God until we dig in a little bit more into the story of Abraham, Sarah and their strange guests.

Abraham’s Offer

So, the story in Genesis goes like this. Abraham is sitting outside of his tent when three strangers come up. Abraham, like many heroes of ancient stories, responds by offering them hospitality in the expected way. “My lord,” he says, “if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on.”

Now, how would you understand that? If you were the guest, you would have heard Abraham offer you nothing more than a little bit of water to wash your feet and a tiny morsel of bread before you move on. That is it.

What he Actually Prepares

But then what does Abraham do? He immediately runs to Sarah and tells her to start making cakes with, as I’ve said, 55 lb of flour. He also goes and selects the best calf from his herd, sacrifices it and has someone prepare and cook the entire animal. Then he comes back and serves the whole calf, the 55 lb of baked flour cakes as well as milk and cheese.

I have some questions! First of all, that is so much more than a few morsels of bread as to be completely ridiculous. And can you imagine that much food being laid out before three people for a picnic?

How Long did they Wait?

And then there is the question about how long that would have taken. How long does it take to slaughter and roast an entire calf? How long does it take, without an industrial sized bakery oven mind you, to bake that much bread? It is not entirely clear from the story whether or not Sarah leavened all of that dough like the woman in Jesus’ parable, but if she did, that adds many more hours to the preparation time as any baker will know.

So, are we really meant to believe that these three strange visitors were sitting outside of Abraham’s tent just waiting for this massive feast to be prepared? How many hours would you wait for a little morsel of bread that you had been promised? There is something in this story that stretches incredulity, and it is, I think, quite intentional. This is meant to be a story of ridiculous and unbelievable excess. The writer of this story is trying to show us that Abraham’s hospitality was so extreme that it was simply ridiculous.

Over-the-Top Hospitality

That is kind of the point of the story. It is saying that, when we treat strangers and outsiders right, good things will come to us. As a result of their over-the-top hospitality, Abraham and Sarah are given the one thing that they have been longing for more than anything: the promise of the birth of a child within the year.

Their hospitality is also contrasted, of course, to what happens when two of these strange visitors go on to the city of Sodom and receive the very opposite of good hospitality there. The punishment that was visited upon Sodom as a result, is of course famous.

Back to Jesus’ Parable

But I am still kind of left wondering what is the connection between this story and the parable of Jesus. I cannot take it as a coincidence that both women just happened to take the same enormous amount of flour. Surely Jesus intended for us to make a connection between these two passages.

Well, this is what Jesus essentially said in his parable. “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and hid – that is the word that Jesus literally uses. He doesn’t say that she mixed it, he says that she hid it. “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and hid in 55 pounds of flour until all of it was leavened.”

 Jesus was constantly talking about this thing that he called the kingdom of God. But he never really told people what the kingdom of God was, he only told them stories of what it was like. And this is one of those famous stories. And he specifically says in this story that the kingdom is like the yeast.

God Uses Small Things

The point of this seems to be that yeast is a very small thing that can transform in big ways. Because yeast is a living organism – because it is actually a community of single-celled microorganisms, it’s ability to grow and spread is only limited by its food supply. And that means that, if you hide a little bit of yeast even in an enormous quantity of dough, like 55 lb of flour worth of dough, it is able to spread and transform all of it.

And transform it does from something that is flat and tasteless and of little nutritional value into one of the best foods ever known to humanity. Yeast is that amazing.

And what does that tell us about being a part of the kingdom of God today. It tells us that we should never be discouraged over matters of size or perceptions of power and impact. We don’t have to be big and influential in order to transform the world. That’s what Jesus was saying.

God Uses Hidden Things

What’s more, he tells us in the parable that the woman hid the yeast in the dough. He literally uses the Greek word for hiding, not the word for mixing. And that tells us something else about what it means to be part of the kingdom of God. We often think that, in order to have an impact, we have to have a lot of visibility. Everybody has to see all of the good things we are doing; everybody has to take notice of how good we are. But Jesus is saying the very opposite in this parable. He is saying that the kingdom advances best in quiet and hidden ways.

And then, of course, we come to the actual scale of impact that Jesus is talking about. Do not forget that he is talking about an enormous amount of dough here. He is saying that, even though we may be small or few in number, even though nobody may notice what we’re doing and we do not seek recognition, he is promising us that we can have an enormous impact. 55 lb of flour and a tiny bit of yeast can feed a lot of people some very nutritious food.


But that still leaves us with one mystery left. I just can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that we have exactly the same amount of dough in the parable and in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Like I said, I don’t believe in biblical dough-incidences. I am pretty sure that Jesus meant for us to make a connection between the two stories.

What then does the story of Sarah making her cakes have to do with the kingdom of God? Well, the Genesis story is a story about hospitality. But it is not just about ordinary, everyday hospitality. It is about extraordinary over-the-top hospitality. It is about saying “stay for a morsel of bread” and then preparing 55 lb of flour.

But it is also about more than that because in this story Abraham and Sarah are astonished to discover that their guests are not ordinary guests. They have welcomed the Lord and the creator of the earth to their tent.

Hospitality and the Kingdom

So, if Jesus was trying to point us to this story in his parable in order to teach us something about the kingdom of God, what do you think he was trying to say? I think that there has always been a tendency in matters of faith for people to take what they receive from God and save it for their own blessing and for the blessing of their own kind.

We covet God’s blessings for our church, our family and for ourselves. This story serves us as a reminder that the blessings that God gives us are not merely for ourselves. They are there so that we might be a blessing to others and especially a blessing to those who are strangers, outsiders and those who live on the margins.

And, as we learn to give to all such people extravagantly, abundantly and beyond what we think we can afford, the promise of this story is clear. God will reward our faith by making sure that, just like a little bit of yeast makes 55 lb of flour literally grow to feed a multitude of people. What’s more, God will also reward us with God’s presence.

Ministry Outside the Church

When we choose to serve outsiders and strangers as an expression of our faith, despite what limited resources we feel we may have, Jesus promises us that we will know the presence of God. We will discover God in the face of that stranger. That is certainly what Jesus meant in another parable of his, when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt 25:35-36)

Yes, I think that Jesus was trying to point us towards all of that with one little parable about a woman who was apparently making a whole lot of bread one day.

Continue reading »

Listen to me, you fat cows

Posted by on Sunday, July 10th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, July 10, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
Here is a dramatic reading of the scripture

It all started for Amos in the oddest way that you could imagine. He was returning home from work one afternoon. He had spent his day dressing sycomore trees, a job that was normally done by itinerate workers like him. Sycomores produced a fruit that was considered to be of little value. It was also troublesome to grow because the fruit didn’t even ripen unless workers like him came around and pierced the husk around the fruit with a sharp stick at the right time of the year. The work didn’t pay well, but Amos actually didn’t often have much choice. In between short-term gigs working as a herdsman, it was often they only work he could find.

Though his situation in life often meant that people underestimated Amos, he did have a quick and curious mind. And as he was walking home that day, something did pique his interest. He came upon a man who was working on a house. The house was in pretty bad shape and this man had obviously been hired to do some long overdue repairs.

A Plumb Line

But what Amos found particularly interesting was that the worker was holding a strange contraption as he came up. He held a string that had a weight attached to the end of it up against one of the walls of the house. He was sadly shaking his head.

Amos, ever a friendly man, struck up a conversation with the worker and asked him what he was doing. That was how Amos came to learn that the device the man was using was called a plumb line. The builder used it to show Amos how the wall he was working on was in bad shape.

The Wall

“You see,” he said holding the line up against the wall, “the wall should follow the line of this string, but it is going off at a bad angle. There is too much weight resting on the top of the wall and not enough support from the smaller stones below and so the bottom is starting to crumble. This wall is not in good shape. In fact, if the owner of this house had waited much longer to call on me, I’m pretty sure it would have collapsed.”

For some reason, the image of that plumb line held up against that crooked wall remained with Amos as he continued on his way. He just couldn’t get it out of his head. In his dreams that night, it came to him again and then was followed by a vision of a collapsing house. When he awoke the next morning, he was convinced that there was a reason why he had seen that plumb line. It wasn’t just that construction worker who had shown it to him. He believed that Yahweh, his God, had shown it to him.

An Image Leads to a Journey

And that was really how it started. Because he couldn’t get the picture of a plumb line out of his head, a few weeks later Amos found himself on the road leaving his hometown of Tekoa. He was on his way to Bethel, which was the chief sanctuary of the Kingdom of Israel. After endless days meditating on that plumb line, Amos had concluded that it could only mean one thing. It was a message from Yahweh for the Kingdom of Israel.

Under its king, Jeroboam, Israel was living through a time of unprecedented strength and prosperity. It dominated the entire region both economically and military, so much so that Amos had constantly felt that influence even as a poor migratory worker in the neighbouring land of Judah. How often had he crossed the border looking for work and been mistreated? But the more that Amos reflected on the Kingdom of Israel and the things he had learned about it in recent years, the more it reminded him of that wall that he had seen on the verge of collapsing.

The kingdom had built its prosperity upon the labour of the farmers and workers and, yes, even upon the backs of lowly herdsman and dressers of sycomore trees. But it was the people at the top who had grown fat from all of this. The structure of the whole society was out of whack and Amos could see now that collapse would inevitably follow. Yes, Amos had a message from Yahweh and having received it, he knew he had to share it with the people of Israel before it was too late.

The Sanctuary at Bethel

Amos stood in the middle of sanctuary at Bethel, just off to the side of the main avenue. A larger crowd than he had ever encountered in his life was passing him in his filthy, second-hand shepherd’s robe. He had arrived here earlier this morning shortly after entering the territory of Israel from the south.

He had never seen anything quite like it in his life. There was a large altar connected to a sanctuary that contained a calf that had been covered with beaten gold. There were houses for the priests, a treasury and a huge collection of booths and tents that had been set up by all manner of prophets and seers who were selling oracles and divinations. There were also merchants who were hawking teraphim and idols as well as food and drink.

It was all rather overwhelming for a hick like him from Tekoa. But after a couple of hours in this strange place, he had begun to understand the social structure and interactions of this place. The great mass of the people who had come here for the festival seemed to be poor peasants, some of whom had brought a small lamb or heifer to sacrifice and feast on.

The Samaritan Elite

But there were also others who had come – men and women who were finely dressed and attended by large retinues of slaves and clients. They were clearly the elite who had come from the capital of Samaria for the festivities. As he recognized them for what they were, he knew that these were the ones, above all, that Yahweh had sent him to challenge and defy.

But Amos had yet to find his voice. He was having a hard time believing that anyone would care about whatever he had to say about the situation in Bethel, even if he did speak for Yahweh.

But just then there was a group of wealthy women from Samaria who passed in front of him. They were well-fed and had fine robes and painted faces. They were laughing and giggling together, but the thing that really bothered Amos about them was the fact that they seemed quite oblivious to all the people who surrounded them and who were anything but well-fed.

That was when the rage that had been building inside Amos since he had arrived finally broke through and he began to shout. He addressed the women directly.

“Listen to me you fat cows of Bashan who spend your days grazing on the slopes of Mount Samaria.” He pointed at them directly. “You, you are the ones who oppress the poor, who crush the needy. And how do you do it? You do it by ordering your husbands around. ‘Bring us something to drink! Bring us whatever we desire!’” (Amos 4:1)

Amos Gets an Audience

And just like that, Amos had an audience. Most of the people who were coming to the festival day after day were only too happy to listen to him. Indeed, as the days went on, many came specifically to seek him out and hear what he had to say. They had heard of the strange preacher from Judah who had come to Bethel as word of his oracles spread throughout the surrounding fields and villages. Most of them were only too happy to hear the way that he piled his abuse and scorn upon the Samaritan elite. So he often had them in the palm of his hand.

As for the members of the elite who were coming to the festival, they did what they could to quietly shut him down. They complained to the local priesthood and the authorities, but, for the moment at least, the authorities at the sanctuary could only see the simple fact that Amos was bringing more people out to the festival and so they only made half-hearted efforts at telling him that he needed to tone down his rhetoric.

A Oracle Against the Rich

“Hear this, you who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” he shouted out to the elite while a growing band of admirers egged him on. “Here is what you are saying, ‘When will this damn festival be over so that we may sell grain at a big profit? When will the Sabbath end, so that we may offer our big surplus of wheat for sale?” That one always got a big laugh; you know what they say, it’s funny because it’s true! But what Amos said next inspired much more anger than laughter.

“I know what you say to yourselves,” Amos screamed. “you say, ‘since we control the whole system, we will trick the people with false weights and measures. We will push people into debt over the purchase of something as small as a pair of sandals and then, when they can’t pay, we will make them our slaves. Why, we will even sell off the garbage we sweep up from the floor of our barns at a big profit. And there’s nothing anybody can do about it!’” (Amos 8:4-6)

A Dangerous Core

So did Amos preach through all the days of the festival. And, as long he was speaking in this way and mocking the rich while saying the things that the poor folk didn’t dare to say out loud, it seemed as if he was untouchable. The authorities of the sanctuary did not act against him for fear of driving the crowds away.

But there was a core to Amos’ message that wasn’t quite so popular and that was much more dangerous. It went back to that original vision of the plumb line. For Amos was not only saying that the rich needed to stop oppressing the poor as they had been doing, he was also announcing that the consequence would be the collapse of the society itself.

“Thus says Yahweh,” Amos announced, ‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’”

Amaziah’s Intervention

That was dangerous; that was treason. And the officials decided that they could not stand for it. Amaziah, the priest of the sanctuary, sent word to King Jeroboam of all that Amos was saying and he got back the authorization he needed. It was time to shut the prophet down.

And so Amaziah went, flanked by lesser priests, to confront Amos. He came up to him and cut him off in the middle of one of his rants. “O seer,” he said, “go, run away back home to the land of Judah. You can sell your oracles and earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Amos looked around at the various seers and prophets who were selling their oracles to the people. One of them, in a booth nearby, had a special on that day, two oracles for the price of one. Another was had an offer out; for just a half bushel of grain, he would tell you whether your wife would have a boy or a girl or give you the name of the man that your daughter would marry.

Amos’ Reply

Amos laughed. “You think that I am one of those charlatans and fortune tellers? You think I’m here to exploit these people like their wealthy overlords do? I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son. Know what I am? I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees. There is only one reason why I am here. Yahweh took me from following the herds, and Yahweh said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

“I am not under your authority; Yahweh has sent me here. Therefore, if you try to shut me down, I can promise you this: Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parcelled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”

The First of a New Kind of Prophet

Amos is absolutely fascinating figure. In many ways, he is a man who changed history. Because he was the first. He was the first man who spoke for his God, Yahweh, in a very particular way. At least, he was the first one whose words were written down in a book.

But Amos didn’t see himself as a prophet or a seer. He knew he was just an ordinary person. Before him, prophets and seers were people who hung around at sanctuaries like the one at Bethel and made their money selling trinkets and oracles and auspices to the common people for a few coins or goods. But Amos spoke a message that was a warning to the whole kingdom – a warning that was as much political and economic as it was theological and spiritual. And that was what made him so very dangerous.

Is God Showing you any Plumb Lines?

But the really amazing thing, as far as I’m concerned, is what set him on that track. He saw a plumb line one day, it made him ask some questions about what was wrong with the Kingdom of Israel. And, when he figured out some answers to those questions, he knew he had received a message from Yahweh and that he had no choice but to go and speak it even at the risk of his own life.

It makes me wonder, how many times has God shown us a plumb line or something else that illustrates what’s wrong with the economic or political realities of our kingdom? You see, a prophet is not someone who hears voices and knows without a doubt that this what God is saying right now. A prophet is a herder and a dresser of sycomore trees – an ordinary person who’s got a brain and can interpret what it means when he or she sees a plumb line or some other everyday object. Oh, that the Lord would send us more prophets like that!

Continue reading »

Stockholm Syndrome

Posted by on Sunday, July 3rd, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 3 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Watch a video of the reading here

In 1973, there was a bank robbery that took place in the city of Stockholm, Sweden. In the course of their crime, the bank robbers took four hostages. The hostages were eventually released unharmed. But the public, and particularly the media, were rather puzzled by how the hostages reacted in the aftermath. They defended their former captors and even refused to testify against them when they were put on trial.

For many, this reaction was so irrational that they decided that it was basically some form of insanity. They called it the Stockholm Syndrome, a term that is still brought out and applied in similar situations today. It is defined as a condition in which hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors during captivity.

Why we Like Stockholm Syndrome

Journalists love to talk about the Stockholm Syndrome whenever they report on stories about hostages, but the fact of the matter is that psychologists are rather skeptical that such a thing truly exists. A closer look at the events that did take place in Stockholm in 1973 inspires many doubts. It turns out that the hostages in that ill-fated bank robbery may have been more upset with the police than they were in love with their captors. They were, in fact, very angry with the callous way in which the police had acted and endangered their lives. That likely had more to do with their refusal to testify than did any love for the robbers.

Is it Actually Real?

But the idea of Stockholm Syndrome remains a powerful one. Something similar is often proposed in discussions of slavery – both in the ancient world and in the pre-civil war American South. “But slaves often loved and were devoted to their masters,” the protest goes. “Surely that is an indication that slavery wasn’t so bad.” But I rather suspect that, just as in the case of the robbery in Stockholm, if you look closely the whole thing about slaves loving their masters it is not so simple as that.

So let’s do that. Let’s look closely at one of my favourite stories of a slave that apparently did something out of love for her master

The Aramean Raid

Abriyah woke up screaming. It had been the same nightmare; it was always the same nightmare. In her dreams the Arameans had come yet again, storming into her village in the middle of the day. There had been no warning and no real opportunity for the people to prepare themselves. Abriyah had been out of her house fetching some water from the village well. She would never see her home or her family again. The men had come upon her and two other girls who were at the well. Before she even knew what was happening, her hands had been bound and she had been unceremoniously dumped into the back of an oxcart.

Later that same day she and the others were taken out of the cart and brought before the raiders as they celebrated. They were dividing up their spoils with each man claiming his share of the livestock, fruits and grain. Abriyah had no illusions that she was anything other than just another piece of plunder to them.

The Boogeyman

As she stood there in her ripped tunic, on display before the leering company, they all suddenly fell silent as one man stepped forward. He stood there with such an air of authority and power that there was no question he was the leader of the raiding party. She knew right away that this could be none other than Naaman, a fighter who was so cruel and effective that he had become something of a boogeyman to the people of Israel.

Parents would warn their children when they put them to bed that, if they didn’t settle down and go to sleep right away, that Naaman would come and get them and take them away. Well now, here the boogeyman was, as real as real could be. And he had finally come for her. She cried out in her sleep, cried out to her parents yelling that she was sorry and that she would be a better girl in the future. But she woke to discover that her parents were gone and that she would never see them again.

Life in Naaman’s Household

Naaman chose Abriyah as his plunder from that day’s work. It was indeed a chieftain’s share. He took her home and gave her to his wife as a servant. And Abriyah quickly found herself subjected to seemingly endless toil in the kitchen and around the house.

Naaman was everything that she had expected of him. He was cruel and completely self-absorbed. There was a haughtiness to him. He seemed to think that everything Aramean was better than anything anywhere else. The rivers of Aram were better than any other streams. The food of his land was far superior to what anyone else ate.

As a result, because she was an Israelite, he consistently treated Abriyah as if she were an imbecile. He was rude and crude and he never cared about her feelings because, as far as he was concerned, she was little better than an animal. She didn’t have human feelings.

Naaman Falls Ill

So, life was far from easy in Naaman’s household. But then it suddenly became so much worse. Naaman came home one day from his latest raid, and something was wrong. The skin on his arms and back and legs soon turned red and he scratched at them until they bled. If she had thought that he was a difficult man before, he quickly became unbearable. He was in constant pain and discomfort, and it quickly stripped away any patience or sympathy he might have ever had.

And Abriyah was often the one who was closest when the rage hit him. She was certainly the one that he could attack without consequence. The life of a common slave that she had once had in the household now seemed almost like a lost dream. She began to dream of escaping back to her homeland, but she knew that escape was impossible.

Finding Comfort

Whenever Abriyah found a few moments of respite in her miserable life, or when she lay awake in her bed at night, too afraid to go to sleep for fear of her nightmares, she tried to comfort herself with memories of her home. She told herself the stories that her parents had once told her – stories of Abraham and of Moses. But she found particular comfort in the popular stories that were told in her village about the prophets, especially the stories about Elijah and Elisha. People eagerly told these tales because they were so exciting and because these men were still alive and might well pass through the village at any time.

Abriyah had always felt as if these men were her protectors, or at least they would be if they were given the chance. Again and again, they had taken on the enemies of Israel, including the Arameans, and had triumphed in surprising and fantastic ways. Why, it was even said that once the prophet Elisha had defeated an entire Aramaean army by striking them blind and leading them into a trap! She began to dream of the possibility that Elisha, who was still living the last she heard, would find out about her plight and come and save her.

Talking About her Hope

Once finding some small reason to hope – no matter how unlikely her salvation was – she found that she simply could not stop thinking about it. That also meant that she could not stop talking about it either. She began to talk to all of the other slaves in the household about how Elisha was going to come and save her and about how he would be able to help all of them too.

And then one day, she even spoke to her mistress. She came upon her at an unguarded moment in her chambers and found her weeping. She suddenly realized that, even though she had the status of wife and freewoman, in some ways her mistress was no less a captive in this household than she was. The mistress was certainly not spared from the cruelty that Naaman could dole out when he was taken up in his pain and misery.

And so, Abriyah went to speak to her mistress. That was when something came to mind that she could say to comfort her. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy. And then perhaps you could find some peace.”

To Israel for a Cure

Much to her surprise, Abriyah’s comment caused quite a stir in the household. Both Naaman and his wife were feeling pretty desperate lately. She went running to him immediately with what she had heard. And, even if Naaman had a hard time believing that anyone from Israel could offer anything of value, he was desperate enough to follow up. He did it in the most typical way possible for him. He was arrogant and demanding. He put the king of Israel into a very compromising position that the prophet Elisha had to save him from. And then, when the prophet told him that he had to bathe in a filthy Israelite river in order to become clean, he almost lost it.

But then something happened. Something broke through and Naaman was healed. In many ways, to tell the truth, the biggest miracle wasn’t the fact that his skin condition suddenly improved. By far, the biggest miracle, at least as far as Abriyah and the rest of the household were concerned, was that something had finally broken the arrogance that Naaman carried in his heart.

After he Returned

Naaaman returned to his household bringing with him two mule loads of soil that he had collected in the land of Israel. He understood, everyone understood, that certain gods belong to certain places. You could only worship a god in the place that belonged to that god. But Naaman had decided that now he had to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had healed him of his skin condition. So, he had brought a little bit of the land of Israel so that he could set up an altar upon it to worship the God of Israel.

I wish I could tell you that, after he returned, Naaman was always kind and gentle with Abriyah and the others in the household. Many things about him didn’t change. He continued to be a fearsome war leader and raider. He did sometimes forget the lesson that he had learned, the lesson that people from other places might actually know things or have things of value. Sometimes the old arrogance did shine through. But there were times when he did look at Abriyah and remember to consider the possibility that, even though she was an Israelite, she might know a few things about the world.

The life of a slave remained the life of a slave. Abriyah did not find that her labours or fears were lightened at all. But I will say that her nightmares got better for one reason. She did have the opportunity to worship when Naaman worshiped upon the piece of Israelite soil that he had brought back. And so, in that place, she did find a connection with her home and with the God that had felt so very far away. And that brought her some comfort.

What is this Story About?

For some reason I remember hearing the story of the slave girl who served Naaman’s wife back in my Sunday school days. I remember how I was told to read that story. That little girl – who, of course, doesn’t have a name in the Bible and that I simply had to give a name to in order to tell her story – was held up as the example of a perfect evangelist. She was lauded as someone who did what we are all supposed to do and tell other people about Jesus.

Now, on one level, I don’t really have a problem with the idea that people should be willing to share with others how their faith in Jesus has helped them in their life. I don’t appreciate how some people do that in an imposing or coercive way, but just sharing that honestly can be a wonderful sharing of your own life with somebody else. But I am going to suggest that, if that’s all you get from the story, that might be a bit of a problem.

Failing to Support Victims

You see, the Christian tradition has a history of putting people who have been victimized in various ways into a position where they feel an obligation to endure their suffering without complaint in the service of the gospel. There are too many stories of abused women, for example, who were told to remain in their abusive marriages as a gospel witness. There are too many stories of people victimized by the church in some way who were forced to be quiet about it because it would somehow damage the witness of the church. That, I must say loud and clear, is simply wrong and the very opposite of a good witness.

So I am not, in any way, willing to read the story of this girl in a way that minimizes the trauma and abuse a captive at that time in history would have suffered. Any sort of simplistic understanding of this story that turns her into someone with Stockholm Syndrome, someone who only loves her masters, is a failure to struggle with some pretty dark history. I have to read her as simply doing whatever she can to hold on to her identity and save herself in a horrible situation. That is what we all need to do.

And if God manages to bring some good out of a horrible situation for ourselves or for anyone else, well that’s just the amazing kind of God that we have. But none of that should be taken to mean that it is God’s desire or will that anyone be a victim or tolerate abuse. That is simply not the kind of God that we have. And I think that that needs to be said

Continue reading »