PREPARING THE WAY

Advent 2: The Sunday of Peace

TEXT: Luke 3:1-6

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:4b-6)

The second Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Peace—the Sunday of John the Baptist, who called all of Israel to prepare for the coming of the Messiah; John, who sought to prepare them for peace by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

“Prepare for peace … by preaching a baptism of repentance …”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how does that work, exactly?

I think it’s beyond question that all caring people want peace in this world, and—in wanting peace—they hope for much more than simply the absence of conflict.

They want true peace—peace that incorporates justice; peace that has in it a sharing of the world’s resources; peace that includes love, and joy, and hope—in short, a peace like the people of Israel hoped for as they looked for the coming of the promised Messiah.

Peace with justice. Wow! What a familiar concept, for us mainline Christians! So how is it, then, that John the Baptist—who prepared the way for Jesus by his preaching—never talked about forming action groups or political parties to agitate for peace? How is it that he never urged his listeners to write letters to political leaders, or to march in protest rallies?

He never did. We do not hear John the Baptist urging us to boycott companies that harm the earth. Nor do we hear him speak about mending the relationships between nations and groups as a way of getting ready for peace. We may want to hear him say that … but he never does.

No. John spoke about individuals getting right with God.

Yikes! John the Baptizer … he urged individual men and women to get right with God through personal repentance. Through changing their personal behaviour—and through displaying the fruit of their repentance by caring for others.

Yup. It’s not about political activism. Or even about passing a theological exam. It’s about how authentically you live what you say you believe.

John sounds kind of like his cousin Jesus, doesn’t he? Near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

“… Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …” (Matthew 5:39-44)

Look at the beginning chapters of any of the gospels, and puzzle out for a while the question: What is it that God is trying to tell us about being prepared for his coming? The message God sends through John the Baptist is this: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight … Bear fruits worthy of repentance … Whoever has two coats should share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:4c, 8a, 11b)

There is a relationship between preparing the way for Christ, and doing good works—between making straight paths for the Prince of Peace, and making peace your way of life. Cliché or not—the words are true that say: “peace begins with us.”

We can only prepare for the Prince of Peace by proclaiming peace through our own lives. We can only make his paths straight through our personal, individual commitment to what peace is—through our commitment to who God is, and what the kingdom of God is all about. This is the foundation of peace.

How can we make ourselves ready—and make the world ready—for the reign of the Prince of Peace?

Only by striving, ourselves, to be peacemakers. And we can only become peacemakers when we ourselves live by the laws of peace—the laws given by our God.

The Scriptures assert over and over again that God’s message must be heard before faith can come; and how can that message be heard, if there is not first of all a messenger?

Just as John the Baptist was a messenger for the Living Word, preparing everyone for Christ’s coming through his preaching, so we are called to be messengers of Jesus by preparing his way in our own lives, and—through our lives—preparing his way in the world.

You know, God’s call to us does not normally occur by supernatural means. Most often, God’s call comes to us—and, indeed, God himself comes to us—through the most ordinary of means, and through the most ordinary of people.

It is a rare person who has a vision of God right out of the blue. Not even Saul of Tarsus was unaware of Jesus before he met him on the road to Damascus. Real people communicate God’s call to us. Real people show us God’s way of peace. And real people lead us toward God’s Kingdom, and prepare us for God’s work in our lives.

The German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche—a man famous for his unbelief—once said, “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.”

This is the challenge that John the Baptist laid before the people of Israel when he came out of the wilderness and went into all the country around the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and saying to them, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16)

We can prepare ourselves—and we can prepare our world—for true peace by living our personal lives under the guidance of Christ’s love and wisdom and insight.

That requires humility, to be sure—humility, and the desire to walk in the path of Christ. And it takes repentance; it takes the heartfelt desire to turn from holding everyone else responsible for creating peace, and taking those responsibilities upon ourselves. We are called to become peacemakers, trusting in the God of peace to help us. That means looking for the right solutions—the solutions that prepare others for the coming of God by first ensuring that God’s blessings are seen in us and shared by us.

In the classic Walt Disney movie, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, there is a lesson for us about all this. It’s the lesson that Mickey Mouse—the apprentice—learns when, taking advantage of his master’s absence, he tries out his skill at wizardry.

Mickey discovers that he has enough magical power to make things happen—but he lacks the knowledge to keep that power under control. To relieve himself of the hard work of scrubbing the floor, he brings to life a bucket of water and a mop. However, the single bucket and mop quickly multiply beyond his expectation, until ocean-size waves of water flood the sorcerer’s chambers.

Only with the return of the master is control reasserted. The apprentice then picks up his mop and returns to doing his job the hard way—having learned an important lesson about the limits of his own knowledge and skill.

So it is with us. If we try to build peace by setting in motion great social movements; if we look to prepare the way of the Lord by lending support to good causes—but without first seeking the wisdom of God—then these forces can overwhelm us.

However, if we do seek God’s wisdom—and the insight into ourselves provided by God’s wisdom—then we can indeed make straight paths for our God. We can prepare his way into the world by striving to conduct ourselves according to God’s will. We can make the rough places smooth by demonstrating God’s love in our individual lives.

This is, I believe, the only way that we can receive the Messiah. I also believe that this is the only way that the world can be prepared for him.

But now, I want to conclude by saying something else. And this is important: Do not wait until your discipleship is perfect before you dare to live it out! Because if you wait for perfection—if you wait until you’ve “got it all together”—then you will wait until you die … and you will never actually do anything.

Seek God’s will, and acknowledge your own weaknesses. Proclaim God’s truth, and allow for the possibility that you could be mistaken.

Or to put it another way: let your words and actions point to Christ, and not to yourself. Remember that you are but a humble apprentice. Remember who your Master is. Remember those things, and do the best you can. Do the best you can, with the Lord’s help—and I promise you, you will prepare his way!

LOOK DOWN THE ROAD

FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT

TEXTS: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with … the worries of this life …”  (Luke 21:34)

Do you remember the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip? Created by American cartoonist Bill Watterson, it was syndicated from 1985 through 1995.

“Calvin and Hobbes” follows the humourous antics of Calvin—a precocious, mischievous, and adventurous six-year-old boy—and Hobbes, his always-forthright stuffed tiger. Set in present-day suburbia, the strip depicts Calvin’s recurrent flights of fancy and his friendship with Hobbes. In one of these comic strips, the following conversation takes place …

In the first frame, Calvin declares: “Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got.”

In the second frame, he explains: “You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you’d be sorry you put off your pleasures. That’s what I say—live for the moment.”

And then he asks Hobbes: “What’s your motto?”

Hobbes replies: “My motto is—look down the road.”

Today’s Scripture readings are about what’s coming down the road towards us. They are about the promises God has made to us—such as the promise made through the prophet Jeremiah:

“The days are surely coming … when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute righteousness in the land.” (Jer. 33:15)

Stop for a minute, and think about that. What does it mean to us now, this promise of God? What does it mean, when Jesus says to us that there is a day coming when the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory?

What do these promises mean to us now in the midst of a busy life? A hectic life? A life where our kids expect to be driven here and there, and ask for things that we simply cannot afford? A life where our employers demand too much of us—and then dispose of us as they please? A life where our lodge, our children’s school, our hockey team—and, for that matter, our church—demand from us hours and resources that we simply do not have?

What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in this present time? What do they mean when we are struggling to live one day at a time—when we are trying to be too many things to too many people?

What do they mean when we watch the news or read the newspaper and discover that senseless tragedy continues throughout the entire world—that crime and starvation and terrorism and war and earthquakes and floods abound? What do these promises mean, while coronavirus mutations stalk us, day and night?

In the face of all this, can we rely upon the promises of God? How should we react to what we witness happening all around us?

Here is Jesus’ advice: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

In other words, we should steadfastly cling to hope. We should watch, and we should pray—pray that we may be able to escape the time of tribulation, and pray that we may be able to stand before the Son of Man when he comes.

The promise of God—the promise of Christ—is that the future is not going to be like the present. The promise of God is that those things that are wrong in this world—those things that are evil—will surely pass away. The promise of God is that a new heaven and a new earth will come upon us—a new world of everlasting peace and everlasting justice, of infinite joy and boundless love.

Jesus calls us to believe in this future. That is why he mentions the signs of his coming, how the powers of the heavens will be shaken—how the stars and the moon and the sun itself will appear to go off course, bringing terror and fear to all the earth. That is why he says:

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)

Be on guard so that your heart is not weighed down. Wow. As I was reading those words of Jesus—as I was preparing my blog for this week—those words caught me … frankly … off guard.

The passage spoke straight to my heart. It told me, “Don’t get so caught up in the worries of this life that you are unprepared for the return of the Master.” It told me, “Be alert to the bigger picture.” It told me, “Understand your place in the greater scheme of things. Be on guard.”

It’s too easy to forget that, in the end, God’s will shall be done. And all I can do—all any of us can do—is to seek to understand God’s will, as best I can—and try to obey it, as best I can. And then trust God for the outcome.

Because the outcome is not up to me. When I lose sight of that truth, I begin to feel overwhelmed, and sorry for myself. Soon, I’m grumbling and hard to get along with. All because I’ve lost my focus.

How about you? What do you feel lost in today? Are you lost in the moment that is at hand?

Are you lost in the concerns that this moment brings? Has your life been so overwhelmed by one thing or another so that you can’t appreciate what else is going on?

We’ve all heard the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us not to sweat the big stuff!

He says we should not be distracted from him by anything, even by huge, major issues—warfare, floods, famine, creation seeming to fall apart. Nor even by an ongoing pandemic. Jesus says we should view these things as signs of what is to take place. Portents of the radical change that’s coming—change that will usher in a better world.

However, I think Jesus is telling us something else, too. He’s warning us about those smaller things—those personal things—that can be more distracting than any war or disaster halfway round the world.

Those personal events are dangerous, precisely because they are subtle and sneaky. We don’t realize what’s happening until it is too late. All of a sudden we’re trapped. We’re depressed. We’re working too hard. We’re so focused on one thing, that we miss the bigger picture.

That’s why Jesus tells us to be alert—to watch. He warns us against getting so caught up in the everyday things—or even the big, global crises—that we lose sight of the larger scheme; that we fail to look down the road; that we fail to see God’s approaching Kingdom.

Make no mistake about it—the Kingdom is coming. A righteous Branch has sprouted from David’s line—and he will do what is just and right in the land.

He has come—and he is returning! We are called to be ready for him when he does—to be praying and loving and doing the things he has commanded us to do. Listen once again to what Jesus said:

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Yes. I’m repeating that quotation. Because that is the primary theme of Advent. It’s about being alert to what is going on around us; asking what the signs around us mean to tell us; readying ourselves for the fulfillment of God’s Word in our midst; preparing ourselves by prayer; having within ourselves the blessed hope that God wants us to have.

Jesus does not inform us about the signs of the end and the coming time of judgment in order to frighten us, but rather to reassure us. He wants us to understand that God is keeping his promise, and that the time of his rule is close at hand. Jesus tells us about the signs of the coming of the Kingdom so that we can prepare ourselves for it.

Look around. Look down the road. And then—with your head held up high—walk on the road towards the approaching Kingdom.

Walk in prayer. Walk in hope. Walk in righteousness and in love, trusting that—just as so many of God’s promises were fulfilled in the birth of Christ—so, too, shall the rest be fulfilled, to his praise and to his glory.

Welcome to the first Sunday in Advent—the Sunday of Hope!

NOT AS WE USUALLY THINK OF KINGS

Reign of Christ (Christ the King)

TEXT: John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33)

Pontius Pilate knew what a king was. He served the most powerful king in the world at the time: Caesar, the emperor of Rome. Being a king in those days meant wielding absolute power—unlimited authority. In Pilate’s world, kings demanded unquestioning obedience, and they had the power to compel obedience if it was not willingly given.

Now, the Jewish religious leaders of the day were certainly not kings, but they did have their own measure of power. And, as religious leaders of all kinds have been prone to doing—all through the centuries, and even in the church, and even today—they saw Jesus as a real threat to their own power over the people. He was dangerous.

What to do? Well, they knew that one sure way to get rid of him in was to claim that he was disloyal to Caesar, that he was setting himself up as a political ruler, and that he was inciting the people to revolt against Roman authority. So they told Pilate, “This man wants to be king.”

Now Jesus of Nazareth finds himself in Pilate’s court, on trial for his life. Here is this humble, itinerant rabbi from backwater Galilee, accused of treason, standing before a man who represents all of the power and might of imperial Rome. Yet scarcely have proceedings begun when we realize that this trial is not going to go the way anyone expected.

Consider Pilate. He clearly has grave doubts about Jesus’ guilt. The governor appears oddly uncertain. Indecisive … even inept. And fearful of the crowd outside his window.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. And Jesus calmly responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Desperately, Pilate asks another question: “What have you done?” And Jesus tells him, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

The kingdoms of this world depend for their power upon armed might and the threat of violence. But Jesus says, “My kingdom is not like any you have ever seen before.”

And suddenly, Jesus the defendant has become Jesus the prosecutor. Pilate the judge has become Pilate the defendant, standing before Jesus the judge. Every statement shows Pilate more and more confounded by Jesus. It is a scene filled with irony. Jesus would be crucified, but it was Pilate who was defeated. Pilate wore the vestments of power, but Jesus wore the royal demeanour.

Jesus was a king, but not as we usually think of kings. He was a servant king—like the “man of sorrows” to whom Isaiah referred (Isaiah 53:3).

Rarely, there have been earthly kings in whom we have glimpsed something of that servant-role.

During World War Two, London was subjected to numerous bombing raids. Buckingham Palace—the home of King George the Sixth and Queen Elizabeth—was, of course, a prime target. Most families who could afford to leave the city left—or at least, sent their children away. But King George and Queen Elizabeth chose to stay.

The Queen said, “The girls will never leave without me, I will never leave without the King, and the King will never leave.”

This example of the king gave enormous encouragement to the working people of London, those who had no choice but to stay through the bombing. The good king does not leave his people, but endures alongside them.

Jesus was that kind of king. Or consider Princess Diana. She was not a monarch, but she was royalty. She was the beautiful, fairy-tale princess—and when she married Charles, the Prince of Wales, multitudes across the globe watched the telecast of their wedding. Years later, two billion people watched her funeral.

In the media coverage around her tragic death, everyone wanted to talk about what made Diana special: her beauty, her accessibility, her vulnerability, her compassion—the list went on and on. Everyone who had ever had any connection to her had a chance to speak.

In Diana, the princess of Wales, royalty stooped. She had her flaws, to be sure—but her greatness was demonstrated as she set aside the trappings of privilege to be with those who were downtrodden. Diana’s concern for ordinary people—even for the most wretched—was genuine, and freely expressed.

One physician accompanied her on hospital rounds where there were no cameras. He said she did not hesitate to caress and linger beside patients with disfigurements and symptoms that were distressing even to medical personnel. That capacity, the doctor said, cannot be faked.

Royalty stooped. The princess let go of her right to be served, and became the servant. She did not pay someone else to minister to these sick and dying people. Instead, she walked among them, touching them and comforting them.

Jesus was that kind of king.

Chapter two of the Epistle to the Philippians tells us that Christ Jesus—though he was in the form of God—did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and took the form of a human being. Royalty stoops. Jesus—who is God—becomes an ordinary, humble human being.

We find yet another example in the legend of Denmark’s King Christian the Tenth. According to the story, when Denmark was occupied by Hitler’s forces during World War Two, the order came that all Jews were to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow Stars of David. King Christian said that one Danish person was exactly the same as the next one.

So the King donned the first Star of David, and let it be known that he expected every loyal Dane would do the same. The next day in Copenhagen, almost the entire population wore armbands showing the Star of David.

The Danes saved 90% of their Jewish population. The Danish people knew their king loved them and that he would identify with them to the extent of putting his own life on the line by wearing the Jewish star.*

These examples of human royalty—of remarkable human royalty—point to the sort of king that Jesus was. He stooped. Because Jesus was humbly obedient, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.

Jesus is Lord—but not because he held onto power and demanded the absolute allegiance due him. No. Jesus is Lord, because in him God has come near to us. In Jesus, royalty stoops. In Jesus, the idea of what a king is has been turned upside down.

In the end, Pilate ordered Jesus to be crucified with the words “King of the Jews” posted over his head. Pilate, most likely, was being sarcastic. He certainly could not have actually believed what he had ordered to be written. And yet, just as certainly, Jesus was a king. He just was not the sort of King that anyone expected.

I wonder if that’s true for us, also. We name Jesus as King in our hymns, and in the language of our prayers. But how often do we stop to think about what that means? About how Jesus is a King? About what it means when he says that his kingdom is not from this world?

Jesus wants to be the King of our lives—of your life and of mine. He does not seek to rule with absolute, overwhelming, crushing power, but as a humble servant. In Jesus, royalty stoops to stand with us, to love us, to be in relationship with us.

I wonder: will we allow this kind of King to be Lord of our lives?

Next Sunday, as the Advent season begins—as the journey toward Bethlehem commences—I hope our common pilgrimage leads us into paths of service. I hope the run-up to Christmas is, for each one of us, about something more than parties, wine, and expensive gifts.

I hope we take the time to  stoop. Because Scripture tells us that we are royalty, also. As the apostle Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, the Holy Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ …” (Romans 8:16-17a).

Mark that. We are children of God. Siblings of Christ the King. In chapter two of First Peter, we read that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of [the One] who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Through Advent and Christmas, let’s shine that marvelous light into this world’s gloom. Let’s use the royal power we’ve been given. Let’s glow brilliantly—with an incandescent love. Let’s stoop to lift up our neighbours who are struggling or hurting at this time of year.

Whether by making a loaf of sandwiches for some hungry folks, or putting a jar of peanut butter or a tin of soup into the Food Bank bin, or breaking through someone else’s loneliness with a visit or a phone call … Let’s find ways to show forth the love of Christ in these coming weeks—to make this a happy season for everyone.

Each of us has the royal power to do exactly that. Let’s exercise it. Amen.

______________________________________

*According to popular legend, King Christian X chose to wear a yellow star in support of the Danish Jews during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. In another version, the Danish people decided to wear a yellow star for the same reason. Both of these stories are fictional. In fact, unlike Jews in other countries under Nazi rule, the Jews of Denmark were never forced to wear an identification mark such as a yellow star. However, the legend conveys an important historical truth: both the King and the Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens and were instrumental in saving the overwhelming majority of them from Nazi persecution and death.

THE TIME IS DRAWING NEAR(ER)

25th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28B)

Mark 13:1-8

“… Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2)

Jesus was speaking to his disciples about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but most Biblical commentators also hear him speaking about the end of the world—or, at least, about the last days. And that subject, it seems, fascinates most of us. At least, in popular entertainment, “end-of-the-world” stories always draw a huge audience.

For example, there was the movie entitled “2012.” Remember it? It was one of the highest-grossing films of 2009, earning over $166 million in North America alone—and almost as much again in world-wide release. If you saw the movie, you know the plot: it is December 21st, 2012, the day the Mayan calendar says the world will end—and cataclysmic events are unfolding.

The basis for that plot had to do with the fact that a new cycle of the Mayan Calendar happens every 1,872,000 days. The old cycle finished on the winter solstice of 2012 … which was December 21st of that year. Hearing that, some people concluded that the end of the world was going to happen on that day.

Cable television networks have long been cashing in on apocalyptic conjecture. Over the past several years, the Discovery Channel—along with Science, National Geographic, and some other cable channels—have aired seemingly endless “special reports” about one looming disaster after another. There has been no shortage of “doomsday documentaries” about how the world will end because of a comet or a meteor hitting the earth … or because of some global pandemic … or because the caldera—the super-volcano—under Yellowstone National Park will finally explode, plunging the entire planet into something like a nuclear winter.

And then, there are the environmental doomsday scenarios. These do seem more plausible. Unless we change our collective behaviour in some drastic ways, we may very well destroy the planet by drilling for petroleum, building pipelines, driving cars, and dumping waste plastic into the oceans. But that’s a gradual process—and apparently not exciting enough for a disaster movie (maybe that’s the problem).

The point I want to make is: if you look at the history of any time period, you will find predictions about the end of the world. In the 19th century, a preacher by the name of William Miller predicted that the end would come on March 21, 1844—and lots of people believed him. But when that date passed without incident, he revised the date to April 18 of the same year … and then to October 22. That’s like what Harold Camping did in 2011; his dates were May 21, and then October 21 … but we’re still here! Throughout Christian history, there have been literally hundreds of very specific end-time predictions—going all the way back to the first century. None of those predictions came true, but there were always people who were eager to believe in them.

There is something ingrained within us that is fascinated by the idea of the end of the world. We want to speculate on how it will happen—even if we hope we’re not around when it does.

There have been times, though, when people thought they just might be watching Armageddon unfold. World War One was called “the war to end all wars.” In the dirt, gas, and rot of the trenches, almost 10 million soldiers died. The casualties of that war—military and civilian combined—are thought to be around 19 million. Yet, we know that this was not “the war to end all wars.” The Second World War came along only two decades later. And I’ve actually lost count of how many conflicts have flared up since then.

Even so, for most Canadians, war has been something that happens somewhere else. Except for the veterans among us, we have no direct experience of war. The last actual war on Canadian soil dates back to the War of 1812—over 200 years ago! Since then, it has been rather peaceful around here.

You know, when we have these extended periods of relative calm, we think nothing will ever happen to change it. We think that nothing can disturb the way we live our lives.

This must have been what the disciples were thinking when they walked out of the Temple with Jesus. Impressed by the architecture, some unnamed disciple says: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

It was true. The Jerusalem Temple was a magnificent thing to behold. The stones the disciple referred to each weighed about 40 tons. And, if necessary, the Temple could hold about 75,000 people within its walls. Not only was this place massive, but it was also holy. It was where the presence of God resided—behind the curtain, in the Holy of Holies. It’s no wonder that the disciples were awestruck.

Yet, Jesus says to them: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Now, this is pretty unbelievable. Forty-ton stones will be thrown down? A place large enough to hold a small city would be so completely destroyed that not one stone would be left on another? This must have seemed impossible. Yet, only 40 years later—in 70 A.D.—the Romans took the Temple apart and utterly destroyed it, just like Jesus said. At the hands of Roman soldiers, the seemingly impossible happened.

We’ve witnessed that in our own time, haven’t we? On September 11, 2001, we watched two buildings that people thought would stand forever come crashing down. And for a whole generation, that event has become the sort of defining moment that the Kennedy assassination was for my generation. Everybody remembers where they were—and what they were doing—when the twin towers fell.

When people go through tragedy or disaster or war, their innocence is lost—and reality becomes much scarier. On 9-11, we all witnessed the impossible happening—and in that moment, our world became unstable, and chaotic, and terrifying.

According to some scholars, Mark’s gospel was written shortly after the Jewish-Roman War. If that is correct, then the destruction of the Temple would have been as fresh in people’s minds as the destruction of the World Trade Center is in our minds.

In the nation of Israel at that time, there were many who wanted to get rid of the Romans. There was a huge push for nationalistic loyalty, and certain Jews—the Bible calls them “zealots”—were recruiting fighters to go against the Romans. They claimed that this was the moment when the Messiah was coming—and they expected him to lead the Jewish forces in a glorious war of liberation.

Well, we know how that played out, because it was around this time that the Jewish revolt was crushed, and the Temple was destroyed. If Mark was indeed writing just after all this took place, then his presentation of Jesus’ message is most significant—because it is the opposite of a call to arms.

Mark wrote in his gospel that this was not the moment of the end of the world. The Messiah was not “on his way”—he had already come. In fact, God himself had already been here—in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In every lifetime, there is an event or a war or a moment that makes people think the world is coming to an end. During these times the calls go out, just as they did during the Jewish-Roman war. There is a call to arms and a buildup of nationalistic pride and passion. “This is it,” they tell us. “This is the moment we have been waiting for! It all ends here.”

And for some—for those directly involved—their individual worlds might, in fact, end. But for most, life goes on.

True, there will come a day when everything shall change. It will be “the end of the world as we know it.” God promises that it is coming—but we don’t know when.

We want to find out, though. Our human nature really wants to fix a date on the calendar. It’s always been that way.

Peter, James, John and Andrew are intrigued by Jesus’ statement, and so they go to him and ask him: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

He tells them: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mark 13:5-8).

Jesus is telling them that there will be many times in our lives when things look like they are coming to an end—but those are just deceptions.

Once, years ago, I attended a lecture about the Book of Revelation. I remember that the lecturer unfolded this huge map explaining how Revelation predicts the end of the world. I heard about bar codes being linked to the Antichrist. I heard that there was a road being built from China to the Middle East, and that—somehow—this meant that Armageddon was about to begin. The list went on and on.

Then, more recently, I learned about something called the “Rapture Index.” This is a website* that places a numeric value on how close we are to the “rapture”—that is, to all living Christians being suddenly removed from the earth. That’s supposed to happen right before things get really bad, according to some. Just like on Star Trek, the Lord will beam us all out of here before the Tribulation hits.

Anyway, on November 8th—this past Monday—the “rapture index” was 186 (unchanged from the previous week). That means that there is an imminent threat that the rapture will happen at any moment.

You know, many of us dive into works of fiction like the Left Behind series; or we take seriously those television evangelists who say that they have figured out when this event will take place. But if you tune all that stuff out, what does Jesus say?

To the disciples who were asking the exact same question we all ask, Jesus says: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Wars and rumours of wars. Nation rising against nation. Earthquakes. Famines. Just the beginning of the birth pangs.

I wonder: how many of you know the first signs that a woman is going into labour? Guys … do you know?

I do. I remember this quite vividly. She might start to clean up around the house, getting ready for the new arrival. Contractions might start—but many times these are just Braxton-Hicks contractions, or practice contractions. Then there are about a thousand other supposed indications that childbirth is near.

I can’t tell you how annoying it is to listen to everyone and their grandmother giving their opinions on when your wife will have her baby:

  • “Oh sweetie, he has dropped! It definitely will be this week.”
  • “I can see that your nose is getting bigger! That means any day now.”

But you know, a baby comes when a baby comes. We can try to guess, but—unless we have a C-section planned—we do not know the day or the hour.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus is telling us the same thing. He says we should not be focused on that. We should focus on what we can do for God today, and not worry about tomorrow.

Sure, it would be great to know when the new heavens and new earth will come into being. But, really, we should focus on who is coming, and stop obsessing about when.

Jesus Christ will come again. But—instead of trying to figure out when that will be—we should focus on what he is calling us to do now. That way—when it is the end of the world as we know it—we will have laid a good foundation for the Kingdom of God. And we will hear our Lord say to us: “Well done, you good and faithful servants—well done!

____________________

* https://www.raptureready.com/rapture-ready-index/

 

FOR EVERYTHING, A TIME

A Reflection for Remembrance Day

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven … (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

TEXT: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

I recall hearing once about a pastor who was admired for always finishing his services right at noon. Then, one Sunday, the unthinkable happened. He preached until 12:30! On the way out, one of his parishioners inquired, “What happened to you this morning, anyway?”

The pastor answered, “For years I have always put a candy mint in my mouth as the service started, and I would tuck it away. It was always gone at exactly noon. That way, I never had to look at the clock or worry about what time it was. But this Sunday it didn’t go away, and I finally realized I had put a button in my mouth.”

Pulpiteers are not the only ones who have to keep track of time. We all do. There are deadlines to meet, papers to be turned in, buses to catch. In modern society, calendars and clocks have become our masters.

But, you know, the idea of our lives and the events in them being controlled by blocks of allocated time is a relatively new idea. Did you know that clocks did not have minute hands until the 17th century?

Surely much has been gained in terms of production and organization, but when life became divided and subdivided into seconds, minutes, and hours, many things were lost. We experience those losses every day.

Our distance from the natural rhythms of life keeps increasing. Hardly anything is really seasonal. You can get tomatoes any time of the year now, although—here in Canada—the ones you buy in January are likely to have been shipped 1,000 miles and will taste like cardboard.

We also live at an increasing distance from the ancient understanding that each day—each moment—is an unearned gift from a gracious God, rather than a commodity to be traded.

On Remembrance Day, as we recall conflict and sacrifice and sad history—as we remember the past and look to the future—perhaps we need to rethink time.

There was an ancient teacher of wisdom who was called, in Hebrew, Qoheleth. The name is translated into Greek as “Ecclesiastes.” This wise person understood time quite differently from the way we understand it. He wrote after the Babylonian Exile, an experience that taught the Hebrew people that their earthly existence was never going to be an uninterrupted walk in the park. It also taught them that time should not be a tyrant demanding all of their attention.

Some see Ecclesiastes as the ultimate cynic—and I guess I can understand why. Thirty-eight times throughout the course of his book, Qoheleth says, “All is vanity.”

However, I’m not sure that I would call him a cynic. I think he’s more of a realist—a practical theologian who refused to look at life through rose-colored glasses.

Chapter three of Qoheleth’s book catalogs various seasons of life—28 of them arranged in sharp contrast to one another, and yet each one an undeniable part of human existence. His list rings so true. It begins with what is most obvious: that, one day, we are born into this world—and then, just as inevitably, our life in this world comes to an end. The French composer Hector Berlioz once remarked, “Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.”

Qoheleth would have agreed—though he might have objected to the adverb “unfortunately.” For him, things are the way they are because everything has been set in motion by God. The universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons. Only God knows why existence is set up the way it is.

In the face of an inscrutable world created by an inscrutable God, one should not waste energy railing against life; instead, Qoheleth advises, “The best thing to do is to be happy and enjoy yourself for as long as you can.”

That is theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, isn’t it wisdom to be happy and to look for joy in life?

In addition to not worrying about what we can’t control and enjoying the gifts God gives, Qoheleth’s other prescription for life is that always and forever we are to stand in awe before God—from whose mighty acts, nothing can be added or taken away. God is the Creator of time. God sets the rhythm of reality—the time to mourn, the time to dance, the time to gather in and the time to let go.

It seems to me that “knowing what time it is” is the thing that separates the foolish from the wise. Some hold on for dear life to that which is actually finished and done. Some refuse to let go of a relationship that has ceased to be nourishing. Others try to breathe life into a church program that has been around for too long, but no one is brave enough to bury it. There is a time to build up and a time to break down, a time to be born and a time to die.

Though Ecclesiastes maintains there will always be hatred and war in this world, don’t think for a moment that he is condoning either. He is simply stating a fact. Remember that Christ came into a world filled with hatred and war, with injury and mourning. He came to show us the way to higher ground. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”1

Jesus gives us directions to the peaceable kingdom—which God originally intended, and which he has come to restore. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he tells us.2  He came to defeat all that would separate us from God and from one another.

Any time you and I sanction hatred in God’s name, we are contradicting our Lord’s teachings. I shudder when I hear some of the hateful rhetoric that is abroad in our world today.

It happens when we brand others as “terrorists” simply because of their religion—or as “gangsters” simply because of their race.

It happens whenever we refuse to help someone because we figure they’ve created their own mess. It happens way too often.

Let us never sigh and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.”

If there was ever a time to kill, now is the time to kill incivility and replace it with civility. If there was ever a time to sow seeds of reason, the time is now. We need to know what time it is.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you.” This is the time—now is the time—to not answer evil with evil, to not return ugliness for ugliness, violence for violence. This is the time for the reconciling love of God to be released into the atmosphere afresh—released through you, and through me.

What time is it? I like the bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t postpone joy.” Ecclesiastes couldn’t have said it better.

When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, he said, “The time is fulfilled.”3

When we hear that proclamation today, another “now” is created: Now is the moment of our salvation—this very moment, rich with divine possibility. Here we are on the frontier between the old order and the new order, where Jesus reigns.

In the 20th century, Karl Barth called his age the time of “great positive possibility.” That is equally true right now. Today is filled—to overflowing—with great divine possibility. No, the past is not yet completely finished and gone, but the truly new has come.

Jesus knew all there was to know about time. He knew when the time had come to give his life. He knew whom to trust with his life, with his own coming and going. Soon, we’ll be into the season of Advent, and then Christmas. Before we know it, we’ll be gathering on December 24th to sing that lovely verse from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Christ is the turning point, the fulcrum of history. That’s why, as people who believe in him, we dare to live in hope.

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday is but a memory, and tomorrow but a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness, and every tomorrow, a vision of hope. Amen.

________________________________

NOTES:

1 John 6:35

2 Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:14

3 Mark 1:15 (also see Luke 4:21—“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”)

 

OUR GREAT HIGH PRIEST

Reformation Day: October 31

TEXT: Hebrews 4:12-16

“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession” (Hebrews 4:14).

For me, that passage from the fourth chapter of Hebrews sums up the very heart of the Protestant Reformation.

My purpose here is two-fold— first, to present Jesus Christ as our great high priest, as described in the book of Hebrews; and second, to answer a question: “If we’re Protestant, why would we ever need a priest?”

Let’s begin with some history. On the Eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517, a rather obscure Augustinian priest and university professor named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses—95 questions for discussion—to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany.

Now, that, in itself, was not a particularly unusual thing. In those days, church doors were often used as bulletin boards. All Luther wanted to do was start an academic discussion. He did not realize he was kicking off a movement that was going to tear the apart the Church—and Europe along with it. But that’s what happened. That day in Wittenburg, Martin Luther sparked a religious revolution.

One thing Martin Luther insisted upon—and which millions of Protestants since have insisted upon—is “the priesthood of all believers.” That’s the idea that every one of us who claims Jesus as Saviour and Lord already is a priest. To quote First Peter, chapter two, verse nine, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

Each one of us is already somebody important in the eyes of God. Each one of us has a special calling—like a priest—whether we know it, or not! You don’t need a guy with his shirt on backwards to speak to God on your behalf. You can speak to God directly—so, there’s no need for a priest.

Or is there?

Sure, we can speak directly to God. And, yes, God is always eager to listen to us. But … What if you’re stumped for words? Have any of you ever had an experience like that? Like you don’t really know what to pray about? Or what to ask for? It’s like you’re stuck in the snow, just spinning your wheels.

At such times, wouldn’t it be good to have a priest? An intermediary? Someone to bring your needs before God? Someone who is always available?

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we proclaim that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. From there, he intercedes for us (see Romans 8:34). Or as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “[Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).

Alfred, Lord Tennyson observed that “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”*  And he knew what he was talking about. I, myself, have seen mighty miracles of prayer wrought in my life, and in the lives of others.

So, isn’t it good to know we have a great high priest seated right next to God? Someone who pleads our case, and intercedes for us—always?

What a friend we have in Jesus! He’s praying for us right now—praying that we will do the right thing, find the right words to say, find the right direction. He’s praying for our health and wholeness—and for the well-being of our souls.

Someone once said that our God is a “24-7” God. He is always available. So maybe we Protestants do need a good priest sometimes—a great high priest who is always at prayer for us. Think about that. Think about Jesus praying for you—pleading for you—this very moment, and always. Jesus can help us find strength even when we feel the weakest.

And wouldn’t it be nice to have not only a good priest who is always available, but also a good priest who is always effective? In Bible times, the Temple priests had to continually make sacrifices for sin.

Picture it: all those innocent animals lined up to be slaughtered—all that innocent blood shed—day after day, year after year, century after century … and still, there was no lasting salvation from sin! Isn’t that depressing?

Then Jesus, the spotless, unblemished Lamb of God—at once the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice—laid down his life for our sake on the altar of the cross. As it says in our epistle lesson, Jesus offered himself for us “once for all.” Once and for all, Jesus made us right with God. And to gain salvation, all you have to do is believe that. All you have to do is accept that sacrifice, and claim it for yourself. That’s another of the great proclamations of the Protestant church: we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

As the apostle Paul says in the Book of Romans (3:28), we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Rediscovering that principle kept Martin Luther from driving himself crazy.

As a Roman Catholic priest of the Augustinian order, Luther fasted longer, and prayed harder, and confessed more often than any of his fellow monks. He sacrificed more and more—more than anyone else. But still he found no peace for his troubled heart—until he turned to Scripture.

Then, finally, he realized that his sacrifices were unnecessary, because it is Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross that saves—“once for all.” The power of that revelation whipped up a mighty storm. We call it the “Protestant Reformation”—and it changed the world. Some would say it even changed the Catholic Church for the better! And, if that is true, I think it would make Martin Luther very happy.

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

We have a Great High Priest who made the right sacrifice—once, and for all. Believing in Jesus Christ—crucified and risen—is the work that makes us right with God.

So, maybe we Protestants do need a good priest who is always effective.

I know I could use a good priest who always understands me. It gives me great comfort when I read: “… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin”(Heb. 4:15). It helps me to know that—in the presence of Jesus Christ—my weaknesses, my trials, my struggles, my failures … all of these are understood. God knows what you and I go through, because Jesus has walked that path before us.

Jesus, our great high priest is always available, always effective, and always understanding.

  • Have you lost a loved one? Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35).
  • Are you tempted? Jesus was tempted, too (Mark 1:12-13).
  • Has someone betrayed you? Jesus himself was betrayed and abandoned (Mark 14:43-50).
  • Have you been falsely accused? So was he.
  • Have you suffered pain? Jesus was whipped and crucified.
  • Have you had to confront death? Jesus faced death, too.

He was tested in every way that we are, yet without sinning (Heb. 4:15).

Do Protestants need a priest? I think there is one we all need, all the time: one who is praying for us, one who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, one who understands our weaknesses.

Once again, listen to these words: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God … Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace …” (4:14a, 16).

Yes, my friends, we have a Good Priest—one who prays for us, always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

________________________

* “… Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of.  Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day …”

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Morte D’Arthur”
from Poems, 4th edition (London: Moxon, 1845).

 

GET NEARER TO JESUS!

22nd Sunday After Pentecost ~ Proper 25B

TEXT:  Mark 10:46-52

… As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. (Mark 10:46)

“Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me.” 1

Nearer to God. Nearer to Jesus. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? It’s what John and James and Peter and the other disciples wanted, certainly. And it was what a man called Bartimaeus wanted.

On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples—with a large entourage—were passing through Jericho. And as they were leaving town, there—sitting at the side of the road begging for money—was a destitute blind man known only as Bartimaeus. That, really, was not so much of a name as it was a reference to the man’s own father; “bar-Timaeus” means “son of Timaeus.” He surely had another name—but Mark never tells us what it was; likely, he didn’t know, either.

Anyway, someone had obviously told Bartimaeus about the amazing rabbi who could make the deaf to hear and the blind to see. And when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, Bartimaeus began shouting at the top of his lungs: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

Now, at this point, Mark tells us that many people—and I would guess this probably included at least some of the disciples—try to shut Bartimaeus up. But that just makes him shout even louder: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

So, what’s going on here? Let’s step back for a moment and consider a few things.

First of all, we need to consider what it means that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Even though—right now, in our liturgical year—we are on the threshold of Advent and Christmas, in Mark’s narrative it’s getting close to Easter. Actually, closer to Good Friday.

Jesus is on his way to claim his Kingdom by being enthroned upon a cross. He’s going to Jerusalem to die, and he knows it. That’s what he’s been trying to tell his disciples for many weeks now. But they still don’t get it.

Oh, it’s not that they don’t understand who he is. Not that long ago, Peter had made the bold declaration for all of them: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). They know who Jesus is. They know he’s the Messiah. They just don’t understand what that means. Even though—numerous times—he has told them, bluntly, that he is going to be rejected and killed …

Well, they refuse to believe it. They were expecting—as many Jews were expecting—a Messiah who would raise an army and boot the Romans out of Judea.

They were looking for a Messiah who would set up a new government, with himself as King. That’s why we hear about them arguing with one another over which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:33-34); already, they are jockeying for cabinet positions!

Human nature, right? If you back the successful candidate, you expect a reward, do you not? Which one of them would be Jesus’ prime minister? Or fisheries minister? There were at least three of them who must have felt qualified for that position!

Or even something higher. Remember our gospel lesson from last week? Immediately preceding the story of “Blind Bartimaeus,” we read this account:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35-37).

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“Glorify us, Lord. Make us almost as great as you are. Make us wealthy. Give us seats of power. Titles. Honour. Expense accounts. A senator’s pension.”

“Bartimaeus, what do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

Two very different requests. And each one tells us something about the ones who ask.

The disciples want to get on with the business of setting up the Kingdom. But they do not understand that stopping for a blind beggar is exactly what Jesus’ Kingdom is all about.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

In Jesus’ day, people with disabilities were, for the most part, socially powerless. The blind, the lame, and others who could not work for a living were able to support themselves only by begging—normally on a busy roadside.

Judaism considered it righteous to help them. And Jericho was a prosperous town with a good climate. No doubt, Timaeus’s son received adequate—even generous—support there. So Jesus’ followers may have thought this guy was really not so bad off.

In any case, they appear to have regarded Bartimaeus’s loud pleading as a kind of intrusion—just like when the children came to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16) and “the stern disciples bade them to depart” (to quote the old hymn).2

Remember, they were on their way to Jerusalem, to install Jesus as their King. This was a royal procession! How dare this blind beggar disrupt things?

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

“Call him over,” Jesus says. And he stands still, allowing the blind man to come to where Jesus’ voice had last sounded.

So the people call to Bartimaeus: “Come on! It’s your lucky day. Jesus is calling you.”

The blind man springs to his feet. He doesn’t even bother picking up his cloak; he just hurries over to Jesus. And the Lord asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man answers, “Teacher, I want to see again.”

Jesus says to him, “Done! Your faith has paid off. You are made whole.”

And Bartimaeus receives the gift of sight. Yet, it occurs to me that this man—who could not read the Scriptures, or witness miracles and mighty works; who had no idea what Jesus looked like … Bartimaeus had another kind of vision. God had opened the eyes of his heart.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Scripture tells us:  “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).

You will not cry out to the Lord when your heart is blinded to him. Bartimaeus was longing for the Lord, and he would cry out to him, until he was heard. And Jesus did hear him. A whole multitude was following him, but the cry of this blind beggar was important to him. In fact, it was as if Jesus himself was longing to hear it. So he stood still and called Bartimaeus over.

That’s what Jesus does, you know. The Lord stands still when he hears you call his name. To him, each and every human soul is priceless. He pays no attention to colour or race or social standing. He does not care about what sort of car you drive, or about the size of your bank account. He does not look at names or titles or résumés. No. He looks into human hearts, and he sees that—without exception—each one of us needs him the same.

Until we meet him, we are blind. And when we meet him, we receive our sight. As the Book of Acts, chapter 26, verse 18 puts it:  our eyes are opened, and we are turned “from darkness to light.”

Turning to Bartimaeus, Jesus says:  “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight. And immediately, he follows Jesus on the way.

What a picture of confident faith! I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to Thomas in the Gospel of John: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Bartimaeus could have had one thousand doubts about calling on the Lord.

“What will people say? I mean, I’m just a lowly beggar.”

“Maybe it isn’t true. Maybe it’s all a hoax, a trick, an illusion. Maybe Jesus can’t really heal anybody.”

“Maybe I should ask the priests first; maybe I should find out what they believe about this guy.”

Bartimaeus could have listened to his doubts. He could have obeyed the voices telling him to be quiet. He could have stayed put there on the roadside, with his beggar’s basket and a measure of security. But then he would have stayed blind forever.

Here’s the truth:  if we want healing—if we want to receive our sight—we need to ask. We need to cry out to Jesus.

And here’s another truth: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by us—right now! He passes by you. He passes by me.

We can stay quiet, or we can call out to him. We can stay put—chained in place by our thoughts and doubts and reasonings. Or we can spring to our feet and follow him. And we can do that with confidence, for Jesus himself has promised that he will never reject anyone who comes to him (John 6:37).

That’s Jesus’ pledge to all of us who think we’re not worthy, not good enough, too far gone. Cry out to him. Come after him. He will make time for you. You can get near to Jesus. It is not a hard thing to do!

Blind Bartimaeus had faith in that promise. And, by the side of a well, a Samaritan woman discovered its truth (John 4:1-26). It’s what the disciples themselves found out, when they tried to give those children the brush-off (Mark 10:13-16).

There’s a song about all of that. Close to 40 years ago, Ralph Carmichael used each of those gospel images when he wrote the lyrics.

Right there in the dust, he sat by the gate, 

To listen to footsteps and patiently wait. 

The blind man just didn’t dream that this was the day 

That Jesus of Nazareth would pass by his way. 

 

She stood by the well, so tired and alone, 

Misfortune and heartache was all she had known, 

She looked at the stranger, but who would ever think, 

‘Twas Jesus to offer her living water to drink. 

 

They were only wee children so happy at play 

And told to stay quiet and out of the way; 

But then came the Saviour with arms open wide, 

They’re part of His kingdom, make room by His side. 

 

My friend, if you’re listening now humbly to me 

Yes, this is the moment that you can be free.

This very same Jesus is right here today; 

Release your faith and touch Him, then believe me when I say:

 

Something good is going to happen to you;

Happen to you this very day. 

Something good is going to happen to you;

Jesus of Nazareth is passing your way. 3

 

Believe, my friends. Trust. Cry out. Follow. Amen.

______________________

1 “Nearer, My God, to Thee” (public domain) Sarah Flower Adams, 1840.

2 “When Mothers of Salem” (public domain) W. M. Hutchings, 1850.

3 “Something Good is Going to Happen to You” Copyright ©1969 by Lexicon Music, Inc. Written by Ralph Carmichael.

THE HEART OF IDOLATRY

21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24B)

TEXT: Mark 10:35-45

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee … James and John, the fisherman’s boys … the pair called “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) … They came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Do you notice the elegance of their request? “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Whatever we ask of you.” James and John are shrewd, crafty guys. Let’s say one day they want so much gold they can go swimming in it. Another day, a harem of beautiful women. Or endless buckets of fried chicken …

If they change their minds and decide they want a huge palace, or if they want to replace Tiberius as Emperor of Rome … well, they’d have all of those requests covered. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

You know, there are all kinds of different paths to the good life. Some people say, “I’m going to earn the good life for myself. I don’t need or want God’s help! When fame, wealth, and power come my way, I will have achieved those goals with my own two handsmy own hard work!

But not James and John. They want a shortcut—a religious shortcut. Their message is, “Hey Jesus, you know how we’ve been helping you out here in your ministry? Well, how about a little favour in return? Give us whatever we ask for.”

Sounds incredibly selfish, doesn’t it? Maybe even childish. But, look: let’s be honest, here. I can identify with James and John. Can’t you?

Jesus asks them: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

And they reply: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

As I think about that, I realize that, yes—I want to bask in glory one day, sitting at the right hand of Jesus in heaven.

We’ll get to the next life and everyone will be using their heavenly binoculars to look at me from miles away, and they’ll say, “Wow! There’s Grottenberg! Look at that! He’s at the right hand of God!

“I had no idea. I should have sucked up to Gary when I had the chance. Now look at me! Even though I was a fully ordained minister and wore all those priestly garments and had everybody call me “Reverend” … NOW, I’m scrubbing toilets in heaven—for the rest of eternity!”

That’s my dream. If I’m being honest, I want Jesus to give me whatever I ask for. And why not? We’re talking about Jesus, after all! Why not ask?

I think each of us faces this problem. I suspect that—on some level—all of us can identify with James and John. Why? Because this passage reveals to us the heart of idolatry.

Now, what is idolatry, exactly? Is it about literally worshipping images carved out of stone? Well, that counts. If you are bowing down to rock carvings and offering sacrifices to them, that is definitely idolatry. No question about it. But, more generally—and more commonly in our day and age—idolatry is about turning good things into ultimate things. Idolatry is about worshipping something other than God.

Worshipping an idol instead of God means that we replace God with something else—something we think is good … and which … we really, really want! And when idolatry goes unchecked, we can even wind up asking God to help us worship our idols! Think about that: We ask God to help us worship our idols.

We may not go for the unconditional “give me whatever I want” approach. Most of us are more humble about it—and much more specific, as well:

  • “God, I promise I’ll do anything for you, if you’ll just get me an ‘A’ on this exam.”
  • “God, I know I haven’t been to church in a while, but … please, I need a raise at work.”
  • “God, I’ve been sacrificing everything for you. I’ve been at church every week. I’m just asking for a girlfriend in return.”

Can you imagine if you did this in any other context? If I said to my wife, “Iris, I need your help.” And she said, “O.K., how can I help you?” And I said, “Can you find me another wife?” …

Iris would not be amused.

If I am looking for a wife … well, I’m already married. Asking my current wife to find me another wife is illogical and offensive (not to mention dangerous). But that’s what James and John are doing—even though they don’t realize it. They’re saying: “God, can you please give us another god to worship?”

We laugh at them. We shake our heads. laugh at them, and I shake my head. But then, I wonder … What if I am just like them? Do I desire God? Or what I think God can give me? Sometimes, I’m not at all shy about asking God to do my will.

Maybe we think James and John are being too direct. But what about the other disciples? Look at verse 41: When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”

Was that righteous indignation? Or was it jealousy? Maybe they were upset that they hadn’t thought of it first—to ask Jesus about sitting beside him in glory. Maybe, secretly, they had been thinking: “If we just keep our heads down and work hard, I’ll bet Jesus will give us whatever we want.”

But then James and John cut in front of the line. They made their request in private, trying to elbow their way into first place. According to Matthew’s account of this story, they even had their mother there! The whole family was involved. And all of a sudden, the hearts of the other ten disciples are revealed: they wanted the same thing as James and John, but they were too embarrassed to say so.

So, what about you? Are you the direct type? Do you tell God—straight up—“Here’s what I want you to do for me …?” Or do you go for the indirect route? Outdo others in your religious devotion. Make greater sacrifices. Be more obedient. Be more radical. More socially just, more culturally relevant. And secretly, deep down inside your heart, do you hope that God will notice? Do you hope that God will reward you?

Whatever your strategy, wouldn’t it be great if God would do whatever you asked him to do? If you’re like me, you gotta admit that—like it or not—you’ve got a selfish streak!

Back to our gospel lesson. How does Jesus respond to his selfish disciples? Does he say, “Because you asked for so much, I am not going to give you anything, ever …”?

Does he say, “You’ve gone too far this time. You are no longer my disciples …”?

Does he say, “Your request is outrageous! I am ticked off. You are going straight to hell …”?

No. He doesn’t say anything like that. Instead, he refers to his upcoming crucifixion. He says, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

These are, of course, thinly-veiled references to his impending death. The disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about, but we do. For we have the benefit of hindsight.

Jesus was saying: “I’m not going to be that kind of king. I’m not going to be wealthy. I’m not going to be popular. I’m not who you think I am. I am going to give my life—on a Roman cross—to pay for the sins of the world.”

In verse 45, Jesus gives us his mission statement: For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Isn’t that amazing? Jesus’ closest friends are money-grubbing, power-hungry, “yes-men” who are trying to use Jesus to get what they really, really want. And how does Jesus respond?

Does he say, “O.K,, here’s the deal. You put in three years of blood, sweat and tears, and I guarantee you good positions in my cabinet …”?

Does he say, “Cast out 400 demons in my name and I’ll see to it that you get a lavish pension …”?

No. He says, “I do not want your service. I want to serve you.”

This is like a high-speed collision—like two cars smashing into each other at 100 kilometres an hour! The disciples exhibit all their selfishness. And Jesus exhibits all his selflessness.

The disciples say: “Give us whatever we want.”

Jesus says: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Do you get that? Do you see how much God loves you? We come to God saying, “gimmie, gimmie, gimmie.” And God says, “I love you more than that. Those things you think you want … you need more than that! You need salvation. You need redemption. You need someone to die for your sins. You need someone to rescue you from your selfishness and your idolatry. So here’s the deal: I’m not going to give you these small, petty things; I’m going to give you my very life!

You know that cup Jesus says he’s going to drink? Here’s what Psalm 75 says about it: “In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs (Psalm 75:8).

And then there’s the Book of Isaiah, chapter 51: Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17).

Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath. He drank it to the dregs, so that we might experience forgiveness and be reconciled to God. Does that not move you? Does that not thrill your heart? Does that not make you fall in love with God? Are you not awestruck by the immensity of what God has done?

Once you encounter Jesus—once your selfishness collides with Jesus’ selflessness—you will be changed. The original disciples were certainly changed. Jesus predicted that. He told James and John that they also would suffer greatly for the gospel—as, in fact, they did.

James became the first apostle to die for the faith, when King Herod had him put to the sword (Acts 12:2).

And—even though he may have been the only one of the Twelve to die a natural death—John endured persecution and exile and the anguish of seeing his dearest friends martyred.

The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized … whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:39, 43).

Our world is run by people who lord their authority over others; but imagine a world where people use their authority—use their power—to serve others like Jesus did.

That is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven. May it become our vision, too.

 

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday

TEXTS: Matthew 6:25-33 and Hebrews 4:12-16

 

“So I’m telling you,” [said Jesus,] “don’t go worrying about your life, about where your next meal is coming from or what you will find to drink. Don’t stress about what you look like or whether you’ve got the right clothes to wear.

“Life is more than food, isn’t it? And the body is not just a clothes rack, is it? Look at the birds flying around. They don’t do any farming. They don’t stock up the pantry with extra supplies. And yet your Father in heaven feeds them. You are worth more than they are, aren’t you? So what good does worrying do you? It won’t make you live any longer—not even an hour—will it?

“And why do you worry about what to wear? Think about the wild flowers.

“They grow without ever shopping or sewing a stitch. But you can take it from me that they are clothed more perfectly than even a princess at a royal wedding. If God takes such care over dressing the wildflowers, which bloom today and are mown down and composted tomorrow, how much more care will God take to make sure that you have the clothes you need? Yet you find it hard to trust!

“So don’t get all anxious and go asking, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘Where will we find a drink?’ or ‘What on earth will we wear?’  It is the people who don’t put their trust in God who put all their energy into these things.

“You can rest assured that your Father in heaven knows perfectly well that you need these things. So you can make your first priority the new culture of God and doing the right thing, God’s way, and all these other things will be taken care of for you.”*

That’s our gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Sunday, from an Australian Scriptural paraphrase by a Baptist minister called Nathan Nettleton. It’s Matthew, chapter six, beginning at verse 25.

The Revised Common Lectionary ends the reading after verse 33. I’m not sure why. Because there’s only one remaining verse in that chapter—and it’s this one: “So don’t stress out about tomorrow,” Jesus said. “Just deal with the troubles of today, and leave tomorrow’s worries until they come.” *

Or, as the King James Version renders it: Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

Give no thought to tomorrow. Don’t worry about food or drink or clothing. Or the mortgage payment. Or your children’s education. Or your own retirement.

Really? What kind of crazy advice is that? I mean, that’s right up there with “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44), isn’t it? Or with “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39).

All of these quotations—including that famous “lilies of the field” reference—are from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” recorded in chapters five through seven of Matthew’s gospel. And if we weren’t so used to hearing them—so used to hearing Jesus say things like, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:40) … we might take him seriously!

We might take Jesus seriously. And if we took him seriously, we might want to ask him, “Lord, what were you thinking?”

What were you thinking, Jesus? That is terrible advice! If we didn’t bother to plan for the future … what would become of us?

Jesus, you’ve got your head in the clouds. You just don’t know what it’s like to live in the real world.

Be honest. Have you never thought that maybe Jesus of Nazareth was just a starry-eyed idealist? With no clue about what life is like for those of us who do have to think about mortgages and grocery bills and credit card statements? Jesus never had to pay off a car loan. He walked everywhere! As far as we know, the guy had no wife or children to support. No financial commitments. No obligation to be in the office or in the shop on Monday morning—and to get there on time.

So we hear these words of Jesus and we shrug them off. We dismiss them because … Well, maybe because we’re afraid that if we think about them too deeply, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus was just a starry-eyed idealist with his head in the clouds. And we don’t want to go there. But on Thanksgiving Sunday, that is precisely where the gospel takes us.

So … was he? Was Jesus simply out of touch with the real world? Disconnected from the real lives of ordinary people?

I think the answer to those questions is a resounding NO! For one thing, Jesus of Nazareth—for most of his life—was an ordinary person. He was raised by a small-town carpenter who must have often struggled to support his wife and growing family. All you have to do is look at the average tradesman today, and you get some sense of how up-and-down that life can be. When there’s plenty of work around, things are good. But when the economy slows down, and the work dries up, life can get pretty tough.

There’s no reason to think things were any different in Joseph’s household. And if—as many attest—Jesus himself earned his living in the trades … he would have known how hard it could be to make ends meet.

Yeshua bar Yosef—Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth in Galilee—was ordinary enough that, to begin with, even his own siblings questioned whether he’d really been given a mission by God (Mark 3:21, 32). And the people in his hometown synagogue certainly were not convinced: Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (Matt. 13:55-56). Who does he think he is? Matthew’s gospel says that “they took offense at him” (13:57).

It wasn’t until after the fact—after Good Friday turned into Easter morning—that large numbers of people did begin to take Jesus seriously. However, those who did take him seriously right from the start—his original disciples—quickly learned that this was a man without rose-coloured glasses (and not just because they hadn’t been invented yet!).

When his followers wanted him to raise an army and boot the Romans out of Palestine, he immediately threw cold water on that idea.

Why? Well, probably at least in part because he sized up the chances of success and realized that the Jews were outgunned; they simply were no match for the Empire’s well-trained, well-disciplined, and battle-hardened troops. Any uprising would be swiftly and brutally crushed. Jesus knew that very well. And besides, that wasn’t the kind of Messiah he was called to be.

No. This carpenter-turned-travelling-rabbi was neither impractical nor naïve. So what, then, are we to make of his “do not worry about tomorrow” speech up on the mountain?

We need to consider who Jesus’ audience was that day. He wasn’t addressing the House of Commons or the United States Senate or the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce. He sat on a hillside and spoke to “the crowds”—as Matthew tells us at the beginning of chapter five.

And while there may have been a handful of VIPs present, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of those assembled were from the lower strata of society. Ordinary fishermen. Unskilled labourers. Slaves. Women. The working poor. The least of the least. His usual audience.

See, when Jesus counseled them to trust in God and not worry about tomorrow, he knew he was speaking to people who really had few alternatives. There was nothing much they could do to improve their circumstances. He knew that, and so did they—which surely must have been a source of deep concern for them. When you know you’re in a precarious situation—and especially when you realize there’s nothing you can do about it—what are your choices?

You can worry. Or you can take the risk of trusting in God. Trusting that—if you ask your heavenly Father for help—somehow, things will turn out all right in the end.

That isn’t as easy as worrying, I guess. But it’s certainly no less productive. In my own life, if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: the more I trust God, the less prone I am to panic about things.

Anyway, once we consider all of that, perhaps Jesus’ address to these folks makes a bit more sense. To those of us who have stock portfolios to tinker with—or who just have secure and steady employment—he might well give a different message.

Yeah. I kind of think so. My guess is that his words were to some extent tailored to his audience on any given occasion.

Why? Because Jesus of Nazareth was anything but naïve. He always seems to have known exactly who he was dealing with—whether it was a disenfranchised peasant hoping for a crust of bread or a “rich young ruler” seeking wisdom. To the one, he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” And to the other, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21).

There’s a bigger picture, too. The Letter to the Hebrews touches on it when it describes Jesus as our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14).

The role of a high priest is to make intercession for ordinary people, and the author goes on to say this: “… ours is not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who, because of his likeness to us, has been tested [in] every way, only without sin” (4:15).

The bigger picture is: this Jesus—who has become our great high priest in the court of heaven—is not only our Saviour and Christ. Scripture and tradition informs us that he was God in human form—the Divine Word that “became flesh and lived among us,” as John’s gospel (1:14) says.

That is the simple truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation; in Jesus of Nazareth—son of Joseph and Son of God—the Creator of the universe became, in some incomprehensible way, one of his own creatures. Jesus was truly and fully God, and yet he was truly and fully human, as well.

Don’t fry your brain trying to make sense of the paradox; you’ll never do it. Not in this lifetime, anyway. But, you know what? That doesn’t matter! The important thing is: Jesus really does know our every weakness. Jesus really does understand our trials. He knows how strong—how seductive—temptation can be.

The God who lived through Gethsemane knows what it is to feel anguish, to be in fear for one’s life, to want to escape from a desperate situation. To find a way out. Jesus—who faced the tempter in the desert—Jesus understands how reasonable it may appear to cut corners, to compromise and avoid unpleasantness: “Just this once; what’s the harm?”

Jesus understands. He’s been where you are. He’s tasted all of our human existence—joy and sorrow; disappointment and satisfaction; anxiety and relief. He has even died our death. And he has defeated the grave.

Here’s something for which we can all be truly thankful today: even as Christ was identified with us in his dying, so also are we identified with him in his rising. Easter morning was not only the triumph of the Son of God over sin and death; it was also God’s promise to us—his assurance to us—that we, also, shall be raised. The grave was not the end for Jesus; it’s not the end for us, either. God’s “bigger picture” includes you and me.

And—as I think about it—I guess maybe that brings “the lilies of the field” into the bigger picture, too. For if we are truly held in the hands of God (as I believe we are) and if our God is trustworthy (as I believe he is) then, in the economy of heaven, tomorrow will take care of itself!

So, today—as you tend whatever turkeys are in whatever ovens—I hope you have some lilies on your festive tables. Or flowers of some kind, to remind you that you really are not alone as you face life’s challenges and enjoy life’s blessings. And that you are not in charge, either. Which—in the bigger picture—is a very good thing!

And—because you and I are part of that bigger picture—there’s even better news. Whatever is going on—however substantial our problems or how shameful our mistakes—Jesus understands! And, through him, we may indeed “boldly approach the throne of our gracious God, where we may receive mercy and in his grace find timely help” (Heb. 4:16).

Will someone say, “Amen”? Thanks be to God!

_____________________________________________

* ©2008 Nathan Nettleton LaughingBird.net

NOW WE ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST

A Sermon for World Communion Sunday

On the first Sunday in October, many Christian churches across the globe join together in celebrating World Communion Sunday.

World Communion Sunday began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933. The Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr and his congregation sought to promote the interconnectedness of Christian churches, regardless of denomination. Quite appropriately, Rev. Kerr chose the sacrament of Holy Communion to symbolize this unity.    

It was then adopted throughout the US Presbyterian Church in 1936 and subsequently spread to other denominations. In 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) endorsed World Communion Sunday and began to promote it to Christian churches worldwide.

Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world, demonstrating that the church founded on Jesus Christ peacefully shares God-given goods in a world increasingly destabilized by globalization and global market economies based on greed.

TEXT: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ (1 Cor. 12:12).

That quotation from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us that the human body was the apostle’s favorite metaphor for the Christian Church. I think it’s my favourite, also.

The human body seems almost infinite in its complexity, made up of billions upon billions of tiny cells. There are more cells in your body than there are people in the world.

Our blood is circulated through 60,000 miles of tubing reaching to every part of the body. If all the veins, arteries, and capillaries were laid end to end, this tubing could be stretched around the earth more than seven times!

Every day the human heart circulates over 5,000 litres of blood. The heart is an amazing pump that never seems to get tired and which never takes a rest.

An adult human body has more than 200 separate bones, and over 600 muscles.

Our nervous system is a highly efficient communication apparatus, carrying messages to and from the brain. Nerve impulses can move at a speed of nearly 350 feet per second. They can zip up from a person’s feet and back again more than 30 times in one second!

And the human brain is more complex—and mysterious—than any computer manufactured by Dell or Apple. In fact, the entire human body is the world’s most incredible piece of machinery. Engineers have built different kinds of robots—but even the most sophisticated of these cannot come close to doing everything the human body can do.

No wonder Paul loved this metaphor! And it’s a very appropriate one for us to contemplate on World Communion Sunday—especially when we consider some other passages written by the apostle.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul states—flatly and emphatically—that Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul says that God has made Christ “the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

And later on in Ephesians—in chapter four—he urges us to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

“Now we are the body of Christ—and, individually, members of it.” But Christ is the head of the body!

Some in the church may find this hard to believe, but … it’s kind of important that a body has a head! No. Really. It is.

Without a head, the body has no direction. No coordination. Nothing to tie all the body parts together and make them work together harmoniously.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the saying, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” If you’re not … I can give you a link to a quite horrifying YouTube video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJtnszk-CcA].

It’s really true: after decapitation, poultry sometimes runs around for several minutes in an uncoordinated and frenzied manner. If you do something as a headless chicken would do it, you do it very quickly, and without thinking carefully about what you’re doing.  You act in a haphazard or  aimless way … frantically … without control.

Today—on World Communion Sunday—we have to acknowledge that the Church of Christ has been too often like a headless chicken.

Too often, we’ve looked to something other than Christ to give us direction. And so, we’ve found ourselves … well … lost. Or, at least, confused.

Yeah. Confused … misdirected … caught up in politics or creeds—or controversies about doctrine, procedures, and protocol.

When you look back upon two millennia of church history …

Frankly, it’s kind of sad. It’s appalling, actually, to consider the sorts of things that have divided us—which have put us at odds with one another. The sorts of issues that have separated sister from sister, and brother from brother, have been, at times, bizarre!

For example, one of the earliest controversies within the Christian Church—way back in the fourth century—centered around the ideas identified by two Greek words: homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος) and homoousios (ὁμοούσιος). This all had to do with the question of just exactly how Christ was related to God—or, what it means to say that Jesus is “the Son of God.”

Homoiousios means “of a similar substance,” and homoousios  means “of the same substance.” These two Greek words differ by a single letter: iota. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon—in his History of Christianity—pointed out, with some ridicule, that the church was very nearly split by the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet!

Even the Lord’s Table—which is the focal point of “World Communion Sunday”—has become a source of contention amongst Christians. Do the bread and wine symbolize Christ’s body and blood? Or do they, somehow, miraculously become—literally—his flesh and blood? The Bible does not address this question. When we look at the text of the New Testament, we see that Jesus merely asked us to remember him as we eat and drink.

But, you know, the issues that divide us are not confined to the “big questions” that pit one denomination against another. No. Far, far worse are the kinds of issues that can tear a local congregation apart.

And, truth to tell, these parochial concerns tend to be even more ridiculous—and sad—than the larger controversies that separate one brand of Christianity from another.

Here’s a story … I’ve told it here before, but I think it bears repeating. Those of you who are of my generation—or who were alive during the 1960s—may remember an American Episcopal priest named Malcolm Boyd (1923-2015). He was the author of a number of popular books and articles and scholarly works. He was also active in the Civil Rights Movement as one of the Freedom Riders in 1961 and in the anti-Vietnam War movement. 

In one of his books, he related an incident from his own experience in pastoral ministry. He also mentioned it in an address he gave, and he prefaced it by saying: “This really happened; I’m not making it up.”

In a nutshell, the story goes like this. In a congregation Boyd once pastored, a controversy arose. A fierce one, bitterly contested.

It wasn’t about some great issue like the “nature” of Christ or the reality of the Virgin Birth or the Trinity or anything like that.

No. It was about the colour of the church doors.

Yeah. That’s right. The time had come to repaint the front doors of the church building, and this became an occasion for conflict. Why? Because some of Boyd’s parishioners wanted to paint the doors red … and others thought red was a scandalous colour for the doors of a church!

To make a long story short … in the end, the doors were painted red, and—as Malcolm Boyd told it—“there were some who never passed through them again.”

You may chuckle at that, and shake your head in disbelief. But—if you’ve been around any congregation for a while—you will almost certainly remember incidents akin to that one. Maybe it isn’t about the colour of the church doors. Maybe it’s about the colour of the carpet in the sanctuary. Or what kind of soap dispensers to put in the washrooms. Or who’s in charge of the kitchen. Really. People come to hate one another because of questions like these. And yet, what our Lord requires of us—what Jesus hopes for us—is simply this: that we should love one another as he has loved us.

“I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

The point is this: whenever we stop listening to Jesus—who is the head of our body—we lose touch with the only One who is able to coordinate all of our various parts. Whenever we allow something or someone other than Jesus to guide and direct our actions, we become a body with its head cut off!

And then—forgetting the prime directive of our Lord—we begin to run wildly about, colliding with all manner of distractions and ideologies and agendas, bouncing off one wall after another, until finally … we collapse and die.

Jesus hoped that we would grow together into a family. And not a dysfunctional family, either! N0. He wanted us to—he still wants us to—grow together in love. Praying to his Father in heaven, he expressed his hope for those who—in every time and place—would claim him as Saviour and Lord:

“I ask not only on behalf of these [that is, his original disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Those are words to remember on this day, as we prepare to feast at our Lord’s Table. A place is set there for each one of us. All that Jesus asks of us, as we sit down to enjoy this family meal, is that we look to our right and to our left and behold what is actually there: our sisters and our brothers, whom we are called to love.

Jesus calls us to be kin to one another, regardless of our politics or our pride or our personal preferences.

Can we do that? I know it won’t be easy … But I believe we can. And I believe we must … for Jesus’ sake. Amen.