No Longer My Own, But Thine

TEXTS: Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Those of you who are of Wesleyan heritage may be familiar with something called the “Covenant Prayer.” In Methodist congregations—or, at least, in many of them—it is recited every time the Sacrament of Communion is celebrated. It goes like this:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
(as used in the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, 1936)

The Covenant Prayer was adapted by John Wesley from a similar prayer of the English Puritans, and—like so much of what Wesley did and wrote—it exhibits his radical, no-holds-barred attitude towards Christian discipleship.

For Wesley, as for so many of our ancestors in the faith, there could be no compromise with anything that might compete with Christ for our allegiance. And in this prayer, he is seeking to bring under control the most insidious enemy of all—the enemy within:

“I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee …” and so on.

It’s really pretty awesome, isn’t it? And like every truly powerful liturgical prayer, it not only cries out to God, but also resonates with our human spirits, calling us once again to turn to Christ and allow him to be Lord of our lives.

The earliest and simplest Christian confession of faith was simply this: “Jesus is Lord!”

Personally, I think that’s still the best one. If you can say, “Jesus is Lord”—and mean it … Well, it seems to me that very little else needs to be spelled out about your faith. Of course, “Jesus is Lord” remains the most challenging confession to live up to.

In the church’s first couple of centuries, the most radical implication of that confession—“Jesus is Lord’’—was that Caesar was not Lord. Now, the early Christians lived under an authoritarian regime that demanded absolute allegiance to the emperor; and so, declaring that Jesus was one’s Lord … well, that amounted to treason. It was an affront to the claims of the emperor.

For us, of course, the emphasis falls differently. We Canadians have one of the best governments on earth—one of the least corrupt, one of the most humane. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than most.

Even so, anyone who jumped up and down, shouting, “Justin Trudeau is Lord” would be considered a raving lunatic!

For us, the most radical implication of confessing “Jesus is Lord” is that we are giving him control of our lives. To confess Jesus as Lord is to relinquish your claims of autonomy.

You are no longer the one who determines how your life will be lived; Jesus is!

You are no longer the one who sets the standards by which your life will be measured; Jesus is!

Let’s face it: we live in a society where individualism and personal choice are the true gods of the vast majority of people.

However, if we confess Jesus as Lord, we will be naming individualism and personal choice as idols! We will refuse to bow down to them and worship them.

In the ninth chapter of Mark, Jesus’ disciples show themselves to be just as susceptible as we are to letting their desires and ambitions get the better of them.

Jesus has just told them how much he shall have to endure for the sake of his calling and identity: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him …” (Mark 9:31).

But they don’t get it. Earlier in Mark—after Peter identified him as the Messiah—Jesus began teaching his disciples about what that meant. Just as in chapter nine, he told them he would undergo great suffering. He said the religious authorities would reject him. He said he was going to be killed. And then he said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Clearly, Jesus is not thinking that the path of Messiahship is a way of acclamation and triumph. He is clearly not thinking that he is about to be recognized as the greatest, as the number one Lord of the Universe.

No. He is facing betrayal and rejection and death—and he knows it.

The disciples, however, just can’t wrap their heads around that. And—as if to prove just how completely they have missed the point—on the way to Capernaum, they begin trying to one-up each other.

They all want to stake their claim as the greatest, the primary disciple. Each of them has his résumé out, ready to prove that he has stood out from the pack as an exemplary disciple.

I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in dismay when he realizes what they’re arguing about. Certainly, he knows that—if what they really want is to be the greatest—then they are not going to be marching alongside him when he is led to the cross.

So, Jesus takes them to task: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).”

Whoever wants to be the greatest needs to forget about winning a gold medal … and instead, find satisfaction in cleaning up the stadium after everyone else has gone home.

Then he places a small child in front of them and says, “If you’d fawn over a gold-medalist and ignore this child, then you haven’t got a clue about greatness.

“But, if you welcome a little child like this one as though he were the greatest—and if you’d consider it an honour to be pictured in the paper hugging this unknown kid … well, then you’re on the right track. When that comes naturally to you, then you really will be welcoming me and the One who sent me.”

“Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt … Let me be … exalted for thee or brought low for thee.”

The apostle James, in his letter, is even more forthright about this. He flatly states that selfish ambition is a hindrance to true greatness.

He says it is the cause of all the quarrels and wars that tear people apart and destroy their lives. He says that whenever we try to get “one up” on others—try to get to the front of the pack—we prove that our motives do not come from God, but from the devil himself.

As James put it, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3:16).

That’s not to say that ambition in itself is inherently evil. In First Corinthians 9:24, the apostle Paul invokes the image of the Olympic Games when he exhorts us to strive towards the goal.

He says: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?”

And then his advice is: “Run in such a way that you may win it.”

Don’t throw the race. Run to win. Directed properly, ambition can be a good thing. The problem is that ambition can become a destructive thing: “I will achieve my goals no matter what—no matter who I have to destroy in the process.”

Ambition easily becomes something that does not merely aspire to worthy goals. No. Ambition wants to define its own goals. And unbridled ambition refuses to submit to the wisdom of God—or of anyone else—in pursuit of those goals.

Now, I don’t begrudge the gold-medal winners anything. They’ve exercised extreme discipline and achieved extraordinary things. Good on them!

But if they typify the sort of greatness to which most of us aspire, then I think we’re in big trouble.

Standing on the podium—arms upraised, basking in the adulation of the crowd—is not supposed to be the measure of greatness for the Christian.

Perhaps a better model of greatness would be the late-night taxi driver, who—after being abused and spat on by six drunken customers in a row—is still able to treat the next one with respect and a welcoming smile.

No one will hang a medal on him for that, and you won’t see him standing next to the prime minister in a newspaper photograph. Even so, I think that such a person has far more to teach us about greatness than all the celebrities and record holders put together.

Whenever we come to the Communion table, we remember our greatest hero: the one who was betrayed and despised and rejected and dishonoured and killed for our sakes.

We remember that, in Jesus, we have encountered the love that sets us free. And—embraced by Christ’s brokenness—we remember ourselves as his body upon the earth: still being broken, still offering ourselves for the life of the world.

Embraced by Christ’s brokenness, we acknowledge once again that—if we stray too far from the Lord’s side—our pretensions to greatness will reassert themselves—along with our propensity for  walking over others. Forgetting who we belong to, we will imagine ourselves to be captains of our own destiny.

Friends, those tendencies are the greatest obstacles to our discipleship.

As the apostle James exhorts us, let us submit ourselves to God; let us allow God’s will to have its way with us. Let us draw near to God, and—once again—let us offer ourselves completely to Christ, who has offered himself completely to us.

“I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt … I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”


“My Father’s House”

TEXT: Mark 13:1-11

And Jesus said: “Do you see these huge buildings? They will certainly be torn down! Not one stone will be left in place.” (Mark 13:2)

I wonder who else overheard this reply of Jesus to his awe-struck disciple.

“Look, Teacher! What large stones and what large buildings!”

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Jesus is speaking about the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple—Israel’s pride. He says it will be desecrated and destroyed.

As we read the gospel accounts, we realize that—although the multitudes at first clamoured to see Jesus, to hear him speak—he lost his following rather quickly, especially near the end of his short career. Most of the people who fought for places near the front of the crowd when Jesus was teaching did so because they thought that he was the Messiah.

Well, they weren’t wrong! But he wasn’t the sort of Messiah they were expecting. They looked for a king of David’s line who would be the kind of military leader David was. They looked for a Messiah who would solve all their problems—who would drive the Romans out of their country, who would improve their economy, who would bring back the “good times.” They expected someone who would “Make Israel Great Again.”

But what they got in Jesus was quite different. When he spoke of the “Kingdom of God” he referred to a kingdom of the heart—one which could be apprehended only by those who could see holiness in the world as it was. Only by those who could see the Christ in the face of a beggar. Only by those who could sense the holiness within each person—even within those whom the good religious people rejected and shunned.

Jesus spoke of a holy kingdom which was deeper than his astonishing deeds, more powerful than his miraculous healings; a kingdom of the heart which was revealed in acts of kindness—and not by jam-packed sanctuaries filled with Sabbath worshippers.

No. This kingdom was about sacrifice, not success.

And here in the 13th chapter of Mark, as Jesus describes in vivid terms the coming destruction which will surely overtake Israel, he even dares to say that the Temple—the Temple of God in holy Jerusalem—is going to be destroyed.

He must have lost some followers that day. Most likely even his closest disciples were shocked. The Temple? Destroyed? Not one stone left upon another? Surely God would never allow such a thing to happen! And if Jesus was truly the Messiah, how could he allow it to happen?

Just as an aside: his words did come true. In 70 A.D., in the course of crushing a rebellion, the Romans did overrun the Temple and destroy it. In fact, they burned the entire city, and the historian Josephus (who may have been an eye-witness) says: “There was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.”

These people loved the Temple. We can imagine how perplexed they must have been. Consider how we might feel if some upstart preacher told us that our magnificent church building was about to be destroyed—and hinted that God would not lift a finger to prevent it.

“We built it as an act of devotion to God!” (Didn’t we?)

“We built it to be a centre for God’s work!” (Didn’t we?)

Yes, I think Jesus must have lost some followers that day. To those who looked for a Messiah who would “fix” everything, who would “save” them from the circumstances they were in, who would restore the “old-time religion” and the “good old days,” Jesus must have been a tremendous disappointment.

I wonder: is he still? Is Jesus still a disappointment to those who equate blessedness with worldly success? Or to those who confuse religious success with the gospel of grace?

And they aren’t the same thing, you know. Success—even the success of a packed church on a Sunday morning—is not the same thing as discipleship.

To those who cry out to Jesus, professing their own righteousness and asking him for personal and financial security, Jesus replies: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

To those who call upon his name, asking for comfort and ease, and simple answers to all the questions of living, Jesus replies: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

To those who come to him wanting him to “fix” their troublesome teenagers, to apply some “tough love” and kick these delinquent kids in the butt, Jesus tells a story about a father who loved his wayward son enough—and trusted God enough—to let the boy learn from his own mistakes.

To those who think a church isn’t successful unless it has a huge music program with a 90-voice choir, a pipe organ and an orchestra to entertain more than 800 worshippers who are present at each of two or even three services on a weekend, Jesus says: “Where two or three of you are gathered together in my name, I am there with you.” (Matthew 18:20)

And to those preoccupied with personal salvation and correct doctrine, who seek to nail down just exactly who is going to heaven and who is not, and who come to Jesus demanding a clear answer, he says: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:37)

I guess the next questions then are these:  “Where is the corpse?” and “Who are the vultures?”

I don’t pretend to know those answers, but I do know this: when vultures are feeding, they do it in a huge crowd—and with great enthusiasm!

Bigger isn’t always better.

Well, what is the message here that’s aimed at us? At we modern folk who gather to worship in Jesus’ name, and say we want to follow him? What does it matter to us if the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed? Is it anything more than a history lesson?

And why was the Temple destroyed? Why did God allow it?

Jesus doesn’t tell us for sure. And maybe that points out how little he cared for buildings, for shrines, for monuments—even if they have been erected in his Father’s name.

But I wonder if we can draw some inferences from his behavior toward the Temple—or, more correctly, toward the people who frequented it.

In the 11th chapter of Mark (vv. 15-17), we read about how Jesus cleared the Temple of the sellers and the moneychangers. The sellers and the moneychangers, really, were professional fund-raisers for the Temple. Their business was to provide animals for sacrifice, and also the special Temple currency required to purchase them. Jesus objected to them because they had no regard for the poor, and charged exorbitant prices in order to make a bigger profit after the Temple got its cut. The trouble was, they had forgotten whose Temple it was. They’d forgotten that it was God’s Temple—not theirs!

Jesus also had nothing but scorn for the good, respectable religious people who treated with disdain the poor and the afflicted and the sinful. He told stories about a religious man who stood tall in the Temple and boasted of his own righteousness while looking down his nose at the crumpled figure of a penitent sinner kneeling before the altar; about a priest and a Levite who passed by a man who had fallen into the hands of robbers; and about a wealthy man whose large offering was as nothing in God’s eyes when compared to the penny given by a poor widow.

In other words, what Jesus objected to—what he passed harsh judgment upon—was the heartlessness and complacency of those who treated the Temple as if it were a social club for the prosperous. These people, he said, had made the Temple a place where God no longer felt welcome. They had transformed his Father’s house into a den of thieves. They had forgotten what the Temple was for.

I remember once hearing a story about a life-saving society that had been organized in a coastal village to rescue fishermen and others who got into trouble on the unpredictable and often dangerous ocean. In the beginning, the Life-Saving Society was a rag-tag group of poor, rough (perhaps even uncouth), but very brave men. All they had was a single longboat with a set of oars, but they would put all their hearts into the rowing if someone—anyone—was in peril on the sea. They saved many lives, and their heroism became legendary.

As time passed, and the original life-savers became too old for the work, their children took over—and many of them exhibited the same zeal their fathers had. And then a new generation took up the cause, and a new one, and a new one.

But an odd thing happened with the passage of time. As one generation of “life-savers” succeeded another, they gradually began to forget what life-saving meant. Instead of climbing into the longboats and rowing out to rescue at sea, they began to prefer to meet in the clubhouse once a week to discuss the significance of life-saving.

And once they began doing that, they discovered that many, many more people were interested in joining the Life-Saving Society. In fact, so many more people became part of their group that they soon found they had to build a bigger clubhouse.

And because the bigger clubhouse was newer and more attractive than the old boathouse their ancestors had used, they began to attract a much more upscale crowd. “Well-heeled,” you might say.

And that meant that they got so much more revenue from Society dues that very quickly they found they were able to purchase lovely, well-upholstered furniture to make the clubhouse more comfortable; and magnificent artwork to make it more attractive—marvellous paintings and beautiful stained-glass windows, the work of creative masters—which depicted their forefathers bravely venturing out to sea.

And soon they were even prosperous enough to be able to hire motivational speakers—professionals who could talk up a storm about life-saving and reflect upon the metaphor of rescue, and how the stories of those original, brave life-savers could be applied to their own lives (in order to make their own lives better).

It’s hard to say just at what point it was that they gave up actually going out to sea. Maybe it was when they grew fearful of getting their two-hundred-dollar shoes wet. Maybe it was when one of their number actually tried to save someone, and ended up drowning.

Or maybe it was when they got the new sound system and turned it up so loud that they could no longer hear the cries of those who were being tossed upon the waves of the turbulent ocean outside the clubhouse.

But they did give up life-saving. In fact, they forgot about it altogether.

God forbid that such a thing should ever happen to us!

Whenever believers turn themselves inward, they run the risk of turning their backs upon the gospel. Whenever we become preoccupied with a physical plant, with decorum, with our own comfort, we risk losing our enthusiasm for spreading the Good News into the world. Yet that is what Jesus calls us to do.

There are those who tell me that I don’t challenge people often enough—or forcefully enough—in my sermons. I am amazed that anyone can ever find anything challenging in a sermon. To me, it is not words, but actions, which challenge. Talk really is the cheapest thing.

And so, what I offer to the church today is a call to action. And the action I’m proposing takes place out there—out on that stormy ocean which is the world outside our comfortable clubhouse. Out there, people are being tossed about, and capsized, and drowned. There are still heroes out there, trying to do something about it. And they need your help—yours and mine.

So, here’s a challenge for all of us: will we be content to sit in the Temple, or will we go out … there … where Jesus is?

May God grant us courage and wisdom as we make the hard choices of faith.



Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (Mark 7:31-37, New Revised Standard Version)

Years and years ago, when I was trying to make my mark as a journalist, I used to look at the supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer and the Star, and I would think to myself what a blast it would be to work for that kind of newspaper. If there was nothing exciting to report, you could just make something up! Like Angelina Jolie being a secret cannibal (I always expected Brad Pitt to mysteriously disappear). Or Elvis Presley faking his own death to live in a trailer park near Waco. Or George W. Bush and Barak Obama meeting with space aliens. Or that someday there would be a space alien living in the White House.

Of course, sometimes the tabloids don’t have to make stuff up. All they need to do is follow certain celebrities around (not mentioning any names), and they quickly uncover truth that is much stranger than fiction.

A tabloid journalist would have been the perfect reporter for the events recorded in Mark 7:31-37. First-century supermarket patrons would be attracted by the banner headline: “I’m cured!”  In smaller print, they would read, “Nazarene spits, says magic word.” There would be a full-color photo of the miracle’s fortunate recipient, with instructions to turn to page two for the full story; gossip, titillation, drama, miracle—this surely fits the tabloid genre.

But there’s a catch. Jesus does not want this story in the tabloids—or anywhere else, for that matter. Mark reports two statements that Jesus made here: “Ephphatha” and “Don’t tell anybody!” Don’t let anyone know about this.

Actually, if you’ve read the gospels, you’ll know that Jesus often tried to hush up his miracles. There’s a lot of speculation about why he did that, but usually—as in this case—his “gag order” was ignored. Mark reports, “The more he ordered them [to tell no one], the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36). And that’s human nature, isn’t it? There’s something about a secret that makes us want to tell it.

As I said before, there’s been a lot of speculation about why Jesus so often tried to keep news of his miracles from leaking out. One theory that makes some sense to me is that he wanted to avoid sensationalism. He didn’t want people to get stuck on the headline and miss the good news. He wanted them to view each miracle as one more indication that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

Jesus’ ministry was not a magic show. His miracles were not sleight-of-hand carnival tricks. No. They were meant to show forth the Reign of God. So it must have frustrated him that people so rarely honored his request for secrecy. It must have irked him to realize that people thought of him as a worker of wonders—a “faith healer”—but ignored the message he wanted to bring them.

Even so, his compassion was stronger than his frustration. In today’s passage, although Jesus wants to avoid publicity that would reveal his power, that does not prevent him from healing the deaf man. Mark says: “They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).

So—off in private, away from the curious public—Jesus touches the man and heals him. Notice that this is no sterile, clinical, medical procedure. It involves touching, spitting, putting his fingers inside the man’s ears, laying his fingers on the man’s tongue.

The story is so carefully preserved that even the Aramaic word Jesus speaks to the man is recorded: Ephphatha, which means, “be opened.” Then he says, “Don’t tell anybody.” But, really, if Jesus had healed one of us, giving that person the gift of words, wouldn’t we want to shout that good news from the rooftops?

Ephphatha. The word is like a cool breeze. It opens the man’s ears. It releases his tongue. It enables him to speak plainly. And on one level, that’s all this story is about—it is the story of one man’s healing. However, on another level, this miracle has a significance that goes far beyond what seems obvious.

In recent years, we have come to better understand that hearing and speaking are two parts of one whole. If you cannot hear, then your ability to speak is profoundly impaired. This is true in a literal, physical sense, but it also has wider implications.

Over my years of ministry, one thing I’ve noticed is that, as a rule, folks in mainstream denominations (like my own) speak very little about God. We don’t seem to have much to say about how the Lord has acted in our lives.

I’m sure that most of us would agree that our faith is important to us, and that God is very real to us. Some of us might even say that our religion touches every part of our lives. And yet, if we were asked to explain what we mean—to give details or examples—I suspect that most of us would be tongue-tied.

Just like the deaf man in our gospel reading, we seem to have a speech impediment when it comes to talking about God. Even if we cherish our relationship with the Lord, we can find no words to express how we feel. Why is that, I wonder? Could it be that we are deaf to the Spirit’s voice? Deaf, perhaps, because we have not yet learned how to listen for it? Could it be that because we do not listen, we also do not hear? Do not pray? Do not open our hearts to God?

The thing is, we have to make time to listen. We have to be willing to allow Jesus to take us aside in private, away from the crowds and the busy-ness; away from the background noise that drowns out his words.

Something is definitely wrong with the rhythm of our lives when we have no time for quiet contemplation and prayer. Because without that—without a daily discipline of waiting on the Lord and resting in the Lord—we will never learn the language of the Spirit.

We all need to spend time away from the crowds, having our deaf ears opened and our speech impediments removed. And as we learn how to listen, we will hear the gospel being spoken ever more clearly. Its sounds might appear strange at first, even difficult to recognize. Its message to us may not be quite what we imagined. But if we keep listening, our understanding will grow, and—before we know it—we will have our own gospel words to speak.

Make no mistake about it: the gospel is stuttering its way to life among us. When our words fail, Jesus’ word of grace blows over us, like a cool breeze from heaven: Ephphatha—“be opened.” Listening for that word won’t get us into the tabloids, but we may begin to understand more fully that the gift of words is part of what Jesus offers when he tells us, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Jesus Will Not Fail Us

TEXT: John 6:1-21

… Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee … A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. (John 6:1-2)

The Gospel According to Saint John is sometimes called “the Gospel of Signs” because of the great number of miracles—or “signs”—which it records. If you’ve read it, I’m sure you know what I mean. There’s the “water into wine” miracle at the wedding in Cana (2:1-11), which John calls “the first of [Jesus’] signs.” Then there’s the incident reported in chapter eleven, where Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44) … plus a whole lot more, many of which appear only in John’s gospel.

And then there’s chapter six. Did you read it? How many miracles are recorded in that passage?

The answer is three. That’s right—three!

Did you notice them all? Two of the miracles are obvious; the third not so much—which is why you might not have noticed it, unless you were paying close attention.

The first miracle is probably the most famous one—what we call “the feeding of the five thousand,” where Jesus feeds the multitude with just five loaves of bread and two fish. I’m sure you noticed that one. Certainly the crowd who ate the free lunch noticed. It caused quite a stir, so much so that they wanted to crown Jesus king on the spot.

The second miracle’s pretty famous, too: Jesus walks on the water. And not just on water; it was a stormy sea he walked upon. That one, as far as we can tell, the crowd did not know anything about. The only ones who saw it were the disciples, who were in the boat he was walking toward. John tells us: “They were terrified,”—which would be a normal human reaction, I should think.

However, there is a third miracle recorded here. Most people don’t even notice it—yet, I think it’s the most intriguing. Want to know what it is?

I promise I will tell you … but first let me tell you what it’s not.

Like I said before, you have to pay close attention to catch it—which, if you’re like me, can be a challenge! Especially when a Bible story sounds like I’ve heard it before, I tend to sort of “tune it out” and let my mind wander. If you’re like that, too, you may be thinking this is the story about how Jesus calmed the storm. It’s understandable you might think that, because all the familiar elements are there: Jesus, the disciples, in a boat, on the sea, in a storm. So naturally you assume Jesus is going to rebuke the wind and waves and calm the storm.

Except he doesn’t. That story’s in the other gospels, but it’s not in John. For all we know, the wind is still blowing and the whitecaps are still breaking when, at the end of John’s story, the disciples want to take Jesus into the boat. Listen to that part again, beginning at verse 19: “When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’  Then they wanted to take him into the boat …”

And then—now hear this, because this is miracle number three: “immediately,” it says, “immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”

Okay. So one minute the boat—together with its passengers, of course—one minute the boat’s in the middle of the raging sea. The next minute … Poof! They’re on shore! It’s kind of like, “beam me up, Scottie.” Except in this case it’s more like, “beam me over.” Is that cool, or what?

Don’t you wish you could do that? Think of all the travel time and expense you could save—not to mention fuel. Hey .. maybe we can meet those Kyoto standards, after all! Emissionless travel. Maybe Parliament could mandate this sort of thing. That might be good.

But, of course, this is not the sort of transportation we poor mortals are capable of, is it? This is divine transportation.

Take a look at Jesus. He not only defies gravity by walking on water, but he can also warp time and space. No wonder the disciples were terrified. Jesus had to calm them down by identifying himself: “It is I; do not be afraid.” Or, at least, that’s the usual English translation. However, when Jesus said, “It is I,” what he really said—being translated literally from the Greek (Ἐγώ εἰμί)—was, “I am.”

Do you understand the meaning of that phrase, “I am”? “I am” is nothing other than the very name of God. Remember? God appeared to Moses in the midst of a burning bush. And, when Moses asked God his name, he replied: “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

That’s the very name Jesus claims for himself over and over again in John’s gospel:

  • “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35)
  • “I am the Light of the World” (8:12)
  • “I am the Door” (10:9)
  • “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11,14)
  • “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25)
  • “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (14:6)
  • “I am the Vine” (15:1, 5)

Here, Jesus, reveals himself as the great “I Am.” No wonder the disciples were terrified! And no wonder Jesus had to tell them not to be afraid. And no wonder, when the disciples took him into the boat with them in the midst of the stormy sea, immediately they found themselves at the safe harbour for which they were bound.

This is the Gospel, my friends. This is the great good news of Jesus Christ our Lord. This is it in a nutshell. God is with us in the boat. Even—and especially—in the midst of the stormy seas of life, God is with us. Jesus is in the same boat we’re in. So do not be afraid.

Sometimes, Jesus may indeed calm the storm. But sometimes he doesn’t. In today’s gospel lesson, he let the tempest rage. Instead of calming the storm, he came through it.

He joined his beloved disciples in the midst of the storm, and—in the end—he became their rescue from it.

Are there storms raging in your life? There certainly are in mine. It seems like there always are. That used to bother me a lot—but not so much, any more. I guess I’ve finally learned that Jesus always shows up in the midst of the hurricane—if only I will pay close enough attention to notice him.

Many people, it seems, are but fair-weather friends of God. You know what I mean? They’re good with God as long as God is good to them in the way they want God to be good to them—as long as it’s smooth sailing. But when the storm clouds gather, they’re off on their own—which, it seems to me, is the last place you’d want to be in a storm! But that’s what they do.

God, however, wants something better than that. God deserves something better than that. So, sometimes, God does not calm the storm. Sometimes, he may even stir it up!

He has been known to do that, after all—in order to accomplish his purposes. In the days of Noah, he stirred up one whopper of a storm to cleanse the earth of the pollution of sin. In the case of Jonah, God stirred up a storm to make that reluctant prophet go where he was supposed to go.

In your case—and in mine—God may very well stir up a storm or two or three. Why? For no other reason than to stir up greater faith in us—and make us more than just his fair-weather friends.

But listen—here’s something we can count on: should God stir up a storm in your life, he’s doing it for a reason. Rest assured that he will come to you through the storm, striding through the wind, walking on the waves. And, in the midst of the tempest, what you need to do is stay in the boat—because that is how he will get you to the safe harbour for which you are bound.

Matthew’s gospel reports another story like this one, where the disciples are in a boat on a stormy sea, and Jesus walks on the water. Except in Matthew’s story, Peter wants to walk on the water, too. So he steps out of the boat.

Unfortunately, this quickly turns into one of those “how long can you tread water?” moments. Answer: not long enough! For what happens is this: when Peter steps out of the boat, he hears the wind howling, and sees the waves churning—and he begins to sink.

Jesus has to grab him and get him back on board the boat where he belonged in the first place. That’s why I say we should stay in the boat. Walking on water’s not for us. And if we try it, it will be a step too far.

Now, the boat is a time-honoured symbol of the church. And a boat is a pretty good metaphor. Jesus puts us in the boat so that we won’t be alone when a storm comes up.

Jesus calls us aboard his ship—calls us into his church—because that is where we will be safest. And—even if he doesn’t calm the storm—if we’re within that community, aboard that boat, then we are where we need to be. We need to be where Jesus is.

He comes to us in our boat to get us to the safe harbour for which we’re headed. Thanks to Jesus, and to him alone, we will arrive at our destination—which is the kingdom of God, and heaven itself.

So don’t be one of God’s fair-weather friends. He is, after all, the one who—through the prophet Isaiah—said:

“I form light and create darkness,

I make weal and create woe.

I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)

Whoa! Did Isaiah just say that the Lord creates woe? Yes, he did! According to scripture, God does create woe, sometimes—but only to accomplish his good and gracious will, which is with us and for us. Jesus, the great “I Am,” our Lord—having weathered the storm of the cross—is now risen from the dead. And now he is with us in the boat, which is his church.

Jesus is with us here, and—as an old hymn says—“Jesus will not fail us.”

In thine arm I rest me; foes who would oppress me

cannot reach me here.

Though the earth be shaking, every heart be quaking,

God dispels our fear;

sin and hell in conflict fell

with their heaviest storms assail us:

Jesus will not fail us.*

And that, my friends—that—is why the good news is good news.


* Johann Franck, 1653; trans. by Catherine Winkworth, 1863.

The Danger of Sleeping in Church

TEXT: 1 Samuel 3:1-20

… the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and [Samuel] … ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” (1 Samuel 3:3-5a)

Did you notice? The Bible says that young Samuel (we think he was about 12 years old at the time) was “lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”

Yeah. “Where the ark of God was.” Inside the sanctuary, in other words. Samuel was sleeping in church!

That can be a dangerous thing, falling asleep in church. The New Testament has a story like that, too. In the Book of Acts, we read about another young man—his name was Eutychus—who fell asleep during one of the apostle Paul’s sermons. Unfortunately, Eutychus was sitting in an open window at the time. As Luke describes the scene in chapter 20 of Acts:

Eutychus … began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below … (Acts 20:9) 

See, that’s why I try to keep my sermons short!

Anyway—miraculously—Eutychus survived … both the fall and the preaching! But it illustrates my point: falling asleep in church is dangerous.

There’s another story about a man who kept falling asleep during the sermon. This greatly annoyed his pastor. So, one Sunday, he decided to teach the man a lesson. As usual, he began to preach slowly, almost in a monotone, and—sure enough—the man soon fell into a deep sleep.

Then the pastor said to the congregation, “Everyone who wants to go to heaven, please stand up.”

Everyone stood … except, of course, the man who was fast asleep.

Then the pastor had everyone sit down. And then, slamming his fist upon the pulpit, he shouted, “Everyone who wants to go to hellSTAND UP!

The sleeping man snorted awake and sprang to his feet as everyone else began to snicker. The man looked at all the people sitting around him, then turned to the pastor and said, “Preacher, I don’t know what we’re voting on. But it looks like you and me are the only ones for it.”

But I digress. Let’s get back to the young Samuel sleeping in the temple of the Lord.

By the way, the “temple” spoken of here is not the grand temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem. That was constructed decades later. This temple was located at Shiloh, some 32 kilometres (or 20 miles) north of Jerusalem.

But, I digress again. Back to “The Danger Of Sleeping In Church.”

Mind you, young Samuel was supposed to be sleeping there. Some years before, his mother—Hannah—had brought him to Shiloh in fulfillment of a vow she had made to God before the boy was ever born.

As a woman who had been plagued by infertility, Hannah promised God that if she were granted the blessing of a pregnancy, she would return the child to divine service.

She was as good as her word—Samuel was born, and as soon as he was able to make it on his own—probably about the age of four—she presented the boy to Eli, the high priest.

That’s right. When Samuel entered the Lord’s service, he was about the age of the children who attend preschool today.

The way Hannah saw it, he was only hers for a little while; he was on loan from the Lord.

Those days were not the best of times for the people of Israel, but they were not the worst, either. There were no wars going on. There were no imminent threats from hostile neighbors (although the Philistines were always looming near). The nation was not yet the unified entity it would later become, but was still a loose confederation of tribes.

On the religious front … Well, let’s just say there wasn’t much excitement. The spiritual life of the people had become stagnant. The faith which had sustained them through centuries of slavery, then through the exodus from Egypt, and a generation of wilderness wandering, and finally settlement in the promised homeland …

That once-vibrant faith was now reduced to mundane routine and empty ritual. And for some pious scoundrels—including Eli’s own sons—it had become an opportunity for corruption. As the Bible tells it, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Sounds unnervingly … modern, doesn’t it?

Now we find Samuel—asleep in the sanctuary, in what was, apparently, his usual place near the Ark of the Covenant. Out of the darkness, a voice begins to call: “Samuel! Samuel!”

The boy assumes it is Eli calling. Who else could it be? Certainly, Eli has called out like this before. He is old, and nearly blind. Often, he needs Samuel’s help to get around. So, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the boy hurries in to the old man and says, “Here I am. You called?”

Roused from slumber, the aged priest shakes his head and says, “No, I didn’t. Go back to sleep.”

So the boy returns to the sanctuary and lays down again, only to hear once more: “Samuel! Samuel!”

He hurries back to Eli, not quite so sleepily now, for he is still awake from the first visit. “You called?”

Now Eli himself is wide awake. He wonders: what is that voice the boy is hearing? His imagination? A dream? Something he ate? Or could it be … something more?

Unlikely, Eli must have thought. God’s direct contact with human beings looked like a thing of the past. To be sure, God was still involved in the lives of his people—Samuel’s very existence was proof of that. But “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.”

Eli wonders. But once again, he says: “No, I did not call. Go back to bed.”

So the boy turns and goes out once more. But before he can get settled, the voice returns, calling his name: “Samuel!”

This is getting ridiculous! The old priest must be losing his mind. Perhaps muttering under his breath, Samuel makes his way back to Eli.

“You called?”

By now, Eli understands what is going on.

“No, I did not call,” he says. “Go back and lie down. But if the voice comes again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ”

Now the boy’s heart is racing. What could the Lord want with him? He had never heard of anyone else being called this way.

With no expectation of slumber, he returns to his bed. And sure enough, a fourth time it comes: “Samuel! Samuel!”

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

The young boy who met God in the sanctuary responded to the divine call and went on to become the Lord’s messenger to Israel, the equal of Moses and Abraham.

Yeah. Sleeping in church can be dangerous. Truth to tell, even being in church can be dangerous.

Church is a place where—just like Samuel—you may hear the voice of God. And then—like countless others through the centuries—your life will be changed; radically—and forever.

How about you? Are you prepared to hear the voice of God?

Don’t answer too quickly. You might hear something you won’t like—something that will scare you wide awake.

What Samuel heard was not a word of comfort. No. It was a word of severe judgment.

Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, band he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.” (1 Samuel 3:11-14)

If you ask the Lord to speak to you, he just might call you to do something you really do not want to do.

And where are you most likely to hear the voice of God? It could be anywhere, but—for many of us—the most likely place is (you guessed it) in the church. That’s where we get the help we need in hearing and understanding. Samuel needed Eli’s help. You and I need each other’s help.

You know, we are always being encouraged to invite our friends and neighbours to church. Imagine how full our sanctuaries would be if we actually did that!

Maybe the reason we don’t is because we can’t figure out how to broach the subject. What reasons could we give for extending the invitation?

Is it to hear wonderful music? Is it to meet interesting people? To enjoy delightful fellowship? To listen to challenging sermons?

How about this: what if you invited people to come and hear the voice of God?

What a concept! Come and hear the voice of God!

It seems to me that, today, we are living in a time much like Samuel’s time—an era in which the word of the Lord is rare. That could be because fewer and fewer people are listening for it.

But whether we are listening or not, the message of Scripture is that God will not be silent forever. One morning, as you prepare to begin your day … one evening, when you are minding your own business, and trying to unwind … or one Sunday when you are sitting quietly in church … maybe even with your eyes closed … there will come the Voice! God will call your name. And just like Samuel, your world will be turned upside down.

Are you ready?

This Business of Change

TEXT: Mark 7:24-37

… a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit … heard about [Jesus], and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:25-27).

Yikes! Can your day get much worse than hearing the Son of God call you a “dog”?

Let’s be honest: in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is shockingly unkind.

This poor Gentile woman comes to him seeking help for her afflicted daughter, and Jesus—our Jesus—gives her the brush-off!

“Look, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. You’re not my department! I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. I only have time for my fellow Jews. That’s why I came—to help them. It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs like you.”

Then—right away, just like that—she comes back at him, saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

And Jesus is amazed.

This Gentile woman sets him back on his heels. No matter how insignificant she appears to Jewish eyes, she is willing to argue with God himself! She will do whatever it takes to obtain healing for her beloved child. And in this way, she assumes her rightful place in the Kingdom. Jesus gives her what she asks for.

“For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Or—as Jesus says in Matthew’s rather more detailed version of this story: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28).

So, a happy ending, but … This passage is unsettling, isn’t it? Jesus’ behaviour here seems so unlike him. Where is our loving, compassionate Saviour? Where is the kindly “Good Shepherd” so familiar to us from religious art and children’s Bibles?

What happened here? Did the Syrophoenician woman change Jesus’ mind? Did her clever answer open his eyes to her humanity? Did this encounter alter Jesus’ plans for his own ministry?

My inclination is to answer “yes” to all those questions.

Yes, she changed his mind.

Yes, she caused him to see her as a fellow human being.

Yes, because of this Gentile woman, Jesus suddenly realized his mission was to all of humanity, and not only to the Jews.

And yes … I know the questions that come next: if Jesus was God incarnate—the Word made flesh—how could anything change his mind? How could any mere mortal reveal something new to him?

Here’s what I think: I believe Jesus was fully God—but I believe he was fully human, as well.

And—despite the inherent paradox—being fully human, being human as we are human … Well, that necessarily involves limitations. When you say, “I’m only human,” you’re pointing to a universal truth about the human condition: real human beings have real limitations. A huge one is death. God is not mortal as we are. God cannot die. But all human beings die—and Jesus died, also.

As the apostle Paul put it, “he became obedient unto death—even death upon a cross” (Philippians 2:8-18).

If God in Christ was so completely human that he could actually die as we die … then, surely—just like us—he was capable of changing his mind, and adapting to new circumstances. Capable of changing direction, when necessary. Altering his course, when required.

This gospel passage—short though it is—provides enough meat to flesh out at least a dozen sermons … or maybe one very long sermon! But this is a blog post.

What I want to focus on here is this business of change. Changing one’s mind. Altering one’s course. Adapting to changing realities. Daring to risk new ways of thinking and doing. I believe we see Jesus doing all of that in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.

She really shook up his world. To me, it looks like—before their conversation—Jesus conceived of himself as a purely Jewish Messiah, come to save the children of Israel. And it makes perfect sense that he would think that way. That is precisely how he would have been raised to conceive of the Messiah. Yes, he was and is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Make no mistake about it: I do believe that to be true!

Even so, if Jesus was authentically human as well as authentically divine, he must have been capable of learning and growing. In fact, he would have had to develop and expand his capabilities. Otherwise, he would never have crawled out of the manger. That is the paradox—the divine paradox—of his Incarnation.

I can’t pretend to understand how that works. But then, if I could explain it, there would be no paradox—and no mystery about our mysterious God.

Admittedly, there’s a lot that looks paradoxical to me that seems to make perfect sense to others—like “jumbo shrimp” or “fat-free sour cream.” However, when it comes to understanding God … I think we have to understand that we don’t understand what we can’t understand … if you understand what I mean.

In our gospel passage today, it sure looks to me as if Jesus genuinely changed his way of thinking.

And that’s fortunate, isn’t it? If Jesus hadn’t changed his mind about his mission, he would never have said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). He would never have instructed his followers to spread his message “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Without this change of mind—and change of focus—there would be no Christian faith as we know it, and no gospel hope for Gentiles like me.

Change is seldom comfortable. I guess that’s why change is rarely welcomed—especially in church! We have our tried-and-true, familiar, pleasant ways of doing things. And I suspect that many of us really do think of church as a “resting place”—or even a “hiding place”—where we can reside untroubled and untouched, even when the rest of the world is being shaken to its foundations.

Trouble is, refusing to change—or ignoring the imperative for change—spells certain death for any organization that exists in the real world. And that includes the Church of Jesus Christ.

Friends, we are in a time of significant and radical change. We notice it all around us. I notice it most, I think, whenever I try to do something new on my computer … or try to figure out my iPhone! Too often I am confounded by things that are supposed to be easy (and are, if you’re in your 20s).

We also notice significant and radical change in our church life, don’t we? Most obvious—in too many North American congregations—is the profound (and always escalating) decline in attendance. In many settings, churches are dealing with significant changes in worship format. All of which means we are being presented with a choice: we can adapt to new realities … or we can complain bitterly and wallow in resentment because the floor has dropped out of our comfort zone.

But here’s the thing: change is inevitable. The changes that present themselves as obvious today are far-reaching, and jarring—and, for the most part, we did not choose them. Very often, they are not the sorts of changes we would have wished for.

However, they do present us with an opportunity: an opportunity to continue the worshipping life of our congregations. Even, perhaps, an opportunity to finally join the 20th century … now that we’re well into the 21st! Or even make a quantum leap toward the 22nd.

Of course, none of us can truly imagine what that future might look like, or anticipate everything it might entail. Certainly, we can expect ever-widening distance between old and new worship forms. Hymnaries will continue disappearing from pews as ever-developing technologies encourage worshippers to look up as they sing. And pews will continue to disappear along with stained-glass windows as worship spaces evolve (and perhaps even move out of dedicated “church buildings” entirely).

I suspect that, in the not-too-distant future, pulpits and lecterns and all the rest of our familiar liturgical trappings will become as uncommon as pipe organs are today—not entirely extinct, but rarely encountered outside an ecclesiastical zoo.

I must confess, as I write this, I find myself well outside my comfort zone. Looking around for a Syrophoenician woman, I don’t immediately see one, at least not in my home congregation … but there certainly is a Spirit of change in the air.

Do you sense that Spirit, too? Let’s do our best to embrace it.

Hear … Accept … Act!

TEXT:  James 1:17-27

The American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, apparently, often complained that no one really paid any attention to what he said—especially during long receiving lines at the White House. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. As each person passed down the line and shook his hand, Roosevelt smiled and said, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.”

The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.”

No one seemed to pay any attention until the ambassador from Bolivia came along. And this guy must have had a sense of humour, because he shook Roosevelt’s hand, then leaned forward and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming!” 1

We laugh. But what about our own listening skills?

Husbands … are you like me? Iris could list probably a million things that she has told me—during the 37 years of our marriage—that have gone in one ear and out the other. (I was going to say she’d list a thousand things, but then I thought I’d better be more realistic).

Sure, I may have heard what she said … I may even have replied, “Yes, dear.” But I definitely was not listening.

Even outside the home, how often are we in conversations where we do more talking than listening? How often do you use the time that the other person is talking to think of what you are going to say as soon as they stop?

Yeah. I think that’s a pretty common human trait. Most of us like to hear ourselves talk. I’m not saying there are no good listeners among us, but—from my personal experience, anyway—when I think about the people I know who are really good at listening … I realize most of them have had to be trained to do that.

And you know, this penchant for flapping our gums extends even into our relationship with God. In a recent survey reported in the National Post, it was revealed that—every month—about half as many Canadians will read the Bible as will pray privately. In other words, we are twice as likely to talk to God than to listen to him. 2

Chapter one of the Epistle of James strikes at the very heart of this problem.

In verse 19, James writes: You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, [and] slow to speak ...” While this is certainly good advice about how we should treat one another, it is—even more so—important counsel for our relationship with God. We should be quick to listen to what God has to say—at least as interested in listening to him as we are in speaking to him.

To put it another way, our communication with God needs to be two-way, not one-way. We should listen as well as speak. Doesn’t that just make sense?

Listening, however, is but the first step. The second step is acceptance—accepting what we hear.

This second step is laid out for us by James in verse 21: welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” In other words, “accept the word planted in you.” It is not simply a matter of listening, but also of accepting it and believing it.

Now, I can hear what a person is saying. I can listen with all my might. I can even understand 100% of what they are saying and where they are coming from. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with them.

Likewise, it’s not simply a matter of listening to God’s Word, or a matter of understanding what is being said and where God is coming from. It’s a matter of accepting it and absorbing it—of making it part of yourself.

There is one more step. And it might seem like a no-brainer. But it is the step that is most often bypassed.

Let’s recap James’s advice so far. First, listen to God. Check. Next, accept his Word. Check.

Now, the third step: DO something!

Let’s pick things back up at verse 22: “… be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Don’t simply listen to the Word; do what it says! It is one thing to listen for God and to accept his Word—but to act upon it … Well, that is something else entirely.

But wait. You may ask: why do we need that last step? What’s the harm in skipping it? We are saved by faith, are we not? “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We hear the Word … We respond in faith … We accept Christ, and we’re going to heaven. We hear it and we get it. What else is there?

To be sure, we don’t want to get sucked into the kind of empty, works-based religion for which Jesus so often berated the Pharisees. But we surely do want to avoid receiving the criticism Jesus levels as he quotes Isaiah: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me …” (Mark 7:6; cf. Isaiah 29:13)

You know, folks, I’ve been doing this for a while. Between pastoral charges in Medicine Hat, Kamloops, and Calgary, I’ve been at this preaching business for over 20 years. And sometimes I think I’m finally getting the hang of it!

On those Sundays when I get to shake hands at the door after the service is over, most people—most weeks—express their appreciation for my message. Some tell me I’ve made them think. Some of them—sometimes—ask me what on earth I was thinking! And most say something like: “Great sermon. Enjoyed it.” Which makes me feel pretty good.

Although, I’ve never tried the “I murdered my grandmother” thing …

However—and you know this as well as I do—the purpose of preaching is not that people may be entertained, but that they may be edified and inspired and encouraged to respond in action.

Really, I think I can speak for all of my colleagues in every denomination when I say this: the highest praise that can be bestowed upon Christian ministers is not to tell them how much their sermon is enjoyed, but to let them see how well it is being translated into people’s lives during the other six days of the week.

It’s all well and good if the sermon is enjoyable and entertains people for one hour per week, but … what does it profit them, if their church-going has no power to influence their daily lives?

Several years back, the annual convention of The American Heart Association met in Atlanta. That year 300,000 doctors, nurses, and researchers gathered to discuss, among other things, the importance a low-fat diet plays in keeping our hearts healthy.

Anyway, a journalist decided to do some checking and found that during meal times, these health professionals (for the most part) consumed fat-filled fast food—such as bacon cheeseburgers and fries—at about the same rate as people from other conventions. When one cardiologist was asked whether or not his partaking in high fat meals set a bad example, he replied, “Not me, because I took my name tag off.” 3

It’s amazing (isn’t it?) how easily we can disconnect our behavior from our better knowledge. We can hear something, even accept it as true, yet never allow it to affect how we actually live.

Now, when we’re talking about doctors and medical researchers, that’s funny! But when we’re talking about our own ability to hear and accept the Word of God—and yet avoid living it … that is tragic.

As someone has said, there are a great many Christians who mark their Bibles, but all too few who let their Bibles mark them. It’s too easy to hear a Word from God and say, “Amen! I hear that, and I accept it as true,” and then let that be the end of it.

But to let God’s Word dwell in you, and grow within you, and swell within you until it motivates you to do something … That is when God’s Word ceases to be simply fertilizer! That is when it starts to bear real fruit.

Looking again at chapter one of James—in verses 22-25—we find him using a rather odd illustration to further his point. He uses the example of a person looking into a mirror. After telling us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” James writes: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”

Catch that? James points out that all of us use mirrors in at least a couple of different ways.

There are those quick glances we catch as we rush by on our way out the door … and then there are those long, intense sessions where we examine ourselves carefully, taking in every detail.

Then he tells us that there are two ways of looking into the mirror of God’s Word. Sometimes, in a very superficial way—like when we grab a quick glance of ourselves in the mirror before heading out—we read a few verses and are proud of our accomplishment. Then, right away, we move from that listening phase into the talking phase of our conversation with God. When we do that, we are glancing in the mirror.

But we should be doing more than that. Time—extended and meaningful time—spent reading Scripture provides an opportunity for us to consider who God is, and who we are in relation to him. You can’t do that with a glance. No. That takes some real inspection; just like those times when you stand before the mirror, going over every little detail—every line in your face, every characteristic … looking—and truly seeing—the face peering back at you.

This is how we need to treat God’s Word: looking into it, and seeing ourselves—taking the time to really see!

Maybe that’s a scary thought. However, an amazing thing happens when we take time to truly listen, and truly examine ourselves, and then truly respond.

Listen to what verse 25 sounds like in the New International Version, where James’s words are rendered thus: “… whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”

When we look intently into the mirror of God’s Word—when we hear the Word, and accept the Word, and then choose to do the Word—a transformation occurs. It really does.

And just in case you do not know what life looks like when God transforms you, James points it out in verses 26-27: Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Now, that might sound like James has gone off on a drastic tangent, but when you understand where James is going—and where he is coming from—it makes perfect sense.

When you let God’s Word affect you, when you recognize it as a perfect gift coming down from the Father of lights—when you not only hear it and accept it, but also commit to doing it—it will cause you to seek God’s will for your own life. More than that, it will drive you to find new ways to help others—especially those who are not able to help themselves.

In a nutshell, here’s what I hear the Letter of James saying to us: when at last we listen for God, and accept what he says, and then act upon it … then we will finally be transformed into the disciples Jesus has called us to be.

Let’s accept that greater call—and that greater blessing!


1 Merrill, Timothy. Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit [Series IV, Cycle C]. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2003, p. 45.


3 Boston Globe [11-10-93] as quoted in


Candles and Oil

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Some years ago—back in British Columbia—I was voluntold … I mean invited … to deliver an opening sermon for a presbytery meeting. Because of a predetermined theme, I was mandated to speak about “candles and anointing oil.”

Yup. When I told a friend of mine about this, her reaction was immediate: “Candles and oil? You? I thought you couldn’t stand all that hocus-pocus!”

I am not renowned for my love of ritual. Nor do I favour ecclesiastical “props.” Truthfully, that’s not so much due to theological considerations as it is because—well, I simply don’t have an organized enough mind to keep track of things if they get too complicated.

But I’m getting better. Sometimes—even today—I will experiment with an evening contemplative service, where dim light and candle-lighting figure prominently.

I once even used a vial of “anointing oil” for a children’s story during worship. As the kids were leaving for Sunday School, I sent the oil with them, urging them to “anoint” their teachers (advice which in retrospect seems imprudent).

In all seriousness, I have gotten better at appreciating the value of what some call “sacramental actions.” Candles in the darkness—or in a quiet sanctuary—do have a kind of other-worldly beauty about them.

There is something about candles. When I was in seminary in Montréal—many years ago, now—I had the opportunity of walking a labyrinth. It was made out of coloured tape applied to the floor of a large hall, and it contained dozens of lit candles.

The candles were placed at strategic points along the path of the labyrinth, and it had been suggested that those of us who were walking the path might want to pause at each candle—pause, and look deeply into its flickering, magical light. I didn’t know what to expect, but I decided to try it.

What I saw that day—what I saw in each flame—was a face. Mostly, I saw children’s faces. Children whom I had known. Children who resided upon this earthly plane no longer.

You see, when our son was a toddler, Iris and I were part of a support group for parents of “heart kids”—children who suffered from severe congenital heart defects. The group was supposed to be for the parents, but of course we got to know one another’s kids, too.

And that was difficult, sometimes. Because many of those children did not survive for very long.

Except, of course, they yet survive in our hearts. On that June day in Montréal, I realized that I still carried those kids in my heart. And all at once it became clear as crystal, somehow, that if they lived on in my heart—and in the hearts of their parents and siblings and friends—then I could be sure that they lived on in God’s heart, also.

I’m sure that’s why I saw their faces in the candlelight. It was a powerful message. A message I might never have heard, if it weren’t for that labyrinth and those candles.

I wish I had a story like that about oil! I don’t. But I do remember the story I was telling the children—before I suggested they anoint their Sunday School teachers.

It was a story about what the word “Messiah” means; and of course—like the word “Christ”—it means “the anointed one.” I told them about how the kings of ancient Israel were anointed with oil as a sign of blessing, and of being set apart as special in the eyes of God.

Kings were anointed. So were priests. The “anointed ones” were supposed to be especially in tune with the Spirit of God. They had exalted status—and they had exalted responsibilities, as well.

If I were telling them that story over again, I think I’d point out that when we say Jesus was a “Messiah,” it means that he had a special kind of anointing. And—even if we don’t usually think of it this way—if we really believe that we are members of the “body of Christ,” then it follows that we must share, somehow, in that anointing with which Jesus was anointed. We are an anointed people.

With Jesus whom we follow, we are members of heaven’s family. As children of the living God, we have special privileges—and special responsibilities, too. Maybe that’s what’s worth remembering when we contemplate a vial of anointing oil.

And perhaps—if you’re part of a fellowship that invites you to light a candle, or to feel the gentle smoothness of oil upon your forehead … Perhaps you will contemplate these things. Do you see a face in the candlelight? Is the touch of oil like the touch of Spirit?

Candles and oil. Used at the Spirit’s prompting, they are “good and acceptable and perfect” things—and not “things of this world.” And—used in this way—perhaps they indeed have power to transform and renew our minds.

May we allow it to be so. For Jesus’ sake.


Favourite Stories

TEXT:  John 6:1-15

When they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. (John 6:12-13)

I think we all have certain old favourite stories that we like to share with family and friends—stories we tell over and over again.

I have a story like that. It has its origins in my time at Plura Hills United Church in Kamloops—and specifically in the months that I was alone there before my family was able to join me. I lived alone for about nine months, and had to get used to fending for myself. Part of that “fending” involved—of course—doing my own laundry. I did not have a washing machine, but luckily there was a laundromat nearby.

Every week, I would carry my dirty laundry to this place, where the same two women seemed always to be on duty. I usually needed change for the machines, and I would approach them to get it. Every week, they would smile when they saw me. I sometimes thought they were watching me all the time I was there—with big grins on their faces—but I couldn’t imagine why they would be doing that, so I shrugged it off as a figment of my imagination.

Then, one time—as I sat in the laundromat waiting for the spin cycle—I had a “eureka!” moment. “Look at all these machines,” I thought. “I could be doing more than one load at a time!”

When I told my wife about this, she said, “You mean those girls watched you come in every week, and watched you use just one machine, and they never said anything?”

Ah, yes—that was why they were always grinning!

Like most old favourite stories, that anecdote reveals some important things about the people involved. The laundromat attendants had a sense of humour, Iris had a great capacity for clear thinking, and I … Well, I don’t like to consider what it reveals about me.

Some stories are remembered and retold not because they are funny, but because they make such deep impressions upon us. I have a story like that, too.

Many years ago, I worked as an orderly at a hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta. One patient who was frequently admitted to my ward was a Second World War veteran who had spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. During that time, he had suffered terribly from abuse and malnourishment, and the experience had broken him physically. Decades after the war, his poor health could be traced back to his mistreatment by his captors.

Since this man was so often in my care, I came to know him rather well. He seldom spoke about his years as a POW, but one time he did. I can’t remember now what prompted him to speak on this occasion, but what he said surprised me.

As he was describing the terrible conditions in his camp, explaining how starvation and disease took the lives of most of his comrades there, he passed the comment that a few of the guards would sometimes share their own meagre rations with prisoners who were in an especially bad way.

Then he told me that there was one Japanese soldier who on several occasions gave him a rifle and allowed him to go out and hunt for food—so that there would be some meat for the starving POWs.

I was completely taken aback by that comment, and my shock must have registered on my face, because the old soldier smiled and said to me, “They weren’t all monsters, you know.”

He told me that—while turning an enemy prisoner loose with a weapon might appear imprudent—his captors knew that there was really no place for him to escape to, because the camp was in a remote jungle area. He also told me that concern for retaliation against his comrades—and against the compassionate guard—meant that he could not even consider making a break for it. Even so, he said, he had never forgotten the supreme kindness of that Japanese soldier, who “took the risk of loving his enemies.”

This, also, is a story which tells a great deal about the people involved. It’s a story with an abundance of sub-plots, but for me two things stand out: the determination of some to behave humanely even when such behaviour carries tremendous risks; and the enduring beneficial effect of such behaviour.

You see, as I came to know this former POW better and better, I began to realize that he was entirely without the kind of bitterness and hatred that I would have expected him to harbour. Remarkably, he bore no resentment toward his former enemies.

This man’s war experiences may have broken him physically—but he was not broken mentally, or spiritually. And I think that the humane actions of just a few Japanese guards must have had a lot to do with the fact that he survived with his own humanity intact.

That story is entirely different from the first one I told. It also packs a much bigger punch, and—although I haven’t repeated it as many times as the laundromat story—I do tell it occasionally, and I think about it very often. In that sense, I guess it is a favourite story of mine.

I have many favourite Bible stories, too. One is about Jesus and his disciples, and in the early church it was told over and over again. There are lots of stories like that in the gospels, but most of them are told only once. There’s the story of the Good Samaritan1, told only once; the story of the Prodigal Son2, told only once; the story of the Sheep and the Goats3, told only once. These are favourite, great stories—but they are each told only once in our New Testament.

But the story for today—about the five loaves and two fish—is told not just once, or twice, or three times, but four times. It is the only miracle which is reported in all four gospels.4

Now, why is this story told over and over again? Perhaps because it captures the essence of all its main characters—as well as the essential truth about God.

Consider the setting of this tale. From the account given in Matthew’s gospel, we know that John the Baptist—Jesus’ cousin (and some think, his mentor)—had just been executed. John had been the greatest prophet that Israel had seen for 400 years. He was the one whom the common people had looked to for moral and religious leadership—and now he was dead.

Everyone was affected by this enormous loss—but no one more so than Jesus. Therefore, he wanted to get away by himself to grieve, to pray, to remember. He wanted to withdraw to a solitary place, and so he got into a boat to sail across Lake Galilee to get away from his throngs of admirers. But the crowds followed along the shoreline, keeping an eye on his boat, and so when Jesus’ party landed, there they were, waiting for him.

So, what was Jesus’ reaction to the thousands who had shown up? Was he irritated or angry? Apparently not. Did he feel imposed upon? Probably. But he did not show it. He looked upon the gathered crowd with compassion, like they were sheep without a shepherd—hungry souls in need of spiritual nourishment. And so, he taught them and he healed them.

The day quickly passed. It got to be afternoon—then early evening—and one of the disciples said:  “Lord, the hour is late and the people don’t have any food and we are a long way from any villages. Maybe you should send them home now.”

And Jesus said to Philip, “How are we going to buy bread, so that these people can eat?” And Philip replied, “It would take more than 200 days’ worth of wages, and even that wouldn’t buy enough bread to feed all these people.”

So Jesus said, “Look around the crowd and see what you can find.”

Andrew found a young boy with five loaves of bread and two fish, and brought the boy and his food to Jesus. Jesus invited everyone to be seated on the green grass.

Then he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, who gave it to the crowds. And they all ate and were all satisfied. The number who ate were 5,000 men, plus women and children—and there were twelve baskets of bread left over!

That one miracle story appears to have been told and retold endlessly by the earliest Christians. Why? I think it’s because it perfectly captures the essence of who Jesus was. More than that, it captures the very essence of God, who—in abundant and extravagant generosity and grace—provides for all his children.

Jesus can work miracles with five loaves and two fish—but first, somebody has to share their lunch. That’s the heart of this story; a little boy surrendered his meagre gifts to Jesus—and look what an amazing thing God did with them!  It is a story which invites us to write ourselves into it—to surrender our little gifts to Christ, and then see what mighty miracles God can do in and through us.

Here’s a question for you: “Have you surrendered your five loaves and two fish to Christ?”

Maybe all you have to give is a cup of cold water. To one who is thirsty, that’s all that’s needed. Maybe all you have to give is a rifle and a few rounds of ammunition. But by giving it, you not only turn an instrument of war into an instrument of salvation—you also create an enduring legacy of hope, one which might just save someone’s soul.

Have you surrendered your meagre gifts to Christ? Have you surrendered the meagreness of who you are? The question is persistent, as the memory of loaves and fishes lingers on: “Have you surrendered? Have I?” I think that’s the power of this story—that we realize it is (or could be) a story about us. That’s why it is a favourite story, told over and over again.

By the grace of God, may it be lived over and over again, as well—in your life, and in mine.



1 LUKE 10:30-37

2 LUKE 15:11-32

3 MATTHEW 25:31-45

4 Besides the account in JOHN 6:1-15, see also MATTHEW 14:13-21; MARK 6:32-44; and LUKE 9:10-17.


Opportunity Lost

TEXT: Mark 6:14-29

When … Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” (Mark 6:22)

This year—on July 15—preachers who dine at the Revised Common Lectionary table are served up a meaty gospel text on the eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10 or Ordinary 15, in liturgispeak).

This passage from Mark (6:14-29) is surely one of the most well-known stories in the New Testament. It recounts the sad fate of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, who was famously beheaded by the order of King Herod. Matthew’s gospel also reports this event, but—for once—Mark’s account is more detailed.

Beyond inspiring some truly disturbing artwork, this passage offers a powerful example of just exactly how our attitudes and our actions can build a wall between us and God. To be sure, it’s an extreme example—but it does show what happens when we get our priorities wrong.

The Herod described here is Herod Antipas—son of Herod the Great. Although he was sympathetic to the Jewish population, his household was thoroughly Hellenized—that is, completely absorbed in Greek culture and philosophy. Herod acted more like a pagan than a Jewish king. In fact, the Roman historian Josephus tells us about frequent revelry in Herod’s court (The Jewish War: 2.2.5). Lots of wild parties and drunkenness went on in this king’s palace!

Nevertheless, Herod did have a measure of respect for the Jewish religion. He also had a kind of reverence for a holy man named John the Baptist. This was true even though John was bold in his criticism of the king. Mark tells us that Herod liked listening to John’s preaching, although “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed.”

Our gospel story revolves around the fact that Herod Antipas had married his brother Philip’s wife. For this, John the Baptist had publicly rebuked the king. Even so, Herod himself tolerated John.

However, Herod’s wife Herodias—whom he had stolen away from his own brother … Well, she hated John. In fact, she wanted him dead. It might even be true that Herod put John into prison in order to protect him from Herodias. Mark doesn’t exactly say that, but I think it’s possible.

Certainly, by now Herod would have realized just what kind of woman he had married. I have to wonder if Herod’s brother Philip wasn’t just a little bit relieved by the way things turned out … But, I digress.

Herodias was seething with anger against John, and when she saw an opportunity to get rid of him, she jumped at it. Here’s how things went down …

At one of Herod’s high-society parties, Herodias’s daughter performed a dance and wowed the audience. Now, according to Josephus, this girl was named Salome. But according to Mark, she had the same name as her mother: Herodias.

Did you ever notice that? Mark 6:22 says: “When [Herod’s] daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests.”

Now, this Herodias was actually Herod’s stepdaughter—as well as being his niece. But, no matter. She was very much her mother’s child. Her dance routine must have been … well … provocative. And Herod was so delighted with the response of his guests that he made an impulsive—and stupid—pledge: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

So the girl Herodias runs to her mother Herodias and says, “What should I ask for?” And her mother sends her back with a chilling request: “Give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Too proud to go back on his word in front of his dinner guests, Herod—albeit reluctantly—grants the request. And, with the ensuing action, the possibility of God’s blessing in Herod’s life disappears.

It was a “fork in the road” moment in Herod’s life—and he chose the direction of expediency rather than the path of blessing. The voice of God which had come to Herod through John the Baptist … Alas, it was lost in the din of noisy celebration.

If Herod had been thinking clearly—if he had been a man of courage—things might have turned out differently. But then, if Herod had been a man of courage, he might have gone to John the Baptist himself, and enquired further about the message which troubled him so deeply. If he had not been so enamored of the world’s pleasures, he might have paid more attention to the prophet’s words.

Sadly, the moment is lost. The decision is made. Herod chooses that “wide road which leads to destruction.”

John the Baptist loses his earthly life and gains the blessings of heaven. Herod loses his immortal soul. By shutting out the voice of the Spirit, Herod sinks deeper into the quicksand of his own depravity.

Okay. I know Herod’s story is an extreme case. Even so, I believe it contains lessons for all of us. The barriers to God’s blessing in his life are reminiscent of similar barriers we face in our lives. Consider the facts:

  • Herod was interested in God—but he wanted to keep God at arm’s length.
  • Herod listened to religious teaching—but he didn’t allow himself to be changed by it.
  • Herod’s life was consumed by the things of this world—so much so, that he ignored the message of God which had come to him.
  • Herod was more concerned about his relationships with other people than he was about his relationship with almighty God.

This is such a sad story. Mark makes it clear that Herod had a certain degree of respect—perhaps even affection—for John the Baptist. The message John brought touched Herod somewhere deep inside. John’s words attracted him. And yet, something within him kept him from responding.

You know, there are some Bible passages where we can recognize the “behind the scenes” ministry of the Holy Spirit. This passage from Mark is one of these. In verse 20, we read: “When [Herod] heard [John], he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” On some level, Herod must have realized that, in the words of John the Baptist, he was hearing the voice of God.

Have you ever felt like that? The voice of God comes to us in so many different forms. It may come in the words of a sermon. It may come in the words of a friend.

Perhaps a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset captures your attention and stops you in your tracks, and—if only for a moment—your spirit is awakened to another dimension of reality.

Occasionally, the voice of God even comes to us through some sad or tragic event—something that comes as a harsh interruption in the routine ebb and flow of our lives.

We are always being presented with messages from God. The question is: will we listen to them? Will we respond to them? Will we seize the opportunities that are being given? Or, to put it differently:  will we connect with the living God?

Certainly, Herod had his opportunities to do that. In today’s gospel, two of them stand out.

First of all, while John was in his prison, Herod had a golden opportunity to make a connection. I wonder if—in the years that followed—Herod wished he had spoken with John about the inner stirrings that troubled him so. Had he done that, he might have been blessed—perhaps blessed in ways beyond his imagining.

The second opportunity came when Herodias made her gruesome request: “Give me the head of John the Baptist.”

At this point, Herod could have chosen to do the right thing—or, at least, chosen to not do the wrong thing! But he was more concerned about saving face … and so he let the prophet die. And by doing that, Herod lost his chance to receive God’s blessing.

Choosing the wrong opportunity can have dire consequences. Isn’t this a lesson we all learn in life? Bad choices do not lead to good results. They only lead to more bad choices.

So … what about us? How can we make sure that our choices are good ones? How can we open ourselves up to God’s blessings, instead of losing them?

Maybe the most important advice is that so often given by Jesus: “Listen! Pay attention!” (“Whoever has ears, let them hear”). Listen for the voice of God. When God speaks—and when we listen—blessing is sure to follow.

What might happen if we decided to make our relationship with God our top priority? Our priorities, after all, shape both the character and the quality of our lives. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Here’s another bit of advice: remember who you are in Christ! Keep your eyes fixed on him. In his Letter to the Ephesians (1:3), the apostle Paul assures us that we have already been blessed “with every spiritual blessing” in Christ.

We don’t have to go looking for God’s blessings—we already have them! Those blessings are already ours, if we keep our focus in the right place. No reward can ever replace the inheritance we have been promised in Christ. No matter what benefits are offered by any earthly opportunity, none will ever surpass what we already have.

Here and now, we’re given an opportunity: we can re-centre our lives in Jesus. We don’t have to place our trust in the things of this world—in property or prestige, or in riches that can be lost or stolen. We don’t have to define ourselves according to someone else’s agenda, in order to impress the high and mighty of this world.

No. We can choose differently. We can choose to trust—and to follow—the One who gave up everything so that we might lack nothing.

May we choose wisely.