Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent (Year B)

TEXT:  John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” (John 2:13-16)

Theodore Roosevelt … anybody remember him? If you do, you’re really old, because he died in 1919!

“Teddy” Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States, and—as an adult—he was known for his toughness and courage. In fact, on one occasion—after he had been shot in the chest by a would-be assassin—he refused to visit the hospital until he finished delivering the 90-minute speech he had prepared.*

“I do not care a rap about being shot,” Roosevelt said. “Not a rap!” 

However, he wasn’t always that brave. It seems that, as a young boy growing up in New York City, Teddy Roosevelt became absolutely terrified of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church—which was where his family attended worship.

Now, some of you reading this may not be surprised by that. As I understand it, many people have been terrified of the Presbyterian Church.

But young Teddy had a very specific reason for his fear. When his mother asked him about it, all Teddy could say was he didn’t want the “zeal” to get him—like it said in the Bible.

Further inquiry led Mrs. Roosevelt to the Scripture recently quoted by the pastor, from the King James Version, where Jesus says: “And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (John 2:17).

Little Teddy figured that—under some pew, or perhaps behind the pulpit—the man-eating “zeal monster” was hiding, lying in wait to grab its next victim.

As we consider this morning’s gospel lesson—which in our modern translation reads, “Zeal for your house will consume me”—we might wonder whether this “zeal” thing is some kind of monster.

Consider what it drove Jesus to do.

“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple …” (John 2:14-15a)

Now, that’s not something most of us can easily picture: Jesus with a whip.

Lots of churches have framed pictures of Jesus on their walls. Some people even have them in their homes. And the scenes they portray are fairly predictable: Jesus as an infant in the arms of his mother; Jesus surrounded by children; Jesus with a lamb draped over his shoulders; Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But I’ve never seen anyone hang a picture on their wall of Jesus with a whip!  It’s not a very popular theme. But that’s how Jesus is depicted in today’s reading from the second chapter of John’s Gospel.

What a scene! And it took place in the temple—the great temple of God in Jerusalem. Well, not actually inside the temple building itself, but in the temple precincts—the area around the temple where there was plenty of open space for everything from animal traders to a whip-cracking preacher.

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: Jesus loved the temple. Of that, there is no doubt.

When he was 40 days old, his parents took him to the temple, and there they made the appropriate sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses for a first-born son. When Jesus was 12 years old, having traveled to Jerusalem with his parents for the Passover, he stayed behind in the temple.

Remember that story? He loved the temple so much he could not bear to leave it when the rest of his family began their journey back home to Nazareth. When Mary and Joseph discovered he was missing, they searched for three long days until they found him there in the temple.

Remember what he said to them? He said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The temple was his Father’s house. So, yes—of course Jesus loved the temple. He was zealous for the temple. He worshipped there and taught there. And when Jesus, now grown into a man, arrived in Jerusalem for yet another Passover, he went to the temple and cleansed it. That’s what he was doing. That’s what Christian tradition has called the story which we heard today: the “cleansing of the temple.” The temple had been defiled, so Jesus cleansed it.

He purified it. That’s how zealous for the temple he was. That’s how much he loved it.

But Jesus also knew that something greater than the temple had come, and that he himself was that greater thing. “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Although Jesus did speak of the destruction of the temple elsewhere—the one of brick and stone—on this particular occasion, he was referring to the temple of his body. When he says, “in three days I will raise it up”—he’s talking about his own death and resurrection. But, about that, Jesus was misunderstood—as he always was, whenever he spoke about his death and rising.

People just didn’t get it. “What’s the point of that?” they wondered. “What would that accomplish?” But Jesus, cracking that whip in the temple, was trying to clue them in.

Did you notice how, in today’s gospel reading, when Jesus cleanses the temple, he targets the animals? “Making a whip of cords,” we’re told, “he drove them all out of the temple.” Not just the money-changers and those who sold pigeons, but the pigeons themselves; the sheep and oxen, too—he drove them all out. It must have been quite a commotion—the pigeons flapping their wings in panic, the sheep bleating, the oxen … well, making whatever noise oxen make.

So what were the animals doing there in the first place? We don’t usually bring our animals into church. Why was there a menagerie in the temple?

The animals were there for the sacrifices, of course: the sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses. Jews would come from all over the world to the temple to offer up their sacrifices to God.

Rather than bring their own goats or lambs with them over the long and perilous journey, they’d buy them when they got to the temple—which is why the vendors and money-changers were there. It was all for the sake of convenience so that the proper sacrifices could be made. And they had to be made.

To atone for sin the animals were offered up, to restore the communion with God which sin had disrupted.

But wait a minute. Can the sacrifice of animals really atone for sin and restore communion with God?

It’s hard to see how they could. And indeed, they cannot. As the author of the book of Hebrews says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10:4)

For what purpose, then, were the animal sacrifices in the temple established?

Today, in retrospect, we can see that they anticipated the blood that would be spilled—the blood that could take away sins: the blood of Christ, which he shed for us upon the cross. Now that he had come, the animals had to go—which is why Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them out of the temple.

“Take these things out of here!” he said, for he—and he alone—would be the atonement for our sins.

Fittingly enough, I suppose, what Jesus did when he cleansed the temple led directly to the sentence of death being pronounced upon him. At Jesus’ trial, muddled witnesses testified:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another …’” (Mark 14:58).

Of course, those witnesses didn’t get it quite right, for Jesus, you remember, was speaking about the temple of his body. But theirs was the testimony that led the high priest to ask Jesus who he thought he was: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” To which Jesus answered, “I am.”

Hearing that, the high priest tore his garments and said to the Council before whom Jesus was being tried, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?”

Then all of them—together—condemned Jesus to die.

So it was that the One who drove the lambs from the temple carried his cross to Golgotha like a being lamb led to the slaughter. And the precious blood that Jesus shed there accomplished—once and for all—what the blood of bulls and goats and pigeons could never do.

Jesus made full atonement for sin—and, through faith—communion with God was restored to sinners. Yes, to sinners! That would be you. That would be me. That would, in fact, be each one of us. Thanks be to God for so great a salvation.


*On October 14, 1912, an unemployed saloonkeeper shot former president and Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt outside a Milwaukee hotel. The bullet merely annoyed him.



Second Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Mark 8:27-38

… turning and seeing his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33)

Jesus is being kind of blunt, isn’t he? I would hate to have been Peter when those words were uttered. Just a few verses earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Peter was the disciple who knew the right answer when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Christ,” Peter responded. You’re the Messiah. You’re the one God sent.

Mark—being Mark—rolls right on to the next part of the story, where Peter gets slammed for not understanding the meaning of what he has just said. But in Matthew’s reporting of this event, we hear that Jesus’ immediate reaction to Peter’s declaration was one of high praise, not condemnation:

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16-19)

Quite a comedown—from “I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom” to “Get behind me, Satan!”  But I guess Jesus was disappointed—and surprised. I mean, it must have been frustrating, after all. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Wow! He gets it. Peter understands. But, then … he doesn’t. When Jesus begins to teach them what being the Christ means—that he’s going to have to suffer, and be rejected, and be killed—Peter is horrified. He pulls Jesus aside and tells him that he’s got it all wrong.

Once again, it’s Matthew who gives us the details: “… Peter … began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (Matt. 16:22).

No. He doesn’t get it. Even though he seemed to be the brightest student in the class, Peter simply does not understand the kind of Messiah Jesus has chosen to be. So the Lord lets him have it: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Yeah. It does seem kind of harsh. But you know, sometimes people have to be hit over the head before they can think straight.

We all know people like this, don’t we? And sometimes we are people like this. We insist on running things our own way. We hear only what we want to hear. We don’t pay attention to what others are trying desperately to tell us. And it’s not that we’re stupid, necessarily. Maybe, we’re just pig-headed. Or deluded.

Or in denial, like a man I know who would not seriously deal with his alcoholism until his wife told him, “Look—either you go to rehab, and go today, or I’m leaving you!”

Or like a woman I know, who refused to seek treatment for her depression until her husband did leave her.

Sometimes, we need to be hit over the head. Maybe it’s a health crisis that demands a lifestyle change. Maybe it’s an extended period of unemployment—or illness, or incarceration—that forces us to examine our lives, our priorities, and our goals.

Or maybe it’s 40 days in the desert. Like Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us Jesus spent. That’s what we’re supposed to be remembering, during this Lenten season. Even Jesus needed preparation. Even he required a training period, so to speak.

First there was the moment of glorious revelation, at his baptism, after he emerged from the chilly waters of the Jordan River, when the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and God spoke from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22).

Christian tradition tells us that’s what happens when each one of us is baptized, whether we hear it, or not. God calls our name, calls us his beloved child, and says, “I am pleased with you.” But sooner or later—whenever we decide to get serious about discipleship—something else happens: we get hit over the head with a cross. We find out that following Jesus isn’t all about glory. It isn’t all about ecstatic prayer, or feeling close to God, or enthusiastically singing songs of praise on a Sunday morning. All of that is part of the story, but it isn’t the whole story. Sooner or later, it’s going to be about feeling the nails. And that comes as a shock to all of us, I think. It’s the part of the story we don’t want to hear. It’s the chapter we don’t want to live out.

But it’s a part of the story we cannot avoid. There’s a cross waiting for each one of us, and what we do with it will write the defining chapter of our lives. Will we pick it up and follow Jesus in his way, or will we allow its weight to crush us? Will we trust God for strength to carry it, or will we leave it—and our discipleship—face down in the dust?

Those are important questions, and we have to confront them, for ourselves, before we can truly give our lives over to the will of God. The trouble is, at the beginning of our faith journey, most of us aren’t even aware of them. We don’t know our issues. We don’t know our strengths, or our weaknesses. We do not know—or do not want to face—the things that are really going to tempt us, or test us. We need to be shown. We need to know what the deal is.

I think that’s why the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. If the Son of God was truly human—if Jesus was really human the way we are human—then I think he needed to be hit over the head with the cross.

What was that about? Listen to the way Luke describes it, in his gospel:

… Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”  And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”

And [the devil] took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him … (Luke 4:1-13)

Notice what’s going on here? In Jesus, at the end of his 40-day sojourn in the desert, what we see is a person who has come to terms with his destiny, who has embraced completely the mission that God has laid out before him.

In the wilderness—in that desolate place, empty of everything except God, and the devil, and his own immortal soul—the carpenter’s son from Nazareth has been shown his cross, and he has made the hard decision to pick it up, trusting his heavenly Father to help him carry it. There will be no short cuts to glory. No easy way out.

No wonder, later on, he reacted so strongly to Peter’s well-meaning advice: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” To Jesus, it must have felt like Satan was speaking to him again: trying, one more time, to turn him away from the plan God had laid out for him—tempting him, one more time, to take the easier, softer way … thereby becoming something less than the Saviour we all need.

Peter did not know it at the time, but when he said those words—when he said, in effect: “Don’t do it, Lord! Choose another way!”—he was hitting Jesus over the head, just like the devil had done, again and again, in the wilderness. And so Jesus hit back: “Get behind me, Satan!”

There’s a lot going on in today’s gospel story, and it all relates to those 40 desert days … those 40 desert nights … when the Son of God wrestled with what it meant to be the Son of Man, and found a measure of peace—and a firm resolution.

That’s what the season of Lent is supposed to be about for us, I think. Whether or not we have an actual desert handy, the 40 days of Lent call us, every year, into a period of reflection and honest self-examination, under the guidance of the Spirit of God. It’s kind of like what 12-Step programs call “taking a personal inventory.” We need to do this again and again, because—spiritually—we’re all kind of thick-skulled, and we need to be hit over the head from time to time.

That’s why it’s a good thing Lent comes round every year. If you sincerely embrace the discipline of this season, you won’t be able to avoid asking yourself questions like:

  • What is my greatest fear?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to my discipleship? and
  • Am I really willing to do what God is calling me to do?

During Lent, what you’re really called to give up is complacency. During Lent—every year—you’re hit over the head with the question: “Are you ‘all in’?”

Will you actually follow where Jesus leads—no matter what? Maybe it is the devil asking the question. Or maybe it’s God. Probably, it’s both of them. But, here’s the thing: When Satan asks the question, he follows up with an easy alternative. When God asks the question, He follows up with a promise: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).

The Lord may not offer a comfortable way out, but He does promise to help you, to support you, to add his strong shoulder to yours as you bear whatever cross you’re given.

And that, my friends, is why the Good News is good news. Amen.



First Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan … (Mark 1:12-13a)

For Mark, the gospel story does not begin with angelic visitors or a prophetic dream. It does not open with a miraculous birth or a poetic hymn to the incarnate Word. In Mark’s Gospel, there is no soaring prose. There are no travellers from the East, no expensive gifts, no awestruck shepherds, no jealous, brooding king. Instead, Mark’s Gospel hurls us, ready or not, into a lonely and barren wilderness—a desert—where everything either bites or burns or stings.

And in Mark, Jesus gets there so quickly! First, he is baptized by John in the Jordan River, and then—in the next breath—we find him in the desert, under the blazing sun.

Matthew and Luke, at least, allow him to linger a while at the riverside. In Matthew, he even has time for a conversation with his cousin, the Baptizer. If it were a modern story, they might have posed for a photograph together, their arms around each other, grinning for the camera.

After all, it’s hard to imagine a more significant happening than the baptism of Jesus. As he emerged from the water, the heavens ripped open, the Spirit descended like a dove, and the voice of God proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This ought to have been a picture-perfect moment—a moment to savour and remember and celebrate.

But there is no photo op. Almost immediately, Jesus is driven out into the desert to live with the wild beasts and be tempted by evil. Driven out! Notice that? It’s like the Spirit chased him—forced him—out there.

It’s not exactly what you would expect, is it? After all, God was pleased—no, make that “well pleased” with him. But directly from this moment of glory, Christ is driven into the harsh wilderness—into the desert.

The desert. When it comes to deserts—at least as topographical entities, as geographic locations—I’ll bet most of us Canadians don’t have a lot of direct experience (not with hot deserts, anyway).

Experts say that deserts are formed under unique climactic conditions. Maps show that they cover about one-third of the earth’s land surface. Globes indicate they are found only between specific latitudes.

That’s what the geographers tell us about deserts. But it’s not the whole truth about them. There is another kind of desert besides the wilderness of sand and sun and scorpions; and we are all familiar with it.

The truth is, sometimes—no matter where we live, no matter where we travel—the desert is all we can see. Sometimes, despite what the weather report or average rainfall may indicate, we find ourselves right in the middle of the desert: blinded, disoriented, sunburned, just about dying of thirst.

Sometimes, the desert feels so familiar that we can name every shrivelled plant, every venomous snake, every blistering ray, every irritating little grain of sand. Sometimes, the wilderness is where we live.

The single mother, stretched so thin that she almost disappears, knows the desert of exhaustion and despair.

The abused child, exploited by adults, knows the desert of a trust betrayed.    

The convict, numb to the brutality that surrounds him, knows the desert of violence and guilt and regret.

The bereaved one, suddenly alone, struggles through the desert of sorrow and grief.

We know the truth about deserts, don’t we? The truth is, despite what the geography books tell us, deserts are not found only in North Africa, or southern Nevada, or in the Sinai peninsula. Some of the harshest deserts are not marked on any map. They lie just around the corner. They wait for us behind closed doors. We visit them in our dreams.

But there’s something else that is true about deserts—something that Mark wants us to hear. Jesus has been there first.

That is the good news we find as Mark begins his narrative. No desert on earth is so remote, so barren, so seemingly inhospitable to life, that Jesus has not walked there first. And the presence of Christ in the wilderness reminds us of another truth about deserts. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the wilderness is filled with life.

A handful of desert soil, baked and brown, blowing in the hot wind, can be filled with hundreds of seeds, waiting for that once-in-a-lifetime rainfall—just waiting for a chance to bloom.

That withered plant, yellow and dry, has living roots reaching deep into the ground.

That empty landscape—lonely in the harsh light of day, comes to life in the moonlight as reptiles and insects emerge from hiding.

That broken heart—so empty and forlorn—begins to mend as love becomes real again in a gentle touch, a kind word, a compassionate action.

That wounded spirit—overwhelmed by despair—finds hope again with a fresh challenge, a new reason to live.

That bitter soul—filled with resentment—comes face-to-face with a contrite and devastated enemy, and finds, in the depths of its own desert, the ability to forgive.

Even at its most desolate, the desert is always ready to burst into bloom at the first sign of life-giving water. Maybe that’s why God so often uses the desert as a place for transformation. Maybe that’s why Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism only to be driven there—into the wilderness.

I know that this Lenten season finds many of us traveling through the desert, wrestling with our own demons and being tempted by evil. Some people might look upon that journey and despair. But we should not. For we know the truth about deserts, don’t we? We know who has gone before us—and we know who will walk with us on our journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Thine is the Glory”

Transfiguration Sunday (Year B)

TEXT: Mark 9:2-9

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:9)

I love YouTube! That’s where I found a documentary on the Greenbrier Bunker, which is a once-top-secret underground shelter, designed to house members of Congress and their staffs during and after nuclear attack. Located 700 feet below the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the 112,544-square-foot bunker (codenamed “Project Greek Island”) was an emergency relocation centre designed to house the United States Congress in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

The bunker—which was really more like an underground city—was completed in 1962, and could house 800 people. For the next 30 years, owners of the Greenbrier resort maintained an agreement with the American government that, in the event of an international crisis, the entire property would be conveyed to government use, specifically as the emergency location for the legislative branch.

The bunker was only decommissioned in 1992, after a Washington Post article disclosed its existence. It was presumably replaced by another facility—perhaps at Red Rock Mountain in Pennsylvania or Mount Weather in Virginia (although the mere fact we know about these two installations makes me … well, suspicious).

At any rate, if you visit the Greenbrier resort today, you can go on a guided tour of the underground facility, and I imagine it would be an interesting way to spend a few hours.

The bunker is an amazing place. According to the documentary, it contained a dormitory, kitchen, hospital, and a broadcast centre for members of Congress. The television studio had changeable seasonal backdrops to appear as if members of Congress were broadcasting from Washington, D.C., instead of from underneath rural West Virginia, behind 30-ton blast doors.

During one segment of the program, a tour guide points out the military-style bunks that the members of Congress would have had to sleep on, and speaks about what a hardship it would have been for these men and women to live in such Spartan conditions. Perhaps that touch of irony was intentional. What a hardship to have to sleep in a subterranean dormitory … but still a far better fate than that of everyone else, stranded above ground!

All of this was done in the name of “continuity of government.” Yet, one has to wonder what would have remained for them to govern! Government leaders, it seems, would spare no cost to preserve a political system—even if almost all of its citizens were sacrificed.

This being Transfiguration Sunday, I find myself considering a very great contrast. On the one hand, there are these politicians who would wait out Armageddon in their blast-proof chambers. And on the other hand, we have Christ the King.

In our gospel lesson this morning, we find Jesus not underground, but on a mountain top—having, perhaps, the original “summit meeting” with Moses and Elijah. And at the conclusion of it all, Jesus speaks to his disciples not of triumph or even survival—but of his own impending death. Jesus would build neither shrines on the mountaintop nor bunkers underneath it. Rather than ensure his own safety while his followers perished, this King would willingly give himself over to death so that his people could be saved. How different are the ways of God from the ways of this world!

We don’t know what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talked about on top of Mount Tabor. But we surely know Moses and Elijah. Moses stands for the Law, and for a judicial approach to enforcing righteousness and protecting society from those who would break the Law. As for Elijah, you may remember that he was the one who had a contest with the prophets of Baal to see whose god was the strongest. And when his God won, Elijah slaughtered the losers!

Moses stands for a religious system wherein true discipleship is grounded in disciplined obedience to a legal code, and by keeping the community pure by punishing or expelling transgressors. Elijah stands for a religious system that upholds the honour of God by sacrificing God’s rivals. And war after war has been fought by those who believed that they would glorify God as warrior patriots, proving God’s supremacy by destroying his enemies.

Who knows what advice Jesus might have received from these two. But, ultimately, the decision about what to do next belonged to Jesus. And what did he decide? Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem—not to kill and destroy the enemies of God who had seized control of state and religion, but to stand firmly for truth and love and mercy—even at the cost of his own life.

There on the mountain top—at this moment of apparent, glorious triumph—Jesus is already pointing toward, and drawing his disciples’ attention to, his impending arrest, trial, and execution. Later—in John’s Gospel—he would say, “… when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.” And the gospel writer comments: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:32-33).

Here is a very different kind of glory—starkly unlike the glory on the mountain top, but no less brilliant. Not only at his resurrection, but also on his cross, will Jesus’ kingly glory become apparent. Far from his death demonstrating the failure of his Messianic Kingship, Jesus is already thinking of his cross as his throne, as the seat of his royal ministry. For it is from that throne—the cross—that he will draw all people to himself. It is as a sacrificial substitute on behalf of his people—on behalf of us—that King Jesus establishes his reign forever.

Many empires have been raised on the sacrifices of brave soldiers, and many nations have been preserved by the valour of their sons; but this cross is the one place where the King makes himself the sacrificial offering for the good of his commonwealth, so that no more will need to be offered except the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

On the verge of the Lenten season, we are given both a glimpse of Christ’s heavenly glory (in his Transfiguration) and a foreshadowing of the price he will pay. And at the end of the Lenten season—on Good Friday—we shall begin to see his glory revealed in suffering. Our Saviour is not first a victim and then a victor; rather, he conquers death and sin precisely by offering himself. That is precisely how he becomes our King. In the very event that is to all human appearances the least likely to result in anything except failure and defeat (that is, in the death of Jesus) we are introduced to a different kind of glory, a different kind of King, and a different kind of kingdom.

In Jesus, we see the glory of God, whose concern is not to ensure “continuity of government” or to preserve a religious system, but rather to save and preserve his people. And I think that this is what we ought to be reflecting upon as we make our Lenten journey, which begins on Ash Wednesday:

  • What does it mean to live as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?
  • What does it mean to follow this unexpected, unusual Messiah, who tells us that, if we would be his disciples, we must take up our crosses and follow him?

Or, to put it more starkly: if we would drink of Jesus’ cup, are we prepared to taste suffering as well as ecstasy?

And what will that look like, for us? What sacrifices are we being called to make in order to preserve not a religious system, but a people? Not to prop up a denomination, but in order to save the children of God? Will we venture outside the blast doors? Or will we huddle inside our bunker, hoping that the walls are strong enough? Hoping that we’re buried deep enough inside our whitewashed tomb?

If you know the gospel story, you know that—time and again—Jesus lamented the fact that the religious system of his day had forgotten the purpose for which God had created it. The system had become more important than the people of God; the rules and traditions which were meant to enhance and sustain human life had become burdens which denigrated and depreciated that life. Through his own death, Jesus sought to fulfill the requirements of that old system and usher in something new, resurrected from the ashes of what had gone before.

During Lent, we are reminded that we are being called to continue the work that Jesus began. We are called “the Body of Christ”—and if we would embrace that name, we must be willing to walk the path that Jesus walked. It is a path which demands much of us. It demands that we care as much about others as we do about ourselves. It demands that we stand up for justice. And it also calls us to turn the other cheek. It calls us to love even our enemies. It calls us out of comfort and into hardship. It leads us to the mountain top, and back down again. It leads us by streams of quiet water, and it forces us into the tempest. It leads us into death—and then it leads us even beyond that!

To be sure, it is a difficult path, fraught with peril—but make no mistake about this: it is the path of glory, and it leads us, ultimately, to that place where all things are made new, and every tear is wiped away, and the brilliance of our God shines brighter than the sun. There is no better destination, and it offers us something much better than “continuity of government.” As we walk this path, we have continuity of an infinitely better kind; for we travel in the company of all the saints who have gone before us, and with the guidance of God’s own Spirit, who preserves us and saves us.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Thanks be to God.


Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXTS: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c and Mark 1:29-39

Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told [Jesus] about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. (Mark 1:30-31)

Simon’s mother-in-law. Just think what it would have been like to be her. There she lay, sick and afraid and burning up with fever. Back then, long before the development of antibiotics, fevers were serious business. Even today, they are concerning. But Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up—and her fever left her.

Imagine how the others in the house must have felt, as they watched this. As many times as I’ve read this story, I  still find myself moved by it. I’m guessing you are moved by it also, because we’ve all known suffering in our lives, haven’t we? How we long for Christ’s presence in our moments of grief and distress. How we long for him to take our hand and lift us up, whenever we find ourselves brought low.

And that’s what Jesus does. That’s what God does. We may know this from our own experience, but the Scriptures tell us this, as well. In the psalm prescribed for this day by the Revised Common Lectionary, we read that “The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground” (Ps. 147:6). Another psalm proclaims that:

The LORD sets the prisoners free;

   the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.

The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down. (Psalm 146:7-8)

God does not hesitate to take the side of those who have no one else to help them. When we find ourselves at our lowest, we can depend on God.

That’s the way it was with Thomas Dorsey. Remember him? Are you sure? Because I’m not talking about the 1940s-era big band leader here. No. I mean the African-American Gospel musician of the same name. Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993) was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late 1970s. He’s known today as “the father of black gospel music.”

This was the man who wrote the well-known hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” And behind that song, there’s quite a story. Thomas Dorsey wrote “Precious Lord” very shortly after the death of his beloved wife Nettie in childbirth and the subsequent death of their newborn son. Those were the circumstances under which he penned the words to this beloved hymn.

Later, it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Those of you who are of my vintage may remember that Mahalia Jackson sang it at Martin Luther King’s funeral. The first verse goes like this:

Precious Lord, take my hand,

lead me on, let me stand,

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;

through the storm, through the night,

lead me on to the light:

take my hand, precious Lord,

lead me home.*

Even if you don’t know the story behind the hymn, Dorsey’s words are a powerful meditation on the Saviour’s abiding presence in our moments of grief and pain. They exude unshakable faith that, no matter how bad things may get, Jesus will lead us home. Whatever trouble we face—however beaten down we are by the world or by our fellow human beings—Jesus has been there before us. In the words of another great spiritual: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”

If we but call on him, Jesus will come and be our guide. He will show us the way.

Certainly, Dorsey’s words were birthed from the particularities of his own suffering. Moreover, they are deeply rooted in the tradition and historical experience of the African-American Church. However, they transcend even that.

Like any classic text, they have in fact become universal. Dorsey’s lyrics appeal to all Christian people, regardless of their race or colour. They apply equally well at a deathbed or in a prison cell. They can soothe a broken heart or console a grieving parent. They provide hope and strength for us in times of loss, danger, and struggle—whenever we are tired, weak, or worn.

Just like Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus takes us by the hand and lifts us up—but that’s not the end of the story. It continues: “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

So it is with us. When Jesus heals us and becomes our Saviour, he calls us into his service. There are times in our life when it is enough to be near Jesus, when the only thing we need do is bask in his love. But Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer him, so that we could stand still. Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer him, so that we could live only for ourselves.

The call of Jesus is a call to serve. Indeed, he himself said that he came “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). When Jesus lifts us up from low places, he also sets us free to minister to those around us. Following Jesus means going wherever he may lead us. To touch on a theme of the Epiphany season, Jesus is the star who goes before us as we walk the pilgrim way. And we do so gladly, because he has set us free.

That’s not to say the path Jesus lights up before us is an easy one. After all, when he walked it, it led him through the valley of the shadow of death. All too often, the path of Christ is strewn with suffering and loss. Yet, even there, his light shines, illuminating even the grave—and revealing it to be the gateway to eternal life. With Jesus at our side, we can face anything. Here’s another verse from Dorsey’s hymn:

When the darkness appears,

and the night draws near,

and the day is past and gone,

at the river I stand,

guide my feet, hold my hand:

take my hand, precious Lord,

lead me home.*

That’s the Christian hope, isn’t it? That we can cross safely over Jordan—over the frontier that divides life from death—without fear, without resentment, without regret. The hope of the believer is that nothing—not even death itself—can separate us from Christ’s love. We stand at the riverbank with him, confident that he will lead us home.

This is the hope we have. And, in this hope, we can continue to put one foot in front of the other, day by day, and do the work we’re called to do—no matter what the cost; no matter how tired or afraid we may become; no matter what dangers or doubts may stand in our way. Through every trial and tribulation, the love of Christ urges us onward.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


* © 1938, Unichappell Music, Inc. (renewed). Assigned to Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp.


Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany (Year B)

TEXT: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak … So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. (1 Cor. 8:9, 11)

What Paul says here was not meant only for the Christians in first-century Corinth, but for all of God’s people in every time. His theme is freedom. Christian freedom. Christian liberty. The glorious reality of our lives in Christ is this: we have been set free! We have been delivered from the power of sin; no longer are we in bondage to it. To use the Scriptural language, we have been set free from the law; we are no longer under law, but under grace. And we have been released to enjoy life abundantly.

But just how free are we free to be? This is the question Paul addresses in today’s text. Are there any limitations to our freedom in Christ? Are we totally free to do anything we like? We are all familiar with the line of reasoning that says, “I am free to do anything I please as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” It sounds good, doesn’t it?

But the problem with this kind of reasoning is that it assumes we can be totally independent of other people—that our decisions and actions do not affect anyone else. The truth is different. The poet John Donne was right—no person is an island. No one of us truly lives in isolation. Each of us is part of a larger whole. What affects you affects me. My actions impact you. The reality of our human condition is that we are all interconnected. And this is especially true in the church.

The church is a picture of the basic unit of society: the family. Others in the church are our brothers and sisters. We are part of a community, a fellowship, a family; and what we do and how we live directly impacts all of us.

The church in Corinth was facing an issue of Christian liberty. Like us, they were asking: How free are we free to be? Are there limitations to our freedom in Christ?

Now, for them, the matter at hand was whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols—offered, in other words, as part of pagan temple worship. Probably, none of us will ever have to think about that specific problem. But the larger issue does apply to us. How does our exercising of our Christian liberty affect others? Does my behaviour help—or hinder—my brothers and sisters in Christ?

Paul draws our attention to three important considerations that should guide our conduct as Christians: we need to consider ourselves; we need to consider others; and we need to consider Christ.

Let’s look at these. Point one is: consider yourself. Paul wrote:

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. (8:1-3)

The first person you need to consider is you. It should start there. Before you can look outward, you need to look inward. You need to take a good long look at yourself to determine your own situation. And there are two areas suggested in our text.

The first is the area of knowledge. Knowledge is a good thing to have. In fact, as we grow in our relationship to Christ, we also grow in our knowledge of him and of his ways. This is a good thing, an essential thing. But it can also be a dangerous thing, if we rely too heavily on what we know. Why is that? Because, while knowledge is essential, it is not sufficient. When we put too much trust in what we know, it can cause us to become proud. Our text says that knowledge “puffs up.” It can cause us to become egocentric. It can make us arrogant. We begin to look down on others who do not have the same level of knowledge.

The second area is love. You not only need to ask yourself what you know, you also need to ask yourself whom you love. Paul tells us that while knowledge puffs up, love builds up. He goes on to say that the one who loves God is known by God. In other words, love is the foundation of our relationship with God, and the essential building block of the healthy life.

Do you love God? How do you know? So often, we evaluate our love for God by how we feel inside. I do believe that feelings are important, but feelings can also be fickle. I may feel ten different ways in an average week.

There are people who think they love God because they have a sentimental feeling toward God. Yet many of those same people can’t even get out of bed on a Sunday morning to come to church. They do not share their time, or talent, or resources for God’s work. Still, they say they love God because they have a warm feeling in their heart toward him.

There is a better test of our love for God. It is the test of obedience. If you really love God, you will show it in how you live for him. We are to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

O.K.—back to our three points of consideration. Point two is: consider others. Let’s look again at what Paul wrote. He said:

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ … It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. (8:4, 7a)

So—after we’ve taken a good long look at ourselves—we then need to consider others. We need to consider what they don’t know. Not every person will be in the same place in his or her knowledge of the truth. As we’ve seen, the question for the Corinthians was the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols. Now, Paul indicated that an idol was nothing. It was the representation of a god that did not really exist. He knew that, and other mature Christians knew that. But not everyone knew that. In Paul’s time, there were Christians who had not yet come to understand that there is but one real God. Some continued to think of these idols as significant, and they were having trouble justifying eating meat which had been sacrificed before the idols.

The problem was, the animal sacrifices that were brought to the pagan temples in Corinth eventually ended up in the marketplace. Part of the meat was burned up in the sacrifice. Another portion was given to the priest. And the rest was sold in the local butcher shops. But was that meat somehow contaminated because it was a religious sacrifice? Was it wrong for a Christian to eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god? And was it right for a Christian who had no qualms about eating that meat to eat it in the presence of someone who did? How free were they free to be?

Jesus taught that knowledge of the truth will set us free; but knowledge of the truth comes with time and experience. New Christians require space to mature and grow in their knowledge, and the rest of us owe them some tolerance and understanding. We need to allow for the fact that others may not be where we are in our walk with God. And when it comes to questionable things, we need to consider the situation of others. We need to consider what they may not know, and we also need to consider where they may be weak.

Paul talks about the weak brother. He is weak because he does not possess the knowledge necessary to understand that eating food sacrificed to idols is nothing. But weakness is not sin, and we need to understand that. We need to take into account the spiritual situation of our sisters and brothers in Christ. We need to be careful that our behaviour does not become a stumbling block to any of them.

That, I think, is the real reason why so many churches do not support the use of lottery funds. No doubt it is true that most of us can buy a “6-49” ticket or spend an evening in a casino without losing the rent money. But that is not true for everyone.

Some people may have scruples based on conscience. In those cases, we need to be careful to respect their hesitation. After all, if someone believes that a particular behaviour is a sin, for them it is a sin.

Scripture warns that if we cannot act in faith, we will end up in sin. If someone believes that it is a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and they do so, for them it is a sin. They have disobeyed God in their heart. And if, by exercising our freedom, we embolden them to eat,  then we cause them to sin. That’s why we must be careful to consider others before we act.

Let’s look at our final point for consideration. Point three is: consider Christ. Here’s what Paul wrote:

But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (8:12)

We must consider Christ. You see, when you sin against others, you sin against Christ. In everything we do—and choose not to do—Christ should be our primary consideration. Is Christ pleased with my actions? Do my choices reflect his priorities? Is his will my desire? And if not, then in what sense is he my Lord?

These are the kind of questions that we need to be asking ourselves. Because, if Jesus is not the top priority of our lives, then our lives will lack the purpose and meaning God intends for them to have. The real issue is what motivates us. What controls the way you live? Are you controlled by your own ambitions—to get and have and possess? Or are you guided by something higher: a desire to please God and walk in God’s love?

It is for love’s sake that we choose not to cause our friends to stumble. We may be more mature and have a more complete knowledge. And we may therefore be free to indulge. But we are also free to choose not to indulge for the sake of another—to limit our practices so that others may continue to grow in grace and knowledge.

If Christ Jesus truly is our Lord, then his love will guide our lives and influence our decisions. It is the love of Christ that causes us to live to please Christ—to live, not for ourselves, but for others. The promise of Christian faith is this: walk in love, and you will walk in the power of God. Walk in love, and you will build your brother up. Walk in love, and you will please the One whom you call Saviour, Lord, and King.

May it be so, for every one of us. Amen.



Third Sunday After Epiphany (Year B)

TEXTS: Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. (Jonah 3:1-3a)

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)

Today’s Old Testament reading is, of course, a part of the story of the prophet Jonah. It’s such a well-known Bible story that I hardly need to re-cap the action for you. You know about Jonah and the great fish. But do you remember why it swallowed him? I’ll return to that question in a moment, but first I want to give you some background.

There are those who insist that Jonah’s story is literally true, and happened just the way the Bible reports it. Others say it’s an allegorical tale which conveys truth, but was never meant to be regarded as history. I tend to favour the second viewpoint, but I frankly do not think it matters a whole lot; it’s just a great story!

What almost everyone agrees upon is that Jonah himself did not write the book that bears his name. And if you look carefully, you’ll see that the Bible never claims that he did write it. It’s a story about Jonah, rather than a story by Jonah.

To be sure, there was a minor prophet named Jonah, who was the son of Amittai. He is briefly mentioned in the Second Book of Kings (14:25). The historical Jonah is thought to have lived around 750 B.C.

Our story about Jonah was likely written after the Jews came back from exile in Babylon, about 450 B.C. In other words, some unknown author wrote this story about 300 years after Jonah’s time. It is a short story designed to drive home a prophetic message to the people of the writer’s generation, and I think it is meant to be humorous. It is satire of the cleverest sort.

Now, a couple of facts are useful in order to better understand the story being told.

First of all, Nineveh was a city in Assyria—and it was the Assyrians who had overrun the northern kingdom of Israel and destroyed Jonah’s homeland. To Jonah, the Ninevites were wicked enemies.

Secondly, as far as Jonah was concerned, Tarshish—which is where he was headed when the fish got him—was at the very end of the earth. It was as far away as he could get from Nineveh.

When I was a kid, Timbuktu was the same sort of place; nobody knew where it actually was, but we all knew it was about as far away as you could get.

The story begins with God calling Jonah to go to Nineveh to urge the Ninevites to repent of their wickedness. But of course, that is the last thing that Jonah wants to do. He despises those people, and he wants God to destroy them, not forgive them. And he certainly does not want to be the instrument of their salvation.

So what does Jonah do? He goes down to the seaport of Joppa, buys the most expensive ticket he can get for a boat to take him to Tarshish. He wants to get as far away as possible—as if the LORD won’t be able to find him! For a prophet, Jonah doesn’t seem to know much about God.

We all know what happens next. God sends a great storm. The ship begins to sink. The sailors cast lots in order to find who is responsible for all this bad luck. The lot falls on Jonah, who then admits what he’s done. Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, and—reluctantly—they do.

Then, sure enough, the storm dies away, and the sea is calm. Then these foreign sailors respond by worshipping God and offering sacrifices to Him. Jonah, in spite of himself, has converted the entire crew.

But that’s not the end of the story. God summons a big fish to swallow up Jonah, who stays in the creature’s belly for three days and three nights. Not surprisingly, Jonah prays for deliverance, and the fish vomits him up onto the shore.

Now comes the part we read today. God speaks to Jonah a second time: “Get up! Get on your feet, and do what I asked you to do in the first place. Go to Nineveh and call the city to repentance. They are in a terrible mess, and I can’t ignore it any longer.”

So, Jonah does exactly what he is asked to do—to the letter; no more, and no less. He goes to the city and he cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4).

What happens?

The people listen. They believe him. And they all repent. In fact, their king orders them to! When the king of Nineveh hears about Jonah’s prophecy, he decrees that everyone—even the animals—must fast, and dress in sackcloth, and cry loudly to God for help. He says:

“All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:8-9).

And that’s exactly what happened. God did not destroy Nineveh, after all.

Needless to say, everyone was very happy … except Jonah! As the story continues through chapter four, we see that Jonah is anything but happy. In fact, he is beside himself with rage.

He cries out to God, saying: “I knew it! I knew this was going to happen. I knew that you would change your mind, because—blast it—you are a gracious and merciful God. Well, if  you won’t kill the Ninevites, then kill me! I’m better off dead.”

Jonah is so full of spite that he would rather die than live on the same planet as the Ninevites. When God asks him why he is so angry, Jonah storms out of the city and sits down to have a good sulk.

Why is Jonah so angry? The short answer is because God loves too many people.

The longer answer, according to Jonah himself, is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing” (4:2).

Gracious and merciful. Slow to anger. Abounding in steadfast love. Using punishment only as a last resort.

Well, that’s what we like about God, isn’t it?

And—just like Jonah—that’s how we expect God to behave toward us … right? If we are the children being spoiled, we want him to spare the rod!

But … that’s not always how we want God to be toward others … is it? 

Jazz musician William Carter—who also happens to be a Presbyterian minister—tells the following story about something that happened during a flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to London, England:

A woman with a thick European accent got on the plane. She came down the aisle to the tourist section and discovered her seat assignment put her right next to a man with, shall we say, an African accent. She looked at her seat assignment; she saw it was correct.

She asked her seatmate, “I’m sorry, are you in the right seat?”

He smiled and nodded yes. She turned around to see if there were any other empty seats in the section, but she didn’t see any. So she tugged on the sleeve of the flight attendant.

“Excuse me,” she said, “as you can see, I’m sitting next to a person whose skin colour is different from mine.”

“Yes, ma’am, I can see that.”

“Well,” she said, “this is simply unacceptable. Is there another available seat?”

The flight attendant looked at her strangely and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s against our policy to move people unnecessarily.”

“You don’t understand,” said the wealthy woman, “this arrangement will not do. I have funds in my purse to arrange an alternative.”

The flight attendant said, “You do?”

“Yes, I do. Would you please go up to first class and see if there is an available seat? I simply cannot sit next to this person.”

The flight attendant shrugged her shoulders and walked up the aisle. A few minutes later she returned. She leaned over the European woman, tapped the man with the African accent, and said, “I’m sorry, sir, I hate to do this. I must make a seating change. If you follow me, we have a place for you in first class.” *

The love of God wants to give every person first-class treatment. Sometimes, however—as William Carter points out—we get stuck in our same old seats.

Which, unfortunately, is kind of where Jonah gets stuck. The Bible says that, from his position just outside Nineveh, he waited “to see what would become of the city” (4:5). It sounds like Jonah is hoping God will come to his senses and nuke the place anyway!

Yeah. He’s having a real good sulk. However … What is God like? What is this God of ours like? You just heard it …

Our God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He knows Jonah is worth salvaging, so he causes a bush to spring up. It grows over Jonah to give him shade and cool him off. Jonah thinks this is pretty good, and he enjoys the shade. Things are looking up!

But then God sends a worm to attack the bush, and by the next morning the bush has withered away. Then a sirocco comes—a hot, blustery wind from the eastern deserts. The sun beats down relentlessly upon Jonah’s head, and once again he prays for death. What a hard case this guy is!

Then God tries to reason with Jonah. He asks him, “What right have you to get angry over this bush?”

“Plenty of right!” replies Jonah. “It’s made me angry enough to die!

So God asks his prophet a final question: “How come—overnight—you can change your feelings from happiness to anger—all about a bush that you neither planted nor cared for—and yet you rage against me for changing my feelings about Nineveh and its inhabitants?”

So ends the story of Jonah.

Over and over again in Scripture, we are told that God is gracious, merciful, faithful, constant, and loving. Here, we discover that God is also, apparently, willing to change his mind. God retains the right to extend his grace even to those who don’t deserve it.

I think Calvinists refer to that as divine freedom. God is not obligated to behave the way we think he should. Notice that—again, just like Jonah—we also remain free. We can choose how we respond to God’s call. We have the freedom to choose God’s will … or to resist it.

Yeah. I’m sure Calvinists love this story, because it has much to say about predestination and free will. But you know, it also has a lot to say about the universal nature of God’s love. In this story, a ship’s crew and a whole city of Assyrian Ninevites choose to worship the One, living God of Israel—and they are accepted by him. Even Gentiles can be saved!

That is a bitter pill for poor Jonah to swallow. It’s quite a shock to his system to discover that God loves the Ninevites, too.

The message of this story—which comes out of the Jewish tradition—is that God is willing to love anybody. Even Jonah. Even you and me. The difficulty lies not in assuring ourselves that this is true. No. The difficulty lies in believing that it is true for everybody else, as well. 

See, not one of us is beyond God’s reach. That is the message of grace.

Centuries after Jonah, that message of grace took human form in a person—Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom we call Saviour and Lord, the one we hail as Messiah and Christ.

In Jesus, God came looking for us. Through him, God calls us to speak his redeeming Word. Some of us willingly comply. Others pull back in reluctance. Some—like Simon, Andrew, James, and John—respond at once, impulsively dropping their nets and leaving everything else behind. Others need more persuasion.

But whoever we are, God waits for us—waits to receive us into his love. And whoever we are—if we will yield our hearts to his Spirit—he will make us into better disciples than we ever imagined we could be.

Thanks be to God. May the Lord grant us the grace and good humour to see his hand at work in our lives. Amen.





Second Sunday After the Epiphany

TEXTS: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 and John 1:43-51


What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Well, here we are, barely two weeks into the New Year and already we could be excused for wondering why we persist in calling it “new.” There is a depressing familiarity about the first days of 2024—an awareness of dismal repetition, a sense that there is indeed “nothing new under the sun.” Our headlines have been dominated by events in Gaza and the problems of Israel and the Palestinians; by Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine; by violence in Sudan; and by the continuing gang wars in our major cities. Nothing much new there. And all the other world events that greet us each day seem to be very much business as usual, with the tired old world spinning endlessly on.

Then we turn to our appointed Scriptures for this Sunday and we find ourselves in familiar territory. “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days …” (1 Sam. 3:1). In other words, this was an era of spiritual famine—a time when the most evident feature of God was his absence, when visions were not widespread. People were groping in the dark. They lacked direction, and God did not seem to care.

The Scripture tells us that the aged priest Eli’s sight was dim. His vision was failing—and we may surmise that his blindness was not just a condition of his physical eyes, but was also a metaphor for the state of his soul. These were dark times. Then we read: “the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord …” (1 Sam. 3:3). Of course, the setting of the story is night-time, and the reference is to an actual lamp that was dimming to a faint glow. But surely there is something deeper here. It was the very light of God’s presence that was flickering and spluttering and was about to go out. Israel was teetering on the brink of utter spiritual abandonment.

What is so depressing about this scenario is that there appears to be no way out, no way through, no hope of a better tomorrow. For where is “something better” going to come from? Where are the resources that might kick-start something genuinely new and different? There is a sense here of a tired old priesthood represented by Eli—a religious system which has now run its course and has nowhere left to go. It’s reached a dead end. Likewise, the religious life of Israel is barren and sterile and lifeless and people yearn for some new initiative, some new configuration. They long for something—anything—that will bring transformation and usher in something better, something different. But there is nothing. Nothing new. Just more of the same.

Depressing, isn’t it? But realistic. There really does seem to be nothing new under the sun—only endless repetition. And in our gospel lesson, we can see that Nathanael must have felt the same way about his time. Consider his cynical, jaded reaction to Philip’s excitement. Philip claims to have found the one foretold in the law and the prophets! But what is Nathanael’s response?

“Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth? We all know Nazareth! It’s a place for losers and always has been! Nothing good can ever come out of there. Nothing can ever change there.”

Nazareth is typecast. Maybe we could re-phrase Nathanael and ask, “Can anything new come out of Nazareth?”

But then we return to Samuel in the temple. We return to the silent darkness where the lamp of God glows so dimly and so faintly … and if we listen very carefully, what do we hear? In the stillness there is a soft voice calling: “Samuel, Samuel …”  And the voice of the child replies, “Here I am …” Of course, Samuel can only interpret what is happening in terms of the old and familiar. It must be Eli that is calling.

At first the aged priest cannot discern the voice of God in Samuel’s story, either. Why? Because he thinks that God does not speak anymore.

But it is not Eli calling, and Samuel is not dreaming. It is the voice of God—gentle but firm, easily misunderstood, yet persistent. And so God enters into that dark, empty place—and suddenly, something new is stirring. God is there, and God is at work.

So, too, with Nazareth. What we need to know about Nazareth is that it was more than just a dull and denigrated place. It was also a dark place. Around the time of Jesus—and in the area where he lived—there were a number of rebellions and uprisings against the Roman occupiers. Such rebellions were always ruthlessly crushed. The Romans did not counter insurrection with half measures.

One such rebellion occurred in a place called Sepphoris—just a few miles north of Nazareth—around the time of Jesus’ birth. The Roman response was swift. They burned Sepphoris to the ground, and made slaves of the people there.

And when a rebellion broke out at a place called Gerasa, the Romans slaughtered the young men, made prisoners of the women and children, and then set fire to the houses and advanced to the surrounding villages. The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything left was consigned to the flames. Even those in the neighbouring towns bore the soldiers’ wrath. As was said of the Romans, “they make a desert and call it peace.” *

It seems likely that Nazareth was not just a boring place, but a scarred place, also—a place of tears and bitter memories. While Jesus was growing up, the most traumatic recent event in the village’s life would have been the day the Romans came. Yet out of this place emerges the Anointed One. Here, Jesus is nurtured. Here, he grows, and is taught, and learns about God.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Yes! Yes, something—someone—does.

So maybe there is something new under the sun, after all. The voice of God is heard once again: calling out, after a lengthy silence. Something new does come out of scarred and despised places like Nazareth. But the trick is knowing how to discern it. Like Samuel, like Eli, we can all too easily fail to recognize it. Like Nathanael, our prejudices and presumptions can cloud our vision.

Last week, we heard Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, which contains a most extraordinary description of what happened there. We are told that as Jesus emerged from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)

This is an epiphany—a revelation of who Jesus is. Here something new is breaking in from above, tearing open the heavens, bursting upon the world. But that is not how it usually happens. More often, God arrives without fanfare—emerges from the tired old world with offers of new life and new hope … as a voice in the night, or as a stranger from Nazareth.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Yes, to our surprise, Jesus does! Can something new emerge from old, tired, scarred places? Yes! For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it does.

In dark places today, God is at work. In Nazareth itself—as well as in Gaza, in a land where innocent children are torn apart by bullets and bombs—people are caring for one another, sharing with one another, supporting one another. And in other places—wherever there is armed conflict, disease, famine, or natural disaster—there are stories of heroism and love and self-sacrifice. Here God will be found, and God’s voice will be heard—if only in whispers—and Jesus will emerge.

I believe it will happen in the church, also. Here we are in our rampantly secular world, where faith seems to be under attack from every quarter; where we anxiously watch church attendance decline, and most people are abandoning religion. It feels a lot like Samuel’s day. It feels as if the Word of the Lord is rarely spoken; and there does not seem to be much outpouring of vision. Perhaps Nazareth is a good metaphor for the Church in our time: a dull place, a scarred place, a place of bitter memories.

Can anything good—anything new—come from this Nazareth? Well, yes, it can. And yes, it does. For it is from such unpromising places and situations that we will indeed “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending.”

May the Lord open our eyes to what he wants to show us, and unstop our ears, that we may hear what he wants to tell us. Amen.


*Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.  Translation:  “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” Reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, this is from a speech by the British chieftain Calgacus addressing assembled warriors about Rome’s insatiable appetite for conquest and plunder. The chieftain’s sentiment can be contrasted to “peace given to the world” which was frequently inscribed on Roman medals. The last part, solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (“they make a desert, and call it peace”) is often quoted alone.


Epiphany/Baptism of Christ

TEXTS: Matthew 2:1-12 and Mark 1:4-11


Today we find ourselves celebrating—simultaneously—two of the great festivals of the Christian Church: Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ.

Epiphany Day always falls on January 6 (Saturday, this year). And—in our modern liturgical calendar—the first Sunday following that is celebrated as “the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord”.

Now, originally, the Baptism of Christ was observed on Epiphany, as part of a celebration commemorating the coming of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. Over time in the West, however, the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord became a distinct feast from Epiphany. In most Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the Baptism of the Lord is still celebrated as an integral part of the January 6th date, called the Great Feast of the Theophany. 

Today, I’m going to tie the two ancient threads back together by using not one, but two, gospel lessons.

First, we hear about the wise men bringing their odd gifts to the Christ Child. Then we hear about the adult Jesus coming to the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John. Ancient traditions aside … perhaps you find yourself wondering how these two events can possibly be connected. Is that a head-scratcher? Well, take heart! Because this day is all about finding things. Including, perhaps, yourself.

Remember what the word “epiphany” means. Spelled with a capital “E,” Epiphany is the religious day we’re all familiar with. But that, really, is a secondary meaning of the word.

According to the dictionary definition, an epiphany takes place “when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you or a powerful religious experience.”

In other words, “epiphany” is about revelation. It’s about things being revealed, uncovered, brought to light. It’s about “a-ha” moments, about realizing something that makes you sit bolt upright in shock. It’s about profound truth suddenly becoming crystal clear.

Consider the familiar story we read in Matthew, chapter two. The “wise men from the east”—whom we call Magi—were members of a learned class in ancient Persia. They were among the best-educated people of their time, and they specialized in the study of heavenly bodies in the night sky. However, beyond simply observing the constellations, they also believed that the stars and planets could reveal things about events here on earth. Today, we would call them astrologers, and you might expect them to have a horoscope column in the newspaper.

Whatever stock you place in astrology, these wise men seem to have known what they were talking about. Their celestial observations led them to conclude that a new king was about to be born in Judea, and they decided to go and see him.

Now, like I said, these were clever people. They must have realized that this was no ordinary king, but someone who was going to be of great importance to all humankind. Otherwise, I’m not sure why Persians would give a hoot about a new heir to the Jewish throne. Maybe they had some idea of what a “messiah” was. Maybe they hoped—as later many Jews would also hope—that this new king would defeat the Roman Empire, which the Persians viewed as a serious threat.

We can’t know any of that for sure, of course, but this much is clear: these wise men thought they already had their epiphany. They thought they had things all figured out.

And so when they got to Judea … Where did they go looking for the new-born king? In Jerusalem, of course!

That seems logical, doesn’t it? If you’re looking for the king, you go to the capital city. The new king must be the son of the old king … right? So you show up at the royal palace, asking: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matt. 2:2).

Well, you know the story. You know there’s another epiphany in store for the Magi—because they quickly learn that they haven’t got it all figured out.

For one thing, the current ruler of Judea—Herod—has no clue what they’re talking about, and is none too pleased to discover that he has a rival for his throne.

For another thing, they find out that they got their directions wrong. The One whom they seek is to be found not in a palace in Jerusalem, but in a modest home in Bethlehem, about eight kilometres to the south.

Of course, none of this matters, in the end. Their mistakes don’t matter. Their missteps are of little consequence. When they finally do arrive on Jesus’ doorstep, the Bible tells us that they are “overwhelmed with joy” (Matt. 2:10). To me, that sounds like what they found at the end of their journey was even better than what they had expected. In other words, it was a real epiphany!

And that’s the Epiphany story we’re used to hearing, in our Western branch of the Christian Church. But—as I said before—in the Eastern churches, on Epiphany Day, we would not be hearing only about the Magi. No. We would also be hearing the second gospel reading I chose for today.

We would be hearing about the 30-something Jesus coming to the Jordan River to be plunged beneath its chilly stream in a baptism of repentance. And as he emerges from the water, Jesus sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And then he hears a voice from heaven, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11).

Now, why is this part of the Epiphany story, in the churches of the East? Well, it’s because they remain in touch with a very old tradition about Jesus—one which says that, at the moment of his baptism, he had his own profound epiphany.

In other words, this was the moment when the grown man finally understood—fully and completely—the exact nature of the mission God had given him. This was when Jesus finally “got” it, finally grasped the meaning of those bizarre stories his mother had told him—about shepherds and angels and wise men, about gold and frankincense and myrrh, about the mighty God of heaven being his real Father.

This is not a tradition that has been emphasized here in the West. And the reason, I think, has to do with a kind of discomfort on our part—a discomfort with the idea that Jesus was actually human.

Do you know what I mean?

We affirm—correctly—that Christ was God incarnate, fully divine. And we affirm—correctly—that he was fully human. But we have trouble sorting out what all that means.

We think that, if Jesus was God, he must have known all that there was to know about everything—and so the idea that he could have received a shocking revelation at his baptism seems incongruent. But look: don’t we believe that the Baby born in Bethlehem was a helpless infant? Didn’t he have to learn to crawl before he could walk?

As a bright teenager once pointed out to me, limitation is the very essence of humanity. As she said: “Isn’t that what we mean when we say, ‘I’m only human’?”

If Jesus of Nazareth was truly and fully human, he must have had limitations. If he was really and truly one of us, then he must have been subject to revelations—to epiphanies, to “a-ha” moments—just as we are.

In each of the gospel accounts, Jesus’ baptism is portrayed as a turning point in his life. From that moment on, things changed for him. After that epiphany—after that “a-ha” moment—the life of Christ had a sharp focus, and his ministry picked up steam.

If the Christian life—the life of discipleship—is about following Jesus, about striving to be like him, should we not expect to have our own moments of epiphany? Shouldn’t we be seeking them out? Shouldn’t we be making our own journeys to Bethlehem—and to the Jordan?

The truth is, we are making those journeys—whether we know it, or not. And we will have those moments of epiphany—whether we expect them, or not.

Some of you, I know, already realize this. Some of you have already had an epiphany or two. Let me tell you about one of mine. It took place when my now-grown-up son was a newborn infant, and Iris and myself had received this awful news that he had a serious heart defect, and needed emergency surgery. Several well-meaning ministry folk came to me and said something like, “You must be terribly angry with God.” And they wanted me to know that it was O.K. to be mad at God about this, that I shouldn’t feel guilty about it, but should just express it, just let my anger out.

Now, I have to say, I knew what they were getting at. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, it’s hard to understand how He could let my son—or any child—be born with this kind of cross to bear. And I also have to say that, in the years since, as I’ve received formal training in the field, I’ve discovered that most pastors are trained to say this sort of thing.

I might even say this myself to someone—if that person was facing something like this, and was in fact angry—because, let me tell you, God is big enough to bear human anger. And He is a God of love, and He won’t condemn you.

However, in point of fact, when those words were said to me—when people said, “You must be angry with God”—I realized that I was not angry. And as soon as I realized that, I was puzzled. I was a bit surprised. Because I understood the logic. Why had God allowed my son to be born with a defective heart?

Well, I did not know the answer to that question then—and I don’t know the answer now, either. But that’s not important. What’s important is this: the very next thought that entered my mind was, “The God I know does not torture babies!” And then, the very next thought that entered my mind was: “I know who God is!”

I know who God is! I did not know that I knew that. And I was shocked. I was dumbfounded.

But after I got over the shock, after my mind stopped reeling from the implications of this epiphany, all kinds of other things that had never made sense suddenly made perfect sense. And more than that, I knew that—however things turned out—my son was going to be all right, and so was I, and so was Iris.

Not long after that, I made the decision to pursue accountable ministry as a career. Or, to be more honest about it, I finally understood that I really had been hearing a call to ministry for a long time … and I’d been resisting it.

Someone else I know had his “a-ha” moment—his epiphany—sitting in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, across the table from someone he really did not care for very much. But on this day, sitting at this table, my friend was telling his own sad story of addiction—confessing the depths to which alcohol had plunged him—and he was finding it hard to do, because he felt so ashamed.

But then, he told me, he looked up, and he caught the gaze of this fellow sitting across from him—this person he did not like—and in the man’s eyes he saw something amazing, something that caught him up short, and stunned him for a moment. As my friend described it to me, what he saw in this man’s eyes was “the loving and compassionate gaze of Christ.”

All at once he realized that—whether or not he approved of this fellow, or was willing to accept him—the man across the table accepted him completely. In his look, there was no judgment, no condemnation. There was only unconditional love.

For my friend, that was his turning point. At that moment, something inside him was changed, forever. Until that day, his struggle to break alcohol’s grip on his life had been unsuccessful—yet, since that day, he has remained sober. He can’t explain exactly why, except to say that he met Christ sitting across from him at that A.A. table—and Christ’s love healed him.

Epiphanies. We don’t always understand them. Perhaps we never quite expect them. But I believe we all have them. They are evidence of God’s grace toward us. They provide us with hope for the future, and strength for the present—and I think they also, always, challenge us somehow.

Through this church season of Epiphany—which, this year, is going to last for over a month—I urge you to take some time to remember the “a-ha” moments in your own spiritual lives. And—if you feel able to—I hope you share them with one another. I hope you share them with me. Leave a comment. I’d love to hear your “epiphany” stories, because, my friends, sharing them is a way of sharing the good news of Christ. Thank God we have them! Amen.


First Sunday After Christmas (Year B)

TEXTS: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
(Isaiah 62:1-2)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4-5)

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon … (Luke 2:22-25a)


The three lectionary readings for today have their own kind of connectedness. What connects them, for me, is the theme of time—or of God acting in time, acting in history.

Our reading from Isaiah looks forward to a time when Jerusalem—and the Jewish people—shall be redeemed, and rescued from exile and suffering; vindicated, and given a new name, just as brides (and many of them still do it) receive on their wedding day a new name, and begin a new life.

In our gospel reading, Simeon and Anna are inheritors of the prophet’s hope. Their visions, too, are filled with assurances of salvation—of God fulfilling his promises in the sphere of history and time.

And Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, ties it all together, saying that God sent his Son “in the fullness of time.” Why? “To redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” of God.

The promise which is fulfilled in Christ is much bigger than Isaiah could have imagined—though Simeon appeared to catch a glimpse of its greatness. He took the baby Jesus in his arms, and praised God, saying:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:29-32; also see Isaiah 52:10; 9:2; 42:6; 49:6)

Our readings for today challenge us to ponder their meanings—to examine them for clues about how we are to live in this world of time, and about how we can make sense of our often-frightening existence within human history.

We do not know enough about Joseph and Mary to understand their politics, but the gospel accounts indicate to us how greatly they were affected by the political acts of governors and kings.

Can we read about their flight into Egypt and not be reminded of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents? Matthew tells that sad story in chapter two of his gospel. Enraged that the Wise Men had tricked him, King Herod ordered the murder of all the male children in the region of Bethlehem. Every boy of two years or younger was killed, as Herod tried to eliminate his rival. Mary, Joseph, and the child, however, were safe in Egypt, where they had fled as refugees to escape Herod’s wrath.

What a horrible story, you may say. It could never happen like that in our time, you might think. But the ongoing destruction of innocents in the Gaza Strip—which the UN has dubbed “a graveyard for children”—proves otherwise.*

Today, many people who are in political and spiritual exile need our help—or else they shall remain outcasts and strangers. In every Canadian city, thousands of homeless street people live in a world of mental anguish. Without family or friends, they lack the sense of purpose and accomplishment that community life provides.

Time is empty without the sense of belonging given by family life. Yet families—even the best—are messy realities, and the history of Jesus’ family is not complete; it is still being written—in our time, in our lives. However, examining the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus can create for us—in our time—the intention and the space to love.

We can pray that every task we share and every event that overtakes us will be accomplished in mutual and loving acceptance. But we must be willing to labour for the kind of harmony and understanding that existed between Joseph and Mary.

The intimacy and love this couple shared included the temple community and the elderly—even “fringe people” like Simeon and Anna. Their intimacy and love were also challenged by enemies who sought their child’s life.

Home is clearly no refuge from the world, yet, when all was said and done, they returned to Nazareth in Galilee, where, Luke tells us, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.”

Notice that? The child’s obedience and love are the working of God’s will—the beginning of salvation, not its reward. Christ was born in time as a helpless infant, who had to be loved and cared for, and who had to learn everything: how to walk, how to talk, how to live in this material world. Jesus grew as every human child grows—within human history, and within the dimension of time. He had to become who he would be, just as we have to. Our salvation—whatever that means for each one of us—is revealed in time. Those who say that life is a journey are quite correct.

The birthday of Jesus points to his baptism. The incarnation points to the cross and resurrection. And the resurrection points toward our own future as children of God—a future that will come to pass for each one of us “in the fullness of time,” as we journey on in God’s presence.

Holy days—like this Christmas which has just passed—are meant to be days filled with rejoicing and feasting. The Word of the Lord has gone forth, and we are on the brink of release.

But release to what? Release for what? Those are answers which each one of us must find for his or her own self. Those are answers which will only be revealed as time reaches its fulfillment.

Even as Mary and Joseph went up to the temple to do for Jesus what was customary under the law, so also we are called to praise God, to stand before the Lord in ways that are fitting and right. It is our portion, our share in the salvation that is to be from God, the source of our willingness to be reconciled to one another.

Let us pray for time enough to do all that is required, in order that we may grow in age and in wisdom and in God’s favour. Amen.


For those of you who may be planning worship for the First Sunday After Christmas, I offer this Recessional Hymn (set to a tune you’ll all recognize):


Song of Simeon

Tune: WINCHESTER OLD (“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”)


Now we, God’s servants, shall depart

in everlasting peace;

Our eyes have seen salvation’s hope,

our hearts are now at ease.


God has prepared a radiant Light

the darkness to dispel,

to lead the nations in His ways

and shine on Israel.