Can These Bones Live?

Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXTS: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” (John 11:38-39)

I suppose it’s a natural enough connection to make, but whenever I read about Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb, I immediately think about another Scripture passage—from Ezekiel, chapter 37:

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out …  and set me down in the middle of a valley … full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” (Ezekiel 37:1-3)

Today we reach the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or “sign” that reveals Jesus as the giver of life. It also seals his fate. If you keep reading past verse 45 of chapter 11, you discover that the raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin—the official Jewish court. The Sanhedrin reaches the conclusion that Jesus must be killed; and so, next week, we come to Palm Sunday and the beginning of the anguish and joy of Holy Week.

Today’s story begins where we all find ourselves at one time or another: in a valley of dry bones; a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has been dead for four days, and his sisters Mary and Martha are devastated.

We know what that’s like, don’t we? Just getting up in the morning requires tremendous effort. Either we’ve gone totally numb, or else we can’t believe the intensity and volatility of our feelings. One minute we’re handling things okay, juggling responsibilities and talking sense like rational human beings; the next minute we’re bursting into tears at the slightest provocation.

You know, that’s one of the things I love about Scripture—the way it meets us just as we are, the way its stories connect with our lives. Mary and Martha taste the same bitterness that we all taste when a loved one dies. They know, as we do, the pang of loneliness that can seize you in the middle of the night, the grief that empties life of all its joy.

Even if we haven’t recently suffered a personal loss, there is still plenty to mourn and protest about these days. Sorrow is no farther away than the morning newspaper, or the evening newscast—or the house next door, or the one down the street. No wonder we are tempted sometimes to hide—to flee from one distraction to another; to buy something we don’t really need, or dive into one more busy task, or “space out” in front of a TV sitcom. The pain we sense around us and within us can be excruciating.

“Out of the depths,” says the psalmist, “have I called to you, O Lord.” I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we could press our ear to the earth and hear the sound of the world’s pain. What would change in us if we could hear all at once the blended wailing of the world’s great sadness?

The prophet Ezekiel uses a different image. What if God picked us up by the scruff of the neck and set us down in the middle of a valley full of death, so that we saw nothing but dry bones all around? “Can these bones live?” we would ask ourselves. “Can hope possibly spring out of this desolation?”

That’s where today’s gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Like mourners the world over, Martha and Mary are utterly bereft. And then something happens. Jesus arrives.

When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, the next sentence is the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

He wept! This is no distant God—no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God willing to meet us in our suffering and to share in our pain. This may come as a shock to those who take the hard fact of suffering as proof that God is not real or that God does not care or that God is punishing us. This story reveals an astonishing truth: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.  

Not only that. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing—the first step in birthing new life—comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. If we are able to grieve, then we have moved out of numbness—out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine, when in fact it is not.

“Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life. But of course, there’s more. Jesus comes to us not only with vulnerability and an open heart. He comes with power.

“Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the crowd must have been thinking just then? Martha lays out the situation as tactfully as she can: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

In other words: “When someone’s dead, they’re dead. Don’t torment me by pretending you can do something about it.”

But—reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope—some folks in the crowd do move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb. And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, his voice is clear.

“Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.”

Can you hear him? “Come out!”  It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses Lazarus by name.

Can you hear him? “Come out!”  It is a voice of power—and it addresses you by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I have, too.

In the end, this gospel story is about how much God wants to set us free—to raise us up, to call us out from the tombs that seal us in. Out from fear. Out from resentment. Out from addiction, despair, resentment … Out from our tombs, whatever they are. 

Thank God we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but he also calls a community into being. “Unbind him,” he says to the circle of villagers who are standing around, gawking. “Let him go.”

We can’t just watch each other grow. We need each other to help unwrap the layers that have bound us, to uncover who this raised-up person is.

I invite you to let Jesus draw close. Are you in mourning? Then let him weep with you. Are you holding a vision for your life that you’ve never quite dared to carry out? Then let him empower you to begin. Are you wishing you could reach out to help another person—but you feel too shy, or too afraid? Then hear Jesus calling you to “roll away the stone”—to “unbind her”; to “let him go.”

Or maybe you are the one who is shut away in the tomb. If so, take time to listen. Today may be the very day that Jesus summons you out. The world is full of grief, loss, and fear, but something else is going on, too. If we press our ear to the ground and listen closely, perhaps we’ll hear it—not only the world’s pain, but also the steady heartbeat of God, the sound of a love that pulses through all things, seeking us out and making all things new.

May God give us ears to hear what his Spirit is saying to us—and eyes to see Jesus, who is our resurrection and our life.

Blind Spots

Fourth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: John 9:1-41

“I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)

How many of you have seen the movie—or the play—The Miracle Worker? Even if you haven’t seen the film, or watched the stage play, you probably know about Helen Keller.

As a child, Helen Keller had lost both her hearing and her sight. However, a teacher—Anne Sullivan—was able to break through the isolation imposed by those disabilities, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate. Helen Keller went on to complete college, and she became a famous author and lecturer.

Keller was asked once whether she thought that blindness was the worst thing that could happen to someone. Her answer was no. The worst thing that could befall a person, she said, was not to lose their sight, but to lose their vision.

Because someone was able to bridge the gap between Helen’s silent, dark world and the world of light and sound, she was able—despite her limitations—to lead a meaningful life of helping others. In spite of great obstacles, she found a sense of purpose and vision.

Most of us have blind spots—assumptions, ideas and perceptions that we never even think about changing. These blind spots can be major roadblocks on our spiritual journey, and they can cause severe damage—to others, and to ourselves. And I think we all run up against them, no matter who we are—even if we sit in church (or stand behind a pulpit) every week,

Today’s gospel lesson illustrates this point. Consider the Pharisees. The poor Pharisees … they get a rough ride in Scripture.  Yet the Pharisees were the good religious people. We don’t get much of a sense of it in the gospels, but the Pharisees were—in many ways—the most like Jesus of any of the religious parties in first-century Judaism. They were leaders in the synagogues and in society, and they were the ones who advocated most aggressively for the poor and the underprivileged—the widows and orphans, the aged and crippled.

Even so, some of them seemed utterly blind when it came to Jesus and his ministry. They were important religious leaders, yet their own spirits had become hardened and dead. They were supposed to be leading people into the light of God—yet they had become so smug and sure of themselves that they were not able to recognize God’s light as it shone in the person of Jesus. These particular Pharisees were as blind as anyone could possibly be.

But we’re not like them, are we?

“Surely we are not blind, are we?”

If we have blind spots, they exist because we have developed them—and this development is not a random thing. Consciously or unconsciously, we choose our blind spots. We choose them to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats.

For their part, the Pharisees were blind to the power and goodness of Jesus. Their blind spot protected them from having to give up any of their authority or power. And that’s not such an unusual blind spot, is it? Even today, people in authority want to protect themselves from anything or anyone that might threaten their position. I guess that’s why election campaigns look and sound the way they do.

Today’s gospel lesson challenges us to take a closer look at those areas of our lives that we have blocked off from God and from others—and maybe even from ourselves. But there seems to be a built-in problem here. If I am blind—but don’t recognize my blindness—how can I move toward healing? Toward seeing?

Blind spots surround our fears, most often. If there is something that we need to protect from outsiders, then we conveniently fail to see the reality that threatens us.

Prejudice is one such blind spot. We think that those who are different from us are a threat to us, and so we keep our distance from them. We afraid of what they might do to us, or demand of us.

Growing as they do out of our deepest fears, blind spots are not logical or rational. That is why you cannot argue a person out of their blindness; they are emotionally incapable of listening to you.

Only conversion works to help people see. But to be converted, we must be open to receiving new sight. Prayer can be the first step in this process, for in prayer we open ourselves to God working within us. If we sincerely ask God to reveal those parts of ourselves that we don’t see, we can be sure that God will answer our prayers.

There is one clue to our blindness that we would all do well to be aware of. That clue is anger. Now, it’s true that there are many reasons for anger—some good and some bad. If we become angry because an injustice is being done, we are not doing anything other than what Jesus himself would have done. But—if we are honest—we have to admit that most of our anger is not provoked by injustice.

Often, we are angry because someone has threatened something that is personal to us—whether that personal thing is a possession that we cherish, or an idea that we cling to. So it’s important for us to pay attention to our anger.

The Pharisees became so angry with the formerly-blind man that they expelled him from the synagogue. And it’s easy to see why. The fact that he was cured by Jesus—someone who was not exactly a friend of theirs—did nothing to help the popularity or authority of the Pharisees. So, in anger, they threw the man out of the synagogue—out of their community.

Our anger is the first thing we must consider as we explore our own blindness. If you discover a pattern to your anger, you have likely discovered your largest blind spot.

Want a Lenten exercise? Try this. Write down all the times and places in the last several months where you have lost your temper. Then look at all of those instances very carefully as you try to discover a pattern. If you do discover a pattern to your anger, then go to the root of that anger, and you will have discovered one of your blind spots. As we become more aware of what motivates us, we will also become more able to control that motivation.

This is worth doing—and not just because it’s Lent. To deny your imperfection is to deny yourself, for to be human is to be imperfect. Accepting your imperfection, it seems to me, is the beginning of healing. Discovering and accepting our blindness is the foundation for receiving sight from the Lord.

In one of the other lectionary readings for today—in the Letter to the Ephesians—the apostle Paul urges us to come out of the darkness:

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord … everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:8-10, 14)

As we continue our Lenten journey, may the Lord bless all of us with new insight—and with new vision.

“I Am Thirsty”

Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: John 4:7-29; 39-42

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, Give me a drink. (John 4:7)

In his book, Transformed by Grace, the American preacher N. Gordon Cosby writes about the importance of a personal encounter with Jesus—an encounter such as the Samaritan woman at the well experienced.  Here’s what he says:

… I have discovered … that commitment and discipline are the absolute essentials for any spiritual power. I do not mean a general commitment or general discipline. I mean a definite commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a commitment to a person—not a commitment to a cause. Not a commitment to a principle of love, this is a commitment to a living person and is definite. Not only must it be definite, but it must be a full commitment. When Christ comes to a person he makes a total claim upon his or her life; only a total response is adequate. Not to respond in such a definite way is not to have met the real Christ. If Christ is not a figment of our imagination, we make a commitment in which we can say with freedom of spirit—“I belong solely to him. He is my life. He is the hope of every dream. He is of absolute significance to me. I want you to know him.” Such a commitment is the essential of any sort of Christian power.*

So it is when Jesus comes to the Samaritan woman at the well. She is, perhaps, the most broken woman in the New Testament—and we discover a hint of that in our gospel passage from John. When John sets the scene for this story, he tells us that it is about noon. Now, customarily, women came to draw water in the early morning coolness. But this woman comes to the well at noon … in the blistering heat of the day, long after the other women of the village had departed. This suggests that—at the very least—she is afraid, or ashamed, or both. In all likelihood she is the target of scorn and derision. People look down upon her because of her brokenness in marriage and in relationships.

So, here she is trying to avoid being seen—and instead, there is someone else at the well. And not just any someone, but a man. Not just a man, but a Jewish man. In that time and place, men and women were not supposed to be seen in public together. More than that, Jews and Samaritans usually had nothing to do with one another. So she is startled to see him there. She is even more startled when he speaks to her. Jesus is tired. As he addresses this broken, lonely and ashamed woman, he says, “Give me a drink.”

But this is a dangerous invitation. It is an invitation to cross boundaries and defy ancient taboos. It’s risky. But he is thirsty, and she has a bucket, and there is the well of their mutual ancestor Jacob.

Jesus does not look down upon her as the others do. He calls no attention to her brokenness. Instead, he acknowledges his own brokenness. He is tired. He is thirsty. If you’re familiar with the story of Christ’s passion—the story of Good Friday—you may recognize this thirst of his. Amongst his very last words on the cross are the words, “I am thirsty.”

What Jesus is seeking here is someone who shares his thirst. His thirst is a thirst for peace—for what he calls God’s shalom. This shalom is, in turn, a thirst for justice and healing for all people—especially people like this Samaritan woman. Most of all, Jesus thirsts for dignity and respect for all people. Not some people. Not a lot of people. All people. This poor woman knows neither dignity nor respect. But Jesus reaches out to her from his need, not hers. By reaching out to her from his own need, he gives her dignity and respect! There is something she can do for him.

By his treatment of her, Jesus gives her identity and purpose. Suddenly something new—something real—wells up inside of her. It is a new confidence, a new spirit. From this new spirit, her real thirst is revealed—and it is a thirst that cannot be quenched by the waters at the bottom of Jacob’s well. No. She thirsts for real life—authentic life—and Jesus gives it to her without cost and without condition.

After some astonishingly frank and assertive conversation, her response is one of total commitment. And why not? She—who had no life and no purpose, but only heartache, pain, and shame—is suddenly given the gift of eternal life with Jesus, who is revealed to her as God’s own anointed one.

When the disciples return, they are shocked that Jesus has compromised himself by talking with this woman in broad daylight. The disciples cannot understand this crossing of ancient boundaries, such a departure from the old taboos.

As for the woman … she runs off, leaving her bucket behind. She does not need it any longer, for she now has living water welling up inside of her! She is energized by the simple fact that Jesus trusts her with his needs, his exhaustion and his thirst. She runs into town and tells everyone about her encounter at the well—her encounter with the source of true and living water: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”

At first, the townspeople do not trust her testimony—so they come to see for themselves, and they end up begging Jesus to stay in their village. Jesus stays for two more days, and many more people come to know him. And it is all because of the Samaritan woman’s willingness to risk talking to the stranger at the well. She becomes, in effect, the first evangelist. Talk about being transformed by grace!

Like the Samaritan woman, we all come to the well over and over again to draw water. But do we see the man sitting there? Can we hear what he is saying to us? Are we even aware he is speaking to us? Can we feel what it’s like to have Jesus ask us for something?

Can we see how it is that Jesus does not look down on the poor and broken ones?

He does not come with something to give them. He does not come pretending to tell them how to live their lives. He does not come saying: “Here, I have what you need. Take this and become like me.” No. Instead, Jesus says that the Samaritan woman has something that he needs. There is something she can do for him. Hearing this news, she is liberated from all that weighs her down.

Jesus gives her value. Jesus gives her purpose. He gives her new life by simply letting her know there is something she can do for him. This story asks us if we can approach others in this way. This story asks us if we are willing to reveal our brokenness to others and to him.

Later in the Gospel, we will hear the disciples sounding completely unlike this woman. They all jockey for positions of power and prestige in Jesus’ kingdom. They sound so much like so many of us. And yet, what does he ask them? “Are you able,” he says to them, “to drink the cup that I must drink?”

“Are you able,” he says to us, “to drink the cup that I must drink?”

He asks us to consider our thirst. He invites us to acknowledge our real thirst so he can give us the living water that shall well up inside of us.

As we move steadfastly toward Holy Week, we remember that—as the story nears its conclusion on the cross—Jesus is still thirsty. He is still thirsty today. And each of us is that Samaritan woman. Week after week, we come to the well. Week after week, Jesus asks us for a drink—and we know the kinds of things for which he thirsts.

Are we ready to give him a drink? Are we ready to talk with him? Are we ready to reveal our own brokenness to him? Do we make our full commitment to him?

Even now, Jesus sits in front of us. He is tired—very, very tired. And he asks us to give him a drink. Now, what shall we do?


* N. Gordon Cosby, Transformed by Grace (New York: Crossroad Books, 1999), p. 5


Second Sunday in Lent

TEXT:  John 3:1-17

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

“John, three, sixteen.” Even if you’ve never actually read the Bible, chances are you know that verse by heart, probably in King James English: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

And I suppose that, if you were only ever going to memorize one Bible verse, that’s a pretty good one. Martin Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” because it expresses the core of the Christian message, summarizing what God did for us in Christ.

However, there are more than 16 verses in this morning’s gospel. And they tell quite a story. They tell us about Nicodemus, the Pharisee who believed in Jesus. They contain Jesus’ cryptic remark about being “born from above.” And in verse 14, we hear these puzzling words:  “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

Did you catch that reference? It’s from the Book of Numbers, chapter 21. In this Old Testament story, the children of Israel are in the Sinai desert, half-heartedly following Moses on the 40-year-long journey to their new home in Canaan.

They are following half-heartedly because after all this time they have begun to lose confidence in their leaders. By now, they’re wondering whether there is such a “promised land” at all. Moses’ motley crew of former slaves has begun to “murmur.”

In other words, they are complaining. They’re bellyaching. They’re fed up with the hardships of the desert. They’re sick of manna and quail.

But then, things get much worse. Somewhere out in this seemingly God-forsaken desert, there is a plague of “fiery serpents”—poisonous snakes—which attack the Israelites, so that many people die.

Moses prays for the people, and—in response—the Lord tells him to fashion a serpent out of bronze and place it high upon a pole; “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8).

Strange as it sounds, it worked. Those who had been bitten gazed at the bronze serpent that Moses had made, and they were healed. It was a miracle.

End of story? Well … actually … not! Leaping ahead some 500 years, we hear about this bronze serpent once again, in the 18th chapter of the Second Book of Kings.

By now, the people have been settled for many generations in the Promised Land, where they had decided they wanted to have kings like other nations did. So, they got them. Now, many of those kings were faithless and corrupt—but one king came along who was different. His name was Hezekiah, and he set about cleaning things up. Cleaning up the government. Just like modern politicians promise to do—except better. (Probably … a lot better.)

In fact, the Bible tells us that—among the many great things Hezekiah did—“He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole.”

What he did was destroy the pagan worship places—abominations which had cropped up all over the country. But listen to this:  “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it …” (2 Kings 18:4).

Do you see what had happened? Five centuries after Moses had made the bronze serpent as an instrument of healing, they still had it!

But they had turned it into an idol. What had once been a means to an end had become an end in itself. Instead of pointing toward the God who had ordered it made, it now pointed toward itself; and the people worshipped the serpent instead of the Lord. But good King Hezekiah put an end to all that.

These two Old Testament passages about the bronze serpent point out something important. What had been helpful and healing in one era had become an idol in another.

You know, I can’t help but wonder:  how many things are there, in the life of our church, which—even though they used to be helpful and healing—have now outlived their usefulness? How many old traditions have we turned into idols?

As somebody said:  “Tradition is the living faith of dead people. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.”

But, I digress. We haven’t heard the last of the bronze serpent.

Even after good King Hezekiah smashed the idol, the original idea behind the symbol—and faith in the God who had it fashioned—survived. It was still alive in the memory of Scripture hundreds of years later, when a man called Nicodemus, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus under cover of night. Nicodemus, evidently, was a genuine seeker after faith, and he had urgent and searching questions to ask Jesus.

“Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

With these words of Nicodemus, a door is opened—and Jesus steps right through it.

“You must be born from above,” Jesus says; but Nicodemus is confounded. Because the Hebrew can be taken either way, Nicodemus thinks Jesus has said, “You must be born again.” And so he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (John 3:4) 

We see that Nicodemus is almost as much of a literalist as some of us are. Jesus is not, of course, speaking about physical birth at all. Rather, he is trying to lift the eyes of this religious leader to take in higher things, so that he might begin to see his life from a different spiritual perspective. You must be born from above!

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he “must be born of water and spirit.” Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! There’s more to life than you know about.

Then Jesus lays it on him. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

There it is! The bronze serpent has reappeared in Scripture—right here in John’s gospel. That old bronze serpent fashioned by Moses is raised up again, some 700 years after Hezekiah broke it to pieces. It is raised in this conversation between the Lord and the Pharisee.

Jesus’ point is not that a snake on a pole can heal you. But he is saying that—just as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to heal—so also must Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, be lifted up on a cross to save. You gotta lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! You must be born from above. You must step into the amazing world of the Spirit. And if nothing else will lift up your eyes and your heart … then the sight of Jesus will.

This meandering story of a snake on a pole has taken us quite a distance: from the desert wanderings of Moses’ rag-tag band, through a time of idolatry and reform, all the way to Calvary’s hill. And there, upon that hill, we lift up our eyes to see the one who saves us—and who gives us abundant life.

The bronze serpent has led us to that favorite verse, that “gospel in a nutshell”:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

And then, we hear this great, final word:  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Maybe you’ve been coming to church all your life. Maybe you’re a newcomer to faith. Maybe you’re a seeker like Nicodemus, checking Jesus out under the cover of night. Whoever you are, remember this: he did not come to condemn you—but rather, to save you and give you life.

Lift up your eyes. Lift up your hearts. And be exceeding glad. For God still loves the world. Amen.

Training Makes a Difference

First Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. (Matthew 4:1-2)

The year 2002 was a great one. Trust me, it was! Can you think of something great that happened in 2002?


Well, for one thing, there was the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Do you remember that? Mostly, those Olympic Games were great. But one thing happened that was not so great. In Salt Lake City, Canadian figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier were almost cheated out of a gold medal.

You see, the French figure-skating judge—whose name was Marie-Reine Le Gougne—succumbed to pressure to cast her vote in favor of the Russian skaters as part of a back-room deal to give the ice-dancing gold medal to the French ice dance team. Le Gougne finally admitted giving lower scores to the Canadian skaters, and the IOC eventually granted the Canadians a gold medal along with the Russians.

Why would a respected Olympic judge go along with such a deceitful plan? The head of the French Olympic team explained it this way: he said, “Marie-Reine cracked and was under extremely negative influence for several days, and this person, normally solid, was emotionally destroyed. I am convinced that things have been done to her in the days leading to the pairs competition.”

“Things have been done to her.” But why was Madame Le Gougne so fragile, regardless of the pressure? How did she come to that high responsibility—the apex of a judge’s career—without having proved herself resistant to temptation?

Hers was a sad and unfaithful act. After all, the Olympic athletes Madam Le Gougne was judging deserved better. They had spent many hundreds of training days preparing for the Olympic games. Some succeeded because of their training. Some failed in spite of it. We cannot say that training is foolproof or fail-safe, but who would argue that training does not matter? Part of the reason the Olympic scandal came to light was that the Canadian skaters’ performances were obviously superior—even to spectators and the television audience. Their training paid off, in the end. Training makes a difference.

This was true for Jesus, as well. He had a job to do for God—a mission to carry out, a destiny to fulfill—just as each one of us does. Now, perhaps we think of Jesus as being totally different from us, he being the Son of God and all. But you know, he was a human being. And he endured the severest of spiritual training. He had to. He had to, in order to resist the temptations that would distract him or turn him from the path his Father had given him to walk.

During Lent, Christians are encouraged to devote more time to spiritual training. Some people fast. Some people give up something they enjoy. Some put coins in a donation box. Hopefully, all of us make an extra-special effort during Lent to begin each day with prayer and Bible reading.

These are “training days”—days of strength-training that will shore up our fragile souls for the mission God has for us in the world. We begin today—on this first Sunday of Lent—by moving into the wilderness with Jesus and considering how he resisted temptation in order to be faithful to his calling.

Immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Matthew says the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This was part of his training program. He had to be worked out—and worked over—for forty days and forty nights; worked out by God, and worked over by the devil.

Now you might think this is very strange—that God and the devil should be complicit in Jesus’ training days. But there’s a subtle truth packed into the passage, and it’s put there for us! The trials we face—in training for what God wants us to accomplish—are at once both God’s tests and the devil’s temptations. The same word in the Greek text—peirazo—can be translated either as “to test” or as “to tempt.”

The Bible is clear that God does not tempt us with evil; but the Bible is also clear that God tests us for the purpose of making us stronger for the tasks to which we are called. Ironically, God sometimes employs the devil as a fitness trainer, allowing him to have a go at us. It sounds rough, I know, but it’s necessary. Why? Because … well, you know the saying: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Jesus knows this is true. So he goes along with the plan. He willingly enters the training program. Why? Because he has a sense of duty. He has a calling—a claim he discerned early in his life, and which was confirmed in his baptism.

What will he do? Is he prepared? These are the kinds of questions that must have run through Jesus’ mind. And how did he go about answering them? He went into training with deliberate intention. He got alone with his thoughts and prayers in a place of deprivation. He knew something many of us need to learn—that success in the public world for God depends upon prior success in the private world of self.

There are no shortcuts to spiritual fitness. You can’t take a pill to adjust your spiritual chemistry. You can’t lose forty pounds of ego fat in forty minutes a day for forty days by buying a video. It’s more like the earnest martial art student who went to the teacher and said, “I am devoted to studying your martial art system. How long will it take to master it?”

The teacher casually replied, “Ten years.”

Impatiently, the student persisted: “But I want to master it sooner than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day—ten or more hours a day, if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher paused long, as if to calculate in his head. “Twenty years, then,” he said.

“Forty days and forty nights” is a biblical way of saying, “a good long time.” And that’s why we have forty days and forty nights in the season of Lent. Along with Jesus, we are preparing for the big stuff that lies ahead. Jesus had to prepare to carry the cross for us. We have to prepare to carry our crosses for his name’s sake.

As I said before, during Lent we are encouraged to take part in spiritual training. Sometimes, people give up something for the forty days of Lent—and they do it in order to learn how to depend on God. Sometimes people start doing something new as a positive act of preparation for service. For example, some might give up television and take up spiritual reading for this period. Some might seek out a friend to pray with for forty days.

All of these are disciplines that match the spirit of Jesus’ own training in the desert.

Many of us will not accomplish great things with our lives because we are unwilling to pay the smaller prices of preparation that lead to greatness. We want to be famous singers, but we don’t want to take voice lessons. We want to be wealthy, but we don’t want to risk any of our own money to do it. We want to be happily married someday, but we give ourselves away too easily and too cheaply when we are young—or, afraid of being hurt, we don’t give ourselves at all. Either way, we lose the capacity to discern love when it does come knocking.

Meditating on a story like this one about Jesus gives us a chance to practice in private for the tests and temptations we will face in our lives. It will make or break us in fulfilling our callings. It’s like rehearsing your testimony with your attorney before going to court. She tells you that the other lawyer is going to attack you in this way or that. In order to be ready in public, you need to feel the pressure in private. You need to imagine possible turns of events and surprises that may come up. That way, you will be ready when your moment of truth arrives.

God gives us these opportunities every day, if we would only listen and pay attention. Scripture is one such opportunity, but it’s not just Scripture and prayer that give us this practice. All around us are resources for reflection if we would only open our eyes and ears to them.

Week by week preachers announce the good news: that God is for you, that nothing you do can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We tell you that it is not what you do that matters most; it’s what God has done for you in Christ. But what God in Christ has done for us is not only to give us eternal life, but to show us a better way to live.

Jesus endured the severest of tests, yet still resisted temptation; and the power that helped him do that is also available to you and me. The Spirit of God aided him in overcoming the devil, and this same Spirit lives in us, ready to help. While the devil whispers in our ears, the Spirit speaks to our hearts. We have to learn to recognize the voice of each, and follow the Word of God that wants to dwell in our hearts.

At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned one name—the name of Marie-Reine Le Gougne, the corrupt French figure-skating judge. Now I’m going to mention another name—the name of someone whose legacy is quite different. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name was Mattie Stepanek, and he died in 2004 at the age of 13.

Mattie Stepanek suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, called dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. It sounds terrible, and it is. Mattie’s sister and two brothers also died from the disease during early childhood.

At the age of three, Mattie began to write poetry to cope with the death of his older brother. By the time he died 10 years later, this courageous boy had authored five books of heart-felt poetry that touched millions of adults as well as children. One such collection of poems— called “Heartsongs”—even made the New York Times bestseller list.

By all rights, Mattie could have been a bitter and lonely young boy. But he chose a different path.

He knew he was going to die, but he was determined to live until he did. He believed God had something special to do with his life. Despite his diagnosis, despite having a tracheal tube in his throat all the time—and a ventilator and oxygen always handy—his goals in life were to become a daddy, a writer, a public speaker, and above all, a peacemaker. He succeeded in most of those goals, even lobbying on Capitol Hill in Washington on behalf of peace, people with disabilities, and children with life-threatening conditions.

Mattie appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, and Good Morning America. In one of his poems—entitled “Heartsongs”—Mattie Stepanek wrote:

I have a song

deep in my heart

and only I can hear it.

If I close my eyes and sit very still,

it is so easy to listen to my song.

When my eyes are open

and I am so busy and moving and busy,

If I take time and listen very hard,

I can hear my heartsong.

It makes me feel very happy.

Feeling happy is the result of passing God’s tests. It’s not the alternative to passing God’s tests. Happiness comes from enduring our trials, not from avoiding them.

Friends, each one of you has a “heartsong”—one that’s unique to you. Have you heard it? Listen for it. This Lent, listen very hard.


Transfiguration Sunday

TEXT: Matthew 17:1-9

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)

Years ago (more years ago than I like to think about) I worked as an orderly—or nursing assistant—first in a nursing home in Winnipeg, and then on a hospital medical floor in Lethbridge. Needless to say, I witnessed a lot of death, and a lot of dying. I also was present as—sometimes—people were successfully resuscitated. I suppose, all told, I spent close to a decade in that career. But, for whatever reason, in all that time, I never once heard anyone speak about or describe what is commonly known as a “near-death experience” or NDE.

However, as a pastor, I have been told about those kinds of experiences. Not a lot of them, but a few. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe people are more comfortable (or less uncomfortable) having that kind of conversation with a minister.

And I have to say, it does seem like there are some common elements in most of these stories. The ones I’ve heard as first-hand accounts sound very much like those related in the now-abundant literature about NDEs.

People who have been near death often speak about being outside their bodies, looking down as medical personnel try frantically to revive them. Many recall passing through some kind of celestial tunnel, and approaching a brilliant light—or even “a being of light.” Some actually report visiting heaven, and meeting long-deceased relatives or friends. A few even see Jesus.

In today’s gospel text, Peter, James, and John also see Jesus—but in a way they’ve never seen him previously … and in circumstances they could not even have imagined:

“… he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matt. 17:2-3).

Did Moses and Elijah literally materialize in bodily form on that mountaintop? Or was it—as Jesus himself suggested—a “vision” of some kind?

We cannot, of course, know for certain what sort of experience the disciples actually had. But they obviously saw and heard things they had never seen or heard before. Evidently, Peter thought it was very real. Moses and Elijah seemed so concrete to him that he wanted to build “dwellings” for them to live in … as if he thought their conversation with Jesus was about some kind of real estate development!

Poor Peter. He probably didn’t know what to say. When Mark and Luke tell this story, they imply that Peter was just babbling—almost incoherently—because he was scared out of his wits by the whole thing.

Well, wouldn’t you be? Clearly, there was something going on here which, today, we would call “paranormal.” And—speaking about the present day—it’s interesting to consider how many people there are who believe they’ve had similarly unusual experiences.

According to studies conducted in recent years, nearly 20 per cent of Americans claim to have seen ghosts. 1 In the United Kingdom, three in five people have said they’ve encountered a ghost in their lifetime, with 40 per cent saying they thought their pet had seen one, too.2 

Results of another study suggest as many as four million Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens.3

As for our own country, Canada has—per capita—one of the highest rates of UFO sightings.4  As recently as last year (2022) no fewer than 768 UFO reports were made to Canadian authorities.5

Focusing more on religious matters, millions of people worldwide claim to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary—and not just in tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches, either!

In fairly recent times, Jesus’ mother has been reported showing up in places like Medjugorje in Bosnia, or a Wisconsin town called Champion—or on a farm near Marmora, Ontario. She’s even been seen by crowds of people in largely Muslim countries like Egypt and Syria.

So … what do we do when we hear such accounts? We may be tempted to belittle or dismiss them—or to try to explain them scientifically—but that does not make them go away, or make the people who’ve had them stop believing in them. In the end, I guess—unless you’ve had this kind of experience personally—it’s hard to understand why people see what they claim to see or have the visions they claim to have.

Here, I think—instead of dismissing such reports out of hand—or trying to explain them away—we need to adopt an attitude of humility. We should acknowledge that there are dimensions of mind and of spirit which transcend our conventional understandings.

I’m sure at least some of my readers will have had glimpses of that. And I think most of us will admit that, sometimes—as a result of a dream or a déjà vu experience—we’ve been given new perspectives and fresh insights.

I’m not trying to “creep you out” here, but I do think there’s more to us—and to our world—than can be completely understood or logically explained. And—for those of us who acknowledge that there is a power that’s higher than we are—I don’t think the unknown or unusual has to be creepy … or scary.

As people of faith, we know—at least, I hope we know—that the God who is beyond our comprehension comprehends us perfectly. More than that, he loves us perfectly. We may not understand the mind of God any more than a newborn infant understands the mind of its mother. We may not grasp the fullness of God’s love for us … in fact, we probably cannot grasp the fullness of God’s love for us … but we can feel it!

And isn’t that the point, anyway? Scripture tells us that God sent his Son into the world because he loves us.

We may not comprehend the ways and purposes and plans of God; but, in Jesus, we see him. In Jesus, we see his ways and purposes and plans. We see God’s Word made flesh.

I think that’s why the account of the Transfiguration appears in the gospel record. To be sure, this story underscores the truth that everyday life is filled with imponderables—that not everything is physical and material, explainable and definable. But, even so—even after the disciples had this extraordinary experience—everyday life resumed.

… they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them [saying] “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus. (Matt. 17:6b-8)6

At the end of the day, they saw Jesus standing before them, alone. Whatever had changed about him—whatever had changed about them—this was still the same Jesus.

He was their focus. He was their authority. He was their point of reference. And so it must be for us. In the midst of life’s challenges and confusion and defeat, there is One who gives us direction and victory—and he is our most precious gift.

Jesus teaches us how to love our neighbours as ourselves. In Jesus, we find grace and wisdom to deal with unsettling circumstances.

Because of Jesus, we can face each day’s trials knowing that our future with him is assured. In Jesus, we see beyond the limited perspectives of the material and the physical.

In Jesus, we see more than Moses and Elijah, more than the Law and the Prophets. In Jesus, we see more than poets or musicians or scientists or politicians will ever see. In Jesus, we see the coming Kingdom which already embraces us.

Of course, there’s still down-to-earth business with which we must deal. There’s a pot roast in the oven which can’t be allowed to burn. There are relationship troubles that need to be resolved. Our futures are  uncertain. Financial matters press. Health problems loom. Life is filled with practical realities. This was as true for the disciples as it is for us.

If we read a bit further in chapter 17 of Matthew, we find out what happened when Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountaintop. At the bottom (17:14-15), there was an epileptic man in need of healing. Also, there was the journey to Jerusalem—a destination fraught with promise and peril. Ahead of them lay Calvary and the cross—seemingly the end, but in fact a new beginning.

Through all of this, the disciples would need to keep their eyes fixed upon Jesus. Through all of this, they would need to remember what Jesus had told them. Through his words, they had gained new insights—new understandings—which took them far beyond anything they had ever hoped for or imagined.

It will be that way for us, also, as we follow the Lord. Answering his call to discipleship may seem at times to be dangerous, or burdensome, or even embarrassing. Yet Jesus reminds us that his burden is easy and his yoke is light. In him, we are caught up in a love that will transform us and illuminate us. To know that we are loved by God is a blessing; to respond in love to the needs of our neighbours is a joy.

Yes, a joy—and an example of something that comes from far beyond us—from far beyond the dimensions of this world. It comes from a place where joy is found in serving others, in bearing our burdens patiently, in embracing the hope which Jesus promises, and in trusting when even that hope seems to be lost.

Over the past several weeks of Epiphany, we have been shown how to make sense of the nonsensical, how to discern wisdom in apparent foolishness, how to discover revelation where others hear only words. In the visit of the Magi; at the baptism of Jesus; in the preaching of John the Baptist; in the response of called disciples—in all of this, we have caught a glimpse of heaven’s kingdom.

God is always creating new beginnings and offering them to us … if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

All around us, people are convinced that life is a dead end, that there is no tomorrow worth waiting for, that what they have done wrong can never be forgiven. We all know folks like this. But you and I know different.

In Jesus, God has begun something new—something unstoppable. In Jesus, we may know—here and now, in the midst of our daily experience—that life is much more than what can be analyzed in a test tube or catalogued as data or proposed in a theorem. In Jesus, we have beheld the love that transfigures us—and that makes our lives abundant.

On mountain peaks or valleys deep, we need not fear, for God is with us! We are not alone. Thanks be to God.






6 From The Message, Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson


Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXT: Matthew 5:21-37

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)

Over the past couple of Sundays, our gospel lessons have been leading us through Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”—perhaps his best-known discourse.

This sermon on a mountainside starts off with blessings. Remember? “Blessed are the poor in spirit … the meek … the pure in heart … the peacemakers …” Jesus goes on to tell us we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” That stuff is pretty easy on the ears, isn’t it?

But then, in verse 17 of chapter five, Jesus turns left, onto a less comfortable avenue: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (vv. 17-18).

Then, picking things up in today’s reading, Jesus gets even more serious: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement …” (vv. 21-22a).

And: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (vv. 27-28).

“Moses said this … but now I tell you this …” Moses said: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But Jesus says: “Anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (vv. 31-32).

What is happening here? Has Jesus given us a new—and tougher—set of rules?

If the “Sermon on the Mount” simply replaces the laws that Moses brought down from that other mountain, then Jesus has made our burden heavier. In fact, I would say he has made our task impossible. This weight is too much for our weak shoulders to carry. If the teaching of Jesus is a new set of laws that his disciples must fully obey—or get booted out of the Christian club—then I think we’ve all had our memberships cancelled!

So … what is happening here?

To be sure, Jesus does intensify the law. In fact, he pushes it much further than Moses did. He pushes it far beyond outward actions, to inward thoughts and feelings and motivations. But how can this be a “gospel of grace”? How can this be the teaching of one who claimed that his ministry was not to the righteous, but to the lost?

Often—usually in reference to difficult passages of Scripture—you hear it said that context is important. And I think context is very important here.

Consider whom Jesus is addressing, from that mountainside. He’s speaking to his disciples, and he’s speaking to “the crowds.” So there are all kinds of people gathered there—farmers, merchants, fishermen … And no doubt some scribes and Pharisees, too.

Jesus was speaking to ordinary Jewish people of his time. They had all been raised to believe that pleasing God required strict obedience to the law of Moses. And for most of them, that meant the letter of the law. The more perfectly you kept the law, the more righteous you were—and the better God liked you, according to that reasoning.

Now, some in that crowd would feel better about this than some others. Those who considered themselves to be good, religious people … Well, we can presume that they thought they were safe. After all, they figured they had kept the law. They had never killed anybody. They had never told any lies … at least, not any big ones … and they had made the required sacrifices at the temple … so they had that covered.

None of them had actually committed adultery. Oh, perhaps some of them had divorced their wives, more or less forcing those poor women to choose between starvation or lives of prostitution … But that was not against the law, as long as all the correct procedures were followed.

So—amongst those who gathered at the foot of the mountain that day—the fine, upstanding, religious people felt quite comfortable sitting near the front, certain that the rabbi would be pleased to see them there. (“Hi, Jesus! Look at me!”)

But the others …

  • The fishermen who, having caught little or nothing during the week—and having no fish to bring to market—cast out their nets on the Sabbath day … early in the morning, so no one would see …
  • The merchants with their thumbs on the scale …
  • The poor who had to steal the bread they could not afford to buy …
  • The accused who had sworn false oaths out of fear of consequences …
  • The “fallen woman” with nothing to trade except her body …

These folks sat further back. They already knew they’d lost the righteousness game. They weren’t comfortable at all … And yet, they felt drawn here. Perhaps, somehow, they dared to hope for something like good news from this travelling rabbi.

This is the audience facing Jesus. He looks out over the gathered multitude. He sees who is sitting right in front. He sees who is sitting further back … and who is sitting way, way back, trying not to be noticed.

So Jesus opens his mouth to teach them. And he begins by praising virtue. He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness …” And all the righteous people feel their chests swelling with pride.  

He says, “Blessed are the pure in heart …” And all the chaste and moderate people feel puffed up.

He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit …” And all those who are proud of their humility take notice.

“You are the salt of the earth.”

“You are the light of the world.”

And Jesus says, “Do not think that I’ve come to abolish the law …” Because the law is important. The law shows where you fit in the kingdom of heaven. The law shows how far you’ve climbed up the ladder of holiness.

And then, Jesus says: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).

And the folks in the front row go, “Huh?”

Say what?”

“Moses told you, ‘Do not murder.’  But I ask you: have you ever wished harm to a neighbour?”

“Have you ever felt justified, seeking revenge?”

“Have you ever torn down another person with your words?”

“Moses said, ‘Do not swear falsely.’  But I ask you: why do you need to swear oaths at all? Why does your word count for so little?”

“Moses told you, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I ask you: have you ever wanted to?”

Jesus pauses. He looks out over the crowd again. All eyes are open wide. Many jaws have dropped. And the people way in back have forgotten to hide their faces. He has everybody’s attention, now.

He begins to speak again, and now his language becomes even more intense. Jesus advocates plucking out eyes and chopping off limbs, if those members of the body are causing us to sin!

If you take every word of the Bible literally, raise your right hand …

Jesus is going out of his way to tell us something: he is not going to change the rules to make it easier for us to win the salvation game. But he tells us something else, too.

He tells us that the rules are so difficult to follow that no one could possibly do it. And if it’s really all about the rules, then none of us—not even the best of us—can possibly avoid the punishments of “hell” he mentions here.

No one can win at this. We are not allowed to relax these rules. And keeping them is beyond us. If we try to play this game, all we get is defeated.

Jesus wants to set us up with a new understanding. We shouldn’t ignore the rules, but rule-following is not the path to God. Jesus’ very presence demonstrates something about our relationship with God. It is not based on our getting things right. No. God comes to us while we are still getting things wrong.

In Christ, God has committed to our humanity by joining us in it. Jesus knows the things that can go wrong in our lives. Jesus also knows that it is not our eyes or our hands that cause us to sin. No. It’s our hearts that do that. It’s something ingrained in our human nature. We literally cannot help ourselves.

What God has come to do, in Jesus, is not to set us on a new and improved moral pathway. We would (and, actually, we do) fail on that path, just as surely as we fail on any other.

And yet, most of us are legalists at heart. We want to prove that we are nice, acceptable people. We want to “pay our own way” and prove our worthiness.

That’s why, when we hear the Sermon on the Mount, we’re tempted to play delusional games. The temptation—and it’s a strong one—is to pick and choose. To emphasize some of Jesus’ words … and quietly ignore others.

For example, some of us make a very big deal about sexuality, marriage and divorce. We take the moral high ground and are loud in our condemnation of those who appear to us to transgress. Yet, many conservative Christians pay little or no attention to what Jesus teaches about non-violence, or the terrible dangers of money, or the cancer of pride and self-righteousness.

And then, there are those who see themselves as radical believers who make much of the sins of wealth and possessions … yet excuse their own laxity in affairs of sex and marriage.

In each case, people become legalistic. They bitterly condemn others while zealously protecting their own hard-won self-righteousness. But that simply will not do! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms about 25 moral values—affirms them without qualification. We should not dare to judge a fellow Christian for transgressing any one of those values, unless we are prepared to equally judge ourselves on each of the other 24.

If we take to mind and heart the whole 25 (without any sneaky provisos) then one result is certain: all of our supposed superiority—every bit of our spiritual and moral arrogance—will crumble into dust.

And then we shall know for certain that we have nothing at all to boast about. Like everyone else, we have fallen short of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We have nowhere to turn … except to saving grace—to the healing mercy of the sinner’s Friend.

Yes, Jesus raises the spiritual and moral bar to new heights. But—alongside it—he allows himself to be lifted up, high upon a cross. And there is the throne of grace.

If you want to earn your salvation by playing the righteousness game, you have to follow the rules absolutely perfectly. And then you will absolutely fail. None of us can keep the law, consistently and flawlessly.

But here’s the good news: Jesus, as he said, has come to fulfill the law on our behalf.

That amazing grace is freely available to all of us who aim high, yet fall short. Because of that cross up on Calvary’s hill, we have been set free from the law of sin and death. Because of that cross, you and I no longer stand condemned.

Now, many today—including many within the church—will protest, saying, “That doesn’t make any sense!”

And I suppose it doesn’t. How could Jesus, by taking our punishment, remove our guilt? How could the old covenant—which rested on strict obedience to the law—simply be set aside, just because we could not live up to it?

Who could make a deal like that?

My friends, only God could make a deal like that. Only God could tear up our old contract and offer us a new one. Only God—in Christ—could say to us, “Things are going to be different from now on.”

Only Jesus offers us this kind of grace. Our part is to accept this new deal. This new covenant. This generous offer that sounds too good to be true—but which is in fact more true, and more real, and more wonderful, than anything else we have ever known.

Our part is simply to say, “YES!” Thanks be to God.


Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 2:1-13 and Matthew 5:13-18


“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

(Matthew 5:13-16)

As you’re probably aware if you’ve given the Bible even a cursory glance, the church in Corinth was founded by none other than the apostle Paul. This little Christian congregation—located in the largest city in ancient Greece—was dear to Paul’s heart, because it was a church he himself had planted.

If you have ever wondered about Paul’s evangelistic style—or his strategy for bringing people to Jesus … listen to what he says here: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1).

Did you catch that? When Paul brought the gospel of Christ to the Corinthians, he proclaimed it as a “mystery.”

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,” he says, “but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).

Amazingly, it’s Paul who’s writing this! Yeah. Paul the apostle. If you’ve waded through the dense prose in any of the 13 New Testament books ascribed to him, you know he is not renowned for his easy-to-understand sentences. Paul of Tarsus was the first Christian theologian—and, arguably, the greatest. A man of profound intellect, Paul is as thought-provoking and challenging—and confusing—today as he was 2,000 years ago. And this First Letter to the Corinthians is no less complex than anything else that he wrote.

Yet, here—as Paul engages in a bit of nostalgia, recalling the content of his earliest preaching in Corinth—he says he did not resort to fancy language, or even to plausible argument! No. Instead, he says his speech and his proclamation gave “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”

That could mean a lot of things, I guess. Some figure that Paul means that his arrival in Corinth was accompanied by impressive signs and wonders. But, you know—since Paul says this demonstration of the Spirit and of power was given through his speech and his proclamation—it sounds to me like what he actually did was relate his personal experience. Certainly, he had witnessed the movement of the Spirit in his own life.

I’m sure you remember the story about Paul (see Acts 9:1-20).

When he was still known as Saul of Tarsus, he was a relentless persecutor of the church. However—while he was leading a posse to Damascus to arrest Christians—he had an extraordinary, life-changing encounter with the risen Christ. The Book of Acts tells us that a brilliant light from heaven flashed around him. He was so startled that he fell off his horse. Or maybe it was the horse that was startled, and threw him off.

Anyway, he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul … why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

When Saul picked himself up from the ground, he was completely blind, as if he had been staring at the sun, and his retinas were burnt out. He stayed that way for three days, until a disciple of Jesus named Ananias came and healed his blindness through the laying on of hands. Then Saul, the bitter enemy of Christ, became Paul the messenger of Christ … and the rest, as they say, is history.

So this guy had quite a story to tell. And—to those who believed him—his was a most compelling story. But we know that not everyone believed. Some dismissed him as a charlatan. Some—like the Roman procurator Festus (Acts 26:24)—thought that Paul was, literally, out of his mind.

And—let’s face it—those reactions are easy to understand, are they not? I mean, it’s not the sort of thing you hear every day. Even if you don’t think Paul was a con artist—even if you think he sincerely believed his own story … even if you don’t think he was crazy … you could be forgiven for having some doubts.

The thing is: spiritual encounters—supernatural experiences—are, by definition, highly subjective. To the individual who has them, they are absolutely real. To the experiencer, these are not dreams or hallucinations, but undeniable reality. Trouble is, they are almost always impossible to adequately describe using human language. But of course, human language is the only tool we have to describe them.

Another case in point is Paul’s account in Second Corinthians, chapter 12, where he describes an incident 14 years previous, where he was “caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor. 12:4).

Most Bible commentators agree with John Wesley, who argued that what Paul says “no mortal is permitted to repeat” is in point of fact impossible to repeat, because human language cannot express it. This must have been almost intolerably frustrating for Paul, who was a master of the written word. But I think that what the apostle experienced is something that’s common to everyone who’s had a direct, personal encounter with the divine. Ultimately, there are no words to describe what happened. And yet, such compelling stories are …

Well, it’s hard to keep your mouth shut about them, because they are transformative. At one and the same time, they are glorious and disturbing … sublime and ridiculous!

Bill Wilson—one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous—had such an experience in the Charles B. Towns Hospital in Manhattan.

Between 1933 and 1934, Wilson was admitted to Towns Hospital four times—always for treatment of his alcoholism. On his fourth and last stay he showed signs of delirium tremens and was treated with the “Belladonna Cure.” While undergoing this treatment, he had a powerful spiritual awakening and—after that—he never drank alcohol again. In his 1957 book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, Wilson describes his experience like this:

All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!”  Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay there on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, “So this is the God of the preachers!” A great peace stole over me and I thought, “No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and His world.” (Wilson, p. 63)


Predictably—and understandably—many have dismissed Wilson’s account, arguing that what he experienced was most likely the result either of alcohol withdrawal, or the belladonna treatment, or both. Others, though, point out that hallucinations rarely—if ever—produce the sorts of lasting behavioural and psychological changes that followed upon Wilson’s vision in that hospital room.

For his part, Bill Wilson remained for the rest of his life convinced that what happened to him was entirely real, even though he acknowledged that his best attempts to describe it were entirely inadequate.

I wonder whether the apostle Paul—hearing Bill Wilson’s story—might nod his head in agreement. And I wonder whether Bill Wilson—who certainly knew his way around the Bible—nodded his head in agreement when he read what Paul wrote about communicating God’s mystery “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”

After all, both men were permanently changed by their divine encounters. Wilson, as I said, never drank again—and he went on to help develop a recovery program that has, in its turn, saved the lives of countless others. Saul of Tarsus—who set out for Damascus “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1)—became Paul of Tarsus, the disciple par excellence. Their testimonies are convincing. At least, I find them so, precisely because of the radical transformation wrought in these men.

See, here’s the thing: what cannot be explained in words can in fact be demonstrated. When Paul spoke about communicating the mystery of God “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” I think this must have been at least a part of what he meant.

To those who knew Saul the persecutor—or who learned that bit of Paul’s personal history—his transformation spoke louder and more clearly than his finest words could ever do. Comparing who Paul was—to who he became … Well, that made the case. Now willing to die for the gospel he once tried to suppress, Paul the apostle was a living, breathing demonstration of Christ’s redemptive power.

And comparing who Bill Wilson was to who he became … Well, for hopeless alcoholics who had all but given up on themselves, his transformation made the case for A.A. As with Paul the apostle, Bill Wilson’s words carried weight because of what his reformed life demonstrated. He was, indeed, “a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17, KJV).

Here’s one more important point: Paul told the Corinthians that he came to them “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” and not with plausible arguments and words of human wisdom. He also told them why: “so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

Words of human wisdom can try to explain the mystery of God. But they can’t actually do it. They can’t even come close. Words cannot convey the reality of God. Only the power of God—demonstrated in a human life—can do that. I can  preach to you about the redeeming work of Christ and God’s eagerness to forgive sinners … but if I harbour grudges and refuse to forgive … my words will lose most of their impact.

By the same token, someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta does not need to say very much; her life of compassionate service demonstrated the Spirit’s power more effectively than could the most skillfully-crafted sermon. And the power of God shown forth in her life inspired more faith than clever words and plausible arguments could ever do.

Yes … the power of God shown forth in her life … the power of God demonstrated in a human life … made obviously and undeniably real in a human life … Does that remind you of anything?

How about: “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” …? (John 1:14)

Who God is and what God is actually like, or what the kingdom of heaven is actually like … these things are impossible to describe using human language. Let’s face it, even Jesus had difficulty getting people to understand his words. He kept going on about prodigal sons and forgiving fathers, about faith being like a mustard seed, and camels passing through the eyes of needles, and about God’s people being like “salt” and “light” upon the earth.  Yet his closest disciples never seemed able to grasp his meaning. They never seemed to get it. That is, until, finally, they got him!

Who God is, and what God is like … these things cannot be explained logically. Yet, to the believer, it is all made perfectly clear in the person called Jesus of Nazareth. It is made clearer and clearer to each one of us as we progress along the path of discipleship. As we mature and grow in faith, our picture of God becomes more complete—comes into ever-sharper focus. Or at least, it becomes ever-less-fuzzy.

But then (and frustratingly so) our ability to describe that picture to others does not seem to get very much easier!

Maybe that’s because—this side of eternity—no matter how far we progress in our understanding of God, there’s just so much more for us to discover. As Paul said—apparently, quoting Isaiah: “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).

You know what? I think I’m going to take Paul’s word for it.


Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

TEXT: Matthew 5:1-12

A few years ago, television stations ran a series of commercials for Capitol One MasterCard. You may remember them. They had a memorable punch line: “What’s in your wallet?”

Stuck vacationing in tropical storm season because your credit card bonus miles don’t apply at peak travel times? “What’s in your wallet?” Obviously not a Capitol One MasterCard!

Attacked by marauding barbarians while shopping at the mall? You can stop them dead in their tracks by pulling out your Capitol One card.

 “What’s in your wallet?” Those commercials—and that question—always made me think about what I carry with me. Not just in my wallet, but in my briefcase, or in my car, or on my person:

  • Keys
  • Cell phone.
  • Various kinds of photo ID.
  • Face mask for pandemic protection.

It’s exhausting just thinking about it all! Exhausting because, as hard as I try, there is no way to adequately prepare for everything the world throws at me.

Beyond the tangible things we carry, we carry intangible things, as well. And I think these are the things that can really wear us down. We might call them burdens—or worries, or doubts, or just plain fears.

  • Your child is late coming home from school … has something happened?
  • There are 10 messages on voice mail … that can’t be good!
  • A family member is hospitalized.
  • A national tragedy heightens our anxiety and grieves our spirits.
  • The bills are piling up, and we’re being stretched so thin that we feel we’re about to snap!

We all carry burdens. Yet some of us stagger and stumble to a much greater degree than others.

Have you ever noticed how some people can endure and even surpass the most incredibly difficult times in their lives? Why is that? How is it that some people thrive despite all the obstacles they encounter? And how is it that others are so easily crushed—broken, even—by the smallest of difficulties?

Well, Jesus has something to say to us about that. Listen to the first 12 verses of Matthew, chapter five—this time from Eugene Peterson’s wonderful paraphrase, The Message:

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” Not just when you’re content, or caring, or being a peacemaker.

You’re blessed when you’re starved for God.

You’re blessed when you’ve lost something dear; when you’re persecuted and insulted and lied about.

Do you understand what Jesus is saying here? He tells us that no matter what situation claims us—for better or for worse—we are blessed.

We are blessed even when we think we’re at a dead end. We are blessed even during times of deepest despair. We are blessed in the midst of frustrations, and calamity, and heartbreak.

How can this be? How can Jesus say we are blessed in times of trouble? Because God—the Holy One, the One who created you and fills you with all that is good and life-giving—is always present.

If you’re old enough to have seen those “NOOMA” videos which were popular at the turn of the century,  you may remember the first film in the series.* It’s called “Rain”—and in it, Rob Bell tells a story about carrying his one-year-old son through a violent storm. For the child, the storm is terrifying. All he can see around him is chaos—swaying trees, and lightning. All he can hear is thunder and rushing wind. All he can feel is the drenching rain.

But Rob Bell holds his son close to his heart, as together they proceed through the tempest. And all the while, he whispers in the child’s ear: “I love you, buddy … We’re gonna make it … Dad knows the way home.”

God promises to carry you through the storms and struggles of life, as well as through its celebrations and triumphs. You are blessed with a love so fierce, so faithful, that even in the darkest of times, light will shine upon you—light that clarifies, reveals, and supports you.

You will recognize it because the tables will be turned. You will be carried beyond what you have known, to a new future—a hopeful future, a future that is touched by the holy.

It may happen in the company of a friend or a stranger. It may be words offered at just the right time. Or you may wake up one day and realize that something you have deeply longed for has indeed come true. Other times, there will be those surprising, amazing coincidences that occur which are all about mystery—holy mystery. And through events such as these, you will receive what you need most.

We will carry burdens. We will travel through storms. As Rob Bell says, it always rains in our lives. There are always storms. There are always burdens.

But in the midst of all that, blessings are given. They come from beyond us, and they are gifts. Blessings come to us and bring contentment, and joy, and well-being. The most profound blessings take away the heaviness of our burdens and the sting of our injuries. They encourage us to live in hope, to seek wholeness, and to rest in the promises of God that all will be well.

Julian of Norwich—who was a medieval English nun and mystic—is known for this quote: “All shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of things shall be well.” In her life, Julian realized that if “God made it, God loves it, and God keeps it.” She understood each day as a blessing from God.

Julian lived through some of the most horrific times of the 14th century—including the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. Yet her theology is one of indestructible hopefulness. She insisted that God is not known as we wait for visions and ecstasies, but rather as we wait on God through relentless prayer and diligent study. Although she lived in a time of turmoil, Julian was optimistic, speaking about joy and compassion even in the midst of suffering. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, but an occasion for God’s love to be demonstrated.

So I think maybe Capital One is missing the point. Maybe it’s not at all about what we carry—or what we feel the need to carry. Here’s what I think: it’s all about the One who carries us—beyond what is, to what will be.

May the God of new life—shown to the world in Jesus—continue to carry you and embrace you through all that is before you. “All shall be well” is the promise God invites you to rest upon. May it indeed be so—for you, for me, for all of us. Amen.



“If the lights are on, why is it so dark?”

Third Sunday After  the Epiphany

TEXTS: Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)

At the heart of the Christian proclamation is the assertion that God in Christ has shined a heavenly light in the midst of a dark world. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah reflects this belief. It says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Israel’s existence was always tenuous. Most of Israel’s history was lived out in the shadows of giants like Egypt, Persia and Assyria—the superpowers of their day. Not exactly a comfortable—or secure—place to be!

But God shined a light of hope in their darkness, and promised them a Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth came as the fulfillment of that promise. He was the light of God made flesh.

Matthew’s Gospel records how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophesy. He came announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. He preached. He taught. He healed. He called people to discipleship—and shined the light of God in their dark lives.

You may recall what another gospel writer—John—said about that: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” (John 1:5)

The light of God—the light of Christ—still shines! And so we, the people of God, the Church of Christ, still proclaim that message. We celebrate the fact that God has shined heavenly light in the midst of our dark earthly existences. We affirm that God still shines the light of his love and grace upon those who dwell in darkness. We proclaim that in Christ God brings joy and peace and forgiveness and grace to those who will believe.

That assertion—that God has shined light on us—is at the heart of all we say and do as Christian people. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The world still needs that light. This world needs it because it still dwells in darkness. If you don’t believe me, just open your eyes!

Sometimes the problem with we Christians is that we don’t open our eyes to see the darkness. We close our eyes to reality and go around saying, “all is peace and joy and love,” and we don’t see the darkness all around us. Perhaps we have spent so much time talking about the light that we have forgotten about the darkness. But if our eyes are not open to see the darkness, then how can we see the light shine?

We live in a desperate world, filled with injustice. People kill and are killed for drugs in one country—and for bread in another. Individuals everywhere live under the oppression of alcohol and opiates and domestic violence. Toxic ideologies enslave nations, and millions face starvation worldwide. Every day, multitudes perish from diseases that are preventable and curable. Why? Because they cannot afford the medicine.

We send peacekeepers all over the world, but wars persist. Tyrants kill and terrorize, as diplomacy proves futile. War continues to ravage Ukraine. Tensions rise in “hot spots” around the globe.

Earth is a gloomy place. There is no denying that. It is a world filled with the darkness of murder, oppression, and hatred in all its forms. The world needs the light of Christ!

What I want to know is this: If the lights are on, why is it still so dark? If the light of the world has indeed come, why is there so much darkness? There seems to be a basic incongruity between our faith and the reality of the world.

We Christians believe that the light has shined in the darkness. We say that Christ is the light of the world. But reality shows us that darkness still appears to be the order of the day.

This is an important question. We can’t simply dismiss it, and refuse to acknowledge the darkness out there. This is an important question because it recognizes the reality of human life and seeks to apply the Gospel to it. We need to begin to understand why the darkness persists even though Christ has come. Then we can begin to shine God’s light in that darkness.

So, again I ask: If the lights are on, why is it still so dark? Consider once again our gospel lesson from chapter four of Matthew:

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake … From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matt. 4:12-13a, 17)

Jesus had been born about 30 years before. The light had already come into the world. But the powers of darkness still ruled. When Herod threw John the Baptist in jail, that was just another example of the pervasiveness of the darkness.

The light had come into the world, but the world still did not see it. So Jesus began showing it to them. He taught and preached to help enlighten people’s hearts. He demonstrated the power of God through healings and miracles. He showed them that the world was in the hands of a loving and gracious God.

However, Jesus did not accomplish this by himself. He called ordinary people to follow him. The light of God’s Kingdom had come, and they were to help him spread the good news.

Oh, to be sure, there was still plenty of darkness left when those first disciples died—but through Christ each one of them brought light to someone. Dark lives were enlightened through their ministry. The Book of Acts is full of stories about that. Stories like:

  • The lame beggar who was healed through the ministry of Peter and John (3:1-10);
  • The Ethiopian official whom Philip baptized in the desert (8:26-38);
  • Dorcas (or Tabitha), whom Peter prayed back to life (9:36-41);
  • Cornelius, the Roman centurion (10:1-48);
  • Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul of Cyprus (13:4-12);
  • The Philippian jailer and his family (16:25-34);

Not to mention the “3,000 souls” added to the church at Pentecost (2:41)! All these were given new life in Christ through the efforts of those earliest disciples. And that was only the beginning; there have been 20 centuries of light since then.

We live in a dark world. That is the truth. But it is also the truth that God has shined a light in that darkness. Every single one of us who has experienced that forgiveness and salvation of God—every single one of us has seen that light!

The light is here, and it enlightens and brightens human lives. But there are still so many who miss it. People have shut their eyes to the darkness and so they fail to see the light. So, my word to you today is: shine that light! Follow the example of Jesus’ earliest disciples:

  • Show God’s love to those around you;
  • Shine the light of hope in the midst of someone else’s hopelessness;
  • Dispel the darkness of prejudice and hatred with the light of love that God has given you.

Christ came into the darkness of our lives and our world to bring light. And he called people—just regular people like you and me—to draw attention to that light. God is asking you to be a part of Christ’s ministry—calling you to shine light in the darkness.

So, answer the call! Open your eyes to the darkness around you, then shine the light of Christ in it. You can do it—because you do have the light! You can do it—because the light of Christ in you is more powerful than the darkness can ever be.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.