Monday, 20 June 2022

Exodus 24 Worship—Sealing Our Relationship with God

 

We’ve been reflecting on worship since Easter, and this morning we’re ending our short, often interrupted series by entering this story of God meeting with Moses and the leaders of Israel on Mount Sinai. As part of this meeting, we discover an unexpected meal happens after a time of worship that includes a blood sacrifice. It’s important to understand what’s been happening to understand what’s happening. The people have been camped out at Mount Sinai for a short time now, God has given the people the Ten Commandments and reminds them that the reason for keeping the commands is because God has freed them from slavery and he is their God. God has placed his claim on them. The Israelites receive these commands as a gift; God’s setting out what his expectations are for them; there’s no need to guess what it means, or looks like, to be his people. The relationship between God and Israel is clear, something no other nation or people has with their gods. This is a huge source of comfort for the people.

God gives them 3 festivals a year where the men are to gather to celebrate to God and offer the sacrifices God commands of them, no one is to come empty handed before God. God then tells the people that he’s sending an angel to bring them to the place he has prepared; the Promised Land. God then gives them this command about the Promised Land, “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.” With this in mind, we get a better understanding of what God’s doing her; he’s confirming his covenant promises with Israel through Moses and the other leaders in Israel. God invites Moses to meet with him on the mountain, the holy sacred mountain that no one is supposed to set a foot on unless they’re invited by God.

Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 other leaders are invited to come on the mountain with Moses. When Moses tells the people what God has said and all the laws he’s given, they reply, “Everything the Lord has said we will do,” confirming that they’ve accepted God’s gift of the law and have committed themselves to obedience. The next morning, before Moses and the others head up the mountain, Moses builds an altar and they all offer burnt and blood offerings as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Then Moses does something we find a bit disturbing; he takes half of the blood from the bulls that were sacrificed and he splashes it against the altar. This blood splashed on the altar is a symbol of God’s forgiveness of their sin and that he accepts their offering.

Then Moses takes the Book of the Covenant, reads it to the people and they respond as they did the day before, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Then Moses takes the second half of the blood and sprinkles it all over the people! This blood is a symbol of the seriousness of the oath they have just made to God to obey his commands and to be his people. Moses, when he sprinkles it on the people says, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” The blood is a visible sign of the covenant, the promises made between God and Israel, that they’ve just made. The people wear this blood on them until they wash again. Everyone can see the blood sprinkled on themselves, just as they can see it sprinkled on everyone else. It binds them together as God’s people. It echoes back to Egypt and the blood on their doorposts that protected them from God’s wrath and the angel of death; this blood represents forgiveness and protection from the punishment they deserve because of their sin.

Rev James Wharton of Princeton writes, “what kind of role do those ancient rituals play in the life of Israel.... Gerhard von Rad in Volume One of his theology…. says each one of these little strange and, to us, confusing yet obscure details, describes an area, a sphere, a part of life on which the right of God's claim is stamped. It's not so important that one understand why one does a certain thing as it is important to understand that in that sphere of life the Lord God has a claim and by responding affirmatively in that particular instance, even according to an old half-understood or forgotten rite or ritual, one is affirming the right of God over all of Life…. That enormous determination to try to order life in such a way that you say yes to God and God said don't do that and that's sufficient…. this ancient rite of the blood now becomes part of this affirmation that God has laid a claim on life and that claim is to be respected and honored at all costs.”

Now Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders go up the mountain and they see God! Think about this! Moses writes, “But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites.” So, what do these leaders do while they are on the mountain with God? They see God and then they eat and drink; they have a meal. This is all in the context of the covenant promises that are tying God and Israel closer together. The giving of the gift of the Law, the time of worship and sacrifice, and now this meal are all connected together, acts that draw God and his people closer together. Our relationship with God is not simply based on believing in the right things about God, it’s a faith that’s lived out in our daily lives through worship, obedience, and offering our lives to Jesus to be used for his kingdom.

This is what our sacraments do, they draw us closer to God and each other in the act of eating in the Lord’s Supper, in the act of sprinkling water in baptism, all in the context of worship and recommitting ourselves to following Jesus. This meal on the mountain echoes ahead to Jesus’ meal with his disciples just before his crucifixion. In Matthew 26, we see Jesus giving us what we now call the Lord’s Supper, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus ties this meal and his coming sacrifice to the covenants in the Old Testament, to the festivals God gave Israel in Leviticus, to the new covenant written on our hearts mentioned by Jeremiah, The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah…. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

The Lord’s Supper and baptism are acts or sacraments given to us to help us grow deeper in our faith, to recommit ourselves to obedience to Jesus’ commands to us out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us through the cross, washing away our sin, giving us life, new life. In giving us these sacraments, God seals our relationship to him through the working of the Holy Spirit who draws us closer to Jesus and his love expressed in these acts. It’s like the wedding ring in western cultures that couples give each other when they get married. Every time they see the ring on their finger, they’re reminded of the promises they’ve made to each other. The rings work as a seal in their relationships, showing the world that they’ve committed to love and honour each other through the good times and the hard times. In the sacraments we tell God and the world that we are committed to God and each other through good times and hard times.

The reality is that we will fail in our relationships with each other, especially in our relationship with God, but we are reassured in the meal and the water that God always holds up his side of the commitment through Jesus’ sacrifice and the Holy Spirit, drawing us back into relationship again and again. As the song writer tells us, “To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus. For my life is wholly bound to His. Oh, how strange and divine, I can sing, "All is mine," Yet not I, but through Christ in me.”

Monday, 6 June 2022

The Wind Blows and Fire Appears: Acts 2:1-39

 

Today it’s Pentecost, the day Jesus sent us the gift of his Spirit. We first hear about the Feast of Pentecost in Leviticus 23, where it’s also called the Feast of Weeks. Pentecost is a harvest festival held 50 days after the Feast of First Fruits when the first of the crops are presented to God, which is why it’s called Pentecost, which means 50. Pentecost is the big harvest festival after the wheat has been brought in, something like our Thanksgiving Day. In our passage this morning, the disciples have traveled down from Galilee back to Jerusalem as Jesus had told them to do 10 days earlier when he was taken back up to heaven, and now they’re waiting for the gift of the Spirit that Jesus had promised them. I wonder if they really knew what was coming?

The day of Pentecost arrives. I’m sure the disciples are getting ready to celebrate the feast, there’s excitement in the air since Pentecost was a fun and joy-filled feast. This was also one of the feasts where many of the Jews would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate it at the temple, meaning that there are Jews and believers in the Jewish God Yahweh filling the streets of the city. Now the disciples are all together in one place; since many of them were originally from Galilee in the north and there were so many others in town, there likely wasn’t a whole lot of room available. I love how Luke describes what happens next, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

In Hebrew, the word for wind, Spirit, and breath are the same, so the people first hearing this account from Luke would immediately have connected the sound of a violent wind with the Spirit of God or the breath of God. This is a God moment, God on the move, echoing back to the ripping of the curtain on the temple curtain from the Holy of Holies at Jesus’ death and a number of people rising of the death as God’s Spirit of life flowed into the world. It also reminds us that Jesus had breathed on the disciples just after he had appeared to them after rising from the dead, John 20:21–23, Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” The Spirit is now connected to the strength and ability to forgive sins; a gift just as the Spirit is a gift. The Spirit is given to the disciples, and us today, because Jesus is sending them out into the world to continue his work of calling people to repent and believe because the kingdom of heaven is near. This is at the heart of what Pentecost is all about, it about equipping us for the harvest of people for the kingdom of heaven, it’s no coincident that the Spirit is given at the biggest harvest festival!

Tongues of fire also appear on each of their heads, fire that doesn’t burn, just as the bush that was burning when Moses came across it in the wilderness didn’t burn. Fire points to God’s presence, fire purifies and cleanses, the Spirit and fire show the disciples the kind of message they’re bringing, that the good news found in Jesus is a message of forgiveness and renewal, a message, that if you accept it and Jesus, brings a burning away of your sin and brings you new life.  

John Birch writes in his web page, Note the mighty wind and what seemed like fire which entered that small room and the lives of those ordinary people. Did it leave them unaffected? I think not! The people are amazed at the transformation that takes place. Those men are empowered. Not only do they go out and preach the Good News, they do it in a way that all can understand, whatever their language. Peter recalls some verses of the Prophet Joel which seem so relevant to that situation, and hints that this power that the people are so amazed at is something that was promised many years previously.” As Birch mentions, the disciples are impacted and transformed by the coming of the Spirit. It drives them from the room into the streets to share with everyone, in their own language, the good news of Jesus! Now there are always doubters in every crowd and these folks mock the disciples, accusing them of being drunk because they’re talking about Jesus who was crucified, died, and rose from the dead, and now is in heaven, having gone to prepare our places for us. For unbelievers, it’s like crazy talk, but others stay to learn more.

In what’s happening, there’s an overturning of what happened at the tower of Babel in early Genesis when humanity was scattered throughout the earth and their language was changed into multiple languages so they could no longer understand each other. St Augustine writes, “That wind cleansed the disciples’ hearts, blowing away fleshly thoughts like so much chaff. The fire burnt up their unregenerate desires as if they were straw. The tongues in which they spoke as the Holy Spirit filled them were a foreshadowing of the Church’s preaching of the Gospel in the tongues of all nations. After the flood, in pride and defiance of the Lord, an impious generation erected a high tower and so brought about the division of the human race into many language groups, each with its own peculiar speech which was unintelligible to the rest of the world. At Pentecost, by contrast, the humble piety of believers brought all these diverse languages into the unity of the Church. What discord had scattered; love was to gather together. Like the limbs of a single body, the separated members of the human race would be restored to unity by being joined to Christ, their common head, and welded into the oneness of a holy body by the fire of love.”

The entire spring religious season of Israel, from Passover to Pentecost points to God’s plan to harvest a holy people for himself, to gather his people from the nations, and in Pentecost we see that God’s way of gathering his people in is through giving us the Holy Spirit to empower us to share the Gospel news of Jesus Christ; his birth, life, sacrifice on the cross for our sin so might experience the depth of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. Pentecost is not just a day on the church calendar, it’s the way of life that Jesus’ Spirit has given us and equipped us to do.

Faith is more than just being saved from our sins, it’s also about our response to Jesus and this is where Pentecost comes in. Jesus gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, but it’s not to make us more special than others, it gives us what we need to tell these others about who Jesus is and invite them to follow Jesus with us; to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour who has taken their sin and brokenness on himself so they can experience forgiveness, grace, and new life. The gift of the Holy Spirit gives us the tools to do the ministry of reconciliation that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5:18–19, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

7 weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, comes the greater harvest. It’s during the feast of Pentecost that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings many people to put their faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit comes and those who hear the disciples talk about Jesus receive the good news of salvation through Jesus. There is a harvest of about 3,000 people for Jesus that Pentecost harvest festival. They take this gospel news home to their families and communities and the number of Jesus followers grows and grows including both Jew and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders. Just as the Holy Spirit comes as a wind into the room that Pentecost in Jerusalem, like the wind it begins to blow the Gospel news through Jerusalem, then into Judea, Samaria, and then into the rest of the world.

Pentecost needs to become a way of life for us, not simply a day to think about the Holy Spirit on those years we even bother to remember Pentecost. Today we’re called to embrace the Spirit once again and allow it to lead us to our neighbours, our friends, our co-workers, fellow students, and all the others God places in our lives to share with them the good news story of Jesus and invite them into a relationship with Jesus. What an exciting day, what an exciting call!

 

What Goes Up Must Come Down: Acts 1:1-11


This past Thursday was Ascension Day, the day when Jesus returned to heaven 40 days after his resurrection. Next week we celebrate Pentecost, which is a much more exciting and better-known church day. Yet Ascension Day is just as important a day because it reminds us of who Jesus is and who we are. The Heidelberg Catechism talks about Jesus’ return to heaven, asking, “How does Jesus’ ascension to heaven benefit us? The pastor and scholar tell us, “First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of our Father, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:34. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven—a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven, as John reminds us in John 14:2. Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives, not earthly things, but the things above where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand, as Paul reminds us in Colossians 3:1-4.

Jesus returns to heaven, and as he tells his disciples in Matthew’s account, “all authority in heaven and in earth has been given to him.” Jesus goes to sit at God’s right hand, a place of power and ruling. Jesus is crowned as our king as he returns home to his Father. Before Jesus heads back to heaven, he tells his followers to head back to Jerusalem to wait for the coming of his Spirit. This will be a Spirit of power since Jesus is king now of heaven and earth. This Spirit is going to equip them, and us today, to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world. Jesus gives his disciples their mission: to be witnesses for him as they go out into the world around them. The word for witness in the Greek is “martyres,’ where we get the word martyr in English, someone who is killed for their religious beliefs. Jesus is offering a warning that they may be killed for believing in him. It’s no light call on our lives that Jesus gives us here; our call is to be willing to give our lives and be martyrs, witnesses to the world of our King Jesus

This takes a deep belief and trust in Jesus. This is a trust and commitment to Jesus as our saviour and as our king, the one who commands us to go and be martyrs for him in the world today. This trust and commitment to Jesus as our king doesn’t always come easy for us today. Those of us who are older remember the 1960s and 1970s, a time of unrest, a time when people began to react against the governments and authority; it was a time of the Vietnam War, the Cold War with Russia, the Korean War.

It was a time when people began to focus on the self, on meditation, on spirituality, but especially on personal freedoms; it was the time of the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and a time when distrust grew of leaders, whether in government or the church. People began to question God and to interpret Scripture according to their own individual understanding of what it should say according to their view of the world and of Jesus. We saw this distrust of authority play out over the past couple of years as we walked through the pandemic.

We live in a time where it is hard to understand what it means to have Jesus as our king, and what the call to full obedience and loyalty this calls for us to have to Jesus means. It means fully accepting Jesus’ call to give us our lives for his mission and purposing and setting aside completely our own wants and desires for his. It means that our identity is found in Jesus and his Body instead of ourselves as individuals. It means we think in terms of being part of, and what’s best for Jesus’ kingdom rather than what we want. It’s about realizing that the one thing we need most is a king that cares more about us than we even care for ourselves, that Jesus as our king will protect and provide for us exactly what we need in order to flourish where we are. As our king, Jesus wants us to follow him, not because we are forced to, but because we’re reflecting his love for us back to him. This is why Jesus tells his followers, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.”

After giving the disciples their mission, Jesus is taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Luke then tells us that the disciples were looking intently up into the sky as a cloud hid Jesus from their sight. St John Chrysostom writes in a homily on this passage, “It seems to me that they had not any clear notion of the nature of the kingdom, for the Spirit had not yet instructed them. Notice that they do not ask when it shall come but, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel,” as if the Kingdom were still something that lay in the past. This question shows that they were still attracted by earthly things, though less than they had been.”

The apostles recognize Jesus is king, but they’re still thinking in terms of the nation of Israel, of national borders and a throne in Jerusalem. The Heidelberg Catechism affirms this, “Christ ascended to heaven, there to show that he is head of his church, and that the Father rules all things through him.” The Catechism focuses on the church first, while Paul in Ephesians 1 emphasizes that Jesus rules over all things first, “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” In Paul’s way of thinking, Jesus is king over all creation, past, present, and future and the church is Jesus’ body placed here to witness to all creation who Jesus is and invite them into the kingdom by accepting Jesus as their saviour and king.

Back to the changes that the 60s and 70s brought to our society, our culture, and the church. It was also a time of great hope, a time when people believed we could solve the world’s problems through science, capitalism, and exporting the North American dream and ways. It was the time of the Peace Corps in the USA and Katimavik in Canada. It was a time of hope when people dreamed of a time when all people would be treated with honour and respect, a time when poverty and injustice would be wiped out, a time of peace and hope and grace. It was the beginnings of going on serve projects in our churches and investing in our youth, helping our youth see that Jesus has equipped them too, that serving Jesus is not limited by our age. Christians began recognizing that the good news of Jesus was at the heart of the change the world needed. Without realizing it, people were dreaming and hoping for the kingdom of heaven to come.

Ascension Day is a day of hope and excitement as Jesus takes his place at the right hand of God and commissions us to share the gospel news. The apostles didn’t understand yet what was exactly going on, but trusted Jesus. I love how the two men dressed in white who suddenly appear talk to them,Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” This isn’t the end of Jesus’ story, but the beginning of the next chapter in the kingdom of heaven. It’s the climax of Jesus’ exaltation, crowned as the king of all creation. Revelation 19: 13 & 16 show us, “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. . .. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Jesus is engaged in a battle with Satan, a battle that Satan has no chance of winning. But Satan can still do a lot of harm, which is why Jesus promises the Holy Spirit as we engage in Jesus’ kingdom of heaven work here on earth as his witnesses to counter the work Satan is engaged in to discredit and twist all the Jesus is doing. We’re called to complete obedience to Jesus’ commands. Jesus is our king, we’re part of his kingdom, this is communal, community ways of thinking. This is about who we are, Jesus’ people and who our allegiance is to, Jesus, and where we get our identity from, Jesus.

This means focusing less on our allegiances to groups or philosophies rooted in this world, and focus on who Jesus, our king, is calling us to be. This total obedience is rooted in love as Jesus’ commands us to first love God with everything we’ve got, to love our neighbour, and to go make disciples, which all flows out of Jesus’ love for the world. This takes trust and faith in Jesus and making Jesus and his will first in our lives since he is our king.

 

Saturday, 14 May 2022

Isaiah 65:17–25 The Garden Place

 

We’re here today to say goodbye to dad, a little delayed, but still an important time for us as a family to remember a good father who worked hard and taught us about honour and faithfulness. When I asked my siblings about what Dad’s favourite Bible verses were, we couldn’t think of any specific verse or verses because our dad’s faith was a quiet faith; more lived out than spoken. Dad wanted us to know Jesus, wanted us to have a good relationship with God. He worked extra jobs to make sure that we could go to the Christian school, he faithfully supported the church, and he spent many hours using his gifts of woodworking and handyman skills to help out anyone who needed an extra hand. One of dad’s biggest regrets is that he was never asked to serve on any church council. He had always wanted to have the opportunity to serve the church this way, especially as a deacon, but the churches never recognized his passion for the church, or his talents this way.

Dad loved the outdoors. He was a fisherman, a hunter, and later on in life, a gardener. This was a big part of the reason he and mom bought their place out on Highway 597. It allowed him to build a huge workshop and have a small farm. He spent a lot of time working on those acres, improving them, and creating a safe place for the entire family. This image in Isaiah 65 describes Dad’s image of heaven as a home, a place to work hard, enjoy the fruits of your labour, and to be with loved ones sharing a good meal and a glass of Bokma gin at the end of the day, not quite the fruit of the vineyard, but close. This passage in Isaiah is a picture of what shalom looks like, good relationships with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with creation around us.

Vineyards and gardens are a great example of God providing, of flourishing, and of plenty. We see it starting in the Garden of Eden, where God placed Adam and Eve to care for it. Gardens are places we create and maintain today to provide food and to grow beautiful plants that bring joy, such as the plants and flowers we fill our homes with and give to others to show them that we are thinking about them. Dad loved gardening, especially in his later years; growing kale and garlic with Caroline for the market garden where people were eager to buy his produce because of its high quality. It was also a time where Dad could meet and chat with others who enjoyed gardening like he did. The garden was a place of peace for Dad.

Verses 20 and 23 talks about children dying before having an opportunity to really know life, of adults dying young, and about children of misfortune. Dad and Mom dedicated their lives and our family to give children who didn’t have a safe place, a place of safety that they could call home, a place where they could have family when their own families weren’t always a safe place. Fostering was a big part of who Dad and Mom were and they taught us that family is all about relationship more so than blood.

Our two sisters, Theresa and Toni came into our family through adoption, but they were never treated as less, but always as full family, along with Glennie, who came into our family at just a few days old and spent his entire life as part of the Boer clan. Toni and Glennie went home too early, as Isaiah talks about here, but God used Dad and Mom to welcome them into our mixed up, sometimes messed up, family. It always helped me to understand that being an adopted child of God is all about belonging and being accepted as precious and dearly loved.  

But this passage also reminds us that sin infects us all, that there are infants who do only live a few days, that there are wars and sounds of weeping and crying, that sin is why we’re here today because sin brought death to us as a penalty for our sin. We know Dad wasn’t a perfect man, he had his challenges with anger and frustration at times and wasn’t always able to articulate his anger well. Yet he always acted out of deep love for his family and wanted the best for us, even if we didn’t always appreciate it.

Isaiah writes, “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.” These verses remind me of the house Dad built in Murillo, and there are lots of stories of building this house with Dad, running on the rafters, almost falling through, knocking a box of roofing nails into the gravel around the house and having to pick them all up again, and the joy of living in a small village with good family friends close by. But Dad and Mom couldn’t afford to keep the house and had to sell. I can picture Dad on a plot of land right now looking it over and planning out the house he’s going to build next and the garden plot in the back.

We mourn with hope because Jesus came to take our sin on himself so that we can know the peace that comes from being set free from our sin, that death is now a door we walk through to go to heaven. When Dad went home to the Lord last fall, Jesus was right there with him, as he tells his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Jesus came to escort Dad to the place that was ready for him in God’s mansion; a place at the banquet table where Jesus is the host, and our loved ones who have gone on before Dad are there with him.

Dad is with Jesus now, in a place where he’s home and healed and his dementia is gone and he can enjoy his new life and the use again the gifts God has given him for creating beauty with wood, and growing his garden, watered by the river of the water of life, and at the end of the day, sitting on the bank with a fishing rod in his hand as we see in Revelation 22:1–4, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

The day will come when we will see Dad and Mom again, until that time, we are the fruit that they have created, families who know and follow Jesus and work to create places of shalom around us that reflect Jesus’ love and grace to others.

Friday, 13 May 2022

Joshua 24:1-28 Worship—Renewing our relationship with God


Two weeks ago, we began our series on worship, seeing worship as a time to hear God’s promises to us and to express our faith together as a community of people who are committed to following God. Last week we reflected on Nehemiah and how the people came to worship God and engaged in a time of deep confession and repentance. This week we’re going back to the time of Joshua when he called the people together to remember God’s faithfulness and to call them to renew their relationship with God. This is near the end of Joshua’s life, he’s led Israel in a time of conquest over the nations living in the Promised Land, claiming the land for God and Israel. Joshua didn’t completely succeed in conquering the entire land, but it’s time to end the warfare and to settle into the land and build homes, plant fields, and raise families. Joshua calls the people together in a time of worship and remembrance of God’s faithfulness.

Joshua begins by reminding the people of their history, reminding with them of God’s love, patience, mercy, and guidance from the time of Abraham until now. Remembering is a big part of worship for it gives us the reason and strength to trust God today, we look back to help us believe and trust today. Joshua reminds the people that the reason they’re in the Promised Land right now, getting ready to settle down is all because of God’s commitment to the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s a faithful God, making even pagan prophets bless Israel while delivering the Israelites out of Balak’s power. Joshua wraps up his telling of God’s story with Israel by declaring, "But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

Joshua doesn’t just tell God’s story with Israel, he challenges the people to make a choice,Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.” Joshua’s challenge fascinates me because we see that even though God has done amazing things in providing for his people: leading them out of slavery, protecting them from the nations around them, giving them the gift of the Law, and an identity as his people, the Israelites were still attracted to the gods and idols of the other nations, even hanging onto idols they’ve gathered along the way to the Promised Land!

Joshua even suggests that serving the Lord might be undesirable to them after everything God has done for them! “‘Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you—also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’” With everything God has done for them, how can they choose against God, yet I hear echoes here of Adam and Eve who were in a garden they didn’t plant, where life was good and God proved for them in everything, and yet they still listened to Satan over God.

It makes me wonder if there are idols and gods in our own lives that we might be carrying around in our hearts, perhaps not even realizing that they’re there, slowly draining away our commitment and love for Jesus? When we look at the things we spend most of our money, time, energy, and thoughts on, are they the things God is concerned about and engaged in, or they focused more on things that make our lives more comfortable and easier while ignoring many of the needs and brokenness around us? Tim Keller talks about how the good things that God gives us easily become small gods for us, crowding God out of our lives slowly, often without us even realizing it. Adam and Eve saw the fruit was good and desirable because God creates good things; the knowledge that Satan promised them wasn’t a bad thing, knowledge helps us make wise choices.

The problem was that Adam and Eve didn’t trust God’s love for them, didn’t trust that God knew what was best for them, weren’t patient enough to allow God to give them the knowledge they really needed. It’s like when your mother tells you not to do something, but it’s something you really want to do, so you don’t trust your mother’s wisdom or her concern for what’s best for you, and you do it anyway. How often don’t we learn the hard way that our mothers are much wiser than we were or are?

This is all happening in the context of worship, Joshua and the people are gathered together, worshipping God through remembering his goodness and blessings, being challenged to stay true to God and commit themselves to God alone. The people respond to God, Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.” Worship is not simply hearing the stories of God and Jesus, of hearing how Jesus came to earth from heaven to take our sin in himself in order to make us right with God, of how he died and rose again and gave us his Spirit so we can choose him over all other gods out there; we’re called to respond and recommit ourselves to following Jesus, to committing to allow the Holy Spirit to shape our lives, our hearts, and minds.

In worship we recommit ourselves to God and Jesus because we’re God’s children, we’re the body of Jesus placed here in this community to show God’s love for our community, and to serve our community to tells them the stories of Jesus. For Joshua and the Israelites, it means throwing away their idols and recommitting to serve the Lord and serving him with all faithfulness, because he’s God. This looks like recommitting ourselves to obeying Jesus’ call to follow him and to learn to see, love, and bless the people around us.

But Joshua pushes back on the people. Pastor Howard Vanderwell writes, “The people respond to God in verses 16-24. Note the dialog, including both the exhortation and challenge that takes place. "We will serve the Lord” …. “But he is holy and jealous and you have sinned” …. “But we will serve him” … “Then throw away the other gods” … “We will obey him!" Imagine the drama and strength in that dialog!” The people commit to serving the Lord, but Joshua reminds them that the Lord is holy and jealous and they’re sinners, and the people recommit to serving the Lord. Joshua tells them to throw away their other gods, and finally the people go deeper and commit to obeying the Lord. The people move from promising simple service to obedience, to embracing who God is calling them to be as his people by remembering the stories of God’s faithfulness to them.

Joshua makes a new covenant between the people and God and sets up a large stone as a reminder. Every time they see the stone, they’ll remember their promise to obey God and remember all that God has done for them. This is part of our worship services most weeks. We come together, confess our sins, hear the words of God’s forgiveness through Jesus, and then commit together to seek God’s will for our lives. This is the importance, the beauty, and the wonder of worship. In worship, we find encouragement and challenge from each other as we share our stories of how and where God is working in and through our lives.

So how does this all help us as we walk through the days and weeks of our lives? Knowing that God is with us every moment of the day and actively working around us, allows us to walk with confidence that even when things don’t go well. Even when we get things wrong, Jesus is there because he promised to be with us all the time. Even when we end up not being faithful, Jesus remains faithful to us. By renewing our promises to God each week in worship, we remind ourselves that we are God’s people and followers of Jesus who have been called to be witnesses to God’s grace, forgiveness, and acceptance, and to tell the story of Jesus to our world today.

 

 

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Nehemiah 9:1-15; 26-37 Worship—Confession and Honesty

 

In our passage this morning, we’re entering the story of Ezra and Nehemiah at an important moment in their story. Nehemiah has led a large group of Israelites back to Israel and they’ve rebuilt the walls of the city, rebuilt the temple, even though it wasn’t as majestic as Solomon’s, and now Nehemiah calls the people to celebrate, and as part of the celebration, the priest Ezra begins reading to the people from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, while the Levites explain what Ezra is reading, “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” The people began to weep as they listen to the words of the Law. They realize how far away from following God’s Law they’ve drifted. They hear about the Feast of Tabernacles and so they build booths to live in to remember how God provided for the people in the wilderness for 40 years.

During the entire festival, Ezra reads from the Word of God and a revival begins as the people reflect on their relationship with God and how they have, or have not been following God’s will and Laws. The day before our passage, many of the men who had married foreign women had separated themselves from their wives and children because the Law they just heard read, spoke against such marriages. Ezra 10:3, “Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.” The wives and children are sent away, just as Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away hundreds of years earlier. So much brokenness. The people gather together and for 3 hours they listen to the Book of the Law and then they spend another 3 hours confessing their sins and worshipping the Lord. This is an intense time!

The history in Ezra and Nehemiah is hard to hear. Husbands set aside their families because they made a choice to marry foreign women, which God has warned against in Deuteronomy 7:1–4, “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you—and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.  Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”

We saw this happen with even wise Solomon, who turned away from worshipping God alone, and even built temples and altars to foreign gods, going as far as even kneeling before these altars with his wives. The prophet Malachi, who was a prophet at the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah, talks about God’s purity, but he also talks about God’s dislike of divorce. One thing is really clear, going against God’s ways brings lots of hurt and brokenness.

In their confession, the leaders and people first focus on God’s greatness and goodness; how God is the God who created the universe and all life in it. God chose Abram and made promises to him to give Abraham the land they’re now in, and God kept his promises. In the years afterwards, God protected and provided for his people, revealing his own greatness while doing so. God gives them the gift of the Law to shape and form them into a people who reflect God and the kingdom of heaven.

Now the people go into an intense time of confession. They confess their disobedience, their times of rebellion against God, confessing that God’s gift of the Law was ignored over and over again. The people keep running after other gods and even when God punishes them, as soon as their punishment is over, they run back to their sins again, and then when God allows their enemies to defeat them, as soon as the Israelites cry out to God, he saves them again and again. God sends prophet after prophet, but in this prayer in Nehemiah, they confess that they didn’t pay them a whole lot of attention, just going about their lives doing what they wanted, rather than focusing on God and his Law. One of the themes that shines through in the people’s confession is the acknowledgement that their sin has consequences and that God is perfectly justified in punishing them. They did not make excuses for the mess they’re in, they’re perfectly honest about their sin. Confession is not confession when you’re trying to make excuses about what you’ve done; that’s just trying to shift the blame away from what you’ve done. As the people confess, “In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”

Israel’s problem usually wasn’t confession, we see Israel coming back to God and confessing their sin over and over again, even being brutally honest about their sin, but there is one thing their confession doesn’t lead to; to repentance and lasting heart and life change. It’s easy to confess our sin, there are actually a number of people who seem to take great joy in confessing their sins, and then going back and repeating them all over again. There are those who believe that it’s Jesus’ and God’s responsibility to forgive our sins. As long as we confess our sin, we’re alright and can go back to what we were doing. Then there are those who believe that if we’re going to sin, then we should sin boldly, as Martin Luther says, by the way, he’s misquoted, so that God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin is seen to be even greater and glorious. Paul deals with this amazingly twisted way of thinking in Romans 6, What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Sin is powerful in its ability to destroy and twist things so out of shape that they’re no longer recognizable, especially our hearts. Repentance is turning away from sin and evil and turning towards God. John the Baptist is one of the most powerful preachers of repentance, hear his words to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3, But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Repentance leads to a changed heart and life, a life shaped by obedience; an obedience that needs to flow out of our relationship with Jesus and is based on trust, love, and a desire to please Jesus, not out of a sense of obligation or guilt. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Jesus wants us to want to keep his commandments because of our love for him, not because we’re afraid of punishment or rejection, but because we belong to him. For John the Baptist, repentance looks like what Jesus talks about in Matthew 25 where people are feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, caring about the people around them. John tells them in Luke 3 to give their extra coat to someone in need, and share their money with the poor. He urges them to make sure they run their business fairly, treating everyone with honour. John calls us to not cheat others. Repentance means living Jesus’ way in everything we do.

Repentance is not just feeling sorry, or getting comfortable with God. It’s about changing the way we live our lives in the world. It’s a wonderful, free life living for God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness and peace in the spirit of love of God and neighbour rather than for ourselves.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Psalm 81 Worship-Our Relationship with God-Built on Promises

 

Worship is such an important part of our relationship with God, and in our relationship with each other, as we come together each week to worship God. The past couple of years have been an unusual time when it comes to worshipping God together. We’ve been blessed by being able to live-stream our services, but there’s still something missing when we worship alone in our homes. In the past, in times of persecution, there were many times that people were unable to gather together and they were only able to worship alone or in small groups, but the desire and pull from the Holy Spirit is always there to join together with others whenever possible. Our relationship with God is personal, but it’s also lived out together as the body of Jesus in the family of God. Like Paul tells us in Romans 12:5, “so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Miroslav Volk, in talking about the importance of relationships with each other in the church, writes, “We are the church” doesn’t mean “We meet occasionally” or “We cooperate in a current project.” Instead, we actually become part of one another.” For those of you unable to come together in person, I encourage you to invite at least one other person or family to join you on Sunday in your home.

In Psalm 81, the first three verses are a command for the people of Israel to come together to worship God. This is a time of joy and celebration, an exciting time of lifting our praise and worship to God. “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob! Begin the music, strike the timbrel, play the melodious harp and lyre. Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon, and when the moon is full, on the day of our festival; this is a decree for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.” Music and song are our heart responses to God, able to express our deepest emotions. The psalms are a large part of the songbook of scripture, helping us to come to God, no matter what our circumstances. These songs take us through the highs and lows of life, leading us to praise and trust in God and his love and grace to us. Worship is not a time for the social club to gather, it’s not school or entertainment, it’s not a passive time, but a time of being with our God, as his people and children. It’s family time where we each have our own roles and place. John Witvliet, a Calvin Seminary professor of worship writes, “We need to be challenged to see worship as a deeply participational, relational activity, in which we are listeners, speakers, promise-receivers, and promise-givers.”

The psalmist then moves into the second part of the psalm, a sermon from God. In worship, we remember the stories of scripture for this is where God reveals himself to us. Scripture reminds us who we are, for better or for worse. The psalmist here takes us back to the stories in Exodus when God rescued Israel from their Egyptian slave-masters, setting them free to follow and worship God. The people called out to God and God acted, he answered them out of a thundercloud. The thundercloud points to power, but also to the hiddenness of God; all the people heard was God’s voice, but they couldn’t see him. The Hebrew word for thundercloud points to secrecy and protection. By speaking from the thundercloud, God was protecting the people from himself. This Psalm reminds the people of Mount Sinai and how only Moses and the elders were allowed on the mountain, and only Moses was invited into God’s presence. Moses speaks to their fear in Exodus 20, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” Worship reminds us that we follow a holy God, a powerful God who calls us to be his and to be holy, dedicated only to him and not turn the good things he gives us into gods.

The psalmist goes on in remembering Mount Sinai, how the people are called into a relationship with only God! “Hear me, my people, and I will warn you—if you would only listen to me, Israel! You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not worship any god other than me. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt.” God chose Israel as his people in order to bless the nations of the world by bringing the promised Messiah through Israel. God chose Israel to give the nations a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven by calling them to a way of life that showed them who God is.

When they listen to God, God promises to fill their mouths, to provide for them. While those who are against God will be punished, the psalmist reminds the people, “But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” The echoes to how God provided for his people in the wilderness for 40 years and brought them into the Promised Land are loud and clear here. Every morning, except for the Sabbath day, the people woke up to bread on the ground and God provided quail to the people when they complained about a lack of meat. As you read the stories of Israel in the wilderness and in the Promised Land, it becomes clear that the people were seldom satisfied with how God provided food for their bodies or their souls. They complained over and over again. They disobeyed the Law God gave them to shape their lives and hearts into his people over and over and again, often chasing after foreign gods.

Mark D. Roberts writes in The High Calling blog, “The human tendency to follow our own paths is nothing new. In Psalm 81, God laments that his people have been "living according to their own ideas" rather than following God's laws. The result has been dismal. Israel has fallen into all measure of suffering because they prized their own ideas rather than the ways of God. Thus, through the psalm writer, God says, "Oh, that my people would listen to me! Oh, that Israel would follow me, walking in my paths!" If only Israel would abide by God's ideas rather than their own, then they would be delivered from their enemies and satisfied with God's richest blessings.”

God deeply desires a relationship with us; worship is one of the main ways we express our relationship with God, a time to be with God as family. God sends Jesus to call us to repent and believe and come back to God, since we keep doing our thing instead of God’s thing. We often believe we know better how to live our lives than God does, so we ignore God’s commands and Jesus’ teaching and commands and do what we figure is better, listening more to the voices of our time, rather than to Scripture. Do you really trust that God’s knows what is best for you? Do you really believe that God understands our culture and that his ways are still best for us today?

Worship draws us back to God, reminding us of God’s promises to be our God and that we are his people: that he will provide for us, protect us, and save us. In worship, we come knowing that our relationship with God is not something we have because of how good we are, but because of how good Jesus is, and how in his goodness, he takes God’s wrath on himself in our place. God sent Jesus to fulfill his promise to save us from our sin and make us right with God again. In worship we recommit ourselves to Jesus.

We hear the call in Hebrews to come close to God and stay strong in the faith, Hebrews 10:19–25,Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

We don’t come to church to make God love us more. We come together to enjoy and express the faith and hope we have in Jesus through our worship. We come to hear God’s promises, and to promise to follow him, and to encourage and bless each other. Our worship doesn’t end at the final blessing, but it carries on into the week as we spur each other on toward love and good deeds as a part of our worship of God in our families and community.

Exodus 24 Worship—Sealing Our Relationship with God

  We’ve been reflecting on worship since Easter , and this morning we’re ending our short, often interrupted series by entering this story...