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Monday, 24 June 2019

Jonah 1 Can You Run from God

At 17 I left home because I felt I didn’t fit in, but really, I was running from God and church because I thought God was unfair. It took a navy chaplain to call me back to God and the church. Jonah seems like a pretty simple story, and at its heart, it is: God calls Jonah, Jonah hates the Ninevites so much he runs away, God makes Jonah go to Nineveh anyway and the Ninevites repent while Jonah has a hissy fit. God’s plan happens even though Jonah resists. But there are many layers in this story about Jonah and us, about God and his relationship to all people, and how Jesus is revealed over and over again.
There’s a lot of crazy stuff in this story of Jonah, beginning with the Lord coming to Jonah and telling him to go to Nineveh and preach against it. Jonah’s the only prophet ever called to go outside of Israel to the capital city of one of the cruelest empires ever. Assyria was extremely vicious and gory, cruel and obscene to their enemies. Israel’s one of their conquered nations and the Assyrians demanded heavy tribute payments that kept Israel poor and hurting. Even God says its wickedness has come up before me; the Bible’s way of saying that the people were being cruelly oppressed and crying for mercy and relief. God responds to such cries because he’s a compassionate God. The prophet Nahum also prophesied that God was going to destroy Nineveh, so why send Jonah?
Why not simply punish Nineveh? It doesn’t make sense to send Jonah. Jonah’s a Jewish patriot. In 2 Kings 14 Jonah supported King Jeroboam’s military campaign to extend Israel’s borders, Jeroboam was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” Going to Nineveh feels like a betrayal to his country, so Jonah heads in the opposite direction, heading west instead of east to Nineveh. This is huge because the sea is a place of chaos to the Jews, a place to be feared. Nineveh probably won’t listen to a Jewish prophet anyway and it could cost him his life. The sea isn’t any greater threat than Israel’s enemies. Why send a prophet unless God’s open to giving them a chance to repent and willing to forgive them? It’s crazy to give God’s people’s greatest oppressor an opportunity to escape punishment for the pain and suffering they’re causing.
Haven’t we often wondered why God doesn’t punish people who do wrong? Tim Keller writes, “Jonah doubts the goodness, wisdom and justice of God,” because Jonah senses that by sending him, God is opening the door to grace and mercy for the Ninevites, and that’s just not right or just in Jonah’s eyes. When we face painful times, don’t we sometimes doubt what God is doing, doubt that God knows best and can make good happen out of bad, as Paul writes in Romans 8. How often do we trust our own wisdom over God’s, believing God is holding out on us, like Adam and Eve did eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Can God really be merciful and still be just and faithful? These are hard questions and often we can’t understand why God does what he does, it takes faith and deep trust because these are theological and heart problems.
Jonah runs, but you can’t escape God. The Lord sends a great storm, a word-play on Nineveh being a great city. Both are dangerous places for Jonah. As Tim Keller says, our actions have consequences, sin has storms attached to it. Sometimes God acts and punishes directly, other times he allows the natural consequences of sin play out. Not all out storms are a direct result of our sin; for the sailors, the storm is a result of Jonah’s sin; God acting directly in the storm. The lots they cast to figure out who’s to blame for this God-strength storm point straight to Jonah.
Jonah cares nothing for the sailors’ safety, putting them at risk of God’s anger by getting on their ship, and yet here they are, doing everything they can to save his life. They turn to their gods to help them while Jonah is silent before God. The sailors are open to Jonah’s God even though Jonah is silent. Jonah refuses to use his faith for the common good even though they’re all in the same boat, all created in the image of God. A private faith has no public good; that’s still true today.
Life storms can be times when faith is grown, when trust, hope, patience, humility and other spiritual fruit can be developed in ways that times of calmness and peace can’t. In the storm, the sailors turn to Jonah’s God. Jonah refuses to go to pagans with God’s message, and here God uses even Jonah’s stubborn disobedience to lead pagans to himself. In this storm, even Jonah’s heart is transformed as he recognizes them as men together with him in the same situation instead of just gentiles. Jonah begins to take responsibility for the storm they’re in, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” It’s the same with us, when we start to see the people around us as people with stories and lives so similar to our own, we begin to connect deeper to them and our hearts become more open to being transformed by the Holy Spirit to care about them and wanting them to know Jesus because Jesus is the only way to God.
Jonah acts to save the sailors, telling them to cast him overboard and God will save them. Jonah’s a small reflection of Jesus who entered into the storm of sin to save us. In the darkness of sin’s storm, Jesus goes to the cross. He enters the darkness of sin into a time of tragedy, loss, and injustice to satisfy God’s justice, to pay the price and take the punishment for our sin on himself so that we can be right with God again. In the middle of that storm of sin, that time of darkness and despair, God’s mercy is at work, offering us forgiveness and pardon, satisfying the justice and faithfulness God demands because of our sin. In Jesus, justice and mercy come together.
The sailors finally throw Jonah overboard, but only after doing everything they could to save him. They sacrifice the one for the many, just like the high priest advises the Sanhedrin to do with Jesus hundreds of years later. Jesus uses what the sailors do to Jonah to respond to the religious leader who are asking for a miraculous sign from him, Matthew 12, “He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Jesus points ahead to his death on the cross for our sin, using Jonah as an image of what death feels like. Jesus comes and preaches a message of repentance, offering an invitation to come back to God. Jesus gives up his life so that we can experience forgiveness and new life that is shaped by the grace and love of Jesus, a life that is dedicated to helping others come to know Jesus and his grace and forgiveness, the power that comes from the Holy Spirit to change the places we live to look more like the kingdom of heaven where people flourish, becoming the people God has created us to be, a kingdom where everyone is welcomed in, where friends and enemies sit together at Jesus’ table.  
Jonah is thrown overboard, the sea grows calm, the anger of God seen in the storm is turned aside. God provides a large fish to swallow Jonah. The pagan sailors sacrifice to Jonah’s God in fear and trembling. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” These pagan sailors have been shown who God is, the very thing Jonah is called to be doing to Nineveh, and he does God’s will anyway, even against though he was running away from it. God, in his grace, continues to draw people to him, even in our resistance. What is preventing you from telling others who you believe in, from inviting them to come to Bethel with you? The people of Lacombe are waiting for your invitation to come to get to know Jesus with you? Why would you be afraid to invite them?

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Acts 2:1-21 What Does This Mean?

What do you think of when you think of Pentecost? Is it as special to you as Christmas or Easter, does it touch your heart like Good Friday services do? We often overlook Pentecost and yet Pentecost is the most exciting day of the year, it’s God coming close to us, sending his Spirit to live right inside each of us to keep us focused on Jesus and remind us of everything he taught and to reassure that we are blessed loved children of God. How more special can a day be?
It’s Pentecost today, 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus returned to heaven, and today is the day the Holy Spirit was poured out into the world onto those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Pentecost has been around for a lot longer than we realize. In Leviticus, the people of Israel are called to celebrate Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks. It comes 50 days after the Passover. It’s a harvest festival, celebrating God’s blessings on his people. On Pentecost, you bring 2 loaves of bread made from the first fruits of the wheat harvest and offer it to the Lord. It’s also a time to remember the gift of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai to the people to shape them into who God wants them to be as his people.
The time of waiting is over, the gift Jesus promised of his Spirit arrives in the blowing of a violent wind, with tongues of fire and the ability to speak in other languages. For the disciples and thousands of others there, it’s an echo of God’s presence at Mount Sinai where God meets his people after saving them from slavery and death by leading them through the waters of the Red Sea and destroying those who wanted to keep them in slavery. Exodus 19:16–18, “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.”
Pentecost has often been a day for doing baptism when we remember how God has saved us through Jesus, washing away our sins and leading us into new life in him from the things that we’ve become slaves to; how God comes close to meet us. This is why it’s so special to be able to celebrate Nicole’s baptism this morning. Pentecost in the New Testament brings in a new chapter in God’s work of saving his people and creation.
The apostles are touched by flames from heaven, filled with the Holy Spirit and they rush out into the streets. Words telling about Jesus flow out of their mouths like streams of living water, telling everyone around them about how God has sent his son Jesus to earth to bring us back to God the Father because our sin has built this barrier between us and God, a barrier that we can’t bring down ourselves because of our sin. The apostles remind the people how Jesus died on the cross, cursed for us so that our sins are paid for, washed away through the blood of Jesus and how Jesus rose from the grave and is now in heaven and now is pouring his Spirit on us to bring this good news to all people.
The covenant, that promise of a close relationship with God made at Mount Sinai, is renewed in our hearts as Jeremiah tells us in Jeremiah 31 is coming, “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 people listening to the apostles are perplexed and amazed at what they’re hearing, especially since it doesn’t matter where they’re from, they’re hearing the apostles speak in their own languages. “What does this mean?” they ask. Now there are always mockers and they laugh, “They’ve had too much wine.” Peter turns to the crowd to explain what’s happening, he reminds them of what the prophet Joel said, “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
God’s Spirit is poured out into the world and it’s a life changing Spirit. It causes our sons and daughters to prophesy, to speak out what God is doing in our world, to see visions of what God is doing and how God is working in the world, building his kingdom here. I really appreciate how over the years it’s the young people and young adults who keep inspiring me through their dreams of what can be. You see only possibilities, something many people lose as they get older. Older people dream again, finding hope again, seeing the world with renewed eyes, seeing the potential in our world again, renewing their energy and passion again for God’s plans. God’s coming close to his people, revealing his presence in the world, reminding us that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, words of reassurance and grace.
What an exciting picture of the church! It’s not about committees and groups and meetings that make sure everything runs just so, it’s about dreaming, about training our eyes, ears and hearts to see where God is working and then dreaming how we can join him in reaching others, about coming alongside people and helping them to dream with the Holy Spirit, dream of full lives, of changed lives, of healthy communities that know Jesus and are helping each other reach for their potential, building each other up, being an encouraging community that lives well, forgives well, laughs and lives life well together in our day to day activities and work and study and play.
The picture is of the Holy Spirit flowing into the world like a river, pouring out of heaven and filling the earth. It’s a river we are part of, sometimes it’s an exciting white-water river ride, other times it’s a lazy river where people are refreshed and renewed, but either way, we’re in it! Dreaming and visions are not about the future, they’re about seeing right here where Jesus is at work around us and then dreaming of how we can join him, dreaming of what Jesus is making possible. Martin Luther King Jr dreamed of a time where all people would be seen as equal, where slave and free men could sit together and his children would be treated according to their character instead of their skin. It took hard work and great sacrifice, but it was a dream that was possible based on a changing culture.
Dreaming frees our imaginations so that we can see past “this is the way it is,’ to sense and see how God is pouring out his Spirit onto all people, including us. Dreaming helps us see how events and circumstances connect to God’s desires. We look backwards on Pentecost to Joel in order to see where God is found today. In Joel’s time, the people were drifting away from God, sound familiar, yet Joel comes to them with the news that God still wants a close relationship with them through his Spirit. Joel encourages, instead of condemns. Today, people still need encouragement rather than someone beating over the head because they’re not following God properly. Pentecost is about encouragement and excitement as God comes close to us through his Spirit, helping us to speak Jesus into peoples’ lives.
The pouring out of the Spirit, dreaming and vision making is not about making more church work, creating more programs or ministries, or getting busier. Pentecost is about learning to see what Jesus is already doing in your life and the lives of the people around you, helping them see Jesus. Backyard bbqs with friends or neighbours who are not connected to Jesus yet, ball games with your kids’ teams, relaxing on the beach with friends are all times where the Spirit can flow through you onto others. Dreams help us to see how this is possible, to see the opportunities that are here. Dream this summer, have visions about how Jesus can work here in our community, and allow the Spirit to use you to speak Jesus encouragingly into one person’s life this summer.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Acts 16:16-34 An Unexpected Convert

This morning we’re continuing the story we began looking at last week when Paul makes his way to Philippi in response to a vision where he meets Lydia who accepts Jesus. A bit of time has passed and Paul’s continuing to preach the good news of Jesus and inviting people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. One morning, as they’re heading to the place of prayer, they’re met by a female slave who has a spirit inside her that helps her predict the future. This means she and her owners are probably connected to the Temple of Apollo, the Olympian god of prophecy.
The slave girl follows Paul and the rest of his group, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most-High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” The spirit in the slave girl recognizes that they’re followers of Jesus, that their God is more powerful than the god she represents. This is what’s Ascension Day about; that Jesus returned to heaven and is now sitting on the throne beside his Father with all authority in heaven and earth given to him. You would think that Paul would appreciate the slave girl’s testimony, the affirmation from someone possessed by the spirit of one god affirming that your God is the greatest, but Paul gets annoyed with her, turns around and says to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to come out of her!” Immediately the spirit leaves the slave girl, she’s saved from the spirit through the power of Jesus. This is a god-level battle and Jesus wins hands down.
In this story though, there’s a sense that it’s not finished, there’s stuff left undone. I’ve so many questions still. Why doesn’t Paul free the slave girl from her masters, what happens to her, why doesn’t anyone seem to care about her afterwards? The slave girl’s freed from the spirit in her, but she’s still a slave girl and is worse off now than when she had the spirit in her. Her value’s much less now. We see this in how her owners act, they get ticked off at Paul and Silas; get them thrown in jail for “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” There’s no mention of the slave girl, no concern for her knowing Jesus, for her soul, she was a nuisance now gone away. Heart and soul freedom are always connected to Jesus. So often, when we find relief from some struggle, we believe we’ve made it and yet many times there’s soul healing we forget to work on. The spirit may be gone, but the slave girl still needs soul healing but she’s overlooked, forgotten.
Paul and Silas get thrown into prison, placed in an inner cell with no windows or fresh air, and their feet placed in stocks so they can’t move around. Their freedom’s taken away. Justice isn’t the concern here. Rome has established the great Roman peace, the Pax Romana, but it’s a peace that’s simply an absence of conflict and they used brutal ways to keep the peace. Rome was a brutal master at times. Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten with rods; a punishment designed to intimidate them into silence. Just as Jesus was unjustly condemned and crucified because Pilate put justice aside for peace, now Paul and Silas are thrown in prison unjustly because the magistrates prefer peace over justice.
How would you react to such injustice? How do you react to any injustice against you today? Do you react in anger, do you whine and complain that life’s not fair and expect someone to step in and make things right, do you fight back? Paul and Silas go in a completely different direction, they pray and sing hymns to God while the other prisoners listen to them. This blows my mind! It’s probably not how I would react. While Paul and Silas sing and pray, the other prisoners listen to them, unlike the prisoners on the cross with Jesus who mock him instead, adding to Jesus’ pain as he suffers there for our sins to make things right between us in God. Rather than responding in gratitude, as we’re called to do, the prisoners on the cross add to Jesus’ suffering. Yet Jesus doesn’t fight back and this changes the heart of one of the prisoners, leading him to ask Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus reassures him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” An amazing response! How we react to injustice is noticed by the people around us. The cross changes things in a big way, it changes us and how we respond to the things of life, it frees us from lots of anger, bitterness and hatred that can wrap us in heavy chains.
Then the Lord steps in, there’s an earthquake that shakes the foundations of the prison and opens the prison doors. The prisoners have freedom staring them in the face, all they have to do is grab hold of it. The jailer wakes up, sees the prison doors open and knows he’s in deep trouble. Rome is an unforgiving master; the jailer knows this is going to cost him dearly and is about to kill himself to escape the harshness of the punishment that waits for him. The jailer is a slave to his fear, to the oppression that makes up the peace of Rome. What a difference from our master and Lord who offers freedom from fear, freedom to mess up and know that our master’s love is unconditional and his grace and peace is freely given. Before the jailer can take his own life, Paul shouts out, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”
Paul and Silas’ response to injustice, their worship even while in chains has captivated the other prisoners so deeply that none of them flee even though the prison doors are open and they have the opportunity to flee. The jailer rushes in and falls trembling before Paul and Silas. He can’t believe what he sees and brings them out of the cell and asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” I wonder if he even knows what he’s asking for here. All he knows is that Paul and Silas have something that he needs, something that allows them to know peace in the middle of injustice, a peace very different from the peace of Rome. The jailer turns to the ones who, as the slave girl told everyone, “are servants of the Most-High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”
Paul and Silas talk to the jailer about this Jesus who is able to free the jailer from his fears, about what freedom looks like when you’re free from your sin, when your relationship with the Most-High God is made right again and you’re adopted as a child of God, so much better than being a child of Rome. Paul and Silas challenge the jailer to believe in Jesus as Lord over Caesar and trust in the peace and freedom of Jesus over the peace and freedom of Rome. The jailor takes them and washes their wounds, and then realizing that he can be freed from the fear he lives with under Rome, freedom from the guilt of the injustice he was so often a part of, he and his household are baptized, washed clean by the Holy Spirit and an unexpected convert is added to the growing church in Macedonia.
What’s keeping you from being completely free, what do you need to be saved from? The simple answer is sin, the more complex answer is recognizing the things that wrap us in chains, the things weight us down, the things we turn to for meaning, purpose, security other than Jesus. Many people today are slaves to anxiety and fear. Guilt wraps many in heavy chains. We’ve been told over and over that Jesus forgives us yet so many people never accept his forgiveness and guilt wraps them in its chains. Addictions to things like power, lust, drugs, alcohol, and pleasure wrap us tightly in chains while making us believe that we’re experiencing the best that life has to offer. But in the dark of night, our hearts know better.
Salvation is about so much more than forgiveness of our sin, it’s about freedom from fear and oppression, freedom to flourish and develop the potential within each of us. It’s about being able to live in shalom, the Jewish word for peace, in healthy relationships with God, each other, ourselves and creation. This is why Jesus returned to heaven after dying on the cross and being raised from the dead to wash away our sins, so that he could send the Holy Spirit to bring hope, peace, and transformation into our hearts in a personal and intimate way and save us from the anxieties, fears and soul oppression so many of us struggle with today.