Thursday, 23 March 2023

Were You There… as a Spectator - Matthew 27:32-44

Isaiah writes in chapter 53 about the Suffering Servant, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…  By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.”

Matthew carries on with what happens after Jesus’ trials in front of the religious leaders and Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus has been charged with blasphemy by claiming to be God and going to destroy the temple, while Pilate washed his hands of Jesus, sending him to the cross with the accusation of being a traitor and threat to Rome for claiming to be king of the Jews. The soldiers take Jesus away, mock him as a king, and now are marching him to the place where he’s going to die on the cross-beam Simon is forced to carry because of the beating Jesus has already taken.

There are a lot of spectators there that day; there were people from all over the empire in Jerusalem for the Passover feast; celebrating how God saved them from slavery. God is doing something similar this Passover, fulfilling his great promise of a Messiah right in front of them all. Around the cross are a variety of spectators watching Jesus hang on the cross that day. There are the soldiers at the cross to make sure the prisoners die and no one tries to save them off the cross. They offer Jesus wine mixed with gall, making it taste awful and bitter, perhaps a way to mock him as a failed king.

They cast lots for Jesus’ clothes, unknowingly fulfilling Psalm 22, “They divide my clothes among them and they cast lots for my garment.” Matthew echoes Psalms 22 and 69 multiple times as he tells us about Jesus’ crucifixion, showing how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies in his suffering and death. The soldiers place a sign over Jesus’ head at Pilate’s direction, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews,” so everyone can see who Jesus claims to be, another way to mock Jesus and the Jews, and yet an echo back to the wise men who travelled from the east after reading about Jesus’ birth in the stars, to worship the child born king of the Jews.

Two rebels are crucified on either side of Jesus, showing that the soldiers consider Jesus the most important criminal of the group. The rebels also mock Jesus, increasing the shame on Jesus. They’re joined in their mocking by the religious leaders who show up to make sure that Pilate carries through on Jesus’ crucifixion. They revel in their victory, even though they know Jesus is innocent. John records the high priest saying, You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” These leaders mockingly sneer, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!” They mock him about being the king of Israel and the Son of God. The irony is that if Jesus saves himself, he condemns them. Jesus stays true to who he is, the king of Israel and Son of God, remaining on the cross so that they might be saved.

Then there are all those who just pass by. It’s like driving past an accident or following a fire truck to see what’s going on; everyone has a bit of a morbid curiosity about disasters. From how Matthew describes them, they would have been Jewish because they mocked Jesus about destroying the temple and rebuilding it again in three days. What is it in some people that they seem to take delight in hurting suffering people even more, stomping them into the ground.

Moses writes in Deuteronomy 21:23:Anyone who is hanged on a tree is under God’s curse.” In Israelite law, the corpse of a criminal condemned by the courts who was hung on a tree showed the people that he was cursed by God. The chief priests wanted to make such that everyone felt disgust and revulsion who saw Jesus hang on the cross. This is why so walking by treated Jesus so harshly, so cruelly. The irony is that they’re right, Jesus took God’s curse on himself. Cursing is a serious business for God. When God curses, he’s condemning sin and judging it. His first curses come in Genesis 3 and still impact us today, So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” God goes on to curse Eve, the ground, and Adam because Adam and Eve listened to the serpent’s voice over God’s voice.

On the cross, God’s curse against sin falls on Jesus, who becomes a curse for us. What’s happening here on the cross is so much more than a simple Jewish rabbi being unjustly crucified. In Jesus’ day, the Jews believed that the curse applied to anyone who was crucified; this is why the chief priests demanded that Jesus be crucified. On a cross, a person hung between heaven and earth, not belonging to either, but instead under the power of beings under the power of the kingdom of darkness and include fallen angels that were kicked out of heaven with Satan. The goal of these spirits is to twist God’s very good of creation out of its intended shape. This helps us understand what Paul’s talking about in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

God doesn’t hide what he’s doing, Jesus wandered through Israel and Samaria for 3 years, teaching publicly about who God is and who he is. Now, in front of many spectators, Jesus begins the crushing of the serpent’s head, making atonement for our sin, an act of love and justice by God, to reconcile God with us. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

Jesus’ crucifixion is part of a cosmic battle against these powers, the battle referred to in the serpent’s curse, the woman’s offspring going up against the serpent. On the cross, it looks like the serpent has won. We need to look deeper. D.A. Carson writes that The curse on Jesus at the cross fulfills all OT sacrifices: it is a curse that removes the curse from believers—the fusion of divine, royal prerogative and Suffering Servant, the heart of the gospel, the inauguration of a new humanity, the supreme model for Christian ethics, the ratification of the new covenant, and the power of God.”

There are a lot of spectators in the church today, walking by the cross and looking up at this man most people are mocking, a man who seems to be carrying the weight of the world on him, a man who does something so unexpected it takes your breath away, but then just continuing doing their thing rather than worshipping Jesus. Astonishingly, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Is your faith a spectator faith, something you do as an add on to your regular life, a Sunday morning, prayer at supper kind of faith in Jesus, but not really impacting what you do or who you really are? When you stop to take a close look at Jesus on the cross, what’s your reaction; do you recognize he’s there for you? Paul calls us to imitate Jesus, are you willing to move from being a spectator to being an imitator of Jesus, to live a life shaped by sacrificial humility, obedience to our crucified and risen Lord, confessing Jesus as your Lord?

Where are you at in your relationship with Jesus. Consider what he’s done for you on the cross: being the offering for your sin so you can be right with God. Confess your need for Jesus as your sin offering and respond by repenting, by saying “yes” every day to Jesus as he calls you to walk his path. Gratefully allow the Holy Spirit to shape who you are and how you live life. This is what Carson means about the cross being the heart of our ethics, the beginning of a new humanity, as we allow the gospel, through the Holy Spirit to transform us, shaping us more into the image of Jesus. Recognize that following Jesus, who becomes a curse in order to take the curse off you, is going to come at a cost, the cost of giving your entire life over to Jesus. Jesus becomes the curse so you can live in the blessings of the Father, are you ready to become more than a spectator?


Monday, 13 March 2023

Were You There… in the Shouting Crowd - Matthew 27:1-31


John tells us at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ life thatHe was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” Even those who were the closest to Jesus didn’t really know who he was until after his death and resurrection. Many people say that they could never have betrayed Jesus, but that comes out of the arrogance of looking back with knowledge and insight that the people didn’t have then. This morning we’re reflecting on how many people failed to listen to Jesus, listening to other voices instead.

Matthew begins this part of Jesus’ journey to the cross by returning to Judas. After 3 years of being with Jesus, Judas hadn’t listened to who Jesus said he was, or what Jesus had been preparing them for. His betrayal was especially personal, even if the prophets had pointed to Judas’ betrayal. At the supper, Judas was served by Jesus, in the garden he kisses Jesus and calls him rabbi. This is personal, but now it sinks in to Judas just what the consequences are of his betrayal and deep remorse fills him at just how terrible his betrayal is. Judas’ betrayal was determined already in the Old Testament, but that doesn’t take away his personal responsibility for his acts or for listening to the voices of his greed, personal ambition, or Satan.

Judas tries to return the money. He throws the blood money into the temple, throwing away his god, but his guilt and remorse is so great that it prevents him from leaning into the forgiveness he could have experienced from Jesus. Jesus’ grace and love is big enough, as Peter writes in his second letter, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” but Judas couldn’t hear it or accept it.

In Judas we also hear an echo back to Zechariah 11:12–14, “I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.” Zechariah’s talking about the sheep turning against the good shepherd here, a painful foreshadowing of what’s happening now to Jesus. In Zechariah, the people are rejecting the good shepherd and refusing to give him his pay even, and even when they do, it’s an insulting amount, showing no respect.

Now Matthew turns to the scene at Pilate’s palace and how the power of the crowd can lead to injustice and knowingly wrong decisions. Jesus is brought before Pilate, the one in charge of making sure that the Roman rule of law is carried out. Pilate knows something’s going on here that’s not completely legit, “he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.” Pilate only interested in Jesus’ claim to be king of the Jews because that can lead to a revolt against Rome. Pilate asks Jesus straight up, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus doesn’t affirm or deny the question, he simply states, “You have said so.” But when Jesus is accused by the chief priests and elders, he remains silent, echoing back to Isaiah 53, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Mathew’s writing to Jewish people, this is why he refers so often to the Old Testament prophecies.

John tells us Jesus’ response to Pilate’s question on whether he’s king of the Jews, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” Whose voice has Pilate been listening to, whose voices are guiding Pilate’s decision: Caesar’s voice who was unhappy with how Pilate has been dealing with the Jews in the past for allowing riots to happen, the Jewish religious leaders who failed to listen to Jesus’ voice, the voice of fear in Pilate’s own head, or to his wife’s voice, as his wife sends him an urgent message, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” God confirms Jesus’ innocence; Pilate has no excuse for the decisions he makes next.

Pilate offers to release a prisoner as part of the festival. Pilate offers to release either Jesus or Jesus Barabbas. When the crowd, stirred up by the Jewish religious leaders, choose Barabbas, Pilate’s forced to give a formal verdict, which should have been innocent, he instead literally washes his hands of his responsibility to defend the innocent, and hands Jesus over to be crucified. Jesus has been betrayed by the religious leaders, by Judas, by Peter, by the crowd, and now by Pilate. Do we really think we would have done anything different from any of these people?

The people accept the responsibility for the death of Jesus, even placing it on their children! I have a hard time understanding placing blood guilt on my children, but it shows how powerful the crowd mentality is, how the chief priests can rile them up to do something so unjust. Yet it’s easy to get caught up in joining the crowd in the moment, especially angry crowds who often seem to have a darkness in them. It’s easy to forget who we are as followers of Jesus and who Jesus is calling us to be when these voices are shouting in our ears.

We easily listen to those who tell us that what we already believe is the only truth, we allow our ears to be tickled and even get self-righteous about it. Adam and Eve listened to a different voice than God’s and it led them into rejecting God’s will for them. Whose voices are you listening to? Who’s tickling your ears right now? We tend to hunker down with those voices that affirm what we want to hear and tune out other voices. When we do this, we develop strong “them and us” ways of thinking and this distorts our relationships and ability to listen and relate with those who believe differently than we do. This can lead us to even believing that the other person’s motives are deliberately wrong.

We can find ourselves unable to recognize our own issues and the possibility that we may not have all the truth, or that we may even be wrong, the plank and splinter parable of Jesus. This is a pride and arrogance issue and is a huge problem today, both in our culture and even in the church, something I also struggle with much too often. This was part of what the chief priests, Pharisees, and Pilate were all struggling with and that the crowd didn’t even recognize, but got swept along into. When we allow our ears to be tickled, we reject God by choosing to listen to other voices over the Holy Spirit’s; we deny Jesus.

Earlier on in Matthew 23:37–39, Jesus hurts for what’s coming up for the Jewish people at the hands of Rome, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Even though Jesus has been betrayed repeatedly, he remains focused on walking the journey to the cross for the people, listening to his father’s voice over every other voice. On the cross justice and grace come together; justice in paying the price for our sin and grace in the forgiveness and restoration between us and God.

We’re called to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the voice of the crowds or those inciting the crowds. We’re called to learn to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit and reject the voices of those tickling our ears for their own purposes. This means regularly spending time reading the story of God and Jesus in the Bible as the voice of the Spirit, it means spending time talking to God in prayer and then being quiet to allow the Spirit to speak, which is why praying the Bible is so important. The church, over thousands of years, has developed ways of listening to, and being shaped by the Holy Spirit. Here are other spiritual disciplines I believe help us learn to listen to the Holy Spirit: fasting, confession, worship, fellowship, rest, celebration, service, generosity, chastity, and disciple-making.

Humility is so important because we’re connected to Jesus, and without humility, we find it hard to listen to any voices but our own. Paul writes in Philippians 2, “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

God doesn’t give up on us, and in his justice and mercy sends Jesus to atone for our sin on the cross, where he died, and rose again, covering our sin and making us right with God again. Our response is to listen and obey God’s voice through the Holy Spirit as our act of grateful response to Jesus.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Were You There… at the Supper - Luke 22:7-38


Were you there that night we celebrated the Passover with Jesus just before he was crucified? It was a confusing night; first Jesus sent John and I to prepare the Passover meal by going into the city, finding, and following a stranger to his house where he let us use a room big enough for all of us to share the Passover meal together. It always struck me how that whatever we needed always seemed to be there; I know it’s not coincidence, that God provides for us, but it always surprises me. I wonder if it’s because I don’t always trust enough that God does provide.

Then at the meal, Jesus started talking again about suffering and “not eating it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God, but the Passover is all about remembering how God saved us from slavery and then met us at Mount Sinai where he gave us the Law as a covenant to bind us to himself; “I am your God and you are my people,” is at the heart of the covenant!

Jesus then took the unleavened bread, made in a hurry so they could respond quickly to what God did, and Jesus then said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” We took the bread and ate and it felt like a gift, even though we didn’t understand what Jesus was doing at the time. Was Jesus telling us something by saying his body is given for us, this sounded at the time as if he was giving his life for a cause and his cause is us. Then Jesus took the cup of blessing, the last cup of wine for the Passover, a symbol that God is the giver of all good gifts and then consecrates the meal to the one who ate, and Jesus called it, “a new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

It reminded us of the prophet Jeremiah when God said he was going to make a new covenant with us, but it was going to be written on our hearts instead of the stone tablets given to us at Mount Sinai. Again, it sounded like Jesus was getting ready to die, and his death was going to be for us. we’ve been waiting a long time for this new covenant to come; is Jesus telling us that he really is the Messiah who has come to save us, but how does that fit with his talking about suffering and death?

The most confusing thing happened when Jesus began to talk about one of us betraying him; now looking back I see that he was talking about Judas, but we didn’t know that at the time. I even marvel now that Jesus even served Judas since I understand now that Jesus was showing us how the supper points us to salvation. James even leaned over and whispered those verses from Psalm 41 about a close friend turning against the psalmist and how Jesus seems to be saying that’s going to happen to him. We all wondered who Jesus was talking about.

I’m ashamed to say that we then started arguing about which one of us was the greatest. What a dumb argument when the greatest of all time has just washed our feet and then served us a meal we will never forget. Jesus stepped into our argument, to our shame and embarrassment, and reminded us that we are called to be different, that as his followers and children of God, we are called to humility and servanthood, and thinking back to the meal, serving even those who turn against us. I learned a lot that night, even though it didn’t sink in right away.

I couldn’t believe it when Jesus turned to me next with a warning, Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” There’s no way I would ever turn from Jesus, at least that’s what I thought then, was Jesus saying I’m the close friend who’s going to betray him? Never, so I told Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Jesus shocked me by telling me, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times what you know me.” I was horrified and heartbroken that Jesus could even say that, now imagine my shame when it became true. Yet Jesus never gave up on me, even though I must admit I was tempted to give up on myself. It hurts to realize how easy I turned against Jesus, but I was strengthened knowing that Jesus also drew me back.

Lent’s a time of reflection to get ready to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death for us. Lent’s a time to get honest about ourselves and recognize just how much we need Jesus by remembering who we are, who Jesus is, and the power and grace found in Good Friday and Easter. We’re going to travel the path of suffering that Jesus walked, trying to understand from people who were there what was going on and why so that we can be shaped by the Jesus’ story.

Luke touches on so many things in this story of Jesus and his disciples. He touches on providence, showing how the meal’s provided for them. Luke touches on how following Jesus will often lead us into wondering what he’s doing and our place in it; then there’s the reassuring knowledge that Jesus prays for us so that we’ll have the strength to stand against temptation and recognize what Satan is trying to do in or lives. Luke shows us how, even after we mess up and fail Jesus, Jesus calls us back and to be there for each other as Jesus calls Peter to strengthen his brothers.

In the last supper, Jesus uses the Passover meal to point to how the theme of God’s salvation of his people points to what’s coming up in Jesus. This account from Luke shows how the Passover and the Lord’s Supper is about God’s relationship with regular people with all their strengths and flaws. In this account of Jesus’ Passover meal with his disciples, we see Jesus’ sacrificial spirit, a humility that we’re all are called to live into. Jesus is the host, and he should have been the one being served, instead he serves them, even washing their feet as we read in John, and Jesus is on the road to serve them in an even deeper way by offering up his life for theirs so they could have eternal life, even if they don’t get it yet. The disciples argue about how they should be the greatest, somehow not recognizing in Jesus the humble, sacrificial love that should shape all his followers, including us.

Jesus is sharing this meal to help his disciples, after the fact, to recognize just who he is and what he’s doing in taking this journey to the cross. Meals were important times, times to offer hospitality, to build relationships, and show grace. This is why Jesus doesn’t kick Judas out before the meal, he’s offering Judas another opportunity to really follow him. The Catechism reminds us of the blessings we receive when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper: “First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.” It goes on to reassure us that, “It means to accept with a believing heart the entire suffering and death of Christ and thereby to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” The shift in the Passover is from being saved from slavery to the Lord’s Supper’s focus on how Jesus offers forgiveness, bringing freedom from the chains that wrap around us, leading to eternal life.

Yet the power in the Lord’s Supper is that Jesus offers it to 11 men who are going to abandon Jesus in his suffering, 1 who is going to deny him 3 times in the middle of his torture, and 1 who has already betrayed him. It gives us hope knowing that the Lord’s Supper is not for the perfect, but that we can come with our messed up broken lives and experience Jesus’ grace, a grace that comes at a huge cost, which makes it even more beautiful. There have been times when I’ve come to the Lord’s Supper deeply aware of how messed up I can make things and in the Lord’s Supper I find hope again, I find acceptance and belonging. These are powerful things, things so many people are searching for today; this is why an invitation to follow Jesus with you to your friends, neighbours, co-workers, fellow students and others is such an act of love and grace.

Luke and the Catechism point to beautiful blessings, but that doesn’t mean we’ll always understand what’s going on, or what Jesus is doing, or why. Often that knowledge only comes later when we look back on the events of our lives to see where the Holy Spirit was working and how. Most of our lives we walk forward in faith and trust, shaping our lives to the path that Jesus calls us to walk, even if it can be hard at times, believing with hope that “God works for the good of those who love, who have been called according to his purpose.”


Thursday, 2 March 2023

Act, Love, Walk - Micah 6:6-8


Today we’re celebrating GEMS Sunday, a time to praise God for our girls’ ministry and his faithfulness shown through how the Holy Spirit is blessing the girls, the counsellors, and our church family through the GEMS. This year we’re focusing on the GEMS’ theme verse from Micah, a verse that shapes the ministry, giving them a foundation to build your faith and life with Jesus on, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is an amazing way to live!

GEMS, what do your parents expect from you? How do they want you to live?

Most of the time your parents are clear on what they want you to do, but even more important is knowing what kind of a girl they want you to grow up to be. Your parents all want you to grow up to become young women who love Jesus and follow him and the way he calls us all to live.

In the Bible verses we read this morning, the prophet Micah was talking to the people of Israel. Micah lived about 700 years before Jesus came and it’s a time when the Assyrian people were starting to attack Israel. God was allowing these attacks because he isn’t very happy with his people, they’ve forgotten the way that God has called them to live. They had become greedy, proud, and didn’t help each other out, instead they had become selfish. So, Micah asks them what they think, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?”

Micah’s wondering if God wants the very best things that they have, things like burnt offerings a priest would make asking for forgiveness, or their best and most expensive calves. The calves cost a lot because they will grow up and make more calves. They ask this because they’re thinking that maybe if they give God their very best and most expensive things, that God will give them something special back. That’s how they were thinking, just like the people who follow other gods.

What is your most special thing that you have, do you think Jesus is asking you to give it to him?

Then Micah asks, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?” That’s a lot of stuff to give to the Lord! Maybe if they give the Lord a ton of stuff, God will give them even more back! It’s a really selfish way of thinking, it’s all about greed and wanting even more.

How much of your stuff do you think Jesus wants of yours?

Finally, Micah asks a really hard question, Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Can you believe that they’re even wondering this, though they may be thinking of Samuel who was given into the care of the priest Eli when he was still a young boy to be raised in the temple, but probably they’re thinking about offering their child as a sacrifice, a horrible thing! The prophet Jeremiah talks about how God gets so angry at this, Jeremiah 32:35, “They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.” Life is a precious gift from the Lord and should be treasured, which is why Jesus died on the cross, dying there to wash us from our sin so we can have eternal life with him. This helps us to understand the GEMS verse, because it’s about how precious life is.

You want to know what kind of people Jesus wants us to be, it’s in your verse, He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God doesn’t really want your stuff, he doesn’t need it, and he especially doesn’t want you to think you have to give it to him. The Reverend Helen White writes, If you look at Micah closely or all of biblical faith, it is the other way around. First God gives us something and then we respond with our thanksgiving and our worship – our obedience.” Jesus comes to show us what kind of people he wants us to be, and it looks like acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

What do you think acting justly look like?

I love how Amos says it looks like, Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Justice flows out of heaven and we live in it. When you look at what Jesus teaches about justice, part of justice is that when you sin, there are consequences, especially if you hurt someone else. It’s like if you do something wrong, your parents will punish you because they want you to grow up knowing right from wrong, knowing that Jesus expects us to live a certain way that is best for us. But justice also looks like being fair to others, making sure that people are treated well and properly. We are all created in the image of God and so everyone is precious and should be treated with respect. Acting justly is also about making sure that people who are going through hard times, like widows and orphans are given the help that they need. God gives us enough to make sure that people don’t need to go hungry or be rejected. It also means we don’t take advantage of people, instead we’re called to love our neighbour.

What do you think loving mercy looks like?

When you read the stories of Jesus’ life through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we see that Jesus was filled with mercy and showed mercy in how he treated people and in his parables. Jesus cared about people that most regular people didn’t really care about or even notice; the poor, sick, and unloved. Mercy points to having compassion that decides to not punish someone even when justice demands it. I think about the woman that the people wanted to stone because she was caught in adultery and Jesus knelt down in the dirt because her and protected her from their anger and then told her he wasn’t going to judge her, but that she can go, but to go and sin no more. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells the story of a man who is beaten and robbed and how a Samaritan, people that Jews hated, came by and had mercy on him, taking him to a hotel and paying for his room and medicine to help him get better. Jesus shows us mercy by forgiving us our sin even though he doesn’t have to.

What do you think walking humbly with God looks like?)

Walking humbly with God means that God is the most important person in your life, that you’re always asking yourself first, “What does God expect from me,” and “What kind of a person does Jesus want me to be?” It means that we listen to Jesus and what he says and then obey Jesus in everything, trusting that he knows what’s best for us. In our Profession of Faith class, we are looking at a video series For the Life of the World, and they talk about Jesus, saying, “By putting himself in the person being helped, Jesus shows us that serving those in need is a way we can love God directly.” This is image of God thinking, this is Jesus saying, “Whatever you do for the least of these brothers of mine, you do for me.”

The band Casting Crowns have a song called “Friend of Sinners” and it gets at the heart of what we’ve been talking about, “Oh Jesus friend of sinners, Open our eyes to world at the end of our pointing fingers. Let our hearts be led by mercy. Help us reach with open hearts and open doors. Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours. You love every lost cause; you reach for the outcast, For the leper and the lame; they’re the reason that you came. Lord I was that lost cause and I was the outcast, But you died for sinners just like me, a grateful leper at your feet ‘cause you are good, you are good and your love endures forever.”

Jesus calls us to become people who reflect his love and grace to others.


Thursday, 23 February 2023

Samson—The Foolish Man - Judges 16


The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Samson keeps getting drawn to the Philistines; he finds it hard to stay away from them. In Samson's story, we need to remember he’s a Nazirite, a man dedicated to God, set apart as God’s man. However, Samson’s filled with strong desire for Philistine women and makes his way to Gaza, the capital city of the Philistines and spends the night with a prostitute.

Someone sees Samson come into the city and visit the prostitute and tells the leaders of the city that Samson’s there. Samson, instead of staying all night, knowing he’s a persona non grata with the Philistines, gets up in the middle of the night and leaves. Samson mocks the Philistines by taking their massive city gates to the top of a hillside outside the city and plants them in the ground there. Samson seems untouchable; able to do what he wants, when he wants. Then he meets a girl and falls in love.

Samson loves another Philistine woman. The Philistine leaders know of her as they come to see her when news gets out that Samson is seeing her. The Philistine rulers offer her big money to betray Samson, each of them offering her eleven hundred shekels of silver if she agrees to find out and tell them the secret of Samson’s great strength. Delilah’s seduced by their offer and tries to seduce Samson’s secret out of him. Once again Samson has a secret and it seems he hasn’t learned his lesson about the strength of a woman’s pleading. A game begins between Samson and Delilah. You have to wonder why Samson plays along. Delilah asks Samson, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.” Why would Delilah need to know how Samson can be tied up and subdued, why doesn’t Samson ask himself these questions?

Archaeologists, studying ancient Philistine cities have found iron tools and weapons. Israel had no such technology; they were still very backward in many ways, like country cousins. Philistine cities give evidence of careful town planning. The olive industry of Ekron included about 200 olive oil installations. Engineers estimate that the city's production may have been more than 1,000 tons, 30 percent of Israel's present-day production. Even simple things like household pottery was designed to look good, often painted with red and black geometric designs on white backgrounds. Certainly, the sophisticated Philistines represented the latest in technology and culture. Samson’s a leader in Israel and wants to be recognized by the people who were socially and culturally ahead of them.

But Samson forgets God. He embraces the Philistine culture, much of it good, but he leaves God behind. Samson enters into Delilah’s game, “If anyone ties me up with seven fresh thongs that have not yet been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” Seven’s a magical number and the idea of un-dried leather thongs which bind Samson even tighter as they dried sounds right. Delilah takes seven thongs and ties Samson up and then calls out, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” Samson gets up and the thongs do nothing to hold him, but Delilah tries again.

Samson plays a dangerous game here, telling Delilah that new ropes will hold him. There’s an echo back to when ropes failed to hold him when the men of Judah handed Samson over to the Philistines. Delilah ties Samson up, calls out, Samson flexes and the ropes break like string. Delilah doesn’t give up and Samson comes close to revealing the secret of his strength, telling her that if she weaves his hair, the sign of his relationship with God, into a loom, this will make him weak. Samson’s becoming a slave to the game, it’s becoming an addiction to see how far he can go.  

Finally, Samson can’t take the nagging anymore and tells her the significance of his hair and how he’s set apart to God. Samson belongs to God and now the Philistines know exactly who he is. Delilah convinces the rulers of the Philistines to come one last time and get rid of this barbarian threat once and for all. Delilah lulls Samson to sleep; there’s a play on words here, Delilah sounds like the word for “the night” and now Samson lies in “the night’s bed” and while he’s sleeping, she arranges for his hair to be cut off and the Lord withdraws his strength from Samson the dedicated one.

Samson has now completely broken all his Nazirite vows. He discovers there’s a price to pay for failing to remain pure: the loss of his relationship with God. This time when Delilah calls out, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you,” Samson’s taken prisoner. Samson is weak because of his addiction to Philistine women and the adrenaline rush of fighting the Philistines. As Charles Spurgeon writes, “The secret of his strength lay in his locks. Not that his hair made him strong; but that his hair was the symbol of his consecration, and was the pledge of God's favour to him. While his hair was untouched he was a consecrated man; as soon as that was cut away, he was no longer perfectly consecrated, and then his strength departed from him. His hair is cut away; the locks that covered him once are taken from him, and there he stands a shaveling, weak as other men.”

Reverend Timothy Keller writes about Samson, “sin and grace function on two completely opposed bases. In grace, God takes even our weaknesses and failures and uses them for us, but in sin, we take even his gifts and strengths and use them against him. Our sinful hearts will find ways to use even God’s blessings to ruin our lives.” Samson is dedicated to God from birth, set apart by God to begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines. The Spirit of the Lord has come on Samson multiple times in order to confront the Philistines and yet Samson’s shown little desire to follow God in his life; his heart’s filled with passion for foreign women and rage against the Philistines; driving his choices. Samson’s unable to resist his passions; addicted to lust and rage. I’ll admit, as I’ve reflected on Samson’s story over the past few weeks, I’ve begun to feel sorry for him, he became such a slave to his passions and they lead him into such brokenness!

Addiction’s hard, it drives us to the very things that are hurting us the most. We find ourselves in situations where the things we first turned to in order to help us cope with life begin to wrap their chains around us, slowly making us slaves, but slowly so we don’t recognize it until it’s too late. Having a family member who struggles with addiction, having walked with many who have wrestled with addiction, it’s hard. Every story is different yet everyone who struggles with addiction wanted to become addicted; it snuck up on them. There are huge similarities with sin; no one wants to sin when they’re a follower of Jesus, yet sin slowly and often without notice, wraps our hearts and minds with chains that are hard to break.

My brother tells me that ‘just saying no’ doesn’t work unless you’re connected to Jesus and surrounded by a group of people who compassionately care and challenge you to stay connected to Jesus and walk with you through the hard times when you fall, because falling will happen. But knowing that Jesus doesn’t give up on us and won’t abandon us is a huge source of hope and strength felt through the presence of caring believing people around us. Through the cross, Jesus offers forgiveness and healing. As the catechism says, “Jesus is our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body has redeemed us, and who continually intercedes for us before the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.” This is hope and source of strength we can hang onto, something that is repeated over and over again through the stories of Israel’s judges: God remains faithful to his people even when they’re not faithful in return.

Samson’s a loner which makes his addictive behaviour that much more dangerous, we’re not created to walk alone; we’re created in God’s image, to be in community as God is a community; three in one. Yet in Samson’s death, we see that he’s not alone. Surrounded by thousands of mocking Philistines, Samson turns to God and asks for strength one last time. He’s looking for revenge, but as we’ve seen in his story earlier on, God works in and through broken people, and gives Samson the strength to collapse the temple of Dagon, killing thousands to Philistine leaders, showing Samson’s God is the most powerful God. When we get to the book of Ruth, we discover the Philistines are no longer in control, Samson’s self sacrifice leads to Israel’s deliverance from the Philistines, as Jesus’ sacrifice leads to our deliverance from sin.

Through the cross, Jesus defeats sin and death so that we can have eternal life and hope, even in the darkest of times, and have the strength to walk with those who are walking through their own times of darkness because we know the Spirit is with us always. Jesus came to show us how to be God’s people in the world, but to bring healing and hope into our brokenness.

Telling Our Children God’s Story - Psalm 78


Baptisms are so special, a beautiful sign and seal of God’s grace, a symbol of belonging and acceptance. Baptism is a reminder of what Jesus accomplishes on the cross, a going down into death and rising up into new life, a sign that Alaric is part of our church family and that Jesus has gone to the cross for him even before he can choose Jesus. Adam and Heather chose Psalm 78 as their passage for today because it emphasizes the importance of telling the stories of God, the stories of faith to our children, a reminder to parents to lead their children into a relationship with Jesus, teaching them trust and faith in Jesus as they hear and learn the story of salvation.

Psalm 78 is written by Asaph, called a prophet by the Jews. In this psalm, Asaph tells us to tell the stories of God and the history of God’s people with God so that they may be faithful to the Lord. Asaph does a deep dive into Israel’s history, remembering the stories of God’s power and deliverance of his people, the slide of Israel time after time into unfaithfulness to God, and then God’s faithfulness, mercy, justice, and forgiveness, all leading to the gift of a faithful king in David, servant to the Lord, pointing to the hope of God’s people, a hope fully realized in the coming of Jesus.

Listening to the stories of faith reminds us of who we are and why we can trust in God. The stories also remind us of who we are not supposed to be, stubborn and rebellious, instead we are called to be loyal to God who is always loyal and faithful to us, an echo back to our series on the Judges of Israel. Dr. Cullen Story talks about how remembrance in terms of Psalm 78 means geographical and historical anchors such as Egypt, the fields of Zoan, the sea, the desert, Shiloh, and Jerusalem. Remembrance means persons as well, Jacob, Judah, Joseph, and David.

Asaph tells the stories of the Exodus when God freed his people from slavery to the Egyptians, even dividing the waters of the Red Sea so Israel could escape from their slave masters on dry ground, and then drowning the Egyptians by allowing the waters to return to their place once Israel was safe. In verse 42, Asaph laments that Israel doesn’t remember the Lord’s power and the amazing signs he did in leading them to freedom. He lists the 10 plagues in Egypt that God sent to show Egypt and Israel who the true God is. In the 10 plagues, God defeats 10 of the main Egyptian gods, culminating in the plague of death, showing that even Pharaoh is weak and unable to protect his people from Israel’s God. There’s no God like Israel’s God!

Asaph tells the stories of the wilderness, the stories of how God provided for his people. They asked for water, he gave them water. They asked for food and he gave them manna, bread from heaven. They asked for meat, he provided them with quail. Asaph writes, “They ate till they were gorged—he had given them what they craved.” For 40 years God provided for his people and still they whined and complained, even mourning at times that they had left slavery in Egypt because there they could eat melons. Not all of the stories of our relationships with God are happy stories because our hearts are full of sin. Like Israel, we often end up chasing God’s blessings and loving them more than God, looking to what we don’t have rather than what we do. Is it any wonder then that in the stories of God and his people that there are times that God acted out of anger, allowing them to experience the consequences of their ungratefulness, at times even death? And still, “in spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror.”

God is a God of justice, sin and rebellion have consequences, but we discover in the stories of God and his people that God is also a merciful God, a God of grace. Verses 34–39, “Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant. Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.” God remembers their weaknesses, and ours, and this stirs God’s mercy and forgiveness. This is part of the trademark of the Christian faith; God remains faithful to his covenants with his people even though we’re unfaithful over and over again. As Paul reminds us of this great hope in Romans 5:8,But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Psalm 78 reminds us of a covenant of forgiveness and new beginnings; a covenant that calls God's people to faith and obedience. 

God brings Israel into the Promised Land. You would think that with everything God has done for his people that they would be the most faithful people ever, but history tells us differently, instead they keep testing God, testing his patience and faithfulness to them. We’ve just finished journeying through the judges in Israel where we saw how the people loved other gods, how they were disloyal and faithless towards God time after time, and unreliable in leading the nations to a greater knowledge of God. Yet God raised up judges to lead them out of slavery to the nations and their gods over and over again.

Asaph doesn’t hide the hard stories of his people, showing how they keep walking away from God, but showing just how merciful and loving God is to his people. Because God loves his people, he doesn’t ignore their sin; he punishes them in order to draw them back to himself and lead them into becoming the people he’s calling them to be. God turns his back on Israel at times, but he doesn’t abandon them, instead withdrawing his blessings from them when they chase after other gods. Like a parent who loves their child but hates something they’ve done, they punish their child so their child is reminded of the person their parents expect them to be.

The psalms are Hebrew poetry, using metaphors, similes, and hyperbole, meaning that the psalmist often uses extreme language and images to describe what they’re writing about. Here Asaph uses hyperbole to show us the hurt and pain our faithlessness causes God, “When God heard them, he was furious; he rejected Israel completely. He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent he had set up among humans. He sent the ark of his might into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy. He gave his people over to the sword; he was furious with his inheritance. Fire consumed their young men, and their young women had no wedding songs; their priests were put to the sword, and their widows could not weep.” In his faithfulness, God does not break his covenant with Israel, he does not abandon them, but he does allow them to know his anger and disappointment with them.

God doesn’t stay angry forever, Asaph describes God as waking up as from a sleep, beating back the enemies, choosing the tribe of Judah, building his sanctuary like the heights, and choosing David his servant to be the shepherd of God’s people. This is where knowing the stories of God helps. We know Judah is one of the sons of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, and God chooses Judah as the line through which the promised Messiah is going to come, even though he’s not the oldest son. God raises up a shepherd, faithful David, to lead his people as their king, pointing us to the Good Shepherd Jesus who comes and saves us from our sin by remaining faithful to God, taking on our sin and taking it to the cross where it’s washed away through Jesus’ faithful sacrifice and obedience to God.

We get a glimpse here of what the doctrine of unconditional election looks like, the doctrine where we confess that God chooses his children, not based on how good or special they are, but because he chooses. This is a doctrine of comfort and hope because it’s all about pure grace. We don’t know who God has chosen, so we offer the good news of Jesus to everyone, inviting them all to follow Jesus with us, generously sowing the seeds of the good news wherever the Spirit leads us, especially in our children. These seeds are planted through telling the stories of who God is and his faithfulness to his people, what Jesus has done, and how Jesus offers us his Spirit to guide us and remind us of who he is, shaping our life stories into stories of redemption, renewal, and hope.

Monday, 6 February 2023

Samson—The Angry Warrior - Judges 15


Two weeks ago, we looked at Samson’s wedding and the riddle about the lion he had killed which he had given his companions. They had turned his riddle back on him, “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Today we’d say the answer to their riddle is love, and there’s a feeling in the story that Samson does love his Philistine wife. Samson, after his anger has cooled down, goes back to his father-in –law’s house to claim his wife. Imagine Samson’s surprise to find out his wife is now married to another man, to one of his companions at his wedding! Samson’s father-in-law then makes things worse by offering his younger daughter as a replacement wife for her sister. God, through Samson, now takes the next step in confronting the Philistines and delivering his people from the influence and power of foreign gods.

Samson reacts in anger. This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines;” admitting here that his killing thirty men before probably wasn’t right, but now he feels justified “to get even with the Philistines.” Samson wants revenge and decides to harm the Philistines by destroying their fields and harvests. This will hurt them all winter long. He catches three hundred foxes, ties them together in pairs, and ties flaming torches to their tails, terrifying them, and setting them loose in the fields, vineyards and olive groves, creating chaos and huge losses to the Philistines. This has religious overtones because the main god of the Philistines is Dagon, the god of the harvest and prosperity, and now an Israelite defies Dagon. The battle between Israel’s God and Philistine’s gods is on.

Samson’s difficult to punish, but his father-in-law and Samson’s wife are easy targets for the Philistine’s vengeance.  Since Samson had burned their fields and vineyards, they burn Samson’s in-laws, including his wife. Samson reacts viciously, attacking and slaughtered many of them. The Philistines can’t ignore Samson anymore, so God’s plan to confront the Philistines now begins in earnest. The Philistines gather 3,000 men and march into Judah where Samson has gone to take Samson captive and punish him.

Israel has given up and accepted their bondage to the Philistines. The men of Judah grovel before the Philistines, “Why have you come to fight us?” The answer likely doesn’t make the Israelites feel any better, “We want Samson so we can do to him what he’s done to us.” The men from Judah swallow their fear; gather the remnants of their courage and three thousand of them go to Samson. They go to the Nazirite, the man dedicated to God, to rebuke him for stirring up their masters and not respecting them. The Israelites who are bound in slavery bind Samson to hand him over to those who have control over their slave chains. God’s presence and hope seems to be pretty well gone in Israel.

It’s sad that Samson even has to ask his fellow Israelites not to kill him, but just to bind him. While they bind Samson in ropes, they don’t even realise that they’re bound in even stronger chains of slavery, hopelessness, and idolatry. They take Samson, bound in new ropes, to the Philistines. The Philistines come shouting, intimidating the men of Judah, but Samson isn’t intimidated and the Spirit of the Lord comes on him as the Spirit did when the lion attacked him. The ropes, while strong, when compared to the strength of Samson because of God, become as feeble as charred flax and fall from his body as if they aren’t even there. Samson stands before the Philistines as God’s man as God’s Spirit gives him the strength to show the Philistines that Israel belongs to God and their gods are nothing compared to Yahweh.

With nothing more that the jawbone of an ass which Samson picks up from the ground, again breaking his Nazirite vows, he strikes down one thousand Philistines. The Lord shows his power and his protection of his people through Samson. Israel may be hurt and enslaved, yet God doesn’t sit back and do nothing, he shows his people that his faithfulness to his covenant with them remains, even though they’re unfaithful to him.

Samson boasts after his victory over the Philistines, With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys out of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.” It’s all about Samson, no mention of God anywhere. Samson’s a picture of Israel. Time and again, Israel is seduced by the gods of the nations around them, and time and again, Yahweh shows Israel that he’s the God of gods, King of Kings, and Lord of lords. After the battle, Samson cries out for water, and God provides water and refreshes him, even as his cry to the Lord sounds much like Israel’s complaining attitude in the wilderness, coupled with a sense of entitlement.

What’s struck me in reading through Samson’s story is how often the Spirit of the Lord comes on him and God gives him what he needs to defeat the Philistines in the moment. We see Samson as a powerful hero, someone we dream of becoming, at least if you’re a boy. Some of us might see Samson as a broken hero, yet in Samson’s stories, we when we look closely at Samson, we see a sinner that God remains faithful to, a reminder of how God remains faithful to us in our own sin. We’re able to see other people’s sins much more clearly than our own; the problem is that we see some people’s sins as more acceptable than others because we admire them. Because we want to see Samson as a hero, we accept his sins while rejecting other peoples’ sins because we see their sins as being much worst for many reasons.

Al Wolters, one of my professors at Redeemer, wrote a book called Creation Regained where he lays out how sin taints every aspect and part of our lives and souls, making us all equally distasteful to God. When we look at someone else’s sin and fail to see how we are equal to them as sinners, often, subconsciously, we’re using their sin to make ourselves feel better about our own sin, justifying that we’re not as bad as they are. We fail to realize that even the best and most godly areas of our lives are still infected by sin; sin has a deeper hold in some parts of our lives than others, but it has a hold in every part. This is why Jesus comes and takes all our sin to the cross.

This is why we’re given the Holy Spirit, to guide, encourage, and even push us into becoming more Christlike as we work with the Spirit to grow the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. What does that look like? Paul writes in Galatians 5, But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

 The gift of the Spirit is for the common good, in Samson’s case, the gift of the Spirit is to lead Israel into freedom, but we never see evidence that Israel finds freedom from the Philistines under Samson. It’s in the book of Ruth, set near the end of the judges, that we see that they’re free again. When Jesus appears among his disciples after his death on the cross for our sin and his resurrection from the grave, John tells us, “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.” Here the disciples are given the gift of the Spirit to equip them for the work of establishing the church and sharing the good news of Jesus. In order to do this, we also need to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives because our lives are part of the gospel story, a testimony to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

The Lord remains faithful to his commitment to Samson and Israel all while Samson and Israel consistently reject the Lord. The question that kept popping up to me is, “If the Spirit of the Lord is coming on Samson so often, shouldn’t we see some evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in his life?” Jesus told his disciples that he’s going to send them the “spirit of truth, who will guide us into all truth”. The Spirit guides us, but we’re called to follow the Spirit’s leading, to listen and obey. It takes trust in God, a trust that Israel had lost because they’ve become so much like the nations around them. A friend, Peter, on his deathbed told me how thankful he was that Jesus had given him his Spirit to help him become more like Jesus, it gave him peace through the most difficult times. I had mentioned to him once that Jesus accepts us for who we are, but loves us too much to want us to stay who we are, which is why we’re given the Holy Spirit. Peter recognized just how amazing the gift of the Holy Spirit is, I pray you do too!


Were You There… as a Spectator - Matthew 27:32-44

Isaiah writes in chapter 53 about the Suffering Servant , “ He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with...