What Do You Worship and What Will Be Your Reward?

Image result for sermon on the mount celtic art

 

Last week we talked about the law and how it is meant to be understood. The main point Jesus was making was that it’s less important what you do and more important who you are. He urged us to look inwardly and be concerned with our interior condition which is the cause of all our actions. It is not simply enough to restrain ourselves from committing acts of violence – we need to address the fact that we have anger in our hearts at all. The condition of the human heart is the theme of this next portion of his teaching as well. Today we are going to look at pride and how it can taint what looks like good deeds from the outside. If our hearts are proud then our religious devotion is meaningless and Jesus makes this very clear.

When we pray, if we only pray in church on Sundays but do not have a personal prayer life then we are really talking to each other and not to God. If we make a show of our religious devotion on Sunday mornings for everyone else to see but do not pray in the quiet moments when we are alone, then we are not truly believing in God but instead are making a pageantry of our worship, a show which makes us stars in front of others. In the first part of this chapter (Matthew 6) Jesus is telling us about social treasures. The treasures of status and image, the treasures of praise and respect. He warns us to shy away from these treasures and instead store up treasures in Heaven. Jesus wants us to be more concerned with what God thinks than what people think. If we make a big show of giving to the needy and sound trumpets and make a parade, if we call in the media to take our pictures and write articles in the paper, if we go on missions to poor countries and then take selfies with the starving children and post them on Facebook – then we are serving ourselves and not God.

Jesus also talks about money in this section of his sermon, another earthly treasure like reputation and prestige. He warns us that money is a treasure of this world which can be stolen and can rot away. But in contrast the treasures of Heaven are eternal, they cannot be stolen and they never expire. The issues of social status and prestige mentioned immediately before this fall into that category as well. Our social status is an earthly treasure, it can be taken from us and we can never bring it with us when we leave this world. Jesus then goes on to say something that takes a little while to process. After describing the necessity of not striving for power and wealth he gives us a little piece about light and about our eyes. He said:

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.

Now, he’s obviously speaking metaphorically here. The eye is what we set our sights on, it is what we look at, it is that which captures our attention. He is saying that if we set our eyes on earthly treasures our whole being will be filled with darkness but if we set our eyes on heavenly treasures then our whole being will be filled with light. And so, where our treasure is there our hearts are also. He goes on to say that we cannot serve two masters, we cannot serve both God and money. And that is a really important message today just as much as it was then. Too often in this life we serve money instead of making money serve us. But we cannot serve both God and money. Most modern translations use the word money here, but when Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek he used the word mammon, which is actually an Aramaic word, the language Jesus spoke. So why didn’t Matthew translate mammon? Why did he choose to leave it in another language?

There is much debate about this but there is a long history in Christianity, and in other ancient religions of the time, to personify mammon as a god of wealth. If this is so, Jesus is not only talking about money as a physical thing which can corrupt us, but a false god which many worship. This would have struck a chord in the hearts of the Jews who were hearing this because worshiping an idol is a grave sin everyone knew about and understood. I do believe Jesus is warning us not to worship the false god of material possessions as well as the false god of praise and honour. Jesus is asking a very difficult question, one that was hard to hear then and is hard to hear today. What do we worship?

Now, the word worship brings up all sorts of feelings and opinions in people of all religions and even atheists. It’s hard not to have an opinion about worship in some form or another. But how often do we take the time to define it? How many of us actually know what it means to worship? The word worship itself has the same root as the words worthy and worth. To worship something is to ascribe value to it, to declare it as being an object of worth, and so we worship it. Up until the last few decades it was common to use it in many non religious ways. You might still here some more formal or old fashioned people refer to a judge as “your worship”. This doesn’t mean the judge is a god it means the judge is a worthy person to make difficult decisions. So something we worship is something we value and something we trust. That’s why the ancient Israelites were so against idol worship, because they didn’t want to put their trust in a statue made of wood or gold. So here, Jesus is drawing a parallel between worshiping an idol and worshiping money.

He says you cannot put your trust in the money you make or the position you hold in society because these things can be stolen from you and are destined to fade into the dust of history. You should serve only one master, you should value one thing above all others – and that is God. And so this pressing question is equally important today. You need to stop and ask yourself what you worship, what you value, where you put your trust.

What do you treasure? What do you love? What master do you serve? Do you worship money? Do you worship social status and prestige? Do you worship your favourite hockey team? Or perhaps your country’s flag? Do you worship yourself or do you worship God?

One way to answer these questions is to take a good hard critical look at how you live your life. What do you have your eyes set on, what do you invest your time in? Jesus talks about worrying immediately after all this, he tells us not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear but to trust in God who always provides. Where do you put your trust? What do you worry about? If you put your trust in your RRSPs or your savings account then your trust is misplaced because this life is fleeting and you can’t take those things with you. Jesus tells us instead to store up treasures in Heaven – but what does that mean, to store up treasures in Heaven? How do we even do that? Well, Jesus has given us some great examples so far in this sermon. A couple weeks ago we talked about how we need to be merciful peace makers who hunger and thirst for righteousness, how we need to be meek and poor in spirit, how we need to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Last week we talked about how we need to make sure we have healthy and fruitful interior lives, so that we do not lust after other people or carry anger in our hearts. We talked about how we have to interact with our own tradition and respect it while also being critical of it. This week we started off with some very practical advice about doing acts of charity and praying and this advice which Jesus gave us is both a test to see where our heart lie and also a practical method to build up treasures in Heaven. The next time you give to someone in need, don’t tell a single soul. Not your neighbour, not your children, not even your spouse. Give it a try. Go out and be generous to someone and don’t tell a single soul what you’ve done. And watch yourself as the days go by.

Are you tempted to tell someone? Why do you want to tell someone? Is it because you value the opinions of those around you more than the opinion of God? Is it because you really want the recognition and flattery that would come with it? Are you worshiping your own self image? Are you worshiping the way other people see you? Try the same thing when you pray. Try taking up a daily practice of prayer, if you don’t already do that, and don’t tell a soul what you’re doing. If you pray in church with everyone else but your are uncomfortable praying by yourself try to figure out why. Do you not actually believe God is listening? Do you not actually have faith in prayer? When times get rough do you put all your trust in your own efforts or do you put your trust in God? Are you worshiping yourself or your father in Heaven?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad to try and solve your problems or even to be seen giving and praying. After all Jesus started this sermon by saying you are the light of world, no one lights a lamp and hides it under a basket, he even made a point of saying that others need to see your good deeds so that they will praise God through what you do – but that’s the key, they need to be praising God, not you. Let your deeds be seen but go out of your way to avoid the credit. The light which we are meant to let shine is the light of our good deeds and not the light of our egos. It is essential that when people see the good works we do that they are led to praise God and not us. The weight of praise is too much for any soul to bear. Praise and adoration are heavy burdens you should not carry yourself but should give up to God. If you are not careful, the good deeds you do, the acts of charity you perform, the prayers you make, even the religious devotion you have, will become twisted into sources of pride and there is nothing more opposed to holiness than pride.

So hide, dear sisters and brothers, hide from the pride of recognition, do not even let your left hand know that your right hand is giving, lest you begin to praise yourself instead of God. For God searches our hearts and our minds and knows what is done in secret. Both Jesus and the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:5-10) tell us that God rewards those whose hearts are pure but that reward will not come in the form of riches or honour, it will come in the form of peace and love for all creation. The reward given for a pure heart is love – and a pure heart knows there is no greater reward. So if you are the least bit tempted to show your light to the world you should instead hide it in the closet and only when you have no desire to be praised by others should you let your light shine. Because where your treasure is your heart is also and if you treasure money and prestige then your heart is in darkness and you are not really shining at all.

If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends and leave a comment below. Or Subscribe to our email list to receive weekly sermons and reflections. You are also welcome to join us in the Virtual Chapel group on our Facebook page.

Burns and the Bible: From Whence Comes Your Worth?

 

Yesterday was Robert Burns day and today I would like to do something a little different. For those of you who don’t know, Robert Burns is Scotland’s most famous poet. He lived in the 1700s and wrote numerous poems, many of which have been turned into songs like Auld Lang Syne, the one we all sing at New Year’s as well as a whole bunch of other ones like Scots Wa Hae and one of my favourites A Man’s a Man for a’ that.

Burns had a flare for political reformation and a deep love for the common folk of Scotland. He had a vision that one day the world would unite in peace and the separations of class and rank would dissolve. His vision was very much in line with the teachings of Jesus. The song A Man’s a Man for a That is written in Scots. So while much of it will sound just like English a good portion of it might be hard to understand. But I’ll go through the bits I think are the most important and translate them so that it all starts to make a little more sense.

 

The first line that really pops out to me is when he says,

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, The Man’s the gold for a’ that.”

The Guinea was the first standard coin minted in Britain after the Romans left. Like other coins of its time its true value was in the measure of Gold it was made of and it had a stamp on the surface to signify it was made by the state and of genuine value. So what Burns is saying is that a person’s value comes from what they are made of and not the external stamp that they are marked with. We have value by virtue of the fact that we are made by God, the mere fact that we are human is what gives us worth. The Guinea stamp, what he is using as a metaphor for rank in society is of little consequence compared to that, as the gold will always be more valuable than the mark upon it.

In the second verse he says,

“Give fools their silks and knaves their wine…the honest man though ever so poor is king of men for all that”

Here he takes the idea a little further and says that despite riches and status what truly decides a person’s value is her honest nature, we might say that is the measure of how pure the gold in the coin is. It is the honest person who is the purest gold and worth the most regardless of the clothes they wear or the expensive food and drink they can afford.

In the third verse he says,

“You see that birkie (which means arrogant young man) who is called a lord, who struts and stares and all that though hundreds worship at his word he is but a coof (which means idiot) for all that…the man of independent mind, he looks and laughs at all that”

Not only has Burns declared that rank is of no value but he is saying that a person who walks around and shows pride in his rank is an idiot, supposedly because he is unaware of the true measure of a person which is an internal characteristic and not an external one. He says that a person who has an independent mind looks at this fool and laughs about how mistaken he is.

In the fourth verse he says,

“A prince can make a belted knight, a marquis duke and all that but an honest man is above his might…the pith of sense and pride of worth are higher rank than all that”

He is saying that even though a prince may distribute rank to those around him the honest man is still above his might, he is still beyond the reach of royalty because the true essence of intellect and reason and a sense of self worth are higher rank than anything the prince could bestow.

In the fifth verse he finishes with a prayer:

“Then let us pray that come it may, As come it will for all that, That Sense and Worth, over all the earth, Shall bear the gree and all that for a that and a that It’s coming yet for all that, That Man to Man, the world over, Shall brothers be for all that.”

Now, bear the gree is an expression which means to win the competition, or take home the trophy – so Burns is praying that one day the people who lead us, who will have won the trophy and earned our respect will be the people who have the most sense and the most worth. There is a prayer that I can get behind. And he is sure that it will come true. He is sure that one day rank will be decided on ability and integrity as opposed to birth and wealth. It is the ultimate democratic dream that those who lead our society will be chosen to do so based on genuine merit and honest dealings. And in that he believes that the inevitable outcome will be that the people of the world will recognise the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God and embrace one another in peace and cooperation.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, he said they lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others yet refuse to lift a single finger themselves, they make sure they get the nicest seats in the synagogues and wear fancy clothes so that people will respect them. They sound just like the Lords and Princes in Burns’ song who strutted around in fancy silk clothes bossing people around. The same issues troubled the people of Jesus’ time as did the people of Burns’ time, and unfortunately they still trouble us, in our time.

For as long as history can record humanity has had certain groups of people who believe themselves to be greater than others, because of what they own, the name they carry, the type of work they do, or whether they are a man or woman. But, as we read in Galatians, in Christ we are all one, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. No distinction of religion, class, or gender exists in the eyes of God. This sentiment can be found all throughout the Bible both New and Old Testaments. I would like to look at one more passage, found in Acts 17:24-28:

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things…..that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.'”

In this scripture we see not only that we are God’s children but that God does not dwell in temples made with hands, instead he has made each heart his temple. He dwells within each of us and from his presence in our very beings we derive that every person is of equal value. For there is nothing of greater value than God and it is of God that we exist and are given life. And this is true of every person across the Earth, we are all united by God and are truly inseparable in that. And any distinctions which we make that separate the people of the world are not only arbitrary but in direct opposition to that most holy command of Jesus to love God, who we see in the face of every person without fail and in turn to love our neighbour as ourselves for both we and our neighbours are truly expressions of God himself, made in his image and loved completely by him.

So I say to you now go out and be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you go; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; and then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; and in this process you will be a blessing to all those you meet and by realizing that of God within them you too will be blessed. And so let us pray, that come it may, as come it will for all that. That sense and worth over all the earth shall bear the gree and all that. For all that and all that, it’s coming yet for all that. That man to man the world over shall brothers be for all that.

Amen

Every Christian Should be a Pickle

Related image

 

In Mark’s telling of Jesus being baptised (Mark 1:4-11), John told his disciples that he baptises with water but the messiah will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Baptism with water is an ancient tradition, it didn’t begin with John and it is certainly not reserved for Christianity. The practice of baptism in many pagan religions of the time of Jesus and John seems to have been based on a belief in the purifying properties of water. In ancient Babylon, according to the Tablets of Maklu, water was important as a spiritual cleansing agent in the cult of Enke, lord of Eridu. In Egypt, the Book of Going Forth by Day contains a treatise on the baptism of newborn children, which is performed to purify them of blemishes acquired in the womb.

Water, especially the Nile’s cold water, which was believed to have regenerative powers, was used to baptize the dead in a ritual based on the Osiris myth. Egyptian cults also developed the idea of regeneration through water. The bath preceding initiation into the cult of Isis seems to have been more than a simple ritual purification; it was probably intended to represent symbolically the initiate’s death to the life of this world by recalling Osiris’ drowning in the Nile.

Baptism survived from ancient times to modern times in many forms. Jews today, like in the ancient world, still practice Mikvah as a ceremonial washing when new converts join Judaism. Sikhs also inherited this tradition and practice Amrit which is another variation of baptismal initiation. Many other cultures, practice some form of ritual washing. Muslims today undergo a ritual washing before prayer and use it to represent a cleansing of their soul as well as their body before approaching God. John’s baptism was part of a long tradition which came before him and continued after him.

His baptism in water was a washing away of sins. It was a ritual act which represented the repentance his disciples were undergoing. They demonstrated their inward cleansing with a symbolic outward washing. John, as the second coming of the prophet Elijah (read my other post: Was John the Baptist Elijah?), continued in a long line of Israelite prophets who preached repentance. Who taught the importance of kindness to strangers and family alike. But the word repentance doesn’t necessarily capture the full essence of the Greek word John and Jesus both used in the New Testament. The word we so often translate as repent in the New Testament is usually the Greek word metanoia which means literally to change your mind. What John called for was not a change in behaviour so much as a change in thinking. A change in world view. A change in understanding.

Since John came to prepare the way for Jesus in the spirit of Elijah John’s baptism is the forerunner to Jesus’. It is the prerequisite if you will. Before being immersed in the Holy Spirit we must first be immersed in a change of thinking. The old way which we understand ourselves, the world, and our place in it must be washed away if we wish to be fully transformed by God’s Holy Spirit. The word baptism comes from the Greek baptizo. I would like to share with you a little excerpt I found from an article printed in Bible Study Magazine in 1989 describing The difference between the word baptizo which means to repeatedly immerse something and bapto which simply means to dip.

The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ or bapto into boiling water and then ‘baptised’ or baptizo in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, produces a permanent change. When used in the New Testament, this word more often refers to our union and identification with Christ than to our water baptism. For instance later in Mark’s gospel Jesus says ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved’. He is saying that mere intellectual assent is not enough. There must be a union with him, a real change, like the vegetable to the pickle.

So, to repent is to make a full and complete change not in how we act but in who we are, not in what we do but in how we think. That sort of fundamental change is demanding of a soul. It is no small task. But it is essential to the Christian message. Every true Christian needs to be a pickle. Every Christian needs not only to have been washed in the water but fundamentally changed by the vinegar. John’s baptism washes us clean and makes us ready for Jesus’s baptism. Because baptism with the Holy Spirit changes who we are, and like the cucumber that has become the pickle, we can never go back to the way we were.

Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit can come upon us in ways we never imagined. I would like to share with you a poem written by sister Carol Bieleck called Breathing Under Water. In it she describes God as the ocean, and tells us about her religious life, transitioning from the solid base of John’s baptism to the watery domain of Jesus’s. It goes like this

 

I built my house by the sea.

Not on the sands, mind you;

not on the shifting sand.

And I built it of rock.

 

A strong house

by a strong sea.

And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.

Good neighbors.

Not that we spoke much.

We met in silences.

Respectful, keeping our distance,

but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.

Always, the fence of sand our barrier,

always, the sand between.

 

And then one day,

-and I still don’t know how it happened –

the sea came.

Without warning.

 

Without welcome, even

Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,

less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.

Slow, but coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.

And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.

And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.

And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.

That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,

Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,

And you give your house for a coral castle,

And you learn to breathe underwater.

 

I just love how much she has said here, I love the images she creates. Our comfortable home with the sure foundation can remind us of the sense of identity and assurance of salvation we imagine from John’s baptism, the baptism with water we so often call a sacrament. But the true sacrament is Jesus’ baptism which comes like wine across the sand, which actually takes us away from the security of our stone house. We start with johns baptism but we leave it behind when we follow Jesus.

In the book of Acts, when Paul encountered the Christians in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6), the baptism with water John offered was all they had known and they did not even realise there was a baptism of the Holy Spirit or that they were missing it. How much has the church today become like the Ephesians in this story? We baptise with water but I don’t think most of us realise there is a more important baptism, the baptism of the Spirit. But what, then, was this new baptism that Jesus was to offer? What does it mean to be baptised in the spirit? Johns baptism was only a symbol. A symbol of an internal repentance. A symbol of a change of mind.

But Jesus’ baptism is not a symbol. It is a true washing. It is a cleansing of the soul. It is Christ’s real and powerful action within our hearts. John’s baptism is something we choose, something we decide, something we work for. Jesus’ baptism is something that just happens, once you’re ready. You might know you’re ready, you might not. You might think you’re ready and be wrong. You don’t get to decide. Christ decides. You only accept it and embrace it. Because fighting it is like fighting the tide, you’re bound to drown. Some people say we are all on the path to salvation and there are two roads, we can take the hard road of suffering or we can take the easy road of repentance.

It’s not a matter of if we will be saved but when. When you swim against the tide the tide still wins, it just takes a little longer and hurts a little more. So do not resist the ocean when it rolls across the fence of sand between you and God. Do not struggle against it but simply trade in your nice house with its firm foundation and live in the coral with the fish, and learn to breath under water. That is the change that can’t be undone. Once you learn to breath under water, you are fundamentally transformed. You are no longer a cucumber, but you become a pickle and there is no turning back.

So my friends, I encourage you, as you go about your day, to think about your baptism:

What did it mean?

How has it changed You?

Have you received John’s baptism but not Jesus’s?

Have you had the water placed on your head but not received the Spirit in your heart?

What does it mean to repent?

Have you ever really had to change your mind about something?

John’s call for repentance, his message of metanoia, was meant to change the minds of those who heard it. To repent means to let go of what you might know, of what you hold to be true. It is a change of world view, a shift in consciousness. What good is baptism without repentance? What good is the water without the Spirit? Don’t be satisfied with the outward symbol but seek after the inward motion. If you sit long enough by the shore, one day the tide might roll in and change your everything. When Paul laid his hands on the Christians in Ephesus they began to tell prophesies. Their religion shifted from a belonging system to a transformation system. The clear message in that passage from Acts is that the ritual washing is not enough, but that it is the Spirit who changes us.

John’s baptism with water was only the first step, repentance was only the beginning. After John’s repentance came Jesus’s baptism, the baptism of the Spirit which fundamentally changes who we are and opens us up to prophesies from Heaven. Once we have experienced this, we learn to breath under water, we give up our stone house with its sure foundation, and we live in the power of the Spirit. There is no turning back, just like a pickle can never be a cucumber, someone who has been baptised by the Spirit can no longer live as they used to. Their eyes are opened and they see the world in a whole new light. They do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.

If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends and leave a comment below. Or Subscribe to our email list to receive weekly sermons and reflections.

Free as a Bird

jesus-sends-the-72

Jesus went around teaching from village to village.

Calling the Twelve to him, 

he began to send them out two by two.

These were his instructions: 

“Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”

Mark 6:1-9

In the Gospel reading from Mark we just heard Jesus lays out some pretty clear and also very stark instructions for his disciples. He permits them to own sandals, a shirt, and a walking stick but nothing else. He instructs them to have no money, to stay as guests with other people, and to simply shake the dust off their feet and move on if people will not hear them.

Imagine what life would be like if we all, as disciples of Christ, lived the way he instructed those first twelve disciples to do. I think so often we forget that Jesus didn’t really call us to be comfortable, safe, and content. He never promised to make life easy and take away all our sorrows. He did promise, however, to give meaning to our sorrows and discomforts and to show us what is truly valuable in life.

You have to have a lot of faith in God to walk around with nothing but the most basic clothes and a stick. You have to really be ok with whatever God is going to bring you. It means you have to submit your comfort in exchange for His will. And I think this is one of the most essential things Jesus tried to teach us. He tried to show us that when we are living the truly holy life our values shift.

We no longer define good and bad as easy and hard or pleasant and painful. Jesus definitely showed us that what is good is not always pleasant. After all Good Friday wasn’t a very comfortable scene. But he does direct us as to what we should consider good (that is after we let go of our selfish need to be happy and comfortable all the time). He teaches us that faith in God and compassion for others is what the true good is.

To be a poor, wandering disciple of Christ (especially in those times) would have meant living almost like a wild animal. And that is disconcerting for a lot of us. Wild animals are constantly having to deal with things like the weather, predators, wondering where their next meal will come from, and never knowing what happens in the season finale of Dr.Who.

To us, in our comfortable little human world, it seems like a very difficult way of life. But our comfort comes at price, doesn’t it? We are constantly having to be clever. If you go by what the guidance counselors in high school say you have to have your whole life planned out by the time you’re 15.

We have taxes to file and bills to pay, we have to get the oil changed in our car and make sure the kids get to hockey practice, we have to get our hair cut and make sure we still have time to keep up with the walking dead. We put all our effort, our thinking, our love, basically our entire lives into maintaining this comfort we hold so dear. So where in this busy life do we have time for God?

I think that the passage from Matthew we read really holds true in our modern world. It is a beautiful reminder to live life one day at a time and to have faith in God and what he has in store for us. Jesus beckons us to live like the birds and to be more like the flowers in the field. He tells us that the natural world around us has it all figured out. It’s humans who have gone astray.

We have done everything we can to pretend we are above the rest of life. To create a space for ourselves that elevates us above the world God has made. What hubris! What arrogance we have to think that, out of our own cleverness, we have left the world behind and climbed our way up into Heaven. But we all know what happens when people try to build a tower up to God. The higher we climb, the harder we fall. And we can see that in the world now. Our modern world is a sort of tower of Babel and I think it is going to crash pretty soon.

I would even go so far as to say that we have become afraid of the natural world. Have you ever slept outside in the grass like a deer? Does that idea sound scary and weird to you? Would you ever drink water out of a stream like a bird? When did we become so far removed from this beautiful world God created for us?

And why can’t we just be comfortable and happy with life as it is like all of God’s other creatures? How did I ever get to the point where I can stare blankly into a fridge full of food and still feel like there is nothing to eat in the house? I am definitely not living life in the way Jesus told his disciples to.

I think the story of the fall in Genesis really illustrates this as well. Adam and Eve were living just like all of God’s other creatures. They were naked and eating the fruit they picked off the trees around them. It wasn’t until they tried to be more than God made them, to gain the knowledge of good and evil, that they were disconnected from the world around them and made to feel naked in their own skin and unsatisfied with who they were. God tells them as they are being exiled that from now on they will have to reap and sow in order to eat.

Well, agriculture is something we take for granted now, but there was a time when it was the epitome of human advancement. Reaping and sowing fields would have been to them like all our high-tech devices are to us today – a symbol of human ingenuity. I think that our expulsion from the garden is a metaphor. We are still in the garden, but we just see it differently.

The story of the fall is a commentary on the doubled edged sword which is our crafty nature. It helps us to ask the question “Is what we have gained worth what we have lost?” But there is another symbol in the story which is also important. God placed a flaming sword to prevent humanity from ever returning to the garden.

This means that whether we like it or not we can never go back to an existence without the knowledge we have now – we can’t unlearn. We made our bed and now we have to sleep in it. Luckily Jesus came to show us a light at the end of the tunnel. We may not be able to go back, but if we follow his example then we can move forward into the Kingdom of Heaven. We can learn to reconcile our cleverness with the natural world and realign our mental state so that we can live in harmony with nature once more.

To follow Jesus would have meant renouncing the highfalutin life of the Pharisees, the Romans, or the Egyptians and living more like a sheep in the pasture. Shepherds were very common then, not so much today.

But we can think of them like cowboys. In a lot of ways cowboys were the American shepherds. They lived out on the land with their livestock and weren’t involved in the pomp and circumstance of the people in town. Aside from the guns, liquor, and brothels they lived a life much more like what those first disciples of Jesus would have lived.

It makes me think of Johnny Cash, he sings an old cowboy song called “Oh, Bury me Not”. At the beginning of the song he adds a prayer (that I’m assuming he wrote but I don’t really know). My son and I recite it often before bed. I think Johnny Cash really does a great job of expressing that interconnection with nature that we are missing in our modern world.

With a poetic flare that I could never hope to emulate he describes what I think is the ultimate mystical experience. That is to completely be a part of the natural world and eternally grateful for a simple life. I would like to share it with you:

Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow

I loved creation better as it stood

That day you finished it so long ago

And looked upon your work and called it good

I know that others find you in the light

That sifted down through tinted window panes

And yet I seem to feel you near tonight

In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains

I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well

That you have made my freedom so complete

That I’m no slave to whistle, clock or bell

Nor weak eyed prisoner of wall or street

Just let me live my life as I’ve begun

And give me work that’s open to the sky

Make me a partner of the wind and sun

And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high

Let me be easy on the man that’s down

Let me be square and generous with all

I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town

But never let them say I’m mean or small

Make me as big and open as the plains

And honest as the horse between my knees

Clean as a wind that blows behind the rains

Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget

You know about the reasons that are hid

You understand the things that gall or fret

Why, you know me better than my mother did

Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said

And right me sometimes when I turn aside

And guide me on that long, dim trail ahead

That stretches upward toward the great divide

So as you go about your life I encourage you to look upon every bird and every flower the same way Christ did, as perfect and in harmony with God’s will. Take our Lord’s advice and follow the example that they set for us. It is through and in nature that we come to understand God and ourselves. And it is only when we finally come to remember that we are a part of nature that the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized. All around us the natural world of God’s creation is singing praises to the heavens in perfect harmony with one another, it is our task to join them and praise God in unison with all creation.

eden

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

-Matthew 6:25-34

Job and the Wisdom of Suffering

290px-Job_and_his_friends

The Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

 “Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?

-Job 38:1-7

The lectionary readings for today included one of my favourite passages from one of my favourite books. In my opinion, the book of Job is often misunderstood, underappreciated, and too often ignored altogether. It is a beautiful theological treatise on the nature of suffering and the human condition.

I would like to give you a very brief overview of the events in Job leading up to where our scripture started. The book starts with some information that we as the readers have, but Job and the other characters in the story do not. This a common literary device used in ancient Hebrew story telling – and we need to remember it as we go through Job, otherwise we can get lost in what the characters are saying and lose sight of what the book is telling us.

The opening scene shows us a glimpse of Job, he is a man without fault, one who has committed no sins, who loves and supports the people around him, and who worships God sincerely and regularly. God himself attests to the fact that Job is blameless and without sin.

One day, God’s heavenly court assembles with all the angels – and Satan is among them. All throughout the story, God is portrayed as a judge and heaven is understood as a court of divine law which distributes justice upon mortals.

God asks Satan what he has been doing, and Satan replies that he has been wandering over the earth exploring every part of it. Based on God’s reply we can assume he was checking up on people to see if they were righteous or not – for God asks Satan immediately what he thinks about Job.

God thinks Job is the best thing since sliced bread and Satan admits that Job is a great man – but suggests that it is only because God has given him such a good life. Satan argues that if God were to take away all the pleasures he has given Job that Job would curse him to his face.

Now I’m going to interject here for a moment – there are a couple essential pieces that we need to recognize in what just happened. One is how God and Satan interact and relate to one another. We have a tendency to think of Satan as God’s enemy, one who desires evil in the world.

We often have an image of a heavenly battle being waged between Jesus and Satan as if one was Darth Vader and the other was Luke Skywalker. And I will admit that there are parts of the Bible where one could get ideas like that.

But not in the book of Job. In this story Satan acts more like a prosecuting attorney in God’s court, in fact the name Satan means adversary, or one who opposes – that’s why Jesus called Peter Satan in the Gospel reading we heard today, because Peter was opposing what Jesus said and trying to lead him astray from what God wanted him to do.

In this story, God and the angel Satan are colleagues discussing the case of Job – judge and prosecuting attorney – and Satan does nothing without God’s permission.

The other important note to be made in this prologue to the story is the casual way a deep theological issue is introduced. That is – the question of the relationship between suffering and righteousness.

We all have experienced the fact that when we are suffering it is harder to be good. If you’re sick and had a long day at work you are more likely to grump at your partner when they leave their clothes on the bedroom floor.

But – If you’ve had a great day and you’re feeling well, you are more likely to be generous and clean up after them.  Our righteousness is completely tied up with our happiness. And this is the first piece of evidence Satan uses against Job.

“Of course Job is righteous, you’ve given him everything he could ever want, make his life hard and then we will see how righteous he truly is.”

These important pieces from the first chapter are information that we have, but Job and his friends do not. They do not know that God has declared Job to be righteous, they do not know that Satan and God are working together to test Job’s righteousness, and the do not know why God would allow any of the terrible things that are about to happen Job.

And terrible things do happen to Job. Satan and God together destroy Job’s life. His family is killed, his fortune in stolen, his body is covered in rotten scabs and disease. He goes from having the perfect life to a life of physical and emotional turmoil, poverty, and depression.

Job contemplates suicide, he wishes he had never been born, and he questions God’s goodness. In short, he has a very human reaction to a terrible turn of events. Eventually he finds himself sitting in a pile of dust on the ground, he’d torn his own clothing, and he’d covered himself in ashes and he had cut himself many times with a shard of broken pottery.

He was in the midst of a depressive and self destructive episode.

This is how his friends found him when they came to check up on him and most of the book consists of the conversation they all had together, Job and his three friends. I wish we had time this morning to go into detail about the conversation they had, but our time together is short.

So I’m going to skim over most of it and summarize the main points. His friends try to console him. First they join him in his pit. They cover themselves with ashes too and they sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights. They wait with him there until finally Job is willing to talk.

Their conversation starts out with good intentions, they want to help Job get out of his depression and the advice they give him is meant to do just that. Unfortunately, they are completely wrong in just about everything they say to him.

The main theological point they use is one we often hear today – it is one I’m sure you’ve heard your friends and family use and one you may believe yourself. In our modern culture we’ve taken the word karma from the Eastern traditions and Westernized it to mean – what goes around comes around.

If we see someone cheating and stealing their way through life and then one day someone cheats them and they are left with nothing – we might say “well that’s karma for you”.

Or if you know someone who is kind and humble and hard working all their life you might have this unshakable feeling that all their goodness will one day pay off and they will get their reward.

While this is actually not even remotely what the ancient Indian yogis taught as karma, it is still a belief so inherent in the human psyche that people as far removed in time and space as Eliphaz the Temanite in the book of Job and Oprah Winfrey have claimed it to be true.

But that’s not real life – bad things happen to good people and God makes the sun shine on the righteous and the wicked alike. We all know it, and Job knew it, and that’s what this book addresses.

But all Job’s friends were convinced that he must have done some great awful thing in order for God to punish him this much. There must be a reason that Job suffers so greatly, he must have accumulated some bad karma somewhere because he is really getting hit hard.

Even though Job insists that he has done nothing wrong they come at him with more and more theological arguments to prove that he is a sinful man deserving of his punishment. They even use a common Christian belief as well, they say that all people are sinful and worthy of God’s wrath, they say that simply being human may be enough to justify God’s judgement and subsequent punishment of Job.

But Job refuses to accept these answers. He continually laments that God’s court is unjust, that it is not fair that he has no attorney to represent him in God’s court. And then God himself comes to speak to Job, after all his friends fail to bring him any wisdom.

As one of his friends was discussing the power of God to control the thunder and lightning an actual thunderstorm appeared where they were sitting and out of this storm God spoke to Job. And this where our lectionary reading began. Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?”

God accuses Job not only of speaking words with no knowledge to back them up – but more importantly he says Job has obscured his plans. As the readers of this story we are thrown back to the beginning, we remember that God has already declared Job to be righteous, his goodness is not in question.

It is the underlying cause of his goodness which God is testing. All of this has not been a punishment for sin, it has been a test to see if Job can maintain his righteousness in the face of great suffering.

Anyone here who has ever been a teacher knows that when you tell a room full of kids you’re giving them a test they groan and complain and say that you are trying to punish them. That’s certainly the kind of kid I was.

But every good teacher, and every wise student, knows that tests are not meant to punish, they are meant to help us grow. Teachers give us tests so that we can learn where our weaknesses are, so that we can allow our strengths to come to the surface.

God says Job has obscured his plans because he has been asking the wrong question all along. All their theological debates about why God was punishing Job were built on a faulty premise – Job, and all his friends, were working with the assumption that God was punishing Job and so their theologizing had come to nothing.

God asks Job if he was there when he laid the Earth’s foundation, if he understands who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst from the womb, if he has seen the gates of the deepest darkness, if he knows the way to where light itself resides.

And Job is faced with a stark realization. He is just a creature and God is the creator. All of their discussions searching for wisdom were lacking one essential quality – they presumed to approach the wisdom of God.

The same God who binds the chains of the Pleiades, who watches as the doe bears her young and counts the days until it’s birth, who makes the laws of the heavens, and by who’s wisdom the eagle takes flight.

Job is dumbfounded when God asks him by what authority he questions the dictates of Heaven. And so Job responds with the only reasonable response one could give. He says “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

He admitted that all his theologizing, all his well thought out arguments that he wanted to present as his case in the court of the Lord, all his complaints that he knew were justified were all chasing after the wind – they amounted to nothing.

Then he realized that he was understanding God based on the words others had spoken about him instead of basing his opinions on an actual experience of God.

In the comfort of his peaceful life he had never bothered to demand an appearance in God’s court, he had never felt the need to seek God in the midst of the storm, he had never felt the need to see God.

But once he left behind that life of comfort, he was forced to take a long hard look at the understanding of the Lord he and his friends grew up with and accepted. Job’s friends were speaking back to him his own assumptions, assumptions they inherited from their culture and not from a real experience of God.

Up until this incident his ears had heard of God and that was enough for him, but now, through the chaos of the storm, he had seen God with his own eyes and understood his place in the natural world. So, sisters and brothers, must we allow the suffering of life to open our eyes.

They say that which does not kill you makes you stronger – but sometimes it can just leave you crippled. The choice is yours, you can argue with the Lord of Heaven and Earth or you can look around you at the trees and the lakes, the night sky and the rising sun, the changing leaves and the crocuses in the spring, and you can accept your place within God’s beautiful creation.

Let the hardships of life refine your love. Thank God for the opportunity to deepen your faith. And welcome, with heart sincere, the cross your saviour bids you take. And know that God is not punishing you, the trials of life are not the vengeance of a cruel God but the mercy of a loving God.

They are a gift which leads from the cross to the resurrection. They are the means by which we are saved and, if you choose to open your eyes and see God, they lead us into a life we never dreamed possible. After Job had his encounter with God he prayed for his friends, even though they had blamed him for his ruin.

He prospered and had a long life with many children. The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. And, if you can humble yourself before the God of all creation, you will come out of your hardships more blessed than you were before.

The correct response to great suffering is an appreciation for the beauty of creation and the majesty of God’s handiwork. Through suffering we join in solidarity the condition of all creation, just as Christ joined, in solidarity, with our condition. In suffering our eyes are opened to the immensity of life and we are taken out of ourselves and into something greater.

I saw a great little meme on Facebook the other day which read “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.” Now, I’m not suggesting we should enjoy pain and seek it out like masochists…but we can definitely find meaning in it because if we don’t our lives will have less meaning but the same amount of suffering.

Lectures_2017_Job

Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.

My ears had heard of you
    but now my eyes have seen you

-Job 42:1-5