Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

What kind of messiah? A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 10:22-30. You can read the text here.

Background

In the year 167 BC, nearly two centuries before Jesus was born, disaster came upon Jerusalem.

Israel was under the control of the Seleucid Empire and its king, Antiochus IV, who came to power in 175 BC. He chose for himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “God manifest”; that gives you some idea how he saw himself. He immediately began to persecute the Jews, outlawing their religious practices, including the observance of kosher food laws, and ordering the worship of the Greek god Zeus. He had a gymnasium, symbolising the supremacy of Greek culture, built just outside the Temple. And in 167 BC, he committed the ultimate act of sacrilege, vandalising the Temple, setting up an idol on its altar, and outlawing various central practices of Judaism, including circumcision and the Sabbath. He set up altars to Greek gods and idols in every town and put to death anyone who refused to pray to them.

This, obviously, was the worst kind of humiliation for the people of God. For them, the Temple was much more than just a building where you went to worship: like the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle before it, it was the place where God himself dwelled among his people. And practices like circumcision and observance of the Sabbath were much more than mundane religious rituals: they were vital markers of Israel’s identity as the chosen, covenant people of the one true God.

Who would rescue the Jewish people from this awful humiliation and repression?

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Broken and poured out – A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 12:1-8. You can read the text here.

Introduction

Come close with Mary, Martha, Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

(“The Anointing at Bethany”, a sonnet by English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite)

Retelling the story

Picture the scene. It’s Saturday evening and the sabbath is over. Jerusalem is already swelling beyond its usual size as pilgrims arrive for Passover, just a few days away. We find Jesus and his closest associates in Bethany, a village about a mile and a half away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, on the far side of the Mount of Olives.

Jesus has already been to Bethany, not long ago. You might say he made quite a splash, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. In fact, the commotion around the raising of Lazarus prompted the Sanhedrin – the Jewish council – to make plans to arrest Jesus and have him killed. In raising Lazarus, Jesus graduated from being a manageable nuisance to representing a serious threat to the religious authorities. Ironically, in restoring Lazarus to life, he effectively signed his own death warrant.

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Shifting perspective – a sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 9:28-36. You can read the text here.

Introduction

As many of you know, my wife and I recently became grandparents for the first time. I know I’ve talked about this a lot lately, but it’s what you do when you become grandparents! It’s been fun reminiscing about what it was like to become parents ourselves, and watching our son and daughter-in-law make many of the same discoveries we did. One of the most striking things about having kids is how dramatically your perspective on life shifts when you become a parent. Typically, it’s not something you just take in your stride: when you have a baby, your whole world – by which I mean not only the practical arrangement of your life, but the whole way you see the world – changes. Becoming a parent is a change of circumstance that causes a dramatic shift in perspective.

Becoming a parent is an example of what’s sometimes called a paradigm shift. In this context, a paradigm means a set of assumptions that determine how we see the world. We all have a paradigm – we might also call it a worldview – and it’s usually something we’re not consciously aware of until we have an experience that challenges our previously unquestioned assumptions.

One characteristic of a paradigm shift is that it’s not simply a case of acquiring new information or knowledge. You can read about having a baby; you can even attend ante-natal classes to learn about what to expect when the baby arrives; but until you actually have a baby, you’ll never experience the huge change in perspective and worldview that results from becoming a parent.

To reiterate, then, a paradigm shift is not simply about acquiring new information: it’s a change of perspective, a shift to a whole new level of awareness or consciousness.

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Book review: Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd

America is an empire, which means the biblical forebear with which it should rightly be most closely associated is not Israel but Babylon. Such is the contention of Missouri-based pastor and author Brian Zahnd in his most recent book Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, released January 2019.

The parallel between the modern day United States of America and biblical Babylon, that great whore and arch-enemy of Christ, is one that is rarely drawn. Understandably, the average freedom-loving American patriot might initially balk at it. But such is the force and clarity of Brian’s prophetic message and writing that the parallel, once seen, is hard to ignore and even harder to dispute.

All of Brian’s books (see here, here and here) have a prophetic edge, but none so sharp as in Postcards. Now, I realise “prophetic” is one of those words that is sometimes all too easily assigned to a message or book to give it a certain aura of authority and relevance; be assured I do not use it in such glib fashion here. If the hallmarks of prophecy include proclaiming inconvenient truths, urging faithfulness in an age of compromise and holding the church to account, then Postcards is more prophetic a work than most. The great Walter Brueggemann – he of The Prophetic Imagination fame – thinks so too, writing in the foreword:

The more I learn of Zahnd’s work, the more I have deep respect and appreciation for his truth-telling. This book is a reprimand and an invitation to his fellow evangelicals about how the way has been lost and what it will mean to ‘come home,’ because it is a gift to come down where we ought to be! Beyond his immediate circle, however, Zahnd addresses all of us, because all of us in the Christian community in the U.S. are too readily narcotized by the mantras of Caesar, Constantine, and their continuing heirs.

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The long, slow work of God – A sermon for Candlemas

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 2:22-40. You can read the text here.

They came, as called, according to the Law.
Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,
They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,
For God was coming with them to His temple.
Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle
They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,
Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,
Had made a killing on the two young doves.
They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true
We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,
Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

(“Candlemas”, a sonnet by English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite)

Introduction

A week before Christmas, a momentous event happened in our family: our grandson and first grandchild was born. All those long months of preparation and waiting came to an end, questions were answered (“Who will he look like?”), hopes were fulfilled (“I hope he’s healthy”), and our son and daughter-in-law’s world was rather abruptly turned upside down.

You may or may not be a baby person. I’ve always been a bit of a baby person. To hold a young baby in your arms and look into its eyes – into that wide-eyed, penetrating gaze – is to experience a moment of pure, unfiltered presence and a deep feeling of connection.

Becoming a grandparent is one of those experiences that has the potential to shift your perspective on life. As I look at my little grandson, I wonder how my own child suddenly became not just an adult but now a parent. And I can’t help looking back at my own life, recalling what it was like to be a child, remembering the hopes and dreams I once had, and thinking about all the many forks in the road, the myriad choices that have brought me to this moment, with this grandchild, full of promise and potential.

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Book review: God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord

A few years ago, I started to become passionately interested in theology. One of the main reasons for this interest had to do with my own evolving journey of faith. Specifically, I came to a point in my journey where I realised I had long held onto beliefs that, in the cold light of day, simply didn’t stack up. By that I don’t just mean I believed things that were unlikely, such as, for example, the resurrection of Jesus; the Christian faith has always, at its core, been about things that seem unlikely from the lowly perspective of homo sapiens. Rather, I mean I had believed things that were internally contradictory; specifically, I had believed ideas that were in conflict with some of the core tenets of the faith. The most obvious example is the idea that a God who is love and light, and in whom there is no darkness at all (see 1 John 1:5), had insisted on the cruel execution of his spotlessly innocent Son as the only acceptable price that must be paid to enable the rest of us sinners to escape eternal torture. Put like that, it sounds perfectly barmy; yet I’d glibly and unthinkingly accepted and believed it for years, as countless other Christians continue to do.

The key word in that last sentence is unthinkingly: as adherents to a religious faith, it’s all too easy for us to accept without question whatever doctrine happens to be handed to us, when even the most basic critical assessment would easily reveal glaring contradictions and inconsistencies. That’s why I’m convinced two of the key characteristics of good theological thinking are clarity and consistency: good theology should compel us to think clearly about what we believe and why we believe it; and good theology should be internally consistent, not requiring us to believe things that are glaringly at odds with each other. From this perspective, Thomas Jay Oord’s new book God Can’t is an example of excellent theological thinking, encouraging us to wrestle with questions that are often left on the “too difficult” pile, and urging us not to settle for pat and ultimately unsatisfying answers.

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Full of grace and truth

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

(John 1: 14-18, abridged)

When you try to envision God, what do you see?

Many Christians – perhaps even most – see God primarily as a God of justice. In a world rife with injustice, we need God to make sure justice is done. Trouble is, the kind of justice we mostly tend to want God to uphold is the same kind we humans have been using and abusing for centuries: the kind where no misdemeanour goes unpunished and everyone gets their just deserts. In this view, God is essentially the ultimate lawmaker and law enforcer. This, we might say, is the God of Moses.

But here’s the thing: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. If there was something we humans still needed to understand about God, it wasn’t his predilection for all things legal and judicial: Moses already laid that out pretty clearly. The late Robert Farrar Capon, episcopal priest and theologian, put it this way: “For if the world could have been saved by providing good examples to which we could respond with appropriately good works, it would have been saved an hour and twenty minutes after Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the the commandments.” [1]

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