Thursday, March 31, 2011

April 2011

St. Margaret’s Anglican Church

Calendar – April 2011


Office Hours: Tuesday - Friday 9:00 am - Noon


Friday, April 1st

3:00 Prayer Chain Meeting


Sunday, April 3rd Lent 4

9:00 am - Holy Communion

9:45 am - COMBINED COFFEE

10:30 am - Holy Communion and Sunday School


Thursday, April 7th

7:00 am Men's and Women's Bible Study at Bogani Cafe

2:00 pm Women's Bible Study @ Rys home

7:30 pm Book Study: "The Spirituality of Narnia


Saturday, April 9th

10:00 am - 4:00 pm

"The Sermon on the Mount in a Day" Bible Study


Sunday, April 10th Lent 5

9:00 am - Holy Communion

10:30 am - Holy Communion and Sunday School


Tuesday April 12th

11:15 am Holy Communion at St.Joseph's


Wednesday, April 13th

7:15 pm Vestry Meeting


Thursday, April 14th

7:00 am Men's and Women's Bible Study at Bogani Cafe

2:00 pm Women's Bible Study @ Rys home

7:30 pm Book Study: "The Spirituality of Narnia"


Saturday April 16th

Pancake Breakfast at St. Faith's Church


Sunday, April 17th Palm Sunday

9:00 am - Holy Communion

10:30 am -Holy Communion and Sunday School


Maundy Thursday, April 21st

7:00 am Men's and Women's Bible Study at Bogani Cafe

2:00 pm Women's Bible Study @ Rys home

6:00 Potluck Supper

7:00 Holy Communion


Good Friday, April 22nd

10:30 am Good Friday service


Easter Sunday, April 24th

9:00 am - Holy Communion

10:30 am - Holy Communion and Baptisms


Monday/Tuesday April 25/26th

Office closed


Thursday, April 28th

7:00 am Men's and Women's Bible Study at Bogani Cafe

2:00 pm Women's Bible Study @ Rys home


Saturday April 30th

3:30 pm Spaghetti Church


April Roster

April 3rd Lent 4 Holy Communion

Coffee between services @ 9:45 am

Greeter/Sidespeople: The Hughes

Counter: G. Hughes/ D. Schindel

Reader: R. Goss

(Readings: 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Psalm 23)

Lay Administrants: E. Gerber

Intercessor: L. Thompson

Lay Reader: D. MacNeill (John 9: 1 – 41)

Altar Guild (Purple) J. Mill/ P.Major/A. Shutt

Prayer Team: L. Sanderson/ S. Jayakaran

Nursery Supervisor: K. Hughes

Sunday School (School Age): P. Rayment

Sunday School (Preschool): E. McDougall

Kitchen: - 9:45 am M & B. Woytkiw

Music: Eva Thompson


April 10th Lent 5 Holy Communion

Greeter/Sidespeople: The Aasens

Counter: C. Aasen/T. Cromarty

Reader: M. Rys

(Readings: Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Psalm 130)

Lay Administrants: D. MacNeill/L. Thompson

Intercessor: T. Chesterton

Lay Reader: Brian Popp (John 11: 1 – 45)

Altar Guild: (purple) M. Lobreau/L. Pyra

Prayer Team: M. Chesterton/L. Sanderson

Nursery Supervisor: S. Chesterton

Sunday School (School Age): M. Cromarty

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Eriksen

Kitchen: B & M. Mirtle

Music: Rob Joseph

April 17th Palm Sunday Holy Communion

Greeter/Sidespeople: T. Willacy/ B. Cavey

Counter: T. Willacy/ B. Popp

Reader: V. Haase

(Readings: Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a, Psalm 31: 9 – 16,

Philippians 2: 5 - 11)

Lay Administrants: M. Rys/G. Hughes

Intercessor: C. Aasen

Lay Reader: E. Gerber (Matthew 27: 11 – 54)(Dramatic Reading by Congregation)

Altar Guild (Red) M. Woytkiw/T. Wittkopf

Prayer Team: K. Hughes/M. Chesterton

Nursery: Tricia Laffin

Sunday School (School Age): M. Aasen

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Horn

Kitchen: D. Molloy

Music: M. Eriksen


April 24th Easter Sunday Holy Communion with Baptism

Greeter/Sidespeople: The Schindels

Counter: D. Schindel/T. Willacy

Reader: T. Wittkopf

(Readings: Acts10: 34 – 43, Psalm 118: 1 – 2, 14 – 24, Colossians 3: 1 - 4)

Lay Administrants: C. Aasen/E. Gerber

Intercessor: D. MacNeill (use Baptism intercessions as per page 155)

Lay Reader: L. Thompson (John 20: 1 – 18)

Altar Guild (White): J. Mill/K. Hughes (Baptisms)

Prayer Team: S. Jayakaran/M. Rys

Nursery: M. Aasen

Sunday School (School Age): P. Rayment

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Eriksen

Kitchen: K. Goddard

Music: Eva Thompson

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sermon for MArch 20th: John 3:1-17

Finding New Life

Our gospel for today contains three words or phrases that typically strike fear into the hearts of Anglicans. I wonder if you noticed them?

One of them is the word ‘saved’. In verse 17 we read, ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’. We Anglicans have a real phobia about people who walk up to total strangers on the street and ask, “Are you saved?” Whatever else it may be, this is surely not in good taste, and we Anglicans know that the first commandment is “Thou shalt without fail do all things in good taste”!

The second is verse 8, where Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”. This seems to be saying that the Holy Spirit, like the wind, is beyond our control, and we don’t like things to get out of control. If the first commandment is “Thou shalt without fail do all things in good taste”, then the second is like unto it, “Thou shalt without fail finish the service on time”. We want to know what’s coming next, and we don’t like it when the Spirit messes things up. That’s why, when we Anglicans pray words in the liturgy asking the Holy Spirit to come on us, we usually don’t really mean it!

But the third phrase, and perhaps the scariest of all, is the phrase ‘born again’, or ‘born from above’ (the original language can mean either or both of these). We Anglicans tend to get intimidated by people who claim to have been ‘born again’ (and can tell you a time and a place when it happened to them). Besides which, people who talk about being ‘born again’ tend to be fundamentalists, and the third commandment is “Thou shalt at all costs not look like a fundamentalist!” I remember an Anglican woman once saying to me vehemently, "I don't like born-again Christians!" I had to point out to her that, according to Jesus, there are no other kinds of Christians; after all, it was Jesus, not Billy Graham, who said “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” or “born again” (John 3:3). So whatever the phrase ‘born again’ may turn out to mean, one thing we can say for sure on the authority of Jesus is that it isn’t an option for Christians. Our only course of action will be to discover what it means, and then ask ourselves if we’ve experienced it for ourselves.

And that’s where today’s gospel reading can help us. As we look closely at this chapter we discover that in it Jesus is describing two kinds of religion. In the first, all the initiative comes from below, from human beings and their efforts. In the second, the emphasis is on God’s action, God’s initiative, and God’s love. For want of better terms, we could roughly describe these two different approaches as ‘Religion from below’ and ‘Life from above’. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Let’s start our thinking about religion from below by looking at Nicodemus. We need to say from the outset that Nicodemus was a very religious person. What can we find out about him in this text?

First, we discover that he was ‘a Pharisee’ (v.1). As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have believed that the Kingdom of God was coming - the day when God would set Israel free and show to all the nations that he alone was King. Nicodemus would have believed that the way to hasten that day was for all Israel to faithfully observe the Law of God. And so he would have done his best not only to observe the Law himself but to encourage others to do so: to fast, to pray three times a day, to give tithes to the temple and gifts to the poor, to keep the food laws and the sabbath regulations and so on.

A second thing we discover about Nicodemus is that he was ‘a teacher of Israel’ (v.10). He would have a good knowledge of the scriptures and the tradition of Israel, and people would have referred to him for answers to their questions.

A third thing we discover about Nicodemus is that he was a seeker. How do I know that? Well, let me ask you, why did he come to Jesus at night? Plenty of the Pharisees were coming to Jesus by day; they were watching and listening, even taking notes, so that they could catch him contradicting the Law. In general, these Pharisees were opposed to Jesus. Can we assume that Nicodemus took a different view? Had he begun to realize that even with all his devotion to the Law, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for? Had he begun to believe that Jesus might even have some answers for him? But of course, if this were so, he would have been afraid of what his fellow Pharisees might say about him. So he came 'by night', in secret, to get the answers he was looking for.

Nicodemus’ story tells us that it’s possible for a person to be devout in the practice of religion, to be a devoted student of scripture and respected for their knowledge of it, and still not to experience spiritual life in the true Christian sense of the word. How is this possible? Because, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, its all from ‘the flesh’ - that is to say, it all comes from human initiative, human effort, and human wisdom. Nicodemus had devoted his entire life to this kind of thing, but had now begun to realize his deep inner hunger. I’m sure this is more common than we think. I’ve known many churchgoers in my years of ministry who, in moments of absolute honesty, have quietly said to me, “You know, I don’t think I really know God at all”. These folks are faithful in the performance of their religious duties, but inside they’re crying out, “There's got to be more to Christianity than this!” And of course they’re right - there is.

Of course, I’m not trying to discredit devout practices such as prayer, meditation on scripture, participation in Christian worship, and so on. All Christians are well-advised to learn to do these things. I’m simply saying that Nicodemus’ example shows us that it is possible to do them in a way that is all about human effort and human initiative, and not about God’s life and God’s free gift.

So having seen the shortcomings of the religion from below, let’s go on to think about the life from above. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories and many other books, went through a time as an atheist when he was a young man. However, as he got older he started to think and read and ask questions, and he began to suspect that there might be something to Christianity after all. But at a certain point in his journey into the Christian faith he began to realize that someone else was involved in his search; it wasn't just about his thoughts and ideas, but about God’s initiative as well. He wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘Instead of asking, “Will I adopt Christianity?” I've started wondering “Will Christianity adopt me?” In other words, I’ve realised that I’m not playing solitaire, but poker!’ And later on, reflecting on this process, he said “There's a lot of nonsense talked about ‘Man's search for God’; in my case, I might as well have talked about ‘the mouse's search for the cat’!”

One of the great differences between the ‘religion from below’ and the ‘life from above’ is that the ‘life from above’ is not based on purely human effort, but on God's action. Look at our text again. In verse 6 Jesus says “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”. All of Nicodemus’ religious activities are called ‘flesh’; they can’t give birth to the life of the Spirit, but only more human life. The movement is all in the wrong direction. True spiritual life isn’t primarily about us reaching up for God in human effort; first of all, it’s about God reaching down for us with a free gift of grace.

In verses 14 to 16 we go on to discover that the life from above is about God’s action in Jesus. In the Old Testament there’s a story about how the Israelites were invaded by a plague of snakes in the desert, and many people died. God told Moses to make a bronze snake and hang it on a pole; all who looked at the snake were healed from the poison, and their lives were saved. Jesus refers to this story when he says “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” - on the Cross, that is – “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. So Jesus’ death is seen here as a gift from God; all who ‘look to him’ are healed from sin and death and receive the gift of eternal life.

This passage also tells us that the life from above is about God’s action by the Holy Spirit. Jesus talks about the wind blowing wherever it chooses; you hear it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going; so it is, he says, ‘with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (v.8). This new life is a gift from the Holy Spirit. You and I can’t make it happen; you can’t give birth to yourself, and you can’t give the new birth to yourself either. The Spirit is like the wind – he’s completely beyond our control.

So what can we do? We can ask for this new life as a gift; a gift that God is ready and willing to give to us.

How does he do that? By two very unlikely means - baptism and faith. Jesus says that we need to be born ‘of water and Spirit’ (v.5). Pouring water over someone isn’t magic - the power is in the promise of God that this water, poured over us in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, can become a way of God reaching into us and bringing a new life into being. The promise of Jesus is that all who believe and are baptized will be saved, and in the Book of Acts when a great crowd asks Peter what they should do he says to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

But it isn’t the pouring of water alone that saves us. The person coming to be baptized is also asked to put their faith in Jesus so that the Holy Spirit can act in them. To believe in Jesus, to have faith in him, to trust him - they all mean the same thing in scripture. Just like a drowning person trusting a lifeguard to rescue them from deep water, I’m asked to trust Jesus to actually save me from my sin. Like a patient trusting a reliable doctor and acting on his or her instructions, I’m asked to trust Jesus’ teaching about how I should live, and put it into practice. Like a little child trusting that her Mom will always be there when she needs her, I’m asked to trust that Jesus will be with me each day to give me the strength I need for daily living.

For many of us who were brought up in Christian homes, coming to faith in Jesus is something that happens to us long after we were baptized as children. That was certainly true for me: baptized at six weeks old, I didn’t come to conscious personal faith in Jesus until thirteen years later on a Sunday evening in March of 1972 when I sat on my bed and said a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. That prayer, in my view, completed the process that was begun at my baptism, the process of bringing me to a new birth into God’s kingdom.

I often think that this process of coming to faith in Jesus has three steps to it.

Step one comes when I say, “I can’t do it for myself”. Like Nicodemus, I realize that all my religious actions are getting me nowhere. I can’t connect with God the way I want to. I can’t get free of my bad habits. I can’t be the person I want to be, and so on. In the language of the Twelve Steps of A.A., we ‘come to believe that we are powerless’.

Step two comes when I say, “Jesus can do it”. In him and in the gift of his Spirit, all that I need is available to me. Again, in A.A. language we ‘come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity’ - in our case, the power of Jesus and his Spirit.

Step three comes when I say, “I will come to Jesus and ask for it” - like the thief on the Cross, who turned and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.

What I have in mind is a prayer something like this: “Lord, I can't seem to make the Christian life happen on my own steam. Now I realize why that is - the Christian life is a gift from you, not something I live by my own unaided efforts. Please forgive me for trying to do it all by myself. Please give me this gift of eternal life from above; wash me clean from my sins and fill me with the power of your Holy Spirit”.

I believe that kind of prayer will delight the heart of God, and it is a prayer he will not fail to answer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 21-27, 2011

C A L E N D A R

Monday March 21st, 2011

Tim’s day off

Office is closed

Tuesday March 22nd, 2011

Office open

Jen is away

Thursday March 24th 2011

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Studies at Bogani

2:00 pm Women’s Bible Study @ Marg Rys’s house

7:30 – 9:00 The Spirituality of Narnia book study

Saturday March 26th, 2011

9:30 am Mission Day @ St. Augustine’s Church, Edmonton

3:30 Spaghetti Church

Sunday March 27th, 2011

9:00am Holy Communion

10:30 Morning Worship

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sermon for March 13th: Matthew 4:1-11

Into the Desert with Jesus

I want to begin this morning by asking you to imagine with me, if you will, a new member of parliament – a rookie candidate who, to her great surprise, was successful in being elected by a comfortable majority. In the days after her election all she could feel was euphoria, but now some of that has worn off; success has brought some unexpected challenges, and she needs to go off by herself for a couple of days to think about the direction she’s going in. Perhaps, like Jesus, she goes off to a lonely place where she can walk for miles and think things through.

After the writ was dropped, of course, she was concentrating on the campaign. She’d been overwhelmed by the nomination itself – being chosen by her party as their candidate! What a privilege! All the things she’d been longing to do for years were now within her grasp: just get elected, and she could change the world! And so she concentrated on getting elected: travelling around the riding, meeting people, making speeches, shaking hands, not enough sleep, too much coffee, and so on. And finally, on election night itself, came the sweet moment of victory.

But now she needs space to think, and as she walks through the woods by herself, looking inward, into her heart, she’s a little shocked at what she discovers. All her ideals are still there, of course - the dreams of making a difference, of changing the world. But there are other voices whispering in her mind, too.

‘This is just the beginning, you know. If you play your cards right, if you don’t get too hung up on a few abstract principles, if you get to know the right people, you could be a cabinet minister. You could have some real power, get your name in the newspapers, get interviewed on TV. And some of those government ministers live a pretty luxurious life, too – flying on private jets, enjoying expensive dinners and so on!’

‘What about that party activist you’ve never liked – you could get rid of him now. You’ve got the power. You don’t have to put up with difficult people any more; you’re in charge, and they’ll have to listen to you’.

And so, as she walks and thinks in that lonely place, our young politician has to decide: is she going to obey the voice of the high ideals that got her into it in the first place, or is she going to allow herself to be distracted by these other voices, the voices of self-interest and self-advancement?

I suspect that we all go through times when we realise that we need to reflect on the direction of our life. For some people, like our imaginary young politician, it might be the realisation that their high ideals are coming into conflict with some very real temptations. For other people it might be a crisis of some kind – the loss of a job or a marriage, or some sort of life-threatening illness. It might be a bereavement, or it might be just the deep nagging sense that all the success we’re experiencing is not giving us the sense of satisfaction and contentment we were hoping for. Whatever the cause, those times come to us as opportunities for reflection and self-examination, and if we use them properly, the Holy Spirit can work in a deep and wonderful way in us, bringing us closer to God and God’s will for us.

That’s the sort of thing that Jesus experienced when he went out into the desert for forty days. He knew his Father had commissioned him to do a job, for Israel and the whole world, and he needed time to think and pray about how he was going to do it. We read in our gospel: ‘Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (v.1). It was the Holy Spirit who led him out there, and it was the Holy Spirit who helped him deal with what he faced there. The Spirit was giving him this special time to listen to his Father and make decisions about the way he was going to live his life.

And the Holy Spirit is giving you and me this special gift of the season of Lent – forty days to give special attention to thinking, to praying, to examining the direction of our lives and making decisions about getting closer to God’s plan for us. For me, the season of Lent seems to arrive in the nick of time every year. I get obsessed with some new interest, or I find myself sliding into habits that are even more self-indulgent than before, or I just get so busy that I find it harder and harder to slow down, be quiet, and listen to what God is saying to me. And then along comes Ash Wednesday, and it’s like the Spirit is quietly saying to me, “Tim, time to go out into the desert for forty days again. Want to come along?” And if I listen, and if I accept the invitation, then good things can happen.

Not that it’s always easy. As we said, our Gospel tells us that Jesus ‘was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (1-2). This is the reality of our Christian life, that wherever the Spirit is at work, the devil is never far behind. ‘Led by the Spirit and tempted by the devil’ – that’s a good description of the normal Christian life, I think! And it’s an especially good description of what happens to us when we go into those times of self-examination.

What are some of the things we can learn from Jesus’ time in the desert? Well, first of all, there’s the very fact that he went into the desert in the first place, and that he fasted for forty days. What’s that all about? It’s about the removal of distractions so that we can pay attention to God’s presence and God’s voice.

We live in a world that’s full of distractions. Every shopping mall we go into has music piping into it. Every pub we go into has a TV screen in the corner. Every time we get off somewhere by ourselves a cell phone starts ringing. When I leave my work and go home, I don’t really leave my work, because my computer at home can check my office email, and of course there are all sorts of reasons why it’s really important for me to check it. And when I finish checking it and we sit down for supper as a family, the phone rings and someone from a charity wants to know if a $200 donation would fit into our family’s budget this month.

Let me encourage you, this Lent, to turn off some of the distractions. For me, in my own life, one of the biggest distractions is the Internet. Some of you know that I have a blog, and I’ve also made contacts with other bloggers around the world; I read their sites regularly and often comment on them. But I’m well aware of the fact that this can easily get obsessive for me, and so every year in Lent I take a forty-day break from Facebook and blogging and reading blogs. I don’t think this discipline is for everyone, but I do know that for me, the Internet is one of the most potent distractions from hearing the voice of God and doing what he tells me to do. And I think we all need to ask ourselves the question: ‘What are the most powerful distractions in my life, and what am I going to do about them?’

Noise can be a distraction. I sometimes think about the early missionaries who brought the Christian gospel to the prairies, and the long journeys they made by horse and canoe in the days long before iPods and car radios and all those other assorted noisemakers. I suspect that they became adept at spending long periods of time in silence, in prayer and in listening to the voice of God. And you need silence to do that. So let me encourage you to turn off some of the background noise in your life for the next forty days, and make significant space for silence.

Of course, we’re all at different places in our life journey. Some of us have small children at home, and the last thing God wants is for us to see them as a distraction from doing his will. But all the more reason, when we do manage to get a few moments of silence, for us to truly honour that silence and take time to pray and listen to God.

Food is a great gift from God to provide sustenance for our bodies. But food too can be a distraction, and so fasting is an ancient discipline found in many spiritual traditions around the world - yet another way of turning away from distractions so as to be able to hear God’s voice more clearly. Fasting is a way of nurturing our hunger for God; it’s as if, as our body is deprived of its normal food, we somehow find ourselves reaching out in a deeper way for the sustenance that we need most of all – the sense of the presence of God.

So if you’ve never tried fasting before, you might like to give it a try this Lent – always remembering that it’s not about cosmetic weight loss, but about hungering and thirsting for the presence of God. If you’ve never done it before, I recommend that you start with a twenty-four hour fast – that is, missing two meals, breakfast and lunch – and spend the extra time in prayer if you are able to do so.

Another thing: I suspect that while Jesus was out in the desert he was meditating on the scriptures. Of course, he wasn’t able to take a Bible with him – in those days the scroll of just one book, Isaiah, would have cost more than a year’s wages. But as a good Jewish boy Jesus would have memorized the scriptures. When he is tempted by the devil, he quotes the scriptures back at him, and all the quotes are from the book of Deuteronomy. Is it fanciful to imagine that before he went into the desert Jesus had heard the Deuteronomy scroll read, and had been meditating on it in his time alone? Maybe – but the slow, prayerful reading of the scriptures is an ancient and time-honoured way of listening to God’s voice. And so I suggest that this Lent you pick up your Bible, open it to the Gospels or some other place, and pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you as you read.

And don’t be in a hurry; Jesus took forty days to do this. You can’t have an instant spiritual life – it takes time, patience, and lots of practice. Don’t suppose that when Jesus was out in the desert for forty days he heard God speaking to him all that time. I suspect that for a lot of the time, all he heard was silence. So don’t be discouraged if that’s the case for you as well. Learn to be content with that silence, and to wait patiently for the time when God decides it’s right for you to hear something specific from him. In fact, the silence can be the voice of God, too, if you learn to listen to it.

If you listen long enough, you might find some things out about yourself that you don’t like. I find it interesting, as I read the story of Jesus’ temptation here, to see how all three of his temptations were about putting himself first. He was tempted to use the miraculous power of God for his own self-indulgence: “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (v.3). He was tempted to make a spectacle of himself by jumping off the highest point of the temple so that all Israel would see him floating down miraculously to the ground, unharmed, saved by God’s angels. That would be a good advertising gimmick, wouldn’t it? And he was tempted to avoid the hard road of the cross and win power over all the kingdoms of the world by worshipping the devil – in other words, to let the end justify the means, to use the devil’s strategy of oppression and violence rather than God’s strategy of suffering servanthood. That would be a much easier way, wouldn’t it?

Jesus rejected those temptations, because he knew that his life wasn’t about himself - it was about God. ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’ (v.10). But I’m sure those temptations were tailor-made for him, and it wasn’t easy to reject them. It was good for him to learn about himself in this way; he could keep better watch over his own soul, once he knew which temptations were particularly appealing for him. And the same goes for us as well. As we wait on God in silence we will probably learn things about ourselves, and that knowledge will stand us in good stead as we continue in the path of discipleship.

One last thing: don’t forget the place we started from: ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (v.1). The Holy Spirit had filled Jesus at his baptism, and the Holy Spirit strengthened him in his forty days in the desert. So as we go into these forty days of Lent, let’s be sure to pray often that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit, and let’s pray that at the end of our forty days, as we come out of the desert, we also will be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and ready to do the work God is calling us to do.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sermon for March 6th: Matthew 17:1-9

Who is Jesus and what has he come to do?

Many of you have probably had the experience of riding the Jasper tramway to the top of Whistler’s Mountain and then looking down at the whole Athabasca and Miette River valleys laid out below you. If you climb to the very peak of Whistler’s Mountain and you’re lucky enough to be there on a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Robson. It really is an incredible view.

Mountains are great places for spying out the lay of the land. Down in the valley you can easily get confused about which direction you’re heading in and which road you should take, but up on top of the mountain you can look down and see the whole land laid out before you. And today’s gospel reading takes place on the top of a mountain – not just literally, but also metaphorically. Today’s reading is part of a cluster of readings that reflect back on what has been happening in the story of Jesus up to this point, and then look ahead at what is to come.

This cluster of readings includes three distinct units. In the first one, Jesus gathers his disciples together and asks them “Who do people say that I am?” “John the Baptist”, they reply, “or Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks; “What do you think?” Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus praises him for reaching this conclusion and tells him that this confession of faith in him as the Messiah, the Son of God, is the rock on which he’ll build his church.

This unit is immediately followed by a second unit in which Jesus begins to tell his disciples what is to come. They’re on the way to Jerusalem, and he’s going to be rejected by the leaders and killed, but on the third day he will rise again. Peter can’t even hear the bit about resurrection; all he can hear is the ‘suffering and being killed’ bit. He’s just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but the Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and be killed; he’s supposed to be a king like David, who will lead an army to set the people free and establish the earthly kingdom of God where justice and peace will prevail. So Peter rebukes Jesus - “This will never happen to you!” – and Jesus, who has just praised Peter’s faith and told him that God was speaking through him, now hears another voice, a tempting voice, in Peter’s words, and says “Get behind me, Satan!” He then goes on to tell his followers that being his disciples isn’t the road to glory; in fact, they will probably die as he will die (that’s what ‘taking up your cross’ meant – being killed as a traitor to the Roman empire).

Then comes today’s reading, where Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and there he is transfigured before them, so that his face and clothes shine as bright as the sun. The two greatest figures in Israel’s history – Moses and Elijah – appear there with Jesus, and Luke adds the detail that they are talking with him about what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem – his death and resurrection – his ‘Exodus’, they call it. Peter blurts out, “Lord, this is a fine thing, to see you and Moses and Elijah like this! Why don’t we build three shelters, one for each of you – then we can stay up here forever!” But suddenly a bright cloud comes down over them, just like the cloud that came down on Mount Sinai when Moses talked with God and received the Law and the Ten Commandments. They hear a voice – obviously the voice of God – speaking to them from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” When the cloud disappears, they see only Jesus.

As I said, this cluster of three stories is like a high mountain from which we can look back on the road we’ve travelled to get to this point, and also look ahead to what is to come. Let me explain what I mean by that.

The question, ‘Who is this?’ or ‘Who is this man?’ has been heard pretty frequently in the story of Jesus up to this point. Not only the crowds, but also even his disciples, are trying to figure him out from day one. He travels all around Galilee, healing people who are sick with many different kinds of illnesses and casting out evil spirits. Then he takes the crowds and his disciples up a mountain and teaches them in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, and afterwards we read that the crowds are astounded at his teaching, because he seems to assume an authority that not even the scribes and Pharisees assume.

He goes out on the lake with his disciples and a great storm arises, but Jesus rebukes the storm just like he rebukes the evil spirits, and it stops. The disciples are amazed, and they ask “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” A few verses later on we see him standing over the bed of a paralysed man, saying to him, “Your sins are forgiven”. The religious leaders are incensed: only God can forgive sins, so Jesus must be a blasphemer! But Jesus confounds them all by healing the man, and Matthew says that ‘When the crowds saw it they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings’ (9:8).

As the story goes on, Jesus continues to heal the sick and drive out evil spirits. He calls people to follow him and tells them that their loyalty to him must come before their loyalty even to the closest members of their families, and that they must even be ready to give up their lives for him. He tells them that if they welcome him they are really welcoming God who sent him.

By the time we reach chapter twelve the crowds are even beginning to whisper the title ‘Son of David’ – in other words, the Messiah, the king like David who God was going to send to drive out the enemies of Israel and establish justice and peace for his people. But the religious authorities scoff at this: he’s in league with the devil, that’s why he’s able to do these amazing things!

And so we come to this cluster of readings, this mountain top half way through the gospel, and the question of the identity of Jesus is front and centre. Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter is the one who speaks for them in saying “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. In the Old Testament the nation of Israel was called ‘God’s Son’, and in later times the kings were also given that title. A Son was the authorized representative of his Father and so could speak on his Father’s behalf. So Peter was saying, ‘Lord, we believe that you’re the one we’ve been waiting for: you’re the King like David, sent by God to set us free and establish peace and justice for Israel. You are God’s Son and you speak to us with the authority of God’.

And Jesus is not just one son of God among many; he is unique. This is underlined for us when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain. Imagine how the disciples must have felt; these were the two greatest figures from the history of Israel, who had lived many hundreds of years before. Moses was the one who had given Israel its Law and was especially associated in people’s minds with the first five books of the Bible. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. When people spoke about the Scriptures in the time of Jesus they often referred to them as ‘The Law and the Prophets’, and here were the two embodiments of the Law and the Prophets, speaking to Jesus. Most godly Jews at the time of Jesus would never have assumed that anyone could be the equal of Moses and Elijah, but now here they are, having a conversation with Jesus as equals. And Peter wants to make them equals: ‘Let’s build three shelters so we can stay here and listen to God’s wisdom from the three of you!’

But this is not what God wants. Impossible though it might be for a godly Jew to conceive, Jesus is not just equal to Moses and Elijah; he is superior to them. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’, says the voice from heaven; ‘listen to him’. Moses and Elijah point to Jesus and his cross and resurrection; in him the story of Israel has reached its climax.

So this passage calls us to give our highest allegiance to Jesus as God’s Son, the King who God has sent to set people free. Jesus is not just one religious leader among many. At the beginning of his gospel Matthew calls him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’; in other words, in Jesus God has come among us in a unique way, and in his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, God has acted uniquely to save us from evil and to bring in his kingdom. ‘This is my Son’, God says to us; ‘listen to him’.

But we also need to look forward, to what is to come on the road ahead. The disciples have a script in their mind about what it means to be the Messiah; he’s the one who will ride a royal charger at the head of God’s armies, slaughter the wicked enemies of Israel, pull down the corrupt leaders and establish God’s justice and peace forever. This script is well founded in the Old Testament prophets and it plays into our hunger to have a black and white world where there are goodies and baddies. In the end, the goodies will be rewarded and the baddies will be slaughtered.

The problem is, we’ve tried this script before and it hasn’t worked. In the Old Testament godly kings have led the people to battle and established freedom and peace for a while, but it’s never lasted. And in the years since the time of Jesus we’ve fought wars to end all wars over and over; we’ve had supposedly Christian rulers who have imposed Christian morality by force from on high, but people’s hearts haven’t been changed.

So Jesus is going to try a new script; he calls it ‘taking up his cross’. Yes, he’s going to oppose the evil tyranny of the Empire and the collaborators in Jerusalem, but he’s not going to try to overthrow them by force. Instead of working by the love of power he’s going to work by the power of love. Instead of forcing people to obey him he’s going to invite them to make a free choice to follow him, and if they do, he’s going to teach them the way of the Kingdom of God, the way of justice and peace and generosity and love for enemies and love for God above all. And when people kill him because of this, he’s not going to resist, and his death is going to become the way of salvation for the whole world.

It’s very revealing to compare this mountain of transfiguration with the hill on which Jesus was crucified just a few months later. Here Jesus is revealed in glory; there, he will be revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there they will be stripped off and soldiers will gamble for them. Here he is joined by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there he will be joined by two brigands, rebels against the empire, showing the depths to which he has sunk in the eyes of the authorities. Here, a bright cloud overshadows him; there, darkness will descend over the whole land. Here, Peter says how wonderful it all is and confesses his faith that Jesus is the Son of God; there, Peter will be hiding in shame having denied three times that he even knows Jesus. Here, the voice of God declares that Jesus is his beloved Son; there, surprisingly, a Roman soldier will give him a title that Romans reserved for their emperor: ‘he really was God’s son’.

This has been a different sort of sermon for me; I haven’t given you lots of illustrations and I haven’t talked about how we should put the message into practice. In the first instance, this isn’t really a message we put into practice, because it’s not about us at all; it’s about Jesus. Matthew is telling us that yes, incredible though it may seem, Jesus isn’t just an ordinary human being; he’s the Son of God, the one in whom God came to live among us as never before. He came to set the world to rights, but he dared to do so by trying a new script – not the way of power, but the way of love. And so he chose to walk the way of the cross and allow his enemies to kill him, and his death became for us the way of salvation.

But nonetheless, there is something for us to do. If we believe this – if we believe that Jesus isn’t just a great religious teacher but is truly the Messiah, the Son of God – then it can’t just be an intellectual idea for us. It’s not even just about coming to church and singing and praying and worshipping him. It’s about taking up our cross and following him. In the time of Jesus people who were carrying crosses were going out to be executed as traitors by the Roman empire. That’s how the world will see you, Jesus is telling us. Because you follow me as Lord and King and are loyal to the laws and customs of my kingdom ahead of the laws and customs of Canada or any other place you may happen to live, you will often find yourself in trouble.

But when this happens, the way of the Cross calls us to respond, not with anger and vengeance and calling down God’s curses on our enemies. When the Son of God went to the Cross he prayed that God would forgive his killers. Now he calls us to do the same. So as we begin the season of Lent this week, let’s pray for the grace to follow Jesus in the way of the Cross, and to find in it the path to resurrection and new life, just as he did. Amen.