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Hope in the midst of hopelessness

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and we begin our Advent journey by focusing on the theme of HOPE.

The 19th Century American poet Emily Dickenson in one of her poems described hope in this way…
“Hope” is the thing with feathers–
That perches in the soul–
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops–at all.”

For too many people today the bird of hope has ceased to sing its song. Too many crises of life seek to rob us of our song and of our hope. For many people in Isaiah’s day, the same thing had happened. They had lost their hope at a critical time in history when war and conflict abounded. People’s hearts had turned away from God, and idol worship, superstitions, and rebelliousness had taken over. People were indifferent to spiritual truth.

The situation of Isaiah’s day has rung true for every generation since Isaiah first proclaimed God’s word of hope to Israel.

Isaiah came on the scene during war times with a message of hope and the promise of salvation. His message of hope came early in his career between the prosperity of King Uzziah and the reforms of King Hezekiah. The land is destitute. The people had everything except for a hope inspiring faith in God.

Speaking during those critical times, the prophet Isaiah pointed out several things that helped the people to see that all was not lost. He essential told them, “things will not always be this way.” Isaiah pointed the people back to the God, who is the source of hope. He encouraged them and encourages us to live in the reality of God’s amazing hope-filled promises. And this is where we begin our Advent journey.

Isaiah begins his prophetic message by directing the people of God back to their source of hope.
Isaiah announced…(verse 2a)
In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

Isaiah directs the people of God to Jerusalem, where the temple stood. The Jerusalem temple was the center of Israel’s spiritual life and worship. The temple was the earthly place where God interacted with his people.

Isaiah declares that Jerusalem will be established as the highest hill, not because it would be literally made higher than any other mountain, but because the worship of God would be restored to its proper place in their lives.

As the Jerusalem temple became the center and focal point of the Jewish faith, so Christ’s life and work became the center and focal person of Christianity.

There have been other great people throughout history, but Jesus is the only one whom we declare and claim to be our Savior and Lord. Jesus is the rock upon which we have built and continue to build our faith upon.

Isaiah’s reminder to focus on what is most important to their faith, is also a reminder to us in the midst of our trying times to keep our focus squarely on the center of our faith.

There have been moments in my life where I found myself despairing over the state of the world. It is the face of the joyous child of the manger as well as the pain stricken face of Jesus on the cross draw me back to the mystery of our God who offers us hope through his beloved Son.

What are you focusing your attention during this season? Is it the hype of the season or the child of manger?

Isaiah moves on to announce to the people that the God of Hope, who is the center of their faith, cannot be hidden and that people will be attracted Him.
This is a prophecy that stretches out over many hundreds of years. Another way of stating Isaiah’s declaration is “You don’t see it now, things look very dark and desolate–but don’t give up hope. A day is coming when the Messiah will come–salvation will be available to all people, even to Gentles.”

Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord will be so prominent that people will stream to it. They won’t feel coerced or pressured to come, they will just WANT to come to it to.
In the New Testament, Jesus referred to this in a roundabout way to Jerusalem by declaring that a city on a hill cannot be hidden in Matthew 5:14. It was hard not to notice Jerusalem in the Judean hills. People could see it and went there to worship God.
During this season, there are classic movies and music that people return watch, and listen to year after year. Charles Dickens’s story “A Christmas Carol” or Charles Shultz A Charlie Brown Christmas or Handel’s beautiful “Messiah” are just three examples of this.

There is something attractive and compelling about these two examples that keep people coming back to them. Every time they are watched, read, or listened to deeper meaning is found.

There is something innately timeless, profound, attractive, and mysterious about the Christmas Story that draws people to it. There is something that touches people on some deeper level that they can’t always understand or express easily. We are reminded that we don’t have to make the story of Christ’s birth interesting, because it is interesting in and of itself.

For the past 2000 years people have been drawn into the mystery and meaning of it. The story has inspired great works of art and music that continue to express the beauty and meaning of it. The child of the manger keeps people coming back to our Christmas Eve services year after year.

What continues to intrigue you and draw you into the Christmas story?

Following this announcement Isaiah declares that all is not lost because out of Zion will come instruction. The Biblical story of God’s love for us helps people to connect their own stories to it and to find meaning in their lives through what the people of Bible experienced and learned. That for me is one of the things that draws me to the Christian story.

Being a naturally skeptical person, I love the story of Doubting Thomas who questions the resurrection, but one who Christ holds out his scarred hands to and invites new belief in him. I can wrestle with the complexities of life as the skeptical Preacher of Ecclesiastes does and return again and again to what is most important about life. No matter what we experience or struggle with, there is a story in the people that helps us to connect with God who become one of us in Christ.

There is so much to learn and relearn from those who were involved in the birth of Christ. There is always something new to be learned from the prophets who pointed to the birth of Christ, from Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Wiseman who were directly involved in the birth, and then to the Apostles who wrestled with the meaning and implications of Christ’s birth for the church.

The biggest challenge, I believe we face each year at this time is who among the cast of characters in the Christmas story do we need to listen and learn from.

Think for a moment, which person in the Christmas story is the Holy Spirit wanting you to pay close attention to this year?

And finally, Isaiah stirs the people of God to have hope by presenting them with God’s vision of the future.

Eugene Peterson in “The Message” translates the words of Isaiah in verse 4 like this
He’ll settle things fairly between nations.
He’ll make things right between many peoples.
They’ll turn their swords into shovels,
their spears into hoes.
No more will nation fight nation;
they won’t play war anymore.

That is truly an inviting vision that God offered to the people of Isaiah’s time and even for us today.

I remember one year where I visited my parents in California. That same year my older sister had returned to live and work in California.

My older sister and I had had a turbulent relationship over the years. I can’t remember what sparked us to have a full on drag out fight with each other, but we did. We shared years of hurt feelings, years of assuming the worst in each other, years of feeling not being heard and appreciated by each other.

The conversation was a messy one, but it ended up being transformational for both of us. The conversation was the forge of mediation by which God healed our broken relationship.

Years of angry words and actions needed to hammered into a new ways of peace where were we could love and relate to one another. Our embracing of God’s prophetic vision lay at the heart of this transformation. It has lead us to a deeper relationship with one another and has opened the way for a hope-filled future for both of us.

The Bible is filled with the persistent belief that despite the trauma and tragedies of life, God is still working. The message to us is that God has the ABILITY to transform any situation, no matter how hopeless, into one of hope. God promises us His hope-filled guidance and direction for our journey in this life. That’s the vision that God’s people and we need to hear again and again.

Whenever God’s vision for the future is embraced, it inspires people who hear it to participate in it. Great things happen whenever God’s people embrace God’s visions and plans for our world.

The more we allow Christ to be the center of our lives, the more we will be drawn to Him. The more we connect with the people involved in birth of Christ, the more we will embrace and participate in the God’s hope-filled vision for the future.

As we begin our Advent journey together, may Isaiah’s words of hope be the song that we sing in our souls this week as we seek to walk in the light of the LORD!

To Father, Son, and Spirit
be all glory, honor, and praise.
Amen!

Being faithful with questions unanswered

Many people have studied the book of Job hoping to find answers to why there is human suffering and have walked away from the book of Job very frustrated. But those who have come to appreciate the wisdom of the book of Job have discovered that the question the book of Job seeks to answer is “How does one live faithfully for God with our questions left unanswered?”

And it is this question that I want us to focus on as we wrap up our brief study of the Book of Job.

One of the many lessons we learn from Job is that God has plans for us that we no knowledge of until they happen.

God in his wisdom does so in order that we wake up every day and place our trust in Him and follow Him regardless of our circumstances.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes declares,
“God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

I don’t think Job woke up on that fateful day expecting that his wealth, family, and reputation would be removed from him. I don’t believe for a moment that Job woke up expecting that God was going to test him in ways he could ever imagine. But rather, I believe Job woke up expecting that whatever came his way that day, he was going to walk faithfully with God as he had done on every day before that fateful day.

We know this because in chapter 1, Job remarked after he had lost his possessions, family and reputation,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:21-22)

And Job’s response to God after his encounter with God in the whirlwind declared in a similar way…

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2)

Job’s words also echo what God spoke to the suffering people of God some 800 years later through the prophet Jeremiah,

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me, and find Me when you search Me with all of your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13

God doesn’t tell his people: “I know the plans that I have for you and I’ll tell you all about them ahead of time so you’ll know what to expect.”

God simply says, “I alone know the future, so trust Me, pray to Me, seek Me. Know that whatever you face, I will walk with you and give you the strength to be my faithful witnesses to those around you.

If we knew ahead of time what was going to happen us, I suspect we would hop out of bed to embrace the good days. And likewise we would choose to stay in bed on the days when everything falls apart.

God challenges us to embrace the good with the bad so our faith will be strengthened. Think for a moment about the times when you learned the greatest lessons of faith. Were they the easy days when everything went according to your plans or were they the days that were the most challenging?

I suspect that they were the more difficult ones.

Without those difficult circumstances we would never grow to depend on God or as the Apostle Paul put it,

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13)

And so we learn to trust God, moment by moment, day by day without knowing what lies ahead.

The Second lesson that we learn from Job is that a vertical perspective will keep us from horizontal panic.

In Job 42:3, Job responds to God with these words

Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:3)

I hope you noticed in the words and actions of Job that never blames God (or Satan for that matter) for his suffering. Job’s faith in God kept him from panicking.

Job had no idea of the dialogue that took place between God and Satan. Yet Job kept a vertical perspective. He knew that God had allowed his suffering, but also knew that God provided him with his only hope for being restored.

If Job had lost confidence in God to control his life, Job would have cursed God and died as his wife suggested in chapter 2 (Job 2:9). Trusting God was the only source of hope that Job clung to and that seems to be enough to get Job through.

When times have been the most difficult for me and I have wanted to call it quits, I have returned time and time again to Peter’s response to Jesus’ difficult teaching in John 6. Peter responded to Jesus question as to whether or not they too were going to walk away from him responded to Jesus by saying,

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

The disciple’s vertical perspective kept them clinging to the hope that Jesus was Messiah, the one who had the keys to a fulfilling life.

Whenever we are faced with difficult circumstances, we are given the choice to trust God and move forward or the choice of rejecting God partially or fully and walking away. This is why Jesus told us to pray for God to save us from the time of trial or those times when we are tempted to walk away from him.

We all face those moments of when we want to pack it in and walk away from Jesus.

Do you remember the last time that happened? Perhaps it was the death of a friend or family member. Or perhaps it was a time when your understanding of God’s control was tested by circumstances beyond your control.

What made you stay connected to Christ? Was it simply sheer stubbornness? Or did you evaluate the options like Peter and come to the same conclusion that Jesus was the one who helped you to make sense of it. This is what having a vertical perspective keeps us from horizontal panic.

Thirdly, when things go from bad to worse, a sound theology helps us remain strong and stable.

Please know I use this next illustration being very sensitive to the flooding that has happened in British Columbia and mindful of the hardships experienced by those in the midst of the flooding

Cartoonist Charles Schultz addressed this principle in his Peanuts comic strip. One cartoon of Schulz’s cartoon features Lucy and Linus looking out a picture window at a steady down pour of rain.

“Boy, look at it rain!” exclaims Lucy. “What if it floods the whole earth?” “It will never do that,” Linus says confidently. “In the ninth chapter of Genesis God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of that promise is the rainbow.” Lucy then responds by saying, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind.”

To this Linus replies matter of factly, “Sound theology has a way of doing that.”

Having a sound theology does have a way of easing our minds in tough times. Just as emergency drills prepare us to deal with disasters. Knowing who God is and what the Scriptures say can help us to deal with the unhelpful advice offered to us by friends and family. It also helps in reinforcing what we know about God so we can stand firm on what God has promised so we can face the storms of life.

When Job responds to God, who has greatly enlarged his understanding of who God is through the 77 questions God has asked Job, Job responds in verse :6 with . . .

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5–6)

Job humbly confesses that his personal encounter with God and his suffering have given him new insights and understanding into who God is. His previous knowledge of God was limited and inaccurate and he repents or lets those old ideas, assumptions about God go in favor of what God has revealed to him and what he has learned from his encounter. Job is also declaring that his new understanding of God will shape his beliefs and practice from now on. He will be a stronger believer as a result.

Author Henry T. Blackaby (Experiencing God writes,

“Faith is developed in real-life situations. “Sight” is not “faith.” We constantly want God “to show us Your will for my life” even after He has assured us that He is doing just that. But God will do it in His way and in His time…He does not need our help; we need His help! The “silences” of God do not mean He is late, or inactive, or not working. It means this is where faith works!”

The story of Job is included in the Scriptures not because Job had all the answers for why there is suffering, but rather because he is a model of faithfulness in the midst of his suffering. He is a model of someone whose understanding of God expanded and whose faith grew stronger in the midst of his suffering. This was the reward God gave to Job for continually seeking Him even when it was difficult to do so.

In what ways is God currently expanding your expanding your understanding of Him so that you can meet the challenges that lie ahead for you and this congregation?

We know from the end of the book of Job, that Job’s suffering came to an end, but his legacy of faith has remained as a source of hope, comfort, and encouragement to every generation of Christians since.

May we learn the important lessons
of being faithful to God from Job
amid our suffering / hardship /challenges
with our questions unanswered,
but with our understanding and love of God ever expanded and expanding. Amen

A Whirlwind Confrontation

If God were to speak to you, would you choose the still, small comforting whispering voice that God spoke to the prophet Samuel and Elijah?

Or would you choose the powerful and challenging voice from the whirlwind that Job encountered? The still small voice would be my choice.

Sometimes God chooses to speak to us through mind boggling life experiences to get our attention, as God appears to do with Job. And this was God response to Job’s challenge to God in chapter 23, where Job cries out…

Would God contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. (Job 23:6-7)

Job is caught totally off guard when God confronts him in the loud thundering sounds of the whirlwind. God honours Job’s request for an encounter with him, but not in the way he expected or wanted.

Job, like us, wanted answers to his many questions and an opportunity to question God as to why he was suffering. And as is often the case, God doesn’t answer our many questions. God never tells Job of the bet he has made with Satan concerning Job’s integrity and faith. God does not answer Job’s probing questions as to why the righteous or why anyone else suffers. God does not indulge or cater to Job’s obsession with his own personal integrity and to justify that he is innocent.

God refuses to be placed on the witness stand to answer to Job, instead God places Job on the witness stand to be bombarded with some seventy-seven questions in chapters 38-41. God challenges Job to answer the questions that are beyond his understanding.

For example God asks Job from the powerful whirlwind, . . .
“Who is it that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man (a hero-warrior), I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” (Job 38:1-2)

Or “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?” (Job 39:26-27)

Imagine what you would think, say, or do if you were asked the same questions that God asked of Job.

Through the 77 questions that God asks of Job, Job is made to understand that God governs the universe in such a way that allows for creative design, that enables evil to be contained, and for God’s providential care to come through.

It also puts Job and us in a situation where we must stand in awe of God’s design, even though it is at times so bewildering and so beyond what or how we believe God should act or be.

All of God’s questions are meant to emphasize the fact that God is free to act just as we are free to act.

Most of us are much more comfortable with human free will, than we are with God’s free will. We generally give thanks to God that we are created to be free agents in this life, free to make choices, and free to accept or reject God and his blessings.

But when it comes to accepting God’s freedom to choose and to act, we become uncomfortable. And that is a whole different issue for us. After all, God is free to act and do as he pleases because God is God. God is not limited by what we think he should do or say. God will not be boxed in by human reason or human desire.

Like Job, we too are left speech-less, bewildered, in awe of God and yes, even troubled by this God who we have come to worship today. This means that God is beyond our control and we as creatures are under God’s sovereign and loving control whether we acknowledge or like it or not.

In chapter 40, God asks Job the question,
Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond. (Job 40:2)

These are strong words from a God who speaks from a powerful whirlwind! They are words that demand a response from us. God had presented His case to Job and now it was Job’s turn to respond to God.

As a result, all of Job’s lofty words and well-practiced arguments escaped him. All Job could do was to fall on his face before God his Creator and say,
“See, I am of small account;
what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand over my mouth. (Job 40:4)

In Job’s response to God, we get a picture of how we are to respond to God our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

Job’s first statement, “See, I am of small account” reflects a man who has come to the important understanding that compared to the vastness of the creation he is insignificant. Job’s statement reveals a person who has been humbled by what he has seen and heard. He is one who comes to know the reality that God is God and he is not. This is an important lesson that every human has struggled with since Adam and Eve choose to disobey obey God and give into the temptation to be independent and sovereign creatures.

This is rather strange because we have been taught just the opposite by our society. We have been encouraged to recognize our value, importance, and significance as people. We are encouraged by society to be masters of our fate and to set ourselves up in the place of God.

There is certainly a place for recognizing our worth, for healthy individuals do. But the ever-present danger is when we place too much emphasis on our significance, we lose sight of the fact that God is ultimately in control and not us.

For us this means that whatever God allows we must bow in submission to him, just as Jesus humbly accepted and subjected himself to God’s will for him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

To be in a right relationship with God means that we must humbly accept the fact that God is God and we are not. When we forget this important truth even for a moment, we become self-focused, self-indulgent persons who do not glorify God.

Job’s second statement, “What shall I answer you?” reveals that he realizes that all of his petty questions, concerns, and demands mean very little in God’s larger design for his creation.

If Job couldn’t understand the inner workings of nature, or God’s purposes for his creation how could he possibly explain or understand his situation? Job is forced to let go of his many questions and yield to God’s wisdom and power.

But in doing so, God offered Job relief from his mental anguish caused by his many questions by saying something to the effect “Rest in me, trust in me. I’ll do my work and you do yours.”

This is relieves us of having to know the reason for why things happen. This frees us from having to play God and to put our efforts in doing what God wants whether we know what is happening to us, or those around us or our world.

Even Jesus, we are told in the Scriptures had to learn obedience through what he suffered. Jesus who was one with the Father, abandoned his right to control his destiny and submitted his will to the Father’s.

As Jesus leaves the Garden of Gethsemane, he goes on to boldly face and endure his cross with the solid confidence that things will turn out as God intends. If we are to follow Jesus faithfully, then we must abandon what we want in order to follow God in the ways chooses for us. This is the only way to be truly content in this life.

And Job’s third statement, Knowing when to be silent before God and listen. “I lay my hand upon my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5)

After all Job has gone through with his knowing why he has suffered unjustly, he begins to understand that God is much wiser and knowledgeable than he or his comforters think they are. God has already given him a lesson about God’s control over creation and Job knows he has much to learn and prepares himself to learn more.

We struggle with not having the answers to life’s perplexing issues. We want to control our life and hate it when we feel we don’t have control. Sometimes the only thing we can do is simply to be silent and listen to whatever God speaks to us from the Scriptures and from our circumstances.

If the last 20 months have taught us anything it the fact the only thing we have any sort of control over is how we choose to response to our circumstances and who we choose to listen to. The book of Job teaches us that our response to life is a choice that God gives to us. God can lead us to wisdom, but he can’t make us listen and learn what he wants us to learn.

When God in comes to Job in the powerful whirlwind to speak with him, God demonstrated to Job that he was listening to him and valued him. Otherwise God would have just ignored him.

Like Job, the Psalmist comes to stand in awe of God as he considers his creation by God. In Psalm 8 we read,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

If this isn’t enough to convince us that God loves us and is in control then we should ponder anew the mystery of Christ’s suffering on the cross for our sins. If doesn’t convince us, then nothing will.

When God finally spoke to Job, the words probably weren’t the ones Job had wanted or expected to hear. But it was through God’s challenge to him to consider the complex, and awe-inspiring creation that Job was able to get his mind off his suffering. It also provided Job with a new perspective on God, his life, and even his personal pain.

When life seems so totally out of our control, God challenges us to consider the vastness of his creation and to understand that God is in control. And thus like Job, we too are challenged by God to rest in His divine control over the creation and our lives.

And we are challenged to see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly day by day in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

Amen.

When the world walks out

Sermon: When the world walks out

When you are having a difficult time, who is the first person you call? And why do you call them? I am inclined to believe we call that person because we know as the American author Walter Mitchell declared,

“A real friend is someone who walks in
when the rest of the world walks out.”

A month ago, we looked at how when Job’s friends heard of Job’s terrible circumstances and suffering, came to him. When they arrived, the rest of the world had already walked out on Job. He desperately needed friends who would understand his situation, who would sympathize with him, who would stand by his side and offer him comfort and relief.

After Job’s friends sit quietly with Job for seven days and nights, Job pours out his frustration at God beginning in chapter 3. It is at this point that there is a dramatic change in Job’s friend’s attitudes towards him.

Job’s four friends begin to launch to arguments with Job to tell him why he is suffering in chapters 4-37. Their arguments reflect the conventional wisdom of the day that a just God would not allow the righteous to suffer unjustly.

Therefore Job’s suffering is a direct consequence of some specific that he has committed. The four friends or sometimes ironically called Job’s comforters are free to offer their insights into what specific sins Job has committed. Job knows better, he believes he is suffering unjustly and does not know why such calamity has occurred to him.

Job’s friends who started off well as his comforters, because Job’s accusers as they argue with him. The speeches of Job’s accusers lack of empathy, they lack full understanding, and they lack humility.

There is a certain contemporary feel to these numerous theological speeches in the midst of our current societal debates around the Pandemic, vaccination, and how best to get back to normal.

Job’s friends seem unable to comprehend that they may not have all the right answers to what is happening to Job. Their inaccurate human explanations add to the intensity of Job’s misery and suffering.

For example, in chapter 18, which precedes the chapter we read today, Job’s friend named Bildad, calls Job wicked. Bildad believes that the reason why Job is suffering is because he has sinned against God. He believes that Job’s losses of family, property, and health are a sign of his wickedness because God always punishes the wicked and never the righteous as Job claims he is.

Bildad lived in a black and white universe where the good guys always wear white hats and win and the bad guys where black hats and always lose. Bildad’s judgments do not leave any room for the mystery of God’s will and God’s ways, which may not be apparent in any given moment. The big question being debated here is …

“How do you reconcile undeserved suffering with a God who is both almighty and just?”

That is a great question to wrestle with your not suffering. But when you are suffering do you want someone to point out your errors of your thinking or do you want someone to come along you to support you, hold your hand, and sympathize with you?

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take support over criticism and explanations every time.

You have to wonder how Job’s friends would have responded to Jesus and his suffering?

Would they have sought to understand God’s plan in letting the sinless Jesus suffer for those who sin and fall short of God’s intentions for them?

Or would they have stuck to their principles and beliefs that God blesses the righteous and punishes sinners as the Pharisees did of Jesus’ day?

Their response to Job’s suffering tells me that they would have joined the ranks of the Pharisees who condemned Jesus to death who didn’t share their views and follow their interpretations of the Mosaic Laws.

One of the important lessons we learn from Job’s friends and their attempts to figure out what is going on with Job is that our understanding is limited and to offer anyone any sweeping explanations of why someone is suffering is foolish, wrong, and unloving.

Pride motivates us to speak and explain things that can’t be easily explained, it creates barriers and not bridges. It allows one to walk away from those who suffer untouched and without doing anything to relieve the suffering.

Love on the other hands motivates us to listen, to understand, to enter into another’s pain, to stick around with the discussions get messy, and to do what we can to share the burdens of the suffering.

I don’t about you but it saddens me deeply that in the last 20 months of this pandemic so many people have wasted so opportunities to care and come along side others in favor of voicing their opinions that cause only harm and misery to those who are hurting around them.

Like Job, I suspect we have all experienced pain and hardship. I suspect we have been on the receiving end of unhelpful explanations for what has happen to us, our loved ones or our world. I know that I have given my share of foolish explanations to people over the years.

Perhaps you have experienced the pain of feeling you or those you love, have been abandoned by God. Abandonment is such strong and painful human emotion. We hear Jesus use the words from Psalm 22 to express his abandonment from God on the cross.

We hear this in Job’s cry in verses 2 and 3 of chapter 19 demonstrate, which are addressed to his not so helpful and uncaring friend Bildad,

“How long will you torment me,
and break me in pieces with words?
These ten times you have cast reproach upon me;
are you not ashamed to wrong me?

Later in chapter 19, Job cries out his longing for a Redeemer or someone who will walk in when the rest of the world has walked out,

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!”

Surprisingly in the midst of his suffering Job expresses his confidence that even if he died, he would have a Redeemer, who will offer comfort, sympathy, and even true judgment upon him, which he has not experienced from his so called friends.

The word “Redeemer,” which Job uses, refers to what is called a Kinsfolk Redeemer. A Kinsfolk Redeemer was one who walks in to reclaim family members who had been sold into slavery (Lev. 25:25).

A Kinsfolk Redeemer was one who would go to court on behalf of a wronged relative (Prov. 23:10-11).

In the book of Ruth, Ruth’s distant relative Boaz is a Kinsfolk Redeemer who was willing and able to rescue her, restore her family’s property, and thus gives her new life after the death of her husband Elimelech.

People who are suffering like Job need a Kinsfolk Redeemer “who walk in when the whole world has walked out.”

Job’s desire for a Kinsfolk Redeemer foreshadows the coming of Christ, our Redeemer. Although Job does not know Christ yet, he recognizes God as his Redeemer.

Despite his suffering, Job clung to his hope that God would provide a Kinsfolk Redeemer to give him relief from his dire circumstances and from his friends turned adversaries.

We are reminded this morning as we come to the Lord’s Table that God has provided us with a Kinsfolk Redeemer who walks in the when the whole world walks out on us.

We are reminded too that Jesus has redeemed us from our slavery to our sin, to our need to always be right and to criticize those with whom we disagree.

By inviting us to join him at his table, Jesus challenges us to continue join him in his important work of supporting those facing crisis with words that will in the long run support, build up, and comfort.

May God give us the wisdom to follow in the example of Christ our Lord, who is our strength and our kinfolk redeemer.

Amen!

The Gift our Traditions

The church almost from its very beginning set aside specific days on its calendar to remember its leaders, heroes, martyrs, and others whose faith and witness are worthy of imitating and learning from in our time and place.

In 835 AD, “All Saints Day” November 1st was officially set by the Roman Church. This was most likely a reaction to the Druid/Celtic Festival of celebrating the dead (“Samhain” pronounced “sow-in”) on October 31. A night that the Druids believed ghosts and the dead returned to the earth.

It was a night of providing comfort to the people as they faced the longer wintery nights that lay ahead. The priests would offer sacrifices from the recent harvests to the Celtic deities to ask for their help.

It was a night that predicted the future inspired by the spirits out and about on Oct 31. The wearing of costumes protected one from the less than hospitable souls that were out and about.

And so, it is not surprising to me that the Roman Church decided to draw the attention away from the pagan festival of Samhain (Sow-in) and turn it into something more positive. They did so by focusing on the contributions of faithful Christian men and women in the life of the church by creating “All Saints Day” on November 1st. October 31 then became all hallow eve or the night before “All Saints.”

This strategy of providing our world with a positive alternative to something we have a hard time with in our culture continues to be a wise strategy for us in our time as well.

Because today is the Sunday closest to “All Saints,” it is a great time for us as a church to think about and give thanks to God for our faith tradition and for those who passed on the faith to us. We are a church, which keeps testing itself on the basis of what the saints have believed and practiced before we got here.

While we acknowledge the contributions and creativity of the saints, we believe and uphold the idea that we always build upon the foundations of Jesus and those who have followed him. It was generally believed that true individuality was a gift of thinking with the saints, submitting ourselves to the experience of others. This was viewed as the only way to free ourselves of the enslavement to our own limited experience. This is one of old traditions we need to keep doing.

During this Pandemic when I was struggling with my prayer life one ancient traditions that I added to my prayer life was the Jesuit Prayer of Examen. This prayer is one where at the end of the day, one prayerfully reviews their day to help see and give thanks for the where God was active in your day. Here was a way of praying from the 1,500’s in the past that proving very helpful in the present.

The Apostle Paul was one who knew and taught the helpful traditions of the new Christian faith as well as the ancient helpful Jewish traditions to the church at Corinth. He recognized that had he not given them some original ideas of Christ nor the faith, but rather he declared “I handed on to you or passed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received” (1 Cor. 15:3).

Paul also does this with the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11, which were also handed on to him and then on the Corinthians .

Moses told the children of Israel before they passed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land to keep the words of the Law or the Tradition ever before them. They were to hand over the faith that was handed on to them to the next generations.

They were to do this in the course of everyday life. When you are at home or when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up. They were to put the words of the tradition on their heads, write them on the doorposts of their houses and on their gates. Or to bring it up to 21st Century terms, write the Scripture or quotes from Christians of the past on your refrigerators, on your bedroom mirrors, or on anywhere you might see them.

Israel also had a strong tradition of remembering and reciting their history not simply by hearing it, but by singing their history in song. These Psalms were incorporated into the yearly celebrations and festivals which recounted the major salvation events of their past. They recalled the events of creation, the exodus, the David / Solomonic Kingdom and the tragedy of the Exile.

We carry on that tradition of singing our history and the large themes of faith every Sunday. All hymns, spiritual songs, chorus are in essence tools that help us remember, live and share our Christian faith.

The Rev. John Bell of the Iona Christian Community in Scotland told and reminded us in his presentation to General Assembly in 1998, that what we sing is what we tend to believe. Therefore, he warned us, to be careful what you sing. I have always been very purposeful in what we sing for that reason.

We live in a world that is guilty of a kind of intentional forgetfulness when it comes to the past. Our society values individuality and creativity higher than anything else. The individual reigns as kings and queens supreme. There is a prevailing arrogant attitude, which believes that we stand at the summit of human development, we know more than any generation ever before us.

While this is true, few in our age stop to give thanks for the ideas and contributions that have been handed on to the current generation so it can be the most knowledgeable of any generation.

It boggles my mind that so many will listen to the opinions and advice of someone on the internet who has no or little experience or education in the subject in areas such as medicine, finance, or home repair.

We are society that is struggles with humility and too often fails to acknowledge that some folks in the past were actually smarter than we are.

I find this odd because in many fields such as psychology, engineering, medicine, carpentry, religion, and music for instance, only moves forward by the immersion in a tradition. Thorough immersion in tradition is the only source of true originality.

A distinguished professor of jazz at an American university found it difficult to talk about the craft of jazz, its complexity, and its dependence on individual originality. But when someone asked him, “Who are your models?” he immediately listed the names of famous pianists, saxophonists, and drummers. He spoke of his mentors with such reverence. He spoke of sitting for hours in a piano bar studying nothing but the fingers of a pianist’s left hand.

He says that a jazz artist must spend at least a couple of decades in rigorous imitation of others before that person can hope to be original.

Neil Postman, an American author, who wrote frequently on the topic of education, says that most education is history. Most professors are historians, no matter what their field is, passing on to another generation what previous generations figured out.

The only way for one generation to make advances is for it to be thoroughly educated with what past generations have known.

In other words, all thinking is a kind of apprenticeship, submitting oneself to the discipline of another’s thought before you have interesting thoughts of your own.

The great theologians of our Reformed/ Presbyterian church, like John Calvin (Switzerland), John Knox (Scotland), Karl Barth (Germany), and others have been church men and women who knew the biblical and historic traditions enough to have interesting thoughts of their own to add to them.

This process of handing on the faith to generation after generation has been a dynamic and growing process of knowing the traditions of our faith, of understanding and recapturing the passion of those who gone before us and who have paid the price for being faithful to Christ.

Every generation is asked and I believe required by God to take what is known or what has been handed on to them, that is the traditions of the past, and apply it the new. For each generation and each historical situation is different.

The world we live in is not the same world where Christianity was birthed and grew in first century Palestine. Even then, the church was built on the over 1,200 years of God’s faithfulness to Israel that developed a faith in One God with worshipping, governing, and spiritual traditions and practices.

We do not live in the same world of 16th Century Geneva where John Calvin studied and made his own contribution to the faith. His theology, which helped move the Protestant Reformation forward, was based on his understanding of the Biblical Traditions and the Early Church Fathers.

And today our world is different from even that of 50 years ago or even two years ago.

The questions that surfaces is how well do we know our biblical and historical traditions and practices? Do we know them enough to thank God for what has been handed on to us? Do we know them enough to follow and be shaped by the thinking and practice of the Christians faith that handed on to us to face the challenges of our day?

Do we thank God for those in the early church like Paul and Peter who fought long and hard for Gentiles like us to be equal partners in God’s people? We are here because they passed on a legacy of inclusion of outsiders into the church.

Do we thank God for John Wycliffe who fought the battle to have the Bible translated into English? He was declared a heretic for his translation and for arguing the Bible was the authoritative centre of the church. Being labeled a heretic did not stop his ideas of reform from influencing other reformers that followed him. Martin Luther would go on to translate the Bible into German for example. The authority of the Bible would become a central idea of the Reformation. There are now 704 complete translations of the Bibles along with 3,415 partial translations. Thanks be to God for John Wycliffe.

We are also indebted to John Calvin asked Church musician Loys (Louis) Bourgeois to come to Geneva to compose the music for a Psalter or Hymnbook based on the words of the Psalms for the congregation to use in their worship. Before this music was sung by choirs and not by worshippers. Bourgeois built on the foundation on those who wrote the Psalms and contemporaries who were writing new joyful, rhythmic and singable tunes for the congregation to sing by all worshippers.

The traditions of theology, worship, governance, spiritual practices, mission have all been handed to us and added to by every generation who knew, loved, practiced, wrestled with, and applied them to the situation and challenges they faced.

Like Moses and the Apostle Paul, we are given the great responsibility by God to learn, live out, and hand on what is of greatest importance to us in our time and place.

If we are wise, then w

Who me? Worry? (click here)

On this Thanksgiving morning, I want us to reflect upon Jesus’ words about worry as they relate to how we live in a world that struggles to know to handle worry and anxiety even in the midst of the great abundance we enjoy as Canadians.

I have known very few people who live without worrying about something or someone. I unfortunately am not one of those individuals.

Sometimes our worry arises out of our concern for others in a particular situation. And sometimes we worry about things and situation, which we feel we have no control over.

Whatever the reason, I believe that no matter how young or how old we are, most of us worry about something. Worry and anxiety have no age limits and there is no generation gap when it comes to being stressed out.

We are bound together both young and old, male and female, working class and retired class by this common human condition of worrying about the future.

Into this common relatable human condition comes a word of hope from God and some helpful advice for dealing with this common enemy of worry.

On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses this issue of worry with his disciples who have the same concerns as many of us do today. Jesus said, (Mt 6:25)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

The disciples who left their well-paying occupations to follow Jesus are obviously worried about God meeting their basic needs as they follow Jesus. Jesus addresses their worry by pointing them to how God wants to meet their need. Jesus tells them they are of more value than the birds and flowers of the field.

In the context of following him, Jesus asked a very simple question:
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

Do you know of anyone who has been able to add any extra time to their life by worrying about what they are going to eat, drink, or wear?

Do you know of anyone whose goal in life is to worry more? The obvious answer is no. Anxiety and worry can cause high blood pressure, grumpiness, headaches, just to name a few.

Jesus challenges the disciples not to dwell on the problem or the cause of their worry, but to dwell on God’s loving concern for them.

This is why when Paul deals with the issue of worry and anxiety in his letter to the Philippians, he tells them to first to…
Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.

Rejoicing and praising God is an act of focusing on who God is. When we confess to God, as we commonly do in our opening prayer, “YOU ARE GOD, AND WE ARE NOT” we are confessing that God is bigger than we are and bigger than any situation that confronts us. In essence, we tell God that he can be trusted. On the other hand, when we are worrying we confess that we do not trust in God at that moment.

A friend of mine told me the story of how as a child one of the biggest sources of anxiety for him was going on trips with his parents. He would become so overwhelmed with worry that his parents didn’t have a clue as to how to get to their destination, that he would become physically ill.

My friend’s parents became concerned about him and resolved the issue by having my friend lay face down in the back seat for the majority of the trip. My friend said he was happy because he couldn’t see outside and thus his stomach was more at ease.

He told me that his worry became a real stumbling block because of his inability to trust his parents to get them to the right place.

Once my friend learned to trust his parents to get him from point A to point B he was fine. He said it took him a lot time of lying face down in the back seat to get to that point where he could trust his parents and stop worrying.

I believe we spend our entire Christian lives learning to trust God to get us to where we need to go. And sometimes that process of learning to trust God means closing our eyes and keeping silent in order for God to direct us.

One study showed that the average North American spend 92% of their time worrying about things that will never happen, can’t be changed, that is untrue, or things that negatively affect our health by worrying.

When we worry, our focus is on the problem and obviously not on God nor his priorities for us as Jesus directs. Jesus told his disciples

Eugene Peterson in his modern translation of the New Testament called “The Message” translates the Matthew 6:34 like this…
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

The Apostle Paul added to this teaching of Jesus by telling the church at Philippi …
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Again, I find Eugene Peterson’s modern translation of that text helpful for Peterson translating it as…
“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.”

This enables us to move closer to God. By including words of thanksgiving with our prayers, we humbly acknowledge that we are trusting God to bring about a positive change in the situation or to our attitude about the situation, which is causing us to worry. The act of prayer is an act of faith and also an act sharing each other’s burdens.

Sometimes we just need a fresh perspective on our worry.

One Summer a father and son had a conversation when his son turned four. That spring the son asked for a spot in the family garden to call his own. He turned the soil, broke the clumps, and planted his favorite vegetable–corn.

Toward the middle of July, the son was concerned that his corn was not growing fast enough. The father tried to reassure his son that the corn was doing just fine by quoting him the familiar benchmark used by farmers,
“…knee high by the fourth of July.”

Upon hearing his father’s wisdom, his son asked the theological question: “My knees or yours Dad?”

While the son saw disaster with his first crop of corn, the father from his experience over many years of growing corn, saw the potential of a plentiful harvest that would come later that summer.

This story illustrates what the Apostle Paul also shared with the church at Philippi about focusing our attention off of what is worrying us and onto to what God is doing and revealing to us each day.

Hear Paul’s words in verse 8 as translated by Eugene Peterson…
“Summing it up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful and not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent plans.

To keep from falling back into the negative habit and practice of worrying, Paul believes that we need to change the way we think about God and the situation that we are worried about. There won’t be any change in the way feel about the situation until we take positive steps every day to refocus our minds on the things of God. I believe Paul is speaking out of a great deal of experience where worry and anxiety weighed heavily upon him.

For us this means every time we find ourselves being anxious or worrying about anything. We stop. We thank God for his presence in our lives, in the situation or people we are concerned about and we pray for them.

I confess that thanking God for some situations has been incredibly difficult to do this year. I have learned to more freely and honestly confess my struggle to God to thank God for all situations and circumstances.

But the simple practice and habit of turning our worries into prayers with thanksgiving to God is incredibly helpful and healthy for us as Paul declares it to be. Any positive changes come bit by bit, choice by choice to move from worry to trust in God.

If we are worried about a relationship, then we need to focus on what God says about reconciliation, forgiveness, and loving others. And follow them a little bit each day until they become a natural way we live.

If our worry is about the future, then we learn to trust God for today and submit to his ways in order to experience the peace and wholeness that come in seeking first God and God’s Kingdom priorities for us.

Christians author Corrie Ten Boom, whose family risked their lives to help Jews escape the Nazi’s in World War 2, once said…
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of sorrows;
it empties today of strength.”

Her observation rings true for me as I suspect it does for you. Worry and anxiety always rob us of our ability to trust God and to follow God’s kingdom priorities that Jesus lovingly teaches us again and again.

God promises that when we turn our worries over to Him and trust him to deal with our concerns, He will give us the peace that passes all understanding. And this peace puts us in the right place to join with God in lifting the burdens of others as well and focusing on God’s Kingdom priorities for us individually and as His church.

Today, we give thanks for all of God’s gifts and blessings to us, which help us to daily trust Him and live by his Kingdom priorities to His Glory, Honor and Praise.
Amen!

Job: In the beginning, Friends you can count on (click here)

Introduction
I want you to think for a moment of friends who you feel especially close to and who you can always count on when times get tough.

What do you think is the most important characteristic of friendship that they have taught you?

Today, we are introduced to three of Job’s friends named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. These three friends of Job are often referred as “Job’s comforters.” At the beginning of Job’s suffering due to the loss of his wealth, children, and health, they demonstrate how to be friends who we can count on.

The first quality of Friendship demonstrated by Job’s friends is they dropped everything to come to the aid of their friends.

Actor and director Woody Allen once said that 80-90% of success is just showing up. We can say the same thing about friendship as well.

Good friends come to help without being asked or invited. Good friends value their relationships with their friends above and beyond their busy schedules. This is part and parcel of placing other needs before our own as we are taught to do through the example of Christ.

When we are in desperate straits or facing an illness, a tragedy, or death in the family isn’t it great to have friends who step in to help us without being invited. Job’s friends demonstrate this when they respond immediately to Job’s crisis and come to his aid.

Have you ever had the experience of suddenly having the feeling that you needed to phone or drop by a friend’s place and discovered that is what your friend needed? I am sure we all have stories to tell of the times when we needed help and at that moment the phone rang or a friend showed up just when we needed it. Kathy calls them “God moments.”

Kathy and I had friends in Nova Scotia who knew the right time to drop by. Our friends Barb and Charlie who lived across the street from us just seemed know when to show up when our children were sick, or our car needed fixing or we when needed encouragement and support as new parents. This is what good friends do.

The second quality of friendship that Job’s friends demonstrate at the beginning is Sympathy toward those who are hurting.

Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters.

When Job’s friends arrive at Job’s city, they see their friend sitting outside the city’s gate, with his clothes torn, his head shaved, and with nasty sores covering his body. They see their friend praying and grieving as one would expect of someone in Job’s time to be doing. They know automatically from what they see that Job’s suffering is great.

Outside the city gate would have been the city dump. This is where the city would have burned their human and animal wastes, which is why it was often called the “ash heap.” And this is where people with diseases such as lepers would have been forced to live by the residents of the city. It was an unpleasant place to be.

The first thing Job’s friends do is they is to sit with Job among the ashes and the awful smells of the city dump and refuse. They tear their clothes and throw dust on their heads as was the custom to dramatically identify themselves with Job who feels he is as good as dead as the dust and ashes symbolize.

They also express their deep sympathy for him through the shedding of tears.

The expression of Job’s friends echoes the actions of Jesus who when he arrived to comfort his friends Mary and Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus broke down and wept. Jesus on other occasions expressed his sympathy through his tears. Sometimes the only we can do as well is to weep with and for our friends private in the time of

Like Job’s friends we should also not be afraid to sit publicly with our friends and weep with them if we value our friendship with them.

3) Job’s friends at the beginning teach us the value of suffering presence.

Job’s friends were at their best when they responded to his suffering by coming to sit quietly with him. They sit quietly with him for seven days and nights. Their quiet “suffering presence” said more than any words could. And in doing so they brought comfort to Job.

This sounds counter intuitive, but a tear, a nod, a sigh when a friend shares with us is extremely helpful and powerful. After a while you learn who you want to share with and who you don’t share with for just that reason.

In chapter 3, Job begins pours out his heart to God in great frustration and anguish, as only a man who has lost everything is prone to do.

When Job’s friends hear such open and honest talk come from a man who they believe is a very righteous and faithful man, unfortunately their sympathy for Job quickly changes to blame, shame, condemnation, judgment, and legalism.

Job’s friends become disgusted by such unholy talk from such a godly man like Job. And thus begins 34 chapters of dialogues between Job and his friends about who is right, who is wrong and attempts to explain the unknowable. Job’s friends cease at this point to be comforters and become his adversaries instead.

Job’s friend never make the leap from Sympathy to Empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Norman Habel in his commentary on Job writes,

“A despairing person needs loyalty from his friends (Job 6:14) not the arrogance of compassionless disputants.” (page 150)

Doesn’t it drive you crazy when “friends” with the best of intentions, insist upon offering advice when you are hurting or who offer explanations as to why you are going through a particular situation? Or when they share their experience, when all you want to do is listen and understand your situation and feelings?

I am sure we have all been on the receiving end of unhelpful advice, explanations and stories. More often than naught, words offer little comfort. I would rather have a good friend who will sit with me, listen to me, and who will simply offer their “suffering presence” to me.  

Along with this we also need to learn the value of knowing when to stay and when to graciously leave. Job’s friends would have offered a greater degree of comfort if they had gone home after the seven days and nights. We need to learn from Job’s friends the comforting benefits of speaking less and staying for shorter periods of time.

A good rule of thumb is “If in doubt, say as little as possible to a friend in need.” I guarantee that your friend will truly appreciate it and will continue to share their struggles with you.

Here at the beginning of Job, we take the positive lessons from Job’s friends that point us to person and work of Christ.

Jesus showed up at the right time to help.

Jesus the Son of God identified with us by becoming human like us and truly entering into the pain and suffering of the world. He freely expressed his sorrow for others privately and in public.

Jesus put compassion first over judgment, he understood much, said and did only what was necessary to bring healing, hope, love and help to those who were hurting.

Jesus taught his disciples to love one another as he loved us and to demonstrate God’s love in concrete ways to others.

As we come to the Lord’s table today, let us thank God for our friendship with him and let us commit our to being the kind of friends God teaches to be to each other.

To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.

Risking it all on Job and Us (click here)

Scripture

Job 1:1-22, Job 2:1-10
The story of Job takes place during the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It is the story of just man who suffers unjustly without knowing why.
We read the introduction and a conversation between God and Satan that gets the story going

James 5:7-12
The only place Job is mentioned in the New Testament is James 5:11, where he is an example of patient endurance.

Sermon: Risking it all on Job and Us

In the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, comedian Steve Martin plays a businessman who attempts to get home for American Thanksgiving. The movie begins with Martin trying to catch a flight home, but he misses his flight.

Then he attempts to rent a car, but this too is complicated by a number of freak incidents that turn this into a major crisis.

Every time Steve Martin attempts to move forward, he is frustrated by events beyond his control that turn a simple trip home into a literally a traveling nightmare.

And to make matters worse, Steve Martin is hooks up with a not so helpful traveling companion played by John Candy, who adds more frustration to Steve Martin’s travels. Everything that can possibly go wrong for Steve Martin, does go wrong and in a big way.

In this movie, there seems to be some cosmic force, which is working against him and preventing him from getting home.

This all adds up to a very funny movie. But it also makes for an extremely painful movie, especially if you have had terrible traveling experiences.

Steve Martin is both an honorable hero as well as a tragic victim in this movie. His character is one whom we can easily identify with. For in many ways, he represents all of the thousands of people who encounters difficulty while traveling every year.

This movie in many ways echoes the story of Job. Like Steve Martin in the movie “Plane, Trains and Automobiles,” Job experiences great personal tragedy, he has friends who attempt to help him, and there are cosmic forces working against him of which he has no understanding.

Like Steve Martin, Job is also a representative, but in this case of anyone who has ever suffered great loss in this life. Job represents anyone who has wrestles with WHY there is great suffering and tragedy in our world. He represents everyone who has ever tried to be faithful in circumstances beyond their control.

Job is also representative of the person of faith who has dared to honestly question God, doubt God, or complain to God about their tragic circumstances. If you are such a person, or if you are a person who wants to help others in their suffering, then you will find in Job an insightful friend and a helpful traveling companion on life’s mysterious highway.

Over the next several weeks, I want to explore with you this most challenging books of the Old Testament. The book of Job, like the movie just mentioned is both comical and tragic at the same time.

Job is both comforting and unsettling; appealing, and offensive; thought provoking and mind numbing all at the same time. My prayer for us is that we will gain some wisdom in living faithfully for God in times that seem beyond our control.

First of all, the book of Job explores the great themes of human suffering, the flaws of conventional human wisdom in trying to make sense of suffering and God’s mysterious will. It explores not why there is human suffering, but how to be faithful in the midst of it. All of these themes are complicated issues, which defy any sort of simple human logic and understanding.

And this is why I must tell you right up front, that you are not going receive pat answers to these great questions of the human condition. But rather we will wrestle with issues of being faithful as the book of Job prompts us to do.

With that said, let us look at the first two chapters of Job and explore begin our journey together.

The issues just mentioned are explored through the life of an individual named Job. He is a model of the successful and faithful person of his day. He has family, he has riches, he has great faith and integrity. In our day, he would have easily made the cover the Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.

The Conventional or generally accepted wisdom of Job’s day was that wealth was God’s reward to those who are faithful to him. If you were poor, then God was punishing you for not obeying him. Good faithful, hard working people just did not suffer. Suffering was only for losers and sinners. Job, as we discover in the first chapter with his enormous wealth and unquestionable character, would have been considered a very spiritual and godly man.

Then the story of Job shifts from the earthly realm to the heavenly realm where God has an interesting conversation with Satan.

In Job, Satan is not the devil as we have come to think of Satan him. The Satan of Job is not the mythological figure that has been portrayed in literature and in the media of our time. Rather in Job, Satan is more like a prosecuting attorney who charges people with wrongdoing. The name Satan literally means “the accuser” a heavenly prosecuting attorney if you will.

God asks Satan one day where he has been and Satan tells God he has been traveling the world looking for people who have been unfaithful to God. Then God asks Satan a very important question…

“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” (v. 8)

Satan plays out his role as accuser or doubter of human behaviour and tells God that Job is only faithful to him because God has richly blessed him. Satan makes a bet or wager with God that if God were to remove all the blessings of money, family, and reputation, Job will cease to be faithful and will curse Him.

Satan, who is a keen observer of human behaviour, makes his bet with God based on the selfish behaviour he observed from other humans. Satan in essence, calls into question God’s ability to create humans who will love him and serve him without regards to what can be gained from him.

And surprisingly enough God takes on Satan’s assumptions and takes the bet.

This is not all what we normally expect from God. But God shows how much trust He has in Job and believes that when push comes to shove, Job will worship God regardless of the circumstances and will not curse him.

God risks or places his own good reputation on the line by betting that Job’s motivations for worshipping him go way beyond the material benefits that God has given him.

God is also betting on his ability to influence not only people’s actions, but also their very motivation in following him.

God believes that he has the ability to change and influence people’s hearts for the good. And so God gambles his reputation on Job.

Does the idea of God risking his reputation on Human faithfulness offend you, surprise you, or is this part of how you perceive God to be?

The idea of God risking his good reputation with respect to the creation should not surprise us. Think about the huge risk God takes in creating creatures with Free Will.

It would have been easier for God to create people who act more like robots with an automatic response or internal programming to love and serve God without question, than people with the ability to freely choose him among a host of other options. But, God chooses to create people with the ability to wisely choose his ways over and above their own selfish desires and wants.

God also risks his reputation in sending his beloved Son to earth to teach our world about his love. God risks his reputation by allowing his Son to suffer and die in order to redeem and lost and foolish humanity. God surely must have known that some would respond to his gift of salvation in Christ, while others would blatantly reject it and scorn Him.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, God risks his reputation by calling into being his church, his tool for proclaiming his good news and winning people over to his side. Surely God knew the risks in depending upon his people to be his agents of hope and salvation in the world.

It is like the old story of Jesus being asked by an angel before he returns to heaven after earthly work is done, what his plan was for redeeming a lost humanity.

Jesus replies, “I have a bunch of fishermen who have lived with me for three years and who I have taught how to reach people and they will go into the world to share the good news of my life, death and resurrection.”

The Angel responded, “What if they don’t follow your plan and fail to do as you have commanded to do. What other plans do you have in bringing people to faith?” To this Jesus replied, “I have no other plan.”

The Biblical story of creation, the work of Christ, and the history of the church is in part the story of how God has taken huge risks with his beloved creation in order to have a people who will respond to his love because it the only way to truly live and not simply for the rewards to be gained from Him.

God is willing to risk his reputation on creatures he has made because God has confidence in those whom he has created, redeemed and sustains with his power, love and presence.

The Book of Job demonstrates how God was willing to take a huge risk with Job, but did so knowing that Job was up for the task. When God creates the church, God placed his confidence in men and women, who would grow in their faith, become a loving missional community, and would reach and draw people to God.

This begs the question, are we Christians because we believe God owes us something for our obedience and faith?

Would we be a Christian if God didn’t offer us any eternal benefits at all or even any earthly benefits?

Or are we Christians because we love and value what God has done for us in Jesus Christ above anything else in this life?

It is an important question to ask ourselves today. It is not an easy question to answer honestly and truthfully, but one that needs to be answered.

Job represents for us a model believer
* who walks by faith and conviction,

* who values his relationship with God more than anything else.

God allows Job’s faith to be severely tested and tried in the crucible of his afflictions. It is with Job that God chooses to risk his reputation to demonstrate to the Satan, that his love is able to transform human hearts.

God will do so again more powerfully by allowing his own Son to suffer for the sins of the world to demonstrate that God’s love can transform human hearts. Christ’s humble endurance and suffering showed the purpose of God’s compassion and mercy.

And so for us, we may not know exactly what God is doing in our lives, or in our life as a church, but we are assured that God will continue to do His transforming work through those who value their relationship above all else. God’s mercy and compassion do not end when we suffer, but deepen and help us to rely more heavily on the mercy and compassion of God.

Through our suffering and through our compassionate response to those who suffering, God points us out to our world and asks them to consider our reasons for following Him. God has the same confidence in us as He had with Job, to live faithfully in any and all circumstances because we love who first loved us.

To the Father, Son and Spirit,
be all glory, honor and praise. AMEN.

Two Kinds of Wisdom (click here)

Sermon: Two Kinds of Wisdom

Today we have at our disposal today more knowledge than at any time in history. More information has been produced in the last thirty years than in the previous five thousand. We also know that there has also been a steep rise in mis-information.

Our world has plenty of knowledge and education, but it has not always translated into being wiser people. With so much information one has the difficult job of knowing which info is good and which harmful.

We used to talk about this thing called “common sense,” or the common ability to choose the right over wrong and to make wise choices based on God’s wisdom. But more and more what we see in our world is a rejection of God’s wisdom in favor of one’s own person wisdom based on one’s knowledge and experience.

What we use to call “Common Sense” is now “Uncommon Sense.”

James’ whole letter is an explanation about the about how to live wisely and faithfully in difficult times.

In chapter one, James’ advice to us who are struggling to live faithfully and wisely is this…
“If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” (James 1:5).

James tells us to know our human limits of understanding and application of knowledge. He encourages us to humbly ask God for help. Asking for help is one of the wisest things we can ever do.

Having shared how a Christian’s loving, merciful and positive actions and words reveal their faith in Christ, James asks this question in verse 13,
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (Jas 3:13).  

Google may provide us with tons of information, but it doesn’t always help us to know how to apply that knowledge in specific situations.

You can read everything there is to know about car, its history, how it works, how even drive one, but you only learn to drive a car by getting the wheel and driving. Hopefully with a good teacher.

Wisdom is gained through applying what we know in real situations.

James makes the important observation in verse 13 that wise individuals will demonstrate their wisdom in the choices they make, the insights they share, how they live and by positive influence they have on those around them.

I thought of four people: C. S. Lewis (English Author) Mother Teresa, an elder from a previous congregation, and Billy Graham. All known for their love of Christ, their wisdom, and for the fruits of their lives.

I am sure we could name others.

We follow the wisdom of people who walk their talk. No one is perfect in the practice of all their beliefs, and no walks their talk all the time, but on the whole, a truly wise person’s life will back up who they follow and whose wisdom they live by.

James then goes on to tell us in our passage that there are two kinds of wisdom. There is the Wisdom that comes from God and the wisdom that comes from the humans.

How can you tell the difference? The same way James tells us that we can discern a faithful and wise person from the unfaithful foolish person. We tell by the fruit of character that is evidenced.

Earthly OR Human Wisdom (James 3:14-16)

First, there is human wisdom, which James says in verse 15

“Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” (Jas 3:15).

Earthly wisdom is based on the wisdom and knowledge of creatures and not of the Creator. Earthly wisdom measures success by human standards: wealth, achievement, popularity, etc. Its goals are self-serving.

According to James this type of wisdom is also unspiritual because the wisdom does not have any connection with God. It is unspiritual because it comes from those who close themselves off from God and rely on their own wisdom instead.

Any wisdom that opposes or rejects God’s love, distorts God’s truth, and encourages destruction and division can rightly be described as devilish.

In calling the wisdom of this world as earthly, unspiritual, and devilish, James is asking us to evaluate the source of the wisdom that comes to us before we embrace and follow it.

We sadly live in a time where we need to double check or fact check the information that comes to us through various means because there is so much mis-information floating around these days.

In verse 14, James gives us several criteria for determining if the wisdom we encounter is earthly wisdom.
“But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.” (Jas 3:14).

This false wisdom is characterized by selfish motivations and actions. What is the motivation of the person sharing the wisdom?

Earthly wisdom reveals itself in Bitter envy or the attitude where one becomes upset or angry because another prospers or has more or has advantages that you don’t’ have.

Earthly wisdom has an angry edge to it and not a loving or joyous one.

Earthly wisdom is also characterized by Selfish Ambition. Who ultimately benefits from the wisdom, the giver or the receiver of the wisdom? What and who gains from the wisdom?

Earthly wisdom Boasts and is False to the Truth. If the wisdom we have encountered boasts first and foremost about the author of the wisdom and not God, then question it. If the wisdom intentionally opposes God’s revealed truth in Christ, then question it.

The Spirit always leads us to truth of what God has revealed in the Bible, while the evil one leads us to oppose the truth—even in our boasting.

In verse 16 James declares what the ultimate consequence or fruit of earthly wisdom.
“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” (Jas 3:16).

Following earthly and human wisdom divides, creates barriers between people, promotes the prosperity of a few at the expense of the many, and it promotes beliefs and behaviours that move people away from God

James provides us with a very strong standards for identifying, questioning and avoiding earthly wisdom.

God’s Wisdom (James 3:17-18)

Having identified the kind of wisdom to be avoided, James shares the kind of wisdom to be embraced and followed. In verse 17, James gives us a comprehensive and helpful description of God’s wisdom that he encourages us to continually embrace as we put our faith into action.

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (Jas 3:17).

The definition includes the following descriptions of God’s wisdom.

Pure. It is a wisdom that honors God first and foremost compared to self-focused and self-promoting wisdom of our age.

God’s wisdom is Peaceable. It is wisdom that brings peace, wholeness, and well-being to people. God’s wisdom brings people together and builds up the community.

God’s wisdom is Gentle. To be gentle is have soft touch. It is considerate of others. Paul writes to Titus “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (Titus 3:2). The current political Attack adds don’t meet this criteria.

God’s wisdom is Willing to yield. This has the sense of being open to God’s teachings. The wise person is open to being taught, willing to admit their mistakes, willing to see another’s perspective, and is willing to learn from those wiser than they.

A characteristic of the wise is they listen first and then speak.

God’s wisdom is Full of mercy. Jesus’ parables of the Lost or Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan reflect the wisdom God’s mercy demonstrated in forgiveness and generosity to others. All that Christ taught and did was reflection of God’s mercy toward us and all people.

God’s wisdom is recognized in the good fruit of character it produces. Jesus declared that people would identify us as his followers by the good fruit we produce by abiding in him. The fruit of God’s wisdom within us is summaries by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 as
“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

God’s wisdom shows no hint partiality toward anyone because it recognizes that all have fallen short of God’s intentions and we all need God’s help no matter who we are. We all stand on equal footing before God both in receiving both judgment and in receiving God’s mercy.

Godly wisdom is without hypocrisy. God’s wisdom is the real deal. God clearly reveals His motives, intentions and goals through what God says and does. In Christ, God’s grace and truth are clearly revealed for all to see clearly and plainly.

James reveals in verse 18 that end result of embracing God’s wisdom.

“And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (Jas 3:18).

The Goal of God’s wisdom is always to move us closer to Him and closer to one another. Those who live by God’s wisdom have a positive role to play in pulling people together and not apart as so many are doing these days

In an age and time where so many people embrace so much foolishness that harms and destroys individuals and communities, it is imperative that we be wise students and practitioners of God’s wisdom.

As James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13)

Let our answer be
“It is us, for we listen and follow the wisdom that God teaches us through Christ
and those are inspired by Him.”

To God who is all wise be honored, praised and followed.
Amen.

The Ongoing Adventure of Faith

Sermon: The Ongoing Adventure of Faith
Genesis 12:1-9
Mark 1:14-20

When you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they read like travel narratives, especially the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is always on the way to somewhere else. Mark tells the story of Jesus with a breathless tempo. Mark says that Jesus did that and then immediately Jesus goes on to do or say something more. Immediately is one of Mark’s favorite words and he uses it 27 times in his short Gospel.

The image you get of Jesus’ followers, his disciples, in a gospel like Mark’s is a group of people who are always breathlessly trying to catch up, always just one step behind Jesus as he moves on to somewhere else. Jesus is always out front leading them to discover new things about himself and about God.

I love the way Mark begins his gospel with the calling of Jesus’ disciples. A couple of the disciples were at work one day, bent over their nets, working on them. (Author Tony Campolo says that the disciples seemed to be the worst fishermen in the world – they were always mending their nets!)

At any rate, while they were working, they saw this strange figure up on the road above them, calling to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mk 1:17).

Mark says they stopped everything they were doing, left their father, and went trudging right after Jesus. One would think they might have asked, “Well, who are you?” Or one would at least think they would say, “Fine. But where are you going?”

They asked none of that. They just stumbled after Jesus. Maybe that’s exactly the way it happened. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, that is the image you get of discipleship. Discipleship is following Jesus on a journey without ever knowing exactly who he is or precisely where he is going.

Isn’t that typical of Jesus? Just about the time we are about to get the point, almost ready to catch up with him, he is on the way somewhere else! .

Jesus is always on the move, bringing his followers along on his great Kingdom Adventure.

If you have been journeying with Jesus very long, you know that it is quite typical to keep making surprising discoveries with Jesus, even when you are on the way to somewhere else.

Then, when you get to the very end of Mark, Mark says that the women came to the tomb on Easter morning. But by the time they get there, they are greeted by a “young man in white” who tells them, “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry. Just missed him. By this time in the morning, he is already all the way out in Galilee! Now go and meet him there!”

I think that is the main reason why this gospel ends the way it does. Mark ends his gospel with the women at the tomb, shocked that Jesus is not there. He is going before them to Galilee. That sums up the entire experience with Jesus. Just when they get there, he has already moved on to somewhere else.

Discipleship is all about discovery and adventure. Discipleship becomes the ultimate road trip one can make.

I think this is Mark’s way of saying that, because of Easter, this journey of faith is not over; in fact, it is never over until God says that it is over.

So if you are thinking about faithful discipleship, don’t think about getting your heads straight on a list of fundamental beliefs. Don’t think about discipleship as memorizing a whole string of Bible verses. Don’t think of discipleship as a spiritual oasis where we can kick back with Jesus. Think about discipleship as a lifelong adventurous journey with Jesus.

This is the story that Jesus is writing for each of us and all of us at the same time. Each of us is busy tagging along behind Jesus, being surprised, or angry or confused by Jesus, trying to figure out what he said at the last stop. Being amazed at the places that he leads us on this adventure.

There are many ways one could describe the last 18 months, it certainly has been challenging, but not dull. We have been stretched emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically. We have learned new things about ourselves, others and about God. To see the past 18 months and what lies ahead is an important and helpful perspective to embrace as Christ’s followers.

The Bible as a whole adds many things about how we are to join God in the adventure of faith.

First, the journey with Jesus is not only an adventure, but is also best done with others. We do not follow a set of laws, but we follow a person who we have come to love, who we can learn from, and whose company we enjoy along the way. And we don’t always know where our relationship with Jesus will take us and that is part of the enjoyment of following Jesus.

For example, I did not have the slightest clue how my life would drastically change when I asked my wife to marry me.

I asked my wife to marry me while enjoying Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. I didn’t fully know how wild a ride marriage would be when I choose that particular location to “pop the question.” My wife and I have joked about how prophetic my choice of places has been.

The important aspect of any relationship is that we commit ourselves to be on a journey with them, no matter where that journey leads, even through times of abundance and poverty, times of sickness and health, for better for worse,” etc.

When we respond to Christ’s call to follow Him, we commit ourselves to follow Christ, just as married couples do. It is a much deeper commitment to be sure, but we commit to travel together wherever Christ leads us.

We are reminded that faith is first and foremost a commitment to journey with Jesus and WITH one another. And it is always best done in the company of others as God planned from the beginning.

Secondly, a journey always implies a movement from here to there. Therefore, in characterizing discipleship as an adventure, the Bible declares that faith is a long process of spiritual growth. Whenever we follow Jesus, we are asked to stay on your toes and to be ready for wonderful surprises that expand and deepen our faith.

I don’t know if the disciples who left their nets, their tax collecting booths, or their everyday lives knew for certain where they would end up. Nor do I believe that Abraham and Sarah knew where their journey with God would end up as well.

The author of Hebrews declares

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)

They all set out with a promise that God would lead them to where they were supposed to be.

Because our life with God is an adventure, we are called upon to follow wherever Jesus leads us. God may accept us “Just as I am” as the old gospel hymn declares, but Jesus will not ever leave us just as we are unless we choose to do so as an act of disobedience to his call.

Jesus was always on the move and seeks to move us from where we are to some place better.

That is one of the lessons we learn from God’s call to Abraham and Sarah. They responded to God’s call because God was offering them something better than anything they could have imagined left to their own devices.

Think for a moment about where God has led you over the course of your faith journey. Think about what you have learned because at some point in your life, when you choose to leave something behind in order to follow Jesus.

If you had the ability to go back and change your mind about following Jesus, would you?

I don’t think the fishermen or Abram and Sarai would for a moment even think about changing their minds about going on an adventure with God.

Perhaps that is what has kept each of us traveling with Jesus, day after day because we see the growth in our lives and in our relationships. The adventure with Christ has been worth it with all of its ups, downs, twists, and turns.

None of us has a clue as to what the future holds for us individually or as a congregation. I join Dorothy of “The Wizard of Oz” in acknowledging “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.”

I do know enough about God and about following Jesus, just as our spiritual forbears knew, that God will lead and get us to the destination God has planned for us.

God will lead to the people we need to love, serve, bless, and witness to.

And God will continue to provide us with travel companions to share the adventure of faith with us, wherever God takes us in the coming year.

To the Father, Son, and Spirit,
Be all glory, honor and praise.
Amen.