Living at the End of Ourselves

[Jesus said,] “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28-30)

Throughout this week’s readings (Matthew chapters 8 to 12), there are two re-occurring themes: Faith as trust in Jesus’ authority, and Jesus’ compassion.

In chapter 8, we read about a Roman centurion, someone who knew what it meant to have authority and be under it, who trusted in Jesus’ authority to heal His servant from a distance with just a word. This Jesus calls great faith.

Hands Reaching by Shalom de Leon-535537-unsplash
Photo by Shalom de León on Unsplash

Then in chapter 11, we encounter words from Jesus that have brought comfort to people down through the centuries, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

However, those words mean little if the object of authority in whom we trust is not speaking them. Inherently we trust in our own authority, whether we are confident or insecure. Confident people believe that their self-trust is working. Insecure people realize that it is not.

But unless we trust in Jesus’ authority to help us, His words of compassion and comfort are meaningless to us.

It is only when we come to the end of ourselves that we are willing to accept the gift of hope that Jesus offers to us. In desperation, we cling to His promises of His presence, His loving care, His forgiveness and His resurrection life….

…until the crisis passes. Then we tend to revert to our old ways of trusting in our own authority again.

The challenge is to constantly live at the end of ourselves. It cam be very scary to let go of the trapeze swing of self-trust to which we have been clinging, reach out into empty space and hope that Someone grabs our out-stretched arms. But we are not leaping into the unknown and hoping for the best. We are leaping into the arms of a Saviour who has been holding us close every since He stretched out His arms on the cross to save us.

Jesus will keep you safe in His loving arms. His resurrection proves that He has the ability and authority to do that. You can trust in His loving embrace and there you will find rest for your soul.

Dear Jesus, please help me to abandon any trust I may have in my own power and authority and cling to You as You hold me. Amen.

God Forms Us Into Special People

It’s been a tough nine days to be a human being. A week ago Friday, we began to hear reports of a serious bus crash in Eastern Saskatchewan involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team bus. Eventually we learned that there were 14 fatalities and a fifteenth member of the team died the next day. On Sunday a very emotional vigil was held at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt. On Monday morning, we heard the news that two hockey players had been mixed up and one player thought to be dead was alive and another declared alive was actually dead. Wednesday brought more sad news as team trainer, Dayna Brons, succumbed to her injuries. The funerals began on Thursday when broadcaster Tyler Bieber was laid to rest. Three were held on Friday, another three on Saturday, and there are more funerals to come.

The Humboldt Broncos bus crash has touched some people because of their connection to hockey and others because of their ties to Saskatchewan, but it has touched all of us because we are human. These were young people, healthy and vibrant, with so much more life that they could have lived.       What hope is there for the human race when life is abruptly cut short for so many who are young and strong? All of us know that life is not supposed to be like this, but reality has shown us that it is. We can hide in our comfortable homes, or bury our minds in our fancy phones, but we cannot escape the fact that we human beings are mortal. Death has been woven into the fabric of every human life since our first parents stepped out of God’s grand design and decided to try living life on their own terms.

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Photo by Jean-Pierre Brungs on Unsplash

But God has never given up on the human race and through the gift of His Son, Jesus, God has changed our destiny so that we are not condemned by our faults and failures, so that death is no longer the end of life, and so God’s plan to renew and restore this broken world can begin and then eventually reach fulfillment.

We can see evidence of God’s plan in chapter six of the Gospel of John. One thing that is important to remember about this chapter of this biography is that all the events recorded here take place with Passover in the background. John tells us in verse 4, “The Jewish Passover Festival was near.” Passover was one of three great Jewish festivals and 2,000 years ago, when the Jewish Temple still stood in Jerusalem, every Jewish male was required to travel to Jerusalem for each of these three annual festivals and worship at the Temple.

Passover was important because it commemorated what was, up to that point, God’s greatest act of salvation in all human history when He brought an estimated 2.4 million Israelite slaves out of Egypt. Now Egypt was a world super power at that time.  God did this act of salvation by bending nature to His will, in other words, He did miracles such as turning the Nile River to blood and causing plagues of frogs, gnats, flies and other things. What God was doing as He did this was showing everyone that the false gods and all the power and the glory of Egypt meant nothing in comparison to the one true God.

Then God showed that He has power over life by sending a final plague of death for every firstborn male in Egypt, including humans and livestock. But God also provided protection from the Angel of Death who would come to claim his own. Each family would choose a Passover Lamb that would give up its life and its blood and everyone who marked their doorframes with its blood would be safe. The Angel of Death would see the blood, pass over their homes and they would be set free from their bondage in Egypt.

Note that it didn’t matter what nationality you were, or how good, wealthy, powerful or good-looking you were. None of those things would save you then. None of those things will save you now. All that mattered centuries ago on that one special night was whether one heard God’s message and then believed Him when He said that the blood of a lamb would save them.

That very night, the Israelites marched out of Egypt and as they left, they asked for and were given gold, silver and other items of great value. A world super power was brought to its knees. In one night, Egypt lost her workforce and her wealth.

God’s miracles did not end with the departure from Egypt. That large group of people needed a lot of food to survive, so God did an amazing feeding miracle where He regularly supplied a special food called manna for forty years so that the people would have enough food to eat during their time in the desert.

God also did some amazing miracles that involved water. He parted the water of the Red Sea to provide an escape for the Israelites from the Egyptian army that was pursuing them. Then God allowed that water to return to its normal place and swept away the enemies of His people. God also provided water from a rock at Horeb (see Exodus 17) because there was no other water source nearby and you cannot have life in the desert without water. When the Israelites sojourn in the desert came to an end, God parted the waters of the Jordan River during flood season to allow all those people to come safely into the land that He had promised to give to them.

Through all these miracles that God did—saving people from death through the blood of a lamb, giving life through water that makes a way where there is no way, and feeding hungry souls with bread that came down from heaven—through all these things God was not patching up human existence so it could continue going forward as it always had in the past. God was doing something new. God describes what He is up to through the prophet Isaiah. Here is a portion of chapter 49 from the book of Isaiah from the Message:

“And now,” God says,
this God who took me in hand
from the moment of birth to be his servant,
To bring Jacob back home to him,
to set a reunion for Israel—
What an honor for me in God’s eyes!
That God should be my strength!
He says, “But that’s not a big enough job for my servant—
just to recover the tribes of Jacob,
merely to round up the strays of Israel.
I’m setting you up as a light for the nations
so that my salvation becomes global!” (vv. 5-6)

God also says:

“When the time’s ripe, I answer you.
When victory’s due, I help you.
I form you and use you
to reconnect the people with me,
To put the land in order,
to resettle families on the ruined properties. (v. 8)

God had chosen for Himself a very particular group of very ordinary people and He was using the feeding miracles, the water miracles and the lamb miracle to form them into a very special people who would then be a light to the whole world, so that everyone could know that God has written a new ending for human life and now, the final chapter opens us to reveal to us a new world in which everyone has healing and wholeness, a home and peace.

Then God placed His chosen people on the crossroads of the ancient world so that every polytheistic pagan world power that passed through the Promised Land would learn that there is one group of people who worshiped one God who offers hope and salvation for all.

As amazing as God’s salvation story is so far, it is only the prequel. Because God’s special people were the fertile ground from which God brought forth the One—the single, solitary person who do all that ancient Israel did and so much more. The miracles of the ancient past—the Lamb, the water and the bread—all point forward to the Special One that God promised, the Messiah. And this Messiah would also do miracles—miracles involving bread, water and a lamb—and the miracles that the Messiah would do would link to those in the ancient past and show that He is the ultimate light of the world who saves from death, gives freedom from bondage, and feeds and nourishes our hungry and thirsty souls.

The passage that we are looking at today is the water miracle of John 6. Just prior to this, Jesus proved that He was the Messiah by doing a feeding miracle when He fed 15,000 people with five small loaves of bread and two fish. Then Jesus sent His twelve closest followers home by boat across the Sea of Galilee while He went up into the hills to pray. He was probably exhausted by all that happened that day, and He was likely also dealing with personal grief over the recent news that His cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by King Herod. Once again, evil had risen up in this broken world and had its own way. In times of grief, there is no better place to be than alone with our heavenly Father.

The Sea of Galilee is actually a lake and it is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. Set in the Rift Valley and surrounded by high hills, powerful windstorms can quickly develop over the lake and the disciples were caught in one of these windstorms after they left the shore. The lake is 23 km from north to south and 11 km from east to west, so when the disciples managed to travel 5 or 6 kms after several hours of hard rowing against the wind, they were in the middle of the lake where the wind would have been the strongest, the waves the highest and the water was the deepest.

Then they saw Jesus walking on the water coming toward them. As fearful as they were before because of the storm, they were more terrified now because seeing a ghost back then was thought to be a sign of impending doom, and that is what they thought they saw when they were looking at Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the storm.

But then Jesus calmed their fear-filled hearts with these words, “It’s me. It’s all right. Don’t be afraid.” Those words that have been translated as “It’s me” or “It is I” in some translations are the same words that God spoke to Moses from the burning bush when He told Moses His name. “I Am” was the way that God identified Himself, and it is fitting that “I am” should be God’s name because God is the source and sustainer of all existence.

So when Jesus said to His followers “It is I. Don’t be afraid” He was not only saying “It’s me.” He was also saying, “I’m God. You don’t have to be afraid when the storms of life threaten to overwhelm you. I am the Great I AM. I have the power to give life, I have the power to set free, I have the power to protect and provide, and you are forever safe with Me. You don’t have to worry when storms come upon you because I am always with you.”

Then and only then, were the disciples willing to invite Jesus into their boat. Sometimes we are just like those disciples. We have to be terrified before we invite Jesus into our lives or into the situation that we are facing.

Now I could end the sermon here and say, “Have a nice day!” But there is more to God’s salvation story. For each and every one of you is part of another group of ordinary people that God has gathered. And that group of people is called the Church.

God has saved you from death and set you free from bondage through the blood of another Lamb, the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the whole world. That Lamb of God is Jesus, who died on the cross to set us free from our bondage to sin. Jesus rose from the dead and He uses the water miracle of Holy Baptism to give you a new life with Him that will last forever. Jesus nourishes you in that new life through the feeding miracle of Holy Communion, a sacred meal in which Jesus gives us His Body and His blood along with the bread and the wine.

Imagine what it would be like if every person in the world knew Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and then, when tragedies like this happen everyone would have the sure and certain hope of resurrection life through Jesus! God has a plan for making that happen and that plan is you. Our heavenly Father is forming you into a special people called the Church so you can be a light for the whole world that points to Jesus and says, “Yes, there is pain and suffering and toil and death now. But there is a Lamb that protects from death, there is water that gives life and there is bread that satisfies when nothing else will.” Jesus has saved you for more than yourself. Jesus has saved you for the world. And you rest in Jesus and let Him live His life through you, you will become a mirror that reflects Jesus’ love into a broken and hurting world.

You and I are just like every other human being in the world, we live, we grieve, we suffer, and we die. But because of Jesus, we are also a special people, unlike others in the world. For we have hope in times like these and that makes all the difference. For we believe what is written in 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.” Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on April 15, 2018. It is based on John 6:16-24.)

Our Place in God’s Story: Restoration

A week ago Wednesday, on March 14, I was getting ready to leave early the next morning to drive to Alberta, along with Susan and some of our children, for my nephew’s wedding. And one of the things that I really needed to do before I left was to deposit a cheque in the bank. So I tried to go onto the bank app that I usually use for such things and my password wouldn’t work, even after several tries. Then I tried to log on through my laptop, but that didn’t work and I got a message saying that I should phone a certain phone number. I checked online and saw that my local branch was still open, so I drove over there and arrived a few minutes before they were going to close. To my surprise, the teller could not even get into my account and he advised me to phone the Fraud Department of my bank. I tried doing that but they had closed for the day about 2 hours earlier.

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Photo by Irina Kostenich on Unsplash

Then one of the customer service reps came out of her office and offered to help. She phoned the Fraud Department, but they did not answer her call either. She went online and was able to take a look around and see what was going on in my account and things looked normal. I was feeling somewhat anxious and confused. I was in a bit of a dilemma, but I did not know why.

Finally, after double-checking my ID and several other things, the Customer Service Rep said, “I am going to unlock your account. I have taken your deposits several times.” She knew me and she was both able and motivated to make things right for me, and so she did.

This is something that all of us need. All of need someone who knows us, and who is both able and motivated to make things right for us. Though most of us can perpetuate a façade of keeping things together, for all of us there is an undercurrent of brokenness beneath that façade. Deep down, at the centre of our being, though we try to hide it, all of us are broken people. And, in spite of our best efforts, that brokenness surfaces from time to time in unexpected ways.

Last Thursday morning, I was going for a run early in the morning when I encountered a young man wandering aimlessly in the middle of the street. I asked him if he was okay and he said, “Not really.” Then he told me that he thought that his girlfriend committed suicide the night before. She sent him a picture on her cut wrists on Instagram and ever since he was not able to get a hold of her. How does have any hope in the midst of a situation like that? Well, if you believe, like Stephen Hawking did, that the brain is a computer that will stop working when its components fail, and that there is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers, that such things are nothing more than a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark, then there is no hope.

But God has given us a different story, a better story, which gives us hope regardless of the situations we find ourselves in. In God’s Great Story, He created everything good, so that all things functioned according to God’s design and in harmony with God and each other. Then all of Creation was corrupted when our first parents disobeyed God and we have been struggling with sin, death and brokenness ever since. But even in the darkest moment of human history, God gave a promise that He would send a Saviour that would redeem the world and restore all of creation to its original goodness in the end.

And today marks the beginning of Holy Week, that time when we remember Jesus’ triumphant journey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, reflect on His journey to the cross for us on Good Friday, and then celebrate with exuberance Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

And the reason that we celebrate on Easter Sunday is not only because Jesus has won forgiveness for all our sins, which He has, and not only because Jesus has defeated death for us, which He has. The really big reason that we celebrate on Easter is because Jesus’ resurrection proves that God’s plan of restoring all of creation has already begun. By rising from the dead, Jesus has ushered in a new creation, a new dimension of reality, a new realm of being, which is permeating throughout the old creation like yeast permeates throughout a large bowl of dough, as one by one, people trust in this amazing Good News that Jesus is making us all and all things new.

When we trust that Jesus is our Saviour, He brings us into this new realm of being and makes us new creations on the inside, even though our outside is passing away. And we know that one day Jesus is going to back to this world to make us and all things right. That just as Jesus rose from the dead with His old physical body restored and renewed as a resurrection body that will last forever, so also Jesus will raise us from the dead one day and our old physical body will be restored and renewed as a resurrection body that will be good and whole and it will function as it should.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)

The value of a great story does not depend on its ability to give hope. It depends on whether it is true or not. Of all the major faiths in the world, only Christianity rests entirely on whether a single event happened in history or not. That single event is the resurrection of Jesus. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth:  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (1 Cor. 15:17-18)

But we believe that God’s Grand Story is true and we believe it because we believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Earlier in his letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul wrote:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)

What Paul is saying to his readers is check this out for yourself. Ask some of the people who actually saw Jesus after He rose from the dead because many of them were still alive at the time Paul wrote this.

And I say the same thing to you: check things out for yourself. Of course, those original witnesses are no longer alive, but there are people in our own time who have done a rigorous investigation into the truth of whether Jesus’ resurrection happened or not. I am referring to people like Gary Habermas, who wrote the book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus,” and Lee Strobel, who wrote “The Case for Christ.” Check things out for yourself and see what the evidence says. Then decide for yourself if you think that God’s Grand Story is true or not. And if you become part of God’s New Creation yeast that is infecting the dough of this dying world, then you will have hope, even in the midst of the most hopeless situations, because Jesus has promised us that He is making all things new. As Paul wrote in a later letter to the Corinthian Church: Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16)

March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, was a day that was filled with reminders of God’s Restorative work. First, in the morning, through the waters of Holy Baptism, Jesus began His new creation work in my grand-niece, Stella. Then in the afternoon, my nephew, Travis, married his fiancé, Molly, in an old, country church that had not been used for many, many years. There was no heat and no power. But there was lots of people and lots of love. And something very special happened in that run down old building as a bride was united with her husband. It became a holy moment in a holy place, something that those of us who were present will likely never forget.

Today, Jesus has a holy moment in a holy place for you. He is the Lamb who was slain for the redemption and restoration of the whole world. He is inviting you to trust that He will carry you through whatever challenge you face and not only save you, but also restore you. Anywhere you are can be the holy place where this happens. Anytime can be the holy moment when your story is joined to God’s Great Story. God’s Story is a story of hope, not only for us but also for the whole world. As we rest in Jesus and let Him live His life through us, He will help us to bring that hope to the world around us. Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on March 25, 2018. It is based on Revelation 21:1-8 & 22:1-7. For pictures of Molly and Travis’s wedding by Marsha Peacock Photography, click here.) 

Success in Faith = Persevering in Trust

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Life is hard. You likely already know that because of personal experiences of heartache, suffering or sorrow in the past or present.

Following Jesus is even harder. For added to all the regular trials and tribulations of human life is the awareness that eternity is in play in the ordinary moments of our everyday lives. What we do in the here and now will make a difference in the eternal moment when time is no longer counted. And what adds to the difficulty is the knowledge that arrayed against us is a vast army of evil that seeks to doom us.

But there is no pressure on us, for we never walk alone.jogger-jogging-sport-marathon

We are being cheered on by all those who have gone before us in faith: Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah are all rooting for us in the heavenly realms. Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab are hollering themselves hoarse to encourage us to press on in faith. Added to their number are all the people who planted seeds of faith in our hearts, watered those seeds with faith-filled support and encouragement, and Jesus worked through them to cause our faith to germinate and growl.

The ones who cheer us on are people to whom we can relate. The faith heroes listed in Hebrews chapter 11 are all broken people, as are our personal spiritual mentors, and we are broken too. And that brokenness perfectly qualifies us to succeed in faith. For success in faith is not doing great things. Success in faith is persevering in trust.

All of us have a path marked out for us in life. There will be difficulty and obstacles in our way. There will be times when we stumble and fall. But the trajectory of our path has been forever changed by Jesus. He picks us up, brushes us off and sets us on our feet once again. He guides us in the way we should go and provides what we need for the journey. Somehow, He is not only our biggest cheerleader throughout the race, He is also waiting to welcome us at the end.

Exhausted, we collapse at the finish line into His loving arms. But then we look around and see that everything has changed. All things—the world around us, the faith inside us and our very selves (body and soul)—have all become perfect.

It’s all because of Jesus. He started God’s Great Plan of Redemption. He will finish it. And you and I are included in that Plan. So we keep trusting in Jesus.

Dear Jesus, please help us to be encouraged by the faith stories of those who are cheering us on. Give us strength and courage to complete our race. Help us to cheer for others as they run their own races. Amen.

Our Place in God’s Story: Creation

Family stories are powerful because they can give us an understanding of where we come from and a sense of where we belong. But there are even bigger stories than family stories. These Big Stories not only help us to see where we fit in—where we come from and where we belong—they can also help us to discover our purpose in life and know where we are going.

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Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

And while there are different stories available for us to choose from, whichever one we choose as our own Big Story will make a huge difference in our lives. For example, the Big Story in the Culture is that we are bits of matter that have come together by random chance over time. When considering which Big Story to adopt as our own, the Big Question with any Big Story is “Is It Really True?” I would say that this Big Story—that we are bits of matter that have come together by random chance—is not true because it fails to explain things that we see in the world like morality, beauty, joy, intelligence and pleasure. I would also say that it is not true because it is not plausible. For an explanation of what I mean, I invite you to check out the video “How dice can show that God exists” .

However, even though this Big Story that we are matter + chance + time fails in terms of explaining things and in being plausible, it still has an impact because so many people believe that it is true. And here is why that is a problem. While the Big Story that we are matter + chance + time may explain where we came from and it may tell us that we belong to the animal kingdom, in this Big Story we have no purpose in life except to pass on our genetics and die. And there is no future for us after this life because, according to this Big Story, we cease to exist when we die. This means that life is essentially meaningless.

There is a connection between this belief that life is meaningless, which is called nihilism, and some of the tragic things that are happening in our culture. If life is meaningless, and we drift into nothingness when we die, then why shouldn’t someone gather some guns and ammunition and go out with a bang. If life is meaningless, then it is okay to use the people around us as objects so we can get as much as we can out of this life while we can. If life is meaningless, then we might as well drink and eat to excess and party our faces off because tomorrow we could die. If life is meaningless, then I can use my body in any way I want to get whatever I want whenever I want it. If life is meaningless, then when things start to get tough, I might was well check out, because things aren’t fun anymore. All of these patterns are rising in our culture because of a lack of deep meaning and purpose in people’s lives, and that lack of deep meaning and purpose is destroying people’s souls and our culture.

But God has a better Big Story. To find it we need to switch from natural to revealed knowledge. And in the revealed knowledge that God has given us in the Bible, we find a narrative that is consistent with what we see in the world. It not only explains how the material world came to be. It also explains things like morality, beauty, joy, intelligence and pleasure. God’s Big Story is more plausible, if one accepts the possibility that God exists. It answers the questions of where do we come from, where do we belong, what is our purpose and where are we going?

We can say that God’s Big Story has Four Chapters: Creation, The Fall, Redemption and Restoration. Over the next four weeks we will look at each of these four chapters. For today, let’s reflect on the First Chapter in God’s Big Story: Creation.

As we look in the Bible, we see that God created all that exists out of nothing. We see that in Genesis 1:1 (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth) and in Hebrews 11:3 (By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.) The fact that God created everything out of nothing tells us some important things about God. First, God is Other. He is a totally kind of being than anything that exists in this world. In John 4:24, we read “God is spirit…”. God stands outside of space and time and yet God has created within space and time. We also see that God is a personal being. We know that because, at some point, God made a personal decision to create the cosmos. We also realize that God is powerful. He must be in order to create all that we see around us.

The Big Story that we see in the Bible also tells us that God created with a plan. We can tell that His plan was complex because of the incredible amount of complexity and design that we see in the world. Small things like a human eye or a woodpecker show evidence of a high degree of design and each of these small things fit into a much larger and more complex system like the human body or a forest ecosystem.

God’s plan was also personal in that it was designed to include you. We read that in Jeremiah (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (1:5) and “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (29:11) and Ephesians “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes” (1:4). Even before God created the world, He was thinking of you and how you would fit into His plan.

God also included Redemption in His plan because, if we are honest with ourselves, we can see that there is something terribly wrong out in the world and within us. So God made plans to buy us back from sin and everything else that can hurt us. We read in 1 Peter 1:18-21 “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.”

Having made a plan, God began the process of creating and He did it by speaking things into existence. For example, we read in Genesis 1:3, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” God’s Words have the power to create and recreate, and that gives us hope because that means that God has the power to recreate you and me, and we need to be recreated. We need to be made new.

So who are you? In God’s eyes, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. He tells us that Himself:  “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139: 13-14). When God looks at you, He know that you were made in His image: “So God created mankind in his own i. mage, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Because you were made in the image of God, you have His imprint upon you, you were made for relationship with God. God also knows that you washed clean of all your sin and brought into His family through the waters of Holy Baptism. God loves you infinitely and accepts you unconditionally just as you are.

The question is do you believe that? Do you believe that God really does love you just as you are? Do you know and trust that in your heart, as well as in your head? All of us have some hard places in our hearts where God’s love has not yet fully penetrated. And until we truly believe in our hearts that God loves and accepts us just as we are because of Jesus and what He has done for us, we are unable to love and accept ourselves just as we are, and we are unable to love and accept others just as they are. Therefore, my challenge for you today is to believe that Jesus loves and accepts you just as you are.

People in the world are longing for a place where they are loved and accepted, a place where they belong. We belong to the clan of Jesus and this clan is open to everyone. We have the opportunity to tell people about that head of our clan, Jesus, and about the love, acceptance and forgiveness that He freely gives to all who look to Him in faith. What we are really talking about is Grace and, in Jesus, there is more than enough grace for us, there is more than enough grace for the people around us who are struggling under a burden of brokenness or a burden of meeting a performance standard to gain acceptance.

Dear friends, let us rest in the love and grace of Jesus. Let us be people of grace who share God’s grace with others so that the people that God has placed around us will  also know where they belong. With Jesus. Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on March 4, 2018. It is based on Genesis 1 & 2.)

The Holy Among Us

I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:17b-18)

The turnaround in Saul’s life was shocking. He was a strictly observant and well-educated Pharisaic Jew who saw the fledgling Christian Church as a threat to true religion. Saul did all he could to stamp out the flame of Christian faith by having followers of Jesus hauled off to jail. He even blessed the murder of Stephen with his approving presence (Acts 7:58). But then everything changed when, on the road to Damascus to round up more followers of Jesus, Saul had an encounter with the risen Jesus.

Child with Bible by Samantha Sophia-34200-unsplash
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Something happens when human beings encounter what is divine. Throughout the Bible, when people encounter an angel of the Lord, or the Lord Himself, they are often overcome with awe and become profoundly aware of the depth of their sin. But then they are given new information, new status and new direction.

The new information that Saul received was that he was persecuting Jesus personally when he persecuted Jesus’ Church. The new status that Jesus gave to Saul was that of a servant and witness of Jesus. Saul’s slate of past sins were wiped clean and he was given an important role on the team of the One whom he had been fighting against. Jesus then sent Saul in a new direction. Instead of heading towards the Christian Church to destroy it, Jesus sent Saul out from the Church into the world to help save it.

It is hard to imagine a more radical transformation. With the great change came a new name as Saul became Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles and the writer of most of the New Testament.

Prior to His resurrection, Jesus’ divinity was present, but hidden. It was always there, but only those with the eyes of faith could see it. One day, everyone will see Jesus in all His glory and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (see Philippians 2:6-11). But in the meantime, Jesus has infused the holy and divine into this mean and coarse world to give us hope.

We meet holy Jesus in the pages of the Holy Bible where He gives us the new information that all our many sins are completely and totally forgiven by Him. We meet divine Jesus in the waters of Holy Baptism where He gives us the new status of being beloved, unconditionally accepted, children of God. We meet sacred Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion where Jesus nourishes us with His Body and Blood and sends us in a new direction as His representatives to share His healing love with a broken, hurting and dying world.

Jesus has placed His holy and divine gifts all around you. The holy is among us.

Dear Jesus, thank you for the Holy Bible, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Please help me to see you in these precious gifts so I may be transformed by Your holiness. Amen.  

God’s Greatest Gift of Love

Have you ever noticed how hard life is sometimes? Throughout this season leading up to Christmas, this season called Advent, we have been focusing on the themes of Hope, Peace and Joy. And those are all things for which we long whether we identify as a person of faith or not. We want, and perhaps we could even say, we need Hope, Peace and Joy in our lives. Occasionally, we experience fleeting glimpses of Hope, Peace and Joy, that serve as oxygen for our soul, and we treasure those memories.

Jesus, Mary & Joseph by Ben White
Photo by Ben White

But the reality is that, for most of us, much of the time, life is a grind. And the harder we try to accomplish our goals—those things which we believe will bring us more Hope, Peace and Joy—the more difficult life becomes. Our bed never feels more soft and warm than on the morning when we planned to get up and begin exercising regularly. Our children always seem to drag their feet most severely when we are trying to draw them into something that is good for them. You will never get more challenges to what and how you eat than you will when you decide to change your eating patterns for the sake of your health.

And these are just the ordinary, every-day kinds of challenges we face in life. These are small potatoes in comparison to the really big things that life can throw at us, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a debilitating illness, or rejection from someone you love. Major challenges like these dispel Peace, Hope and Joy and, unless these dragons are slain, they will continually lurk in the background, always radiating low levels of dis-ease, despair and discouragement… because we know that they are there.

So imagine how it must have been for Mary and Joseph more than 2,000 years ago. The land in which they live was occupied by a brutal foreign power. They were poor and marginalized and therefore it took all their efforts to try to scrape together a living for themselves. They were both trying to be faithful to God and so when they were called to be parents to the Messiah, the special one sent by God, they both said, “Yes.”

And then the emperor of the occupying forces, Caesar Augustus, decreed that everyone should go back to their home town and be counted so that the Romans could tax people more thoroughly. For Mary and Joseph, this meant that they had to travel from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem, their ancestral home village. Now such a trip was not like hopping in your car and driving over to the Canada Revenue Agency office on King George Boulevard in Surrey during your lunch hour. They would have traveled about 150 kms, the distance between Langley and Everett WA, on foot, or perhaps with the use of a donkey, while Mary was in the later stages of her pregnancy.

Now I have never been pregnant myself, but my wife, Susan, has a few times, and from what I have observed it can be difficult, while pregnant, to walk even the short distance from the living room to the bathroom. You have a giant watermelon in your belly and your back aches and nothing in your body works like it did before. And it was when Mary was at such a stage that Caesar decided that she should ride a sway-backed donkey for more than a week in the middle of winter through territory that has lions and robbers and bears, (oh my!) so he can take more of what little money her husband brings home to buy food for their table and put a roof over their heads. Mary and Joseph were working as hard as they could to merely scrap by and this is what life throws at them.[1] Now if you or I were in Mary and Joseph’s shoes, we might think to ourselves, “Really? This is what I get for working hard, trying to do the right thing and trying to follow God when He asks me to do something. Shouldn’t things be easier than this? Shouldn’t I be enjoying life more than I am? Shouldn’t I have some Peace, Hope and Joy in my life instead of … this?”

And our attitude of ingratitude is revealing that we are missing the most important ingredient to life, the secret sauce that flips life upside down and turns even the most soul-crushing challenges in life into opportunities to give to others what we know has been given to us. That secret ingredient is Love. Love is what helps us to see the world as a place of possibility and Hope. Love is what inspires us to move towards reconciliation and Peace. Love is what helps us to trust the Deeper Magic which prompts Joy over the promise of the restoration of all things. Love is the foundation for Joy, Peace and Hope. Without Love, those things can not exist in their true form and will never be found no matter how hard we search.

It was Love that moved Mary and Joseph to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It was Love that kept them from turning back when the nights got too cold, or the dangers got too scary or the lack of accommodation got too discouraging. It was Love that prompted them to obey the inconsiderate decree of an uncaring dictator. Mary and Joseph kept going forward into the future because of Love.

They did this because Love told them two things that they knew were true. The first thing that Love told them was that they were loved. That no matter how difficult or dangerous or discouraging their challenges may be, they were loved with a pure, infinite, unconditional love that they did not deserve or earn in any way. The second thing that love told them is that they were loved by One who is greater than all the challenges of life. Mary and Joseph knew that they were loved by the God who created them and all that exists, the God who was active in the world working through events and people, the God who was working in ordinary ways through ordinary people to do the extraordinary work of providing for the daily needs of countless people. But they also knew that they were loved by the God who was also working in special ways through particular people to bring His Love, Hope, Peace and Joy into the world.

God started by picking out one particular people, the Jews, who He worked through to show the surrounding ancient world that there was one God above all others who was good and just and true. And God also gave a promise, that through this one particular people, He was going to bring forth one particular person, the Messiah, who would conquer all evil to free us from death and release us from the guilt and shame of our frequent faults and failings. Mary and Joseph were part of this particular people so they knew the Promise of God and the Love of God.

So they continued forward to Bethlehem, in spite of all the many challenges, and there, in a cave surrounded by donkeys and sheep, the greatest gift of Love the world has ever seen was born. Mary’s baby was Jesus, the promised Messiah, the One sent by God to save us from the things we really fear—condemnation, eternal shame, death and everlasting hopelessness—and give us the Love, Hope, Peace and Joy we need for our souls and for life. This baby would grow up to be a man and this man willingly took our place on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem and chose to suffer the worst that this world could throw at him along with all the consequences of all our shortcomings and sin, so none of those things will ever come between us and God and His great love for us.

Now Mary had some advantages that we don’t have. She did have the angel Gabriel come and visit her nine months before and tell her about the special child that she was going to mother. But you have a lot of advantages that Mary didn’t have. You know how the story ends. You know that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he was killed. You know that Jesus transitioned from the space-time continuum of this world into the dimension of heaven with a promise to come back and make us and all things right once again. You know that Jesus left us with instructions to love one another with the love that God has given to us. You know all these things because you have the New Testament of the Bible, something that Mary didn’t have.

So the question that I have for you this Christmas Eve is, who are you going to be?

Are you going to be a person who believes that they are loved? Are you going to be someone who believes that, because of God’s Love for you, there is Hope behind every challenge, Peace in every storm and Joy on the other side of every grief? Because here is the thing: that Love is always there for you, but you can only receive it when you trust that God really does love you no matter what. And Jesus is the proof of that love.

Who are you going to be? Are you going to be a person who believes that they are loved? And are you going to be a person who loves? The world needs love, but the kind of love that the world needs is the unconditional, infinite love that only comes from God. God has given you a network of family, friends, neighbours, co-workers and fellow students that is unique to you. You might be the only person in some of your circles who believes in God’s greatest gift of love. Rest in Jesus’ love and let Him work through you to share God’s love with others. You can be God’s one particular person that He uses to bring His love to someone else this Christmas. And it all starts by trusting in God’s greatest gift of love: Jesus. Amen.

(This message is based on Luke 2:1-20 and 1 John 4:7-16. It was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on Christmas Eve 2017.)

[1] For more information about Mary and Joseph’s journey, see: “A Long, Cold Road to Bethlehem,: Los Angeles Times,  December 23, 1995 (Internet; available at:; accessed on December 20, 2017).