What is So Triumphal About the Triumphal Entry?

A sermon based on Mark 11:1-11.

Introduction

I have been stuck in traffic many times in my life. Once I was even an hour and a half late for church when I was commuting to Toronto. But there is one traffic jam that sticks in my mind, and not just for the exotic locale. Amanda and I had taken a Mediterranean cruise and the trip finished with a tour of Rome. Of course there is much to see in Rome and we were looking forward to all the sights. But then the tour bus got bogged down in traffic. At first I thought it was just because Rome is a very busy city. We soon found out what was going on.

Everything was stopped because the Russian president was visiting and there is no rushing (no pun intended) his entourage of security and other personnel. Being that close to the Russian president (which really was not that close at all), made me think about how powerful this person was. This was not just another guy holding up traffic. This was one of the most powerful men in the world, one who could actually end all life on earth if he chose. A rather sobering thought.

This is as close as I can get to imagining what was happening with the triumphal entry and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Yes it is a fun scene in passion plays with children in bath robes waving palm branches. But to get back into the actual event and understand what was really taking place, not just on a local scale but on a cosmic scale.

This was very important for Jesus’ ministry, in fact it is one of the most important events. Of course everything in Jesus’ life and ministry was important, every sermon and miracle. We dare not neglect anything about Jesus. But there is a sense, even as Jesus travels through Galilee, that he must come to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny. Jesus was called by some the Son of David, that is the promised descendant of King David who would save his people. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of David. But with the journey to Jerusalem, the Son of David enters into the City of David. If we imagine the Gospel as a movie, the pace is about to be turned up and it is time for us sit on the edge of our seat. Something big is about to happen. But what is it and what will it look like?

What People Saw

Let us try and transport ourselves back to that day almost two thousand years ago. Not as Christians who know the details and come from an Easter perspective but as observers on the road to Jerusalem.

It was not unusual that Jesus was going to Jerusalem, even though he was from Galilee and not Judea. It was time for the Passover and there were Jews from much farther away than Galilee who were making the pilgrimage for the feast.

How did Jesus make this journey? If we were thinking of Jesus as the Davidic messiah, the Saviour of the Jews, you might think that he might enter on a might warhorse or a chariot. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus enters on a colt, which is a young donkey. But it was not just any donkey, it was a borrowed donkey. Jesus could not even afford his own ride into Jerusalem. Notice that in this passage, Mark spends more verses discussing the arrangements for the donkey than anything else in the story. That seems strange. It would be like someone asking me about my recent induction service here at the church and me spending most of the time talking about the Mazda 5 that we drove to get to the church. Very strange but we will need to hold on to that thought.

So Jesus enters into Jerusalem. People seem to know that he is a descendant of David. A blind man had identified Jesus as such. But in what way was the Son of David entering into the City of David? It was not with an army. Even the disciples who were committed to Jesus were not armed with weapons. Instead of putting on armour, they took of their cloaks and put them on the colt or the ground. People took up palm branches and waved them. There was nothing very intimidating about this crowd.

What about the chanting of Psalms that accompanied Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? This was of course very important but it was also not that unusual. One of the Psalms that is quoted is Psalm 118. It was customary for the Jews to sing Psalms 113-118, what are known as the Hallel Psalms at Passover. People would have sang these Psalms even if Jesus was not there. Even the call of Hosanna or save us was something Jewish people would call out aside from any faith in Jesus. Again these things are important but their meaning is not so obvious to the casual observer.

I mentioned that it was strange that Mark spends so much time on the colt. There is something else that is strange about this story. There is all this build up for what we call the triumphal entry and then what happens? Jesus enters into Jerusalem, takes a look around and then leaves the city to go back to Bethany for the night. Very anti-climatic.

This shows us that we are dealing with history here and not fiction. If I was writing this story, I would have had Jesus enter the gates of Jerusalem and head directly to the Temple, knock over the table and do some damage. It would have been a lot more exciting my way. But Mark tells it as it was and the triumphal entry ends with some looking about and a retreat to Bethany. Very strange.

To demonstrate what a non-event this was on the outside, the Romans were ready and watching for anything out of the ordinary. They knew this was a dangerous time filled with religious fervour. Even a half competent religious zealot could cause problems if left alone. The Romans were there when Jesus entered Jerusalem and they saw nothing that concerned them. Nothing at all.

What Really Happened

Now lets go back with the eyes of faith and the knowledge of revelation to see what really happened. Let’s start back with that donkey that Jesus rode into. We already said that Mark spends much of his time on describing Jesus’ ride. He must have had a reason. We find that reason in an Old Testament prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,

humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) This is the way that messianic King was to enter Jerusalem. Jesus was poor and did not look particularly kingly but he was indeed the King. The King was coming not with outward power and intimidation, but with righteousness and humility. The King was coming not to bring destruction and conquest but salvation.

What I want you to notice is that Mark knew that this was fulfillment of prophecy, but he didn’t quote it. Mark wants us to think of Zechariah 9:9 but he won’t push it in our face. The reason being is that there are certain truths that are for the eyes that will see and the ears that would hear. For some people, Jesus was going to be just another pilgrim on a donkey, for others he was going to be the fulfillment of prophecy.

Before leaving the donkey, it is significant that it was a colt. A colt was a young donkey that had not yet been broken in. No one would attempt to ride such an untested animal at such a busy event. No one but Jesus. The colt, never having been ridden before was sacred for this specific task. And Jesus is the only who can keep control in the most hectic situations, something we will see on the cross.

Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna is Hebrew for “Save, I pray” or “Help please.” It is the Hebrew for the what we read in Psalm 118:25, “Lord, save us!” It is not very often that Hebrew words are given to us in the New Testament and so Mark is doing this for a reason. Mark wants us to be thinking about salvation.

Hosanna is not just an acknowledgment that salvation is important. It is a plea for salvation. Save now please! The question is about what we need saving from. I have known Christians who walk up to strangers and ask them if they are saved. Saved? Saved from what? There needs to be content to the salvation.

The Jews who were shouting Hosanna knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted salvation from the Romans. They want salvation from foreign occupation and taxes. They wanted salvation from all those who oppressed them and took advantage. of them. How do I know this? Because within a hundred years of this triumphant entry, the Jews would rise in revolt against the Romans, sacrificing thousands and thousands of Jewish lives, risking and losing the little freedom that they had. By the time they were done, no Jewish person was allowed within the city of Jerusalem.

But Jesus was still the King of Zechariah’s prophecy and he was still bringing salvation. The people were correct to call Hosanna, whether or not they understood God’s plan for salvation.

Jesus came in to Jerusalem exactly the way he was supposed to. He came in righteousness and humility. He came in weakness and not strength. He came not to overthrow the political and religious authorities but to suffer under them. Jesus came not for a golden crown or a Roman laurel wreathe, he came for thorns. Jesus would not be lifted up on a thrown for people to praise (at least not yet) but would be lifted on a cross to be pitied at best and mocked at worst.

Jesus would do all these things because he understood what the real need for salvation was. The real problem was not the Romans but rather the sin that separated us from God and also separated us from each other. Jesus knew that repairing a broken political system does no good if the should of the person is broken.

This would be a triumphal entry because Jesus was choosing to suffer the worst so that he could offer us the best.

Conclusion

I want to conclude with something practical. I believe that just about everyone here has come with a Hosanna prayer. Some are ready to shout Hosanna and others can only get it out under our breath. Remember that Hosanna is a plea for rescue. Hosanna is like those whistles that are on life preservers when a ship or plane goes down in the ocean. You whistle to let the rescuers know that you are there and that you need help. You blow the whistle hard and long because you need help now.

Hosanna. You may be here and you know that you are not yet right with God. You have been to church and know some Bible stories but you have not put your faith in Jesus Christ yet. Salvation is available. Jesus comes to you not in judgment but humbly on a donkey, offering life to you.

If you have been a Christian for years or decades, Jesus is not finished with you. You likely still have a Hosanna prayer. Maybe it is broken or breaking relationships. Maybe it is fear over health concerns. Maybe is the burden of past hurts. It could be anything. No need in your life is too big or too small.

I wish that I could offer a simple prayer and make the healing come instantly. If I could, I would do that in my own life. But what I find is that the triumphant entry is repeated in our own experiences. Sometimes Jesus rushes through the gates, takes a look around and then retires for the evening. But what we need to remember is that Jesus did return to Jerusalem, that he did come in and do what he needed to do, the surprising actions that brought the victory. It is not how we would write the story but we are not the author. Jesus has already won the victory on the cross. Let us open our hearts that he may bring victory in our lives in his own timing and his own way. 

What About Creation and Evolution?

Genesis 2:4-7

Introduction

This is a topic that I approach with fear and trembling. The reason for this is that those who have opinions on this, hold those opinions very strongly. One group will believe that all those who take science seriously must hold one position and the other group will believe all those who hold the Bible seriously must hold another position. Opponents are labelled as either anti-science or anti-Bible and are dismissed.

It would be easier to just not talk about it. But from my experience, the question of human origins is very important. There are many people who struggle with their faith over this issue. What happens when a person feels like they are pushed into a corner where they have to either choose science or faith? I can’t in good conscience ignore this discussion.

My goal is not to provide a science lecture but make room for us to talk about what many people are thinking.

My Story

It may help for me to share some of my story. I was raised in a mainline denomination. We didn’t discuss issues of creation and evolution. I would say that evolution was understood as fact and that there was no reflection on how God might have been involved or present in that process.

In my early twenties, after a number of years as an atheist, I came to a personal faith in Jesus. I joined a very conservative church. I was informed that the only option for a Christian was to believe in a 6000 year-old universe and earth and a literal six day creation as described in Genesis 1. I will make a confession to you. I could believe in God, I could believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but I struggled with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2. I really hated reading those passages would much prefer to read about Jesus.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself in seminary training for the ministry. I was shocked to discover that some of my professors believed in evolution. This confused me as I thought that only atheists believed in evolution. I told someone at my church about this and he informed that my seminary professors were obviously not Christians. No matter what they believed about Jesus, if they believed in evolution they could not be Christians.

Since that time, I have spoken to very many Christians, who are completely devoted to Jesus, who have an orthodox theology and are serving the Lord, and yet have a wide range of beliefs about human origins. What I’m going to do is share the most popular Christian understandings of how we as human beings found ourselves in this world.

The Options

Young Earth Creationism

There are those who believe in a young earth and that would also include a young universe. The date of creation is calculated by looking at the genealogies in the Bible and calculating backward. In the 17th century, Bishop James Ussher determined that creation took place on Sunday, October 23 in the year 4004 BC. Not all young earth creationists would be so precise, but they would date the earth to being between six and ten thousand years old. This creation took place in six 24 hour days just as described in Genesis, with the earth being created before the sun. Young earth creationists would argue that dinosaurs and humans lived together and that the dinosaurs did not go extinct until Noah’s flood. It is that flood that has created the geological features that we see today. These people love Jesus.

Old Earth Creationism

There are others who accept scientific dating of the universe and the earth. They would accept that the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with something like the Big Bang. It was God who created the Big Bang. They would also believe that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Not only do they believe that God created the first life, God also was involved in other acts of creation. God created the ancestor of all dogs and the ancestor of all cats and so on. God created the ancestor of all humans and their names were Adam and Eve. While they interpret Genesis 1 symbolically, they would hold to a literal fall into sin with Adam and Eve. These people love Jesus.

Old Earth Creationism – Common Ancestor

The next option has much in common with the previous. They would agree with the old age of the universe and earth. But they would also agree with evolutionary theories that we share a common ancestor. This is not just that humans and apes share a common ancestor, but that we also share with all other animal and plant life. This is called creationism because they believe that God was active all the steps of the way. God tinkered with the DNA to help in the development of the eye and the change from gills to lungs. God always had a plan to get from one celled creatures to the humans we are today. These people love Jesus.

Theistic Evolution

Finally, we have people who believe in something called theistic evolution. The reason that this is evolution and the previous option was not, is that evolution is more than a common ancestor and the changing from one species to another. True evolution requires random mutation as the explanation for the change from one species to another. According to this theory, God did not need to tinker with the DNA for the changes to take place. The evolution of the eye and the lungs and everything else takes place naturally through random mutation. Still, these people are different from other evolutionists. They believe that there really is a God. They may or may not believe God created the first life. They do believe that God reveals himself to us throughout history but especially in Christ. These people love Jesus.

Take Away

What do we do with all this? First, I will say that there is not a multiple choice science quiz to get into heaven. If you adopt the wrong theory, it will not break your relationship with God. There are sincere followers of Jesus in all of these categories. That does not mean that they are all equally correct. The earth is either young or old, it can’t be both. We either have a common ancestor or we don’t, it can’t be both. What I’m saying is that there is room for us to be wrong on this issue and to still be a valued part of the Body of Christ.

What is it that we have to get right on this? I would say that we have to believe that God exists. I would also say that the Bible does stress the role of God as Creator. Even theistic evolutionists have begun to call their theory evolutionary creationism. I would say that we have to believe that God has a plan for his creation and that we are a part of that plan. I would say that God’s plan is ultimately revealed in Jesus. The Bible speaks of a new creation, one that will take place when Jesus returns, we receive our resurrection bodies and the earth is remade. This is where we need to fight our battles.

I also want to say that this is not a battle between the Bible and science. As Christians, we believe in two types of revelation. There is general revelation in nature and special revelation in the Bible. Both come from God and so they should not be in conflict. Our interpretations may be in conflict, but the revelation is in agreement. All truth is God’s truth and we should never fear the truth.

I do want to say that these different theories give us the opportunity to disagree in healthy and loving ways. Unfortunately, I have seen Christians speak very hatefully toward those who disagree with them about human origins. The opponents are written off with a label and dismissed as being a valuable part of the church. Non-Christians see how we disagree and if we can wrestle with these question in a good way, it can be a powerful witness.

Conclusion

I don’t know where you are at. I suspect that there are some here that believe in an old earth and some in a young earth. Some probably believe in evolution and some in special creation.

I want to speak to those who are uncertain. If you are feeling like you need to choose between the Bible and science, I want you to know that there is more than one interpretation of both the Bible and science.

I also want to speak to those who are certain about human origins. I ask you to have grace. Realize that other people’s opinions are not a rejection of either faith or intellect. It is possible to wrestle with the Bible and science and still come up with a different opinion. This is our chance to disagree in a loving and respectful way.   

Spiritual Warfare

A sermon based on Ephesians 6:10-20.

Introduction

I remember back about twenty-five years ago when I was deep into my spiritual journey. I had recently moved from atheism to a generic belief in God. I was then working for some Christians and they were eager to get me to convert to Christianity. They spoke to me about Jesus every day and I endured it because I was paid to listen. I had started to read the Bible and to reflect on who Jesus was and what he had done for us. I had actually gotten to the point where I was seriously considering becoming a Christian.

Then one day as I was cleaning my boss’s pool, his wife began to talk to me about demons and evil spirits. At first I thought she was joking but she was serious. She really believed in demons and thought they were active in corrupting and oppressing people. This actually put the brakes on my willingness to become a Christian because it sounded more like mythology than truth.

Fast forward a number of years. I had finally become a Christian and had discovered C.S. Lewis. In addition to his apologetics books like Mere Christianity, I also read his fiction like the Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters are written as a series of letters from a senior demon to a junior demon, giving advice on how to corrupt a man and to keep him away from God. As I read it, even though it is full of humour and fantasy, I was struck at how it rang true. But how was it true? Was it true in that Lewis had discovered aspects of human psychology and nature? Or was it true in the sense that there are spiritual forces that affect how we act and respond to temptation? Those are good questions.

As I have mentioned many times, I am a skeptic by nature. I do not apologize for that. But I’m left with biblical and experiential evidence about the spiritual aspect of life and I need to sort through it. Our passage in Ephesians 6 is a great place to start.

The Spiritual Realm Exists

Is there an actual Satan? Are there demons and evil spirits? Depending on what part of the world we come from, it may be harder or easier to believe in. What we have to acknowledge is that Satan and his demons are mentioned throughout the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments, in the Gospels and in Paul. Their existence is just assumed by the biblical writers.

So why is it so difficult for us to believe in them? A big part of it is how they are portrayed in literature and popular culture. We picture a kingdom of flaming hell ruled by a devil dressed in red with pointy horns, leading armies of winged demons who systematically torture all the poor souls who are damned to hell. The problem is that none of that is found in the Bible.

Hell is not a kingdom ruled by Satan. In fact there is no reason to believe that Satan has ever been to hell. Hell was created as a place of punishment for Satan and he will not go there until the day of judgment. This gets rid of the whole idea of demons involved in torture as well. In terms of what the devil looks like, the idea of the horns and the pitchfork are all made up as well. The closest the Bible gets to a description is saying that Satan can appear as an angel of light.

But even with an accurate biblical description of Satan and demons, can modern people of the twenty-first century really believe that there is a personal manifestation of evil rather than just people choosing to do bad things for psychological reasons?

There was a time in history called the Enlightenment when people felt they could reject the supernatural and explain everything in human terms. The assumption was that with enough thought and determination, humanity could create a heaven on earth. This dream began to die during World War One when all of our best technology was used to kill people by the thousands. Since that time, we have seen too many attempts at genocide and ethnic cleansing. The stories that have come out of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda point to an evil that is beyond our minds to comprehend. Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian general, was in Rwanda during the genocide. Dallaire makes this amazing statement: “I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God.”

If you have ever taken time to study the holocaust and the things that took place, even beyond the mass executions and burning of bodies, there seems to be an evil present that goes beyond what humans can normally accomplish on their own.

But I don’t want to suggest that evil forces are only active in cases of terrorism and ethnic cleansing. There have been times in our life when we have felt like something really strange was going on. Just over a year ago, Amanda and I felt that God had something for us, that there was a plan for us and ministry. I was not a pastor at the time, so we did not know what that was going to look like. At that same time it seemed like we got hit by Murphy’s Law on steroids. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Every day there was new crisis. Everything that happened seemed to try and push us into giving up on what God had for us. Neither Amanda and I are the type to look for a demon under every rock, but we both felt like there was something spiritual going on. It takes a lot to get us to think in those terms, but that is what we felt.

So is there a Satan and demons? I would say that there is indeed some sort of personalized evil that opposes us in our journey to love and serve God. It does not look like any of the Hollywood portrayals, but there is something that is real out there.

We Are Distracted By People

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of my favourite letters. What I love about it is that Paul is able to make the connection between the spiritual and the practical. If you look at the first chapter, Paul gives a wonderful and worshipful description of how great God is and then goes on to describe how we should then live the Christian life. Spiritual and practical.

In Paul’s description of spiritual warfare, he makes the following statement:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

We read this and immediately want to get into speculation about all these spiritual forces. But Paul wants us to read the first part as well. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” Paul would not say this unless there was a temptation to actually believe that our struggle was against flesh and blood.

I have heard many horror stories about things that have happened at churches. I have been blessed to have had only good experiences with the churches where I have pastored. But this is not the case everywhere. There have been painful church splits. There have been hateful divisions. There have been families in churches that seem determined to drive out the new pastor before they even have their first Sunday. There seems to be some people in some churches determined, not just to have their own way, but to destroy the church. I hear these stories and wonder what is really going on. Is it that there is just a bunch of jerks in the church? I do think there are jerks. But sometimes the level of spitefulness that we see goes beyond just an unhealthy personality.

What if that person we are having conflict with is not just trying to be difficult? What if there is some evil force that does not want the unity in the church that God designed us to have?

We have a choice. We can put all our energy into being angry on a human level with this individual. Or we can consider that something else is going on, something that can not be explained away by human conflict.

What if our struggle is not against flesh and blood?

Prayer is the Key

When many people look at this passage, they look forward to discussions of the various parts of the armour of God. I’m not going to do that. Paul is using imagery that was familiar to the Ephesians to make his point. What Paul is getting at, and the point that we need to get, is that we need to be prepared spiritually. There are no noncombatants when it comes to spiritual warfare. We are all targets, whether we believe in spiritual warfare or not. By telling the Ephesians to put on the armour, he is reminding them that victory does not come by accident. What are we doing to prepare spiritually? What is our worship life like? How much are we studying God’s Word?

In all of this, I see Paul pointing to prayer as the key. Paul says,

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)

We don’t need to study demonology or understand everything that goes on in the spiritual realm. What we need to do is take prayer seriously. Prayer matters. Not just during our prayer time in church. Not just during our morning devotions. Not just when we are looking for a parking spot when we are running late.

Paul tells us to pray on all occasions. We need to be praying always. This does not mean with your eyes closed and your hands folded. Rather being in a constant attitude of prayer. We should be praying for ourselves, but we should also be praying for others. There are plenty of people who are going through difficult times. There are people whose lives are falling part. There are people who are being oppressed spiritually. Paul urges us to pray for such people, not with a casual or uncaring attitude, but to really intercede for them. Prayer is the key for being victorious in spiritual warfare.

Conclusion

You may be here and thinking that all this talk of Satan and spiritual warfare is just really strange. I think it is really strange as well. But I also believe it is true. I believe it is true, based on what I read in the Bible but also by what see happening in our world. There is an evil in our world that is more than accidental immorality, it is an evil with intelligence and malice toward God’s people. Call that evil what you will, but it must be taken seriously. We need to take our eyes off of the people that we think are the problem and get focused on praying in strategic and intentional ways. Let us lift up our brothers and sisters, in this congregation and around the world, and pray that God would come in his strength and truth.

Does God Exist?

Hebrews 11:1-6

Introduction

Does God exist? There are some outspoken atheists who will loudly proclaim that God does not exist. They purchase advertising space on buses to get their “good news” out that God does not exist. While certain atheists are very vocal about and antagonistic against faith in God, their number is actually quite low. The percentage of the population that hold to firm atheism has not changed very much.

There are some Christians who have never doubted the existence of God. They grew up in the church, were conscious of God’s presence and have had full confidence in God’s existence.

I suspect that most of us are more in the middle, perhaps moving back and forth throughout our life.

Is it okay to doubt? It absolutely is. We see people like John the Baptist and Thomas in the Bible having doubts about Jesus. When it comes to belief in God, think about what we are claiming. There is this invisible and all-powerful and all-knowing being who is everywhere all at once.

I think that some doubt is good.

Think about some of the heroes of the faith in recent history. Mother Theresa was one of the most respected Christians of all time. After her death, letters were published revealing her doubts about God. Billy Graham has preached to more people than anyone else. But early in his career, after his friend and colleague Charles Templeton abandoned the faith, Billy Graham wrestled with his doubt. Despite this, these two have made a huge impact in our world for God.

While there are Christians who become atheists, I don’t think the problem is that they had doubts. The problem was likely that there was not a safe space in the church to ask hard questions and wrestle with their doubts. I believe opening a space to talk about our struggles will help people far more than shutting down the conversation out of fear of where it will lead.

I don’t want this to be a lecture on Christian apologetics. There is a place for that but this is not it. Instead, I’m going share my journey of faith. The short version is that I grew up in the church, became an atheist in my teens, came to believe in God while in university and then committed myself to Jesus a couple of years after that. The things that helped me believe may not be the same that convince you, but they may give you hope that the answers are out there.

The Universe

The truth about me is that I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe something just because someone says it. I’m the guy who after reading some claim posted on Facebook, does the research to see if it was true and then post the correct information on the person’s wall. I can be quite annoying.

My original slip into atheism was skepticism about heaven and the afterlife. This eventually led me to discount God’s existence. I didn’t expect to ever regain faith in God.

I still remember the moment my faith in God returned to me. I was getting a ride to Brock University. During the drive, I used my imagination to go back in time to the beginning of the universe. I wasn’t thinking about Genesis or the Bible. I was trying to imagine the Big Bang and how that began. I thought about the improbability of our immense universe coming into existence by itself. If there was a Big Bang, perhaps there was a Big Banger.

I didn’t know the science then but further research proved my hunch to be correct. For a long time scientists had been going with the assumption that the universe was eternal and without beginning. If there was no beginning, you don’t need anyone to begin it. But throughout the 20th century, a huge amount of scientific evidence demonstrated that the universe had a beginning. Not only did it have a beginning, the nature of the universe is so precise that it is the only way it could be and still allow life. Even scientists who don’t believe in God will admit that the universe looks suspiciously fine-tuned.

Life

The existence of the universe was a start, but not quite enough to knock me completely out of my atheism. But on that same drive, I thought about this world. I thought about all the life on this planet, plant and animal. I thought about the complexity of the human body. Again, I used my imagination to go back in time to the primordial soup that covered our planet and the random mixture of chemicals that could form one celled life that led to all that we see now. Notice that I was not thinking in terms of the Bible, I was looking at it without any doubts about evolution. I realized that to remain as an atheist, I had to accept that all of the life that we see around us had to have come about by accident. In that moment I realized that I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist. The skepticism that once drew me away from God was now drawing me back to God. When I stepped out of the car at Brock University that day, I had lost my atheism and was now a theist. I was not a Christian, I simply believed in some generic god who started the universe and created the first life. I didn’t know it at the time but I was experiencing a two-stage conversion, from atheism to theism and then from theism to Christianity, that one of my heroes C.S. Lewis experienced.

Resurrection of Jesus

Since I am now a pastor, I can assure you that I indeed became a Christian. I won’t go into the details now of that part of my conversion, as I want to focus on belief in God.

While scientific and philosophic reflection played a part in my belief in God, I’m neither a scientist nor a philosopher. If there is a discipline that resonates with me, it is history. History makes more sense to me. We can look at the evidence and put it together to try and reconstruct the actual evidence. If only there was some historical evidence for God.

Christianity is more than just belief in God. Christianity centres on the person of Jesus. Jesus was a person who appeared in history. We have the approximate dates of his birth and death. He interacted with other historical figures that we know from other sources.

But again, Christianity is much more than just belief in a religious teacher named Jesus. Christianity has it’s foundation with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The historical evidence for the death of Jesus on a Roman cross is pretty clear. But just his death on a cross is not enough to point us to God. There were thousands of Jews who were crucified by the Romans during the first century. We need something more.

What we need is the resurrection. Some will claim that the resurrection is not a matter of history but of pure faith. But that is not true. The claim is not that people felt Jesus in their hearts or saw visions. Rather it is that Jesus bodily rose from the dead and was seen by hundreds of witnesses, some of whom we know by name.

I have looked at the alternative theories that attempt to explain the appearances of Jesus on the third day and they are all rather weak. To me the evidence points to Jesus having been raised from the dead. While one my try and suggest that this resurrection took place without the involvement of God but my skepticism does not allow me to go there.

Those moments that I wake up in the middle of the night wondering if God really exists, my mind naturally wanders to the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus and I return to sleep in peace.

Experience

Why do I believe in Jesus? All of the reasons that I have shared are part of the equation. But there is one more part that has become stronger every year that I have been a Christian. I experience God on a regular basis.

Some Christians don’t like experience because it is too subjective. While I wouldn’t want to put my entire faith on experience, I do believe that it is a powerful argument for the existence of God.

What do I mean by experience? I have reached out to God, often without any great faith, and God has responded. I’m not talking about audible voices or burning bushes or talking crosses. Rather I have prayed prayers and God has responded in very specific ways. No, I have not every prayer answered the way I had asked. But our family has called out to God is some desperate times and God has rescued us. This has included things such as financial provision in tight times and safety for our children in dangerous moments.

I wish I could say I was a man of great faith who boldly prays for God involvement. Many of my prayers have been, “God you probably won’t do anything, but we could use some hep in this specific area.” Despite my weak faith, or perhaps because of it, God has responded in powerful ways. Because of how God has intervened in our life over the years, I don’t know how I could return to atheism.

Conclusion

Does God exist? I would say that God does indeed exist. Do I ever have doubts or questions? Sure I do. God created me with a skeptical nature and these questions come. But looking at this evidence and so much more that I have not mentioned, I’m confident that God does exist.

Where are you on your faith journey? You may be a confident Christian, a Christian with questions, a seeker, a skeptic, an agnostic or an atheist. I only ask you to keep an open mind. Consider the evidence and allow it to take you where it leads. Seek the truth. And I would encourage you to reach out to God and ask him to show himself. You may be surprised at what he does.

Be Faithful at All Times

A sermon based on Luke 12:35-48

Introduction

What is our motivation for doing good? Do we find that we do the right thing mostly when others are watching or can we do it when no one is around?

I used to work in a warehouse. While the actual work was not that fun, there were some nice people, some of whom I am still friends with. In fact that was the problem. We would often just stop working in the aisles and would start talking. Obviously our manager was not happy about this. So every once in a while, he would leave his office and walk the aisles to make sure we weren’t talking. When he would leave the warehouse, the motivation to keep quiet would almost disappear.

On a different note, one of my parenting highlights was observing something while my children were unaware. I was looking out the kitchen window and saw Abby and Faith jumping on the trampoline. Abby and Faith are not very close as Faith was quite young when Abby went into a group home. There is not much they have in common and so it is difficult for them to connect. But they do both love jumping on the trampoline. Watching them jump together was enough but it got better. As they stopped jumping, Faith walked over to Abby and gave her a big hug. It was not because we told her to, it was something she wanted to do, and it was something she thought no one saw. It is one of my best memories.

When it comes to our Christian experience, do we have any motivation to follow Jesus? Are we content with praying a prayer or getting baptized? Is there any reason for us to live a certain way after our conversion? This is surprising to some Christians but Jesus actually cares about our life between our conversion and when we go to heaven. Jesus gives us some clear teaching on this with three examples that his audience would be familiar with.

Practical Examples

One of the things that I love about Jesus is that he didn’t just give theological lectures. He passed on deep theological truth, but he did it through stories and examples from everyday life. This includes our current passage.

The first one is about a man returning from a wedding banquet. Whether it is the man’s wedding or he was just a guest, Jesus does not say. What is clear is that the master expected his servants to be awake and to have the lights on. Then we see something that is quite radical. When the master returns home, it is not to bark orders and demand that a midnight snack be prepared and a bed made ready. Instead, the master will dress as a servant and wait upon his servants. He has enjoyed a banquet and now he shares that joy with his servants. Notice the reference to the possibility of the master returning very late. The point is, no matter how late the master returns, it is worth it to the servants to be ready.

The second example is that of an owner of a house and a break in. This one is easy for us to identify with. If we knew someone was trying to break in to our house, we would make sure we were ready. About a decade ago, we received a phone call from my mother early in the morning. She woke to the signs of a break in and was not sure if the burglar was still in the house. Thankfully he wasn’t. But if I knew that a burglar was breaking into my mom’s house at a certain time, I would have made sure he had a nice surprise.

The third example is of a master who puts someone in charge of his household while he is away. The warning is about the manager of the household taking advantage of his master’s absence by getting drunk and beating the servants. If the master returns to see this bad behaviour, there will be some consequences.

Notice in these examples, Jesus offers both the carrot and the stick. For those who remain ready, there are good things made available. For those who are not ready, something bad will happen.

We can understand this on a business or home level. But what does it mean for us as Christians?

What It Means

So what does this mean? Well, within the context of Jesus’ other teachings, many of his original audience, or at least the disciples, would have gotten it. Elsewhere, Jesus uses the image of a wedding feast and a thief in the night in reference to his second coming.

I realize that there have been many abuses of the doctrine of the second coming. People have predicted dates, taken money from the gullible and devised crazy schemes. However, the return of Jesus is a consistent theme throughout the New Testament. Jesus will come back.

But I don’t think that Jesus’ intention is just to remind people that there would be a second coming. I have known plenty of people who believed strongly in the second coming and yet did not live wisely. They saw it as an excuse to quit their job or spend their retirement savings, but that is it.

Jesus’ intention is to remind us that how we live our lives is important. In the early church, some believed that it was baptism that actually removed our sins. For some, baptism was then something that should be held off until one’s deathbed. After all, who wants to give up sinning during the prime of life?

The Reformation, while bringing to the front many important doctrines, also created some confusion. Martin Luther correctly stated that we are saved by grace and not our works. But some have misunderstood that to think that works were unimportant if not dangerous. If you sought to do good works, you could slide into trying to work for your salvation.

Without giving up on the doctrine of grace, it is clear that Jesus expected us to live a certain kind of life.

The type of life that we are to live is illustrated clearly in the examples Jesus provides. It all comes down to faithfulness. It is not about achieving a certain level of success. It is about being faithful with all that God has given us.

We have talked in previous messages about the things that God has given us. He gives us treasure, time and talents. We are not to compare our allotment to others, we are simply to be faithful what we have been given.

In addition to those things, we are also given relationships. We have family, friends and acquaintances. Notice in the story Jesus shares, some of the harshest words are for those who mistreat their fellow servants. Do we use our words to build up or tear down? Are we present with people when they really need us? Do we share our faith with those who do not know Jesus? Do we comfort those who are hurting? Do we provide for those who are in need?

It all comes down to this. If Jesus returned today, would we be comfortable with what he saw?

Conclusion

I want you to imagine something. Imagine that we received a message this morning from heaven revealing that Jesus was going to return at a certain time this evening. What effect would that have on your life? Would it be a hectic afternoon of trying to get your life together?  Or would you be able continue your day business as usual?

Now let’s reset our imagination. Now, instead of heaven declaring that Jesus is coming back tonight, we are told that Jesus will come back in one hundred years. In addition, everyone of us is guaranteed to live at least twenty-five years more of life. We won’t have to answer for our decisions for at least a decade and a half. How will that affect your life? Do we see that as a vacation from the Christian life? Or will our allegiance to Christ remain as strong as ever?

The point of this story is that we should remain faithful at all times. Live as if Jesus will come back today but plan for Jesus not to come back for another century.

Jesus Christ: Home Wrecker

A sermon based on Luke 12:49-53

Introduction

Who was Jesus and what was he really like? I fear that we have created a flannel graph Jesus. What I mean by that is that we have described Jesus in a way that is attractive to children. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” This is true and it is good that we make Jesus accessible to children. We want them to know that he is their friend.

The problem is that as we grow up, we are afraid to let that portrait of Jesus develop. He is still meek and mild, petting sheep and holding babies. This is a problem because Jesus is much more than this.

The truth is that Jesus actually did and said things that make us uncomfortable. This is why we are going through the Gospel of Luke. We want to get Jesus right, even if it shakes up our understanding of Jesus.

This passage is one of those sayings that make us uncomfortable. And there are enough connections with other things that Jesus said, that we cannot easily ignore these words.

Not Peace But Division

Especially at Christmas, we speak of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Many would identify Jesus with peace. Followers of Jesus long for peace.However, Jesus says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12:51)

What do we do with this? There are two tendencies. One is to simply ignore it. The other is to misinterpret it. Some during the Crusades looked at this passage as support for using the sword to spread Christianity and to kill heretics and unbelievers. That is completely taking this passage out of context.

Jesus makes it painfully clear what he is talking about. Jesus is speaking specifically within the context of family. It could easily be generalized to close friendships as the focus is on relationships.

This is what Jesus is saying. If we are serious about following Jesus, a very likely result will be conflict with those who are close to us. Basically, he is saying that there is a cost to following Jesus.

Could he really mean that? If we had any doubt, then we could fast forward a couple of chapters to this lovely verse: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) That’s worse than the verse about the sword!

In case you are wondering if you are really supposed to hate your family, Matthew provides and interpretation of this saying of Jesus. “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37) What Jesus is saying that we must love Jesus so much, in fact so much more than our natural family, that our love for family is hate by comparison.

How could Jesus really ask us to do such a thing? He can because he practiced what he preached. Jesus had a human family, including a mother and brothers and sisters. It is likely that Joseph was dead by the time of Jesus’ public ministry.

While we would like to think that his family fully supported his ministry, that was not the case. We read this: “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20-21) John records something similar, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:5) Jesus knew the sting of rejection.

That is not to say that Jesus embraced isolation. Jesus was a family man, he just redefined family. Jesus made this radical statement: “ “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)

What Jesus experienced, he calls us all to. What is that calling?

We are called to fully follow Jesus, no matter what the consequences. I’m thankful for the family I had, but I did experience some pushback at my own personal conversion. My mother was supportive and my father was just confused. He would sometimes challenge my beliefs, but was happy that I went into the ministry. It was rather in my extended family that I had more conflict. One relative attacked my faith regularly. I also experienced some disruptions in my friendships. It was not so much my theological beliefs as the change in my lifestyle. Some were convinced that this was just a phase I was going through like my long hair during my high school days.

I can’t say that I really suffered but there are many Christians who do. For some people, when they become a follower of Jesus, their family shuns them and completely cuts them off. In some cases, the family uses violence or even has the family member killed for their Christian faith.

Jesus tells us in this passage that following Jesus, with the radical change in values that brings, will bring conflict with those who don’t share those values. We need to be prepared for that and be willing to pay the price.

A New Peace

I hope you are feeling uncomfortable right now. If you are like me, you want both Jesus and your family. I love my wife and children and they are extremely important to me.

That is why we need to take this a bit deeper. Jesus tells us that conflict is inevitable, but conflict is not the final goal. It is not that Jesus wants our families to be fighting, what he wants is for us to put him first.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace but that peace doesn’t start with our close relationships. We begin with having peace with God and peace within ourselves. It is only once that takes place that we can begin to have healthy relationships with others. Ultimately Jesus wants to love our enemies and so of course we need to love our families and friends. However, our relationships with others cannot come at the price of compromising our relationship with Jesus.

It is helpful to look at how this played out Jesus’ own life. We saw that his family had concerns about him and Jesus was willing to embrace believing strangers as family before is own unbelieving flesh and blood. What happened after that?

Acts describes the beginning of the church, starting with the ascension of the resurrected Jesus to heaven. We are told that the disciples gathered together and then Luke includes a verse that is easily missed: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) Why are the mother and brothers with the disciples? Not only that, we find James, the brother of Jesus, becoming the leader of the Jerusalem church, seemingly having more authority even than Peter.

What happened? We are told that one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances was to James. The unbelieving family joined the believing family. The family was reconciled without Jesus ever having to compromise his relationship with the Father.

The point of this is that conflict is only meant to be one stage of the journey and not the final goal. What does the resolution of the conflict look like?

In some cases, others within our families will meet Jesus and come to share our kingdom values. In other cases, the family may not become believers, but will see the transformation in our lives and come to respect our faith. Unfortunately, sometimes family and friends will never let go of their disappointment or anger about our faith. In those cases, we must let go of our bitterness and love them unconditionally. But under no circumstances do we weaken our loyalty to Jesus for the sake of other relationships.

Conclusion

I love my family. They are an incredible blessing to me. I would do anything for them. Well, I would do almost anything for them. The one thing I would never do would be to give up on Jesus for them. Family is important but Jesus is more important.

However, loving Jesus does not diminish my love for my family. Jesus increases my capacity for love and so the closer I stay to Jesus, the better husband and father I am to my family.

Don’t Be That Church

A sermon based on Luke 13:1-9

Introduction

It was just over twenty years ago that I preached my very first sermon at a Sunday morning service. I remember two things from that experience. One was that I was so nervous that I was soaked in sweat. I believe I was shaking as well. The second thing that I remember is the passage I was preaching from. I was given the choice of any passage that I wanted and I chose the very parable that we are looking at today.

I will share how my view of this parable has changed but before we get there, I want to shift gears. On the continuum between optimism and pessimism, where would you put yourself? I remember as a young person being confused by optimists. How could they always expect the best? The are just setting themselves up for disappointment. I felt I was being much wiser by embracing pessimism. Either I would always be right or I would be pleasantly surprised. It seemed like a win-win situation. But it wasn’t. I found that pessimism drained the hope and joy out of me. It also didn’t make me a very fun person to be around. I would now describe myself as a realist. By this I mean that I am aware of the potential problems and challenges and I attempt to prepare for them. At the same time, I try to live a life of hope and I expect some good things will happen.

I share this because the parable we are looking at is dealing with expectations for the future. I would argue that it presents a call for realism rather than optimism or pessimism for our future.

Those Jews

Not much has changed in two thousand years. Like today, people back then would discuss the news. They would reflect on what had happened recently, usually the bad, news and then take on the role of armchair political and social commentator. There had been a number of serious incidents where some Jews had lost their lives. Rather than just mourning their deaths, people wrestled with why this happened. Some concluded that it was because those Jews were bad, while the other Jews were exempt from such tragedy because they were good. Seeing the misfortune of others reinforced their confidence in their own blessing. These Jews were feeling optimistic because all the bad stuff had been exhausted in the experience of those other Jews.

Jesus did not have much patience for this baseless overconfidence. The truth is that bad things could happen to any of them. He them explained the truth with a parable.

Jesus used a situation that the people were familiar with. Figs were a popular crop in that area. They would understand both the challenge in growing a healthy plant and the joy of eating those fresh figs. Jesus told a story of a man that owned a fig tree. The problem was that there were no figs on it. People did not grow fig trees just for decoration. They were valued only for the fruit they provided. The owner was understandably frustrated by the lack of fruit and asked his worker to dig up the tree as it was a waste of soil. This would be an example of pessimism.

This story reminds me of my parents’ attempt to grow cactuses. You would think that cactuses, as desert plants accustomed to harsh environments, would be easy to care for. You would think. But the cactus was getting smaller and less colourful. Every time the cactus would look a little worse, my dad would move it a little closer to the back door, warning the cactus what its final destination would be. I knew by the time it got to the dining room that it was a goner.

The owner of the fig tree wasn’t interested in warnings. But his worker was not a pessimist. He wanted to give the fig tree another chance. He hoped that with some fertilizer and some tender loving care, the tree could produce some figs. At the same time, he was a realist and understood that might not happen. The fig tree was given another year to provide fruit and if it didn’t, it would be dug up.

Those Christians

At this point I will share where I took this parable twenty years ago and the different direction I’m taking it now. Back then I was a youth pastor and my focus was in helping teens grow in their faith at an age where it was difficult to be a follower of Jesus. I saw the fig tree as each individual Christian and in my context, especially teens. I called the congregation to be like the worker and not give up on the figs. I encouraged them to spread “spiritual manure” on them so that they could grow in their faith. That application is fine, but my perspective has changed.

What if this parable is speaking not to individuals but to the church? What if this is a warning that are content without being fruitful?

Think about those Jews who were critical of the misfortune of other Jews and feeling rather smug. Can we imagine something very similar when it comes to churches? Having moved to St. Catharines, I’m struck by how many churches have closed down. They are mainline and evangelical and charismatic. Some were always small and some were large and were considered the trendy churches to attend. Those churches are gone.

We could look at those church closures and compare ourselves. We must be doing something right in that we are still here. We may not be perfect but at least we are not like those churches that closed. We must have some advantage over them. Basically we could have the attitude that Jesus warns against.

It is in this context of churches closing and churches continuing that the parable of the fig tree speaks. How is the fig tree judged? Is it by how big or small it is? By how beautiful or plain it was? No, it was judged by the fruit it did or did not produce.

This is the same judgment that God uses on the church. I don’t think God cares about the size of the church. It could be a mega-church or a house church, it could be 12,000 or just 12. The question is, is the church producing fruit?

What is the fruit that a church should produce? It is not enough that we just offer worship services, to sing certain songs and pray certain prayers. There should be certain outcomes from our existence.

We could discuss different kinds of fruit that should appear. One could be growing disciples, seeing people both knowing more about and being more like Jesus. Another could be seeing people take the step of baptism. Another could be building community. Another could be reaching out to people outside the church.

But couldn’t this lead to an oppressive atmosphere of requiring a certain level of performance and productivity? I would suggest that God doesn’t care how we compare to the other churches in our city. We need just to provide fruit according to our capacity. I think that the owner of the fig tree would have been happy if it produced at least one fig.

What about those churches that did close? Was that God’s judgment for not doing enough? There are two things to consider. One is that when a church stops being fruitful, it will naturally end. The other is that some churches who no longer meet as a congregation, no longer have a building are no longer formally organized, are still fruitful.

In some cases, parts of one plant are grafted onto another plant and the result is increased fruitfulness. That can happen when one congregation joins with another congregation, bringing the gifts and abilities together. That is the case with our church. We are stronger because of those who have joined with us.

Conclusion

We could do a survey of all the churches in our city. If we revisited that survey in ten years, we would find some of those churches closed down. The scary thing is that we would not be able to predict which would close. Size, style or tradition would give us no hints.

Could our church be one of them? If we say no, we are both ignoring this passage and what we have seen with other churches. But I don’t think we should be pessimistic. I have been to churches whose only goal is to keep their doors open another year. We are not there.

I see this church as being fruitful. I see leaders developing. I see people getting baptized. I see children growing in their faith. I see our congregation making an impact on our community.

But what if we stopped? It has happened to other congregations. Any church could get to the point of resting on past accomplishments. Our job is to keep our mission as our focus and make ourselves available to the Holy Spirit’s work within us.