Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Luke 13:18-21

Introduction

This was a big summer for me. For the first time in my life, I had my own vegetable garden. I won’t claim that everything worked, but I had relatively low expectations. My goal was that I would be able to eat just one thing that I had grown from my garden. And I will say that the roasted potatoes that Amanda prepared for me from our garden were some of the most delicious potatoes I have ever tasted.

Beyond being able to eat something we grew, it was fun to just watch what would happen over time. We planted seeds and watered the soil. When that first breaking of the soil took place and we saw the beginning of growth, it was very exciting. It is an amazing thing to be able to watch life grow.

We are going to look at a parable that builds off this miracle. This is a relevant topic for us in our world. We value things that are large. When we check out a business, we look to see how many employees. When we meet someone on social media, we want to know how many followers they have. One of the reasons why some pastors do not like to visit with other pastors is because of the most common question: “So many people are there in your congregation?” I have observed that it is mostly the pastors of larger churches that ask this, hoping that they have more people than the pastor they are asking.

We were visiting some family in a large city. This was a growing and busy city and this carried over into the churches. When family asked about the size of the church I was pastoring, they were dumbfounded by my answer. If they only had that many people in their small group as I had in my congregation, they would shut it down as being unsuccessful.

I believe that what Jesus is teaching in this parable is the message that we need to hear for this church.

Miracle of the Mustard Seed

Before jumping to our interpretation, we need to ask why Jesus originally told this parable. This parable was told to answer a specific question and that is: “What is the kingdom of God like?”

Many people think of the kingdom of God as being heaven. That is not correct, at least not fully correct. If the kingdom of God was only heaven, this parable would make no sense.

The kingdom of God is the reign of God. The kingdom of God is the dynamic of the people of God obeying the will of God. So yes that includes heaven, but most often when Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of God, he is talking about what that looks like on earth.

One of the things that I love about Jesus is that he didn’t just provide theological lectures. Jesus spoke with images that people were familiar with. That is not to say that there is no depth to his teaching. The gospel is simple but it is not simplistic. Jesus spoke about some very complex theological truths but he did it in a way that people could understand.

In this parable, Jesus brought his audience’s attention to the mustard seed. They would have been very familiar with this tiny seed. To just look at it at that stage, there would be nothing impressive about it. But under the right conditions, that seed will not stay the same.

When that seed is planted in the garden and is cared for it becomes a tree. Not a huge tree but much larger than what it was before it was planted. The tree is big enough for birds to come and find shelter in it. It is an interesting thought that the birds could have consumed the seed as a less than satisfying meal but when it is left to grow, it can become their home.

You may not have much experience planting mustard seeds, but you are likely familiar with this principle. Think about how small the seed is for some weed. Have you ever had a weed start to come up through your driveway? Even though it began so small and fragile, it somehow breaks through concrete. It is both amazing and frustrating. Nature all around us teaches that strength almost always begins with weakness.

Learning from the Mustard Seed

While all this is true, it is probably safe to say that Jesus is not offering a horticultural lesson. The lesson in nature is meant to teach us something about the kingdom of God. In order to understand the application of this parable, it might be useful to ask a number of questions.

What is Our Seed?

Jesus begins with the seed. A small tiny little seed that has nothing outward about it to impress us. What is the seed in our context? I’m not sure that there is just one thing but I can think of a number of examples.

One seed is the Bible. Think about this book written thousands of years ago about a culture far away, with boring genealogies and lists of battles that we might not care about. And yet there is potential when we read this book. People’s lives have been transformed by it. Churches have been built upon it. There is a reason that tyrannical regimes ban the Bible as one of their first acts.

Another seed is prayer. Here we are, just regular people, speaking words into the air. Next time, don’t bow your head or close your eyes. Just look around. What we are doing is strange. And yet there is a seed here.

What about a congregation of Christians? I don’t mean a megachurch with dozens of paid staff and a multi-million dollar budget. I mean a normal little church like ours. What if we are the mustard seed that has been planted in this community?

How Does the Seed Grow?

It is not enough to just have an ancient book or to say certain words or to gather people together. Anyone can do those things. What begins the process of growth?

There are things that we can do. There are attitudes that we can bring to our Bible reading and prayer. We don’t have to let these things transform the world around us. But we should. We can come to these things with faith. I want to be clear that there is not a certain level of faith that you have to achieve in order for God to act. Some of the most dramatic answers to prayer that I have experienced were from prayers where I told God I didn’t expect him to act. In those cases, I believe my desperation carried on from where my faith left off.

What about our church? Just getting together is not enough. We need to be more than a social club. We need to be about love more than about gossip and backbiting.

The truth is that it is God that brings the growth and not us. And yet we are called to cooperate with God’s activity. While acknowledging that God is doing it, there are ways that we can encourage the growth.

What Will We Become?

The seed becomes a tree. That is the primary image in this parable. What does that mean for us? It may mean a large increase in size and it may not. Growth can look different. It may be growth in our relationship with God. It may be growth in how we look like Christ. It may be growth in how we treat one another. The point is that there should be some sort of growth.

When I planted those seeds for my garden, many of the plants sprouted. But a number of others didn’t. When there is no growth, there is something wrong.

We need to pray and read the Bible and gather for worship. We need to do these things in love and faith. We need to trust that God will bring the growth in the way that he has chosen.

Who Will Find Shelter in Our Branches?

I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t stop with just the growth of tree. Jesus specifies that the birds come and perch in the branches. Is this simply a way to describe how big the tree is? Perhaps.

Another option is that the tree has a purpose beyond itself. Once the seed becomes the tree, it does more than soak up soil, water and sunlight. It provides shelter for the birds.

What is our purpose? Are we to grow as a church just so we can enjoy quality music and hear funny jokes. Is our goal to become as comfortable as possible, to soak up God’s blessings and that is it?

I would suggest that the reason that God brings the growth, in whatever form that may be, is so that we can reach beyond ourselves. I used to pastor a small country church that often had about a dozen people on a Sunday. But their men’s breakfast would often get just as much if not more non-Christians from the community.

Who are the people who will find shelter here? I hope that it is everyone. Being a downtown church, we are surrounded by people in poverty and successful business people. All of them need shelter. There is brokenness around us. Brokenness in every area of life. We have opportunities to provide shelter to all those in need. That is why we are growing.

Conclusion

When you look around here, at the things that we are doing. what do you see? Do you ever get discouraged and feel that our potential is limited?

The parable of the mustard seed challenges how we look at things. What we see at one particular moment never tells the full story. Seeing something as small does not make it without value. All of us have to start somewhere.

I believe that we are doing things that matter. I believe that God has planted us in this place at this time for a reason. I see growth taking place, in some places faster than others. I believe God is at work in us and we should be excited about. We should be excited, not just for the blessings we receive, but the way we can bless others. The seed is growing and the tree is getting read to provide shelter.

A Faith That Leads to Positive Change

Luke 13:10-17

Introduction

As someone who studied marketing in school and as a pastor, I’m very interested in how churches promote themselves. Whether you are a business or a church, you only have a minute or two to get your message across and so you need to be quick and clear.

A number of years ago, I came across a flyer for a church. It was a Baptist church. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the message they wanted people to hear was that they were against the Pope, against Billy Graham and against any Bible translation other than the King James Version. I vaguely recall them being against a few other things as well. I looked in vain for what they were for but only found what they were against. They were looking for people who disliked these things or these people as much as they did.

That is an extreme example but in my reading, many non-Christians see the church in a similar way. When asked what they thought of the church, many offered statements such as anti-science, anti-women and anti-gay. The message that the church has gotten across is about what we are against, not that those statements were accurate.

The truth is is that it is always easier to criticize than to take steps toward building up. This is an ongoing temptation, for both individual Christians and for the church. But there is a better way.

Healing on the Sabbath

The story we are looking at is one of a category called Sabbath controversies. Although Jesus healed on other days, he also seemed to have made a point of healing on the Sabbath. A number of these healings took place in or near a synagogue, so that religious leaders would notice. It is almost as if Jesus was daring them to criticize his healing ministry.

What is the big deal about the Sabbath? The Sabbath was Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. One of the Ten Commandments was to keep the Sabbath holy. Part of keeping it holy was resting and not working. The problem with this commandment is that it is not always clear what is work and what is not. How far are you allowed to walk? How much are you allowed to carry? Traditions grew up around this commandment that filled in the details. If you broke one of the traditions, it was considered the breaking of the commandment.

One day, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Among the people listening to Jesus was a woman who was bent over with a physical problem that had been with her for decades. Instead of just teaching from the Bible, Jesus performed a miraculous healing on her.

I would hope that if we had a dramatic healing like that in our church that people would rejoice and get excited. Unfortunately that is not what happened here. Instead of praising God, the synagogue ruler criticized Jesus for what he had did. Without even acknowledging the power that had been demonstrated, the man condemned Jesus for the day that he had healed on. It’s fine to heal people if you want, but do it on one of the other six days.

This man was probably trying to be logical. If the woman had been sick for eighteen years, one more day was not going to kill her. But if you have ever had a long-term chronic illness, being asked to wait one more day than you need to is a big things. Suffering is not something that can be looked at in purely logical terms.

Jesus responds to the synagogue leader with reminders that even the most religious help their animals on the Sabbath. How much more should we help our fellow human beings?

i would suggest that Jesus is doing more than just arguing for the permissibility of healing on the Sabbath. Rather healing a child of God on the Sabbath is absolutely appropriate. The NIV says that when she was healed, the woman praised God. But the Greek is stronger in that it literally says she glorified God. What could be more appropriate than glorifying God on the Sabbath?

The synagogue leader was so focused on the things he though you shouldn’t do on the Sabbath that he completely missed out on what you should do on the Sabbath. By only looking at the negative, he neglected the positive.

Healing in Our World

I see this story as being much more than just what we are allowed to do on the Sabbath. Rather this story seeks to create in us a radical paradigm shift in how we understand the Christian faith.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing that we should be against. There are plenty of things I’m against. I’m against human trafficking and child abuse and cheating on your spouse and dozens of other things. There are things that I choose to avoid in order to achieve my goal of growing spiritually. There is a time for the church to have a prophetic voice in speaking against the injustices of our society. All of this is good.

But if we only focus on what we are against, then we are presenting an incomplete picture of what the church is all about. Not only that, only avoiding the bad is not a sustainable practice. For example, imagine a person with mental illness who seeks to self-medicate through illegal drugs. This is a very common situation in our community. What if that person made a decision to stop doing drugs? That would be great but more needs to be done. Drug addiction must be replaced with something else. This may include proper medication under the supervision of a doctor, counselling, becoming part of a community and many other positive choices. If the addiction is not replaced with something, being clean cannot last.

As a church, we need to avoid certain things. We should be a place where lying, gossip and slander is not welcome. But instead of just rejecting those words, we need to replace them words of encouragement and prayers. We must shift from tearing down to building up.

One of the most important questions for a church to ask is how people would react if we closed our doors for good. If we are only known for what we are against, people will not even notice we are gone. But if we are known for what we are for and what we are doing, people will notice. They will say that our church is missed for what we did for newcomers to Canada and for homeless people in our community. They will say that our church was the place where everyone felt welcome and where people could come and meet God.

This is a time for us to ask ourselves what we are for. We need to ask ourselves this both as a church and as individuals. What do we want to be known for and what are we going to do to make this happen? None of this will happen on its own. We need to work for it, seeking God’s guidance, becoming shaped by the Scriptures and sacrificing of our time, talent and treasure.

Conclusion

What is the Christian life meant to look like? There is an important place for personal holiness. We need to make good choices that include avoiding certain behaviours, even if they are tolerated or even promoted within our society. But that only takes us as far as the synagogue ruler.

Jesus took it to the next level by healing a woman who had been sick for a long time. The result was that she glorified God. Healing may look different in our community. But there is a tremendous amount of pain and suffering around us. There are people that have been waiting much longer than eighteen years for help. What are we going to do about it? It is not enough to be thankful that we are not in that position. We must choose to make a positive change in our community. There may be decisions we need to make both as a church and as individuals. What will we do to lead people into glorifying God?

What is a Baptist?

Introduction

This is Queen Street Baptist Church. Queen Street BAPTIST Church. We belong to the Canadian BAPTISTS of Ontario and Quebec. What in the world is a Baptist?

Many people think that Baptists are simply about using a lot of water for baptisms. But it is so much more than that.

There was a school class where the teacher was trying to teach about diversity. The teacher invited the children to bring something for show and tell that represented their religion. A Jewish girl brought in a Menorah. A Roman Catholic boy brought in some rosary beads. The teacher asked the Baptist child what he had brought. He told her he brought a casserole for the potluck. I will say as someone who has been to many churches that Baptists do have the best potlucks.

I was not raised Baptist. In fact I was baptized as a baby in an Anglican church and was baptized as a believer in a Pentecostal church. But I chose to be a Baptist at a time when I was wrestling with how my own beliefs fit with the traditions I was participating in. I think there is something great about Baptist distinctives.

Having said that, this message is not about why the Baptists are the best or why you should be Baptist, if you don’t already identify as such. If you identify with another Christian tradition, this is a time for us to all learn together. There are some things here that we can all agree on.

Before getting into the seven Baptist distinctives, I need to give you a very short history lesson as it will affect Baptist thought and practice. The first ever Baptist congregation appeared in Holland in 1609. It was made up of people who had fled from England. John Smyth was the first pastor. It was a time of great religious upheaval in England. The state church in England moved from Anglican to Catholic and back again. Whoever was in power vigorously persecuted the Christians of the “wrong” tradition. Many Baptist beliefs are a reaction to this situation.

So what do Baptists believe?

1. Jesus is Lord

What is the core of the Christian faith? What is it that unites us? From the very beginning, Christians have created creeds and faith statements that tell us what is the orthodox faith. Some of these creeds are better than others. But as new groups and traditions appeared, the creeds became more detailed and precise. Again, that is not necessarily bad.

But the early Baptists were seeking to be a New Testament church. This led them to look at what the earliest Christian creed was in the New Testament. It was pretty simple. Jesus is Lord.

“Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

This does not mean that we don’t believe anything else. But this is the foundation of our faith.

I said it was simple, but it is not easy. This is the creed that got the early church in trouble with the Romans. The Romans proclaimed that Caesar is Lord, that was the foundation of the Roman Empire. When the Christians said Jesus is Lord, they were also saying that Caesar is not Lord.

What are the implications when we say Jesus is Lord. Whose lordship are we denying? We cannot have two lords. If we make Jesus our Lord something has to go. We cannot simply tag Jesus beliefs onto our regular life.

2. Word of God is the Authoritative Rule of Faith

Another aspect of Baptist thought is our focus on the Bible as our final authority. Baptists have traditionally had a high view of Scripture. While from my background I have respect for tradition and experience, ultimately the Word of God is the only sure guide. I appreciate the words of the Apostle Paul:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

We don’t believe that the Bible is just a collection of old tales and reflections of some religious leaders. We believe that the Bible is inspired, or God-breathed. This does not mean that God dictated the Bible. It means God used these writers in their experiences with their personalities to give us exactly what we need to know who God is and how to be in right relationship with him. All that we do and believe must constantly be compared and corrected by the Scriptures.

3. Priesthood of All Believers

What are priests? In the Old Testament, the priests were men from a certain tribe, Levi, and a certain family, the descendants of Aaron. It was the priests who would offer sacrifices on behalf of the people and would do what was necessary to arrange for sacrifices. The role of the priest was essential.

There are some traditions within Christianity that have taken on a similar model for their clergy. Not only do they call their pastors a priest, they see their priest as playing an intermediary role.

One of our Baptists beliefs is in the priesthood of all believers.

“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever!” (Revelation 1:5-6)

Sometimes Baptists fall into the old model of pastor, thinking the pastor has to do the prayer or the pastor has to lead worship. I am happy to do these things, but I do them in my priesthood as a believer and not because i received a special connection to God when I was ordained.

All believers in Jesus Christ are priests and have direct connection to God. The pastor’s job is to teach and encourage. You never have to wait for the pastor to connect with God.

4. A Believer’s Church

What is the Church? There is the church and there is the Church. Anyone can gather a group of people together, form an organization, put together a constitution and call it a church. But that does not make it the Church.

The Church is a very specific thing and it is no human creation. The Church, and by this I do not mean the Baptist church, I mean the Christian Church, is the body of Christ, the collection of all born again follower of Jesus. A person cannot buy their way into the Church. They cannot work their way into the Church. Once a person calls upon Jesus as their Lord, they are a part of the Church. Those who are yet to believe are welcome and invited to participate in our worship services. But one has to be a believer to be a part of the Church.

5. Believer’s Baptism by Immersion

Baptism is what many people identify Baptists with. I need to say that I know people who feel infant baptism is the proper way or who believe that sprinkling is the proper way. I respect those positions but I am here to share the Baptist view.

The most important part of this is the believer’s aspect of baptism. What we see in the New Testament are people coming to faith and being baptized. That just seems to be the model. It seems as if baptism is a response to faith not a precursor.

We perform baptism by immersion. This seems to be the basic meaning of the word baptize which means something like dip. It is also a powerful image of the death and resurrection of Jesus. One thing I need to stress. Baptism is not required for salvation. If you had a heart attack on your way to your baptism service at church, you would not go to hell. Baptism is not the washing away of sin, it is the outward sign of what Jesus has already done.

I was baptized as a baby and like many Christians, I felt that was fine. But when I attended some baptism services and saw people experience believer’s baptism by immersion, I knew this was what I needed. That is not to say baby baptisms are meaningless. I value that my parents stood in church and expressed their intention to raise me as a Christian. But for me believer’s baptism expressed my personal faith.

6. Congregational Government

Baptists have always focused on congregational government. I know that church government sounds boring but let me continue. There are churches that have a strong hierarchical denominational structure. There may be a person or a group of people who make decisions and that filters down and is adopted by the local congregations.

That is not the way it works in the Baptist church. It is all about the local church. We choose to associate with other Baptist church, but there is no central authority that can tell us what to do or what to believe. Although that could lead to issues, it is assuming the previous points of the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of Scripture. If we submit to Christ and study the Scriptures, we should stay on the right road without being directed by the denomination or other human authority.

7. Separation of Church and State

We hear a lot about the separation of church and state. The way it is described today, it looks as if it is a limitation on religion to keep it out of the public sphere. Ten Commandments and nativity scenes should be hidden and no one should be allowed to mention God in school. The separation of church and state is there to protect the state from the church.

But that is not what the separation of church and state is at all. In fact, it was the church that insisted on this separation and not the government. The separation of church and state is meant to protect the church from the state.

The earliest Baptists came out of England which, like a number of other countries in Europe, had a state church. The particular tradition adopted as the state church received rich benefits and those of other traditions received a best limitations and at worse persecution. The Baptists saw the worst of the state church and decided that was enough. The problem was not that the Baptists were not the state church, it was that there was a state church to begin with.

This separation does not mean that Baptists or other Christians can not run for office, speak out on political issues or otherwise get involved with national interests. It simply means that the state should not pick one tradition and give it special status.

A state church is like the ring of power from the Lord of the Rings. Gandalf refused the ring even though it would make him powerful enough to destroy Sauron because he knew the ring would corrupt him and he would become just as evil. Gandalf would have made a good Baptist.

As Baptists, we want to be free to express our faith as we understand it from the Scripture without interference from the government.

Conclusion

I am not here to say that the Baptist church is the one true church. But I do want to say that I think that Baptists have some good things to say. While I primarily identify as a Christian, I am comfortable with the Baptist distinctives. We are not the only Christians to believe at least some of these statements. I would hope that all Christians would affirm Jesus as Lord and the authority of Scripture. The other beliefs are important as well but there is room for us to have conversation with other traditions. I stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters who have other forms of baptism or hold to episcopal or presbyterian forms of church government. All Christians of all traditions are welcome to worship here. At the same time, there is a place for us to celebrate our Baptist tradition.

The End of the World!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Introduction

Today we are going to talk about the end-times. Does that sound strange to you? Does talking about the end of the world make you feel uncomfortable? Are you afraid that we might be some kind of a cult?

The truth is that we all believe in the end of the world. Think in terms of movies and television shows. One of the most popular genres is that of the post-apocalyptic world. But it goes beyond entertainment.

Long before I knew what the Bible said about the end, I feared the end of the world. Growing up during the cold war, I feared a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although that fear has subsided, there still are fears. Perhaps the end will be due to a plague developed by those working in the area of bio-chemical warfare. Perhaps the end will because of poor use of our resources and not enough control over pollution. Perhaps our planet will be hit by a meteor or a comet, as such things fly through our solar system on a regular basis.

No scientist would ever suggest that life as we know it will go on forever. Even if we could stop the aging process and cure every disease, eventually our sun will explode. The end will come one way or another.

Are you depressed yet?

I share all this to say that talking about the end of the world is not strange. It will happen. And into this conversation, the Bible has much to say. This may be a difficult topic, because like the creation-evolution debate, many people have strong opinions. Some of the things that we believe are true have very little biblical evidence.

Danger of Focusing on the End

One of the reasons that people are uncomfortable talking about the end is that such ideas have been abused. Some people, usually religious of some kind, have misled people, either because they themselves were confused or they purposely try to deceive people. This latter purpose has been the strategy of some televangelists, but I think they are a minority.

Growing up in church, the end-times were never spoken of. I had no idea that there was anything in the Bible about Jesus returning. If I thought about it at all, I thought they were the beliefs of some fringe group.

After a period of my life as an atheist, I ended up believing in God but had not embraced any particular religion. I was working for some born again Christians who had a vibrant and detailed idea of what the end would be like. They believe that Jesus was returning, perhaps in a matter of days, if not hours, and that I needed to become a Christian right away. There was something called a rapture coming and if I missed that, my only chance would be to become a Christian and be executed by the antichrist. But no pressure.

One of the dangers of focusing on the end-times is the temptation to try and predict dates and other details. There are many people today who read the news and believe it is obvious that the end was near. I have done some research and have discovered that almost every generation has had the same confidence.

Just since the beginning of this millennium, we have had many predictions of the end. Authors have sold books on the topic, people have given up their jobs, lives have been turned upside down. Each time the day and hour passes and the prediction is proved false. The damage done is that it makes people believe that the end will never come and in some cases, that the Christian faith is just as fake.

One of the dangers that I see is the compilation of detailed descriptions of the end-times. These include timelines, spelling out when each event will take place and how long it will take. Although they will list Bible passages, the actual description of the events is never found like that in the Bible.

What the Bible Teaches

I think that the best thing to do is focus on the big picture of what the Bible clearly teaches. You can pick and choose from obscure verses to make whatever you want. However, there are certain themes that appear over and over. we need to stick with them.

First, we need to be clear that Jesus will return. This is not some isolated verse hidden some where. It is found numerous times throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, as well as Revelation. Jesus repeatedly spoke of his return. When will this happen? Some of his followers asked Jesus that very question and he told them that he did not know. Even the angels don’t know. Only God the Father knows.

The return of Jesus is what Paul is describing in 1 Thessalonians. Paul also describes something else happening at the same time. When Jesus returns, his followers will be resurrected. This includes those that are dead and those that are living at the time. The living will be transformed to receive upgraded bodies built for eternity.

This passage in 1 Thessalonians is where people get the idea of the rapture. I don’t like the image of the rapture. The way people use the rapture is that the world is going to hell and Jesus makes an appearance to rescue his people from this evil world.

The resurrection has another meaning. What will happen is that we will meet Jesus, be transformed and return with him, having been made the way were always meant to be. The imagery Paul uses is of the return of a beloved king. The city sends out people to greet him and together they return to the city for him to once again take up his throne.

Many Christians believe that the afterlife is about being freed from physical bodies and becoming spirits floating in heaven. That is only partial truth. Yes, our spirits go to heaven at death. But that is a waiting room until the resurrection. Our ultimate goal is to receive resurrection bodies and to live on earth. The Bible even speaks of the planet being remade, even resurrected. Revelation tells us that God will descend out of heaven and dwell on earth with his people. That is the big picture and I think we are better off with these clear teachings than we are with speculation.

What This Means

Some people are interested in talking about the end-times just for its own sake. Theology is interesting and is worth discussing. But what does this mean for everyone else?

One of the consistent themes is that of being ready. Since we do not know when Jesus is returning, we should life with a ready and faithful attitude. We can’t just live the way we want. I’m not suggesting we live in fear. But we should ask if Jesus would be pleased finding us doing what we are doing when he returns.

This is the flip side of that idea. We need to plan for the long term. Live as if Jesus is coming back today and plan as if he is not coming back for another century. We need to plan for our families, including retirement. But even more important we need to plan for effective ministry for the long term. The people who built this church could have chosen not to because Jesus could have returned in their life time. But because they did build this building, we have the resources for effective ministry.

The final aspect of this is that the return of Jesus gives us hope. There is so much evil, hate and violence in our world. Our increased technology has not made our world more peaceful, it is has just made it more efficient to humiliate and harm one another. It can be depressing.

The return of Jesus is a promise. It is a promise that God will not leave things the way they are. Jesus will come back and reveal to the world who we are, through the resurrection. He will also deal with the evil in the world. This is what we call Judgment Day. We have the benefit of being able to flip to the last page and find out how the story ends. This gives us hope.

Conclusion

There is so much that I don’t know. I don’t know when Jesus is returning. I don’t know who or what the antichrist is. I don’t know what it will look like when Jesus returns. I don’t know what the resurrection will look like for those whose bodies have turned to dust.

But there is some that I do know. Jesus Christ will return. I know that his return will accompanied by the resurrection. Whether we are alive or dead at the time, we will be raised. Our bodies will be transformed and we will live forever. Finally, I know there is a reason to hope. Jesus won the victory on the cross and the empty tomb and that victory will be ours when he returns.

Is Jesus the Only Way?

John 14:1-6

Introduction

If you were to ask a person on the street about what they disliked about Christianity, there would be one item that would be near the top of the list. Some would accuse Christians of being intolerant. Although people may see us as intolerant in a number of ways, there is one aspect that would be common. Christianity is exclusivist. What I mean by that is that Christians believe that we are correct in our interpretation of God and specifically that Jesus is the only way to find salvation.

How can we hold to such a view? We live in a pluralistic culture. Our neighbours and co-workers, the children at our schools, all follow different religions. There are different ideas about who or what God is. Won’t insisting that our interpretation is right tear apart our society?

There are actually two questions we need to ask. The first is whether Jesus really is the only way. The second is whether that belief is dangerous and unhealthy.

There are people even within the church who struggle with these ideas. I know of one well known religious writer, a former priest, who believed that the exclusivist passage from John 14 was the foundation for the crusades, inquisition and the holocaust. This led him to a radical reinterpretation of who and what Jesus was that would make all people of every religion the same.

These are questions that are worth asking. In doing so, we need to look both to our Bible and to our cultural context.

Are All Religions True?

I wish I had a dollar for every time a person has told me that all religions are basically the same. When I hear such claims, I try to ask questions about what ways they are the same.

It is easy to assert that they are all the same but such similarities quickly disappear under scrutiny.

Here are some examples of major differences. Many Hindus believe everything is God, many Buddhists that there is no God. Jews believe that Jesus is neither Messiah nor Son of God. Muslims believe that Jesus is the Messiah but not the Son of God. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Jews believe that Jesus was crucified but not resurrected. Muslims believe that Jesus was neither crucified nor resurrected. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

Some may argue that these are only surface differences and that deep down they are the same. I disagree as these are major differences. However, each religion disagrees as to what the actual root problem of humanity is.

For Hindus, the problem is breaking the cycle of reincarnation from bad karma. For Buddhists, the problem is suffering based on being attached to things and people. For Jews, the problem is covenant faithfulness. For Muslims, the problem is the need to submit to God. For, Christians the problem is separation from God because of sin.

Of course each religion has a different solution, because each religion has a different idea of what the problem is. Because of this, saying that all the religions are basically the same does not make sense. It is like a man introducing his wife and saying that she is both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time.

I’m not arguing here for the truth of Christianity. All I’m saying is that it is possible that one of these religions is true or that none of the religions are true. What is not possible is that all of the religions are true.

Is Christianity Intolerant?

I’m not ready to argue for the truth of the Jesus way. I need to address the emotional response that people have when we talk about there being only one way. If we say that Jesus is the only way, does that make us bad people? Is Christianity intolerant at its core?

I am going to argue that an exclusive Christianity is more tolerant than those who attempt to be inclusive by blending all the religions into one.

What does it mean to be tolerant? Tolerance, despite what many in the media say, is not about embracing everything as the same. Tolerance is the willingness to allow something even if you disagree with it or don’t like it. Imagine you are walking in the snow with your winter boots on. A stone falls into your boot and there is no way to take it out without removing your boot and getting your feet wet. In such a case, you would be tolerating the stone. The discomfort to the foot is worth the benefit of keeping the feet dry. That is tolerance.

Imagine a different scenario. I go to visit a person in this congregation and they insist on giving me chocolate every time I visit them. Do I tolerate the chocolate? No. I can’t tolerate what I love, I can only embrace it.

How does this fit with other religions? Although I believe that Christianity is true and is the only way, I also affirm other religions to believe the same thing about their beliefs. I’m not offended by Muslims believing the five pillars are correct or Buddhists believing that the eightfold path is correct. I don’t want them to compromise their beliefs just to say nicer things about me. As an exclusivist, I will stand up for the rights of other to be exclusivists.

I would suggest that those who try to blend all the religions into one are actually less tolerant. They are less tolerant because they ask not just one but all religions to give up on what makes them unique.

Christians should be tolerant specifically in fight for the right for all religions to have the freedom of expressions but without demanding that each religion compromise what they really believe.

Why Can’t Jesus Be One of Many Ways?

You have perhaps heard people describe religion as different paths up a mountain, all leading to the same God. It doesn’t matter which path you take as all go to the top. The problem with this is that the religions don’t even agree on if there is a God, much less what that God is like. If you went back in time and assured the Buddha that you believed his teachings are valid ways to experience God, he would look at you very strangely as God had no place in his philosophy.

I am sympathetic with the desire to say all religions lead to God. I will even agree that all religions have some degree of truth in them and all are able to produce good and ethical people. But there is a problem with saying that they all do the same thing.

Think about the central claim of Christianity. God sent his Son to die on a cross to pay the penalties for our sins. Does that even make sense if there are some other equally valid but less painful means of salvation?

Think about it in this way. Imagine that there is a disease. Doctors have found ways to treat it with both a variety of medications and some surgery. But they have also discovered that there is something in my son’s brain that could be made into another cure, but it would result in his death. If there were already good and effective ways to treat the disease, would I really offer the death of my son, just to provide a bit more variety in the range of cures? Not a chance.

But that is what we would have to accept if the teachings of prophets and spiritual masters, meditation and religious practices were already bringing people to God. There would have been no reason for God to offer his Son. In fact it would have been cruel. But we believe that it is only through Jesus that we can come to God.

What About Those Who Have Not Heard?

Before I conclude, I need to address an important question. What about those who have never heard of Jesus? In our city you can hardly go any distance before bumping into a church building. It is not that way every place in the world. Are people damned for lack of knowledge that is not their fault?

There are no easy answers but we can say some things about this. First, there is more than enough evidence for God in nature. You don’t need a Bible to know God exists. The true God is revealed. I believe that if a person honestly calls out to God with a humble heart that they will meet Jesus in some way. That may be through God sending missionaries or God speaking through dreams and visions. They may never read a New Testament or have detailed information about Jesus, but we are not saved by passing a theology quiz. All we are saying is that salvation is through faith in Jesus, whatever that may look like. I truly believe that all those who seek will find. We just need be aware that it might be us that God uses to reveal Jesus.

Conclusion

You may feel a tinge of guilt if you believe that Jesus is the only way to God. You may fear accusations of intolerance and bigotry. But believing Jesus is the only way is nothing of the sort. As long as we are willing to share the freedom that we desire to express our beliefs to other religions, there is nothing wrong with this. We are actually being insulting to other religions by trying to throw them all into a blender. Every religion has an exclusivist component.

In our pluralistic world, we can present our beliefs about Jesus, and let people decide for themselves. Backing down and saying that all the religions are the same is not the compassionate thing to do.

It is only through Jesus that God became a human being. It was through that Jesus that full payment was made on the cross. That same Jesus was raised from the dead and offers that life to us. Popular or unpopular, it is through Jesus that we experience the truth.

Blessings and Woes in an Upside Down World

A sermon that looks at the blessings and woes in Luke 6:17-26 .

Introduction

God bless you! When are you most likely to hear that? While we should hear it a lot in church, you probably hear it more when people sneeze. This tradition goes back thousands of years. The ancient Romans would say “Jupiter preserve you” when someone sneezed. Arabs often say “Praise be to God.” Other cultures have more secular responses such as gesundheit, which means “health.” Almost every culture in every generation has some sort of good wish or prayer in response to a sneeze. Our familiar “God bless you” has been attributed to Pope Gregory the Great who said it during the bubonic plague outbreak in case the sneeze was the beginning of something more serious. This blessing generally emerges out of fear. Some feared that when you sneezed, your soul temporarily left your body and the blessing was needed to stop the devil from grabbing it. Others feared the devil got in with a sneeze and the blessing kicked him out. More recently, people feared your heart stopped during the sneeze and the blessing would get it going again.

That’s all very interesting but what is a blessing? There are a number of blessing lists in the Bible, including the beatitudes. If you compare this version in Luke with that from Matthew 5, you will notice they are similar but different. Why is this? I suspect that Jesus taught on this subject a number of times in different places. He would adjust the message according to the context and what we have in Luke is specific to this context.

But we still have not defined what a blessing is.

A good definition of blessing that I found is “the distinctive religious joy which accrues to [people] from [their] share in the salvation of the kingdom of God.”

The Greek word was used by Homer to speak of the gods in their contentment and happiness living with no fear or want. Later it began to be used more for people, in the ways that we typically think of it today. It was for the rich and powerful.

But that is not how it is used in the Bible as we will see. In fact the Bible seems to be responding to the popular ideas of blessings. I will also say that blessing is almost always referring to a person rather than a thing. It is people that are blessed and not things.

How Does the World Identify the Blessed?

Aside from people who sneeze, who would we identify as those who are blessed? One way to think about this would be to imagine God coming to you and saying, “I want to bless you, what do you want?” I think that many people would want financial independence. It doesn’t have to be a billion dollars but being rich would be nice. They say money can’t by happiness, but not being able to afford to pay the bills is not so fun. Lotteries do a great job of leveraging this desire within us with their message of “Imagine the freedom.”

What else could we want? Good health would be a great blessing. As someone who has had some serious health concerns, I am pretty thankful when doctors and medication can get me back on track. When I hear about people getting good reports from the doctors, I am very happy. This is what we want to hear. When you talk to a young couple who are about to have a baby, they will often say, “We don’t care if it is a boy or a girl, as long as the baby is healthy.”

What other things would we consider blessings? I think popularity would be one. No one likes to be unpopular. Most people want to have friends that enjoy their presence and don’t just tolerate it. Another blessing would be approval or respect from other people. I took a course at Brock and the professor announced to the class that most people failed the major paper. I picked up my paper and I received over 90% and so I looked for every opportunity to drop my paper grade side up for people to see. What about the work world? It is nice to have a job with good pay and benefits. But it is also nice when your boss promotes you to a higher position with greater authority and prestige.

In our passage from Luke, Jesus gives us a good list of who the world would consider blessed, a list that fits with ours. Jesus speaks of the rich, the well fed, those who laugh and those who are spoken well of. That sounds like a pretty good life to me. Unfortunately, Jesus moves that list from the blessed category to the woe category. That is concerning and requires a closer look.

How Does Jesus Identify the Blessed?

In the beatitudes, Jesus seems to turn everything upside down. He puts those we think are blessed in the woe category and those we would normally think of as unfortunate as blessed. The first thing that we have to realize is that this is not about Jesus having a bad day. Turning things upside down is what Jesus does. Who are the great leaders? They are the servants. Who are the great in the kingdom? Those who are considered the least. Everything is opposite.

We looked at the one list of people that Jesus gave in the woes and the list of the blessed are the exact opposite. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the hated. Probably none of us want those experiences and yet they are identified as the blessed. What do we do with this? When people come here for Out of the Cold, should we withhold the meal so they can be blessed with hunger while we are cursed with full stomachs? You can see how hard it is to interpret this and put it into practice.

Is it always wrong to be rich? There were wealthy people who helped support Jesus’ ministry and even provided for his tomb. There are people today who are gifted to be successful in business and are intentional in using their wealth to fund ministries, support charities and give to churches.

Is it always good to be poor? What about a person who refuses to work, not because they have a problem but because they don’t feel like it. What about those who put all their money into habits that damage their bodies and their relationships?

Is it really wrong to laugh? When you see your child or grandchild do something cute and you laugh out of sheer joy, have you sinned? Do we need to be crying all the time, no matter what the circumstances? Billy Graham is respected and spoken well of by many people, even outside the Church. Is that bad? There are politicians who are hated and who seem to enjoy getting people upset. Are they blessed?

We must be very careful in interpreting this passage but at the same time we dare not reject it because it seems counterintuitive.

A basic interpretation step is to read every passage in its context. Luke is nice enough to give us  the context in which Jesus gave this teaching. We are told that people from all over, even from outside Israel, were coming to him. They cam to him to hear him, which is good. But it is obvious that they were looking for more than just a Bible study. They were also coming to have their diseases cured. What was the stronger impulse? If you were sick, what would you be more interested in, a sermon or a healing?

Healings were not a bad thing. Jesus would not have performed them if they were. Jesus had compassion on the sick and he healed them. But even more than this, the hearings were signs of the kingdom of God, or the reign of God breaking into the world. Miracles were meant to point to the kingdom and not to be an end of themselves. The danger was that people could interpret the hearings as God’s primary desire from them to be comfortable and have an easy life. The people were ready for a message in which God would give them the things they had always wanted in life.

The people they wanted to be was the rich, fed, laughing and those that people spoke well of. But these were a specific kind of people. These were rich and fed by taking advantage of the poor and withholding the resources they had. They were laughing, not because they were filled with joy, they were laughing in mockery of the people who they say as be less than them. People spoke well of them, not because they deserved the respect, but because people would flatter them into getting what they wanted. These were the people who felt self-sufficient and in control. Woe to them.

The blessings are for those who are a part of the kingdom of God. You do not have to be poor or starving to be a part of the kingdom but you can’t be self-sufficient in your own strength, nor can you climb on the backs of the poor to get where you want to be.

The key is the kingdom of God. How are we to understand the kingdom of God? This is not a simplistic idea of everything will be all right in heaven. There is a great reward in heaven as Jesus shares here. But that reward is one that benefits us now. We live not just in the hope of heaven but in the light of heaven. Those in the kingdom are blessed now, because simply being in the kingdom is a blessing. When we are in the kingdom, we receive all that we need from God. We live in a state of full reliance of God, trusting in his provision rather than in our own confidence.

As with all things of God, reality is not defined by what we see on the outside. David did not look impressive as a king and Jesus did not look impressive as a messiah. God works in a different way and it throws our world upside down.

Conclusion

I want you to go from this place blessed. But that does not mean I want you to leave the building poor, hungry, weeping and hated. I want you to leave this building as one who fully embraces the kingdom of God. If we submit to God in every area of our life, it does not matter if we we are rich or poor, full or hungry, laughing or weeping, respected or hated. What matters is that we look to God for our strength, live according to his will and seek to spread his kingdom.

Was Jesus Really God?

Hebrews 1:1-4

Introduction

It was about two years ago that I applied for the pastoral position at Queen Street Baptist Church. I will confess that it was an interview process different from many others in my experience. Not that previous search committees were unfriendly, but I felt a particular connection with this one. It helped that we met in the home of one of the members. I never had tea and cookies in previous church interviews.

But that is not to say that they were unprofessional or not thorough. As we shared about each other, we discovered that Paul Collins was my former high school vice principal. He didn’t remember me, which he said was a good thing. This was the first interview I had been to where one of my high school year books was brought in as a resource. One of the other things I appreciated is that they called the person who was my pastor at the time as a reference. While he didn’t tell me what he said, he did tell me that he was impressed with the depth of questions that they asked him. I’m thankful for this because I have known people who have been hired for jobs and it is obvious no one called references.

Why do I go into all this? When a church is calling a pastor, it is important that they know who and what they are getting.

When we become followers of Jesus, it is even more important that we know who and what he is. There are plenty of theories. Muslims believe that he was a prophet but only a man. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that he was more than a man and was actually the archangel Michael. What is it that Christians believe about Jesus? Specifically, what was his relationship to God?

Biblical Evidence

We need to begin with what the Bible says about Jesus. This is much more important than the later creeds. I would like to share three passages, although there are many more.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.” (John 1:1-3)

The being referred to as the Word here is Jesus. What we find here is that Jesus was God but also was with God. This tells us Jesus was divine and yet God is more than Jesus. This gets us into the doctrine of the Trinity, there is one God and that God is made of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We also see that part of Jesus’ divine activity was creation.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for all things in heaven and on earth were created in him—all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16)

Here Paul confirms for us what we read in John. Not only was Jesus pre-existent, that is existing and active before he was born as a baby to Mary, Jesus was involved in creation. I should mention that calling Jesus the firstborn is not a reference to Jesus coming into existence. Jesus is eternal, just as the Father is. It is more of a reference of Jesus as being the heir or the chosen one through who the Father will accomplish his will.

“[Jesus] who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

Here we see that something radical took place at the incarnation. Jesus, even though fully God, took on all the limitations of being a human being. In the context, Paul is telling us that we are to follow Jesus’ example of humility.

Miracle of the Incarnation

That is some of the raw data that we have but I want to go deeper. First I need to say that you will hear some people suggest that Jesus as God was a later development, that some church council made the decision. And in the Roman world, the emperors did become gods by a vote of the senate. But that is not what happened with Jesus. What we find is that in our earliest writings, Jesus was already understood as being divine. In addition to what we have already looked at, the Gospels and Paul see Jesus as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies that attribute the work to God.

I also need to say that the earliest heresies were not about Jesus being really human, but about him being only God. People in the early church had no problem seeing Jesus as God, but some really struggled with seeing him as being actually human. Some say Jesus as being God but only pretending to be human. They didn’t think he even had real flesh, blood or bones. They saw him as pure spirit. But that is not what the Bible teaches.

This is one of the most exciting things about Christianity. We believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human. So we believe he is without beginning, that he created all that exists and is a person of the one Trinitarian God. But we also believe he was born as a human baby, that he had to learn to walk and talk, went through puberty, grew up into a man and died a real death. If we lean too far either into his divinity or his humanity, we fall into error. It is only in that beautiful balance of fully God and fully human that we witness the miracle of the incarnation.

What This Means

But so what? What if you are not interested in theology? I think that the concept of Jesus as God and human is extremely relevant to our lives.

What is God like? Most people in our world believe in some sort of divine being. But what is he like? Some see God as equivalent to creation. Some see God as being completely impersonal. Some see a God who created the universe and perhaps even created the first life on earth and then just walked away.

Christians believe in Emmanuel, that is God with us. Jesus reveals God to us through his life, death and resurrection. God is not something way out there but is someone who puts sandals on and a robe and walks among people. Although that Jesus is in heaven now, he still has a body and the Spirit continues to reveal Jesus to us.

Jesus is the revelation of God’s love. We think of the crucifixion as the ultimate sacrifice and it is. But think of the sacrifice of Jesus in the incarnation. Imagine going from being an omnipresent spirit to being a fetus in a womb being fed through an umbilical chord. Can our minds truly comprehend that?

Jesus gives us hope in our suffering. God, being omniscient, that is all knowing, knows all the facts of our suffering and pain. But through the incarnation of Christ, God knows our suffering by experience. God knows poverty. God knows betrayal by friends and family. God knows physical pain. God even knows death. The God who knows is the God who gives us hope.

Conclusion

While I love to discuss theology, that is not what this is about. God loved us so much that he gave his Son to us, not just to die for us, but to become like us. Jesus really is God and Jesus really is human. He was never pretending.

The incarnation, Word becoming flesh, gives us hope. The chasm between God and humanity seemed too wide but the Father found a bridge that fit perfectly and it was his Son.

Rejoice that we can know God through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Did God Command Genocide?

Joshua 6:12-21

Introduction

I want you to imagine that a friend or family member comes to you and announces they have decided to start reading the Bible. You are overjoyed, after all, it is the Good Book. You begin to wonder where they will start. Will they begin with some of those beautiful Psalms? Will it be one of the Gospels that so powerfully recount the life of Jesus? Maybe on of Paul’s letters to Timothy, where he shares his deep wisdom with a close friend.

The person then tells you that they have decided to begin with the book of Joshua because they have heard it has lots of action. Having read Joshua before and being horrified of stories where God commands the Israelites to attack cities and kill every man and woman, you break into your friend’s home and replace their Bible with a New Testament and Psalms.

Whether you are just beginning your spiritual journey or have been a Christian for decades, there are some disturbing stories in the Old Testament. Skeptics make accusations of God being a genocidal maniac, who even if he does exist, is not worthy of worship. What do we do with this?

There have been numerous attempts to deal with this problem. As you may know, some Christians are pacifists and feel strongly about complete nonviolence. I will not be dealing with that here, but I will address some of the ways they look at these passages. Some look at the passages where it seems like God is calling Israel to commit acts of violence and assert that this was an example of the misuse of religion. God did not actually command these things but Israelites who wanted war attempted to borrow God’s authority by attributing their violent desires to God. Others will not give a specific interpretation but will simply say that the God revealed in Jesus Christ would never have commanded such a thing. We might not know why the Old Testament seems to say such things but we can be assured it was not God who commanded it. Finally, there are those who accept that in the Old Testament, God did use violence to accomplish his will. But now, with the appearing of Jesus, we are called to a higher standard. This is similar to parents treating their children a certain way at one age and then adjusting that relationship as they become adults.

From my perspective, I can’t just ignore the passages or pretend that they are not there. At the same time, I will confess I don’t like them. They make me uncomfortable and I’m sympathetic with those who want to dismiss them. But we are stuck with a Bible that makes us uncomfortable. For this reason, we are going to take a look at what God seems to do in the Old Testament.

Is God Different in the OT and NT?

One of the common claims is that God seems to be different in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, he seems to be a God of wrath who loves to smite. In the New Testament, he seems to be a God of grace who loves to welcome. What is going on here?

The different descriptions of God are actually not as separate as is often claimed. An Old Testament example is found in Jonah. The prophet Jonah gets mad at God. Not because God is too violent but because God is too nice and forgiving. Jonah wanted God to wipe out Nineveh but instead he shows grace.

When we look at the New Testament, we can find an example in Acts where God does some old fashioned smiting. We also see in the book of Revelation that God is not afraid of wrath. While there may be more emphasis on grace in the New Testament, it is the same God in both testaments.

A Closer Look

With that taken care of, let’s take a closer look at this problem. Did God command the people of Israel to commit genocide? The simple answer is no. What I mean by that is that God did not command the wiping out of an entire race. This was not the kind of ethnic cleansing that we saw in Yugoslavia or Rwanda.

How can I say this? Because over and over, God expresses his intention of driving the Canaanites out of the land that he had given to Abraham generations before. There is no command to the Israelites to pursue the Canaanites wherever they flee until the entire race is exterminated. In addition, we have examples of Canaanites, such as Rahab and others, who are allowed to stay in the land with Israel. The goal was not to end a race of people but for Israel to possess the land that was promised to them. We can still disagree with that if we want, but we need to call it what it was, and it was not genocide.

Why did the Canaanites have to go? It was not because God hated them as a people. Rather their worship, not only was it aimed at false gods, also include child sacrifice and other evils. God knew if the Israelites lived side by side with the Canaanites, they would adopt their practices. How do I know this? Because Israel did not drive all the Canaanites out and Israel did adopt some of their practices.

But it still might seem unfair. Something else for us to consider is that the people they attacked were not particularly innocent. In fact, God waited until they reached a certain level of evil before using Israel to punish them.

Something else to consider. There are a couple of passages where the Israelites are commanded to kill all the men, women and children. But that was not the command for the entire land. It was only a couple of cities. Some historical research has demonstrated that these towns were not large cities like St. Catharines. Rather, they were garrison towns that were mostly made up of soldiers and their families. That still does not make it easy, but it is important to know. We also see that there was plenty of warning and that these garrison towns were welcome to flee before the invading Israelites. I don’t believe that God rejoiced in the slaughter.

One other thing needs to be taken into account before labelling this as genocide. Yes God used the Israelites to punish the Canaanites for their evil. But God also used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their evil. It is not as simple as God loved one people and hated another.

I don’t expect you to be comfortable with how Israel possessed Canaan or what God commanded them to do. But I want you to get the most important fact about this. This was a one time event that was never to be repeated, not by Israel and certainly not by the Christian church. These were extreme circumstances that were meant only for Israel to initially take the land.

There have been times in church history when these passages have been abused. During the crusades, some supposed Christians, including, clergy, were involved in slaughtering whole villages of Jews and Muslims. Sometimes they did this to Christians as well. They looked to these passages in Joshua as their justification. Joshua does not tell us to kill those who are different from us. We are not called to spread the gospel by sword or gun.

What we read about in Joshua is something that happened in the past and not an example to be given for repeating in the present or future.

Conclusion

How do you feel about these Old Testament passages? I know I still feel uncomfortable. But there are two things that I want you to get out of this. This is not about God hating an entire race of innocent people and commanding Israel to kill everyone until the entire ethnic group disappeared. They were not innocent and they were never meant to be exterminated. God was driving the people out, by measures uncomfortable to us, so that Israel could have the land. Secondly, this is not meant for us to repeat today. It has been abused by the church but it is not for the church. Things like the crusades and inquisition are mistakes of our past. What took place in Joshua was for that time only.

We still may not like what God did through Israel. That is fine. Thankfully the gospel is not about the invasion of Canaan but the coming of the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. It is the cross and the empty tomb that we look to for hope. Of that we can be confident.

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.