Who Sinned? (and Other Distracting Questions)

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 4A, March 30, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23.1-6; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So why did that earthquake hit LA yesterday? Is this an indication of God’s judgment on all the corrupt living going on in CA? And the missing Malaysian jet? Who sinned so that all the passengers are apparently lost? John catches our attention immediately in our gospel lesson this morning by reporting that one of Jesus’ disciples asks Jesus a similar “why” question: “Who sinned, that this man is blind?” We love to ask questions like this, both among ourselves and to God, because as we shall see, they are so deliciously distracting. But Scripture is remarkably reticent in answering our “why” questions. Instead, Scripture focuses more on answering the what and how questions and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

When we ask God and each other “why” questions, we are essentially asking about God’s justice. Why do bad things happen to people? Is it a matter of God’s version of quid pro quo where we get a reward for doing good and get whacked for doing evil? Now on one level Scripture is clear about why bad things happen to people. God created his world good but human sin and evil have corrupted it and caused God’s curse to fall on both his creation and creatures (Genesis 3.1-24). The resulting darkness about which John speaks in his prologue creates all kinds of moral, spiritual, psychological, and physical chaos, and as humans we try to make sense of the chaos. We want to know, for example, why evil (the snake) was in paradise in the first place. But Scripture gives us no answer. The entire book of Job addresses the problem of evil in God’s good world. And while we are given some insight into the source of at least some evil (Satan), at the end of the day, Job’s questions about why God allows evil to operate remain unanswered even as Job’s whole ordeal provides a devastating critique of traditional Jewish thinking on rewards and punishment: good things happen to righteous people and bad things happen to unrighteous people. But Job was a righteous man and he still suffered massively.

Now here in our gospel lesson we have Jesus’ disciples asking him to confirm their thinking about how God’s justice works. They assumed that because the blind man had been born blind, it was because he or his parents were sinners, i.e., here was another example of an unrighteous man and/or his family getting their just desserts. It is exactly the same kind of thinking that the Pharisees used against the blind man and Jesus as they sought to discredit the healing itself, the healed, and the healer. But Jesus would have none of that kind of thinking and we need to take our cue from both his response and the story that follows (cf. Mark 10.23-27).

Instead of explaining to his disciples and us why the man was born blind, Jesus tells us that it provided God an opportunity to work through him to bring God’s light and healing to his world created good but corrupted by sin and evil, i.e., to bring God’s order to chaos, and he promptly healed the blind man. This healing is even more remarkable because as neurologists will remind us, for a man born blind to be able to see immediately, two miracles needed to occur. The man’s eyes needed to be healed and his brain circuitry needed to be rewired to allow him to make sense of what he was seeing because there would have been no mental schemata in his brain to help him organize and make sense of these brand new visual data. For those of us who are born with sight, we take this seeing business for granted because we have spent a lifetime learning how to make sense of the various visual data to which we are exposed. But for one born blind, learning to make sense of the data would require new learning and this normally takes time. But not in this case. The man was able to see and immediately make sense of what he was seeing! None of this should surprise us, of course, because nothing is too hard for God. After all, God is the God who calls into existence things that don’t exist and gives life to the dead (Romans 4.17). This healing therefore has all the marks of being genuinely God-given.

We also notice in this story that we are watching John’s themes of light and darkness that he introduced in his prologue being played out in real life and this is what we need to pay attention to. Here we see a powerful example of God working in his good but broken world to heal it and put it to rights. We see the very heart and love of God for his hurting and broken creatures at work, the same heart and love of God that we read about in Psalm 23 this morning. Here is what John means when he told us earlier that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1.5). It is the same light we ultimately see in Jesus’ resurrection that overcame the terrible darkness of Good Friday so that we can actually call that awful day good because it signaled God’s victory over evil, sin, and death and as we saw last week, our reconciliation with God made possible only by the blood of the Lamb shed for us.

The same light of God’s healing love and goodness that shined so brightly for the blind man is also available to us and our world today to heal and redeem us, to reclaim our dark and broken lives so that we might live in the light of God’s love and new creation revealed in this story and most powerfully in Jesus’ resurrection. That is why we need to read stories like John’s on a regular basis because they remind us of God’s great love for us and that he has both the desire and power to heal all the sin and brokenness of our lives and world. This helps us commit our darkness to Jesus’ love and power and see what he does with it (and us).

All this takes faith on our part, of course, especially because Jesus is no longer available to us in his bodily presence as he was to the blind man, and this can cause us to wonder if Jesus is really with us after all. But he is available to us in the power of the Spirit and through his people, and here we must also pay attention to the warning about spiritual pride and closed-mindedness. Are we going to be like Jesus’ opponents with their preconceived notions of how God should work in his world and our lives, notions that are almost always wrong or distorted (after all, they challenged the healing and the healer!), so that their closed-mindedness and hard hearts caused them to reject the light of God’s love clearly offered in Jesus and powerfully demonstrated in the healing of the blind man so that they had no other option than to incur God’s judgment? Or are we going to be like the blind man and be open to the light of God’s love and healing power for us so that we allow ourselves to follow Jesus’ light as we walk through our own dark valleys? As John’s story reminds us, this is not always a clear-cut or simple proposition because the darkness of human sin and evil produces chaos and unpredictability of all kinds and our path is not always immediately clear. Note, for example, the confusion in the story. Was the man really born blind? Who really healed him? Was Jesus really from God? etc. But the promise of our gospel lesson is that despite the chaos, Jesus really is present to us to heal and rescue us from our darkness, even if it doesn’t look like what we hoped for or expected. Do you believe this? If you do, it’s a game-changer.

And precisely because Jesus is available to us in and through the power of the Spirit and in Jesus’ people gathered together in his name, we need to pay attention to what Paul tells us in our epistle lesson. We are made God’s holy people by the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross and in the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, individually and collectively as the Church. We are called to be God’s holy people in Jesus so that we can continue to embody God’s love for his broken and hurting world to others, which means we cannot go on living in our old selfish and sin-sick ways. Instead, we are called to imitate Jesus in all our living so that he can work in and through us to bring about his kingdom on earth as in heaven. This is what we are saved for and when we live faithfully to Jesus by embodying his self-giving love to everyone, he will happily use us to bring his light to the world to expose its darkness to either heal or judge it.

When we read commands like this, our natural tendency is for us to think that Paul is telling us to go about angrily denouncing sinners (who conveniently happen to be everybody else but us) and judging them. But I do not think this is what Paul had in mind (cf. Acts 17.16-34). When, for example, we forgive our enemies when they hurt us instead of seeking to exact revenge, we expose the darkness of their hatred toward us for what it is and leave it open to the light of God’s love to heal. When we live sacrificially or meet our suffering with real hope and courage so that people stop and notice (and not always in a good way) how we are handling ourselves, we are exposing the dark and selfish ways of the world (it’s all about me and my needs) that those ways may be healed. When we refuse to worship the false gods of money, sex, and power as they are being played out currently in our society, we expose them for the false idols they are that they may be rejected. Or when we are courageous enough to speak the truth of Jesus Christ to his enemies just like the blind man did, we are exposing the darkness of their thinking to the light of Christ’s truth so that it might change. Notice carefully that the blind man did not get personal or judgmental with his adversaries. He simply exposed the flaw of their logic and thinking and essentially asked them to repent.

In other words, we do this to invite others into a saving relationship with Jesus, just like the blind man did with his examiners, so that they too will be healed and not have to face God’s terrible judgment! Of course, when by our faithful living and speaking we expose the world’s darkness for what it is, we should expect to receive on occasion the kind of reaction the blind man received. His opponents reviled him and excommunicated him from the life of his community (the synagogue). But this reviling is part of what it means to deny ourselves and take up our cross as we follow Jesus.

And so we return to our original question this morning. Why did this bad thing happen to the blind man? We are not given a direct answer to that question. Instead we are given a story of how Jesus embodies the love of God to bring healing and relief to God’s sin-sick world and our call as his people to do likewise. As we have seen, following Jesus is not easy because people love to live in their darkness rather than in the light of Jesus and this is the challenge that confronts us, especially during Lent. Are we working hard at putting to death all the darkness in us that wants to keep us hostile to God or are we too busy speculating about other people’s sins so that we can remain sufficiently distracted from dealing with our own? This is what happened to Jesus’ opponents and what can happen to us when we focus on the “why” questions.

So let us live as children of light, challenging as that is. Take hope as you embrace the challenge by remembering that our path to glory is through our suffering, just like Jesus’ path to glory was through his suffering. He is present with us right now in the power of the Spirit and through his people to heal and sustain us. And he promises to be with us forever in the new creation that will come in full one day when he returns in great power and glory. If you really believe that, folks, you can rejoice in all circumstances of your life because you know you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Augustine on Waging War Against the Flesh

Be sure that we will soon celebrate the passion of our crucified Lord. It is therefore in keeping with our commitment to Him that we should crucify ourselves by restraining the desires of the flesh.

Such is the cross upon which we Christians must continually hang, since our whole lives are beset by trials and temptations.

—Sermon 205.1

N.T. Wright on the Seven Signs in John’s Gospel

From John for Everyone, Part 2. Simply Beautiful.

The changing of water to wine was, as he told us clearly, the first in the sequence of ‘signs’ by which Jesus revealed his glory. The second was the healing of the nobleman’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54). From then on he leaves us to count up the ‘signs’, and different readers have reckoned them differently. I think the most convincing sequence goes like this. The third ‘sign’ is the healing of the paralysed man at the pool (5:1–9). The fourth is the multiplication of loaves and fishes (6:1–14). The fifth is the healing of the man born blind (9:1–12). And the sixth is the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44).

John cannot have intended the sequence to stop at six. With Genesis 1 in the back of his mind from the very start, the sequence of seven signs, completing the accomplishment of the new creation, has an inevitability about it. Now here we are, at the foot of the cross. John has told us throughout his gospel that when Jesus is ‘lifted up’, this will be the moment of God’s glory shining through him in full strength. And the ‘signs’ are the things that reveal God’s glory. I regard it as more or less certain that he intends the crucifixion itself to function as the seventh ‘sign’.

As though to confirm this, Jesus gives one last cry. ‘It’s finished!’ ‘It’s all done!’ ‘It’s complete!’ He has finished the work that the father had given him to do (17:4). He has loved ‘to the very end’ his own who were in the world (13:1). He has accomplished the full and final task.

The word that I’ve translated ‘It’s all done!’ is actually a single word in the original language. It’s the word that people would write on a bill after it had been paid. The bill is dealt with. It’s finished. The price has been paid. Yes, says John: and Jesus’ work is now complete, in that sense as in every other. It is upon this finished, complete work that his people from that day to this can stake their lives [emphasis mine]. (pp. 131-32)


Scot McKnight: Heaven: Some Reflections

As usual, an entertaining and thought-provoking post from Dr. McKnight. See what you think. How would you try to comfort a grieving Christian regarding heaven? Which view would cause you the most comfort as a Christian?

Heaven, what used to be the primary motivator for many to become a Christian or be faithful of a Christian, has fallen on hard times. I wonder what you think about heaven? But I’m not asking about just your theory. Instead, I want to come at this from a pastoral angle.

Now some thoughts.

1. Heaven has been swallowed up in our day by kingdom talk, and more often than not kingdom talk is about life on planet earth in the here and now, and that his has diminished discussion and appeal to heaven. Advantages or disadvantages?

2. The old “heaven” has become more focused today on the “new heavens and the new earth,” with the former usually connected to disembodied spirits and souls and the latter to embodied spirits or spirited bodies. Is there that much difference (for the one wondering about what happens they die) between these two? On this theme, see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Read it all.

Trevin Wax: Pagan Propitiation vs. Biblical Propitiation

A clear and succinct summary of this word (never try to say it with food in your mouth and people standing close by). Propitiation fell out of favor with many 20th century theologians and the Church’s theology of atonement has suffered mightily for it. See what you think.

Here’s what I mean: Propitiation is an ancient word, which we as Christians have in common with other world religions. To propitiate a god is to offer a sacrifice that turns aside the god’s wrath. Anyone who believes in a god knows that they need some way to stay on the friendly side of that god. So they give gifts to the god, or serve in the temple, or give alms. And if the god is angry with them, they pay a price, or make a sacrifice, or find some way to soothe the god’s anger: they propitiate him.

In pagan propitiation, the gods need to be propitiated because they are grumpy and capricious. They don’t care much about humans except when something makes them angry; then they smite! And it’s up to humans to get busy doing the propitiating, to make up for whatever they’ve done that angered the gods. The humans find something that the gods like (sweets, or meat, or pain, or blood), and offer it as a bribe to calm down their wrathful deities.

But every aspect of biblical propitiation contrasts with the pagan kind.

Read it all.

Christian Morality

I think Lewis is exactly right. If he is, then he provides us with another compelling reason why the season of Lent with its emphasis on self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial is so important. See what you think.

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that this is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The Essential Vice

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. Does this sound exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are, the easiest way is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?” The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or being clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking, there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really  far more the result of pride.

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

How did you do on Lewis’ “pride test”? Me? Not so good. Using the criteria here, it is astonishing at how Pride manifests itself in almost every segment of our society. Do you understand why Lewis would say that Pride is “the complete anti-God state of mind”? If you do, you are getting nearer to the foot of the cross.

Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 3A, March 23, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95.1-11; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As we enter the third full week of Lent, that 40-day season for self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial (how are you doing with these disciplines, BTW?), it is appropriate for us to read our OT lesson this morning with all its grumbling and rebellion against God because in this short passage we see the essence of the problem of the human condition and why Lent is so necessary for us. But we also see in our readings God’s response to all our grumbling and testing of him, and these are the themes I want us to look at briefly this morning.

“Is the Lord among us or not?” We can almost hear God’s people complaining and whining as they travel through the wilderness. God has rescued them in dramatic fashion from their slavery in Egypt and is now leading them to the land he promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their ancient ancestors. But now they are wandering in the wilderness and the people are starting to get anxious because there is no water for them to drink. At first blush we want to ask the psalmist why he sees this as grumbling and testing God. After all, don’t we need water to survive?

Israel’s demand for water would indeed be reasonable if they were schlepping through the wilderness on their own with no help from God, or if God were absent in their wanderings. But that is not the case. Think about it. God has rescued his people from Egypt by bringing them through the Red Sea and destroying a much more powerful force in Pharaoh’s army that was pursuing them. Not only had God’s people witnessed God’s mighty intervention on their behalf, now God was leading them through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 13.17-22) and had graciously provided for their every need. So if God was so powerfully present to his people and had provided for them, why were they now grumbling against him and his ability to provide? Why were they asking if God was among them or not? After all, weren’t these the kind of spectacular signs and wonders that Jesus’ opponents frequently demanded of him (cf. Matthew 16.1-4; Mark 8.11-13; Luke 11.14-16; John 6.29-31)? I mean, how many of us wouldn’t like to see God’s presence leading us in a pillar of cloud and fire or be impressed with water gushing spontaneously from a rock in the desert?

And we notice God’s gracious response to his people’s rebellion. God does not zap them dead or let them die of thirst because they made him angry. He gives them water. But as the psalmist reflects back on this incident, he warns us not to harden our hearts as God’s people did in demanding water from Moses (and through Moses, God). It seems pretty harsh for God to loathe and consign his stubborn and rebellious people to the wilderness for 40 long years. But is it? Try to think about it from God’s perspective. God had created his people Israel and called them to be his people through Abraham to help God rescue his sin-sick world when they finally settled in the promised land. But to do that, they needed to become holy people, to imitate God’s holy love and reflect it out into the world. In other words, God called his people Israel into a special relationship with God, a relationship that had to necessarily be governed by the conditions God established in his wisdom, grace, and love for his people. But almost from the beginning God’s people did not want to play the game using the framework God had established. Oh sure, they wanted the benefits. They wanted to conquer their enemies and enjoy ruling over them, but not many of them were interested in doing it God’s way. They wanted to do it their way.

And as we think about this in relational terms, it would be like us raising our kids to represent our family’s good name and values well, only to have them thumb their nose at us as adults. So we reach out to them. We plead with them or threaten to cut them off, but they do not respond. They see all we do and have done for them. They know that we love them, but they are more like the prodigal son who says no to all we stand for and then goes off to live as he sees fit. Being in this boat myself I can tell you it is both heartbreaking and maddening. Heartbreak will inevitably produce anger and if we understand this, it helps us understand God’s anger toward his people at times. It is an anger that stems from his great and perfect love for his people and his faithfulness toward them (unlike human love and faithfulness), along with God’s desire for them to live life as he intends for all his human creatures, a fully human life that was so wonderfully lived by Jesus.

So here we have God’s people, witnessing first-hand God’s mighty power, presence, and gracious love for them, questioning whether God is really with them or not. Notice carefully that this kind of grumbling is radically different from God’s people crying out to him and asking him how long it will be before evil and suffering end (cf. Psalm 13.1, 35.17, 89.46; Habakkuk 1.2). The latter presumes that God has both the desire and the power to answer our cry, which of course means God is personally present to act on our behalf. The former complaint questions whether God even really cares or is capable of providing for us, let alone of alleviating our suffering.

This is the human condition in a nutshell and it is what caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from paradise. Instead of trusting God to provide for their every need and to guide them in their living so that they could indeed be his true image-bearers who wisely ruled over God’s good world on his behalf, they chose to live life their way and humans have been alienated and estranged from God ever since. And of course when we are alienated from God we cut ourselves off from our very Source of life because without God, there can be no real life.

Now before we get all uppity about God’s people Israel and their stubborn and hard-hearted rebellion against God, we would do well to remember that we are really no different from them in that regard because we constantly ask the same question they did: “Is the Lord among us or not?” Oh, we may not use these exact words, but we ask this question nevertheless. When our finances tank, when personal tragedy or illness strikes us or our loved ones, or when the pressures of living in a fallen world rise up to smack us right in the face, we often cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” We want to either blame God for all that is wrong with us and our world (what does that say about what we really think about God’s character?) or like God’s people wandering in the wilderness, we don’t believe that God is either present or really has the power or desire to help us, despite the signs and wonders God has given us in our own lives. And as long as we have these stubborn and hard hearts, we will always find ourselves alienated from God, ultimately cut off from any real hope or life.

But the god our hard-heartedness falsely creates and tries sadly to worship is not the God of the Bible as Paul vividly attests in our epistle lesson this morning. Paul tells us in this wonderfully joyous passage (a passage each one of us needs to read on a regular basis, especially during those times we are walking through the darkest valleys of our life) about the perfect love, tender mercy, and unwarranted grace God has for each of us. We must remember that this passage summarizes the first four chapters of Romans in which Paul has laid out a devastating indictment of the human condition and how without outside help every human being will ultimately face God’s terrible wrath and justice for our sin and rebellion (Romans 1.18-32, 2.5-6). This is our fate, not because God is an angry and vengeful God who is determined to smack us down at the every opportunity, but because our sin has helped corrupt God’s good world and its creatures, allowed evil another door to enter into God’s good world to further corrupt and destroy it, and dehumanized us and others in the process. None of us can be fully human as long as sin exists in us and this is not God’s good intention for any of us. God wants better for us than to live as fallen and broken creatures, even if we don’t want it ourselves. Put another way, we face God’s wrath because God is also a God of perfect justice and he is determined to right all the wrongs in his good but fallen world and restore it (and us) to our intended state.

But as we saw on Ash Wednesday, the cross for Christians is our “Day of the Lord,” the day when we must stand before the judgment throne of God. As Paul tells us in today’s lesson, we are justified by faith (or more accurately, we are justified by the blood of our Lord Jesus shed for us on the cross as Paul says later in the passage). But what does being justified by faith mean? Since this is a foundational doctrine on which the entire gospel stands, it is important that we are crystal clear about what justification by grace through faith means and how it works.

To be justified by God means that God finds us righteous or not guilty in his sight. This is a one-time declaration that we will receive in the future when we all stand before God’s judgment throne. But how can God declare us not guilty in light of what we have just said about human sin and God’s wrath it incurs? The answer is the cross of Jesus. On the cross, and in the person of Jesus (God become human), God took our guilty verdict on himself so that we would not have to hear that terrible verdict pronounced on us or bear its awful consequences (cf. Romans 8.3-4). This judgment will come in the future but when we believe it by faith, we are assured of hearing God’s not-guilty verdict right now.

Think of it this way. Imagine you have committed a capital crime and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that you are guilty. The evidence is so overwhelming that you don’t even try to fight the accusation. And so you await going before the judge at your trial to receive your death sentence, an appropriate and just verdict for your crime. But as you await your sentence in prison, you suddenly receive news that the judge has decided to have mercy on you and spare you from death. However, justice must be done and so the judge informs you that he will take your place in the death chamber and die for you, even though he is innocent of your crime! You still must await this unbelievable turn of events to be officially pronounced on you at your sentencing, but since the judge told you himself that he was going to do this for you, you are persuaded that what you have heard is true.

This illustrates, albeit imperfectly, the logic of justification by grace through faith. Our future sentence has been commuted and another person (Jesus) has served our just punishment instead of it being meted out on us. We did nothing to deserve this reprieve (that’s the grace part). It was offered us by the judge (God) who clearly loves us and out of his great mercy for us wants to spare us from the just consequences of our behavior while at the same time making sure that real justice is achieved. Not only have we been spared a future judgment, we know we have been spared it right now (that’s the faith part).

[Also watch the cute but very instructive video below titled, “The Good-O-Meter”]

Now of course we are free to reject the judge’s offer. We could insist on trying to mount a legal defense on our behalf after all so that we could earn a not-guilty verdict (let the reader understand), but that would be utterly futile. Or we could simply refuse to believe the offer, thinking it too unbelievable to be true. But who in their right mind would turn it down if it were true? Yet sadly there are lots of people who do just that. They refuse to accept the gift of life offered to them through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when they do, for whatever reason, they have effectively rejected the mightiest sign and wonder God has ever demonstrated to his broken and sinful humanity. Like God’s hard-hearted people wandering in the desert waste of their lives, they cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” with the clear expectation that the answer will be, “he is not!”

But for those of us who have the faith to believe the Good News that Paul announces to us, we no longer have to worry about trying to save ourselves or earn God’s merit or love. We are already saved and we already have it! No wonder Paul urges us to boast in our hope of sharing in God’s glory! God has done something outrageously kind and merciful for us that is impossible for us to do on our own behalf! Here is the true character of God revealed clearly for all the world to see and embrace! Here is the love of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ, despite our hard hearts and stubborn rebellion against God! God has done this for us because he wants us to have life, beginning right here and now, the kind of life the Samaritan woman found at the well after her encounter with Jesus. She went from being an outcast in her own society to being given the honor of being the first apostle of Jesus to her people. Whenever we let Jesus into our lives to really touch us, whether then or now, we are changed, and for the better.

But, you protest, that woman saw Jesus face-to-face. The Israelites witnessed the pillars of cloud and fire. We have none of that. We only have our faith. Not so fast, says Paul. Not only is faith itself a gift from God but also the love of God and the person of Jesus are available to us in the power of the Spirit who testifies to us that God’s promises in Jesus are true. And the proof of this is in our ability to rejoice in our sufferings because when we suffer and really truly believe in God’s love for us as demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus so that we have real hope—the sure and certain expectation that God’s promises are true rather than wishful thinking—our faith enables the Spirit to use our sufferings to toughen us up and shape our character to become more Christlike (much like God did with Jesus, cf. Hebrews 5.8).

Much as we do not like to suffer, when this happens, we see that God is using even our sufferings to transform us and our transformation is demonstrable proof that God is true to his promises to redeem and be with us always. And if God is true to his present promises, how much more can we trust his future promise of being justified so that we can wait for our hope of future glory that will be part of God’s promised new creation with patient and eager longing and expectation? This eternal perspective also helps us further overcome our present sufferings. In other words, there is absolutely no good reason for us to ever cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Of course he is and he has demonstrated it in the love of God the Father poured out for us in God the Son, and available to us in the presence of God the Holy Spirit!

But why are we saved? We are saved to be God’s healed and redeemed image-bearers to his broken and hurting world. God shares his truth with us, the truth of Jesus Christ, so that we can share it with others. We are given mercy so that we can offer it to others. We experience God’s grace so that we can be gracious to others. We are forgiven and redeemed people so that we can forgive others that they too might know God’s healing and redemption. And we experience God’s love so that we can love God in return and love others as God loves us.

So harden not your hearts, but embrace the hope and promise of eternal life that is made available to you only through the great love, grace, and tender mercy of God shown to you. Spend the rest of this Lenten season (and beyond) thinking about and working on putting to death the things in you that tempt you not to believe the Good News offered you in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s hard work but you will never regret it because you know you are not engaging in it alone. And when you really believe that you have peace with God through the blood of the Lamb and that you also have the Holy Spirit living in you to help you in all your weakness, oh what a relief and joy it is because you know you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Cranmer on Thomas Cranmer on the Feast Day Commemorating His Martrydom

From Cranmer’s blog.

Thomas_Cranmer_by_Gerlach_FlickeThe Collect for Thomas Cranmer
Father of all mercies,
who through the work of your servant Thomas Cranmer
renewed the worship of your Church and through his death
revealed your strength in human weakness:
by your grace strengthen us to worship you in spirit and in
truth and so to come to the joys of your everlasting kingdom:
through Jesus Christ our Mediator and Advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.

In commemoration of His Grace’s martyrdom on this day 458 years ago, his final words are broadcast to the nation once again in the above video. And here, in defence of the Truth and in honour of His Grace’s memory, is an excerpt from the sermon preached by Dr Rowan Williams seven years ago at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford:

Cranmer lived in the middle of controversies where striking for a kill was the aim of most debaters. Now of course we must beware of misunderstanding or modernising. He was not by any stretch of the imagination a man who had no care for the truth, a man who thought that any and every expression of Christian doctrine was equally valid; he could be fierce and lucidly uncompromising when up against an opponent like Bishop Gardiner. Yet even as a controversialist he shows signs of this penitent scrupulosity in language: yes, this is the truth, this is what obedience to the Word demands – but , when we have clarified what we must on no account say, we still have to come with patience and painstaking slowness to crafting what we do say. Our task is not to lay down some overwhelmingly simple formula but to suggest and guide, to build up the structure that will lead us from this angle and that towards the one luminous reality. ‘Full, perfect and sufficient’ – each word to the superficial ear capable of being replaced by either of the others, yet each with its own resonance, its own direction into the mystery, and, as we gradually realise, not one of them in fact dispensable.

Read it all and watch the video.

False Dichotomies

My question for Wiley et al. is this: what is the basis for your cartoon here? The existence of dinosaurs preceding humans in no way contradicts the chronology of the creation narratives found in Genesis 1-2 and totally misses the point of the narratives. The Hebrew word for day used in Genesis, yom, can mean in the context of Genesis, a period of time and also an event, as in a creative event. So here we apparently have yet another attempt to create a false dichotomy between the creation narratives and science. Why? Simply put, Genesis was never written as or intended to be a book of science so don’t treat it as such. Read it for what it is.


Augustine on Asking Forgiveness of Others

This is worthy of our serious reflection during this season of Lent with its emphasis on self-examination and repentance. Do you see the connection between humility and asking someone’s forgiveness? If not, you’ve got some growing up to do, emotionally and spiritually.

To whom do you need to ask forgiveness? A spouse? A friend? A child or parent? A co-worker? A subordinate or superior? Someone at church or another brother or sister in Christ? Whoever it is, ask the Lord for the strength, courage, and grace to do this hard work and then go do it. When you do, know that you are helping the Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

How many there are who know that they have sinned against their brothers or sisters and yet are unwilling to say: “Forgive me.”

They are not ashamed to sin, but they are ashamed to ask pardon. They were not ashamed of their evil act, but they blush where humility is concerned.

—Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 211.4