Married to God

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We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.

However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:

During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.

Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.

The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!

But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:

The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”

We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)

As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.

Featured image from: https://iglesiatijuana.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Marriage.jpg

My eyes have seen

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Today we celebrate the festival of the presentation of our Lord at the temple, in Luke 2:22-40. For Simeon, encountering the infant Christ was the pinnacle of his life, and so he says, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Seeing or encountering Christ is the high-point of our lives; everything else is a bonus, icing on the cake. Let us remember our first encounter with Christ, and put the rest of our life in perspective.

Featured image: “Simeon’s song of praise” by Arent de Gelder (1700-1710), from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aert_de_Gelder_-_Het_loflied_van_Simeon.jpg

Resurrection life

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I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.

I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)

Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:

  1. He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
  2. He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
  3. He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
  4. He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.

The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.

First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.

Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.

Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.

How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.

The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.

Featured image from https://www.ministrymatters.com/preach/entry/8904/resurrection-and-suffering-saints

Follow me

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Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.

In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.

Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.

I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.

Featured image from https://www.followmeretreat.org/

Journey of faith

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The journey of faith is seldom easy or straight-forward, even when people present it in this way. And holding onto faith when we are in the midst of the storm or facing a rolling crisis like COVID19 is not always easy. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18), Paul writes, “Give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes it sound simple – just accept that your challenging situation is God’s will for you in Christ – give thanks for it. Of course, it is not simple!

We have a great master class in how to journey in faith in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Mary, who we revere because she is the Christ-bearer (the Christotokos, or even more remarkable, the God-bearer or Theotokos), shows us that faith is not simple or straight-forward. She shows her own journey of faith. This journey is not a template or recipe for us – it is simply one example of someone making this journey But it may help the rest of us – particularly those of us who struggle with faith – to make peace with our journey of faith.

The well-known story is told in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, an engaged but not yet married teenager from a small village called Nazareth, encounters an angel. He greets her warmly and kindly, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

But Mary’s first response is to be “greatly troubled at his words” and wonder “what king of greeting this might be” and to be “afraid“. The response of fear when encountering an angel seems to be almost universal in the Bible – most people who encounter an angel respond first with fear: Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:12-13 and the shepherds in Luke 2:9-10, for example. But, let us recognise that Mary does not immediately respond with faith or joy when the angel appears to her – her response is one of fear, trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety.

The angel – much as angels do in other passages – reassures her (“Do not be afraid”) and says that she has found favour with God. He explains that she will conceive a child and call him Jesus and that he will become a great king forever.

In Mary’s second response, we see that she is no longer afraid. She is now thinking, critically, about what the angel has said: “How will this be? Since I am a virgin?” Mary does not immediately accept the angel’s message. She asks what is surely an obvious question – how can I be pregnant if I’ve not had sex? Mary is realistic, pragmatic, critical. She does not just accept what the angel is saying to her. Let us imagine also (though this is not explicit in the passage) that she realises that a pregnancy at her age and without a husband will be scandalous and difficult. Let us imagine that she has some intuition about the implications of being the mother of the “Son of the Most High”. And let us imagine that she even anticipates the tragic loss that she will suffer as her son is taken from her. (These imaginings are captured so well in the song, Mary did you know)

The angel accepts Mary’s questions. He does not reprimand or challenge her. Instead, he provides further explanation and clarifies also that even her aunt, Elizabeth (in her old age), has conceived a child – John.

And now – only now – Mary accepts the angel’s message, saying “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled“. She accepts God’s will for her life, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. But at this point, her acceptance is just that – an acceptance, even a blind faith. It does not seem to be based on a full understanding. She submits, relinquishes, surrenders to the will of God – do with me as you wish.

Mary then visits her aunt Elizabeth and they stay together for some time. Luke 1:39-45 gives a clear indication that they talked about their experiences of pregnancy and of their place in God’s plans. One can easily imagine that they spent a great deal of time talking, sharing, reflecting, praying, seeking understanding.

And out of this sharing, Mary achieves faith with understanding, which is expressed powerfully in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. Mary understands, for example, that God is a God of love and mercy – “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And she also understands that there will be a righting of wrongs (a reversal of fortunes) – “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” She understands that through the great things God has done for her, God will bring justice for all those who are marginalised and oppressed.

Although we esteem Mary greatly, her journey of faith is not instant. She grapples and wrestles with what God wants from her, with the storm that she finds herself in. Her own journey is one of fear, questioning, acceptance and then understanding. Her faith journey is a process over time, not a turning point in time. Indeed, even in narratives where it appears that faith emerges at a point in time (such as Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9), a closer read around the experience will show that there is a journey and that the turning point is a culmination of a longer process that came before and that works its way out after.

Mary’s faith experience is not a template for us. It an example of a journey of faith, of one whom we can revere as most highly favoured and blessed of all humans. If her faith journey is not not simple or straight-forward, why should yours be? If you are doubting your faith because it seems complicated, fragile, questioning, confused, and so on, be reassured that Mary’s faith was all these things also. And yet, she bore the Son of God. Faith is a journey. Just keep on with the journey and know that God is faithful.

 ‘The Annunciation’ (1437-46) by Fra Angelico from https://medium.com/thinksheet/symbols-in-art-the-annunciation-7347bddb89d

Our Father

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Luke 11:1-4 presents us the brief, well-known passage about Jesus teaching his disciples to pray using an earlier form of the Lord’s Prayer. He says,

When you pray, say,
‘Father…’

I’m stopping at this first word, because it represents a profound revelation and revolution in our understanding of God. In the First Testament of the Hebrew people, God was regarded as all powerful, fearsome, remote, almost terrifying. God was seldom referred to as ‘Father’, except when he was spoken of as being, for example, the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Father of Israel. And God refers to himself as a father in a handful of passages. But people never prayed to or spoke to him directly as ‘Father’.

Jesus, by contrasts, shows himself engaging with God as his personal father, in an intimate, authentic, comfortable, loving way. In his prayers, he calls God ‘Father’. He reveals God in a new light – as approachable, caring, accessible. And he shows that God is interested in our daily lives, in the little things we experience and also in the big challenges we face.

And so, when he teaches his disciples how to pray, his first word is ‘Father’. We could almost stop just there with the Lord’s Prayer because that on its own is a radical transformation of our relationship with God. A one-word prayer – “Father” – is a great prayer!

Not everyone has good associations with ‘father’, however. Some of us have been abused by our fathers, abandoned by them, treated harshly by them. Some don’t know our fathers. Some would never share anything personal with our fathers. So, thinking of God as our ‘father’ might not be meaningful or helpful to everyone; indeed, it might raise a host of painful memories and feelings.

But let us remember that God is not a man and not an actual biological father. Rather, Jesus refers to God as father to reflect a relationship that for him was meaningful. We could think of God as parent (which is often how I refer to God in public prayer) or as mother or caregiver. And let us also consider that there could be healing for our woundedness when we experience a heavenly parent who is consistent, fair, engaged, loving, kind, protective, empowering and sincere, particularly if we have not experienced this with our human parents.

I encourage you today to enter into a more intimate and honest engagement with God in your prayers – both in your formal prayers when you sit down for the purpose of praying or saying a daily office, and in your informal prayers, muttered to God as you drive or worry about something or are grateful for something. God desires to have a parental relationship with us, in which we can rest in his arms and tell him everything that is on our heart, without fear or hesitation.

And so we pray:

Our father in heaven
hallowed be your name
your kingdom come
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen

Featured image from https://valourdigest.com/7-things-a-son-needs-from-his-father/

Relying on Christ

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In Philippians 3:4b-15a, Paul shares his own experience of faith and in so doing holds up a mirror for us to reflect thoughtfully on our experience of faith. So often our faith gets caught up with our human activity – all the things we do to express our faith – prayer, giving, righteousness, attending church and so on.

But Paul says these things are comparatively worthless (garbage!) compared to faith that is reliant on Christ. Paul is not saying that we should abandon such things, but that by comparison with a faith that relies entirely on Christ, these things should not be central.

This passage is one of a few where Paul really opens his heart to us and shares his own faith journey, and so rather than preaching for long on the passage, I encourage you primarily to read, hear and digest the inspired words of the Apostle Paul.

Featured image from https://za.pinterest.com/pin/117938083965411553/

Who do you say I am?

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In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asks his disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” This is arguably the most central question of our faith as Christians. We are, after all, Christians. We are followers of Christ. Who Christ is – this person we follow, this person whose name defines our faith -is thus of central importance.

Jesus first asked, in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and the disciples run off a list of names: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are all great prophets, and in some ways Jesus is the preeminent prophet. A prophet reveals God’s mind to us, opens up the truth of God to us. And certainly Jesus does do that. But they stop short. Jesus is so much more than ‘just’ a prophet.

So, if your answer to Jesus’ question is things like (for me) – my friend, my brother, my healer, my whole-maker, my teacher, my example, my comforter, my safe space, and so on – these are right (they are certainly not wrong!), but they don’t go far enough.

This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus engages in discussion about himself. He is doing identity work here – discussing who he is with his disciples. This takes place in chapter 16 of a 28-chapter book. So, it appears in the second half of the Gospel. Jesus is half-way through his journey with his disciples, and only now does he ask who they say he is. This is meaningful.

As Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, we tend to have an expectation that people must make a statement of faith in Christ as a prerequisite for conversion. But here, Jesus has allowed his disciples to walk alongside him and witness his life and his engagement with the world for a long time. And only now, much later, does he ask for a statement of faith.

The understanding of who Jesus is is not the prerequisite for faith, but the result of the journey of faith.

I converted to Christianity at age 16. At that moment, on the evening of 21 October 1984, I really didn’t know who Christ was. All I knew was that God was calling me and I had to respond to his call. It was only over years of journeying with him, through all the ups and downs of faith, that my understanding of who he is and of who he is for me has become clearer. And I anticipate in the following decades of my life, this understanding will continue to mature and deepen.

Peter’s answer, after having walked with Christ, is strong and certain: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In the Greek, the phrasing is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, of the Living One”. There were, in Peter’s time, as in our time, many Gods. He feels the need to qualify who he is referring to when he says ‘God’. He is not referring to just any God, but to the God who is alive, the Living God.

It is important for us to incorporate into our experience of who Christ is for us the insight that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, God the Son, the Logos, a member of the triune Godhead, the one who has been present since before time and will continue to present after time itself has ended. This is who Jesus is!

But what about you?
Who do you say I am?

Wrestling Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 31-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. I’m sorry this message is so long, but today’s reading is a seriously difficult passage and requires careful work. I do encourage you to watch the video and learn some profound lessons about Jesus and about faith.

Our reading today is from Matthew 15:21-28. The following translation is by Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew. I’m using this because he keeps closely to the sentence structure in the Greek, which I will show is important for making sense of this passage:

21. And Jesus left there and withdrew into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.
22. And look! a Canaanite woman from that region approached and was crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is horribly possessed by a demon!”
23. But he did not respond to her with a single word.
And his disciples came up to him and repeatedly asked him, “Get rid of her, will you; she keeps screaming at us!”
24. But he responded and said, “I was not sent to anyone except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25. But she came up, bowed down worshipfully before him, and said, “Lord, help me!”
26. But he responded and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
27. But she said, “Oh yes, Lord! Yet even the house dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
28. Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific; let it be done for you exactly as you want.” And her daughter was healed that very moment.

This is such a difficult passage, because Jesus expresses what appears to be deeply disrespectful, pejorative, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist views towards the Canaanite woman. In our contemporary society, which is so riddled with racism and hostility to all who are other (including immigrants, LGBTQI+, women, etc.). It reads like (what we would today call) hate speech.

So, I have titled this message Wrestling Jesus because there are three layers of wrestling taking place here.

First, I and we have to wrestle with Jesus. His words are very hard to understand and swallow. We have to engage honestly, thoughtfully, carefully with Jesus words. We have to avoid sanitising his words, while also making sense of his words.

Second, I suggest what we are reading is Jesus wrestling with himself. I suggest what we reading is like a Shakespearean soliloquy, in which Jesus speaks out loud his internal grappling or wrestling. I’ve done some colour coding to emphasise the structure:

  1. All of the sentences (except the last) start with ‘and’ or ‘but’. I suggest that what this does is to suspend time, to create a pocket of timelessness in which something can emerge. This continues until the last verse which finally has a ‘then’ – and then the story moves forward. We have a similar event in John 8:1-11, where Jesus kneels down and doodles in the same, while the men accuse the woman of adultery.
  2. Jesus’ name is not mentioned except in the first and last verse. In the middle verses it is just ‘he’. This depersonalisation contributes to the timelessness of the narrative.
  3. In two of the three ‘responded and said’, we are not told who he responded to. It is not clear who he is speaking to. It seems he may be just speaking, to himself; saying out loud what he is thinking in his mind.
  4. v24 suggests that Jesus’ wrestling is between his mission to the people of Israel (and they would subsequently have the mission of bringing the Gospel to the nations) and the needs of this individual woman in front of him who is not an Israelite.
  5. v26 has the terrible words that seems to say that Canaanites are dogs. In my view and that of some commentators, this is a well-known racist expression that was commonly used in those days, much as we have racist expressions for groups of people today. That Jesus would say these words in the presence of this woman is hard to swallow – it is painful and anti-pastoral. But perhaps Jesus is saying out loud what people say about women like her. And perhaps this is his wrestling.
  6. What he seems to come to through all this is that PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MISSION (or law or religion or sexual orientation or politics or nationality, etc, etc, etc.). PEOPLE MATTER! Jesus seems to learn this from her.
  7. And then, in the final verse, we get a Then! Now time starts again and the story moves forward. “Then Jesus responded and said to her.” This is the first time he speaks to her directly. Everything before this, I suggest, is soliloquy. He is wrestling with his role and he learns from her what is most important, that people matter.

We see Jesus grow and learn. We see him rediscovering the truth that people matter. More than anything – including our theology, doctrine, denomination, politics, nationality, race, sexual orientation – people matter!

Third, the Canaanite woman wrestles with Jesus. She has a great need – her daughter is horribly possessed by a demon – and she is desperate for Jesus’ help. Even though she is not Jewish, she recognises who he is: Lord (the Messiahs, the Christ), Son of David (the culmination of Jewish prophecy about the line of David). Her faith, perhaps fuelled by her desperation, helps her to hear between the lines.

  • After her first appeal to him in v22, Jesus does not respond. He is silent. What she hears is not a disinterest, but “He’s not chased me away. He’s still here. I still have a chance.” And so she persists.
  • The disciples want Jesus to send her away, but Jesus says that he was sent to the house of Israel. What she hears is not that she is not part of the house of Israel, but that he has not said ‘no’ to her. There is still a chance. And so he persists. She grovels in front of him and cries out, “Lord, help me!”
  • Then Jesus quotes this racist expression. What she hears is not that she is trash, but that she can be a pet dog at his table, who is eligible to eat the scraps that fall from it. There is still a chance. And so she persists. She takes ownership of the label ‘dog’.
  • Now she is brilliant! She takes the expression that Jesus spoke out loud and turns it to her advantage. She turns his words against him. She wrestles him to the ground. She makes it impossible for him to say ‘No’.
  • Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific!” He sees her, speaks to her, recognises her, acknowledges her, yields to her. He uses the word ‘you‘ or ‘your‘ three times in v28. He recognises her as a person who matters, and he gives her what she has asked for with such faith and tenacity.

This woman teaches us to never, never, never give up prayer. Pray without ceasing. Do not lose hope. Wrestle God to the ground until he gives you what you are asking for.

Featured image: The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly. Downloaded from https://www.friendsjournal.org/woman-refused-take-no-answer/

In his joy

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This is the order Jesus gives for Christian life: we find the treasure, this fills us with joy, so we sell all our possessions (which are worth a fraction of the treasure), and we acquire (take ownership) of the treasure (Mat 13:44). The treasure is there at the start and the end; the joy is the immediate consequence of finding the treasure; and the sacrifice of possessions is really no sacrifice at all. This is the Christian life. Let’s find our joy in Christ!

Featured image from here.