Desperate times

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 25-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 35 minutes – unfortunately the volume on the video is very soft).

There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.

Psalm 22 knows something about this:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.

Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?

The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:

11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):

2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.

Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.

Yet God makes himself unfindable:

8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:

13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.

In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:

17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:

The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:

26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!

You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.

This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.

Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.

The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:

16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.

But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.

Featured image from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/hurricanepreparedness/index.html

One with God

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In John 5, Jesus is accused of considering himself “equal with God”. And in his response (in verses 19-23), instead of defending himself, Jesus actually confirms the charge:

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.

Jesus considers himself one with God – he and his father are one. They are equal, one being, even though he clearly shows that they are not the same person – for example, the Father does not judge; that role is given to the Son. But there is a closeness and alignment of purpose and desire between Father and Son (and also Holy Spirit) that leads us to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Given close unity between Father and Son, we also should strive to be one with God – to act in accordance with God’s will, to align our desires and intentions with God’s, to adopt as our own God’s values and priorities. Jesus is our example for all life. Let us become one with God.

Featured image of an Ethiopian icon of the Trinity
from https://www.reddit.com/r/OrthodoxChristianity/comments/jgjbqe/ethiopian_orthodox_icon_of_the_holy_trinity/

God works with young people too

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Today is the first Sunday in Youth Month (June), and our church decided that ‘the youth’ (i.e. teenagers) would attend grown-up church for the month, rather than the usual youth church. Youth will be participating more actively in the services this month – welcoming new comers, serving as sides persons, reading the scriptures and leading prayers. And on June 17th, a teenager will preach.

So this sermon is intended to kick off Youth Month by addressing the question of the place of young people in God’s work in the world, in the Kingdom of God. All too often,  grown-ups tend to think of teenagers as being ‘adults-in-waiting’ (something scholars call ‘waithood‘). We have high expectations of who they must become, but low expectations of what they can offer now, and create little opportunity for them to act now. But, I argue, this is not what we see in the way God relates to young people in the Bible.

Drawing on the story of God calling Samuel when he was a boy (probably about 12 years old) in 1 Samuel 3:1-11, I show how God intentionally sidelined a grown-up priest (Eli) to rather engage with Samuel. God calls Samuel FOUR times in the night! During a time when the voice of God was rarely heard. AND God appears to Samuel in physical form (a ‘theophany’), which is also rare in the Old Testament narrative.  And then God gives a momentous message to Samuel, about God’s judgement on Eli, who is Samuel’s master.

In this story, we see God engaging fully with a young person, and making that young person central to God’s mission in the world. It is no accident. God selected a youngster to do this pivotal work. Samuel was about the same age as Jesus was when he left his parents to sit in the temple and engage the Jewish leaders (Luke 2:41-52).

Another narrative is found in Mark 2:23-3:6, a passage ostensibly about Jesus’ teachings on Sabbath law. I suggest that in this narrative, we Jesus acting in a typically adolescent way! (Remember that Jesus, being around 30 years old, was himself a youth, according to the South Africa definition of youth as ages 14-35.) In the first part of this narrative, Jesus and his disciples are walking, harvesting and carrying – all against the Sabbath law. Jesus’ response when challenged is a first century “Whatever” that is typical of modern teens. And then he heals a man, not because the man is in danger (his hand had probably been shriveled for many years, and was not in any immanent danger that warranted an ’emerging healing’ on the Sabbath), but to make a point. He wants to show his disregard for the Sabbath laws that had become a millstone around people’s necks.

In this second story, we see Jesus valuing a typically adolescent attitude: a healthy disregard for tradition and authority. Teenagers want to know why we do things the way we do them. What’s the point? Why is different not acceptable? Who says? We know that God appears to value such a questioning stance, because Jesus himself acts it out.

Teenagers are not grown-ups in waiting. They are already people. They’re just young people. God loves them enormously, extravagantly, intensely. God wants to engage with them, be in communication with them, listen to and talk to them. God wants them to partner in God’s work in the world, in God’s Kingdom. God sees them as full people, who have much to contribute. We, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, need to create some space for God to work with these young people.

Good Morning, Holy Spirit!

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Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church, 50 days after Easter. Holy Spirit is a person we talk about far too infrequently, so today I seize the opportunity to talk about him (or her) in greater detail. In this message, I answer two question: Who is Holy Spirit? and What does Holy Spirit do in our lives? I draw on three great readings about the Spirit, viz. John 15:26-16:15; Romans 8:9-11, 22-27; and Acts 2:1-21.

Regarding the first question, my answer is in three parts:

  1. Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity (or the triune God) – as much God as Jesus and the Father are God.
  2. Holy Spirit is a person (not a force, or presence, or love) – as much a person as Jesus and the Father are persons.
  3. Holy Spirit is active in numerous ways in our present lives and in the lived-experience of our faith, thus very much to be incorporated into our faith life.

Regarding the second question, I give two answers, briefly:

  1. Holy Spirit dwells within us, and is thus present in the body and heart of every believer, working to align our spirit with the risen Christ, and helping us in living out our faith.
  2. Holy Spirit empowers and equips Christians for living and speaking out our faith in the world, through equipping us with gifts and strengths, and growing our confidence.

I hope that you will find this an accessible explanation of Holy Spirit. It was preached at our family service – half of those present were children and youth.

May you experience a rising of the Holy Spirit in your heart this Pentecost.

Blessings
Adrian

Resurrection Church

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On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.

When the World goes Mad

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Sometimes, the world seems to be going mad. On the morning of the day I preached this sermon, two terrorist attacks in Brussels left 31 or so people dead. IS claimed responsibility. Attacks like these, like the multiple attacks in Paris in 2015, make us afraid and want to withdraw from the world. Fear sets in. Muslims and Arabs seem dangerous. The world seems a threatening place.

In South Africa, we face increasingly racialised discourse, from all sides of the political and racial spectrum. Some people are calling for doing away with reconciliation and an increasing emphasis on racial identity and distinctiveness. These conversations elicit fear and uncertainty, prompting us to withdraw from each other into our safe comfort zones.

Jesus also experienced a world going mad. As religious leaders becoming increasingly threatened by him, his actions and his popularity, they set up traps to discredit and marginalise him. They plot to kill him. Indeed, they succeed in murdering him.

But through all this madness, Jesus does not withdraw, he is not cowed by fear, he does not avoid. Instead, Jesus continues to engage, to move towards, to step across boundaries. From where does he get this confidence in the face of considerable odds? He gets it from a confidence that his authority comes from heaven, from God. He knows that he is living out God’s will for him – to reconcile all things together within God’s family.

And so he remains steadfast. As we also need to remain steadfast. To not be cowed or afraid or marginalised. But to continue to live out the faith that we have inherited. A faith that hopes and trusts in a powerful God. A faith that engages and connects. A faith that steps across boundaries and embraces. A faith that loves.

Mark 11:27-33

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 5: God’s Love Revealed Through The Cross

This is the fifth and final talk in the series on “Being God’s Beloved”, presented at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Irene, South Africa, on 9 April 2014. We conclude the talks by focusing on the Cross and Resurrection, and the way in which the sequence of events over the Easter weekend reveals God’s love to us.

Click here to open the video from YouTube

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 2: God’s Old Testament Love

On 19 March, we had the second talk in this series called “Being God’s Beloved”. This week, we considered the God of the Old Testament, and specifically the ways in which God’s loving heart is revealed throughout the Old Testament. We give particular attention to the story of Jonah, Nineveh and God.

Video not opening? Try clicking here.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 1: Who is Your God?

On Wednesday 12 March, we started the series of five talks on the theme of “Being God’s Beloved” at St Martin’s Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa. The first talk asks the question “Who is your God?” and gives attention to the essence of the Triune God and the creation of humanity. The 21 minute was part of a one-hour programme, involving prayer, small group discussion and large group feedback.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 3: The Heart of God

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

What do you think is the central characteristic of God? What is that quality that is at the heart of God? What is it that makes God God?

There are many different answers to this question. And perhaps, in truth, it is not an answerable question. It is even harder than answering the question, “What is the central characteristic of your most loved family member?” Or even “What is the central characteristic of me?” People are complex, with many characteristics – reducing that complexity to just one characteristic is not only impossible, but also silly. How much more so with God, who is infinite – infinitely complex.

Nevertheless, it is an important question to attempt to answer. We should treat any answer we get cautiously, tentatively, and humbly. But endeavouring to understand the heart of God is a worthwhile and credible undertaking.

Let us think back to before the beginning of time, before creation, before God was interacting with creation. What do we know of God then? What can we imagine of God then?

Before the beginning, before God created time and space, there was God. Just God. We believe that everything that is was created by God. That there is nothing that is that was not created by God. That everything that is not God was created by God. That’s pretty inclusive! One of the implications of this belief (this doctrine) is that before creation, God is all that was.

What do we know of God before creation? Truly, we know very, very little. This suggests a very short chapter for today!

But what we do know about God is that God existed as three-in-one. The triune God. Three persons with one nature (or substance or being) is how the church finally agreed to define the Trinity in the Nicean Creed that we recite today. A theology of the Trinity is not provided in the Bible. But Christians throughout the centuries, reviewing and  weighing up all of the evidence provided in the Bible and in our experience of Christ’s journey on earth, have repeatedly concluded that Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are God, distinct from each other in some way, yet one God, not three.

It gives me a headache! Like trying to imagine infinity. My brain is too small to adequately grasp it.

Happily, this is a devotional, not a systematic theology, so I am freed from the burden of having to define or explain it rationally. Instead, if you accept the doctrine of the Trinity, I invite you to work from that as a point of departure and see the implications of it. If you have difficulty accepting it, just suspend those for a few minutes and follow the path with me, and see if it speaks meaningfully to you.

Imagine this:

Timeless fellowship between Father, Son and Spirit. Perpetual, complete, whole, seamless, perfect, fulfilled, intimate, satisfying fellowship.  Intuitive mutual understanding. Never hurting – always cherishing. Always working together toward common goals. Never competing – always cooperating.

What word can we us to describe this kind of relationship?

Love

When we imagine God before creation, we come to one basic conclusion. That God is characterised by love. Eternal, complete and perfect love. A love so strong, so intimate, that the three-ness of God draws so closely together to become one. Three in one.

There is a Greek term for this: ‘perichoresis’. It has various English translations, the most common of which is ‘interpenetration’. The idea is that Father, Son and Spirit penetrate into or merge with one another so closely, so intimately, that they become one. It is a mutual indwelling – a reciprocal choosing to immerse one’s self into the other – Father into Son, Son into Spirit, Spirit into Father. Three distinct persons. But so mutually and lovingly woven together that they are, in fact, one.

The heart of God, then, is love, for this is the quality of relationship inherent in the triune God from before the beginning of time. The most prominent characteristic of God is love.

But, many of us have been raised to believe that the most common characteristic of God is holiness or righteousness. This theology emphasises the purity and perfection of God, a purity that is repulsed by sin and brokenness, a perfection that can associate only with perfection.

Of course, the gap between God and us is immense. God is infinitely more pure, holy, righteous and perfect than we are. The apostle Paul is right to associate us with filthy rags. We are very much not up to God’s standard.

Placing God’s holiness as central to the character of God, which many of the Christian traditions do, means that we are always confronted with God’s frown. God looks at us and frowns, because we don’t look right – we smell off. We are sin-tainted, fallen, and imperfect. What follows is wrath – God’s wrath is poured out against humanity because we are, fundamentally, repugnant to God.

There is much in the Bible to support this view. Much of the Old Testament emphasises God’s purity and our impurity. We think of the Ark of Covenant – so holy and untouchable that one, well-meant touch by Uzzah lead to his annihilation (2 Samuel 6:6-11). We think of the temple and its many courts, each drawing closer to the Holy of Holies. And that inner place was so holy and so filled with God’s presence that no-one could enter, save one person (the High Priest), only once a year (Yom Kippur), and with much ritual and prayer (Leviticus 2). There is certainly a strong narrative thread throughout the scriptures emphasising God’s transcendent purity and evidence of God’s wrath in response to our lack of purity.

The problem with this view of God’s essential character is that it is anthropocentric – it centres on humanity. This only makes sense in God’s relationship to humanity. Indeed, only to humanity after the Fall. In effect, this theology rests on ourselves, rather than on God.

But a true theology of God must rest on God and God alone, distinct from God’s relationship with creation. And the only meaningful way to do that is to imagine God before creation, so as to get to the God who was independent of humanity.

When we do that, the concepts of holiness and perfection lose their meaning. Holiness makes sense only in relation to that which is not holy. Similarly, perfection makes sense only in comparison with that which is less than perfect. Set alongside imperfect and sinful humanity, God is indeed perfect and holy. But when we reflect on God as God, God without comparison, God in God-self, these concepts are as dry as the dust that blows away in the slightest breeze.

Instead, what does remain, when we think of God as God, God alone, God before creation, is God in love. God’s love is inherent within the triune relationship between and within the three persons of the Trinity. It is not a characteristic that requires comparison with anyone or anything else. It is a characteristic that is fulfilled within the nature of God.

And thus, we can and should regard love as a far more fundamental characteristic of God than holiness or perfection. God is indeed holy and perfect and surely does not like sin. But these characteristics come after creation, perhaps even after the fall, and are thus secondary to God. They speak, at most, to God’s response to our brokenness. They do not point to the heart of God.

When we look into God’s heart, we will not find wrath. Judgement, rage, shunning and impossibly high standards are not to be found in the heart of God.

Instead, when we look into God’s heart, we find love. Complete, whole, seamless, all-embracing love. A love that is strong enough to satisfy God for eternity. A love that is powerful enough to bind three into one. A love that could have continued to exist forever without any creation.

This love remains at the heart of God. It was not somehow watered down in creation. It was not lost in the Fall. God does not set aside love in God’s relationship with you. God’s first thought when glancing your direction is not anger or revulsion. It is love. Surely, God gets angry! What parent does not get angry at their children? But this anger is on the surface. It is a momentary and situational response. It is not the bedrock of God’s character. Nor is it the predominant feeling of God towards the world. Nor is it God’s predominant feeling towards you.

When God digs down into the depths of the heart of God, God finds love. God’s most basic impulse is to love. God’s greatest joy is to love. God’s most authentic self-expression is love. As John writes in his first letter, “God is love” (1 John 4).

We have to look more closely at God’s heart – particularly those of us who have been well schooled to think of God as wrathful. We have to peer back through time, back through creation, to perceive what is truly God as God, what is essential to God, what was present in God before everything else. When we do so, we will find Love.

Meditation for the Day

Imagine God as God, before creation. Imagine the relationship that existed between Father, Son and Spirit, Imagine the love that they shared, that made them complete and one.

Prayer for the Day

Loving God, help me to unlearn what I have learned about who you are. Instil in me a deeper appreciation for the love that is in the heart of you. Help to me share in that love.

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