Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday Preview (5 Jan 2014, Christmas 2A)

As Christians, do you suppose we should spend more time or less time dealing with the biblical text of Sunday’s sermons? I guess I’m asking part of the bigger question James 1:22 raises about becoming doers of the Word rather than just hearers of sermons. And, yes, I suspect part of the answer is spending more time with the biblical passages behind the sermons so that we are better prepared to hear God speak to us through his Word through the preacher. Every sermon can have a life-changing impact on us. I’m a biblical exegete who no longer preaches every Sunday, but I do miss this process of grappling with God’s Word and making clear its message to us. So I’m going to try this approach of previewing the biblical text many of us, at least in churches following the Revised Common Lectionary, are likely to encounter this coming Sunday in hopes that we might do more than just listen to sermons.


Ephesians 1:3-14

This is an amazing biblical passage to read and to study for the beginning of a new year for people whose identity is “in Christ.” I want you to try this. Take a deep breath and read the full sentence Paul wrote here. It starts in verse 3 and ends at verse 14! That’s one long sentence. 202 words long. A sentence communicates an idea. In this case it is a big idea which is given many supporting reasons. Paul gives praise to God the Father for everything we have received “in Christ.” He repeats this key concept of “in Christ” 11 times in this one sentence. That’s gotta be important. This is certainly a biblical passage worth memorizing, if anyone does that anymore. I’d recommend it. Memorizing this passage will give you such a better grasp on what Paul has to teach us about being Christians in this world.

So what should a good biblical sermon on this passage sound like? One sentence, one big idea: Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Why? Because he “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ” (v3). How has he blessed us in Christ? I see the apostle listing five big blessings we have in Christ, and, again, he’s listing these that we might praise God. Some exegetes point out that the phrase “to the praise of his glory” occurs in verses 6, 12 and 14, and that, therefore, Paul is listing three blessings, such that a couple of the five are actually re-instatements or expansions. That’s possible. Sometimes I think commentators try to make Paul out to be much neater than he actually is, but at least there is still serious engagement going with the text; however, I do get concerned with those who come out with a pristine three-point sermon looking something like this:

  1. Chosen by the Father (1:3-6)
  2. Redeemed by the Son (1:7-12)
  3. Sealed by the Holy Spirit (1:13,14)

That’s very, pretty. Too pretty. This outline can be used to show that this passage is Paul teaching about our Trinitarian spirituality. Cool, but not sticking to the text. Again, Paul gives praise to God the Father. That is the main idea. He gives praise to God for all that we receive in Christ, as made real in our lives by the work of the Holy Spirit. The passage develops a list of five of these blessings we have received in Christ. So while it’s true that the Triune nature of God is affirmed here, it’s done incidentally not as the focus of the passage. In my opinion, that makes a stronger case for the reality of the Trinity than a direct argument. He can just assume it while making some other point. Hopefully, the sermon you’ll hear on Sunday will stick close to the text and cover these five big blessings we have in Christ, maybe three or four with some compression.

1. He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (v4a) v4

God did this “that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight” (v4b).  Let me comment further under the next blessing as the two are closely related since God has chosen us in Christ and by doing so he was predestining us to adoption.

2. God predestined us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ (5a) vv5-6

Here’s the deal. Jesus is not merely a conduit of God’s blessings, like a live electric wire zapping us. They don’t come to us just through Christ, instead Paul repeatedly talks about the blessings we have in Christ. It’s about incorporation. We have been baptized into Jesus (Rom 6:3) and we have been united with him (Rom 6:5-8). This give us a new address in the heavenly realms that’s “in Christ.” Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell in their book Why I Am Not a Calvinist say,

Now that we have been incorporated into Christ, we have entered into the drama of his own story. His death has become our death, his resurrection has become our resurrection (Eph 2:5), and his position of privilege at the Father’s right hand bring us an immeasurable wealth of grace (Eph 2:6-7)… It is in him we have been chosen and predestined (Eph 1:4-5). This means that Jesus Christ himself is the chosen one, the predestined one. Whenever one is incorporated into him by grace through faith, one comes to share in Jesus’ special status as chosen of God."

This is an awesome reality. Consider what we’ve become in Christ. Easy to see how Paul considers these to be reasons why we should praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

3. In him we have redemption through his blood (v7a) vv7-10

Verses 7-10 explore God’s plan of redemption through Christ, and, as it turns out, it’s far bigger than just “the forgiveness of our trespasses” which is already amazing. It’s very important for us as Christians to recognize that God’s plan in Christ is so much bigger than just me being forgiven of my sins. God is in the process of setting everything right in Christ and we’re part of that plan. Very cool!

4. In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession (v11a) vv11-12

There’s a lot of divisive theology coming out of the interpretation of verses 11-12. Rather than getting hung up on each phrase and Paul’s precise sequence of thought, I see the passage clearly affirming that “God’s own possession,” a way of referring to God’s own people or God’s nation, has been transformed in Christ so that now it’s not just the Jewish nation. Now the people who belong to God are the Jews who have set their hope on Christ (v12a) along with the Gentiles who believe in Christ (v13b). We are God’s own possession, his people. We are in Christ and the focal point of God’s work in redeeming all this world.

5. In Christ, we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit (v11a, 13c) vv13-14

The Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is “the down payment of our inheritance” which means we’re not just getting a promise of redemption. No, the Holy Spirit is redeeming us, giving us the power to change, here and now. Praise God! We may not yet be all that we will be, but we’ve come a long way so far! And there is, perhaps, the best thought to relate to this being a new year coming. Thanks to all that we are receiving in Christ and to the working of the Spirit in our lives, we are being changed. Let’s praise God for that and really open ourselves up to what he will do in our lives in this coming year. Let’s not just be content that God has forgiven our sins in the past. Let’s look forward with hope and anticipation of what our great God will be doing to redeem us and to make us more like Christ in this year ahead. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Church of the Northern Lights

John 1:1-18

The Gospel text would also make for a great sermon this coming Sunday. After everything I wrote about the Ephesians passage, I won’t say much here which is a crime, of course! This opening passage in the Gospel of John is a real power text. Much could be said about identifying the pre-incarnate Son of God as the Word and what the gospel writer means to communicate by this new title, not to mention the whole concept of the Word becoming flesh and light coming into darkness. But, since I’m keeping this brief, I want to look at just one thing, this “man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe” (vv 6-7). And in verse 15, we are told, “John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, ‘This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’’” So you’re thinking this is John the Baptist.

While Matthew, Mark and Luke all identify John as “the Baptist,” the Gospel of John never does. Every preacher I’ve heard preach this first chapter of John feels compelled to inform us that, yes, this John is John the Baptist. Rarely does any preacher ever answer the question as to to why the text does not name him as such. I think it’s a question we should ask. Why omit the title which would at once bring clarity, perhaps a needed clarity since the Gospel is named “John.” I want to say two things about this. First, it seems to me the writer is stressing that this was just an everyday man named John, you know, a bloke that goes by a common name. What he says about this John is actually to be true of everyone who believes, that we are to be witnesses and testify about this light that has come into the world. He is not presented as being anymore special or different than any of us. What we are told about John here is what everyone who comes to believe that the Son of God has lived among us is to do—to be witnesses and to testify.

Secondly, more as a footnote, I’d like to point out that John is definitely not “John the Baptist.” That translators still identify him as such is ridiculous, shoddy translation at its worst. What is a “Baptist”? I’m sure you’ll tell me that a Baptist is a member of a Baptist church. Whatever else John may have been, he was not that. He never even went to church, and he is certainly not the founder of the Baptist church as I heard so many times while living in the Southern Bible Belt. What Matthew, Mark and Luke are actually calling him is John “the Baptizer,” as in one who baptizes others. That translators will defend the Baptist title as traditional is indefensible. They know what “Baptist” means to people today and it is not what it meant to Matthew, Mark and Luke. They had no connotation whatsoever of this title relating to a particular church denomination, and neither should we. The Greek word is a participle, essentially a verb turned into a noun, “the one who baptizes,” i.e. baptizer. Join me in correcting this travesty. Whenever I’m asked to read one of the gospel passages mentioning John, I correct the translation and read “John the Baptizer.” We cannot let Baptists believe John began their church denomination anymore than we could let Pentecostals claim their church denomination started on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Here’s another splendid biblical text, caught up in that same tension of the “already, but not yet” that we saw in Ephesians 1:3-14. God is now bringing together his people from the land of the north and from the ends of the earth. “For the Lord will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion” (vv11-12a). This is new the transformed people of God we described above in Ephesians, no longer the people of Israel, but now all who are in Christ. We will come and shout for joy on Zion. Indeed in the gathering of God’s people, we are that holy city. What Jeremiah prophesied is being fulfilled before our eyes in Christ.

For more insight into the texts for this week, I would encourage you to checkout an Australian pastor’s website, http://laughingbird.net. I’ve been checking out his site and using his Scripture paraphrases and prayers for more than ten years now. I love the way he writes prayers incorporating bits from each of the texts that week. Here’s his prayer of Commission and Benediction for this coming Sunday:

Go now, and bear witness to the light so others might believe.
Since you are chosen in Christ,
........live before him in love, holy and blameless.
Live with hope in Christ, for the praise of his glory.

And may God fill the earth with peace;
May Christ give you grace upon grace from his fullness;
And may the Holy Spirit, the pledge of your inheritance,
........lead you on straight paths where you will not stumble.

We go in peace to love and serve the Lord,
........In the name of Christ. Amen.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Missing the point of Christmas

Watching the news on Boxing Day, I heard someone who someone who had been standing in line outside a box store for much of the cold night say the most absurd thing.  Asked why he’s been standing in line for seven or eight hours, the young man says, “Just for the fun of it. You know it’s the… Christmas Spirit, Boxing Day, something I wanted to experience.” (You can catch him at around 1:10 into this video.)

Standing in line outside a store on Christmas night, hoping to buy reduced-priced electronics for yourself in the morning—that has nothing at all to do with the Christmas Spirit! You might experience frostbite or the freezing of our soul, but you won’t be experiencing the Spirit of Christmas! Christmas is about the self-giving love of God shown in the birth of God’s Son as a baby in Bethlehem. God sent his son that we might have new life, that we might experience the power to change and not live in such self-centered ways.

The young man mentioned wanting to experience not only the Christmas Spirit, but also Boxing Day. I know it has little meaning to us now, but let’s be clear that the historical meaning of “Boxing Day” has nothing at all to do with the consumer-driven quest to purchase reduced-priced merchandise. Back in the day, Boxing Day was when the alms boxes in Anglican churches were opened up and the money collected throughout the year was given to the poor. It was, thus, an extension of the self-giving love celebrated on Christmas Day.

It can be entertaining when we see the ways in which the meaning of these holy days have become so twisted. But all that aside for a moment,  I think we have to admit that all this consumer-driven craziness does affect us. Was Christmas for me a celebration of God’s self-giving love or was I focused on what I was getting under the tree this year? Was I more prepared to persevere in long lines at department stores than I was to go out in the cold to attend special church services? Has the Christ Child been magnified or minimized in my holidays this year? Bah, humbug! I’m afraid people may have seen a little more of (pre-conversion) Ebenezer Scrooge in me and less of Jesus. Well, at least, there’s the makings of a new year’s resolution worth the effort.

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

What not to give for Mother’s Day


What mom wouldn’t love to receive some sweet chocolate treats on this Mother’s Day? How about the mom who knows that these exquisite chocolates are made from cocoa being harvested by children who are forced to work in the cocoa jungle and in some cases sold into slavery? Could a mother who has been informed about the facts of the cocoa industry, a mother who knows that 200,000 children are being forced to work on cocoa farms in west Africa—long days, dangerous work, toxic sprays, gruelling labour—could a mother who knows the facts really enjoy the chocolate these poor children have helped produce?

Be assured unless you’ve purchased certified FairTrade chocolate for your mother, children have been abused in the production of the cocoa from which that chocolate has been made, whether it’s from Ganong Bros or Hershey’s. The chocolate industry excels in keeping this information secret, just as the clothing industry has kept secrets, some of which became public in the last couple weeks. After the factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 300 people on April 24th, we’ve become concerned about these clothing factories and the working conditions in them, but have we really become concerned enough to demand change? Loblaw’s Joe Fresh is compensating victims’ families and has resolved to ensure safer working conditions in Bangladeshi factories in the future. What about the other clothing retailers? Silence. Eighteen months before this tragedy, a fire in a Bangladesh textile factory killed 112 people. Walmart considered ensuring safer factories by doing regular inspections, but concluded that such inspections “could ultimately lead to higher costs for Walmart and higher prices for our customers. This would not be in the best interests of Walmart’s shareholders and customers and would place Walmart at a competitive disadvantage” (Financial Post). Unfortunately, it would seem that we would rather let these companies keep their secrets because, after all, we love falling prices at Walmart and chocolate bars that cost less than a dollar.

Bangladesh Factory

We need mothers and others to stand up to the chocolate makers and say no more child abuse, unfair and unsafe child labour and child slavery. Surely our moral conscious can’t let us ignore the plight of 200,000 children in west Africa. Buying FairTrade chocolate will help, but the whole industry needs to change. FairTrade shouldn’t be a label on a select few chocolate bars, it should obviously be the norm, but today in Canada only one regular confectionary chocolate bar is certified FairTrade. Cadbury Dairy Milk is the only FairTrade chocolate bar, and it’s only the original Cadbury Dairy Milk bar, none of the specially flavoured ones. Every Kit Kat and Hershey’s bar has been produced by children doing things no mother would ever imagine their own children doing. Sobering thoughts for Mother’s Day, but it’s pretty important that we actually become aware of the truth if anything is going to change.

bitter truthNotes: For documentation of claims about chocolate made in this blog posting, please read my previous post “The children producing the cocoa never taste the chocolate” which includes a clip for an outstanding video documentary. My regrets that I am not better informed about the clothing and textiles industry. I just saw in the news this week how we become so concerned in the midst of tragedy but so quick to forget when shopping for low prices—so parallel to my findings in cocoa production and chocolate sales.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

It’s Easter and the church is full

easter-lily-with-crossIt’s great going to church on Easter Sunday and finding that the place is packed. Why should we ever complain about the church being too full? I’ve sat in almost empty churches before – not fun, quite disheartening. Yet some regular church attenders can be quite put out when they come on Easter Sunday and find the parking lot is full and “strangers” are sitting in their regular seats. Yes, these are those Christians who complain about the “Holly and Lily Christians” who only show up at Christmas and Easter.

Personally, I don’t understand why people would only come to church two or three times a year, but I think it’s great that they come for Easter Sunday. It is the resurrection of Jesus that gives meaning to that Sunday and to all our Sunday church services. When the priest / pastor declares, “Christ is Risen!,” on Easter Sunday, I like hearing that large crowd sound of everyone responding together, “He is Risen Indeed.” If you’re only going to come one or twice a year, you couldn’t pick a better Sunday than Easter Sunday. So keep coming back!

Rather than moaning that these people only show up twice a year, why don’t we do our best to celebrate Easter Sunday, pull out all the stops, sing the best songs, hear the clear exposition of the Scriptures, feel the warmth of true Christian fellowship, and participate in the most joyous Communion feast of the year. Why don’t we give people a reason to come back the following Sunday? What if the experience of Easter Sunday was so compelling that people would be eager to return next week? Think: crowds following Jesus. What kept them coming back?

britney spears at churchThe reality is that far few people attend church than who claim to follow Christ, and maybe the church is partly to blame. Philip Yancey wrote a fascinating book on this subject called Church: Why Bother? He talks about a period of his life in which he decided not to attend church, but to support it from the outside, “I am not alone… Some of them have stories similar to mine: they feel burned or even betrayed by a former church experience. Others simply ‘get nothing out of church.’” (p.20) We can dismiss these reasons, many do, or we can attempt to address them as valid concerns. I know I don’t like being bored at church. I know it’s painful when you feel betrayed by your pastor. And I know how good it is to be in a church that promotes healing in those hurt relationships and sees no benefit in being boring for the sake of tradition. Why should people bother coming to church? And when they do come why wouldn’t we celebrate it rather than complain? Britney Spears has made the headlines for all kinds of things as we all know, but I think it’s pretty cool that she hit the headlines today just for going to church on Easter. I can be happy about that.

So let me suggest a new way to respond to those “Holly and Lily Christians.” How about saying, “Happy Easter! Great to see you” (or Merry Christmas on that other Sunday). Why not be brave and go further? “It’s great to see you today. I don’t think I’ve seen you since Christmas. I don’t know if you’d have any ideas, but I’ve been working on this project to redesign how we do church on Sundays. Do you have any ideas of what would make our church services more interesting, more compelling and more relevant to people? Any thoughts?” Now, of course, church is not entertainment or just crowd pleasing, so there may be answers that won’t be helpful, but I suspect some of the answers would be very interesting. We must ask ourselves how we’ve taken such a relevant message of great news and made it seem irrelevant to so many people today.


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