Posts Tagged ‘presence of God’

God. With. Us.

September 3, 2017

Peter has recently declared Jesus “Messiah; son of the living God”.  His is a claim that puts Jesus at the head of a religious movement with ancient roots in the past and grand plans for the future.  Those who claim this promise that God would produce a chose one – a leader of leaders to establish divine rule – imagine that leader (and subsequent kingdom) in a particular way.  It was seen as a triumph of their perseverance; the justification of all their suffering; the proof that “God was with them” – them, and no one else.

Peter unknowingly claims these arguments with his profession of ‘faith’ in Matthew 16: 16.  So when Jesus explains to him what it means for God’s purpose to be expressed in his life, suffering, death and resurrection, Peter is appalled.  “God forbid it, Lord.  This must never happen to you.” (Matthew 16: 22)  Peter, like many in the church triumphant, has missed the point…badly.

“Only when you deny yourself & take up you cross & follow me…”, says Jesus.  This call to self-denial is not a call to passive acceptance, it is a call to confront oppression, even when it comes disguised as religion.  Those who would tell us what God can and cannot tolerate are the oppressors now.

Those who would dictate their particular perspective (and call it God’s will) are tempting us away from God’s demonstrated preference for the underdog – for those who suffer for being ‘different’ – for the outcast –  for the poor.

A preferential option for the poor.  A phrase most familiar to students of theology – a phrase that comes from the liberation theologians of Central and South America.  A phrase that places God squarely on the side of those whose personhood is trampled by the rich and powerful.  An instructive phrase in this current season of political division, where profit and opinion polls matter more than people.  God shows a preferential option for the poor.

If you are a student of Scripture, it isn’t difficult to see where this line of thinking comes from.  From God’s call to Abram, and God’s honouring Jacob’s trickery, and God’s re-purposing of Joseph’s miserable captivity, the work of God is demonstrated in some rather unlikely ways.  David – the youngest, least-likely candidate, is anointed as ‘king-in-waiting’; God calls prophets who are reluctant (at best) or completely unsuited (at worst) to convey a sense of hope in times of complete and utter hopelessness.  And then, there is Jesus.

Jesus reminds us, over and over, that the longed-for reign of God will completely unsettle human definitions of power and privilege.  The poor shall be rich; the weak, strong; the last will be first…and so it goes. Yet for all the instruction from a wide variety of religious traditions, we have learned a different lesson.  “The early bird gets the worm.”  “Only the strong survive.”  “May the best team win.”  And perhaps the worst of all the ‘pseudo-proverbs’; “God helps those who help themselves.”

The church – the original ‘counter-culture’ – has developed the worst kind of counter-culture; we have created the impression that righteousness, blessedness and even godliness are goals achieved through competition.  White, western culture is especially prone to this ‘us vs. them’ mentality – with disastrous result – and here in this tumultuous time, we are reaping the fruit of our stupidity.  We are taught fear of the unknown; we grow to hate what we can’t be bothered to understand; we resign ourselves to being ruled by those who can pitch their voices to our prejudices…and God weeps.

But all is not lost.  Though we have had generations of practice ignoring or misunderstanding God’s intention toward us, God has not abandoned hope for us.  Throughout the Scriptural history – and into our own time – we are given reminders of the pattern God prefers.

Moses, called from obscurity to confront the most powerful nation of his time.  Moses, called to be the saviour of a nation in captivity.  Moses is given unique insight into the mind of God.  God reveals that even in this remote place, a holy presence can be found.  Even when it seems unlikely, God knows the extent of human suffering, and God desires something better for those who suffer (and, strangely enough, for those who cause that suffering…).  God reveals a name – ‘THE NAME’ – and this name tells a mighty tale.  “I AM” – (from the most basic of verbs, the Hebrew verb for existencehayah: ‘to be, come to pass, to happen” – the epitome of presence).  This naming of God suggests God’s presence – in every type of situation, but specifically, for the captive Israelites, in this distressing situation.  Through Moses, God intends to reach past the powerful rulers of Egypt and set the captives free.  This will not be accomplished without human effort (and, subsequently, further human suffering) but it is clear that God desires freedom, justice, and more for a humiliated, captive nation.  And not for the last time.

And that is good news – not that the Israelites, once liberated, will  struggle in the wilderness for a generation – nor that Jesus will suffer and die…No, the good news is that God is not afraid of those struggles.  Jesus life, death and resurrection affirms that God’s presence will endure all things.  Not just the triumph, but (more importantly) the tragedy.  God knows the suffering of God’s people, and God will meet us in those dangerous, difficult moments.  In this we can be certain that God is truly with us all.


That one, shining moment.

February 6, 2016

This moment doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Jesus has sent his disciples out into the world to face the reality of demons and disease; he “gave them power” over those terrifying things they would face (Luke 9: 1-2).  Upon their return, Jesus means to take them aside and hear of their ‘time on the road’, but the crowds get wind of this secret meeting and they follow.  Jesus, seeing the inevitability of the presence of the crowds, not only welcomes them, but manages to feed them from a mere mouthful (Luke 9: 10-17).  These events prompt a rash confession from Peter (Luke 9:20) and then a brutal return to reality by Jesus as he reminds them that “the Son of man must undergo great suffering…and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9: 22).  Then the promise that “…some standing here…will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:27) brings us to this morning’s text.

Luke’s gospel has been building up to this moment of revelation.  Luke has told Jesus’ story carefully from the beginning – mingling the ministry of John the Baptizer with the growing influence of Jesus, but from here on, it will be all about Jesus.

“Now  about eight days after saying these things…” – about the same time required between birth and the required presentation of a first-born male in the temple – Jesus and three of his disciples step out of the stream of their ordinary activities; up on a mountain to pray go Jesus, Peter, James and John.  And while he was praying, it happens.

Something incredible – who knows what to call it – Jesus is changed.  His face, his clothes, the very air around them shimmers with glory.  Too tired to act – Peter and the brothers can only note the presence of giants: Moses – Elijah – this is big, really big!  Here on the mountain, a presentation was being made – a statement of intent, if you will.  The presence of God’s power – God’s glory – was announced as a fact. It had been there all along, of course, but in this moment, that glory is made perfectly plain.  So, Peter, what are you going to do about it?

“Let’s build three dwellings…”  Sorry Peter, thanks but no thanks – this is not a moment that you are meant to preserve – this place is not meant to become a shrine.  The glory of God is not meant to be contained.  You’ve seen it, and that is no small thing, now you’ve got to make sense of it

When all was said and done, Peter, James and John say nothing to no one – they simply go back to the main road with Jesus – trying to act as though nothing happened.  That is the only choice, isn’t it?  This mountain-top moment is really just a flash in the pan; not enough evidence to do or say any more than has already been done or said.  Peter has long ago made his confession, after all.  Demons have been subdued (one supposes) and hungry crowds have been satisfied.  How does this ‘shining statement’ make any difference to the disciples – or to us, for that matter?

The truth is, there  are not nearly enough of these glorious moments for our liking.  “God is good”, we say (“All the time!”, is the camp response) and yet the moments that we can point, with absolute certainty, to the goodness of God – to the glory and majesty of God – are few and far between.  We are too well acquainted with sorrow, grief and pain.  Even as a people who proclaim the good news, our proclamation is often muted by the hard facts of life; our communities struggle; our witness is ‘under-appreciated’;

we question our purpose and harbour doubts about the future of our faith communities.  What would we give for the kind of shock therapy that met Peter, James and John on the mountain that day…

Though we have not seen it, the glory of God is in our midst.  For three weeks my family have struggled with grief and loss – a long, lonely drive buoyed by your cards and prayers; we confronted the death of a very special lady, and said our goodbyes in a place that used to be home; we are struggling, as a family, to understand this new reality, and it has been difficult to imagine God’s glory making an appearance.  But when we least expect it, glory cracks the tough shell of frustration and grief, and shines briefly and brightly enough to show us there is a way forward.  Sometimes it is a kind word at an unexpected moment; a card in the mail, or a face at the door.  Maybe it is the way the sun breaks through the clouds after a storm and makes the fresh snow sparkle.  It might even happen as we worship, when a word or a moment catches you unaware and helps you believe that all is not lost – that God is indeed Good.  It will be like that from now until Easter – five weeks of Lent working towards the horror of that Friday and the jaw-dropping joy of that Sunday when, once again there was a moment of glory that lets us be sure (if only for a moment) that God is with us; that God has found us; that God is very good.


Miracle and metaphor – John chapter 9

March 30, 2014

Christians are sometimes ridiculed for our staunch belief in the miraculous; We claim a faith that links us to the power that created all that is; We are moved by the unseen Spirit of God to acts of unprovoked kindness, and we find kinship with those whose acts of grace and mercy are inspired by Jesus, whose resurrection we celebrate in spite of our extensive experience with the frailty of human life and the finality of death.

We fall victim to those who demand proof of the existence of this loving God we praise.  We are beset by those who are blinded by rationality; whose eyes are closed to wonder.  “Show us; convince us”, they say – and we are tired of having these arguments –  There are no winners in these endless debates about who may be right.

That argument is present in our Gospel lesson from John chapter 9 this morning, And not just in the text – many sermons on the miracles of Jesus force us to take a stand; Miracle or metaphor – which is it?  I will claim that it is both.

The real danger here is that we don’t give Jesus the credit he deserves.  He turns a hypothetical question into a lesson about the brilliant realities of faith, and we speak of miracles of healing – but one man receiving his sight is not the main talking point here; the real miracle is in attitudes challenged and changed.  John’s gospel uses miracles and metaphors to lead us to the truth about Jesus, and we often have trouble seeing past the physical miracles to the real miracle.

A blind man sees, thanks to a mask of mud, and even the experts of the day fail to notice.   The questions that swirl around this man’s encounter with Jesus (the questions raised by the supporting cast, at least) have to do with process and procedure; was this act of healing done illegally?   (Yes, it was the Sabbath).   Is this newly sighted man who he claims to be?  (yes, several witnesses eventually convince the questioners that there is no trickery here).  Can this remarkable event be explained by our understanding of the grace of God or the rules of nature? (which of course were very closely related) …well, no.

None of this makes any sense to those who should know; and then, a miracle.

The man born blind – marginalized all his life by the religion that claims him – is suddenly brought before the powers that be, and he is asked to explain his new state of being; “one thing I know, I was blind, but now I see.”

He is not concerned with the where, the when, or even the who and how; what matters is that his life has been changed by the attentions (and intentions) of Jesus.

A prophet, he calls him – one who knows things about God that are hidden to others, and who lives according to that knowledge.  His brief and very consequential meeting with Jesus has made him think profound thoughts, perhaps for the very first time.

He ascribes no ‘super powers’ to Jesus – (‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’) – the act of regaining sight seems very ordinary as he describes it.  But he does suggest that God is with Jesus in a way that is very real and quite outside his (or anyone else’s) experience.

It is worth mentioning here that our present sense of things miraculous is not altogether Biblical.  When we speak of miracles, we usually mean something has happened that seemed otherwise (to us) impossible – we mean that there is no rational explanation for the sudden return of good health or good luck;  “It’s a miracle!” they cry, and we can only rejoice.

Yet we hunger for the miraculous, and our desire to see miracles or experience a miracle can create a divide in the Christian community between those who stake their faith on the miraculous, demanding wonders of God by appeals to Jesus, and those who become sceptical; who reason that the time for such obvious miracles is past, and that the natural beauty of creation, or the complexities of the human body are miracle enough.

The miracle is not the obvious thing – the blind made to see or the lame made to walk – blindness can be metaphorical too (this is Johns gospel, remember) – the miracle is in the encounter with Jesus; whose confidence in the nearness of God and the goodness of God, brings God to life in the midst of an otherwise ordinary (and predictable) social situations.

The living God is revealed in the midst of stale religious arguments.  A man who had never questioned his faith, but accepted the judgements of the faithful (who sinned…that he was born blind?) is suddenly and successfully arguing theology with the experts…and winning – not because he’s an expert himself, but because he met Jesus.

His blindness was not a trick to bring belief, nor was it only a metaphor for our own short-sightedness.  When Jesus addresses his blindness, his physical condition, he puts himself (all all God’s glory) firmly in the present tense – in the midst of human suffering and need – That is the miracle.

And the time for miracles is not behind us.  Jesus, in his risen power, declares for all time “God is here!”  The works of God are in our midst – and we are co-workers in this miracle of grace.  Those who once were blind to that reality have their eyes opened; Those whose faith was flattened by circumstance have their sight restored, Every day we are given the chance to see our lives  touched by the presence and purpose of God.  That is miraculous; not impossible – no need for scepticism –always within reach.  All because someone met Jesus.

Transfiguration, 2014 –

March 2, 2014

They stayed when most of us would have run.  They told no one because this experience came before twitter and facebook and the rest of the internet.  Three of Jesus disciples saw the impossible; Jesus, joined by Moses and Elijah and a shining cloud of glory on an otherwise empty hilltop.  They saw this and knew that their lives were being changed.

This incident is reported by three of the four gospel writers, and hinted at by one of the witnesses in the epistle he writes before his death.  It has no real effect on the work Jesus does; it doesn’t influence his trial, or reveal any secrets about the future.

The Transfiguration is like a bookmark you find in a book you’ve never read – an indication that someone else knows this story too – that God, in fact, is present, active and eager to be known.  And then we turn the page, and Jesus resumes that seemingly lonely walk to Jerusalem.

It does make a difference – this moment of shining glory; this encounter with the giants of the faith – it is not just Jesus who is transformed, face shining, clothes, radiant.  Too often, we forget about Peter, James and John.  Peter tells us himself how he was affected.  His life is radically changed – of course, the resurrection plays its part – but his mountain-top moment with Jesus was important too;

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty”


That moment had a lasting impact; a brief encounter with the glory and majesty of God was affirmed (for Peter) by everything that followed, and we are asked to understand and accept this for ourselves – without the “shiny Jesus” and his ancient companions.  All we have is the story.  And the story doesn’t seem to be enough.

“If only we had more people on Sunday”, goes the refrain; “if only we could tell more people the truth about Jesus; the truth about God; the truth about the work of the church…”  all we want is a chance; a moment for those “other people” to see us shine.  And we offer programs and alter worship and put televisions in the lobby so no one misses the hockey game (yes, that really happened) and we still can’t turn things around.  But there is only so much room on the mountain top, and no one stays for long.

Peter’s words, well after the fact, are important still.  This was no “program of the church” that he met on the mountain that day.  He became convinced, over time, that this was God – fully present, constantly active, gracefully offering Peter and the others just what they needed, and no more.  “Here I am in your midst” said God in that moment, and Peter’s life was never the same.


This may not be the church of old – we may be overwhelmed by new programs and different technologies and changing priorities – we may be desperate for a moment like the one Matthew describes and Peter, James and John experienced; a flash of brilliance that signals God’s presence and assures us God is with us – and the truth is, that moment has never been very far from us.  Every time we gather in worship; every time we gather in grief; whenever we celebrate in faith; every time we share this bread and cup – these are the moments God meets us; these are the shining bookmarks in our faith story – this is where we find ourselves transformed.

The disciples who left the mountain top that day were still in for some trouble.  Jesus would be arrested – they would turn their backs on him; there was death and shame and doubt and fear to follow.  But that brief reminder of God’s presence was not an idle threat – it was a glorious promise, and so it is still, for us.

An old man and a rainbow

October 13, 2013

Genesis 8 & 9 – An old man and a rainbow

For all that we call this the story of Noah’s Ark, this is not a story about Noah.  There are no detailed accounts of his time aboard the ark; no life lessons learned from the enormous task of caring for so much livestock in such a (relatively) small space.  That’s how it is with our favourite stories – they take on many meanings and sometimes we lose track of their original purpose.  This is not a story about Noah.

We would expect to know more about him if her were the principle character, but all we know is that God ‘chose’ him as one righteous person in an evil time.  Noah has a wife and three sons.  He is, according to the text, 600 years old.  He is a man of faith who “walks with God”.  That is all we know about Noah – not the central character.

Forget the animals, forget the rain, forget the enormous construction project and the inevitable conflict that comes from eight people of the same family living in such close quarters (with so many animals) for the better part of a year.  This is not a story about any of that.  This is all about God, and our relationship to God.

We have turned this into a morality play – “the wicked are destroyed and the righteous survive and prosper” – but that does injustice to Scripture, and that is not ultimate lesson.  For this righteous man (Noah) falls into bad habits almost as soon as the rainbow fades from the sky.  What we learn about God is worth exploring.

God calls a family to perform an enormous task.  God prepares them for the hardship, and “shuts them in the ark” when construction is complete.  God accompanies them on this perilous journey, and provides hope for the future, not only in the selection of animals for sacrifice (and food), but in the promise that is symbolized by the rainbow – a promise for the ages.

God is everywhere in this story, and the only time Noah deserves the credit he receives is when he finally leaves the ark.  His first act on dry land is an act of thanksgiving.  Noah seems to have recognized that the central character in his recent struggles deserves an act of worship – an offering of praise.

We don’t often recognize the flood story as a thanksgiving story because we have hidden the real purpose with all that other stuff.  And we are guilty of this in the stories we tell of our own lives as well.  We spin wonderful tales, we create heroes and villains, we give weight to insignificant events, and all the while, we ignore the central premise.  In the varied and changing stories of our lives, there is one common thread; there is God and our relationship with God.

There is sin, yes and evil (as evidenced by recent events); there are a cast of characters that would make Cecil B DeMille blush, but in the end the story is about our relationship with God.  This is at the heart of the story of church decline, and community decay; it is the central theme in our debates on politics and climate change; and those who say they don’t believe are not immune, for their profession of unbelief points directly to God (real or not) as the central concern.

So on a weekend that we are reminded to give thanks – at a time when we would be tempted to name a long list of ‘supporting cast’ who have been important to us (and rightly so) let us not forget the central figure in our thanksgiving, as those who profess a Christian faith, is and always shall be God.

For promises kept.  For vigilance in dark times, and for freedom to enjoy times of plenty.  For the act of grace that brings us through every trial, we praise and thank our God.  That is the lesson for us in this story.  And it is a lesson that can be applied without effort to our current circumstances.  Where the people of God struggle to proclaim God’s love – where the church struggles to survive, and the voice of her witness is lost in the general shouting of a world gone mad – in all those places and more, we can be sure that God still attends us, that the Spirit still moves us, and that the promise of new life in Christ is still offered us.

That promise – that starts with a rainbow and extends to an empty tomb, will always be worthy of our thanks.