Posts Tagged ‘promises of God’

The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 8.

Scriptures: John 11: 1-7, 17-25

For a few years, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was leading a spiritual retreat at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Centre. After the attacks on the towers, the staff of the church provided a place of refuge, safety and comfort for the terrified people who came into the building that day and for the rescue workers in the days afterwards. Archbishop Williams wrote a small book reflecting on the events of that day and the days that followed: Writing in the Dust.

In the introduction to the book, he asks, “After the 11th, what are we prepared to learn?” Ten years later, that questions remains. “Can anything grow through that terrible, terrifying event?” Williams states that he hopes that the answer is “Yes.”

The morning after 9/11, Williams was stopped in the street by a young man who was a pilot and an active Catholic. That young man asked the question that many people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil: “What was God doing when the planes hit the towers?” Williams mumbled something about human freedom. God creates us with free will and does not intervene. God does not just override the choices we make. Living in faith does not mean we escape evil. It means we are given resources to confront it. Through faith, we find a way to suffer, take it forward and then, in God’s own time, to have healed by the grace and mercy of the living God.

Williams knew that whatever he said would be inadequate. Ultimately, he said, this man did not want a theological discussion about free will. This man was a lifelong Christian, committed to a loving and saving God. However, now, for the first time, it had come home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.

Have you been there? If you have not yet, be assured that, the further you go in faith, the more honest you are about life, you will come to a place where God does not do what you want or expect God to do.

That was the hard truth both Martha and Mary faced in this morning’s gospel story. Their brother Lazarus was ill. They sent for their good friend, Jesus, to come to help. But, Jesus did not come. “Lazarus” means “God helps”, except God did not help this family when they need God the most. The writer of the story makes a point of saying that they “dwelt in Bethany”, the “house of affliction”. Their affliction was not just that Lazarus was ill. Their affliction was that the one to whom they looked for help was absent. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus had died. In fact, he had been dead four days.

First Martha, and then Mary, confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The same accusation was in the question that the young Catholic man asked: “Where was God when the planes flew into the towers?” We ask it ourselves: Where is God when children die of starvation in Africa? Where is God when someone we love suffers? Surely, if God is good, God should be there to help. God should fix things.

Much of living in faith is a matter of coming to terms with a God who does not meet our expectations. This God does not show up when we really need God to show up. All of us have some burden of suffering which we bear. There is some deep sorrow that hovers in the background of our days. There is some wound that we carry in our hearts that is in varying stages of being healing or refusing to be healed. Hopes and dreams have been shattered. We worry over our children. You can add to the list.

As Christians we know the promises of our Lord. Just before Jesus died, he promised, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you. I will ask the Father and he will give you a Comforter to be with forever.” The psalms are full of such promises: God is our refuge and our strength; a very present help in trouble.” “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place . . . he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” “I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble.”

Martha knew the promises. She knew the promises that the power of God is stronger than death itself. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again, she can recite them back to him. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

We know the promises but there are times when the promises seem all to lie in the future. They are some future hope we cling to in spite of all the evidence in the present that defies them.

Or, maybe they all lie in the past. They exist as memories of experiences where we did feel the presence of God, bearing us up as on eagles’ wings, holding us in the palm of God’s hands.

We find ourselves living between those memories and that hope and all we really know of God is the emptiness of God’s absence.

This is a difficult place to be. We want to move through it quickly. We want to have confident faith renewed. We want to move beyond the questions and the doubts and the uncertainties; to move into the promised joy and peace; to get on with being productive again. Instead, we are stuck in that in-between place and we cannot move past it.

The Bible knows a lot about such a space. It calls it by many names: wilderness, exile, the Pit. It is “Holy Saturday”, that time between the agony of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening. Life seems suspended.

Rowan Williams calls this empty place, this void, a “breathing space”. He says that what you need to do in such a breathing space is breathe. You are not to get on with some action as you try to persuade yourself that you really are in control of the situation. You are to breathe. You acknowledge your hurt and disappointment and rage and sense of powerlessness. You let go of the expectations that you had of God. You come to terms with this God who has given you this emptiness, this breathing space. As painful as it is, it is a gift that is filled with God’s grace.

“Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus to Martha. Martha replies, “I know the promises. On the last day, in God’s promised future, my brother will be raised up in the resurrection.” Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life. Now. Here. Already.”

Jesus brings resurrection and life into the midst of the emptiness. In the midst of suffering; in the midst of brokenness; in all the little deaths you die throughout your life, God meets you with resurrection power. In Jesus, God enters into the emptiness and makes it part of God’s holy purpose for your life.

Even the emptiness.

You are baptized with suffering. You go down into the waters of suffering. God raises you to new life. What emerges from the waters of such a baptism is not the old self you had before. You can never go back. You will carry the scars for the rest of your life. But a new self is given by God. You are made new.

It takes courage to enter into such a time. it takes courage to give voice to all that is in your heart. That’s why I keep urging you to learn to pray the Psalms. They are written by people, by a community, that has practiced breathing its faith in the void and the emptiness.

The Psalms teach a language that helps you give voice to your anger and your fears, your hurt and your hopes. They lead you through the evil that you suffer with persistence and honesty. They teach you to yield your life to God. They open you to the healing work of God. Ultimately, they teach to you to praise God again.

They teach you to praise God again in a new song. That new song will carry the sorrow you have known but that sorrow will now be gathered into God’s good and holy purposes for you and for the world.

I want you to learn to pray the psalms because they are such a great gift for your spiritual journey. I want you to learn to pray the psalms because we live our faith in a world full of suffering: not just the global suffering we hear on the news but also the suffering in the lives of people you meet day by day. You may not be able to do much to turn the tide, but your vocation as a follower of Jesus Christ is to be with people in the places of their brokenness. Hear their laments. Help them give voice to them. Prayer with them to God because, in the end, it is God with whom we all must deal.

Stand with them as a member of a community of people who, from the days of our baptisms, have practised dying and being raised to new life in Christ. We are learning to let Christ take us, bless us, break our lives open, and give us life anew. Having trusted Christ to do that in our lives, we give our lives into God’s good hands over and over again.

You can help others hear God say to them in their suffering, “Do not be afraid. Nothing in life or in death — not even this terrible thing you are going through — nothing can stop my loving purpose for you.”

That will be a great gift. That will be a good and holy work. For such holy work, God has claimed you as Christ’s own.

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New Life

Lord Jesus Christ,
our living Lord,
you have entrusted us with
a great and precious treasure:
the message that you have power
to create and to give new life.
Your Spirit moves among us
shaking up what has become settled and shut down;
stirring new life in the midst of our dying;
making a new creation in places where we have given up.

We yearn for your presence,
but we’re not sure we want your new creation.
Your newness sets us off balance.

It is awkward, unnerving
to step into your future
without knowing
without being sure
without seeming more than the next step in front of us.

The only assurance you give is that your Spirit will breath new life,
that you are the Way we are to take
that your steadfast love and faithfulness,
your mercy and your grace
will meet us in every step.

You promise that that will be enough.
So, here, now,
we dare to trust you to make all things new,
including us.
Teach us to sing your song
in this time,
in this place,
for your sake and to your glory.


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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett on John 20: 1-18

On the evening before Jesus died, Jesus gathered his disciples together and made them a promise. He said, “In a little while, I am going to leave you, but I will not leave you desolate. I will not leave you orphaned. I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit to be with you in my name. So, don’t let your hearts be troubled. Don’t let them be afraid.” (John 14)

Though the centuries, in joy, in sorrow, in the midst of trouble, Jesus’ followers have counted on that promise. If I were to ask you, “What is the gospel? What is the faith that comforts you and sustains you and carries you when you suffer?”, I expect that many of you would answer, “God is with you. We do not journey alone. We do not suffer alone. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou are with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me’ (Psalm 23)”.

A New Creed of the United Church of Canada proclaims, ‘We are not alone. We live in God’s world. . . . In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. Thanks be to God.” At Christmas, we heard Jesus named Emmanuel — God-with-us. As we headed into Holy Week, Jesus promised, “I will not leave you desolate.”

We count on it. We hold onto it. Time and time again people have told me that they have felt its truth in their lives.

And yet, there have also been times when counting on that promise has been more a matter of faith than of certainty. You can go through stretches — sometimes long stretches— when you do not experience God present with you. You can come to a place where you have to choose to trust that God is with you. You choose to trust the promise even thought there is so much evidence to the contrary. You lean into the promise rather than resting in it. There may be times when you cannot manage even that.

This morning’s gospel story tells us that that is where Easter begins. Did you catch it? “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” “While it was still dark”, because on Friday, Jesus, the Light of the World, had died on a Roman cross and his disciples’ hope had died with him. “While it was still dark” — in those times when nothing you can do will fix what has gone wrong and you cannot make it right no matter how hard you try. “While it was still dark” — in those times when the disciples of Jesus, the community of faith, is scattered, and fragmented and frightened and not at all sure what the future holds.

In that dark place, where hope cannot be found, and you are full of questions and doubts and uncertainties and you may not even be able to pray, God is at work. Even there the promise hold.

Very often, God’s resurrection work in your life is going to be hidden from your eyes. That does not mean that nothing is happening. By the time any of us gets to Easter morning, God has already entered into the depths of our lives, overcome the power of death and brought the dead to life and begun a new creation, a new world.

The chances are that you are going to see the evidence of God’s resurrection, God’s saving work in your life, only well after Easter has already begun. More than that, the chances are that it won’t look anything like you thought it would.

Mary comes to Jesus’ tomb, expecting to sit for a while in her grief and her pain and her loss. She sees that the stone that had been rolled in front of the tomb on Friday now had been removed from the tomb. She does not immediately thing, “Oh, look — resurrection! God has raised Jesus from the dead. Everything is okay now.” No. She sees the emptiness and the absence and says, “Someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” She thinks that the grave has been robbed. It wasn’t enough that the powers-that-be had killed Jesus. Now, they had added hurt upon hurt, sorrow upon sorrow and had stolen him away from her as well.

She runs to the church — to Peter and the beloved disciple. They are not too sure what to make of the empty tomb either. They both see signs of God’s resurrection power at work — the stone moved away, the missing body, the folded grave cloths —but only one of them ‘believed’ and they both just went back home. They went back to the way things already were, as if nothing had happened. Mary stays, weeping outside the tomb. She turns around and sees someone standing there and she thinks it is the gardener.

The God who comes to us in Jesus is a God who creates new life where there is only death; a God who takes our dead ends and opens up new possibilities; a God who makes new and heals and saves. Yet, this new resurrection life does not come easily. None of us receives it easily.

You can get stuck in your expectations of what God is supposed to do, or what God’s work is supposed to look like, or what God’s promised presence is supposed to feel like. You are going to have difficulty recognizing the risen Christ in your life. Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, “A God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is . . . Being a person of faith doesn’t mean you get to be certain. It means you get to be surprised.”

Our God is a living God, a God of surprises. “I will not leave you desolate,” promises Jesus, but the only way to live into Jesus’ promise is to “live expectantly but without expectations”. All we know is this: God’s love is a firm, determined love that will not let you go. There is no situation so lost that God cannot find you in it and bring you home. There is no wreckage so total that God cannot redeem it and use it for good and holy purposes. God works way beyond your expectations. Resurrection is larger, deeper, more wondrous than any of us expects.

A Risen Saviour is on the loose. Nothing in all creation can stop him. And he knows your name. Thanks be to God.

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“You can’t get there from here”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church on September 26, 2010.

Scriptures: Luke 16: 19-31

There is a story about a preacher and a taxi driver who died and went to heaven on the same day. As they arrive at the pearly gates, the preacher is feeling pretty sure of himself. Here he is in the place he had been talking about ad nauseum all his life. When he arrives, he is assigned to a small house with a wooden bed and a black and white television set. He is given a bicycle to ride around heaven. However, he notices that the taxi driver has settled into a mansion with many beds and a home theatre style television.
Day by day, the preacher gets more annoyed at the discrepancy. Finally, he approaches the Almighty God, Ruler of the Cosmos, and says, “Excuse me, but I think there has been some mistake.” The preacher explains the differences in the standard of living accorded to him and to the taxi driver. “I am a minister and I am living like this! He is but a lowly taxi driver and he is living like that! You must have made an error.”
The Lord God Almighty replies, “Oh, no, Reverend. To the contrary. While you were preaching, people were sleeping. While he was driving, the people in his cab were praying and doing so with all their might.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a ‘pearly gates’ kind of story.

(Read Luke 16: 19-31)
One of the greatest challenges that the early church faced was trying to convince people that Jesus was the saviour that they had been waiting for. Here was a man who had suffered a horrible death as a common criminal. He had been executed by the powerful Roman Empire while onlookers mocked him. This was the saviour of the world?

When the apostle Paul wrote to the Christian Church in Corinth, “We proclaim Christ God’s saviour, crucified”, he acknowledged that such a claim was a stumbling block to Jews who had expected the Messiah to rescue them from Roman rule. It was foolishness to the Greeks whose mythic heroes were always strong, powerful, victorious. Those are the kind of people who save the world, not someone who suffers and dies. Even so, says Paul, to those who believe, Jesus of Nazareth is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1: 22-24)

One of the greatest challenges we face as we try to follow Jesus is that God’s salvation often doesn’t look like the salvation we are wanting. It does not come in the form we were expecting. In the section of Luke’s gospel that we have been working through over the past few months, we have heard Jesus tell parable after parable about the unexpected ways God saves us:
God is like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, even though shepherds were probably the least religious people they could meet.
God is like a woman, tearing the house apart looking for a lost coin, even though nobody would have thought of casting God as a woman.
God is like a father who humiliates himself in the community out of love for two sons, each lost in his own way. (Luke 15)

In today’s gospel story, Jesus says, “There was a rich man.” Jesus does not give him a name, but Luke has set the story up in such a way that we are to think that the rich man might represent the Pharisees. “Everyone knows they are lovers of money,” he reminds his listeners (Luke 16:14).
“And there was a poor man.” The poor man’s name is Lazarus, which means “God helps.” The name is somewhat ironic since God does not seem to help Lazarus in any way we might expect God to help. Lazarus is poor. Lazarus is so poor that he begs at the rich man’s gate every day. Lazarus is covered with sores. He is so sore-ridden that dogs would come and lick his sores.
When both men die, the rich man finds himself in a situation much like the preacher in the joke that opened this sermon. His accommodations are much below the standards to which he was accustomed. They are not at all what he had expected for his reward in heaven.
What was really irksome to him was that poor Lazarus was resting in the ‘bosom of Abraham’. Abraham – the father of those who live by faith in Yahweh. Abraham — the one with whom God had entered into covenant. God had promised Abraham, “I will bless you and I will make you a blessing to others.”
There was Abraham with the poor person who had suffered all his life. The rich man is suffering by himself, with only his agony to keep him company.
The rich man does what he knows how to do. He tries to solve his problem and fix the situation. He begins by giving orders to Abraham: “Send Lazarus with some water. I am in agony.” Then, he moves to negotiations and developing a strategic plan, “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so this situation will not be repeated.”
Abraham will have none of it. “You can’t get here from there,” he says. “It can’t be done.” It is not that Abraham is hard-hearted and cruel. It is not that Abraham is happy to see the tables finally turned. Abraham will not negotiate with the rich man because the rich man’s problem is not something that the rich man can fix with his usual way of operating in the world. Abraham is the father of those who live by faith in Yahweh. You can’t demand or negotiate your way into God’s presence. God’s presence can only be received as a gift.

Throughout the stories of the scriptures, we learn that ours is a faith that is based on on the promises of God:
When Abraham was without children and without a future, God promised him he would be a father; that he would bless and be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12: 2);
When Jeremiah was a prophet of Yahweh at a time when the centre of life was crumbling, God promised: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11);
Isaiah spoke God’s promise to a people who were growing weary and discouraged, promising, “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings, as eagles. They shall run and not grow weary. They shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40: 31).

Those promises found their fulfillment in Jesus who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10). He promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you. . . In the world you will have trouble, but do not be afraid. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

When we are in agony or when we are suffering, the promised blessings can seem very far away. They can seem out of reach. A great chasm separates us from the future that God promises. In such times it can be difficult to hold onto faith — to keep trusting the promises. Then it is that we are faced with one of the hardest lessons to learn. At least, we seem to have to learn it over and over again: hope does not come from what we know or what we can do, as clever or as powerful as we might be. Hope does not come from a ‘what’. Hope comes from whom you trust.

The one we trust is Jesus who spent much of his time with people who suffered or who lived on the margins of society. Jesus our saviour suffered himself and died. The surprising truth of our faith is that God and God’s salvation comes to us in the midst of our suffering. We do not find our way out of suffering as much as Christ leads us through it. He leads us into a life that is shaped by God’s resurrection power.

Times of suffering often take us beyond our usual ways of coping with the world. Mostly that is because those ways no longer work. When that happens we get frightened, discouraged, weary. Somewhere in that weariness we find God inviting us to let go of our attempts to save ourselves. We experience God’s invitation to receive God’s grace, even though it comes to us in a strange, unexpected form.

Said St. Augustine, “God gives where God can find empty hands.” The gift of our weariness and frustration is that they drive us into the arms of God who alone can save us. In that empty space where we are alone with God, God unmasks us. God exposes the idols to which we have given our lives but which cannot satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. God exposes the false securities to which we have been clinging even though they do not make us more secure. God exposes the illusions we carefully guard but which keep us from dealing with the world as it really is. Those illusions keep us from telling the truth; yet, truth-telling is the only way we can move into hope.

That work which God does in our souls is painful work. We resist it. We avoid it as long as possible. Still, God does not abandon us in our resistance. Did you notice? Even the rich man in the parable gets a name, an identity. Part way through the parable, Abraham calls him, “Child”. He is a child of Abraham, of faith. That is who he really is — not just a rich man, defined by something as fleeting as his wealth.

That is who we really are. Our true identity is not that we are rich or successful. Our true identity is not that we are poor or failures. Our true identity — the one that shapes everything else — is that we are children of the living God who knows the plans God has for us, plans for a future with hope.

In your weariness, allow yourself to be held by that God. In your emptiness receive grace from Christ our crucified Saviour. It is the invitation of the One who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Our hope.

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“Living Well”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church on November 21, 2010 (Reign of Christ Sunday).

Scriptures: Colosssians 1: 11-20

What do the following hymns have in common?

Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine
To God be the Glory
All the Way My Saviour Leads Me
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross
Pass me not, O Gentle Saviour

All these songs were written by Fanny Crosby (1820 -1915). She wrote eight to nine thousand hymns over her lifetime. She spent much of her life serving those who were poor and needy, often using the money she had earned from her hymns to support her work with the poor. As if those two things are not remarkable enough, she did all that while she was blind.

She had not been born blind. When she was six weeks old, an incompetent doctor treated her for an eye infection and left her without sight. When, later in her life, she wrote about being blind, she thanked God for it: “The first face ever to gladden my sight will be when I get to heaven and behold the face of One who died for me . . . I truly believe God intended that I should live my days in physical darkness so that I might be better prepared to sing His praise and lead others from spiritual darkness into eternal light. With sight, I would have been too distracted to have written thousands of hymns.” Later she wrote, “Blindness cannot keep the sunlight of hope from the truthful soul.”

Fanny’s life could not have been easy, but her hymns convey great confidence and faith in God. They witness to strength that holds even in the face of difficulties. When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in Colossae, he was trying to draw them into that same strong confidence: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power”.

The Christians in Colossae had lots of options open to them when it came to spirituality. Theirs was a city where there was a multitude of cultures of religions telling people what they needed in order to live the good life. Yet, for all the options open to them, it seems that they were not living better lives. They were feeling pressured. They were confused as to how to sort through the conflicting demands on their time and energy. They were increasingly frustrated with the way their lives felt fragmented. Paul wrote to Christians in Colossae to help them pull their lives back together again. He was trying to impart to them some spiritual wisdom. He wanted to help them clear the clutter so that they could focus on what is essential.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian of the nineteenth century, used to pray for the ability ‘to will one thing’. People who will one thing know who they are, he said. They are no longer distracted; rather, they are focussed, clear about their mission. Consequently, they live with authority.

What is ‘the one thing’ you want in life? Can you answer the question? A more important question: does the ‘one thing’ nourish your soul? Does it integrate your life so that all the pieces find an appropriate place?

Paul was very clear: the one thing he wanted to know was Jesus as Lord. When that is your focus, he writes, all the other parts of life hold together. Then, no matter what happens, you can live with hope.

Remember, this is a man who was writing from a prison cell. He had been beaten and arrested. He had been chased out of countless towns. He knew what it was like when life hits hard; when you’ve been tossed about and broken; when you are feeling weary and frayed at the edges.

He does not offer platitudes. They are not deep enough to hold a life together. He offers Jesus. He is convinced that everything finds its purpose in the risen Christ. He holds everything together. “From beginning to end he’s there, towering above everything, everyone. In him, all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies . . . He puts your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust.” (Colossians 1, The Message)

That does mean that as followers of Jesus we have everything figured out. It does not mean that we never encounter problems that threaten to overwhelm us. It means that we just keep placing the disconnected, confusing and confused pieces of our lives into Christ’s keeping. He takes them and holds them together and works them into God’s saving purposes for our lives.

Marva Dawn is an author and theologian who, every day of her life, deals with multiple handicaps and illnesses. As a child, she contracted red measles which destroyed her pancreas. Now she deals with diabetes and kidney problems and blindness and intestinal troubles and . . . the list goes on. She writes that she frequently finds herself discouraged. When that happens, some people say to her, ‘You should not be depressed. You’re a Bible teacher after all.” That just makes her more despondent. Then she also feels guilty about being depressed. That makes her feel defeated, which leads to more feelings of guilt. She finds herself caught in a vicious cycle.

She writes that, what helps her is that she reminds herself that Jesus does not say to anyone who is struggling, “You ought to get out of that pit.” He does not say, ‘Here are ten easy steps for getting out of pits. Follow them.” Jesus jumps into the pit with us and, with him, comes power to reconcile all things.

The most hope-filled promise I cling to is that, whatever happens, Christ is working to bring every bit of our lives into God’s good purposes. Nothing in all creation has more power than the risen Christ. The cross says that our God takes what the world considers failure and uses it for our salvation. The resurrection shows us that God is able to take even the most devastating, destructive event and, somehow, redeem it. God is able to weave it into God’s good and holy purposes for our lives.

At the time when we are struggling the most, we may not be able to see how that is happening. Indeed, we may not be able to see God’s redemption for a long time. However, we can trust that Christ is able to confront and break the power of whatever evil has befallen us and use it to accomplish God’s loving intention for us.

A few moments ago, as we were baptizing Margaret, Maddie poured water into the font and Robbi said, “This is the water of baptism. Out of this water we rise, forgiven of sin . . .” Now, every moment of our lives is bathed in the grace of God. Nothing in all creation, nothing in life or death, nothing visible or invisible, nothing present or still to come, can ever separate us from the love of God that has met us in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 37-39). By that love, your life is being redeemed, made holy, set apart for God’s good purposes. All of it. Live into that hope. It is gift of your baptism into Christ Jesus our Lord.

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A prayer based on Isaiah 65 and Luke 21

Source of Life,
Source of our lives:
You are the one who makes new futures where none seem possible;
You open a path forward when all we can see are blocked roads.
Your prophets speak hope into our imaginations —
hope for a time of peace;
hope for a time of justice;
hope for joy and delight in the streets of the city.

It sounds like such good news
but you know the ways that we resist
the changes that you bring.

We are afraid of your new futures
that are not in our control.
We find it hard to let go
of the familiar and the comfortable,
the places of privilege we have carved out for ourselves.

Your newness is different than what we had planned.
Yet, we yearn for the life that your presence brings.
Our spirits wither without your breath.

So, speak your world-transforming words
into our hearts and imaginations again.
And send Your Holy Spirit to breathe into us
so that we see You at work.
And seeing You,
we are ready to let go and to take up
and to be your people
even in this newness.

We pray in the name of Jesus
who promised us both trouble
and words and wisdom sufficient for the time.

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Isaiah 55: 6-9
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God is active in the world, creating new futures where none seemed possible. This is a primary conviction of the scriptures. This is where prayer begins. God acts. We respond. God speaks into our lives and we pray to God.

However, we often begin our prayers unaware of God’s prior action and speech. Our prayers often begin with our needs, our concerns, our desires. “Help me.” “Show me.” “I’m hurting.”

Isaiah invites us to turn towards God. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.” I have found that that is not easy to do. The problems that drove me to pray fill my mind. They take up all the space of prayer. The Psalms have been my mentors in turning towards God. Even when they begin with the psalmist’s troubles, they end up being about God — God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; God’s ‘mighty acts’ by which God saves us. From the psalmist I have learned to spend more time focusing on God — seeking God — than on my troubles. The problems my not be resolved but they are placed into the care of God who is present in them and who is actively at work to redeem them. I may not be able to perceive it at the time, but God’s promise is that they, too, will be worked into God’s good and holy purposes. I can live in hope and in peace.

ACTION: Pray Psalm 23, taking each phrase and visualizing it as applying to you. “The Lord is my shepherd . . . He leads me beside still waters . . . He restores my soul.” Let your resting in God’s good care be your prayer.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia on September 12, 2010.

Psalm 14

Luke 15: 1-10

Three core stories form us as followers of Jesus Christ. They are the lenses through which we learn to see the world. They help us understand what it means to live in faith in the God who is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three core stories are Exodus, Exile and Easter. Those stories become metaphors, or figures, that run throughout the scriptures. They seed our imaginations and open our spirits to the living God in each new season of faith.

Within the story of the Exodus, the figure of the wilderness plays a prominent role. Hebrew slaves escape in the middle of the night; Pharaoh’s soldiers chase them down to the edge of the Red Sea; by a miraculous act of God, a way opens where there was no way. The people go through the waters and find themselves in the wilderness. They are in the desert with forty years of wandering ahead of them until they get to the Promised Land.

A few thousand years later, Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. He goes through the waters and then spends forty days and forty nights in the wilderness being tested by the devil before he begins his ministry.

Surprisingly, the people of God spend a lot of time in the wilderness even though the wilderness seems an odd place for God’s people to be. It is a harsh, difficult place. Food and water are scarce, if they can be found at all. There is unbearable heat during the day and numbing cold at night. Either one can kill you if the animals don’t get you first. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness — to get turned around, become confused, unable to find your way out.

When you are lost, it is easy to lose touch with God. Psalm 14 paints a picture of God surveying God’s beloved creation.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
   to see if there are any who are wise,
   who seek after God.

3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
   there is no one who does good,
   no, not one.

4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
   who eat up my people as they eat bread,
   and do not call upon the Lord?

The psalm gives a glimpse into God’s heart: God’s heart is aching because we have all gotten so confused and lost. We have all wandered away from the goodness and delight that God intends for us to enjoy. We cannot find our way home.

Sometimes we end up lost in the wilderness simply because life takes us there: we suffer a devastating illness; we lose a job; a loved one dies; someone wounds us deeply. Some of us do not feel lost ourselves, but we pray every day for a child or grandchild who has lost his or her way. There’s nothing we can do except bring their names and our love for them to the feet of the living God. Some of us feel lost because the culture is changing so rapidly that we cannot keep up.
Talk with young people in their twenties about feeling lost in the wilderness: some of them will tell you about having gone through high school being told that, by the time they graduated, the Baby Boomers would be retiring in droves. There would jobs for the picking. Now, many of them are running out of Employment Insurance and there are no jobs in sight.

Sometimes, we get lost simply because life happens and we get confused and disoriented and cannot find our way. Sometimes, though, the scriptures say that we find ourselves in the wilderness because God has led us there.

The Official Board has been studying a passage from the book of Exodus (13: 17-22) that says that the Hebrews could have taken a shorter route to the Promised Land, yet Yahweh led them in a roundabout way. There were lessons that they had to learn in the wilderness — lessons about God’s faithfulness and about trusting in a God who acts in surprising ways.

One of the challenges to our faith can come when it feels like God has pushed us into a wilderness time and then has left us wandering around long past the time when we figure God should have rescued us from our troubles. We pray for direction; we beg for help. We try to find a short-cut past our troubles. We look for a way to escape or someone to rescue us. Nothing opens up.

The wilderness stories in the scriptures always include the surprising discovery that God is present there. Even more than that: God is not only present but God is also working our our salvation in those wilderness conditions. It often does not seem that way. Part of what makes the experience feel like the wilderness is that we feel bereft, abandoned. It seems that we have been left on our own, with nobody caring. It feels as if God, especially, does not care.

The promise of our faith is that God does care. God cares deeply and passionately for each of us. God, says Jesus, is like a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep in order to go find one that is lost. God is like a woman who will tear her whole house apart looking for one small lost coin. then, God will throw a grand party to celebrate when the lost is found.

The problem, then, is not that God does not care. The problem is that the salvation God offers to us often does not look like the salvation we were wanting or expecting. Because it looks so different, we do not perceive it.

Luke says that Jesus told the parables of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep and of the woman searching for a lost coin and of a father searching the horizon for a lost son to Pharisees and teachers of the scriptures. These were people trying to live as God’s people. They were good religious folk. However, they could not imagine that God’s Saviour would save them by spending so much time with people who lived on the margins of respectability. This was not the way they were expecting God to rescue them from their oppression.

They were ‘murmuring’ against Jesus, says Luke. Murmuring — like the Hebrews did when they realized they wouldn’t be going straight to the Promised Land. They found out that they would be spending a lot longer in a dry and desolate place than they had planned. They realized that the journey would take a lot longer than they had expected, and that it would be a lot more difficult than they wanted. They murmured against Moses and Aaron: “Why did you bring us out here? Where are we to get water? Where are we to find food? Is the Lord with us or not?”

The Pharisees and teachers of the Law also murmured against Jesus: “He welcomes the wrong kind of people.” Salvation was supposed to be a gathering of the righteous. it was to be a great banquet where the righteous would receive their reward for doing God’s will. But Jesus just kept gathering in the broken, the lost, and the wounded. He kept inviting people to the feast that did not seem to qualify. Such an inclusive community was God’s salvation, happening before their eyes, said Jesus. But the Pharisees and teachers of the Law could not see it. They were lost in a wilderness of disappointment and confusion. If they were going to get in on God’s new creation, they were going to have to change their expectations.

That is true for us as well. Sometimes, we find ourselves going through a wilderness time that lasts far longer than we hope it will. In those times, the task that faces us is to open ourselves to the ways God is changing us rather than changing our circumstances.

Someone has suggested that we wrestle daily in prayer with the kinds of questions that open us to God’s holy, transforming work:
What are you doing, God, in these circumstances?
What are you asking me to leave behind?
What are you asking me to become?
What are you telling me?

There are no short-cuts through the wilderness. The answers do not come easily. This Saviour who finds us in our lostness does not seem nearly as concerned about our comfort and safety as we are. He has something much greater in mind for us. The change God wants in us can be painful, hard work. We resist. We cling to what we know rather than embrace the mysterious new creation that God has in store for us. We become impatient, wanting to get past the pain. Instead, God invites us to move deeper into the pain and to find even there God’s grace and God’s strength and God’s faithfulness. That is what will see us through to the end of our days.

The lessons we learn in the wilderness are always lessons about God’s faithfulness, about learning to trust this God above all else. God longs for us with a love that is deeper than anything that tries to separate us from God. God has purposes for us that are better than any that we imagine for ourselves. In times of wilderness wandering, God grows us deep so that we shall find the streams of grace that run through all our lives. The promise is this: God’s grace will be sufficient for us. Knowing that, we shall join the celebration. Thanks be to God.

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I’ve been fussing about a situation in my congregation. Early this morning, as I was handing it all over to God (since I wasn’t able to make any headway on my own in trying to find a way through the mess!), this is what came to my mind:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. (Psalm 127:1)

And this quotation from Victor Shepherd:
From 1521 until his death in 1546 a reward was promised anyone who slew Luther. He remained undeterred. He was asked where he would be if the worst happened – that is, if he and everything he stood for were trampled and destroyed. His reply? “I shall be then where I am now: in the hands of God.”

And this from Philippians 4: 11b -12
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Three gifts that lifted a burden. Now I can concentrate on more important things!

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Eric Milner White wrote this prayer:

Eternal God,
you call us to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith
to go out with courage,
not knowing where we go but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us.

It is not an easy prayer to pray. And yet, so often life takes us in this direction.
In an interview for Faith and Leadership, Robin Jensen was asked about the image of ‘sheep’ in the scriptures for God’s people and the fact that it doesn’t seem like a very complimentary image. She replied, “In baptismal catechesis, bishops tell people about to be baptized they are becoming a member of the shepherd’s flock. The signing of the cross on the forehead of the just-baptized person is often compared to the branding of the sheep. Now the shepherd will know you. This is done with oil on the head . . . but it’s a permanent and indelible mark. You always be able to be found should you get lost.”

Knowing we shall always be able to be found should we get lost gives both comfort and courage.

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