Sermon Audio: Peace in the Midst of Trouble

I preached this sermon yesterday at my home church, Wesley Chapel. We have been focusing on the farewell discourse from the Gospel of John through the season of Lent, and yesterday’s text was John 16:16-33.

One of the things I’ve learned in pastoral ministry is most people, if you scratch beneath the surface, have passed through profound trials. You think people live very cookie-cutter lives, but it’s not true. Many people’s lives have been marked by deep tragedy and brokenness.  But in our very private, individualistic Canadian context, these burdens are often carried in secrecy or near-secrecy. I know some of the suffering of the people in our church family, but I am sure there is much more that I don’t know about. It is important that we acknowledge the inevitability of suffering in this life, especially in a culture of convenience and ease, where suffering seems to have become so unthinkable that many people would rather cut their lives short than live with suffering. But the point is not to simply state that suffering is inevitable, but to proclaim how, through Christ, our suffering can be taken up and transformed into a path towards peace and joy.

Themes of grief, lament, and peace in the face of suffering were woven throughout the service. We had a powerful testimony from a mother who lost her 21-year-old son last year, and we introduced this song from Bifrost Arts.

I hope Christ’s words gave some peace and courage to those gathered yesterday: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”



The Free Methodist Position on Baptism (Sermon)

I’ve recently been engaging the controversial question of baptism in Wesleyan theology and practice.  The Methodist position has always been somewhat unusual, and it continues to be of interest despite centuries of discussion and debate.  In the past several months, through student papers, conversations with other pastors, and situations in my own church, I’ve been pressed into renewed consideration of the question.

The occasion for the sermon below was two back-to-back baptism services at Wesley Chapel: four adult baptisms on June 3, and an infant baptism on June 10.  While we’ve had both types of baptism regularly, I don’t believe we’ve ever had them so close together. I realized that, in the ten years I’ve been at Wesley Chapel, we’ve never clearly addressed the question of baptism.

So in the sermon below I’ve attempted to give a brief orientation to the position of our denomination, the Free Methodist church. Given the context of this sermon, my goal was not so much to defend the Free Methodist view (though I do try to answer some common objections) as to articulate it. I also tried not to assume much prior knowledge, given the diverse set of people and church backgrounds we have with us on a given Sunday morning. So the sermon has limitations, and necessarily paints with a broad brush, but I hope it is helpful as a general overview.

*A note to my Salvation Army readers: in the first half of the sermon I set out the major positions on baptism from across the ecumenical spectrum; however, due to time constraints and the heavy amount of content that was already included in the sermon, I decided not to try to explain the non-observant stance of the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends. No disrespect was intended…this was entirely a practical decision. I didn’t think I’d have time to address it adequately. When I teach this topic in the seminary classroom, I always include an explanation of the Salvationist viewpoint.

Sermon Audio: A New Song and the New Creation (Psalm 96)

Last week I had the pleasure of spending five days with twelve fine seminary students, discussing “Creation and New Creation.”  You can find out about the course by reading the course syllabus here.  My goal for the week was lay some deep theological roots for engaging in the practice of creation stewardship. So our course included a range of topics: the Triune Creator, creation ex nihilo, the goodness of creation, general revelation, the image of God, sin, salvation, eschatology, and mission…an ambitious agenda to be sure!  But we were looking at each of these topics in relation to the question of humanity’s role as stewards of creation.  I hope it was successful in setting out creation stewardship as an issue that is deeply connected to core Christian doctrines – not at all a peripheral matter.

At Tyndale we often have summer school instructors preach during our weekly worship gathering, and so I had my first chance to preach in our new chapel on Bayview Avenue. It is an amazing worship space, as you can see from the image below.  My sermon was based on Psalm 96, keeping the themes of my course in mind, and also Tyndale’s transition to our new campus, which is still underway. Listen to the sermon below, or download the file here.

Tyndale Chapel by JDB Sound Photography via flickr

Sermon: How Can I Keep from Singing? Psalm 126 [audio]

I was glad to have a chance to preach at Tyndale’s community chapel a couple of months ago, on Psalm 126.  The sermon is part of a series of “Journey” chapels – a series designed to help our community navigate through a year of transition to our new Bayview campus.  We’ve been looking at one of the Psalms of ascent for each of these chapel services.

I used this wonderful Robert Lowry hymn (written 1860) as a window into the message of the Psalm:

Robert Lowry via wikimediaMy life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

Here is the audio, or you can download it from this site.


Sermon: A Testimony to Hope

Yesterday I was privileged to give this short sermon at the funeral of my Uncle, who died suddenly last week.   He had left some guidance about what he would like for the service, including the scripture readings: Psalm 31:1-5, Matthew 8:5-13, and Revelation 21:3-7.  

In a different setting I would have taken the time to explain that the Isenheim altarpiece I talk about at the beginning was a favourite painting of Karl Barth, and that it was through Barth that I first encountered the long pointing finger of the Baptist – but I didn’t think it was the time or place for a discussion of Barth.

Isenheim altarpiece via ibiblio

In a small museum in Northeastern France, there is a famous sixteenth-century altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim.  In the centre of this massive work of art is Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross.  On his right, his mother, Mary, collapses into the arms of the beloved disciple, John, overcome by her grief.  At his feet, Mary Magdalene prays fervently, the jar of perfume ready and waiting to anoint her saviour.  But on his left is John the Baptist, standing out of place and out of time.  Of course John the Baptist was not really at the crucifixion, because he had already died, but the artist decided to include John in this scene. So there he stands, barefoot, with his cloak of camel’s hair, and his long beard; in his left hand, he holds an open book; his mouth is closed; but with his right hand he is pointing to Jesus. And in the painting that outstretched right index finger is disproportionately long; so as you look at the scene your eye is drawn to the long finger of the Baptist, pointing to the Christ.

Some have suggested that this image of John the Baptist is a model of Christian witness.  This arresting figure draws our attention only to point away from himself, to Another.  Though John the Baptist was, by all accounts, a very holy man – the greatest of all the prophets – his message was, “He must increase, I must decrease.”  And that is what Christian witness ought to be.  We do not proclaim ourselves.  We do not claim that we are always right; we do not preach that we are always good; we don’t think we have all the answers.  No – we point to Another, we put our trust in Another.

We are gathered here to remember Robert; Bob – Uncle Bob to some of us.  We celebrate his life.  We remember the person he was; we remember his good character; we give thanks for the wonderful things he did, for the times we spent with him, and the way his life intersected with each of our lives. We rightly praise him for a life given in caring and advocating for neglected people.  He spent his days trying to help people that most of us would probably avoid if we ran into them on the street.  The mentally ill might be the most marginalized of all people in our society today.  Helping these often-overlooked people was his life’s work.  There are many things about Bob that we can admire, and that we would do well emulate.

But as we gather to remember and honour Robert today, we also have questions.  Why did this have to happen?  Why now?  He’s gone too soon.  It’s not fair – it’s not right.  The truth is we don’t have a simple answer for those questions.  But as we struggle to come to grips with this sudden loss, Robert has left us with a gift.  It is not an answer to our questions, but he has left us with a testimony to the hope that was in him – the hope that allowed him to say, “It is well with my soul.”  All of the scripture readings and the hymns for today’s service were chosen by Bob himself, because they were particularly important to him. And as we read these scripture passages, and sing these songs, I think we are hearing Uncle Bob’s witness.  He is pointing us beyond himself, to Another.

“In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust,” says Psalm 31, read to us by Nancy; “…deliver me in thy righteousness…thou art my rock…for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me…into thine hand I commit my spirit.”

This Psalm is about faith and trust. Faith is not some kind of “power” that we have inside of ourselves.  Faith is completely outward-focused; it is fixed on its object; and the value of faith is determined by the object that we put our faith in. If I have faith in something worthless then my faith is worthless.  If I have faith that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the cup this year, what good is that?  (I’ve used that illustration several times and for some reason it always gets a laugh.)  This faith that the Psalm is talking about is not that kind of wishful thinking, it is a sure trust and confidence in a loving a merciful God – a God to whom you can say, without reserve, “Into thine hand I commit my spirit.”

john the baptist detail isenheim altarpiece via wikipaintings

Rick read to us the second passage that Bob had chosen, about the healing of the Centurion’s servant.  And again, in this story, we see this outward-focused faith.  The centurion says to Jesus, “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.”   Now, he could have come to Jesus and said, “Jesus, I think you should heal my servant because I’m a pretty good person; I’m kind to others, I give to charity, I’m honest – I think you owe me one.”  Now that it wouldn’t really be faith, because he’d be trusting in himself.  No, he says, “I am not worthy…but speak the word only.” In other words, “I’m not asking for this because I think I deserve it, I’m asking because I know who you are – you are the great physician; you are loving and merciful, and your word is faithful and true; just speak the word.”  And Jesus says, “Now that’s faith.”

And the final passage that Robert selected was about God’s promises for the future.  “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men…God himself shall be with them…God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying…Behold, I make all things new.”

These are wonderful promises for us today; and these are the words Uncle Bob wanted us to hear, as we gather today to give thanks for his life.  These scriptures that Robert loved are not an answer to all our questions, but they are like that long finger of John the Baptist, pointing us to a loving and merciful God; the crucified God; the man of sorrows; the one who is acquainted with grief; the God who went to the cross – the God who went to hell and back for us, and for Robert. Can anything separate us from the love of this God, from this Saviour, who not only died for us but rose victorious and is now at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf?  We grieve our loss; but we do not grieve as those who have no hope, because the God into whose hands we commit our spirits is the same One who has already paid the price for our sins, won the victory over death, and promised us a future in which he himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Sermon: The Tower of Babel

Here’s an excerpt from the sermon I preached a couple weeks ago on Genesis 11:1-9.  This is the passage where I was dealing with the insight from Reno I posted about two weeks ago.  You can read the whole thing here.

This is not a story with a lot of grace in it!  It is primarily a story of judgment.  The people, as a whole, seek to turn away from God and find their security and significance in their own achievements; God responds with a judgment which is complete and decisive. Each of their ambitions and hopes is overturned and their scheme unravels as God intervenes in the situation.  They had planned to build a city with a great tower; in the end they give up building the city, and the tower.   They want to avoid being scattered; but in the end they are scattered.  Lastly, they want to make a name for themselves; in the end, they do get a name, but it is not the great name they wanted; their name is Babel, which means confused.  They are indeed remembered by those who came after them, but they are remembered for their folly, rather than their greatness.

And yet, there is a note of grace in this judgment, and we will only be able to hear it if we clear up a misunderstanding about this story.  Many people make the mistake of thinking that God, in putting a stop to the building of the tower, was trying to protect himself against the ingenuity of the people of Babel. And the wording of the story can leave you with that impression if you don’t read it thoughtfully.  God says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”  It sounds as if God is worried, that his reign will be endangered, and that his heavenly home will be invaded if these humans are allowed to go on scheming and building towers up to heaven.  It almost sounds as if God is worried that humans will become like him, able to do anything!

But of course, we know that is not true. God is not threatened by human ingenuity.  Even the greatest of human achievements are no threat to the God who created all things, and continues to preserve and govern all things by the power of his Word.   It wasn’t as if they could have literally built a tower to heaven, snuck in the back door, and robbed God of all his riches!  No, that is silly. God doesn’t confuse the language of the people in order to protect himself, he does it in order to protect them.  It’s not that they are threatening him with this tower; they are threatening themselves; they are threatening their own humanity, by giving themselves over to wholesale corporate corruption and rebellion against God, and gathering all the resources of their society in order to try to degrade themselves and avoid their vocation of scattering across the face of the earth.  When God says “nothing they plan to do will be impossible,” he means “there will be no limit on their capacity for self-destruction.”  Those of you who have children know that sometimes you’ve just got to split them up.  There are times when they just can’t help but bring out the worst in one another.  God’s punishment is, in fact, a way of putting a check on their rebellion, and holding them back from further corrupting themselves.   It is definitely a judgment, but it is an act of mercy-in-judgment.

Read the rest: sermon 120708 GENESIS 11 1 TO 9

Reno on the real threat of Babel

I’ve been using R. R. Reno’s theological commentary on Genesis in my preparations for a sermon on the Tower of Babel this Sunday.  As a kid I remember thinking that God stops the building of the tower because he is somehow threatened by human ambition – as if human beings might have actually reached out from the top of the tower and grabbed God by the ankle, or something like that.   I’m sure that is how many people interpreted the story as children, and it is quite possibly how some still read it.  The confusion of languages, then, would be God’s way of protecting himself against humanity – limiting their ability to scheme together and take heaven by storm.

The story of the expulsion from the Garden is often taken in a similar sense: God sends Adam and Eve away because he’s worried they’ll eat from the tree of life, and therefore they’ll become divine.

Of course, this can’t be the meaning of either text.  Reno succinctly summarizes an orthodox theological interpretation:

“Faced with an accelerating project of prideful ambition on the plains of Shinar, God acts on the same rationale he gave for the expulsion of Adam and Even from the garden of Eden.  The LORD says, “ This is on the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6).  We need to be sure readers here. It cannot be the case that human beings can make themselves divine by dint of their efforts, any more than the fruit of the tree of life and sheer deathlessness would give Adam and Even divine life – “like one of us” (3:22).  Nor can God be threatened by human striving, as if he were a vulnerable despot anxious to protect his prerogatives.  No, the temptation of the covenant of the lie is precisely the false promise that worldly abundance is enough to bring rest to human beings.

…Therefore, the danger that God identifies in both the tree of life and the tower of Babel is simple.  It is the limitless human capacity to live according to the covenant of the lie.  However impossible the pure negation of radical evil, we really can say an enduring “no” to the covenant of life. As “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19), we have a striking ability, day after day, to give ourselves over to sin.  God intervenes not to protect his power, but in order to protect us from the tenacious power of our own corruption” (R. R. Reno, Genesis, 132).

In other words, the confusion of languages is not God’s way of protecting himself from human beings, but it is his way of protecting human beings from themselves – it mitigates against the social corruption of sin.  It is an act of mercy-in-judgment.

Sermon: The Rest of the Story (Acts 1:1-11)

Below is the audio from a sermon I preached a couple weeks ago at Wesley Chapel in Toronto.  The text is Acts 1:1-11, and the sermon focuses specifically on the disciples’ question in 1:6 and Jesus answer in 1:7-8.

 “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Here is the recording (or download it here):


Sermon: the Kingdom for Beginners


Matthew 18:1-14

Preached at Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church, Scarborough, ON

March 11, 2012

Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, psychologist, and author, who is considered to be one of the finest spiritual writers of recent memory; his books have impacted millions of Christians around the world.  He was originally from Holland, but came to United States for graduate school and ended up teaching at some of the finest universities in the world: Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  But in his early fifties, after 20 years of living a very privileged life as an academic and famous author, Nouwen decided to give it all up and move to Richmond Hill, believe it or not.  Why Richmond Hill?  He came to join the l’Arche community there, called l’Arche Daybreak.

Some of you have probably heard of l’Arche.  It was founded by Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964 as a community for people with intellectual disabilities, or mental handicaps, and has spread around the world to 40 countries.  L’Arche is French for “the ark,” as in Noah’s Ark. L’Arche takes a unique, faith-based approach to providing homes for people with disabilities.  It is not at all like a nursing home. There are no “clients,” there are no “patients,” and there are no “staff.” At l’Arche, the “able” the “disabled” live together in community, in fact they live together in regular houses, and they relate to one another like families more than anything else.  Everyone is treated as a person of equal respect and dignity; they all take responsibility for their household, and they have relationships of mutual support and accountability.  Their households have close to a one-on-one ratio of non-disabled and disabled people.  You might think, that doesn’t sound very efficient!  Do they really need one non-disabled person for each disabled person?  But the point of l’Arche is not to be efficient, but to be a place where everyone is valued as a child of God.

So in 1985 Henri Nouwen left Harvard to move to l’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill. He abandoned the most exclusive circles of intellectual life in order to live amongst people who were intellectually disabled.  And, for the rest fo his life, much of his writing focused on how much he learned from these supposedly disabled people.  In his wonderful book, In the Name of Jesus, he says,

“The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking of me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then.  Since nobody could read my books, the books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction.”(27)

The fact that he was a Harvard professor meant nothing to these people. He was used to relying on his credentials and his accomplishments to impress everyone, but suddenly he was put into a place where people didn’t care about how many letters he had after his name.  He continues,

“I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment.  In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again.” (28)

In spite of all that he had accomplished, this very accomplished man was learning to become a beginner again.  And he found that, when he humbled himself and became a beginner, he learned a lot about following Jesus.›š

I think of Henri Nouwen’s experience of “starting life all over again” when I read this story in Matthew 18, where Jesus calls the disciples to humble themselves and become like little children…

Read the rest here: Sermon 120311 MATTHEW 18 1 to 14

The faith of the centurion

The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Luke 7 ends with a remarkable statement by Jesus: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

What was so great about the centurion’s faith?   I think the answer lies in the contrast between the statement of the Jewish elders (vv. 4-5) and that of the centurion himself (vv. 6-8).

This centurion, evidently a generous man and a good citizen, was able to convince some Jewish elders to speak to Jesus on his behalf.  So, as Luke records it.

When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

The Jewish elders were impressed by him.  “Jesus, he is worthy of your attention.  He deserves to have you help him.  He is a good man. He loves God’s people. He gives back to the community. He helped build the synagogue!”  Even in those days I guess making a contribution to a building fund was a good way to win friends and influence people.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything, but he does go with them.

And now the story takes a twist.  Jesus never makes it to the centurion’s house; he is stopped in the street.  And there a new set of messengers approach him – friends of the man.  They deliver a message from the centurion, and it is quite different from the message the centurion himself sent.

“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.”

There’s quite a difference between  “Lord, this man deserves to have you do this…”  and “Lord…I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  The elders were praising his worth, and he is denying it.  He continues,

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes.  I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion, by implication, has just made a very strong confession of faith in Christ. When he says, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed,”  He recognizes that Jesus’ word is as good as his deed; more than that, he knows that Jesus can accomplish whatever he pleases, just by saying the word. The centurion is saying that whatever Jesus says, will come to pass.  Who has that kind of power?  There is only One.

Whenever I read this story and hear the confession of the centurion, I think of Isaiah 55:10-11 –

As the rain and the snow
   come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
   without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
   so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
   It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
   and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  This is a confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Only God could provide what the centurion was asking for.

What’s interesting about this story is that the centurion says this at a time when the disciples still don’t understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t quite sure what to make of him at this point.  They knew he was special – obviously, they were following him around – but they didn’t realize he was divine.  It is not until two chapters later that Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah of God.

It is truly amazing that this Roman officer – a pagan – has a better sense of who Jesus is than the religious people.  The Jewish elders haven’t figured it out.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law haven’t figured it out.   It’s this foreigner who has to teach them a lesson in faith.

And so it is very fitting then that Jesus says at this point, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  He has been spending all his time with the people of God, and yet none of them have recognized him as the Son of God.  They question him, they argue with him, they reject him…but this non-religious soldier recognizes him and shows great faith in him.

And the greatness of his faith is found precisely in the fact that he trusts not in his own worth, but in the power of God’s Word.

The elders say, “he deserves it”; the man says, “I don’t deserve it, but say the word”;  And Jesus says, “now that’s faith!”