A Sower Went Out to Sow

During our July 16 worship service Pastor Michael preached on the Parable of the Sower from Matthew’s Gospel, helping us to develop the “ears to hear” Jesus’ teaching by setting this story in its context. Here’s the audio of his sermon, “A Sower Went Out to Sow”:

 

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When Words Fail

During our July 9 morning worship service, Pastor Lawrence spoke on “When Words Fail,” a reflection on Paul’s description in Romans 8 of the Holy Spirit’s “groaning” with us during our sufferings “with sighs too deep for words.” Here’s the audio of his sermon (including his first ever vocal solo!):

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Not Under Law but Under Grace

This past Sunday Pastor Michael preached on Romans 6:12-23, a sermon entitled, “Not Under Law but Under Grace.” Here’s the full audio of the sermon:

Here’s a written excerpt:

In our Scripture text this morning Paul affirms three things:
we are not under Law,
we are under grace—
yet this means we are no longer under sin.

The second of these we can understand, even if we have a hard time fully appreciating it: “we are under grace,” forgiven and accepted by God not because of who we are or anything we do or don’t do. It’s God’s favour entirely undeserved, completely unexpected. We are under grace.

But how does this fit in with the other two things Paul affirms: that we are not under Law, and that we are no longer under sin? How do we make sense of these three things all together?

When Paul says that “we are not under law,” he doesn’t mean just any law. He doesn’t mean “we are not under Roman law,” or even “we are not under any law at all.” He means “we are not under the Law of Moses.”

This is really important to understand if we want to make sense of what Paul says not only here but through much of Romans and even his other letters. For Paul, “the Law” is the Torah, the Law God gave through Moses to the ancient people of Israel. It is the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai, and all the other roughly 600 commandments that expanded and applied those Top Ten.

Being “under the Law,” or “under Torah,” then, was the way the Jewish people spoke of being bound to the covenant God made through Moses with ancient Israel.

Being “under the Law” meant that they were to obey all those commands found in our books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. But this was not only about keeping the commandments; this was even more about maintaining their identity as God’s people. Their very identity was defined by the Law of Moses, and especially by certain specific commandments that marked them off as God’s chosen people in contrast to all the other peoples around them: circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and the kosher food laws.

So, being “under the Law” was a pretty big deal for Jews such as Paul. It not only prescribed how they were to live, it defined who they were as God’s people.

When Paul says “we are not under Law,” then, this is no small thing. He’s saying God’s people are no longer defined by the Law of Moses. He’s saying the Law of Moses is no longer the first place God’s people look to determine how we are supposed to live. Put another way, the Old Testament Law is neither covenant nor command for God’s people in Christ. We are not under the Law.

“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Isn’t the Old Testament still Scripture for us? Didn’t Jesus say he came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them? And if we’re not bound by the Old Testament Law, how do we know what sin is and what a righteous life looks like?”

Good questions. If any of those questions come to your mind, it means you’re tracking right along with what Paul is saying here. Just hang on, though, we’re getting there.

So, 1) “we are not under Law.” We are not bound to obey the Old Testament Law. We are not defined by the Old Testament Law. The Law of Moses is neither covenant nor command for us.

Instead, 2) “we are under grace.” We are forgiven and accepted by God not because of who we are or anything we do or don’t do. It’s God’s favour entirely undeserved, completely unexpected.

But don’t forget, there’s a third thing Paul affirms here in Romans 6:
we are not under Law,
we are under grace—
yet this means we are no longer under sin.

How exactly does this work?

We are not under the Law of Moses, but this doesn’t mean we are lawless, left without any guidance for how to live. As Paul puts it here in Romans 6:17, we have been entrusted with a “form of teaching” that we “obey from the heart.” What is this teaching?

This teaching is what Paul calls “the law of Christ.” Paul puts this most clearly in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, where he talks about his ministry to Jews and Gentiles:

To those under the Law [Jews] I became as one under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law) so that I might win those under the Law. To those outside the Law [Gentiles] I became as one outside the Law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under the Law of Christ) so that I might win those outside the Law.

According to Paul, then, we are not under the Law of Moses but rather we are under the Law of Christ. And what is this Law of Christ? To put it simply, the Law of Christ is the life and teachings of Jesus; it is the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection; it is the law of love.

A few chapters down the road in Romans Paul talks about this. In Romans 13 he says:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law. (13:8-10)

In this Paul is directly following the teaching and example of Jesus. The Law of Moses is fulfilled in love. When we love others in the way of Jesus, we are fulfilling the divine intention, the deeper purpose, of the Old Testament Law.

Or, to put it another way, this “Law of Christ” is about bearing one another’s burdens, just as Christ did for us. That’s exactly how Paul puts it in Galatians 6: “Bear one another’s burdens,” he says, “and in this way fulfill the Law of Christ” (6:2).

Or, to put this yet another way, this “Law of Christ” is what Paul in Romans 8 calls “the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2). It is the Spirit of Christ at work in our hearts and minds and lives, shaping us from the inside out to be more like Jesus. It is God’s Spirit prompting us to put off greed, lust, pride, selfishness, and the like, and instead producing in us the character of Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Last week I talked about this, how God has done something truly radical, truly momentous, even earth-shattering in Jesus: God has put to death a whole way of being human in the world, our old humanity, and God has brought to life a new way of being human in the world, a brand new humanity.

This new humanity, this new way of being human, is the way of Jesus. It is the difficult way of death and resurrection. It is the narrow way of selfless love bringing life for all.

All this is the “form of teaching” that Paul says in Romans 6:17 we “obey from the heart.” It is this “Law of Christ,” the life and teaching of Jesus, Jesus’ way of love that fulfills the Law, the Spirit’s way of shaping us into the likeness of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.

And this is how Paul can say that we are no longer under sin even though we are truly not under Moses’ Law and we are truly under God’s grace: because by God’s grace Jesus summons us to a new way of being human in the world, a way of being human that is prompted by God’s Spirit and marked by love, and this way of being human fulfills all that God desires for us to be and to do.

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Dying with Christ, Being Raised with Christ

This past Sunday Pastor Michael preached on Romans 6:1-11, a sermon entitled, “In Newness of Life.” Here’s the full audio of the sermon:

Here’s a written excerpt:

To say that “we’re saved by grace therefore we can sin if we want” makes no sense—because salvation is salvation from sin. Sin is “destroyed” in Christ, Paul says here. In Christ we are “freed from sin,” Paul says. Salvation is salvation from sin.

This is a crucially important thing for us to grasp. We hear people speak about being saved from hell, or being saved from God’s judgment, or similar ideas. But the Bible speaks about salvation as being saved from sin and its resulting death. This is our enemy—not any other flesh-and-blood human being, but our own sin and all its consequences—and so this is what we need to be rescued from. Salvation is salvation from sin.

All the ways we cause harm to others, to the rest of creation, even to ourselves, by our thoughts and words and actions—that is sin. The pride that makes us think of ourselves as superior to others. The greed that motivates us to want more and more and always more, at the expense of others. The selfishness that keeps us from showing compassion to others. The lust that makes us want to possess others simply to satisfy our own desires. The fear that keeps us separate from others, and so nurtures prejudice and bigotry against them.

All these things and more are sin, and when they inhabit our lives they bring about a kind of inner death: they leave us awash in guilt and shame, filled with a sense of futility, disconnected from God and others. These sins can even bring about a more direct, more visible kind of death: devastation of our planet, damage to the health and wellbeing of others, even ourselves. All this death is, as Paul puts it later in Romans 6, the wages we get paid for our own sin.

This is what we need salvation from—and this is just the salvation Paul says God gives us in Jesus. In Jesus we can be delivered from all these ways we bring harm to our world, others, and ourselves. In Jesus we can be kept from experiencing all that guilt and shame and futility and devastation and destruction and more—that deep death that results from our harmful sins.

So, to say that “we’re saved by grace therefore we can sin if we want” makes no sense—because salvation is salvation from sin. If we think we can sin all we want because we’re saved, it shows we’ve missed the whole point—because salvation is salvation from sin.

Once we get that straight, then we can approach the question in the right way. The real question is not, “If we’re saved by grace, what’s to keep us from sinning?” The real question is, “We are saved by grace from sin—so how do we live that out in our lives?”

And Paul’s answer to this question is essentially this: “We need to take seriously the call of Jesus to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.”

God has done something radical, something momentous, something earth-shattering in Jesus. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are like a boulder dropped in the pool of our complacent, self-centred existence. Jesus has turned everything upside down and so made everything right-side up. A whole way of being human in the world has been crucified with Jesus, and a new way of being human in the world has been brought to life in Jesus.

But this new reality requires us to participate with Jesus in his death and so enter into Jesus’ resurrection life. It requires us to die to our own selfish desires and live to God’s ways of holy love. It requires us, as Paul puts it, to be crucified with Christ so that Christ lives in us. It requires us, in other words, to take seriously the call of Jesus to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.

I’ve always found Ephesians 4 to be helpful for understanding what this looks like in practical terms. Here’s how Ephesians 4:21-24 introduces this:

For surely you have heard about [Jesus] and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, the old humanity, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new humanity, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

This “being crucified with Christ and being raised with Christ,” this “denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus,” this involves a regular, daily taking off and a putting on, like changing clothes.

We deliberately put aside the old way of being human, the harmful ways of thinking and speaking and acting that we’re so inclined toward: our pride, our greed, our selfishness, our lust, our fear, and more.

This means regular self-examination, taking stock of our motives, all our inner self-talk, our habits of thought, and so on, and intentionally developing healthy ways of thinking—a renewal in the spirit of our minds.

And then we deliberately take on these healthy ways of thinking, and the beneficial ways of speaking and acting that grow out of them, the new way of being human, in order to replace the harmful things we have set aside: humility instead of pride, generosity instead of greed, other-focus instead of selfishness, compassion instead of lust, trust instead of fear, and so on.

The crucified life is an exchanged life: exchanging old for new, harmful for healthy, sinful for righteous, rooted deep in the motives and habits of the mind. Indeed, this is exactly where Ephesians 4 continues. Notice the exchange being described throughout:

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

And so, to the real question, “We are saved by grace from sin—how do we live that out in our lives?” Paul gives a very practical, but very difficult answer: “We need to take seriously the call of Jesus to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him”—and this means daily, deliberately putting aside our harmful ways of thinking and living and putting in their place healthy, beneficial habits of thought and life.

The result, as God’s Spirit works in our life, shaping us from the inside out? Nothing less than a new way of being human in the world. It’s the way of holy love marked out by Jesus himself. And it’s the only way for us to experience salvation from sin and death not just for ourselves, but for the entire world.

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I Bore You on Eagles’ Wings

Adapted from Pastor Michael’s meditation on June 18, 2017, based on Exodus 19:1-8.

This is a morning for reflecting on journeys. We’ve got the personal journeys of faith represented in our new members that we’ve received. This in turn reminds us of our own personal faith journeys, and the journey of our church as a whole as we seek to faithfully follow Jesus. And in our Scripture passage this morning we have the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai.

As I was reflecting on this passage for this morning I was struck by the difference between the view from above and the view on the ground. Our text gives us God’s view from above, as God says to Israel, “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” That’s God’s summary of all the events that have just happened: Israel leaving Egypt and making their way to the mountain where God makes a covenant with them.

“I carried you on eagles’ wings.” That’s God’s view from above.

The view from the ground? Go back through Exodus 13-18. First Israel was cornered by the Egyptian armies and they were sure they were going to die. Then they marched through the desert without water, then without food, then without water again, and each time they were sure they were going to die. And at each impending disaster, they grumbled against God and complained against Moses, certain they were going the wrong way and convinced that God had even abandoned them.

The view from the ground was a recurring pattern of “Woe is us, we’re going to die!”

But God’s view from above? “I carried you on eagles’ wings.”

There are many lessons from this for us. One is a lesson for us as a church.

There are so many good things going on among us. Just think back to the last few Sundays, what we have experienced together. Our partnership in the gospel with Nathan and Taryn Dirks, who have been witness workers in Botswana the past few years. Our vibrant children’s ministry and youth program, evident with the youth sharing their gifts in leading the morning worship service a few weeks ago, or the Sunday school wrap-up and church picnic the following Sunday. Sharing communion together, enjoying beautiful music, welcoming new members.

Those Sunday services have captured just a glimpse of what’s going on among us. We have an active seniors ministry and a powerful women’s ministry. We have faithful care groups and service groups and refugee support group and more. We had a packed Lent Bible Study series and a full Faith Foundations class this spring, with youth and young adults now looking toward baptism. Lives are being transformed as we open ourselves up to Jesus.

The view from above is spectacular: God is carrying us on eagles’ wings.

Yet it’s not always easy to see the good things going on at church. Sometimes our particular concerns cloud our vision. Like the ancient Israelites, there may be some grumbling and complaining along the way. At times we may even feel we’re on the wrong track as a church, and that God may soon abandon us—if he hasn’t already.

If that’s where you’re at, I encourage you to see the bigger picture, the view from above. God is very much at work among us! God is bearing us up on eagles’ wings! Do not lose heart, and do not give in to fear and discontent.

But there’s also a lesson for us as individuals, isn’t there?

We’ve heard testimony this morning of God working and moving in our new members’ lives to bring them to where they are at today—God has “borne them up on eagles’ wings.” Yet I know that this God’s-eye view has not always been evident to each of these new members in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. They have walked through heartache and pain, death and disease, doubt and grief. The view from the ground has not always been rosy.

And yet, through it all, God has indeed carried them on eagles’ wings. As God did with Israel in the Exodus, as God is doing with us as a church, so God has done in their lives—meeting them at every place of need, walking with them through every desert, giving them just what they need just when they need it, their manna from heaven, their “daily bread.”

And so God is doing in each of our lives.

What circumstances are you walking through right now that feels like a wandering in the desert?

What situation are you facing that feels like a desperate thirst, parched for living water?

What gnawing hunger are you experiencing today, aching for bread from heaven?

Whatever you are going through, wherever your journey is at, I urge you to trust in the God who provides all your deepest needs, right at your most desperate moment of need. I encourage you to look for glimpses of that view from above, that God’s-eye view of things, and see the ways that God is in fact carrying you on eagles’ wings.

God is here among us. And God is here with you. Always, and forever.

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Power Lines

Lora Braun spoke this last Sunday, reflecting on lines of connection and lines of separation evident in the first creation story of Genesis (1:1-2:4a) and also in our lives today. It was a wonderful sermon prompting us to think about our place as humans created in God’s image within God’s good creation. The sermon was called “Power Lines,” and Lora has posted it on her blog here. Be sure to check it out!

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Pentecostal Redemption

Excerpted from Pastor Michael’s Pentecost sermon, June 4, 2017.

Sometimes salvation looks like restoration: God removes the bad and restores the good.

But sometimes salvation looks like redemption: God transforms the bad into something good.

Sometimes salvation looks like restoration back to the good. This is what forgiveness is, which the Pentecost story describes: a relationship is restored to the way it was. This is also what Pentecost’s reversal of patriarchy is: the full equality and dignity of all human beings is restored to the way God originally created us in God’s image.

But that’s not the only way salvation can work. Sometimes salvation looks like the redemption of the bad. This happens when something negative happens—the circumstances of life, or maybe even our own sin and its consequences—and God works in and through that negative thing and weaves it into God’s new, good thing.

At the heart of Pentecost is exactly this kind of “redemption of the bad,” but it’s often missed when we tell the story of Pentecost.

The story of Acts 2 opens with Jesus’ followers and family together, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. And then she comes: with a rush of wind and flames of fire, the Spirit comes upon them and they begin to speak in other languages from all around the world.

A crowd gathers, Jews in Jerusalem from all those places in the world, who speak all those languages as their mother tongues. And they marvel at this: all these languages, from all these scattered peoples of the earth, all being used to declare a unified message of God’s deeds of power.

This should ring a bell for us. It should remind us of another story of multiple languages and scattered peoples: the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11.

There the people of the earth all speak a single language, and they all gather to accomplish a singular feat: to build a tower up to the heavens, in order to make a name for themselves, in order to exalt themselves again above God. But God sees what they are doing and he knows the prideful arrogance of their hearts. So God confuses their language and scatters them over the face of the earth.

In the story, then, the multiplication of languages is the judgment of God, so that humanity will not be able to unite in prideful arrogance against God again. But while in Genesis the multiplication of languages is God’s curse, in Acts 2 it becomes a beautiful expression of diversity now united by the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost stands as a redemption of Babel. This is not simply salvation as restoration: removing division and restoring to unity. Even more, it is salvation as redemption: taking something that was negative, even something that was seen as the judgment of God, and transforming it into something good and beautiful.

To put this another way, it is only because of the curse of Babel in Genesis—all the nations and languages of the world—that we can look forward to the blessing of the New Jerusalem in Revelation—people from every nation and language of the world, bringing their gifts into the holy city come down from heaven to earth.

So sometimes salvation looks like restoration: God removes the bad and restores the good.

But sometimes salvation looks like redemption: God transforms the bad into something good.

The restoration of the good is the easier of these two kinds of salvation to understand. It makes sense to us. It gives us a nice and neat story of good vs. evil. In the beginning God created things good. Then something bad happens and the good is gone, or it’s tainted in some way. But then God steps in and removes the bad, and the good is restored to the way it was before, maybe even better.

The redemption of the bad, though, is a harder kind of salvation for us to understand. It doesn’t always fit into a nice, neat story. It raises difficult questions for us, questions like, “Did God intend for that bad thing to happen? Did God actually plan that bad thing, or even cause it?”

This is also a harder kind of salvation for us to believe in, to hope for. It takes greater faith to believe that God can use the negative things in our lives or in our world to build something good, than it does to believe that God will simply remove the bad to bring back something good.

This kind of “Pentecostal redemption” is the idea behind the well-known verse, Romans 8:28: “We know that God works in all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” That purpose is spelled out in the very next verse: that we might “be conformed to the image of God’s Son.”

The idea in Romans 8:28 is not that God intends or plans or causes all the bad things in our lives—God doesn’t. It’s the thief who steals and kills and destroys; God brings life, and life abundantly.

The idea in Romans 8:28 is not that God ensures we only experience good things in our lives—that view makes a mockery of the cross, let alone our real-life experience.

No, the idea in Romans 8:28 is that of a full “Pentecostal redemption”: that God can take the hurts and pains, the traumas and tragedies, even the sins and punishments of our lives, and work through those things to bring about God’s good thing—ultimately our transformation to be more like Jesus.

I wonder: in what ways do we need a “Pentecostal redemption” in our own lives?

What sins have haunted your spirit? What prisons have you inhabited in your mind?

What wounds do you bear in your soul? What scars do you have carved across your heart?

What traumas or tragedies have defined you—or are defining you even now?

Know this: God is love. All that God is, is love. All that God does, is done in love. God desires only your good: your joy, your freedom, your full and flourishing life.

And know this: God has not caused your harm, but God knows your pain. In Jesus God has walked the path of suffering, of woundedness, even of punishment and shame. And so God walks with you, even now.

And finally, know this: God is our mighty Saviour. God can restore the good for you, bringing you back to a place of freedom and joy and abundant life. But even if the bad remains, God can redeem it, weaving it over time and by God’s Spirit into something good and beautiful. This may be impossible to see now, but I urge you to keep trusting in God, to keep walking by faith even when you can’t walk by sight.

Because sometimes salvation looks like restoration: God removes the bad and restores the good.

And sometimes salvation looks like redemption: God transforms the bad into something good.

But always, either way, salvation will come: God will bring about God’s good purpose for you, for our world, and for all creation.

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