Ecclesiastes 12 Sermon: “What’s The Point?”

grasshopper7This is the sermon I preached for my Practicum… Geared Towards a Young Adult Setting

Right now, I’d like all of us to take out our Bibles and turn to Ecclesiastes 12. Can we have someone volunteer to read this passage for us, please? [Read passage] Great, thanks for reading.

So, before we begin with the actual teaching, I’d like to know if anything stood out to you in this passage? Was there anything you didn’t fully understand or that you have questions about? [Allow response time]

Personally, I find this passage to be kind of confusing. It uses a lot of symbols: grasshopper, caperberry, silver cord. What exactly do those things mean? How do they even apply to us in our daily lives – in our schooling, our jobs, or our marriage?

Well, I am going to help explain this passage to you. It’s probably easiest if you just leave your Bible open while I do the explaining so you can follow along with what I’m saying. I’ll give you the verses we are discussing so that it’s easier for you to know where I am in the passage.

For the past few months, we have been looking at each chapter in the book of Ecclesiastes and we’ve discovered many different things about what the Bible tells us. The book of Ecclesiastes itself has been dealing with the Christian response to the evil, pain, and suffering that takes place in the world. It asks itself, “Is this really all there is? Is there something more? Is there something I can truly look forward to even in the midst of this whole mess?” Here, in this chapter, Ecclesiasticus (the Preacher) summaries it all by saying that in the end of the day all that is left is to worship God. We were created for the purpose of giving God honour and glory. We can’t take fame, money, or power with us, we can only leave this world with our trust in God. Therefore, we need to make sure we have our lives right with Him before it is too late. After this life, we will never get a second chance.

Throughout this chapter, the Preacher reminds us that although we may get distracted by many other things in our lives: like our jobs, our families, and our friends, there are really only three things we need to do to ensure that we will have a happy and blessed life:

First, we must REMEMBER God in everything we do. The word “remember” is mentioned in two very pivotal points in this passage. Verse 1 tells us to “remember our Creator in the days of our youth” and verse 6 reminds us to “remember God before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed.” In other words, we are to remember God before our old age.

The other two actions are found in verse 13. We are to fear God and keep His commandments.

Let’s talk about the first action first. We are to REMEMBER God. How do we remember God? Any ideas? [Give time for responses] Well there are actually many different ways. We can remember God in our devotional times, by going to church, and even by helping others and being respectful to our parents and family. Here’s my second question: is it always easy to remember God in everything we do? Do we sometimes forget? I think all of us forget at different times to place Christ at the center of our lives.

For example: all of us here can think of someone or a few people are who so wrapped up in their careers that everything else in their life falls by the wayside. These people may have families that are falling apart, they may be emotionally and mentally torn from stress and overworking, and they may even be spiritually dead, but they continue to do what they are doing because of the thought of a job promotion or salary rise. These people may even try to justify themselves. They may say that they need the extra money to support their families or to give to charity, but God would rather have them give their time to Him than simply their pocketbook.

People in our generation grew up with this mindset that everything in the world revolves around our careers and our education. How many of you can remember being asked when you were a kid what you wanted to be when you grew up? Probably all of us can raise our hand. Since we were kids, we were conditioned to move up the ladder in our jobs, to network with people who could help us get good positions and that we need to be the best in everything.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing our best in life and trying to get good positions and have a good income, but Ecclesiasticus reminds us that if our only aspiration is to show off and win the respect of others then we are chasing after the wind. He says that this is meaningless. There is no point to continue to work for a reward that will one day perish. Instead, it is important for the person to come to know God in a personal way and to build up a relationship with Him so that everything they do will flow out of their love and devotion to Him. It is important to come to know God before the age of one’s retirement, before they lose their drive and ambition. Ambition is a good thing, but it has to be used for the right reasons and to serve God, rather than for monetary or social gain.

Secondly, we are to fear God. What does it mean to fear God? Does it mean to be afraid of Him? No, in this situation the word “fear” actually refers to having a deep respect for someone or something. It means that we honour them and pay homage to them. That we worship them.

And a big part of fearing God is our third point: it is doing what He says. When we really respect someone, we want to please them. We want them to be happy with us. We want their favour.

How do we learn what God wants us to do? [Response time] That’s right, we can learn through Scriptures, through talking to others who are stronger and more mature in their faith, and through going to church. We can also ask God what He expects of us in our prayers and in our daily quiet times with Him. When we really take the time to get to know God and what His Word says, He will never disappoint us. Although it can be hard at first to listen to God’s direction in our lives, the more we get to know His character, the easier it will be to understand the unique calling He has placed on our lives. Soon, we will be able to hear His voice even when we aren’t consciously looking for it.

Throughout his book, Ecclesiasticus keeps the exact same thesis which he constantly comes back to. The thesis is that apart from knowing God and keeping His commandments everything is meaningless. There is no purpose to working hard if one is only working for themselves; sooner or later they will get worn out and want to give up. They are working for a reward that will perish in a fire, but if they start working for God then they are working for an eternal reward.

Ecclesiasticus seems to know this from experience. He seems to be an older man who is teaching a group of younger men all that he has learned from chasing after useless ambitions or unfruitful plans.

In the Asian culture, it is very important to obey and listen to the wisdom of those who are older in our community. We give great respect to our parents and our grandparents and want to please them. But unfortunately the elderly aren’t always respected like this. Ecclesiasticus seemed to feel this tension: he knew that teenagers and young adults might not be that interested in an old man talking about his life. We are in the prime of our life. We are enjoying our careers, our education, and our marriages: at this stage, we aren’t thinking of the fact that we will one day get older and lose many of the capabilities we currently have. We think we will always have strength, vitality, and vigour and do not realize that one day our bodies will break down and we will be weak and helpless. In our pursuit to get more money and greater prestige, we seem to forget that we will one day revert right back to the place we were at when we were infants.

This concept of old age and eventual death is actually seen throughout this passage. Can anyone here locate specifically which verses seem to talk the most about it? [Allow response time] One of the most obvious places he mentions old age is in the first section between verses 1-7.

I’ve given you a handout explaining some of the terms used in these verses. It might be helpful if you look at it now.

But I’d like us to look specifically at verse 5. Here we have two very specific references to old age: the almond tree (a reference to losing our sense of taste), and the grasshopper (referring to the gait of an elderly person).

The Preacher also addresses issues of sexual impotency (associated with age) in this same verse when he references the caperberry. The sex drive is often the highest in teenagers and young adults, so it seems fitting that he makes mention of this in his exhortation. Note that he never says that sex is wrong, on the contrary, he realizes it is a part of life that is even honourable, but he makes mention that if all one is doing is pursuing the desire that they will have with a woman or if all they are doing is working hard to impress someone of the opposite gender so that they will fall in love with them then they are sadly mistaken. He says that there will come a day when one’s sexual desires will wane and even sex will not be as important as it once was. This is an important message for today’s teens and young adults: do not fall in love with someone simply because you are chasing after the wind (simply because they will make you look good, or it will be beneficial for you to be together), but love someone because it is honouring to God and because it will make you stronger in your walk with Christ.

God’s plan is all about relationship with humankind. God gave all that He had for the sake of His sons and daughters and all He wants in return is that we accept Him as a friend and work to get to know Him better. Worldly and fleshly desires rob us of the true desire that God has to give us. The greed and lusts of the world try to convince us that we do not have enough, that we need more, that we need to act or be a certain way, but God says no to all of this. God says that all that is important is that we come to believe in Him and the sooner we become His children the easier our lives will be. Young people might think that they are superhuman and do not need anyone’s help, but the teacher writes that it is better for someone to come to know God at a young age while they are still young enough to make a difference and to enjoy life under His provision and providence, rather than when their life is near its end and they can no longer make a difference in their work force. The idea is that by having God as a companion, even in the hard times He will help His children. It is so much better to believe in God so that when life gets bleak we can be filled with hope rather than to not believe in Him and to find life meaningless or pointless.

This is all summarized in the second last verse – verse 13. Let’s read it together again just to remind ourselves what it says: “The end of the matter after all has been heard is this: fear God and keep His commandments, for that is the whole duty of a person.”

Since God gives us such a hope and security, why would we not want to grab hold of it and believe that He can give us the meaning and purpose that no job, position, or status can ever fill? If we believe in Him and accept Him to be our God and Father we may just find ourselves being more excited and enthusiastic not only about our jobs, but also about daily living and we may find that our hearts are more open and receptive to those we come into contact with daily.

Our teaching is finished for today, but we’d still like to encourage you to stick around and hang out with one another. Grab another coffee or tea and some snacks. Because we concluded our Bible study series today, we will be taking a break next week and doing a fun outing so keep checking your emails for details regarding that. We will begin a new Bible study series soon and we would welcome your suggestions for topics you would like us to cover.

Before we do that, though, I’d love to just take a minute and pray for you guys. Can we all bow our heads and close our eyes as we talk to God about what He showed us in His word today: “Father God, thank you for the opportunity we have to come before You and worship You. We thank You for giving us Your Word which reminds us that above everything else we need to keep You at the centre of our hearts and follow Your will for our lives. We pray that You will help us remember You in everything we do even when we get busy with many other pressures and stresses in life. We pray that You would teach us how to fear, revere, and honour You and that You would show us in Your Word exactly what Your commandments are and how we can please You by keeping them. We pray that You would give us a great week and help us to tell others about You. We pray for courage and strength in those situations, always remembering that even despite our young age that You are still calling each one of us to make things right with You while we still can and before it is too late. Thank You for listening to our prayers today. We pray all of these things in the Name of Your mighty and all powerful Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

HANDOUT:

Imagery Used in Ecclesiastes 12

Almond Tree – it has white blossoms which is characteristic of old age (Estes 376)

  • Some think that the correct sequence of words to use is “to despise” rather than what is familiar to English readers “to blossom” (if one says “to despise” it refers to the fact that age has decreased one’s ability to enjoy the wonderful taste of the almond nuts)
  • Grasshopper (verb: hagab) – Some scholars suggest this may refer to the pods of the carob tree. If it refers to an insect than it means the stiff walk of an elderly person, if it speaks of a carob tree it refers to sexual impotence.
  • Caperberry – “Was likely an aphrodisiac. The fact that it was ineffective showed that sexual pleasures had come to an end.” (Estes 376)
  • Nails – They were wrenched into the end of sticks and used as prods (essentially a goad). The images of goads and nails refer to the fact that proverbs provoke others to good conduct. The nail may suggest that wise teaching is stable for those who receive it, but may also imply a sense of pain or discomfort as the learner is goaded along the right path of life to follow.
  • Daughters of Song – This refers to songs and melodious notes. This verse (4) suggests that all appreciation for music will cease to exist. (Leupold 280)
  • The Silver Cord and the Golden Bowl – Likely have no specific meaning, but rather are part of the background information. The general meaning is one of decay and loss of life. (283)
  • Cistern – During this time period, it was not uncommon for a cistern to have a wheel attached above it so that as the rope ran over the wheel more leverage could be obtained making drawing water easier.

 

Bibliography

Estes, Daniel J. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,       2005. Print.

Leupold, H.C. Exposition of Ecclesiastes. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1952. Print.

 

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Sermon: Who Is Your God? (Acts 17:16-34)

lll8-19 This is the evangelistic sermon I preached during my practicum for Preaching In A Chinese Church.

Many of us will remember the shocking news of August 11, 2014, just 6 months ago, when famed comedian Robin Williams, lead actor in movies such as Patch Adams, The Dead Poet’s Society, and Mrs. Doubtfire, was found dead in his house after committing suicide. Later, news reports showed that Williams had suffered months of intense periods of depression before his fatal tragedy.

We’ve probably all read and heard about similar cases happening all across North America and the rest of the world to famous musicians, athletes, and actors. Although at first glance it is easy to envy the lives of these individuals whose faces are plastered on magazines and who perform in front of screaming audiences every day, very few of these men and women are content with their lives. It doesn’t take long before we realize how mental illness, sex scandals, and drug and alcohol addictions have rocked their world, leaving them broken and confused with a subsequent lack of credibility and respect.

Just like these famous singers and actors, all of us here are searching for something, but we are looking in the wrong places and so we will never be satisfied. Maybe you are searching for security, understanding, comfort, or peace. Everyone searches for these things in different ways. Some people turn to New Age or meditation, some try to prove themselves by getting good grades in school or getting promotions at work, and others may even turn to addictions like drugs, alcohol, or pornography.

Many of these things are not bad in themselves, but they usually don’t provide an answer and if they do, it’s only a temporary “fix” which leaves us wanting more. Most of us aren’t happy with only getting one A in our lives, so we spend our life trying to prove ourselves by getting straight As in every subject all of the time. Others of us aren’t content with only getting one promotion in our life, so we push ourselves to the brink of exhaustion overworking ourselves to show that we are better than everyone else. Sadly, although this type of behaviour can be okay in the short run, when we neglect our family and friends in the process of trying to achieve even more it often ends in hurt feelings, failed marriages, and lost friendships.

You know, the Athenian people were the same way as we are. They were also searching for something. We read in the book of Acts that these men and women were very religious people and they worshipped many gods. Their city was full of idols and altars to every god they had ever heard of. They even had an altar dedicated to “The Unknown God” in case there was one they had forgotten about. They had about 12 main altars around their city, but the four main ones were: the altar of mercy, the altar of shame, the altar of fame, and the altar of desire. Religion was such a big part of their city life that many people often remarked that it was easier to find a god than a man in their city!

Athens was also a big university town, just like Toronto. So picture yourself spending the day at the University of Toronto. No doubt you would come into contact with many people who believe differently on all sorts of topics like politics, religion, and social viewpoints than you do. Athens was much the same way. Since the majority of people who lived in this town were scholars, they enjoyed getting together to debate and exchange any new information. They would talk about the latest news reports, the latest gossip, and the latest developments that were taking place a world over. This was the atmosphere into which the Apostle Paul stepped.

Observing all the altars that were around the city, the Apostle Paul began by telling the people that he could tell they were very religious. He said this was good, but there was another way. A way that was far better and way simpler. This was strange information to the Athenians. They were pretty open-minded about religions for the most part, but they couldn’t understand what Paul was talking about. The fact that Paul was saying something different than what they were used to caused them to want to discuss and debate it with their fellow students.

The Athenians were all pretty used to hearing many different religious interpretations, but they never knew exactly which one to choose. Maybe you’ve heard a saying like “all paths lead to God.” But actually, although all religions may have good points to what they are teaching, in the end of the day, only one path can be the correct one to take.

Christianity is more than just a religion. It’s more than just following rules to be a good person and to live a good life – that’s important, but not the only thing. Christianity is about a relationship between us and God. It is the only religion where God enters into the history of humanity. Where He becomes a man for our sake, dies the most gruesome and painful death on the Cross, and then rises again on the third day conquering death in order to give us a second chance. It’s the only religion where we get into heaven because Christ chose to willingly lay down His perfect life in exchange for our corrupted lifestyle.

Unlike in all other world religions, we don’t get in based on our good works, who we are, or what family we are born into. We don’t get into heaven because God loves us more than He loves anyone else or because we are worthy of His grace.   The only thing required of us to get into heaven is to trust God completely and to surrender our lives to Him. You know, without Christ’s death on the Cross, we would still be distant from God, but the amazing thing is that Christ could have chosen not to go through with such a painful death and yet He did because of us. He did it because we are made in His image, He loves us, and He wants to claim us as His children by drawing us closer to Himself. None of us here can ever love someone as much as He loves us!

Maybe you are in one of these camps today. Maybe the Gospel sounds just as strange to you right now as it did to the Athenians. Maybe it sounds too easy – like there should be something more to it than just giving one’s life to Christ. Maybe you worry that you are unworthy of His love and that He could never love you because you have made some pretty bad mistakes in your past. Maybe you are resisting receiving this free gift from God because it just sounds too different from everything else society has ever told you or it seems too scary to place your trust in someone that you can’t see or hear audibly from.

Wherever you are today, I want you to know that you are never too un-loveable, too unworthy, or too messed up to receive God’s grace. God wants us to follow and obey Him in everything regardless of where we are in our life or what has happened in our past. All He wants of us is simply to be His children, to believe on His Name, and to accept with joy everything He would like us to have. God has so much for us – way more than we can ever think of, ask for, or imagine and He’s more than willing to give it to us – in fact, He WANTS to give it to us. It’s just a matter of us saying “yes” to Him.

The day that Paul preached to the Athenians and told them that even in the midst of their many gods there was a better way, the people of Athens were left with a choice. They could choose to sneer in disbelief and continue to live their life with uncertainty and no relief or they could choose to accept (however cautiously and curiously) the love of Christ for them. Today we are able to make that same decision. I want to ask you, which way are you going to choose to respond to the Gospel? Who is your God going to be?

Right now I want to ask everyone to bow their head and close their eyes and to think carefully about what was just said. [Give a few seconds on silence we start the song “Defining Moment”] Ask yourself, “Do I know who my God is?” “Am I content with my life the way it is now?” “Do I think there is something better?”

Now, with your head still bowed and your eyes still closed, I want to ask you to raise your hand if something spoke to you in the message today. I want you to raise your hand if you feel like God is calling you to something more. If you feel like God is calling you to enter into a personal relationship with the One and Only true God there is for the first time in your life.

Okay, thank you for raising your hands. You can put them down now. If you just put your hand up and want to accept Christ as your Saviour, I want you to repeat this prayer after me:

Dear Jesus,//

I know I am a sinner.// I know I have chosen many other gods over You and I am sorry.// I ask that You would come into my heart today.// Help me to learn to follow You in everything that I do.// I thank you that I can receive peace and security in Your Name.// I ask You to be in charge of my life from this point forward.// I ask these things in Your Name.// Amen.

If you have just prayed this prayer than congratulations! You have made the most important and exciting decision of your life. While the music is playing in the background, I want you to raise your hand if You have asked Jesus into your heart today so that we can give you a free gift with some information that will hopefully answer some of the questions you may still have about your new relationship with Christ. Thank you.

A Beautiful Irony (Life and New Birth)

the-bible-nicodemusNarrative Sermon Based on: John 3: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+3&version=NASB

Day 1: I admit, when I first heard of Jesus, I was pretty shocked. What’s a carpenter’s kid, a boy who was supposedly conceived before His mother was even married, going to teach us upright Jews about life and living? They told me He comes from Nazareth. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nazareth is this little town. There’s nothing really happening there. It’s more like a bedroom community than anything else. You’re telling me that the Lord, the Messiah of all, is supposed to come from Nazareth? I don’t think so! In fact, I highly doubt it. There are lots of other places He could come from that would make more sense.

Why not a big happening city like Jerusalem? Or somewhere exotic like some of our lush beaches and parks? Why would He choose a little rinky dink town like Nazareth? Most people a world over have probably never even heard of it” The only thing the town is known for are a handful of sheep and some goats. Even then, I tend to think that there are more impressive things for a town to be known for – like the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the Temple Mount. Maybe even the Garden of Gethsemane. And besides, what can a carpenter’s kid tell us that I don’t already know? It’s not like He’s the son of a great scholar or doctor or even Rabbi.

But yet, even despite His humble beginnings, there is something different about this man. The man they call Jesus. Some people say He is the Son of God. I highly doubt that, but I will admit, He is an amazing speaker. When He talks, you have no choice but to stop whatever you are doing and listen to Him. Some say that He has done great miracles. Others say that He even healed a man born blind. But wait… that’s something only the Messiah can do! I know this, because I myself, am a great teacher of the Law.

In Torah college, we learned that the Messiah will do two things that no one else on the face of this planet has ever been able to do before. First, He will heal a man born blind. Anyone can heal a man who became blind sometime in his teenage or adult years, but no one except the Messiah can heal a man BORN blind. Secondly, He would heal a leper. Lepers are unclean, so if I were Jesus, I wouldn’t even go near one. Regardless of whether or not I was on some type of high believing that I was the promised Christ.

Yet, there is something that draws me to this Man, and I can’t quite place my finger on it. Everything He says seems to just fit so perfectly together, and even though I know it can’t be right, there’s a part of me that wants to believe that He really, truly is the promised One of Israel. Tomorrow, I will go and find out for myself. He will give me the answer I need to hear and I will make up my mind from there. I’m sure of it!

Day 2: I worked up the courage to go see Jesus. “Rabbi,” I said, “I know that You are a prophet from God. In fact, You’re probably right up there along with Elijah, Noah, and Moses. I know this because no one can do the things I’ve seen You do unless God’s spirit was in Him.”

Jesus’ dark brown eyes, steadily pierced at me. Then, I saw a smile, ever so slightly, form around His lips. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret of mine” He said confidently. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

This baffled me. In Aramaic the phrase “born again” can also be translated “born anew” or “born from above”. I don’t know which one of those phrases He means, but I’m assuming He means the first one. A physical rebirth. My forehead creases at the thought of it. “How is that even possible?” I ask. “A person can’t be born a second time. They can’t enter their mother’s womb and be born again.”

Jesus looked disappointed. “Nicodemus,” He said. “You are one of the leading scholars in Israel. I heard you lecture at Ben Gurion University just the other day. People are paying tons of money just for you to come and speak for an hour and a half. And yet, even you, don’t seem to understand what I mean by this. If you don’t understand earthly things, how I can explain heavenly things to you? You’ve lived thirty years on this earth, you understand quite a bit about the way the world works. But no one has ever been to heaven except for Me, the Son of Man, because I came from heaven. Just like the Israelites lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Let’s just stop and pause right there. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a story that recounts a time in Israel’s history when God’s people went astray. Instead of being thankful for what they had, they complained and spoke out against God, and so God sent poisonous and dangerous snakes to bite them. The only way a person could be saved, was to look directly at a replica of it. When they did, even if it was only for a brief, wavering moment, strength would return to their bodies, and they would feel the sickness leaving them. I found it ironic that death came from the snake, but then life came from a replica of that same snake.

Jesus then went on to tell me that He was the promised Saviour. He said that God loved the world so much that He gave His only son so that we wouldn’t have to perish, but we could live forever in heaven with Him. There it was. God loved the entire world! I had been brought up thinking that we Jews were the chosen people and that Salvation would come to us. But what of the others? Here Jesus was saying that Salvation was for all people regardless of their ethnic background. To me, this was incredible and it filled me with a living hope.

A Few Years Later: It has been five years now, since the time I first met Jesus and He informed me that He was the Saviour of the world. To be honest, when He first said this, I shook my head, but something inside me began to change. I was not the same Nicodemus, and so when the Pharisees wanted to arrest Him unlawfully, I stood up for Him and told them that that wasn’t ethical. Yet, now that He has ascended into heaven, I look back and realize that in many ways the illustration of the Serpent was used to foreshadow His own death. Having witnessed His death and resurrection, I find the puzzle pieces coming together and everything making much more sense.

Please allow me to share with you a bit of the theological significance that this whole discourse had on me: first, I went to Jesus at night when no one else was around. I mostly did this because I was a member of the Pharisees and was too afraid of how their opinion on me would change. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but today, I realize that the night was actually a symbol of the spiritual darkness I was in.

I was a great religious teacher, but until I came to the point where I actually believed in Jesus, I did not know what true Salvation was. I don’t care what they tell you. You can be the most pious person out there. You can go to the synagogue every Sabbath, help the poor, serve on committees, and have people look up to you as a spiritual leader, but without a knowledge of the freedom granted to us by Christ, you are really no more than a hollow shell of religiosity. There is no life in you.

As to that snake He was referring to, I have come to realize how pregnant with meaning that one symbol is. When He said that just like the snake was lifted up, He would also have to be lifted up, He was referring to His crucifixion on the cross. In Greek, the word for “crucify” also means “to exalt”. I found it ironic that Christ was exalted in the most demeaning and violent of ways. And yet, He didn’t play the victim. The cross was a means to represent His identity, and so He approached it as a king would approach His coronation. There was no shame in it for Him. He had full assurance that this was what He had to do in order to glorify His Father.

To be honest, the Christian faith is deeply ironic to me. The story of the serpent was placed in the book of Numbers in order to show people the effects of sin and the consequences of their attitudes and actions. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the story showed them that the consequences for their sin was death. And yet, God did not want it to have to come to this. So, He instructed Moses to make a replica so that through the snake they could also live.

Just like, through one man death entered the world through sin, but through God’s Son, eternal life also came through one man. In both cases, God providentially provided for the people. The bronze serpent was simply a temporary solution. A way of saving them once from death, even though they were going to die again. But Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross, was an eternal and enduring solution. When one looks to the cross and truly believes in their heart that God raised Christ from the dead, they are saved forever. They may still die in this world, but after that their eternal destiny is secure. They do not have to have any fear of dying a second time.

I also find that God is merciful in terms of our belief in Him. He isn’t expecting us to be giants in the faith and to never have questions or doubts. I have yet to see God strike anyone with lightning for asking Him why something happened. In fact, God was patient with people like Gideon who repeatedly put out fleeces, and with Moses when he stumbled and made up excuses as to why he wasn’t qualified for his position. And so, God didn’t ask the Israelites to gaze steadily at the serpent without any feelings of anxiety. Instead, He accepted a simple glance, regardless of how distant or how weak, and in that simple act of looking, He miraculously restored the health of the people. In the same way, real faith in Jesus, regardless of how small, tremulous, or distant – as long as it is genuine, brings certain and instant healing to our ailing souls.

I don’t doubt that this whole notion of looking at the bronze serpent didn’t make sense to some people. After all, how could the simple act of looking at the thing which was causing destruction at the same time, renew them with life? I don’t doubt that some who were filled up on logical, human reasoning chose to reason rather than to obey. If that is the case, than in the end, it is what caused their downfall, and in the act of reasoning and trusting their own judgment rather than God’s, they sealed their fate and perished.

Jesus said that He did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might have life through Him. Jesus’ whole philosophy was to break away from the Law. In ancient Hebrew law it was said that our hearts were placed on a scale based on the work which we did. It did not matter if we did bad or good, as long as the good that we did always outweighed the bad. There was only one sin which tipped the scale so completely to the one side that once one had broken it, there was essentially no going back. That sin was to break the Sabbath.

Well, Jesus had a few things to say about that. He healed on the Sabbath, not in an attempt to desecrate it, but rather because to Him being a follower of God did not include legalism. He challenged the notion that one could earn their salvation through a simple list of dos or don’ts, and instead told us that Salvation only comes through Him. He threw out that dusty law book with all of the terror attached to it that one had not done enough, and instead simplified it down to two commandments: love God and love one another.

This was a radical idea. In instating these two commandments, Jesus got rid of the concept of having to earn God’s merit, and instead replaced it with the need to live relationally.   To Him, relationships were the most important thing: having a relationship with His Father, having a relationship with Him, and having a relationship with each other.

Jesus said, “do not think that I will accuse you before My Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope.” Jesus told us that He doesn’t play by the whole legalism card. He doesn’t care about the fine points, He doesn’t even want great sacrifice. He made it very clear that we were not saved through our own works of merit. What He wants is for us to show mercy and compassion to one another. Christ says that the one who after being informed that Christ is the only way blatantly rejects the deliverance which God gave Jesus authority to remove, willfully allows themselves to remain condemned, rather than to pass from death to life.

Jesus Himself doesn’t condemn this person, but rather that condemnation already exists because of the law. We can choose whether to be released from that law of condemnation, or to be sealed up under it. Jesus wants us to understand that we work hard because we want to help His Kingdom work, but that we don’t need to worry about not doing enough. We only stay in the darkness if we out rightly reject Jesus Christ and His offer of salvation.  We only stay in the dark when we think that our works are somehow better than God’s works. That somehow, by our own actions our salvation is assured, but through Him they aren’t. But let me tell you something, if a person does decide to give their lives entirely over to Christ and decides that only He can save them and they can’t save themselves through works, then their only desire will be to do what will testify to His light and their every day actions will be divinely appointed through Jesus Christ.

So, where do I sign? Will you choose today to follow Christ and accept His free gift of Salvation, or will you choose to remain under the Law which tells us we have to work for our salvation? These are the only two choices we are given. We cannot mix and match. We are either all in for the kingdom of God, or we stand watching from the gates. Today, as we leave this place, our call to action is to decide where we stand in terms of our relationship to Christ and the Law. Our call to action today is to realize that we don’t need to stress out about whether or not we have done enough things right, but to trust that God can even take the wrong that we have done and make it right. We must understand that God is very proud of us. He knows we are trying our best and He’s willing to reward us for it. But His reward is a different thing altogether from Salvation.

Just like the serpent was lifted up on the pole, so God has offered us, in Christ, the chance to seek redemption from all of our sins. Where do I sign? The straight line that leads towards heaven, or the dotted line that enables me to continue to live the way that I am right now? The straight line that will offer me eternal comfort and hope, or the dotted line that enables me to keep working in vain? The choice, as they say, is yours.

But let me tell you something, I chose to sign the straight line and to put my pride behind me in doing so. And that has been the best choice I ever made. Amen.

5 Ways to Be an Ally to Single People In Your Congregation

5bd70a206cd099fbd5a069353361a24cEvery day, society bombards us with the message that if we are not in a dating relationship something is seriously wrong with us. Dating, love, and sex are unavoidable topics in this generation. Turn on the radio and you’re bound to hear about 20 songs back to back about love and heartbreak. Go for a walk and you will see billboard ads that suggest the reason you’re single is because of dandruff, bad breath, or your skin condition. Go to the mall to buy new clothes and your eyes will instantly be met with two half-clad lovers striking some type of sexy pose. The message that being single is not ok is everywhere – even, and perhaps especially, within the Evangelical Church. Every time I try to find a sermon to listen to the sermon somehow ends up being about godly marriage, fighting sexual temptations, or raising Godly children. Well meaning members of the church nosily ask if I have found someone yet. Am I married? Engaged? Dating at the very least? When I tell them I am in none of those categories they usually respond with, “what’s your problem? When I was your age I was married with two children and the third on the way.” It’s as if the weight of dating and relationships are placed solely on the shoulders of the one who is single. The message is set: the Church has no room for anyone who is over the age of 21 and not with the person they are going to marry (or in some cases are already married to).

Additionally, I’ve noticed that all sorts of Christian blogs have been written and shared on Facebook suggesting the following things:

* You’re single and you’re downright miserable about it, but all you have to do is just wait for Mr. (or Mrs.) Right to come along. God has chosen them since before your birth. Don’t worry, it will happen. In the meantime, try to get over how miserable you actually feel.

* I got married at 19 and I’m now 26, but I’m going to tell you how awesome living the single life really is. I know you might not actually listen to me, but I feel lonely even though I’m married.

* Don’t hate on me because I got married at 23. At 23 I was mature enough. Age is not everything. If you’re over 23 and not married…well…what’s YOUR problem???

* You’re absolutely, hands-down, going to marry the first person you date. God’s not going to put any duds in your life. There’s no point in dating unless you’re going to get married within 6 months.

* Anytime you even briefly think about sex (if you’re not married) you are committing a grievous sin. You’re lusting. Go to confession right away. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be asexual until you get married and then BAM! Everything will be figured out.

I got tired of continuing to read these often naïve, simplistic, and judgmental blog posts written by people who either are clearly begrudging their singleness or else toting singleness as the most amazing thing in the world (even though they have spent their entire adult life married) so I decided to write one of my own. As a single young adult who has never been married, engaged, or in a serious relationship for more than 3 months, let me give you my spin on the whole topic of how Churches can engage and care for single members of their congregation:

1)  Don’t Idealize Singleness – Do Realize That For Many People Singleness Is a Stage, Try To Help Them See How It Can Be An Important One

A statistic that I’ve heard more than once is that the average Canadian woman gets married around age 26 and the average man gets married closer to 30. This means if you are a woman who got married under the age of 26 or if you’re a man who got married before 30, you have a relatively low concept of what it truly means to be single. This is especially the case if you happened to get married when you were 19 or 20 (thus spending your entire adult life in a committed partnership).

One of the most frustrating things for me as a single person is hearing people who have been married for 20, 30, or 50 years tell me how great they think being single is. They really have no clue. They are oblivious to the challenges a single Christian young adult faces (especially someone trying to get into vocational ministry – a profession that often implicitly requires marriage preferably with kids). If I tell them how difficult it is for a church to accept me as a pastor, they come up with reasons why it shouldn’t be a problem. Here’s the deal: it SHOULDN’T be a problem.   But it is. Especially for women. It is hard enough for women to be accepted in leadership positions within the church as it is, but when that woman is single…well…that makes it even worse for her.

Rather than going on about how great you think being single is (when you really have no clue), don’t pretend like singleness is the ideal. Realize that some people are not married and that’s ok. It’s not bad, it’s not great, it just is. Sometimes the person can choose to change that and sometimes they can’t. Love and accept them for who they are – right now, at this stage in their life. That’s the best thing you can do for them.

2) Don’t Assume that Every Single Man/Woman Is Desperate, Sexually Frustrated, or Miserable – Do Find Out What Their Passions Are.

Oftentimes, I have well-meaning Christian adults try to console me by saying “don’t be desperate to find someone. Don’t rush into marriage. Don’t marry a non-Christian and compromise your morals. It will happen at the right time.” The problem is not in what they are saying, the problem is in how they are saying it. You see, these individuals never asked me how it felt to be single and consequently I never told these people what emotions were running through my head. Therefore, why should they assume that I am miserable just because I don’t have someone?

Being single in a romance obsessed culture is HARD (there’s no way around that), BUT there are also additional blessings that single people receive that married people miss out on. What am I talking about, you may ask? Well, singles have a lot more freedom. For example, I often think of the fact that I am my own person. I can choose to get up at a certain time or sleep in. I can choose to stay up all night celebrating my friend’s birthday party, or leave whenever I start to feel tired. I can choose to leave my room however I want it. I can choose what I want to do with my life – where I will study and what degree I will pursue, whether or not I want to spend a year abroad, whether or not I want to take more hours at my workplace. I can do all of these things without having to consult another person. Additionally, as a single person, I feel I can really pour more into my ministries because I don’t have the additional pressures of being a wife and mother yet. I don’t have to worry about the youth group going overtime because I have two screaming babies who refuse to sleep until I tuck them in. You see, there are actually several good things about being single.

One of my friends once told me that everyone not in a dating relationship is miserable and the people who try to say they aren’t are just trying to cover that up. To me, nothing could be further from the truth. In A Living Alternative I share that “singleness is a gift, not a consolation prize.” I still hold firmly to that truth.

So, instead of assuming the worst of your single friends, why not find out what else is happening in their lives. What they find fulfilling and how they are planning to live into those passions more. Ask them questions like: What Makes Them Tick? What Do They Enjoy Doing? What Brings Fulfillment In Their Life? What Relationships (With Family Or Friends) Do They Have That They Can Cling On To and Live To the Fullest?

These kinds of questions are fun, take the pressure off the person, and show that not every conversation needs to be about dating, love, or romance.

3) Don’t Constantly Pressure, Nag, or Cajole Someone to Date – Do Ask Open-Ended Non-Specific Questions

I have often found that Christians like to pressure their friends to get married and date. The problem is: what if the person is just not ready for that yet? Some people will be ready at 19, 21, or 23 and that’s great. But it’s unrealistic to assume that everyone is going to be in that same position. Asking someone why they aren’t dating or worse yet, if something is wrong, just puts added pressure on the single person. Being single is hard enough without guilt trips, sympathy, or jokes. Instead of the first question being “So Have You Found Someone Yet” ask “So What’s New In Your Life?” By asking non-specific open-ended questions, you’re actually engaging in a conversation with your single friend. Not one that tears them down, but one that empowers them.

4) Don’t Needlessly Set The Single Person Up With Someone From Your Congregation Or School Who Is Clearly Not A Good Fit For Them Just Because You Are Desperate For Them To Get Married – Do Continue To Encourage Them To Spend Time With Their Friends and If You Know Of Anyone (Same Gender or Not) Who Might Have Things In Common With Them Then Introduce.

Okay, this one is the absolute worst one for me. I hate when people try to set me up with individuals who are clearly not a good match for me – we don’t have anything in common, our personalities are polar opposite, and the spark of attraction just isn’t there. And why? All because they think I should no longer be single. In the past 4 months alone, I have had someone try to set me up with a guy who was already dating another girl, another guy who wasn’t dating yet but was clearly very interested in someone else, someone in their first year of university (meanwhile I just completed my masters) and someone more than 20 years my senior.

Rather than seeing every opportunity as a chance to date, churches should try just try to foster friendships. It’s okay to be friends with someone of the opposite gender without it turning into some romance obsessed relationship. It really is. It’s okay to hang out in mixed groups without it being awkward. It’s possible to have a very good male friend who you do not find attractive at all, but still respect and treat as a brother.

When churches take the pressure off dating, and instead focus their energy and effort on friendships in general, I think the dating will just happen more naturally. Best of all, it won’t be forced and it will be meant from the heart.

5) Don’t Exclude Them From Church Events – Do Continue To Have Intergenerational Events And Don’t Make a Big Deal About Whether People In the Mixed Group Are Single, Engaged, Or Married

After I graduated from grade 12, I no longer had a place in my church. There were several young adult happenings, but when I inquired about them I was told that these groups were reserved for newly married couples and young families. Suddenly, the very hub of all of activity and social life ceased to exists for me. I was too old to be a youth, but not at the same life stage as my young adult peers.

Looking back, I feel this is a grave disservice to single young adults. There’s no reason they should be excluded from the church. We can all learn something from one another. What about making the church more intergenerational? Children, young adults, and seniors all hanging out together, sharing stories and sharing life. The young adults mentoring the youth and the older adults mentoring the newly married couples. I believe that with less segregation, our church will go far.

Conclusion: God wired each one of us for relationships. We are meant to do our life in community. We aren’t meant to do this Jesus-thing alone. BUT community will look very different to each person. For some, that might mean having a community right in their own home with their husband and three children. For another, that might mean living in an intentional community for some time. And for yet another, that might just mean being involved in their town or city. Regardless of where someone is at in their life stage, we are called to help them cultivate and grow this sense of community, this sense of belonging. By taking away the pressure to date, and instead instilling it into God’s mandate for all to belong and live in relationship I believe that our church will go far. So the next time you meet a single person don’t assume they are miserable instead ask them “what’s new in your life? What gives you fulfillment?” You may be surprised at the answer. And you may just learn something.

Reclaiming Easter – Towards a Gospel-Centered Understanding of the Cross

thEaster is NOT primarily about the liberation of people of colour, proving that gay lives matter, or radical civil disobedience – it is about proclaiming Christ’s ultimate triumph over evil so that all individuals (regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation) have a chance to rule and reign with Him. It is a radical proclamation of self-sacrifice – the most intimate and personal act ever committed by a man, and also the gateway to eternal life and salvation.

It’s Easter Sunday again. My Sunday school children have just gotten back from their frantic morning of Easter egg hunting and indulging in goodies – the only day of the year their parents will let them eat chocolate before breakfast. The choir has sung its cantata, the pastor has preached a stirring sermon on the resurrection, and the church is packed to standing room only with what we coin C&E (Christmas and Easter) Christians. And all is well with the world, until suddenly I turn on my Facebook and see my Newsfeed flooded with the following public service announcements:

~ A good God would not have forced His/Her only Son to die. That is divine parental abuse.

~ We are not inherently sinful. Christ did NOT die for our sins… belief in sins is archaic, grotesque, and ignorant. Christ died as an inspiring act of liberation. His death was an act of divine civil disobedience which all of us are able to take part in.

~ Christ died in order to show us that gay lives and black lives matter. Let’s end racial inequality.

~ Christ did not die to offer us eternal salvation. Eternal life may or may not exist, but Christ truly died in order to teach us how to live in this world – in the here and now.

~ Perhaps the risen Christ was female. [He died a man, but maybe He ended up getting a sex operation and became transgendered before all was said and done]

Each one of these points carries with it some merit [although truthfully, I find the last one to be quite odd with no theological and Biblical backing whatsoever]. I’ve been a Christian for 20 years, and yet, I admit that the gruesome accounts leading up to Christ’s death are still unpleasant to hear about. The concept of iron on flesh, the stark nakedness of a man claiming to the Saviour of the world, and the piercing wails of women at the feet of the Cross is hard to imagine.

Likewise, people of colour have lives that matter. So do people who identify as LGBTQ. There is probably even some truth to the fact that evangelical Christians probably should serve them pizza and possibly even bake them cakes, and that Christ’s self-sacrificial death truly has been a pivotal moment in causing us to reflect upon the brokenness, poverty, and marginalization that exists all around us and truly do something about it.

Nevertheless, if we simply leave the Easter message at this – a radical out breaking, civil protest, and fight for gay liberation, I believe something is sadly missing. In fact, I believe that we are truly missing the entire point of the resurrection story.

Jesus was a political agitator, a non-violent protestor, and a lover of all humanity. He was all these things, but He was something so much more – He was (and is) the Son of God. Throughout history, many brave men and women have died fighting for causes they believed strongly in. Martin Luther King Jr. died fighting to end division between the blacks and the whites. Ghandi died trying to restore peace to India and beyond. Felix Manz died trying to establish Anabaptism. The Martyr’s Mirror is full of the accounts of individuals who died in the hope and trust that there was something greater than what they saw – in the patient anticipation that the world would someday be made right. Jesus was among these brave men and women. Jesus died in the patient trust that God would restore God’s Kingdom on this earth…but Jesus also truly had a part in making that happen.

You see, Jesus was far more than simply a gay rights proponent or a libertarian. He was the incarnate Word Made Flesh (1). His death upon the Cross was a subversive moral influence, but it was also something way more. It was the liberation of all the souls of humanity.

When Jesus died on the Cross, He displayed the most radical and shocking show of love the world had ever seen. Leaving His heavenly throne, He chose to despise the wealth and honour of riches and instead chose to enter into this world as the least of these. The Bible is full of examples that Jesus was not a rich or powerful ruler, but He was simply an average man. According to various passages, He was not a stud, not a white collar worker, and not a chick magnet. He worked long hours in a carpenter’s shop, the sweat of His brow flooding down unto His beard. He scorned hierarchy – rejecting attempts to make Him King. He chose to ride on a humble donkey rather than a warhorse or strong steed. When people tried to coerce Him into positions of power, He fled. He gave us an example that servanthood must come before being served (2).

Jesus’s death ushered in a new age – an age in which humanity will be seen as equal. Tearing down the dividing walls of hostility, He established a Kingdom in which men and women, slave and free, black and white, homosexuals and straight, are able to receive His love, His mercy, His grace, and His forgiveness.

In Christ’s death, we are able to be selfishly loved by the Creator Himself. We are able to learn what real love is. We are able to find forgiveness for our wrongs, and thus to determine exactly how we too can forgive our enemies.

This liberal understanding that sin is passé is entirely false. The Bible warns us again and again that we all fall short of God’s standards for us (3). We read that no one is righteous, no not one (4). Furthermore, we are told that if anyone says that he or she is without sin that he or she is a liar and God’s truth is not in him or her (5). These are very harsh words, but they are also very honest words.

Not too long ago a movement was formed – a movement in which the lie that individual truth trumps God’s Gospel was promulgated. Christians began insisting that their personal opinions mattered more than a two thousand year old book. That theology was based on personal experience (which is ever shifting) rather than on God’s Word which we are told in Scripture remains constant (6).

As a budding theologian, I also affirm that theology is forever forming and changing. BUT it is changed and formed in the context of community while consulting with the Scriptures, ancient Church Fathers and Mothers, and with the backdrop of inspiration from the Holy Spirit. God never meant us to live the Christian life alone. The Christian life is not meant to be an individualistic experience in which we can simply choose which verses to live by and which to ignore, instead it is a clarion call for discernment, wisdom, and focus into all of the verses Jesus taught, spoke, and lived into.

You see, my friends, Jesus did not primarily die with the intent that blacks would be liberated, that gays would be accepted, and that all Christians would rise up and engage in civil disobedience. I believe all of these things matter to Christ, but there is something far more pressing than that. He died so that ALL would be liberated from the shackles and weight of a crushing sin that strangles us and takes the life breath out of us. He died so that we all may have the chance to be accepted into God’s marvelous Kingdom if only we confess that Jesus truly in the way to Salvation. He died so that we, too, may live a life of service, discipleship, and yes, if need be, radical civil disobedience. At the crux of what He did, Christ died looking each one of us in the eyes and saying “I love you so much that I will die for you. Not because you deserve it, but because I am love. Because I am peace. Because I am life breath. And in exchange, I’m asking you to love Me. I’m asking you to love yourself. I’m asking you to love your neighbour. I’m even asking you to lay down your life for your enemy.”

When we take the aspect of sin and literal death and resurrection out of Easter we are distorting the true Easter message. We are claiming that we DESERVE God’s merit, that we DESERVE God’s mercy, and that we DESERVE God’s compassion. After all, we never really sinned – He was simply dying as an example. We deserve none of these things. The only thing we truly deserve to do is to look Jesus square in the eyes and marvel at the fact that although many political agitators would die before and after Him, not a single one of them would come back from the dead. Not a single one of them would go on to live forever. And not a single one of them would be able to save their souls from eternal damnation. Only in doing that, can we move beyond ourselves – beyond our own life experiences and beyond our own temptation to see our experience as sovereign, and instead choose to cling to and embrace the universality of the Resurrection story. Of the one who says “I am willing be healed.”(7) Only then can we join the women at the tomb who in awed jubilation shouted or perhaps whispered silently “we have seen the Lord.” (8) Only then can we boldly assert, “He is risen. He is risen indeed.”

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NOTE: I do NOT endorse chocolate bunnies over Christ.  I have no issue with the kids doing Easter egg hunts, but truthfully there needs to be something more than this.  It is a sad realization that many parents just aren’t fostering the spiritual lives of their kids and supplementing the Sunday school lessons at home enough (but that’s another blog post for another day)

1) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A14&version=NASB

2) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+20%3A26&version=NASB

3) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A23&version=NASB

4) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A10&version=NASB

5) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+John+1%3A8&version=NASB

6) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews+13%3A8&version=NASB

7) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+8%3A3&version=NASB

8) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+20%3A25&version=NASB

9) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+28%3A6&version=NASB