Monday, March 20
The Annointing of David
It is possible that with the exception of Jesus, no figure in the scriptures has caught the imagination of Jewish and Christian believers more than David. The stories of David are chronicled in three books (the two Samuels and retold in 1 Chronicles): to name only a few, David the shepherd boy (shown here in a 19th C. painting a copy of which hung in my Sunday School classroom) who boldly rescues one of his lambs from a lion; David, friend of the prince Jonathan; David, slayer of the giant Goliath to deliver his people from the Philistines; David warrior second king of all the Hebrew tribes, David who betrays his royal office and the loyalty of his general in order to steal his wife Bathsheba; the heart-broken David who grieves the death of his rebellious son Absalom.
Our story here introduces David as the youngest son of Jesse, an unimpressive adolescent left to guard the family sheep in the nearby wilderness, while his seven older brothers—tall handsome, strong—are paraded before the visiting prophet Samuel, for his selection of the best for an unnamed assignment. How many impressionable Sunday School children were invited to memorize Samuel’s words, spoken after he has seen them all and rejected each: “Mortals look at outward appearances, but the Lord looks on the heart”? So Jesse is urged by Samuel to bring David in from the fields; and at once Samuel knows from the inner voice of God that this stripling is the one God has chosen! Chosen for that long, illustrious career filled with such triumphs and ambiguities.
David would become king of his people, and settle the nation’s capital in Jerusalem, once he had captured it from another tribe. There the royal palace was built, and also a shrine for the worship of God. It was his successor, his son Solomon who would turn a sacred tent into a great cedar and limestone Temple, that would last for centuries and has ever since filled the imagination of Jews, Christians and Muslims. There a sacred ritual was developed, accompanied by choirs of priests singing songs that we know still today as the Psalms, texts that later generations ascribed to David, “the sweet singer of Israel”. His name precedes many of them.
As St. Päul would later remind the first Christians, God’s choice and call comes to many who may seem “weak and foolish” in the eyes of this world, and makes of them God’s people.
So our faith does not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:5). As he added in another place: I can do all things through the One who gives the strength. (Philippians 4:13).
Tuesday, March 21
Sleeping in a Shadow
Note: Son Michael translated the passage for me into its original Greek and that was the inspiration for my journey with this scripture.
For you were sleeping in a shadow, but now you are awake in God and walk with first time eyes. Your deeds are like fruit; taste them and see. God remembers the flavor. Take your bitter darkness and submit it to the light that it may be visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore wake up, you who are sleeping. Stand up out from the dead and the Christ will shine light upon you.
We offer you our work, O God, that to the enrichment of our lives, you may make of it what you will.
Wednesday, March 22
Seeing and Believing Under Judgement
No generation before our own is surrounded by so much information, whether in the form of “news” or opinion. In many respects we need to develop boundaries to guard ourselves from being too gullible, or from the prejudice that keeps us from seeing what may be real and true.
Against the immediacy of our own individual experience of life, there is an increasing turbulence ~ even threat~ in the complex world around us. Naturally, we look for security, guideposts to help us maintain balance ourselves, with the possibility of offering encouragement to others.
This perspective allows us to enter into John 9, perhaps even recognizing ourselves in the question of the disciples about the man born blind. Their belief that sickness is the result of sin helped create a kind of life balance in which their “control” was strengthened when they could see what their life experience, prior judgements, and community tradition affirmed.
Jesus, however, calls them away from a simplistic “cause and effect” teeter-totter between sin and suffering, towards a faith-based vision of the possibility of God’s mission to redeem and rescue, regardless of the state of sin or righteousness, sight or blindness. Jesus invites us into the dynamic experience of a God who is at work now, here, among us, even in “my” life.
Far from affirming or even simply allowing the routine prejudices that make up a good part of our “normal” way of seeing the world (good/bad, right/wrong), which bolster our individual sense of “control”, Jesus opens the windows of heaven, and the possibility of “seeing” with him.
The contrast between Jesus’ straightforward action to heal (with the not-so-gentle come-uppance to each of us that this is also “our” call! — see the inclusive “we” in verse 4!) and the good religious community’s desire (in the Pharisees) first to determine who should be in/out, or whether we are following the “rules” of appropriate, respectable religious life, could not be greater. The formerly blind man himself affirms how little he knows about Jesus, how he performed no required action or statement of faith in order to be healed, tossing our preconceptions to the wind. Could his question to the Pharisees be also for us: “Do you also want to become his disciples?”(vs 27)
The fulcrum of Jesus’ mission as portrayed in John is represented in verse 39: “for judgment I came into this world...” (see also 3:19, where we are accused of turning from the light of Christ which is the judgement, because we cherish our darkness). His question to the man now healed, “Do you believe in the Son of Man...?” opens the way for us to a new way of seeing, and of a life caught up into the purposes of God, rather than human prejudices.
Judgment is the coming of light in Christ to redeem and renew. Do we celebrate what God is doing, (like the blind man) or find ourselves in critical judgement that God’s ways are not ours?
Our call to do the works of God alongside Jesus is (first) to believe him as the One sent by God (John6:29) Sometimes “seeing is believing”; at other times, believing leads to new “seeing”.
Blessed are you, Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the world, for continuing to open before us the possibility of seeing and experiencing your vision of life. Heal me of my blindness, my personal darkness, that I might live with you the redeemed life of your purposes here and now.
Let your kingdom rule be operative in me today, as I humbly let go of my successes and my wounds, and follow you, the light. With all your people, I welcome you as Saviour of the world, and Lord of my life. Lead me into your light, by the power of the Spirit. Amen
Thursday, March 23
The Servant of the Lord
In this text Isiah is speaking to a beaten and exiled Isreal. To this defeated nation, Isaiah states that God promises to deliver to his people a servant. We read these verses with Jesus in our minds. All the signs are there in the opening lines: “he will bring justice to the nations” “In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” God must surely be speaking of The Savior, our Lord Jesus. But we know that Isaiah in the Old Testament was prophesizing of some as yet unknown savior. Christians can hold these words as signs that the Old Testament as proclamation of the forthcoming of Jesus, far before God shared his only Son with the world. It makes one appreciate the power of the entirety of the whole Bible, the richness of its word and history.
The passage continues with a most stirring description of God, of the Creator: “who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it”. What a powerful and entirely appropriate picture of God. Imagine starting every prayer, with that description, that would be a smart and powerful way of conversing with God.
Although, from these passages, it may seem that God is perhaps too powerful to listen to our humble and simple prayers. All busy He is releasing from ‘the dungeon those who sit in darkness’ and unyielding in His Glory. And yet there it is the gentle gesture taking hold of our hand and announcing the new way of living, his promise to a defeated Israel and his promise directly to me and you. It may seem just as difficult then to the Israelites as it does now, but God is there, and here, and is always extending a hand to those who will take it.
Oh Lord, you who created the Earth and gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it, thank you for listening to our humble prayers and holding our hands, now and forever.
Friday, March 24
We live in a relentlessly isolating culture. I have a colleague who did a whole doctoral dissertation on social isolation in Vancouver. So many of our systems and structures, so much of our daily lives reinforces—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so—that we are in many ways, physically, spiritually, emotionally and socially separate from the mass of individuals around us. The data is in, and it tells us that our separation from each other is dramatically more destructive than advertised.
The Church hasn’t escaped the damage. More and more, religion and spirituality have been pushed into private corners of our lives. We’re told that it’s ok for us to pray, but privately, please. Many of us feel this so intensely that we have trouble sharing anything at all about our faith, our hope, our life with God. Those things are relegated to personal choice, not grand and gracious reality.
It’s the nature of sin to separate us. The Genesis image of Adam and Eve hiding in a bush from the God by whom they were created for intimacy, and the cascade of broken relationships that follows that sorry scene, reminds us that sin is first and foremost, a relationship problem. Sin draws us away from God, each other, all of creation. It separates and isolates us, makes us cramped and limited.
And so it comes as something of a surprise when the writer of Hebrews tells us that we are, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” and we’re called to throw off the sin that separates and binds. It’s a beautiful image that reminds us that God’s story is not lived in isolation, that it’s not about private piety, but wide open wonder, love and praise. When we testify in word and deed to the hope that we have, we’re really joining our voices and our lives with the myriad saints who have embodied and do embody the hope, peace, joy and love of God for this world. The great cloud of witnesses—the women and men who for millennia have been alive to the will and way of God, in and for this world—draws us back into the expansiveness for which we have been created, that broad space of God’s grace. And their testimony, their reminder points us continually to Jesus, the One who is, fully and finally, evidence that there is no length to which God will not go to be with us and for us—now and forever.
Whenever that sinks in, the world is new.
Holy God: thank you, that your goodness and grace have been made known to us in Christ. Thank you, that in Him the hope of the saints is confirmed: that you are with us and for us, and nothing will separate us from your love. Help us to love like you love. In the name of Jesus, your love embodied. Amen.
Saturday, March 25
The Lord’s Supper
I was surprised by my assignment this year. On one hand, my passage is very short. On the other hand, it provides instruction on the most central sacrament of the Christian Church and of our little community at University Hill. One might think that such a fundamental aspect of Christian life would enjoy wide agreement around its meaning and practice. It seems that this is not the case. We could ask whether, at the Lord’s Supper, we are eating and drinking bread and wine, or the body and blood of Christ. In answer, we would find disagreement. We could ask whether the sacrament should be taken once per year on the eve of Passover, or as often as we might like. There is no agreement on this point either. Finally, we might ask if the table should be open to all who wish to proclaim the death of our Lord, or only to a more select and qualified group. Again, there appears to be no agreement on this.
Paul’s instructions on the institution of the Lord’s Supper do offer two points that seem difficult to disagree on. First, we take communion as an act of remembrance of Christ’s passion and death and in faith we do this until he comes again. Second, in remembering, we recognize God’s new covenant with us, sealed in the blood of his Son. As I read beyond my assigned passage, I noticed that there is another point of instruction that Paul offers in verse 28: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup”. This might be the most challenging of Paul’s instructions for me and the one that is most easily overlooked in the walk to the table.
Father, you have appointed our Lord Jesus Christ as the medium of a new covenant; give us grace to draw near with fullness of faith and join ourselves in a perpetual covenant with you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sunday, March 26
A reflection (via a rather round-about route)
I grew up as an Anglican but, like many people, wandered away from church in my teens. I had no involvement with any church at all until age 41, when a friend of mine—the daughter of a United Church of Canada minister and now a UCC minister herself—invited me to come along with her to church, with my then-2-year-old daughter in tow *.
However, prior to this, I did have one exposure to the United Church. In my mid-30s, I attended a memorial service at St. Andrews-Wesley United Church. A work colleague of mine, also in her 30s, had died in a terrible, sports-related accident. As the service progressed, I saw that a certain hymn number was coming up. When I looked it up in the once-popular “Green Book”, I inadvertently blurted out a mild expletive—which, to my considerable embarrassment, caused several heads to swivel sharply in my direction. The hymn, of course, was Amazing Grace. I knew I would sob quietly throughout it.
Over time, I came to realize that Amazing Grace is almost ubiquitous at UCC memorial services. I often wondered if ministers actually tired of it, because it had come to feel like a bit of a cliché to me. When I mentioned this to Ed Searcy, he replied “The thing is, for many unchurched or minimally-churched people who are attending a memorial service, this may be the only hymn they know.” It made me realize that, in an odd way, Amazing Grace is part of how we, as Christians, are a “light to the nations”.
To me, Psalm 23 feels much the same way. In spite of the fact that I know virtually no Bible passages by heart, I realized—on being assigned this text—that I could recite about 75% of it by memory (the King James version, however). A Google search of “favourite psalms” almost invariably lists Psalm 23 as number 1. It is often the only psalm that many Christians know, and, yes, it too is frequently used at funerals and memorial services (although there is debate on the appropriateness of that).
Psalm 23 reminds us that God always watches and tends to us, that even in the greatest darkness, we are protected and comforted. Just as Amazing Grace meets tragedy with hope, Psalm 23 counters fear with reassurance. Although I have made it clear that I definitely do not want Amazing Grace sung at my memorial service, I have chosen My Shepherd Is The Living Lord as one of the three hymns.
Oh Lord, we thank you for shepherding us to a settled rest, just like a child at home.
* You see? Inviting friends to attend church sometimes works—I've been involved with the United Church ever since.