God of Hope

The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found in Daniel goes like this: The Jewish people have been exiled to Babylon. Some have become leaders within the Babylonian government. King Nebuchadnezzar creates a giant gold statue and requires everyone in the country to worship this statue. Informers who go to the king and tell that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are refusing to participate in this worship. Nebuchadnezzar summons them and gives them another chance to bow down. They still refuse and proclaim that they are willing to die rather than worship this false God.

My beautiful pictureNebuchadnezzar flies into a rage and orders them thrown into a furnace. The people throwing them in are killed by the heat but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are seen walking around unharmed along with another being—sometimes described as an angel.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are released from the furnace and the king declares that anyone who speaks against their God will be killed.

This is a dramatic and gruesome story but it has something to say to us about how we respond when we are asked to do something that goes against our values or beliefs.

I was thinking about a story from my own life this week as I was reflecting on this scripture. In 1988 when the United Church was talking about ordaining and commissioning people regardless of sexual orientation I held a minority opinion within my small church. I was thirteen at the time and knew that the majority of people in the congregation were against this proposal. I couldn’t understand how a God of love would condemn people for loving but I was afraid of what would happen if I spoke up so I chose to remain silent.

From where I stand now, I recognize that I was very vulnerable because of some of the bullying that was happening at school and because I was a child. I needed to church to be a safe place. Speaking up would have jeopardised that. For a long time, I felt guilt and shame that I had not spoken up and expressed my belief that God loves us unconditionally and God would not condemn us for loving another person. It took me a long time to forgive myself for my silence. Now I find myself in a position where I am less vulnerable. I am in a position to speak and offer leadership. I have people in my life who are a support system when the going gets rough.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were in a position where they had to choose to be silent and go with the flow around them or to speak up. They chose to stand firm. They stood together. When we are working against powerful systems, having people to stand with is important. If we stand alone, we are much more vulnerable. Even so, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were risking their lives in order to stand up for their God. In my situation, it probably wouldn’t have been life threatening but it would have been uncomfortable.

This Sunday, we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope. How do we find hope when the challenges of life and the world feel overwhelming and too big to handle on our own? In the story, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego placed their hope in God. They trusted that even if they died standing up for God, their God would still be with them. The firmly believed that Nebuchadnezzar could not prevail in the long term. It is hard for us to trust in God’s long-term vision. We have a tendency to see the immediate future—only moments ahead—which can seem scary.

God calls us to see further—to trust further as we seek hope. In Advent, we wait and we prepare for Christ among us. Jesus was continually taking risks, speaking what he believed to be God’s word. As followers of Jesus, we are called to similar ministries of risking in order to bring hope. We are called to be courageous in standing with God and with the most vulnerable rather than with the powerful and the structures that destroy. The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego has a surprising ending. The story of Jesus has a surprising ending. Both stories should end in death and yet they both end in life and offer hope. Our own stories might feel like they are leading us to difficult places but might have surprising endings—if we have the courage to risk.

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Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace

Many of us have had times in our lives where we have felt overwhelmed with despair or grief. Perhaps mental illness has enveloped us, so life becomes challenging.

Here are words of hope from Isaiah: The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. These words are powerful. They speak to us of places in our lives and in our communities that will be transformed.

Isaiah was speaking to a community which was feeling pressured by outside forces. There were strong nations and armies gathering around them. Their neighbours were falling to these powerful nations. There was perhaps a sense of fear and a sense that God had abandoned them.

And then something happens. Life changes and the fear and despair are no longer in control of people’s lives. We often read this passage with hindsight through a Christian lens and hear these words speak to Jesus. The passage is difficult in Hebrew and may refer to events that had already happened or to events yet to come. We don’t know. What was important to the author was that there would be a leader arise who would change the circumstances of the people.

In the Hebrew language names are often used to describe the God that the parents worship. For example, Isaiah “means “the Lord saves”; Hezekiah, “the Lord strengthens.” (Jewish Study Bible). The child in this passage is named “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We often attach this description to Jesus, but the original author is describing God. A child will be born whose parents worship the God that is “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Through that child, either in the author’s past or future, the community would be transformed. Oppression would end.

In this Minute for Mission, the young women accessing Naomi’s House were able to have an experience of being able to lift off addictions, mental illness or difficult relationships and step into something new. They named how important it is to have safe spaces and supportive people to make these changes in their lives. The child that is named in this passage is reborn again and again every time someone offers hope to someone who is struggling.

As we follow the God who is “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” we become instruments of that God. In the Inclusive translation, the passage ends this way: “This dominion, this peace, will grow without end, sustained with justice and fairness. The zeal of YHWH Omnipotent will accomplish it!” The passage is intended to speak particularly to a group of people who feel hopeless. Here, the end is a place of hope. God’s peace will grow without end, sustained with justice and fairness. God will do this! And we get to be a part of this.

Remembering Scripture

When we hear the story of Elijah, we often hear about Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The showdown is dramatic. We often hear the story of God coming to Elijah in a calm, gentle breeze. Less often, we hear the story of Elijah calling for the death of all the worshipers of Baal. This reading (1 Kings 19:1-18) pulls these stories together.

Before this story, Ahab and Jezebel had led the Israelite people away from following God and had taught them to worship Baal. There is a fiery showdown between Elijah’s God and the god Baal.  Elijah’s God won the day. The result is that Elijah has all the priests of Baal killed—in God’s name of course.

Jezebel hears what Elijah has done, and now she wants his blood. She is out to kill Elijah. Elijah runs for his life. He lays down to sleep. He has been running all day, and God provided a tree to rest under and food and water for him to eat. And then Elijah was on the run for forty days in the wilderness.

He finally rests in a cave. God speaks to him and asks why he is hiding out. Elijah responds to God saying that he has been faithful but that the Israelites have strayed from God, God’s prophets destroyed, Jezebel is after him and there is no point in continuing.

Then Elijah has an experience of God, and it is not what he expects. Elijah expects God to be in the wind and the earthquake and the fire, but God is in none of these. God is however in the calm wind that follows.

Again God speaks to Elijah and asks why he is hiding out. Again Elijah responds to God saying that he has been faithful but that the Israelites have strayed from God, God’s prophets destroyed, Jezebel is after him and there is no point in continuing.

800px-p5080116Instead of cutting Elijah some slack, the God in this story sends Elijah on a mission to anoint new leaders for the people—ones who will follow God faithfully and even zealously rather than allowing multiple faiths to flourish side by side. We also live in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith culture. Elijah’s God told him to go and kill those who worshipped differently from himself. Elijah’s God told him that there could only be one God. In this scenario, Elijah and his followers were right—everyone else was wrong and deserved to die.

After Elijah has killed the prophets of Baal, he has to flee for his life. He set in motion a spiral of violence over which he has no control. He heads into the wilderness and prays for death. I wonder if he felt remorse for all the slaughter he caused. Perhaps he experienced a type of post-traumatic stress. Elijah’s experience reminds us that violence destroys human lives.

Once Elijah gets his feet under him, he again sanctions killing in the name of God. And the story of war and violence continues. In our own time, we see governments use God as a way of justifying violence. It isn’t unusual for wars to be fought in the name of a god either explicitly or implicitly. If we can find a way for our violence to be sanctioned by God, we can justify it.

Sometimes scripture teaches us what to do. Sometimes it teaches us what not to do. We need to remember that humans wrote scripture over a period of centuries and that what we read in scripture comes out of particular times, places, cultures and experiences. There are many examples of God-sanctioned violence in scripture, but scripture also calls us to love our neighbour and our enemies. It calls us to welcome the stranger at our door. Scripture calls us to turn instruments of war into ploughshares. Scripture and the example of Jesus call us to be a peaceful people who love God and seek justice for all creation. We cannot love God or seek peace and justice by hating our neighbours. We cannot be a people of peace if we live in fear of those who are somehow different from ourselves.

If we will be people of peace, we must put aside fear and hatred and follow Jesus into places of vulnerability. We must risk being the first to lay down arms. We must remember that war and violence lead to death and destroy lives. War and violence should not be the first choice for people of faith. Jesus leads us on a path that is counter-intuitive. He teaches us to do good and pray for our enemies. When we pray and act for goodness, justice and compassion in the world, we are changed, and our world is changed.

We give thanks for all those who seek peace and justice in the world. We know that we live in a world of violence and war, but we work and pray for a time when war will be no more. We work and pray for a time when we no longer live in fear. We work and pray for a time of peace. May it be so.

Do You Trust God in the Desert of life?

Pasture at At-TuwaniBelow is the story of the manna and quail from Exodus 16:1-18 as told by someone following Moses into the wilderness:

Two months ago, Moses arrived at the Pharaoh’s palace in Egypt. Hekept bugging pharaoh to let the people go. As long as Moses was around, bad things kept happening to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. Pharaoh would tell us we could leave. Then he’d change his mind. Something bad would happen. He’d tell us we could leave. Then he’d change his mind again. This went on for a couple of weeks. Finally, Pharaoh relented. We packed our belongings in a hurry—only what we could carry. We headed out. Again, Pharaoh changed his mind and his army chased us with chariots. I was so afraid as we fled. Then we stood in front of the Red Sea and wondered how we would cross. That army was getting closer. Moses stood at the front of our group and prayed to God. The waters parted, and we walked across. Before the army could follow us, the water closed again. We were safe. I prayed and gave thanks for being out of that place and away from the army. Finally, after generations of suffering, we are free.

 

We followed Moses out into the desert. I’ve been hungry for days. My family hasn’t eaten, and I’m getting worried about what will happen next. We complained to Moses and his brother Aaron, but they don’t seem to care or be able to do anything. All of us will starve to death if something doesn’t change soon. Maybe that was their plan all along. Bring us out of Egypt to destroy us. Maybe Moses isn’t really the leader we think he is.

Just a minute, something’s happening. Aaron is getting ready to speak on Moses’ behalf. What kind of a leader doesn’t get up and speak directly to the people? Here’s what Aaron has to say. “Why are you complaining to us? Why are you angry with us? God is the one you should be angry with. God led you and us out here into the wilderness. It’s not our doing but we have prayed to God, and God will provide. Tonight before you sleep, the quail will fill the camp, and you may eat. In the morning, there will be bread. When you get up in the morning, gather enough bread for everyone in your tent for one day. Do not gather more or less than what you need.”


In this story, the people complaining. They are afraid of the unknown in the wilderness. They are uncertain of what to come. They blame Moses and Aaron for leading them into the unknown. They blame Moses and Aaron for not providing for them. When they complain to Moses and Aaron, they are really complaining about God. It is God who has led all of them into the wilderness. It is God who has not provided.

The people left Egypt with limited resources. Now they find their resources dwindling and what are they to do? They complain a bit. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it probably makes them feel better for a few minutes. After some complaining and after Moses has a conversation with God, there is a promise of food. The food will appear every day except the Sabbath—quail for the evening meal, bread for the rest of the time. They are to gather only enough for one day and only enough for their tent. Would you trust in the middle of the desert that there would be food available every day? I might just be out there gathering a bit more than I need—just in case.

But a strange thing happens in the story. Many people follow my logic. They gather more than they need. When they measure it, the amount is the same as people who gathered less than they needed. If they tried to save it for another day, it spoils. It can’t be saved. In this way, there was enough for everyone. No one went hungry. No one went hungry while others ate their fill.

When might think about our resources we could ask ourselves: What is enough for one day? Can we trust that there will be enough each day? Can we give thanks for what we do have? If we trust that we will have enough, we can be generous with the world around us.

We often feel like we might be in a desert with lack of resources—either inner resources or external resources. I think sometimes that congregations are prone to this. We complain about lack of people. We worry about having enough money. Do we trust and believe in what God is doing in and through each one of us?

_______ (insert your name here) and the Burning Bush

Shepherd and sheep

Exodus 3 & 4 tells the story of Moses’ call by God. Moses started life during a time when the pharaoh of Egypt wanted all the male Israelite babies killed. To protect him, Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and put him in the Nile River. An Egyptian princess found him and raised him as her own. When Moses was a young man, he saw some Egyptians abusing an Israelite slave.  Moses was outraged, jumped into the fray and killed an Egyptian. Moses had to flee for his life. He ends up as a shepherd, looking after his father-in-law’s sheep.

That’s where our story picks up today.

I want to offer this story as an opportunity to reflect on God’s call in our own lives. I invite you to imagine yourself into the story. Take a few deep breaths. Allow your mind to drift into the hills. This is marginal land. The land is sandy and rocky. The grass is more like scrub than grass. See the scene in your mind. See the land. Feel the heat of the sun. Touch the sheep’s wool. Smell the dust in your nostrils. Taste the dryness in your mouth.

You are the shepherd. There’s no one else for miles. You’ve been grazing the sheep for several hours. You have wandered a bit higher onto the hill than usual looking for some new grazing land. Out of the corner of your eye, you catch sight of some colour and movement. You turn fully to see a bush on fire. You walk closer to the fire. What does it look like as you approach? What do you feel as you approach? You walk closer and then you hear a voice—a voice calling your name. Listen to that voice. You respond. “Here I am.” The voice tells you to take your shoes off because you are standing on Holy ground. You take your shoes off, and the voice continues, “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Sarah and Abraham, of Rebecca and Isaac, of Leah and Rachel and Jacob. I am the God of your parents and grandparents. I have observed the oppression of my people. I have hared their cry. I know their sufferings, and I have come to deliver them from their oppression. The cries of my people have come to me, and so I will send you to free my people.”

You think about this for a few minutes and then ask, “Who am I that I can free your people? If I go to your people and tell them that the God of our ancestors has sent me they will ask, “who is this God?” What shall I say?”

The voice from the bush speaks again and says “tell them I AM sent you.  I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Sarah and Abraham, of Rebecca and Isaac, of Leah and Rachel and Jacob. I am the God of your parents and grandparents.”

You wait for a moment. Why do you hesitate? What is it that prevents you from responding to God? Is there something that feels inadequate? Is there something that feels lacking? Perhaps there is already too much in your life? Voice these to I AM. How does I AM respond to your questioning?

What message does I AM have for you?

When you have heard I AM’s message, take a step back. Give thanks. Put your shoes on and return to your flock. When ready, slowly open your eyes.

What God will you Serve?

 

bulldozed home

How do we serve faithfully when we find ourselves in difficult places? How do we trust in God in those moments?

Since the creation story last week, we skipped several stories but Genesis continues to be concerned with figuring out who God is and defining the relationship between God, humans and the creation. Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14 is a very dark story. We might find it offensive that God would command someone to kill their own son as a sacrifice and it creates some challenges for us.

 

In the time that this story comes from, most cultures believed in many gods and it was not uncommon to perform human and child sacrifices to appease those gods. So in the story, we see Abraham heading off with his son, Isaac to offer a sacrifice. You might remember that Isaac is the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age. He is the child that was promised to them—the child that would produce a great nation.

One commentator, B.W. Anderson suggests that this story was included “to justify the Israelites’ break with other ancient cultures’ practice of child sacrifice.” (Inclusive Bible, Footnote Gen 22:1). The book of Genesis is concerned with the relationship between God and the creation. This story sets the relationship up as something unique and different. This is not a God who demands child sacrifice. That’s not to say that God won’t ask difficult things from us or that we won’t find ourselves faced with difficult choices.

I suspect that as Abraham and Isaac were walking, they both had questions. I imagine Abraham arguing with God is his mind: You promised me a child who would produce a great nation. Now you are going to take that child away? What kind of God are you that makes promises and then breaks them?

Isaac voices his question out loud. “We’re going to make a sacrifice, but we have nothing to offer. How could my father be so unprepared? Even I know that you have to take something along to sacrifice.” The characters question. We might also question God. There are times when we just don’t understand what it is that God is up to. We don’t understand what God is asking of us or how something will work out in a way that is actually life-giving.

When we participate in baptism, we offer trust in God. We don’t know exactly what God is up to in our lives. We don’t know exactly what God will do through us, but we affirm our belief in a God of love who is mysteriously at work in us and the world. We affirm our belief in a God that is in a relationship with us. We affirm our willingness to serve that God in the world. Just like Abraham who didn’t know exactly what God is up to we serve, stepping faithfully into the unknown.

In the Beginning…God saw that it was Good!

 

We’re starting at the beginning! The first story of creation. It is one of 2 creation stories in the Bible. There are two stories because even in the beginning there wasn’t consensus on how things happened. Our Bible is very good at holding multiple viewpoints and multiple stories in tension. When we read scripture, we need to remember this important concept. There isn’t one version of the story. The Bible does not have one perspective but rather gathers multiple responses to God into a collection of writings. When we read the Bible, we need to listen for all these voices and then figure out how we make sense of them for our time and place.

We start at the beginning. There is a formless void and darkness. Some translations use the word chaos. But in the center of this chaos is God. God isn’t out there at a distance but at the center. And from this central place in the chaos, God creates. God sweeps over the waters. In this story, God has the ability to act and to speak. It is God’s action that creates. God said, “let there be light.” And God saw that it was good. Day and night are created. Then God separates the sky from the water. Then God separates the water and the land and God saw that it was good. Then God created all sorts of plants and trees and God saw that it was good. Day and night and seasons are created next–sun, moon, stars. And God saw that it was good. Then there are creatures–birds, fish, land animals—every animal you can imagine.

And then God made people. The Inclusive translation reads: “let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. . . . Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them.” In Hebrew, the original language of the Bible, God is actually a plural word. It could mean that the original authors were imagining God with an angelic court or, as was common at the time, that there were actually many gods involved in the creation. It also means that when God is creating humans, there are many images of God being reflected. In this version, men and women are created together and that God is reflected in a community of people.

God offers a blessing to the humans: “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We need to think carefully about what these words mean. I attended a Canadian Theological Schools conference when I was a student. I remember talking about these words with other students. One of the people involved in this conversation, said that God gave the earth to humans to subdue and have dominion over. Therefore we can do whatever we want with it. It was a gift to be used however we see fit. I was shocked and horrified. I have always understood this passage as having an implicit message of care for creation. In light of climate change and degradation of the earth’s resources, where we start with our reading of scripture matters. This first story sets to the tone for everything that comes after.

If we see this story with humans at the center with the God given right to use the earth without concern, to rule over the earth, it sets us on a path that depletes the earth’s resources, and creates havoc with the earth’s natural systems. We need to rethink this original story. We need to understand that it is God—not humans—at the center of everything that is. It is God—not humans—who calls creation into being and forms life from chaos.

The inclusive translation puts the blessing this way: “bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth—and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on earth” (Gen 1:28) I like this translation because it is explicit in naming our responsibility as humans. Caring for the earth is no longer optional. It is part of the creation story—an expectation given to us at the very beginning. When hear about climate change and other natural disasters, we need to ask ourselves whether we are being responsible stewards of the earth we’ve been given. Are we using our voices and our power to protect and sustain the earth or are we using our power to destroy the earth?

Christianity has done much to destroy the earth because we have misread this original story and skewed our role in the story. Many other spiritual paths have stayed much closer to this original story. First Nations traditions have been close to the land. Through colonization much of the knowledge and understanding that Indigenous people have about what it means to steward and care for the earth was lost. The video we saw a few minutes ago, show one program that helps Indigenous and non- indigenous people relearn that knowledge.

The story gives hope. As God creates, the writers repeat a mantra making clear God’s intention: And God saw that it was good. God continues to see that creation is good. God continues to see good in humans because we are created in God’s image. One of the central themes of scripture and of the Christian story is that of repentance—meaning to change direction. The work being done through the Paris accord requires us to repent, to change direction. To follow through on changing our lifestyles and our actions is actually faithful living because it reminds us and the creation that we are created in God’s image and God sees that it is good.