Bible Text: 1 Peter 3:8-22 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp | Series: On Praying The subject of prayer is something which is often spoken of in church. We offer many different kinds of prayer in our worship together. We have prayers of approach, of adoration, of confession, of thanksgiving and of intercession. We have prayers before the reading of Scripture and prayers after we receive our offering. We offer prayers of blessing for meals and we have personal times of devotional prayer – perhaps in the morning and/or the evening. Now I am sure that all of us pray – some more, some less. I am also sure that most of us have struggled with prayer. We know that it is necessary and normal for us to pray but we have no doubt discovered that in practice praying is not always plain or smooth sailing. We read the commands and encouragements to pray in the Bible; Jesus taught the disciples to pray and Paul calls prayer part of the armour of God that every Christian must put on; in fact, he goes so far as to say that all believers are to be praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Ephesians 6:18). He goes on to say that: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6). Yet we end up struggling, and not just over making time for prayer or finding a place for it. Thoughts wander, hearts that long to be praying freeze once we start, and we dry up. Whether we are using our own words, trying to be silent or reciting a set prayer we can find ourselves questioning whether or not we are really engaged in our prayer. J.I. Packer, the author of the book Praying, whose words will guide us for the next number of weeks knows that good praying is at once both a duty for us as Christians but that it should also be a delight. His objective in writing this book is to help us move from seeing prayer as simply a duty and come to find true delight in our prayer. So we will explore prayer and the practice of praying that we might grow in our knowledge of prayer and come to a place where we find prayer a delightful and refreshing part of our life with God. Sometimes we think that we are in a generation that has more difficulty with prayer because our lives often do not leave space or time for prayer but the reality is that every generation has struggled to find the time and space to pray. Even Jesus had to remove himself from the everyday movement of life to gain space and time for prayer. Packer believes that in spite of the struggles we find we have with prayer; it is possible to have heartfelt, meaningful, enriching realism in our prayers. He sees three things as key to this: 1) a clear realization of the reality of God; 2) a continual practice of the presence of God; and 3) a constant endeavour to please God every day of our lives. A clear realization of the reality of God comes from knowing those facts about God that he himself has told us in the Bible. A continual practice of the presence of God comes from an awareness that one is always under God’s eye and in God’s hands; and, as a Christian, is in the intimate company of God. Our lives are like the lives of anyone else who is on this earth. We have our ups and downs but unlike others who share this life with only their earthly companions, we have the companionship of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A constant endeavour to please God comes from love to God, called forth by our wonder at the creation that surrounds us and by our wonder at the work of God in Christ to redeem us and save us. But to begin, let us look at some truths about God that we might better understand the God we pray to. The first truth is that God is personal. God presents himself to us in personal terms; he is the God who is here and who meets us, has his eye on us and takes an interest in us as persons, just as we take a personal interest in each other. And so God’s relationship to humans involves two-way speech. God speaks and we listen for God’s words; we speak and God listens to our words. The second truth is that God is multi-dimensional. We know that God is one but we also have come to know God as a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know that each is part of God is a revelation of who he is and gives us a fuller understanding of how we can relate to God and God to us. The third truth is that God is unique. We can have a relationship with this God because we know his name. When asked who he was, God answered the people. He said I am who I am; or I will be who I will be” or “I am what I am.” And of all the names that people used, the one most common was the term we hear so much of the Old Testament – Yahweh. This is the covenant name God gave to express his commitment to the people. The fourth truth is that God is powerful. God is able to be present to us even in the most trying and difficult moments of our lives. We think of God as being present with us in our innermost being and able to guide and help us. The fifth truth is that God is purposeful. From the beginning of time through the fall of Adam and Eve, through all the events in the history of the people of Israel, to the coming of God in the person of Jesus, to the granting of the Holy Spirit and to the promise that Christ will return, God reveals his purposes. And his ultimate purpose is to bring us into a close and lasting relationship with him. Packer states that “the Christian life is a matter of developing friendship with God, friendship that flows from the Father’s gift to us of our Lord Jesus Christ, who…now makes friends with us…” (Praying, p. 29) God seeks for our lives to be transformed that we might feel that intimate connection and so live out the reality of this friendship through prayer. The sixth truth is that God is a promise-keeper. God has ever kept his word. The greatest promise of all is that through Jesus our sins are forgiven and we can have hope and peace in believing in the word of God. The seventh truth is that God is paternal but also maternal. While revealed to us as the Father, God has also shown us his maternal side when the Scriptures speak about the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible there are many places where we are told that God is like a Father to us and we have many examples of how this Father thinks and acts. The eighth truth is that God is praiseworthy. Packer has given us seven truths about God which are keys to God’s character, his way of being and his way of acting. When we praise God, we are realizing that for all the focus God puts on us and our relationship to him, we need to put a focus on God and be thankful for the opportunity to know him and we offer our praise. One last thing for today: Packer wants us to be aware that his approach is less a “how to” than a “who to” approach to praying. Coming to a knowledge of who and what God is, we have to be clear who we are when we come to God in our prayers. When we ask God for an interview, requesting his attention – which is what we do when we pray – we need to be very clear in our own minds not only about who he is but also about who we are and what constitutes a humble, honest, realistic, reverent attitude toward him. We remember that we come to God as redeemed people, saved by grace to not just be servants but adopted sons and daughters of God; not just followers but friends. So may we appreciate the love of our God as Father, as Christ and as Spirit and let our praying become ever more real.
Bible Text: Mark 9: 2-23 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp Over the last two weeks we have been exploring the history of the Christian church and the great disruptions that seem to have come every 500 years. Each of these major disruptions changed the accepted way that the church viewed its mission and its purpose. Each disruption brought a change in the authority that guided the church. Each disruption in the church’s life was also associated with a similar disruption in the wider culture of the world. The coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ caused the very first disruption as Jesus’ teaching brought a message from God that challenged the ruling authority and brought into question a number of practices being followed by the Jewish nation. The second disruption occurred in the 6th century and was the culmination of a number of events including councils that debated doctrinal issues such as the human and divine natures of Jesus and the status of Mary. And while the church leaders were grappling with how to be the church of a great empire from the time of Constantine in the 4th century and resolve differences of thought surrounding the faith, the Roman Empire collapsed and with it came the start of what has been termed the Dark Ages. During this time community was organized into small kingdoms and estates. The anarchy that followed led the church to seek for a place of safety for the writings and traditions of the faith. This led to the establishment of monasteries and convents. The third disruption came with the dawn of the Middle Ages in the 11th century. This time saw the rise of tensions between the Eastern Church in Constantinople and the western church in Rome. Significant issues such as whether Greek or Latin should be the dominant language of the church liturgy; what type of bread to use in communion; and whether the Holy Spirit just proceeded from the Father or came through both the Son and the Father divided the church and was not reconciled for nearly a thousand years. This period also saw the rise of kings came to be seen as ruling by divine right. Church leaders saw this as an opportunity to reassert the church of preservers of the holiest of all places – Jerusalem; and so began the Crusades. The fourth disruption came with the Reformation of the 16th century. The abuses of authority and power that had come to mark the leadership within the Western Church led many to search for an authority that they felt could be trusted to remain without corruption. The Reformers believed that the church and the faith belonged with the people and not with the clergy alone. They advocated that all were priests and all could seek forgiveness for their sins from God; and so developed the belief in the priesthood of all believers and a push to make the Bible accessible to the population at large. What emerged from this time was a culture that felt the openness to question and explore. Through the freedom brought to the people of faith through the Reformation came the freedom felt in the society in general that led to discoveries that rocked the world of the 16th centuries. And so began the period we know as the Enlightenment, rationalism and industrialism. Authority in the Church had shifted from the hierarchy of ecclesiastical leaders to the Scripture itself. The study of Scripture was encouraged. But the encouragement people found in the study of Scripture also led them to discover conflicts in the texts and left them often with more questions than answers. Eventually this led to a new discipline in religious studies known as the historical-critical method. The Bible was no longer viewed as one long homogenous book but a series of books written by different authors in different times. This led scholars and others to ask whether the Jesus of Western history and thought was the same as the Jesus of Nazareth. One of the most famous books on the subject was written by Albert Schweitzer called The Quest for the Historical Jesus. It also led scholars to search for what indeed were the true words of Jesus. It is fair to say that we have seen a number of changes in the church generally and in our denomination specifically. We have seen shifts in our own interpretation of Scripture that has led to the acceptance of women as both clergy and elders within the Church. We have changed our ideas surrounding those who can participate at the Lord’s Supper or communion. We now celebrate an open table allowing children of all ages the right to take part. We have developed new confessions such as The Living Faith document which came out in the 1980s. And we continue to be challenged in our approach to the Scriptures and to the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping our life and directing our future as the church. No doubt this is where this Great Emergence will lead us allowing us to respect and honour the Scripture while looking for the leading of the Holy Spirit to make the Word of God and the presence of God be a living force in our lives. Without realizing it, I have been embracing the Great Emergence as I have debated, discussed and grown with Christians from different branches of the Church. I have come to appreciate the places that these different Christians come from and the perspective on faith and life that they bring. I have found that my struggles with matters of faith and life have not really differed from the struggles of others. I have come to realize that no one denomination holds the path to God. Each offers a perspective that can enrich our own journey of faith. Something else that I have come to realize over time is this. I grew up in a church that put adherence to certain rules of doctrinal belief and human conduct as prerequisites to membership but I have to understand more and more that today people first seek to belong to a gathering of Christians because of a shared sense of humanity and an affinity with the individuals sharing in the activities of that group. From there belief comes. And so people do not believe in order to belong but belong in order to believe. How do we encourage the dialogue that will bring the church to a place where it can find its path with God? By being open to receiving all who want to be part of the journey, encouraging the sharing of ideas and letting the Spirit of God show us how we can be the Church that we need to be for this time and so help one another to grow in faith. Feeling like your foundation of faith is being blown out of the water? Well, take heart. This has happened before and those who went through it found the path that God was calling them to take. They found themselves not discouraged or distraught but strengthened in their faith and life with God. They discovered that God indeed was a God not of the past alone with nothing new to share but rather a God who was very much a God of the present and a God of the future. AMEN
Bible Text: Mark 1:32-39 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp So last week we discovered some things that we may or may not have been aware of. The history of Christianity has gone through a number of shifts, disruptions and restorations. Each upheaval was characterized by changes happening in the political, social and cultural landscape. The church’s response to such changes led to the disruption and the consequent shifts that led the church to a place where stability was once again achieved and the believers could feel secure that they had found the path that God had called them to take and could depend on the principles that they had discovered to guide them. It is easy to look back on history and see what was the root cause of disruptions suffered by others and even easier to understand the situation they faced and even their inability to see what needed to be changed; but it is difficult to see the root cause of our own disruption and not so easy to understand our own situation and be able to see what needs to change. Today we will look at some of the events that led to the Great Reformation of the 16th century and some of the events that have brought us to our own disruption. We know for a fact that when a significant event is marked as the beginning of a new era in history that that event is probably the culmination of a number of events. Case in point is Luther’s theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle in 1517. What Luther put in writing were things that had been gnawing at the fabric of Christianity since 1378. From 1378 to 1418 the Italian and French princes each elected a pope. Each declared the other illegitimate and war ensued. To add to the mix there was a third pope elected by another group. The result was chaos within Western Europe – not only religiously but culturally, politically and socially. No longer could the church see clearly where the authority from God lay. If the church leadership could not be seen as authority, where could the church find its authority to centre itself and guide itself in faith? The answer given to the question of authority was answered in the principle: Sola scriptura, scriptura sola; only the Scripture and the Scriptures only. Tied to this was the principle that all of us are priests. No longer need a person confess to a priest but confession would be directly between the people and God – the priesthood of all believers. But to achieve these great principles would require the people to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves. The introduction of the printing press by Gutenberg enabled the dream of Wycliffe and others to come true. Literacy was no longer restricted to the elite in society or those to whom the church deigned to grant it. And while it would take centuries to achieve the literacy they hoped for, the gate had been open and people could read for themselves the words of Scripture. And we know what that caused – differences of interpretation. But along with this came changes in the ways that society in general was organized. It was at this time that movement of people from the country to the towns began. Cash began to be used as the basis of power, individualism was born, capitalism and the middle class emerged and the nuclear family made its first appearance. What was happening was a whole shift in the way the world was viewed and in the way in which life was being lived. At this same time, there were other major changes occurring. In 1514, Copernicus – a clergyman as well as an astronomer – first declared that the sun – not the earth – was the centre of the universe. He was followed by Columbus who did not fall off the edge of the earth. These things raised questions about the accepted belief in the cosmology of the church. If the earth is round, where is heaven and where is hell? Is God upstairs or where is he? Had the church gotten it wrong? Holes had appeared in the covering and the mesh of the cable and it opened the gate to questioning everything the church had ever held as absolute truth. This led the Reformers to not only form the principles that have been handed down generation to generation within the Protestant tradition of the faith but also to seek for how to interpret all matters related to the faith and so reframe and reconceptualise the Christian message and story and find again a consensus that all could accept. The freedom to think, to question that came with the Reformation in the church would lead to a whole new way of examining the world in which we live. The mid 1800s saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and it became the tipping point that sent the world careening off into new cultural, social, political and theological territory. This can be seen as the point where the Great Emergence can be recognized and this is the time in which we are now living. But we need to recognize that it was not just in the secular society that major changes and shifts in thinking were happening. The rise of critical scholarship and biblical criticism as well as liberal theology happened at this time and by the beginning of the 20th century, there was even more diverse ways of looking at the Scriptures. The re-examination of the Scriptures in their historical and cultural setting led to people questioning the principle of Scripture alone and the inerrancy of Scripture. The flood of change was such that it prompted a meeting of Conservative Protestants who issued their own statement of 5 solas or principles necessary to claim true Christian belief: the inerrancy of the Scripture; the divinity of Jesus Christ; the historicity of the Virgin birth; the substitutionary nature of the Atonement ( in other word, that Jesus paid the price for our sin); and the physical, corporeal return of Jesus, the Christ. They would become known as the “Fundamentals”. And so the term fundamentalism was born. Later were added two more principles: the obligation to evangelize and belief in Jesus as a personal saviour. These principles form the core of evangelical Christianity. I have just scratched the surface of many of the challenges and changes that have come as a result of the Reformation of the 16th century and the questions about life in general and faith in particular that have been the subject of much debate over the last 500 years. But do not despair. The challenges that have come to us in this time are cause not to be afraid but rather to take hold of the questions that have come and seek for the wisdom of God to discover the answers. For us in the church today we will need to recognize that the society around us and even within us is composed of people who are the products of this time. The people who are coming to our churches now do not come with the same history, tradition and understanding of the world especially as it relates to God and faith. The cable will hold but we need to face the tears in the mesh and the covering and not just patch them in hopes they will hold but mend them in such a way that the cable will maintain its strength and so lead us forward to be bearers of a truth that will resonate with the minds and hearts of the people of this time and space. Next week, where is this Great Emergence going? AMEN
Bible Text: Mark 1:21-28 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp It is a fact that the face of the Church today is different than it was when many of us were youths or even in our young adult years. We have seen changes in church attendance, in the ways we worship, the ways in which we order our day to day and week to week lives. We are keenly aware that the traditional place of the Church within society in general and within the lives of many people has changed. We can lament the change and pray for a return to that time or we can seek to understand what has brought about that change and so begin to find the place and purpose of the Church and our faith for this time. Somehow we can look back on the great disruptions and restorations that occurred in the Old Testament and even look at the disruption and restoration that happened with the coming of Jesus and the birth of the Church and convince ourselves that those things had to happen in order for the world to ultimately find its way to God. But then we imagine that somehow we have been in a holding pattern simply recreating that initial experience of the Church from its earliest moments and marking time until the return of our Lord. And even though we know of the Great Reformation of the 1500’s and celebrate the changes that occurred as a result of that movement, we do not want to even admit that such a change or changes could ever be needed again. The words of the writer to the Hebrews ring true and cannot be denied: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But that phrase may not mean that nothing ever changes. Changes in the society around us can cause two things to happen to the church: 1) we can seek to engage ourselves in dialogue around those changes seeking for how we can be the people of God in this changing world; or 2) we can disengage from the world and hide in our bunker waiting for the end of all things to come. The reality is that whenever great disruptions and restorations occurred within the community of faith, there were fears that caused people to bunker but there was also courage to face the fears and seek for the presence of God and the wisdom of God to keep the Church honest and true to the gospel it had received. Bishop Mark Dyer – in a bit of wit and humour – has observed that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. We are living in and through one of those sales. The point he is trying to make is that about every 500 years the Church looks at who it is and what it has become and begins to re-examine itself. And so we are not to fear this thing we are going through but give carefully consideration to what we will keep and what must be let go. Of course, most of what holds us back and prevents us from truly preparing for the rummage sale is our memories of what we most love about who we are and our fear of destroying those memories. But when the structure of our institutions inhibits real renewal and growth, we need to be prepared to shatter those institutions in order to allow something new to grow. And as much as that may scare us and make us wonder what will our Church locally and universally look like, we need to remember that we are not the first Christians to be faced with this challenge and let our look at how the rummage sales of the past gave us the Church and the faith that we have preserved for these past 500 years. To begin with let’s have a quick history lesson on the rummage sales of our past. The first rummage sale going back in time was the one we know best – The Great Reformation of the 1500s. It was a time that has been described as throwing the baby out with the bath water – an extreme form of cleansing or rummage sale that stripped the resulting Protestant churches of much of the visual parts of the faith. Unfortunately, as with many of the disruptions in the Church, dialogue broke down and the result was a break between the major branches of the Church which are still in the process of being addressed. Back of the Reformation of the 1500s was another rummage sale known as the Great Schism. This occurred in 1054 and was between the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople and the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. The disagreements between them had festered for about a thousand years before the actual break occurred and it took to the middle of the 20th century before reconciliation was achieved. To us the issues might have seemed trivial but to them they were foundational. Back before this was the time known as “The Fall of the Roman Empire” or “The Coming of the Dark Ages”. This time in the history of the church was less of a disruption as the others were and more of a consolidation to preserve the truth of the faith. The fall of Rome brought with it a change in the society. Many of the peoples who invaded Rome adopted the Christian faith but did not preserve it. The church would go through a time when the principles of the faith would be changed beyond recognition. Into such a time, Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great, ensured that the witness of the early church and the writings as well as the orders and observances of the Church would not be lost. The convents and monasteries were given charge of everything until the time would come when the church could emerge again and find its proper voice. To help us come to terms with these disruptions in our religious and social history, Phyllis Tickle wants us to not lose hope for our ability to weather our own disruption which we have been experiencing as a people for at least 100 years. She uses the example of a ship’s cable. As we move forward in this series on the Great Emergence in particular and in our journey of faith in general, I want us to see the cable in our life. The cable represents the three strands that keep a firm connection between us in this time and the initial revelation that is our faith. The cable is our spirituality, our community and our ethics or morality. The mesh sleeve that surrounds this represents our common understanding of how we will live out our spirituality, how we will live in community and what ethics or morals we will seek to uphold. The waterproof covering represents our story, the story that we will tell the next generation of where we have come from, the trials, tribulations and joys that we have experienced and our hopes for the future. The cable is that interior strength that holds the boat firmly to the dock. It is composed of three strands of wire interlocked together, covered by a mesh sleeve and covered over again by a waterproof covering. The outer covering can be nicked and suffer damage but it can be repaired. Even the mesh sleeve can sustain damage and be repaired but the cable will ever hold the boat firm. Whatever this new emergence of the church will be and wherever it will take us, we can know that the cable will never let go and we will ever find ourselves on the path God intends for us to take. AMEN
Bible Text: John 1:43-51 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp Last week I spoke to you about the baptism of John the Baptist and how that baptism was a sign of the graciousness of God calling the people to repent and seek for the forgiveness of their sin. I also spoke to you about why Jesus was baptized by John as a sign that he too had sought the graciousness of God and had publicly declared that he had repented and was seeking for the forgiveness of sin. And even though he did not need to seek for that forgiveness, that baptism identified him with the people and opened the door for him to be able to move them even further on the path that their repentance in the water baptism had taken them. They could then have ears to hear, eyes to see and minds to understand what the kingdom of heaven was and how they as the people of that kingdom were called to live. The vision was that having been baptized in water, they would be willing to also be baptized by the Spirit of God and so not just be prepared to respond to God’s Word but truly seek to live it through the presence, power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The whole idea is that Jesus was bringing a new word from God. It is the culmination of everything that God had sought to share with the people of the world. It was the fulfilment of the prophecies that spoke of the coming of the Spirit of God upon the people and how the people would come to worship and believe in God not as some external presence with no intimate connection to their lives but as the One who was present with them in their deepest inmost being and whose will it was that they unite their wills with his. The vision was for such a unity in creation that Creator and creature, God and humanity could finally be at perfect peace with one another and with all of the created order. Only when people were prepared to respond to the world and the people around them with a heart and mind fully seeking to follow the word of God could perfect peace, full forgiveness and deep love be the guiding principles of life. Life was not created for envy, hate, prejudice, dissension, suffering and strife. Life was created to be a blessing. That full vision of blessing had been clouded by human desire to be something other than we were created to be. God came in Jesus to show us how to be fully human within the kingdom of God and still find the freedom to live not as puppets but as partners with God. The supremacy of God never limits our freedom. We limit our freedom when we fail to listen to the voice of the One who gave us life. For all of us, the baptism by water is one that we have experienced and remember or have pictures and stories to remind us of that event. If we received our baptism later in life, we may have a more vivid memory of that moment. What did it mean to you to be baptised? If you were baptised as a child, it happened because of the faith of parents or other adults in your life, people who wanted you to be part of the faith that held so much meaning for them. If you were raised in a community of faith, you would encounter others who would teach you the history and the principles that were to guide you to the moment when you would take responsibility for the faith that was growing in you and lead you to confirm that faith for yourself. If you came as an adult, your baptism with water would symbolize your desire to follow God and to declare to others in the community that the life they sought to live in response to God was the life you had chosen as well. You see, the real basis for church membership is not to gain voting rights and privileges; it was and should be about our willingness to publicly support a community of faith by sharing our material and spiritual resources with others who share that faith. And we share that faith even more effectively when we seek to go beyond our water baptism, our initiation into the faith and ask God for a deeper baptism – the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Remember back to when I was speaking of the Celtic church and some of its guiding principles of faith. One thing that stands out concerns life in the Spirit. One theologian noted that the Spirit of God moves like the water in a river. If we stand on the shore, we are not engaged in life; we simply watch it pass. But if we stand in the water, the Spirit of God continually washes around us and we are immersed in life. Our baptism in water is a moment when we dip our feet in the water or when we allow the water to wash over us once. Our baptism in the Spirit is when we allow ourselves to walk in the water and so let the water touch our senses and penetrate our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our spirits. The very prescription which comes from the Old Testament and was meant to be the primary principle by which the people of God were ever to live says this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, with all your understanding. In other words, commitment to God and to the faith we hold in and with God is not just for part of us or part of our living; it is to be our whole life. So often we speak of different baptisms and somehow convince ourselves that one is superior to the other. But in reality what is happening in our lives is like with every other part of our lives; we grow in stature, in wisdom and – hopefully – in grace. Rather than seeing the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a superior baptism and believing the marks of that baptism to be a sign of spiritual superiority, we need to see the baptism as a sign of God’s gracious response to our desire to grow in our faith. If we focus solely on what gifts we have received from the Spirit of God – which are often associated with the baptism in the Holy Spirit – we will miss the fact that the presence of the Holy Spirit is to be for us a sign of our identification with Christ in his life, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. When we focus on gifts, we become absorbed with ourselves and our talents rather than focused on the new life promised to us by God through the sacrifice and resurrection of our Lord. True enough, we are to seek for the baptism of the Holy Spirit but we are also to seek for a greater understanding of what it means to suffer as Christ suffered, to realize that the death of Christ and his descent to the place of the dead and his resurrection from there have opened to us a way to eternal life that never existed before. But also to realize that that new and eternal life is not a prize to be grasped but a blessing to be thankful for. Years ago in Morrisburg, people from the Presbyterian, Anglican and Roman Catholic congregations gathered for a course on the Holy Spirit leading to the laying on of hands and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. As hands were laid by those who prayed over each of us, some of us received the gift of speaking in tongues, others didn’t. Yet it was clear that everyone there felt that they had been touched by the presence of God and were moved in their hearts, minds and spirits to a place of deeper faith and commitment. The Spirit of God is ever present with us even before we recognize or acknowledge its presence. It has held us from the beginning of our lives and will hold us at the end. Whenever we commit ourselves to going deeper with God, whether it is openly celebrated by a laying on of hands, a sprinkling or immersion in water or the granting of gifts, we receive a baptism from God. And so I encourage each and every one to consider where you are in your life with God and pray that you may seek to go deeper that you may experience the presence of the Spirit of God drawing you more and more into that place where you sense a unity of life with the One who calls us into the kingdom. AMEN
Bible Text: Mark 1:9-15 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp The Gospel of Mark – which is the central gospel from which many of our Sunday Scripture readings will be taken this year – is a gospel that does not focus on the past by recounting the genealogical history of Jesus; nor does Mark spend great time discussing the birth and childhood of Jesus and he does not go into a great philosophical essay to highlight the connections that can be found in the revelations of God throughout all time. Mark begins his account of the life of Jesus at the moment when Jesus’ ministry and mission become public. The only Scripture he quotes is from the prophet Isaiah where it is said that a herald will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. For Mark the one who came in his time to prepare the way for the Lord was John the Baptist and the one who came as the Lord was the one we know as Jesus. If we were to analyze the names of both John and Jesus, we come to see that the naming of these two figures was not by accident. John in Hebrew means God is gracious and Jesus – of course – means God who saves or he who saves. To think that the one who came to announce the good news that was to come through Jesus is named ‘God is gracious’ gives us a better sense of the mission given to John. The baptism by water in the river Jordan was meant to be for the people a sign of the graciousness of God, the willingness of God to invite the people to turn away from everything that had drawn them to follow a path in life that had led them away from God. That turning in their heart and mind was to be a sign that they recognized God’s willingness to forgive their sins. How God would provide an eternal forgiveness for sin was not yet clear but for all those who longed to be forgiven and longed for a peace in their spirits that they could not find in the society around them or in the interpretation of their faith in that day, the baptism of John was a sign of hope. The fact that John was led to choose the river Jordan was also significant. The river Jordan was the point that the people crossed when they came through the wilderness with Moses and entered into the land promised them by God. As they moved from the wilderness, they came to what was to be for them a home. And in that home they built a kingdom and then two kingdoms. For a time they listened carefully to God and recognized him as the ultimate authority but then their desire to govern themselves led them to believe that God could be what they wanted him to be. The place of God in the lives of the people changed. In time the people lost their homeland. Their return after the exile was to be a time of rebuilding – not only their physical surroundings but also their spiritual life. But somehow the connection never happened and they found themselves drifting – unable to fully come to a place where they could feel the graciousness, the love, the peace, the forgiveness from God, the relationship with God which God hoped they would seek. And as those who recognized the graciousness of God in John came willingly to be cleansed by the waters of the Jordan seeking for the truth that would set them free physically and spiritually to be the people of God, so Jesus came; not because he needed to received the graciousness of God but because when he communicated the good news of the kingdom of God, he could be seen as one who had passed through the waters of repentance and was one who likewise was seeking for the forgiveness of sin. Now baptised and ready to communicate to the people the reality of the kingdom of God and the good news of that kingdom, Jesus – the God who saves and will save – undergoes his first test. He is driven into the desert, into a spiritual vacuum by the very Spirit of God that he will later give to those who will believe in his message. God puts himself in Jesus in a place where he can be tempted like the people were in their desert wandering. The forty days mirror the forty years and at the end of it just as the people passed into the Promised Land so Jesus comes forth to bring a message of a kingdom unlike any other – the kingdom of God. “The time has arrived,” he says, “the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent and believe the gospel.” (Mk. 1:15, NEB) And so it begins. The graciousness of God has been revealed through John who has invited the people to receive the baptism with water and so look for the forgiveness of sin. The salvation of God is then revealed through Jesus who then invites the people to remember their repentance and believe the gospel. Throughout the gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God will be revealed to the people through preaching, teaching and healing. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts and minds open to the message and actions of Jesus will indeed discover that the kingdom of God is upon them. They will come to know God’s love for them; they will experience a peace of spirit and mind and they will know for once and all that any place in their lives where they felt separated from God or from one another, they would be forgiven and they would find the wisdom of God to guide them. Ultimately they would experience baptism with the Holy Spirit and through it discover an infilling with the presence of God that they could never have imagined possible. The baptism with water by John was the sign for the people of a gracious offer from God to forgive the sin of all who turned back to God. The baptism with the Holy Spirit would be the gift of God to the people to enable them to grow in their commitment to the kingdom of God as revealed through the good news brought to them in Jesus. It would be an everlasting baptism for this baptism would not just be for the people a sign of their commitment to God but the baptism in the Holy Spirit would be a sign of God’s eternal commitment to the people. As Christians we are encouraged to seek for the gifts of the Spirit of God but also to seek for the fruits of the Spirit. And while our dedication to life lived as believers may have started with the sprinkling of water, our true baptism comes when we allow God to bless us and baptise us with the Holy Spirit. Allowing the Spirit of God to descend upon us opens us to the fullness of life that God seeks for us to have both now and forever. And as we seek to grow in our faith, we let that initial touch of God’s Spirit continue to work in us to bring to a fullness of life that will enable us to treat one another with more than kindness, grow in wisdom that goes beyond the wisdom we see in the world around us, gain self-control over words and actions and emotions, learn even more how to pray and allow the Spirit to direct our prayers, and so come to love one another in a way that reflects the deep and unconditional love of the One who has not only been gracious enough to welcome us home but has given all he has that we might have this new life not only now but forever. . I pray that we will ever seek to receive this gift of God and so grow in our understanding of and our life as the people of God. AMEN
Bible Text: JOHN 1:19-28 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp Last week I spoke of the prophecy from Isaiah that brought words of comfort and joy to the people of Israel at the end of a long period of exile from their homeland. The prophet was to declare that their time of suffering was over. A straight path was to be made in the desert – a sign to the people that their second exodus was over and that a way had been opened for them to return to the Promised Land. In a real way, the people were being invited by John the Baptist to discover that a new straight path was being created – one that would not only bring them back to the Promised Land but even more importantly back to a relationship with their God unlike any they had ever known or imagined. The people were living in the land promised to them by God to their ancestors but they were living like foreigners in their own land because the land was occupied by the Romans. Salvation for the people could not come in the form of an exodus return from a foreign land; it needed to come from an exodus from a place of spiritual isolation to a place of peace within the person. Over the centuries the people who heard the call of God had moved from place to place ever guided by the hand of God as God spoke to the leaders and directed the path of the people. From the modern history of the people with the call of Abraham and Sarah to the events that led to the people residing in Egypt during Joseph’s time to the events that led to the release of the people from their slavery and their 40 year journey to the Promised Land and then through the exile to Babylonia and Assyria, the people had found peace restored and a new life opened to them through the hand of God in a physical movement. But the time had come for God to move the people on a new path – one that did not depend on sacrifices of material goods and that did not involve a physical movement in space and time. This movement would fulfil the prophecy given in Micah where the sacrifices truly asked of the people would be sacrifices that anyone could make regardless of their economic or social status. “The Lord has told you mortals what is good, and what it is that the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) While the idea that the people could ever possess the Promised Land as they had before may not have been possible in the world as it was, the idea that the people could live as the people of God was possible. John came as the emissary of this new message from God that was to come from the one he would call the Lamb of God – God himself in human form. John is given the task of preparing a straight path for the coming of God. And he encourages all who would listen to him to help him prepare the path of God by being baptised. Their baptism would be a sign and seal of their preparation to receive the new word from God – a word that would not just bring physical release but more significantly spiritual release. The people had become bound by the law that was meant to free them. The law had been given to guide the people in this life so that they might experience and share what life was meant to be. But in their great concern to not offend God, they had bound themselves with interpretations and reinterpretations that had them doing mental summersaults leaving them feeling dejected and hopeless. And while many of them continued to offer the material sacrifices required by their temple law, they despaired of ever feeling an intimate and close connection with God. The chasm between them had grown to the point where the people could not see any possibility for them to bridge the gap. John’s invitation to baptism was to be a first step for the people as they prepared to receive the one whom John said would bring to the people an opportunity to have the relationship with God that God ever wanted to have. No longer would God depend on prophets or priests to communicate his message. He would come himself and enter into the condition and life of the very people he had created, nurtured and led. He would come to them with a message that would give them a hope, comfort, joy and a peace that would go beyond anything they had ever known. They would come to know God in a way they had never imagined and see God in a way that would change their lives forever. The advent of God was coming. The advent of hope for a people who had lost hope; the advent of comfort for a people who knew suffering; the advent of joy for a people who knew sorrow; the advent of peace for a people who knew conflict and oppression; the advent of love for a people who knew hatred, prejudice and persecution. It is said that we are pilgrims on a journey through this life to a new life – a life that will be fulfilled in a new heaven and a new earth. The people of Israel and all those who would follow the new path revealed by God in Jesus would find themselves on a pilgrimage unlike any they had ever taken. The destination would not have a geographical marker that could be found on this plane but it would be a destination that would bring a sense of wholeness to anyone who would choose to believe. While we may struggle to understand why our pilgrimage continues here and why the final fulfilment of God’s promised return in Jesus has not come to fruition, we need not lose faith in the promises of God for wherever we are led, whatever we do or say, as we follow the way of the one who revealed himself in Jesus. And so we may never see another physical exodus of the people of God but whenever we find ourselves in a spiritual desert we can know that a way has been made through Jesus for us to find our way to God and to a spiritual wholeness where we can live in perfect harmony and peace with God. AMEN
Bible Text: Ephesians 1:15-23 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce Kemp We never go through this life alone. As believers in God, we have a constant companion. Whether we view that companion as God in the grand overall sense of what God may mean to us, whether we view that companion as the earthly incarnation of God in Jesus Christ or whether we view that companion as the Holy Spirit of God, the fact that we acknowledge God as our companion indicates to ourselves and those around us that we have a faith in God and a firm belief that we do not live this life alone - solitary, at times, but never alone. But there is more to this business of faith and life. We are called not only to live this life in companionship with God but also with others who acknowledge and live that same faith. We are called to be in community with one another. When Paul first preached to communities in cities such as Ephesus, he didn’t just preach to one or two people at a time. He didn’t just visit with one or two households and he certainly didn’t tell each of them that they were to not share their faith. In fact he gathered all those who came to faith into communities and gave them instruction in gathering for worship, conducting worship, celebrating the sacraments and in praying for one another. Paul knew that he could not be with all of them all of the time. He established their communities and taught some among them to be leaders and then he left and went to a new community. His hope and his prayer was that they would bond together and support one another in this new life to which they had been called. And just as they had been brought to faith in God through the work of the Spirit and a knowledge of what God had done in Christ, they were to bring others to faith and to be supportive and encouraging not only to the new converts but to all the people in the community. In those days there only was one church community. No one could have imagined the variety of Christian communities that would spring up. And even though they didn’t always agree with one another on how the community should function – as evidenced by the many issues recorded for us in Paul’s letters – there was a strong belief that they needed to stay together in order to be sustained in their faith and to be able to faithfully live their lives to the very end. Time and again throughout Paul’s letters, the image of the believers as a family, as many parts of one body, comes through. Even Paul – a great pillar of the early church and one who seemed to have superhuman strength of faith – depended on faithful companions to get him through. Even when he was in jail, he reached out to those who were his spiritual companions through letters and sometimes with visits. He may never have settled into one community that he established and stayed with them for long but he never went alone. I have always been a firm believer that each one of us who are in this community of faith today is here for a reason. Each of us has been led to not only come here but to stay here. It may be that this is the place where we grew up, where our earthly family have attended. It may be that this is like home to us. For others we have come from somewhere else but something has led us to this place and time. I firmly believe that God leads us to the place where we need to be, the place where we will find people we can connect with and share our lives with. There should never come a time where we say: No more people welcome here. We have all we can handle. We know who we are and we don’t want to change. Reality is that life never stands still. Whether you watch a clock or mark a calendar – nothing stays the same. We are ever changing physically, mentally and spiritually. And so as Christian communities, we are ever evolving, ever growing, ever changing. I remember in university taking a course on the Psalms in my undergraduate degree. When I was planning the courses for my masters, my advisor asked about taking a course on the Psalms. “Why should I”, I responded, “I already did that.” His response was, “take another, you might learn something.” When we try to make time stand still, we soon discover that time has just gone on without us. Creating a family in Christ is the title of this message and it was the goal of Christ from the very beginning. The very first disciples who were called came from varied backgrounds. Some of them knew each other but most of them were strangers when they met. Some of them were labourers. Others had a profession of sorts. Yet each of them responded to the call of Jesus to follow Him. Where that call to follow would lead them and what would ultimately be expected of them was not revealed until later. After 3 years, they were faced with another life changing experience when their leader and ever-present companion was led to death. His resurrection brought more change and his ascension to heaven left them wondering what the next step would be. The next step we learn is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. That gift would enable them to go out into the world and carry on the ministry of reconciliation begun by God through the Son Jesus Christ. The disciples had become a family of sorts. It didn’t look like a traditional family but nonetheless it was. They had lived through experiences unlike anything ever before and it bonded them together. Once again, they didn’t always agree with one another but they knew that they needed to pray for one another, love one another and support one another. Their common bond in the beginning may have been their call to follow Jesus but now their common bond was their mission to spread the good news revealed by God in Christ and to support one another in that mission. Here in this place we have also been called to follow Jesus. We don’t look like a traditional family but we have an experience of God that has brought us together. We share a common desire to gather for worship, for prayer, for support, for learning. We will not always agree with each other about everything but we will need to respect each other, support each other and encourage each other as we seek to understand and live the community life that God seeks us to live. Will your life together be different because I am here? Probably. Is that a good thing? I pray it is. But let us never forget that what will keep this community of faith strong is not what each of us accomplishes separately but what we accomplish together. You have created a family in Christ. That is evident by your continued presence in this place but the future of this family depends on our willingness together to let God recreate that family and grow that family according to His vision allowing Him to draw people to this community that they may share their faith and life with us!