Help! I’m Sinking! (Like Peter)

When I was a young lad of thirteen years of age or so, my parents bought me a sailboat. It was an old wooden boat that leaked like a sieve, but it did float, mostly, and was a lot of fun to sail. Initially my Dad helped me sail it, however he did not know how to sail a boat any more than I did! One thing I remember from my early days as a sailor was my growing disdain for “stink-pots.” That is how some sailors refer to motorboats. They are noisy, they pollute, they do not have the same sense of challenge as the sailboats. I did not like them. I was a sailor, and proud of it!

For the most part I did quite well in sailing, but one day strong winds caught my Dad and I off guard. Thinking we were being smart, we took one of the sails down. Except that in this particular boat, that was not very smart. We had trouble heading in the desired direction after that. We were headed toward the shore, the wrong shore, where rocks awaited. The boat leaked enough as it was without adding some new damage. Also, overhanging trees would not be good for the mast and rigging.

We made our next smart move. We threw out the anchor. This particular anchor came with the boat and was a homemade affair being made from what was likely a tin of beans with the beans replaced by cement and a hook for a rope. It may as well have just been a tin of beans on the end of a rope, for it was useless. Actually, we may as well have just thrown a tin of beans out of the boat with no rope. It was worse than useless. We were in trouble. 

Except there was this awful noise. A friend in a stink-pot saw that we were in trouble and came to the rescue. A stink-pot never sounded so good. I quickly got over my disdain for powerboats and accepted the help. We were towed in. 

Sometimes we need to get over our disdain of others, or institutions, and accept help. Sometimes we need to get over our pride, and accept help. Sometimes we need to get over our need to be independent, and accept help. Sometimes we need to get over ourselves. Sometimes we need help.

Peter was doing well, walking on water toward Jesus who was also walking on the water. But then he was in trouble:

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matthew 14:28-31 (NRSV)

Peter had the humility to ask for help. He knew he was in over his head, or at least soon would be. He knew that there was nothing he could do. Whatever pride he may have felt for being the one disciple to walk on the water, he now needed the humility to admit that he was the one disciple who needed help!

Do we have the humility to ask for help? We may need help in these strange days brought about by a pandemic. Some may need help with something as simple as getting groceries. Of course you are capable of getting your own groceries. But maybe right now, you shouldn’t. Some may need help with facing loneliness. Some may need prayer. Some may need to talk through their thoughts and feelings. Do we have the humility to request and/or receive help?

In these strange and scary days, some will realize the need of help that only God can give. They may think to themselves, how hypocritical, to only go to God now when troubles come. Remember that Peter only cried out to Jesus for help when he started sinking. Jesus was willing to help.

If we were acting this story out for a movie, how would we say the words of Jesus; “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”? Would we say those words with scorn? “How could you be so foolish as to take your eyes off me, and start doubting?! Look at how that led you to sinking, you fool!” Or would we read them with compassion; “Peter, don’t you know how much I love you, and would not let you drown?”

It should be the latter. Why? Based on the story Jesus told of the prodigal son. A son asked his father for his inheritance and went off to a foreign place and blew it all on partying and the like. Coming upon hard times, he decided to go back:

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. Luke 15:17-24 (NRSV) 

If you sense that you should call to God for help, but are reticent because you have not been in a relationship before now, take courage from the prodigal son story. You may even have had disdain in your heart for God in the past. Do you have the humility to accept the help He offers now? He has the love and grace to help:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10 (NRSV) 

Here is how that story of Peter walking on the water ends;

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:32-33 (NRSV)

May we have the humility to accept the help the Son of God offers us. We also will be able to say “truly you are the son of God.”

(This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which has replaced our regular church service due to COVID-19 precautions. This worship expression can be seen here. For now, all Clarke’s sermons are “shrunk sermons”! For a limited time, this reflection can also be heard here). Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)

Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon. Video Version.

Asking Daniel; Should We Make Canada Christian Again?

This is the final “Shrunk Sermon” from a series on The Book of Daniel called “Outnumbered. The Book of Daniel and Living As Christians In A Not-So-Christian-Anymore Society.” We have been considering how we might express our Christian faith in a society which has been pushing Christianity to the margins.

If you have been following along, you will wonder why we are ending half way through Daniel. This is a good place to shift gears, for the Book of Daniel itself shifts gears between chapter 6 and chapter 7, from being about the experiences of Daniel and his friends, to prophecies through, and to, Daniel.

Let us remind ourselves what we have learned thus far in Daniel chapters 1-6.

To summarize, in all these things Daniel was living out the words from Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:4-7 (NIV)

In other words; live as my people, but quietly among a very different people, making yourselves at home in a strange land. Reading between the lines, we might add; don’t form an army to try and fight your way back. Daniel quietly lived his life in devotion to God. He did not start a war. The early Christians followed a similar pattern as they lived as a minority group with very little influence on the governments of their day. They quietly lived Jesus focused lives and called others to join them in doing the same. They did not seek to start a war or fight for a privileged position.

Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 12 Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NLT)

Is it time to declare war on our changing culture? Or is it time to settle in, to live as a different kind of people, but harmoniously among others? The Book of Daniel invites us to consider the concept of the separation of church and state. The Book of Daniel invites us to consider the value of religious freedom. The Book of Daniel invites us to reflect on good witness to God’s goodness which begins with a good relationship with God and is borne out through a good relationship with people. The Book of Daniel also invites us to consider that “God’s got it.” We have not spent time in chapters 7-12, but a recurring theme of the prophecies found there is that the future is in God’s hands. Our government may pass laws we don’t agree with. It is not the end of the world. The end of the world is God’s prerogative. God can be trusted with the future of the Church. Therefore our focus is not on rescuing the Church, or the privileged position of Christianity. Ours is not to rescue the Church, but to participate in God’s rescue of people.

In chapter 9 there is something else that is a crucial part of the experience of exile:

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes.
4 I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:
“O Lord, you are a great and awesome God! You always fulfill your covenant and keep your promises of unfailing love to those who love you and obey your commands. 5 But we have sinned and done wrong. We have rebelled against you and scorned your commands and regulations. 6 We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets, who spoke on your authority to our kings and princes and ancestors and to all the people of the land. Daniel 9:3-6 (NLT)

Daniel prayed a prayer of confession. He knew there needed to be a greater connection with God. Daniel’s prayer of confession is focused, of course, on Moses and the Mosaic law. Our prayers of confession will be focused on Jesus:

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5 (NLT)

As we face a changing nation, as Christianity is pushed to the margins, is our focus on making Canada a Christian nation again? Our focus is to make the Church in Canada more Christian than it has ever been.

A Compelling Life. How Christian Ethics Point to the Reality of God.

Is the kind of life Christianity leads to compelling? Is it a beautiful life, or is it ugly? If Christianity is compelling, and if God is good, then we would expect the way God would have us live should bring beauty and not ugliness. So does it?

Some would say no. In the Margaret Atwood novel, A Hand Maid’s Tale, everything is supposedly ordered according to the Bible. It does not take too long for the reader to figure out that this is a very ugly society. Many would say that even without such Christian state control, the Christian life is ugly. The Christian life is described as blindly following many, many rules without any thought as to whether they are good or not. So is the Christian life beautiful or ugly? People may portray the Christian life as ugly, or even live out a Christian life that is ugly, but the Bible points to a life that is beautiful for the following reasons.

First, the Christian life is a Jesus centred life. 

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV emphasis added)

The focus was not to be on the what the teachers of the law commanded in Jesus’ day. The focus is not to be on what the teachers of the law command in ours. The focus is on Jesus and what he commanded. It is not about powerful people or powerful traditions. It is about Jesus.

The focus is on Jesus, even when we are reading the letters of Paul, Peter, James, or John. The letters in the New Testament are not “here is something new, because Jesus did not say enough,” but, “here are the implications of Jesus on theology, and here is what the Jesus-focused life looks like for us.” What we have in the letters are the apostles working out the implications of Jesus for first century Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and so on.

This has important implications. Take slavery, for example. Some would say that the inclusion of slavery in the Bible demonstrates that the Christian life is ugly. Does the New Testament support the institution of slavery? Slavery was a part of life in that day, a fact which was not going to change anytime soon. Since slavery was a part of life, Paul offers how a Jesus-centred person should live when they happen to be a slave, or a slave holder. In fact, there are beautiful implications as we discover in Paul’s letter to Philemon where Philemon is encouraged to take back his runaway slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philemon 16 NRSV). Philemon’s Jesus-focused life was to be a thing of beauty for Onesimus. Life is beautiful when it is impacted by Jesus.

All of the New Testament letters are part of the Word of God, yes. However, we do not read Paul’s letters to find out how to become a Paul follower, or how to be more focused on Paul in our lives. We read Paul to discover how people were encouraged to be Jesus followers, to live Jesus-centred lives in the first century. This helps us discover how we can live Jesus-focused lives in our day.

A Jesus-centred life is a beautiful life. Of course this is so, Jesus was a beautiful man! Notice the way he related to people, his integrity, his reverence for the Father, his focus on the spirit of the law and not the letter, his ability to challenge and unravel the status quo, his living out of the Great Commandments, his good works. Notice how he gave his life to rescue you and I from sin. Jesus is beautiful. A Jesus-centred life is a beautiful life.

Second, the Christian life is a Spirit filled life.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 (NRSV emphasis added)

The “fruit of the Spirit” is all beautiful stuff! We would describe a person whose character is marked by such traits as being a beautiful person.

Fruit grows naturally. A beautiful character is the natural consequence of a relationship with God. Fruit naturally grows where the conditions are right. Our part is to see that the conditions are good by keeping our connection with God open through prayer, Bible reading, relationships with other Christians, and worship. But God is the One who makes fruit grow. A Spirit filled Life is a beautiful life.

Third, the Christian life is a life of wisdom.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. James 3:13-18 (NRSV emphasis added)

The letter of James has been described by some Biblical scholars as being like the “wisdom literature” from the Old Testament. It points to the good life and how to live well. Notice the focus on gentleness and peace. The wise person knows that being gentle and peaceable is a good thing. A wise person living in wisdom is a beautiful thing. A life of wisdom is a beautiful life.  

Conclusion.

Some paint the Christian life as being ugly. It is portrayed as blindly following rules without any thought given as to whether those rules are helpful or not. It is portrayed as a very narrow life with no fun allowed at all. But that’s not it! The Christian is to be Jesus-centred, Spirit filled, and wise! The Christian life is a beautiful life, just as we should expect if Christianity is true, if God is good. While many world-views and religions can lead to ugly places, the beauty of the Christian life is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)