Tish Harrison Warren: The Wrong Kind of Christian

More PC run amok and shame on Vanderbilt. You may not give a fig about Christians being harassed off campuses. But sooner or later you will find yourself on the wrong side of PC and then you will give two figs. It is also highly ironic that places of “higher learning” where intellectual freedom and the open exchange and debate of ideas was once prized have become intellectual gulags for those who are on the wrong side of  town. Listen if you have ears. From Christianity Today online.

In writing, the new policy refers only to constitutionally protected classes (race, religion, sexual identity, and so on), but Vanderbilt publicly adopted an “all comers policy,” which meant that no student could be excluded from a leadership post on ideological grounds. College Republicans must allow Democrats to seek office; the environmental group had to welcome climate-change skeptics; and a leader of a religious group could not be dismissed if she renounced faith midyear. (The administration granted an exception to sororities and fraternities.)

Like most campus groups, InterVarsity welcomes anyone as a member. But it asks key student leaders—the executive council and small group leaders—to affirm its doctrinal statement, which outlines broad Christian orthodoxy and does not mention sexual conduct specifically. But the university saw belief statements themselves as suspect. Any belief—particularly those about the authority of Scripture or the church—could potentially constrain sexual activity or identity. So what began as a concern about sexuality and pluralism quickly became a conversation about whether robustly religious communities would be allowed on campus.

Read the whole sordid thing (and keep reminding yourself that Jesus is Lord as you do).

A Prayer for the Feast Day of Monica, Mother of Augustine of Hippo (387 AD)

Monica Mother of Augustine of HippoFaithful God,
who strengthened Monica, the mother of Augustine, with wisdom,
and through her patient endurance encouraged him
to seek after you:
give us the will to persist in prayer
that those who stray from you may be brought to faith
in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Devotional Resources for Yesterday’s Sermon on Prevailing Against the Gates of Hell

Yesterday I posted a sermon in which I argued that the only way to live with real hope and power in this current age was to keep in mind the promise of God’s new creation because only then will we be fully healed. Specifically, I argued that given the transitory nature of this life, our only real hope and remedy for the pain and heartaches of this world is to embrace our resurrection hope made possible by the blood of Christ shed for us. If you have not read the sermon, I encourage you to do so and to think it through.

Today I am posting some biblical resources that can help us in our suffering and sickness. In the sermon I stressed that while God desires all to be healed (as do we), at the same time we must acknowledge that God does not answer all our prayers for healing and that remains an enigma and mystery we must live with. But because God does not always answer our prayers for healing does not mean God is absent or does not love us. To the contrary, it is the consistent witness of both Scripture and the Church over time and culture that God can and does use our suffering to draw us closer to him to deepen our faith and dependence on his love and grace. These are not to be sneezed at.

In that spirit, below are some psalms that are perfect for the purpose of both crying out to God in our pain and fear and to ask God to draw us nearer to him so that we can find his love, strength, and comfort. In each of the psalms, substitute whatever is afflicting you for the mortal enemy to which the psalmist refers.

Make each of these psalms your ongoing prayer and return to them and other psalms of your choosing regularly. By God’s grace you will find that you are strengthened to meet the challenges at hand because God is stronger than anything that can afflict us.

PSALM 56

To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.

Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
    all day long foes oppress me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
    for many fight against me.
O Most High, when I am afraid,
    I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
    in God I trust; I am not afraid;
    what can flesh do to me?

All day long they seek to injure my cause;
    all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk,
    they watch my steps.
As they hoped to have my life,
    so repay them for their crime;
    in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your record?
Then my enemies will retreat
    in the day when I call.
    This I know, that God is for me.
10 In God, whose word I praise,
    in the Lord, whose word I praise,
11 in God I trust; I am not afraid.
    What can a mere mortal do to me?

12 My vows to you I must perform, O God;
    I will render thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered my soul from death,
    and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
    in the light of life.

Psalm 57

Praise and Assurance under Persecution

To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
    until the destroying storms pass by.
I cry to God Most High,
    to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me,
    he will put to shame those who trample on me.Selah
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

I lie down among lions
    that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
    their tongues sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth.

They set a net for my steps;
    my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my path,
    but they have fallen into it themselves.Selah
My heart is steadfast, O God,
    my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
    Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
    I will awake the dawn.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
    I will sing praises to you among the nations.
10 For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
    your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

11 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth.

Psalm 61

Assurance of God’s Protection

To the leader: with stringed instruments. Of David.

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
    when my heart is faint.

Lead me to the rock
    that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge,
    a strong tower against the enemy.

Let me abide in your tent forever,
    find refuge under the shelter of your wings.Selah
For you, O God, have heard my vows;
    you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

Prolong the life of the king;
    may his years endure to all generations!
May he be enthroned forever before God;
    appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!

So I will always sing praises to your name,
    as I pay my vows day after day.

Psalm 62

Song of Trust in God Alone

To the leader: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
    from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

How long will you assail a person,
    will you batter your victim, all of you,
    as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence.
    They take pleasure in falsehood;
they bless with their mouths,
    but inwardly they curse.Selah

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
    my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
    pour out your heart before him;
    God is a refuge for us.Selah

Those of low estate are but a breath,
    those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
    they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion,
    and set no vain hopes on robbery;
    if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

11 Once God has spoken;
    twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12     and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
    according to their work.

Psalm 63

Comfort and Assurance in God’s Presence

A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
    beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
    my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
    I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
    and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
    and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
    your right hand upholds me.

But those who seek to destroy my life
    shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
    they shall be prey for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
    all who swear by him shall exult,
    for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Dr. Scot McKnight: Wouldn’t it be cool?

Worth your read if you are interested in learning about the challenges of Bible translation.

How many ways can you understand that short statement? Is it referring to someone’s temperature as below average? Is it referring to someone’s attitude as aloof and impersonal? Is it referring to someone doing well under pressure? Is it referring to someone’s popularity? All of these are common understandings of the word “cool,” but only one would be the correct understanding in a specific situation. To determine which was correct, you would need to know something about the situation and the subject to determine the speaker’s intended meaning.

Bible translators face choices like this on a regular basis. As with many words in English, words in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek can have more than one meaning and only careful study of the context can determine the correct English word choice. The very common Hebrew word elohim can refer to the one true “God,” as in Genesis 1:1 and more than 2,300 other verses. But, it can also refer to pagan “gods,” as in Genesis 31:30 and more than 200 other verses. There is no built-in meaning to the Hebrew word elohim that is correct in every context.

Read it all.

Prevailing Against the Gates of Hell

Sermon delivered on Trinity 10A, Sunday, August 24, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 1.8-2.10; Psalm 124.1-7; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we are holding our second healing service and I want us to look briefly at what our readings this morning, especially our gospel lesson, have to say about that. How do we get free from living as slaves to this present evil age with all of its accompanying fears, hurts, loss, and brokenness? The answer our readings invite us to consider is to live in the present with the reality of God’s future in mind. But how do we do that? The short answer is to trust with our whole being the sovereign God we worship and accept by faith the grace offered to us in Jesus.

As we saw last week, we worship a God who is sovereign over even the dark and evil powers and who is always faithful to his covenant promises to heal and redeem his hurting and broken world, ultimately through the one true and faithful Israelite, Jesus the Messiah and his people, both Jew and Gentile. This requires faith on our part because it is not always evident that God is in charge and the fact that God’s sovereignty is often made known to us ex post facto and/or in unusual or unexpected ways, the cross being the primary example of this.

In today’s gospel lesson we see a continuation of this idea of God’s future, brought about by God’s sovereign power, breaking into the present to rescue and free us from our slavery to this present age. Jesus asks the disciples (and us) to tell him who we think he really is. Peter, always the brash one who often rushes forward to put his foot in his mouth (which is why we have to love him because he is so much like us), answers that Jesus is the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God. Before we look at Jesus’ response, we must be clear that when Peter called Jesus the Son of God, he didn’t have in mind the Second Person of the Trinity. That kind of thinking did not occur until after the resurrection. Instead, what Peter was confessing is the disciples’ belief that Jesus was God’s chosen and anointed Messiah or king. The use of the term “Son” indicated the special relationship God promised to have with his Messiah (cf. 2 Samuel 7.12-14a) who would, among other things, free God’s people Israel from their oppression. The term was also used to describe collectively God’s chosen people Israel (e.g., Psalm 80.14-15).

Jesus responds by pronouncing a beatitude (or blessing) on Peter and then gives Simon the new name of Peter, which in the Greek means Rock, declaring that on this rock he would build his church and not even the gates of hell would prevail against it. What did Jesus mean by this? While a sea of ink has been spilled over this and Protestants and Catholics vigorously disagree about its meaning, I want to focus our thinking this morning on how it applies to our healing and our freedom from slavery to this present age.

However we interpret Jesus’ reference to Peter being a rock, one thing is certain. Jesus did not call Peter a rock because of Peter’s rock-like and solid behavior or character! Jesus makes this clear when he declares that Peter has come to this realization not by his own powers but because God the Holy Spirit revealed it to him. And of course Jesus knew how fickle Peter could be. Whether it was walking boldly on the water or sinking in it like a rock (Matthew 14.28-31), whether it was confessing that Jesus is the Messiah or denying him (Matthew 26.69-75), Peter is a powerful representative symbol of all of us who follow Jesus.

With Peter’s fickleness in mind, as well as our own, surely one of the things Matthew wants us to grasp in this story is that Jesus sees in Peter the material he has to work with for the building of his Church. And given Peter’s composition and ours, that material must be entirely shaped by the grace of our sovereign God. It is God’s grace and power that makes Peter and us a rock, not our own strength or character or effort. It is the same grace that Paul tells us transforms our mind so that we can think clearly about what it means to be part of Jesus’ body, the Church, and to live in the present age with the light of God’s future in mind. It is the same grace that rescued Moses from the murderous hand of Pharaoh, using the same element that God would use to rescue his people from their slavery in Egypt.

We are given the grace of Christ’s strength, made known to us by our confession uttered in faith that Jesus is God’s true Son and our Lord, because God has called us to bear the gospel to the whole world until the eschaton, the end of the present evil age. And we can expect to incur the wrath of the forces of evil when we do. But not even the gates of hell can conquer the community of believers called to be Christ’s Church, broken and bumbling as we can sometimes be, precisely because God is sovereign and Jesus is Lord. Let the church say, “Amen!”

But, you protest, if Jesus is Lord he’s doing a lousy job. His people are being slaughtered in the Middle East. Injustice and suffering run rampant throughout the world and in our lives. And no one escapes the invincible power of the grave. Back comes the answer, “O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe (cf. Luke 24.25-26)! Do you not remember how God in his mercy has acted for you in and through Christ?” He has rescued us from the forces of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, reconciling us through his blood shed for us on the cross. And in Jesus’ resurrection, God has conquered death forever and given us a foretaste of his promised new creation with all its hope and promise.

In light of God’s radical new future reality brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection, one of the things Jesus promises us in today’s gospel lesson is that when we suffer loss or harm, he will share his own indestructible life with us so that even though we are destined to die a mortal death and suffer irrecoverable loss in this world, we will not be destroyed or suffer loss permanently because we are yoked to the Messiah by faith. Is there a more empowering and hopeful promise than this as we labor in the present evil age? Let the church say, “Amen!”

So how does this pertain to our healing service today? Just this. We should not expect our faith in the redeeming and healing power of Christ to act like some magical elixir that guarantees our prayers for healing will be automatically answered. The opposite is also true. Because our prayers for healing are not always answered does not mean we lack faith or our faith is somehow corrupted or insufficient. The fact is that God desires our healing and has the power to heal, but that sometimes God chooses not to answer our prayers and we have to be very circumspect in our musings about why that is. One thing is for certain, however. God can and does use unanswered prayer to help break our proud and sinful self-reliance so that we learn to rely on his empowering and life-giving grace to overcome our suffering and this world.

As Tim Keller rightly observes, part of the problem we have today with suffering is that we have learned to put our ultimate hope and trust in the wrong things, in scientific and medical advancements, which reduces God’s role in healing. But as we shall see shortly, these are ultimately bound to fail because even the most remarkable healings our medical advancements have wrought are at best incomplete and/or temporary. Hear me carefully here. I am not suggesting we stop going to our doctors for healing or that scientific and medical research and knowledge are worthless. Nothing could be further from the truth and these practices are good and godly for reasons too numerous to mention here. What I am suggesting is that we need to look first and foremost to the One who has the power to heal us ultimately and to see science and medicine as part and parcel of God’s healing love and power, not our ultimate hope. Doing so will open not only our body to healing but also our mind, heart, and spirit as well.

Likewise, we need to think things through about the realities of living in this present evil age so we can learn to develop a godly and much-needed perspective about healing. So, for example, even if our prayers for healing are answered and we are healed completely or miraculously, what is our ultimate destiny? We all will die, either by disease, old age, accident, acts of violence, or other circumstances. This is because all creation lives under the curse of God for our ongoing sin (Genesis 3.1-19; Romans 8.19-23). So at best, any healing that occurs in us is temporary because barring the return of Jesus in our lifetime, our common destiny is the grave.

But the cross and resurrection are towering reminders that suffering, loss, and death are not the final destiny for those who put their whole hope and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. As we have seen, God himself has acted to ensure our reconciliation with him and when the new creation comes in full and our mortal bodies are raised from the dead and given new life, death is swallowed up in life, the curse is ended forever (it was never God’s original intention for us and his creation in the first place), all our loss will be restored, and our brokenness healed in ways we can only begin to imagine. This is our future hope and assurance. It is ours only when we confess Jesus to be Lord and God’s Messiah and Son, and it is the only remedy to the evil and hurt and suffering that beset us in this present age. Our time in this world is astonishingly short, even though it doesn’t always feel like it, and this age will one day come to an end. But the age to come, the age of resurrection and new creation, will go on forever and then we will know what it is like to be fully healed and human.

This is why we ultimately participate in these healing services. Of course we hope to be healed of our immediate afflictions. But this is only a foretaste of things to come and as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we are called to live out our faith, not just because we hope to reap the immediate rewards of being healed, but as living witnesses to a sin-sick world and its peoples who desperately need to hear the Good News of God’s love for all people as well as his healing power. We are promised that irrespective of how God chooses to answer our prayers for healing (or not), living in this manner will bring God the glory he is due for rescuing us from this present evil age, even if we do not fully understand how.

This is what faith on the ground looks like in the context of healing, a faith that enables us to live in the present in light of God’s future, messy as it can be. We are empowered to live this way only by the grace of God and the extent to which we can build a real and living relationship with Jesus our Lord. As this happens, our faithful living will proclaim to the world in ways we will never fully know or realize that Jesus is Lord and we have Good News. And in that Good News we will find our peace, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Prayer for the Feast Day of Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot and Teacher of the Faith

Merciful redeemer,
who, by the life and preaching of your servant Bernard,
rekindled the radiant light of your Church:
grant us, in our generation,
to be inflamed with the same spirit of discipline and love
and ever to walk before you as children of light;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God’s Will Be Done

Sermon delivered on Trinity 9A, Sunday, August 17, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 133.1-5; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.10-28.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In all of our lessons this morning, we are confronted with the strange but ultimately trustworthy ways of God and his providence over the affairs of his creation and creatures. What might we learn from these stories to help us better understand God’s ways revealed to us so that our faith and hope in God might be bolstered and we can live without being afraid? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our OT lesson we see the strange outworking of God’s will in the life of Joseph. Bishop Stephen touched on some of the highlights last week but it will be helpful for us to review Joseph’s story so that we can better understand how God works in the lives of his people. You recall that Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, who then lied to their father Jacob about Joseph’s fate. Sadly, we get this because we’ve all had to deal with jealousy, competition, pride, anger, and dishonesty on a regular basis. Sometimes we are the ones who act this way.

Joseph was eventually sold to Potiphar, an officer of Egypt’s Pharaoh, and we wonder how that could have possibly happened. He quickly found favor with Potiphar and was put in charge of Potiphar’s household because as the narrator tells us, the Lord blessed Joseph—even as a slave. But Joseph’s good fortune didn’t last long because Potiphar’s wife came on to him and when Joseph refused her sexual advances, she lied to her husband about the whole sordid thing and Joseph found himself prison, lucky (or was it luck?) that he hadn’t been killed.

Joseph’s fortunes didn’t seem to get any better while in prison. Despite helping one of Pharaoh’s chief servants who had managed to get himself imprisoned along with Joseph, the servant forgot to plead for Joseph’s release when the servant gained his freedom and Joseph languished in prison another two years. Finally the servant remembered Joseph and he was summoned to interpret a troubling dream of Pharaoh. Before we go any further, let’s stop and put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes. We’ve been sold into slavery by our brothers. The wife of our master falsely accuses us of sexual advances when we are totally innocent and we are thrown in prison to languish there. While imprisoned, we help a fellow prisoner out and he promptly forgets us when he is released, despite our plea to him to intercede on our behalf to the country’s leader. Are you feeling the love and providence of God? Me neither. But that is part of the point.

Now we come to our story today. Joseph has become Pharaoh’s right-hand man and has been reunited with his brothers. We don’t know how much time has passed but it is not unreasonable to think that it has been several years because the brothers do not recognize Joseph. And this is where the story gets really interesting. We might expect Joseph to be bitter toward both God (how could you let this happen to me, God?) and his brothers (you sold me as a slave, you @#$&*!) and want to exact a full measure of revenge on them. But this is not Joseph’s demeanor at all. To the contrary, he tells them he is not angry at them because these events were all God’s doing to preserve life (cf. Genesis 50.15ff)! What is going on here?

Or consider the story of Esther and Mordecai, a Jewish girl and her cousin who were living in post-Babylonian exile in the Persian Empire. By a series of remarkable coincidences Esther is made queen and Mordecai also finds favor in King Xerxes’ sight. But almost immediately both are confronted by the wicked Haman who hates their people and tricks Xerxes into issuing a decree to effectively exterminate God’s people. Again, by a series of remarkable events and coincidences Haman’s wickedness comes back on his own head and God’s people are not only saved but prosper (Xerxes, e.g., can’t sleep one night and this triggers a chain of events that leads to Haman’s downfall and Mordecai’s vindication). You will search the book of Esther in vain for God’s name. It is not there. But the writer surely wants us to see God’s presence and guidance in the “coincidences” and events as they unfold in the story to protect God’s people.

And here is the main point of these stories. Despite human wickedness and rebellion, despite how things seem to us from our limited perspective, God is firmly in control of things and uses even human evil and rebelliousness to advance his plan to heal and rescue his world and its creatures created good but badly corrupted by human sin and rebellion. The story of Joseph is ultimately about the story of God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham to use Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, to heal and bless his sin-sick world and its creatures. God made that covenant with Abraham and the rest of the story of the Bible is about how God has worked out his covenant promises despite human rebellion and unfaithfulness!

Not only is God faithful to his covenant promises to heal and redeem us, God has the power and the will to overcome any and every opposition to it. As Joseph would tell his brothers later, “You intended evil for me but God intended it for good ” (Genesis 50.20). God knew a great famine was coming, a famine that had the potential to wipe out his people Israel before God could use them to fulfill his covenant promises to Abraham, and so he sent Joseph ahead to prepare for that famine, which Joseph did. Likewise with the story of Esther. Had Haman prevailed in his wickedness, God’s people Israel would have been destroyed and God’s covenant promises would have gone unfulfilled. But God simply would not allow that to happen because God is a God who is utterly trustworthy and faithful to his promises, and who is intimately involved in our lives. Notice carefully the dynamic in these stories: God working in and through humans, willing or otherwise. From our perspective, we can only see humans at work. Understand?

Not only that, God called his people Israel to come to Egypt so that he could ultimately demonstrate a mighty act of deliverance on their behalf. The Exodus is still the defining event for Jews to this day. We’ll hear that story beginning next week. But for right now, the story of Joseph is all about God’s faithfulness to his promises and his called-out people, you and me, and God will not allow anything to prevent his plan to heal and redeem the world through his people from succeeding. As we have seen, this is not always obvious to us. Perhaps it rarely is. That is why we must keep reading stories like these to keep reminding ourselves of the truth they teach about God’s love, faithfulness, and providence in our lives and history.

We see a similar dynamic in our epistle lesson this morning where Paul is finishing up his dense musings about the fate of God’s people Israel. We have seen that Paul genuinely feared that those Jews who did not believe Jesus to be their Lord and Messiah would be cut off from God’s promises. But this created an obvious dilemma for Paul. How could the very people God called to extend his blessings to the nations of the world be cut off from God? This would make God a liar and show God to ultimately be unfaithful to his covenant promises. What’s the answer? “God’s gifts and promises are irrevocable,” says Paul (do you believe that?). So God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that God might show mercy to all. Say what?

To understand this we have to summarize Paul’s previous arguments. Paul has argued elsewhere in Romans 9.1-11.36 that God used Israel’s disobedience in rejecting Jesus as their Messiah as the vehicle to rescue the Gentile nations. The Gentiles, whose disobedience God used in his mercy to call Israel into existence to make them his own in the first place (Genesis 12.1-3; Romans 9.4-5), were now offered mercy through their faith in Jesus so that they could be grafted into the olive branch that was the true remnant of Israel, defined by Paul as those Jews and Gentiles who believed that Jesus was their true Messiah (reread the second pericope in our gospel lesson today, Matthew 15.21-28, about Jesus and the Canaanite woman through this lens and see what happens). And God would use the believing Gentiles to offer mercy to his people Israel by making them jealous so they would return to him by believing in Jesus. So it was through everyone’s respective disobedience that God was able to offer mercy to all those who would accept it, both Jew and Gentile.

To us who are on the ground, this logic might seem convoluted and even tortuous. We  ask why God would work like that. We might even add that from all appearances it doesn’t look as if God’s plan is working all that well. But here again, we are confronted with the consistent biblical witness that God is in charge and we are to relax about these matters. At the end of the day, we are not God. So who are we to challenge God’s plan and his manner of fulfilling his covenant promises ultimately through Jesus the Messiah? To be certain we do not always understand God’s ways. In fact, we only understand that which God chooses to reveal to us. But this begs the question. Do we  believe God is good to his word to heal and redeem us through the death and resurrection of Jesus and God’s sending the Spirit to live with us in the midst of our often chaotic lives or not?

This leads us to our gospel lesson where we see Jesus hinting at the strange and often puzzling ways that God works. He has just sparred with the Pharisees about ritual purity. The issue for Jesus is about heart health. What makes us holy and therefore fit to stand before the perfect and holy God? The Pharisees argued that it was ritual and works based on the law of Moses. Not so, says Jesus. It is not what you put into your body that makes you clean or unclean. It’s what comes out of your mouth because that is indicative of what is in your heart (the essential you). Jesus does not offer a remedy for the condition he has diagnosed. But here again if we follow the story to the end we will have our answer and discover perhaps the most astonishing and strange outworking of God’s love and grace because we see that Jesus himself is the ultimate remedy to our sin-sickness. We are washed clean by his blood shed for us and healed by his body broken for us, and we continue to partake in God’s gracious act of healing and redemption when we come to the Lord’s Table every week to partake in the eucharist.

Moreover, we are given the Holy Spirit to dwell within us to help us learn holy lifestyles so that what comes out of our mouth will sooner or later become more edifying than not. For many of us this takes a lifetime to achieve and no one ever gets it entirely right. But that is not the point. The point is we are healed and reconciled in and through Jesus’ death on the cross. This in itself is far from obvious and this is the foolishness of God about which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 1.18-31. Those who are hostile to God’s kingdom and hold an opposing worldview mock us and ask how God could have healed and redeemed and forgiven us through the suffering of Jesus. How could God have defeated evil on the cross? Jesus was executed. The bad guys won! God didn’t rescue his people in the way an all-powerful God should act to destroy his enemies and so rid the world of evil in the manner they demand. So it is foolishness to them.

But no. Now we are back to Joseph’s story. What the dark powers and their minions intended for evil, God intended for good. To be sure, the cross would have been an everlasting symbol of shame and defeat had it not been for the resurrection of Jesus with its foretaste of the culmination of God’s covenant promise to heal and redeem his world through Israel embodied in the one faithful Israelite, Jesus. I’m talking of course about the New Creation and that is why we as Christians must always be resurrection people. The extent we can appropriate the resurrection and make it our living reality is the extent we can live as people who do not fear and who have real hope, even in times of great suffering, because we believe that God uses even our suffering to draw us closer to him so that he can use us to heal and bless his world, a world redeemed ultimately by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Let the church say, “Amen!”

Notice this same dynamic was at work in Joseph’s story. God’s plan was not obvious to Joseph’s brothers and they were constantly afraid. God’s plan was made clear to Joseph and he was not afraid and never lost his faith in God, despite the substantial suffering he endured during his life. In fact, Joseph’s sufferings apparently helped bolster his faith because in his suffering Joseph was able to discern the will and purpose of God, strange and wonderful as the out-working of God’s purposes were and are.

These lessons about God’s sovereignty and covenant faithfulness can help us as we are confronted by all kinds of evil in our life, from the terrible news around the world to the trials and tribulations we are currently enduring. All these things can make us fearful or angry or doubtful (or all of the above). But the consistent message of Scripture is that we are not to be afraid because we worship a God who is bigger and more powerful than the sin and evil that bedevil us and his world. We are not promised immunity from suffering, but we are promised power and redemption and healing because God has not abandoned us and is always true to his word.

What is it that you are struggling with right now? Whatever it is, keep these stories in mind as you bring your hurts and fears to the Lord Jesus in prayer. Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting any of this will be easy or straightforward. But keep wrestling. Don’t give up. Ever. Remember that you might not see your prayers answered for some time. Joseph’s surely weren’t. Perhaps your prayers will never be answered as you desire. But it is precisely at this point that you must remember that you are one of God’s people in Jesus and God will not let you ultimately be destroyed or separated from him because his steadfast love endures forever as does his faithfulness to his people. You are greatly loved by God and you have the cross, the resurrection with its promise of New Creation, and the power of the Spirit as living witnesses to this truth. So embrace the promise, despite all the mysterious and apparently ambiguous ways of God, and fear not. God is firmly in charge and you are always within his healing love and embrace, even when it is not self-evident to you. And if you know this, you will know you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jeremy Taylor: A Prayer for a Holy Life

O do to your servant as you used to do to those that love your name; let your truth comfort me, your mercy deliver me, your staff support me, your grace sanctify my sorrow, and your goodness pardon all my sins, your angels guide me with safety in this shadow of death, and your most holy spirit lead me into the land of righteousness, for your name’s sake, which is so comfortable, and for Jesus Christ his sake, our dearest Lord and most gracious Savior. Amen.

—Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying

A Prayer for the Feast Day of Jeremy Taylor, Anglican Bishop and Divine

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, like your servant Jeremy Taylor, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let your Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.