Be Made Strong

(Colossians 1:9-20; Luke 23:33-43) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, November 24, 2019 – UBC Digby

There are plenty of powerful phrases in Colossians chapter 1. This is the one that caught my attention: May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power

So… there is glorious power, available to us? Among the millions who follow the Way of Jesus, many can struggle to find the strength to live life better. 

Another old friend dies, another memorial service is held, and we are a year older too. Not to mention another cancer diagnosis, or ALS, or kidney failure, among our friends. After a while, the losses add up, and it takes strength of spirit to be positive.

Another threat comes to a community – a business fails, or a danger to the local environment arises – or new crime spree starts up. And it takes strength for people to team up and work for better things.

Another news report on radio or TV, and another city is filled with protests or riots, another drought with wildfires rages, another political leader seems out of control. What strength do we have to pray earnestly, and speak prophetically, and do something local for the sake of justice?
Is the glorious power of Jesus for such times?

We are about to enter a special season all about Jesus Christ. Let us dwell upon Him. Look intently upon Him. Discover something more of how we are made strong by Jesus. 

Here in Colossians 1 is an amazing section, verses 15-20, a hymn to Christ, as it were.15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation

This is the beautiful, powerful thing about the so- called Christmas story: the incredible God gets to be seen among us as one of us, a person, a human. This is the profound way to know the Unknowable One: in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. A big door opens for us to meet up with the Everlasting One: Jesus is the door. When you are weak, isn’t it amazing to know how one can meet the Divine Source of everything?

C.S. Lewis’ celebrated children’s book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tells of the adventures of four children in the magical kingdom of Narnia. The story is an allegory of Christ and salvation, with Christ represented by the lion Aslan. When in Narnia, the children meet Mr and Mrs Beaver, who describe the mighty lion to them. “Is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. 
Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The animals in the novel meet Christ as one of them, a lion. In real life, we meet Christ the man.

16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him

We had a memorial service to say goodbye to Carl, and Rene Melanson, yesterday. I shall always remember my chats with Carl, and how he spoke about his talks with Jesus. Sounded to me like Carl regularly talked with Jesus. And just like my visits with him, Carl did most of the talking. It is a very important thing to know that the Great Mystery behind this all can be talked to, like any person. Jesus – God from the beginning – opens the lines to talk, to fellowship, to friendship with God. This is a source of strength.

17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together

Ya know, we can be stronger when we find out we don’t have to hold our world together. We don’t have to save ourselves or anyone else. We don’t need to have it all figured out. We can rely upon Something else. We can trust that Goodness is the Power, and gets the last word. 

In Jesus all things hold together. 

18 He is the head of the body, the church; 

Our denomination – and some local congregations – have used the theme statement: ‘We Are Stronger Together.’ I believe there’s a lot to be said for being together, being a team, being united in our spirituality. As I always say, ‘religion’ is a way of people sharing in common their spirituality; and ours is based upon Christ. 

I believe there is real togetherness, and there is strength for us in being together. I barely need to tell you this; but we are called upon to help others know this. We are told this is a day and age of isolation, of loneliness, of people not joining groups. But the yearning for togetherness can be so deep. I even hear that atheists in some cities have formed ‘atheist churches’ in order to be together like we are!

he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything

We are about to start telling the whole life story of Jesus all over again. We begin next week with preparation for His arrival, born in the Middle East two thousand years ago. In April we will retell of His death at age thirty something. And how He comes back to life, before He leaves His followers on earth. 

We are told Jesus is the firstborn of the dead. Born after death. And the first. So there will be others. We will get to be born after death. Jesus is the first, and opens the gates to life for us. We know the strength, week by week, that people get from trusting in the eternal life promised to people after death. 

19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell

We get reminded that the human, Jesus, was also completely God. Fully human and divine. We, mere humans, get strengthened by this connection between Creator and creature, this Jesus. 

Ever wonder what humans are capable of? Perhaps we all have had times of pondering this. We read of people who are amazing athletes – running long distances, or swimming, or biking, or whatever. In the last couple years, two friends of mine back in Windsor have ‘everseted.’ They went up a steep hill near their home, 64 times in a row – to equal going up the same elevation as Mount Everest. Adam rode his bicycle up the hill 64 times, Andrew ran or walked up the hill that many times. 

Who knew a person could even do that? I was amazed, a year ago, when I took twelve months to learn that I could walk 80 kms at one time, in one day. I would have never guessed I could do such a thing, just a couple years ago!

Amazing physical achievements are one thing. Personal transformation is another. Some people learn to be incredibly generous. Others take a spiritual journey to forgive those who have done terrible and violent things to them. And so on. 

It says that in Jesus, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. In Jesus we see a human capable of everything, even more than we can imagine. As we learn to put on Jesus Christ, more of God fills us.

20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven

Reconciliation is a powerful thing, today. There is so much brokenness, between people. This is perhaps simply a symptom of how distant people are from God. But we teach that this God is pleased to reconcile all things back to God. It pleases God to do this. As one Psalm says, the LORD takes pleasure in His people. (149:4) Enjoys making things right. This includes all creation, amazingly. 

Billy Graham came out with a book in 1952 called Peace With God. Graham wrote: If you have been trying to limit God—stop it! Don’t try to confine Him or His works to any single place or sphere.     You wouldn’t try to limit the ocean. It is unlimited, what is to be made right in this world. When we start to get reconciled to God, we join a reconciling team in this universe.

Our profound paragraph in Colossians ends with this about Jesus: by making peace through the blood of his cross.

And this is where the scene of Jesus’ execution comes in. The Cross. Here is a King who does not save Himself, but saves others. He does not wage a military war to win a political victory. He submits to the evils of the whole world, so that they will be snuffed out. 
This ‘King of the Jews’ prays forgiveness over all those who are aiding and abetting to His death, or just approving of it. “Father, forgive them.”

We are in pain. Jesus Creator feels our pain. 
We fail and falter. Christ comes to carry us.
We get lost in this life. The Good Shepherd seeks out our souls, leads us back.
We are frightened by the wrongdoer inside ourselves. The Saviour defeats the evil one and gives us a new birth, goodness from the inside out.
We are weak in this world. The Mighty One becomes our strength of spirit. And we are not alone.

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power! AMEN.

Avoided the Ways of the Violent

(Psalm 17:1-9) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, November 11, 2019 – UBC Digby

October 9, 1923, in Victoria Park, Windsor, NS, the new Hants County War Memorial was unveiled. 

In the program for the ceremony, a description of the large cross-shaped stone cenotaph included this description:

The text inscribed on the lower front–“They fought to bury deep the Sword,” voices the leading thought embodied in the Memorial. A huge laurel- hung sword struck deeply into the rock, indicates the hope of an end to all warfare. Above hovers the Dove of Peace, in the act of placing upon it the Olive Branch; which the globes at the base at the sides, further suggest that peace be universal. 

‘They fought to bury deep the sword.’ This is the sentiment of November each year, for us. We look back to ‘the war to end all wars,’ and the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, not to mention so many other moments of conflict and peacekeeping.

So much of the violence of the ages, aimed at the end of violence. The end of repression. The end of injustice. The end of poverty. The end of fear. Oh, to build a world where everyone can ‘avoid the ways of the violent.’ 

Who, of us, has been able to do that? Live non- violently? Or, at least, used force to bring about peace? Use the sword to bury deep the sword? “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” said Jesus, we are told. (Mtt 26:52)

When Bonnie read Psalm 17 today, we responded each time with words of verse 4. “I have avoided the ways of the violent.” Psalm 17 is sometimes known as one of the many ‘Psalms of innocence’ here in the Bible. It is the voice, the prayer, of an innocent person, who has done no wrong, but is now surrounded by enemies. 

Some of this poetry resonates with the theme of national conflicts and the struggle for what’s right. ‘Hear a just cause, O LORD’ are the first words. We have the theory of the ‘just war,’ and even ‘holy war.’

‘O saviour of those who seek refuge from their adversaries.’ ‘Deadly enemies… surround me.’ Many people like me have no idea what this experience is like, that has been faced by so many military, and civilians. So we must tell the stories, the history, the poetry of war and peace. 

Who has been as innocent as the one speaking in Psalm 17? Who has buried deep the sword, and truly avoided the ways of the violent?

Our whole scripture is strewn with tales of war and bloodshed, of terrible violence – both against and by ‘the people of God.’ Who is the Prince of Peace?

As a disciple keenly interested in the Bible and our use of it, I have been facing the challenge more, lately, of how to understand our violent history. I want to be a peacemaker, influenced profoundly by scripture.

So, today, we happen to be saying some official farewells to a couple people I think of as peace- makers: Rev. John and Evelyn Dickinson. I pay tribute to them, here in the sermon, because of how they have led others to avoid the ways of the violent

I suppose I met Evelyn and John thirty years ago, attending annual gatherings of the Atlantic Baptist Fellowship. But I never had talked with them much, nor got to know them, until I moved here and became their pastor in 2014. 

First impressions could lead one astray. An Englishman of significant intelligence, who plays bridge and reads widely, might be expected to be rather hoity-toity and uppity. And his wife! The daughter of a great Baptist Minister and a wise educator, intelligent and elegant in her own right – she could be expected to be a bit holier-than-thou. But no! More kind and compassionate folk you could not find. And their friendships span every religion, ethnicity, economic status and politic, I’d wager. 

If these friends are infamous around here, at all, it could be for how they opposed a quarry project fifteen years ago. I’d call this one way they have avoided violence against creation. Care of and responsibility for the environment come from them.

I give thanks that John and Evelyn have avoided they ways of the violent against humanity. Their ministries have led to some amazing caring for people. I love their stories. Like that from their Ontario Church in 1979, The Year of the Child, when they raised one million pennies for the cause. That’s $10,000 – in 1979!

And, they have showed me things about avoiding the ways of the violent in religion. This takes us back to the challenge of the terrible violence in the Bible stories, and in Church history. John also finds this hard. He has been passing on many of his books to me, and more to the Church Library, actually. I should be giving him a book, like Derek Flood’s ‘Disarming Scripture.’ Flood teaches things like this, about the Old Testament Prophets, and Jesus Christ:
Jesus [therefore] rejects the prophets’ claim that [such] judgment (sickness, suffering, etc.) is God’s work, and instead frames his healing ministry in terms of the kingdom of God advancing against Satan’s kingdom (cf. Luke 11:17-20). (Flood, 2014, P. 40)

John and Evelyn have even been associated with an international group called…
wait for it… 

The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
Did you know there is such a thing? Yes! Peace loving, peace making, even pacifist Baptist Christians. 

As you go from our midst, after 23 years in Digby County, go in peace, and may the LORD guard you as the apple of God’s eye, and keep you in the shadow of God’s wings.

Let me begin the third and final chapter of this sermon by dealing with Psalm 17 in one more way. Let me quote that famous Christian martyr of the Second World War, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, beloved pastor, professor, and theologian. 

A Psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other that Jesus Christ himself.
(Life Together, p. 45, translation 1954 by John W. Doberstein)

Today’s Bible poem does come across as the words of a completely innocent man or woman. Done no wrong. Been perfectly faithful to God in every way. Yet now beset by enemies of all sorts – perhaps even incarcerated unjustly. What if we read these words as the words of Jesus the Christ? Jesus, whom we proclaim as perfect, as totally right and justified; but who was attacked, arrested, tortured, & executed. How do these verses sound as Jesus’ prayer?

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
…if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
    my mouth does not transgress.
by the word of your lips
    I have avoided the ways of the violent.
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
    O savior of those who seek refuge
    from their adversaries at your right hand.

This is the Jesus we seek, and find. 
This is the Christ we claim as ours, to follow.
This is the Son of God, who suffers with us.
This is the Holy One who gives us life, abundant and eternal. 

If the author, Derek Flood, is right – and I believe he is – our Jesus avoided the ways of the violent. He suffered ultimate violence to end violence. To make peace. Peace with God. Peace between people. Peace with all creation. Peace with the past, the present, and our future. 

Jesus fought to bury deep the sword, even the sword that pierced him at His death upon the Cross. How I cry out to Him now, for the people who are still at war in this world, and who face life-long trauma after. How I plead with Jesus now, for friends who face domestic violence which is trying to destroy their lives. How I beg Him now, for the power to be non- violent, and to oppose the powers that hurt people, and hurt the whole planet. 

And, I believe, He is already answering.
AMEN!

Pursuit of Excellence (In Ministry)

(2 Thess 1:1-12; Luke 17:20-21) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, November 3, 2019 – UBC Digby

One bit of wisdom we learn in life: don’t try to do everything. For instance: preacher, don’t try to explain everything – in one sermon.

Such as all of 2 Thessalonians chapter 1. Without answering the questions we may have about it, suffice it for me to say that, in the troubled times those people faced, they needed encouragement that God was with them, and that the right things would happen, in the end. I want to focus on one thing that this letter to a small church illustrates: a small group can do excellent work. Consider with me, now, the Pursuit of Excellence in Ministry. 

This is our final theme from Dennis Bickers’ book about the Healthy Small Church. I have touched on his themes over the past 2 years.
Ch 1. The Importance of Small Churches. 2018 Feb 4
Ch 2. The Problem of the Unhealthy Church. Apr 8
Ch 3. The Importance of a Proper Theology & Doctrine. June 3
Ch 4. The Value of a Vision. Sept 9
Ch 5. Transformational Worship. Oct 14
Ch 6. Acceptance of Change. Nov 25
Ch 7. The Ability to Handle Conflict. 2019 Jan 27
Ch 8. Spiritual Leadership. Feb 3
Ch 9. A Sense of Community. Mar 10
Ch 10. Financial Health. Apr 7
Ch 11. Mission-Mindedness. May 19
Ch 12. Long Pastoral Tenure.
Ch 13. Involvement in Outreach. Sept 8
Ch 14. Pursuit of Excellence in Ministry. Nov 3
Ch 15. Lay Ministry Involvement. Oct 27

In his chapter, The Pursuit of Excellence in Ministry, Dennis Bickers’ main point is this: The healthy congregation stays focused on a few things to do well – don’t try to do everything, or to be all things to all people.

What we do well, will be blessed by the Spirit. Look again at those praises for a small church long ago: the Thessalonian Christians. The authors of this letter say of them:
‘We give thanks for you because your faith is growing abundantly, and your love for each other.’ Faith is action, not simply a thought or feeling. So too with Love. Love is not just attitude; it is activity.
‘We boast about you to other churches, for your steadfast faith amid your persecution.’ There will be justice, from God, they are assured.
‘We always pray for you,’ they are promised… For your good resolve and work of faith.
Name of Jesus glorified in you, and you in Him.

Whenever we read one of the New Testament letters to a Christian group, it is interesting to see what the congregation gets praise for – in this case it is their growing faith and love, in the face of opposition. There are not a lot of other clues in this letter, or the previous one, about the specific things they were doing in their town. They likely had a few things they did, and did well.

If we take Dennis Bickers’ book as a modern letter to a small church, we find him saying that the pursuit of excellence in ministry for us means:
Focused ministry leads to excellence.
Determine and define your focus.
Maximize your strengths.
Remember: excellence does not mean perfection.
Excellence begins with leadership.

We have not really defined our focus here, Digby Baptist. We have not made a vision statement that describes what we feel called and capable of doing right now. We’ve not declared anything like this:
Digby Baptist aims to excel in traditional evangelical music, in ministry by seniors and for seniors, and by including a wide variety of local people.

If we did become clear about our focus, I wonder what the Spirit would show us that focus is?

And for a group to have a focus means it lets go of trying to compete with other groups. Bickers says:
This is the same strategy used when small stores try to compete with megastores such as Wal-Mart. … The stores that survive are the ones that identify some things they can do better than Wal-Mart, and they focus on doing those things with excellence. They don’t try to appeal to everyone with low prices.       …A clothing store may begin to carry different brands or different styles of clothing… and offer excellent personalized service when a customer enters. (Bickers, pp. 122, 123)

As a local church, we are not in competition with the Wesleyans or Catholics or Anglicans, or other Baptists, or television ministries. We are called by God for ministries that are needed in our town, and that we are equipped to do, by our Master. 

We pray: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. In Luke 17, we hear Jesus say, “the kingdom of God is among you or within you.” The professional Jewish religious men were asking the same questions the Thessalonian Christians would ask just a few years later: ‘When is the Kingdom of God going to come and take over the world?’
‘You can’t see it, like other things. “Look, there it is! Now it’s happening.” No. God’s Rule is within you. It is hidden among you.’

This is what the phrase ‘Divine Conspiracy’ means. God’s sneaky, secret plan, is already underway, in operation, hidden in plain sight.

And for groups of us to work together to build the Kindom here, it is excellent for us to stay focused on a few things we are good at. Things we are called upon to do, by God. Things that we are made to accomplish. Our part. Our life. Our purpose.