On today’s podcast, we are talking about Romans 4:13-25. This is part of a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a community in Rome. At that time, Rome was the capital city of the biggest empire in the ancient world. In the short passage today, Paul is reflecting on the promises God gives to Abraham. The whole story of the Jewish people leading to Jesus begins in a promise that God made to Abraham around 4000 years ago.
The question for Paul is what does it mean to be in relationship–or covenant–with God? Is our relationship grounded in our ability to fulfill the commandments of God? Or is it grounded in our trust in the reliability of God’s promises? For Paul, we really need to grasp this distinction if we are going to have a rich and deep relationship with the living God.
Join the conversation! How do you remind yourself to trust in the promises of God? Please add your own thoughts and insights in the comments below.
In this coming Sunday’s gospel reading, we see the heart of Jesus’ message. What is he telling us? What is Jesus’ spiritual message for us and for the world? This is important to know because it is at the center of what Christianity is all about. So what was the message? In Mark chapter 1, we hear Jesus preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The kingdom of God is at the heart of his message. Jesus assumed that his contemporaries would hear this as the best news ever! He believed that they would be excited at this proclamation.
However, as modern readers, we don’t hear it the same way. The idea of the kingdom of God probably doesn’t mean as much to us. Or if it does, we often think that it means heaven after we die. But Jesus meant it to be much bigger than that.
Heaven isn’t the whole story
What we call Heaven is only one tiny part of what Jesus is talking about: that all of the promises and prophesies in the Old Testament are all now coming true. People in ancient Israel had been waiting and praying for this moment for centuries. God had promised to come himself and be the king. The Creator would come and set things right, rescue Israel from all her enemies, and finally create a kingdom of righteousness marked by peace, justice and love. In fact, at the time of Jesus, there was a revolutionary slogan that said, “No King but God.”
Jesus says the time is fulfilled. All of these ancient prophesies are coming true. But as he continues to preach and heal and teach, it becomes clear that Jesus is doing something different. The heart of the Gospel is that God is becoming king and setting the world to rights in and through Jesus. And the way to enter the Kingdom of God is to commit to Jesus, believing and trusting in him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Jesus also taught that the Kingdom would come in stages. His public ministry was the first stage, then there was his death and resurrection, then the era of the church proclaiming the good news throughout the world. And at last, there will be a final consummation of all things.
The Vision of the Kingdom of God
This is important to each of us because, as believers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are a part of the Kingdom of God. As Jesus taught, this kingdom is not a political reality, but a spiritual reality and a vision of transformed hearts and relationships.
No one is forgotten in the Kingdom of God. All are beloved and have dignity. It is a relationship with God that lasts long into eternity. It is about the world as it was always created to be, and you get to be a part of that. The Kingdom of God is as large as the whole universe, yet fully present within your own heart. In the Gospel on Sunday, we read about Jesus proclaiming the good news and issuing an invitation. Every day is a day to say yes.
As we travel deeper into the season of Advent, it is worth noting what the word means. Advent comes from a Latin word meaning “Approach or Arrival or Coming.” But this is not an ordinary arrival; it describes the ceremonial entry of an emperor, the king, or some other high official. When we use this particular word, Advent, we remind ourselves that this is the season of waiting and preparation for the King of Kings.
Three Different Advent Arrivals
In Advent, we are waiting for three different arrivals, and these give the season its unique texture. First, we look back to the Old Testament hope for the coming of the Messiah. This is why we read the book of Isaiah during Advent. Isaiah, more than any other Old Testament prophet, describes this hope to us. From centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah’s words remind us for whom we are waiting:
A child is born to us! A son is given to us!
And he will be our ruler.
He will be called, “Wonderful Counselor,”
“Mighty God,” “Eternal Father,” “Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah 9:6 (Good News Translation)
The second arrival is the second coming of Christ at the end of time. This is why we read the poetic gospel vision of Christ coming in glory. We have images of the sun being darkened and the stars falling. This reminds us that in the great renewal, there will also be great upheaval.
The third coming is entirely personal. Christ is not just an historic person. He is the son of God who loves you, and is continually being born again in your heart. This heart preparation is the main spiritual work of Advent, calling us to be ready to receive the note of great joy and wonder that comes with the birth of Christ.
The paradox of the phrase ‘spiritual work’ is that it is not work at all in the normal sense. Rather, it is more the cultivation of a state of openness and trust in what God is doing. It is expectancy. To describe this expectancy, let me share with you a gift that was given to me by my friend Scott. He is the person in our Diocese (regional church) charged with Ecumenical and Interfaith conversations. He is always looking to build bridges with other groups and people. In this time of Covid, he mentioned that so much of his work slowed down. Those connections seem to be harder and harder to make. It can be discouraging. But he has found comfort in a song released back in 2017 called Your Labour is Not in Vain by The Porter’s Gate. The lyrics speak to this:
Your labor is not in vain
Though the ground underneath you is cursed and stained
Your planting and reaping are never the same
Your labor is not in vain
Your labor is not unknown
Though the rocks they cry out and the sea it may groan
The place of your toil may not seem like a home
But Your labor is not unknown
I am with you, I am with you
I am with you, I am with you
This song was a gift to me as well. Sometimes it seems like we are going nowhere, doing a lot of work for little growth. Do you ever feel that? And yet, Advent calls us to look bigger. The promise of the song and the season is that while there is struggle, it is not wasted. The seeds that we plant will bloom in the Kingdom of God. Learn to live in openness, trust and expectation. Advent gives us a profound message that Christ has already come, is going to come again, and is continually coming into your life day by day. Your labour is not in vain.
If you want to hear the song, you can find it here:
Jesus tells this parable about ten bridesmaids who fall asleep waiting for the wedding procession to arrive. This picks up a number of themes in Jesus’ teaching, and reflects Old Testament meditations on staying awake, being alert, and persevering in Christ. Join us around the virtual table as we talk about Matthew 25: 1-13.
What insights do you take from this parable? Please join the conversation! Add your reflections in the comments below.
All Saints’ Day is one of the great feast days in our church year. Originally a commemoration of martyrs, All Saints‘ draws together several important themes: worship, heaven, redemption, communion, and more. It gives us a window into reality beyond what mortal eyes can see, and reminds us of God’s promise of hope and a future. Join us around the virtual table as we talk about Revelation 7:9-17 and All Saints’ Day.
Please join the conversation! Who is your favourite saint? How do you find hope in God?Add your insights in the comments below.
In the last reflection, I introduced our theme for the fall: Dry Ground Requires Deep Roots. This comes from our wondering if this will be a difficult fall because of Covid and a reduced ability to have fellowship. It is also a time when we are going to need to be creative to find ways to encourage and support one another when we can’t lean on our normal habits and practices.
With this in mind, we have planned our reflections this fall to help people deepen their faith, as a way of encouraging the kind of inner life that will support us all through hard times. Previews of this fall’s series on growing deep roots are below.
1. How to Pray
This series will be a practical primer on the basics of a Christian prayer life. This starts with God, who wants to share his life with us. Faith is the way we say yes to God. Then, prayer is the nurturing of an ongoing relationship with God. There are so many ways to pray: adoration, intercession, confession, meditative reading, thanksgiving and more. In this series, we will look at them all and give practical tips on how to develop a richer prayer life.
2. Spiritual Struggles
In this series, we want to look at the fact that everyone struggles at times. The issues people face are almost endless: self-doubt, illness, loneliness, anger, fear, addictions, isolation, and on and on and on. Faith does not take away struggle, but it does allow us to find strength, meaning, and a deeper relationship with God as we walk through it. This series will look at the question of what it means to struggle from a faith perspective and to offer practical tips to cope day by day while growing in our faith.
3. Sacred Pathways
One of the truths about prayer is that there is no single way that you should pray. Christians have found a great many ways to be in relationship with God. Some people love silent prayer, some like helping others, and some people go to nature. There are those who like traditional worship, others who like to pray spontaneously in the spirit, and more. What way is best for you to grow closer to God? What ways can you use to grow deep spiritual roots? In this series we will look at the work of Gary Thomas as he guides us through these sacred pathways. There is a path of prayer just for you!
4. Is it Reasonable?
This series will look at the content of our faith from the perspective of our postmodern world. People come to me with many questions: can people still believe in God? Is the Bible trustworthy at all, or is it a relic? Can we believe in the resurrection as a real event or is it just a metaphor? Why should we still talk about sin? Aren’t modern categories better? In this series, we will look at all these questions.
I believe that the Christian story of the love of God in Jesus is the most amazing story there is, and I will argue that not only is it reasonable to believe, but it is far more reasonable than not to believe.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:16-17, our theme verse for this fall.
Looking Ahead to the Cold Months
I want to use this reflection and the next one to tell you about the theme for the upcoming season. I keep thinking about how different this fall is going to be from previous years. In one sense, it is obvious that everything will have changed. Our church services are under emergency Covid protocols. Our Christian education will happen over Zoom. We won’t be able to do the programming that we normally do. The simple answer is that it is going to be a lot harder, given the realities of Covid. But I also want to ask the question in a deeper way.
Over the past two weeks, I have become very aware that the temperatures have started to turn. I was sitting on my back porch when the wind came up, and I noticed the chill in the air. It struck me that we have been able to cope with Covid a lot better because of the warm weather. Different groups have been able to gather outside to talk and have fellowship. It has been really good to be able to laugh again with people. With the cold weather coming, I realized that meeting outside is going to become more difficult. With the daylight waning, I wonder what this means for our congregations. This could be a difficult winter for many of us.
Focus on Spiritual Health
I have started to pray about this, asking God what we need to focus on this fall to help us pull through the cold months together, and indeed to be spiritually healthy as we wait for the return of the warmth. The image that came to mind was one of my favourite scenes from the movie Chariots ofFire. Eric Liddell, a runner in the 1924 Olympic Games, is talking to a crowd and comparing faith to a race. He says,
“I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard, requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape — ‘specially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe, maybe you haven’t got a job. So, who am I to say, “believe,” “have faith,” in the face of life’s realities?I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, ‘Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’”
Strength from Within
That little phrase is so important: from within. There is so much imagery in the New Testament naming ‘within’ as the place we meet God. The heart is the chief metaphor of the place where we most deeply encounter the living God. Our strength from within comes from God.
In Galatians 4:6 we read, “God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts.” Ephesians 3:17 says, “That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” In the John 14: 23, Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” As Eric Liddell tells us, to get through hard times we need to be able to draw strength from God whom we meet within us, in our hearts.
If this fall is potentially going to be a difficult one for many of us, then one of the best things we can do as a church is to deepen our faith life within. We want to be strong enough in faith not only to get through these difficult times ourselves, but in turn to be a source of support and strength for each other. With Jesus Christ as the head of the church, I know we are going to get through this stronger than before.
Dry Ground — Deep Roots
We are using the image of Dry Ground Requires Deep Roots for our theme this fall. As we know from gardening, plants get their water from underneath the soil. The roots of a plant both stabilize the plant and allow it to draw the necessary moisture to survive and even thrive. But when times are hard because there is little rain, the roots of a plant have to grow even deeper to reach the water.
In our theme, the roots stand for our faith, by which we draw life and strength from God. In hard times, we need to attend to our faith more than ever. We want to help you grow in spiritual health. In the next reflection, I will talk a bit more about what we have in mind.
As part of our series on Building Treasure in Heaven, we’re looking at living by faith, hope and love. This trio comes from one of the most famous passages in the Bible: St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. It concludes with this assurance: “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” We read this chapter at many weddings because it captures the essence of what love is.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”