Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Why Can’t Pastors Agree on What a Pastor is?

What DOES a pastor do anyways?

Ask 10 pastors what a pastor is, and you will get ten different definitions. Read 10 different blog articles on what a pastors is and should be doing, and you will get ten different opinions. The job title and ecclesiological office of pastor is one that encompasses a variety of definitions, often confusing and contradictory ones.

This vagueness around the job description and theological concept of being a pastor is one of the most frustrating parts of my vocation. The debate lately seems to be between the pastor as CEO vs. pastor as Shepherd. Just check out the titles of some relatively recent blog posts:

Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof
CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley
Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters

The current debate raging online, and probably in churches and among colleagues, about what a pastor is and does is nothing new. It is simply a symptom of the church facing the changing world and some dim sense that part of facing that change means pastors and churches updating their understandings of each.

Even in my short millennial life-time, I have seen pastors of different generations try to live up to different and changing ideas of what it means to be a pastor.

A different time, a different pastor

In my first congregation, a small farming community where the church had been the central focus for nearly a century, pastors were understood to be something akin to the “community professional.” In the early part of the 20th century, pastors were often called upon not only to shepherd the flock, but also provided medical knowledge, taught school children, provided legal and mediation services among other things.

In my Grandfather’s generation in the 40s and 50s, pastors were public moral paragons. They were (supposed to be) living examples of moral living who were required to lead the faithful in their own moral living and a disciplined faith full of regular devotion and study. Pastors were expected to be public moral authorities whose credibility was rooted in their character and leadership position. They were called upon to serve on public boards, public offices and positions and were often in the public eye.

And then in the 60s and 70s, Clinical Pastoral Education and a trend towards psychology and therapy transformed again the role of the pastor. No longer was the pastor a voice for morality and divine authority, but now a counsellor, therapist even. Someone to hear your troubles (sometimes on God’s behalf) and direct you to the help you need. And pastors started using as much the language of psychology as theology.

And then 80s and 90s, when, despite the early signs of decline, the trend was for established and growing congregations to program their ministry. This meant large facilities and increased staff positions. Pastors became middle managers, overseeing growing churches that had become corporatized. Business language become the vernacular at board meetings and for church leadership.

And then in the 2000s, pastors were called upon to become entrepreneurial CEOs, revitalizing the unwieldy and declining organizations that had been started by the community professionals and moral paragons, grown by the pastoral care providers, and managed into decline by the middle managers. Pastors were and are expected to be the source of mission and vision renewal for churches longing for a return to the glory days. The glory days of course depend on which of the previous eras felt the most glorious for a given person. And the new glory days also include incorporating all the new technology of a changing digital and online world.

These are, of course, not the only dominant forms of pastor that have risen up recently. There are several of other images and ideas about what the primary role of a pastor is:

There is the social justice warrior, who leads their faith community in striking out to address all the evils of the world. This pastor strives to lead people in activism and to organize communities of resistance beyond congregations who will fight for justice among all the injustices that exist in the world.

And there is the cruise director / country club pro who is the omni-present social glue that holds the many activities and programs and fellowship events that a congregation plans. The pastor will likely make an appearance at everything: every meeting, every breakfast, every golf or curling fundraiser. The pastor is more mascot than spiritual leader.

And there is the coach and cheerleader. The person encouraging the laity in their calling by passing off the bulk of the responsibilities of the pastoral office. A pastor’s job is to put themselves out of a job is mantra of this style.

So which of these is the right style or idea of the core of pastoral ministry is? Should pastors need to choose?

Jack-of-all-trades pastoring?

Picking one version of pastoral ministry over another actually misses the point. Of course all of the responsibilities are, at times, part of what a pastor does. Sometimes you will be the community expert, other times you will inspire your people to faithfulness, sometimes you be called upon to provide counsel and care for people in need, other times you will be the one checking the boiler and booking rentals, sometimes you will be hiring and firing people. And of course in the midst of all these things there is preaching and leading worship / the liturgy, studying and teaching the bible, prayer and helping people grow in faith.

But none of these shifting ideas about what it means to be a pastor are core to pastoral ministry as it has been understood for most of the church’s history. Pastors or priests have always been tasked with preaching the word, administering the sacraments and tending to God’s people. And throughout the millennia, this has put various responsibilities on the shoulders of pastors, managing and tending to groups of people wherever they are is complicated.

Yet, whatever trend or style of ministry is current, and even whatever denomination or part of the world  a pastor serves in… the essential of what is a pastor is the same.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.

Whether it is the through high church smells and bells liturgy or someone standing alone on a staff with just a bible in their hands, whether it is providing expertise, modelling faithfulness, caring for those in distress, managing complicated communities, or revitalizing declining churches pastors are the connection through which a particular faith community (a church) encounters the faithful of all times and places (The Church).

The Office of Ministry is how The Church enters into the life a church or congregation. In all those things that the debates suggest that pastors should be spending their time on, the underlying purpose of doing any of those things is to help local and particular communities be connected to the body of Christ. To help local congregations participate in the mission of the whole Church, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. And we don’t do this in vacuums, rather we serve this mission in consort with all the congregations and communities doing the same around us and around the world.

When pastors, or lay people, or the church as a whole debates what a pastor is or does, the reality is that in some sense there is still agreement. The different ideas or styles still fit within the scope of a pastor.  And yet, all the debates fail to return and remind us of the core.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.


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Questions in the Dark – Our Nicodemus Moment

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (read the whole passage)

Out of the wilderness and into the darkness. As Lent began last week, as it always does, with Jesus going into the wilderness to fast and be tempted… we come out of the wilderness this week only to come to Jesus by the cover of night. We leave the Gospel of Matthew behind of until the season of Easter, and we continue our Lenten journey with John’s gospel.

And John who is rich with words and images, where Jesus loves to talk and teach and preach, gives us the most famous of bible passages, John 3:16. Yet, in context, this famous passage comes in a long line of familiar images. The image of being born again in the spirit. The image of the spirit as the wind, blowing where it chooses. The image of the son of man being lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent. And finally, “For God so loved the world…”

But when we pull back again, we meet Nicodemus. Nicodemus the curious pharisee. And while the rich and familiar images of this story stand out… it is perhaps the setting by which Nicodemus comes to have this conversation with Jesus that really helps us to understand where we are going on the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

So take a moment, and put all the familiar words and famous bible verses out of your mind and imagine this image.

It is the dead of night. Dim lamps burn here and there among stone walls and buildings. A lone figure, cloaked in darkness makes his way down deserted streets and alleys. The cicadas and crickets are chirping in the hot, dry nighttime air. Finally, the lone figure finds who he is a looking for. Jesus is appears in the darkness, standing among the trees and plants of a garden.

Nicodemus pulls back his hood and looks around to be sure that no one else is lurking nearby. “Rabbi” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”

The story comes to life when we can imagine the background of this conversation. Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night to ask his questions. Nicodemus, a religious leader, needs the darkness to feel safe. He has much to lose in coming to Jesus: his standing in the community, his authority as a leader, his relationships with friends and neighbours.

Yet, here Nicodemus is, seeking out Jesus in the cover of darkness, to ask honest and real questions of the Rabbi… Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is, what he means for all the things that Nicodemus believes about God and religion.

And curiously, Jesus begins by dodging Nicodemus’s question. He has been asked these questions before. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priest love to probe Jesus, they love to put him on the spot and see if he will withstand the pressure. How is Jesus supposed to know what Nicodemus’s intentions are? Even at night, even with no crowds to rile up, Nicodemus is still a Pharisee. Nicodemus is still part of a group that is suspicious of Jesus.

So Jesus answers vaguely about being born from above, prompting a follow up from Nicodemus. And Jesus goes on about being born of water and spirit, about the wind blowing where is chooses.

But still Nicodemus wonders, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus and his questions are not unfamiliar to us. They are not the wonderings of children, nor the questions of someone new to faith. Nicodemus has old questions, question that come from a life time of sitting in the pew and weeks upon weeks, months upon months, years upon years of hearing the bible stories. Nicodemus knows the doctrine and theology. Nicodemus doesn’t need religion explained to him.

Nicodemus needs the answers for his doubts. He wants to know if all of this is real and what it all means. He wants to know if Jesus is the real thing. Are the thing Nicodemus has believed about God really true?

Our Nicodemus moments come from the same place. They are questions we are too afraid to ask in the light, the doubts we are afraid to share in public, the feelings of being silly for believing in a God that the world often laughs at.

I remember once sitting in on a bible study with a group at a bible camp. A group of volunteers: of retired men who came to fix the plumbing, to drive the tractor that mowed the fields, to chop enough firewood for a whole summer. Retired women who came to scrub kitchens, to sew drapes and to wash windows. People who were faithfully in church every Sunday and then faithfully volunteering at camp during their weekdays.

And as the group talked about prayer and how they could pray about anything to God and God would hear them, one of the men, a life long and faithful Lutheran, a gruff retired contractor asked the bible study leader a question. With tears in eyes he said, “But how can God hear my prayers? I am nobody to God.”

It was a Nicodemus moment. A moment for the deep questions of faith. A moment that we all come to know sooner or later. A moment when we wonder if Jesus the real thing, or when we wonder if Jesus will remember to include us in his Kingdom, or a moment when we realize that believing in Jesus is much riskier than we imagined. Believing in Jesus might mean risking our place in our community, it might mean accepting people we don’t want to accept, it might mean making room in our lives for new things like prayer, and bible study, and acts of service and worshipping God with a sense the world is transformed by that worship.

In Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, there is moment where something curious happens. As Jesus first doges Nicodemus’s question with vague and confusing talk of being born from above and the spirit doing as the spirit wishes…. Nicodemus asks Jesus a second followup question, “How can these things be?” And again, the question is not unlike questions often asked of Jesus by the religious authorities. But this time, Jesus seems taken aback, “Where not you, a religious leader, taught these things?”

There must have been something in the way that Nicodemus asked the question that stopped Jesus in his tracks. There must have been something honest and searching, maybe even something desperate in the way Nicodemus asks.

And so Jesus changes and adjusts.

Jesus moves towards to Nicodemus.

Jesus drops the confusing speech that he normally saves for pesky religious leaders questioning him in public.

And Jesus gives Nicodemus what he is looking for.

Jesus gives the assurance that Nicodemus is seeking. Yes, Jesus says, the son of man is following in the footsteps of Moses. And no, this is not an easy thing to accept or believe.

Yet, Jesus declares boldly, for God so loves the world that he gave his only Son…

Jesus gives Nicodemus the gospel in the clearest of terms.

This move towards Nicodemus is just a smaller version of what God has been doing all along. After calling the people to repentance, and the people always fall back into the sin, God decides to make the move. And so God move towards the people. Beginning with an announcement made to a young virgin that she will bear a child. And then with a voice Thundering over the waters of baptism in the river Jordan. And then a dazzling transformation on a mountain top. And then last week, as the tempter tried to get Jesus to return to the old pattern of falling into sin…

The movement of God became clear. God has moved towards creation and there is no going back. Jesus moves to Nicodemus, giving him the assurance and good news he needs to hear.

And Jesus makes the same move towards us.

Jesus assures us in our Nicodemus moments, that he is indeed the real thing.

That when we are worried about looking foolish to the world, that Jesus will accept our foolishness without hesitation.

That when we are worried that believing in Jesus may mean we have to accept people we don’t want to love, Jesus will love us and forgive us regardless.

That when we are worried that this whole faith business may mean changes in our lives in how we live, what we do, who we serve and what we value, that Jesus will keep moving to us, making up the difference in our half heartedness.

Nicodemus moments are something we cannot avoid. We will as people of faith have our questions, our doubts, our fears that would only dare ask in the darkness. But Nicodemus moments are also the moments when Jesus changes course and makes a move towards us. Jesus moves toward us in our darkness, in our confusion, in our hesitation.

And Jesus gives us what we need…. the Good News that God so loved the world, so loved us, that God gave his only Son.

Even in the Ashes, there is life

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Read the whole passage)

Just 3 days ago we stood on the mountain top with Peter, James and John. We watched as Jesus was transfigured to white and shining like the sun. We saw Moses and Elijah appear. It was a holy moment on that mountain top. And it prompted Peter to speak,

“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wanted to stay. We wanted to stay. That was the moment when all the chaos and stress of the world melted away and everything was perfect.

But Jesus had other plans, and he took us down the mountain. Took us down in the valley. Took us into the shadow of death.

Jesus brought us here. Here to the day of Ashes.

And today, is no mountaintop escape. Today, the reality of the world, the reality of our mortality, the reality of death comes crashing down upon us.

On Sunday, the voice of God thundered from the heavens. “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.”

And tonight Jesus speaks. Jesus reminds us of our place.

Of our imperfections.

Of our ability forget and flaws and failures.

Jesus warns us not to get too comfortable.

Not to rely on our own righteousness, our own holiness.

Jesus reminds us not to trust in our ability to believe or pray or fast or wash.

Today, Jesus reminds us that we do not measure up, that we are mere mortals.

And once we have been reminded that we are imperfect and flawed, we will we confess our sin.

We will confess, and confess, and confess.

Everything will be on the table tonight.

All our sins, every piece of ourselves that has caused us to be self-centred, to forget others, to forget God.

And then, once we have confessed.

Once we have been laid bare and there is nothing left to say,

the reality of tonight,

of the valley,

of this shadow of death

will be placed on our very bodies.

It will be stamped on the foreheads. The crosses we were first given in baptism, the crosses of Christ that were sealed with water and oil, they will now be marked with Ash.

Ash, which is the sign of death. Ash or dust, like we throw onto caskets as they are lowered to the ground. Ash the only thing that is left behind when everything else is destroyed. When cities are razed by war, when our planet is burned up with carbon, when our bodies come to their end, all that is left is dust and ash.

And with Ashy crosses on our foreheads, signs of our sin, our mortality, signs of death we will pray.

Pray for God’s mercy.

Pray for forgiveness.

We will pray and hope that God still remembers us.

We will pray and hope that God still remembers.

Remembers us, even on this night of Ashes.

And of course.

And of course as God always does.

God will remember us.

God will forget our sin,

forget our mortality,

forget our death.

And God will remember us.

And even though Jesus has warned us not to forget our sinfulness.

And even though we have prayed, begged for mercy knowing that we do not deserve it.

God will re-member us.

God will come to us in bread and wine.

God will re-member, re-join us back to God’s Body in bread and wine.

And God will remind us that even though we are Ash, even though we are in the valley, even though we stand in the shadow of death,

God has been there too.

Christ has been in the valley.

Christ has been turned to ash on a cross.

Christ has been dead and buried in the tomb.

And then God will declare – through our very mouths – the mystery of faith.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

And on this night of Ashes, when we confess our sin, when we receive the sign of death in ashes on our foreheads.

God will remind us again. God will remind us, even tonight.

God will remind us that death is not the end.

Even with our sin.

Even with our mortality.

Even when we are turned to Ash.

Death is not the end.

No, this is no mountaintop. This is not the place where Peter would want to stay. This is not where we would want to stay.

But here, on Ash Wednesday, the first step of our Lenten journey.

God will stay with us.

God will meet us,

God will remind us that even in death,

even in the ashes,

there is life.


Photo credit: http://oqisexud.wink.ws/ash-wednesday-cross-on-your-head.php

Why Christians are Uncomfortable with Transcendence

Matthew 17:1-9

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (read the whole passage)

When I was 17, I had the privilege of going to Germany with my High-school’s concert band program. In addition to concerts and staying with host families, we had the chance to visit historical sites, including cathedrals and churches.

If you have ever been to any of the great cathedrals of Europe, you will know that very few Canadian churches compare to the grandness of a great gothic cathedral. In Cologne Germany, we toured the cathedral. Before cell phones and digital cameras, I had to stand down the street from the cathedral to fit the church into 3 frames stacked on top of each other to take a picture of the cathedral with my film camera.

And when you walk inside, everything draws your eyes up. The arches and fresco paintings, the very high ceilings and domes. There is a pipe organ hanging from the ceiling that is itself nearly as big as a tour bus, not to mention all the pipes that would easily fill our church. There are half a dozen tours available in different languages, and despite there being hundreds of tourists milling about, the church felt very empty when I stood inside the vast space.

The cathedral’s size and design, the towering spires and gothic arches, are meant to convey one simple message. God is big. Very Big. And you are small. Very small.

The fancy word for this is transcendence. God’s transcendence was the message of the cathedral. God filled the world from the ground to the sky, and from nearly any point in the city, the cathedral’s towers could be seen. God seemed to fill every mountain and valley, every nook and cranny of creation. It was human beings who intruded humbly into a world that is God’s and not the other way around.

Today, Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain of transfiguration, and while there Jesus is transformed into dazzling white. Elijah and Moses (two pillars of Hebrew faith) show up, just to make it clear that Jesus and this moment is a big deal. If there is any word to describe what the disciples are experiencing, it would be transcendence. God is filling their world from ground to sky, in every direction and in every nook and cranny.

Yet, the transcendence is not a comfortable feeling… and who can blame the disciples? Wouldn’t we be equally confused to see a transfigured Jesus on a mountain top with Moses and Elijah?

Yet, Peter thinks he has figured things out. He suggested building a dwelling place, or a church or temple on the mountain top. A place where he can put transcendent Jesus and his buddies Moses and Elijah into boxes. Boxes where they can be easily contained and managed.

Peter has the same instinct with God that we so often do. Peter wants to change the transcendent experience of the divine into a imminent one.

Now, what is the imminence of God you ask?

Well, the opposite of transcendent. Imminence is the closeness and nearness of God. The comfortable and the intimate. It is having coffee and reading the morning paper on a lazy weekend morning. It is a snuggling in a nice warm blanket to watch a movie on a snowy day.

Imminence is manageable. And Peter is trying to turn the Transcendence of the Transfiguration into the imminence of God in a comfortable and manageable box.

Peter’s instinct is the same as one we often share. We too get uncomfortable with the bigness of God, with a God who fills the ground to the sky, who is in every nook and cranny in creation. We prefer a cozy and comfortable God, who makes us feel nice and warm, who is manageable.

An imminent God doesn’t challenge us or threaten us. The cozy faith that is only about feeling the warmth of family and friends and coffee and passive entertainment of church and worship is one that we can unconsciously strive for. In fact, Christians in North America often think that the solution to our decline is to make God even more imminent, even more cozy and comfortable, more entertaining and non-threatening.

Yet, the God that our world seems to be longing for is a God who is bigger than the troubles of the world, not a warm blanket that makes us feel nice. The world longs for a God that is bigger than war and violence, than poverty and injustice, than discrimination and inequality. The world needs a God who transcends those things in the world which we no power against, a God who is greater than evil, bigger than suffering, stronger than death. Because we all know that these things are lurking around us, and that even this week we know in our community that we have no power over when tragedy steps out of the shadows.

And so despite Peter’s desire to build literal secure boxes to keep Jesus, Moses and Elijah in, God interrupts it all. As if the Transfiguration couldn’t get more transcendent, God breaks open the heavens and fills the world with God’s voice, and speaks directly to the disciples. And with the same message from the moment of Jesus’ baptism “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” But this time God adds, “Listen to him.”

And with this, the disciples finally realize what this moment is. And they fall to their faces in fear. The transcendence of this mountaintop has finally hit them. They have been struck by the message: God is big, very big. And you are small, very small. But not in terms of significance, but relationally. God’s bigness, God’s transcendence fills our world. God cannot be contained in a box and restricted to a mountain top. God is filling the world, God is filling the disciples world and our world. And God the Father has sent Jesus the Son to do the filling so the disciples ought to pay attention to their friend and teacher.

And all of a sudden, everything is back to normal Jesus isn’t in dazzling white, Moses and Elijah are gone. It is just the same four who walked hiked up the mountain are left to go back down.

But Jesus has done what Peter and what we cannot. Peter tired to turn the transcendent into the immienent, to fit a Big God into a small and cozy box, just we often try to do in our churches and communites, in our boxes of faith.

But Jesus turns to the imminent into the transcendent. Jesus take the imminent experience of being a teacher and friend of the disciples, of being close and near and intimate, of being comfortable and manageable and Jesus bridges us to the transcendence of God. For you see, even though the white closes and the pillars of faith are gone, the voice of God is no longer speaking from the heavens… the transcedence is still there.

Jesus and disciples go back down the mountain, yet the bridge to the heavens remains. And ir remains through Jesus himself. Jesus is bringing the heavens down to with him to the people. Through Jesus God is about to fill creation with God’s grace and mercy again.

Through the Jesus who will go to the cross, to the next mountain of Golgatha where the heavens will be opened again, this time as the powers of death are defeated.

And it is the same bridge to the heavens, to the transcendence of God that Jesus brings to us. No matter how comfortable and cozy we want our faith to be, Jesus bridges the imminence with the transcendent.

With intimate words of confession and forgiveness, Jesus opens us up to the mercy of God.

With water that drenches our head and hands, Jesus proclaims our identity in the Kingdom of God.

With words of eternal life spoken on our lips and in our ears, Jesus declares that God’s love for all creation is also for each and everyone one of us.

With bread and wine served with our hands and eaten with our mouths, Jesus joins us to one another and to the Body of Christ across time and space.

It was not the mountain top or the bricks and mortar of the cathedral that permitted the transcendent to exist in our midst. Rather, God is bridging us to the divine each time we gather as the body of Christ. And then Jesus brings that bigness into our small places of our lives.

On Transfiguration Sunday, in these transcendent places, Jesus opens up the heavens and connects us to the Kingdom of God. Because no matter how much we want a warm blanket God, we need a God who is bigger than all the great powers of our world. We need a God who transcends sin, suffering and death…. A God who brings heaven down into the valleys of life and who shows us that God is bigger than it all.

Holding on to Truth in a Post-Truth World

 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (Read the whole passage)

Have you ever been asked by a curious family member or friend, or even skeptical  or non-believing co-worker or neighbour why you show up here on Sunday morning? Have you ever been challenged to explain by a person who simply cannot and will not understand why you believe the outrageous claims about God that we Christians make? Maybe they were inviting you away for the weekend, or to play golf on Sunday morning, or out for Sunday brunch and you had to explain that you could not come along or it would have be later on in the day because you go to church. Maybe you were talking to some friends having a conversation over coffee when the topic of religion came up and you simply said nothing, because nothing seemed better than embarrassing yourself.

Most of us have probably experienced, at some point in our lives, that sheepish feeling of not knowing what to say or do when confronted with the challenge to explain why we believe in these things that we cannot explain or prove. Maybe you tried to give faith an explanation that you thought made sense or that seemed reasonable, but in the end all that came out is something like, “I can’t explain it, but I just know that its true somehow”. Reasons and explanations seem to only fall flat in the face of unflinching skepticism…At least this foolishness of faith can be somewhat justified because it is only a couple hours each week on Sunday mornings when the rest of the world is sleeping in anyways. Yet, at the same time the power of coming to this place is something that wish we could share, instead of humming and hawing when someone asks us what we do on Sunday mornings.

Unfortunately, the problem and the foolishness of the Gospel is that it does not jive with all the competing truths out there. It doesn’t make sense that God who created the universe would come to live with us as a peasant carpenter in the backwater of the known world two thousand years ago. It doesn’t make any more sense that God would willingly die at the hands of the people God created. And the thing that makes the least sense of all is that once creation had clearly done its best to finally get rid of Jesus by crucifying him on the cross, he comes back three days later.

Believing in the truth of God found in Jesus Christ is a minority opinion these days. Today in Canada there are more people sleeping in on Sunday morning than are showing up to church. This is not of course surprising in our post-truth world with alternative facts. We at one time are free to believe any crazy story we come across, while being skeptical of everything we hear. Evidence and facts are easily changed. Holding to truth to like the truth of Jesus’ work of saving dead sinners by making us alive is a fools endeavour.  There are many other truths that could portray us in a better light and give us a whole lot more power and importance.

And yet here in the foolish Church we have been proclaiming for weeks now the second coming of God in Christ during Advent, the birth of the divine Christ over Christmas, the revelation of Christ the Savior on Epiphany and soon we will proclaim the death of Christ the King on Good Friday. We have been singing about how Jesus is God, and we have been reading about how God has come in flesh and we have been praying about God working in ways that we cannot understand…. Yet, with all the ways we tell the story, it seems the Church doesn’t take the time to stop and ask, “Does this make sense?”

In perhaps one of the few places in scripture that might be considered an attempt to answer the skeptical question of “Does this make sense?” Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. Paul seems to be saying that this whole faith thing does not make any sense… except by faith. Only by experiencing of the power of God is our willingness to believe in this foolish proposition of the cross possible.

Look no further than what Jesus does today. As if Jesus is trying to show us the foolishness in action he preaches a sermon on a mountain to his disciples and crowds arounds, saying that things we would call curses are actually blessings.

And Paul takes the foolishness of faith even further. He says that we, the ones who are called by this foolish God to spread the gospel… he says that we are not wise, we are not powerful and we are not noble. We not only believe in a foolish God, but this foolish God has chosen us to be followers… a ridiculous choice.

But it is this ridiculousness that catches our attention. Its maybe even this ridiculousness that makes us show up to church on Sunday morning when most others are getting an extra sleep in day each week. This ridiculousness draws us here despite everything so that at least for a couple hours we can hear again the foolish story of God’s love for us.

In our world where truth is whatever we decide we want it to be… as people of faith we hold to a truth that roots us in a God who is not made in our image but we in God’s. And this God continues holding to the same story, even when it sounds foolish and silly. And because of that, we come here and we share with each other this ridiculous story about a peasant carpenter turned wandering homeless preacher. This story that tells us of a God who does everything backwards to the way we are told to do it. And the more we hear God’s story, the more it starts to break down and strip away all the fake truths and alternative truths of our world. And this foolish truth at odds with all the other truths start to root and ground us in our post-truth world. The Gospel gives us something to hold on to, when there doesn’t seem to be anything else. This story of radical grace and radical love from God that begins with the call to follow of a wandering preacher tells us that God is doing things that don’t make sense to rest of the world. Instead of offering proof, God offers love. Instead of offering explanation, God offers freedom. Instead of answering our questions, God invites us to follow.

Jesus calls us not only to set aside wisdom and power, but to set aside our mistrust, our cynicism, and reluctance to believe any so-called truth. And Jesus does it by simply saying, as we heard two weeks ago, “Come and See” and last week by saying “Follow Me, I will make you fishers of men”. This is the power of the Gospel that Paul was talking about. The power to turn our worlds inside out with a few simple words. This power allows us to trust in possibilities and opportunities of God’s working in the world in ways we cannot know. This power challenges our desire to be our own God while at the same allowing us to let of go of the burden trying to be God.

And so when we keep coming back here on Sunday morning, where we foolishly gather to hear the call of God to a new way of being in the world. Except that the more we come to hear this story about a God who comes to be born, to live, to die and to show us new life in resurrection, the more this story starts to be the only thing that makes sense during the rest week. Yet still our answer to those skeptics who ask us, “Why do you bother with that faith thing?” is the same. “We don’t know why, it just makes sense somehow”. And maybe this is why Paul doesn’t explain it to us but reminds us that the Gospel will only ever sound like foolishness. And maybe this is why God doesn’t offer any spin or alternative facts, because it is an unchanging foolishness of the call to “Come and see”, to “Follow me”, its in the foolishness of God’s unexplainable love, that truth is found.

We have no idea what we are looking for

John 1:29-42

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” (Read the whole passage)

Today, begins a time of the church year that is ambiguous and vague. We have just come from Advent, Christmas and the Day of Epiphany… 3 seasons that tell us stories of Christ’s birth and early years. A then the Baptism of Jesus came last week as an introduction to his ministry. But now we enter into 6 weeks of time in-between time. Christmas and Epiphany are over,  but Lent has yet to begin. And so we are left with this season of green time where we hear stories related to Jesus’ ministry and teachings like the ones in that long season of green that starts after Easter and Pentecost, yet the stories are not fully devoted to ministry and preaching. And the stories of Jesus that we hear are also connected to the revelation of Epiphany ad they show us who Jesus is by revealing his true identity as God’s Messiah sent to save, but they are also not Epiphany stories proper.

And so in this in-between time, we receive our first in-between story.

We take up with John the Baptist again, who showed up a couple times in Advent, and now again last week. John, his disciples and the crowds are loitering at the river, when Jesus comes along. This sounds like the baptism from last week, but there is no mention of Jesus’ baptism today. Instead, this sounds more like the background to the baptism, a behind-the-scenes look at Jesus and the disciples loitering around the river Jordan.

As John is preaching, once John sees Jesus come along, his points out who Jesus is. The Lamb of God sent to take away the sin of the world. The crowds are there to hear John preach, but he points them to Jesus instead.

But people don’t seem to be picking up what John is saying and they continue doing what they were doing. So the next day, when the same thing happens again, John has to point out Jesus again. As Jesus walks by John and John’s disciples, John reminds all who can hear, that this is again is the Lamb of God, the Messiah. But this time instead of every going back to their business, two disciples stop and decide to check Jesus out.

We can almost imagine the scene. There is John preaching near the river, while Jesus wanders about the crowds almost unnoticed. Maybe he is looking for someone, for people who will show the tiniest sign of recognition.

Andrew and Simon finally step forward and when Jesus seems them he asks a question.

“What are you looking for?”

Andrew and Simon seem baffled by this question. The do not have an answer.

But surely they aren’t the only ones. Maybe Jesus has been asking people for days.

“What are you looking for?”

Coming from Jesus, this question surely has the tinge of a deeper meaning hinted at. You can imagine that every time Jesus has asked someone till now all he has gotten is someone shaking their head staring and the ground or pretending like he is invisible.

So perhaps we should consider just who is asking this question. Jesus, the one who John has proclaimed to be the Messiah, the Lamb of God is asking. Jesus, the one who we believe to be God, the second person of the Trinity is asking. And where one person is, so the other two are also. The God and King of the universe, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is asking, “What are you looking for?” So, what would there be to answer? Happiness and Wealth? Love and family? A Long life? Peace in a violent and sinful world? Food for starving children? Cures for cancer and heart disease? An upgrade on your room in heaven?

Well, the disciples don’t ask for any of those things. Rather, they ask a question of their own. But not a brilliant question that provides food for thought. Something mundane, maybe even ridiculous. Something that if we were asked in our modern way of speaking might sound like, “So, uh, where are you staying?”

But at least Andrew and Simon recognized that answering Jesus, saying anything at all was important. They saw something when John told them who Jesus was, and they have the vaguest sense again that responding in some way to Jesus is important.

Despite 2000 years of history before us, and a much better idea of just who Jesus is, I doubt we would answer that question much better. For all of our church buildings and committees, our Christian nations and empires, our indoctrination in the faith…

If Jesus were to show up and ask us, ‘What are you looking for?”

We would probably ask if he wanted to serve on church council or if he has a mailbox number for offering envelopes.

The thing is, we just don’t know. We don’t know what we want when it comes to faith and meaning. We don’t know what we are looking for.

For whatever reason, the disciple’s answer Jesus’ question with their own strange question. But they are no less clueless than we are.

All Advent we waited for Messiah. At Christmas we rejoiced at Messiah’s coming. In Epiphany the Messiah, the Christ, God in flesh was revealed to us. But now that Messiah is here, we don’t really know what to do with him. Like the disciples, we find it hard to grasp the magnitude of the Messiah, of Christ being with us, here and now. It is one thing for the long awaited guest of honour to arrive, but is another to know what to do once the dinner party is over and the guest is still hanging around.

Even more so, it hard for us to know what to do with God in our lives. Hard to know what this faith business means on Monday morning to Saturday night. What does that mean for us? What do we say? Where do we go? How do we respond?

If John the Baptist had heard the disciples answer to Jesus’ question he might have shamed them not getting it. But that is not Jesus’ way. Instead of correcting or condemning, Jesus gives a simple answer. “Come and See”.

Come and See.

Jesus gives an invitation that is more than invitation. Instead of calling from the pulpit or the river as John is, Jesus comes near, he looks the disciples and us in the eye. Jesus does this in order to pull us into the story of Messiah, Jesus opens our eyes to the new thing that God is doing in our world, in our lives.

Jesus is NOT looking for us to know the answer to his question. Jesus knows that we haven’t faintest idea of what we are looking for. Jesus knows that we are wondering life, about faith and meaning, about suffering death, about hope in the hopeless, about finding the lost, about light in the darkness. We are wondering about the Messiah. Jesus knows that we are full of questions, not answers.

But Jesus does not condemn us for not knowing what to do with Messiah. Instead he offers 3 gracious words, words that grab and hold us. Come. Come, with me and I will go with you in this life. They are words that show us God. See. See, here I AM, here the God of all things is here, close and near with you.

Come and See.

Come and See.

Jesus doesn’t expect to answer his question, he answer it for us.

“What are you looking for?”

“Come and See” Jesus says.

Come and See the Messiah, the God made flesh come to dwell among us. The God who comes to look us in the eye, and take our hand in his. The Messiah who doesn’t just come for Christmas dinner and then goes home, but who has come for good into our world, and into our messy lives. Messiah, the Lamb of God is revealed by getting down into our confused and messy lives with us, knowing that we don’t know what we are looking for.

Because the Messiah knows what or who he is looking for… Messiah is looking for, and today, has found us.

Come and See, Jesus says, come and see that I have found you.


*Image credit: http://www.northwestchurchofchrist.org/come-and-see