MidWeek Message (Mar 11-Mar 17)

Midweek Reflection by Ruth Lemmen:

We’ll be focusing on the Psalm reading this Sunday, and Psalms are essentially songs.  The book of Psalms is the prayer book and hymn book of the Bible.  Like contemporary songs and poems, they give voice to a variety of emotions and experiences in ways that prose is unable to.

One of the ways that I observe the church year in my life is through music.  As we walk through the seasons of the year, I change some of the music I listen to.  In the last week, I have pulled up my Lent playlists.  My earbuds are now full of slower tempo songs in minor keys, drawing me into the themes of this season of the year.  On Easter, I will pull up the Easter playlist and rejoice with upbeat songs in major keys.  But for these weeks, I am letting the music help me slow down and reflect.  Here’s a few of my favorites (hopefully available wherever you get your music, if you want to take up this practice, too).

“Dust We Are And Shall Return” (Lent)—Brilliance
“From dust we've come / and dust we are / and shall return
Be still my soul / And let it go / Just let it go”

“Always Good” (Resurrection Songs: Prologue)-- Andrew Peterson
“Well it's so hard to know what You're doing / Why won't You tell it all plain?
But You said You'd come back on the third day / And Peter missed it again and again”

“Beautiful Things” (Beautiful Things)-- Gungor
“You make beautiful things out of the dust / You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of us”

“Barton Hollow” (The Civil Wars)-- The Civil Wars
“I'm a dead man walking here / But that's the least of all my fears / Ooh, underneath the water
It's not Alabama clay / That gives my trembling hands away / Please forgive me father”

“Have Mercy” (Psalms)-- Sandra McCracken
“Oh help my unbelief / Oh help my unbelief, O Lord 
Have mercy, O Lord / Have mercy” 

The Messiah: Part 2—Handel (performed by many groups)
“He was despised and rejected of men, / a man of sorrows and acquainted with
grief”

MidWeek Message (Mar 4-Mar 10)

A Sermon for Ash Weds
Dr. Shawn Bawulski
Delivered at COGS, 03-06-2019

When I lived in Phoenix my church did a children’s lesson every week during the service.  Usually just a few minutes long, the pastor would call all the kids to the steps up front, sit down at their level, and talk them through a lesson.  One Sunday the lesson was about heaven, and a 4 year old kid raised her hand.  “Yes?” said the pastor.  In a loud and serious voice, this kid said, “Before heaven, first we all have to die.  We’re all gonna die, you know.”  All the adults in the room chuckled.  Maybe the timing was inappropriate, but the kid wasn’t wrong.

We’re all gonna die, you know.

Life is serious and risky business, and no one gets out alive.  Our time in this dusty body is short.  And we do not know when it will end.

My first point this Ash Weds is that you are mortal.  In just a few minutes each of us will hear this when ashes are rubbed on our foreheads: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We all live with this truth hanging over us.  We seek out things to preoccupy our minds to distract us from it.  Sometimes we act out in desperation from it.  The existential anxiety of our “dustiness”, so to speak, is something all humans experience.

Today, as Christians, we speak this truth out loud.  We put it on the forefronts of our minds and mark it on the forefronts of our heads.  We are creatures of dust.

You are dust, and you will return to dust.  It is important to sit in that truth during the Lenten season.  Easter is the Christian promise that while we return to dust, we won’t stay there forever.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Remember that you are mortal. 

My second point this Ash Weds is that you need forgiveness.  Sometimes on this day people say, “Repent, and believe the gospel.”  We need forgiveness, and we need to hear this, for two reasons.

Reason 1: We need to hear this because we are sinners.

We are sinners because we are born in sin.  Our sinful condition can be traced back to the beginning of human existence.  It is like a spiritual disease, passed on from our parents all the way back to our first parents.  As we will soon read in Psalm 51 verse 6, the psalmist says, “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother's womb.”  We are sinners because we are born in sin.  We are also sinners because each one of us ratifies our sinfulness with our own sins that we commit.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul writes in Romans.  All of us.  Sin has corrupted every aspect of our being: our minds, our wills, our emotions, our relationships, our bodies, our words, and our actions.  We sinners need forgiveness.

Reason 2: We need to hear that we need forgiveness because we must repent.

God has told us that his forgiveness requires our repentance.  What is repentance?

Repentance is a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of life direction.  To repent is to turn away from sin and turn towards God.  Repentance begins when we first come to faith in Jesus, but it doesn’t end there.  It is an ongoing process and posture for the Christian. 

What does repentance require?  Several things:

Most importantly, it requires God’s openness.  If God isn’t into it, the whole thing would be futile.  But he is open and willing that we should repent.  Joel 2:13 says that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  In fact, God is so open and willing that for our sake God made Jesus—who knew no sin—to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).  We can repent because God has provided the opportunity and the ability for us to repent.  He is open to it, and Jesus commands us to do so.

Repentance also requires an awareness of sin: we ask ourselves, what do I need to turn away from?  This requires careful self-examination, which is a focus of the Lenten season. 

Repentance requires genuine contrition, which means truly being sorry, not just sorry we got caught.  This speaks to repenting with the right motives.  In the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks about bad motives for our piety: being seen and getting social recognition.  If we our repentance is true, then it will be directed towards God, not towards the recognition of others.   

Finally, repentance requires us to do it together.  Some sins are corporate sins that we’ve all committed together.  We inherit them, we carry them, and we continue them.  Just to name a few: racial injustice, gender based violence and discrimination, and the destruction of the earth’s ecosystems.  And there are so many more.  Corporate sin requires corporate repentance.  Our reading from Joel chapter 2 talks about how, in public, we repent together for the sins we’ve done together.

 

We need forgiveness, and we must repent from our sins.

 

On this Ash Weds, we remember that we creatures of dust are mortal, and that we need forgiveness.

So today we ask, “What do I need to turn away from?” and “What do we need to turn away from?”  

MidWeek Message (Feb 25-Mar 3)

Midweek reflection by Pastor Shawn Bawulski:

For this upcoming Sunday, the OT reading is Exodus 34:29-35 and the epistle reading is 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2 (see http://lectionarypage.net/YearC_RCL/Epiphany/CEpiLast_RCL.html ).  In both passages, there’s a bit that might seem odd to us: what is going on with the face veiling? 

To make sense of this, we need to understand the old covenant and the new covenant.  A covenant is a solemn, binding agreement.  Here we are talking about covenants between God and humans.  It’s like a contract, only much more personal, more like wedding vows.  God is a God who covenants with humans.  There are several covenants in the Bible, but two are important here: the old covenant given through Moses and the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

The old covenant was when God established rules for his forgiven, delivered people.  Having come out of Egypt, God’s people were to live and work together differently.  They were to be a people who reflected God’s character and who were a light to all the peoples of the earth.  But even as Moses was up on the mountain with God, receiving instructions from on high, the people were down below trying to capture God in a golden calf they had made.  Things did not get off to a good start in this covenant.

The hard-heartedness of God’s people continued on through Israel’s history.  Yet God was nonetheless faithful and promised a new covenant, one that would address the main problem: the people’s stone-cold hearts towards God.  The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of a day when God’s law would be written on his people’s hearts, and they would be spiritually alive for faithful obedience.  This new covenant is founded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And this new covenant has power because the Spirit of God is now in us, in we who believe.

The law, which was written on stone, is fulfilled in us because the Spirit of God enables us to observe his law.  God the Spirit turns our hearts of stone into living hearts of flesh.  The problem wasn’t with the Law of Moses itself, of course.  The law is perfect; the law expresses the character of God.  No, the problem was with the sinful hearts of God’s people.  And because of our stone-cold hearts, the law can the kill us.  We need the Spirit.  In some ways the Law of Moses was like why little kids need training wheels on a bicycle: the problem isn’t with the bike, it’s with the one using it.

This framework about the old and new covenants helps us grasp the NT epistle readings for this Sunday.  Paul is talking about the glory of God, comparing how that worked in each covenant.  When Moses came down from the mountain, the golden calf idol-makers couldn’t look at the glory of God in Moses’ face.  They had the law of God without the Spirit of God—and the absence of the Spirit kills.  So as an act of mercy, Moses hid his face with a veil because God’s glory would have brought an end to his spiritually stubborn people.

Things are different in the New Covenant.  His glory is more fully present because God’s Spirit has changed our hearts and has brought us life.  Moses’ ministry had outward signs of God’s glory but it brought death.  The Spirit’s glorious ministry lacks outward signs but it brings life!

This is what Moses’ veil was all about.  Because the Spirit is at work in us in the New Covenant, the apostle Paul is bold and free, unlike Moses.  Paul’s ministry doesn’t need a veil because now, in the New Covenant, God’s people are by definition under a new disposition, one radically changed by God the Spirit.  In the New Covenant anyone who turns to the Lord has their veil removed by the Spirit. 

The moral transformation of God’s people is the difference between the old and new covenants.  Transformation is big business on TV.  Several reality shows are about transformation.  There are the home makeover shows that turn an ugly room or a dilapidated house into something on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.  Then there are the “get fit” reality shows like the Biggest Loser that transform people’s bodies.  These make for popular TV, but the problem is that the transformations are external and they usually don’t last once the TV show is done.  The transformation in the New Covenant is internal, forever changing us from within. 

 

MidWeek Message (Feb 18-24)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn Bawulski:

How should we think about God and food?

Perhaps food is a place of guilt and shame, or a stress release valve. Maybe we think of it mostly in terms of convenience. Or sometimes we obsess about diets and weight loss. This has even come over into Christian circles: in America, just to provide 2 examples, recent years have seen The Daniel (Diet) Plan and What Would Jesus Eat sell more than a few copies.

Well, I think “What would Jesus eat?” might be an interesting question. I think “What should I eat?” is a better question. But I think “As a Christian, how should I eat?” is the right question.

The answer to that question is, “eat with joy!” (Much of what I say here is indebted to a book called “Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food” by Rachel Marie Stone. (Find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Eat-Joy-Redeeming-Gods-Gift/dp/0830836586 ) This is an excellent book!)

To begin to understand what it means to eat with joy, we need to ask why God made us as creatures that eat. Angels don’t seem to eat, but every living creature with a body does something like eating. Why? And further, why did God make eating so pleasurable? There’s more to it than metabolism and biology. There’s a nicely aged cheese, fine wine, and dark chocolate—things we eat that are just so good! When we move beyond biology to theology, we get a fuller story: as creatures, food sustains us and gives us pleasure because God does all that and much more. In a way, food is delicious because God is delicious.

The Bible seems obsessed with food, from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to the marriage supper of the lamb. Food was first given to us before we fell into sin and took the creation down with us, and it was good. It was abundant and not toilsome to get. God fed us, and we ate together with God. God wanted to feed humans, but instead humans stood God up and obsessed about the one food we shouldn’t have. It all goes wrong from there.

Later, Jesus says, “I am the true manna.” Bread from heaven sustained the Israelites in a land that couldn’t. But of course, those Israelites eventually died. Jesus promises something different: everyone who feasts on him will not die! (See John 6:51) We need to eat regularly to live. Without food, we die. We depend on food, and for that we depend on the creator’s hand to provide from the earth. This is a daily reminder of a spiritual reality—we depend on Christ, the bread of eternal life.

God has made us to enjoy food! When we embrace that, we declare that God is our creator and he is good. Food connects us with God. But in a fallen world, we can make it twisted. But if we’re careful and intentional, it can be a source of true enjoyment. It can be a spiritual act, where we accept food like a child—joyfully, with pleasure and thanks.

Food is also an opportunity for us to obey Jesus in loving our neighbors. Jesus makes it very clear that he cares about the hungry (see, for example, Matt: 25:31-46). So what might food justice look like today? How can we love our neighbors when it comes to food and food production? God’s intention is that all are well fed with good, nourishing food. When that’s not the case, we need to take action. Further, the food systems in many countries are stained with human abuse, exploitation, and suffering. We are right to pray before a meal that God would bless the hands that brought us this food, but we should also do what we can to ensure that those people are treated with the dignity that is fitting of being made in the image of God, as all humans are. We might need to ask ourselves challenging questions like, “where all the people involved in getting this food onto my plate treated fairly?” Too much of our food comes from a place of misery, not joy. If we are to love our neighbors, we need to work to change that. (We also need to have similar concerns about the ecological effects of farming, sustainable practices, and animal welfare and suffering.)

Another important aspect of eating with joy is eating together. Sharing food and sharing company through hospitality is a core Christian practice. In the early church, the visible witness of different types of people sharing meals and sharing life was a powerful witness to the gospel—and that’s no less true today.

The main approach to eating with joy is to understand it as a redemptive practice. God works in us in a redemptive way: he starts where we are, and moves us, step-by-step to bring us closer to being like Jesus. A Christian approach to food works this way, too: we aren’t going to change everything at once, but little by little, we work with God in obedience to the gospel to redeem the whole of our world. Including food!

MidWeek Message (Feb 11-17)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn Bawulski:

This week we are going to try something during our Sunday worship service at COGS: we’re going to sing a Psalm a cappella.  I’ve gathered that this has not been a common practice at COGS, if ever.  But I think it will be an enriching and encouraging experience for us.

I first encountered a cappella psalmity when I moved to Scotland.  Growing up in a typical North American Evangelical church tradition, I was familiar with praise bands leading the congregation in the latest hits of contemporary worship.  I was also familiar with singing hymns.  But I didn’t realize that singing Psalms during corporate worship was even an option until I started attending a Presbyterian church in St Andrews, Scotland.  It was a refreshing practice for me.

Singing the Psalms is a longstanding tradition in the last 2,000 years of Christian worship.  It was especially emphasized by some of the Protestant Reformers, who understood themselves to be returning the church back to a focus on Scripture.  So what better way to do that than to sing the Word of God?  In fact, twice in the New Testament God commands us to sing the psalms (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

Singing the Psalms together has several benefits.  First, we sing and proclaim the Word of God.  Second, music has a special way of sticking in our minds and hearts.  Many of us can probably remember the songs we sang in church as children, even to this day.  And many of us have famous hymns permanently written into our minds (for example, finish the line: “A mighty fortress is our God, a…”).  So singing the Psalms can help us memorize and meditate on Scripture.  Third, the Psalms capture the full range of human emotion and experience.  Our worship should strive to do the same, but traditions that neglect the Psalms have a tendency to neglect experiences like doubt, lament, and wrestling with suffering.  Along these lines, the pastor, theologian, and reformer John Calvin writes that the Psalms are “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here [in the Psalms] as a mirror.”  Certainly our corporate worship should reflect the full emotional range of the life of the saints, and singing the Psalms is an excellent way to do so.

MidWeek Message (Feb 4 - Feb 10)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn Bawulski

Our New Testament reading for this Sunday is 1 Cor. 15:1-11, where Paul writes about Jesus’ resurrection.  He writes,

I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Here we have the most complete summary of the resurrection in all of Scripture.  It even contains some details not found in the gospels.  Paul reminds us that ancient prophecies speak of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He also points out that the resurrection was a public event: it was available to be seen and Paul provides of list of witnesses.  Eye-witness testimony was the basis of the early church’s belief in the resurrection, and there were a good number of eye-witnesses that could (at that time) be directly consulted if one so desired.  Over 500!  Jesus’ resurrection was not some secret trick, not merely some interior feeling, not something done in a corner (Acts 26:26).

And Paul was not the first.  Peter proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus in the first Christian sermon in public (Acts 2:24-26), and the apostles preached the resurrection to both Jew and gentile throughout the book of Acts.  It is fundamental to apostolic preaching, an essential part of the Christian faith, and the centrepiece of Christian thought.

However, we are confronted with a problem.  I’m not an eye-witness.  Neither are you.  None of us saw it with our own eyes.  And the eye-witnesses are no longer around for cross-examination.  How do we know the truth of the resurrection if we are so far removed in history from the event?

Another problem: there were many who saw Jesus’ life and miracles, and who were even right there in the right time and place to see and touch the risen Lord, or at least interrogate the eye-witnesses—and yet they didn’t become disciples.  If simply being an eyewitness to these historical events does not turn one into a disciple, what does?

In discussing these difficulties, the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard says that only a revelation from God—an encounter with Christ—in which he reveals himself can make someone a disciple.  This encounter, this Epiphany, is available to those in Christ’s time as well as to us today.  Everyone becomes a disciple in the moment that she encounters Christ firsthand.  This moment is when God in Christ reveals himself to an individual.  There is no disciple at second hand.  Details about the historical events may be the occasion for the moment, just like being an eyewitness to Jesus may be the occasion.  But historical knowledge alone, however it is gained, does not make one a disciple.  For that, we need to encounter the living Jesus through the work of the Spirit.  For that, we need faith. 

The risen Jesus encounters Thomas in John 20:29 and he tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 

MidWeek Message (January 30 - February 6)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn Bawulski

The gospel reading for this week is Luke 4:21-30, and it continues the scene of Jesus teaching in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth.  As I explained in the sermon last week on Luke 4:16-21, Jesus’ mission statement involves doing the things promised by the prophet Isaiah—in short, bringing good news to the poor.  After he spoke, those in the synagogue were amazed with him.  But then they say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  In other words, “hey, wait, we knew this guy when he was just a kid.  What’s so special about him?”  Jesus anticipates that they will demand that he do ‘his own work in his own backyard’ to prove his claims (this is the point of the proverb he cites, “Doctor, cure yourself!”).  In effect they are saying, “Show your stuff here, like you did in Capernaum.”

This is not exactly a warm homecoming welcome, to say the least.  And so Jesus points out that a prophet is without honour in his hometown; many of Israel’s prophets in the Old Testament were not well received by their own.  Then Jesus gets specific.  He singles out the period of Elijah and Elisha, a real low point of faith in the nation’s history (see 1Kings 17-18; 2 Kings 5:1-14).  He says that the prophets performed no work in Israel but they did heal a couple of Gentiles (verses 25-27)!  By saying this, Jesus compares that current era to Israel’s dark days during the time of Elijah and Elisha.  He also suggests that the much-disliked Gentiles were actually more worthy of ministry than they were.  Jesus is warning his audience that their reaction to him recalled some of the lowest years in Israel’s past.

Jesus challenges all sin, of course, but he has a way of poking at our more subtle sins.  The ones in our blind spots.  The ones we tend to downplay.  And that’s exactly what he does here to his fellow Jews sitting in the synagogue in his home town.  He is saying that they have a prophet—and so much more!—in their midst, and they have the opportunity to respond.  The right response would have been to acknowledge their pride and shortcomings, apologize, repent, and turn to God.  The wrong response was to get angry, run the prophet out of town, and try to kill him.  They chose the latter, and Jesus slipped away from them (in more ways than one).

The challenge for us is to respond rightly when God confronts us with our own sin.  It’s easy, natural in fact, to get angry and defensive.  It’s hard, supernatural in fact, to humbly repent and turn to God.