P A S T O R ‘ S   B L O G

In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

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Gideon – Contending for God

The story of Gideon is part of nearly every Sunday School curriculum. Who doesn’t love the story of how Gideon’s big army became a small group of 300 men who, by God’s power, overcame Israel’s enemies, the Midianites? It’s a story that sparks our imagination.

Less known is the part of the story where Gideon chops down the altar that was dedicated to Baal and builds an altar to the Lord. This was a neighbourhood altar, and he was afraid of his neighbours’ negative reaction, so instead of making the destruction of Baal’s altar a public spectacle, he and a few of his men did the job at night. When morning came, Baal’s altar was gone and the remnants of Gideon’s sacrifice to the Lord remained on the new altar.

When the people woke up in the morning, they were rather upset that their centre of worship had been torn down and a new one was standing in its place. They did a little investigating and discovered quite quickly that it was Gideon who had destroyed their community altar, and they demanded that Gideon’s father, Joash, hand him over so that they could punish him. Joash refused, saying instead that if they really believed that Baal was the most powerful god, then Baal could defend himself. This made quite a bit of sense, and the townspeople left Gideon alone. They also gave him a nickname, Jerub-Baal, which means “let Baal contend.” If anything happened to Gideon, they could say that Baal had punished Gideon for his sacrilegious act. We know the rest of the story: Gideon, aka Jerub-Baal, went on to defeat Israel’s enemies because the Lord was on his side, and he died an old man. Baal never did anything to Gideon, proving to his worshippers that he was a very weak god, not truly worthy of the worship or even the attention of anyone.

In sharp contrast the Lord could take care of himself. Or could he? We are told that the Midianites had overrun the land of Israel, forcing the Israelites to become refugees from their own homes to live in caves and makeshift shelters. They cried out to the Lord for help, and God raised up Gideon to provide that help. Gideon did accuse God of not keeping his promise to protect his people from their enemies, but he was not justified in so saying. God had sent a prophet to tell the people that the reason they were suffering was because they had abandoned him, and because they had abandoned him, he had no obligation to protect them. Nevertheless, he would provide a leader (called a judge in Judges) to lead them to victory over their enemies.

But can the Lord take care of himself, or does he need people to help him out? Gideon wasn’t sure. It sounded like the Lord needed the help of people to rid the land of the Midianites, and Gideon wanted to confirm that the Lord was asking for his help. Three times over he asked for a sign to confirm that the Lord truly had called him to fight the Midianites, and three times the Lord provided a sign, first by consuming a meal Gideon had offered with fire and second and third by first making a fleece wet and then keeping it dry as it lay on the ground through the night. Gideon was not a man of great faith, and he wanted to be sure that he could take God at his word. God accommodated him by giving him his signs.

And, to prove that he (God, not Gideon) was going to contend with the Midianites, he had Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 men to a mere 300. Against impossible odds, the Israelites defeated the Midianites so thoroughly that they never bothered the Israelites again. (Recall that the Midianites had been the first army to attack Israel after they were freed from Egypt, and they continued to find ways to destroy God’s people.) The Midianites had disrespected the Lord, and the Lord dealt with them. God’s action stands in striking contrast to Baal’s inaction, proving that the Lord truly is God.

The Lord can take care of himself, and he does. In fact, it is quite clear that he doesn’t need us to fight his battles. The odds were so stacked against Gideon and his 300 men that it is foolish to think that they had any real part in winning the battle. Without a doubt, the battle belonged to the Lord.

Although the Old Testament there are many other examples of how God contended for himself, often by using his people, but nearly always in situations where his people could never have been victorious had he not been doing the actual work. This is most certainly true in Jesus Christ who should not have been victorious but yet was. As a man he would have been defeated, but as God he won the victory over the most powerful of enemies, one who has overrun the world, the devil himself. God defended himself and provided salvation for his people.

Since Jesus ascended into heaven left behind his church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to do his work of building his kingdom. Another way of saying, “building the kingdom,” would be to say, “showing God to be victorious.” In the past (and perhaps also in the present), the church has attempted to defend God’s honour by taking up sword and spear. We need only look to the ill-conceived crusades of 1000 years ago as an example in which Europeans attempted to free Jerusalem from the “infidels” and defend God’s honour. The crusades were an unmitigated disaster and remain a blight on Christianity and, by extension, on Jesus himself. Perhaps Christian leaders were calling the church to fight in the same way as was done in the Old Testament. It is always dangerous, however, to take Old Testament examples of Israel and use them as instruction for how we ought to act today.

How does the church respond to this world being overrun by evil and sin? It lets God contend with those who disrespect him and even seek to overthrow him by tearing down his altars through the marginalization and persecution of the gospel. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a task, but our task is not to defend God. Perhaps the song, “Lead On, O King Eternal,” which has seemingly military overtones captures well our role: “For now with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly Kingdom comes.” We don’t have to defend God, for God will defend himself, quite capably, in fact. It seems impossible that by being kind and simply caring for people we will win any victories. And it is impossible. But, of course, it is not up to us to win victories. We are simply called to be faithful to the calling Jesus has placed on our lives and trust that he will contend for himself. And he will. And he does. By his grace.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Martyrdom

The English word, “martyr,” comes directly from the Greek word, and when it is found in the Greek, it usually is translated as “witness.” In secular usage Greek speaking people in biblical times would refer to someone who gave evidence in a court room as a martyr. Someone who witnessed the signature of a legal document would be named a martyr. A martyr was normally a person, but sometimes a written historical account could also be called a martyr. A martyr was anyone or anything who witnessed something and could give testimony to others about the authenticity of what they had observed. A martyr was one who knew the truth and testified to that truth. It is appropriate, then, that the Greek word, “martyr,” is translated to the English as “witness.”

While Greek speaking people still use the word, “martyr,” to refer to a witness to the authenticity of an event, the word in English has taken on a very specific meaning. Martyrs are those who have suffered death because they refuse to renounce their faith. Thus, in the common English usage of the word, all Christian martyrs are dead because they remained faithful to Jesus Christ even when they knew they would die for their faithfulness.

From time to time, I have read the stories of martyrs, and I wonder what I would do in a similar situation. If it were demanded of me that I renounce Jesus or be killed, how would I respond? I would hope that I would respond by being faithfully stalwart to the end, and that is certainly a goal I would set for myself, but I don’t know if I would be able to reach that goal. We can read many stories of those who died for their faith, but there are also many stories of how now long-forgotten people who renounced Jesus in the face of persecution and did not remain faithful. I would not want to be among them, but I can’t make any guarantees that I would not. Perhaps like many of you, I have reflected on how I would respond if it became dangerous to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps there is a way that we can practice becoming a martyr, should that need arise. We reserve the term, “martyr,” for those who have given their life because they would not renounce Jesus, but we can also use the broader sense of the word to think about someone witnessing to the authenticity of Jesus even while they are alive. In the broader sense of the word, a martyr is not only one who dies for Jesus; a martyr can also be one who lives for Jesus. And this, perhaps, is the way we can practice for becoming someone who dies for Jesus.

I suspect that if we would go back into history and examine the lives of those who died for their faith, we would discover that those great heroes of the faith also lived faithfully for Jesus. In other words, they practiced for their martyrdom by being faithful to Jesus when not confronted with their own deaths. It would be harder to study the lives of those who did renounce Jesus in the face of persecution, for their stories are not often told, but I would suspect that we would discover that they denied Jesus when facing death because they were also not faithful to Jesus when living their lives. So, if I really want to know if I would die for Jesus, I must ask myself how willing I am to live for Jesus. Living faithfully for Jesus would make dying for Jesus more likely.

There is another facet to this whole discussion that we must not forget. Often, we make martyrs (those who died for Jesus) into heroes, elevating them above the rest of us. Without a doubt their stories need to be told, but I suspect that most martyrs would not see themselves as heroes. I had lunch with a man once who nearly died for his faith. Living in a place where being a Christian was allowed but witnessing for Jesus was not, this man had been speaking to others about God’s grace in Jesus Christ. For his witness, he was arrested and after a short trial, was sentenced to death by having his head chopped off with a sword. On the fateful day, he was taken into the courtyard, and the executioner made himself ready. In the minutes before he was executed, he asked to pray, and he prayed for those who were going to take his life. What happened next, this man does not fully understand, but his execution was delayed, and he was released from prison a few days later. As he told the story, the rest of us were amazed, but he did not see himself as a hero. He was only being faithful, for that was all that was being asked of him.

When he gave his testimony and told his story, what became clear was that he not only was willing to die for Jesus, but he was also eager to live for Jesus. I met this man in seminary, and I know that after his studies he returned to his country, but what happened after that, I do not know. I suspect that he continued to witness to those around him of God’s grace in Jesus, and he may have faced the executioner’s sword once again. I do not know, but this I do know: for him Jesus was the one who should receive the glory. In his mind, Jesus was the hero, for it was Jesus who had brought salvation to this world by giving his life for us.

I do wonder if I would be a martyr, giving my life for Jesus, or if I would be ranked among the cowards. I also know that my chances of being a martyr increase, not as I fortify myself and make myself strong but as I humbly submit to Jesus Christ and live for him. In living for him, I also can practice for the event of dying for him, if that should come. I imagine that if we live for the Lord, we won’t find dying for him such a bit stretch. Living as a martyr (witness) should make it possible for one to die as a martyr. If, however, if we don’t live for him, dying for him might well be beyond us should that need ever arise. So, like you, I need to continue to practice for martyrdom, for, while it may never happen, I need to be prepared for it. The only way to prepare is to live humbly and obediently for the Lord Jesus Christ, witnessing to his death for us in our lives so that we can witness to his grace in our deaths.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Whipping Boy

Whether or not whipping boys really existed is up for debate, although there are several recorded incidents where whipping boys may have been part of a royal household. The expression, “whipping boy,” has this back story: princes did not go the regular school, but, rather, were educated in their homes by private tutors. As we can imagine the little princes were not always angels, and the tutor might be required to exercise a little discipline, mostly in the form of corporal punishment, a slap or spanking or, as was commonly practiced, a whipping with a willow branch or some equivalent instrument. Being that his prodigy was of royal lineage and from a family of significant power, the tutor might be hesitant to administer the appropriate punishment. The story goes that the tutor ask that young boys of the prince’s age be invited to join in the classroom and befriend him. If the prince did something wrong or did not apply himself to his studies, instead of punishing the prince himself, the tutor would administer a whipping to one of the friends. Hopefully, in seeing his friend suffer, the prince would realize the error of his ways and learn to behave. The unfortunate friend was called the “whipping boy.” Again, it is uncertain how common this practice was, although there are records of others being punished by proxy in place of the prince, including incidents in France, England, and China.

I’m sure I am not alone when I think about how this system could break down. What if the prince is an entitled little imp and revels in the pain of others? Pity his “friends,” for they would receive multiple beatings. Or what if the prince is a bit of a loner and has not become close to his chosen friends? The beating would not arouse the appropriate emotional response in the prince. What if the prince hated school and didn’t apply himself? The whipping boys would become quite familiar with the willow switch.

For the system to work (and perhaps the reason that it wasn’t used all that often was because it didn’t work) a couple of factors had to be in play: the prince must be of the compassionate sort, and he would have to have cared for his friends. If the prince was not, the whole system would fail, and the whipping boys, although they would have received a privileged education, would not have appreciated the role assigned to them.

We have adopted the term, “whipping boy,” often to refer to someone who is punished for something they did not do. or, sometimes, we use it to refer to someone who is the constant object of bullying in the school yard even though they have done nothing to invite the abuse. To be a whipping boy is to receive undeserved punishment. I wonder if there were any boys who welcomed the invitation to become friends of the prince where whipping boys were employed to discipline the prince.

Some have compared Jesus to a whipping boy. He acts in proxy for us when he takes the punishment of the cross. But to what effect? Can Jesus be compared to a whipping boy? It is appropriate to think of him in this way?

Remember the purpose of the beating: it was to move the prince to behave. In the 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, the beating of Jesus lasts for a long time. People complained about the gruesomeness of the scene, but it did evoke a visceral (very physical) response. Many were horrified by the depravity of humanity that allowed some to so cruelly torture another human being. I don’t recall if the movie stated either implicitly or explicitly that Jesus was suffering for our sins, but even if it did, would it move anyone to better behaviour? Does Jesus’ suffering result in better behaviour on our behalf? Is Jesus’ suffering meant to cause us to behave better?

Perhaps some who watched the movie were moved to say, “He suffered for me, so I should behave better.” But is that why Jesus suffered on our behalf? Did he suffer the beatings and the crucifixion so that we would be moved to compassion and behave better? I think that that misses the whole point of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Jesus was not our whipping boy. True, he stood in our place and bore our sins, but he didn’t do that so we, out of compassion, would work a little harder at avoiding sin. Jesus’ death was much greater than that, for in his death, he actually took away our sin. Not only did he take the punishment that we deserve, he also took away God’s memory of our sin, at least figuratively speaking. God doesn’t remember our sins anymore, meaning that he will never go back to them and remind us of them again. When forgiven, they are also forgotten.

Watching the beating, as it was depicted in the movie, might give us pause and make us consider what we do. But that was not the goal of Jesus’ death. His goal was to free us from our sin, not to make us behave more appropriately. He did not come to this world to become our whipping boy, suffering so that we could behave. He came to this earth to bring forgiveness.

One of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition is that our good behaviour is not an act of contrition (sorry, Jesus, that we caused your suffering and we won’t do it again), but as an act of gratitude (thank you for taking my sin and its punishment on yourself). Jesus did not suffer and die so that we would learn to behave. He suffered and died so that would be forgiven and as a response to that forgiveness, we would gratefully serve him.

I don’t think Jesus could be called a whipping boy, although some have done so. He didn’t suffer to move us to better behaviour. He suffered so that we could be forgiven, and, hopefully, that may move us toward gratitude so that we serve and obey him. It is because we are forgiven that we are moved to good behaviour, and forgiveness is a much more powerful motivator than watching someone suffer on our behalf.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Roots

In the past few months I have met people who have come to Canada from a number of places in the world. A man from Pakistan prepared and sold me my lunch. Someone from the Philippines tried to sell me a vehicle. I have been spending some time mudding drywall with a man from Ukraine. I bought some plywood from a man whose roots are in the Netherlands. I enjoy talking with people where they come from, for they often have interesting stories about what brought them to Canada.

Often, when we talk about places of origin, we refer to them as our being the place where we are rooted. In that case, my roots are in the Netherlands, and I could also say that they are in Ontario. Our roots tell us and others where we come from, or so we say.

But, as we know, roots do not actually speak of our origins. A seed may be the origin of a plant, but the roots rarely are. Roots are as much part of the plant as is the stem and the flower and the fruit. For a plant, roots gather nourishment and stability for the plant, but, technically speaking, they do not reveal our origins, even though we use the word in that way.

If we use that definition, I would have to say that my roots are in Alberta. My life is here, and the nourishment and stability for my life are here, not in Ontario or Holland. I am rooted in Alberta, even if I am a transplant. As a transplanted person, my roots may not be firmly rooted in Alberta, but I suspect that will change the longer I am here. In time I might even be considered an Albertan, although considering how it seems that some Albertans are slow to accept people “from away,” I might not live long enough for that to happen. (The people of the Maritime provinces are equally slow in their acceptance of “come-from-aways,” as they call transplants.)

Instead of using the term “roots” to talk about our origins, it might be more helpful to use the term “origin” for that purpose and instead use the term, “root,” to talk about that which gathers nourishment and provides stability. Thinking of things that way helps us understand what Paul means when we ought to be rooted in Christ (Colossians 2:7). Instead of thinking of Jesus Christ as being the one who originates us (although he does that as well), we are encouraged to think of Jesus being the one who provides us with nourishment and stability that we need to live. He is the soil that wraps around our roots and provides us what we need for all of life.

When we think of our roots in that way, we are encouraged to consider what it is that we are rooted in. We are presented with many different options as to where we may want to sink our roots, and we want to look for the best one. As any farmer knows, the soil that surrounds the roots must be fertile, and it must be of the right texture to grasp hold of the roots so that the plant does not fall over. Both of these are essential if a plant is going to grow and thrive and produce a crop.

Poor soil will not produce healthy plants. Most often we think of physical nutrients, things like money and health and housing and clothes, and most of us perceive that we get these through our own efforts, by working hard so that we can have what we need to live. Of course, it is somewhat of an illusion to think that what we have comes from our own efforts. In reality, if God, through Christ, is the soil in which we are rooted, he is the one who supplies us with health so that we can work, with stores so that we can buy food, and an appropriate supply system so that the shelves of our stores remained stocked. We are beneficiaries of these important things, and we cannot say that we have obtained them ourselves. Christ makes our blessings available to us, and the greatest blessing, of course, is our salvation. If he did not make that available to us, we would remain spiritually dead. God is the source of all that we need for life (nutrients), both physically and spiritually, and we cannot live without him. Jesus Christ is the soil which supplies nutrients both for our physical and spiritual lives.

The soil supplies nutrients for the roots, but it also gives stability to the plant. Anyone who has pulled weeds from their garden in the summer time knows how difficult it is to dislodge the roots. The soil grabs onto the roots and it won’t let them go. From time to time, however the soil does not do its job. A tree may appear to be thriving in the soil, but its stability and longevity is nothing but an illusion, for when a high wind blows against it, its roots dislodge and it topples over and dies. We might compare the wind to the trials of life. Unless our roots are held tight by something, there will come a time when we will not be able to withstand the pressure. Some things in life might topple us over: a broken relationship, the diagnosis of cancer, the death of a loved one, and certainly death itself is impossible to withstand. Unless something is holding our roots tightly, we will not survive the storm.

Thus, I am obligated to ask, “Where are my roots?” I am not rooted in Ontario or the Netherlands although I could say that those places are my origins. I should not even be rooted in Alberta as the place which keeps me alive and stable. Only Christ truly supplies what we need for life and he is the one who will sustain us as we face the challenges and trials of life, including the greatest trial, our own deaths. If we are rooted in Christ, we can be sure that he will hold onto us come what may, and he will provide us with the nutrients to remain vibrant and healthy and strong. Being rooted in Christ means that we know who sustains our lives and who provides us the strength to face the winds that are sure to come.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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