The Calling of Levi – a narrative sermon

Follow Me

This is the sermon that was preached by me this morning (Sunday 19th March) at St. Andrew UMC, in Titusville, FL.

I don’t put all my sermons on here, but I feel that this one went particularly well this morning and folks seemed to connect with it. In fact, folks seem to connect with any story telling sermon I do. Maybe I should do more…

The following was my guide for the monologue. There were points in the delivery of the sermon when I came slightly off script and ad lib’d a few bits and pieces. The entire sermon can be listened to here

Hi! I’m Levi.

I heard that you all were reading a little story about me today; the story of that time when Jesus came up to my table and asked me to follow him. What a day that was…it totally changed my life forever.

Yeah…I heard you were reading that story today and I wanted to come along and make sure that you heard it right. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I don’t trust Dr. Luke – everybody trust Dr. Luke – he is a great writer and always gets it pretty much spot on. But Dr. Luke had so much to write about when it comes to those three years of Jesus’s life I know that there is no way he could get everything that you need to know about me in there. So don’t consider this conversation between you and me to be a corrective of Dr. Luke’s work. I would never think to do that. Just think of this as some additional information that the good Dr. did not have room for. A little bit of personal testimony if you will.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself first. I had a fairly average upbringing. Nothing special at all. I was a reasonably good kid and didn’t get into that much trouble. Eventually I grew up and had to start thinking about how I would make a living. We weren’t a rich family – I could not rely on an inheritance. No…I would have to get a job and I would have to work hard to provide all that I needed in life.

I can’t remember how I got into this line of work. Trust me, no one grows up wanting to be a tax collector. I guess the opportunity was just there one day. I needed the work. There was the job and here was my need – I just went for it. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out? Right?

There are two sides to every story. Everyone says that tax collectors are the worst kind of people. They call us traitors because we are collecting funds for the Roman Empire. They call us thieves because they think we take more than we ought to from them. But it’s not that simple. When we get sent out as tax collectors we are told that we have to get from the people what we have to get from them and then there Roman’s tell us what we owe them. If there is a difference in those amounts, and it is to our benefit we are under no obligation to give it back. It’s just the system.

Well I got the job and I was good at it, and I would also say that it was good to me too. I had to put up with some social rejection and stigma, of course, but back in the early days it was worth it. I looked up to one of our big bosses, Zacchaeus, and I thought to myself, “I want all the things he has.” He really looked as if he had everything that anyone would ever want in life.

As the years went by I noticed that while I was doing very well and getting all the things I thought I wanted, I wasn’t really getting any happier. On the outside everything looked amazing. But on the inside I felt like I had nothing: no friends, no encouragement, and really no love in my life.

So I was stuck. I was in a corner. I was between a rock and a hard place. I needed the job to pay the bills and have the stuff I thought I wanted to have, but the job also meant that I had none of the things I really need in life; no fulfillment. I was just empty.

But what could I do?

I used to set up my table anywhere a crowd was gathering. I would go to the temple some days. On other days i would set up outside the governors office, knowing that the people would gather their to make a complaint or bring a case before him. On other days I would go to the market place – people always went there and they always had money too – the market was a great place to collect tax!

Then I discovered this other way to get people. We had so many traveling teachers and rabbis who would journey around the region saying this and saying that. Most of them had small followings and it usually was not worth setting up my table where they were. But that all changed when Jesus came on to the scene. Word had spread like wildfire about this guy. He was the one worth hearing. He was the one you wanted to be around. I know that one day the crowd was so big where he was that one group of guys who wanted to get close to him actually climbed on top of the house where Jesus was and made a hole in the roof so they could lower their friend to where Jesus was.

I thought to myself, “If that’s where the people are then that is where i should be to collect their taxes.” So I took my table along and set up shop right there where he was. I did so well that i started to follow him around. Wherever Jesus was, I would go too. I heard every word he said and I saw every person he interacted with.

The funny thing about it was this: when Jesus spoke; when he said his words and told his stories, I found myself feeling different inside. I don’t know what the feeling was exactly, but there was something going on inside me – I felt alive inside, and I had not felt that way in a very long time.

But I did nothing with those feelings. Jesus was never going to have anything for me. I was a tax collector. I was one of the worst. I knew that and everyone else knew that, and Jesus probably knew it too.

Or at least I thought he did, but the evidence pointed somewhere else. You see, I began to notice that everywhere he went he was not spending his time with good people. Normally religious teachers and rabbis spend their time with the good people; the people on the inside. But not Jesus. No! He spent his time with different people; ordinary people, and some downright rough people too – you know the ones that no-one would be seen with. He spent time with fishermen and shepherds, with lepers, he spoke back to the teachers of the law and to the Pharisees. There was even this one time when he got close to that lunatic in the Capernaum synagogue and told the demons to leave the luny alone. And they did. Jesus even spent time with women. In public. And they were not always respectable women. No. You think that tax collectors are looked down on? The only person considered as bad as people like me are those kind of women. The women Jesus seemed to always spend time with – and not in a bad way either.

Anyway, I was there time after time with Jesus. Sitting at my table, collecting my taxes, feeling something inside when he spoke, but always thinking that it could never be for me. People like this guy Jesus could never do anything for people like me. I was as far gone in life as anyone could imagine and that was just the way it was. I was a sinner; a reject; a social misfit and that was how it was always going to be.

Or so I thought.

That day when the guys had made that hole in the roof and lowered their friend through it; that day when the crowd was so big that no one could get close to Jesus. That was the day when I found out that Jesus is interested in sinners like me.

He came out of the building that day and made his way straight to my table.

“Follow me.” He said.

That was it. Nothing more. Just those two short words. Follow. Me.

You know what they say about those moments when you life is threatened and things all seem to slow down and your whole life flashes before your eyes? Well thats what it was like for me in this moment.

The main man; the star of the show; the biggest name in town who could get in to any house and sit with whomever he desired to sit with had just come to my table and asked me to follow him.

What was I to do? I had a good gig going on here. I was rich. I was only going to get richer. I had everything I wanted in life. But I also had nothing because the huge emptiness within me was always with me.

Do I stay in this job and keep on earning all the while feeling empty on the inside and rejected by everyone on the outside?

Or do I take a chance with Jesus.

I could continue to walk on the same road and continue getting what I had always got. Or I could make a change. Now. In this moment. A change that might break all the emptiness.

I have no idea what made me do what I did next, but I made the choice to go with Jesus. I got up and left my table right there and started to follow him.

This was a game changing moment for me and there was only one way I knew that would mark this moment appropriately – to throw a party. So I did. I threw a party at my house. I invited all my other tax collection colleagues and any other reject we could find and we had a banquet right there at my house. Jesus was in his element as we laughed and joked around the table. He told us stories that night which helped me understand just how much I needed him in my life. Where I had felt rejected, he made me feel welcome. Where I had felt too sinful to be in anyone’s company, he assured me that I was just as deserving of love as anyone else. Where I felt ashamed about my past and the things I had done in my life, he taught me that I could lift my head and starting living a new life.

Not everyone heard Jesus the same way though. And funnily enough it was the religious people that were making all the noise of complaint that night. “Why do you spend time with tax collectors and sinners like these?” They asked.

Jesus looked straight at them and said this:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Boom! Na na na boo boo! Take that, religious people! In your face! Ha ha ha

I know, I know…Jesus told me already that I can’t go showboating like that when I tell this story…but still!

Anyway the point is this:

Jesus came for people like me.
Jesus came to the world for people like me.
Sinners. Rejects. Misfits.

The ones everyone else can’t stand.
The ones no one else has any interest in.
The anonymous ones who go through life with no name because no one cares.
The ones who knew most that they needed Jesus’ help.
Jesus came for them.
Jesus came for you.

Yes. You.

You guys look really good – like butter wouldn’t melt.

But I know that all of us have things in our lives that we think might just be enough to turn Jesus away – regrets, actions, thoughts, those words we spoke in the heat of the moment, that relationship that did not work out, that habit we just can’t seem to kick.

We all have them.
We are all sick with sin and Jesus has come to us to call us to repent. To turn from those things and walk in a new path.

For me, that meant walking away from the table…literally. For me, that meant sacrificing the riches and things that I had become accustomed to in life. but you know what i learned? It’s all just stuff and none of that stuff on the outside of my life could ever have, or has ever since come close to the feeling I get on the inside when I remember that day that Jesus showed me that I am worthy of love and worthy of being welcomed. Nothing.

So…yeah…that’s my story. It has been amazing being here with you all, but it’s time for me to get back to following Jesus…

Oh yeah…just one more thing. I just described to you the moment in my life when Jesus came and asked me to follow him. Well I just had a thought. Maybe this is your moment. Maybe this is the moment in which Jesus has come to you and said those two little words: Follow me.

If he has. If that is what you have heard today then take it from someone who knows – don’t say no. you may think your life is okay without Jesus right now, or you may think that life with Jesus is not a life that you could handle very well. But let me guarantee you that walking away from the table of my life that day was the best and smartest thing i ever did. Before that moment I was lost and lonely, i felt rejected and ashamed of myself all the time; Before that moment I was a sinner – pure and simple. But now I’m free. I am loved. I am changed.

I. Am. Free.

If this is your moment – don’t miss it.

Seriously.

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“I am…” (8:48-59)

I am

John 8 feels like one big long argument between Jesus and the Jewish people that seemed hell bent on discrediting him and all that he was teaching. This is of course because Jesus has been making claims that he is the one sent from God, and, in the last passage, he has even called into question their very identity as descendants of Abraham. In this particular passage the dispute, which has been raging through the chapter, rises to a jaw dropping climactic moment when Jesus pretty much seals his fate by uttering two tiny words.

You will remember that Jesus previously had said that if these believers fully believed him, and were truly his disciples that they would experience the truth and the truth would set them free. That particular passage ended with Jesus saying that the reason they could not make sense of what he was saying was that they did not really know God. It is fair to say that Jesus had insulted them in that exchange and so it is unsurprising that this next section opens up with them returning the insult: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

Jesus does not rise to their bait in the exchange and chooses instead to continue to try and prove to them/convince them that he is who he says he is – God’s sent one. He takes his argument a stage further in this passage. He is no longer simply saying that following him will set you free. Now Jesus is saying that if these folks follow him and obey his word will never taste death. This was way too much for the feeble minds of these Jewish followers to conceive. No one can get out of tasting death. No-one – not even the heroes of their tradition had avoided death – Abraham, all the prophets…all of them had succumbed to death just like every other human. What Jesus was saying now was too much for them. Who on earth did Jesus think he was?

Again, Jesus does not rise to the point they are making. He simply continues to offer his testimony. Jesus is under no pressure here. His only work is to glorify God, and that is all that he seeks to do. Again taunts them by questioning whether or not they really do know God in the way their father, Abraham, knew God. Abraham rejoiced at hearing from God – but they cannot even seem to hear God through what Jesus is saying. They cannot even seem to fathom that God might be right there with them in this moment.

Then comes the crescendo moment. These followers have absolutely had enough. This young teacher/preacher is going too far. And what can he know about Abraham anyway: “You are not yet 50 years old…and you have seen Abraham.”

The next words of Jesus are huge:

“Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!”

In my mind, as I imagine the last two words of that sentence being uttered I imagine it being a complete sucker punch to the Jewish descendants of Abraham. There is a silence that only lasts for a couple of seconds, but seems to last for an eternity. Did he really just say that? Did he really just self reference himself as “I am”? Does he know how serious a claim that is? Does he know how blasphemous that is?

Yes.

Yes he does.

For any human to claim that they are God was too much. “I am” was the name God used for God-self in the the Exodus story. To even utter the words was considered blasphemous. So you can imagine the utter shock of this moment, and you can understand why these men picked up stones and were ready to kill Jesus there and then.

Why would Jesus say this?

Because Jesus is who he says he is.

Jesus is the word of God made flesh.
Jesus is the light in the darkness.
Jesus is the living water.
Jesus is the bread of life.
Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is the Messiah sent by God.

Jesus is who he says he is and that means Jesus has the power to do what he came to do: heal the sick, bind up the broken, announce, enact, and embody the kingdom of God, save the lost, defeat death, and cancel the power of sin.

The fact that Jesus is who he says he is is exceedingly good news for us all. Will you believe him today?

“And the truth shall set you free…” (8:21-47

The truth shall set you free

In the previous two passages Jesus has faced disputes over what he has been saying and who he has been saying he is. In this passage the reader is witness to another dispute between Jesus and some of the Jews who had chosen to believe what he had been saying so far. Yes, you read that correctly. This passage records a conversation between Jesus and some of his new believers.

Why is that important?

It is important because those 7 little words at the beginning of verse 31 show that even when we have chosen to believe and follow Jesus, the temptation will always be there to fall back into our old identities and find meaning in them. Look at the people Jesus was talking to if you don’t believe me. Jesus says to them that having believed what he says, if they really are to be his disciples they will hold to his teaching, and when they hold to his teaching they will know the truth and the truth shall set them free.

What is Jesus’ teaching? In John 3 Jesus said to Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. New birth. New life. New identity. Or as Paul writes to the Corinthian church in 2nd Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.” In John 4 Jesus met a woman at the well in Sychar and invited her to drink living water and live a new life; a life different from her old one. In John 5 Jesus healed the man by the pool in Bethesda and encourages him to go off and live a new life free of sin.

Jesus’ teaching is that when you come to him; when you live your life in his way; when you really are his disciples you will know the truth and the truth will set you free, because you will know that the old has gone and the new has come; you will know that you are a new creation in Christ; you will know that in Christ you are adopted into the family of God; that you have become a beloved child of God.

In this text, the Jews who have believed Jesus have not realized fully what it means to believe Jesus. They have not understood that they have become new creations in Christ. How do we know this? We know this because when Jesus tells them that the truth will set them free they respond by stating that they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves of anyone. In other words they believe what Jesus is saying, but they still don’t get that Jesus is inviting them to a completely new life, hence they continue to hold on to their old identity as children of Abraham. And Jesus even challenges them on that understanding of themselves: “But if you really were children of Abraham you would do what Abraham did.” What did Abraham do? He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Gen 15:5, Rom 4:3, Gal 3:6) Jesus is saying that if these followers were really children of Abraham as they claim to be, they would recognize the Father in the Son; they would recognize that Jesus is who he is saying that he is and they would believe him, rather than plotting to capture and kill him. As Jesus goes on to say later in this passage, “Whoever belongs to God hears what God says.” If these believers really do recognize that Jesus is who he says he is then they will recognize God in their midst and will hear what Jesus has to say.

So I say it again, it is possible for us to hear Jesus and believe what Jesus has to say about all things and still not fully get what it means. We can hear Jesus and believe what Jesus has to say about one new life and new birth and still remain unchanged by it.

The Jewish believers in this passage had believed Jesus but had not considered themselves new creations in Christ, and i think that is a challenge to every reader of this passage. Are you a believer of the things Jesus has said? Has believing Jesus brought about a new birth in you? Have you had an experience of the new life? Has the old gone and the new come? Or are you living a life which believes that Jesus taught great things, but ultimately remains stuck in the old identity.

As John has said from the very beginning of this work, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; Jesus is the light which the darkness cannot over come; Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus is the one sent by God. In Jesus you and me and every other human being in the world can be born again and can experience a new life and a brand new identity which is not marred by the old identity. This is the absolute truth from the lips of Jesus himself, and when we become his followers; when we really are his disciples we will know the truth and the truth shall set us free to live this new life as the beloved children of God.

So how about that? Is it time for you to be born again and experience this first hand?

I hope so.

Who are you? (8:21-30)

Again, I offer up my apologies for not being able to update this for over a week. There has been so much to take in and so much going on around us in the USA that I have been distracted from writing. Please bear with me as I find some kind of rhythm of writing again.

“Who are ya?
Who are ya?
Who are ya?”

Who are ya

I have followed English soccer for pretty much my entire life. The fortunes of my beloved Liverpool Football Club have not been great since I was around 10 years old, which, at times, has made following English soccer quite frustrating indeed. One of the great things about English soccer is the interaction of the crowds who gather at the games. On occasion a big name team will be pitted against a team of much smaller stature, and sometimes on these occasions the big team will fail to perform well and the lesser team will score a famous underdog victory. In moments like these sometimes the the crowd will break into the chant I have typed above. It is chanted as a taunt to the bigger club and their fans as the fans of the smaller club point out that they are failing to live up to their reputation. The fans of the smaller club are calling into dispute the perceived superiority of the larger, more successful club.

“Who are ya?
Who are ya?
Who are ya?”

So far in this gospel narrative, John has been at work to convince his readers that Jesus is who he says he is: Light in the darkness, God’s own Son, the Word of God made flesh. In this short passage that very identity of Jesus is being called into question again. It is a “Who are ya?” kind of moment. The Jews are grappling with the words of Jesus and wondering what it is that he means. If you are paying attention in John’s gospel you will know that this is not a new thing – remember in chapter 3 when the Pharisee Nicodemus had trouble understanding what Jesus meant when he said that if anyone wanted to see the Kingdom then he or she must be born again. Nicodemus had to grapple with the things that Jesus was saying. And here we are again in chapter 8 with the Jews again struggling with the things that Jesus says to them. In many ways this section is a microcosm of the entire story of John’s gospel – the story of Jesus declaring to the Jews (and the world) just who he is and them absolutely struggling to understand (or point blank refusing to understand sometimes.)

“Who are you?” they asked in verse 25? And Jesus replies by telling them again: “I am who I have been telling you I am since the beginning – the Word made flesh, the one sent by the Father…the Messiah”

Jesus went on to tell them that while they maybe did not get it right now, there would come a time in the future when they would get it. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man.” Of course this is a reference to what will happen later on in Jesus’ story when he will be lifted up on the cross, and it is a reference to the fact that the Jews will have a role to play in that (“When YOU have lifted up…”) Jesus has come as the Messiah for Israel; for the Jewish people and ultimately they will reject the one sent for them. Can you hear the echo of that prologue ringing: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11)

As Tom Wright rightly points out – this is the tragedy at the heart of the Jesus narrative: that Jesus came to redeem and restore God’s own people; that Jesus was sent by God to do that work for those people and they did not even recognize their own God among them. The tragedy is that God’s own people were unable to recognize God with them.

I am not sure that things have changed that much in the 21st century in that folks still have trouble recognizing God in the world around them. Or folks maybe do see or hear from God and they are left scratching their heads and saying: “Who are you?” SO let me close this little note out by making it quite clear (warning – you might have heard me say this before!):

Jesus is the light in the darkness.
Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.
Jesus is the Chosen One sent by God.
Jesus is the bread of life.
Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is God’s own Son sent so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.

That’s who Jesus is for you, for me, and for all humanity.
He has come into the world not to condemn it, but so that through him we might each be saved.
He has come to do a work of reconciliation – between God and humans, and between humans and other humans.
He has come to redeem and restore all the broken things in this world.

We know longer need to have “Who are ya?” moments. Jesus has made it abundantly clear who is is and why he came to live, and eat, and breathe, and sleep, and laugh, and cry among us. So stop what you are doing now and take a moment to take that in. Jesus is all that he say he is, and Jesus is all that for you and for me and for every other human being.

This is good news worth receiving! Hallelujah!

Dirty Glory – John 1

Dirty Glory

I opened up “Dirty Glory” by Pete Grieg this morning. I have had it for a couple of months but have not been able to get it started until today. I am only at the beginning but I am already drawn in (as I usually am) by Grieg’s ability to communicate deep, penetrating truth in such engaging ways. What follows is Grieg’s take on the opening 30 or so words of John’s Gospel, which, if you have been following this blog you will know, is of particular interest to me at the minute. How I wish I had had this stuff when i was writing my opening comments on the gospel of John a couple of months back!

“When God made us again, he came first to a teenage girl, and then to unwashed shepherds and later to pagan astrologers. God spoke the gospel as a dirty word into a religious culture. “The Word,” we are told by John at the start of his Gospel, became “flesh.” The Latin used here is caro , from which we get “carnivore,” “incarnation,” “carnival,” and even “carnal.” [6] God became a lump of meat, a street circus, a man like every man. John is messing with our minds. He knew perfectly well that this opening salvo was a shocking, seemingly blasphemous way to start his Gospel. Like Malcolm McLaren, Alexander McQueen, or Quentin Tarantino, he is grabbing attention, insisting upon an audience, demanding a response.

“In the beginning,” he says, echoing the opening line of the Bible, lulling us all into a false sense of religious security. At this point, I imagine John pausing mischievously, just long enough for every son of Abraham to fill in the blank incorrectly. “In the beginning,” he continues, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It’s the familiar creation narrative outrageously remixed, featuring a mysterious new aspect of the divinity named, like some kind of superhero in a Marvel comic, The Word . And yet for John’s Greek readers the vast majority of Christians by the time the Gospel was written [7] the Word was not a new concept at all. For them this was the familiar Logos of domestic philosophy, that divine animating principle pervading the cosmos. The bewildering thing for their ears would have been John’s emphatic conflation of this pagan Greek notion of divinity with the Creator God of Jewish monotheism: “The Word,” he says unambiguously, “was God.” And so, in just these first thirty words of his Gospel, John has effectively both affirmed and alienated his entire audience, Greek and Jew alike. And then, like a prizefighter in the ring, while we are all still reeling from this first theological onslaught, John lands his body blow: “The Word,” he says, “became flesh .” It’s a breathtaking statement, equally appalling for the Jews, who had an elaborate set of 613 rules to help segregate holiness from worldliness, and for the Greeks, who despised the flesh with its malodorous suppurations and embarrassing, base instincts. “The Word became flesh.” Imagine the intake of breath, the furrowed brows, the wives looking at their husbands silently asking, “Did he just say what I think he said?” and the husbands glancing towards their elders wondering, “Is this OK?” It’s punk-rock theology. It’s a screaming “hello.””

F.A.Q.’s – Why does God allow Suffering

FAQ s Design Pic

The following is the sermon I preached yesterday as the starter for a series of sermons called F.A.Q.’s. Over Christmas we polled church members and visitors on their most frequently asked questions about God, faith, life, etc. The most common question was that of human suffering. Before the sermon we read John 16:16-33. This is not an expository sermon on the text. Instead the text was read to remind us that Jesus said we will always have trouble in the world, but that we can trust him because he has overcome the world. The text is written for me to preach from in the style that I speak in. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I simply want to record these sermons in this space.

Peace.

I have just come through two of the hardest weeks of my life. Since Monday the 9th January I have been walking this path of personal devastation. Day after day the struggle gets greater and the misery just seems to compound. I had one moment of respite in it all last Sunday afternoon. It lifted my spirits somewhat but soon after that things returned to my new normal.

What’s been going on, I hear you ask. Well after all the food and drink of Thanksgiving and Christmas; after almost 6 weeks of holiday based over-indulgence, I made the call that something had to be done about it. So i joined Margaret on a 21 day self-inflicted suffering program…I mean body cleansing juice diet program. They say that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels and I want to tell you today that this is a lie. That steak I had last Sunday tastes much better than any pound that has been lost in the last 14 days. Yes 14 days done in a 21 day program…I have 7 more days of this to go. 7 more days of self inflicted suffering…I mean body cleansing.

The suffering is real!
The struggle is real!

Of course I am joking around with you. I am not really suffering in the midst of this and it would be wrong of me to suggest that a body cleansing juice program is a form of suffering as such. I might consider it a form of misery…but I am not suffering, friends.
We all know what suffering is, right? We each have a story or stories in our lives about suffering. Or if we don’t, we can each point to a situation in a friend or family member’s life, or a situation in the world around us which we could undeniably say is a situation of suffering. I have several of my own, for sure. Here is one

I was 22 yrs old and had just had one of the best experiences. I was young in the ministry and had been a youth worker for a couple of years. I had finally made my way across the Irish Sea with some youth ministry friends where we had attended the National Youth Workers gathering. I was inspired by what I had heard, I was rejuvenated and ready to get back to Belfast and dive in to making my youth group better based on the things I had learned. I was sitting on the boat on the way back crossing the Irish Sea one last time and I was ready to get home and get started.

Then my cell phone rang. It was my mum. She proceeded to tell me some bad news. My best childhood friend had been involved in a car wreck the night before and he had not made it.

I was devastated. Absolutely and completely devastated. The news had shocked me to my core. You see I had had my own brush with death in a car accident just a few short years before, but I had made it. It did’t take me long to start asking the questions that grief can can so quickly bring to our minds: Why?

Why God?
Why did you do this?
Why him and not me?
He was in his prime. He was a good person. He was in a relationship with a great young woman. Why do his parents have to go through this and now live with this?
Why?

What age were you? What is your story with the suffering question? Like I said already, we all know what suffering is. We know it on a world scale and also on some kind of personal scale too. We all have some kind of suffering story. We all have that moment when we have encountered very deeply and very personally the reality of human suffering in the world.

Maybe it was 9/11. Did you know that churches reported a spike in attendances in the 5 weeks after 9/11? People were coming to churches and they were seeking some kind of comfort from God; maybe some kind of answers to their questions:

Why?
Why can it happen in our world that thousands of people simply get up and catch a flight, or get up and go to work, and do not come home?

Or maybe you are watching the news these days and you have the same questions about what is going on in Syria:

How?
How can this be happening in our world?
How can it be allowed that bombs are dropped on a city inhabited by thousands of innocent and unassuming people.

The Holocaust?

How can 6 million Jews be allowed to suffer and be wiped out in the way they were?

Famine in Africa. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or Rwanda, or in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The AIDs pandemic. Cancer. Mass shootings Sandy Hook, Paris or Orlando:

How?
How can a good and loving God allow such suffering in the world God created?

This is the question on pretty much everyone’s lips at some point in their journey through life. I have found that to be true everywhere I have travelled, and in every conversation I have had with friends old and new as we talk about the Christian faith. I have found that non-Christian people ask this question and I have found that Christian people ask this question. I have found that young people ask it and older people ask it too. White Europeans ask it and African American’s ask it. Men ask it and women ask it too. Questions around human suffering are questions that we all have.

So how can we answer them?

The first and most important thing to say is that there is no definitive answer to this question. The question of suffering in our world will always be permeated with subjective circumstances. What do I mean by that? I mean that a generic answer to a big question like this will not always answer the specifics of your particular situation.

I guess we have got to start with our understanding of God. Back in September i spoke about this in a sermon and I want to hit on some of that stuff again. If we start with our image of God as some kind of cosmic game player who is in control of every move, then we are going to keep coming back to this question again and again and no answer will ever, ever satisfy. If we start with an image of God as some kind of Santa Claus God who gives everything wanted to those who do things right and make it on the nice list, then we are going to come back to this questions again and again. And if we start with an image of the Absent Landlord God, well, we may not come back to the question so much because we think that God simply does not care and remains disinterested in the world that God has created. In September I argued that these are the images that we most commonly like to attach to God and i challenged them with the idea of the incarnate God, who we will come back to later on this morning.

Before we go there i want to think some more on who God is and what it is that we classically say about God. What are the classic attributes of God?

God is Omniscient: God knows everything.
God is Omnipresent: God is everywhere.
God is Omnipotent: God is all powerful.

Of course we also say that God is all loving because God is, in God’s very essence, love.

These are the classic attributes of God and it is in these attributes that we ultimately have the problem of this question. If God is omnipresent and is in all places at all times; if God is omniscient and knows all things from everlasting to everlasting; and if God is all powerful and all loving then how can an all loving God who is everywhere and knows everything and has the power to do anything sit idly by and watch a world in immense pain and suffering? How can God choose to sit by and do nothing?

The answer to that comes back to the all loving part.

Think about it. In the times when you have experienced love at its very best and in it s very truest form, what do you have? You have freedom to choose, and move, and love back. As soon as that freedom to move and to choose and to love back is taken away, or replaced with some kind of coercive forcefulness that refuses you those freedoms, it can no longer be described as love.

God is love, and the longing of God’s heart is that you and I enter into fully loving relationship with God. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. God loves you and me and God longs for you and me to love God back so that we can each walk through all of life (the best and the worst) in loving relationship. That is the biggest desire of God’s heart. Now we just said that God is all powerful though, so if that is true, and God loves us, and God wants us so much then why doesn’t God just zap us so that we love him the way he wants.

Because that’s not love.

Doing that would simply make us all robots.

In the fulness of love, which is God’s very essence, God has given human beings this thing we call free will; choice. We do not love God because we have been forced to love God – we love God because we have made a choice to respond to the fact that God first loved us. We have been given the choice and the ability to choose God.

But there is a cost that comes with choice. When God gives humanity the freedom to choose God’s way or another way, there will be times, and there indeed have been times when the choices that are made will not be good choices; there will be times when the choices that are made will cast long shadows, causing darkness in the lives of others, sometimes many hundreds or thousands of others all because a choice has been made somewhere at some time.

God loves you and me so much that God has given us the free will to choose to love God back, and that free will, when fully exercised can mean that those shadow casting choices will sometimes be made by some people, and in the shadows of those choices suffering will be experienced. Sometimes suffering will be the intent of the choice made, and other times the choice will have been made innocently, with no intention of suffering…but the suffering still comes about.

What am I trying to say as I explain all this? I am trying to say that I don’t think God explicitly allows suffering. I think God’s love is so deep that it means that God can do nothing but give his beloved the freedom to choose to love God back.

Does that mean that God doesn’t then care about human suffering?

Certainly not. In fact, God has done and continues to do something very very special in the midst of human suffering.

God joins us and is at work among us and God is always doing everything possible to transform death and destruction and suffering into something brand new; into abundant life. In the midst of our suffering, in the midst of human pain, God says “I am with you.” In the midst of human suffering, in the midst of human pain God says, “Trust me. I am with you and I can redeem all things, and I can make all things new.”

In the midst of the atrocity in Aleppo, Syria, there are a group of local people who make it their mission to rescue their neighbors when bombs have been dropped. They are called the “White Helmets” of Aleppo, and you can watch a great documentary about them on Netflix. When the bombs drop, they in turn drop everything that they are doing to run to the aid of their neighbors. in the documentary they each testify to how they sense called by God to come to the rescue of their neighbors; how it is the most important thing they can do with their lives at that moment.

God joins us in our suffering.

On 9/11 we all remember the actions of New York’s finest and all the other fire fighters who joined them in the days after. We remember how they worked tirelessly to come to the rescue in the midst of that terrible human suffering.

God joins us in our suffering.

Where I come from in Northern Ireland, when bombs were exploding, shots were being fired and lives were being lost; when divisions were at their height, there were clergy like my friend, Father Gerry Reynolds who worked tirelessly to build bridges and be models of reconciliation. When a tragic loss was experienced on the other side of the divide, Father Gerry would go to the home of the deceased and knock on their door in an effort to minister to the hurting and broken.

God joins us in our suffering.

Whether it is through the bravery of first responders in Syria or New York City, whether it is the reconciling heart of a pastor who longs to build bridges of hope, whether it is in the visit from a neighbor or friend in your time of greatest need – God joins us in our suffering and says I am with you.

It is not that God allows suffering. In as much as we can explain it, many times suffering happens in the world because choices sometimes cast long shadows. And I know we don’t do well with not having clear answers, but other times suffering remains unexplainable. Sometimes a choice has not been made. Sometimes things just go wrong.

But in all times, in every single circumstance of suffering throughout the world; those known to us and those unknown to us, God says: “I am there already. I am with you. Trust me, because I can and I am making all things new. I am the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. I breathe life into dead bones. I bring light into the darkness. Where there are dry deserts, I bring streams of living water. I am making all things new. So trust me – I am with you.”

In our text today Jesus said, “In the world you will face persecution (and suffering), But take courage; I have conquered the world.”

Later on the New testament, the disciple Peter writes these words:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.[d] Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters[e] in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

My friends, like I said at the start of the sermon today, there is no definitive answer to the question of human suffering except this one:

Though in this world we will each encounter suffering, we may take courage because the God of all faithfulness; the God of the resurrection, who brings forth life where there is death, is with you in the very midst of the struggle, and will remain with you for all eternity as you wrestle and lament, as you sow seeds of sadness and suffering with tears and ultimately reap with shouts of joy.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am the Light of the world (8:12-20)

Between 2003 and 2006 my wife and I lived for three very happy years in a town called Port Saint Lucie in Florida. I had been hired as the Youth and Children’s Ministry Director there and enjoyed great fellowship and some real fruitfulness in ministry too. One of the lasting memories of that time for me is how we would welcome new people and visitors to the church. At each service those who were visiting our church for the very first time would be invited to stand up and introduce themselves. They would tell us their names and where they were visiting from and one of the ushers in the service would scurry towards them with a little welcome pack that included some information regarding the life of our church, some candy, a mug and a candle. The candle was the centerpiece of the gift. After everyone had introduced themselves, Renee, our Pastor would explain what had just been given to them and would leave the explanation of the candle to the end. She would say a few words about Jesus being the light and would always finish that little section of what she was saying with these words: “We give you this candle because…” And right on cue the entire congregation would reply by saying: “Jesus is the Light of the world.” I don’t know if anyone was ever overly impressed, or if that little act of the congregation ever changed anyone’s life, but i know that those words have absolutely stuck with me ever since. Light was the theme of Renee’s ministry. We gave the candles out to new visitors and for those who chose to drive by on Prima Vista Blvd. we erected a lighthouse on the corner of our property – another way of stating that Jesus is the light of the world.

In John 8:12 John records the second of the “I Am…” sayings that are included in his gospel. In chapter 6 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Here Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, if we have been paying attention since the beginning of the book we will know that light is a prominent description of Jesus in the prologue (“In him was life and that life was the light to all mankind…The light shines in the darkness…The true light that gives light to everyone in the world was coming.”)

The idea of light in darkness is one which always grabs us. Imagine for a moment that you are trapped in a room with no natural light. In that circumstance you are completely lost as to knowing what is around you. Sure, you can feel your way and fumble around to try and work things out but ultimately the first thing you want and need is some form of light. When the light comes in to that dark space everything around you is exposed and illumined. You can see everything that is going on in that space: the places of beauty and comfort and safety, and the places of danger and risk too. When John is describing Jesus as the true light, John is saying that the presence of Jesus in the world is the presence which will expose and illumine everything that is going on in the world.

When Jesus describes himself as the light of the world he is also saying that he has come to expose and illumine everything that is going on in the world. He has come to be the Messiah of Israel, but the presence of light in that darkness is exposing Israel’s shortcomings – they have not and are not living up to that which God called them to. As Tom Wright says: “They had forgotten who their God really was. Their behavior, their attitude, and their ambitions indicated that they didn’t know the one Jesus called ‘Father,’ and that was why they couldn’t recognize him as having come from the Father.” Jesus came to bring light to the world so that all humans could see the world and escape the darkness. How would this come about? Simply, by following Jesus: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” By staying close to Christ, we will always be walking in the light, and the darkness will always be exposed.

We all need light. We need light around us to show us the way and to expose everything that lies in the darkness, which might cause us to stumble or fall, and we need light within us too; to expose all the darkness which lies in the corners of our own hearts. Maybe it is time for you to invite the light into your life today. By doing so you will never walk in darkness again.