August 15, 2010

Isaiah 5:1-7
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

When I was 15 years old, I stood up at the front of the Presbyterian church that I had attended with my family for nearly ten years. I stood up with a couple of other young people to publicly profess my faith in God for the first time, and to declare my intention to live my life as a follower of Jesus.

It was an especially memorable moment for me because I was also baptized on that day. As the water was poured, the baptismal words were spoken, and the choir sang the Aaronic blessing over me, I experienced an overwhelming sense of belonging. I belonged to a community. I belonged to a church family. I belonged to the God who had made me and loved me.

I don’t really remember what we talked about in the membership class at the church as we prepared to make our professions of faith. Probably it was much of the same material that we cover today in our classes… God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Bible, discipleship, worship, prayer, service, mission, stewardship, and all of that. We likely discussed many or most of those things, but one thing that I’m pretty sure we didn’t talk about was the idea that what I was deciding to do with my life was going to be challenging.

I don’t remember thinking about NOT going through with it. I don’t remember feeling nervous or scared, or even apprehensive about the life that I was choosing as God’s servant. I only remember feeling blessed and loved and part of something good. I don’t think that the bible readings on the day of my baptism were the ones that we read today. If they had been, I probably would have been shocked by how not-encouraging they were!

On one level, it seems appropriate to read from Hebrews 11 on a day like today. We should stop and consider what it means to have faith on a day when some of our friends are standing up to profess their faith for the first time. The author of Hebrews provides a wonderful list of inspiring examples of faithful people: Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.

Although none of them followed God perfectly, they each demonstrated their faith in God through courage and steadfastness, trust and obedience. They lived as servants of God, and made a difference in the world for good. We might look to these biblical heroes of faith, as well as to more recent examples, for inspiration and guidance in our own lives of faith.

But then the book of Hebrews goes on to describe what happened to many of these heroes: “Some were tortured… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about… destitute, persecuted, tormented… They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground.” That’s what I mean by “not-encouraging!”

This is no rosy picture of what being one of God’s people will be like. It’s not like one of those prosperity-gospel preachers who tries to convince you that if you just turn over your life to Jesus you will be blessed beyond measure – you’ll be happy and healthy and rich too! No, the author of Hebrews makes it clear that the Christian life comes with many challenges and hardships. She considers the lives of the heroes among God’s people, and concludes that being a follower of Jesus is not all sunshine and flowers.

Jesus implied something similar in his own life and teaching. One day, when he was particularly frustrated with his disciples, he went into a bit of a rant about how they were misunderstanding his message: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

I don’t think that Jesus was saying that his purpose was to break up families and relationships. But I think he was saying that our faith in him is going to turn everything in our lives upside down. It’s going to affect everything that we do, every relationship that we’re in, and every priority that we have.

The faith that Jesus calls us to is NOT is a private system of belief that we just keep to ourselves. The church that Jesus invites us to be a part of is NOT is a private club where we just get together to encourage and support each other, and to make everyone feel happy.

Our faith is not primarily about helping us to feel good or peaceful. It’s about disturbing the peace, waking us up, and challenging us to become people of love and justice and righteousness. It’s a faith that calls us to pay attention to what’s happening in the world, that challenges us to get involved, that demands that we look beyond ourselves and OUR immediate concerns.

That’s why the prophets are so often ranting about how the people aren’t producing good fruit. Our faith is not about finding peace and quiet. It’s about working and fighting and persisting until there is peace WITH JUSTICE for all people.

I imagine that Jesus probably could have chosen to live a relatively peaceful life in Nazareth as a carpenter or a stonemason, or in some normal trade like that. But he chose, instead, to answer the call to be God’s son in the world. It was a choice that led him into conflict, into danger, and ultimately it led him to his death on a cross. He didn’t choose a peaceful life, but he did choose a life with purpose… a life that made a difference for God.

I’m not suggesting that becoming a Christian in Canada today automatically brings the danger and persecution that Jesus experienced in his ministry, and I’m not saying that we should have any worries about being killed by the sword or sawn in two. But I am saying that the way of Jesus is a challenging way.

It’s loving you enemies. It’s forgiving those who hurt you, and praying for those who do wrong to you. It’s learning not to judge your neighbours, and it’s letting go of your anger. It’s doing good, and not expecting to be thanked. It’s giving freely, and not hoping to be paid back. It’s releasing your grip on the treasures of the world, so that you can receive the treasures of heaven instead. It’s letting go of all your worries, and learning to trust God in all things.

As Jesus stood, up to his waist in the murky water of the Jordan River, I don’t know if he fully comprehended what his life would be like once he made that decision… once he chose that way of life. Maybe he felt more like I did at my baptism… loved and blessed and surrounded by God’s Spirit.

I pray that Nicole and Aniko, and all of us will experience God’s blessing today… that we will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God’s Spirit has come to live in and through us, empowering us to be God’s own children in the world today. And I pray that, as we face the challenges that lie ahead, we will do so with courage and confidence and hope, trusting that we live by the grace of God, and that we are never alone as we seek to serve and follow the way of Jesus.

And “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Amen.