January 20, 2008

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

I’ve always tended to think of myself as a “middle of the road” Canadian Presbyterian. I’m pretty comfortable in a church that includes a variety of perspectives on social issues, biblical interpretation, and theology. We don’t need to agree on absolutely everything, but we can find unity in some core convictions and work together towards some common goals. And I’m pretty comfortable as a Presbyterian within the larger church community. I value our Reformed tradition with its distinctives and strengths, but I don’t need to convince Anglicans or Roman Catholics to become Presbyterians. I don’t think the Pentecostals would be better off if they joined our church, and I don’t go around saying the Presbyterians who went into Church Union 83 years ago would be much better off if they had stuck with us. In fact, when I’ve taken part in interfaith events, (like the prayers for peace that we shared a few weeks ago on New Year’s Eve down at St. Paul’s Cathedral), I’ve been aware of the fact that we have a great deal in common with other people of faith… whether they are Jewish, or Muslim, or Sikh, or Buddhist, or something else.

But as I was working through some ideas for this morning’s sermon, I shared a few of them with my husband, and he said, “You really are an evangelical, aren’t you?” In mainline Christian churches, “evangelical” has sometimes been used almost as a bad word. It has been used to refer to a Christian who’s kind of pushy — a Christian who’s always quoting scripture at you, whether you want to hear it or not. An “evangelical” (according to the stereotype) sees everything in black-and-white terms, is quick to judge another person and find them lacking, and wants to get you saved so that you’ll start looking and acting like him or her.

The impression many people have about evangelicals is that they think that if you’re not in his/her church, or if you don’t express your faith in the same way, then you’re probably not saved, and they have work to do on you. I must say that I didn’t grow up thinking that an “evangelical” was something that I wanted to be. “Evangelicals” seemed to always have all the answers, and I figured the only way that they could be so sure about everything was if they simply didn’t realise the complexity of the questions.

One of the television programs that I regularly watch is “ER” — the long-running emergency room medical drama. This season I was happily surprised when they introduced a new character on “ER” – a hospital chaplain. Having spent a summer working as a chaplain at the Toronto General Hospital, I’ve always noted the times on the show when the doctors and nurses should have been calling in a chaplain, in my opinion. And finally, this season, a chaplain has shown up, and the “ER” staff have someone to call when patients and families need spiritual care and support.

But on Thursday evening this week, the “ER” chaplain disappointed me. She’s portrayed on the show as a friendly and caring person who believes in things spiritual and in the power of prayer. But she’s not a Protestant chaplain, or a Catholic chaplain, or a Jewish chaplain, or a member of any other particular faith tradition. Apparently she went to seminary, studied all kinds of religions and spiritualities, and decided to be a chaplain in a hospital where she could offer spiritual support to people of any or no religion at all.

In this week’s episode, the chaplain was called in to speak with a man who was deeply troubled by past sins that he was desperately trying to atone for. He was riddled with guilt over serious mistakes he had made, and he believed that God was going to send him to hell for what he had done.

What the man needed to hear from the chaplain was a strong, and clear proclamation of the Gospel. He needed to have the assurance, that we receive each week, of God’s love and grace. No matter what terrible things he had done, no matter the harm and hurt he had caused, he needed to hear that God was calling him to turn from his sin, that God would forgive him, and renew him to live a changed life. But the chaplain, who was so comfortable with questioning, and wondering, and different perspectives, did not have enough faith to speak with confidence and conviction of God’s love and grace for this man who so desperately needed to hear it.

I know it was only a television program, but it really bothered me, because it made me think of all the hurting and lonely and searching people in our world who do not have anyone to tell them that they are loved by God. There are people who come into contact with Christians every day who still have not heard of the hope, peace, joy, and love that has come into our world in Jesus Christ.

Putting our faith into words can be very challenging. Even ministers and chaplains can find it difficult at times, but the proclamation of the good news is one of the most important parts of being a follower of Jesus. When Jesus began his ministry, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come near. He called people to repent and believe in the good news. He brought good news for the poor. He proclaimed release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He declared that the oppressed would go free, because it was the year of the Lord’s favour.

And those who followed the way of Jesus soon took part in his preaching and teaching as well. He sent them out to tell about his coming, to tell about God’s love, and to call people to God’s ways. And before he left our world, he made it clear that we were called to continue the proclamation that he had begun. We are the Body of Christ, his hands and feet, and mouth in the world today.

The psalm that we read this morning is a great example for us to follow. It is a psalm of thanksgiving to God for deliverance. The psalmist is grateful to God for helping him out in some way — for “drawing him up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and setting his feet upon a rock, making his steps secure.” We don’t know the troubles or challenges that the psalmist has encountered. We only know that he’s made it through them, and that he credits God with helping him out.

But what I noticed when I read psalm 40 was how the psalmist’s experience of God’s help led him to speak about God’s wondrous deeds. He writes, “God put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” And then he goes on: “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord. I have not hidden your saving help within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation.”

Think, for a moment, about the ways in which you have experienced God’s help, God’s comfort, and God’s love throughout your life. Remember times of trial or trouble when God was present, when your faith in God gave you strength and hope to go on. I hope that you can think of many times when God’s presence and love gave you a reason to be thankful. But you are not only called to be thankful to God. You are also called to tell of God’s wondrous deeds.

The psalmist points out what happens when he begins to speak of his experience with God. He says, “Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” We give praise and thanks to God because we are joyful and thankful, but when we give voice to our praise in words or songs, other people hear, and our thanksgiving is a witness to them about God’s love and care.

In John’s Gospel, we have another story around a similar theme. People are speaking about God, now made present in Jesus of Nazareth. John the Baptist chooses a much more blatant way of telling others about Jesus:
The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

I think that we’re like John the Baptist in many ways. We’ve had some experience of God in Christ. We’ve received a kind of assurance that in our getting to know Jesus, we have met the God of the universe. We don’t have all the answers, not by a long shot! Our lives aren’t perfect, we still make lots of mistakes, and we have a lot of questions. But we’ve decided to follow this Jesus, and we believe in the love and grace of God who forgives our sin and fills us with the Spirit so that we can grow day by day in love and service.

And like John, we are called to use our voices — our words — to point others to God in Christ. Now, I don’t mean that we need to replace all our loving action with only words about love. Our Christian witness should also be carried out in our world through the things we do for our neighbours and friends, through the way we treat strangers with respect and care, and through the way we offer our time, talent, and tithe to serve people in need. But we also have to use words. We have to put word and action together, like Jesus did, to express the love and the call of God to the people around us.

In v.37, we see the response to John’s proclamation. Two disciples hear him, and respond by following Jesus. They’re curious, I guess. They want to learn from him… check out who he is and what he’s teaching. And Jesus invites them to “Come and see.” Then one of the two uses another method to invite his brother to meet and follow Jesus. He says, “We have found the Messiah — the Anointed One,” and brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus himself.

I guess that’s why I am an evangelical. I’m an evangelical because I believe that our highest calling as Christians is to proclaim the good news (the evangel) to all people in word and action. One day a week, a minister like me gets to proclaim the gospel to the great congregation that is St. Andrew’s. But seven days a week, we all get to proclaim it to the great congregation that is the world.

The Outreach Committee has been encouraging us for years to start having faith conversations with the people in our lives. And inviting our friends to church is not a bad idea either. Perhaps that could be a significant way for you to share your faith with the people around you.

Being an evangelical isn’t such a bad thing — trust me. It doesn’t mean getting preachy or pushy, and it doesn’t mean that you have to start acting like you have everything all figured out. It simply means that you believe that Jesus Christ is good news for the world, and you want to share the good news.

May God strengthen us in faith and in courage, and may God give us wisdom as we seek to put our faith into words, that all people may hear the good news and put their trust in the Lord. Amen.