19 March 2023

"Death is Not The End" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday March 19, 2023 – 4th Sunday of Lent

Scripture:  John 11:1-44



This year, during Lent, we have been reading stories about people who encountered Jesus, people whose lives were changed because of their encounter with Jesus.  And today, we probably have the most dramatic story of a life that was changed by an encounter with Jesus.  At the beginning of the story, Lazarus is dead. By the end of the story, after Jesus shows up, Lazarus is alive.


When I read this story, three thoughts come immediately to my mind.  The first thing I think of is how hard this story is for any of us who have ever lost a loved one, how hard it is to read the story of Lazarus for any of us who have prayed through our tears for just a little bit more time with a loved one.


My second thought is to wonder if Jesus was also changed by his encounter with Lazarus.  After all, Lazarus had been his friend, and Lazarus had died.  We hear that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend.  I think that all of us are changed by grief – we aren’t the same person after we have experienced grief as we were before… even when we have figured out how to keep on going; even once laughter returns to our life; even when we have reconnected with the people in our life, and even when we have connected with new people.  Grief changes us; and so I wonder if Jesus was changed by his experience of grief at the death of his friend.


My third immediate thought is that I wonder what Lazarus’s post-death life was like.  We read stories and newspaper headlines about people who have had a near-death experience, and how their subsequent lives have been changed and shaped by that near-death experience.  And here we have Lazarus – his experience wasn’t a near-death one, but an actual death experience.  Did he live the rest of his life appreciating every moment as it came, savouring every conversation, relishing every hug, seeing the colours of the sky and the trees with increased vibrancy?  Or did he mourn the loss of his connection with God that he had experienced when his body was dead and in the tomb?  Did he live the rest of his life longing to get back to the love and the peace that he had experienced there?  His post-tomb life must have been different than his pre-tomb life, and I wonder how he was changed.


Those are my thoughts, my ponderings when I read this story; but the question that I always wrestle with when I read this story is the same question that I ask every year on Good Friday.  Why did Lazarus have to die?  Why couldn’t Jesus have just transformed him without the pain and the messiness of death and the tomb?  We hear this same question in the form of an accusation on the voices of his sisters, Mary and Martha when they cry out to Jesus – “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”


Their accusation becomes even more heartbreaking to those of us who overheard Jesus and his disciples, because Mary and Martha had sent word to him ahead of time to let him know that his beloved friend was sick.  We read that Jesus and his disciples lingered for two more days in the place that they were before making the journey to Bethany.  And when they did finally get to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and buried.  It might not have made a difference in the outcome – after all, Lazarus had been in the tomb for 4 days by the time Jesus and his disciples arrived.  He wasn’t just dead but he was dead-dead.  But I always wonder if, just maybe, if Jesus had rushed to his friends’ side, the story might have been different.  Why did Lazarus have to die?


The thing about being a follower of Jesus is that it doesn’t protect us from death.  Lazarus had to die because every human dies.  Jesus doesn’t remove death.  Stopping death isn’t the good news of Jesus’s message.


But the good news of Jesus is that death isn’t the end.  We see this every year on Good Friday and Easter – when Jesus dies and it seems as though death has won, every year resurrection is waiting for us on the other side.  No Good Friday lasts forever, even when it seems as though the pain goes on and on and on.  Death isn’t the end of our story.  Pain isn’t the end of our story.  Abandonment isn’t the end of our story.  No Good Friday, no time of pain and suffering lasts forever.  Easter is always coming.


And so the good news in this story is for you any time you are going through Good Friday moments in your life.  Suffering is not the end of your story.  Pain is not the end of your story.  Abandonment is not the end of your story.  Your gut-wrenching grief is not the end of your story.  Your life is going to bloom in ways that you could never expect in the right now.  Resurrection, in whatever form it might take, is waiting for you just around the corner.


And even more than that, even as you wait through your Good Friday times, the other part of the good news is that God is with you.  God isn’t like Gonzo in A Muppet Christmas Carol – incidentally, the very best Christmas movie ever.  If you have seen this movie, you might remember that when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come appears at the end of the movie, Gonzo, playing Charles Dickens, says that this part is too scary for even him, and he will meet the viewers at the end of the story.  This isn’t God’s way.  God doesn’t disappear on Maundy Thursday and say “See you on Sunday!”  God is present in the pain of crucifixion.  God is present in the suffering of a child abandoned by a parent.  God is present in the suffering of a parent who loses a child.  God is present in the heart-breaking tears at the death of a friend.  God is present in all of these times because God has been there before.


And so even though Jesus doesn’t remove death, and we don’t get to bypass around death or suffering or heartbreak, even still God is with us and death is not the end.  Easter is coming.


And just as Lazarus left the tomb and began again, we too are continually being given the opportunity to begin again.  The way of Jesus doesn’t bypass the valley of the shadow of death, but rather travels through death, through anything that seems to be an ending, and on to new life and new beginnings.  Even the longest night eventually ends, the sun comes up, and a new day dawns.


And so the question I leave with you to ponder this week is, how are you going to live your new beginning?  As you emerge from the shadows of the tomb like Lazarus, as you step into the rising sun of a new day, how are you going to live your resurrected life?


And may it be so.  Amen.



Image Credit:  “Lazarus” by Robin on flickr

Used with Permission

12 March 2023

"God of the Mud" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday March 12, 2023

Scripture:  John 9:1-41



Our bible story this week is another long story, like all of the stories we’re reading this Lent, and on the surface, it feels like a short episode that has been padded out to fill a chapter… not that students or writers ever do anything like that, right?!  We have an encounter between Jesus and a man who had been born without sight.  Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud out of spit and dirt then smears the mud on the man’s eyes.  Jesus tells him to go to an ancient pool of water in Jerusalem to wash, and when the man came back to Jesus, he could see for the first time in his life.


And then the rest of the chapter is dialogue – Jesus, his disciples, the man who can now see, his parents, and the Jewish leaders, all trying to understand what has happened. But despite all of their talk, I still have questions.


How come his neighbours don’t recognize him?  The only thing that has changed about him is that he can now see – there shouldn’t be any obvious outer change.  Are we the ones who are blind – blind to anyone who is different than us, to the point that we can’t see them unless they fit in with what we define as “normal”?


I also wonder about his parents.  We are told that they are afraid of the temple authorities, but I wonder how they felt about this change in their son.  Are the delighted that he can see, or do they mourn the loss of the son who they raised?


And finally – how can a gob of spit and some dirt make someone see?


But John doesn’t answer any of these question for us.  We have a man who begins the story in one place, he encounters Jesus, and he ends the story in another place.  His body is transformed by his encounter with Jesus, and now he can see.  The world which was previously hidden from him has now been revealed to him.  Jesus, an unknown stranger, is now literally visible to him, but also metaphorically he can now truly see who Jesus is.


And the religious leaders of the day… they don’t trust this sort of revelation.  They don’t trust a revelation that they don’t have control over.  And this is why Jesus tells them that even though they can see with their eyes, they are blind to who Jesus is and how God is working in the world.


To me, this is less a story about a man who was blind who can now see, and more a story about revelation.  Jesus has revealed the world to him, literally, in the sense of giving him sight, but also opening the eyes of his heart so that he can see God-in-Jesus, re-shaping and transforming the world.


Yesterday was the 3-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic.  I’m sure that most of us remember this time 3 years ago in great detail.  On March 11, I was in Halifax attending research presentations; on March 12, I came home a day earlier than planned; on March 13, we were convening an emergency meeting of the Official Board and Session to make decisions about how we were going to make decisions in the pandemic.


The lectionary – the cycle of readings that we usually follow in worship – it follows a 3-year cycle.  As I was planning out worship for Lent this year and going through the readings, they brought back very vivid memories of worship through Lent and Easter of 2020.  The last time that we read this story of a man born blind who encountered Jesus was on March 22, 2020.  That was the first Sunday that we were fully virtual, with Ross on camera, Bertis at the piano, and me here in the pulpit.


This week, I looked back to see what I had said about this reading three years ago.  After the announcements in which I simply said “everything is cancelled,” let you know where to find the bulletin to follow along with, reminded you to check in with friends, family members, and neighbours, and let you know about the daily check-ins at 1pm on Facebook Live which had started a few days earlier, we read the same bible story that we heard today.


From my reflection that day:  “I want to ask the question of what is being revealed.  Five years from now, when we look back at the time of Covid-19, what will be the revelation of this era that we are currently living in?  Is it selfishness that is being revealed, or is it generosity?  Is it fear that is being revealed, or is it love?  Will we hide our eyes so that we don’t see the plight of others, or will our eyes be opened to see the face of Christ in the face of our neighbours?”


It's only 3 years later, not 5, but I think that a lot has been revealed to us.  The past 3 years have revealed deep divisions in our society.  They have revealed systemic racism that causes great harm.  They have revealed, to those of us who are descended from settlers, the depths of the horrors of the residential school system that our church participated in.  But I also think that the past 3 years have revealed depths of generosity in our world.  They have revealed to us how important community is.  They have revealed a need to re-set our priorities for how we use our time.  They have revealed how powerful it is to be able to gather together and sing together.  They have revealed the truth of John Donne’s famous poem written 400 years ago, and because it’s 400 years old, I can forgive it for its lack of inclusive language.  The poem that begins, “No man is an island, entire of itself,” and later on says “any man’s death diminished me, / because I am involved in mankind.”


Much has been revealed to us.  Much continues to be revealed to us.  And just as Jesus was with the man in the story as the world was revealed to him – the world in all of its painful beauty – Jesus has been with us through the past three years.  Jesus is present in all of the mucky, muddy, messy places in life… and Jesus sometimes even uses a gob of mud made out of spit and dirt to bring about revelation.


And may the God who has been present since before the beginning of time, the God who works in the mud and muck of this world even today… may this God be with us through all of our tomorrows, bringing insight and enlightenment and revelation and transformation.  Amen.


Image:  "Mud"

by backonthebus on flickr

Used with Permission.

5 March 2023

"Rivers of Living Water" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday March 5 – 2nd Sunday in Lent

Scripture:  John 4:5-42



Have you ever been thirsty?  Really, really thirsty?


When my friend and I go on canoe trips, we bring either chlorine drops or a gravity filter with us so that we can safely drink water from the rivers and lakes we are travelling through.  One of the challenges though, is that if you are travelling through swampier areas, you can’t use that water. If there is too much algae or other matter in the water, it will clog up the gravity filter; and if there is too much bacteria or other potentially harmful things in the water, then even the chlorine drops might not get them all.  So you need to scoop water that is relatively clean to begin with and then purify it so that it is safe to drink.


I remember one trip where I didn’t plan well.  If I had looked more closely at the map, I would have seen that we were going to be travelling through a swampy area, followed by a portage through the woods, and then through another swampy area before getting back to an open lake.  If I had looked more closely at the map, I would have filled up my water bottles before entering the swampy area, but I didn’t.  I had about half a litre of water when we paddled into the swamp and I finished it up as we began the portage.  By the time we launched the canoes again on the other side, I was definitely feeling thirsty.  As we made our way through the second swampy area with the sun beating down on us, I began to feel desperate for water.


Finally, we reached open water and left the swamp behind us.  As soon as we were a little bit away, I scooped water from the lake and started the process of purifying it with drops.  Those 15 minutes I had to wait were possibly the longest 15 minutes I’ve ever been through.  But finally, I could lift my water bottle to my mouth and take a drink, and nothing has ever tasted sweeter to me than that first mouthful of water.


When I think of the nameless Samaritan woman at the well, and her conversation with Jesus, I am drawn to the image of water.  Jesus is thirsty and asks her to draw some water up from the well for him.  But then he goes on to say that whoever drinks water from the well will eventually be thirsty again and need more water.  This is true – that water that I drank after leaving the swamp was beautiful and life-sustaining in the moment, but its effects didn’t last forever.  The effects didn’t even last for a day, as I needed to drink more water later that same day.


But then Jesus tells her that he can offer her Living Water, and that whoever drinks of this living water will never be thirsty again.  I’m reminded of St. Augustine writing in his Confessions, “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”  Our souls are thirsty until we drink of the living waters.


In this season of Lent, we are reading stories of people who encountered Jesus, and in the gospel of John, this story comes almost immediately after the story we read last Sunday, the story of Nicodemus. And I don’t think that it is an accident that there are so many things to contrast between these two encounters.


Nicodemus is named; the woman in today’s story remains nameless.  Nicodemus is male; she is female.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader in the temple, the ultimate insider in their society; the woman at the well is a foreigner with different religious practices.  Nicodemus sneaks in to where Jesus is staying at night; the woman at the well meets Jesus out in the open at midday.  Nicodemus slips back out into the night and takes a long path to becoming a follower of Jesus; this unnamed Samaritan woman hears and believes in him right away.  She goes back into the village centre and persuades her neighbours to come and listen to Jesus.  She becomes the first evangelist in the gospel of John, bringing the good news to others.


She has obviously said yes to the Living Water that Jesus promises – this water is springing up in her, bringing the eternal life that Jesus promises.


The thing about “eternal life” is that I think that it has to do with more than just the duration of life. It’s not just the same old life as right now but continuing to eternity – it has to do with becoming a part of God’s life – the life that has been since before the beginning and will continue to be forever.  Eternal life is qualitatively different, and not just a quantitative difference.  It is a different kind of life.  Some of you know that I’m a bit of a word and language geek… the New Testament is translated for us from Greek, and in ancient Greek there are two different words that both mean life.  Bios, refers to our physical bodies and biological life – this is the root of our word biology.  And zoe refers to the life that includes but is so much more than the biological life. It is the fullness of life.  It is our life in God.  And this is the life that Jesus is talking about when he talks about “eternal life.”


When we drink from this living water that Jesus offers, when the Holy Spirit pours through our life, we are changed.  We are nudged just a little bit closer towards who we were created to be.  Maybe you feel just a little bit more peace in your heart.  Maybe you sense the love that surrounds you.  Maybe the candle of hope that seemed to have been extinguished in you sparks to life again.  Life takes on a different quality.  The eternal life begins in the here and now.


There are so many different ways we can drink from this living water; so many ways we can satisfy our thirsting souls.  The sacraments – baptism and communion – are obvious ways.  Maybe you drink from the living waters through the caring act of someone else.  Maybe you see God’s artistry in the natural world and drink of those life-giving waters.  Maybe it is in a quiet time of meditation or prayer; or maybe it is through moving the body that God gave to you.  There are so many different ways that we can tap into the living water that Jesus offers freely.


And once the living water is flowing into our hearts, then it can flow through our hearts and overflow to the world around us.  Through our acts of love and caring, inspired by the Holy Spirit, others can receive the living waters of God.  The other place where Jesus talks about living waters is a couple of chapters further on in John’s gospel, and there Jesus proclaims that rivers of living water will flow out of a believer’s heart (John 7:38).  We receive the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit flows through us and out towards others.


My prayer for all of us is that we might drink deeply from these living waters; that the life in God that Jesus promises might spring up in all of our hearts; and that this water might flow through us to bring fullness of life to the world.  May it be so.  Amen.



 Filtering Drinking Water from the Bloodvein River

Photo Credit:  Laura Marie Piotrowicz

(This was not the canoe trip I ran out of water on -
I had learned my lesson well!)

26 February 2023

"Sitting in the (Literal) Dark, Seeking Enlightenment" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday February 26, 2023

Scripture Reading:  John 3:1-17



(Note:  In our Story for All Ages this week, we read The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown - there is a brief reference to this story towards the end of the reflection.)



That reading that we just from the Gospel of John contains some pretty well-known verses in the bible.  There’s the verse that is beloved by football fans across North America:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  And then there are the bits about “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” and “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  And there is my favourite verse:  “The Wind-Spirit blows where she chooses, and you hear the sound of her, but you do not know where she comes from or where she goes.”


I could probably preach three or four sermons on any one of those verses, but that’s not the path I want to go down this morning.


Instead, because our Lent theme is reading stories about people who encountered Jesus, I want to look at the person who encountered Jesus in this story – Nicodemus.


We’re not told much about Nicodemus in this passage. We are told that he is a Pharisee – Pharisees were the Jewish people of that time who believed that anyone could be set apart or made holy by observing all of the law in the Torah.  In the Pharisees’ understanding of the world, holiness was not limited to a small group of people, the priests who could approach God in the temple, but holiness was accessible to everyone.  In the bible we often see the Pharisees in conflict with Jesus, and I can kind of understand where they were coming from. They wanted holiness and access to God to be available to everyone, and in their understanding of the world, this was only possible by strict observance of the Torah.  So when Jesus came along, teaching a different way of interpreting the Torah, I’m sure that they thought that he was preventing people from being able to access God.


But here, in Nicodemus, we have a Pharisee who seems to be curious about Jesus and what he is teaching.  We see Nicodemus coming to Jesus to ask some questions.  He comes to Jesus at night, which I find to be a curious detail.  Did he want to stay hidden away?  Was he afraid of what his colleagues might say if they knew that he was coming to talk to this renegade rabbi?


Some scholars suggest that Nicodemus was a plant – sent by the others to try and trip Jesus up, which means that he wasn’t authentic in his questions.  But I prefer to take Nicodemus at face-value – as a spiritual seeker – as someone who is seeking enlightenment, even as he comes to Jesus in the literal dark.


When I read the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, I hear it as a conversation between prose and poetry.  Nicodemus opens the dialogue with a prosaic question, asking if Jesus comes from God, since how else would he be able to do the things that he is doing.  Jesus responds in metaphor, speaking about being born from above.  Nicodemus takes the metaphor literally, puzzled by how someone could be born again after having grown old.  Jesus replies with more poetry about being born of both water and Spirit, and how the Spirit blows where she chooses.  Nicodemus, still puzzled, asks, “How can these things be?” And Jesus, after insulting Nicodemus for still not getting it, still doesn’t drop the poetry but talks about the Son of Man being raised up just as Moses raised up a serpent in the wilderness.


After that last question, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus just seems to disappear from the conversation.  Jesus keeps on talking, long beyond the part of the story we heard this morning, but we don’t hear from Nicodemus again. He just seems to fade into the shadows.  He’s a shadowy figure to begin with, and now he seems to slip back into the shadows of the night.


But the thing is, this isn’t the last time we hear from Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.  This isn’t the end of his story.  This isn’t his final encounter with Jesus; and I don’t think that we can talk about Nicodemus’s story without reading the rest of his story.


If we were to flip ahead to the end of chapter 7, we would run into Nicodemus again.  This time, Jesus has been teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, teaching again about the Holy Spirit saying, “All who are thirsty should come to me!  All who believe in me should drink!”  The crowd is divided on the wisdom of his preaching, and their grumbling catches the attention of the guards who go to the chief priests and Pharisees to ask what they should do.


In the following discussion, Nicodemus stands up for Jesus, saying, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?”  It’s almost like Jesus’s teachings have been working in Nicodemus’s heart ever since he first heard them.  It’s almost like Nicodemus is starting to understand what Jesus was teaching… or at least understand that there might be some value in his words.


But when his colleagues accuse him of sympathizing with Jesus – “You’re not from Galilee too, are you?” – Nicodemus falls quiet, and we don’t hear from him again.


We don’t hear from him again until the very end of the gospel story.  If you flip ahead to the end of Chapter 19, you’ll find Nicodemus again.  This is after the crucifixion.  Jesus has been arrested, has been put on trial, has been tortured, and has been nailed to a cross and left there to die.  After he is dead, Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, approaches Pilate and asks for the body of Jesus.  Pilate gives him permission, and so Joseph of Arimathea takes his body down from the cross to bury him.  And Joseph is accompanied by none other than Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night.  And Nicodemus is bringing with him a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe, the spices needed to prepare a body for burial – an extravagant amount of them.  And together, the two of them lay Jesus’s body to rest in a tomb.


Like I said, I see Nicodemus as a spiritual seeker, someone who moves from the shadows of the night towards enlightenment.  If we look at his full story, we can see him moving from curiosity and confusion towards discipleship, serving Jesus at the end, even when it was too late for Jesus to be aware of this service.


And for us, I think that the good news of Nicodemus’s story is that our journey isn’t over yet.  Our story is never over.  We always have the opportunity to deepen our faith, to grow in our love towards God and towards our neighbours.  And so wherever you are along your faith journey, it’s not over yet.  The Holy Spirit is still working in you, turning you towards Jesus.  You are deeply, deeply loved, and God is always calling you, chasing after you like the mother bunny, and drawing you even more deeply into love. Thanks be to God!



Image:  “Nicodemus” by JESUS MAFA

From Art in the Christian Tradition

Used with Permission

19 February 2023

"It is Good to Be Here" (Annual Meeting Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday February 19, 2023

Transfiguration Sunday and Annual Meeting Sunday

Scripture:  Matthew 17:1-9



(Here at Two Rivers, our annual congregational meetings are woven together with our worship, and my reflection ties in my Minister's Report. If you want to read the Annual Report, you can download a copy from our website.)

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday – the day when we remember the time when Jesus and three of his disciples climbed up a mountain, and Jesus’s physical body was transformed as his disciples watched – his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzlingly bright. His disciples could see that Jesus was still the friend and teacher they had been following and learning from, but in that moment they could also see that he was so much more. They could see God even more fully revealed in Jesus.


Peter, being Peter, blusters in and asks if he should build tents there on top of the mountain in order to prolong the experience, but before he does that, he acknowledges, “It is good to be here.”  It is good to be here, here on this mountaintop, here in this moment, here in the presence of God.  And even though Peter couldn’t see the future, I wonder if remembering this moment on the mountaintop sustained him through all of the challenges he was going to encounter when they reached Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week began to unfold.


Mountaintop experiences – those moments when we are intensely aware of God’s presence, moments when we are almost painfully aware that we are standing on holy ground – they don’t happen every day, but they can sustain us through our times in the valleys.


And I wonder if, as we wander through the valleys carrying our memories of the mountaintop, we might gradually come to recognize God’s presence there as well.  God’s presence isn’t confined to our mountaintop experiences, but God is with us at all times.


As you read through my Minister’s Report, you will see that I have highlighted some of my mountaintop times, some of our mountaintop times in the past year – gathering together to worship, opening Ida’s Cupboard to provide food for our community, concerts and musicals, confirmation, weddings, sabbath time.  These were moments when it was easy to see God’s presence in our midst – times when it was easy to exclaim, like Peter, “It is good to be here!”


And in my report I also mention some of the valleys of 2022 – the loss of beloved members of our churches, the turmoil caused by the ongoing presence of Covid.


But I can be assured that God is present in these moments as well; and in any moment when God is with us, we can proclaim, “It is good to be here.” Whether we are on the mountaintop or in the deepest valley, we can proclaim, “It is good to be here!”  Our whole lives can become a song of praise to God who is always with us.


I say this frequently to the Official Board –at every meeting, I think – but I am so very grateful to be here at Two Rivers Pastoral Charge, working alongside all of you.  I don’t say this often enough, but I am so very grateful for all of you, and for your ministry and for your commitment to reflecting the face of Christ to the world around you.  Truly, truly I say, it is good to be here.  Thanks be to God.



12 February 2023

"Choose Life. Choose Love." (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday February 12, 2022

Scripture:  Deuteronomy 30:11-20

(The Harper Collins strike that I mentioned in my last post has been resolved, and so I have resumed my normal practice of linking the bible reading from Bible Gateway, a site run by Zondervan, a Harper Collins imprint.)



I’m going to say something that may shock you.  I love the book of Deuteronomy.  (Though I think that I’ve said this here before, so it may not be as shocking to you as it would be to people who didn’t know me!)


Like Leviticus, which we’re reading in Bible Study right now, Deuteronomy can be a bit of a slog to get through if you try to read it from beginning to end – when I took a course on Deuteronomy at AST and part of our homework for the first week was to read the book, I chose to listen to it on my bible app to keep my eyes from glazing over and skipping over large chunks of it.  Most of the book is filled with a great long list of “thou shalt do this’s” and “thou shalt not to that’s” and it’s really easy for my eyes to start skipping around on the page.


There is also a lot of the book that is not in keeping with our 21st Century worldview, which makes it challenging to read – we generally don’t believe in stoning people these days; and fathers aren’t paid for their daughters.


So with all of this, why do I love the book of Deuteronomy?  It’s definitely not because of stoning people, and it’s definitely not for its great plot.  I love this book because of where it stands in the overall story of the Old Testament.


Remember the story.  Remember that the Ancient Israelite people, the descendants of Jacob, were slaves in Egypt.  Remember that Moses encountered God in a burning bush in the middle of the desert.  Remember that God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh “let my people go.”  Remember that after a whole host of plagues descended on the land, Pharaoh did let the people go.  Remember that God worked through Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea so that the people could cross over to safety and freedom.  Remember that Moses met with God on the top of Mount Sinai where God gave Moses the 10 Commandments and the rest of the law.  Remember that God guided the people through the desert wilderness, traveling with them like a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night.  Remember that God fed them there in the desert with manna and with quail, and that God made fresh drinking water flow from a rock for them.


Remember that for 40 years, God was with the people in the desert, feeding them, hydrating them, guiding them, and keeping them safe.


All of this is the prelude, the prologue to the book of Deuteronomy.


At this point in the story, the people have reached the Jordan River, and they are ready to cross over into the Promised Land – to cross over into the land that God had promised to their Ancestors – to cross over into a land that, in contrast to the desert, would be metaphorically flowing with milk and honey.


They are about to cross from a land of scarcity into a land of abundance, and God doesn’t want the people to forget the lessons that they have learned in their 40 years in the wilderness.  God doesn’t want them to forget that they depend on God for everything – for food, for water, for protection, for guidance.  Even though God’s provision will be less obvious in the promised land where it will seem like food just appears before them, it will still be God who makes the rains fall and the ground fertile and the seeds to germinate.  And God doesn’t want the people to forget this.


And so this is why the first 29 chapters of Deuteronomy consist of Moses reciting the law for a second time.  The people have done very well keeping their side of their covenant with God out in the desert, and so here is one final reminder of their obligations before crossing the river.


And here in Chapter 30 we come to God’s exhortation – choose life.  Out there in the desert, they had no choice but to choose to follow God, but once they cross the river, they will have a choice.  They will be able to choose to turn away from God and not face immediate starvation or thirst, but God wants them to know that choosing that pathway won’t allow them to flourish; won’t allow them to experience the fullness of life that God wants for them.


God wants them to choose to be in relationship with God, since that is the only way that we can flourish.  Here at the end of Deuteronomy, on the banks of the Jordan River, God pleads with them, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God, for that means life to you and length of days so that you may live in the land.”


And how do we choose life?  Well, Jesus gave us a pretty good summary of God’s law when he taught that the two most important commandments are to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.  When we choose this way of love, then we are choosing life.


And God tells us that all of this is in our reach – we don’t need to ascend to heaven or cross to the other side of the sea – instead this promise is in our mouth and in our hearts for us to claim.  The Holy Spirit is in each one of us, empowering us to choose God’s way of love and life.


Living in a time and a place of abundance as we do, it can be easy for us to forget that God is the source of all of that abundance. It is easy to take for granted that fresh water will continue to flow down the river.  It is easy to take for granted that we can walk into a grocery store and buy a carton milk.  It is easy to take for granted that when we take a breath in, oxygen will fill our lungs and pass into our blood.


I wonder if sometimes we face the same challenges as our ancient ancestors did, when they crossed into the promised land.  When there is abundance, we aren’t always able to see God as the source of that abundance.  Maybe we need a Deuteronomy movement – a reminder that even when we can’t immediately see it, God is the one who provides for us.


I wonder if I can take that one step further, and ponder whether or not we can use the past couple of years as a wilderness time, like our ancestors wandering in the desert.  I don’t know about you, but I find that I don’t take things for granted as much as I did 3 years ago.  I don’t take it for granted that we can gather together in this place and open our mouths – safely shielded by our masks – and sing together.  I don’t take it for granted that I can hop on an airplane to celebrate Christmas with my family.  I don’t take it for granted that the grocery store will have everything on my list.  And because I don’t take these things for granted, I find that I appreciate them all the more, and I give deep thanks to God for all of these everyday blessings.


And as we notice these things, God implores us:  Choose life.  Choose love.  Let the Holy Spirit turn our hearts to see God and to follow God’s ways.


And I think that God gives us Deuteronomy moments all through our lives to help to sustain us on the way.  We are given moments when we can pause; moments when we can remember; moments when we can choose the fullness of life and choose love; moments when we can choose to journey with God.  Moments when God jumps out at us and reminds us, “I’m here!”


For me, sometimes these moments come when I’m listening to a piece of music, or singing with a choir and the harmonies are just right.  Sometimes they come when I’m talking with someone and we are sharing from our hearts and I can sense the presence of the divine in the space between us.  One time, around this time of year when I was living in Halifax, I was given a reminder of God’s presence when I was sitting on the bus and there was a ledge that was about eye-level with where I was sitting, and someone had written in the fresh snow on the ledge, “Love > Fear.”


These moments, like the Ancient Israelite people pausing before crossing the river, cause me to pause and remember God’s presence with us, closer to us than our very breath; and they remind me of God pleading with us to choose the way of love and life.


We are coming close to the season of Lent, which will begin on Ash Wednesday, February 22 this year.  The theme that we are going to be following through Lent this year is Encountering Jesus.  In worship, we will be reading stories from the bible about people whose lives were changed by an encounter with Jesus.  At our Wednesday evening Lenten gatherings, we will have time to meditate and perhaps encounter Jesus ourselves.  And at the beginning of our worship services each week in Lent, there will be a space for all of us to share (in-person or online) times and places in the week before when we have noticed God present in the world around us.


So this is your 2-week notice to begin looking for those God-moments!  It’s an invitation to keep your eyes and your ears and your heart open for those times when God reminds you, “I’m here. I’m with you. I love you. Love the world.”


And together, we listen for God’s reminder, and then we choose the fullness of all that life has. And we choose love.




Crossing from a dry and barren desert

to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Choose life. Choose love.

Photo Credit:  orientalizing on Flickr