ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                                                                NOVEMBER 20, 2016



Jeremiah 23: 3 – 6; Luke 23: 33 – 43

Rev. Sabrina Ingram


There was a time when the role of a monarch was seen as nothing short of a pre-ordained Divine appointment.  Over the last few centuries, this unquestioned devotion has shifted.  The French Revolution which abolished the monarchy; the American War of Independence when the USA broke from Great Britain, and the murder of the Tsar during the Russian Revolution changed the fabric of society as it had been.  Loyalty to one’s sovereign was, for many, a thing of the past.


At first glance, today’s scripture readings seem completely unrelated.  There is in Jeremiah God’s promise to the Jewish people dispersed throughout Persia, and in Luke – the story of Jesus on the cross talking with the two thieves.  One theme that links these stories is faithfulness – loyalty to the King.


The Diaspora is the term we use to speak of the exile of the Israelites in Northern Israel and the Judahites in the southern Kingdom when they were defeated by the Babylonians and carted off to live in Persia.  While in exile the Jews began to adopt the cultural traits of those around them, eating their food, reading their books and marrying their people.  It made sense to adapt.  After all, it appeared their God had forgotten them, so why be loyal?  Their adaptation was gradual but before long, they were worshipping the Babylonian gods.  Yet, there remained among them a small number who were faithful to Yahweh, worshipping him, following the Law and to the best of their ability, keeping their ritual observances.  They separated themselves from the Persian culture and likely weren’t too popular because of it.  God looked upon these people as “the faithful remnant” – those who remained loyal to him when all other Jews had turned away.  God saw these people and vowed to bless them.  He promised to gather the remnant together and return them to their homeland where they would be fruitful and multiply, rebuilding the nation of Israel.


In the second narrative, Jesus is in the throes of a torturous death on the cross.   On each side of him are two criminals.  One recognizes Jesus is the promised King, the Messiah and shows his loyalty by his repentant and contrite heart.  The other is obstinate and arrogant and has the gall to mock him.  Like the faithless Jews in Persia, this hard-hearted man joins with the leaders and soldiers who have condemned and are ridiculing Jesus.   He has no use for God and rejects Jesus as King and Messiah.  I find this odd behavior.  There’s a scene in the movie Braveheart where Queen Isabella, the wife of the heir to the British throne, goes to visit William Wallace in prison.   The King, Edward Longshanks, is dying and his son clearly lacks the tyrannical leadership qualities of his father.  Isabella tells the guard she wants to be alone with Wallace.  The guard hesitates as the order from Longshanks is that no one sees Wallace and certainly not unwatched.  Isabella berates the guard pointing out the King will soon be dead and asks who he thinks will run the kingdom then.  The answer of course is that she will and so the guard, concerned to stay on her good side, slinks away.   One would think the unrepentant criminal on the cross would have showed a similar self-serving allegiance to Jesus, just in case he was the King.  Judgement day is around the corner but he remains unrepentant.


Today in Canada, loyalty to Jesus as our King and Messiah is no longer a high priority for most people.  The challenge that faced the Israelites in a foreign land are ones we also face – how do we remain faithful to Christ? How do we live in ways which are distinct from our culture?  When our faith is degraded by those around us, can we continue to trust the promises of God?  How do we discern which attitudes and values around us honour our King so that we can avoid those that don’t?


This past week Doug and I were at Presbytery and three things happened that speak to our dilemma.  In a conversation over supper, a colleague, who has been going through a tough time personally and professionally, has been taking a class in the community for personal development.  There he encounters people who talk frequently about the “energy of the universe”, eastern meditative practices, and alternative healing methods.   He said these people made sense to him and asked how we would respond in a similar situation.  We spoke of trying to find points of commonality between our beliefs and theirs; of talking about their “unknown energy” as the God revealed in Jesus Christ and of sharing the joy of a living relationship with a personal God who knows, loves and forgives us.  What struck me was how deeply this man’s faith was being shaken by the “evangelists” around him.  Not only does this minister feel he has nothing of value to share, he is melding with the spiritual culture around him.  While others share their beliefs freely, Christians feel silenced.  Our faith is seen as inferior, damaging and uncool.  We expect if we shared our belief in Christ, people would look down on us or at least look blankly at us.  We need to recapture the mystery, the spiritual reality and the power within our faith.


In McLean’s magazine, a new study: the Mainline Church Growth Study, by two Canadian academics, David Haskell and Kevin Flatt, reveals that: growing mainline churches believe far more strongly than declining ones in traditional Christianity – the Creeds, the authority of Scripture, God’s work in the world today, daily prayer and in the divinity and saving power of Jesus.  People respond to our faith when we stay true to Christ.  Yet whether they do or not, we are called to be loyal to the King.


We also had a guest speak at Presbytery – a Christian immigrant from Syria.  Rani was very active in the ministry of his home Church. Now, his calling and passion are to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Arabic speaking refugees, particularly Muslims.  When he discovers there’s a new family in the area he invites them to worship services, lunches and ESL classes where discussion about Jesus’ teachings is encouraged.  Surprisingly, he’s being invited into their homes so they can learn more about Christ.  As Rani expressed it, many of these people know a God who is harsh and judgmental; they’re spiritually fearful and rule-bound.  To hear about the grace of a loving God who came in human form to save us, is both remarkable and life-giving for many people he encounters.  Rani is a very gracious, gentle and courageous man.  The persecution and even slaughter of Christians in Syria is, quite likely, part of his own story.   If I’d come from his world, I’d probably lay low, get a job that paid, find a church and thankfully enjoy life.  It also occurred to me that many Canadian Christians would be offended by his mission; they would condemn him for expressing his faith to those who have their own religion.


Finally, the Children’s and Family Ministry Coordinator from Woodville spoke.  She’s a lively, enthusiastic woman who loves Christ and whose mission is to reach out into the community to families with no church connection.  She’s started a number of programs that meet the practical needs of parents and the interests of the kids.  She’s willing to do pretty much anything that gives people a reason to come through the door.  But she doesn’t rest there, she uses these events as opportunities to share the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ.  She has a gift for building networks with other organizations in the area, and people from the congregation are present at every event to mingle and build friendships with their guests.  While building community networks and engaging families in ways which seem mundane or “unspiritual” she remains fiercely loyal to Christ and to sharing the gospel.


I’d like to share one last story about living with loyalty to our King.  During frosh week some Christians at Trent had made connections.  They saw a message on the Trent Facebook page from someone asking if there was anyone else in 1st year who didn’t want to spend the whole week getting drunk.  Liam and Bree responded and befriended Tara, who hadn’t been to church for a few years.  They invited her here and here she is. The firmness of their faith allowed them not to follow the crowd.


It’s not easy to distinguish ourselves from the beliefs, behaviours and practices of the culture around us.  It takes dedication to remain loyal to our King, courage to stand apart from the crowd, humility to ask forgiveness when we fail, conviction to believe we have a faith worth sharing and deep love to open our hearts to others.  As worshipping Christians we are now the faithful remnant.  How will you remain committed to Christ?   We can draw strength from one another, from the faithful Jews in Persia, and from one repentant criminal.  But our deepest support comes from God who fulfilled his promise to give his people a wise King who would rule over them with justice and righteousness so that Israel would be both saved and safe and from Jesus who responds to our loyalty remembering us when he comes into his kingdom.