Welcome (Matthew 5:1-12)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Create in me a clean heart
Call to Worship (Micah 6: 6-8)
‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Praise, my soul, the King of heaven
From you come grace, mercy, compassion, hope and love: by grace you call us into being; by mercy you restore us as your people; by compassion you strengthen us to follow your Son our Lord; by hope you guide us into the future in your presence; and by love you recreate us as part of your new creation. For all these and more, we give you thanks.
Come and be present with us. In this hour, by your Spirit, tend to all that we do to praise and worship you. By the Spirit guide our words in ways that they will bring glory to all those ears that hear about your love and give you glory.
All these and more we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians: 1:18-31
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’
Sermon: Fools who hope in Christ
The world asks, How do we know if there is God as Christians say? This is the question reshaped as “Does God exist?” and put to a historian, a scientist and an author by the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. The world is still curious. Interest is one thing, but exploring the existence of God as a theoretical question is another. The world has been struggling to find a definitive answer to this question as long as human beings began thinking. For all the brilliance the world has seen throughout human history, it is still an unresolved question for the world.
Isn’t the God of the Old Testament a vengeful tribal god? What about other religions? In terms of number, there are more people who believe in other gods than Christians, isn’t that true? Doesn’t that make the claim of Christian god as the only true god to be on a shaky ground? These are the questions that ultimately led the once famous Charles Templeton who was a friend of Billy Graham to agnosticism. He neither believed in God nor rejected God. He simply argued that it is impossible to know. After quitting the job of being Evangelist or a preacher of good news of Christ, he was hired at Toronto Star, worked at CTV and McLean’s Magazine.
Templeton’s answers to those questions are widely shared by many non-Christians everywhere. We also hear echoes of his answers in many Christians who struggle with faith and life in difficult circumstances. It is very hard to believe in God. Many are truly convinced by Karl Marx’s summary that religion is the opiate of the masses. They are also like Charles Templeton. They neither acknowledge nor deny the existence of God. They simply hold on to their convictions that it is impossible to know if God exists or not. In this sense these folks are very different from atheists like Richard Dawkins who wrote the book, The God Delusion, vehemently attacking Christians and people of other faiths as morons.
Templeton’s queries as well as his conclusions are far closer to experiences of today’s populace in Canada than those of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. There is a sense of acknowledgement of limits of human knowledge in agnostics that there are still many things that cannot be known by human beings with all our knowledge. How Templeton and so many others ended up being agnostics is not what today’s conversation is about. Today we are exploring how one’s dependence on human knowledge, intellect (reasoning abilities) and unimaginably vast computing technology are leading humanity away from hope into despair.
In a way our modes of thinking, primarily based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have trained our brains to tune out anything that is not literal, concrete, visual, material and observable to our five senses. Talk of evidence based decision making re-enforces and validates what we know and how we understand our world to be. This is why God of Israel is nothing more than a tribal god of ancient people. This god was vengeful, jealous, demanding, violent, cruel, ruthless and petty when we read the Old Testament as it is given to us. This tribal god is certainly good for the Jews, but is this god good for the world?
Again, as the world turns more and more agnostic by expressing their non-view regarding God or gods, the way many Christians, Muslims and Jews describe their God resembles very much the god we find in the Old Testament, vengeful, jealous, demanding, violent, cruel, ruthless and petty. Why should anyone subscribe to this god? At the same time, those zealous Christians, Muslims and Jews prove by their words and actions to the world that their God is indeed a strict and severe disciplinarian with little room for forgiveness for those who do not follow the laws and rules of their religions. No wonder, no one wants to be part of these religions.
This aversion against religious people does not mean that the world is blind to the good things these folks do. In general, today’s agnostics acknowledge that many good people in these religious communities do good work. It’s just that they don’t want to be part of these faith groups, spending time and energy in being faithful. They see no reason to be part of these religious groups when they can participate in much good work by donating time and money to various causes and non-profit organizations. In their view, being a devout Christian might hinder them from contributing to build a better society for all because they see religions’ divisive effects.
From this agnostic point of view, the message about the cross is foolishness. Saving the humanity through death at the hands of an unjust world is a waste of time. It would be better to find the most effective way to improve people’s lives utilizing STEM, no? In drought prone countries, we can dig wells, improve soils, introduce better yielding farming solutions, etc. using STEM. After all, at least in our developed countries, STEM makes all things possible for all kinds of difficulties. This is why as a society, we keep stressing the STEM education from a very young age in order to advance our causes.
Comparing what humanity has been able to achieve through STEM to what God can do is like comparing what Superman can do with what a little child can do. STEM on the other hand leads us to all kinds of solutions. From world hunger to once incurable cancers and diseases, even if not immediately, STEM can eventually offer us solutions that we have never imagined possible. This advancement in STEM has certainly given humanity confidence and a sense of power in dealing with all situations in life. This is why God appears impotent, unable and useless. God’s ways are supposed to be mysterious and hardly ever immediate or universal. True, people speak individually about how God helped, but not on a large scale. Prayers often bring no immediate results for an entire population in suffering. Life of faith appears to be a life of suffering and agony compared to life in the world of STEM.
Foolishness, indeed. Just look at what faith could have done against COVID. Nothing. People would have suffered and died needlessly. All those people who refused vaccines on the account of their Christian faith only made the situation worse, isn’t that true? On and on it goes. The point is, in the world of STEM Christian faith does not measure up as a solution to any human problem. What Christian faith can do, the world of STEM as ways and means can do better, faster and greater, reaching more people than we Christians can ever hope for. Christian ways are no longer considered to be wise or effective in this world of 7 billion people with lots of problems.
Was Paul not aware of this? Surely Paul could not see what humanity could achieve in two thousand years from his lifetime, right? When was the last time God defeated the knowledge of this world in a debate? People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens delighted in debating Christians publicly as the world judged them as winners against Christian apologists. Against the wisdom of our world, when did God’s wisdom rescue anyone from death?
All we know from God is love–unconditional love. The message about the cross is nothing but love that lays down one’s own life for another. This can only be done by one person at a time. If the one to whom the life is given does not receive it as love, this love has no power. This message about the cross is that when one’s loved one is dying, the only thing the lover can do is watch and be present with love. There is no miracle which makes death go away or extend life for a few more years. In this love, the dying and the one who is witnessing the death in love are bound without stopping death.
In faith, we learn that life is not about comfort, riches, well-being, achievements, health, success and longevity. It is also not about the quality or the quantity. Faith matures us into an understanding that life is sharing of time and all of who we are freely in unconditional love for the flourishing of all in our communities. In this sense, there is no competition for riches, intellect, prestige, fame, glory and power. Also there is no fear or worries for tomorrow or future. This is the case because we trust God’s love for us in ways that our needs are sufficiently met, through sharing of the blessings we receive we are fully satisfied and with love we share both joys and sorrows, griefs and grace through life and death.
The message about the cross of Christ is that our hope is in Christ and not in the world of STEM. Our spiritual anxieties, pains, sorrows and fears are not met with things that STEM offer, but with a simple unconditional love. It is true that STEM brings relief from physical pain and suffering, but not in a spiritually lasting way. STEM can help in physical and material needs bringing comfort and convenience. However, on our spiritual plane, solutions from STEM are not what satisfy our souls’ needs. In death and in life we put our trust in God who witnessed his own son’s death on the cross as God’s gift of life to us in God's unconditional love. It certainly is foolishness and we are fools to put this unconditional love before accumulation of wealth, prestige, honour, knowledge and power. The world’s priorities do not match up with ours. Our refusal to accommodate the world’s way of doing important things makes us fools.
Yet, we live in fullness of hope. Our hope is all about being with Christ and one another through Christ, sharing grace, mercy and blessings. These, we do not measure with STEM tools–though many are at it. Instead we receive these grace, mercy and blessings as gifts and share as our gifts to others freely. Our hope is not about how long we will live, how much comfort we will enjoy, how much power we gain, how big a territory or wealth we accumulate to give our children as inheritance or how successful in life we are at our death. Our hope is in Christ who called us to himself to give life through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead on the third day so that we may share in this unconditional love not only now but also in eternity.
This God’s wisdom, life with God in love, is foolishness to all our agnostic and atheist friends, yet it is the very thing that points us to love that passes all understanding, filling us with abundant hope even when we face death.
You are present in our world from everlasting to everlasting. You have willed this world into being. You have guided this world with love beyond our understanding. Hear us now as we pray. We come with our love for you and for one another, bringing our concerns.
In the world where peace means no wars, we come seeking your peace where there is true serenity and good will among all peoples, building up one another as your servants in love. It is difficult for our world to imagine this peace where love is what everyone shares freely so that all may flourish. Our world is filled with governments egging each other on military struggles while innocent people suffer. Fill the minds of our political leaders with your wisdom, O God. Turn them away from brave talks of battles that will bring peace and heroic wins to building up of their nations for the poor and the weak.
In this time of winter, as many vulnerable people are feeling the effects of winter as prices of everything soar, making it difficult to live so that many people forgo food in order to survive, we pray that your Spirit will fill everyone’s heart to live the gospel. Teach us to know that as our God you have provided sufficiently and that the blessings are abundant if we are to share with one another freely and unconditionally. Open our eyes to see that if we follow your Son in every way, all will be blessed and be satisfied as we learn to share in love that your Son has given us.
In places where the strong, beautiful and healthy are idealized, we come in humility. Help us to see that strength means nothing if we do not know how to lift up the weak, beauty becomes only skin deep if we do not see the hearts of each and everyone, and health is nothing more than vanity when the sick among us are neglected and forgotten. Create in us hearts for your people, especially the weak, sick, and vulnerable. Fill us with your compassion in ways that we will love the weak, sick and vulnerable first and foremost.
O Lord, continue to guide us to pray for those who care for others, those who are losing their will, those who are lonely, those who struggle alone to find meaning and place in our world and those who are lost even when they try so hard to search for life. Gently show us a way to walk with them and share your Son with them.
All these we pray in your Son’s name. Amen.
Today, after the service of worship, following the refreshment and fellowship, we will have our annual financial meeting to determine the 2023 budget. Please, stay and participate.
We need your prayer and support for those members whom we have not seen for a while. Please be in touch with them and keep them in your prayers.
Blest are they