May 21 :: Fr. Bob Davis :: On Christian Identity

Good morning! It is so good to be here with you…and our scripture lessons contain some powerful and

challenging themes! Themes like: who God truly is; what a Christ centered life looks like; and how that

life actually comes to be possible. Themes that could be preached for quite a few Sundays without

mining all of the goodness within them! Amen?

I love the way that Paul deals with the folks in Acts chapter 17. We read that he encountered a

community of people who were very religious… very spiritually minded… but they apparently struggled

to identify who God truly is and have perhaps settled into a sort of contentment with their position.

Have you ever met someone like that? I bet most, if not all of us have! In the military we are all issued

service identification tags…more commonly called “dog tags”. They have been around for some

time…really back to the Civil War… but it wasn’t until WWII that they began to look like they are today.

A Soldiers name, social, blood type and religious preference are indicated. In WW2 days there were only

3 categories a fella could choose from… Prot, Cath, or Jewish. That really limited some folks from

declaring who they truly were, so over the years “no religious pref” and “none” were added. Just this

past week the DoD released a list of 221 recognized religions. A Soldier can put quite a few things on

his/her dog tags today!

I see all sorts of stuff! I’m serious… I have seen Jedi… druid…atheist…agnostic…spaghetti monster …

(that’s a whole discussion by itself) all in an attempt to really communicate who they are. You know

what really bothers me though? What burdens my heart…is when I see a young Trooper that lists none…

or no preference.

At least the guy who claims spaghetti monster claims to know who he is and what he stands for! No

preference… none…

In some ways our Acts text seems really familiar to me. It sure seems a lot like our culture… there is a

great interest in spirituality, but a real struggle or unwillingness to narrowly define who God is… and of

course all of the things that would follow in such a conversation.

The folks Paul is talking to are Stoics and Epicureans… in many ways they are agnostics… oh, we believe

in a God, but he is distant and we really don’t know what to make of him. We know there is something

out there… but what exactly…who can be sure???

So if a community or culture worships an unknown God, then any sort of worship will do, right? I mean

you do your thing… I do my thing… what is truth for you might not be truth for me…

Yet with all of this latitude and “freedom” there is still brokenness. In other words… it isn’t working. I

meet with men and women every week who are wounded and broken because of all of the choices they

have freely made… because after all… when you worship and unknown God and kind of worship will

do….right? "When a person's actions are different from his or her stated values, the person lives with

inner conflict."

All of our texts today point to some phenomenal truths! First and foremost is the good news that God is

not unknown and so if the identity and character of God are known…then not just any old kind of

worship will do… are you following me? The psalmist declares that everyone and everything ought to

praise the Lord! All things are under his power, rule, and dominion!

May 21, 2017 John 15:1-11 6 th Sunday of Easter Opelika Good Shepherd

2

Our epistle gives a vivid and practical picture of what is expected of those who worship the living God. It

isn’t anything you haven’t heard before: have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart,

and a humble mind…all good stuff!

But it is really in our Gospel text that we find out how any of that kind of living is possible. It is here that

perhaps we start to get into the weeds… you know the hard stuff.

Jesus says I am the TRUE VINE…and my father is the vinedresser. This isn’t the first time the Bible talks

about a vine. The folks Jesus is speaking to know exactly what he is referring to… Israel had been called a

vine…Psalm 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared

ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

But that vine was unruly…Israel did its own thing…and the vine was ravaged, it was plucked bare, it was

burnt and cut down…

So Jesus identifies himself as the true vine… he is the true Israel… the One on whom all of God’s

purposes now rest…and so it is all who follow him that are now truly God’s people. With that idea in

mind Jesus continues with the idea of abiding in him and how the father will prune the branches for his

purposes.

I doubt many of us have much experience with a grape vine…maybe somebody here does… but I don’t.

However, I do have some experience with gardening. I currently have a small garden with tomatoes and

peppers. One of the things I have learned over the years is the necessity of pruning my tomato plants.

There is a main stem…and there are branches. Anything that tries to grow from the joint of those two

areas is called a “sucker”. It is my job to go in a pinch the sucker branch off and throw it away. Why

would I do that? Why would I break off what seems to be a good part of the plant? The sucker will never

produce fruit. It looks healthy and it looks good, but it never flowers, it only uses up the resources of the

plant. The gardener has to prune the plant if it is going to reach its full potential and be healthy! In fact,

without this process the plant will not only produce a poorer quality, it will also have a shortened season

with far fewer tomatoes!

What is the point of the plant in the first place?? To bear much fruit! Right?

Jesus illustrates our spiritual lives with this simple picture…he tells the disciples they are already clean,

yet if they are going to bear fruit they have got to abide in him so that the Father might do the pruning.

You know what burdens my heart about this? People interpret this passage in so many different ways

because they are unsure as to what this might really look like. What does it mean to abide? What fruit

are we talking about? What is enough fruit? How much pruning do I really need? Why don’t you prune

old Jim over there a little more Lord… leave me alone for a bit! For goodness sakes I wish the Lord would

prune my spouse a little more…

You see that’s the problem with young folks these days… not enough pruning going on… there are too

busy worrying about foolish things!

You know if I am truthful, what really makes me uncomfortable is facing the truth that I really struggle

with abiding in Jesus. I get so caught up in my schedule, my plans, my abilities, my work, my needs, my

frustrations… I am so independent at times and work hard and strive to make life happen on my terms…

May 21, 2017 John 15:1-11 6 th Sunday of Easter Opelika Good Shepherd

3

that I forget that I need the father’s insights and skillful hands to shape my heart, my mind, and my soul

in ways that bear fruit for the Kingdom. And it isn’t just any old fruit…

Jesus goes on in John 15 to discuss exactly what he is talking about. “As the Father has loved me, so I

have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love… v12… this is

my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

The tense of the Greek verb for love used here means that we are to “habitually love”… it is a

continuous and progressive love…

Jesus is saying that as you abide in me and I in you this one thing is going to so identify you as a part of

me… a branch that is truly connected to the vine… connected in such a way that the essence of who I am

will flow into you and through you… and touch and change the world in a way that isn’t possible

otherwise…

Today is rogation Sunday… a day in which the church has historically asked God’s blessings upon the

fields and soil in order to produce a great harvest.

So in our current culture we may not be connected to the soil as our ancestors were…but we certainly

can’t avoid the parallels in our text today that do apply. A time to ask the father to renew us and remind

us of our dependence upon him… our deep need to abide in Christ and to be pruned for his purposes

and grow more and more into the likeness of Christ.

I want to close with this thought… if you had a set of dog tags, what would they say? Would they say

Anglican? Might they simply say Protestant…or Christian?

And secondly… would the fruit of your life validate that description? So many people declare their

identity in Christ, but there is no resulting fruit…specifically an overwhelming sense of Christ’s love in

their lives. Not because they are wicked people… just busy.

The good news today is that abiding in Christ places the emphasis on what God is doing in and through

you… not what you need to fix or get after. Paul and Jesus set some pretty clear expectations on how

this occurs… and some pretty blatant warnings of what happens when we do not stay connected to the

vine.

It is my prayer this week that you might take time each day to stop and simply pray… “Jesus, would you

live your life through me today. Father would you draw near and shape my heart in a way that is good

for me and brings glory to you. Holy Spirit, would you use me as a vessel to pour out your love upon

those who cross my path this day.”

May 14 :: Good Shepherd Sunday [txr] :: Bp. Neil Lebhar (notes)

Grateful for your work as a church
Making disciples, reaching out locally and beyond- You are part of a larger vision
To reach the culture with
the truth of the gospel
transmitted through traditions that
transform both individuals and culture
Truth transmitted through traditions that transform

Why does their culture seem to be getting more secular?
Why is it hard to be a Christian in this culture?
Competing philosophies
Personal deafness
Lack of conviction on the part of the Christians that the Gospel must be shared with all
These have always been realities
there is nothing new here under the sun.
And we see them all in the Gospel reading this morning

Turn to John 10
One of the purposes of worship is to get our minds disinfected from the values of the culture
The other voices

The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete. But Puddleglum, desperately gathering all his strength, walked over to the fire. Then he did a very brave thing. He knew it wouldn’t hurt him quite as much as it would hurt a human; for his feet (which were bare) were webbed and hard and cold-blooded like a duck’s. But he knew it would hurt him badly enough; and so it did. With his bare foot he stamped on the fire, grinding a large part of it into ashes on the flat hearth. And three things happened at once.

First, the sweet, heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.

Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”

Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.

To wake us up from its enchantment
The world is all there is
Grab all the gusto you can
All roads lead to God
Jesus calls the religious teachers of his day thieves and robbers
8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 
Culture tells us over and over again that there are many ways to God
It is true that many people have many different ways that they are trying to relate to God

But if there is truly only one God, it would make a certain logical sense that there's only one way to get to know him.
Anyone else steals his glory.

When we come to worship, when we hear the scriptures together, when we remember the death of Jesus to make that one way possible, we are detoxing
Stamping on the fire
Radiation shower

James Smith
The church is that household where the Spirit feeds us what we need and where, by his grace, we become a people who desire him above all else. Christian worship is the feast where we acquire new hungers—for God and for what God desires—and are then sent into his creation to act accordingly. But the practices of the church are also a spiritual workout, inviting us into routines that train our heart muscles, our fundamental desires that govern how we move and act in the world.

Recalibrate

Competing philosophies
Personal deafness
Some sheep hear
Some don't
3... The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

Learning the voice of Jesus
Hear it first in the gospels
Tuning our ears
Tom Hanks
John Mayer
What is Jesus saying to me? To us?
Deafness and Lordship


Lack of conviction on the part of the Christians that the Gospel must be shared with all
 Why?
We misunderstand
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

Have it much more
Have a superior life
Have life to the full, but not life filled with success or perfect health, or ideal marriages

Full of the love of the Lord
Full of seeing him at work in others

People are only in two camps
Those who listen to the shepherds voice, and those who are being destroyed by thieves.
fullness as described here:
Give thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Colossians 1:12-14

Jesus calls us to love others and bring them into this abundant place- his glorious kingdom.

Good shepherd Sunday readings
Peter puts the new life in these terms
24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Abundant life is knowing the Shepherd and having our lives overseen or "Bishoped" for him

Confirmation- declaring  our faith in the good shepherd

Apr 30 :: 1 Pet 1:13 :: The Character of Christian Hope

note: This sermon relied on a 'prop' - a new-in-the-box standing fan wrapped like a Christmas Present. A volunteer was called on, at the beginning and end of the sermon.

Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  1 Peter 1:13 +INPFSS+


We continue our three part mini-series this week on the three theological virtues – faith, hope and love – we continue this week by looking at hope.
Hope.
Now Christian hope differs from hope in the general sense, in that our hope is already partially fulfilled. It's not something that we just “hope” exists, it's something that we have caught a glimpse of already, and are waiting for the full un-veiling that is yet to come.
To picture this – I actually have something I've never done before: I have a prop for an illustration this morning.
Can I have a volunteer?
[[[have them come up, invite them to tear a corner off of the wrapping paper, until they can apprehend what the present is. Ask them what they think the present is....have them show the exposed corner of the box. Ask if it feels like about the right weight. And have them sit back down]]]


Now THIS is a picture of Christian hope.
At some level, we know what is coming to us, but, it's still hope, right? It's not yet a present fact. It's not certain in the same way that I am certain that I am standing here, and that this carpet is brown and other certain claims. We don't know for sure that what is in the box is actually what the box claims. In fact, how many of you had this experience in childhood? I did! Of opening a present, for a birthday or Christmas, and you tear off the wrapping paper, and the box – in my case – was a box for an awesome sound system (carelessly reappropriated by the giver) and so you open the box, only to find you had been misled. That it was in fact just an old, re-used box, and the present inside, I don't even remember what it was, I just know it wasn't the sound-system I thought it was going to be.

Thankfully our God is not careless. And for the purpose of this illustration, neither am I, so, _N._, Theoretically, if I were to give you this present, what would you hope to get? [[answer]]

Right.

Again, this is the true character of Christian hope.
Now listen again to Saint Peter in his first letter. Recalling that this is the same Saint Peter who saw Jesus calm the waves of the sea, who saw Jesus killed, and saw him raised from the dead, as we've been celebrating this easter. He heard Jesus promise to come back again, and with his own eyes, he saw Jesus ascend into heaven. Having seen and heard all these things, Peter then writes,
set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
It has a different quality to it, when we consider all that Peter had experienced and known for sure doesn't it? He's not saying, “Hold on to this pie-in-the-sky idea that maybe we might get to live forever, if we're lucky!” No, this would be a baseless hope. He is exhorting us to have Christian Hope.

He's saying, look, the wrapping paper is off. We've seen the box. We know what's coming!

We have seen Jesus crucified. So we now have HOPE that our sins are forgiven.
We have seen Jesus raised from the dead. So we now have HOPE that we too will be raised from the dead on the last day!
And THAT is our hope!
THIS is what Saint Peter is charging us to do: To set our hope on the last day, the great day when Jesus reveals himself to all the world, never to disappear again. When he sits down on the great Judgment seat, and every human being will be raised from the dead, and will be judged as either belonging to Christ Jesus, or not belonging to him. As either being a faithful Christian, or NOT a faithful Christian. And those found to be faithful, will receive a blissful immortality in the presence of God forever.

THAT's what we're to keep our eyes on. THAT is the grace that we hope will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ. That is the full unwrapping of the gift we behold at Easter.


And when our hearts are fixed on this hope, we can, as Isaiah prophesied,
walk through rivers of trouble, 
and not be overwhelmed.
We can pass through the waters of death, 
and know that the Lord is with us,
We can walk through the fires of temptation and trial,
 and yet not be burned.

In fact, the content of our hope helps to KEEP us from falling into sin and worldliness, because we know what is coming. We know that as long as we keep following Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we have hope to be rewarded, but we also know that if we don't, we won't, and it will be terrible.
    


If we abandon our hope, it would be like saying, “I don't want that present anyway”.
And if we say this, our wish will be granted, and we WON'T get the present.

set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Last thing I want to say about Christian Hope – we can clarify our understanding of it, by looking at its opposites. 
Laying all around hope, we have un-hope, which can variously be
(i) apathy, (ii) despair, or (iii) presumption.

Apathy would be saying you don't even care about the present.

Despair would be to think that for whatever reason God is going to withold the present. That somehow we have disqualified ourself from receiving it. A grave mistake, to think so little of God's mercy.
And Presumption would be like the precocious child, presuming on the Father's goodness, and saying, 'I am going to get this present anyway, so who cares if I honor my father or not”. Putting TOO much confidence in our profession of faith or anything else.

All of these – apathy, despair, and presumption, are the opposite of hope.
And they are all worldly and fleshly in their own way; in stark contrast to true hope that is spiritual, and at its root, is child-like:
To just say simply, in faith – and here we see how the three theological virtues are in fact inter-connected – in faith say, “I hope that when I die, God will raise me from the dead. I hope that when I come before the great judgment seat of Christ, my sins will be forgiven, by virtue of his blood alone.”

That is our sure and certain hope.
A hope founded on all that our savior Jesus did on Easter Day. A hope founded on what he has shown us is underneath the wrapping paper.

So, N. , let's see if your hope was founded.
[[direct to receive and open the present]]
set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Amen.
 

Apr 22 :: John 20:27-29 :: For all the those who doubt...

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  – John 20:27-29  +INPFSS+

Last week we celebrated the day that our Lord was raised from the dead. 
On that most important day in all of human history – the first Easter Sunday – our Lord showed himself to several of his disciples, to prove to them that he had indeed been raised. He showed himself to the women who came to the tomb, he showed himself to the disciples on the road to emmaeus, and even though the door was locked, he showed up in the room where the disciples were camped out. 
But there is one very interesting detail which our Gospel reading points out this morning: When Jesus showed himself to the disciples, not everyone was present. Thomas had momentarily popped out. Who knows on what errand? He was gone.
Whatever took him away for that brief moment, can you imagine how he felt when he came back, and the remaining 10 apostles relayed with awe and wonder that they had just seen their resurrected Lord and friend?
I wonder if he thought it was a cruel joke? Or a delusion? At some level he must have thought they were hallucinating, because he asks for tactile evidence. vs. 25: Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and then he corrects himself. He doubles-down. Seeing wouldn't be enough. Thomas adds: Unless I...put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
And then a week passes. 
Try and imagine what this week must have been like, for the disciples. They know the Lord is risen. But how then shall they live? What should they be doing right now? Was that the Last they saw of the Lord?
And imagine what that week must have been like for Thomas. How the other disciples no doubt kept insisting, “we have seen the Lord!”  “we have seen the Lord!”, and the prospect, the doubts, the questions, all gnawing at him. Had they? No. Impossible. Maybe? I wonder if it didn't drive him half mad.

But a week passes, and it's Sunday again. Today, the Sunday after the Sunday of the Resurrection. 
As a side note, I think it is not a coincidence that Jesus appeared to his disciples on Sundays, as he continually appears to us, in Word, and Sacrament, through his Spirit, Sunday after Sunday.
But no matter, here we are a week later. 
The disciples have gathered again in a secret room. The door is locked. 
They were probably gathered to pray.
And as they were praying, he appears again.
Jesus, stands in the midst of them, and greets them as he had the week before: “Peace be with you!”

In my mind's eye I see all the other disciples climbing over each-other to hug their master again, but before they are able to, Jesus immediately faces Thomas and addresses him. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.

In this simple act we see his compassion on all those who doubt.

On all those who have a hard time believing the outrageous and extravagant claims of the Apostles and the Church that was built on them that remains to this day. The claims of a God-man, killed for our sins, raised to immortality, offering free forgiveness and everlasting life, in exchange simply for trust and obedience. Or as St. John puts it in his epistle that we heard: for all those who love God, and obey his commandments.

Many, if not all of us, at one time another, sometimes before we become a Christian, sometimes even after, struggle with doubts about this Gospel. Thomas is a picture of all of us, at one time or another.

And Look how Jesus responds, he doesn't turn away from him. He kept him on tender-hooks for a week, but he doesn't leave him in the dark forever. He comes to him. As he comes to us.

And he reveals that he has been present all along, although unseen with physical eyes, by answering what Thomas had said aloud the week before. Thomas had said he needed to see the wounds, and so that's what Jesus offers: Reach out your hand and put it in my side.

He offers him what Thomas said he needed, but I think after all it wasn't needed. The very manifestation and invitation and familiar voice would have been plenty convincing in itself.

What Jesus proves to Thomas, is that the other disciples WEREN'T making it up. They were telling the truth. Jesus really was risen, and they really had seen him last week. It's all true. All the things Jesus said about himself. All that he promised. It's all true.

And doubting Thomas is instantly transformed into Believing Thomas.

And Thomas then makes the best confession of all. In that moment he becomes a true theologian as he is looking at the risen Jesus and he exclaims, “My Lord and My God!”

As Peter had early recognized Jesus rightly as the Son of God, Thomas builds on that confession by recognizing that God the Son is as much fully God as God the Father. And the man he saw with his eyes, by faith he understood to be God himself as well. And so true Christian Theology is established forever: Jesus is both fully God, and fully man. It would take the Church 6 ecumenical councils spanning over 600 years to fully sound the theological depths of this short statement: My Lord and My God. 

The greatest doubter among the disciples, became the greatest confessor. 

Yet another prime example in the Scriptures of how God redeems all things, and can make something beautiful out of something ugly. 


And the chief virtue that this Gospel lesson holds out for US this morning, is FAITH.
Faith, the first of the three so-called theological virtues which these three Sunday sermons will focus on. The others being of course Hope, and Love. 

Faith comes first because it IS first. Until we have faith in Jesus Christ. Until we believe the testimony of the Apostles in the Church, we can have no hope, and we lack the ability to truly Love. 

In thinking on this Gospel reading, some of the early fathers of the Church saw Jesus' providence in providing an example to us, all of us who have come in succeeding generations who were not there to witness Jesus' mortal ministry on earth. 

As God, Jesus knows at all times what is happening all places. It was therefore no accident that when he appeared to the disciples the first time, Thomas was momentarily not there.
This was intentional.

Because in the second appearance, a week later, Jesus addresses Thomas in a way that seems to be a larger life lesson to all of us who would be Christians later on. Jesus permitted this whole doubting Thomas incident, so that WE, here in Alabama, in the year 2017, could learn from it.

Because we are – all of us – in the exact same position as Thomas after Easter Sunday.

We have heard the Church, the living continuity of the Apostles, telling us Christ is Risen. And upon hearing this apostolic testimony, we are faced with the simple choice: Do I believe it? Or do I not believe it? Will I have faith? Or will I not?

Jesus posed this test-question for one week to Thomas, who flubbed miserably. So Jesus offers him a remedial class – he appears so Thomas can see him. So that he can see that what the other Apostles had said is true, and could himself, as an apostle, bear witness to the same.

And now Jesus is offering us the same test, and he addresses us today, with the same words which he addressed Thomas with: Vs. 27:  Do not doubt but believe.

Do not doubt, but believe.

Putting so succinctly the greater truth: You have no need to doubt! You haven't seen me with your eyes, but I am risen! Trust my messengers, the Apostles. Trust their testimony as it is recorded in Holy Scripture, and in the living voice of the Church. 

Eyes are nothing! As Jesus says, Have you believed because you have seen me? Odd!
And he adds: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

That's us! We have not seen him. But we believe. Though we haven't seen him. We know he is alive. We know it from the handed-down eye-witness testimony of the Apostles, and we know it from our experience, if we have tried the way of prayer. 

Though we haven't seen him, we love him.

Though we haven't seen his wounds, we trust in their saving effect.

THAT's Faith. That's saving faith. That's the ground from which a Christian life steps of. The ground of seeking to know our savior better, through a study of Scripture. The ground from which we would follow where he has led the way, in obedience to God the Father. 

And from faith to faith; from saving faith, to the fulness of faith – to the taking God at his word every step of the way, this is our bread and butter, as Christians. Or perhaps I should say, bread and wine. For it is the same thing in our gathering to celebrate the Eucharist, in which we cannot see his presence, but we know that he is here. Incidentally, Thomas' confession on this day has been for many centuries a prayer, an exclamation that Christians have muttered under their breath when the bread and the wine are lifted up from the Table in the Eucharist. In the recognition of the unseen sacramental presence: My Lord, and My God!'

Whether it's his promise to give us his body and blood in this meal.
Or his promise that he will blot out all our sins.
Or his promise that one day he will wipe every tear from our eye.
Or his promise just to be with us, in the valley of the shadow of death.

Whatever he has spoken. Whatever the Holy Scripture proclaims, as it has been passed on by the Church:

Faith says 'yes'.

And it keeps saying 'yes'. Taking up the banner daily: Yes. Yes. Today. Today I believe. Again, Today I trust you, Lord God.

Amen.

Easter Day :: John 20:15 :: Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?

 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
– John 20:15  +INPFSS+

Our Lord asked these two questions of Mary Magdalene, on this very morning, 1986 years ago. 
Woman, Why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?

And today, the Lord is asking us the same question.
St. Paul tells us in Ephesians that as a Church, we are the bride of Christ. His beloved spouse. 
And so appropriately, we too can be addressed as “Woman”.
Woman, why are you weeping?
The question implies the statement: Stop weeping! You have no need to weep!
And Jesus asserts the same to us this morning:
Christ was killed. But he is not now dead. He is alive! Hallelujah, he's alive!
He has been raised from the dead. 


We do not need to be sad about his death. Nor ashamed of the torturous shape of the cross. 
No, what was once a cause of sadness, has become a source for joy!
We do not need to weep for what Jesus suffered. And in fact we do not need to weep at all!
But before digging into this truth, look at our Lord's love. 
Look at his compassion as he talks with Mary. The same Jesus who was meek and lowly of heart in his mortal life, is meek and lowly of heart in his now immortal life. 
He has just come back from the grave, after trampling down hell and satan under his feet. He is the supreme conqueror of the cosmos, worthy of all accolade. But he's not hung up on himself at all. He comes to Mary. And asks with all pastoral care: Why are you weeping?


While he is gently instructing her that there is no need for tears, he is also genuinely concerned for her. He genuinely wants to comfort her in her pain. As psalm 56 says about our Lord: He collects all our tears in his bottle.
And he has real comfort to offer! Jesus is not just a consoling friend, passive on the side-lines of our lives.
He has himself plunged into combat with the source of all that causes our tears: Death. Sin. Brokenness. & Disease. In going to the cross, and in going down into Hades, he grabbed all these things by the throat and crushed them with his nail-scarred hands. 

Emerging as a victorious champion from the grave, his body became transformed into a spiritual, immortal body, and he was crowned with all the glory from the Father. 


And in this he is the first-born of a new kind of thing. He has become the original, which God plans to make many copies of. See, what God the Father did for Jesus, he will do to all those who trust in him and have been baptized in his name.

One day, when it is determined that the world as we know it will come to a close, and the whole cosmos will be brought before the Judgment of God. On that day, WE – us Christians – will be raised from the dead into immortal, glorious bodies like the body that Jesus has.

And with Jesus we will worship God the Father forever in the new Heaven and the New earth.

And THIS is is our hope.

This Easter message is the reason we don't need to weep anymore.

It means that no matter what happens to us during this short life on earth, it's gonna be alright in the end. The suffering of our lives – like Christ's – will be redeemed.

Whether we are Egyptian Christians, being blown up by muslim terrorists. Whether we are Chinese Christians living in fear. Whether we are Alabamians, living with all of the many troubles that life holds, of financial, physical, emotional, and relational distress. One day, because of Jesus, all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well. Dawn will come, after even the darkest of nights. And even if we go out weeping, we will come back rejoicing.

And this hope, this knowledge, should rightly dampen our crying. Not that we will never cry. But that we don't need to KEEP crying. We do not grieve as those who have no  hope. We grieve but for a little while, as those WITH hope. The Hope of healing now, AND eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.


Which brings us to the second question Jesus asked Mary. That he asks us this morning:
Whom are you looking for?

It's actually a really important question. Look at the Gospel account.
Mary was looking for a dead body – the corpse of Jesus, crucified two days before. 
And because that's what she was looking for, when she came face to face with the RISEN Jesus, she didn't recognize him. 
She couldn't see what was right before her eyes, because she was looking for the wrong thing.

Which poses a good challenge for all of us on this Easter morning:
Whom are we looking for?

[[[only use if we have guests: Have we gathered this morning, looking for a nice cultural practice? It is easter after all, and one probably SHOULD go to Church...? Are we seeking to connect with God a little bit, or to get in touch with our spirituality? These are all fine motives, in and of themselves, but they will not bring us to encounter the Risen Lord Jesus.]]]

Are we looking for a God who like a heavenly Santa Claus will give us only good things, as long as we are good? Are we looking for a stern father who we think is fixated on finding me guilty? 
Are we looking for a spirit-being who will make us feel good and peaceful all the time?

Whom ARE we looking for? 

If we are seeking anyone or anything other than the risen Jesus Christ himself, then we won't find him.
Only if we seek Jesus, will we find Jesus.


And Until we seek Jesus, we won't find any of those other things: peace, blessings, a spiritual life, etc.
But when we seek him, THEN we find those things.

Now, if it were all just up to us, then we'd be terribly lost. 
But thankfully it's not just up to us.

What happens next in the Gospel reading?

Jesus calls Mary's name.

It's such a wonderful moment. Of the sheep recognizing the voice of the Shepherd.


When Jesus names her, she instantly gets it. She can see who is right in front of her – the risen Lord himself. Her tears of sorrow instantly turn instead to cries of joy, and she throws herself at her teacher's feet. 

And this continues to be true of our Lord.

When we don't get it. When we've come to Church looking for the wrong things. He calls us each by name. With all understanding and compassion in his voice.

Can you hear it? ...In your heart?

Can you hear the silent voice of the Spirit of Christ, speaking to your soul? Letting you know that HE is here, right in front of you. 
Inviting you to know him more. Offering to wipe away your tears, and promising eternal joy and sweetness and life forever and ever?

….....Rabbouni?!
 

Easter Vigil :: Matt 28:7-9 :: From Second-Hand Message to First Hand Encounter

Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 
Matt 28:7-9  +INPFSS+

At last! We celebrate.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Sin has been atoned for. Death has been conquered. The door to everlasting life has been thrown open, and for the first time in human history, we have hope. Hope that suffering will be redeemed. Hope that death is not the end. Hope for eternal glory and joy! 

And because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead in his body, THEREFORE the Cross has been transformed. 

The cross that last night was nothing more than a sign of sorrow and  desolation,
has now, in light of the resurrection, become for us a symbol of joy and vindication.

Alleluia indeed!

Tonight we have heard how this great victory over sin and death was the culmination of God's long plan of salvation. It is the culmination of all that had transpired before. 

Christ is the true Ark.
Christ is Abraham's Promised lamb
Christ has parted the waters of death and leads us through them
Christ has gathered us gentiles to himself, and made a new nation for God
Christ has taken away our hearts of stone.
Christ has gone into the belly of death, and was spat back up on the third day.


Christ will always be the Lamb that was slain. But he is also now the Lamb that has conquered. The Lamb that sits upon the throne. The Lamb to whom all honor and glory shall go, forever and ever.

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the great message of Easter. 

And tonight I wish to offer just a short reflection on HOW we receive this message, based on the Gospel lesson that we just heard. 

The account of the resurrection begins with a messenger – an Angel – which, you'll recall, is just the Greek word for “messenger' – An Angel gives a message to the women who had come to Jesus' tomb. And he tells them to pass on this message: That 'Jesus has been raised from the dead'. To go and tell it to the disciples back home. The Angel even announces after this, “This is my message for you”. And the two Mary's forsake their original intent in coming to the tomb, and turn around and head back to town where the disciples are in hiding, to go and give them the message. 


They evidently believe the message right away, for as the Scripture records, they headed off to the disciples with “fear and great joy”. Fear, because wouldn't you be quaking a little if you had just seen an angel who told you that your Lord was back from the dead, and Joy, because it means everything the Lord had said is true, that he really was the Son of God, who was now raised in power. 

Now, if we press pause on the narrative right here. Pause just before the moment when the two women bump into the risen Lord themselves, as they are running to pass on the message, that they had been given from the heavenly messenger: I think we have a picture of much of our own discipleship.

[Most] All of you here I know believe the message of the Gospel, and have believed it for a long time. Most of you have heard a messenger – probably a human messenger, and not an Angel, but still, a messenger has told you that Jesus is risen from the dead, offering forgiveness of sins, and you believed him or her, and have probably, hopefully passed on that message to others. To kids, and co-workers, and what have you. And this is excellent. And commendable. And honoring to God. And as pleasing as the lives of those dear saints, the Mary's at the tomb. 

But it's not all there is.

It's not all there was for the Mary's. As we see in the last verses of our reading tonight. Un-pausing the narrative, and continuing with Matthew 28 verse 9: 
Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

The thing they had heard about from the messenger. The thing they had believed in good faith, and were off to proclaim. All of  a sudden they saw for themselves.

The risen Jesus appeared to them and said, “Hello!”

And in that instant, what had moments before been only second-hand knowledge, became first-hand experience. And as they saw their Lord, their friend, Jesus, risen from the dead, they fell at his feet, his nail-scarred feet, and they worshiped him.

And here we see the fullness of what it means to know Christ. To know him personally. Not just by way of second-hand reports, and news passed on from one to another, but to encounter him vividly, first-hand.

And this is what I want to hold out to you on this Easter Night. 

That because our Lord IS risen from the dead, we can actually encounter him. 

Every now and again, for reasons unknown to us, the Lord makes himself visible to a few people here and there.  But since the Ascension, for the most part, the encounters that Christians have had with the risen Lord Jesus are not visible. Jesus is not seen with the eyes. But that doesn't mean that he isn't encountered in just as real a way as the two Mary's encountered him on their way back from the tomb.

In the invisible places. In the silent home within our heart. With our souls, by the grace of the Holy Spirit given to us in our baptisms, we can still meet our Lord. When we come to him in prayer. Corporate prayer. Liturgical Prayer. Private prayer at home. Silent Prayer. WHENEVER we direct our inmost being toward the unseen heavens, we bring ourselves into the very presence of God, where we can actually MEET Jesus. 


The World and the Devil would tell us that this is just our imagination. That this is just Christians being fanciful. But anyone who has met him knows that this is a lie. That it is actually another PERSON that we meet, when we retreat into prayer. A person who loves us. Who can speak to us. Who is our friend and brother, as well as our Lord. A person so real that as many as 70 million Christians have died as martyrs over the last 2000 years in their loyalty to the friendship they found in their Savior.

He is risen. He is real. And you can actually know him first-hand.

This is a truth that I didn't really get for many many years as a Christian. I thought that Christianity was simply about knowing the right things, and then passing on the message. Like the Mary's BEFORE they saw Jesus for themselves.

But over the last several years, the Lord has shown me what he has shown countless billions of Christians in the past: He wants us to actually get to know him, in prayer. 

And what I offer to you tonight is a question: Do you know about Jesus, second-hand? Or do your KNOW Jesus, first-hand.

If you already know him first-hand, thanks be to God! I invite you to join with the two Mary's in the rest of our time tonight by falling at his feet, and worshipping him with all your heart, in this celebration of Communion.

If, on the other hand, when you're honest, the Gospel you know is really just what someone else has told you about. Don't lose heart! The Lord is actually very pleased with your faithfulness in holding on to the great message. But He is inviting you tonight to something more. To begin to get to know him for yourself. To experience his presence in your soul, and especially in this most special Easter Eucharist. 

Since Jesus is not a Genie, and doesn't live in a lamp that we can rub in order to meet him, we cannot “make” an experience of encountering him happen. All we can do is come before him, as a soul to its maker, and ask. And ask. And keep asking until he answers. Ask that he would show himself to us, in the invisible places. That we could know him as our own friend, and not just as somebody else's.


My own personal experience with seeking to encounter the real and risen Jesus, is that sometimes there is a fair bit of waiting involved. Of patiently coming to him in faith, and saying, “Lord, I want to know you, personally, and not just second-hand.” And sometimes, the Lord doesn't answer my request and I just sit there. But as the Psalmist is always reminding us, wait for the Lord. And in waiting, he has always come. He as always eventually “shown up”, as he did to the Mary's on the road.

Maybe you've tried this, and been discouraged in the past. 
I encourage you to try again.
To seek him even right now. This moment. And tonight through the course of our Liturgy.
That you might know him as he is. And more and more and more, until we DO see him face to face, on the day that we each will die. 

And that in knowing him, you would bow to him as Lord, and hold his feet, with his healed wounds that testify to his love for you, and worship. And worship. And worship.

Amen.

Good Friday :: Isaiah 53:23 :: Our Sorrow + Christ's Intercession

he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Isa 53:12 +INPFSS+

Tonight we do not mourn Jesus dead. 
We do not grieve for him as we would grieve when a good man dies.
This is not like when Princess Diana died in 1997.
Our sorrow should not be for the one who has died.
We are not to feel sorry for Jesus.
This is not some terrible accident, that we wish would have been avoided.
This is not a tragedy that we recall for some emotional response.
This was no accident.
Everything that happened on this day, 2000 years ago, everything that happened to Jesus was intentional.

It was the chosen will of the Father. And not just as some back-up plan, but, as Revelation 13 tells us, The Lamb of God was chosen to be slain from the foundation of the world.
And it was the will of the Son also. As we have recorded in John 10:18, No one can take Jesus' life away from him; he lays it down of his own accord.
And as we hear in John chapter 12: Jesus tells his disciples that it was for this very hour, for the terrible 3 hours from noon until 3pm, on THIS day, it was for this very hour that he came into the world.
To die a criminal's death. To die on a cross. 
But why? Why did he die? Why did he take up his cross? Why did he lay his life down? Why?

For you. For me. For us. For every human being. 

Because we are all of us – you and me – sinners. 


Now “sinners” is kind of a church-y word, so let me un-churchify it:
You and me – we are vile. We are offensive. We're selfish, and perverted. We are dirty. We stand guilty before God, for disobeying him and for besmirching his Goodness. We are doomed to die. And not just bodily death, but eternal death. Eternal darkness and misery away from the God that we ourselves have consciously rejected with our actions. 

And it is because of all of these things. Because of our sin, that we needed rescuing.
Because of our sin, that God chose the cross.
He chose to fix what was broken.
To take away the sins of the world.
To make humanity well. And not just well, but God-like. Immortal. 


But how could such a great mass of sin be taken away? Who could possibly be strong enough for such a task? What appeasing sacrifice could ever be made that would be sufficient to atone for the whole lot of it?
Only God himself could do it.
And so he did.
God the Son took on human nature, disguised himself on earth by becoming fully human. 
And he offered himself, out of Love, to the Father's will, that mankind might be saved.
And so he endured the spitting. And the scorn. And the shame.
The torture, the crown of thorns, the hard wood of the cross.
The nails. The mockery. The desolation. The descent to the realm of the dead.

He endured all of those evils. For us. For our sake. In our place.
He who know no sin became sin, so that we might be rescued from our sins.
He suffered so that our suffering could be healed.
He died so that we might no longer die.

And so here at last we see the appropriate object of our sorrow and grief tonight:
Not our Lord, who gallantly suffered for our sake. In itself, as far as we are concerned – that is a cause for rejoicing. Not for sorrow. That's why it's called GOOD friday.
No, our sorrow is not for him.
Our sorrow should be for ourselves.

As Jesus told the women of Jerusalem as he was carrying his cross to Golgotha:

We should weep for ourselves, and not for him.

Weep that MY sins, caused such suffering to be necessary.

Our sorrow should be that we caused such wounds, upon our Lord who loves us so much.

But Good Friday is not just about sorrow. Or Sin. If we stop there, we'll be stuck.

Because Jesus is not dead, but alive. He was raised from the dead, which we will celebrate tomorrow night with all the appropriate joy and festivity. 

And in recalling our Lord's death on the cross, we are not pretending that Easter didn't happen. We're not trying to transport ourselves merely to the first Good Friday.

No. The reason we recall the Cross in the excruciating details of the Gospels is because our Risen Lord eternally pleads the merit of his own sacrifice before the Father. 

Having been raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven, Jesus is our Great High Priest, as Isaiah says, making intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus is right now doing what he has been doing every moment of these past 1986 years – he is presenting himself in our place, before the Judgment seat of the Father. He is saying to God the Father, “forgive these ones, not for their sake, but for MY sake.”
He is actively interceding, for all those who turn to him for help. All those who pray to him for salvation. He advocates for. He stands in the gap for.
Every sin added to the book of our lives, when we ask for forgiveness, he is blotting out with his own blood, which poured forth from his most precious wounds.

He makes intercession for the transgressors. 

Us.

Lastly, his intercession goes both ways. As the middle-man, so to speak, between God the Father and ourselves, he pleads to God, for us, and he also pleads to us, for God.

Jesus himself is interceding, holding forth his nail-scarred hands to you and to me saying, “See what love I have for you! See what love the father has for you! Don't live in your sins unrepentant any longer. Come to me! By the merits of these wounds, I will heal you.”

His wounds plead to God for us, but they also plead to us, for God.

Will you answer his questions? Will you respond to the plea he is speaking to our hearts again tonight?

Eternity hangs in the balance. It always does. Tonight if you hear his voice. Do not harden your heart. 

In fact, I invite you to pray with me now:

Lord Jesus, though many of us have heard this Gospel a thousand times before, we respond to it afresh tonight. We ask that you truly WOULD forgive our sins. We ask that you would heal our sickness. We ask for eternal life in your name. 
We thank you for your loving-kindness in giving yourself to us on the Cross. In Laying down your life for us whom you have called your friends. We thank you for bringing us peace with God.
We will never ever cease being grateful. And with your help, we will never forget nor lay down your cross. Amen.
 

Maundy Thursday :: Luke 22:19 :: Christ our Passover

“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”
– Luke 22:19  +INPFSS+

Today is Maundy Thursday, the night when, among other things, we remember our Lord's institution of Holy Communion, nearly 2000 years ago. 

But to understand what our Lord Jesus was doing on this night, we actually need to go back in time further still.

Back another 1500 years, to around the year 1500 BC. 

To the time when the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, were all enslaved in Egypt. And had been living in hard slavery for 400 years or so. 
At long last their prayers for mercy had been heard, and God was ready to show the world his power, and the people he had chosen for himself. 
And so he had raised up Moses as a leader for the people, who for several weeks had been bringing down plague after plague on Egypt, in an attempt to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews from their slavery. To let God's people go. But the plagues had been un-succesful. The evil emperor of the Land had continued to harden his heart. And so the only move next was to pull out the big gun, so to speak. God himself would send an Angel that would kill all the first-born of the Land, and would himself miraculously rescue the Jews, out of the land of slavery, and taking them over to the Land that had been promised.

But on the very Eve of this divine rescue. On the 15th day of the ancient month of Nisan. In the very twilight of their slavery. Before God showed his marvelous power for all to see:

A meal was instituted.

A meal that was to be repeated each and every year.

A meal that embodied the covenant that God had made with his people.

A meal that, if you ate of it, meant that you were one of God's people, and that you would be spared the terrible judgment of God against the wicked.

I'm speaking of course, about the passover meal. Described in its details in the reading we heard this evening from Exodus chapter 12. 

The passover meal that was celebrated on the night before the great Exodus from Egypt began. 

The passover meal that was celebrated every year from then on out, so that the Jews would never forget what God did for them in brining them out of slavery in Egypt.
Isn't that interesting? That God would ordain a meal. A meal of remembrance. 
And not just of the mental kind, but of the participation kind. For when 40 years had passed since God brought Israel out of Egypt, when all the adults who had been a part of that momentous day had died, still, when Moses in the book of Deuteronomy is reminding the people about the Passover, he tells them that it is to be celebrated because God brought THEM out of Egypt. That is, even those who weren't actually there for it, when they share in the meal, they share in the deliverance.

So this is our backdrop for Maundy Thursday.

Fast-forward 1500 years or so, to the year 30 A.D.

To the month of Nisan – the month of the Passover, corresponding in that year to our month of March.
To the 14th day of Nisan, the day of preparation for the Passover. 

The day of preparation for the great meal of deliverance. 

And what does Jesus do? He gathers his disciples in a borrowed dining room, and institutes a meal. 

A meal. Which, as St. Luke the Gospel writer clearly records, Jesus calls a Passover, when he says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”

Fair enough. But things are a little different at this passover. 

It's a day early, for one. And the usual food isn't there. Or is it?

What's the central dish of the Passover meal, as we just heard in Exodus?

A spotless Lamb.

Are you starting to see what Jesus is doing here?

He is taking the Old Covenant feast of the Passover, and, as Israel's Lord and God, he is re-ordering it. Re-forging it in the crucible of Calvary.

He is offering himself as the spotless Lamb.

The Lamb of God, as John the Baptist announced him to be when he began his ministry three years beforehand. 
The Lamb who would be slain on the very next day, to pay the price for the sins of the whole world, including each and every one of your sins, and my sins.

A sacrifice that would set God's people free from slavery to their sins.
From the evil emperor of the world.

A sacrifice that would initiiate leading God's people to the Promised Land.

Are you starting to see the connections?

See God is the master story-teller. Well, he's more than that, he's the master story teller, and the main protagonist all in one.

God is layering meaning on meaning. Making a beautiful harmony out of the notes of sacred history.

It's like the Passover is the musical note “C”, that then on Maundy Thursday he adds the new notes making the glorious C-chord. 

All of the significance of the Deliverance that took place under Moses, gets folded into the deliverance God the Son himself works in this Holy Week. 

Here we have the birth of the New Covenant, as Jesus says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the NEW covenant in my blood”

The New covenant stemming out of and supplanting the Old.

The Old only saved one ethnicity, the Jews. The New is for all the peoples of the world, including Alabamians, and Wisconsinites, and even Brits. 

The Old covenant rescued Israel from human captors.

The New covenant rescues all of us from sin and from our spiritual captors.

In fact, the New outshines the Old so brightly, that by comparison, the Old is nothing more than a shadow! 

The Old is gone. The New is Here.

The New Covenant in Jesus Christ, through which OUR disgusting sins are forgiven, and through which we are given eternal life in him.
And this New Covenant, like the Old, has its symbolic meal. 
A meal that re-affirms our own personal incorporation into the covenant. 
A meal that forever commemorates and brings into the present the divine rescuing.

Holy Communion.

The new Passover meal for the new covenant.

This incredible feast through which we actually get to eat the Passover Lamb.

The TRUE Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ himself.

As the Lamb himself told us:

This is my body.

This is my blood.

When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are spiritually feasting on the True Lamb.

We aren't marking our doorposts with his blood. We are being cleansed in our inmost soul by his blood.

And when the Great Judgment of God comes, we will be protected by that same blood.

Being found with Christ Jesus within us. And us in him. 

What a gift this is. 

That the Lord Jesus gave us a tangible, more: an EDIBLE means by which we could bring his sacrifice of himself into our lives. 

That we could be spiritually nourished by his Body, even as our bodies are physically nourished by the Bread.

That our sins could be blotted out with his blood, even as we swallow the wine. 

What a gift. 

That he would come to earth, not only with the humility of a man. 
Not only with the humility of being willing to die a horrible death for our sake, and in our place,
Not only to be among as one who serves, himself the servant of his creation.
Not only that he would minister his own salvation to us, as the host of the Holy Table,
But on top of, or rather BENEATH all of this, that the Son of God would have the humility to be our very FOOD!

To come and dwell within US, frail sinners that we are.
That he would happily make his home in our hearts.
That he would willingly be with us, as we ever so slowly turn our lives over to him.

What humility!
What Love!
What a Man!
What a God!

To him, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, be glory forever and ever. Amen.

 

Apr 9 :: Matt 26 :: Speaking "Hail, King" Falsely and Truly

They knelt before him and mocked him, saying, 'Hail, King of the Jews!'
Matthew 27:29   +INPFSS+

We have heard Jesus addressed as a King three times already this morning, between our two Gospel readings.

We hear it pronounced by the sign that hung over his head when he was hanging from the cross:
“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

We hear it on the lips of the soldiers who beat him, scourged him, mocked him, and gave him a crown made of thorns, who with the most horrible derision in the verse just quoted, say “Hail, King of the Jews”


and we hear it on the lips of the crowd, one week before Jesus was crucified, as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, on Palm Sunday, the day we are remembering this morning. That crowd, having laid down their cloaks on the road for his entry, cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Which is another way of saying, “Hosanna to our true King!”

“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
“Hail, King of the Jews”
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” 

The Sign, the Soldiers, and the By-standers all are saying pretty much the same words. 
They're actually all saying the right words. They are speaking truly, because Jesus really is the King.

But the great difference in HOW the words are said, we see makes all the difference.

And what we see in these three different professions are three different ways in which WE can be saying the right things with our lips, but yet ourselves be still very far away from salvation. 

Let's look at them one by one:

The sign above our Lord's head states the truth about Christ as a fact, but as a fact that someone else really believes. It was written by Pontius Pilate, as we learn from St. John's Gospel. That is, it was written by someone who didn't believe it. Pilate didn't reverence Jesus as one would a King, he handed him over to be scourged and crucified. Pilate was stating the fact as being true for someone else, in this case the believing Jews, but not for himself. 


His profession is nothing more than the faith of an encyclopedia entry: This man Jesus did this and this, and he said this and this, and he is a King.
There's no heart, no real belief in the words. They are stated as cold facts, rather than as a life-giving reality. 
Pilate said the truth, or in this case wrote the truth, but he wasn't saved by it.
And here we see the first danger for ourselves. Of reducing the faith to a cold assertion of fact. Of being little more than walking encyclopedia entries ABOUT Christianity, rather than actual Christians.

Do not be like the sign.

The Soldiers who beat and tortured Jesus with their horrible whips, were not content merely to carry out their brutal orders on their subject, but like school-yard bullies mocked and derided our Lord, making a sick joke by making imitation symbols of Kingship. 


Kings have crowns, so the soldiers harangued our Lord by making a crown out of thick thorns and driving it into his head. Kings wear fine clothing, so they put a scarlet robe around him. Kings always carry golden scepters – symbols of their reign – and so the soldiers put a river reed in his hand, as a scoff at his Lordship. 
The Scripture tells us that they spat on him, and hit him on the head, and mocked him callously. 
That they feigned like he really was a king, getting down on a knee and saying, 
“Hail, King of the Jews!”

Again, they are saying the right thing, with their lips. But their hearts obviously a far from it. They do not mean what they say. They are pretending. Play-acting. Bullying. They are mocking Christ.
And in this we have a warning for ourselves: 

Do we claim Christ with our lips, but mock him with our lives?
our day to day actions and thoughts – are they so dissonant with the Christian faith that really, our very claiming of Christ with our lips is a mockery, As it was for the soldiers?

Do not be like the soldiers.

Third we turn to the By-Standers, the Palm-Sunday crowd.
The great throng that 2000 years ago lined the road heading up to Jerusalem, waving their palms, and putting their clothes down on the ground for Jesus' donkey to walk on. Crying out powerfully, “Hosanna to the King!”
Now here the problem is more subtle. It's a problem of inconstancy. A problem of feebleness.


The crowd had SOME faith, certainly, but it was too little, and too shallow.
They were cheering for Jesus, claiming him as their king. They weren't a sign, or a soldier. They were sincere. But as we see when our two Gospels are placed side by side this morning: the Triumphal Entry Gospel and the Passion Gospel – the same crowd who one week is praising, “Hosanna!”, one week later is shouting, “Let him be crucified!!”
What happened to this crowd? How could they be so bi-polar?
Because they didn't get what they wanted. Jesus wasn't the kind of King they were hoping for. And moreover, when they saw that he chose the way of suffering and death, for fear of their own skin, they wanted nothing to do with him.
Their true profession: Jesus is King! Was made empty by inconstancy.
They didn't stick with it.
And it was made false by their feebleness – at the first sign of trial, of difficulty, of hardship. 


The first time Jesus asked them to do something they didn't want to do, they dropped him as their King.
They stopped saying Hosanna.
And this is their fault: That they didn't keep professing Jesus as their Lord beyond that first week. They didn't hold true in the face of the cross. 
And the warning here is clear isn't it.

So, don't be like the By-standers. 

Or The Sign. 

Or The Soldiers. 

Who All said the right words, but to no avail.

So where does that leave us?

Because if we're honest, from time to time in our lives, a real and lively faith often attrifies and shrinks down to one of these three imposters.

So here's the good news: this Holy Week is a chance to repent of this. To come back to sincere, constant, and hearty faith. This is why it's customary to come to Confession this week, to have a fresh start, as it were. This is why as a Church we are always remembering our frailty and confessing our need for the Lord's mercy. We need HIS help, to believe in HIM.
We need His help to mean the words we say, and the words we pray.
We need his help to avoid these three false professions.

But if we repent, if we seek his help, we know that he will give it.

And we see this on the edges of the Gospel reading this morning, in fact, and with this hope I'll end.

The scourging and the mocking of Christ – it happened inside the soldier's praetorium, where no disciple would have been allowed. So how do we know what happened? What is the eye-witness source for this event in the life of Jesus? The answer almost has to be: from a soldier who was there. And why would a soldier ever tell this story? Unless the experience of it had changed him. If he had repented. Perhaps it was the same centurion who when Jesus died exclaimed, “Truly this man was God's son!” 
We don't know who exactly, but one of those soldiers must have had a change of heart. One of the soldiers who once mockingly said, “Hail, King!”, repented, and from the depths of his soul, said the same words but this time meant them, “Hail, King!”.

Jesus, you ARE our King. Save us from a false confession. Give us grace to make it true.  Amen.

Apr 2 :: Rom 6:19 :: The Ownership of Our Body-Parts

For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.    --Rom 6:19   +INPFSS+

One of my daughter Lucy's favorite songs right now is “Head, Shoulders, knees and toes” which she likes to initiate about every 10 minutes by slapping her hands onto her head and going, “Hehhh...” until we join in and continue the song, at which point she lunges down to her toes right away. It's adorable...

And it's also theologically instructive.

Lucy is beginning to learn that she has a body made up of different parts all working together.


And even though she will understand this concept pretty much fully by age 3, in our adult Christian lives, we are wont to forget it. We are moved by the cultural tides to over-spiritualize what it means to be a Christian, and to forget that the Christian life is intended by God to be lived out in our bodies.

What I mean is, we have this sneaky tendency to think that because our souls are important, our bodies are NOT important. But in actuality, they are integrally connected, and BOTH matter. The Scriptures take pains to point out: What we do WITH OUR BODIES matters. 
Both for good and for evil.
While it is the case that we are able to sin without dragging our body into it – all the sins of the mind – a large portion of the sins we plunge ourselves into, are sins done by the members of our bodies.
Similarly, while we can honor God with our minds, in our silent prayers and in our contemplation of his goodness, the vast majority of the good God calls us to do, we need to do with our bodies.

And what Saint Paul is getting at in the section of Romans that we just heard, is that with our wills, we must choose who our master will be. And when we make that choice, our bodies will become servants of that master. 

In accord with this truth, in 1979, a great theologian once said, “you gotta serve somebody”
...that's Bob Dylan, in case you didn't catch it...

But this is an uncomfortable truth in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but an honest look at the human condition confirms it very quickly. Every single human being serves somebody, or at least some thing. Those people who think they are the most “free”, are in reality only serving their own emotions and passions that bubble up within them, which can hardly be called 'freedom'. They are controlled by their appetites, THEY are not in control. And thus they are a slave. 


Cutting through the various ideologies about what is or isn't freedom that have been common in the last few hundred years of philosophical reflection, the Bible takes us to a much deeper and more ancient truth:

It is not a question of “are you free”, or “are you enslaved”, but “who is your master?” We've all gotta serve somebody, and the real question is: Who is it going to be? God? Or Satan? God's ways? Or my own ways?

And whomever we choose to be slave to, that choice will carry itself out in our bodies. 

Listen again to the meaning of Romans 6:19:
For just as – before you were a Christian – you once offered your body parts as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your body parts as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.


So that's what I wish to really zoom in on this morning: Our body parts. Our heads, shoulders, knees and toes, and everything in between.

What God is telling us in our reading this morning, through Paul's letter to the Romans, is that we should offer them all to him.
We need to offer our bodies to the God who made them in the beginning, and redeemed them in Christ Jesus.
I'll say that again: We need to offer our bodies to the God who made them in the beginning, and redeemed them in Christ Jesus.

In the first place this means refusing to let our different body parts be in service of sin.

Breaking it down by body-part can be a useful way of examining our lives with some objectivity.


The body-parts we have the most control over are our feet, our hands, our eyes, and our lips. The rest of our body for the most part either follows these parts, or is functioning on it's own, independent of my own thoughts. 
So let's look at those.
Think along with me:

What have my feet led me into? What rooms do I choose to go into with my feet? When do my feet linger, when I should leave? 

What have my hands done? Have they done deeds that serve merely myself? Have they been hurtful? Have they greedily grabbed what they should not have?

What have my eyes looked at? Have I set them on things that God himself would not look at? 

What have I spoken with my lips? Have their been coarse, foul words? or vain bitter words? Words that have only torn down?

[[Singing]] Head, shoulders, knees and toes. Eyes and ears and mouth and nose.

God, these members are your own. 

This morning I encourage you to re-Consecrate the members of your body as belonging to God, to be used for his glory, and for his purposes. 

But much more than just avoiding making our members slaves to impurity, God's call on our bodily lives has a positive command as well.

The argument Paul is using here in Romans 6 is that our desire to serve God with our body parts should be as strong as the pagan's desire to use his body for evil. 

We should serve good things with AT LEAST as much zeal as evil people serve bad things. 

Think about the zeal – if we can call it that – that an addict exerts to satisfy his addiction. In as much as the Good and Living God is a better master than any sordid addiction, shouldn't our zeal at least be comparable? And yet for how many of us – and I'm really speaking to myself here too – for how many of us is a single good deed a huge, laborious, procrastinated effort?

The wicked put me to shame in their eagerness for wickedness, exposing how paltry and flimsy is my own zeal for Good. 

So let's take this challenge from Romans this morning:

I want you to imagine a small cross tattooed on all of your body parts. Each mark a sign of owner-ship, “this belongs to God” [[[point to various parts and repeat:“this belongs to God”]]] . 
And see how the week and how your life might be different.


Where can my feet take me, where I can serve and bless others. Where can they go, where I might be able to share the good news of Jesus? When can they take me into my closet or to the church to pray? When can my hands offer an encouraging touch? When can they carry, or make, or deliver something for someone? When can they bless and protect? What beautiful godly things can my eyes rest on; what windows into heaven? What affirming words can I speak? How can I build up another with my lips?

Our limbs aren't meant for evil. But they're also not meant for nothing. They are meant for Good! They are meant to be enslaved to the God who is Love, to be tools in his hands, conduits of his own love for the world and for his Church. 

And when they are. When we offer them to the service of God in this way, our intentions actually can become habits, and we can become actually enslaved to GOOD, and – paradoxically – will find ourselves to finally be Free at last. Free from Sin, Free to enjoy God forever. 

Which is exactly what Paul goes on to say – that the result of using our body parts for God's service is sanctification (vs. 19), and it's end, eternal life (v.22)

Which all of a sudden brings into view, as a closing thought, the other readings that we heard this morning, from Ezekiel and the Gospel of John. That is: Our eternal life with God is an embodied life. We will not be bodiless spirits for ever, just for a little while until the Lord comes again, at which point we will be resurrected. And THAT is why what we do in our bodies MATTERS: Because we are going to have our bodies forever. Transformed, immortal bodies, certainly. But bodies that still tell the story of what we chose to do with them, just as Christ's limbs will forever have the nail-holes that tell the story of his offering of himself for us. 

Will our limbs be radiant with the mark of Christ and his good deeds? Or will they be stained with the scars of our evil deeds. The choice is ours; we gotta serve somebody.

...[[singing]] God, these members are your own.    Amen.

Mar 26 :: Psalm 23 :: Of Sheep and Shepherds

 Preacher: Lincoln Anderson, aspirant

I have a special place in my heart for Psalm 23, as it was the first of the Psalms I was taught.  It is the best encapsulation of what it means to be a faithful follower after God’s own heart.  When I felt anxious or worried growing up, at some level David’s words in the Psalm let me know that my Shepherd would lead me in the way that would be best for me and keep me from real harm.  I would fear no evil, and goodness and mercy would follow me all the days of my life.  I was an anxious child, and though I still battle anxiety and worry in some form, it is Psalm 23 that I remember most in the knowledge of my assurance that God is faithful to his children.
    Today, I want to talk about the Psalm considering the Gospel reading we just heard, and then to look at what it means to be a sheep as David imagines.  Finally, I will talk about how I see the Psalm after living in this congregation for the past few years.
    The Gospel reading today – the healing of the man born blind – is immediately before Jesus’ homily on being the Good Shepherd.  It sets the stage for one of Jesus’ most iconic teachings, but it is so often taught and studied as being separate and apart from it.  I won’t recap the whole passage, but I will point out that the testimony of the man Jesus heals to the religious rulers neatly foreshadows what our Lord himself will say in response to those same leaders asking about their spiritual blindness:
    “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes…Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could not do anything.”
    In over a month and a half from now, we will hear Jesus tell the religious leaders that “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”  Today, in this Gospel lesson, we see this at work – this man who wasn’t one of the original disciples, who had an almost tangential interaction with Jesus, this man declares his faith in a way that took Simon Peter a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry on Earth to realize.  This man, born blind, in as bad a way at that time as it was possible to be and still live in the barest measure of freedom, held to the Lord as his shepherd, and because of it he was healed.
    We are told throughout Scripture that this is what is expected of us, to be sheep.  This is what it means to be sheep – that when we hear the Lord, we listen to Him, and trust in Him.  We don’t over-complicate what we are hearing; that was the folly of the Jewish leaders, who took the Law of Moses and codified every nook and cranny of daily life so that they could easily say who was and was not favored by God.  When the Messiah healed on the Sabbath, they could not see past the offense to their understanding of the Law and so they mistook the voice of the Shepherd for the howl of a wolf and sought to turn the rest of the flock against Him.
    To be sheep also means that we know that our plans and our will are not our own, but they belong to the Shepherd.  We graze and lie down in the fields where the Shepherd leads us, we follow His paths, and in doing so we are protected and made eternally safe.  Harm comes when we seek to be our own shepherds, and instead of recognizing the fast-moving water for what it is, we drink at the bank of a river and are swept downstream by the unexpected torrent.  When you look on the times in your life when you were most frustrated, most unsure of what God was doing, most prone to grumbling, do you notice that it seemed like your plans were being foiled, and that was why you were frustrated?  I know that’s how it has been for me.  When I elevate my plans above the will of God, that is when I am most likely to be frustrated and, eventually, humbled.
    This is not to say don’t plan at all – planning is good and right to be effective and to avoid pitfalls.  God created us with minds that see our surroundings and seek the best way to use them for our benefit.  Planning is part of that overall strategy for survival, and now God seeks to use it to His glory.  But that is the key – the planning is for us to effect the parts of His Will He gifts us to work within, not for our own advancement or our own boasting.  When the failure of a plan becomes a threat to our faith, that is when we have gone beyond the bounds and are in the wilds away from the herd.
    It is also not to say that only good things will come in this life when we surrender our primacy in our lives to God.  Sheep have an idyllic life, but they too are killed by predators or die of disease, just as humans are killed by violent men or succumb to the failures of the body.  Sheep are sheared of their wool, just as humans can lose their prosperity in the blink of an eye.  Sheep go hungry in times of famine, the same as people.  Finally, sheep sometimes are slaughtered for the will of the one who owns the flock, just as God allows the martyrs to die so that the Kingdom of God may spread by the testimony of their blood.  
You might be wondering now what is so comforting about this Psalm, if in the end the sheep are destroyed just as we are.  The answer is in the change of imagery in verses 5-6.  Sheep do not eat at tables, and I have never heard of a shepherd who has anointed the head of his sheep with oil.  No, these verses describe the life that a child of God will have because the Lord is their Shepherd – mercy and goodness unceasing, eternity dwelling in the House of the Lord, with a table that is untroubled by the enemy within our flesh and the enemy outside the walls, and the cup of salvation never emptying.
In other words, we are led as sheep on Earth so that we can dwell with God as His children in eternity.
In light of this, let us now consider the psalm as members of a congregation that has explicitly acknowledged the Lord as our Good Shepherd.
Something you might not know about Claire and I, we are TV junkies.  I typically have three or four current TV shows that I am watching throughout the year, and I have my favorites to turn on when I’m not really paying attention and just want some background noise.  One aspect of TV shows that I found that I really enjoy is when the theme song perfectly matches the tenor of the show.  Some shows get it exactly right, and others… not so much.
    When Father Ben first asked me to preach today and I saw that Psalm 23 was the selection, I was excited, because I believe that we have a “theme psalm” for this congregation – and it is this very one.  Doesn’t our history as a church in the Opelika-Auburn area affirm this?  Think about everything that we have been through together, our humble flock, and consider whether or not these things reveal the Shepherd’s rod and staff.  Take a minute now, to think through that history…    
[Silence]
Here is a brief look at the examples that stand out to me:
    The story of this congregation has been one that witnesses to the Providence of God, which is like the care a Shepherd has for his flock.  When there was a need for a permanent priest after Fr John-Michael announced his retirement, the Lord sent Fr Timothy to provide the base, the foundation, for our community as an individual entity, apart yet in communion with our mother parish.  When there was a need for us to step out more visibly and tangibly into the local community, our arrangement with Covenant Presbyterian came to an end.  Because that arrangement came to an end, we needed a more permanent worship space, and God provided this location.  The story of how we came to be here, after months of promising locations were identified, negotiated and then abruptly taken off the table, is a clear testimony to God’s care for His sheep.  
    When it was time for us to grow again, God sent Fr Timothy elsewhere.  In the intervening months between Fr Timothy’s last Sunday with us and our calling Fr Ben, the Lord reinforced our love for one another, grew our sense of community, and knit us together in a way that can only happen in the face of long term trial.  During that time, He was making sure that the right leader for this congregation was in the right place at the right time to come to us.  We talked to several candidates, called one other who turned us down because they didn’t feel ready to be what we needed, and the rest accepted job offers shortly before their scheduled trips to see us.  In some ways, during that time it felt like the field was being narrowed down, because our Shepherd was making sure that the right person was available to tend his flock.
    “The Lord is [our] Shepherd, [we] shall not be in want.”  When we surrender our will for what we would have God’s Church be in the world, then He provides exactly what we need for us to be what He would have us to be in the world.  When we look for where the Shepherd’s rod and staff are leading us, we find that we avoid the swift, dangerous waters, and the paths that were fraught with hazards have been made passable (though perhaps not safe).  When we live like sheep (usually after many abortive attempts at being our own shepherds), we come to a heavy yet liberating realization: We are sheep in this world, because the job of Shepherd is too big for us.
Remember who our Shepherd is, and that we are all members of the same flock. Amen.

Mar 19 :: Rom 1:26 :: On Dis-ordered Desire

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. 
– Rom 1:26 +INPFSS+

What do a gay couple, a woman on her sixth marriage, and a die-hard Auburn Tigers fan all have in common?
This actually isn't a joke – the first two are from our Scripture readings this morning, the third might be some of you. What do they have in common? ...

They all suffer from disordered desires. 

Or as Paul calls them here, dishonorable passions. 

And this is the theme I wish to speak on this morning: Disordered Desire.


It's something we all suffer from. It's part of our fallen human condition.

And it's the root problem in these three cases.

The gay couple, the woman on her sixth marriage, and the die-hard Auburn fan, all desire the right thing, in the wrong way. The desire is disordered. 

The gay couple desire deep friendship with the same sex, a good thing, and they desire romance, a fine thing, but they are seeking for it in the wrong place. Their desire is misdirected.

The woman on her sixth marriage desires the consolation of a romantic relationship with a man, and domesticity, both fine things, but perhaps she thinks the reason she hasn't found happiness in these things is because of the particular man. Rather than seek a relationship within God's bounds, she is bent on finding a happy marriage at all costs, and yet happiness is precisely what has been eluding her. Her desire is confused.

The die-hard Auburn fan desires a sport's victory, itself a fine thing, but he desires it SO MUCH, that when the Tigers don't win, he's upset for days. His desire is excessive. 

See, in each of these cases of desire, there is a problem of order. A problem of sequence and proportion. A dis-order. 


The key to being happy – the key to being genuinely joyful and content in this life – is the same key to being a faithful Christian. And that is: to have our desires match the thing desired, in the proportion that God has laid out.

Or, as St. Augustine, the great bishop and teacher of the faith in the 4th century put it, quote:

Now it is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally.

To put it another way think of the principle we all learned in freshman physics class, Newton's third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

In God's economy: The value of every thing has a corresponding amount that it is to be desired.

If something is this good   [[[small amount]]]  say, Football, or fine dining
then we should desire it this much [[[small amount]]], no more, and no less.

If something is THIS good  [[[large amount]]] say, family
then we should desire it THIS much [[[large amount]]], no more, and no less.

And only if equilibrium is achieved on this front. Only if the desire matches the thing, can we be truly at peace in ourselves, and happy in this life. 


See, I sort of think of the whole world like this giant puzzle-piece of differing amounts, that God calls us to harmonize with by matching in our desires. If our desires don't rightly correspond, then our puzzle piece doesn't fit, and we will be endlessly frustrated as we try and connect with the world, mashing into it.

So it's worth turning our attention to those bits that are mis-aligned. The desire that are not matching. That are dis-ordered.

Now, in parts of our life, we can plumb desire the wrong thing, and this happens from time to time, when we think that we want something plainly sinful. But more often than not, our desire isn't misdirected, it's just excessive. We love something MORE than God has ordained that it should be loved. 

Now, since this always leads to upset, to the opposite of peace and contentment, we can do some useful reverse engineering. We can look at what upsets us, what shatters our peace and leaves us in a tizzy, what dissolves happiness, and there we can locate our disordered desires. 

So, think of that with me: What's something that makes you madder than a wet hen? Or what's something that makes you afraid? What thought can keep you up at night?
...
Within and behind whatever comes to mind, is a disordered desire. 

Some examples:

If you're really afraid of a break-in, then you desire security too much.
If you're upset whenever someone interrupts you, then you desire honor too much. 
If you're hot and bothered when someone else tells you what to do, then you desire autonomy too much. 
If you're cranky to your spouse after a lost game, then you desire Auburn too much.
If you fret about your health, or the weather, or your finances, then these are things you love too much.

Our emotions, reveal to us our deep desires. They show us their dis-order – their too-much-ness.

Now, the big take away from all this abstract analysis is this:

Don't trust your desires.

If we go the way of our desires (which are disordered), we are dooming ourselves to further un-happiness, and have slipped one step further down the slope that leads away from God forever.

In fact, one of the worst things God can do, is give us over to our disorderly desires. That's the curse in Romans 1, right? Three times the scripture tells us, that in response to their false religion, and their sexual immorality. In other words, in response to their desiring the WRONG things,
verse 24: Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,
verse 26: For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions
and v 28  God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done

We do NOT want this to happen to us. The worst thing in the world to hear from God is, “Go do what you wanted to do”.
It ended in death for the heathens, and it would end in death for us.


No, the great gift of God is that he is inviting us to have our disordered desires ordered, as we follow Christ and his commands.

Now, when we look at all the desires in our lives that are out of whack, it might seem like an impossible task to bring them all into subjection, but all of the leaves are connected to a single root. If you get to the  root, then the weed can be pulled out in one fell swoop.

And the root of our desire-problem, is – believe it or not – lack of desire.

Most of our disorder comes from loving things too much. But the root problem connecting all of them is actually a deficiency of desire.

A lack of desire...for God.

God is the greatest good, the one most worthy of love and desire, in the entire cosmos and beyond. Being infinite, and having given us an infinite gift in his Son Jesus Christ, God is the only thing – and not a thing, but of course, a person – he is the only person we cannot love too much.

As C.S. Lewis said “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

But in our daily lives of desire, we so often forsake the Creator, for the things he created. We are often “far too easily pleased”. We attach so much of our pursuit of happiness onto things that rot and fade and diminish – as all things on this earth do – and so little on the one unchanging, ever-loving, infinitely deep, marvelous God of the universe, who loves us and gave himself up for us.

And if we don't get this right, we will never get our other desires sorted out. 

But WHEN we get it right. When we confess with our lips with Psalm 16, 
You are my Lord, my good above all other!
And when we really believe that: In our heart, with our desires....

Then everything else can fall into place much more easily. 


If we desire God rightly, that is, most of all, then our hearts are anchored on the only stable thing. Then when the changes and chances of this life come our way, we will not be overthrown.

And if we love him most of all. If we desire him most of all, it transforms and orders our desire for created things. Rather than making, say, food, an idol that we desire far too much, we can refer our enjoyment of food to its creator: God. We can eat of the fruits of the earth, and desire and enjoy them somewhat, thanking God for them, but not hinging our contentment on whether or not its a good meal.

Only the one who loves God most of all ACTUALLY enjoys the created things, and is not enslaved by them. As C.S. Lewis again put it:  'Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth 'thrown in': aim at Earth and you will get neither.'

Only when we desire God most of all. When he is our greatest pre-occupation. When we just can't get enough of His presence and his truth and his sacraments. Only then can we rightly enjoy the good gifts of creation.

So.

Summing all this up:

Contrary to one of the great mantras of our age: Don't follow your heart.

Don't follow your heart; Follow God.

Don't follow your own desires for your life.

Follow God's desires for your life, laid out plainly in the Scriptures and in the teaching of the Church.

Don't desire things for their own sake.

Desire God, and desire the things he has given you for his sake.

But above every created thing: Desire God.

Mar 12 :: Rom 4 :: The Faith of Abraham

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham
 – Rom 4:2-4, & 16
 
Intro.
This morning I want to tell two stories. Two parallel plot lines. One master narrative, and the other an imitation. The story oAbraham, and our story.
The Holy Spirit speaking through Paul praises Abraham – the artist formerly known as Abram –  as the father of all those who have faith. He is the archetype, the source, the original figure, which all of our faith is in imitation of.
So let's look at his life together this morning. Let's poke and prod and examine the faith that he had, to see what we can learn from it.

I. Faith in the life of Abraham
In our reading from Romans chapter 4 this morning, Paul quotes the book of Genesis when he writes that “Abraham believed God.” – the word 'believed' can equally be translated as 'had faith in' – 'Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now, for the careful reader, this automatically raises the question, “believed him about what?” 
What did God say, that Abraham believed?
We don't have to hunt too far afield, because our Old Testament lesson from Genesis chapter 12 tells us.
God appeared to Abraham twice, and in those revelations he told Abraham that from him would come a great nation. That he would have children, whose descendants would own the Land that we now call “Israel”, but then was called “Canaan”.

Now, even to us sitting here, in 21st century America, the prospect of a huge chunk of free land, a enormous family heritage, and a name that will last for the ages is a pretty sweet offer, but it was even MORE significant back then, 4400 years ago, when Abraham lived, when your land and the size of your family meant EVERYTHING for life and livelihood and happiness.

So that's what God promised. And that's what Abraham believed. 

But all was not quite so simple. Because there were some significant barriers in the way, which Abraham had to overcome in order to believe.

To start with, Abraham was 75 years old when God said, “Pack up all your things, and travel 574 miles on foot to a place that I will give you.” Some of you are close to 75, how does that sound as an offer? Moreover, he's going to start a family and a dynasty at 75, his wife just a few years younger? When we consider these things, already God's promise is starting to look pretty rich, if not downright impossible. 
But it gets worse. Abraham believes God, and makes the journey, and arrives at the Land God has said he will give him, and Lo and behold – it's already occupied! With Canaanites! Vicious, large, war-like people!

So God has promised a family, to a man who has no children, and a land, that is already inhabited with other people, and all this to a man whose beard had already been grey for a long-time.

Outwardly, Abraham is not manifestly the “best man for the job”, not the most-likely candidate we might have thought God would have picked, to initiate his plan of salvation for the whole human race. Because remember, Jesus our Savior was born into that dynasty of Abraham – the Jewish people. He was the singular offspring that God had promised, amidst Abraham's many descendants. 

But Abraham is who God selected, and by God's grace, Abraham didn't let us down. Even in spite of the improbable, the insane odds, the massive difficulties that stood right in front of his eyes, Abraham said, “yes, Lord. I believe you. I believe you in spite of what I see. Because I believe you can do all things.”

Now, that's faith. 

It's because of THIS response that Abraham had to God, that, as Genesis 15 tells us, and Romans 4 repeats, Abraham was justified. 

Justified before God. That is, counted as righteous. 
In other words, because of his faith – his trust  – Abraham was counted as one who is Godly, and thus as one who belongs to God.

Now, this is sort of a surprise in the Old Testament. Ordinarily, the only way to be counted as righteous was to do the righteous thing. Which is another way of saying, Only if you keep the Law of Moses can you be righteous. Can you be Godly. But long before Moses is on the scene – 500 years before, in fact – God reveals something far deeper. Yes, a certain amount of Godliness can be emulated by keeping the Law, and yes, this means that a little bit of righteousness is theoretically attainable. But the Law of Moses, the 618 Laws of the Torah – they are also a whole. As the book of James tell us, breaking it even one place means the whole thing is Broken. Which means one's righteousness is broken, and therefore, not really much of a righteousness at all, since it no longer mirrors the perfection of God himself. 
And apart from all of this, what God showed us in the life of Abraham, is a truth that would only find its full explanation in the wake of Jesus Christ – that is, that righteousness is available simply by trusting God. That whereas the Law couldn't make you righteous. Trust CAN make you righteous. 
It was because he BELIEVED God, that Abraham was counted as righteous. Totally separate from the Law of Moses. 

Now, before tracing all these things on to our own lives – although I hope you're already starting to see the connections – I want to examine the qualities of Abraham's faith. We've already seen that it was resilient even in the face of humanly insurmountable problems, but what else characterizes it? What else is there in it for us to emulate?

Well, even though it was a justifying faith apart from Works of the Law, as Paul makes clear, that doesn't mean it was just a sentiment in Abraham's head, apart from deeds. This is a point James in his letter takes pains to make clear, to make sure Paul isn't mis-interpreted on this point. 
See, Abraham believed God would give him Land, but he still had to walk the 574 miles to Canaan!
Abraham believed God would give him a Son, but he still was willing to offer that son on the altar when God commanded him to do so!
In both elements of the promise therefore, we see that Abraham's faith was made manifest in his deeds. His deeds didn't save him, but they reveal that he REALLY believed what God had said, rather than merely partially assenting to it in his mind. If Abraham had have stayed in Haran – he would never have been given the promised Land. He needed to actually move down there. BECAUSE he believed, he took action. 

Another quality of Abraham's faith, is that when he struggles with it, he takes his struggle right away to God. In Genesis chapter 12, as we read, God very clearly says, “to your offspring I will give this land”
But fast-forward 25 years, Abraham is nearly 100 years old. And there's still no son. No heir from whom this promised dynasty could possibly come. He's been holding on to the promise, but so far, there's no sign of it. And God shows up again, in a vision, and repeats his promise, saying to Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 15 “your reward shall be very great.” To which Abraham replies, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?...Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 
God promised offspring, but as yet there are none. In Romans 4:20, God tells us that Abraham's faith didn't waver, but this certainly sounds like wavering, doesn't it? So what's going on here. 
Quite simply, wavering and struggling are two different things. 
Wavering is when we step away from our faith, question it as if we were the judge, and perhaps ignore it for a time, disobeying God. Now, even when we do this, in his mercy, God doesn't let us go. As it says in 2 Tim 2:13 – we may be faithless at times, but God is always faithful. But this is not what Abraham did. No, Abraham didn't waver, but he DID struggle. He did find it difficult to keep believing. But see the difference there: it's difficulty in the MIDST of believing. It's not the false contemporary Idea that somehow we need un-faith as Christians for faith to be real. No, struggle is part of it and is no fault, but un-faith is always an enemy to be avoided. When Abraham's faith became a heavy thing to carry, he doesn't walk away from it. He sticks with it. And in fact, he takes his struggle back to God himself. He brings his concern, his struggle, to God. Not to other people, not making any decisions off it, but instead coming to God in prayer and saying, “God, you've promised these things. But I see no sign of them? Help me here, please!” And God DOES help him. Gives him something to restore his faith, and make it easier to carry. Reassures him with the words we have recorded in Gen 15:4 “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”

The final thing we see about Abrams faith – when we read on in Genesis and Exodus and the rest of the OT, is that it was right, right? Abraham wasn't counting on a pipe-dream. This wasn't something he had tricked himself into believing God had said. It was all real. Abraham's descendants, through his Son Isaac, were multiplied. They did become very numerous in Egypt, and were led into the land of Canaan, where they DID conquer the Canaanites, with God's might power – these are the accounts in the book of Joshua, right? – and they DID get the land for themselves. It took over 500 years to work out, but God's word was good – there would be a great nation – the Jewish people – living in the Land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean sea. Boom!

God said it. Abraham believed it. And it happened. 
So that's the story of Abraham. Because God's word is in itself so instructive to us, I reckon already most of the points that we can trace on to our own lives have already been made, But let me briefly make them explicit:

II. Faith in our lives.

Abraham was not a likely candidate for God to use – and yet he called Him to be a part of a great plan.
WE are not likely candidates – and yet God has called US to be a part of a great plan.

To Abraham it would have seemed impossible to enter the promised Land, guarded as it was with enemy Canaanites, and yet God made it happen.
To us it might seem impossible that we should get to enter the heavenly promised Land, with all the enemies of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but God CAN and WILL make away.

Abraham didn't do good deeds, and therefore God said, “I'm gonna go bless this guy with land and offspring”. No, God gave the promise of blessing first. All Abraham had to do was believe. 
And Salvation is that easy for us as well. Not for anything we have done. Or anything we are. Did God choose to save us by sending his Son Jesus to die on a cross. He did it of his own free-will. Out of his own Great LOVE for us, and for his world. All we have to do is believe. 
    
Abraham sometimes struggled in the midst of his faith. Just like we do. But he took his struggles to God, just as we should, rather than taking them and walking away from God. If we come to him, he will strengthen our faith. This is the crucial prayer of the man in the Gospels who cries out to God, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” A prayer the Lord always answers, if we ask it of him sincerely.

Abraham believed God with his feet – When God told him what was his, he up and left his home at Haran straightaway.

Just so, we need to ACT in faith, following what the Lord has said, even though it might sound odd or like a long-shot, we must take God at his word, manifesting our trust in him by the choices we make, by the way we are on. 

In sum, Abraham trusted God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
WE are called to trust God. And if we do, we will be counted righteous. Being reckoned before God to be as Godly as he himself is, because we are found in Christ Jesus. 


Post-Script:
Lastly, as a means of laying hold of all these things more concretely, I want to encourage you to make prayers of Faith. 
Now, when I say prayer of faith, I don't mean just the prayer we first prayed when we became a Christian, although that is of course the FIRST prayer of faith. No, our prayer lives as Christians should have prayers of faith woven throughout them.

As you know, the vision I believe God has for us as a church is that we would cultivate life-giving patterns of prayer, and so this morning I wish to offer you another pattern, another thread to weave into our lives of prayer, namely, often and articulately telling the Lord, “I trust you”
“I believe you.”
And in all the particulars that this belief is needed:
“I believe you have forgiven my sins”
“I believe you will save me on the day of judgment”
“I believe you will provide for my needs”
“I believe you are Good, and will work Good out of what you have permitted to happen”
and so on and so on.

May your faith increase more and more, into the stature of Abraham.

Lord, we believe you will help our unbelief.

Amen.


 

Mar 5 :: Rom 5.1 :: Why do we Sin? (Temptation and its remedies)

Therefore just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. – Rom 5:12 +INPFSS+


Intro.
In this season of Lent, which we began on Ash Wednesday, we devote a special attention to our sins. Not because we need to grovel in order to win God's favor. We have already been granted his favor for free – in Jesus Christ.  We focus on our sins in Lent because, if we're honest, for the rest of the year outside of Lent, we take them altogether too lightly. We think of them as petty offenses. We forget that they fly in the face of almighty God, and sicken our own souls as it were, with a plague. 
    For as well as being a legal offense, Sin is also a disease. It hurts us. It weakens and cripples us. 
    Doctors practicing medicine study and treat all kinds of bodily diseases that would end in bodily death, but these are just intermediary things. What launched all disease and death into the world originally, was Sin. 

    And beyond bodily death, there is the death of the soul – which is to be cast away from God in the next life, into eternal misery. We pay so much attention in our world to treating the bodily diseases that affect some, but we pay so little attention to the worst disease of all, which affects every one of us: Sin. And this is why we keep Lent. To stop and attend to our malady.
    When it comes to sin, we all can immediately recognize that we have a complaint; that we have symptoms: We see selfish wrong-doing of every kind in our own lives on a fairly regular basis. If this were a bodily thing, we would want to find out what has caused it, and what the remedies are – 
     and so that's the approach I wish to take together this morning: The methodical approach of a physician, examining the causes of our problem, so that we can attack them head on with the appropriate remedies. 

I. Origin of Sin
So, the first thing that our Scripture lessons this morning teach us about our sin-disease is that we were born with it. We were born into it. It's an inherited problem. Our great-great-great-great-great Grandparents contracted it long ago in Eden, when they disobeyed God for the first time, and it has been passed down through every generation since then to ourselves. There is not a human on earth who doesn't have it. That is to say, we are all born with a proclivity to sin, and from our early years, we all do, in fact, find ourselves sinning. You won't find a parent on earth today who would say their Child has never done the wrong thing. There's something broken within us from the get-go. Or as David put it in our Psalm this morning, verse 6: Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.

But just because we inherited this problem from our ancestors, doesn't mean that we are somehow not responsible for it ourselves also. It's not your fault for inheriting a disease, but when we do things to make the sickness worse, we have become part of the problem. And as we can see, we have each done more than our fair share of adding to the sins of Adam.

2. Temptation, Sin, and Eve
But how does this come about? Why is it that we collude with our disease to make ourselves sicker? Why do we keep on sinning? What's going on? Well, let's break it down:
    All sins begin with temptation. We see this put forward in archetype fashion in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are strolling about enjoying perfect happiness and bliss and the goodness of God. And the serpent appears to them and he tempts them.
    They succumb to the temptation, and they follow Satan instead of God, and that's when they Sin.
    It's important to make a distinction between temptation and Sin. They are not the same. Temptation is the suggestion of Sin, but not sin itself. Our Lord was tempted in the wilderness but did not sin. Sin is when the suggestion is followed. When the fruit is actually eaten, and God is disobeyed

    But in this story of the Garden of Eden, we also see a middle element between the two. Between temptation and the succumbing, namely: Eve. 
    Eve, as Genesis tells us, thought the tempting fruit looked good. She was intrigued by the temptation. She was pondering it, and considering its merits. She was lingering over it, and it started to feel kinda good. And with hindsight we see now that it was already by this point all over. Sin may not actually exist until we have gone ahead and said 'yes' to the temptation, but the door is opened the moment we stop and linger over it. 
    And here we see our first remedy for avoiding sin: Not lingering over temptation. If we want to avoid making our disease worse, we need to run in the other direction when tempted. Sometimes this means literally leaving the room, or the situation you are in, 
    or for inward temptations, averting your eyes, or fleeing in your mind to Christ on the Cross. But whatever form is needed, the solution is essentially the same: Run!
    

3. Resisting Temptation: Adam and the Second Adam.
Now, sometimes, for whatever reason, we're not able to run, or even running, we may still be assaulted by temptation. In which case, the way to avoid Sin is to make the tempter run. As St. James tells us, “Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.” This is what we see in the encounter our Lord has in the wilderness, in his preparation for his ministry on earth: The three years of teaching and healing that would culminate in his being crucified for the sins of the whole world. 
    Satan has come to Jesus and tempts him by appealing to his body, mind and will – goading him on to demonstrate and prove his power, and also to side-step the Father's plan for his life of kingship, in favor of a quick-deal with the devil himself.
    Do you see the parallel between this event and the Garden of Eden? Satan offering something good under false-pretenses? Under ungodly, forbidden terms? 


    In Eden, the temptation was knowledge. In itself, not a bad thing. But the Devil enticed Adam and Eve to get it in ways God had not ordained. To get the wrong kind of knowledge, in the wrong way. 
    And In the Judean wilderness, The Devil enticed our Lord to demonstrate power and receive authority – things which the Father was going to give to him, as we see from his later life. But the devil was offering a crooked version, in a crooked way, by worshiping a created being, rather than the Father from whom all things come. 
    And by making the parallel, do you see the contrast? Adam failed the test. Christ passed it! Adam brought sin and death into the world. Christ conquered it! Adam crippled human nature. Christ restores it! This is the contrast Paul is tracing in our Romans 5 reading this morning: Christ as the second Adam. The successful Adam. And it is Christ whom we are seeking to follow as Christians. Not Adam. So let's look at how he succeeded where Adam failed, so that we too can succeed, and not fail.


4. The Strategy: Knowing and Believing God's word  

A. Knowing.
Each time that our Lord is tempted, the first thing he does is bring up the Scripture, the Holy Word of God. Quoting the Bible word for word, “as it is written...”... “as it is written”.... “as it is written”...
Even the eternal Son of God himself, the only perfect being, who's heart and will were not warped and bent on Sin the way ours are. Of all people, the one who might have most relied on his own muscle to defeat the devil, he doesn't do that. The Word of God incarnate trusts in the Word of God written, the words that he himself had spoken through the prophets centuries beforehand. The eternal words of God. 
    That JESUS would rely on the Bible should increase our sense of the weight and power of Scripture, no?
And it should also challenge us to know God's word more.


    If we don't know God's word, how can we know what is true? How can we resist temptation and the one who tempts us? Only if we know God's word – his commandments, and instructions, and teachings, and promises, can we stay on the right course, and not fall headlong into sins left and right, making our disease even more intractable. 
    Part of why we so often sin is because we don't even know what is and isn't Sin, because we aren't regularly listening to the words of the Bible.

But there's a danger further still. Our spiritual illness is no surface infection, it's a system-wide sepsis. It penetrates into our very heart:

B. Believing
See, we can actually know God's word – which is in itself an essential step – but we can fail to really believe it. And this un-belief can take many forms:

We can fail to believe that it's actually true; that it's actually pointing us in the right direction toward health. We can presumptuously think that we know better about what's right and wrong and what's good for our souls.

Like the millions of patients who spend 5 minutes on WebMD and think they know more than their doctor – something I admit to being guilty of on occasion – we are prone to thinking this way with regard to our souls. As if our few years of life experience could give us more wisdom than the eternal God who made all things and who knows all things.


    Moreover, we can fail to believe the plain meaning of the words. This is the trap Adam and Eve fell into right? The Serpent says, “Did God actually say 'you shall not eat of any tree'?”
    Warping the truth doubly. On the one hand, he is misquoting God, who did not prohibit eating from any tree, but just from one tree in particular. But also in planting doubt as to what had been said at all: “Did God actually say...”  Anytime you hear this in your own thoughts, recognize who the speaker is. If you start thinking, “Yes, but does God really mean for me to....” I'll let you fill in the blank. Recognize the voice of the tempter, and rebuke Him.
    Disbelieving the plain sense is one way we can undermine even a hard earned knowledge of the Scriptures.

And underneath all this disbelief, is not just a distrust of the letter of the law, but a distrust of him who gave it. A distrust in the person of God. 

    If you really trust someone, in a relationship, then you will hang on to their words in a time of difficulty. Just so with God, if we really believe that he is real, and that he is Good, and that he DOES mean us well, and wants to save us. Well then, when we encounter a Scripture that the Devil doesn't want us to obey, we will cling to HIM and in so doing cling to the Truth. Only in the context of a real relationship with God does knowing and believing his WORD make sense. 

And this brings us to the thought I shall close on: Ultimately, even if we know and believe all the words of the Bible. Even if we resolve never to linger over temptation, we will still not be able to avoid Sin. In the end, only Christ himself can avoid Sin. He is the only perfect one. These tools I have been speaking of for resisting temptation: Fleeing, and Knowing and Believing God's word, these are means of laying hold of God's power, of laying ahold of Christ Jesus as Savior, but it is still HIM who has to conquer sin and evil. WE cannot do it on our own. 

    Just as we trust God for true guidance from his word beforehand; in the heat of the moment of temptation – we need to look to God and trust him to rescue us in the midst of it.

Practically, this means for me, the moment I become aware of being tempted, I make the sign of the cross and cry out internally, “Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me!”
    And he does. He throws water on the fire of temptation, creating a window in which the Holy Spirit can remind me of the Scripture that speaks about the thing I am tempted by, and remembering God's word, He then equips me to resolutely walk away, and so avoid Sin.
    Not that I always do this. I wish I did. But until our dying breath this will be for each of us a struggle with losses from time to time. But with God's help, the victory can become ours more and more, and we can come more and more to imitate the second Adam, and not the first Adam.
To become healthy, and not more sick.
To be saved, and not to die.
Thanks be to our merciful God. Amen.
 

Feb 26 :: Matt 17:6-7 :: On the Fear of God

When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Matt 17:6-7  +INPFSS+

I. The Fear of God
This morning, I wish to speak about fear. One kind of fear, in particular: the fear of God. Now, you've probably all heard sermons on the fear of God that try and explain that when the bible says “fear”, it doesn't really mean “fear”, it means things like “reverence” or “respect”. Now, while this is not entirely wrong, I think such re-definition falls short of biblical truth, and actually robs us, as Christians, of the appreciation we really should have for who God is. 

God's glory, as we see twice in our lessons this morning: Shown to Moses and the Israelites on top of Mount Sinai, and shown to the three disciples on top of Mount Tabor – God's glory is scary. It's not just scary, it's terrifying. The only description Moses can find for it is that it's like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, and when the Three Disciples see it in Jesus, and hear the voice from the strange-glowing cloud, they fall to the ground, overcome with fear. 
When God shows his glory, it is evidently brilliantly bright, and overwhelmingly scary.

And the normal response isn't merely reverence, it's fear. 

Now, when we think of fear, we think it's a bad thing, but that's because when we hear the word 'fear', we think of the things that we are afraid of: Dark Alleys, Being alone in the woods, The monsters of childhood under the bed, that, if we're honest, we're still a little scared of. 


MOST things that cause fear, are genuinely bad. But fear itself, fear, as an emotional response, is actually a good thing. It's actually a proper response to something that could have power over us, or that could over-power us. 
    God gave us fear so that we could know instinctively to stay away from the dark cave where the bears are hibernating, or to avoid the snakes that can do us harm, or to give us pause before throwing our lot in with criminals on the seedy side of town. 
    Fear is for the most part, that is – when it doesn't dominate our daily lives, fear is actually a good thing, because it helps us avoid harm. When we feel fear, it is because we become aware that there is something that is stronger than us, that could alter our lives in ways we would rather it wasn't altered. 

And this is true of snakes, and caves, and heavy-machinery and edges of cliffs, and muggers and tyrants. The lot of them. All of these things have the power to potentially do us harm. And we are right to be afraid of them.


And actually, when we lose the appropriate sense of fear, through familiarity, well, that's when bad things happen. All of the tragedies at Zoos, and on factory floors, and in big cities, so many of them happen because a right sense of fear had been lost.

And, what I'd like to suggest to you this morning, is that all this applies to God as well.

Like the rightfully famous CS Lewis quip about Aslan being good but not safe, God is, in a sense, dangerous. 

Jesus himself, as recorded in Matthew chapter 10 tell us, do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.


And he's referring here, not the devil, as you might mistakenly suppose, but to God! God alone has the power to send soul and body to hell. And this is a lot of power, and we are right to be afraid of it!

Now, at this point let me be really clear: As Christians, we do NOT need to live in fear of hell. But the one who has the power to send us there, HIM we are right to be afraid of. Like a ferocious lion, or like a giant machine, it should cause us some alarm, and lead us to be cautious, and thoughtful.

In short, to be afraid.

II. Glory: veiled and unveiled
Now most of the time, because God is so humble. Because our Lord is meek, and lowly of heart. Because God wants us to enter a relationship with him out of love, and not because we have been flabbergasted and don't know what else to do. Because of these things, the terrifying aspect of God, what the Scripture's refer to as his glory, it is often veiled. It's hidden, the way a bride hides her beauty at first behind a veil. God's terrifying glory is not right here in front of eyes. 
    Now, if we look at all the amazing things he has created here on earth: The mountains, the glaciers, the Lions and Whales, we catch a glimpse of it. And if we reflect on it even for just a moment, we can begin to see it with our minds' eye, but in day to day life, it's not visible. It's not tangible. 

    But there have been a few times in history, where God has removed the veil. Where he has allowed his glory to be seen in broad-daylight. Paul saw it, on his way to Damascus. John saw it, in the face of an Angel. Moses saw it, on the mountain, and, the theme of our feast this Sunday: The three disciples saw it on Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured. 
    That is, simply, his appearance, his figure was changed: trans-...figured. His true Glory was for a moment revealed. Brought out from the curtain behind which it had been hiding. Every other day of his short mortal life, Jesus looked just like an ordinary man. But that's because the veil was on him. Who he really was – the immortal Son of God – was hidden from earthly eyes. But on this one day, when he had gone up away from the crowds, to be with his inner circle, he pulled back the veil.
And...it...was...terrifying.


Matthew paints the scene for us vividly:

His face was brighter than the Sun. Literally. It was painful to the eyes it was so dazzling. His clothes turned from their drab linen hue, to radiant white. 

How scary would that be!

And then, Moses and Elijah appear out of thin air, and Jesus is talking with them!!

Peter evidentally doesn't know what to do with himself. You can almost imagine him, peering out from behind a rock or something, and then, when he realizes he's not hidden at all, he just starts blurting things out, “urrr, If you want, errrrr, I can make three dwellings here?!”

And before he can finish speaking, the air suddenly changes to a thick bright cloud, whatever that looks like, and a voice booms from heaven, the voice that strips the oak trees bare, and it declares that this Jesus is his beloved Son, and is to be listened to.

And, with my imagination I can almost see Peter and James and John flipping backwards and over on to their faces, completely aghast at what is happening, terrified for their very lives. And this is right. It's totally normal. Who wouldn't respond that way, if these things happened to you?


III. More than Fear
And what these strange unveilings communicate to us, Christians today, is that God is never a safe entity that we can take for granted. Behind the veil, there is a force more powerful than anything we can imagine. A dread king, who has taken account of every thought and deed done by every human being who ever was, and who has bound himself to the execution of Justice. 

In other words, in the face of all our familiarity, and the merciful condescension of God into our lives, and how cozy and normal our Christian lives become – and these things are not bad – in the face of these things, we must also remember who it is that we are dealing with, when we address God by name. When we turn to him in prayer. 

That's the first thing we take away from the unveiling of Christ's Glory, at his Transfiguration. 

But it's not the only thing. 

While right, Fear is not the end of our response to God. Or at least, it's not supposed to be.

For when the disciples have thrown themselves on the floor in terror, what happens then?
Jesus comes over to them. Touches them, and tells them to get up and to not be afraid.

What?? Not be afraid? Is he kidding? What about that scene isn't scary? Why would Jesus tell them this? What's going on?


In the first place, Jesus is pointing out that the scary-ness of God is different than other scary things. Whereas the power of other scary things looms only to do us harm, God intends to do us good with his power. He is for us, not against us. He will be satisfying his justice himself, through his Son, on the cross.  He loves us. He is GOOD. Not safe, but GOOD.

And his goodness is ours, in Christ Jesus.
I think what happened to the disciples on Mount Tabor is a figure for what is true of all of us, as Christians:

It is only when Jesus himself touches us, that we can get up and not be afraid any more.

It is only when God the Son himself looks us in the eye and says, “it's gonna be ok”, that we can come and stand boldly before the fearsome God in prayer.


And it's only because of what God the Son did on the cross – dying for our sins, in our place – and only because we have been united to his life, through our faith and through baptism – only because we are spiritually connected to him, as his body, that we can stand before the Great Judgment of God the Father on the Last Day.

And so we see that, whereas, as mere human beings, we would feel only terror before God, knowing that our sinful selves would be totally immolated in the presence of his Glory. As Christians, being now found in Christ Jesus, fear is only the beginning. There is also love. And gratitude. And Worship. 
Love for the Savior who has made us his own, so we do not need to be afraid. 
Gratitude for the gift he has given us, of himself on the cross, and
worship, because this was God's plan all along – to save us from the wrath of justice. 

And through these things, carnal fear, human fear is sanctified, and it becomes holy fear. Christian fear. Which is at once genuine fear, and, in a sense, no fear at all, because we have seen the Goodness of God in the face of Christ Jesus. And his Love has cast out our fear.

And in a way, you could say this is right back where we started: In lived life, this looks like reverence, more than it does fear per se. But see how it's not reverence as just something less than fear. It's reverence as something more than fear. It's fear and... It's the accelerator and the brake at the same time. It's the character of Christian awe. The shape of Holy Fear.

May God himself increase it in us more and more, as we give more and more glory to our all glorious God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 

Feb 19 :: Matt 5:44-45 :: God's Benevolence, and Ours

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. – Matt 5:44-45
+INPFSS+

I want to work backwards through these two verses this morning. 
Sort of like a mystery novel – the first few chapters only make sense when the ending is revealed. We can only understand the high call God has placed on our lives, when we first understand God himself. 

So that's where we shall begin, with the character of our Father in heaven, who, as Jesus said, makes the sun in the sky rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.


What looks like a fairly simple statement, is actually packed with theological insight.

To get there though, we have to remember that the world of Jesus' day had a very different economy than ours does. There were no factory-farms, or government subsidies or globalized trade, or grocery stores to go to. If you wanted food in first century Galilee, pretty much your only option was to catch it or grow it in your own town.

So, when Jesus is talking about Sun and Rain, he's not just talking about pretty things in the sky, he's talking about livelihoods. He's talking about provision, and food, and ultimately survival. He's talking about our daily bread.

What Jesus is saying here, is that God is the provider of these things. In the same way he provides food for all the beasts of the earth, as the Psalmist says, he provides Sun and Rain for the harvest, so that the creatures made in his image – us humans, can have food to eat, can stay alive.

Sun and Rain, and by extension food and drink, and all of the material things that keep us alive and that we enjoy – none of these are just natural things that we can take for granted. They don't happen on their own. They aren't automatic. They aren't just “givens”, they are given to us, hour by hour, day by day, by the God who rules over heaven and earth.

When we understand this, we catch a new glimpse of the kindness of God. Of his goodness.


Think about what you would do: Think of your own adult kids, if you have them: Imagine you gave them a Christmas gift, and they turned around and hit you on the head with it. And then tried to steal your wallet. Imagine if that happened every day! Would you continue to give them gifts? Of course not! And yet, what does our heavenly father do? He continues, every day to give gifts of life and food to all his creatures. Whether we are grateful or ungrateful. Whether we do good or evil with his gifts. He continues to provide for us. He is always benevolent and kind. 

This is a pretty crazy level of mercy, right?
It means that God is sustaining the life of the members of ISIS, just as much as he provides for us here in Opelika.

As Jesus said, he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.


Distilling theology from this truth then, we can say about our own lives, that God's material blessing is not connected to our performance as Christians.

I'll say that again:
God's material blessing is not connected to our performance as Christians.

This is a truth with two sides. On the one hand, it is a great mercy. If whether or not I got food to live depended on how I was living as a Christian, there would be a lot of days where I would go hungry. In fact I would surely be dead already. No, he doesn't stop blessing us with our daily bread, when we mess up and sin. When we fall short of his commands. He continues to provide.
Thanks be to God!

On the other hand, just because we continue to be blessed with our daily bread, doesn't mean we're necessarily living on the right path.
Since God's material blessings are independent of my performance – which, recall, is a mercy to us – we can't read into what blessings we have received, and assume we are doing just fine in our Christian lives.

In other words, outward blessing, is not an indicator of spiritual well-being. 

Members of ISIS, got food today.

The only way to know if what we are doing in our lives is in accord with God's good will, is to study his Word, and to seek that will in prayer. 

outward blessing, is not an indicator of spiritual well-being.

On the contrary, as a side note: Those who have followed the Lord closest: the apostles, and martyrs and saints throughout the ages, often experience more physical hardship than others, not less. 

But back to the main point of verse 45: The mercy and benevolence of God, in his provision and in his gifts. 

And working backwards from this reality: It is because GOD is merciful, that WE are to be merciful. 


But the mercy we are supposed to show, that's the third point I want to make this morning – we'll come to it in just a minute. Point #2 is the bridge that connects the two. What is it, Why is it, How is it that these two things – God's mercy and our mercy – are connected?

The answer is right there in that phrase in verse 45: “children of your father in heaven”.

The whole Christian life can be summed up as the process of becoming like God our Father. 

As Jesus says in verse 48, we are to be “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”


Part of this high call to perfection is to be found in the similarity of our behaviors.

What God does, that's what we should do. We should copy him. We should imitate him.  As Paul says in Ephesians 5: Be imitators of God, as beloved Children. 

And that's why Jesus has given these crazy high standards in his sermon on the mount: moral commands against anger, and lust, and swearing, and everything else that is opposed to Godliness.

Jesus tells us all these things in the Gospel, to point out to us the narrow way of imitating God. To give in plain detail what it means to be holy like God is holy, as God commanded long ago through his servant Moses, as we heard in our reading from leviticus.

But if all God did to encourage us to imitate him was to describe the strict rules, we'd be left in a sorry state indeed, right?

It is the great message of Christmas that we celebrated just a few weeks ago that of course this is not all God does. No – God the Son actually became incarnate, he became like us in Jesus –
and why did he do this? What is the purpose of the incarnation? 
God became like us so that we might be like him! So that we might be empowered to imitate him.

He took on our flesh, and united it with his divinity, so that he could pour out his holy Spirit on all flesh. That is, because Jesus himself bridged the gap between God and us, God the Spirit can now live within us. And he does! You who have been baptized have been given the Holy Spirit!

This is part of what Paul is talking about in Corinthians, right? 
I love when this happens – when all the readings line up like this. The Scripture tells us: We are temples of the Holy Spirit! He lives within us! And therefore, we are not alone in our efforts to imitate God! God himself is active within each of us, giving us strength to do just that! Only with his help is it possible, but with his help – it is possible!!

It is a terrible mistake to think that, because we acknowledge we are sinners, we can just be ok with that fact. No, because God lives within us, we should be exceedingly sorrowful over our sins, and resolve with all our might and with all his help, to seek to stay on the narrow way. 
To be imitators of God, as beloved Children. To copy our father, who has made us born again, through the Holy Spirit. 


That's the bridge between God's behavior and ours. Jesus. And The Holy Spirit. The fact that we have been adopted as his children, and are now called to live according to the family values of his heavenly family. 

Which brings us, working backwards, to my third and last point this morning:

Jesus commands us to  Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Now this is crazy, right? It's un-natural! Everything in us is inclined to do the exact opposite – to love those who love us, and to hate our enemies with a passion!

If someone slaps you on the cheek, you would almost certainly slap them back, am I wrong?

This is natural, in a sense, but it is not Godly. 

Jesus gives us a higher standard that is greater than nature. It is super-natural. And, like I've been saying, it is only possible with the super-natural help that he gives us.

But here it is: Since God doesn't “strike back” when others oppose him. Neither should we. 
God sends good rain on the good people and the evil people.
And WE should do good to good people and to evil people.

We are to do good to those who hate us, just as we would do to someone whom we loved dearly.


Now, this is hard for us at every level. Not just as humans, but especially as Americans, where we are really big on freedom and rights. 

To be clear, what Jesus is telling us to do –  It's the exact OPPOSITE of insisting on your rights. It's giving them up entirely! It's giving away even more than is being stolen!  if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well  (!)

If this sounds really radical – then you're hearing it right. It IS radical!

But if we are followers of Jesus. If we are children of God, as we are – then we have no other option other than to seek to be radical.

At every level of our lives.

At a personal level: It means Christians can never, ever, ever hold a Grudge. So if you've got any grudges this morning – you need to give them to God. It means Christians can never hit back. If someone insults you. Or attacks you, verbally or physically, Jesus knows nothing of retaliation, or vigilante justice. 
Fleeing for safety, or defending others he's – big on, but retaliation? – no way. 
Verse 39: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. 
If someone treats you badly – not only does Christ call us not to retaliate, but he goes even further. 
Neutral avoidance isn't the goal; Christ commands us to treat them exactly as we would if we loved them.


Just like how God does – he provides rain and food for us out of love, regardless of how we treat him. 

Christ's high calling here affects us at a personal level, but it also affects us at a societal level. Let me ask you – what is your primary identity – are you first a Christian, or are you first an American?
[[Christian]]
If that's true, then what Christ asks us to do is our chief marching order.
In other words – the fact that our Christian life affects us personally, means it must also affect societally, or in other words: Politically.

And: Christ tells us to Love our enemies.

So no matter what our country says about this or that enemy, or who are enemy is, or what they are trying to do, as Christians, we are called to show love to them no matter what. 
Just like our heavenly father does!
This means that if Jihadists moved in next door, God wants me to bake them cookies to welcome them, and have them over to dinner. And to never speak ill of them, as human beings. Jihad I am against. But Jihadists – God calls me to love.
As Christians, we are not afraid of any human being, no matter what country they are from, or what skin color they have, or what religion they adhere to. We are not afraid, because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). 


Of all people, we should be the least worried about the things our leaders are telling us to be worried about. Because whether he is friendly, or whether he hates me, any one I come in contact with, citizen, immigrant, refugee, whatever – my response is to be the same. To love. To have over for dinner. To help out. To talk with. To talk well of. To give gifts to.

If this sounds like I'm wading into politics – it's not my fault! Look at the text! JESUS is telling us this!
Love your enemies...if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?


In Jesus' day, a personal enemy was often also a political enemy. That bit about walking two miles when you're made to walk one – that's a thing that Roman soldiers – who were political enemies, and represented the oppressive political over-lords that all the Jews of Jesus' day hated with a passion – Roman soldiers would make Jews carry their supplies for them, one mile at a time. So, when Jesus says 'love that guy', and gives a concrete example, 'Go an extra mile', he's absolutely treading on political toes. '

Jesus is certainly commanding us, not only to love that rude family member who antagonizes us, but also those people who we think of as enemies of our country. Political enemies. 

LOVE your enemies. Love Muslims. Love Syrians. Love Democrats. Love Republicans. 

Whoever your enemy is, that's who Jesus commands you to love.

It's a super-natural command, a command that imitates the very character of God, who loves us even when we are his enemies.

Thanks be to him, for his infinite mercy to us. May we imitate it in every area of our lives, as his children. Amen.


 

Feb 12 :: Matt 5:27-32 :: On Lust, Adultery, and Divorce, according to our Lord

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matt 5:27-32

+INPFSS+

Uh oh...
How many of you just thought that to yourself: Uh-oh?
I did too.

Yes, this is not the easiest Gospel to hear on a Sunday morning, let alone to preach about. 
But if we claim to be Bible-Christians – and make no mistake, we are – then we can't dodge it.
If we claim to follow Christ, we can't pick and choose which bits of his Holy Word we want to listen to, and which bits we want to discard. We don't have that option. God has given every word, every stroke of every letter – as we heard last week – to us, for us to listen to and obey.

And one of the wonderful things about the Living God, is that, since he made us, he knows exactly what we're made of. He knows, that our sexuality and our sexual desires, are an enormous part of what it means to be a human being. And God is not prudish. As we hear loud and clear in the Gospel reading, he is happy to confront this issue head on, in modest, but plain and unambiguous language. And he does this, because one of the great dangers of being a Christian, is that we might take our Faith, and compartmentalize it over here in this part of our brain, and fail to recognize the importance it has over every area of our lives, especially over our bodily lives. 
    It was the great mistake of the early Corinthian church, that they thought their Christian faith meant that they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies. They obviously failed to hear or to heed Jesus' teaching of Matthew chapter 5!

    And this teaching Jesus has given us, it's especially important amidst our own sexually confused age. How many of you think that in our present time, as a culture, we're pretty confused about issues of sex and sexuality, and what's right and wrong? [[[show of hands]]]
If you didn't raise your hand, you must not have watched any Television in the last 20 years.

Right – we all can tell that our age is messed up, but how do we know what's actually true in these matters? Can we just trust our own gut feeling??

No, of course not. That's what got us into this mess in the first place – people thinking that we can trust our feelings when it comes to sexuality. It feels fine, therefore it must be ok. No, for all of us, Christian or non – our feelings cannot be the standard by which the rightness of something is judged.

So what is? Well, this is why the Lord has given us his Holy Word. So that we can have his authoritative teaching on everything that matters when it comes to living our human lives in a godly way. And the teachings of Jesus that we have here in chapter 5, these aren't suggestions, or ideals, these are commands. Even the setting clues us in to the gravity of what is being said here. This passage is from what we call the 'Sermon on the Mount', right? Because Jesus went up onto a mountain to deliver this teaching. 
    Let me ask you: When was another time in the bible, where a great man of God went up onto a mountain and delivered landmark teaching? Moses, right? On Mount Sinai! With the 10 commandments! Can you see the connection? Jesus has gone up on a mountain, to communicate that this is serious stuff that he is about to deliver. 
    But unlike Moses, who had to get tablets of stone from God, to deliver the Old Law, Jesus delivers this new Law from his own lips, because he is himself God the Son. And the structure of Jesus' sermon almost goes point for point down the list of 10 commandments: Murder, Adultery, Taking the Lord's name in vain, etc. But while its based on the old teaching, what Jesus teaches us is also something entirely new. 

Did you catch the phrase Jesus uses over and over again in this sermon?  “You have heard that it was said...    …but I say to you.”
“You have heard that it was said...    …but I say to you.”

Jesus takes the Law that Moses gave, and intensifies and deepens it in every way. By comparison with the Law of Jesus, the Law of Moses is a piece of cake to keep. 
Moses only said, 'thou shalt not murder.' Ok, no big deal, I'll do my best not to kill someone this week.
Jesus tells us, that in God's sight, if in your anger you lash out verbally at someone else, that this is tantamount to murder, and a deed worthy of the punishment of eternal hell. 

Moses only said, 'don't wrong your neighbor', Jesus tells us that we actively need to pursue reconciliation with our neighbor. He flips it around to make it an active command, and not just a passive one.

And then he turns to adultery. 
Moses said, 'just don't do it', Jesus says, 'Don't even look at a woman in a lustful way – because if you do that, you have committed adultery, inwardly.'
...Woah...
This is serious.
I don't need a show of hands then for how many of you, by Jesus' criteria, are adulterers. All of us are. 
This is really serious. Jesus isn't bluffing. He isn't exaggerating for effect. 
God sees our hearts – and more often than not, the only reason our inner-desires don't get manifest in our bodies is because of restraints he has graciously put in our way to keep us from doing so. But think what would happen if you were on a desert island, and no one would ever find out what happened – and then you see who we all really are: Dirty sinners. Adulterers. 

So, just to spell it out, if this applies even to a lustful glance, how much moreso to the whole variety of sexual sins that we are prone to, of thought and deed, through magazines, books, TV, the Internet, to any manner of unfaithfulness in the flesh. 

And when Jesus says that its better to tear out your own eye, than to keep on sinning with both eyes, and enter into hell with them. He's not exaggerating. Hell IS worse than losing an eye. Way worse. Far from exaggerating, Jesus is actually under-stating the case.

Now, I'm taking the time to unpack this candid teaching of our Lord about sex and sexual desire, because this is an issue of CENTRAL importance to us, as Christians. As long as there is sexual sin in our lives, we cannot expect to be making growth in any other area. If we spend all kinds of time trying to understand the higher things of God, or even pursuing this or that virtue, if we haven't first become obedient with our bodies, with our sexuality, then we're just kidding ourselves, and will get no where. 

Because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and if we're giving them over to any form of lust, which our Lord tells us is adultery, then that's the spiritual disease that first needs to be cured, if we want our smaller spiritual ailments to be attended to.

And please don't think I'm talking down to you here from some priestly vantage. I've shared with you before, and I'll share it again – I myself, in the past, for many years drowned in sexual sin. What I am describing to you is built on the sad scars of my own past disobedience to our God. 

So, this morning, if this is all a little close to home – Good! – it's supposed to be. But your not alone. And there is help. Help in Jesus. And help in his Church. But we have to come clean about our problems, first admitting it to ourselves, then bringing it to God, and for lasting change, seeking advice from a Christian who has found the way out of this most addictive set of sins. 

Ok. So, after speaking about Lust generally, Jesus then goes on to talk about divorce, and by clear implication re-marriage.

Now, before we unpack this scripture, I want to be clear, that, like everything else in this Gospel and in this Sermon, this is uncomfortable to talk about. I know many of you here have a first-spouse still living, and have gotten divorced, and are presently remarried. So I know that, as a parish, there's some skin in the game here.

Now, before we even look at the text, I want you to do a little thought experiment with me:

Think about the present crisis in the Church regarding Gay marriage. Many priests and pastors around the country, now think that the Church has been wrong all along, and that actually we SHOULD celebrate Gay marriage in the Church. It was in fact this very issue that was the straw that broke the camel's back, leading our own leaders to break away from the Episcopal Church, to form the Anglican Church in North America, of which we are now a part. 

Now, imagine right now, that you are teenager in one of these churches that is pro Gay marriage – you would be told, and you would no doubt whole-heartedly believe, that Gay marriage was no problemo for a Christian. You'd be just fine with it. In fact, I am certain that in 30 years time, it will be hard for many  – not all, but many – Christians in America to even remember that there once was a time when Gay marriage WASN'T celebrated in the Church. For many churches it will absolutely become the new normal as it is now in our culture.

Now, sitting here as we do right now, we can see that this situation is disastrous! And that what is needed is a clear look at the Church's historic interpretation of the Scriptures, to correct the error. And, for nearly 2000 years, the Church, based on the bible, said that it's a sin to do homosexual acts, and that's all we need to know.

Well, take this insight, and let's look at the case of remarriage after divorce.
From the very beginning, and for 1500 years, the Church understood Jesus' teaching about divorce to mean that it was impossible for a Christian to remarry. As St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians chapter 7, if you get divorced, there are two options: Be reconciled to your spouse, or, if that's not possible, stay single for the rest of your life. 

And this is nothing more than the plain meaning of Jesus' words in our Gospel this morning, right? 
Verse 32: “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Since a Christian should not be living in a state of adultery, remarriage after a divorce, according to Jesus, is not an option.

But then, starting a couple hundred years ago, this teaching started to get tampered with, culminating in the 20th century where remarriage was fully permitted in almost all cases. And that's the normal state of things for us, now isn't it. 

In fact, countless pastors and priests around this country will tell you, the Church was wrong for 1500 years, the Bible doesn't mean what it sounds like it means, and they'll explain it away.
In fact, the plain teaching on this point feels rather harsh and unfair. And I agree, it does feel that way.

But as we have already established this morning – what we feel does not dictate what is or isn't right when it comes to sexuality. 
The only true guide is God's holy word. 
And what does his word say? whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. And the Gospel of Mark makes it clear that this isn't just for men, but women too – marrying a divorced man is the same thing. Mark chapter 10: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

This is HARD teaching to hear today. It's hard to teach it. But again, we can't just ignore these verses.
So what are we to do with them, this morning:

Well, for those of you who are still in your first marriage, let this be a reminder to keep sticking with it. And let me remind you of everything else our Lord says about sexual purity, and so when it comes to adultery, we are ALL guilty, so there's no moral high-ground to be standing on, judging others. Our own sins are more then we could ever deal with ourselves.

But for those of you presently in a second or even a third marriage, in the least this teaching certainly raises a lot of questions. My challenge to those of you in this situation, is first to read through this scripture in Matthew 5, and also Mark 10, a few times this week. And then to look at all the other scriptures that speak about divorce and remarriage. And see if I am not telling the truth here. I know that undoubtably you've heard other priest and pastors say otherwise than I have taught this morning, so, with two competing teachings, I encourage you to figure it out for yourself. Ask the Lord to show you, what the truth is, and what it means for you. 

The Biblically-faithful, traditional church, has spelled out quite clearly, that obedience to the Scriptures for those who have been remarried, means abstaining from the marital act. That is, abstaining from sex altogether.

If this just sounds ludicrous to you, that's understandable. But don't make any decisions one way or another without consulting the Scripture. And if you really want to dig into what the Scripture challenges us to this morning, I invite you to come talk with me about these things, during the week. The Sermon is the time for the general, universal truth. But the particular application of God's Truth, in each of our own lives, that can be better worked out over tea or coffee, in your home or at my office, so please, if these scriptures trouble you even a little bit – come and talk to me.

And you should already know by now that I am of course not here to judge, not here to preach my own ideas, but you called me here to be your priest, and a priest is charged with presenting the plain word of God, and that is all that I am intending to do this morning. The rest is up to you and Him. 

So, circling back around then, to the general challenge of these verses, for ALL of us this morning:

We are all of us, adulterers, like the woman in the Gospel caught in adultery, and like her, liable to be punished by death. But what do we learn from that great Gospel story in John chapter 8? The Lord forgives. The Lord is merciful. He does not give us the punishment we deserve, having taken that upon himself on the cross. But in his mercy, after offering forgiveness, he does say, 'Go and sin no more.' 

So, whatever version of sexual sin you find yourself recently engaged in. Stop it. Go, and sin no more. And for all sins past – bring them to the Lord. Confess them when we confess. Receive his forgiveness. And drink from the healing waters of his mercy. We cannot fix ourselves – only he can make us well. And only then if we run to him in prayer, so let's do that together right now:

[[[Prayer for forgiveness, for the breaking of chains of addiction, for purity]]]

Amen.

Feb 5 :: Matt 5:14-16 :: You are the Light of the World

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. – Matt 5:14-16 +INPFSS+

This passage is often wrongly co-opted to describe America's standing before the world. Now, don't get me wrong, the system of government that the founding fathers created is an impressive thing. It deserves its accolades, but America is NOT the city on the hill that this passage refers to. 
    Jesus teaching here is Clearly talking about the Christians in the Church. NOT Any particular nation. And it is very dangerous – its actually sacrilegious – to take what Jesus said about his Church, and apply it to this, or to any, country. 

    The city on a hill, is the Church, and the Church is a trans-national organization. This picture the Lord gives us of who we are as a church applies in equal measure to us, the Church here in Opelika, as it does to the Church in Nigeria, as it does to the Church in the West Bank of Palestine. God has built us – as Christians – as a city on a hill. 
    Having clarified what this metaphor is referring to, let's look at what our Lord is telling us through it: about who we are, and how we are supposed to live.
Let's begin at the beginning:
Our Lord declares that we, his disciples, are (verse 14): the light of the world.
Now wait a second, does this phrase, 'light of the world' sound familiar? 
It should! John 8:12 records Jesus saying about himself, “I am the Light of the World.”
So, is it Jesus? Or is it us?

Well, what at first glance looks like a contradiction  – John recording Jesus as saying HE is the light of the World, and Matthew recording him as saying that WE are the light of the world, is of course no contradiction, but is actually the marvelous truth of the Gospel – that, through the in-dwelling Holy Spirit, Jesus, the light of the world, lives IN us. Lives through us. That we are his real body, and that therefore, WE are the Light of the world too, being vessels of his own luminous self. 

But what does it mean that we are the light of the world?
It's a metaphor rich with meaning. It means that, amid a world that is in large-measure covered in the darkness of sin and spiritual blindness, we have had the lights turned on, in our own hearts and minds, to understand the reconciliation we have with God in Christ Jesus, the forgiveness of sins that is ours by his promise. 

And having our own lights turned on, we have ourselves become little light-bulbs in the world. Little islands of light, amidst a sea of darkness. It was a favorite phrase in the Early Church to refer to Christians as the “illuminated ones”. The ones who had been lit-up by the knowledge of God, and made bright and alive in his Son. 

And from this personal illumination – the phrase 'the light of the world' signifies also the illuminating effect we are to have on the world itself. We are not just lights amidst the world, we Christians are also the lights that shine light on the World, so the World can see itself for what it is. When we proclaim Christian truth: That we must worship God and not Money, that the Great Judgment day is coming, That Christ died on the cross. When we speak Christian truth, it unmasks the euphemisms the World tries to hide itself behind. When it comes to the World, only Christians can call a spade a spade.

    For instance, What the world calls merely 'appetite', Christians recognize as Greed. What the world calls 'desire' or 'satisfaction', Christians give the proper name of Lust. What the world might say is 'deserved', the Christian recognizes merely as pride. This list goes on.
    The light of Christ shows us just how broken and sinful we really are. Before becoming a Christian, most people genuinely think that they are “good people”(!), it's us Christians who know the truth about ourselves. We are the ones who actually know that we are NOT good people. That I am, in fact, a terribly selfish, petty, dirty man. That I need Christ to be my clean-ness, and to make me clean. 
    This is what it means, to be the light of the world: The shine light into the confusion of our dark age.

    And it's not just for our own sakes – the Lord has installed us, as his lights here, radiating his own glorious light, as a witness for those around us. The Church is a public, living monument, to the saving help of God. We are as visible as a city on a hill is, to those around it. You can't miss it! Every Christian person, like every Church building, stands as a testimony to God and his presence with us. As our Lord said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” – Jesus is the one who lights the lamps, it is he who has made us his own, it is him living within every believer. 
    And he has placed us here in the world; he keeps us in the midst of our ordinary lives, rather than just whisking us off to heaven right away, so that we might be a witness to others. So that we might be, to use Saint Paul's phrase, his ambassadors here on earth. God's purpose for our lives is that we might shine his light into every corner of the earth, into the lives of everyone that we come in contact with, until the whole house is filled with light.


    And to that end we are commanded: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.”
    This is sort of awkward to hear isn't it? “Let your good works be seen by everybody else?” After all, doesn't Jesus elsewhere say, just a little later on in Matthew, (6:3) “When you give to the poor, Don't let your right hand know what your left hand is doing?”
How can these two sayings both be true? 

The solution is found in examining the reason we are being public about our deeds.

In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus points out that the Hypocrites make their good deeds public – verse 2 – “that they may be praised”.

Contrast that with what we have here, in chapter 5: Let people see your good deeds that they may – verse 16 –  give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Do you see the two different reasons for letting good-deeds shine?

Good deeds can be displayed to give glory to ourselves – or, so we think right? In actuality when we someone saying 'Look what I am doing!' it's actually rather off-putting. We don't instinctively want to praise that person, like that person was no doubt hoping would happen.

Good deeds can be displayed for our own glory, or for God's glory. 
The first motive is reprehensible, the second, we are commanded to do.

Now, this is a delicate issue. We are right to identify that parading our good deeds before others is full of the sin of vanity and pride. And so we are inclined to just make a law for ourselves – of never ever showing our good deeds to others. 
But pride is a slippery devil. 
When you seek to avoid it in one area, it just pops up in another. 
It sneaks into even our being secretive about our good deeds. We can think to ourselves, “yes, this is a good deed, such a good deed, that I must be sure not to brag about it to others”, and in thinking like this, we have the pride of self-satisfaction – the thought that we really are a generous person after all. When in fact we should even privately give the glory and the credit to God, and say as our Lord told us to in Luke 17 – “we are just servants, we have just done our duty.” 

When we give money or time to the Church or to the poor, or to some good non-profit organization. When we help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. These are genuinely good deeds, but for the Christian, they also just duties. These are obligations, and so we have no reason to be smug or self-content in our doing them. They should just be part of the normal course of our lives.
Even our faith – our trust in and our obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, this should also just be a normal thing for us who are his creatures. 
We can take our repulsion of bragging so far, that I see many Christians mistakenly think that our whole Christian life is supposed to be just a secret thing. 

And we see this manifest in the old saws of “what I believe is up to me. You believe what you want to. We're all free to choose. Different strokes for different folks” even “no religion is better than any other” all that sort of talk.

 And in the name of refusing pride, nominally a good motive, this is a tragic misunderstanding. For the Lord very plainly says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.” 
What we learn from our Lord then, is that REAL humility, is willing to do a deed in secret, with regard to my own glory AND is willing for deeds to be seen, so God can get the glory.

As I observe the Christian culture in America today, I don't see a lot of people making the mistake of doing so many good things and then saying “look at what I am doing! Aren't I amazing!” No, We are making the opposite of mistake – our tendency today is to take our light, and put it under a bushel-basket. We think we're being humble by doing this, but it's not humble. It's just pride in another form. And what's worse, when we do that, we're actually depriving the World of light that it needs, of the light that would save it. 

Yes, it's the good-deeds being seen part that I think we need to work on now, as a Church generally, and for us here at The Good Shepherd. We need more humility, in order to be more public about our faith and our deeds. Children actually give us a good picture of what this looks like. It is the humility of a child that can say, “look, Mommy, what I did in school today!” The Child is happy to have his good deeds seen, because he isn't puffed up thinking they're so amazing. He just sees them for what they are. And this is how we should be, in talking about and in sharing our lives with others.

    So, what does this look like; how might we go about obeying this command of our Lord. Well, first we DO need to install a pride-antidote into our hearts, to keep us from falling into the other trap. But like I said a moment ago, When we understand that any Good deeds that we do, are not of our own devising, but is actually the Spirit of God working through us. That it is HIS light, which generates OUR light, then really there's no concern about Pride being in the picture at all. So, keeping this antidote in mind, let's get down to the real brass-tacks: What good deeds are we actually doing?

If you're honest, perhaps some of you might be thinking, “I don't want my life to be on display for others, because there's not many good deeds for them to see”.
It's good to be honest about this, because this is honestly a real problem.

And I believe it stems from one of the most destructive lies that has crept its way into the American church. The lie that says, “I have faith in Jesus as my savior, it doesn't matter what I do now.”

WRONG!

It DOES matter what we do now!

It's only our flesh that wants to take the Gospel of free salvation in Jesus and use it as an excuse for just doing whatever the heck we want.

Our Lord, and Saint Paul, set this straight over and over again in the New Testament. Not only in just simply assuming that we will each have good deeds to shine out into the world, but in the verses that follow right here, in our Gospel reading this morning:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Is there any doubt, after hearing that, that our lives should be full of good deeds?!
We are told that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees!!
And, just a few verses later on in Matthew 5, our Lord will go even further, saying, “Be PERFECT, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

BECAUSE we are Christians, BECAUSE of our faith in Christ, we should be striving with all our might to live a life full of glorious good deeds. Not to earn salvation, but to prove salvation. Not to earn salvation, but to shine forth the salvation we have been given, into the whole world.

“let your light shine before others, so that they may see      your GOOD WORKS    and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

So the challenge of this Scripture for us this morning, is first that we start living more intentionally just to DO Christian Good works. To double-down on investing our energies in them. If you have no idea where to start on this front, ask your spouse, and I am sure they can point some out to you. 
But also ask God. 
Ask him how he wants you to use what free time you have. 
What ministries you can be a part of, or even start, if you're feeling ambitious, maybe at an organization in town, maybe through the Church. The possibilities are just about endless. It doesn't have to be BIG things, simply GOOD things. 


And if you do them with the right intention, with the right understanding, that this is simply God working through you, and for his Glory in the end, then the second challenge is to let others see them. To not shirk around the issue when others inquire, but to say boldly, “Yes! I'm going to Bible Study!” “Yes, I am going to serve at the Food Pantry!” “Yes, I am fasting” “Yes, I made a commitment to my wife to do this or that this morning” “Yes, I was a part of that”. 

“let your light shine before others, so that they may see      your GOOD WORKS    and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Amen.

 

 

Jan 29 :: Matt 9:37 :: On Evangelism (or, on not leaving the life-boat seat next to you empty)

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few  – Matt 9:37   +INPFSS+

How many of you have learned at some point about the Titanic? Maybe seen the James Cameron film, or watched a documentary, or something, about that terrible accident in 1912.
One tragic aspect of that tragic event, was that there weren't enough life-boats, right?
It was because of the sinking of the Titanic that laws were made that any passenger-liner needed to have enough life-boats on it to accommodate all on board. But prior to the Titanic, there was no such law, and the ship-makers took a gamble.
2208 souls were on that vessel.
1503 died in the sinking, from hypothermia and drowning.
About 700 survived. 

When the RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene the next morning to rescue those survivors, a further tragedy was uncovered: The life-boats were little more than half-full. There was space on the life-boats for about 1150, but 450 of those seats were just empty, having never been occupied. 

Imagine how the captain of the Carpathia must have felt when he saw that. 1150 life-boat seats. 450 of them unoccupied. 

The life-boats had left the sinking ship before they were completely full, and of the 18 boats that left, only one went back to rescue screaming people out of the water. Whether it was for safety, or because of cowardice, the 640 people in those other life boats were sitting there, ignoring the cries coming from those swimming in the freezing sea, with empty seats all around them...

Imagine how the captain of the Carpathia must have felt, as they pulled the bodies of 300 men, women, and children out of those frozen waters. Souls who could have been saved, had those on the boat made room for them..


I tell you the details of this historic tragedy, as a picture – As a cautionary tale.

We who are in the Church. Who have heard the Gospel, and accepted Jesus in faith, and been baptized – we are in the lifeboat! We have been rescued from the certain fate of sin, and death, and eternal punishment. This is the miracle, the heavenly gift each and every one of us has been given. 

And we are absolutely right to be endlessly thankful to God our savior for this gift. To worship him. To seek to live a life in response to his mercy. That's all right on.

But if we do nothing about the empty seat next to us. If we reach the end of our journey, and the life-boat we are in is only half-full. If we fail to go back for those still screaming and drowning in the water. 

Well, imagine how the Captain of the Carpathia must have felt...

 

To fail to share the Good news of Jesus Christ is tantamount to selfishly stealing away in a lifeboat, leaving others to die in the cold. 

C.S. Lewis, addressing some students at university, put it quite bluntly, “woe to you, if you do not evangelize”

This morning, as a part of this Epiphany-Tide, where we remember the Light of Christ that has shone on us Gentiles, we are celebrating World Mission Sunday. A Sunday set apart for us to remember the great charge we have been given by our Master: To make disciples of all nations. To proclaim the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, and to the Ends of the Earth. 

Now, I'm preaching here something I need to remember my self. It can be easy to get so caught up on the in-house goings on of Church, that we can forget that we are in the life-boat, and there are those drowning outside our doors. 

There are still 5 billion people in the world who do not profess the Christian Faith, and over half of them – 2.9 billion, have probably never heard the Gospel before. Ever. And it's not just somewhere on the other half of the world that needs the Life-boats to circle back: I was looking at some survey and census data, and only about half of the Auburn-Opelika area considers themselves to be some form of Christian. Half. Which means there are some 75,000 people within a 20 minute drive of right here who have not put their faith in Christ Jesus. 

There are 75,000 people, right here, who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 75,000 people who are enslaved by the patterns of sin in their lives. 75,000 people who are living without God, who are living in darkness and spiritual confusion. Who have no greater purpose than to eat, drink and be merry, with despair in their hearts, and who are otherwise doomed to an eternity apart from God. 

And so this morning, I want each of us to turn our attention to that empty seat on either side of us in the lifeboat.

Now, here, the Titanic metaphor breaks down a little. Because in those frozen waters, everyone knew that they wanted to get into the lifeboat! But sin has such a blinding, such a paralyzing effect, that souls today don't even realize that they are slowly dying in the water. They don't even see that they need to be saved! Let alone that there is a lifeboat called the Gospel of Jesus Christ passing right by them.

And so this is where the work of Evangelism comes in. Evangelism is the many-sided effort to get people out of the deadly ocean of sin and death, and into the life-boat of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Evangelism is the many-sided effort to get people out of the deadly ocean of sin and death, and into the life-boat of Jesus Christ and his Church.

There was some risk for that one boat that turned back to fetch those in the water. And there is some risk in sharing the news about Jesus. There's not the risk of persecution like there was in the Apostles' time, but there is the risk that our friends and society might think we are simple, or naive, or ridiculous. But it's a risk worth taking. 

Evangelism is many-sided, because it is a great effort to bring the Gospel to people, or to bring people to the Gospel. And we have to be patient, and we have to be creative, and we have to be courageous. 

The message of Jesus needs to be proclaimed with both word AND deed. If we're just saying words, but our deeds and our life look like any averagely selfish non-Christian, then our words will be ineffective at getting people into the life-boat. If we do every good deed around town, but never say with our words that Jesus Christ is the motivating reason for our actions, our deeds alone will not bring souls into the life-boat either. 

In the time of the Apostles down to our own day, God has called some to do their evangelism far away from where they grew up. Paul ended up in the distant city of Rome. Our own Micah Hatley, was called to go serve in Uganda, on a chiefly deeds-based mission, and he faithfully answered that call, and will share some of his experience with us a little later on this morning. Every earnest Chrisitian should at least ask God if he wants them to go do missions in some place that's not home. If God ever puts something on your heart in this way, it's important to listen, no matter what station of life you find yourself in. As an aside, if this does happen to you, I encourage you to talk to me about it, so I can be a helper in discerning what the Lord wants for you. 

So, certainly there are always some who are called away. But there are also those who go to far away places because it seems slightly more exotic, and therefore somehow easier to share the Gospel there. But this is a muddle-headed idea. If you can't share the Gospel in your own town, what makes you think you would all of a sudden be made an instant evangelist somewhere else?

The fact of the matter is, most Christians, most of us, most of you,  – are called to serve God where you are. Are called to be a missionary and an evangelist right here in Auburn-Opelika.

If you don't think of yourself in this way, as missionaries to this city – well, surprise! It is what you are. And it goes a long way to not getting too entangled in the things of this world to often remember the fact.

To that end, I also wish to give each of you a challenge. 

I want you to imagine yourself on one of those titanic life-boats, with an empty seat on either side. And I want you to think of it is a personal project, a personal mission, to fill both of those two seats. If every Christian in these two towns could just fill ONE seat, then this whole area would be saved by Jesus Christ, and not a soul lost. So, for that one seat, the seat on your right, let's say, I want you to try and think of someone right now, who lives in this area, who you wish would come to a saving trust in Christ Jesus. It could be a friend, or a family member, or a neighbor, or a co-worker. In fact, let's all close our eyes – i'll do this too – and let's ask God, that he would suggest to our minds who it should be. 

Ok, now for the other empty seat next to you, the seat on your left, I want you to think of someone a little further afield. Again, it might be a family member, or a friend from college, or whatever, someone who doesn't live right here. Again, let's ask God who that person might be, that the seat next to us is waiting for.

Ok, so each of us has thought of two people. Two people that we would like to see be rescued from the deadly waters, and brought into the Life of Faith. 


Now, how do we go about doing that? It's not as simple as just blurting something out about Jesus, and hoping they say yes. In fact it's often a long-game. 

The most essential thing though, is Prayer. Before anything, I encourage you to be praying for these souls on a daily basis. Just keep praying the same thing:
Lord, please save Mike. Lord, please save Clarissa.
Everyday, until he does.
And then from their, prayers that God would guide YOU in that process:
Lord, please make it clear to me, when it is a good time to say something to Mike.
Lord, please show me how I can bless Clarissa, in your name.
Lord, please guide our conversation, that it would be easy for me to share something about you.

And when he does, to then do that thing. Or say something.
And it doesn't have to be the whole Gospel at once.

It can begin with just a little hint, a small suggestion, that they can then pick up on when the time is right. Maybe just letting them know that you go to Church. Maybe letting them know that the reason you did this or that, or made it through this or that, is because you're a Christian. Maybe inviting them to come to Church with you some day. You don't have to open up the fire-hose, just a sip of water is a good place to start. But in all your dealings with that person, to stay intentional, to realize that the seat next to you on the boat is empty, and that if they don't get on it, they will perish. 

If we care enough, just for two, through even this small effort, by the law of exponents the whole world could be saved in short order. And as we prove faithful in little, the Lord will give us more and more opportunities as well. But we must begin here. We must begin with these two.

So, let me pray for all of those souls who you've brought to mind, right now.

[PRAY]


In a year, I'll ask how things are going on your rescue mission, and again the year after that, and after that. And even if it takes years, I pray that the Lord WILL use your witness, and bring those lost souls whom he loves into a saving knowledge of himself.

Amen.

 

Jan 22 :: Amos 3:6 :: Why do bad things happen?

Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it? – Amos 3:6  
+INPFSS+

How many of you have experienced bad things in your lives? 
Painful, hurtful, overwhelmingly stressful, devastating things?

How many of you have wondered – why did this happen?

It's the million-dollar question, isn't it: Why DO bad things happen?

Why did you suffer? Why do you suffer? Why are there so many millions of people in the world, suffering the most horrible things, each and every day?

That's the question – why...


It's the reason countless throngs of people say that they can't believe in God at all – because of all the bad things that happen.

This question is one that people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have asked for many centuries now, and it's not one I can pretend to fully answer in 20 minutes on a Sunday morning. If there was a simple, satisfying solution that would put the question to rest, it would have already been found, and it wouldn't be a problem anymore. 

No, I can't answer the question fully, but I want to offer you some partial answers this morning. Answers that I have come to through my own suffering of the bad things of the world, and answers which God led me to right here in the Bible. 

I can't answer the question fully, but I can offer some thoughts that – for me – at least put the question to rest a little bit. 

And these thoughts come by way of asking the question in a different way. Rather than just standing as a philoshoper and asking, “Why do bad things happen?”, I think we need to begin with the more Christian question, of “WHO is responsible for them?” Only when we switch from philosophizing to inquiring of our Maker will we get anywhere worth going.

So, to that end, as Christians, we believe, right?, that God the Father created the whole world, and that in God the Son, the whole universe is held together, as God the Spirit is actively involved in the manifesting of God's work everywhere.


In other words, we believe that God is all-powerful, and that he is in charge of everything that happens.

If he wanted to make a giant mountain appear overnight here in Opelika, he could do it. If he wanted to guide your neighbor to leave a $1000 in your mailbox, he could do it. Nothing is impossible for him.

And even more than that – we believe God is actively involved in life here on earth. That in fact, his Kingdom has been established here by Jesus. 
That he hears our prayers. 
That he provides for our needs. 
As our Lord said – he knows the number of hairs on everyone's head, and not a sparrow falls to the ground that God doesn't take notice of (Matthew ch. 10). 
He isn't just present here on earth, he's intimately present. Infinitely present here. 


As Psalm 139, which we just prayed, testifies: Lord, you have searched me out and known me; * 
you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar
You trace my journeys and my resting-places * and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, * but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

And this truth that has been revealed to Christians – it renders the existence of all the bad things all the more problematic doesn't it?

If God is in charge of every atom in the universe, how are all these bad things still happening?

Who is responsible for the bad things that happen?

Well, let me read to you some scriptures, and you tell me who's responsible:

Job 1:21-22:
21 And Job said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

Isaiah 45:7
I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.

1 Samuel 2:6
The Lord kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

And again, the verse from which I am preaching, Amos 3:6:

Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? 

So, you tell me – who is responsible for the Bad things that happen?

...God....

God. 

It's a startling answer, but it's true. We do so much fancy intellectual footwork to try and get God off the hook with all this talk of causes and divisions of will and so on, but the Scriptures are happy to just witness to the bald fact: GOD is responsible. HE did it.

Recognizing that God has the power to stop bad things, and clearly, sometimes he doesn't, the inspired writers of Scripture recognize that the buck stops with him. God is not puppeteering the monsters of the world in their evil actions. But he is permitting them. As we learn from the book of Job – even Satan has to ask God for permission to do things. 

But God, evidently, grants that permission.

Just as he grants permission for all of mans inhumanity to man, and to natural disaster, and all the other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that trouble us during our life here on earth.

And what at first is quite a shocking thought, is actually full of comfort.

If the bad things come from God, we know they are coming from someone who is good, and we know they are being permitted intentionally. It means we are not living in a world that's run by chaos, or by the demons, but is, really, run by God. 

We rarely get to know WHY God intentionally has permitted what he has, but just knowing that it is from him is some consolation in itself. We actually don't NEED an answer, when we can trust him as a person.

We can confess our inability to understand, and throw ourselves into his arms, trusting the outcome to him who is all-knowing. This is what the psalmist does, right? And what we are encouraged to do. Again, Psalm 139 that we just prayed: Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; * it is so high that I cannot attain to it. How deep I find your thoughts, O God! * how great is the sum of them!

It's the response of the clay to the potter. A figure that the Bible uses no less than six distinct times when speaking about these deep mysteries of why God has allowed what he has. Job 10, Isaiah 29, Isa 45, Isa 64, Jeremiah 18, Romans 9, all say the same thing: quoting Isa 45 here – “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?

Our first “answer” to the question of “Why are there bad things” is to punt, to recognize the tinyness of one's finitude, one's 'clay' status, and to let the potter be the potter.

But having said that, God has revealed some – SOME, not all – of his reasons in the past, for why bad things have happened. 

One recurring theme in the prophets, and this is what Amos is addressing this morning also, is that God permits bad things as punishment for sins. Sins that we have committed, and sins that those around us have committed. As a people, our destiny is tied up with each other. Not every Israelite was an idolater, but because of the sins of the idolaters, the whole nation was taken into exile. The scriptures reveal that God actually orchestrates the occurrence of bad things as punishment for sins. 

And this is not because he is cruel. Or because our sins need additional atonement. Not at all. He's a kind Father, and like a kind Father, he disciplines us to steer us away from sinful behavior – to provide us with a chance to come back to our senses – like the prodigal Son – and to come back to him. And so he brings bad things – sickness, pain, and disaster – on a people, as fatherly discipline. 

Our new president on Friday said that God protects America. In context it's clear that Trump meant that God will prevent bad things from happening to us, because he has our back. And this is simply untrue. When it comes to politics, I concede that all politicians, including President Trump, know far more than I do, but when it comes to theology, Statesmen don't make the rules, the Bible does. And it clearly doesn't give these sort of blanket statements to this or any other nation. 
    What the Bible DOES say, is that if we continue in our sins, then God WILL actually let bad things happen to us, as a punishment. 

    And as I look around America, I don't see a mass repentance from sins. I still see Greed, and Lust, and Pride, and Sloth, and Anger, and Idolatry making up the fabric of our culture in these United States. So, far from protecting us from bad things, if we persist in these Sins, the Lord will actually intentionally LET bad things happen, to provide us with a chance to change our course, before we come before him at the Last Judgment.

So that's one reason he permits some bad things to happen. 
Again, often times – most times –  we don't know – we can't know – as the clay, why the potter permits what he does. 

But in looking at what he permits, it is also useful to think about what he is also preventing all the time as well. Yes, God permits bad things, sometimes for years, but He also actually prevents thousands upon thousands of terrible things happening every day, but, humble as he is, he doesn't make a big show of it. But think how many things could have gone wrong each and every day, that you have been spared. Right now, you have a body that is mobile, a home to go back to, people who love and care for you. All of these things could have been stripped away for one reason or another, and yet, here we are enjoying them.  This is visually represented in a powerful way in the image you can find on page 20 of your bulletins – a picture of all the things that God in his mercy has held back, and the few things he permits by comparison. 

Check out this image, by a Christian artist named Chris Powers. I've printed it here in the bulletin, so you can take it home with you, because it sums up visually the complex, mysterious truths  – of Amos 3 and Psalm 139 – that I am trying to speak about this morning.

See – look how much God is shielding us from. Not only earthly calamity, but all of the just deserts our sins have earned for us. Death and hell. And all of the attacks of the Devil that he saves us from, in keeping with our constant prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. The Lord is graciously hedging us in, as the Psalmist this morning, again says,  You trace my journeys and my resting-places...You press upon me behind and before * and lay your hand upon me.

But still, the things that do come our way. The bad things. The trials. Even the temptations. The Lord himself has permitted them, as we see symbolized by the one arrow he let's by. Which, admittedly, still hurts! It has cut the cheek of the man in the picture. It is undoubtedly a bad thing. But it has been permitted. Like the man in the picture – when this happens, we're not to just focus on ourselves, not just to look at the arrow, or linger on the wound it has made. No we are to look the one who sent it straight in the eye. In prayer, to come to God, the potter, and say, as the clay – I don't know why you sent this. But I trust you. I trust that you are a good and a loving Father, and I accept this as part of your sovereign lordship over me and over your whole creation. 
In other words, like Job, to accept the bad as we accept the good, from the Lord's own hands.

And when we do this, how we suffer the bad things that are permitted is radically transformed.

We realize that we are not alone in the bad things. It gives the lie to the false idea that when bad things happen, God has abandoned us. No – God is as near to us in the bad, as he is in the good. David in our psalm this morning again highlights this truth when he writes, starting in verse 6:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? * 
where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; * 
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning * 
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me * 
and your right hand hold me fast.
10 If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, * 
and the light around me turn to night,”
11 Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; * 
darkness and light to you are both alike.

In other words, no matter where we are. No matter how good things are. No matter how bad things are – whether it is bright as day in our souls, or dark as night, GOD IS WITH US.

The continuation of the Christmas theme of emmanuel is manifest most acutely when we suffer. 

And it's actually here. Here that deep Christian discipleship begins.

Because, do you see the pattern? Receiving bad things from God. Accepting them as from his hand, even though they are painful. Trusting him, and trusting in his goodness. Who does that sound like?

Jesus! Right?

When we accept the bad things in this way, staying in a prayerful, trusting relationship, we are accepting our cross, as Jesus accepted his, in Gethsemane.

And when we live like Jesus in this way, we become like him. We are made to look more like him, in our witness to the world, and we learn to enjoy the depths of the riches of the goodness of God the Father, in the way that only the Son knows.

So, I encourage you to take this picture from your bulletin, and perhaps the text of Psalm 139 also, and put it on your fridge, on your desk, or on your bed-side-table, and when you see it, bring these things to mind, and look to your heavenly father, who is good and who brings forth good. Who works all things together for the good of those who love him, and who will never, ever, ever, leave you or forsake you.

No matter what bad things he permits to come your way.

Amen.