Jan 15 :: John 1:29 :: Behold, the Lamb of God

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
—John 1:29 +INPFSS+

The three points of this morning's sermon are simply the three phrases in this tremendous verse:
1) Behold.
2) The Lamb of God.
3) Who takes away the sin of the world.

So, we begin with this imperative verb: Behold.

When John the Baptist first said this, he was of course meaning literally: “Look over there! There he is!”

But as with so much of Holy Scripture, God-breathed as it is, the significance of this word, of this command, doesn't end there.

No, in fact we, the hearers of the Bible, are commanded to do the same thing, even today. 
To behold Jesus.
To look at him, with our minds. With faith. Or as Paul says in Ephesians, with the eyes of our hearts.

And John the Baptist isn't the only voice in Scripture telling us to look at Jesus, right? 
If we study the Scriptures, we see that this language of vision of looking is everywhere!

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Psalm 34
They will look on him whom they have pierced. John 19, quoting Zechariah 12
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Cor3:18
Come and see the works of God Psalm 66

This ocular language of the bible is actually a very good way of summarizing what it should mean to live as a Christian: That as we go through our day, we look at Jesus, with our mind's eye. That we see him as he is, in the several places where has chosen to dwell: Sitting on his throne in heaven. Present in the Holy Eucharist, and Living in our own souls, through the Holy Spirit. These are the three places that we know Jesus is, and so it is there that we can “look”. And it is in the act of looking, that the Christian life begins. 

When we look to Jesus, in our minds, we remember who he is. We remember that he is the Lord and Master of all. And that he is worthy to be obeyed. We remember that he is our merciful, loving savior, and we also recall that he will be the judge of our lives as well. And as we remember, so, with God's help, we can steer our lives toward him. Can make decisions that are in keeping with his will. Resisting temptation to sin, choosing to love and be patient. 

Looking, leads to remembering, leads to right-living.

Because where we look determines where we go.
Think of it simply in terms of driving:
If you're looking at the road 10 feet in front of your car, you won't stay a straight course on the road, and won't see when to turn off or what have you.
If you're looking at your phone while you're driving – you're likely to end up crashing.
But if you're looking ahead, down the road, then you'll stay a straight course, you'll make your exit, and all will be well.
Where you look, determines where you go.

And even more than this: Where we go, determines who be become.

This is a truth recognized even by heathens, as the famous quote goes:
Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. 
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. 
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. 
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. 
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny. 

When we collapse this syllogism down, we see that our thoughts – that is, where we direct the eye of our mind – determines who we become. 

So if our thoughts are set on earthly things, we become an earthly thing – a thing that perishes, a thing that in the end, goes the way of all things – becoming nothing. Or as our Lord reveals, being cast into outer darkness, where this is much suffering.

But if our thoughts are set on God. If we are constantly directing the eye of our mind to look at Jesus, then, through the work of the Spirit within us, we actually become like him. We become Godly.

This is the meaning of Psalm 34:5 Look upon him...and be radiant.
In the act of gazing upon our loving savior, we are made like him.

Where we look, determines who we become.

One final thought then on this Christian looking: 

One of the desert fathers, Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, 'The Christian ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim (who, you'll recall, in the Bible are often depicted as having many eyes): The Christian ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim all eye.'

Behold, the Lamb of God.
This brings us to the second phrase in John's exclamation this morning:

Behold, the Lamb of God.

It's a curious way of addressing Jesus, who, you'll recall is John the Baptist's cousin, being born of his mother Elizabeth's sister, the Blessed Virgin Mary. John doesn't address him by name, nor does he address him by his role – he doesn't say, 'Behold, the Messiah' 

He says, 'behold, the lamb of God' – intentionally highlighting a central aspect of who Jesus is, but, what is that? Well let's look:

In the first place, to call Jesus a lamb, is automatically to bring to mind to his Jewish listeners the lambs that were used in sacrifice. You'll recall that in the Old Testament sacrificial system, a lamb was offered every morning and every evening in the Temple, and this practice was still alive in Jesus' time. And of course, on top of this, the great, highest, holiest celebration of the Passover, had as its central feature, the killing and eating of a lamb, to recall how it was the blood of a lamb that was the means by which the Israelites in Egypt were spared by the destroying angel. Lambs, therefore, to a Jew, are not just cute and cuddly creatures, they are the pleasing offering to the Living God, because they are innocent. They are sacrifices, and in the case of the first-passover, never-forgotten, they are life-savers.

And absolutely John is signifying these things when he calls Jesus a lamb, as he makes explicit, in the final phrase of his exclamation: “who takes away the sin of the world.” John sees that Jesus is here to make a sacrifice. But not any sacrifice. He doesn't say, 'Behold the priest', he says, 'behold the lamb', meaning – Jesus is going to offer his own self as a sacrifice. HE is himself the lamb! And notice, not just any lamb. Not a lamb. But the lamb. All the actual lambs that had been sacrificed by Israel, for the 1500 years since they had been led out of Egypt, until that day, they had all been foreshadows, prophetic figures, for the one true sacrifice that would take care of sins for real, and would be once and for all. THE sacrifice. Which could only be made by THE lamb. The lamb that was promised to Abraham, but was not there on Mount Moriah. The lamb that is led to the slaughter in Isa 53, being pierced for our transgressions. The Lamb of God. 

Meaning, the Lamb that comes from God. AND the Lamb who was God. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was the Lamb. And the Lamb was with God, and the Lamb WAS God.

This sacrificial offering would be sent by God himself, and would be God the son himself. 

As St. Peter reveals in his first letter: That the Son of God would sacrifice himself was the plan all along. Chap. 1 vs. 19 and 20: the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake.

Behold, The Lamb of God.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Not just the sins of Israel, not just the sins of some select few, but the sins of the whole world! He takes away the sin of the whole world, because it is his will that the whole world would be saved in him. (1 Timothy 2:4).  But, really, not just “sins” in their concrete particulars – but all SIN. 

Sin, in the singular, meaning the one thing that since Adam's disobedience has been spreading and corrupting the entire cosmos. He is going to take it away. Or rather, paying attention to the details of the text: He's not going to take it away, he takes it away, present tense. And this tense tells us something. It tells us that, not only did Jesus once and for all make the needed sacrifice for sins, sacrificing himself on the cross, but he is still, now, as then, taking away the sins of the world. 

Little by little. Each and every time a man or woman comes to him in prayer, with repentance in their heart, asking for forgiveness, the Lord takes that sin away. Each time someone comes to confession, and the Absolution is proclaimed, the Lord takes that sin away. Each and every day, every hour, and every minute, there are Christians bringing their sins to God, and he is granting them forgiveness.

The Lamb of God is still taking away the sins of the world.

His storehouse of mercy is infinite. But it only pays the debts that are brought to it. 

So, I wish to leave you with two challenges this week, in light of all that has been said about this one, beautiful verse.

The first is this: Are you asking God to take away your sins? Your specific, actual sins, that you have committed? The ones you have committed today? As well as the ones you committed long ago? Or are you sweeping them under the rug, hoping that they will just disappear on their own, and that God will take no notice of them?
Be advised: with God there is no rug.
If you stole from a shop-keeper in broad daylight, would there be a rug? Of course not!
No, we must come to the one we have offended, and plead for forgiveness.

And in his infinite mercy, he promises us that he will grant it. 
So I encourage you, as I also remind myself, we must always be concrete and real in our bringing our sins to God, if we want him to be concrete and real in taking them away.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

And the second challenge is this:
Remember the imperative I spoke about at first. The charge of John the Baptist: BEHOLD!
As you go about your day and the days of this upcoming week, try and throw the eye of your mind on to the Lord Jesus as frequently as you can. LOOK at him. Fix your heart on him. Behold him. Behold him in his mercy, in his dealing with your sins, as the Lamb of God. Behold him in his glory, as the Lamb that stands on the throne. 
The more you look to Jesus, in your mind – but heck, use your eyes if you need to! Icons, crosses, crucifixes, anything can help – the more you look to him, the more he will bring our lives into conformity with his.

Let me pray for us, to this end:
[[Pray]]

Jan 8 :: Matt 3:16 :: The Baptism of Our Lord

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matt 3:16-17  +INPFSS+

1. Jesus' baptism

Does a brand new car need washing? Does a silent hinge need greasing? 
Does the Son of God need baptizing?

John the Baptist himself didn't think so! As we have recorded in this morning's Gospel, when Jesus presents himself to be baptized, John tries to stop him – Matt 3:14: John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”.

Like as a new car doesn't need washing, Jesus, as God didn't need baptizing. He was already, since before the world began, sinless, perfect and holy. The baptism of John was for sins, of which Jesus had none, and for repentance, which Jesus didn't need to do. 

This is the holy one himself we are talking about! Why is he coming to be baptized?

It's a good question to ask. And the answer, as we shall see, like so many things in Jesus' life, is: for our sake. He was baptized for our sake. 
This is simple enough on the surface, but the layers of meaning within this simple statement are fascinating. So let's look at those:

Christ was baptized for our sake, in that – like a good leader – he himself does what he commanded us to do: To have the humility to be washed in the waters of baptism. 

Christ was baptized for our sake, in that his own baptism set apart and sanctified the element of water to be the visible means of the sacrament of baptism. When the Holy Son of God incarnate and water come into contact, it's not the Son of God that needs cleansing, it's the water. In the Icons that commemorate the event of Jesus being baptized, you will often see small sea-monsters being speared in the water, signifying that water itself, as an element, has now been cleansed of its dark danger, and elevated to be the material means through which humans are re-born into the Kingdom of God. 

Christ was baptized for our sake, in that he took the human nature that belonged to him through his incarnation, and cleansed it and anointed it with the Holy Spirit. And this cleansing was no outward spot-cleaning. Baptism is always a death. As Paul says in Romans Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.     
    Jesus himself, when talking about his own death, would speak of it as his baptism. And so we have here, today, in his actual baptism – a looking forward to his atoning death that was to come, when he put death itself to death in his own mortal body. 
    The cross of Christ stands at the center of all things. Our baptisms take us back to it. Jesus' own baptism was looking ahead to it. But make no mistake: To be baptized is always to be united to the death of Christ. Even for Christ. 

The stain of our sin is so deep, that a spot-cleaning will not do the job, our flesh actually has to go through the furnace of death, baptismal and actual, to be purified, and raised on the other side, to live with God. Jesus begins this work of cleansing our humanity by starting first then, in his own body, which, though free from actual sin, was nevertheless in the likeness of Sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), and so was still in need of purification, and so he was baptized, for our sake.

    Christ was baptized for our sake, in that he made it clear when his public ministry was beginning. He effected a hand-off, if you will, from the ministry of John the Baptist, revealing that the Old Era had come to an end, and the new was here. Continuous, and yet different. For the last twenty years he had been a carpenter working in quietness and obscurity. Now he was beginning to take off the veil. No longer working with wood, but with men's hearts. His ministry – that would culminate in his death and resurrection – was afoot. It was about to go down. 

    Deaf people were about to start hearing. The true righteousness of God was about to be revealed in preaching. The dead were about to be raised to life. And his baptism was also his ordination ceremony, if you will. Becoming sealed outwardly with the grace of the Holy Spirit to confirm what was already true inwardly, in the nature of his person, but had “lain dormant” so to speak, until this great day. That he was the Son of God, come in power. Not merely a Gallilean carpenter.

    That's then the first point I wish to drive home this morning: Christ was baptized for our sake.
And the second point to be taken from the baptism of Christ, is what it means for us. Namely:

We are baptized into Christ.

Christ was baptized for our sake. And we are baptized into Christ.

We are baptized into Christ, in that through our baptisms we are united to him, in his death and resurrection. Our flesh is crucified with him, and the life we live after our baptisms we live for God, and by God's own power. And this is accomplished by the same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism.

When we are baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on us, enters the mansion of our souls, and indwells us with the life of Jesus Christ.

This is substantially different from how some folk speak about Christian baptism, but it is nothing more than what Scripture tells us.
It is common in this country to hear about baptism being a profession of faith, and perhaps even a baptism of repentance, and of course baptism IS these things, but it is also so much more!

John the Baptist himself said, in the Gospel we heard last Sunday, from earlier in the same chapter – Matthew 3 – John said, verse 11: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
He – Jesus – will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
When you are baptized with water in Jesus' name, it is he himself who baptizes you, through his human minister.

Many Christians today – perhaps some of you – think that when you were baptized, you received only the baptism of John – the baptism of repentance. But you received so much more. You not only manifested repentance, but you were baptized with the Holy Spirit, sent by God himself, through the element of water, in the great sacrament of baptism. 
Just like how the dove descended on Christ at his baptism. 
When we are baptized into Christ – we receive the same Holy Spirit.

We are baptized into Christ, through the Holy Spirit, and in that act our sins are washed away forever. We are made clean, and pure and holy. Christ cleansed the waters, so that through the waters, we can now be cleansed.
We are in fact, given the righteousness and the holiness that Jesus has in himself. We come into his own life, and are given his own merits, counted to us as our own. 
This is another way of talking about that great theme of the New Testament: Putting on Christ. We don't put him on in such a way as to take him off the next day. We put him on for keeps, in our baptism. Our life is now hid within his (Col 3). 

Because we are baptized into Christ, we become as he is: a son of God. He is a son by nature. We become sons by adoption – by stepping into his life, across the threshold of baptism. 
We become – to use a marvelous phrase coined by Thomas Aquinas – we become sons in the son.
Sons...in the Son

And so when we are found in Christ Jesus, having been baptized into him, the words that God the Father proclaims over Jesus become true of us as well:

“This is my Son, the beloved.”

You are God's beloved. Men and Women, you have become children of God.
And not just 'children' but beloved Children.

YOU are God's beloved ones. He loves you.

Do you believe that? 

It's true!

He delights in you as a beloved Child. And as his child whom he loves, he cares for you: He is attending to your every cry, your every developmental step, your every need. Like the Good Father that he is.

And even more, he likes you. Did you know that? As his beloved, God likes you. He delights in you, as he delights in the Lord Jesus, because now we are found in him.

Christ was baptized for our sake. And we are baptized into Christ.

And with these two great truths, there remains just one more thing to be said – my third and final point this morning:

Having been adopted as Sons and daughters through our baptisms, what kind of children will we be? Will we be good sons? Or bad sons? Good daughters? Or bad daughters? 

We know what kind of son the Son was – as the voice from heaven declared, “with him I am well pleased”. 

Will those words be true of us also? Will the Lord be well pleased with our lives?
With God's help, that's the task that lies before us: To live lives in keeping with the station we have been given. To be good sons, and so to please the Lord.

To please the Lord, by obeying his commandments. Even when it hurts, and when we lose out because of it. This, first and foremost.
On top of this, to please the Lord by giving him our lives, and our time, and our things, and offering to be his servant, just as his Son did.
And on top of this: To please the Lord by finding out what would please him, through prayer and reflection. As Paul says in Ephesians 5:10 – try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

That when our life is over, the Lord, having said, at our baptism, 'this is my Son, the beloved', would then add, 'with whom I am well pleased'.

Amen.


 

Jan 1 :: Luke 2:21 :: The Holy Name of JESUS

and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Luke 2:21  +INPFSS+


Today is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. A Name rich with particular meaning and intimacy and power. But in order to talk about this name, in order to really understand it, we need to go way back into the depths of the history of God’s people.
So, I invite you to travel back in time with me this morning. 
In your mind I want you to go back with me, 3500 years or so. To the time of Moses, around 1500 BC. Moses has fled the Egypt in which he grew up, and is living in the desert, where God is preparing him to go and set the Israelites free from their slavery under the Pharoahs.

One day Moses is out and about, and he sees this bush that’s on fire, but somehow not on fire, since it’s not burning, and it freaks Moses out, as it would, right? And Moses says to himself – one imagines accidentally outloud, in his confusion, “what is this?” And approaches the strange bush, from which all of a sudden a voice comes  -- the voice of an Angel, speaking as a mouthpiece for God, and introduces himself – in the burning bush is the presence of the God whom Abraham and Isaac, Moses' ancestors 500 years before, had worshipped. The one true God, who made the heavens and the earth. 
    And after introducing himself, God explains to Moses that he wants to set his oppressed people free, and he wants Moses to be the human leader of this great project, and Moses hems and haws a little, and asks God what his name is, to prove to the Israelites that it really is Abraham’s God who has come to help them. 

    And God replies to Moses, “eh yeh esher eh yeh” (or in English, I am who I am), and he then says, he says, “eh yeh sent you” – I AM sent you, and then in the very next verse, Exodus 3:15, God reveals his name. He says -- ‘YeH-WeH the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’ do you hear the sequence of sounds? And the name He gives – Yeh-weh, or yahweh, clearly derives from his introduction of himself. Can you hear the similariry? Eh yeh →  YHWH. God shows that the meaning of his name – the meaning of YHWH is that he is the God who IS – I AM who I AM – God connects his eternal existence, as the one who always has been, and who is, and who always will be, with the giving of his own name to Moses.  
And so, for the first time in History, God has revealed his name to mankind.
YHWH.

It’s almost like Shakespeare writing himself in as a character to one of his plays. Like in the middle of the play ‘hamlet’ a character walks into the scene, and says to Hamlet, “hello, Hamlet, I am Shakespeare, and I wrote you and this whole play”.
    It's God, stepping down into the created order, revealing himself. Which is the only way we can know him right, when he reveals himself. We could never have guessed God’s name by ourselves. We needed him to tell us. And he did. 
YHWH.
As a little historical aside: In the1600s A.D., the translators of the King James Bible – their Hebrew wasn’t that great, and so they translated the word YHWH as Jehovah. Long story how they got that exact word, but that’s how they rendered it. So some times you’ll hear the name YHWH pronounced Jehovah, but it’s just an Elizabethan attempt at understanding the Hebrew. 
So, God has revealed his name. The offspring of Abraham now had a name by which they could call on their God. No longer calling him just ‘God’, but YHWH.
In giving the Israelites his name, God invites them into a deeper relationship with himself. 
    It is in fact what you do if you want to be known more by someone, right? You tell them your name. You give them the ability to call on you, and to know who you are as a distinct person, and this is exactly what God did.
But of course, unlike our names: Ben, and Joe, and Lincoln  -- the name of God is inherently a holy name. A name, which, according to the third commandment that YHWH himself gave to Moses on Mount Sinai – is a name which should not be taken in vain.

And so, as a proper response, when the Jews received the name of God, they received it with reverence. And wanted to be careful with it. 
    So, they created a handful of conventions actually to avoid saying the name of God all together, so as to avoid even the possibility of taking it in vain. 
    Would that we Christians had such a reverence for our maker! We who so flippantly throw out, “Oh My God!” whenever we are surprised. 
    The Jews put us to shame on this one. 
Now, One convention they had was, any time they wanted to say, YHWH, or anywhere in the scriptures that Moses wrote the name of God, when the Jews saw the word on the page, “YHWH”, they would say, “the Lord”, as a sort of code. 
    Sort of like, how if you saw the letters U.S.A. on a page, and you were reading out loud, you might say, “America”, instead of “USA”. 

So that was one thing they did, to reverence the Holy name, and this tradition lives on to this day – when you read the old testament, any time you see the word “LORD” in Small-caps, it’s a code – the Hebrew word in the text isn’t Adonai the word we translate “Lord” as in “Master”, it’s the name YHWH. But out of reverence, the code is printed, all-caps: “Lord”
    Another convention they had was using just the first half of God’s name. Saying just “Yah” instead of the fuller “Yahweh”. Again, a way to nod to the full, holy, name of God, but without actually saying the whole name.

    Now at this point, you may be thinking, well, this is a very nice history lesson, but what does it have to do with the name of Jesus? We're getting there. Stick with me.
    I want you to think about what times were like back then. Life was materially much simpler for most folk: plain houses, plain clothes and plain food. Life revolved around families and birth and staying alive.
    And the name you were given in life was a big deal. The meanings of names were VERY important. You never named a kid ‘apple’ or some silly thing like the celebrities are doing these days. 
The name you gave to the child was often a prophetic insight into the life that child would have.
So, you want to give your child a good name, something that will set them up well. 

And if you really want to bless your child, you bestow on them the name of the God that you serve. The heathen nations around Israel did this, and Israel did it too. But because they reverenced the name of God so much, it seemed irreverant to put the name YHWH into a person's name. It would perhaps violate the third commandment. SO, what they did was, take the shorter, version, just the “YAH” bit, and used that in their names.
    And so we see this word-root yah in all kinds of names in the Old Testament. It can be a little hard to see in English, but in the Hebrew it's crystal clear. For instance.
- John, in hebrew is Yah-hanan – Hanan means 'gracious', and so the name John means: YAH is gracious, meaning: YaHWeH is gracious.
- Elijah, Eli-YAH. Is Hebrew for My God – Eli – My God is Yah = my God is YHWH.

The name of God, is present in so many of the names of the great people of God. To give one further example, which comes to bear heavily on our feast this morning:
    After Moses had led the people out of Egypt, and through the wilderness, and had brought them to the edge of the land of Canaan - the Land God promised to be theirs –  he appointed a successor. 
    A man who was pure in heart and a mighty warrior, who would lead the people into the promised paradise, conquer all the evil forces, and grant peace to God’s people. He was the son of a man named Nun, and his name was…Joshua, well at least, that's the English pronunciation of the name: Yeshua. YAH—shua. 'Shua' means 'saves', so Yeshua means: YHWH saves. Ok, so that's the last piece of necessary backdrop today,

Ok, so, now fast-forward on this time-travel journey we're on 1500 years, to the reign of Caesar Augustus, some time a little before the year 1. B.C.  
And now think of the holy family we have been hearing and thinking a lot about in this Christmas-tide. Joseph, and Mary, and her little baby boy, placed in a manger.
    Now, 8 days after being born, Mary and Joseph, in obedience to the Law of Moses, circumcised their child as a Jew, and in the midst of that act of making him a member of God’s chosen people, they were to give him his name.
    And they didn’t have to flip through a baby-name book, because the Angel that had appeared individually to both Mary and to Joseph had said very clearly what the name of the child shall be: His name shall be Jesus. 
    But actually, the name as we know it –  “Jesus” – would have sounded a bit different back then. The sound has shifted through the various centuries and languages through which it has come down to us. A few Hundred years ago, “Jesus” was pronounced “Iesu” and a few hundred years before that, going back to the time of Mary and Joseph, it would have been pronounced yeshua. 
Yeshua!
The same name as had been given to the one who led the Israelites into the promised Land 1450 years prior.
    So, Did you know that there was a man called Jesus, before Jesus was called Jesus? Yeshua son of Nun. The conquerer of Canaan.
    And this is no accident in God’s mighty outworking of his saving plan.
Because when we name a child, we think of who carried that name before, don’t we?
These days, if a parent named their child ‘tiger woods’, there's no secret about what they hope he will grow up to be. 
    Just so with the son of the blessed virgin Mary, for her, as for any Jew of her time, the name “Yeshua” was synonymous from the Old Testament with conquering evil, and providing a peaceful home for God’s people.

    So, when the Angel Gabriel announces to her and to Joseph that the miracle-baby that she was carrying was to be named “Yeshua”, they knew that this was the right name for the man who would accomplish all that the Angel had foretold.
    And So, 8 days after he was born, Jesus was given his name. 
The name of a hero. The name of the chosen Messiah.
And the name that says it all – YHWH – SHUA – The God of Abraham and Moses, is the Savior!
And how many layers of meaning there are in this name when it comes to the son of Mary! It communicates so much to us about who Jesus is:

It tells us that he is going to be the Savior of the World, it tells us that he is the living incarnation of YHWH himself, which he would later prove when he stilled waves and forgave sins. It tells us in miniature all that the man Jesus would do and be.
    And it completes the picture. It shows us that the Old Testament only revealed the first half of the name of God – YAH – the full name is only seen in Jesus: YAH-SHUA. 
In the OT we learn that God IS, but in Jesus we learn that God SAVES.
And together, in the person of Jesus Christ, we learn that he IS the one who SAVES.
The full picture of God as both creator and redeemer, can only be seen in the face of Jesus.

And this is a very long way of introducing the singular focus of the sermon this morning:
The Holy name of Jesus, which we remember the giving of today, 8 days after Christmas.

Having spent all this time getting here, I wish to now offer three very brief reflections on this great name.

The first is the scandalous particularity of it. God is not an abstract. God is not an idea that we can name however we want to. God is not a mysterious mist. We know him and we know his name: Jesus. 
    These days it is still, even in our sometimes anti-Christian culture, very easy to talk about “God”. To talk of “God” does not scandalize people. Most people recognize that there is some sort of “divinity” or “deity”. What drives people crazy is the name of Jesus.
    His name alone introduces the truth about him – that he is the only way, the only truth, and the only life, and that in him alone can eternal life be found. 
So in your speaking and your listening in the world, remember:
The Gospel is only proclaimed, where Jesus is named.
The Gospel is only proclaimed, where Jesus is named.
It’s his holy name alone that brings us into the real arena of our own souls and of our salvation. “God-talk” without his name, is just abstraction.
The name is scandalously particular. That’s the first thought.
The second is how intimate it is – we know God’s name. How personal! How wonderful! When we call on God, we know who we are talking too. We know that in his Son he is a man, and in the face of that man, we see God the father.
    The name of ‘Jesus’ then should be something that we treasure. It should taste sweet on the lips to say. If it doesn’t taste sweet, it’s because we’re not straight with him, because we haven’t truly known his mercies in repenting. But to those who have repented of their sins, and turned to him, his name is the most precious word we could ever hear or say. 
…JESUS.
It's particular. And it's intimate. And the last thought I wish to offer on the Holy Name of our savior, is the power that is associated with it.

Since Jesus himself has been given all authority on heaven and earth, his name is now the most powerful name in the cosmos. It is only by the power of the name of Jesus that demons and darkness can be cast away, since only he has power over them. 
    But even more than this – and here recall the event in the Gospels when the disciples were expressing their astonishment that even the demons obeyed the authority Jesus had given them – Jesus tells them not to marvel at this, but instead to rejoice that their names are in the book of life. 
    Just so for us – Far more wonderful than the power Jesus' name has over evil, far more wonderful is the Good it brings us into. The access it gives us to God the Father himself. To illustrate what I mean, I want to read you this anecdote from a wonderful book on prayer by a man named Paul Miller, and with this I'll close:

“Imagine that your prayer is a poorly dressed beggar reeking of alcohol and body odor, stumbling toward the palace of the great king. You have become your prayer. As you shuffle toward the barred gate, the guards stiffen. Your smell has preceded you. You stammer out a message for the great king: “I want to see the King” Your words are barely intelligible, but you whisper one final word, “Jesus. I come in the name of Jesus.” At the name of Jesus, as if by magic, the palace comes alive. The guards snap to attention, bowing low in front of you. Lights come on, and the door flies open. You are ushered into the palace and down a long hallway into the throne room of the great king, who comes running to you and wraps you in his arms.”  (Miller, Praying Life (2009), 135)

THAT'S the power of the name of Jesus.

Amen.

 

 

 

Dec 25 :: John 1:12-13 :: WHY Christmas.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
– John 1: 12-13

Last night I preached about the what and the who and the where of Christmas. The great cosmic inversion of God becoming man. The infinite mystery of the Incarnation. And now this morning I wish to speak about the why of Christmas? We know what God did, in his Son taking a human nature from the Virgin Mary. We know some of what happened in those early days surrounding our savior’s birth, but why did he do it? What end was in view? What did it accomplish? Why these acts and not others.
Why did the Word become flesh and dwell among us?

Because let's zoom out a little: If God desires to forgive mankind of their sins, and release us from the death-penalty we have merited, why doesn't he just declare it from the heavens? By divine fiat? Why not just wave the proverbial magic wand and make it so? It seems neater, and cleaner, and less painful to himself, and surely, being all powerful, he could do it.

Why come down himself, in the person of his son, and take on flesh?

I hope this sharpens the question even further: why the Incarnation; why Christmas?

The why of Christmas is this:

God became a child of man, so that men, could become children of God. 

I'll say that again,

God
    became a child of man, 
                so that
men, 
    could become children of God.

See, if God had have just waved his magic wand and said, 'you're forgiven', it would have accomplished our being let off the hook, but it wouldn't have saved us. Salvation is so much more than “just” having our due punishment taken away. It is being restored to a relationship with the living God, and not just any relationship: A Father-Son relationship! We get brought into his family as his adopted children. He makes us his own! And as a member of the family, we get all the privileges of the family, namely, life and immortality! 

But wait a second. Perhaps you are thinking: 'I thought all those things: the gift of salvation and all that entails, I thought that was as a result of Jesus' death and resurrection, not just his being born as a human?'
And you'd be right! After all, Paul doesn't say to the Corinthians that he resolved to preach nothing but Christ being born, he says he preaches only Christ crucified. 

But the end of Jesus' life – the crucifixion, is deeply connected to the beginning – to his nativity. As with so many important things in life, the End is contingent on the beginning. The Beginning participates in what the End accomplishes. The 50th wedding anniversary – as our friends the Gilberts celebrated last week – the celebration of a 50th wedding anniversary is contingent on the marriage ceremony. 
And so it is with Jesus' life: The incarnation and the crucifixion are deeply connected. So yes, it is right that our focus as Christians is chiefly the cross. But if we look a little closer at the Nativity, we shall see that it is in every way a part of God's great saving work, which the crucifixion was the culmination of.

See, if a judge were to just let a murderer off the hook, setting him free to commit more crimes in society, that wouldn't actually be just. It wouldn't be right. In fact it offends Justice. Justice needs to be served. So in order to deal with the penalty our own sins incurred, a just punishment needed to be meted out. But if we were to be punished, then we would be lost to death and hell forever, which would defeat God's desire that we be rescued and restored. 

So God decides to take matters into his own hands. HE would take the punishment on himself, in the person of his Son. But how does a God bear a man's punishment? How can the translation be made? It can't. An immortal God cannot be executed. No. The solution? God must become a man, to bear the punishment as a man, to satisfy Justice. So that's what God does. God the Son becomes a man, to take the just punishment for our sins upon himself. To be killed, as a man, and in so doing, to swallow up death with his own mouth. And so we see the necessity and the saving power of the Incarnation – it is the first part of a two-part work to save lost mankind. Becoming like us, so that he can die as one of us, to save all of us.

Becoming like us, so that he can die as one of us, to save all of us.

And so we see that the dark shadow of the cross, looms over the cozy nativity scene.

Just as we have it here, very fittingly [[Point to the Altar]] – the cross looming over the crib.

The crib beginning, what the cross completed.

So let’s look for just a moment at what is realized in this little crib.

In being born as a human being, God’s compassion for mankind now extended to experiencing its trials first hand, from the inside, as it were.
And as a poet of ancient Rome once said, “I am a man, and therefore nothing human is alien to me.” In living as a human, Jesus now knows what it is to suffer, and be sick, and have your heart-broken by loss. He can now relate to us at every level. If there was ever any doubt that God was far away and removed, now there is no doubt: He is the opposite of removed. He became one of us. So when we cry out to him in prayer, we know that he cares for us, and can resonate with our dusty, frail nature.

But as marvelous as this empathy is – that the God who is beyond suffering would himself suffer – this is really just the beginning. For if the Incarnation was merely for God to have an experience, we would still be stuck over here in our lostness.

No, in taking our human nature upon himself, he sanctified human life. He Gave all of life – infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood – he consecrated it to God. He lived each phase as it should be lived, full of the love of God the Father, and kindness toward all people. He did it right. And In so doing, he cuts a way through the forest of existence for us to do it right. 
What was for many ages of man impossible, has now been made possible. Because having lived as a true human being, the way God intended, having healed the wounded soul of mankind with his holy divine nature, he then, through his Holy Spirit, imparts that perfect life to each of us. Fills us with his own power and grace and energy, through our baptisms and through our faith – or as St. John says in our Gospel this morning, through our receiving him and believing in his name, he imparts his divine humanity to our broken humanity. 

This is some pretty deep stuff. Here’s a picture that might help conceptualize it:
Imagine a bunch of lumps of Iron. Lumps that were intended to be made into magnets, but had fallen off the assembly line before they could get magnetized. There just stuck, useless lumps of Iron. That’s us, in case you hadn’t realized. Now imagine that God is like a giant, powerful magnet. 
It’s silly I know, but stay with me, because this is about the only way I can get my head around how the Incarnation works. 
So, the Lord wants to turn those lumps of Iron into what they were made to be, but if he just zaps them all with magnetic force, then they wouldn’t have free will, so what he does, is take a tiny new piece of iron, and charges it full of his own magnetism. And he sends that magnet out into the world of all the unmagnetized Irons. Now, when these other lumps of Iron, of their own free will choose to come to the magnet, and come into contact with the magnet for a long period of time, lo and behold, they too become magnets! 
And so the magnetic charge of God from the beginning, filling our human nature in the one man Jesus Christ, can now spread to all mankind, through a relationship by faith with him. And so it is that all of us humans can be saved, because that magnetic force willingly came down among us.

It’s an inadequate and sort of silly picture I know, but it’s roughly what the Scriptures testify to as to how salvation through the Incarnation works.

It’s a description of that marvelous process, of God becoming a child of man, so that men can become children of God.

Through the miracle of the Incarnation, we get to be magnets.

We get to live the life God created us to have in the first place. 

We have God as our Father. 

And when God is your Father, oh boy, that’s a merry Christmas.

No more being lost in darkness and ignorance.
No more being shackled by sins.
No more fear of death. Or want. Or pain.

But instead, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Grace, you’ll recall, in the original language, first meant ‘gift’.
& God the Father is the ultimate gift-giver.
He gave us his only Son.
He gives us free forgiveness of our sins.
He gives us eternal life and life abundantly,
And on top of all of this, he, as St. James said,
He gives us every good gift and every perfect gift, from above.

Merry Christmas. 

Amen.

Dec 24 :: Luke 2 :: What happened on Christmas Eve

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us. And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” 
    Luke 2:15-16   +INPFSS+

What happened? 
What...Happened? 
On this very night, over twenty centuries ago – what happened?
Do you know? Have you heard? Do you believe?

I'll tell you what happened. Because it was unforgettable. Those who were there told it all around, and the recollection of it was recorded in the Holy Gospels, which the Church has faithfully preserved and handed down for these now two millenia.

What happened, is the chasm that lies between the dimensions of heaven and earth was bridged. 

The Son of God, God himself, the creator of the heavens as well as the earth, came down from his place in the heavens, was conceived in the womb of a young woman named Mary, and on this night, he was born. 

A child is born!
The God who made man, had now become man.
He who knits together every baby in every womb, was now himself, born of a human mother.

And the magnitude of this event –  manifest on this night - shook the cosmos.

The highest power, the power beyond all power, the giver of all earthly power, descended from on high, giving up the glory of that power, and becoming its opposite: weak. Lowly. Dependent. 

Dependent! God, dependent on the nurturing care of his holy mother, The virgin Mary.

And like a cannon-bomb into a pool, the very fabric of the world doesn't know what to do with itself.

God has descended, and in his wake, the Angels have followed, and are now being sent to proclaim things on earth. And the whole host of them is looking on. 

Angels – those unseen beings who accomplish the ordering of God's will on earth, who effect the holding together of all things, they seem to be frankly astonished.

I think their chorus which we know so well from our Christmas hymns – you know Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! wasn't a “ah yes, all is well, just as it should be” it was a “Oh my gosh?! WHAT??!! God has descended and become a man??? His ways are higher than our ways! GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST! Even if he is now in the lowest place! GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST! And why has he done this? Oh my gosh! To save the whole human race from death and sin??! What??! What a plan! Lucky humans!!! God must love them so much! He must be so pleased with who they can be if they are restored! And If they are rescued, then there will be peace on the earth at last! on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

At least, I think it probably sounded something like that, amid the hustle and bustle of the Angelic host on this night.

What happened on this night was no ordinary sequence of events. It was a cataclysm. A violent insurgence. Heaven and earth now intersected. Both realms now united in one single being: The God-man, the baby Jesus.

And where does this take place? We know a little of what happened, but where did it happen?

Here we have also something unexpected.

Let me ask you:

If the Queen of England comes to pay a visit to the United States, does she go to Washington DC, or Opelika?
When they wanted to build a national memorial to the victims of September 11th, did they do it on the site of the old towers, or in rural kansas?

Right. For the Jews, you'll recall, all their dealings with God were focused on the one temple in Jerusalem. The Holy City. That was where they worshipped the true God, and that was the seat of David's kingdom. So when the long awaited heir of King David came to earth, where do you think it would have “made sense” for him to come? Jerusalem! But Jesus wasn't born there. He was born in Bethlehem, the Opelika of Israel, if you will. A sizable city, to be sure, but hardly a place of central importance to the nation and to the people.

And who is there to see it? Who gets invited to witness the birth of the greatest human being, the eternal king of kings? 

Dignitaries? The High Priests of the Temple? Regional leaders? Caesar?

Nope, none of these, right?

Who gets invited? The Shepherds. Shepherds on the night watch. Now, we think of the shepherds as friendly, hallmark-card sort of folk, but they were the minimum-wage workers of the 1st century. They were rough and grubby, and if you were to make a list of important people in Israel at the beginning of the first century, they would be just about at the very bottom of the list.

But that's who God invited, to be the first, honored guests to witness this tremendous day.??!!

But if you think about it, it's in keeping, really, with how topsy-turvy, how upside down everything about the first Christmas was to begin with. God...come to earth. The least “valuable” people in society being given the greatest honor of all. Angels speaking to men, about the good news that's here, that our lowly human nature had been taken into the Godhead, and therefore elevated above their own angelic nature.

It's all ups and downs and the downs are up and the Up is down.

It's the marvelous mystery of the Incarnation. The mystery that we remember, and celebrate this evening.

And look what these happenings mean for us.

The God who invited lowly shepherds to be in attendance on Christmas day invites us also. You didn't see Angels in the heavens announcing this feast to you, but somehow you decided to be here. How is that? Why do you think you've come to a little Church on a Saturday night? You may have thought it was your good idea, but it was the Spirit of God that led you here, and who knows, perhaps with a little help from the Angels, just as on that first Christmas.

But having been invited to behold the great mystery of Christmas, we must not respond with indolence.

No we must, like the shepherds, make haste to come and see him. That is, seeking to find the living God earnestly, with fear, and with humility, seeking to know him, and to be saved by him. No one ever found God by just spiritually lounging around.

But where can we find him? The baby Jesus, when he was fully grown was killed for our sakes, and was raised from the dead by the power of God, and now reigns eternally and invisibly with the Father. So, where do we go? What manger can we see him laying in, as the shepherd did so long ago? 

Here. The feeding trough of Bethlehem has been transformed into the Holy Tables in Churches around the world. Where we still come to see him, sacramentally veiled under the forms of Bread and Wine. And Here, in the Bible, in the written word that shows us the living Word, who is now in heaven. This is also is a feeding trough, where hungry souls can be nourished, and where pilgrims keeping watch in the dark night that is the 21st century can come and behold him, born the King of Angels.

Of course, in both of these things, in Word and Sacrament, we see the Lord by faith and not with the eyes in our head, but how blessed are we for that! As our Lord himself said, John 20:29 – blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed. 
For ours is a deeper, richer, more satisfying reality, who do not have to rely on vision to know that our savior is in fact very near. In amongst us, as we pray. Present with us, in word and sacrament. 

But what we now behold by faith only, we will one day behold with our eyes. For as I have preached now many times already from this pulpit during this Advent season, the Lord JESUS IS coming back to earth a second and final time, and we will see him with our eyes. Or if we die before that day, we will see him then instead. But either way, our faith WILL be made sight. 


But let us not tarry now. Let us not think that we can be lackadaisical in our seeking Jesus now, but will all of a sudden be interested in his salvation when we come closer to our final breath. 
No, let us make haste to see him now. Let us be hungry for a deeper relationship with Jesus, himself the living Bread from heaven, sent, for us to be nourished by.

And when we find him. When we know him in prayer, in the Word, or in the most holy sacrament of the altar, then let us respond as the shepherds did 2000 years ago:
Luke 2:20: the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
That's the only response we should have to the wonder of the Incarnation: GLORIFYING and REJOICING. If we hear of this singular work of God tonight, and don't respond with praise and thanksgiving, it is a catastrophe.

The God who invited lowly shepherds to come worship at Christmas is inviting us also, right now, to do the same. You are here in body, which means you have come half way, but the invitation isn't fully accepted until we come to worship the Lord Jesus, in Spirit and in Truth.

That is – as we are about to continue this holy liturgy, for God's sake, if not for your own, don't just say the words you're supposed to say, because you're supposed to say them. Don't say them at all. Pray them. Make them yours. Whether you've heard these words a thousand times, or whether this is your first time praying the ancient liturgy: In your heart, through these words, cry out the the Living God, spirit to spirit, that you need him, and his mercy, and that you're thankful, that you have been spared a lifetime in spiritual blindness and an eternity in death, because of the work he began to do on this very night, 
when he took on our human nature, 
to live
and die
as one us.

Immanuel.

Amen.

Dec 18 :: Matt 1:21 :: Saint Joseph, an example to us all

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

—Matt 1:20-21

We stand now just one week away from celebrating Christmas, where we will remember that the Christ was once a child, placed in a feeding trough by his loving mother, The Blessed virgin Mary. But before we come to that scene. Before it unfolded in history, 2000 years ago, we have Joseph.

Joseph, betrothed to Mary, that is, engaged to Mary. Joseph would have the singular role and privilege of being the foster-father to The Son of God incarnate, the guardian of the infant Lord Jesus.

Before we get to the great mystery of the Incarnation next week, I want to pause here at Joseph.

There's four things we learn from this short passage about him. Four things worth taking note of, in order to understand the Lord Jesus whose birth we are liturgically waiting for, and – in case you've missed it these past few weeks – whose second coming we are actually waiting for.

The first thing we learn about Joseph is that he was a son of David. We learn this from the geneaology that Matthew gives at the beginning of his Gospel, tracing Joseph's lineage back through David to Abraham. And we also learn it in the Angel's message to Joseph in his dream, “Joseph, son of david, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Son of David. This is an important point – because it was to King David, who lived and reigned 1000 years before Joseph's time, that God promised an eternal heir for his throne. The Messiah, the Chosen one would be King for ever and ever, was prophesied to be a descendent of David, as recorded in 2nd Samuel, chapter 7, and echoed throughout the psalms.

So before we even meet Jesus in the Gospels, we get this clue, from Joseph, that something is afoot. We see a descendent of David and are led to think, “David, eh?..the one from whom the Christ will come?”

Exactly. And even though Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he was the legal guardian, the adoptive parent, if you will. And the dignity and rights of this role were even stronger back then than they are now. In some ways, a legal, adoptive parent was considered to be MORE of a father, than a natural biological father. For instance, whereas a biological father could legally disown a son, an adoptive father could not. So even though Jesus didn't have any of Joseph's DNA, Joseph was every bit his earthly father. And therefore, Joseph's descent from David counts as Jesus' descent from David. Jesus, we see, is the fulfillment of the long awaited hopes of the future Davidic King. As adoptive father to Jesus, Joseph also has the naming rights. Not only will Jesus be called “son of Joseph” around town growing up, but It is Joseph, who, following the Angel's commands, gives Jesus is Holy Name. I'll be saying more about that name – Jesus – on the Feast of the Holy Name, two Sundays from now.

The second thing we learn about Joseph is that his character was Godly.

As the Gospel says, when Joseph found out that Mary had gotten pregnant, while they were still waiting for their own wedding day – well, before I say what Joseph did, think for a second what you would do? Imagine being engaged to be married – very excited for the wedding day. Your fiance starts acting a little strange. You start to think she's putting on a little weight, and then all of a sudden she tells you: I have something to tell you...I...um...I'm pregnant...BUT DON'T WORRY i've not been with anybody, it was the Spirit of God that did it.

How would you react??

You'd be furious and heart-broken, right? And no way would you believe what certainly sounds like a cover-up story.

Now imagine that you're a faithful Jew, and that the Law actually declares that someone like this should be stoned to death for what they've done. Or if not stoned, the rabbis had said, at least publically shamed and kicked out of the community forever.

At this point in the story, we're expecting Joseph to do just that.

And as we read, verse 19, Being a righteous man... we think, oh boy, Mary's got something coming. Joseph is gonna drop the law on her.

But then what does he do: Being a righteous man, and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Here we see true Godly character. Joseph would not disobey the law – he would not marry a woman he thought was an adulteress, but he also had mercy. He also showed love. He didn't drop the full weight of the law on her, he let her off the hook. He wasn't going to give her what he thought she deserved by way of public ridicule, he decided to be merciful, to let her go quietly. To breach the engagement.


In his righteousness, Joseph showed mercy. Just like God.


What a man! What a Godly man! Worthy of our emulation for sure: To be kind when we are hurt by the sins of others. To NOT give out the full measure of just deserts, but to give grace instead.

Joseph, Being a righteous man, and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

The third thing we learn about Joseph is that he had great faith, and was willing to stand by it.

Think about this: In many ways Joseph is in a very similar situation as ourselves. Mary – who in this way is a symbol of the Church generally – Mary comes to him and tells him something that is, by all natural accounts, unbelievable. The Holy Spirit of God has made her pregnant?? This child will be special, will be the savior of the whole world, will himself be the Son of God. And Joseph's supposed to believe all this? Sure he has a dream about an angel, but this is a lot different than the Angelic appearances that we have elsewhere in this account. The Angel that Mary saw, the Angels that appeared to the shepherds, those angels were visible with the eyes, and their voices were heard with human ears. That would be pretty much unarguable, but Joseph just has this hazy dream while he's sleeping, and an angel appears to him. And maybe a dream could be trusted, maybe note. Then as now, dreams are interesting, but surely not definitive.

So Joseph is asked to believe what to his mind was surely impossible. To believe that Mary really did conceive as a virgin. That she had never known a man. That in fact it was God's miraculous bringing to life of an egg inside Mary's body, that had made her pregnant, and that this human being would be like no other, none other than God himself in fact, in that he would save mankind from his sins.

And how does joseph respond to this request?

With faith.

With great faith.

Great trust in the incredible power of God, and trust in the testimony of his beloved fiance. Trusting her character so much, that he would believe her. Trusting God's character so much, that he would trust him even when presented with the impossible.

Joseph believes. And so he does not break off the engagement with Mary. But marries her. And protects her. And cherishes this promise that she has borne witness to.

What a picture for ourselves!

Because here we are, presented with a church who over 20 continuous centuries since she was first organized by her chief, Jesus Christ, is still today bearing witness to the incredible:

The creator God became incarnate!

God in fact exists in three persons, a trinity in unity!

The Son of God incarnate died for the sins of the whole world, and was raised back from the dead into an immortal, all-glorious body. He will come again, to judge the world. And those who trust in him, and are united to him through faith and baptism, they will be raised immortal in likewise glorious bodies.

This is a pretty tall-order to believe!

By human lights it is, in fact, preposterous.

But it is true.

And we are invited to trust. Invited to believe. Sometimes, God grants us some inward consolation of its truthfulness – like Joseph had in his dream, but sometimes not. Either way, we are asked to believe.

And asked to believe in such a way that we would stake our lives on it.

As Joseph did! No doubt he was worried about the ridicule he might receive from fellow villagers. No doubt he may have even been worried about being punished himself, as being complicit with an adulteress. But taking in stride all that the world might throw at him for trusting the message of God, he trusts it. Happy to take on the chin whatever comes his way as a result.

May we be found to have such faith!

Even when the world mocks us.

Even when friends distance themselves from us.

Or family disowns us.

Or our own hearts even doubt the course,


to be steadfast in our commitment. Steadfast in our belief. Like Joseph was.

So, three things we've learned about Joseph already:

  1. he was of the line of David, bringing Royal lineage to Mary's son

  2. He had Godly character, in that he showed mercy in his righteousness &

  3. He had great faith

And the final thing I wish to illumine this morning, the fourth thing about Saint Joseph, is that he is chaste. That he was pure, and self-controlled sexually.

As the gospel says, ‘he didn't know his wife until Jesus was born’

There's actually something that needs to be clarified here: most all of the time English is very good at translating the original Greek of the New Testament, but every language has its own subtleties, and here we have one of them: when the scripture says ‘until’, in English we hear an implied ‘and when he was born, THEN he knew her’. And while it can mean this in Greek it doesn't have to. It can mean ‘until, and then all the more after’ -- like when Jesus says “I am with you, even to the end of the age” he doesn't mean he'll be with us and then he'll leave us at the end of the age. Of course not. Just so here in the gospel. And this has some relevance for us, because there is a strong tradition that the Virgin Mary remained a virgin her whole life long. In our day and age we scoff at this idea, but our scoffing comes more from our sex crazed culture than from our patient listening to the truths of the faith expressed in the scriptures. And unless you think this is just Roman Catholic teaching, Martin Luther AND John Calvin both believed Mary remained a virgin her whole life long.

But whether it was for many years, it was at least for the several months of pregnancy, Joseph did not have any marital relations with Mary, even after he had actually married her, having found out about her pregnancy.

And so we are in Joseph a man who has submitted his whole life to God, including that most powerful force - his sexual desire. And in this he is a model for us also. Ours is not a chaste age. 10 minutes of television will confirm the fact. And as a church we have let this foul air of the culture into our windows. We've stopped caring as much as our forefathers did about sexual purity. In thought as well as deed.

The great truth of the incarnation which we are on the verge of celebrating shows us that bodies matter to God. And as St.paul shows us in Corinthians, sexual sins affect us in our very bodies -- these temples of the Holy Spirit.

And in the Person of saint joseph we have this godly virtue of chastity and purity embodied.

Thanks be to God for this wonderful example,

Of mercy

Of faith

And of chastity

As we approach Christmas and the lords coming -- let us with Gods help approach the manger, following in his blessed footsteps. Amen.



 

Dec 11 :: James 5:8-9 :: On our practical disposition in light of the Second Coming

You also, be patient.

Establish your hearts,

for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

Do not grumble against one another, brothers,

so that you may not be judged;

behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

—James 5:8-9 +INPFSS+

For four weeks now we've been recalling the fact that the Lord Jesus is coming back to earth a second time. And now this week, St. James leads us on to the next step, to some things we are to do, practically, in light of this.

Knowing that as the Son of God came to earth the first time as a baby, he will just as surely come back to earth in all his glory.

Knowing that, to use James' phrase, the Judge is standing at the door, what shall we do? Already in the past few sermons I've mentioned a few general things: We're to stay watchful and ready for his coming, and to be living as faithful children of God, fleeing from sin. But St. James wants to get a little more practical. The blessed half-brother of our Lord Jesus is always about getting more practical. Teaching is great. But what do I do. If you think Christianity is mostly just ideas and not actions, read the book of James some time!

And in these two verses that I have selected to preach out of this morning, we have three commands from God, in light of the nearness of the second coming of his Son:

The first is this:

Be patient.

Be patient. Like a good Father, God, speaking through his servant James, just tells us straight-up:

You need... to be... patient.

Like all the commands in Scripture – the command to be patient applies most of all when there is good reason to be im-patient. It's easy to be patient when the day is going well. It's hard to be patient when its not. But that is precisely when we need to remember that patience isn't just some take-it-or-leave-it ideal. It's a disposition that we are here – and in many other places of scripture – commanded to adopt.

Be patient.

To unpack this a little, there are four primary patiences that we need to develop.

Patience with God.

Patience with Circumstance.

Patience with Others

Patience with Ourselves.

I'll read that again:

We must be patient with God, Circumstances, Others, and ourselves.

The four patiences.

 

Firs then, with God – we must be patient in waiting for God to take action.

The psalmist is constantly exhorting us to this, right?:

Wait for the Lord. Wait for the Lord. Wait for the Lord.

God is not a vending machine. Prayers don't often get answered immediately. We must wait for him. Trusting that he knows when the perfect timing is, and not ourselves. That He knows better than us.

Trusting that he has not abandoned us.

We must be patient for him.

Patiently waiting for his comfort. His consolations. For his healing. For his justice to be done.

And ultimately, and this is what James is getting at as well – this means being patient for his second coming. Waiting patiently for it, even though it seems now, 2000 years later, like its taking forever.

But remember what St. Peter said in his second letter: The Lord isn't slow as some count slowness. For to him a thousand years are but as a day.

We must be patient for the Great Day of his Setting things Right.

Hand in hand with this, we must be patient in bad circumstances.

Not that we must be fine with bad things as they happen. No, it's not fine. Unlike the Buddhists who would try to tell us that it is, we know that it's not fine because God will one day – on the Last Day – make amends. Will bring Justice. Will set things straight. You don't need to fix something that's already fine. Bad circumstances are not fine, but we must still bear patiently with them. As the Lord Jesus was patient before the ignorant crowds, and before Pilate, and even on his cross. So we must accept patiently the circumstances that God permits.

The prayer that encapsulates this is that which Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

Accepting circumstances stems from our acceptance of God's sovereignty.

But it's also eminently practical wisdom. Like the Serenity prayer famously asks, that we may, “accept the things I cannot change.”

This is Patience with circumstances.

 

The third patience is patience with others, which James articulates when he goes on to say, “do not grumble against one another”, which I'll come to in just a moment. But this one's pretty straight forward. Don't lose your temper. Be patient when your friends, or more likely the case, when your family members, are exasperating you for the millionth time. Be patient at the checkout, when the inexperienced clerk is getting it all wrong. Be patient with others.

Remember, this is a command from the Lord.

Lastly, the fourth patience is with ourselves.

This is a subtle one, but an important patience nonetheless. In a lipo-suction, tanning-bed society, we can tend to think of our own lives as just one more product to be altered and enhanced. But as you have probably found out the hard way at some point – it can be hard to change ourselves. In fact, it's actually impossible. We CAN'T change ourselves. The teaching of the Bible is that only GOD can in fact change us. And just like with all his great redemptive works, this change doesn't happen instantly. It takes time like the way crops take time to grow. In fact our Lord makes that very comparison. And there's actually something to be said for being patient with ourselves. Recognizing that we are in fact so sinful, that it's going to take a long time before we are finally free from our habitual sins and the bad habits they engender. Not that we should indulge them! By no means! But merely that we shouldn't – in our pride – despair when we make the same mistake again.

We must be patient with God's work in our lives, and from that, patient with ourselves.

Be patient.

That's the first of the commands God is giving us this morning.

But the passage goes on:

 

Establish your hearts

It's a bit of an old sounding phrase isn't it. “establish your hearts”.

What it means is: stand firm. Take courage. Make sure your hearts are stout.

It's an exhortation to be tough in the faith.

To, whether you are a man or a woman, have a manly sort of faith.

Like St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16, striking a similar note as James does here: Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.

I like this.

There's so much about the Christian faith that speaks to the most tender, intimate, emotional parts of us. The Gospel is the answer to our cosmic loneliness, and the great brokenness we all harbor inside. Gentleness is one of the chief Christian virtues, stemming as it does so naturally from humility. Christianity is very tender.

But when it comes to the living out of our faith, I love the manliness the scriptures challenge us to as well.

Get tough! Be resilient! Of course life is going to be difficult. Of course our bodies are going to hurt all the time. Of course relationships will be messy. And wars will happen. And people will die. This is par for the course, soldier!

Establish your heart!

Brace yourself, with the power of the Spirit of God himself to withstand whatever comes your way in the short years that are allotted to us.

I want to add here, James doesn't say HOW we can do this. What tools we can use in order to establish our hearts. So let me add some things I think can help us in this task:

Bible reading, which I spoke about last week, is essential.

We can only be strengthened by the Word of God if we actually take the time to read it, and then to memorize it, and cling to it.

Besides this, the other thing that commends itself, as a means by which we can establish our hearts, is by cultivating deep friendship with a mature Christian. To find someone who exudes the real peace that comes from an established heart, and spend time with that person. Learn the patterns of their life that make it possible. And open up about what you're really facing and really struggling with, and let them speak the words of God into your life, to establish your heart.

But whatever tools you pick up, the charge is here: Stand strong. Establish your heart.

James goes on:

 

Do not grumble against one another

Now, as we're reading this passage, it seems like all of a sudden there's a gear-change. First we're talking about the Second coming, and waiting for it, and now we're talking about grumbling against one another? Seems like a non sequitor at first glance, does it not? What gives? Why would James bring this up? What's the connection in God's economy?

Here's what I think the thought process is, follow this with me, and see if it doesn't sound all too familiar:

When you start to forget God. Start to forget that he is near, Spiritually, and also start to forget that his second coming is also near. When you start to forget God. And that he is in charge. And is keeping accounts of all things. And will judge all things in the End, punishing what is evil, and setting things right for those who suffered it. When we forget that, then it becomes much harder to be patient. Harder to bear through hard times. Harder to suffer. Difficulty and Burden become all-consuming and panic-inducing. And When that happens, someone or something needs to take the blame for what is happening to us. And what do we do? We lash out at those around us. At our family members, at our neighbors, at our brothers and sisters in the Church. And in the spirit of complaint and accusation, we grumble against them:

“Do you know what so and so did to me?”

“Do you know what she said about me?”

“Do you know what happened last year?”

“I can't believe they would treat me like that. How dare they.”

“That bridge is burned.”

Do any of those thoughts sound familiar?

I thought they might.

This impulse to Grumble against our brothers.

It's a perfectly understandable, primitive instinct, but as re-born sons and daughters of God, it should not be the way we think and live.

No, as the bible says here, we are not to grumble against others.

We are not to blame others.

If anyone should be blamed, we are to blame ourselves.

To see our own faults and short-comings. Our own frailties.

To recognize our own helpless dependence on God.

And not to assume that we know better than him.

On the contrary we should accept what he has permitted. With manly vigor. Establishing our hearts.

Not pinning our woes on our brother.

Not to say it's not gonna hurt. Being a soldier is tough. And being a Christian is tough. And it hurts to give love to the undeserving. And it hurts not to complain.

But our consolation – the thing we are to hold out for – is when God will make all things right.

When he comes.

And he will.

He is near.

At the very door of the world. Ready to restore all things.

You also, be patient.

Establish your hearts,

for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

Do not grumble against one another, brothers,

so that you may not be judged;

behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

 

Amen

Dec 4 :: Rom 15:4 :: On Sacred Scripture

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

  • Romans 15:4 +INPFSS+

This verse from The Biblical book of Romans is about the Bible. So This morning, while still always preaching FROM the Bible, What I wish to say is chiefly ABOUT the Bible.

It bothers me that in the popular sentiment of our day, we speak about the “Bible churches” over here on one side. And the “Mainline” or “traditional” churches over here. It bothers me that if someone goes to a Baptist Church, they are thought of as a Bible-man. But if they come to an Anglican church, then you are thought of as into “all that other stuff”.

No. This is a terrible and false dichotomy.

Because, my fellow Anglicans – we are a Bible Church. Everything we do here, at The Good Shepherd, is because of the Bible. Everything that is taught is accountable to the Bible. The language of our prayerbook that we pray in our liturgies – comes straight out of the bible. 90% of the phrases are lifted straight from scripture. While the outward form of some of our rituals is not prescribed by the Bible, every single one of them exists to point us back to a biblical truth. As Anglicans WE need to think of ourselves as Bible Christians, because we are every bit as much as, actually, even more than, any other denomination that would try and take the title for themselves. But even more than that – even more than just thinking of ourselves rightly, let it actually be true of us on the ground!

Because sadly, the reason other denominations might look down on us when it comes to our knowledge of and adherance to the Bible, is because, despite what is essentially true of us as a Church, on the ground, as individuals, we have so often been out done. Our baptist brothers and sisters HAVE put us to shame when it comes to our own personal acquaintance with Holy Scripture. But what has sadly been true on the ground in different eras and places: May it never be true here. May it never be true of us.

And the reason we should read our bibles, it's not just to compete with the Baptists. No not at all. It's a much more serious matter than that. We need to read and know our bible because only by doing so can we know about God! The living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For as St. Jerome, the first great translator of the Scriptures in the 5th century wrote, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

“Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

While it is the case that we have an immediate, real relationship with the invisible God in the present, this relationship is only made real when we there is Communication.

Think of it in human terms. Let's say you get together with someone you want to get to know. But when you get together, you look at each other, but don't say a word. How much are you going to get to know that person? Hardly at all! Sure you can describe what they look like, but you're not going to know them at all!

And it's the same thing with God! We can just sit with him and look at each other so to speak. And from that we can determine that he is invisible, and must be a powerful creator to have made this world, and must be at least partly good. And...that's about it! As Paul tells us in Romans 1 – even the heathens know these things! No – in order to really know God, we must communicate with him! And the principal way in which God communicates himself to us is through the Bible.

So rather than just sitting there, if I want to know God, I should read what he has written for me! God HAS spoken. And it got written down. And it's right here in this book!

This thought should blow our minds! We should be crazy for Holy Scripture, and ravenous to learn from it.

Listen to what Mahatma Gandhi – himself not even a Christian – said about the Bible.

“You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”

Is this true of you? Do you have a Bible on your shelf, like you have Shakespeare's plays, or a Dictionary? Do you treat it just like a piece of literature? Revered on the shelf, perused lightly from time to time, but never really read and obeyed?

If so – you are missing out!

There are three obstacles, as I see it, to the regular reading of God's word.

The first is laziness. And the remedy is that we pray to God to help us not be lazy. And then strategize about when in the week we can make time for it.

The second is not having the proper tools to rightly interpret scripture, and so it seems dense and hard to understand. The remedy for this is learning these tools from Bible classes, sermons, and, if you're interested, I would love to meet with you some time to help you on your way.

The third obstacle is simply not-knowing. Not knowing just what it is that we are holding in our hands when we hold a bible. If we just knew the awesomeness of the Bible, we would be more inclined to crack it open from time to time. If we can be impressed by Holy Scripture, then we can find ways to overcome the first two obstacles I just named.

So that's what I want to speak about this morning. In short: the awesomeness of the Bible.

And to do that, I want to walk through this one little verse in Romans 15: Verse 4.

The first thing here, about the Bible is that it was “written in former days”

written in former days”

The first thing to note then, about the Bible, is that it is historical. It contains a true record of what has happened in the past. And it goes waaaay back. When we add up all the years in which the various kings and so on lived, then we can figure that Moses lived sometime around the 1500s BC – 35 hundred years ago. And we know that our first and oldest books in the bible come to us from him. Now, he wrote about a lot of things that happened before him – he put down on paper the oral-history that had been preserved, from the Fall of Adam and Eve, down through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and his sons that led them into the Egypt that Moses led the people out of. So Moses is writing about the thousands of years that came before him, as well as the history he himself was a part of. The Bible then, being written in former days, goes all the way back, right, to creation, and the dawn of time. And it covers the hundreds of years of Israel's history in which God spoke through the mouths of his prophets. And then, the crown and center of the whole Scriptures, the four holy Gospels, which were penned almost 2000 years ago, recording the words and deeds of our Savior JESUS. And at the same time as those were being written, Paul was writing his letters to the Churches also. And so we see that the various pieces of this book were in the process of being written for sixteen-hundred years. Gradually adding one book at a time, until all 66 books were here.

This is pretty impressive stuff!

If you found this book on raggedy paper in an old archive in a castle, and discovered it for the first time, you wouldn't know what to do with yourself! It would be the greatest archaeological and literary discovery of all time. But when it sits in its demure binding on a shelf, it can be easy to forget what a wild voyage through time this book has been on.

...written in former days....for our instruction...

for our instruction”

In saying that the Bible was written “for our instruction”, Paul means first that it contains the record of what God said and did in in the past, so that we can be instructed about who God is, and what story we find ourselves in the middle of.

When we read the account of God parting the waters of the Red Sea, we learn simultaneously about his power over creation, and his care for his chosen people.

And this is profoundly instructive. It means that when I am sick, if I pray to God for healing, and I have read this story, then I know that he who had power over the water in Moses' time also has power over the bacteria in my body. And I know that he who cared for his people then, also cares for me, who through faith has become one of his chosen people.

The stories that are recounted. The words of the prophets that are recorded. They are all written for our instruction.

But the Bible is still even more than just learning about the past. It's not like some collection of old news-paper articles. No, every word, every detail, every turn of phrase, is precisely chosen by God himself, in his speaking it through those human authors who penned them in the first place.

Which means no detail is incidental. And every word can be instructive. This is what Paul is getting at when he says in his letter to Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

And it also means that, tucked into those ordinary pages, is communication from God himself, which he had written down for us with a purpose. To instruct us, in the present. Do you want to hear from God? Read a bible!

And by read I don't mean read the way you read the newspaper or your emails. I mean the way you might have read a love-letter when you were courting. Or the way you read someone's will. With attention to detail. With a sensitive ear. Or, as the powerful words of this morning's collect charge us:

we need to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them

We need to hear Scripture read,

then go read it ourselves,

,mark, take note of what it is saying,

learn, as in memorize, and hold close to one's heart,

and through meditating on them, and applying them, then inwardly digest them

hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.

But to what end? What is the end result of really reading this book? Paul goes on:

that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures”

The Scriptures are here to help us with two things: One, to endure, and Two, to be encouraging.

How do the Scriptures do this?

Well think of it this way. Imagine you're setting out in a small sail-boat from Jacksonville, and your goal is to make it to England. And let's say you've got a great map, and a great compass, and you're all set. But you only look at the map and compass for the first two days of the 3 week journey. After that, you put it down, and trusting that you're on the right course, keep on sailing. Where do you think you'll end up on that journey? Who knows?! Ghana, Brazil, New York. Anywhere but England! The only way to get to the right destination is by continually checking in with the map and compass.

And it's the same thing with life: The scriptures are our map and compass. They will continually be pointing us in the direction God wants us to go, and the directions he wants us to avoid.

And if we keep relying on them, then we will make our destination – eternal life with God.

And it's in this way, that the Scriptures help us to endure.

To carry on on the right track.

And along the way, when the waves get rough, and storms come in, and it's hard to remember even why you set out on this voyage in the first place, the scriptures offer us the second thing Paul mentions: Encouragement. The Bible is full of encouragement:

Come to me, all you who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt)

The Lord watches over your going out and your coming in (Psalms)

These light and momentary afflictions are nothing compared to the glory that is to be revealed. (1 Peter)

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord (Rev)

And the cornerstone, the root, of all the encouragement in the Bible, is to be found in the promises we have in Christ – of what we look ahead to, because of him.

As Paul goes on to say, that we might have hope.

we might have hope.”

The theme we have been touching on for several weeks now is the part of the Story that is yet to unfold. The End that is still to come. The things we have hope in: The return of our Lord, the resurrection of the dead, the healing of all that is broken. This is what the Bible is constantly referring us to. The Land of Milk and Honey at the end of the years of pilgrimage. The victory after the suffering.

The hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.

A hope anchored in the future that he has promised us.

You could say that in some way the Bible, while encompassing the whole of human past, is also a book from the future, revealing what is to come. Telling us what life will be like in our true home, as Paul calls it in 2 Corinthians.

St. Augustine in fact once quipped, “The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home."

The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.

Doesn't that make you want to read them a little more?

It does me.

And as you do, as you pour through the Bible.

The Bible written in former days

The Bible written for our instruction,

The Bible that gives us endurance and encouragement,

The Bible that gives us hope,

remember that the Book is not an end in itself. The scriptures do not have life in themselves. They are a window. A written word that points us to the Living Word: Jesus Christ himself.

As Martin Luther put it, and with this appropriately-advent-y quote I'll end: “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies.’ As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the baby.”

 

Amen.

Nov 27 :: Advent 1 :: The Lord is coming

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

– Matt 24:44 +INPFSS+

The Son of Man is coming. The Lord is coming.

This is the motto of Advent. The Lord is coming.

It’s a bit of a funny phrase – a funny idea, when you think about it.

Because we know that the Lord is with us. At every level. God is everywhere -- omnipresent. God the Son is holding together every atom of the universe, And the Holy Spirit actually lives within us.

So how can we then speak about his coming? What meaning does this have, if he's already here? And why talk about it now, in preparation for Christmas?

These are the questions I wish to explore this morning.

Let’s start with a definition of terms: ‘Advent’ means ‘coming’, so there’s our first clue.

And when we understand what actually happened on that first Christmas Day, we see that it is God’s coming to earth. The unseen God of the Universe, coming down from the realms of uncreated light, through the dimensions down to time and space, and taking on human flesh and a human nature. God CAME to earth.

As Christians we can treat this as a common-place. But it is anything but. We can’t even conceive of the magnitude of God’s descent in this first coming. Infinity dwindled to infancy, to steal a line from the poet Hopkins. Imagine a Man becoming an ant, and taking on all the perils of ant-life. And now extend that descent a million steps further.

God CAME to earth.

For thousands of years before that first Christmas, ever since the tower of Babel, mankind had been building temples with the hope of reaching God in heaven. All for naught of course. But now God has come down to our earth. We don’t have to reach up for him, he has reached down for us.

The one who made the earth was now crawling on it with human hands and feet.

And this shows us what is so unique about his first coming: He veiled his glory and his divinity under the cloak of his human nature. If you looked at the baby Jesus, you would never ever guess that he was God incarnate. He would have looked just like an ordinary baby. And for his whole life, with the exception of the transfiguration on mount carmel, the brilliance of his divine nature was kept hidden.

This is the powerful message of Philipians 2 right? The Son, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

So this is the first thing we mean when we speak of the Lord’s coming. His coming that already happened in the past, on the first Christmas.

And for the commemoration of this coming we do well to be ready. To get ourselves prepared. And this is what Advent is about. Making ourselves ready, for the feast of Christmas, on which we remember the Lord's first coming. If we don't make ourselves ready. If we don't use Advent as a preparation, then the Incarnation may just pass us by as just another materialistic day in America on which we gorged ourselves with food. Let's not let that happen.

Now, also, when we think of Christ’s coming in humility, as Christians reading the Bible, it reminds of something else. The SECOND coming that he promised. When he will come at the end of the ages.

The second coming is predicted in the Old Testament prophets – as they speak like we heard this morning from Isaiah – about a world with no war, and justice being established on the earth. And our Lord himself, in the passage we heard from the Gospel of Matthew – tells about his coming again. And St. Paul picks up on the theme when he writes to the Romans, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”

The second coming will be like the first coming, in that it will be God coming down to earth, once again. But there will be one big difference –

whereas the first coming was in humility. As a normal looking man, in one small corner of Palestine. The second coming will be in glory. The Lord in his resurrected, immortal body, full of glory and splendor will come back to the earth, and it will be like the sky – even the whole fabric of space-time – will be torn in half, and the whole world will see him at one and the same moment, and so the Great Final Judgment will commence.

The first coming, in the past, was in humility. The second coming, in the future, will be in great glory.

And this is why the readings leading up to and during Advent are about the SECOND coming.

Because the first coming was only the beginning. Was only a glimpse of the fuller manifestation that is to come. It was the first movement in a great symphony, but it is not itself the climax. So when, as the Church, we think about Christmas, our minds should naturally leap from the contemplation of the first coming, to the expectation of the second.

In both of these Advents, we speak of the Lord’s coming, over and above his ever-present nearness, because when he comes he comes in a way where we can behold him with our eyes, and could touch him with our hands. He comes to us, visibly, and palpably.

Now, there is a lot of misinformation out there about this Second Coming of our Lord. Lots of false-predictions and muddle-headed ideas. Maybe you've caught wind of some of these teachings about raptures and thousand-years and tribulations and what not. Most all of these so-called teachings are misinterpretations of scripture, and not what the Church has taught for most of her history.

So I want to take just a minute to clear these up a little. To set the record straight. And it's not nearly as complicated as some people make it sound. When the Church reads the testimonies of the prophets, and Gospels, and Paul's letters, and the Revelation of St. John, a composite picture emerges, and it looks something like this:

One day, nobody knows exactly when, Jesus will appear in the Sky, visible no matter where one is standing on the earth. And All the people who have died, from the beginning of time will be raised from the dead, and their bodies will be transformed into immortal bodies, like the one Jesus has. And all of us who are alive when Jesus appears, will have our bodies transformed in an instant as well. And all of us will be simultaneously brought before Jesus, and each one of us will have our lives assessed.

Our lives will be examined for two things: Did we have faith in Christ Jesus, repenting of our sins? And did we live in accordance with that faith? Every single human being will be judged by these criteria, and those who pass the test, will be welcomed to stand at Jesus' side. And those who fail, will be cast away from Jesus, and sent to an eternity of darkness away from God.

And in the course of this great judgment, all of creation will be judged too. Everything that is wicked, and broken, and sick, and sad in the universe – all death and every cause of tears, they will all be burned up and cast away, and all creation, every rock and tree and beast will be re-fashioned into purity and perfection.

And then all of those – hopefully all of us – who have likewise been made new, and who have inherited immortal bodies, will then live in this new creation, with Jesus face-to-face, and there we will reign as princes and princess with him forever.

Pretty epic stuff, right? As wild as it sounds, I assure you, with all that I am and have and know – it's all true.

The Lord is coming.

And if it's important to our discipleship that we be ready for the commemoration of his first coming, it's a matter of life and death – literally – that we are ready for his second coming.

That we be alert. That we stay watchful. In other words, that the Lord doesn't come back and find us sleeping on the job. Living indulgently and without faith, as if he wasn't actually coming back after all.

This is the message of the Gospel that we heard this morning.

In modern English, “Look out!”

The Lord is coming.

In Advent, we recall this fact, in both senses of the word – both the past and the future coming.

But before I wrap up this morning, there is also a third way we can speak about the Lord’s Advent. His coming is not only confined to the past and to the future, he also comes to us, in a mysterious way, in the Present... In the Holy Eucharist.

Over and above his daily nearness to us, the Lord in his mercy condescends to come to us through the outward things of Bread and Wine. When offered to him, and consecrated in his name, the Bread and the Wine are transformed spiritually into the Body and Blood of Jesus, and where his Body and his blood are – there he is. So, it is right to think of this, the Holy Communion, also as part of the Lord’s coming to us. Under the form of bread and wine. Coming to indwell us, literally.

And for this coming also we are to get ready. We need to prepare our hearts rightly to receive the Lord who comes to us in Communion. To that end, after the Prayers of the People this morning, I shall, as is custom at the beginning of Advent as well as Lent, read the Exhortation from the Prayer Book, which challenges us to take communion with the seriousness it deserves.

So that is what Advent is all about. The Coming of Christ. And being ready for it.

His first coming, in the past, in humility, at Christmas

His present coming, in the mystery of bread and wine,

And his future coming, the second coming, in power and great glory.

Be ready.

Amen.

Nov 20 :: Christ the King :: Christianity as a Political Phenomenon

“This is the King of the Jews.”

—Luke 23:38 +INPFSS+

If you'll humor me, I want to administer a little quiz:

Let me ask you a question: What nation do you belong to?

[[A: America]]

And, who is the head of state, at least for the next couple months?

[[A: Obama]]

 

Ok, sadly, you all failed.

But I have good news for you! There's a remedial class available, starting right now, for the next 15 minutes or so...

The correct answers were:

The Church is the nation we belong to.

& Jesus is our head of state.

 

What am I talking about?

I'm actually not trying to be cute.

Obviously we reside in America, and obviously our president is Barack Obama.

What I am trying to do, is bring forward the political nature of being a Christian.

And let me be clear right up front: This is not a sermon about how a Christian is to engage in American politics. That's an important question, but not what I'm getting at this morning. I'm not talking about Christian politics, I'm talking about Christianity as a political phenomenon in itself.

And what I mean by this is summed up by the very clear claim of Scripture that Jesus is King.

Jesus is King. This Sunday – the last Sunday of the Christian year, before Advent begins, is called Christ the King Sunday.

And the plain-fact right in front of our nose is the political reality of this claim: Christ the King.

It is unfortunate but ubiquitous: We instantly turn this statement into a metaphor when we read or hear it. We think, yes, metaphorically speaking, Jesus is the King. Because he has dignity like a royal, and because he is the Lord of my heart. And what not. Which are all true things, but are much less than the claim that the Scripture is making.

When the Church says Jesus is King. They mean King like President. Like Czar. Like Supreme Leader. Head of State. The installed ruler of a nation.

And what is that Nation? The Kingdom of God. Which, in a short hand sort of way, we can also refer to simply as the Church – and by that I don't mean the building, I mean the great horde of people across the Globe who worship Jesus Christ and who call themselves Christians.

The Church is actually a Nation.

Again – I'm not speaking metaphorically. I mean literally: The Church is a nation. It is a political entity. Granted, it doesn't have some of the features that we are used to other nations having. The Church doesn't have it's own currency like the Yen or the Dollar. Nor does it have a standing military, because it is a nation of peace not of war. Nor does it have a certain contained square-milage of land that you can point to on a map – It's territory is invisible.

But despite these petty differences, the Church is very much a real nation.

So if you are a member of the Church – as all of you are – you actually have a political allegiance that is prior to, that is deeper than, that is more significant than any earthly allegiance.

In as much as the eternal, immortal son of God is more powerful than any human leader. Just so is the Kingdom of God more significant than any earthly Kingdom. Every human nation will eventually fall, but the nation of God will endure forever and ever.

Now, this runs counter to our usual sensibilities doesn't it?

We tend to think, these days, that politically, I am an American, or I am a mexican, or I am British. And spiritually, I am a Christian, or I am a Muslim, or I am a Hindu.

We have two categories.

We think of our visible, public life, as in the domain of politics.

And our invisible, private life, of thoughts and convictions, as in the domain of religion.

But this separation between political and religious identity is a relatively new idea, historically speaking. Prior to the last 150 years or so, the concepts were very much closer together. And in parts of the world today, they still are.

And when it comes to our faith, we frankly have it all wrong if we think it only concerns our private inner lives.

If what we believed were merely a matter of private conviction, really, then why is ISIS killing Christians? If they only had something different in their private worlds, why bother killing them? Why did the Romans persecute the Christians in the early centuries of the Church. Come to think of it: Why was Jesus himself crucified? Think about his trial before Pontius Pilate – the question at hand was simply: Is he the leader of a political organization that was claiming a competitive allegiance to Rome. And the answer of course, was “yes”.

Jesus, and all Christians since, have been killed because the nations in which they were living recognized that what they were claiming had political consequences. That if you swear allegiance to God the Father, through God the Son, then you are at some level NOT signing-on to the political authority of whatever nation you happen to be living in. That you are, thereby, a political threat. And perhaps, need to be crushed. This is why governments throughout the ages have turned on Christians.

Because to be a Christian, is to claim a political allegiance that transcends national governments.

Look at our Christian life through this lens with me:

Can you see?

Our pledge of allegiance is the Creed that we say every Sunday.

Our military salute is the sign of the cross that we make.

Our constitution is the Bible

Our foundational code of law is the Sermon on the Mount, building on the Ten Commandments.

Our main national holidays are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

Every Church building is a foreign embassy. Planted in every Nation on this earth, but representing the invisible Kingdom of Jesus.

There is a corps of civil servants: The bishops, priest and deacons.

And each and every one of us Christians, is a foreign ambassador. Here on a lifetime work-visa only. Representing our great land – our true home – to all we encounter.

And one day – and here we touch oncemore on that great Advent theme of the Second Coming of Jesus – one day there will be a great colonisation. A great annexing. A great taking over. And the Kingdom of our God will become the Kingdom of this world. Jesus will appear and every inch of land on this globe will be assumed into his nation, and all people will come to him, either in submission, or in defiance. Either to be received, or struck down.

Jesus is King. And he will be King forever. Now invisibly. But in the future, visibly.

But what does all this mean for us, on this Sunday morning, here in Opelika.

Well, there are three things I think this should cause us to ponder, and live differently because of. Three take-home points:

In the first place, this realization should give scale to our investment in the politics of the nation.

Since we are here as ambassadors of a foreign country, what happens to this country – or to any country on earth – isn't of supreme concern to us. Obviosuly it is of SOME concern. A good visiting dignitary cares about the well-being of his host nation. But whether things are looking up or things are going badly, the ambassador is not greatly shaken either way. It is a matter of secondary importance only.

In the wake of this heated political season that we have come through, I hope you see the immediate application: Whether Donald Trump is amazing or terrible or mediocre, it is not our greatest concern. Whether America prospers or doesn't prosper – again, not of central importance to us.

As Christians, when it comes to matters of national politics – we should have the coolest heads around.

What should be of much greater concern to us – what should occupy much more of our thoughts and prayers and labors – is whether or not we are being loyal citizens of our true Kingdom. Whether our King, when he returns to earth, will find us representing him well, or instead find us assimilating so much with the locals that we are unrecognizable from them. Being given to the things of this world. And politically, whether we have been traitors, and have sworn our whole hearted allegiance to some other country other than the Kingdom of God.

What I mean is: If the earthly nation you're a part of asks you to do something that breaks the law of the Kingdom of God, you don't do it. Because the higher law wins the day. This is the second take-home point

So, for instance, a thought experiment: If you were born into a Christian family in Iran, and the local government was calling on you to pay homage to Mohammed at a national festival. Despite whatever allegiance the nation usually demands, you wouldn't do it right?

And no country in the world, not even these United States, is perfectly Christian in all it does, right? Which means we have to be on our guard a little at all times, when it comes to earthly countries – checking what they are asking us to do verses what God has already told us to do.

But beyond even all of this, I believe the last thing we should take from all this – from this reality that Jesus is King, and that we are citizens of his nation – is to realize the kind of king we have!!

We have just been through an era of scrupulizing the presidential candidates, looking at their deeds and their character and their promises.

Let's use that same lens and look at Jesus. At what kind of a leader, what kind of a King he is.

Have you ever met so benevolent and merciful a leader? So patient with his people, despite their stubbornness. So loving in all he does.

Look at what he did! We were all on death-row, and he transferred the punishment we all deserved on to himself!

Can you imagine any earthly leader doing that for us? Can you imagine the best president of this country – think of George Washington – trading places with a criminal, out of love?

But that's what Jesus did for us, right?

And look again! He invites his citizens to eat at his own table. Every week! We get invited to the King's table! And, miracle of miracles, the food is nothing other than his own mystical body, his own self and life and power. He actually shares his royalty with us too!

And THAT's why we crown him with many crowns. That's why we never have ceased these 2000 years as the Church from being excited and grateful for his reign. Because he IS the KING of Kings. The greatest king there ever was, and ever will be. And his Kingdom is here, now, in part. But soon and very soon, it will be coming visibly and with force, and every tongue will confess, and every knee will bow, to the true ruler of all: Jesus Christ. Amen.

Nov 13 :: Malachi 3 :: The True Value of Following Christ will only be seen in the End

You have said, 'it is vain to serve God'

–Malachi 3:14 +INPFSS+

 

Does it ever seem vain to serve God. Does it ever seem pointless to be a Christian?

Do you somethimes think things would be pretty much the same for you if you weren't a Christian?

Or even: better for you?

Does it ever seem like all that you give to God: Your time, on Sundays, your money in the plate, the things you could have been doing with those things instead. The struggles to resist temptation, when the tempting thing appears that it would just make life so much sweeter to the taste? – is it all for naught?

Perhaps you have been following God for years, and nothing but trouble has come your way. And perhaps you look over to your heathen neighbor, who seems to not have a care in the world.

“What's God done for me lately?”

And you wonder: Is it vain to serve God?

Ever think these things? The Israelites certainly thought them, as we have recorded in Malachi.

What are we to make of it? Are these thoughts true? Should we entertain them?

To answer that, I want to tell a story. A modern day parable, if you will:

I want to paint a portrait that is all too familiar to us in America today. Imagine a family that lives a very luxurious lifestyle. Big house, lots of cars, fancy vacations. Things look great on the outside, but inside, all is not well. They are spending far more than they make – taking out liens on their house, racking up mountains of credit card debt, financing all their large purchases.

Now I want you to imagine a different sort of family – living in a modest house, eating and living modestly, going on local vacations only once a year. Outside, not much to write home about, but inside, their books are balanced, they have only minimal debt, they're carefully saving for retirement and health emergencies, putting as much away as is wise, for the future.

Two families. In the present, the one's outward life looks amazing. The other looks a little dull.

But now think of those families ten years from now. The exploits of the first will have surely come to a catastrophic end. They will no doubt be trying to scrap a life together out of the shards that are left. While the second family is enjoying moderate prosperity, and mountains of peace.

All of us, in our right minds, would rather be more like the second family, right? I assume most of you, in the matters of this world, have lived by these principles for a long time, and will continue to do so.

But recall – I am speaking now in a parable:

If we're that careful with money, which is here today and tomorrow when we die, we can take none of it with us. How much more careful should we be with our eternal souls!?

And herein is the spiritual truth the Scripture Lessons are communicating to us this morning:

The true value of following God, will only be seen in the End.

The true value of following God, will only be seen in the End.

What do I mean by this?

Let's look at the Old Testament Lesson today to unpack it. Malachi chapter 3.

A bit of a terrifying passage really. Full of pictures of the future. Full of hell-fire and brimstone. Well, not really, because it's not hell-fire, but God-fire that the scriptures so often are speaking about. I'll never preach Hell-fire and brimstone, but I will preach God-fire and Christ the Corner-stone.

And in this passage in Malachi, the Holy Spirit has given a vision and a word to the prophet about what the End times will look like. It's a sobering picture: of the last judgment, when God will judge all things, and bring justice into every situation. It's the same End of the World scene that our Lord is talking about, in talking about in the Gospel reading this morning.

And it's a topic that will come into view several times over the next several weeks as we approach Advent and Christmas, when the lectionary keeps bringing us back to this specter of the End of the World as we know it.

Why this theme comes up at advent is something I'll explain when that season begins, but for now, let us take these readings as something of a trailer – a foretaste of this great biblical theme that will be playing for the next 6 weeks. The end of all things. The Last Day.

The Last Day is of central concern to us as Christians. It's something we need to never lose sight of.

Because if we lose sight of it, we will misunderstand what we are seeing in the present.

Like the first neighbors I introduced at the beginning, if we just look at the present, everything looks hunky dory – wonderful even. Only the final outcome reveals the true state of affairs. Only when we look at the ultimate End, can we rightly assess the value and worth of what is before us now.

This is what I mean when I say that the true value of our following God, will only be seen in the End.

See, if we look just at the present, being a Christian often doesn't seem like a great deal.

It may even seem like a bad deal, in the present. Paul even refers to his state now that he serves God as being counted among the “refuse of the earth”. In the immediate, it might not look like Christianity is worth it.

But this is why it is paramount that look beyond just the immediate – that we also look to the future, to the End. To the great judgment of God on the last Day.

Now, this is admittedly hard to do! More and more, as a society, we have come to expect INSTANT gratification, and this has led us into a perpetually entertained, perpetually pleasure-seeking state, that, frankly, has turned us more into robots and beasts than human beings. But Christianity offers us the antidote: A call to look past what's in front of our eyes RIGHT NOW, and to look at what is coming.

And the world will think we're mad, and will think we're like Noah. They tell us that Day is never coming, but we keep living as if it is. And when it comes, we will be vindicated.

For as God spoke to Malachi, and as he speaks to us through these words on the page: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evil doers will be stubble.”

The judgment at the end will expose the things now for what they really are.

And this is both a comfort and a warning, right?

It's a comfort because it means all the ungodly who are doing just fine right now, and seem to have not a care in the world, despite their faithlessness and despite their wicked deeds, they will soon be getting their come-upance. And this is a comfort. And that even if we weep now, we know that we will get rewarded on that day, and our weeping will be turned to laughing. Our hardship will be turned to rest.

But it's also a warning, because in some measure our lives are partly arrogant, partly evil-doing, and there's a judgment coming that we better be aware of.

Think about this. If you KNEW you were going to get audited on your taxes this year, you would be extra careful to make sure they were all in order, right?

Just so –

If we are properly focused on our future, to the great judgment, or, as we could say, the “Big Reveal” we would probably submit our lives in the present more profoundly to the will of God, and to his decrees about right and wrong.

I love the image the Lord gives us in this Malachi passage – that the last day will be like an oven.

Like an oven it will heat everything up, and see what it Is made of. The wicked, it says, will be like stubble. As in, they will be like dry grass, that will instantly burst into flame and be entirely consumed. It doesn't say in Malachi what will become of those who are in Christ Jesus on that day, but if we take the teaching of the New Testament, about yeast and what not, we could say the lives of those whose faith is in God, who follow and obey and love God, they are like bread dough, full of the yeast of the Holy Spirit and the water of baptism. When the stubble is put in the oven, it burns up. But when the dough is put in the oven, it rises and it bakes and it becomes a fragrant, beautiful thing. It becomes what it was made to be. It isn't destroyed by the firey heat of judgment, it is transformed! This is a figure for the immortal bodies we will receive on that day, and the restitution of all things.

And this is why we focus our faith on the future. Because of what that END will bring to us.

Now, as a footnote: At this point it is necessary to point out that as Christians we don't ONLY look to the future. There is of course plenty of God's grace in the present also: The consolation that comes from the forgiveness of sins, the great joy in knowing God and in learning about him from his word, the spiritual strength he supplies in times of trial. These are all good and true and real, and very much present benefits.

So, I'm not talking about the future, as if there was nothing for us also in the present. Not at all.

I'm just echoing St. Paul who wrote in 1 Corinthians 15: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Our hope, is in the future. As the writer to the Hebrews says, who hopes for what he already has? Implying that what we are really excited about as Christians, is what is still to come. The final chapter of the story. The great oven-like judgment and the resolution of all things.

And when our eyes are fixed there, we are encouraged to hold the course. Even though things might be uncomfortable or painful for us right now, in the present. Even if it might not feel worth it to follow God. Even if it frankly is uncomfortable and bothersome most of the time. Even though there doesn't seem to be any tangible benefit to what we are going through, or for what we are struggling with, we know that we will be better off later on. In the End. That it WILL be worth it.

So, let us never be found joining the grumble of the Israelites in Malachi's day, saying “It is vain to follow the LORD”

It is not Vain. It is worth it to follow God. Not only to avoid the negative judgment, but to graciously receive the good judgment – the eternal reward that the Lord has stored up for those who follow him and who love him.

Amen.

November 6 :: All Saints Day

“that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” – Ephesians 1:18 +INPFSS+

I. Introduction to the Feast
Happy All Saints Day! All Saints Day is a feast that was created in the early middle ages to remember all the saints that we don't have room to remember throughout the rest of the year. So whereas St. Luke, and St. Paul and St. Mary all have specific days of the year where we remember the mighty work God did through them, All Saints Day is for all the unsung heroes of the faith. Those who very few of us have ever heard of. For St. Genesius, and St. Telemachus and St. Mungo and lots of other funny names. But it's also for those saints that we have never even heard of. All those faithful Christians throughout the ages who gave their life to the love and service of God, and who became vessels, conduits of God's power and God's love, and who were the liasons for bringing their little corner of the world under the reign of Jesus Christ.
You may have had the privilege of knowing some of these holy men and women – after all, that's what the word “saint” simply means: “Holy” – or you may not, but all of our lives have been impacted by them and by their prayers, whether we know it or not.

The novelist George Eliot at the end of her book MiddleMarch says something similar when she writes:
“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The number who lived faithfully a hidden life. The saints who God didn't choose to bring into the limelight. The devout Christians who have through their life and prayers saved this world from tearing itself totally to pieces.

The Saints.

The Saints who we remember today, as one large, innumerable mass. As John describes in his book of Revelation – “the great multidue that no one could number, from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb.”

But who exactly are these people? Is it us? Is it the mother theresa's of the world? What is a saint, exactly?

II. What is a saint exactly?
In some way, it is true to say that we are all saints. The Bible addresses even the wild, loose-living Christians at Corinth as saints, and it addresses all of us as saints.
We are all “saints” in one sense, because we have all been made holy by Jesus Christ. When he adopted us as his children, through our baptisms, and through our faith in him, he washed us clean and made us holy. He sanctified us. As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6: You were washed. You were sanctified.

All of you who claim Jesus as your Lord, and who have been baptized in his name, are already “saints”.

But the Lord is very gracious in giving us this title already. Because it is true of us in Jesus Christ, and because we will one day be made fully holy, he lavishes this status on us already.

It's true of us in our essence, but for almost all of us it's not yet true in our experience. We're still “working it out” to use Paul's phrase in Phillipians. We're still becoming what we are declared to be. To borrow the phrase from my father.

Did you catch that? We're in the process of becoming what we are already declared to be.

That's the Christian life right there.

Becoming what we are declared to be.

The Lord has declared us holy – declared that we are “saints”, and that's what we are – with God's help becoming”

But we're all at different stages of that journey, right? And that's where the traditional distinction between “saint” so-and-so, and your average Christian comes in. Those who we refer to as “saints” are those who more fully became the saint they were declared to be than most of us ever do.

They are the ones who gave their whole lives, their whole hearts to following God.

And they didn't do this because they were somehow born “special”. All the saints, by nature, are just ordinary people. In fact – as I have been reading about the lives of the famous saints for some years – you can see that saints come from all kinds of backgrounds and temperaments. Introverts, like Saint Jerome, Extroverts, like St. Francis de Sales. Poor, like Mother Theresa, Rich, like St. Louis the King. Anyone has the potential to be a saint.

Being a saint, means being fully alive. Being a true human being, before whom the rest of us look more like shadows.

It means having a life that looks like Christ's. Being united with him. And not just in his gloriousness, although that too – the saints often are the agents of God's miracles – but chiefly the lives of the saints are lives that imitate Christ's in their patience with suffering,
in their loving outreach to others,
and in their deep trust of the Father.
The saints all have the same fire of the Holy Spirit burning in their eyes – it's un-mistakeable. They are alight with holiness.

That's what a saint is.

But how did they become so? How do we become one? How does anyone become a saint?

III. How to become a saint?
The paradoxial thing about the Saints, is that the very thing that makes them saints is not actually unique to them. On the contrary – it is the presence of Jesus in their lives, being manifest through the Holy Spirit that lives within them, that has transformed them into the ranks of the Holy Ones.

When you see saints in Art or in Icons wearing a halo – it's not actually “their” halo that their wearing. Only Christ has his own halo. But because Christ is living so manifestly through them, his halo shines through.

See there is only person who is holy in himself, by nature, and that's Jesus, our Lord.

And since he has come to live in us, to live through us, we could say. Remember, the Bible speaks about this mystical relationship as us being the body, him being the head. Since he has come to live through us, the way we become a saint, is to, hand our lives over to him, bit by bit. Like St. John the Baptist put it: He must become greater, I must become lesser. It's in offering our selves to him, that he can shine through us. And this progresses further and further in our lives, the more we offer them to him, as our Lord, to do with them what he likes. It may begin with how we use our Sundays, and progress to how we do our jobs through the week, and how we inhabit our marriages, and what we do with our sexuality, and how we talk and how we think and how we play and what we buy and how we suffer pain and loss. the list goes on. We have a lot of things in our lives, which means there's a lot we can hand over. And the more things which with which we say, “God, you have given this to me, but I don't want to use it to my own selfish ends, I don't want to chart my own course, I give it to you. Use it as you will.” And the more we mean it. The more like a saint we become. The more our lives will be filled with prayer instead of anxiety. The more we will love each other.
And: It's not a passive process.
No one ever became a saint by accident.
If we don't strive, daily, to seek and to please the Lord. If we sit back, we will assuredly not become saints in this life, and put ourselves in danger of even missing out on blessedness in the next.

No, the path to sainthood is one that only God can lead us on. Only he can get us there. But he only does it if we participate in the things he is leading us into. If we “work out”, what he is “working in” – phillipians 3 again.

 

IV. Why to become a saint?

But why bother? Why long to become a saint? Why spend the effort?
What's wrong with just being a ho-hum ordinary sort of Christian?
Well, the catch is: The Saints are the ordinary Christians!
The lives we live most of the time are actually below what to God is “ordinary”.
We were made for extrordinairy things. No Christian life is intended by God to be ho-hum.
Remember what the Christian Life is! We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the Living God, and have had our sins washed away, and have been given the promise of living forever, with God, in the highest paradise! Nothing about this is ho-hum!
And the act of remembering the Saints of the past is a good reminder to this effect.
They show us what the Christian life CAN and SHOULD look like.
And it's not all just same same same: Some had lots of influence, and some had little. Some lived in the country, and some in the city. Some were married, some were single.
But whatever station in Life God had apportioned for them, what they do have in common is their total commitment to Jesus Christ as both their savior and their Lord.

And that's why we remember them all together on All Saints Day. To thank God for the example of their lives, and to remember the life God is calling us to.

Amen.

October 30 :: Luke 19 :: On Zaccheus

 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
—Luke 19:5   +INPFSS+

One of my good friends in Illinois has two daughters. His wife, Megan, was explaining to them where they were headed on one Saturday morning. She said, “We’re going to stop at the office, then a place called Ikea.” To which their oldest daughter, Rosie, replied, “Oh, that little man who is so tiny.”

Of course, meaning Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus. A figure beloved by first-graders everywhere. But have we really learned the lesson of Zaccheus? Have we heard what the Holy Spirit is trying to teach us by having this particular story written down as we have it in Luke's gospel?

I want to point out four things about this encounter that Zaccheus had with Jesus. Four details. Four ways in which the story of Zaccheus is here to teach us this morning.

The first is the earnestness of Zaccheus. He really wants to meet Jesus. He figures out where he's going to be. He runs there and scampers up a tree. He doesn't want to miss this. He wants to see this man that he no doubt had been hearing about for some time. He doesn't care if he might look a little silly – because he would have looked a bit silly, up in a tree. He just goes for it. And the Lord Jesus stops by him and calls him down and changes his life forever. As with all the actions of God – Jesus did this out of his own grace and mercy, but still, in some way, we could say that Zaccheus was rewarded for his earnestness. It's good to ask ourselves: Are we this earnest? If I heard that Jesus was stopping by, would I drop everything and go to try and be with him? 

I'd like to think I would, but then I realize: Wait, Jesus is always here. He comes to us each and every week in the Blessed Sacrament. He is there waiting to be heard in the Holy Pages of the Bible. He is ready to talk with me in prayer, any moment of every day. But do I seek him out? Am I hungry and zealous and protective of the chance I have to be with him? These are good questions to ask ourselves, and we can be inspired by Zaccheus, by his earnestness.

Obviously there is the the big difference between us and Zaccheus – that Zaccheus could see Jesus with his eyes, and we can't. But this is not quite so big a difference as it might seem. Because, to see Jesus, the man, with one's eyes, was not to see who he really was. He looked like an ordinary dude, but only faith, then as now, could see beyond his flesh, to the fact that he is also the Son of God. And as God, though he is invisible to us now, to our sense, he is still very much here with us. Among us. In this room. In your homes. Wherever we are. He is with us. But in the same way there were doubtless citizens of Jericho who missed out on seeing Jesus, because they didn't stop and turn and go and see him. Just so today – we can miss him, miss out on the most important encounter we could ever have.

The second thing, which I think functions sort of like an allegory in this story, is that Zaccheus climbed a tree to see Jesus. He needed some assistance. A prop. 
I think this reveals something that is true in many of our stories, in our trying to come to God – we rely on something to get us there. 
For some it's intellectual argumentation. Apologetics. And their own strong mind. 
For others it's the comforting rituals of the Church, and the stability of tradition.
For some it's the beauty of nature, and the joy found in natural things.
For other's it's the feelings they get when they pray or when they do this or that Christian activity.
There are many “sycamore trees” out there that God commonly leaves around for us, as means by which we might catch a glimpse of him. And they are truly a gift of God. And they do work, for a season, as helps to get to God.

But all of these things – that help at first – so often actually become things which keep us from really encountering the risen Lord.
When Jesus passes Zaccheus, he stops and first thing invites him to come down the tree he had just climbed up. He doesn't need the tree anymore, because Jesus is right there in front of him. If he'd have stayed in the tree, he wouldn't have actually gotten to meet Jesus face to face. He must come down. He must let go of his prop. He must be willing to meet Jesus on his own terms.
I believe perhaps the Lord is asking this of some of you here today: To stop clinging to the prop that you think will take you to Jesus, but actually to put it down. To just stand there, “face to face” as it were, with the invisible God.

But why. Why should we be inspired to do these two things? Why seek God earnestly. Why lay aside things we think might take us to him? It seems like such a tenuous task. So open-ended and unknown. Why might we go there?

The answer is the third thing I want to unpack this morning: The character of Jesus that we see revealed in his exchange with Zaccheus.

We learn so much about Jesus' loving heart towards all of us in this story. 

First of all – how completely unfazed he is by what a sinner Zaccheus is. Remember what I said last week about Tax Collectors! This man is one of the worst of the worst. And yet our Lord longed to be with him. Made a special effort to seek him out. To meet his request. To honor his earnestness in looking for himself. What this shows us is that our Lord Jesus loves sinners. He loves you and me. He's not a stern, perfectionistic father, who only gives affection when we perform. Not at all. He's gentle, and not easily offended, and happy to get his feet a little dirty hanging out with riff raff. 


On the one hand, this can make us a little uncomfortable. It made some in the crowds uncomfortable when he reached out to Zaccheus in this way. Verse 7: And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” This Jesus who isn't afraid of sinners, and isn't ashamed of them. But comes to be with them. Wants to eat in their houses. This can only be bad news if you don't think of yourself as a sinner! Like last week's sermon, Not realizing what sinners we are is about the biggest blunder we can make. The problem with the crowd grumbling outside of Zaccheus house is that they don't realize they're just like Zaccheus!

But thanks to the Holy Spirit, most of us here know, deep down, that we are sinners. That we have done horrible things, and just might be horrible people. If you know this to be true about yourself – then I have good news for you: Jesus wants to be with you. He wants to – verse 5 – stay at your house today. He wants to be a part of your daily life. Today. And always. He doesn't just want to be with you for the hour on Sunday mornings. Or the brief moments at the beginning or end of the day when you pray to him. He wants to be a part of ordinary life. Wants to share in our joys, and for us to recognize the gifts he has given us that we get to benefit from. Wants to share his wisdom in our decision making. Wants to be a source of strength and patience when we're doing the same house-chore for the millionth time. Wants to free us from the anxieties we carry around. Wants to be a part of our family life. And our sports life. And our computer life, and our hobby life. 2000 years ago he wanted to have dinner with Zaccheus. Today, he wants to stay at your house. 

What a loving God we have! What a kind heart he has. Think of the gap he is bridging when he condescends to our level like this. He – who is all pure, and all good, and all holy – wants to fellowship with messy, sinful us. We can never say that Christianity is a religion for those who can live a life that impresses others. Christianity is for the hot messes, the screw-ups, & the broken. Those who are neck deep in the bad-things. Verse 10: The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. I hope you take comfort from this – I certainly do!

And this brings us to the fourth and last thing I wish to illuminate about the story of Zaccheus – that is, what the effect of God's character – his heart that seeks sinners – the effect his character has on our character. 

I just love this encounter between Jesus and Zaccheus. Jesus comes into his house, and just from the sheer fact of being with Jesus – Zaccheus changes his whole life. Luke the Gospel-writer gives us no other details by which we could understand it. Zaccheus doesn't – like the rich young ruler –  ask Jesus what he must do, in order to be a Christian. He isn't given instructions about what his life should look like. He's not told off for what he's patently doing wrong. He just eats a meal with Jesus, and chats with him. 
And Zaccheus can't help himself. He's so overwhelmed with the sincere love he must have seen in the eyes of this man. The depths of his goodness, and good will towards him. That he just melts down. 

The way Luke tells it, it's almost like it comes out of left-field. Jesus and Zaccheus are talking at the table, with the other guests, and he just stands up – verse 8:
Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Zaccheus just wanted to do the right and blessed thing, in response to the loving character of Jesus. He wants to make things right. He has defrauded people in the past – he will now make it better. Because his heart is now brimming full with this new-found love. This fatherly, brotherly affection, that fills every one of his buckets. He doesn't need the money anymore – because he has found the pearl of great price. He doesn't need to rob others anymore, because his heart has changed and he wants to bless, instead of curse his neighbors. 

And so we see Zaccheus' love of God effortlessly spilling over into two things: repentance – that is, turning from past sins, and doing what is right, and into loving his neighbors. What a brilliant portrait of Christian conversion. What a thing to aspire to! For me this image – of happy Zaccheus emptying his pockets to make things right with those he taxed, is both a challenge and a call. 
It's a challenge because I'm not really like that. Not all the way. Which means I must not have fully come to grips with the love the Savior has for me. But in this is the call: I want that. I hope you want that. I hope we all come to see – with the eyes of the heart – the loving face of Jesus, that overthrows our life so much that we become radical in our reconciling, gentle, generous living. That our life and our character would only make sense as being a result of encountering the Jesus who has truly come to live in our house today.

Amen.

October 23rd :: Luke 18 :: On Penitence

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

—Luke 18:13 +INPFSS+

I. Explaining the Story.

What a haunting, tragic, beautiful picture it is in the story that our Lord told in the Gospel lesson this morning. The story of the pharisee and the tax-collector, and the different ways that they pray. The pharisee cataloging his good deeds, and the tax-collector so ashamed of his sins that he can't even look up to heaven, but just bleats out, “be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Now because we've heard this story before, we are in danger of warping the details to suit what we “know” the meaning to be. So let me nip those in the bud:

In the first place, the things the pharisee lists about himself: That he has kept the 10 commandments, that he tithes and fasts regularly. These are not shallow exercises of piety. He is not pretending to be a good person. He is actually a good person. These are actual good deeds he is doing. He really has – like St. Paul – a righteousness under the law. Not only is he blameless as far as the Law of Moses is concerned, but out of a sincere attempt to be devoted to GOD, the Pharisee is even going above and beyond what is expected of him, in his fasting. When JESUS first told this story, his listeners undoubtedly would have heard this first part – about the pharisee – and thought, woah, now there's a Godly man.

And then JESUS mentions the tax-collector, full of dread and sadness about his sins, literally whacking his own chest with sorrow, and begging GOD for mercy. Keep in mind – our LORD was not describing something familiar to those he was talking to. It would not have been a common thing to see a tax-collector beating his breast in penitence. Tax collectors, you'll recall, are the despised scabs – the traitors who have sold out their own people to their Roman over-lords to make a quick buck for themselves, who were often, if not always, unfair and extortionate in their tax-collecting. Tax collectors were scum. They were like a grim combination of a slimey used car-salesman and IRS agent. The very mention of them in a story might perhaps draw “boo's” from a crowd.

But not in Jesus' story. No – here Jesus is telling a story of a man acting like the few tax-collectors he himself had encountered – whose lives he had changed. Like Levi, or little Zaccheus. Men who were great sinners, but who repented, who turned, and gave their lives to following Jesus. Men who were sorry for what they had done in the past.

This repentant tax-collector in the story is a stark figure for the point Jesus is trying to get across. The radical juxtaposition, the strange flip-flopping that happens now that Jesus is in charge of the Universe.

The good-guy? He will not be reckoned righteous before God, as long as his eyes are fixed on his own good -works.

The bad-guy? He WILL be reckoned righteous before God, because he fixed his eyes on his own un-worthiness.

The difference between the two men? In a word? → Penitence. The pharisee was not penitent. The tax-collector was.

II. Elucidating the theme

Which brings us to the great theme I wish to un-pack this morning: Penitence. Penitence. One of the single most important words for our Christian lives. Even the word itself is great! So many great words, over time, start to lose their power through familiarity and mis-use. “Grace” used to really mean something, and now it mostly means 'a short prayer before dinner'. “Awesome” used to mean 'full of awe', now it mostly just means 'cool'. Likewise with 'faith', and 'spiritual' and 'religion', all these words, don't illicit in our hearts what they once did. But 'penitence', on the other hand, 'penitence' still has razor-sharp teeth that bite us when we say it. It's a word that would quickly change the tone of a coffee or a cocktail conversation if it were mentioned. It's a word that makes even non-Christians pause for a brief moment – redolent as it is with depth and power and the great things of the Kingdom of Heaven. You can almost hear within it the dim sobs echoing from a medieval cathedral, “Penitence.”

Penitence is simply the state of being sorry for one's sins. Another word for it that you'll hear sometimes is contrition.

It is a disposition captured in the words of the old prayer book, “the remembrance of my sins is grievous unto me, and the burden of them is intolerable”, and like the Psalmist, to “water my bed with tears” for what I have done.

Penitence.

Penitence is more than feeling, it is a condition of the inner-man, but it is not less than a feeling. It includes feelings. We can see whether or not we have this Christian sensibility by looking at our feelings. When you think on sins you have done in the past? Are you filled with sadness and sorrow?

And let me be clear – this feeling is not to be confused with shame – the dark heavy feeling that actually keeps us from turning to God with our whole heart. No, it is the kind of Godly sorrow that, as St. Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 7 – leads us to repentance. It is a sorrow full of the light of God. Indeed, it is a sorrow that God himself in some deep place within us soothes with his own grace. As our Lord promised – blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

But it is an ever-present sadness nevertheless. Even though we know that in Christ, those sins which we have confessed to him are forgiven and put away from us as far as the east is from the west. Even though we know that God's mercy is everlasting. Nevertheless, the thought of our sins – sins past and, if we are honest in our self-examination: present sins also – the thought of them should sadden us. Should take us into the stooped posture of the tax-collector, asking God in a gentle voice, that he would show his kindness to us, in forgiving our sins.

III. How to not be the pharisee

But how do we get there? How do we come to be penitent, like the tax-collector in Jesus' story?

Well, the first step is to avoid being the pharisee. This is trickier than it sounds.

For instance, when you heard this story a few minutes ago, did you think to yourself: “man, what an arrogant pharisee, I'm glad I'm not like that!” Uh oh – do you see where that's headed? → “I thank you God, that I am not like other men, not like this pharisee in your story”

See, it's human-nature – in so many endeavors in the Christian life, our default mode is 'pharisee'. And this default mode has two characteristics: (I) Esteeming oneself too highly, and (II) judging others.

Before we can approach the tax-collector's sincerity in prayer, we need to – with God's help – knock these things off. We need to nip every judgmental thought about others in the bud. Whether we are assessing them as a citizen, or their culture or class, or their spiritual life, or their outward expressions of religious devotion, or whatever it is. We need to just stop playing the role of judge. Stop comparing them with ourselves. Stop making it a competition. Stop painting ourselves in the best possible light. Someone else is expressing themselves more in public prayer or worship? They're not being showy. It doesn't matter what they are, to you. Someone else seems to be “less mature” of a Christian – and I'm not just talking here at Good Shepherd, but also in your wider circles of Christian friends – the very fact we would entertain the thought assures us the opposite must be true – we must be the less mature ones, stuck in the world of petty judgments.

The flip side of that same coin of course, is esteeming ourselves too highly.

Like the pharisee – who takes stock of what he has done, and pats himself on the back for it.

As a matter of fact, I believe this might be the single greatest danger to our souls and to our spiritual health in 21st century America: Thinking of ourselves – as Christians – more highly than we ought.

If we think that we've already got ourselves pretty sorted out. That we're all set for heaven, that we've got this Christian thing down. Then boy are you in danger.

Because it's actually an essential trait of the vibrant, alive Christian life to be always discontent with where one is at in the present. Like Paul – we forget what is behind – and he's talking about the good things that are behind, and what he has accomplished – forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead. Philippians 3. Or like our Lord said – blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Not blessed are those who are happy with what they drank 10 years ago, but who thirst in the present. Whose longing for God is insatiable. Who is always wanting more. Wanting to do deeper. Wanting to comprehend more fully the great and terrible mystery of the suffering Christ who is our master.

In order to not be the pharisee, we have to not be satisfied with where we are in the present. And not because God is always moving the goal-posts on us. Not at all. The Goal-posts are always already very far away, but we trick ourselves by looking at the few little good things we have done, and thinking we've already gotten there, but that's just a mirage. The actual goal still lies ahead of us. Pressing on toward what is ahead.

IV. How to be penitent.

So that's step one – don't be a pharisee. But let's put this into practical terms that we can get our hands into a little bit more. How do we actually come to be truly penitent – sorry for our sins like the tax-collector?

We can't make ourselves feel things. Emotions don't work that way. If we don't feel sorry for our sins, we don't feel sorry for our sins. I often feel this way. But this is not how we should feel. At least not if we want to be justified before God, as our Lord shows us.

At root, the problem of self-satisfaction, that is – the failure to be sorry for our sins is a failure of estimation. We estimate our sins as either being small, or long ago in the past, and therefore not “attached” to us anymore. On both counts, we are of course wrong. Before the infinite, awful purity of God, even the slightest blemish is unbearable. Think of Isaiah, seeing just a glimpse of the glory of God, and falling to his face crying out, “Woe is me!!”

And even if the sins which nag our conscience were committed long ago – we must recall the figure our Lord uses for how the great judgment will go down at the end – that of a book. The books will be opened. The book of our life will be examined – as a whole. If there are terrible sins in the early chapters, they do not disappear by virtue of their being early on. No, they too are in need of the great mercy of God, of his sweet word of forgiveness, and they are still worthy of being sorrowful over.

But of course, we are more than just brains, and so, “thinking right” about these things will probably not get us there – to actually being among the penitent. The Church, in the wisdom given her from her head, Jesus Christ, has always known this, and so several practices have been recommended to all her sons and daughters, which can help get us there. Of these many practices, I want to recommend just one to you this morning, if you want to know more – feel free to call me this week and we can talk about it.

What I want to commend to you is making prayers of confession. First and foremost, I believe, this means the hard practice of making confession to God, in the presence of a priest. This is an exercise that I myself do about every 4 months – taking time beforehand to think through and ask God to shine light on my sins. It has been a great source of grace and growth in my life, and one of the many things I have learned from it is how even sins which in my mind feel small – when I force myself to say them outloud to one of God's priests, I actually get to see and hear how horrible they are. Indeed, I think I only ever began to truly feel Godly sorrow for my sins when I began going to confession.

I want you to know that I am always available to hear confessions – here or anywhere. And I will also, starting this Saturday, be making confession available from 10.30 – noon on Saturdays. If you're interested in this, but aren't quite sure what it means or how to do it – ask me about it, and I'll be glad to talk about it with you.

If you don't feel up for this just yet, nevertheless the practice of confessing sins is still a must – and our church, non-coincidentally, puts the words of confession on our lips every morning, in morning prayer. Which I encourage you to imitate – to confess your sins, concretely and generally, every day. Even if it's in the Lord's prayer, to take seriously when we say, forgive us our sins, and to recall which sins we need forgiveness for. Prayers of confession are essential for cultivating penitence in our hearts.

As we name our sins more regularly, and more concretely, and as we become more and more acquainted with the fact that we are sinners, in need of a savior, the Holy Spirit that God has placed in our hearts will soften our hardness. He will sand-away our pharisaical tendencies, and we will be made more and more like the tax-collector: sorry for our sins. This is my prayer for myself, and for you.

And as we approach the Holy Table here in just a minute, I invite you to look into these holy gifts of Christ's body and blood as into a mirror: That our sins are indeed so great that we need Christ himself to heal us, and that in this we see how great his love is for us – that he would gladly give himself on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven – if only we would stop glossing over them. Amen.