Bonhoeffer on Advent

A prison cell like [the one I’m in] is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter from Tegel Prison, Novembwer 21, 1943

What did Bonhoeffer, who ultimately lost his life to the evil of Nazism, mean by this? We wait in the darkness of our world and personal lives for the darkness of Evil, Sin, and Death to be finally and fully overcome. We are powerless to bring about this victory. Only the power of God is capable of such a mighty feat. That is our Advent hope as Christians. It is a hope based on the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and his promise to return to consummate his initial victory won on the cross and in his resurrection. Such a hope requires faith as we await the Master’s return—the focus of Advent. But It is the only hope that can fully satisfy because it is the only hope that addresses the evil of Death in bringing about God’s perfect justice. Is this your hope? If not, why are you wasting your time on a lesser, false hope that must ultimately fail you?

Fr. Philip Sang: The Four Last Things: Judgment

Sermon delivered on Advent 2C, Sunday, December 9, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 1.68-79; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6.

In ancient times, when a king was going to visit a city, he would send before him someone to herald his coming, someone to announce that he would be arriving soon. The herald would go around the city, and go before the leaders of the city, telling them all, “The king is coming. He will be here any day. So clean up your lives. Make sure you are all in obedience to the kings commands so that you will not be punished when he arrives.”

This herald also served as a city inspector. He would go around the city and make a list of things that needed to be fixed. He would tell them, “Clean up your city. Sweep your streets. Get rid of all the garbage lying around. Round up any criminals to make the city safe. Fix the roads; make them smooth and straight. Make sure the town is gleaming. Make sure the city is fit for a king to ride through.” It was an embarrassment for that city, and the people of the city, if they were not prepared when the king did arrive. It was also an insult to the king if they had not prepared properly for his arrival. If he came, and they were not prepared, he might pronounce some judgment and punishment upon the city and its rulers.

This is what we are seeing going on in today’s reading. The King is coming, and He has sent a herald to announce His imminent arrival. The king, of course, is Jesus Christ and the herald “the one who will pronounce His coming” is John the Baptist. John has come as a herald to make sure that the king’s subjects are well prepared for the king’s coming. John has come to prepare the way.

As Father Kevin mentioned last week the name of this season comes from the Latin word adventus, which means coming. Advent, then, is not simply the lead up to Christmas, but rather it is a season of preparing for the coming of Christ. This advent of Christ takes a threefold form which includes his coming in the flesh as a baby born of the womb of Mary, but also his coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his coming to us today in the midst of our daily lives. Last week we were reminded of the focus of our preaching this advent here at St, Augustine’s; Death, Judgement, heaven and Hell. Last sunday we looked at Death and this second Sunday of Advent I want to bring to our attention Christ’s coming in glory at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead.

We often think of judgment, the final judgment as this terrifying, harsh, dark thing, we see it uncomfortable, and it is scary.

But the judgment is supposed to be good news.

Because when we’re faced with the injustice, wars, corruption, sinfulness, killings, when we see these tragedies that we don’t even have words for in the news again and again, and the raw heartache and pain and the pure evil that is in our world, the only thing I know to say is that Jesus sees it too, and he’s coming back; he’s going to clean house. He’s coming to judge that evil, and he’s going to bring healing. He’s the only one who could bring healing, and he’s coming. Sometimes, when we see just unspeakable horrors being perpetrated, the good news we need, the only hope we have, is the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ. Because he can make things right.

Judgment is supposed to be good news. As N.T. Wright likes to point out, that’s why we see things like Psalm 96:11-13:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD.

Why? Why this jubilee? For he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

The whole earth, all of creation, is dancing for joy because the Lord is coming to judge the world, with righteousness, with truth. And don’t we need some righteousness and truth in this world? Well, they’re on their way. The Lord is coming to set things right. Judgment is what gives us hope, even in the face of the darkest evil, because the light is gonna shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

When we think about judgment this does not sound like Christmas, right? That’s true, but we are not here for Christmas, we are here for Advent. Because Advent is a season when we’re expecting Jesus, watching for his coming—not just in Bethlehem, but also to his coming back to this world to judge what is evil, heal what is broken, and make things right again.

And in a world of brokenness, a world of evil, we need that promise and hope of judgment.

As we look to the hope of judgement we need to understand that each person will have to account for his conduct, and the deepest secrets of his soul will come to light. How well each person has responded to the prompting of God’s grace will be made clear. Our attitude and actions toward our neighbor will reflect how well we have loved our Lord. “As often as you did it for one of My least brothers, you did it for Me” (Mt 25:41).

Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Death is not the end of our existence. That is what is so awesome about it. We are not mere material beings that simply go out of consciousness and decompose in the ground. This word from God stands over against the common evolutionary idea expressed, When the writer of Hebrew 9:27 says, “After death comes judgment,” that is exactly what it means. God does give damnation after death. And it is the most terrifying prospect in the universe, that we might be met after death with a holy and angry and omnipotent God holding us accountable for whether we trusted him and worshipped him and followed his ways in this life. That is a fearful prospect.

So when when the bible says that we have an appointment with death and after death with judgment, it means that it will be terrifying and a furious fire and a great act of divine vengeance even on those who claim to be part of God’s people, but are only external Christians.These are sobering realities. May God use them to wake us up and make us alive to what really matters in this world!

Advent – we reflect on Coming Death, coming Judgment, coming Heaven, and coming Hell. Remember, It is appointed for men once to die and after this the judgment. Death is appointed, and no one is exception. You only die once, and death is not the end; Judgment is our destiny’s door.

In the Name of God, the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit Amen.

The Four Last Things: Death

Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday, Year C, December 2, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Happy new year, St. Augustine’s! Today is Advent Sunday. We begin a new calendar year, a new lectionary cycle, and have lighted the first purple candle on our wreath that represents the patriarchs. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus (parousia in Greek), and means coming or arrival. Advent begins in the dark. It is a time for us as Christians to take stock of the darkness of a sin-sick and evil-infested world as well as the darkness of our own lives as we await God’s final defeat of the powers of Sin and Evil that sorely afflict us. Advent is a time for us to ask hard questions such as where is God in the middle of the darkness that afflicts us or why isn’t God acting to end the suffering and injustice and evil that exists in his world? But we must always ask these questions in light of our Christian hope that insists God actually is in the midst of our darkness and suffering and will come again to finally make all things right. Advent is therefore a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church focuses primarily on Christ’s Second Coming or his final advent as judge at the end of history to judge all that is wrong with the world and us. Advent is not part of the Christmas season but rather a preparation for it. Without Advent and its invitation for us to peer into the darkness, the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point, disappearing in the lights and other trappings of Christmas as secular society celebrates it, all designed to provide sentimental and festive good cheer, the kind that is false and will ultimately fail us because it is based on unreality.

Now in any parish that observes Advent, St. Augie’s being no exception, you will find two groups of people. One group, seeing the purple hangings and hearing the readings about sin, judgment, and the wrath of God, will perk up and say, Ah! Good. It’s Advent. It’s good for us to get real! The other group will look around and ask where the Christmas decorations are and grumble that we are not singing Christmas carols the way everybody else is. This second group, admittedly much larger than the first, tends to look at the first group as being touched in the head, and in a significant way. Why look into the darkness when you can have such pretty music and lights? But this misses the meaning and purpose of both Christmas and Advent with the latter’s call for us as Christians to live faithfully and with hope in the darkness of a sin-marred world, trusting in the only One who has the power to make all things new and right. In reality, of course, most of us are members of both groups. I confess that outside of church I am a Christmas junkie as secular society likes to play it. Our house, thanks to the Herculean efforts of my wife, is bursting with the gaiety of Christmas and my collection of Santa Clauses. But inside these walls, I am chastened to remember that all that glitters isn’t gold, that I need to focus on the hope and power of God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom God has promised to end our suffering and darkness forever. This focus on the end times makes Advent an appropriate time for us to reflect on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. While none of us really want to talk about these things (myself included), talk about them we must because they remind us of the reality of our standing before God without his merciful and gracious intervention on our behalf, and no amount of denial or discomfort on our part is going to change that fact. Better for us to think clearly and soberly about the human condition and our relationship with Almighty God than to whistle through the graveyard hoping everything will turn out all right in the end. So today we begin our preaching series on the Four Last Things by looking at Death.

Death is the greatest of humankind’s enemies, a relentless Grim Reaper that shows no respect for age or wealth. It robs parents of a precious child, leaving them to mourn their loss for the rest of their lives. I have been ministering to a woman afflicted in this way and it is heartbreaking to watch. It deprives wives and children of their breadwinner and protector, leaving them vulnerable in a hostile world. It takes away an aging spouse, leaving a senior citizen without a lifelong companion and closest friend when he/she needs that companionship and friendship the most. Sometimes it arrives suddenly and unannounced like it did with the recent wildfires in California. At other times it approaches slowly like it does with many diseases, stalking or taunting its helpless victim. Sometimes it hauls away its victims en masse like it does in the spate of mass shootings we’ve had to endure with disturbingly increasing frequency. On other occasions it targets individuals. It uses a variety of methods and weapons, but only rarely does it capture its prey without inflicting pain and terror. Power, beauty, and wealth can usually overcome any obstacle, but in death they meet their match. As the eighteenth-century poet Thomas Gray wrote, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike the inevitable hour; The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Scripture personifies death as being a hungry and crafty enemy (Isaiah 5.14; Habakkuk 2.5a) that uses snares to trap victims (Psalm 18.4–5) and sneaks through windows to grab children (Jeremiah 9.21). In Ecclesiastes the old Preacher declares that death renders everything in life meaningless. St. Paul called death the last enemy to be defeated whose fatal sting is caused by sin (1 Corinthians 15.28, 55–56; cf. Hosea 13.14), an inescapable (Ps 89.48; Ecclesiastes 8.8), terrifying (Hebrews 2:15) and relentless (Song 8.6) foe with which no one can strike a lasting bargain (Is 28:15,18). Ironically, death finds its origin in God, the giver of life, who decreed that death would be the ultimate penalty for disobedience to his revealed command (Genesis 2.17, 3.19; Psalm 90.3–11). When the first couple ate the forbidden fruit and rebelled against God, death accompanied sin into the world and has reigned over humankind ever since (Rom 5.12–21, 6.23; James 1.15).

Clearly then, death is a terrifying part of God’s judgment on our sin and all forms of evil that corrupt us and God’s good creation, and this makes us very afraid. We hear it in this morning’s psalm with the psalmist’s desperate cry to God to forgive and rescue him. This is a classic Advent theme because it is a prayer of waiting that contains a mixture of desperation and hope. The psalmist doesn’t tell us what his sins and transgressions are that he fears his enemies will discover. Like us, he keeps his sins secret. But they aren’t hidden from God and the psalmist knows it. And so he pleads for God to act on his behalf in mercy and grace. If we understand this dynamic, we are close to understanding the meaning of Advent.

Likewise, our fears about death are heightened when we read Jesus’ warnings about the trials and tribulations that would one day beset Jerusalem because of its rejection of him as God’s true Messiah. We are afraid of trials and tribulations, in part, because in the context of our gospel lesson, Jesus clearly saw them as being part of God’s judgment on our sin, and we know we are not immune to that judgment. As we contemplate this, we know that death with its power to sweep us and our loved ones away is part of that judgment. An honest admission of our standing before God without his gracious intervention on our behalf is also part of observing a true Advent because we know we are powerless to prevent our own death. We can exercise like crazy, eat right, and take great care of ourselves, but we will still die, and no amount of facelifts, tummy tucks, boob-jobs, vitamin regimens, miracle drugs or anything else, including the Christmas cheer we attempt to create to distract us from this grim reality, is going to change that fact.

But we are Christians and so we have real hope, the sure and certain expectation that God has acted and will finally act to rescue us from his fierce judgment on our sins and the death that results. We see it in our gospel lesson where our Lord tells us not to cower in fear when we hear or experience great trials and tribulations, but rather to stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is near. Why is our redemption near? Is it because we find special favor in God’s sight or are exempt from God’s judgment and death because we are somehow deserving of God’s favor? Of course not. We are sinners like everyone else. What is different is that we have seen the power of God at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus and we believe it is the only power under heaven that has the power to rescue us from God’s wrath on our sins. We see this promise echoed in our OT lesson with God’s promise to send his people a Messiah to rescue them from the exile their sins have caused and to rescue us from our exile to death that our sins have caused. And so God in his great mercy and love promises to set all things right and rescue us in the process so that we do not suffer ultimate destruction. God did this, of course, by sending his Son to die for us and absorb God’s terrible wrath that was reserved for us, thus freeing us from having to suffer it and removing any reason for us to fear God’s wrath and death anymore. We don’t fear death because we know its power over us has been broken forever in our Lord’s resurrection that gives us a glimpse of what awaits us. 

And what awaits us as Christians? Resurrection and new creation. Because we have been freed from Sin’s tyranny by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and because we know the power of death has been broken by Christ’s resurrection, we no longer need to be afraid. Of course, God’s victory over the power of Sin and its partner death has not yet been fully realized. We must wait for the Master’s return for that to happen (Mark 13.35). But Advent proclaims the Master will return and God’s initial victory will be fully consummated so that we can live in this life as people with real joy and hope that is not contingent on the circumstances of this world. It is contingent on the love and power of God. When that day comes, our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead and reanimated by the power of the Spirit, not by flesh and blood. God the Son will judge all things on behalf of God the Father and bring into existence a new world, the new heavens and earth, that will be suitable for our new bodies to live in forever, and where there will be no more sighing, sorrow, sickness, death, tears, alienation, loneliness, or disease. Ever. To be sure, this is a future promise and expectation, and that can drive us crazy in a world that demands instant gratification. But think of a future without this hope, where death and eternal destruction is your destiny. See how that works out for you and as you live out your mortal days. 

So what are we to do in the interim? Does our future hope and promise mean that we have to wait to have a real relationship with God? Of course not. Eternal life starts right now because God hasn’t given up on us or his creation. It involves living our lives together in righteousness and faith based on a real hope that God is good to his word. God gives us his Spirit to live and love each other as a renewed family, the people of God formed around his eternal Son Jesus Christ, who is our only life and hope. This is what St. Paul is getting at in our epistle lesson today. Loving God and each other, engaging in God’s word and the sacraments, all allow us to peer into the darkness and realize that the night will not last forever, that the forces of evil, including death, have been defeated and will one day be vanquished at the last judgment. This is what Advent is about. It means living with a lively and real faith in Christ, realizing that God could have chucked us and his entire creation and started over but didn’t because God loves us and wants us to live, not die. Let that knowledge heal and transform you as you peer into the darkness this Advent. Let it heal you because you know that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. That’s the hope and anticipation of Advent, my beloved, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Fr. Santosh Madanu: Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe

Sermon delivered on Christ the King Sunday B, November 25, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of todays’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1.4-8; John 18.33-37.

An internet meme that was circulating several weeks during the presidential election, a picture of Jesus Christ, the King and it said “no matter who is elected President, Jesus Christ is still the King.”  Never have we needed to hear that message more than we’ve needed it at this present time.

It’s Christ the King Sunday.  This beautiful feast emerged from a period of great persecutions.  It is not an ancient feast.   It was first added in 1925 by the Roman Catholic Church in response to increasing secularization movements in the world wide, but in particular to the plight of Mexican Christians who were being told by the government that the government was due ultimate allegiance. At that time, it was strong sense of symbolic power.  The Russian communists came to power with the Revolution of October 1917 and Italian Fascists in October 1922 with their march on Rome.  The specific instance for the pope to make it a solemn feast was the martyrdom of the Catholic priest, Father Miguel Pro, during the revolution in Mexico whose shout and gesture just before his execution,

 “Viva Cristo Rey!” rang throughout the entire church.  The institution of this feast was almost an act of defiance by the church against the dictators who at the time were seeking to make absolute their own political ideologies, insisting boldly that no earthly power, no particular political power, military dictatorship is ever absolute.  The feast was and is restate that only the kingdom of God is Absolute. And that this kingdom is everyone’s source of power.  The year 1925 was also the sixteenth century of the Council of Nicaea which in the year 325 defined, proposed and added to the Creed the words “of His Kingdom there will be no end.” 

So today our voices come alongside those persecuted for their faith in all times and places, including in Mexico in the early twentieth century and the thousands facing persecution all over the world this very day, and with them we all proclaim in many languages, “Christ is King! Cristo Rey!”

 We read in the scripture that Christ is the King.  It starts with the expression “King of Israel and extended to that of universal King, Lord of the cosmos, and of history.  The testimonies of prophets is abundant.  In Samuel, we learn part of the Old Testament definition, as Jewish Kings were expected to be different from their gentile counterparts.  Initially led by Judges, the Israelites prayed to God to appoint a Jewish King.  Saul was the first, but David demonstrated better than any other monarch of Yahweh’s care and concern for His chosen people.  David was expected to “shepherd” His people, not to lord it over them.  He was expected to be outward sign of Yahweh’s care and love.

The same doctrine of the Kingship of Christ which we find in the O.T is more clearly taught and confirmed in the N.T.   The early followers of Jesus were just as convinced that God’s care and love for them was demonstrated through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection.  The historical Jesus is the outward sign of God’s kingdom of love and Truth.

Standing before  Pilate in the Pretorium, the very heart of political power, Jesus bears witness to the Truth that real power is not the ability to coerce others, but the strength to love; that true control is about the self-sacrifice; that the real life is found only through death itself.  In doing so Jesus turns our human values upside down and proclaims a new and radical form of kingship. In this encounter with Pilate, Jesus Christ offers an example for all, who like Christ, are called to bear witness to the Truth through their lives.  Throughout in the Gospel of Luke’s passion narrative, no matter how much pain Jesus is suffering, he is always concerned for others.

The cross is the paradoxical sign of His Kingship, which consists in following the loving will of God the Father in response to the disobedience of sin.  It is very offering of Himself in the sacrifice of his life that Jesus becomes King of the universe.  After the Resurrection he declares to his apostles:  “all authority in heaven and on earth has given to me.” Matthew 28:18

Regardless of who is in Washing or who rules in the capitals of the world, Jesus Christ is the only one true King of the universe.  Because “Jesus Christ same yesterday, today and forever Hebrews 13:8. The Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, all things belongs to him, and all the ages, to him be glory and power through every age forever.” Amen.

In what does the power of Jesus Christ the King consist?

It is not the power of great people of this world.  It is the power of Love that can save the human race from evil, sin and death.    Jesus showed us his greatest humility and love. Jesus alone could justify the glory of God.  Because he is anointed one, the messiah, the true king.

Personally, I don’t like the earthly kings who made his people slaves, who were power minded and wealth minded, who ruled the people unjustly and showed prejudices.  They were the cause of violence and wars. They were the cause of death of millions of innocent people.  Of course even today we see same kind of things going on in the world with the different name tags like dictatorship in North Korea and kings in the Middle East countries; presidents and prime ministers with their discrimination based on regions, color and religions.

I want King Jesus, who loves me, who makes me rich in virtues and blesses me with His grace.  I need Jesus my king who is absolutely Truthful, absolutely Peaceful, absolutely Loving and absolutely Compassionate. I desire the king who can save me from this evil and unjust world.

If we choose the evil king he would poison us and destroy us.  Whom do you want to choose? The earthly kings, who make us slaves or the heavily king Jesus who grants you freedom and eternal life.

Jews wanted king like other nations in the beginning and when the true king Jesus came they rejected him.  They said to Piolet we have no king but Caesar.  The consequences for not accepting Jesus as the only true king will be perishing and can’t enter the kingdom of God.

When Pilate asked Jesus, Are you the King of Jews?  Jesus answered “I came into the world to testify to the truth and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  I accept whole heartedly that Jesus is my king and my all.  He owns my life and I belong to him and I listen to His voice of love, truth and his teaching of kingdom of God.

“Jesus says I am the way, the truth and the life.” John 14:6

What does it mean to say that Christ is my King?

It means that I belong to Jesus.  I obey His commandments. I submit totally to His love. I trust in Him. I have faith and hope in Him that he would grant me His eternal life. I am convinced that Jesus is the son of ever Living God, the Messiah, who died for my sins, who utterly spends Himself in love and in Him I subject to the Mercy and love of the God the Father.

Who do I want to follow?

Choosing Christ does not guarantee success according to world’s criteria, but assures the true peace and true joy that Christ the King alone can give us.  Choosing Christ is to make one’s life into sign of the Cross, preach Christ by daily living in His Truth in mind, heart and will.  It demands loving voluntary commitment in doing God’s will. You and I have to take upon ourselves the yoke of Christ to be saved. It is your choice, your freedom to make Christ your king or not.

Let us not be Saturday or Sunday Christians.  Society without Christ is chaos. You and I can’t make any difference being namely baptized Christians. To accept Jesus is to avoid sin.

I would like to use the analogy to help us realize the necessity to make sincere efforts and importance of being practical Christians.

Let us say you want to become good musician as a pianist or guitarist, or violin. What do you do? You practice it day after day and your hands would be paining, sometimes you would feel discouraged.  You have to spend time months and years in practice and you should persuade it till you feel confidence to play well the music instrument.

In the same way to be citizen of Kingdom of God, you and I must accept Jesus as our king and keep the commandment of unselfish love till our last breath.

The church prays to the Father in every Eucharistic celebration that Thy Kingdom come and Thy will be done. Matthew 6:10.  She lives in fervent expectation of an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of Truth and the Life; a kingdom of holiness and grace; a kingdom of justice, peace and love.   This expectation of the Lord is our constant source of confidence and strength.

Please say with me “Viva Cristo Rey!” Christ is the King. Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe. Amen.

Thanksgiving 2018: A Thanksgiving Prayer

Almighty and gracious Father,
we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season
and for the labors of those who harvest them.
Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty,
for the provision of our necessities
and the relief of all who are in need,
to the glory of your Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

Thanksgiving 2018: A Thanksgiving Litany

Let us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea.
We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,
We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, Lord.

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,
We thank you, Lord.

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,
We thank you, Lord.

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,
We thank you, Lord.

Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and promises given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord;
To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

A Healing Faith

Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday before Advent, November 18, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different than the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Today we conclude our preaching series on the letter to the Hebrews. It is appropriate that we do so on a Sunday designated as one of our quarterly healing services because the letter’s theme is the basis for our ultimate healing as we live out our mortal days. This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

Our epistle lesson reaches a crescendo of sorts in which the writer comes to the climax of his argument about the sacrifice of Christ. Last week we considered the grim fact that we are all slaves to that outside and hostile power we call Sin, and as long as we are enslaved by its power, we can and should expect nothing but God’s judgment and wrath on us. It is truly a fearsome prospect for anyone who cares at all about his or her relationship with God. But we also saw that because of Christ, God has freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin. Now today, the writer reinforces this truth for us. He tells us that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins was and is so efficacious (having the power to accomplish that which it intends), that our Lord sat down at the right hand of God. What in the world does that mean? It means, as the writer of Hebrews goes on to say, that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross on our behalf was perfect, that when sins are truly forgiven, there is no more need for sacrifices. Because there was nothing further for Christ to do for us to effect our salvation and reconciliation to God, he could sit down or rest because his job was complete. Mission impossible for us, but mission accomplished for God the Father. On the cross, Sin’s power over us has been broken because the powers behind it have been defeated. And because of that, our sins have been forgiven and we enjoy full reconciliation with God. God will remember our sins no more because he has dealt with them, as well as the power behind them, the power of Sin, once and for all by judging our sins in Christ’s body on the cross. As St. Paul tells us, there is now no condemnation for those who belong to Christ because in him, God condemned our sins in the flesh (not Jesus) so as to spare us from his holy and right wrath on our evildoing (Romans 8.1-5). To be sure, there is an aura of mystery in all this as is fitting when the Almighty acts on our behalf in such a great and powerful way. Were we to understand fully all that happened in Jesus’ death, I suspect it would not be from God at all, but rather of our own making. 

So God the Father has dealt with the vexing problem of Sin and Evil in and through God the Son. We celebrate and proclaim this accomplishment each week when we come to Christ’s holy Table to feed on our Lord’s body and blood. Listen carefully to the words of institution as the bread and wine are consecrated and you will hear once again what Christ’s sacrifice accomplished. When by faith we accept his sacrifice as completely sufficient to deal with our sins, awful as they might be, flawed and broken as we are, several things happen. First, we believe the conditions that prevent us from entering into God’s direct presence, namely the filthy rags that are our sins, have been removed and we have full access to God the Father. We no longer need to fear coming into God’s holy presence because our sins have been dealt with and God remembers them no more. We are made pure, despite who we are, to stand in the Lord’s presence. That starts here and now and will be fully consummated one day in God’s new world where we will live directly in God’s presence forever. This is a massively important promise for us to consider and accept by faith because most of us, most of the time, have something that hangs heavy on our hearts, something we’ve said or done that we wish we hadn’t, something that haunts us and makes us afraid of being found out. How wonderful, then, to know that Christ’s sacrifice has the power, if we accept it by faith and trust—and that’s the key, to accept it by faith and trust—to wash every stain from our conscience so that we can come to God without any shadow falling across our relationship. That’s what the writer is getting at when he talks about our hearts being sprinkled clean from an evil conscience by the blood of the Lamb.

But we want to protest. That’s too good to be true! No one deserves a gift like that! Where’s the justice? Surely I must make amends somehow as part of the bargain. If you think along these lines, STOP IT!! Stop it now!! That is from the devil and your own pride. To think this way means you think you can somehow effect your own salvation. Wrong. It also means you are calling the Word of God a lie and do not believe in the love of God poured out for you on the cross so that you could be his and not Sin’s, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go there. No, the writer is crystal clear about this issue. The blood of Christ shed for us is sufficient to reconcile us to God and make us fit to live in God’s presence, just like our first ancestors did before the Fall. If you are interested at all in ending your anxieties that have their root in being separated from God because of your sins and the related mental, spiritual, and bodily illnesses that flow from those anxieties, start right here with this promise and believe it, my beloved. As the writer tells us, call on the Lord and he will bless you with his Spirit and confirm to you the truth of this astonishing claim, thanks be to God. Amen? This confession of hope about Christ’s sacrifice being sufficient to deal with all your sins and free you from Sin’s power will get you through the darkest hours of your life because it addresses the heart of all our problems and the evil in this world, and it is based on the promises of God who is completely trustworthy and faithful to his promises.

Second, and related to our first point, when we put our whole hope and trust in the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for us to free us from our sins and reconcile us to God, it must change us, and for the better. Our writer tells us that we are to encourage each other, to love each other, and to do good deeds. Christ’s sacrifice is not a license for us to continue living in the darkness. If you think that Jesus died so that you can sin freely, think again and consider the following verses that follow our epistle lesson this morning. “Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth [about Jesus’ sacrifice for sin] there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire [of God’s judgment] that will consume his enemies” (Hebrews 10.26-27). Jesus did not suffer and die for us so that we could continue living in the darkness and thus face God’s ultimate condemnation and wrath. What kind of loving God would want that? And who in their right mind would want to return to being a slave of Sin after having tasted real freedom? No, Christ’s death frees us to live for him and his perfect and holy goodness, and we are promised Christ’s help to live this way in the power and person of his Spirit and each other. Being a Christian is not about trying to tough it out on our own. If we attempt that, we are doomed to failure and lose all motivation to live a good life for God. That’s why there’s no such thing as an isolate Christian. It’s an oxymoron. That’s also why we must continue to meet together so that we can encourage each other and be encouraged. When the Spirit is around, we sense it immediately because there is health, goodness, and vitality in the air, and it’s patently obvious he is with us when we gather as St. Augustine’s. I sense it and have had countless visitors tell me that. This in itself should encourage and provoke us to do good and to love each other. It also serves to remind us that the Word of God is true as we see its promises fulfilled in our life together.

And we’re going to need to draw on all this truth and encouragement because as all our lessons attest, we live in evil times and our faith is tested regularly. We hear about the awful wildfires in California. We read about mass murders on a regular basis. We are dismayed at all the bitterness and rancor in our society. We suffer hurts and setbacks and illnesses of all kinds. We lose loved ones to death, sometimes in unjust and untimely ways. We see a drift away from traditional Judeo-Christian values in our culture and it makes us angry and afraid. These things (and more) make us wonder if God has abandoned us. But all our lessons insist that God has NOT abandoned us. In our OT lesson the prophet warns of perilous times to come during which there will be great anguish as God’s people are persecuted and killed. But then he promises God’s deliverance. In our gospel lesson, Jesus warns of awful times ahead for God’s people, but implies deliverance when he talks about the beginning of birth pangs, presumably the beginning of God’s new creation. The psalmist speaks of the futility of worshiping any other god than the living God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. And our epistle lesson speaks of Jesus sitting down at God’s right hand, NT parlance for ruling, until his enemies are defeated. All these writings, and dozens more, testify and remind us that the evil we experience in our lives is under God and his Christ’s authority and are part of God’s inscrutable plan of redemption. They call us not to understand why, but to believe God is working even now to advance Christ’s victory over the dark powers accomplished on the cross and to be consummated at his return. 

So how does this relate to us as God’s people in Christ? We are called to be part of the cosmic battle to defeat Christ’s enemies! But we don’t use the weapons of the world to fight the fight because to do so means we have already capitulated to the darkness. Instead, we are to put on the whole armor of God—peace that comes from our faith in Christ’s sacrifice for us, God’s truth and righteousness, God’s word in Scripture, and prayer (Ephesians 6.1-18). Every time we refuse to repay evil with evil, every time we forgive where forgiveness is undeserved or unwarranted, every time we pray for the welfare and conversion of our enemies’ hearts, every time we refuse to slander or act maliciously or denigrate or gossip or seek revenge, to name just a few, we help put Christ’s enemies under his feet. Again we want to protest. We try doing these things and nothing seems to happen! Patience, humility, and faith my impatient, proud, and skeptical ones. Persevere and rejoice that you are called to battle for your Lord Jesus and to suffer for his Name when necessary because this is how the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven. God can and does use your suffering for his redemptive purposes. You’ve got God’s word that you’ve been rescued from your slavery to Sin and Death and from his terrible wrath on your sins. You believe this promise because you know that God is trustworthy and you know God’s love for you poured out on the cross of Jesus Christ. You have other Christians here to encourage and support you because we all need the human touch. Don’t be a proud and arrogant fool; use this precious resource! You’ve got the testimony of the prophets that God foreknew the evil that plagues his world and you, and he’s done something about it, unexpected and astonishing as it may be. And you’ve got the hope and promise of God’s new world of which you will be part, despite who you are and the sins you have committed, because of God’s great love for you made known supremely in Christ’s sacrifice for your sins. Let all that heal and transform you by believing it so that you too may stand firm in the power of the Lord and proclaim all he has done for you and his broken and hurting world, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

The (Not Always So Obvious) Kingdom of God

Sermon delivered on the third Sunday before Advent B, November 11, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Today marks the beginning of the brief season of kingdomtide, where we focus on the kingship of our Lord Jesus. This season culminates in the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of our church calendar year. Thus we turn to the royal color of red—I do look extra stylish in red, don’t you think?—to help remind us of this royal focus (although green is still acceptable as we are still in so-called ordinary time of the calendar). You’ll also notice the readings begin to shift their focus more to the future with the promise of the Lord making his reappearance to consummate his saving work. Now that you’ve had a brief lesson on the church calendar, we can turn our attention to the matter at hand and focus on the letter to the Hebrews. What are we to make of our epistle lesson’s strange claims about blood sacrifice to remove sin and Christ entering heaven to appear directly before God on our behalf? What can that possibly have to do with us? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

You recall that last week during our celebration of the feast of All-Saints we talked about our sure and certain Christian hope of living in God’s direct presence in the new creation. But here’s the problem with that. As Scripture makes clear, living in God’s presence can be a dangerous proposition. Just ask, for example, Korah and his followers who rebelled against the Lord in the wilderness and were swallowed alive by the earth or consumed by fire (Numbers 16), or Uzzah who was struck dead because he reached out to prevent the Ark of God from falling off its cart as it was being transported to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6.6-8). The reason living with God is a dangerous proposition for humans is because God is holy and we are not. We are sin-stained and God in his perfect goodness and righteousness cannot allow any kind of profane or sinful thing to remain in his presence. Something has to be done on our behalf.

This ought to make sense to us, at least on one level. Consider our Lord’s condemnation of the religious leaders in today’s gospel lesson. Here were the very folks charged with teaching God’s people how to be God’s people, but they were more interested in their own status and honor. Worse yet, Jesus accused them of robbing and extorting widows, people who represent the most vulnerable in society and who have God’s special attention and concern. No wonder Jesus warned of their condemnation. Or closer to home, consider the terrible events in the news this past of week. Twelve more innocent people were murdered in yet another mass shooting, with the murderer taking his own life. This on top of deadly wildfires in northern and southern California that are consuming entire communities, causing multiple fatalities and great anxiety as families wonder if their loved ones are safe. It is a heart-wrenching thing to watch. Or consider the recently completed midterm elections with its accompanying bombardment of attack ads that focus on destroying the character and integrity of one’s opponent. Never mind the pressing issues at hand. It’s all about claiming your opponent is the sorriest excuse for a human being that ever lived. I don’t know about you, but by election day, I was about ready to scream. Now tell me, could a good and right God who is absolutely opposed to any kind of evil allow that in his space? Would you, could you really believe in a good and just God if he didn’t put an end to this kind of stuff? Would you really want to live in the new creation forever knowing that there was violence, rancor, suffering, and injustice of all kinds, always wondering if you could be the next victim? I know I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to live forever in a world like that and if a Sin-corrupted person like me wouldn’t want that, I’m pretty sure it’s a safe bet that God doesn’t want that either.

What we are talking about, of course, is the problem of Sin, that alien and hostile power that has entered God’s good world to enslave us by its power. I’m not talking about our various acts of wrongdoing or thinking, or our sins. Frankly they are not the real problem; they are the awful symptoms of the real problem—our slavery to the power of Sin. Biblically speaking, to be enslaved by the power of Sin is much worse than our various wrongdoings, heinous as some of them are. To be in Sin means to be catastrophically separated from the eternal and healing love of God. It means to be separated from God’s heavenly banquet with all its wholeness, healing, and joy, with no hope of ever being allowed in (think the parable of Lazarus, Luke 16.19-31) for reasons we’ve just seen. To be enslaved in Sin means that greed, violence, cruelty and the like will continue unabated in our lives and God’s world because we are hopelessly trapped in our own worse self and miserably aware of the chasm between the way we are and the way God created us to be. This latter knowledge can and does lead many to self-loathing and despair as many of us can attest first-hand. No matter how frequently we resolve to do better, no matter how guilty we feel, no matter how much we are determined to repent of our sins, it’s not enough. Our repentance cannot free us from our slavery to the power of Sin because it is far greater than our will and our mortal power. To repeat, the point is not about the wrongdoings we may have done, troubling and destructive as they might be. The point is that they are symptoms of a far deeper and more consequential problem for us: Our enslavement to an outside and evil power (Sin) that is hostile to God’s creative purposes and bent on destroying all that is good in God’s creation, and we are unable to free ourselves from its grip.

Why am I spending so much time on this? Well, I love calling you all miserable sinners and making you feel rotten and guilty. Plus, it irritates my wife to no end, value added. But I also have a more legitimate reason. If we are going to grasp the significance and relevance of our epistle lesson this morning, we have to be crystal clear in our thinking about the enormous gravity of the problem of Sin. When we understand we are slaves to it and are powerless to free ourselves from its grip, we begin to focus on the real problem and better appreciate God’s solution that can lead to real repentance. We understand, for example, why St. Paul would make the strange statement that our enemies are not other humans but the dark powers behind the evildoing, i.e., the power of Sin (Ephesians 6.12), so that we learn how to really call on the name and power of the Lord. A grieving mother of a murder victim in California raged that she didn’t want people’s prayers. She wanted gun control. Her anger is understandable and I can only imagine her pain and grief; my heart breaks for her. But she misses the point in her rage and grief. Until Sin’s power is broken and people’s lives transformed by the radical love of Christ crucified, acts like this will become increasingly common and no amount of legislation, however good and effective it is, will solve the problem because human solutions cannot overcome Sin’s grip on us that causes us, for example, to shoot others for no apparent reason. I am not suggesting we take no action. That would fly in the face of the witness of Scripture as seen powerfully in our OT lesson today about Ruth. What I am saying is that ultimately human solutions will be incomplete and only partially effective because of the radical nature of Evil.

Moreover, understanding our slavery to Sin actually helps us to not despise or loathe ourselves because as we’ve seen, our individual sins are not the real problem. When we understand the real problem of Sin as we’ve just discussed it, we start to see ourselves as God sees us: as victims who have become hopelessly enslaved by a power from which we cannot free ourselves, hard as we might try, and who desperately need God’s help. We acknowledge this reality every time we confess that “there is no health in us” in the General Confession. We don’t confess this so that we can self-loathe, reminding ourselves how rotten we are. We confess this to acknowledge our slavery to Sin and God’s ability and willingness to free us from our slavery. Don’t misunderstand. We are responsible for our wrongdoing and wrong thinking—the devil may have made us do it but we are still the ones who did it and therefore responsible for it—and there are some people who truly have been consumed by the power of Evil and who are past redemption. But those people, by the grace of God, are thankfully a small minority. For the vast majority of us, when we get our thinking right about the real problem of Sin and its enslaving power over us, it helps us hear the Good News of Jesus Christ about which our epistle lesson speaks and to which we now turn.

So if we truly are slaves to Sin’s power and helpless to free ourselves from its grip, what’s the solution? As we’ve seen, left on our own, we are doomed to live a hellish existence with occasional periods of respite to provide us with some distraction and relief. But break the power of Sin and everything changes. The basis for God’s healing us and freeing us from our bondage to Sin are established and real transformative change, however slowly, however idiosyncratic, is possible. That’s the punchline. So how does God accomplish our rescue? The writer of Hebrews tells us today and throughout his entire letter. That’s why we should read Hebrews regularly because it is the only NT book that focuses almost exclusively on Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin. But if we don’t understand the real nature of the problem, we’ll never come close to understanding the love of God expressed for us on the cross. God foreknew our predicament and our slavery to Sin. But God did not create us to be Sin’s slaves. He created us to be his image-bearers with all its relational implications. And so in God’s wisdom, love, mercy, and justice, God acted to break Sin’s power over us because only God has the power to free us from its power. So long before we were ever aware of Sin and our slavery to its power, God moved to defeat its power over us and free us. But God did this in the most unexpected way, by becoming human, or in NT parlance, by sending his only begotten Son to suffer and die in our place so as to break Sin’s power over us and reconcile us to God so that we could stand in God’s direct presence without having to fear being destroyed by his perfect holiness. his is the achievement of the cross. This is Christ’s achievement on our behalf, thanks be to God!

In our epistle lesson today, the writer of Hebrews speaks of the high priest who atoned for Israel’s sins once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The chief function of priests in ancient Israel was to mediate God’s presence among God’s people so that God could live with them without destroying them for reasons we’ve discussed. Each year the high priest would offer an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people who in turn would confess them and declare their repentance. But as we’ve seen this was doomed to failure because humans don’t have the power to break our slavery to Sin. Only God has that power. But here the writer tells us that Jesus made the perfect sacrifice to God to atone for our sins. His sacrifice was and is perfect because Jesus is fully God and fully human and because Jesus remained sinless. He therefore could make reparations or atone for our sins once and for all that have alienated us from God and each other. In doing so, the writer also tells us that Jesus broke Sin’s power over us so that we might no longer be slaves to it. This happened long before we knew we were ever sinners and independently of any guilt we might feel over our sins. God acted before we ever did one wrong thing. The NT writers don’t spend a lot of time talking about how Christ’s death accomplished all that, just that his sacrifice was and is fully efficacious, i.e., it has the power to produce its desired results, in this case freeing us from our slavery to Sin and reconciling us to God, which was always God’s intention. That’s why it only had to happen once and was available to all before and after Christ’s atoning death. This is our only hope and chance to be freed from our bondage to Sin because only God is more powerful than Sin’s power.

But we all know that we’re not totally free of Sin’s power in this mortal life. We all still commit sins from time to time. Yet the NT writers insist that in Jesus’ death we are freed from our slavery to Sin and so we are called to accept the claim on faith—enigmatic, mysterious, and impenetrable as Jesus’ work on the cross may be. When we do, the writer of Hebrews promises that when Jesus appears again at his second coming, he will fully consummate his saving work started with his atoning death when he raises our dead bodies and banishes Evil and Sin forever. And so we live in hope, the sure and certain expectation of things to come because of the Lord’s trustworthiness. As the writer warns, judgment for our sins there will be. But because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us, we will hear the verdict of not guilty because the Son of God has born God’s terrible judgment on our sins and freed us from the power behind those sins. When we realize the depth of the problem and God’s gracious and wondrous solution to it before we ever turned to Jesus in faith, it helps us bear the fruit of repentance in the truest sense of the word. God acted on our behalf to free us from that which would ultimately condemn and kill us. We certainly don’t deserve this love and mercy but it’s ours for the taking. I could talk about what that means for us in the living of our days, but I want to stop here so that we can all contemplate and focus on this wondrous love, goodness, justice, and mercy of God. Amen?

Without the blood of Christ shed for us, none of us has the hope of new creation because none of us could stand in the perfect and holy presence of God the Father. God knew the problem and what needed to be done about it from all eternity, and has God freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power. God did not accomplish this by sending in the tanks and routing the enemy in a spectacular military victory, at least not this time. Instead God saved us by becoming human and dying on a cross to transform our hopeless human condition and then working behind the scenes in and through faithful humans who trust in God’s goodness and power to fulfill his promises to us. That’s one of the main points of Ruth. The Good News is that God has acted on our behalf to restore us to himself forever, albeit in a surprising and unexpected way (at least from a human perspective) just as he always intended. There is much ahead of us and many unanswered questions. But when we put our hope and trust in Jesus our Savior and let him claim us in a positive way like Sin has claimed us in a negative way, we will be transformed and healed, not completely in this world but surely in the new creation. In letting Christ claim us, we also proclaim to the world that we trust this King of kings and Lord of lords to rescue us from all that hate us and want to destroy us. I cannot think of anything more relevant to the living of our days than this, my beloved. Ponder this Good News of Jesus Christ that is yours and commit yourself to him in the power and grace of God the Father mediated through the Holy Spirit. Let it heal and transform you, one minute at a time, so that you too may be refreshed and equipped to serve the Lord who loves you and gave himself for you to rescue you from all Evil and darkness, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

A Prayer for Veterans’ Day 2018

Governor of Nations, our Strength and Shield:
we give you thanks for the devotion and courage
of all those who have offered military service for this country:

For those who have fought for freedom;
for those who laid down their lives for others;
for those who have borne suffering of mind or of body;
for those who have brought their best gifts to times of need.
On our behalf they have entered into danger,
endured separation from those they love,
labored long hours, and borne hardship in war and in peacetime.

Lift up by your mighty Presence those who are now at war;
encourage and heal those in hospitals
or mending their wounds at home;
guard those in any need or trouble;
hold safely in your hands all military families;
and bring the returning troops to joyful reunion
and tranquil life at home;

Give to us, your people, grateful hearts
and a united will to honor these men and women
and hold them always in our love and our prayers;
until your world is perfected in peace.

All this we ask through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

For All the Saints: New Creation and the Abolition of Death

Sermon delivered on All-Saints’ Sunday B, November 4, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to list to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21.1-6a; John 11.32-44.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Today is All-Saints’ Sunday, the Sunday where we celebrate the communion of saints, those saints who have died in Christ and who are enjoying their rest with him, as well as those of us in Christ who still struggle in this mortal life with all of its joys and sorrows and everything in between. But why do we celebrate the Feast of All-Saints? Other than giving us a chance to remember our dearly departed—never a bad thing—what difference does it make if we have a robust belief in the communion of saints? To answer that question, we must look beyond the saints and see the power of God at work. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Death under any circumstance is extremely hard, isn’t it? Death is the ultimate form of dehumanization. We don’t get a do-over with death. It separates us permanently from our loved ones and tends to leave us angry and/or without hope. Death can also be the ultimate form of injustice. We’ve had people in our parish family who have lost loved ones to a drunk driver. We have folks who have lost loved ones prematurely to the wicked monster of cancer. We’ve had folks lose loved ones slowly over time to the evil of Alzheimer’s. Many of us have watched our parents or grandparents grow old and infirm and waste away, and it is heartbreaking. On a broader scale, we are bombarded with news of mass murder, horrific accidents, heinous crimes, drug fatalities and all the rest. None of these folks deserved to suffer and die the way they did, especially when they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or happened to have the wrong genetic makeup. Where’s the justice in that? We can punish murderers but it won’t bring back our loved ones. We might find cures for some of the evil diseases that afflict our bodies but our loved ones are still gone. Where’s the justice, especially for violent or senseless deaths? No matter what we do, no matter how severely we punish evildoers or rage against the evil and injustice of death, our loved ones are still dead and we are still separated from them for the remainder of our mortal life. 

All this can make us wonder where God is in it all. Why does God allow such suffering and death to occur? Part of the answer is that Death reigns because the power of Sin reigns in this world and our lives (Genesis 3ff), and as St. Paul reminds us, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6.23). None of us escape it. We can eat right, exercise like crazy, and take very good care of ourselves. The result? We all die because we all have been enslaved by the power of Sin. But this answer is not ultimately a satisfactory one. A life-long smoker who has terminal lung cancer will not really find much help or comfort in the knowledge that his smoking caused him to develop a disease that is killing him. As Christians, we know that sin leads to death and we are going to die because we are all sinners. But in the final analysis that really isn’t going to be helpful to us as we face our loved ones’ mortality and/or our own. In fact, most of us get angry when thinking about Sin and Death. We might understand the relationship on a theoretical basis but we sure don’t want it applied to us or our loved ones and we become angry when it does. 

The ugly reality of death and God’s response to it is why All-Saints’ Sunday is so important to us as Christians because today reminds us that Sin and Death do not have the final say in this world or our lives. Now it is true that we live in a God-cursed world for our sin. God did and does judge human sin because a good and loving God cannot possibly tolerate any kind of sin that corrupts us and God’s good world. And so we live under God’s curse, but that is not God’s final word on the matter. As the rest of Scripture attests, God is faithful to his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing creatures, despite our sin and rebellion against God. God does not intend to destroy his good world gone bad, he intends to redeem and restore it and us to at least our original health and goodness where we will once again enjoy perfect communion with God, and with it comes perfect health and eternal life. 

We get a glimpse of God’s promise to heal and restore in our OT lesson where God proclaims through his prophet that he will destroy the shroud of death—an appropriate image, don’t you think?—and swallow up death forever. In doing so God will wipe the tears from all faces and take away our disgrace. I cannot think of a bigger disgrace than death because it utterly robs us of our humanity. So let the picture of this promise take root in your mind. You are standing directly in the Lord’s presence and he raises your dead loved ones back to life. He gently takes you in his arms and wipes your tears away as he reunites you with those whom you’ve loved and lost. You know that never again will you have to worry about the possibility of being separated from either God or your loved ones and so there is no more reason to weep. Let that image sink in and strengthen you. Then give thanks to the One who will make it happen. 

Do you see what’s really going on in this OT scene? God not only deals with death, God deals with everything that corrupts and degrades, death being the most significant part of that. By removing our tears and disgrace, God promises to remove the evil behind them and free his world from all that infects and corrupts it. While the prophet never says this explicitly, that means the curse must be lifted and we must be freed from our slavery to Sin which leads to Death.

This OT promise finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and his story contained in the NT. If the evil one has ever tried to deceive you about how God feels about death, look no further than our gospel lesson this morning to find the antidote. We see Jesus, the Son of God, God become human, snorting in anger—the Greek word for the English phrase “greatly disturbed” literally means to snort in anger—at the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus as the emotions of the crowd and those he loves, as well as his own human emotions, kick in when confronted with the reality of his friend’s death. Sure, Jesus knew he was going to revive Lazarus, a preview of coming attractions when he raises the dead at his second coming, but this did not stop our Lord from being offended by death. So if you ever think that God takes any pleasure in our death, look no further than our Lord standing at Lazarus’ tomb and snorting in anger over this obscene evil. That’s the kind of God we love and worship, and thankfully God has the power to do something about it. The Son of God resuscitated his friend and then went on to die a godforsaken and terrible death to spare us from God’s just judgment on our sins and break Sin and Death’s hold over us. In bearing the weight of our sins and taking on the full brunt of God’s terrible judgment on all our sin and evil, our Lord Jesus made it possible for us to stand again in God’s direct presence because we no longer wear our filthy, sin-stained rags that got us thrown out of paradise in the first place. Yes, of course we all still sin in our mortal life. But the NT is adamant in its insistence that on the cross, God the Father has taken care of the vexing problem of human sin and the separation it causes us, and in doing so, has broken the dark Powers’ stranglehold on us forever, i.e., we are no longer slaves to the power of Sin. And in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of Death forever. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 6.3-8, those who are baptized in Christ share in his death and resurrection. Where he is, so we will be with him. We didn’t earn this and we sure don’t deserve it, but it’s ours anyway because life and death always have been about the power of God, not our own muddled ways and thinking. 

Jesus’ death and resurrection make the breathtaking scene in our epistle lesson possible. The new Jerusalem, NT code for God’s space or heaven, comes down to earth and everything in this world is recreated so that we get to live in God’s direct presence without the hint of any evil or corrupting force in our lives. This means, of course, that the ultimate evil of death is destroyed forever. The scene in Revelation 21 is Isaiah’s mountaintop vision on steroids because it it promises so much more and is a done deal by virtue of the blood of the Lamb shed for us and his resurrection from the dead. The new heavens and earth are not yet a reality, but they will be when our Lord Jesus returns to consummate his saving and healing work. 

Of course, the resurrection of the dead is fully integrated into John’s vision of the new Jerusalem. Without it, God cannot possibly wipe the tears from our eyes. With it, God’s perfect justice is executed and we can finally be healed. The dead are raised to live forever under the protection and power and beauty of God the Father himself. The cause of our mourning is erased forever and we no longer have to fear being harmed or being sick or alienated or being poor or growing old and infirm. We don’t have to worry about our worth or value. We are living in God’s direct presence, for heaven’s sake (no pun intended)! But death cannot be abolished in a world that still has sin and evil in it. That’s why the resurrection of the dead, while massively important, is not the ultimate hope and answer for us. To live forever in a world where there is no more sickness, sorrow, death, or sighing means that all that corrupts and dehumanizes and disgraces us is abolished forever. The NT calls this the new creation and that is the hope and promise for all the saints, living and dead.

So what does this mean for our dead saints? Where are they now? As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians and elsewhere, they are with Christ and they are enjoying his presence and their rest in paradise as they await the day when their Lord will return to this world and their bodies will be raised from the dead. The communion of saints means that we have a resurrection and new creation hope, that death is not the final answer. Jesus is the final answer because only Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The saints kept their eyes on Christ in this mortal life, however imperfectly, just like we do, and they are enjoying their penultimate reward because as we have seen, they are united with Christ by virtue of their baptism and their faith in the Son of God who loves them (and us) and gave himself for them (and us). This is the Church Triumphant. Our Christian dead have triumphed because they put their hope and trust in the One who can and does rescue them from Evil and Death. In a little while, we will read the names of our loved ones who have triumphed over Death and who will one day receive God’s perfect justice be being restored to bodily life. That’s why we call it the Roll Call of the Victorious. Rejoice in that hope even as you miss them.

But what about us, who make up the Church Militant, those who live by faith and hope, but who do not yet experience the reward for our faith in the way that the Church Triumphant does? We too are called to keep our eyes on Jesus, to pattern our lives after his, to extend his love, goodness, mercy, justice, and righteousness out into his world in our own neck of the woods. Of course when we do, it means all hell will break loose and we will suffer for following Jesus, just as he predicted because the evil powers, while defeated, are not yet abolished, and they don’t want us acting like or in the power of the name of Jesus. But we don’t lose heart or hope because we keep in mind the resurrection of the dead and the coming of the new heavens and earth. We will be in that reality a lot longer than this current time of trouble. In saying this, I don’t mean to minimize our problems and suffering, my beloved. I know they are substantial. But the reality of the new creation and God’s love and power are far greater, and we must draw on God’s strength to help see us through. Without that strength, we will surely be lost. This is why it is so important for us to celebrate All-Saints’ Day today, especially in the midst of the darkness of this world. So this week as mid-term election hysteria peaks, let your resurrection and new creation hope guide and control you. As the strident voices on all sides partake in the shaming and blaming game and rely on fear-mongering to demean and disgrace their opponents to get their way, offer the joy and hope of God’s saints to those around you. A few might ask what is your secret. Most will wonder what you’ve been smoking. But that shouldn’t bother us. We believe and proclaim that God has overcome Sin and Death and opens the door to eternal bodily life and a new world equipped to sustain that life to one and all if they only have the good sense to accept the invitation. Let us always be the first to accept (or continue to accept) the invitation by keeping our eyes on Jesus our Savior and leading righteous lives. When we do, we proclaim to ourselves and others that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

All Saints’ Day 2018: St. Augustine Muses on the Saints of God

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”— Matthew 19.25-26

The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.

–Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14

One of the reasons I love Augustine is that he was never afraid to be real. As you read his description of the saints, you cannot help but wonder how these folks can be enjoying their rest with their Lord. I mean, look at their flaws Augustine is pointing out!

Here’s the answer. They have died with Christ and so are raised with him (Romans 6.8) They were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism so that they might rise with him in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And when they were alive in this mortal life, this treasure of life eternal was hidden with Christ (Colossians 3.3-4), i.e., this hope and promise of resurrection and eternal life is based on their relationship with the risen Christ, who remains hidden from us in this mortal life from his abode in heaven, God’s space.

For you see, it is not about the saints or our worthiness. None of us is worthy to stand before God in God’s perfect holiness! Rather, it is about what God has done for us in Jesus so that through his death we might enjoy real peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5.111). In Jesus, God condemned sin in the flesh so that we might be equipped to live with God forever, both here on earth in the power of the Spirit and in God’s promised new creation (Romans 8.3-418-25). This is what Jesus reminds us in the passage above from Matthew and that’s why we have hope for the Christian dead and ourselves on All Saints Day. Jesus is Lord, even over death!

Is this your hope or are you clinging to something less which is bound to fail? On this All Saints’ Day may God grant you the grace, wisdom, and courage to embrace the hope offered to you in Jesus. Come celebrate our victory over death in Christ this Sunday as we celebrate the communion of saints!

All Saints 2018: Bernard of Clairvaux: Why All Saints’ Day?

Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feastday mean anything to the saints? Do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the lightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning. Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. in short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.

Come, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.

When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honor. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendor with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head. Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession.

–Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 2