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. 

Fr. Santosh Madanu: Jesus the Eternal Priest Who Sympathizes with Us

Sermon delivered on the last Sunday after Trinity B, October 28, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

We continue our preaching series on the letter to the Hebrews. If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Job 42.1-6, 10-1; Psalm 34.1-8, 19-22; Hebrews 7.23-28; Mark 10.46-52.

Who can intercede for us? Who will sympathize with us?

Let me begin with a dialogue between God and a certain dead man.  When he realized it, he saw God coming closer with a suitcase in his hand.

God:  Alright Son, it’s time to go.

Man:  So soon? I had lot of plans

God:  I am sorry but it’s time to go.

Man:  What do you have in that suitcase?

God:  Your belongings.

Man:  My belongings?  You mean my things such as clothes, money etc

God:  Those things were never yours.   They belong to the earth.

Man:  It it my memories?

God:  No.  They belong to Time

Man:  Is it my talent?

God:  No.  They belong to circumstances.

Man:  Is it my friends and family?

God:  No son.  They belong to the path you travelled.

Man:  Is it my wife and children?

God:  No.  They belong to your Heart.

Man:  Then it must be my body.

God:  No, No. It belongs to Dust.

Man:  Then surely it must be my soul.

God:   You are sadly mistaken son.  Your soul belongs to me.

Man has tears in his eyes and filled with fear, took the suitcase from God’s hand and opened it. And found empty.  With heart broken and tears rolling down on his cheeks he asked God:

Man:  Do I ever own anything?

God:  Nothing. You never owned anything.

I want you to have dialogue with God now when we are alive to know to whom we belong, and realize we have an advocate and mediator who reaches us in our heart broken situations and who loves to console us and sympathize with us.  He is our perpetual priest offered his life for us that we have life in him forever.

Is there any one whom I can rely on?

How dose I relate to Jesus Christ in my need of direction and salvation?

We know from the author of the Hebrews that this letter he primarily meant for the Jews who were sorely tempted to leave the Christian faith because of persecutions.  Author emphasizing superiority of Christ as a divine son of the Living God and the new covenant to Moses, prophets and the old covenant.

Hebrews 7:23-25 deals with Eternal Priesthood of Jesus Christ in comparison with the priests of order of the Aaron who came, lived and died when the need of frequent replacement of priests.

Christ Jesus is eternal, having no beginning and no ending. Therefore His priesthood is unchangeable.

John 1:2-3 “He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”

How is Jesus the eternal priesthood? 

  He overcame sin and the death being humble, obedient and offered himself as an unblemished lamb for the forgiveness of sins of the world. (Phil 2:8-11).

And made atonement for the sin of the world as high priest.

Jesus no longer is subject to death after the resurrection.  He lives forever.  Jesus is able to save those who approach God through Him.  (John 3:16-18)  God so loved the world…..

• To be saved through Him

• One has to choose to make a decision to approach God through Jesus.

• Believe Jesus as the one sent by God.

Why it is so important that we profess our faith in Christ?

Why do we witness to Christ Jesus as the REDEEMER?

This is the reason:

John 3:18 whoever believes in him will not be condemned but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only son of God.

Therefore dear friends let us choose light of Christ though the world chooses to accept darkness to the light of Christ.

May we reflect on the questions like what was the work of the ancient priests?

How is the priesthood of Christ differ from the Levite priest of the time?

What is the character of priesthood of Christ?

How does the Salvation possible?

What is the solution to our problem of Sin, Guilt, and Spiritual death?

Exodus 29:38-42.  The Law described daily burnt offerings of bulls and lambs to please God.

The most significant work of the high priest takes place on the Day of Atonement, when he makes the atonement for the sins of the nation. Whereas Jesus has no need to offer sacrifices of animals or do burnt offerings.  Because he sacrificed himself on the cross was once for all the time.  He poured out His own blood on the mercy seat. He endured the shame of the sin for us to bring us into the fellowship with God the Father.

One key difference is the priestly order to which they belong whereas Jesus, through God’s calling, serves as a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  The priest hood of Jesus remains forever.  Jesus’ eternal priest hood offers salvation whereas the Levitical priesthood could not achieve. Jesus and Melchizedek, a priest forever without lineage. Melchizedek was king of Salem, king of peace, king of righteousness.  So is our Lord Jesus; he by His righteousness made peace and greeted peace to everyone he met on earth. And he is the priest of most high God.  Melchizedek brought forth bread and wine to refresh Abraham and his servants when they were weary and blessed them.  Then Abraham gave him a tenth part of all. Abraham did this an expression of his gratitude for what Melchisedek had done for him, as a testimony of his homage, as an offering vowed for him and dedicated to God (Genesis14:18). The Levitical priesthood was blessed by Melcheisedek for the tithe offered by Abraham. And thus are we obliged to make all possible returns of love and gratitude to Lord Jesus for all the rich and royal favors we receive from him.  This is the time we need to be reminded of God’s blessings and gratitude to God and His people with the gift of tithes.

It is essential for every Christian to understand the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection from the dead is the guarantee our salvation if we believe it. Anyone who ignores such a great salvation for being lured away by sin and unbelief is already condemned.

Hebrews 2:3 “how shall we escape if we ignore such a salvation…?”

Hebrews 4:14-16: Therefore, since we have a high priest who has gone through heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to Sympathizes with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

This is what we see in today’s gospel Mark 10:46-52 we hear Jesus calls Bartimaeus and heals Bartimaeus, the blind beggar.

As Jesus was walking by him in Jericho, Bartimaeus heard who it was that was passing and called out to Him “Jesus, son of David, Have mercy on me” by calling Jesus the son of David, the blind man was affirming his belief that Jesus was Messiah (see 2 Samuel 7: 14 16) The people told Bartimaeus to be quiet, but kept calling out, even more loudly and persistently than before.  This is further proof of his faith.  He believed that Jesus was not like the other religious leaders, who believed that individual’s poverty or blindness or bad circumstances were a result of God’s judgement.  He knows like psalmist that our God who cares for the poor and the brokenhearted (P34:6, 18).

The creator of heaven and earth stood still when he heard the cry of the blind Bartimaeus. Jesus calls him to come to him and asks him what do you want me to do for you?  The beggar could ask for the money or food that he usually do every day from the people.  He didn’t even seek the opinion of the people but he asked for most important need that refers his faith in Jesus. He could witness to Jesus Christ that he is true messiah. He exercised his trust in Jesus as the son of God. He said “Rabbi, I want to see.” He determined to see Jesus. He desired to see Messiah.   He trusted Jesus that the merciful savior will willingly grant sight to him.  Jesus says your faith has healed you,” and the blind Bartimaeus instantly recovered his sight and followed Jesus.

By saying “your faith has made you well,” Jesus emphasizes the necessity of faith.   Jesus showed once again that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6) it is not enough that we have faith in God within our hearts, but we should be able to express it, indicate it and witness to it through our lives.

Hebrews11:1 “now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

The story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus is a spiritual icon that should make us aware of our sins, our blindness and incapacity. We may be blind to injustice and blind to discrimination of any kind and unable to see Jesus in others.

I want you reflect on the question Jesus asked Bartimaeus “what do you want me to do for you?  What is your response?  What is your most important need you have? 

 Do you ask for power, wealth, comfort, houses, health or any material things?

Be reminded of your own request and response for the request by Jesus.  Because Jesus answered the prayer of Bartimaeus but did not answer the prayer of mother of John and James.

John 11:41-42   we know from the mouth of Jesus that he prays to God to raise Lazarus. Jesus did many miracles to glorify God, the almighty.

The prayer and faith of the Canaanite woman was answered.

The prayer and the faith of the centurion of Capernaum was answered (Mathew 8:10).

Psalm 145:19 God will fulfill the desires of them that fear him; he also will hear their cry and will save them.

Luke 7:11-17 Jesus went to a town called Nain and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him.  As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.  And a large crowed from the town was with her.  When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and said “DON’T CRY.”…..THEN HE WENT UP AND TOUCHED THE COFFIN, AND THOSE CARRYING IT STOOD STILL.  HE SAID, “YOUNG MAN, I SAY TO YOU, GET UP.  THE DEAD MAN SAT UP AND BEGAN TO TALK AND JESUS GAVE HIM BACK TO HIS MOTHER.

We can maintain perfect confidence in God’s rich promises, regardless of our circumstances, by meditating on the rock solid faithfulness of God’s workings in our lives. Because our God feels pain with us, feels sympathy for us in our emptiness, in our loneliness and in all our troubles of this material world and sickness and death.

May we receive the robe of righteousness through priesthood of Jesus Christ to enter into eternal life.  Amen.

Learning Obedience Through What??

Sermon delivered on Trinity 21B, Sunday, October 21, 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: Job 38.1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104.1-10, 26, 37; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45.

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

This morning we continue our preaching series on the letter to the Hebrews with its focus almost exclusively on Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin. In our epistle lesson the writer of Hebrews makes the strange statement that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5.8). What on earth does that mean and what does that mean for us as Christians? This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

As we did two weeks ago we come to Hebrews by way of Job. In the story of Job we have seen how God allowed the Satan to afflict Job with great loss and suffering of all kinds to prove Satan’s accusation that in the face of severe suffering and deprivation, Job would fold like a bad poker hand and curse God. Job didn’t and Satan is no longer in the picture, having been shown to be the liar he is. But that left all kinds of unanswered questions for Job and his “comforters,” mainly about why God afflicted Job. His “comforters” maintained that Job’s afflictions were the result of his sins. But Job adamantly denied this. He claimed he was blameless (not sinless) and therefore didn’t deserve this kind of treatment from God (and we are tempted to add, who does deserve that kind of treatment?) and demanded a hearing before the Lord himself. Well, in today’s OT lesson, Job got his wish (careful what you wish for, Job, you may get it). 

The story of Job points us to the greater mystery of suffering in this mortal life and throws cold water in our face by reminding us that we live in a world afflicted by Sin and Evil, a world and its creatures, ourselves included, that labor under God’s curse because of our sin and the evil it unleashed and continues to unleash (Genesis 3.14-19). For our purposes this morning, living in an evil-infested and cursed world can lead to two possible negative human reactions to the chaos and enigma of human suffering in which the good sometimes seem to suffer excessively (like Job did) while the wicked sometimes get off apparently scott-free. When we who actually believe in God experience this chaos and mystery we tend to think that either God has checked out on us—like when the prophet Isaiah cried out in anguish as he contemplated the unthinkable horror of God allowing his people to go into exile for their sins, “Truly you are a God who hides [yourself]. (Isaiah 45.15)—or we can fall into despair, realizing that while our own sins separate us from the love and Presence of God, we are truly incapable of breaking our slavery to Sin’s power or freeing ourselves from living in a God-cursed world. Either reaction can cause us to lose our faith and trust in God. If we think God has checked out on us, we tend to become apathetic and cynical and seek other gods like sex, power, money, security, or more recently identity politics. If we despair over our slavery to Sin and the chaos of living in a cursed world, we can fall into depression or hedonism, ultimately rejecting God because of our powerlessness. Both views have in common the notion that God is not big enough to handle our problems or the world’s. But our OT and psalm lessons emphatically reject that false notion. In asking Job if he was there at creation, the answer of course was no. God’s point to Job and us is that there are things beyond our ability to understand, but not God’s. Instead, when we are afflicted, we are to trust God to see us through the darkest valleys. But why should we trust God? Enter our lesson from the letter to the Hebrews with its focus on Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin.

As we have just seen, we are enslaved by the alien and hostile powers of Sin and Death so that we are unable to free ourselves from the sins that dehumanize, shame, and oppress us. Need proof? How about those new year’s resolutions you made last January? How they working out for you? Or how about your various addictions, both great and small? Have you been able to free yourself from them by your own power? Resolve to treat your spouse better or to do that next great thing, only to be stymied? Or how about the times you really tried to help someone out only to be lambasted for your efforts? Look at your confessions. Are you confessing the same sins over and over? No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we repent, it isn’t good enough. God’s people Israel also found this out the hard way. Despite their occasional repentance, despite the reform efforts of godly kings, God sent his people Israel packing for their sins. Self-help was not enough. In fact, self-help is a delusion.

And let’s be clear about why God reacts to sin this way. It’s not because God is an angry, vindictive being who wants to rain on our parade and who works very hard to make sure we aren’t having any fun or enjoying life (as if our sins were the key to enjoying life; who in their right mind really thinks that???). No, it’s because God is good and just and holy that he detests anything that corrupts his creation or us. Think about those who ordered the extermination of six million Jews during WWII. Is it OK for God to wink and look the other way over that? Or closer to home, think about the woman who’s body was discovered burning in a local park. Can a good and just God simply ignore that? Good luck telling that to her family who grieves over her horrific death. No, a good God cannot and will not ignore sin and evil. That’s why God cursed the world in the first place: to show his utter hostility to anything evil. Not only do our sins corrupt and dehumanize us, they destroy relationships of all kinds, especially ours with God. But God did not create us to destroy us. He created us to have a relationship with him, and he will oppose anything or anyone who attempts to corrupt, pervert, and/or destroy his good creation and image-bearing creatures. The whole promise of new creation with its absence of sin and anything evil is based on the fact that God isn’t some doting old grandpa who winks at our sin and the evil it produces/unleashes. Nothing is further from the truth and we can thank God for that!

So what does that have to do with our epistle lesson and its claim that the Son of God learned obedience through suffering, or with Job’s message that the God we worship is big enough to handle all our problems and the world’s? Just this. The writer of Hebrews tells us that, “While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God” (Hebrews 5.7). He is talking about our Lord’s struggle in Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. Before we comment on this, let’s hear St. Luke describe what took place.

Jesus…went as usual to the Mount of Olives. There he told them, “Pray that you will not give in to [this time of trial].” He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. At last he stood up again and returned to the disciples, only to find them asleep, exhausted from grief. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you will not give in to [this time of trial]” (Luke 22.39-46).

Do you get a sense of what’s going on here? Jesus had been at war with the forces of evil and was tempted throughout his entire ministry to surrender to the demands of the Satan. The demons shriek as Jesus exorcised them from their victims, demonstrating that God’s power is greater than their own. As we saw in our gospel lesson, the dark powers even worked through Jesus’ disciples to tempt him to establish his rule as God’s Son in accordance with the way a cursed world defines true leadership—by lording it over others. Now here in dark Gethsemane we see our Lord struggling in the shadows of darkness with his last and greatest temptation. Both St. Luke and the writer of Hebrews want us to see that even though Jesus is God’s Son, he is also fully human and therefore subject to all the temptations and weaknesses we face. If, after all, in Jesus God really did condemn our sin in the flesh to spare us from his terrible judgment as St. Paul maintained (Romans 8.3-4), God needed a sinless body to do that, i.e., Jesus had to be fully human for God to deal once and for all with the power of Sin that enslaves us.

So now in our two lessons Jesus, being fully human and about to bear the collective weight of the world’s sins, your sins and mine, is confronted with the horror of doing that. We see our Lord somehow taking on the emotional misery our own sins produce: the shame, guilt, despair; the sense of hopelessness, total discouragement, and utter defeat we all experience over our being slaves to the power of Sin. We see our Lord beginning to understand the utter godforsakenness of the cross and somehow anticipating his cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me!” as he would experience God’s wrath and condemnation of all our sins so that we would be spared from judgment. Who in their right mind would want to undergo such suffering and experience being utterly godforsaken? And what did our Lord do? He sweat blood as the full realization of what he must soon undergo swept over him like a tsunami, and he asked his Father to be released from having to endure it. Here we see the full humanity of Christ at work. As the coeternal Son, Jesus willingly agreed to give up his glory and become human to die for us (Philippians 2.6-8). In his human form, however, the horror of his mission threatened to overwhelm him and that is the scene St. Luke and the writer of Hebrews invite us to contemplate. Pay attention, my beloved because you are witnessing your salvation unfolding. 

Of course, God said “No” to his beloved Son’s request. God had to if God loved us and wanted to free us from our slavery to Sin and Death. Jesus knew that too. But in denying the Son’s request, the Father sent angels to give Jesus strength to complete his godforsaken task, and in resisting this final temptation to be spared from the cross, our Lord and his work came to its full completion or perfection. Jesus had always willingly obeyed his Father. Now in the darkest night he learned fully as a human what his obedience meant—suffering for the sake of the world. In taking on our sins and dying our death so as to spare us from God’s just and right judgment on our sins—and here’s one of the punch lines so listen up!—he understood exactly the same feeling we have (in much lesser degree) when we are angry with ourselves and so filled with shame and self-loathing that we cannot believe that God can do anything but hate us for our evil. Jesus knows what that is like. He went the whole way and took the full brunt for us. The next time you experience that self-loathing over your sins and think that God can only hate you, go back to Gethsemane with your Savior and see him sweating blood for you as he prepares to shed his blood for you to spare you from your just-desserts. Then come to his Table and feed on him by faith with thanksgiving. If this doesn’t make your heart overflow with love for God the Father for his great love for you demonstrated in God the Son’s sacrifice for your sins and made real and available to you in God the Holy Spirit, go see an exorcist because you are being totally deceived by the Evil One and his minions. No one, I repeat, no one is outside the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen?

And what does this great love cost us? On one hand, nothing. There is nothing we can do to earn it and it is offered freely to one and all. Christ’s death and resurrection witness to the fact that while we are all called to repentance, only God is powerful enough to conquer the powers of Sin and Death for us. Our repentance can’t do that; it can only open us up to God’s forgiveness. As St. Paul reminds us, in our baptism we share in a death like Christ’s so we can also share in a resurrection like his. When we are Christ’s we share in his life-giving death.

On the other hand, Christ’s death will cost us everything. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “God qualified Jesus as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him” (Hebrews 5.9). So the cost of our salvation is our obedience to Christ. But doesn’t that go against the inviolable truth that we are saved by grace through faith alone? No it does not. Faith is much more than articulating statements of belief. If we have real faith in Christ, in his saving death and resurrection, it will produce obedience to his commands. Obedience to our Lord’s teaching and way of life is the best indicator of faith we can demonstrate: to God, to ourselves, and to the world. Obedience is often very hard because we are so profoundly broken. And we will fail in our obedience because we are “cracked pots” as our own St. Augustine used to say, and that can lead us into despair. If you are tempted to fall into despair over this, STOP IT!! Stop it because as we’ve just seen, in Christ, God has broken the power of Sin over you and taken away the Father’s judgment on your own stinking sins.

Now unlike exorcising demons, the power of the cross is much less obvious to us. But we are resurrection people, my beloved. We have seen the shame and godforsakenness of the cross, but we’ve experienced the risen Lord and know the reality of his Resurrection. We believe he is our great High Priest who loves us, who intercedes for us, and who is infinitely gentle and patient with us in our weakness and infirmity. He knows all about being a human being because he was and is the only true and perfect human being. The Resurrection proclaims the truth that the powers of Sin and Death have been decisively defeated on the cross and we can joyfully await our Lord’s return to complete his work. Until then, we live by faith and this shouldn’t be so hard for us to believe. Think about it. During World War II, shortly after the success of D-Day, most observers knew the Nazis had been defeated. But the war still had to be fought for another long, hard year, including the costly Battle of the Bulge that following winter. The Nazis were defeated but not yet vanquished. Likewise with Sin, Death, and the evil powers. They are toast but they have not been vanquished. So we live by faith in the midst of all the chaos in our lives. This “already-not yet” reality also means we will suffer for our obedience to Christ because the dark powers, while defeated, are still quite active. The minute we give our lives to Christ is the minute we find ourselves at war. But we have our own D-Day. It’s called Easter and our liberation is at hand—partially now, fully when our Lord returns. So come, Lord Jesus, come. Until then be our great High Priest. Fill us with your Spirit and give us the grace to live out our faith in you by being obedient to your call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow you. We can’t do this on our own power and there will be many tears and many fears along the way. But you will strengthen us because you know first-hand what it is like. This all reminds us that we have your Good News to offer and claim, 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. 

But We See Jesus

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 19B, October 7, 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: Job 1.1, 2.1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-12; Mark 10.2-16.

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

Today we begin our preaching and teaching series on the letter to the Hebrews, a massively important but often-neglected book in the NT. We will be focusing on the assigned readings from Hebrews through Christ the King Sunday at the end of November. October is also stewardship month, where we will be encouraging you to reflect on your favorite topic—giving your money to advance the Lord’s kingdom work on earth. This will culminate on Pledge Sunday on October 28, where we will offer our pledges for the coming fiscal year starting in January. There’s a lot to do and reflect on in the coming weeks!

We begin our study of Hebrews by way of Job. What are we to make of that strange story about God assembling an angelic council, apparently to make policy for running creation, contrary to our epistle lesson’s bold claim that God subjected all creation to the control of humans? And since the Satan was among them, were those on the council actually rebellious angels? Is this an example of Scripture having a split personality and contradicting itself? Well no, because as the writer of Hebrews makes clear, humans do not exercise their God-given task of being in complete control over God’s good creation—that apparently has to wait until God’s new creation arrives—and we all know this to be painfully true. There are many things beyond our control that afflict creation and us: death, destruction, human nastiness, Sin, Evil and disasters of all kinds, to name just a few. The result? We see life riddled with anxiety and we experience disorientation and disruption. No, as the writer of Hebrews says in massive understatement, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to [humans]” and this is where the book of Job comes into play because it explores the riddle and mystery of what has happened now that we have abdicated our God-given responsibility to rule. Something or someone has to rule in our place and our abdication of that privilege by way of our sin and rebellion opened the door for the dark powers of Evil to usurp our rightful role as rulers. But how can an all-powerful God allow Evil to operate in his world so that even the innocent are afflicted by it? Why doesn’t God just fill the void? God clearly remains in charge. The Satan could only do to Job what God allowed. In presenting these mysteries, Job challenges the OT principle of retribution in this life, that God afflicts and punishes the wicked while rewarding the righteous with all kinds of spiritual and material prosperity. 

In the story we see Job, who clearly was a righteous man in God’s eyes and had indeed enjoyed God’s blessings, being afflicted with God’s permission by the Satan—and please, let’s leave behind our childish concepts of Satan as looking like some bad cartoon character and grow up in our thinking about Evil so that we see it for what it is— to see whether he will curse God. We as readers are aware of this heavenly intrigue, i.e., of the dark powers usurping our role as rulers, but Job is not. This begs the real question, however: Why does God allow the forces of Evil to operate at all to corrupt God’s good creation? Nowhere do we find an answer to this existential question. We are told that God limits the destructive power of Evil but does not banish it in his creation. Why not? Clearly God’s creative purposes for both his creation and image-bearing creatures are being thwarted, so why would God allow that? Scripture doesn’t say. To be sure, Scripture does offer us partial answers to questions about Evil. As we have seen, human sin allowed Evil to get a toehold in God’s good world so that now we and all creation live under God’s curse. A cursed world can account for a good deal of the evil in God’s creation but not all of it. Nor are we told why the serpent was present in the garden in the first place to work his evil. Further, we are told that human sin and folly are directly responsible for all kinds of evil and suffering. But we are not told why God allows the forces of Evil behind our sin to continue to operate to corrupt and destroy God’s good world and people’s lives. What the NT does answer is what God is doing about this resident Evil and we are expected to live with all the riddles, ambiguity, and unanswered questions and trust God’s good plan for the redemption of all creation and our own. Enter the letter to the Hebrews and more precisely, enter Jesus.

The writer of Hebrews starts by reminding us of a breath-taking reality, that God the Father, God the Creator of this vast universe, has acted decisively and lovingly on behalf of his weak and rebellious image-bearing creatures to rescue us from our predicament. To be sure, our ongoing sin and rebellion grieves God’s heart to its very core. But God did not give up on his creation or us. Instead God became human in the person of Jesus and entered human history, something I fear we Christians have heard so often that we’ve lost the awesome wonder of this claim, to act decisively against the outside powers of Evil, Sin, and Death. God did not act outside history to defeat these dark powers. Instead, God became human (or in NT language, God the Father sent his only begotten Son) to suffer and die for us to free us from the terrible and deadly consequences of our sin and folly, and to break the power of Evil in our lives so that we are no longer its slaves. God did this in Christ’s death and resurrection and then by sending the Holy Spirit to live in each of us to make our risen and ascended Lord’s presence real and known to us, thereby enabling us to overcome our fallen human nature and the forces of Evil who hate us and assail us on a regular basis. None of this plays out in an easy or straightforward manner as we all can attest. Sometimes we miss the mark and fall off the proverbial wagon. Sometimes we choose to be willfully stubborn and rebellious toward God. Sometimes we are just plain stupid. Despite all this, however, the writer of Hebrews makes the stunning and audacious claim that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we not only find forgiveness of our sins but real power to resist and overcome evil. That is one of the underlying points in our gospel lesson this morning. If there weren’t power available for our hard hearts to be remade into human ones, Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce would be hopelessly idealistic. But the fact remains that while some (many?) of us have succumbed to divorce, many more have struggled and succeeded in remaining faithful to their marriage vows despite great obstacles and odds. This fact alone attests to the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in God’s people. 

Moreover, the writer of Hebrews makes clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection was God’s decisive action against the dark powers and the power of Sin that corrupts us and causes death to reign. But the war is not over as we all know. Final victory awaits Jesus’ return. Until then, we won’t see humans fulfilling their God-given commission to rule God’s world, but we do see Jesus paving the way for that to happen by casting out demons, ruling over the forces of nature, bringing healing of all kinds, and finally dying a God-forsaken and terrible death for us and taking on himself all the awful consequences of our sin and rebellion so that we can ultimately live in God’s new world to fulfill God’s original creative purposes for us as human beings. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees the promise to be valid and true. 

What does all this mean to us as Christians who struggle to live faithful lives? First, as we are buffeted by darkness and suffering in God’s world and our lives, we are tempted to believe that God has given up on his world and us. The reality of Jesus reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. God has not abandoned us. Neither does God hate us. The existence of Jesus Christ reveals to us the great love the Father has for his rebellious creatures and the length and depth he will go to reclaim us and his world so that we can one day enjoy creation as God always intended for us. It’s a free gift offered to us and we better have the wisdom to accept the gift of God’s good grace. If Jesus really is God, and we know him to be, then we have received the definitive revelation about who God is and what God’s intentions are for his world and us. No further revelation is needed and we are called to embrace God’s offer to us to accept his forgiveness and love made known to us in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. 

This, in turn, means we must make a decision to accept or reject the healing and forgiving love of Christ. In reality we do both simultaneously in our lives because none of us loves God perfectly like Jesus did as a human. But we see Jesus and that means we don’t bury our head in the sand or wring our hands in despair. It means that when the forces of darkness threaten to overwhelm us we look to Jesus for strength, refreshment, and encouragement. When we do, it must change us, especially when we remember that we have God’s very Spirit living in us, testifying to us the truth about God’s love and rescue of us from Evil, Sin, and Death in Jesus. So we continue to move forward, following Jesus, learning to give our lives to him completely. This means we choose to love and forgive our enemies and those who revile us. It means we are implacably opposed to evil and injustice and are resolved in the power of the Spirit to be agents of God’s goodness, love, mercy, and justice. It means that we go to Scripture to learn and be reminded of the story of the Good News of our salvation, and we struggle with God in prayer. It means we are given the power to sometimes just endure, but always with hope because if we really do see Jesus, we must be people of hope. And it means we give our financial resources to help advance the Kingdom work. God has given generously to us. Are we not to respond likewise to God? Given the importance of money in our culture, this is perhaps the best litmus test of our love for and faith in God. Of course, Kingdom work does not take place exclusively in the confines of parish ministry, although that is important. Sound preaching, administering the sacraments, and godly fellowship are critical components of worship and worship is critical if we ever hope to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. But Kingdom work goes on outside our parish and is an important part of our stewardship. So, for example, in addition to giving ten percent of our income to St. Augustine’s, the Maneys give regularly to the ASCPA and to Faith Mission because we believe they engage in good and holy work. How we spend our money will give us a keen insight into the state of our faith in Jesus. I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on you. I say it to remind you that Kingdom work involves every dimension of our lives from worship to fellowship to service to giving. Everything we have comes from God who has an egregiously generous heart. Seeing Jesus in our lives and the life of the world produces hearts that are also egregiously generous and willing to share God’s abundance to help those in need. 

Therefore, my beloved, be intentional in seeing Jesus so that you will not lose heart or hope. Be intentional in seeing Jesus so he can transform your own hard heart into a truly human one. Seeing Jesus is a sometimes challenging and difficult task that requires our constant attention along with our regular worship, persistence in prayer, and engaging in fellowship with God’s people, both inside and outside our parish family. But seeing Jesus is the only real answer to our fears and anxieties about our purpose for living as well as our own fate and the fate of this good world of God’s gone bad. It is a story with a happy and healing ending and it is offered to everyone who has the good sense to accept it as well as the One who is the main character of the story. Ask God to give you the grace and power to see Jesus and follow him more completely. Doing so will affirm or reaffirm to you that you really are participating in the Good News of Jesus Christ who has rescued you from the dark powers, 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. 

Where’s God?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 18B, September 30, 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: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50.

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

How can a book that never mentions God’s name end up in the canon of Scripture? That is the question the confronts us in our OT lesson this morning. The book of Esther never once mentions God by name. What are we to make of that and how does it relate to the baptism we will celebrate in a little while? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

The book of Esther is unique in all the Bible because not once in its ten chapters is God’s name mentioned. Despite this curious fact, God is very much present in the lives of his exiled people. We see it in the circumstances of the story which are loaded with “coincidences,” an oxymoron if there ever was one. We see God’s activity in the lives of God’s people and even God’s enemies to bring about their rescue from certain annihilation. Consider these examples. An uppity queen who paves the way for Esther to become Xerxes’ queen. A king’s attendant who takes a special liking to Esther that is crucial to her becoming queen. Esther’s cousin Mordecai who thwarts a plot to kill the king by being at the right place at the right time, but who is a forgotten man in the king’s eyes. A wicked advisor who plots the destruction of God’s people  because of his hatred toward Mordecai and who rapidly becomes a favorite of the king. A restless night of sleep for the king that leads to his remembering Mordecai and ultimately leads to the reversal of fortune for Mordecai and Haman. The courage of Esther who risked her life for her people to expose the wickedness of Haman and his evil scheme to destroy God’s people. No, God’s name is never mentioned in the story but God is everywhere present in the circumstances and lives of his people to bring about their redemption! That is why throughout history the book of Esther has not been read as an isolated event in Jewish history but as symbolizing the final salvation of God’s people at the end of time (the eschaton).

This should be enormously encouraging to us as Christians who labor under God’s good but cursed and often-confusing world. The story of Esther reminds us that there are forces of Evil in this world that God has mysteriously and enigmatically allowed to usurp his rightful reign—but only to a degree. God is still Sovereign and ultimately in charge of his world. Despite appearances to the contrary, sometimes to an almost overwhelming degree, the story of Esther reminds us that God is in charge and is working to free his people from the power of Evil. 

St. Mark tells us essentially the same thing when he talks about casting out demons. His message? The forces of Evil and their human minions are indeed active in God’s world. We are at war and have been since human rebellion got us expelled from paradise. But the evil powers do not have free reign. God is still Sovereign. The evil powers must submit to Jesus and in doing so, God’s people find protection and respite from the havoc they wreak. Most of us do not perceive this war raging on with our human senses, but the war is real nevertheless as we all can attest because we all have experienced Evil in our lives. The story of Esther reminds us that God cares for his people, in part, through human agency, just like God did when he rescued his people through the actions of Esther and Mordecai, just like he does when we give a follower of Christ a cup of water or when we pray for healing for the sick. We want to push back at this claim because it strains against our sense of how the “real world” works. “How can that be,” we ask? “How can my small actions be of any importance to God?” Nowhere does Scripture answer that “how does it all work” question. It just reassures us that our actions do matter and are an important part in this ongoing war with Evil as God and his people fight against its forces. This claim about the importance of human agency should make sense to us, given that God created us in his image to run God’s world on his behalf. Why wouldn’t God work through human agency to help reestablish his kingdom on earth as in heaven? The forces of Evil certainly use human minions to impose their chaos on God’s good world and people! So why wouldn’t God use humans as agents to spread his goodness, love, mercy, and justice? Make no mistake. We don’t bring in the Kingdom. God does. But God calls us to do our part in the war against Evil. That is why it is so important that we order our lives according to God’s laws and God’s ordering of his creation. Otherwise, we help the enemy; and as Jesus himself warned us in our gospel lesson, that will result in God’s fearsome judgment on us. There will be no Evil and evildoers, human or otherwise, in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth (Rev 21.1-8).

This is why we must take seriously the underlying theme of the story of Esther with its proclamation that despite the presence of Evil and evildoers like Haman in God’s world, God works through the circumstances of life, chaotic as those circumstances can be, and through all kinds of people, to bring about salvation for God’s people. Every time we see Evil defeated, every time we see the sick healed, every time we see mercy extended or God’s justice carried out like we see in the story of Esther, we are reminded that these are signs meant to help us believe that God is busy at work rescuing his people from Evil, Sin, and Death. Esther reveals for those with ears to hear that life and death are determined by identification with a people—God’s people Israel in the OT and God’s people Israel reconstituted around Jesus Christ in the NT that includes both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2.14-18). We as God’s people in Christ are therefore called to embrace the promise that in Jesus Christ we are rescued from our sin and folly and ultimately from death itself because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us. The eschatological reality of eternal life for God’s people foreshadowed in the celebration of Purim is fully realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We live because Jesus lives and because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Not even our mortal death can prevent this promise from being fulfilled or separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord (John 14.19, 11.25-26; Romans 8.31-39)! Amen? Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection our destiny has been reversed from death to life, this against all human expectation, and we as Christians find in Christ God’s ultimate promise to protect us from death. Those of us who are God’s people in Christ will be delivered from death and live forever, just as our Lord Jesus was, thanks be to God! 

This means that even in the darkest circumstances of our life when joy is far from our hearts and everything looks dark, just as it did for Esther and her people before she confronted Haman in front of the king, we are assured of our current good standing with God and our final destiny in God’s new world because of the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross. Our sins are forgiven and we are being transformed into new creations by the power of God’s Spirit who lives in us and who makes the presence of our risen Lord a reality for us. That is why we can face even the darkest times with hope as God’s people. We live now and will live forever because Christ lives now and lives forever. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ that we profess. Without it, life is bleak indeed. With it, we have power to overcome the worst the forces of Evil can throw at us because Jesus is Lord and they are not.

In a moment we will baptize Tori into God’s family and into this breathtaking promise. She will receive the Holy Spirit and be made holy and pure to serve her Lord all the days of her life. Her parents will promise on her behalf to raise her in ways that will open the way for Jesus to be alive and present in her. We see none of this directly and we acknowledge we are dealing with a holy and awesome mystery. But we don’t have to “see” the Holy Spirit because like the story of Esther, we trust in the promise that baptism will accomplish what it promises, even when we cannot perceive its invisible reality—after all, that’s why we call it a sacrament—and our faith in the power and presence of the Spirit causes us to say, “Amen.”  Believe and trust in that promise, my beloved. Embrace your identification as a member of God’s people in Jesus Christ and be refreshed by God’s love, mercy, and grace that allows you to have membership in his holy family now and forever. Let it sustain you in your darkest hour and let it change you so that God can always use you as a force for his good in a world that desperately needs all the good it can get. When you do, you will be participating in the Good News of Jesus Christ, 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. 

So You Wanna be a Wiseguy, Eh?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 17B, September 23, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37.

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

Since it is Father Bowser’s birthday today, he felt compelled to offer me some advice about my preaching now that he is an official geezer and since I’ve been out of the saddle for awhile. “Preaching,” he told me, “is like drilling for oil. If you haven’t struck it after 10 minutes, stop boring.” 

In our psalm lesson this morning we are given a stark choice. We can live our lives wisely or foolishly. The former will result in us enjoying God’s blessings while the latter will result in our ultimate destruction. Of course life is not as clear-cut as the psalmist might imply. Real life is much messier because human beings are a mess. This doesn’t negate the psalm’s exhortation for us to live wisely, however, because the love, grace, and power of God are far greater than our messiness and this notion of living wisely is what I want us to look at this morning.  

Before we look at what wise living looks like, we had better understand how the Bible defines wisdom. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Wisdom as Scripture uses it starts with a healthy fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9.10). But what does that mean? Fearing the Lord does not mean we are to be terrified of God. To be sure, there is an element of judgment to fearing the Lord. After all, our Lord Jesus told us to fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10.28). But fear of the Lord is much more than our dread of God’s judgment on us because we have seen the cross of Jesus Christ and we therefore know the great love and grace that flows from the Father’s heart for us. God’s desire for us is life and health, not death and destruction. What truly loving father would not want good things for his own children? So we have a healthy respect for God’s power combined with a grateful heart for God’s love for us and his gracious and generous heart that causes him to shower upon us his undeserved blessings. We therefore live wisely when we order our lives in ways that are consistent with God’s created order and God’s will for us as his image-bearing creatures. After all, God created us in his image so that we could run God’s world on his behalf. To do that, of course, means we have to reflect God’s generous heart, love, and passion for justice for all his creation and creatures. This is why God gave Israel his law, so that they could learn how to live as God’s image-bearers and reflect God’s goodness and blessings to the world as God had promised Abraham (Genesis 12.3). So at its very core, biblical wisdom is always manifested primarily in what we do. We see the advantages of living wisely that Psalm 1 promises in our OT lesson this morning. Rather than seeing the wife as the gold standard for which we must strive (an impossible task even for the best of us), we see the blessings that result from wise living. As a result of this woman’s noble character, her wise living brings God’s blessings to many others. Her family and community are blessed and while the writer never states this explicitly, we can safely presume she finds blessing and self-satisfaction in serving as a conduit for helping others experience God’s blessings through her noble character and work. This is how biblical wisdom is supposed to work and manifest itself.

This all sounds simple enough and it was before the Fall when our human ancestors lived in paradise and enjoyed perfect communion with God. But unfortunately we live in a post-Fall world where we are expelled from paradise and are thoroughly infected by the twin powers of Sin and Evil that make it impossible for us on our own to follow God’s laws. We all know, for example, that such a wife as we read about in Proverbs (or a husband for that matter) does not exist—well, except for my own wife; just sayin’. Does that mean we are free to ignore the biblical exhortation to live wisely? No at all! Help is available to us as we shall see shortly. Our job is to use our will (or to use the language of Scripture, to follow our heart) to choose to live wisely. This is not easy and we should be prepared for a lengthy battle to attain godly wisdom because of our corrupted nature and because as St. Paul reminds us, our real battle is not against flesh and blood but against the dark powers that hate us and have enslaved us with the sole purpose of destroying us (Ephesians 6.12; cp. Colossians 2.13-15).

In our epistle lesson this morning, St. James addresses this struggle to live wisely because of our thoroughly corrupted hearts, the center of our will. Like the psalmist in our psalm lesson, St. James is encouraging us to choose the path of godly wisdom and not worldly wisdom, in part by warning us of the dire consequences of following the latter path and holding before us the blessings of following the former path. Keep in mind that St. James was not a head-in-the-cloud idealist. He was a tough realist who knew well the human condition with all its corruption. He knew life was messy and sometimes ugly. After all, he was martyred for his faith. But St. James also knew the reality of God’s love, grace, and power in our lives, and we would be wise to take some time and reflect regularly on the wisdom he imparts to us.

He starts with a probing question. St. James asks us if we really want to seek godly wisdom, which by necessity is based on humility, or do we seek God’s wisdom just to feed our pride and ambition? Seeking godly wisdom means we seek to follow God’s order, not our own chaos-producing sin. This means we must humble ourselves before the word of God and submit to it, something none of us is particularly eager to do. We must listen and seek to understand so that we can follow God’s order faithfully. It means we embrace our role as God’s image-bearers and seek to order or lives in ways that reflect the goodness, love, mercy, and justice of God to his corrupt and hurting world and its people. Of course, human nature being what it is, there are some who seek to appear godly so that folks will look up to them when in reality they are pursuing their own selfish ambition. The scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church of late or the other horror stories that involve fallen theology and church leaders in our own Anglican Communion and elsewhere remind us that St. James knew what he was talking about, and anyone who is a leader in a church, myself included, had better take this warning to heart and examine prayerfully and consistently his or her own heart and motives in the light of God’s law. Do our actions reflect our profession of desiring God’s wisdom? There is nothing more catastrophic to our duty to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world than to act proudly and hypocritically or to pervert God’s word by making it submit to our own warped agendas and corrupted desires rather than having the needed God-given humility to learn God’s ways and laws. Scripture calls this kind of living “foolish.”

And how are we to distinguish between earthly wisdom and godly wisdom? Simple, says St. James. Earthly wisdom has its roots in rebellion and Sin and Evil. It is devilish because there are unseen and wicked powers behind wicked and evil human behavior. The result? Warfare and chaos, the defining characteristic of sin—think of God ordering the chaos of nothingness in the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. We all know how this works because we all have engaged in it. We don’t get what we want so we go on the attack. We slander our enemies to discredit them. We see this happening in the Kavanaugh hearings right now. The enemies of Judge Kavanaugh are trying to paint him as a sexual abuser/predator to discredit him. The enemies of his accuser, Dr. Ford, are pointing out examples that call her motives and character into question to discredit her and her accusations. Both sides will be relentless until their enemy is destroyed and victory (in their eyes) is achieved. This is the evil of PC in our culture because this is how PC works. Jesus’ disciples also provide a sad example of what St. James is talking about in our gospel lesson. They were arguing about who would be the greatest when Jesus came to power as Messiah. Do you think that argument was going to produce peace? And the silence that ensued when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about is quite telling. They knew the evil they had committed in their desire to lord it over others. Shame often results in silence.

And it’s not only politics. It’s money (lying, cheating, stealing, drug dealing, embezzling to get it), fame (we all desperately want our minute of fame), power (we oppress others in various ways to impose our will over them), security (gated communities, stealing and embezzling to secure our future retirement, carrying weapons), sex (body shaming to make us feel better, adultery, any kind of sex outside marriage), you name it. We do what we have to do to satisfy our lesser, base, and sin-corrupted desires, harming or destroying others along the way, and the result is chaos. As this nation continues to lose its Judeo-Christian moorings we can expect this phenomenon to accelerate and intensify. This is the wisdom of the world at work and sadly every one of us is intimately familiar with it because we are all thoroughly sin-infected.

By contrast, St. James tells us that godly wisdom is pure, meaning it comes from God. “It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.” To produce this kind of fruit of course requires humility, which is not a natural human trait. It has to be given to us by God and then cultivated by our hard work and willingness and desire to be true image-bearers. A moment’s thought will confirm the truth of how this works. If we are determined to have our way at all costs as earthly wisdom dictates (look out for yourself because no one else will), we will not yield to another person because we subordinate that person and his desires to us and our own. This is human pride at work. But when we understand we are all made in God’s image and that we and our needs are not more important to God than other folks and their needs, we are willing to yield on certain things. I am not talking about appeasement. I am talking about a willingness to help others have their needs and desires met, especially when we see that those desires reflect God and God’s laws. We might see someone in need and seek to help them. We shovel an elderly person’s walk or buy some food for a hungry person. We help Fr. Madanu buy a ticket to see his family when he cannot afford to buy one. You get the idea. When that happens, peace almost always breaks out. Think about it this way. You see two people walking toward you. One is cynical, quarrelsome, and always has to be right: a worldly-wise person. The other is gentle, humble, willing to help, ready to forgive: a godly-wise person. Which one will you try to avoid? 

As we consider all this, it is critical for us to remember that St. James was offering wisdom in the context of community, not just to individuals. We can’t very well make peace if another family member is unwilling to do likewise or is unwilling to forgive us or have mercy on us or is proud and haughty. This community dimension is critical for us as Christians because the kind of wisdom we choose to follow will result in the kind of witness we give to a watching world. When we follow our own devilish and evil desires, what are we proclaiming to the world about our faith in Christ? People will see us arguing and forming into factions and seeking our own interests over the needs and interests of others. Why would they think that the gospel of Jesus Christ has any kind of transformative power? Why would they want to be part of a family like that? So St. James is speaking to all of us here in the St. Augustine’s family, not just the leaders. 

But if we are so thoroughly corrupted that we cannot acquire godly wisdom on our own, what are we to do? It is here that the good folks who put together the Lectionary let us down once again because they omit the following verses from our lesson:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. Do you think the Scriptures have no meaning? They say that God is passionate that the spirit he has placed within us should be faithful to him. And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4.4-6).

Well, it appears that the folks who choose the readings don’t have a taste for, um, “hard passages.” Adulterers? Life or death choices? Stern warnings? How very preachy and judgmental, no?! Well no, actually. There is nothing judgmental in these verses. St. James is following the biblical definition of love, which has very little to do with sentimentality and emotion and almost everything to do with the good of the beloved, which means getting it right about being human as we have seen. Here he warns us that when we follow the wisdom of the world we commit spiritual adultery against God by giving our heart to the ways of the world rather than to the ways of God in the manner God intended for us when God created us as his image-bearers. That will result in God’s awful judgment on us. So to help us stay loyal to him, God willingly and generously gives us his Spirit and the grace to be humble so that we can learn how to practice humility. St. James says the same thing later in our lesson. He asks how we can stop our incessant warfare and chaos? His answer is by self-discipline and prayer. Chaos results from pride and wicked selfishness. We think we have to provide for ourselves. But no! God provides for us if we have the good sense and humility to ask him, and to ask him for the things that bring glory to God’s name rather than to us. Jesus said much the same when he told us to ask for whatever we want in his Name and it will be given to us. As a young man I thought that was strange. Was Jesus giving me license to ask for money or a new car or sex or anything else that was important to me at the time? No, because those things would not bring God glory through the Son (John 14.13). A heart set on Jesus, i.e., God, desires the things Jesus (God) desires and is more concerned about bringing honor and glory to his Name than our own.

This then is the challenge for those of us who seek to follow Christ. It is a call to examine ourselves, especially in terms of how consistently we live out our profession of faith. It is a challenge because living wisely in the light of God’s law is not natural to us. But as with everything else involving the Christian faith, we are not called to attempt the impossible. The God who calls us to live godly lives that will reflect the glory and goodness of his Name also equips us in the power of the Spirit to give us a humble spirit and the freedom to develop it. Our challenge is not whether we can live godly lives, it’s whether we really want to at all. Examine yourselves, therefore, and ask the Father through the Son to help you develop his gift of humility so that you are empowered to live as you are called to live so that you will enjoy the great blessings God wants to give you. The Father has done the hardest work. He has sent the Son to die for you to break the power of Sin and Evil and free you from its wicked enslavement. Trust that God to help you live as he calls you to live. Doing so will make you real wise guys, my beloved. 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. Terry Gatwood: The Lord’s Power

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14B, Sunday, September 9, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

To the end, Father Gatwood’s ability to write sermons failed him. We wish him well and godspeed in his new endeavors at St. Nicholas Anglican Church. Click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37.

Fr. Philip Sang: The Old and the New

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14B, Sunday, September 2, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

To listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Song of Solomon 2.8-13; Psalm 45.1-2, 7-10; James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

We all have certain core traditions and beliefs that are important to us. They make us who we are, they define our own behaviours and the way we think other people should behave. That is what lies behind the Gospel passage we read today.

As usual, the Pharisees and Jesus were having a difference of opinion. The Pharisees were upset because Jesus and his disciples did not take part in the Jewish hand-washing ritual before they ate. To the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples committed a “sin”.

The Pharisees were not the only people who get upset when traditions are not followed. We get upset when people do not follow our “traditions”. We sometimes have to part with our traditions, and that is not always easy for us to accept. I know how hard it can be to depart from tradition or the old way of doing things.

We must not think that the Pharisees are completely bad. They were dedicated to obeying and pleasing God, and that desire led to distinctive practices such as kosher food and circumcision. These practices helped them to keep their identity as God’s chosen people in a pagan world. Their traditions grew out of a need to keep their identity.

Even though the Jewish law was quite detailed, it left room for interpretation in many cases. The Pharisees used their desire to obey God to create rules to clarify the law in these situations. Over time these rules became so hard and fast that they became a surrogate law that the Jewish leaders regarded as being equal to Scripture. They lost sight of the difference between God’s law and their opinion. Jesus said that this was their sin. Jesus did not condemn all tradition. He only condemned those traditions that were elevated to sacred status. The church is responsible for preserving tradition, but it must make a clear distinction between essential scriptural teachings and non-essential traditions.

When he responded to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus went right to the heart of the issue. The Pharisees wanted to hold on to human tradition at all costs when they should have been more concerned with teaching God’s deeper requirements of love, compassion and justice. God is more concerned with a spiritual cleansing and purifying. If our hearts have been purified, our prayer and behaviour will be in line with what God wants. If we act out of good hearts we will know how to behave even if we don’t know the exact rule for a particular situation.

While a sense of tradition is desirable and necessary at times, a problem occurs when tradition is substituted for true worship or true faith. When the actions associated with our traditions become more important than the meaning of the traditions, we can get sidetracked. The Pharisees were more concerned with strict observance of Jewish laws than they were about true faith in God. The Pharisees were concerned about keeping God’s people distinct and keeping them from becoming assimilated with the larger culture. This effort to be distinct included rigid observance of rules, but the observance of rules covered up their lack of inward love and devotion. They were concerned about not letting germs and pollution go into their bodies, but Jesus said that they and we should be more concerned about the filth that comes out of our mouths-lying, cheating, etc. The Pharisees were concerned about the letter of the law including their rules and regulations, but Jesus emphasized the spirit of the law. We must beware of those who appear to be very religious by their actions, but who are really glorifying themselves instead of glorifying God. We should never honour anyone above God. Only he is truly worthy of our praise.

Each and every one of us has a heart problem, and not just a physical one. The heart is a fountain out of which much that affects our lives flows. If the heart is affected by sin, it becomes deceitful and wicked. Therefore, the heart is a source of most of the evil that defiles man. The world is enticing, but for its pull to work, we have to want what it is offering. We do the stupid stuff that we do because it is our human nature. We have to be aware of our sinful nature. When we give in to temptation, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

What we eat and drink can’t hurt and defile us. Only what comes out of us-ungodly words and actions-can defile us. Jesus wants us and his disciples to see that the core issue always comes down to what is in the heart. Ritual external purity is not necessarily the same as genuine interior piety. We are being hypocrites if we vainly honour God with our lips while our hearts are estranged from him. The source of defilement is more internal than external. It is more about who we are than foods or filth we avoid. Jesus defined true piety as a commitment from the heart totally dedicated to loving service of God and for others. Listening and doing are two different things.

Some people who attend church are like that. They carry their Bibles, they bring their offering, they sing every hymn and they listen to every word the preacher says, but it doesn’t change anything in their hearts. They look good on the outside, but their goodness is only skin deep. Their worship is for appearance only and is not from the heart.

That does mean that we cannot be hurt by what comes into our bodies. The obvious sources are smoke, pollution and poor diet, but we can also be defiled from the outside by the environment that we live in. I’m reminded of a discussion we had with our teacher in my High school days about how the choices we make can affect our lives. He said, “You are who you associate with” and that is true. For example, if you live in an area with a high rate of crime, chances are that you will either be seen as criminal or become a criminal if you are not careful.

When God looks at us, the first thing he sees is the state of our heart. God doesn’t care about what we look like on the outside. He’s more concerned about what’s on the inside. He has more sympathy and compassion for a poor beggar in rags who has true faith than he does for rich rulers who wear fine clothes but have rotten hearts and souls. If we don’t take time to have our hearts purified by God every time, we won’t be able to receive his blessings.

Jesus argued that the observance of outside purity is not as importantly needed as the inside because the kingdom of God is for everyone-Jews, Gentiles, those who would observe the purity laws and those who could not keep them. Everyone is equal before God.

Those who are ‘holier than thou’ often have the belief that they can judge others. When that attitude is observed from afar, it is not pretty. It reeks of a superficial, survivalistic and hateful attitude. These people are often the same people who on the surface observe sacred rituals. They have no inward disposition towards God-hence Jesus’ reference to the filth that comes from the inside.

Jesus sets us free to look at ourselves and see our internal, sinful nature. We are free to accept the grace to choose God’s mercy, but we can’t admit that we need outside help. We need outside help to take in goodness and bear good fruit. If our hearts belong to God, nothing else matters.

When people equate tradition with the Law, problems come up. The Pharisees have made the Law more important than God’s rules, just like many of us have made our traditions more important than true faith in God. The Protestant reformation was fuelled in part by the desire to break free from corrupt Roman Catholic traditions and rules and get back to true worship of God. Jesus argued that not all of the Pharisees’ rules had to be obeyed. All we have to do is love God with our hearts, not our heads.

We have to ask ourselves what are the interests of God, and what does God think about the way we live our lives. Does the way we live our lives reflect a way of life that is in line with God and his plan for our lives? While our Christianity should shape our behaviour, it runs deeper than our behaviour. It has implications for how we live our lives, but it is also mysticism before it is morality, faith before it is action, the seed of a new life before it is the fruit of that new life.

Those who would serve the interests of God can do so by giving expression to joy in their lives. Those who feel God’s love have much to offer the hurting and disconnected in our world. It is my prayer that we may feel the love of God and share it out.

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

Bishop Roger Ames: It Takes a Community

Sermon delivered at the parish dedication festival for St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Sunday, August 26, 2018 in Westerville, OH.

Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.9-14; Psalm 122; 1 Peter 2.1-10; John 10.22-29.

There is no written text to today’s sermon. Bishop Ames has been afflicted by the can’t-write bug that he caught from Fathers Bowser and Gatwood. Click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.