Sermon delivered on Sunday, November 14, 2010, at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to hear the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! In today’s Collect, we ask God to help us hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Scripture. But why would we want to do that? If you’ve heard me preach long enough (and some of you doubtless would say not only do I preach long enough but that I preach too long), you’ve heard me encourage you to read your Bible daily. But why would you want to do that? Frankly, if you think you should read your Bible because some priest tells you to, that’s not a very good reason or a good idea because you are doing something so that you can “follow the rules.” No, there needs to be some other, more compelling reason that makes you want to read your Bible every day and that is what I want to talk to you about this morning. I hope to give you some reasons that make you want to read your Bible each day.
How many of you are happy with your relationship with God? If you are happy, I suspect one huge reason is that you know God, not just know about him. You have learned to trust him and learned to recognize his voice and his hand in your life. In other words, you’ve learned what to expect from God and how he expects you to interact with him and others. He has a track record with you based on your knowledge and experience of him.
On the other hand, if you are not entirely happy with your relationship with God, chances are that you don’t have in play the factors I just mentioned. Perhaps you really don’t know him. Maybe you don’t even know that much about him so that you haven’t learned to recognize his voice or his hand in your life. Or maybe you have asked God for something and had your request denied or your prayer remain ostensibly unanswered, leaving you to wonder what that’s all about and whether God really loves you.
If you find yourself in a situation like this but in your heart of hearts really desire to have a real and satisfying relationship with God, then you have the proper motive and incentive to read your Bible each day because in Scripture we learn about God’s character and nature, and about his intentions for us as his creatures. In Scripture, we have a record of God’s dealing with his creatures, about what he has done and what he is doing to end our exile from him, an exile that is caused by our sin and rebelliousness. And if you have a satisfying relationship with God, chances are that one of the main reasons you have that kind of relationship with God is because you have spent time with him in Scripture so that you have learned what to expect in your relationship with him.
That is why in today’s Collect, we ask God to help us to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Scripture. Notice carefully that each of these verbs represents a progressively deeper engagement with God through Scripture and this is consistent with good learning theory. If we are content to learn about something simply by listening to someone else talk about it, chances are that most of us will never learn much because we tend to forget about 90% of what we hear within 72 hours of having heard it. This is especially true if we do not paraphrase the information to make it meaningful to us and to rehearse it in our minds so that we don’t forget it. The old adage is true. If we don’t use it, we lose it. Our knowledge of God through Scripture is no different.
What I am talking about here, of course, is going beyond hearing. I am talking about reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Scripture so that we can have a solid foundation on which to build our relationship with God. This ought to make perfect sense to us. Think about your dearest friends. You likely did not want to be their friend (or have them be yours) until you got to know them a bit and decided there was something in them that made cultivating a friendship with them worthwhile. Likewise with God. Scripture is the primary medium that God has ordained for us to get to know about and know him. Of course, there is more to having a relationship with God than reading our Bible regularly, but without the foundational knowledge of the Bible, chances are that any relationship we have with God will be superficial at best.
But here is where the rub is because many of us are content to only learn about God by simply hearing his word read to us. For a variety of reasons, we are not willing to commit the time or the effort to engage in Scripture in deeper and more meaningful ways so that God can speak clearly to us through his word contained in Scripture. And since God never forces himself on us because that is not the nature of true love, we inevitably find ourselves wanting a deeper relationship with God but not knowing how to achieve it. Please understand. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty by saying this. I am simply laying out the fundamental and necessary principles that will help us grow in our relationship with God if that is what we really want.
And so if it is true that we can learn about God’s character, about his track record with his people in exile, and about his intentions for us, then let us see what we can learn about God from today’s Scripture readings. As we do, ask yourself these questions: “Is this the kind of God with whom I would want to have a relationship? Is this God big enough to meet my needs and to heal my brokenness?” How you answer these questions will go a long way in determining what kind of relationship you really have with God.
Where is God’s Grace?
What do today’s lectionary readings tell us about God? In today’s Psalm we learn that God is Creator of this world and that he has an established track record with his people, a track record that makes all creation want to shout for joy over what he has done for us. We learn that God is holy and because he is holy he is keenly interested in helping us have the kind of relationship with him and each other that will bring us real happiness and contentment. Consequently there must necessarily be judgment when we behave in ways that do not bring about God’s intended happiness for us and so we wonder exactly what God’s intended happiness for us looks like. We learn that God is faithful and merciful and this makes us wonder what the Psalmist is thinking about when he writes this. To whom is God faithful? How does he show mercy? Will his mercy have any impact on his role as our Creator and Judge? Fortunately we get some answers to these questions in our other lectionary readings.
From today’s OT reading from Isaiah, we read one of the most poignant and hope-filled passages in all the OT. Here God is speaking through the prophet, promising his wayward and rebellious people that their time of judgment is almost over, that God is going to redeem them beyond their wildest hopes and imaginations by bringing about a New Creation where he will finally put to right all that plagues and bedevils them. Now if we do not know the history of God’s people and their dealings with him, we may miss the unbelievable amount of grace and mercy contained in this passage. To really catch the breathtaking grace contained in this passage, we need to know the story of how God called Israel to be his agent for redeeming and healing his sinful world, but how Israel herself became part of the problem rather than the solution.
For example, we need to go back and read the story of how God brought his people out of slavery from Egypt and about how they grumbled and rebelled against him in the desert. You’ll find that story primarily in Exodus and Numbers. We then need to read the sad story of Israel’s continuous rebellion against God and her proclivity to worship idols even after God delivered Israel to the promised land. You’ll find that story mainly in Judges, the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, or you can read a concise summary of this ongoing debacle in Psalm 78. Time and again, Israel refused to be the people God called them to be and judgment ultimately came in the form of the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C. But despite Israel’s waywardness—and our own—God remains faithful to his promises to redeem and heal us, and is always willing to be merciful and gracious to his stubborn and wayward people.
Contrast that to our typical reaction when we encounter entrenched and unrepentant behavior. What do we typically do? After enough time and chances have past, we typically give up on that person and leave him to his own devices. We see this especially in the way we treat hardened criminals. We are inclined to lock them up and throw away the key. Not so with God as today’s passage from Isaiah so beautifully attests. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). We are reminded of this nine times in the OT alone. He does not give up on us—ever in this life. The next time you are in despair over your retrenched sins, remember the truth contained in this verse. Remember this promise of New Creation and remember that the only way you are excluded from the promise of New Creation is if you exclude yourself. You have God’s word contained in Scripture and the blood of Christ shed for you as testimony to its truth.
In today’s Epistle lesson, we learn something about God’s intentions for us as the Body of Christ, the Church. We learn that God created us to be free moral agents and because we are given freedom to make moral decisions we are also expected to take responsibility for our own lives and our own decisions. We see this illustrated in Paul’s command to the Thessalonians to deny the slackers among them food to eat. Apparently there were some in the church at Thessalonica who stopped working because they expected the Lord Jesus to return soon and claim them at the Parousia. So they stopped taking responsibility for themselves, something which Paul reminded them was unacceptable in God’s eyes.
Perhaps more importantly, we see a keen concern on God’s part over how we relate to each other. Paul commands the Thessalonians to stay away from those who were intentionally idle but who presumably were healthy enough to work. The Greek verbs that Paul used for “keep away from”, stello apo, do not imply a total ostracism of such believers but rather a refusal to participate in their idleness. Why? Because idleness leads to being a busybody and a gossip, and such behavior is always judgmental and leads to discord and animosity. As Paul reminds us countless times in his letters, that is not how believers are to behave. Instead, our job is to build each other up, not to tear each other down. God created us to have relationships, both with him and with each other, although on different terms, that lead to happiness and the fulfillment of our being truly human and here we see that concern expressed in a practical manner.
Finally in today’s Gospel lesson we see a God who promises to never leave us alone, even under the most dire circumstances. As today’s passage implies, and as Jesus made explicit in his farewell discourses in John (see, e.g., John 14-16), he will send us the Holy Spirit to be with us, to help us know what to do and say, especially in the most extreme circumstances. But the Spirit will not force himself on us and if we do not open ourselves up to him in humility and faith, he will not enter. Think of it this way. If you come to a house and knock on the door, what will you do if no one answers it? If you are not a criminal, you will walk away and leave that place. Likewise with the Holy Spirit. If we do not invite him into our lives and make a place for him to live in us, he will leave us to our own devices. But when we open the doors of our heart and mind to his abiding Presence and partake in the means of grace that will nurture the Spirit’s presence, we can have confidence that he will be with us to sustain us and help us meet every one of life’s challenges. We can read about how that played out in the each of the four Gospels, the book of Acts, and in any of Paul’s letters. Are you making room for the Holy Spirit to live in you so that you can experience peace, joy, and wholeness even in the midst of your brokenness?
In sum, today’s passages from Scripture remind us we have a God who created us to have happy and satisfying relationships with him and each other. We have a God who is infinitely patient and kind with us, who is always faithful to us, who will never abandon us, and who expects us to treat others just the way he treats us. This is what it means to be holy as God is holy. Is that the God you know?
Where is the Application?
So what do we do with this? I am not going to suggest the obvious, that we read our Bible everyday, because of reasons I have already given. If you have a satisfactory relationship with God and others, you likely are already well-versed in what the Bible says about God’s nature and his intentions for us. If you are struggling with your relationship with God or others and that struggle is a result of your not really knowing God, then I would simply encourage you to answer the questions I have posed. Is the God we have talked about this morning someone with whom you want to have a relationship? Does that God appear to be able to meet your needs, wants, and healthy desires? If I have done an adequate job of summarizing what today’s lectionary readings tell us about God, I am convinced that for most of us, the God we read about in Scripture is an adequate God who is worthy of our ultimate love and devotion. And if that is true and you want a real relationship with God, one that you can count on, you will be willing to do the work to deepen your knowledge of God, in part, through reading your Bible regularly.
Any relationship we value is, in part, contingent upon our knowledge of the other so that we have learned to trust him or her. We only gain that knowledge through experience, which allows us to see if that person is really trustworthy and dependable. Likewise with God. Our relationship with God is built on a firm biblical foundation in which we learn about the God of history and his dealings with his broken and wayward people. When we engage in Scripture, we find a God who is gracious and merciful, steadfast in his love and faithfulness, and who has delivered on his promises to deliver us from our exile and alienation from him through the blood of Christ. As we await our final redemption, we are also reminded that God gives us his very Presence in the person of the Spirit to be with us through thick and thin. And when we really understand this, we will discover that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.