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“The most Earth-like planet ever discovered is circling a star 600 light years away” is the exciting news announced by NASA scientists earlier this month. “We are homing in on the true Earth-sized, habitable planets,” said the astronomer who leads a project using NASA’s Kepler Star Telescope that was launched three years ago. It is exciting news that has set the scientific community humming with all the possibilities that this suggests. This news, however, is nothing compared with the astonishing claim that we celebrate today – the news that the angels announced is nothing less than the assertion that at a particular moment in time God visited this planet and forever changed the course of human history.
One of the great dangers of Christmas celebrations is that we can get so caught up in the delightful pictures of a baby-in-manger surrounded by friendly animals that we miss the stupendous miracle of God’s engagement with us in actual time and place. Most people are happy to celebrate a “season of peace on earth and good will among men” but struggle with this “scandal of particularity.” That should come as no surprise because so much more is at the heart of the miracle of the Incarnation. When we begin to glimpse the outrageous truth that the God who created and sustains this immensely complex universe made up of millions of stars and planets would stoop so low as to take on the form of a fragile baby all we can do is fall to our knees in awe.
J. B. Phillips (Bible translator and Anglican clergyman) wrote a short story for children, called “The Visited Planet,” in which he described Christmas from the point of view of the angels as part of his effort to avoid the dangers of over familiarity. He also wrote an essay, “The Dangers of Advent,” in which he repeatedly warns about a kind of indifference that many Christmas celebrations can produce. We can sing the carols and enjoy the gifts but we may miss the “quiet but explosive significance” of God’s awe-inspiring insertion into human history.
But nothing can change the fact that the little baby – born in such pitiful humility, cut down as a young man in his prime – now commands the allegiance of well over two billion people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history. It is a solid rock of evidence that no agnostic can ever explain away.
That is why, behind all of our fun and games at Christmastime, we should not try to escape a sense of awe – almost a sense of fright – at what God has done. We must never allow anything to blind us to the true significance of what happened at Bethlehem so long ago. Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet.
Sermon delivered Christmas Eve, 2011, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Tonight we celebrate the entrance of God into human history in the person of Jesus the Messiah (or Christ) and I want to spend some time looking at what that might mean for us today. In this evening’s OT lesson, the prophet Isaiah tells us that, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” and that light has dawned on the land of deep darkness. While the prophet wrote these words to the people of ancient Israel who were under the threat of Assyrian invasion and conquest over 2700 years ago, we instinctively understand what Isaiah is saying because way too often we also live in darkness and fear. It can be the darkness and fear that results when we ponder the threat of terrorism and war or have our eyes opened to the terrible reality of disease, famine, and injustice and the massive suffering that results. Closer to home, it can be the kind of darkness and fear caused by loneliness and isolation, broken relationships, or failure and loss of all sorts. Or it can be the kind of darkness that descends on us when we realize that the prophet Jeremiah was spot on in his succinct analysis of the human condition: The heart is deceitful and desperately sick. Who can understand it (Jeremiah 17.9)? All this can become a terrible burden for us, especially if we care at all about our relationship with God. We instinctively understand that God cannot be pleased with an incurably sick heart and this latter realization has the potential to make us really afraid.
But just when we think the darkness is going to overwhelm us, our eyes are opened by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit to see God’s great light. Thankfully God can use our darkness (usually with our cooperation, but not always) to bless us with the needed humility and wisdom so that we are really ready to hear the glorious good news that was launched at Christmas. When we are ready to hear the Christmas story, the first thing we realize is that we need not be afraid anymore because the God of this vast and awesome universe has condescended to our level and become human for our sake so that our exile and alienation from him could be ended forever, which of course is the root cause of all our darkness.
Don’t let the way our culture has sentimentalized and even paganized Christmas muddle your thinking about what God has done for us in the Christmas event. Think about this regularly. The Creator of this vast and wondrous universe entered our history on this night and became human for us. What this means, of course, is that God does not intend to destroy us but to redeem and restore us to be the people he created us to be. By becoming human, God shows us in the most convincing way possible that he values his creation and human creatures and wants to have a real relationship with us. As Paul reminds us at the beginning of Romans 8, God condemned sin in the flesh by becoming human so that we no longer have to worry about being condemned. We need to pay careful attention to this because it means that God finds sin offensive, not humans. What is even more remarkable is that God did not become human because we are worthy or special. No, he did this because he is loving and gracious and merciful. That is why the Christmas story is so wondrous. God is demonstrating his true character to us!
A second reason we do not need to be afraid anymore is because the gospel, God’s rescue plan for humanity and all the sin and evil that bedevils us, is offered to everyone, which means we can stop worrying about whether God will find us acceptable. God accepts each of us just as we are. But thanks be to God that he loves us enough not to leave us where we are. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done or failed to do. God offers healing, hope, and life to everyone without exception. Paul tells us this in tonight’s epistle lesson when he talks about the grace of God appearing, which of course is Jesus, to offer salvation to all people. Sadly, however, not all people will have the good sense or humility to accept the gift offered in Jesus or even want to do so. But for those who, by God’s grace, do have the humility and good sense to accept God’s offer to us in Jesus to end our exile and alienation from him forever, there is every reason to rejoice and not be afraid anymore because God’s offer is tied to his love and grace, not to how good we initially are.
We see this truth poignantly illustrated in our gospel lesson. God did not announce the birth of Jesus to Caesar Augustus. God didn’t announce to Quirinius or the movers and shakers of ancient society that his rescue plan had been launched in Jesus. Had God done so, think of how many more people might have been initially exposed to the gospel. But no, God has always promised to bring down the mighty and raise up the underdogs. And so it was to poor shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night that the gospel first came. Once again, we’ve got to stop carrying around a sentimentalized picture of the shepherds so that we think of them as poor, humble, and good. That’s not who your average shepherd was. Typically shepherding was for the outcasts of society, those who were criminals and other shady characters. These folks weren’t your solid citizens. You wouldn’t invite them into your homes. They were on the fringe of society and marginalized, and this is to whom God first announced the good news of Jesus. This reminds us in an unmistakable way that nobody is without hope or beyond the reach God’s tender love and mercy unless it is our own willful and proud rejection of God’s offer of life to us in Christ (cf. Romans 8.31-39).
Of course the birth of Jesus was only the beginning of the good news of God’s rescue plan for us and God’s creation. Jesus would have to grow into a man and be tempted and suffer and die a horrible criminal’s death to defeat evil, sin, and death decisively. He would have to be raised bodily from the dead three days later, thereby launching God’s promised new creation in which all the world’s wrongs would be put to right before we would know the full extent of the good news of Jesus’ birth.
“But wait,” you say. “Look around you! How can you say God has defeated evil in the death and resurrection of Christ? You even talked about the evil that exists in this world at the beginning of your sermon.” Fair enough (and thanks for noticing). Evil and death still persist but they have been defeated and there will be no doubting this when Jesus returns in great power and glory to finish the work he started when he first appeared. That is the blessed hope to which Paul refers in our epistle lesson tonight.
In the meantime, we who put our hope and trust in Christ are not left to fend for ourselves because we have work to do here on earth on Jesus’ behalf to help bring in the promised new creation. When, by God’s grace, we come to a real faith in Christ, we are given his Spirit to live in and among us. It is the Spirit who helps us respond to God’s love and mercy to us in Christ. It is also the Spirit who helps us develop a character like Christ’s. Sure, we have to make an effort to “put on Christ” at first. In other words, we have to practice being merciful, forgiving, selfless, and all the rest so that we are ready for God to use us as agents of new creation to bring healing, hope, and reconciliation to his world. That is hard, especially at the beginning, because we are not naturally that way. But when we do our part, we can be sure that the Spirit is transforming us into the very likeness of Christ. And if we don’t believe that, we simply have to look for the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5.22-25) in our life as proof.
But this is where it gets really interesting. As we grow in the Spirit, more often than not we discover that we are blessed with what pastor and author Craig Groeschel calls a “holy burden.” We look around and discover our heart breaks over certain things we see in this world. We become angry over the wrongs and injustice we see being perpetrated against those least able to defend themselves. The Spirit also gives us a heart and passion for people and things that nobody else seems to care about. All this leads us to act on behalf of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit to address these burdens. When we have faith enough to act in this manner—and make no mistake, this will be very costly to us—we discover that God will turn our burdens and sufferings into blessings and joy because we realize that he is using us as his agents of new creation to bring healing and hope to a world that desperately needs it, just the way Jesus did when he walked this earth. This often isn’t what we expect when we become a Christian but it is a clear sign that we are being led, shaped, and formed by Christ’s Spirit living in us. And in the process, we also discover that we are learning how to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus in the manner he commands us to do.
Of course we don’t pursue our burdens, holy or otherwise, alone. We do this together and our Spirit-led fellowship (which is better known as the Church) is another important and tangible sign that Jesus really is good to his name—Immanuel, God with us. This is especially important for us to remember because we live in a culture that prizes rugged individualism and doing your own thing. But that is not how we as a redeemed people in Christ are called to live. We are called to live life in the Spirit in Christ together so that we can support, love, and encourage each other as we pursue our individual and collective holy burdens. You will miss a good deal of the Christmas (and Christian) hope and promise if you ignore this truth.
This then, is why the Christmas story is so important for us and why we celebrate it tonight. By entering our history and taking on our humanity, God declares to us that he loves us, warts and all. But God promises not to leave us where we are with our desperately sick hearts so that we are forced to continue to live in our darkness and in fear. No, God has entered our history to end our exile and alienation from him, once and for all. He has called us to help bring in his promised new creation as we await his return to finally put all things right. And he has blessed us, in part, with his very Spirit and the fellowship of other believers to help us do just that. When you really believe that, folks, so that it changes you in ways that are surprising even to you, then you have no good reason to ever be afraid because you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Merry Christmas!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Spot on. Sacks is speaking of Europe but he could very well be speaking of the United States.
The first financial instruments of modern capitalism were developed by 14th-century banks in Christian Florence, Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Max Weber traced the connections between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Michael Novak has done likewise for Catholicism. Jews, numbering one fifth of one per cent of the population of the world, have won more than 30 per cent of Nobel Prizes in economics. When I asked the developmental economist Jeffrey Sachs what drove him in his work, he replied without hesitation,tikkun olam, the Jewish imperative of “healing a fractured world”. The birth of the modern economy is inseparable from its Judeo-Christian roots.
But this is not a stable equilibrium. Capitalism is a sustained process of creative destruction. The market undermines the very values that gave rise to it in the first place. The consumer culture is profoundly antithetical to human dignity. It inflames desire, undermines happiness, weakens the capacity to defer instinctual gratification and blinds us to the vital distinction between the price of things and their value.
Instead of seeing the system as Adam Smith did, as a means of directing self-interest to the common good, it can become a means of empowering self-interest to the detriment of the common good. Instead of the market being framed by moral principles, it comes to substitute for moral principle. If you can buy it, negotiate it, earn it and afford it, then you are entitled to it — as the advertisers say — because you’re worth it. The market ceases to be merely a system and becomes an ideology in its own right.
This from my bishop, +Roger Ames (Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes).
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Sermon delivered on the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2011, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 7.1-16; Canticle 54; Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and we have lighted the final purple candle on our wreath that represents the blessed Virgin Mary, whom our readings feature this morning. As we have seen over the past several weeks, Advent is a season of anticipation and expectation. As Christians, we believe we are going somewhere and that we have a future, a future assured by God himself. But as we saw last week this belief is being subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermined by a false teaching that came out of the Enlightenment known as deism, which essentially argues we have an absent God. It teaches that God did his creative work and retired to heaven to see how it all plays out. This, of course, is not a god we can worship or with whom we can have a real relationship. The deist god is bound to disappoint because he is not around to guide or rescue us. Therefore, this god cannot possibly be in control of history or our future, let alone our present situation.
Thankfully, a deist god is not the God of the Bible and today I want to continue to look at why this is. How do we know that we can confidently put our whole hope and trust in God? We know, in part, by God’s gift of faith and his Spirit living in us. But we also know when we examine the record of God’s interactions with his people. All of today’s lessons illustrate this truth and gives us further evidence that the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is indeed a God who keeps his word to be with us always. And so I want us to look briefly at what today’s lessons have to tell us so that by God’s Spirit we can have our minds renewed and our hope and trust in Jesus strengthened (or maybe restored or even established).
In this morning’s gospel lesson, the angel Gabriel is sent to tell Mary that she is to become the Mother of God. Luke tells us that Mary was greatly troubled by what Gabriel had to tell her. And who wouldn’t be? After all, she was a virgin. So how was she going to be pregnant and give birth? Things like this just don’t happen so what did it all mean? It’s not unreasonable to think that Mary might have also envisioned accusations of adultery and its subsequent death penalty as she pondered this news. However, the angel reassured her and told her not to be afraid because nothing is impossible with God.
We can all relate to Mary on this level, can’t we? We are confronted with a variety of things in our life we don’t understand and that make us afraid—sickness, suffering, evil, injustice, death, and long sermons among others. Like Mary, we desperately enquire of God and long to hear the reassuring words, “Don’t be afraid. Nothing is impossible for God.” But if we believe that God has retired from this world and our lives or we are unfamiliar with the reliability of God’s track record in dealing with his people, we are not likely to find the peace or reassurance we seek.
Unfortunately, the Bible does not give us much of a direct answer to our questions about evil and all that bedevils us. Apparently God is not going to let us in on the joke. Instead, we are invited to examine the record of God’s dealings with his people and world, especially in the person of Jesus, and then to put our whole hope and trust in him based on that examination. Why? Because the record of Scripture clearly indicates that God is active and in control of his people and world, and intends to redeem both his fallen creatures and creation.
Of course, believing this is no easy task for us because we humans are control freaks. We like to have things nice and tidy—and solidly under our control. We want direct answers to our earnest questions and we want them now. This prideful desire for control is essentially what got us thrown out of paradise because God did not create us to be his equals. As Augustine reminds us, God created us for himself and we are to reflect God’s glory into the world. That’s what it means to be created in God’s image and it also means that we are not going to be let in on the joke about evil because we are not God.
Happily, however, we do have an extensive record of God’s dealing with his people and world, and from that record we can see that God is a God who keeps his word to be with us always. In today’s OT lesson, we see one of the most powerful examples in all Scripture of God’s faithfulness to his people in the poignant story of David wanting to build God a house and God’s response to David through the prophet Nathan.
The first thing we notice in today’s lesson is how much God has to say. At 197 words, God says more to David here than he had to say to any other human since the days of Moses, at least of which we have a record in Scripture. So we probably ought to pay attention to what God is telling David and us. (As an interesting sidebar, it appears that even God’s prophets can suffer from the pride of presumption on occasion as Nathan apparently had not consulted God before he gave David God’s approval of David’s plans to build God a temple.)
In response to David’s request to build God a temple (or house), God gently rebukes David and tells him that David is not going to do that. Instead, God would establish a house or dynasty for David and then God ups the ante. God makes the most remarkable promise to David that from his lineage there would be one in particular who would embody David’s house and dynasty for God and rule forever. In fact, while this person would be from David’s offspring, it would be God himself who would be this ruler’s father. Did you catch that? It sounds almost identical to what Gabriel promised Mary! Do tell.
And while it is true that this prophecy was partially fulfilled in David’s son, Solomon, who built the first temple, surely God did not have Solomon in mind when he promised David that this future ruler’s throne would last forever because Israel’s monarchy ended with the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C. No, as later writers thought about this passage and reflected on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they realized that God’s promises to David were messianic in nature and had finally been fulfilled in Jesus.
They believed this because they examined the evidence (of which today’s gospel lesson is a part) and concluded that it was God himself who had come in the person of Jesus to be God’s anointed Messiah, the true representative of Israel, to finally fulfill Israel’s mission to bring rescue, healing, and redemption to a world and its people exiled from God’s love and Presence by human sin. God did this in Jesus by dying on a cross for us and bearing his own wrath himself so that we would not have to. By his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53.5b) and we have found peace and reconciliation with God through him (cf. Colossians 1.20; Ephesians 1.7). But we are not being saved so that we can retire to heaven and hang out with God forever while the rest of the world rots away. That would make a farce of God’s promises to David in today’s OT lesson! After all, there is no reason to have an eternal throne in David’s house to rule over the earth if earth and its people are destined for destruction. No, we are saved to be agents of God’s healing and redemption in the exact way God intended Israel to be when he made his covenant with Abraham (cf. Genesis 12.1-3; 15.1-6). In other words, we have God’s work to do in this world and God has come to us in Jesus, in part, to show us what that work looks like.
And the NT writers believed God’s promises to David had been fulfilled in the cross of Jesus because they had also seen his mighty resurrection and ascension. This made them realize that Jesus had not only conquered death and defeated evil but had also ushered in God’s promised new creation to put to rights all that was wrong with the world, the very work Jesus had started in his earthly ministry by his healing and other works, and which would finally be consummated at his Second Coming. After all, God created all things to be good (cf. Genesis 1-2). Why would he not want to restore what human sin had caused to go wrong?
God’s promised coming to his people Israel in Jesus also meant there would be a radical difference in how humans interact with God here on earth. No longer, for example, would we need to visit a temple to be in the Presence of God because Jesus himself had become the new temple, the place where heaven and earth intersect, and so when we interact with Jesus in prayer, Scripture, worship, and fellowship we interact with God himself. If we understand this, the passages about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing the temple, and his curious saying about rebuilding the temple in three days should his enemies destroy it start to make total sense (cf. Mark 11.1-26; John 2.19). In Jesus, God was coming as King to live with his people forever in fulfillment of God’s promises to David in today’s OT lesson and elsewhere, but not in the manner God’s people expected and certainly not on their timetable or ours.
Once again, notice carefully that these promises were foretold long before they happened and that they are essentially the same promises that Gabriel made to Mary in today’s gospel lesson. God is not making things up as history unfolds. Neither is he remote or uninterested in our lives and this world because he has entered our history as Jesus, the Messiah and faithful representative of God’s called-out (holy) people Israel, to redeem both his creation and us. God has always used his called-out people, both ancient Israel and Israel constituted as those of us in the church who follow Jesus, to help him in his redemptive work until he returns again in great power and glory to finish what only God can do. This is further evidence that God has not retired and abandoned his people or his world and we miss a massive part of God’s presence in this world and our lives if we ignore this truth or turn a blind eye to it. All this is in the Scriptural record if we will only take the time and use our minds to learn and examine that record, aided by the power and Presence of the Spirit living in us. When we really start to understand the whole biblical narrative and the nature of God’s rescue plan for us and his world, we really do have good reason not to be afraid, even in the most desperate of circumstances.
We have this confidence because we see that God is a God who works in and through Jesus and his people to keep his promises and for whom nothing is impossible. We see it illustrated in Luke’s report of Gabriel and the Virgin Mary and manifested spectacularly in Jesus’ subsequent birth, life, death, and resurrection. This is essentially what Paul confirms in our epistle lesson today. Paul reminds us to give God the glory because he has fulfilled his ancient promises to redeem and heal us through Jesus.
All this reminds us that Jesus is Lord, not just of heaven but of heaven and earth. And if that is true and we really believe this, we had better get busy—with the help of his Spirit living in and through us—and do the things that show him and others we do indeed think he is our Lord and king. Here again, we can take our cue from Mary’s response to God’s great gift to her. She didn’t fully understand but she had faith in God because she knew God and therefore she knew God is good to his word. So she obeyed and cooperated with God’s plan.
Likewise for us. That means, for example, (besides the obvious need for us to thoroughly learn Scripture’s story), we will find ourselves denying ourselves and taking up our cross each day as we follow Jesus in obedience to his command to do this. In doing so, we will discover that he helps shape us and mold our character, even in the most dire of circumstances, so that we become like him. We will then find ourselves doing outrageous things like forgiving our enemies and praying for them, serving the least and the lost, and thereby bringing real hope and healing to them. We will resist our natural inclination to take the credit because we know that it isn’t us or even about us, but rather our Risen Lord working in and through us to bring about his promised new creation. And when that happens, we realize that we are doing exactly what we were saved to do! This, in turn, gives us reason to have a real and living hope because we realize we are living out God’s promises, even in all the messiness of our lives, and that God really is good to his word to be with us always. And when that happens, folks, we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beginning today and going through December 23, I will be posting an an Advent antiphon.
From The Book of Common Worship’s Times and Seasons (p.58).
These antiphons, or refrains, all beginning ‘O …’, were sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers, according to the Roman use, on the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (17–23 December). They are addressed to God, calling for him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a tapestry of scriptural titles and pictures that describe his saving work in Christ. In the medieval rite of Salisbury Cathedral that was widely followed in England before the Reformation, the antiphons began on 16 December and there was an additional antiphon (‘O Virgin of virgins’) on 23 December; this is reflected in the Calendar of The Book of Common Prayer, where 16 December is designated O Sapientia (O Wisdom). The Common Worship Calendar has adopted the more widely used form. It is not known when and by whom the antiphons were composed, but they were already in use by the eighth century.
17 December – O Sapientia
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other mightily, and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
–cf Ecclesiasticus 24.3; Wisdom 8.1
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16th December, A.D. 2011
TO ALL FAITHFUL ANGLICANS IN NORTH AMERICA:
Beloved in the Lord,
Advent begins to turn toward Christmas. In the early days of the season, Charles Wesley’s hymn “Lo, He comes with Clouds, descending” summarizes the focus on Christ’s coming again at the end of the ages. Now the strains of “O come, o come Emmanuel” direct us toward all the prophecies of the first coming at Bethlehem in Judea.
In Britain, eight different evening antiphons were used (seven on the continent) – a different one each evening – as a “countdown to Christmas.” These eight antiphons are the source of the hymn now known to almost everyone. Come Wisdom (O sapientia)! Come Lord! Come Root of Jesse! Come Key of David! Come Dayspring! Come King of Gentiles! Come Emmanuel! Come Virgin Born!
The ancient Advent antiphons are cries to the Lord that He would come and “ransom” us, that He would fulfill His promises to us, that He would be God with us.
In this Advent of the Year of our Lord 2011, as we shift our call from Revelation’s Maranatha![Rev.22.20] to Isaiah’s Emmanuel [Isa.7.14] there are many, many situations where we need the wisdom, the key, the dayspring and everything else promised in Scripture and rehearsed in the familiar hymn. There are so many needs that require the Lord’s help and our conversion: hunger, homelessness, sickness, despair, oppression, conflict, addiction, abuse, no one to care…
One need is peculiar to us as Anglicans and as Christians: unity in Christ. These last weeks have been filled with much heart-break for our brothers and sisters of the Anglican Mission in the Americas and, as a consequence, for us in the Anglican Church in North America. At Pentecost of 2004 Bishops Leonard Riches, David Anderson, Chuck Murphy, Keith Ackerman, Don Harvey and I wrote to Archbishop Rowan Williams pledging to make “common cause for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for a biblical, missionary and united Anglicanism in North America.” The crisis of the moment is also opportunity. We need the wisdom, the key and the dayspring for this as for every situation. We need to seek the Lord’s help and commit our best efforts to this Anglican need as well as to all the other needs of our human family. I, as Archbishop, will do my part. As your gift to Jesus this year, I trust you will do yours.
We received word this week of a decision by the Province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan that their House of Bishops had taken action to recognize “fully” the Anglican Church in North America as a “true faithful Orthodox Church” and to commit to “work with [us] to expand the Kingdom of God in the world.” I pray we will prove worthy of the trust this Province has expressed. I pray we will do it in the same fidelity to the Word of God and with the same Christ-like charity they have shown. I pray we will do it with the same courage and unity in adversity as the Church of the Sudan has shown through thirty years of civil war, suffering and martyrdom. What trust they place in us!
“O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Our God has come and is coming. We have nothing to fear with Him, as long as we are in Him.
Be assured of my prayers for every one of you in these closing Advent days, in the twelve days of Christmas, and in all the days that are ahead.
Faithfully in Christ,
Archbishop and Primate
Anglican Church in North America
Sermon delivered on the third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2011, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, and we have lighted the pink candle on our wreath that represents John the Baptist, whom our Gospel lesson features this morning. Gaudete is a Latin term that means rejoice and it serves to remind us that even in this season of Advent with its somber reflection of the Four Last Things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—and its mood of expectation and anticipation, we as Christians have good reason to rejoice in the Lord always. Thus the color of the candle changes from purple to pink indicating a shift from penitence to celebration as we get ready to celebrate the great Christmas feast.
Over the past few weeks we have talked about the need for us as Christians to be awake and alert as we anticipate and watch for our Lord’s Second Advent or coming. We saw last week that it will not be a good day for the human race in general but that we as Christians have real hope as we await Christ’s return, not because we are better than others but because we really have Good News. In other words, our faith is rooted in God’s active intervention in his world on our behalf in the person of Jesus and in God’s sovereign control of our history. The Gospel is not a figment of human imagination. It is an account and interpretation of actual historical events and the ongoing dealings of God and his people, and we are to use our minds to learn about and reflect on how God is dealing with the evil and sin that bedevils his world.
But how are we to remain watchful when we are so easily distracted as a people? What can we do to ensure that we are open to the Spirit’s Presence in our lives so that we are ready to meet our Lord should he return in our lifetime? Why should we not fear the judgment that will accompany his Second Coming and what are we to be doing in the meantime? Today’s readings give us plenty of guidance on these subjects and this morning I want to look briefly at what they say so that we really can have a solid basis in which to hope and rejoice.
As we listened to the classic Messianic passage from Isaiah in today’s OT lesson, we can immediately relate to the human condition it addresses, can’t we? Every one of us knows what it is like to mourn or be in despair. We all know what it is like to experience ugliness in its various forms. We’ve all wandered in emotional and spiritual deserts from time to time and we long for the day when all the wrongs of the world will be put to right.
But we wonder how that’s going to come about. We wonder this, in part, because many of us have succumbed, knowingly or not, to the influence of rationalist thinking of the past 200 years or so that argues that God created the world, set it in motion, and then retired to heaven to watch how it all plays out. This thinking is called deism and we even see it reflected in some misguided Christian theology that focuses on a privatized spirituality in which the main prize is going to heaven. The deist god is remote, distant, and frankly inadequate because he either cannot or will not get actively involved in the affairs and lives of his world and its creatures.
We see this kind of thinking reflected in the anxious and existential questions we all ask: Where is God? Why doesn’t God act to fix his broken world? Why does God allow unspeakable evil [name your favorite evil here] to exist? All these questions can betray a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lack of trust in God and his ability to rescue his world and us from all that confronts us. This is a problem for us as Christians because if this thinking really does reflect who God is, then frankly it is a waste of our time to try and worship this kind of god. After all, who wants to give his or her ultimate love and loyalty to a god who is far removed from our daily lives with our attendant needs, hopes, dreams, and fears? I mean, really. Is this a kind of god that excites and invites you to worship, love, and adore? Me neither.
Thankfully, however, this is not the God of the Bible, in either the OT or NT. But if we do not take the time and use our minds to understand and make for our own the biblical story of God’s rescue plan for his broken and hurting world and people, we will never have a legitimate reason to rejoice in the Lord always as Paul writes in today’s epistle lesson. In other words, we will always likely have a god who disappoints because we have failed to understand how he interacts with his world and plans to deal with sin and evil.
As we saw last week, God has had a plan from all eternity to rescue us from our sin and the evil that has resulted from it. The narrative of the OT tells us that that plan included God calling out his people Israel to help bring God’s light to the nations and redeem sinful humanity so that we would once again bear God’s image in the way he created us to reflect it. But Israel itself became part of the problem because God’s people were every bit as broken as the people they were called to help redeem. So God promised his people Israel that he would come among them in the person of his Messiah, God’s specially anointed king and ruler, to right the wrongs of both the world and of God’s people themselves. We see this hope and anticipation represented clearly in today’s lesson from Isaiah. While the person is never explicitly named as God’s Messiah, the context of the passage surely suggests that he is the same person as God’s servant identified in the four servant songs of Isaiah 42-53.
In the NT, we see in the four Gospels how Jesus fulfilled this role as God’s anointed one, the Messiah (or Christ). We see Jesus freeing folks from their various forms of captivity, healing the sick, raising the dead, and proclaiming the Good News of God’s coming reign on earth as it is in heaven. In fact, Matthew reports that Jesus referred specifically to today’s passage when answering John the Baptist’s inquiries about him (cf. Matthew 11.1-6). And of course Jesus applied today’s passage to himself at Nazareth to indicate that he was indeed God’s chosen Messiah, a declaration that almost got him killed (cf. Luke 4.14-30). Despite this negative reaction from Jesus’ hometown folks, a careful overall reading of the Gospel narratives shows us that here is God at work among his people in the person of Jesus, beginning to put to right all the wrongs that bedevil them, with Jesus’ kingdom work being fulfilled ultimately in his death and resurrection.
As Paul reminds us in several of his letters, we find healing, peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God in the death of Jesus (cf. Romans 5.10, 8.1-4; Ephesians 1.7; Colossians 1.20, 22). And as both the Gospels and the other NT writers remind us, in Jesus’ resurrection God has launched the promised New Creation in which God deals decisively with the seemingly intractable problems of evil, sin, and death and gives us a preview of coming attractions of the New Creation when it is fully realized at Jesus’ Second Coming. This is a way too brief survey of the biblical account of God’s rescue plan for his fallen world and creatures. There is much more to it—I’ve left out all mention of the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit, for example—but I hope you get the main idea. Is that the story you know from the Bible?
Whether it is or not, this is certainly not the story about an absent God who creates his world and then retires from it. No, this is the story about the creator God who is actively involved in his world to put to right all its ancient wrongs that human sin has brought about. We can have real hope and good reason to rejoice because of this. It means God has not abandoned us. Neither is he uncaring or absent. God is present in the person of his Holy Spirit, in Christ’s body, the Church, and most importantly in and through the work of Jesus himself. We have a record of this in the Bible and we are invited to examine that record and use our minds, both individually and collectively as the Church, to decide if it is true and whether we can believe it. Of course we have the help and power of the Spirit living in and among us to help us in this work. But once we have decided that what the Bible says about God’s rescue plan is true, we really do have the basis not only to have hope at Jesus’ Second Coming but to anticipate it eagerly. We have this hope not because we as Christians are “special people” and others are not. We have this hope because we have believed God’s promises to save and redeem both his creation and us, a promise that reached its fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God become human, and which will be consummated in Jesus’ Second Coming.
So what are we to do in the interim? How can we keep alert and watchful for the return of our Lord in the midst of all our distractions? Paul tells us in the concise little list found in our epistle lesson this morning. Given that we live in such an individualistic society, there is a natural tendency for us to assume Paul is talking about what we are to do as individuals. But if we look at the larger context in which we find Paul’s teaching in today’s lesson, we realize that he is addressing not us as individuals but as Christ’s body, the Church (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.15).
When we come together each week, we are to rejoice always in the Lord. Paul does not refer to Jesus but he must clearly have Jesus in mind because happiness is based on our circumstances and is tenuous at best. It offers us no reason to rejoice always. On the other hand, we can always rejoice in Christ because he does not change and we know we have found peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God through Christ’s blood shed for us. We also know that heaven and earth have finally come together in the person and resurrection of Jesus and so we live in its hope, if not yet its full realization. There is good reason to rejoice in that because it means we aren’t dealing with a distant and detached god, and we are to remind each other of these great promises each week in our worship through word and sacrament.
Second, we are to pray continually. Our prayers matter because it is God’s will for us to pray. If we really believe God is God of this universe and actively involved in our lives, it would be rather foolish of us not to pray as God wills for us. Praying allows us to draw close to God, to wrestle with God, and to be reminded God is near us, cares about us, and is actively involved in our lives. This is a distinctly different reason for praying than to do so because we hope God will fulfill our wish list. This is also why we spend time in our intercessions each week. When we pray for each other we demonstrate that we really do love each other in the manner Christ commands us.
Third, we are to give thanks in all circumstances (not for all circumstances, but in all). We give thanks in all circumstances because we know that God has overcome sin, evil, and death for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus and that our suffering produces the kind of Christian character that will equip us to live in the New Creation when it is fully realized at Christ’s Second Coming. God doesn’t send evil our way but God can use evil to help us grow in the Spirit (cf. Romans 5.1-5). That is why we can give thanks together in all circumstances, good and bad.
Fourth, we are to do and avoid things that will quench the Spirit living in us because as Paul tells us, it is through the power of the Spirit that we grow to become like Christ and are equipped with the character that will help us thrive in the New Creation when it is fully realized. Moreover, if we do the things that quench the Spirit, we will not have reason to hope on the day of Christ’s Second Advent. So we avoid all kinds of evil things and spend regular time reading and wrestling with God’s word in Scripture, both individually and together. If we do not do this, we will always be susceptible to the false teaching that God is a distant and remote God, among others. In fact, our faith and hope will be directly proportionate to the amount of time we spend learning and reflecting on Scripture, and if you do not believe this you are fooling yourself (or allowing the Evil One to fool you). The more time we spend with Scripture the less likely we will fall prey to goofy ideas and wrong thinking about God and his dealings with us and plans for us.
Last, since we live in the hope of New Creation that was launched at Jesus’ resurrection, we have work to do right here and now. Jesus’ resurrection reminds us in powerful ways that God does not intend to destroy his creation but to redeem it. That means we had better get busy and start showing our hope in Christ to others by bringing God’s great love in Christ to bear on them. We do this through humble service to others and by taking a cue from John the Baptist in today’s Gospel lesson. We serve in ways that will draw people’s attention away from us and focus it on Jesus because he is our only real hope. We cannot fix people or their problems but we sure can introduce them to the One who can—Jesus the Messiah, Jesus, who heals the sick, raises the dead, frees the prisoners, and brings us peace and reconciliation with God. In doing this, we will be also fulfilling our mission statement. We really will be showing others that we have been changed by God to make a difference for God. And when that happens, not only will we have reason to rejoice always because we have a real and living hope, we will also know what it looks like to live our life with meaning, purpose, and power. And that, folks, is Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
From Christianity Today online. A spot-on analysis.
Maybe we ought to be teaching churchgoers to read the gospel. The first thing Muslim children learn about Christians is one of the last things Christians learn about themselves: we are a “people of the Book.” Perhaps we ought to ask how to make this observation from the Qur’an true, once more, among those who fellowship around the Bible. How can we form ourselves as a people of the Book?
Any decent elementary-school librarian knows that getting children to read is about giving them a chance to love a story—to miss it during mundane events like math and dinner, and to fight throughout the day for chances to hide away with the characters and adventures to which they’ve become attached. Of course, what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John offer us is a story, but not just a story. It’s also the linguistic vessel through which we encounter the loving, creating, and saving God. The central character in this narrative loves us back. After asking, “Do you love what you are reading?” the Christian educator ought to be able to add, “And are you loved by what you are reading?”
Poignantly sad. My parents among those now dead.
From the NYT.
For more than half a century, members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association gathered here every Dec. 7 to commemorate the attack by the Japanese that drew the United States into World War II. Others stayed closer to home for more intimate regional chapter ceremonies, sharing memories of a day they still remember in searing detail.
But no more. The 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack will be the last one marked by the survivors’ association. With a concession to the reality of time — of age, of deteriorating health and death — the association will disband on Dec. 31.
This act of egregious treachery occurred 70 years ago today. It reminds us why we must remain vigilant in an ever-increasingly dangerous world and why we must not develop historical amnesia. Pearl Harbor also gives us a chance to stop and remember the generation, now largely gone, who stepped up to defend our democratic way of life against the unspeakable evil of fascism.
From the History Channel:
At 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, a Japanese dive bomber bearing the red symbol of the Rising Sun of Japan on its wings appears out of the clouds above the island of Oahu. A swarm of 360 Japanese warplanes followed, descending on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a ferocious assault. The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States irrevocably into World War II.