Sarah Lebhar Hall: A 3000 Year Old Version of “Imagine”

Yes indeed. See what you think.

On November 13, Davide Martello sat in a German pub watching the France-Germany soccer game when the terror attacks in Paris began. Minutes later, Davide loaded his grand piano on a trailer and drove 400 miles through the night to Paris. He parked outside the Bataclan concert hall—the site of the deadliest attack—and played a beautiful rendition of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” When interviewed later, he said, “I wanted to be there to try and comfort, and offer a sign of hope.”

Nearly 3,000 years earlier, the prophet Isaiah wrote a similar song, a song for people who had just been attacked, a song sung to a terrorized people. It was meant to be a balm, a picture of a peaceful future. While Isaiah’s song has a very different message than “Imagine,” the goal is the same: to restore hope in a community that has just lived through a nightmare.

Isaiah 9:1–7 contains the now-familiar promise that we celebrate at Christmas: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (ESV, used throughout). But this promise wasn’t given in a vacuum. It was made to people living in the shadow of death—specifically, death at the hands of terrorists.

Read it all.

Christmas Eve Sermon: Light and Darkness: Why Christmas Matters

Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; Song of God’s Chosen One (from Isaiah 11.1-9); Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20.

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

Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Tonight we celebrate God’s coming to his broken and hurting world as a human. But does it really matter? Are we like those in our culture who see Christmas as nothing more than a time to party and exchange presents with loved ones and friends so that having a merry Christmas is contingent on living in a world that is essentially trouble-free? You know, we can have comfort and joy at Christmas as long as there is money to buy presents and all’s right with us and the world. But what happens to our merry Christmas if the money runs out or we suffer significant loss of any kind, or evil strikes us or the world in which we live like it recently did in Paris or San Bernardino? Then what? Is it possible to find comfort and joy at Christmas under those circumstances? This is I want us to look at tonight.

Our lessons, each in its own way, insist that it is possible to find comfort and joy that is not tied to the events of our life and the world around us as we celebrate Christmas. In our OT lesson, the prophet Isaiah announces that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, that a light has shined on those who live in the shadow of death. We get the darkness and shadow of death part because we have all been confronted with darkness in our lives: catastrophic illness, death, divorce, hardships and injustices of all kinds. Whatever it is, we’ve all experienced darkness and the darkness can overwhelm us and leave us without hope.

But it seems that many of us don’t really believe Isaiah’s promise of a light shining on our darkness because we don’t act like we have. We either refuse to believe the promise of God to shine his light on our darkness or we act like folks who have pulled down the blinds to keep the light out. Take, for example, the increasing popularity of the so-called blue Christmas services conducted by some churches. These services are designed for those who have suffered significant loss in their lives and don’t feel like playing the Christmas game the way our culture insists on it being played, you know, with eggnog a-flowing, the bright shiny lights a-twinkling, Santa Claus a-coming, and people happy in their own revelry and each other’s company.

Now don’t misunderstand. I am not criticizing those who grieve and suffer loss at or near Christmas. I’ve been there and done that myself. Christmas 1976 was the first time as an adult I experienced the loss of two of my family members, and it was a significant loss. Both my beloved grandmas had died the previous winter and now they weren’t there as we gathered for our Christmas celebration. It just wasn’t the same without them and I was in no mood to be happy or merry or have any part of comfort and joy, this despite the fact that the Christmas lights were blazing and all the trappings of the celebration were present. My family had been irrevocably changed and I was miserable. By all definitions, I was having a blue Christmas.

But here’s the thing. In having a blue Christmas that year, I was ignoring the reality of God’s promise that death is not the final reality. In my grief I forgot the promise that God’s light is shining in the darkness of our lives. This is why Paul took the time to write the Thessalonians about the hope of the resurrection of the body, so they wouldn’t grieve like those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). Grieve, yes. But not without the hope that in Christ, God has overcome death, and we who are baptized into Jesus’ death will also share in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). When we close our eyes to God’s light that shines on us, we lose hope. And when we lose hope, there is no way for us to ever have comfort and joy at Christmas, or any other time for that matter. This is why reading about the increasing popularity of blue Christmas services makes me sad. Those services, while developed with the best intentions, essentially deny that we as God’s people who live in the darkness have seen a great light.

So what is this light that Isaiah proclaims? Listen to his words. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” These titles indicate an authority that is above and beyond us. They describe a child who will be a king who has good plans for us, who is somehow associated with God himself, who is eternal so that he stands over time and has authority over it, and who will finally bring peace to God’s sin-sick and evil infested world. Here is a king with the power and authority to put an end to the darkness that plagues us!

And let’s be clear. Isaiah isn’t talking about some kind of privatized or sentimentalized religion where we focus on getting right with God so that we can escape this nasty world and live with the angels in heaven. No, the prophet is talking about God coming to put to rights all that is wrong with his world—the hatred, injustice, rancor, abuse, terror, and all other kinds of evil. That’s why the boots of warriors will be burned. When God’s Messiah comes, there will be no more need of warriors because there will be no more war or violence or terror or oppression or destruction. The One called Mighty God and Prince of Peace will see to that! That’s why God’s people can rejoice with great enthusiasm and joy! In Isaiah’s prophecy—which remember are the words and promises of God—we are given a vision of the very heart of God and God’s future. This isn’t a God who is indifferent to our suffering and the darkness that oppresses us. This is a God who longs to end all the terrible wrongs that have corrupted his good world and who is determined to set it to rights! If we believe in this God and his promises, we have the basis to experience comfort and joy at Christmas that is not contingent on the circumstances of life because we have a hope for the present and future. More about that in a moment.

Of course, we Christians believe this child to be born is Jesus of Nazareth, God become human for our sake, and Luke’s birth narrative echoes the promises of God spoken through Isaiah. Luke didn’t name all those folks and events at the beginning of his story to irritate people who don’t like history. No, he includes them so that he can invite us to look at the surprising contrasts contained in those events. Here we have Caesar, the most powerful political figure in the world, barking out orders and making people take a census, as if he is the one who runs the world, when in fact the real king is being born inconspicuously and in great humility. This is God’s king to whom all the lesser kings will eventually bend their knee and confess as Lord. Luke wants us to see that this is how God is at work in history. The God who is outside of history works inside it to rescue his people from the forces of evil and darkness. The people living in darkness have seen a great light and his name is Jesus.

So how do we know this about Jesus? Luke tells us. An angel of the Lord announces it to the shepherds. Hear again the superlatives of his words: I bring you good news of great joy. To you is born this day in Bethlehem a Savior who is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the Lord. And then the heavenly host break out in praise of God for this great event of the birth of his promised Messiah to rescue his people and set them free from the darkness that oppresses them. Now if you paid close attention to Luke’s story, you will notice that he mentions Jesus’ manger three times. What’s that about? Here is something we have sentimentalized so much that I fear we have missed the point. The angels are telling the shepherds to verify their announcement. The unbelievable has just happened, but not as they expected. God has returned to his people as promised to rescue them, but not in the way God rescued his people from the Egyptians in the Red Sea or as God appeared to his people at Mt. Sinai in the desert. No, God has returned to his people as a baby born of a virgin! Is there any wonder that the shepherds, after the angels had gone back to God’s dimension, might be skeptical? So here’s the proof, boys. There are lots of babies wrapped in swaddling clothes, but only one is lying in a feeding trough for animals. That’s your sign. Go check it out. Here we see God tending to the smallest details in the midst of ordinary human history to verify his incredible announcement to the shepherds.

This is how God has chosen to shine his light in the darkness. Are you wiling to recognize it? In becoming human for us, God condescended in a way that is simply not conceivable to us to rescue us from evil, sin, and death, and to put his good but corrupted creation back to rights. In the birth of Jesus we see God beginning to reassert his rightful rule as king over his creation, a rule that has been usurped by the dark powers and principalities of evil. By becoming human, God is telling us we matter to him more than anything else because we are God’s image-bearers, and that creation matters too! Here is the love of God in action and here is the basis to find comfort and joy at Christmas. Immanuel, God with us, is born. God with us. Let that sink in and resonate with you. God with us. This is not a God who has abandoned us or who is indifferent to the evil that has afflicted his world and us, and which casts its dark shadow over us. This is a God who has come to his people to set us free. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ at Christmas.

I can hear some of you now. Get real dude. Look around you. Look at the Internet. The world is a mess. We aren’t rescued from anything. Pass the ammo. But Luke and the rest of the NT writers, along with countless Christians over time and space, would disagree. To be sure, there is much we don’t understand about God’s rescue plan as it is being carried out. But if we take the time to know God, we will learn to trust his promises, deeply ambiguous as they are. And what is the basis for that trust? God’s faithfulness shown most powerfully in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The NT writers insist that on the cross two essential things happened. First, evil and the forces behind it were defeated decisively (cf. John 12.31; Colossians 2.15; Hebrews 2.14; 1 John 4.4; Revelation 17.14). To be sure, Jesus’ victory is not yet consummated, but it is assured. The Prince of Peace died so that the powers responsible for chaos were defeated. Second, on the cross God condemned our sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us. We know this to be true because God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and assuring us his promise to shine his light on our darkness is true. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he launched his promised new world which will be devoid of any kind of evil, death included. Without the resurrection, without Easter, Christmas would be nothing but a cruel joke in which the promises of God are a failed lie and we are still dead in our sins and left very much on our own. But once the ultimate evil of death was defeated, there is no longer a basis for hopelessness for those of us who are Jesus’ people, thanks be to God! Amen?

But that is the future. What about now? Isn’t Jesus just another version of an absentee landlord? Aren’t we really left to our own devices to combat evil? No we are not because Jesus promised to be with his people in the power of the Spirit until he returns, and he calls us to continue the work he started. As Christians, we are not called to sit down, shut up, and mind our own business. We are to be for the world what Jesus was and is for us. We are to embody his love and justice and all the rest, and bring it to bear on God’s world in our neck of the woods. We hear a lot these days about how ineffectual the Church is, and in those parts of Jesus’ body where his members have given up on the promises of God to set his world and us to rights, there is some truth to that. But consider this. Most educational and medical institutions find their roots in Christianity, precisely because our forebears believed the promises of God the Father to be with his people through his Son in the power of the Spirit until Jesus returns in great glory to consummate his victory over evil, sin, and death. We have just spent the season of Advent pondering that hope and promise. Or consider William Wilberforce, an Anglican, who almost single-handedly ended both the slave trade and slavery in 19th-century England. He and his followers did so because they took their charge to embody Christ’s love and justice seriously. This hope and promise of Immanuel, God with us, in and through the power of the Holy Spirit, is why Paul wrote what he did in our epistle lesson. God’s new world is launched and it is both present in us and will one day come in full. Therefore, as Jesus’ people we are called to live out our future hope as if it is a present reality.

But how do we do this? We can’t all be a William Wilberforce or start our own educational or medical institutions. What to do? Here again, we must look to the unlikely advent of Jesus our Lord. As we have seen, the God of this vast universe condescended to become human for our sake through ordinary means. Likewise, we are called to work for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth through mostly ordinary means. We are to first and foremost live as God’s people who embody God’s love and values, broken and hopelessly flawed as we are. We are to pray cheerfully and persistently for God’s world and for his kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, precisely because we believe God’s promise to heal his creation and us. We are to watch the world and its leaders, and to speak out when we see injustice and wrongs being committed. We are to engage God’s word and worship regularly to be reminded of God’s promises. We are to be here for each other because we realize that we are all part of God’s family, broken and equally undeserving of God’s love and grace. Doing these things will open us more and more to the Spirit’s presence in us and when that happens, Jesus becomes more real and more present to us. And when that happens, we learn to experience the truth of God’s light shining on our darkness to comfort and protect and heal us. None of this makes us immune from the evil that afflicts this world. What it does do is give us power to overcome the darkness. This is why we celebrate Christmas. Jesus’ birth is the beginning of the Good News that God loves us and has redeemed us and his world, and nothing can stop his promises from being fulfilled, not even the powers of darkness. This is why and how we can experience comfort and joy each and every Christmas, irrespective of circumstance. It’s because we are people who have the Good News of Jesus Christ, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Merry Christmas, my beloved.

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

A Christmas Message from Archbishop Beach

Received via email.

As we enter into this new season, I would like to wish you and your family a blessed Christmas.  Over the next twelve days, we have the opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of Jesus’ birth.  Below is a short video (3 minutes) inviting you further into the mystery and meaning of Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Archbishop Foley Beach
Archbishop and Primate of the Anglican Church in North America

On Christmas Eve Augustine Muses About the Incarnation

Awake! For your sake God has become human. “Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” I tell you again: for your sake, God became human.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh [our fallen human nature], had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for his mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Sermon 185

PS: Yeah, that’ll preach. Merry Christmas!

Bishop Roger Ames’ 2015 Christmas Letter

Received via email.

The Nativity of the Lord

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

My dear Brothers and Sisters,

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Imagine yourself in the stable with Mary and Joseph. Jesus has been born! Angels sing, shepherds rejoice, and stars shine. While this moment has profound significance for all humanity, was the scene as polished and glittery as a fancy Christmas card? Probably not.

The stable was probably not particularly clean. There were probably flies and muck. At best, it had the earthy smells of livestock, but at worst, it smelled like manure. Jesus likely wasn’t the adorable, glowing baby that we often see represented in pictures. He probably looked like other newborns, splotches and all.

As we rejoice in the birth of Jesus, as we ponder the miracle of the divine coming down to kiss our world, we should also rejoice in the imperfections of the stable. Jesus embraced our human woundedness. He wasn’t repelled or put off by a little dirt. He didn’t shun our imperfection, but fully immersed himself in it. The mess and all the flaws are part of being human!

Jesus didn’t avoid the stable, and he doesn’t avoid our sin. This should fill us with great hope and confidence. We don’t have to be perfect to receive him. There may even be times when we feel like we don’t “smell” much better than a stable! But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. The love that moved him to embrace our humanity is the same love that moves him to embrace each of us, imperfect though we are.

So remember the stable today and rejoice. You have an awesome, merciful, loving, all-powerful God—and he has come to live in your heart. No wonder the angels are singing! No wonder the shepherds were awestruck, and the wise men bowed down in worship! And no wonder we are all moved to rejoice on this glorious day! Merry Christmas!

“Jesus, thank you for the stable! Thank you for loving us as we are. Please help us to make room in our hearts for you to be born in a deeper, richer way! We want to be people who share you message of joy and hope to all that we meet. We ask this in your blessed name. Amen”

I remain yours in the name of the God who comes,


Bishop, Amglican Diocese of the Great Lakes

CD: Century-Old Letters to Santa Found in Fireplace

A very touching story. See what you think.

santa-letters-1222-art-ge014s4dj-1ny-found-santa-letters-2-1348782-jpgPatrick McGann died in 1904, so that by the time the children wrote the letters and left them in the chimney, they were fatherless and being raised by their mother, a dressmaker.


Mary’s letter is as poignant as Alfred’s is endearing.

“Dear Santa Claus: I am very glad that you are coming around tonight,” it reads, the paper partially charred. “My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.”

She signed it Mary McGann and added, “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.”

Mattaliano, who has read the letter countless times, still shakes his head at the implied poverty, the stoicism and the selflessness of the last line, all from a girl who requests a wagon for her brother first and nothing specific for herself.

Read it all.

Terry Gatwood: A Song Worth Singing

Sermon delivered on Advent 4C, Sunday, December 20, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Micah 5.2-5a; Psalm 80.1-7; Hebrews 5.5-10; Luke 1.39-55.

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

I’m very fond of listening to popular music and parsing the words to understand the meaning behind the lyrics. Music is solidly part of the liturgy of life inside and outside the Church. Music is important to people, and is quite often the topic of conversation in Christian and non-Christian circles, and sometimes becomes a point of contention within both. Being both united with Christ but still living in the world I take pleasure in breaking all kinds of music apart so that I may understand the language and belief of the people who sing it. It’s become so much a hobby of mine that it’s officially on the wife’s “things Terry does to annoy me” list. Isn’t married life, grand, Deanna?

We sing our stories. We tell the stories of our sadness, of our joy, of expectation and longing. We’re still very much a story-based culture. So much of what we do and how we understand comes from and through the storytelling medium. And the stories that we believe the most are the ones we sing out with the most vigor. It’s easy to do; some of us may have an aversion to singing in front of people by ourselves, but together with a group of likeminded people we can sing with our full voices. I think of the liturgies of life in the world, in the shower, in the car, at sporting events and concerts, or the liturgy in the Church with our singing together with one voice the faith that we have in our God.

I like to sing. I’m not quite concert quality, but I still will sing out randomly around the house, in the yard. Pretty much anywhere I am when my memory is jogged by something. It’s a response I’ve grown accustomed to giving for certain things in life. When I was a teen, probably around 13 or 14, I can remember taking a hymnal home from the church I grew up in. In the front of the hymnal were some instructions for singing written by John Wesley.

  1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
  2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.
  3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
  4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
  5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

Elizabeth loudly proclaims the fulfillment of the Promises of God. She knew the story. Elizabeth was awaiting her Messiah, the promised one of God, who would be the one who brought peace. Jesus, the one who was now before her in the womb of Mary, and who caused her own son, John the Baptist, to leap with great joy in her womb as she was filled with the Holy Spirit is that promise coming to fruition. If anyone has any doubts that she believed or knew her own story, consider that her husband, Zachariah, was a priest; he certainly chatted with her, I have no doubts, talking about what he was learning with the other priests and from others, and what he was teaching people, and what insights he was having, etc, etc, etc. God’s people do these sorts of things together.

Elizabeth was prepared for this moment because she heard God’s word and promises, and understood that God had never been unfaithful before; so she faithfully sung out her song. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Elizabeth was well acquainted with her story, and thus she sung it out “lustily, and with a good courage.”

What is our story? What is our song?

  • A new and everlasting covenant with God; there is no end to it.
  • Jesus, the Messiah, is the King, High Priest, and Sacrifice forever; Jesus is the one who will feed his flock and bring shalom/peace into a world that is so fallen and unlike what it was created to be, or shall be again at the eschaton/the end.
  • God has promised to save his people from their sins, and this is exactly what he has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.
  • This is our hope and consolation: That Christ came among us, died for us, rose again, and is now seated at God’s right hand, interceding for us. Someday he will come again in great glory, and we will become like him. And our training for this begins now. We are called together to bring into the present the reality of the Kingdom of God: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

These promises are ours. This new life is ours. It has been given to us as a gift from the only truly and completely just and righteous one to walk the face of this earth. He was born to die for us, the unjust. This is our story and our song. Our God brings peace, as promised in Micah, to an unpeaceful world. He brings it into our hearts and transforms us to be God’s change agents in this world, bearing this Gospel of Jesus Christ, this good news, in what should be unsettling situations.

Does the coming of the Christ bring you peace, even in the midst of troubles? Does the advent of the Lord bring a song to your heart that you can sing along with the rest of the congregation? Do you rejoice in knowing that we can be free now to live for him in these overlapping Kingdoms? Are you expectantly awaiting his return at the second advent, when all things will be put to rights, and we shall see this Jesus?

Our story is being changed by God to make a difference for God. This is the mission statement of our church here. It is a truth that we sing together, proclaiming the favor the Lord has shown us, and the favor which he has intended to extend to all whom he has called; all who respond. And he calls us to sing this song, recounting God’s grace and favor towards us, just as Mary did when she sang out: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

What a beautiful song of the story of God’s redemption of us. It is a song that sings out what God has done, and does, and will do. At the heart of the Good News is that Jesus comes, and nothing again remains the same. He has come to change things. The unjust world will become topsy turvy as the Gospel is proclaimed and lived out. This is revolutionary stuff here. The Kingdom of God is beginning to become a reality in the here and now.

Peace will be its distinctive mark. Peace that surpasses all understanding. Do you have this peace? Do you know your story? Will you sing it out that others might hear it, and God be glorified? Our story is so simple that it can be put into just a few words:

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

This is a good example of our story in song. Live it. Tell it. Worship the Lord your God with your full heart and voice because of it. Christ was born to die for you because of God’s great and infinite love towards us. He has chosen us. He continually makes us more than what we could ever hope to be. He gives us peace in our hearts in all times, and never forsakes or leaves us.

We, my friends, have been changed by God to make a difference for God. That is our mission statement. That is our theme for moving forward. This is the easiest thing to share with someone else: Jesus Christ is Lord, and he wants a relationship with you that will make you so joyful that even when you’re facing life’s trials and temptation you can sing out from that place of shalom:

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He has done.

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

To Rejoice or Not: That is the Question

Sermon delivered on Advent 3C, Gaudete Sunday, December 13, 2015 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: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Isaiah 12.2-6; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18.

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

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete is Latin and means to rejoice, thus the pink candle we lighted on the Advent wreath. Gaudete Sunday signals a break in this season of Advent with its emphasis on penance and watchful expectation as we the Church prepare to look back and celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation and also look forward to his final advent as judge at the end of time. As you recall, Advent is not part of the Christmas season but rather a preparation for it. But given John, whom we observed in lighting our third candle this morning, and his message about the coming wrath of God, what reason do we have to rejoice? It is this question I want us to look at today.

We start with our OT lesson with its emphasis on hopeful rejoicing over the Lord’s salvation of his people Israel. But if we are to grasp the full meaning of our lesson, we have to put it in its proper context. Zephaniah was a 7th-century BC prophet who spoke God’s word to God’s people during the reign of the great reformer king Josiah. The Northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen and been sent into exile about 80 years earlier. Now the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital of Jerusalem were following the same path. God’s people had fallen into idol worship, which had resulted in the people of Judah living in ways that caused all kinds of injustice and unethical behavior. After all, we become what we worship and Judah’s behavior was indicative of the pathology of their idols. Josiah was therefore trying to rid Judah of their idolatry so that God’s people would once again start living as the kind of people God called them to be, people who would embody God’s healing love and presence to his sin-sick world. But despite Josiah’s reforms, many of the people’s hearts were still turned away from God.

Now if all we read was today’s passage from Zephaniah, we might get the impression that God was going to give his wayward people a get-out-of-jail-free pass, that their idolatry and other sins really didn’t matter, because, well, you know. God really is kind of a doting old grandpa who doesn’t care that much about the way we act or think (wink, wink). So indulge me as I read a bit from the first chapter of Zephaniah to help give us some proper perspective about our OT lesson.

The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah. “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble. When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem.” “I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung.  Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” In the fire of his jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth (Zephaniah 1.1a,2-4a,17-18).

I don’t know about you, but these words scare me. They really scare me. These are not healing words. They are killing words, enough to wake us even from our napping during the sermon and take notice. And if we take Scripture seriously at all, we need to pay attention to the prophet’s warning. God is warning us through the prophet that the day is coming when his wrath against all our sins is going to explode; and when it does, it will spell our total destruction. Nothing or no one will be spared, because as Paul reminded us, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in whose image we were created (Romans 3.23).

We note too the chilling similarity between Zephaniah’s message and John the Baptist’s message in our gospel lesson. Both are aimed especially at us as God’s people, warning us that it won’t do to be a Christian in name only if we live our lives in open hostility toward God. It further reminds us that sin really does matter, and contrary to some of our delusions, God is not some gentle, doting old grandpa who looks the other way when the kiddies misbehave. If you believe that particular delusion about God, I would humbly suggest you might want to come to grips with the very different picture Scripture paints about sin and God’s reaction to it. But here’s the thing. When we do come to grips with the reality of God’s judgment, we are given the proper perspective to rejoice, contradictory as that sounds.

So how does that work, you ask? Glad you asked. Otherwise I’d have to end this sermon now and I know you’d really hate that! How can a healthy and realistic perception and understanding of God’s certain judgment on all our sin and evil help lead us to rejoicing? Put another way, how can the complete destruction about which Zephaniah 1.1-18 speaks and the hope of escaping that destruction contained in Zephaniah 3.14-20 both be true? John the baptist has the answer for us in our gospel lesson: Jesus the Messiah. John warns us to prepare for God’s coming judgment in the way Zephaniah and the other prophets had. But there’s an added urgency to John’s message because God’s Messiah will soon appear, and when he does he will bring God’s righteous judgment to bear on the world. We as Christians, of course, believe Jesus will do this fully at his Second Coming and this is part of what we wait for during this season of Advent.

But a funny thing happened between John’s announcement of Jesus’ coming to judge our sins and our waiting for his Second Coming to fully and finally execute that judgment. It’s called the cross. John was correct in a way I suspect he didn’t fully understand at the time, especially because he did not live to see Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But having a full understanding of God’s will is not necessary for one to be a prophet. Speaking God’s word of judgment and salvation truthfully to God’s people is the only thing necessary for one to be a prophet. Jesus did indeed bring about God’s judgment on our sin and evil, but not in the way anyone expected until after his resurrection. As Paul reminds us in Romans, God condemned our sin in the flesh on the cross so that we would not have to bear God’s right but awful judgment—flesh of course being the part of our human nature that actively rebels against God, our fallen self, not our skin (Romans 8.3-4). Put another way, we are spared destruction because Jesus took our destruction on himself. On the cross, then, we see God’s perfect justice and love being fulfilled. God condemns our sins while sparing us, thanks be to God! Amen? This is what allows us to rejoice, even in the face of God’s judgment. God didn’t create us with the intent and foreknowledge of destroying us. What parent operates in this manner? To be sure, some parents tragically do destroy their children, but that is because we humans are flawed and profoundly broken. God is neither and therefore God does not and cannot desire the death of even the most wicked among us (Ezekiel 33.11). God loves us too much to desire this.

And because God raised Jesus from the dead, we believe that those of us who put our whole hope and trust in Jesus will likewise be raised from the dead on the Last Day. This is what Paul was getting at when he talked about being buried and raised with Christ in our baptism (Romans 6.3-4). If God raises the dead, which we believe, then we are ultimately spared from God’s judgment when he raises us from the dead so that we can live with him forever in his promised new creation which Jesus’ resurrection launched, this despite our sin which causes us to die (Romans 6.16)!

And while I just urged us to have a healthy, realistic fear of the Lord, I want to also urge us not to have an unhealthy fear of the Lord, where we are always terrified of God’s judgment because we know our own disordered heart coupled with real lingering doubts about the efficacy of the cross (efficacy of course means having the power to bring about the desired effect, in this case our salvation). Too often I fear that we as Christians reduce the mercy, love, and justice executed on the cross to mere platitudes where we don’t truly believe that our sins really are covered by the blood of the Lamb—God himself become human for our sake. When that happens, if we really do believe in the reality of God’s judgment, we find ourselves living in constant terror of God and his wrath, forgetting completely (or ignoring) his great love and mercy shown for us on Calvary. And speaking from personal experience, we dare not, we must not do that, in part, because it is impossible to develop a real and healthy relationship with anyone, God included, who genuinely terrifies us. So I appeal to us all, my beloved. Take to heart the blood of the Lamb shed for us, and take it seriously, because when we do, we have the needed basis to rejoice, both in our present difficulties and in the face of God’s certain judgment. That’s what Paul is driving at in our epistle lesson. Try it, he says, and you’ll find out it’s true.

When we keep the cross fixed firmly in our heart and mind we can rejoice for two reasons. First, because we realize God loves us so much that he did the impossible for us to spare us from his right judgment on our sins. If that were the only reason to rejoice, that would be enough! But there’s a second reason to rejoice. In God’s righteous judgment there is not only the promise of punishment of the wicked (today’s judgment oracles make that clear). There is also a restorative dimension to God’s judgment. In other words, God brings his judgment about primarily to restore his good creation corrupted by human sin and the evil it unleashed (cf. Psalm 96.1-13). And a moment’s thought should make us realize that is a good thing. If we are going to get to live forever in God’s direct presence in his new creation, who wants to be plagued by sin and evil forever, except perhaps those who love their sin and evil and revel in it? But those folks won’t be in God’s new world! And so as Christians, we must learn to see God’s judgment as a good and necessary thing so that God can rid his creation and us of all vestiges of sin and evil. And when we consider that in the blood of Christ shed for us we will be spared the punitive dimension of God’s right judgment, why would we not want to rejoice?

Moreover, if we truly love others as we are called to love them, why would we not want to share this Good News with them so that they too can be spared God’s wrath and have a real basis for joy and rejoicing? Yet in this culture of ours with its increasing pathological hostility toward the Christian faith, we have allowed ourselves to be bullied and cow-towed into silence so that the Good News is not proclaimed with joy and gladness, if at all. Let us resolve this Advent as we watch and wait for our Lord’s return to change that!

This future hope of ours also gives us our marching orders here and now because God’s forgiveness also demands our repentance as John so rightly emphasized in our gospel lesson. Why is repentance so important? Because without repentance God can never truly forgive us so that we can have our relationship restored with him. Think it through. God can and will forgive anything and everything except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12.31). But if we choose to live our lives in ways that are patterned after evil and ask God to forgive us, we essentially ask God to condone our evil and even participate in it, and God simply cannot do that. Thus the need and call for us to turn our lives from evil and toward the goodness of God (see, e.g., Romans 8.5-9; Galatians 3.3, 5.24). It’s not about our ability to follow the rules. It’s about where our hearts are inclined. Given what God has done for us in Jesus to spare us from his awful judgment, why would we want to still act in ways that grieve our Lord’s heart? Again, I am not talking about the occasional slip-up or our inherent brokenness that only God can overcome. I am talking about a pattern of living in willful disobedience to our Lord’s good commands.

Therefore during this Advent season, if we really want to be able to rejoice always, let us focus on embracing the hope and promise offered us in Jesus and ask the Spirit to help us fully appropriate the Good News of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension so that we truly might live as people of joy and hope because we really do believe that God has done an unbelievably good and wondrous thing for us in Jesus. When we, by the power of the Spirit, really do embrace God’s gift to us, it can’t help but change us into new creations so that we become the truly human beings God created us to be. This is what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. And as that happens, we will discover what Paul promised in our epistle lesson today: the peace of God that passes all understanding. This in itself is worth the wait, my beloved. I know because I have experienced that peace, and it affirms that we really are people who have and live the Good News of Jesus Christ, now and for all eternity. I suspect that John the baptist would surely approve. To Christ be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Remember, Remember the 7th of December

Today is the 74th anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into the great conflagration known as World War II. Ask anyone who was living that day and they can tell you exactly where they were. It was an act of treachery and it proved to be foolishly short-sighted and ultimately fatal for the Japanese militarists. It was that generation’s 9/11.

Sadly the generation of Pearl Harbor is rapidly fading away. But its lessons remain and remind us that we must constantly be on guard as a nation because there are those out there who hate us and want to destroy us and end our way of life.

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.

Read it all.