Fr. Philip Sang: How to be a Faithful Witness

Sermon delivered on Trinity Last A, Sunday, October 29, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46.

Peace and Grace to you all in the Name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How to be a Faithful witness is what I want us to look into today in the light of the Epistle reading.

In our lesson this morning the apostle Paul faces off with those who were attempting to distort the truth about him. From the first verses of the lesson it appears that people were saying Paul and his team were scam artists who were unsuccessful in their work.

Personally I don’t think Paul was concerned about what people said about him. However, he felt that these personal attacks needed to be addressed because of their impact on the credibility of his witness.

As you listen to these words you will hear not only a defense of Paul’s ministry. I am hopeful that you will also see some principles that will help you to be faithful in your own witness for the gospel.


The first principle for being a faithful witness is to not give up just because circumstances are difficult. Paul begins the lesson with these words,

You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. 2 We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. (1 Thessalonians 2:1-2) Scripture tell us in the book of Acts of apostles that Paul went to Philippi because he had a vision of a man calling him to Macedonia. Paul went to Macedonia and began to reach out to the people in Philippi. One day the Spirit used Paul to cast out a demon from a woman. The people who had been exploiting the woman were angry and had Paul and Silas arrested, beaten and thrown in jail. The next morning, city officials escorted them out of town.

Their ministry in Thessalonica was not much different. After three Sabbaths in the synagogue, their ministry provoked a riot in the city and the apostles had to sneak out of town.

It’s easy to imagine that some would point to this ministry and say it was a failure. If I were Paul I know I would have wondered if I was a miserable failure. When a program, idea, or ministry fails or stalls, I often want to give up and just walk away. Like me, you have probably had times when you set out to do a job and things didn’t go as you expected.

  • You volunteered to teach a class and people stopped attending · You planned a program and it flopped
  •  You tried to share the gospel with someone and became tongue tied and seemed to do more harm than good
  • You take a new job believing it is God’s will yet you find yourself more frustrated than you have ever been.
  • You start a business but it ends in bankruptcy
  • You marry your “soul mate” but your spouse walks out on the marriage

People may not have called you a failure, but you saw the stares and sensed the whispers. More than that, you heard the accusations of Satan in your own heart and mind. This is why these words of Paul are so instructive to us. In spite of the circumstances and the whispers of failure, Paul continued to boldly declare the truth. He refused to give up simply because things didn’t go as he expected. I think Paul understood several things we need to remember.

  1. No one said following Christ would be easy or always pleasant. Jesus warned us that if people hated Him, some of those same people would hate us. Just because you are experiencing conflict doesn’t mean you have failed.
  2. We don’t see the whole picture. When things don’t go as we expect we need to withhold judgment because God may be doing something different than we can see. God reminds us in Isaiah (55:8-9) that “… my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” It is possible that what we see as failure is really the perfect piece for God’s puzzle. Think of the various prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel who warned of God’s impending judgment but no one listened! Imagine how many times these men must have felt like failures! However, God’s purpose for these men was not to change the nation . . . He was using them to inform the nation and to provide a warning to the generations that would follow. As our vision and mission statement says; “we are changed by God to make a difference for God” not to change others. God may be doing something different in you or through you than you expected.
  3. God’s definition of success and our definition of success are different. We look for worldly success; we look for financial profit, numerical growth, and the applause of men. God is looking for us to be faithful even when we don’t understand what He is doing.
  4. Even if we do fail, failure is a necessary ingredient to growth. We learn best from the mistakes we make in life.

Faithful people continue being faithful in spite of the circumstances.


The second thing we learn from Paul is that a Faithful witness speaks the truth in love. Paul gives us some insight as to the charges being made against him, he says For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. (1 Thes 2:3) It is likely there were those who charged that Paul was working a scam and simply using the Thessalonians for his own purposes. These people couldn’t attack the facts of the Christian faith, what they did was to attack the messenger!

Paul reaction to the attack he received:

What they didn’t do

You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. (vv. 5-6)

Paul never used flattery. Have you ever had someone come up to you and say, “You are so good at (teaching, building, raising money, making music, chairing a committee, speaking and on and on)? They praise you and then they make a request that you do something for them. Kids are great example at this with their parents. Flattery is insincere talk designed to manipulate a person to do what you want.

It is tempting to color the gospel in attractive colors in order to get someone to join our group or to agree with us.

This kind of tactic is no different from the child trying to get something from the parent. It is adjusting the truth to get what we want. As believers, we don’t need to resort to flattery. Our job is to tell the truth. God’s Spirit is the only one that can change a human heart. He does not need our deception to enable Him to change a life or circumstance.

Paul was not motivated by greed. Paul didn’t do what he did because of what he thought he could gain personally. He had one purpose: to present the truth of the gospel. Paul reminded the Thessalonian church that he didn’t even take up an offering in his meetings. He and his friends worked hard to avoid any appearance that they were trying to fleece the flock. Many, in Paul’s day and ours, try to do that very thing. Paul was not one of them.

What They did do

Paul not only refuted the charges of his opponents he points to his true motivation,

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, 7 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. 8 We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. [vv. 5-8]

Paul reminded the Thessalonians that his approach was to be gentle with them. He gave up his “rights” in order to address their needs. Paul said he had the heart of a mother. A mother is willing to sacrifice. She gives her all to care for her child. When a mom hears the cry of her child she drops everything and runs to their aid. Parents will sacrifice their comforts in order to provide for their children. This is the attitude we should have toward lost people.

Peter gave us the right heart for faithful witness when he said, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16)

The principle is simple: be prepared, be gentle, and be consistent in your own life. If we want to be a faithful witness of the message of the gospel, people need to see the love of Jesus in us before they hear the word of God from us. Paul was willing to share not only the gospel, but also his very life with these people. He was vulnerable and loving. He was willing to endure suffering on their behalf. He had a servant’s heart. If we want to be faithful, that’s what we must do also.


From what we read in the epistle lesson I think the key phrase in this entire passage may be verse 4, Paul says

We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. (v.4)

This is a key factor. As long as we are trying to please other people we are going to be constantly frustrated. The requirements will be ever changing and joy and peace will be illusive. It will be almost impossible to be effective in our faith. Who of us has not been frustrated that a person who seemed to be our friend one day, turned against us the next?

Paul gives us a better alternative in his letter to the Corinthians,

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. [2 Cor. 5:9,10]

Paul was not concerned with the court of public opinion; he was concerned with the court of Heaven. Paul focused on the coming day when the Lord would sit as the judge over all our actions.

Think about how difficult a mindset this is to maintain. We love the roar of the crowds. We like to be liked. We hate being the focus of attack. As a result, we are all prone to “play to the crowds”. Instead of serving the Lord we find ourselves serving the world’s definition of success (numbers, money, position and accolades). We find ourselves doing what we need to do to fit in (even if it means turning away from God’s truth).

If a person is going to effectively plan for their retirement they cannot constantly “live for the moment”. That person must delay some gratification so he can save for a future day. That’s what a faithful believer does . . .they live today in light of tomorrow.


I hope you will use this lesson in a couple of different ways.

First, it is my hope that you will find encouragement in these words. Are you worn out in your Christian life? Are you afraid to reach out or to try something because of the fear of failure? If so, I hope you are encouraged by the reminder that God is looking for faithfulness from His people. He does not weigh faithfulness by the world’s definition of success. Instead, God honors the heart that faithfully serves Him.

I urge you to keep going. Don’t give up because the road is difficult. Don’t turn away because things aren’t going the way you planned. Trust His plan. Trust His heart of love for you. Trust His wisdom. Trust His grace. Keep reaching out. Keep sharing the truth. Continue to be faithful. The real test of faith is not whether or not you celebrate God in good times. That is easy to do. The real test is to continue to trust Him when things are hard. That is true faith.

Second, use these words from Paul to examine your own heart and your motives as you serve the Lord. Who are you really serving? What values are really driving your activities, your calendar, the checks you write, the people with whom you are friends, and the gospel message you share with others? Are you squandering all you have on present pursuits, or are you living in light of the day when God will judge your hearts and life?

Let’s face it; the world will continue to attack the cause of Christ. If we belong to Him, they will attack us also. If we are going to continue to stand, we must resolve to tell the truth without compromise, to love and serve others with the heart of Jesus, and to do what is right even when it doesn’t seem to be paying off. It won’t be easy, but it is the only way to remain faithful in our witness in a hostile world.

Let us love the Lord our God with all our hearts with all our souls and with all strength and let us Love our neighbors as ourselves to be Faithful witness In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen.

Choosing the Right God to Worship

Sermon delivered on Trinity 19A, Sunday, October 22, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. Check it out.

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22.

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

In one way or another, our readings this morning deal with choosing to worship the one real God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But why is this so critically important for us to get right? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

At its very core, the issue before us is whom are we going to worship? Being created in God’s image, we are naturally inclined to worship something or someone, whether we realize it or not (and we often don’t realize this). Before our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, rebelled against God, the choice was easy. They worshiped God their Creator and enjoyed intimate fellowship with him. The result was Paradise and complete health, a life that was devoid of the various anxieties, sicknesses, and brokenness we all experience in this mortal life.

But then came the Fall, and with it our enslavement to the outside and hostile powers of Sin, Evil, and Death, so that our hearts—our wills, our minds, our emotions, our entire being—are inclined to worship idols or false gods. We see this problem clearly in our lessons this morning. In our OT lesson, Moses talked with the Lord about whether God was willing to accompany his people to the promised land. This conversation came on the heels of Israel’s great sin of worshiping the golden calf that we saw last week. The people perceived that God was not with them, nor was God’s servant Moses, and so the people promptly looked for other false gods to lead and guide them—thus the golden calf. But God was gracious to his wayward people and did not permanently consign them to wander aimlessly in the wilderness or destroy them. Instead, God promised Moses to send God’s angel to lead them to the promised land.

But this wasn’t good enough for Moses. How can we be your people, he asks? How can we bring your healing love and blessing to the world if you no longer go with us? In other words, how can we be your one and only unique people whom you have called? No, God, if you are going to consign us to someone else’s care, I’d rather you just let us die here in the desert in your presence rather than lead us to a new land without you. Do you have that kind of humble faith, that desire to have a real relationship with the living God?

And of course God relented. God was gracious to his people Israel and did indeed lead them into the promised land. This reminds us again why God created us as his people in Christ, the newly reconstituted Israel. God calls us to live up to our creative purpose as his image-bearing creatures. This was why God called Israel into existence through Abraham. God wants us to act in ways that will bring God’s healing love, God’s goodness, God’s justice, and God’s mercy to bear on God’s sin-sick and broken world. To do that, however, means we must first hit the mark when it comes to worshiping the one true God. If we worship idols or false gods, we will end up reflecting their image (and pathology) out into the world instead of God’s goodness, love, and mercy. For example, if sex becomes our idol, we will develop lifestyles that reflect our worship of it and we will pursue it above everything else. The result? Promiscuity, adultery, porn addiction, prostitution and the like. We don’t have to be a victim of any of these vices to understand the destructiveness of such a lifestyle, both to ourselves and to our loved ones. Or consider the cost of self-worship. It leads to narcissism, alienation, and a host of attendant anti-social behaviors. Our worship of these idols will inevitably bring God’s wrath on them and us. How can a good and loving God look the other way when our lifestyle promotes illness, brokenness, anger, alienation, and death? If God really won’t do anything to restore justice and make right all the hurt in God’s world and our lives, why would we want to worship a god like that in the first place? But that’s what happens when we worship false gods, gods who are powerless to promote right and healthy living and put to rights all that is wrong in this world and us. No wonder Moses preferred to stay in the desert with the true Living God than to enter the promised land without God!

St. Paul saw the same issue at work in the church at Thessalonica. Many there had responded positively to his preaching and claim that Jesus was the image of the one true but invisible (to our mortal eyes) God. They had turned away from worshiping the false gods around them, including emperor worship, and had instead chosen to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they had redemption, the forgiveness of their sins. In a culture where refusing to worship the chosen idols could prove to be costly and dangerous, the little church at Thessalonica remained steadfast in their true worship, despite facing persecution for not bowing to the Roman emperor as most around them did. But what could these false gods offer? Could they save them from the coming wrath of God as their faith in Jesus could? Did those who worshiped false gods have the hope of new heavens and earth with its promise of the abolition of all evil and sorrow and death? No. Only faith in the Son of God could offer them that hope and protection. For St. Paul, their faithfulness and their willingness to conform their lives after Jesus their Lord was powerful evidence that the Holy Spirit was at work because it is only in the power of the Spirit that we are able to live faithfully as God’s image-bearers.

We see the same struggle over whom to worship in our gospel lesson as well, and Jesus leaves his opponents speechless in their attempt to trap him. What else would we expect when we see humans trying to trap God? Give to the rulers of this world what is due to them (which of course isn’t all that much) and to God what is God’s. Ever since Tertullian, that great second-century Christian theologian, many in the Church have identified the “things that are God’s” as God’s human image-bearing creatures. Caesar’s image was on a coin that stood for transient and fallen things, whereas God’s image is on and in his people whom he calls in his Son our Lord to embody God’s great love and mercy and goodness out into God’s world. In other words, the whole world belongs to God and he has created us to run it wisely as his image-bearers.

And the challenge of who or what to worship remains with us today. To be sure, most of us don’t make golden calves to worship anymore, although alarmingly a recent news article notes the rise of witchcraft and astrology amongst millennials in lieu of organized religion. That notwithstanding, we have our own legion of idols: money, sex, power, security, status, youth, fame, diversity, inclusion, and a host of others that we elevate to god status. Will we choose to worship the one true and living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, or will we choose to worship the idols of our choosing? This is more than just an interesting question, my beloved. It is a matter of life and death for us to choose wisely. When we choose to give our lives to idols, we can expect nothing but disaster in our lives and we have no real hope for anything beyond this mortal life.

But when, by the power of the Spirit, we choose to put our hope and trust in our Lord Jesus, the very embodiment of the living God, we begin to walk the path of freedom and release from our slavery to Sin and Evil. It also means we will discover real meaning and purpose for the living of our days—to be God’s image-bearers to the world, who will embody God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, goodness, and justice to those around us. Some will find this lifestyle attractive. But many will not and they will hate us, just as they hate God. And if you do not think people hate God and are openly hostile to him, look no further than the Passion of our Lord and today’s gospel lesson. That’s why some enemies of the faith brand orthodox Christians as “extremists,” to marginalize us and pave the way to persecute us. Ever since our first ancestors, humans have always wanted to get God out of the way so that we could run things as we see fit. But that way doesn’t lead to forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with God that are made possible by our Lord’s death. It leads to our enslavement to Sin and Death.

No wonder, then, that Scripture is so concerned about idol worship. God made us for himself and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in him. Nothing else will do. Nothing else will satisfy. May we all find our health and well-being in the Lord Jesus who died for us while we were still God’s enemies so that we could live and be reconciled to God, thus enabling us to truly make a difference for him. This is the Good News we are to pronounce and live out, my beloved, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

What Happens When God Isn’t Near

Sermon delivered on Trinity 18A, Sunday, October 15, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a beautiful day to consider the beautiful Presence of our Lord Jesus in his good creation.

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14.

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

What are we to make of that strange story we read in our OT lesson this morning? Here are God’s people, rescued by God from their slavery in Egypt by an awesome display of power, and then nurtured by God and his servant Moses as they made their way through the desert to the promised land. What would make God’s people Israel abandon their rescuing, faithful God for a lifeless and powerless idol? And why should we care about this story as Christians living in 21st century America? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

To help us make sense of our lesson today, we need a little background. The Lord had called Moses up to the mountaintop to give Moses instructions for building the tabernacle, which would be the place on earth where God would dwell with his chosen people, Israel. Let that fact sink in. God is giving Moses plans that will enable God’s people to enjoy in a special way God’s presence with them as God’s people (cf. 1 Kings 8.1-13). No other people on earth could claim this privilege, dangerous as God’s presence could be at times. God was making preparations with his servant to make good on God’s promise to be their God in a meaningful way.

But the meeting between God and Moses was taking longer than the people apparently expected. Exodus 24.18 tells us Moses was on the mountaintop forty days and nights, but God’s people don’t seem to have gotten that memo. And so they started grumbling to Aaron, Moses’ brother and God’s appointed priest, who would mediate God’s presence with his people once the tabernacle was built (don’t forget that last little nugget). Make gods for us who will lead us, they tell Aaron. As for Moses, we don’t know what the heck happened to the dude. He just checked out on us. In effect, the people were telling Aaron that they weren’t sure God was with them anymore as God had promised, and so they wanted God’s priest to make them gods to fill the perceived leadership void. Astonishingly enough, Aaron immediately agreed and forged a golden calf in direct violation of the first three commandments God had given Moses. Later in the story when Moses challenged his brother as to why he had done this, Aaron had this to say:

“Do not let [your] anger burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32.22-24)!

Seriously, Aaron? The first thing out of your mouth is to pass the buck and then to offer that ridiculous excuse about throwing gold into the fire and it coming out as a calf on its own? Really? Any self-respecting five-year old could do better than that! So it seems that God’s priest was no better than God’s people (I would invite you not to draw too many conclusions about priests from this; I might resemble that statement). Despite having witnessed God’s deliverance of them through the Red Sea, despite the presence of the Lord in the pillars of cloud and fire, despite the manna from heaven, despite God giving his people water to drink in the midst of the wilderness to sustain them in their journey (at that point) to the promised land, God’s people Israel, Aaron included, demonstrated how profoundly broken they were. Once they perceived God to be absent from their midst, they chose to take matters into their own hands pretty quickly so that all hell began to break loose. It is a sad and astonishing story for us to ponder on the brokenness of the human condition. Take God out of the picture for a moment, give us an inch, and we will take a mile. This is the legacy of the sin of our first ancestors, Adam and Eve.

And it would seem that God’s people in Christ are not immune to this problem either. In our epistle lesson, St. Paul addresses the growing problem of a conflict between two prominent women in the house church at Philippi. While Paul does not directly say it, it is not unreasonable for us to conclude that one of the reasons for the conflict was the perception by at least some that the Lord was absent among them. Otherwise, why would St. Paul bother to say in the context of addressing this conflict that the Lord is near? Not only that, but the apostle had some recommendations for the Philippians to help them cultivate the Lord’s presence amongst them. More about that in a minute. So this problem of misbehaving when we perceive the Lord to be absent seems to be common to both the people of the old and new testaments.

But Israel’s misbehavior wasn’t simply a product of God’s perceived absence. As Jesus’ parable about the wedding banquet warns, while all are called to the banquet, many simply aren’t interested in attending if it means they must live under God’s rule and rules. This flies in the face of our modern sensibilities where inclusion is king and we don’t want anyone to be left out of the reindeer games. But as we saw last week, while living in God’s direct presence in this mortal life is a huge privilege, it is also a very dangerous privilege. How can sinful mortals stand in the presence of a perfect and holy God who is opposed to any form of evil? Just ask Aaron’s sons who were consumed by fire when they offered unauthorized fire to the Lord (Leviticus 10.1-3). As Christians, we believe that humans are made fit to stand in the presence of our holy God because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. But the sad fact remains that there are many who do not want to live their lives in the manner God desires.

This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. To be sure, God loves us as we are, but God does not desire to keep us where we are. Think about it. When Jesus was confronted by the lame, the blind, and the demon-possessed, he didn’t tell them he loved them as they were. He healed them. Likewise, Jesus loves mass murderers, child molesters, drug pushers, ruthless and arrogant business people, and manipulative parents who damage their children’s emotions for life. But because Jesus loves these folks, not to mention folks like you and me with our own brokenness and baggage, whatever it is, Jesus doesn’t want to leave us in our current condition because he hates the effect of our sin on us and those we afflict by our sin.

In a few moments we will come to our Lord’s Table to feed on his body and blood and be reminded that we are reconciled to God so that we have a future in God’s kingdom when it comes in full on earth as it is in heaven, just like we pray for every Sunday. But if we love our sins more than we love God, we are effectively thumbing our nose at God and telling him no thanks when he invites to enter his banquet forever. The fact of the matter is that God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which God’s love, justice, truth, mercy, and holiness reign unhindered and God calls us in Christ to be people who embody these virtues, however imperfectly we do so in our mortal lives. And so when Christ calls us to be his, he expects us to act the part, to come and die as Bonhoeffer put it, with Christ’s help, of course. And when we don’t act the part, our Lord tells us to confess our sins and receive his healing love and forgiveness made possible by his saving death. This is what it means to be God’s people—in Moses’ day, in St. Paul’s day, and in ours. All are called. Jesus died for the sins of the world, not just a few. But many will reject the gracious invitation for whatever reason and will face the consequences of rejecting Christ’s love and righteousness. That is the sad reality of the human condition in our world today.

Returning to our OT lesson, what was God’s reaction to the golden calf? God tells Moses that God’s people are no longer his people, they are Moses’s people. In effect, God tells Moses, “Take your people and good riddance.” I’m going to destroy them and start all over. You are going to become the new Abraham, dude! But Moses wouldn’t have it. He reminds God of God’s covenant faithfulness to God’s people, a covenant sworn to Abraham and his descendants. You are good to your word, God. You can’t destroy these people because they are yours, not mine, and if you do that you will look like a cosmic Loser in the eyes of the Egyptians out of whose country your brought your people. You will lose your well-deserved cred.

Of course, God, being who God is, relents. God cannot renege on his promises and Israel is saved, at least for the moment. But hear what else Moses said to the Lord when he returned to the mountaintop after confronting Israel with their colossal sin and folly:

On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you (Exodus 32.30-34a).

It is worth our time to consider carefully the effect that being in God’s presence had on Moses. Think about it. When God first confronted Moses in the burning bush, Moses was reluctant to fulfill God’s call to him to lead God’s people. He made dozens of excuses as to why he couldn’t do what God asked him. And of course Moses later murdered an Egyptian who was abusing a fellow Israelite. Moses wasn’t exactly ready for prime time in his new role as God’s chosen leader. But now we see Moses interceding for his people, begging God to spare them and offering himself in their place if only God would not destroy them. Can you say transformation?

And God did relent, at least partially. God did not destroy either Moses or God’s people. God spared them both. But we also know that there would come a time when God did not spare his chosen One from bearing the punishment of the people for their sins. No, God sent his only Son to be tortured and die a humiliating and agonizing death to spare God’s enemies—you and me—from God’s holy wrath on the evil we commit every day. God’s only begotten Son, Jesus our Lord, willingly gave himself in accordance with the Father’s will to save us from our slavery to Sin and to break its power over us so that we could enjoy our invitation to God’s wedding banquet of which the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste, thanks be to God. This is the kind of God who calls us to be his and who is present to us in the power of the Holy Spirit just as he was present to his people in the pillars of fire and cloud as they wandered through the wilderness. This God is good to his Word. We need not doubt God’s Presence among us. Ever. Yet whether it was through their faulty perception that God had abandoned them or their own willful rebellion against God and God’s rule, God’s people have often gone astray and worshiped false gods or idols.

Now before we get all smug and uppity about our spiritual ancestors and their shortcomings, it might help if we conducted a reality check about our own spiritual condition. Of course when you come to worship on the Sundays that I preach, and hear these divine sermons, you will naturally be tempted to think you have been transported to heaven. I know that temptation is strong, but resist it because it is only an illusion. In fact, we are every bit as prone to go astray because of our own inherent hostility toward the Lord and/or our perception that he is absent among us. Think it through. When sickness or death strikes us or our loved ones, we want to ask where God is in it all. Where was God when the Las Vegas sniper was mowing down innocent people? Where is God in the bombast about nuclear war that we hear coming from the leaders of North Korea and our own country? Where is God in this country as we seem to increasingly tear each other apart, and often irrationally? Where was God when the hurricanes afflicted this county and the Caribbean islands? We are constantly bombarded with bad news, and instantaneously, and are tempted to think God has abandoned us. And it’s not just turmoil in our country and world; it’s all the turmoil in our lives and the lives of our family as well. You get the point. We are every bit as prone to look for something or someone else to lead us (astray) as the ancient Israelites were because we do not perceive God’s leadership.

That is why we should pay attention to what St. Paul had to say to the Philippians in today’s epistle lesson. First he reminds us that the Lord is near in the power of the Spirit. That said, as with any relationship in a broken world, we have to do our part to cultivate our knowledge of his Presence and our relationship with him. Yes, the Lord is near to us. So St. Paul tells us to do three things to cultivate a sense of that Presence. First, come together as his people regularly to celebrate our Lord’s presence among us. That’s what St. Paul means when he tells us to rejoice always. You don’t have to spend too much time here at St. Augustine’s to get a sense of that Presence. Or consider Christian funerals. We can rejoice, even in the midst of our sorrow, because of the fact that God has defeated Sin and Death in the death and resurrection of Jesus his Son. Second, focus on the goodness of creation, especially in prayer. That doesn’t mean we ignore what’s wrong with creation. Rather, it means we focus equally on its goodness because it is a reflection on the goodness of its Creator. Focus each day on whatever is good, right, just, and beautiful in your life and the lives of your loved ones. Give thanks for the little things that happen to you that are good and wholesome. Those things aren’t coincidences. Make this a habit and eventually you will be reminded that God is very much present in God’s world. Last, live as Jesus’ people. Embody his love, mercy, goodness, justice, and holiness. The key concept here is habit. Imitate your Lord in his life and death, focus on his goodness and presence, and you will not be disappointed because as we have seen, God is faithful to his promises, even when we cannot see how. This is the Good News we are called to both embrace and proclaim, my beloved, now and for all eternity. But we must put in our sweat equity and then trust our Lord Jesus to continue to be good to his eternal promise to lead us to the new heavens and earth. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Do You Have Good News?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 17A, Sunday, October 8, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. What a splendid day to be refreshed by the gospel!

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46.

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

As Christians, we are people who are supposed to have Good News, or the gospel. But do we? If someone asked you what the gospel is all about, could you answer that person? Now I know many of you would be quick to say that you do have good news. You have an awesome rector who preaches brilliant sermons to counteract the tepid sermons of the other priests. While that’s certainly true—I am awesome and a brilliant preacher—it’s not the Good News I have in mind this morning. And the question is more than just rhetorical in nature because I suspect many of us don’t have Good News in the sense that we really believe what God has done for us in and through Christ. Therefore I want us to look at this issue carefully this morning because if we are going to live as people with power, we have to know the source of our power.

In our OT lesson this morning we read about God giving Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments. It is critical that we understand that the Commandments originate from God, not humans. More on that in a moment. When I was a young man I used to hate reading or hearing about the Ten Commandments because they seemed to me to be designed to rain on my parade, and I suspect I am not alone in my feelings. Don’t worship idols. That’s tough to do when I want to make life all about me and my wants and needs. Watch your language about God. That was tough, given I have the mouth of a sailor. No illicit sex. Well what about all those attractive women I see? Don’t lie about or to your neighbor. But it’s so fun and gratifying to spread juicy gossip and diss those folks I don’t like! C’mon man. You get the idea.

The writer of Exodus tells us essentially the same thing about God’s people Israel. Apparently they weren’t very fond of the Commandments either because it reminded them of their sin and standing before a holy and just God. I mean, let’s get real about this, folks. We all know how hard it is for us to keep the Commandments and it was especially critical for God’s people Israel because they believed their ability to keep the Commandments determined their right standing before the Lord. That’s what St. Paul was talking about in our epistle lesson before he met the risen Lord Jesus. So they were willing to talk to Moses about being God’s holy or called-out people, but they were terrified at the prospect of standing in God’s holy presence because they knew they would die. Why? Nobody keeps the Commandments perfectly.

But this kind of thinking about the Commandments demonstrates a profound misunderstanding about God and God’s purpose for giving us the Commandments, even as it exposes the dark side of human nature and our slavery to the power of Sin without outside help. To understand what the Commandments are all about, we have to place them in the proper context of the biblical story of how God is rescuing his good but fallen world and image-bearers from the ravages of Sin and Death. As Christians we should all know at least the basic outline of that story of how God created this vast cosmos, our world included, and then chose to create image-bearing creatures, humans, to run God’s good and beautiful world. It was utter paradise as long as our first ancestors did as God told them. You can read about that in Genesis 1-2. But we know Adam and Eve didn’t obey God’s command and the result was our expulsion from paradise and the unleashing of the dark powers of Evil, Sin, and Death to corrupt and destroy God’s good world and creatures. After Adam and Eve rebelled, literally all hell broke loose in God’s world, corrupting and defiling it. That’s why we are confronted with all the evil in its various forms that assails us today. As Fr. Bowser rightly explained in his mediocre sermon last week, the cumulative effects of human sin brought an ever-increasing level of destructiveness to God’s good world and his human image-bearers, and unleashed an array of fearsome powers who hate and and want to destroy us forever. We need to look only to the massacre in Las Vegas last week to be reminded of this reality, and that the human condition really hasn’t changed from Adam and Eve’s day to ours. Investigators are at a loss to explain a motive for the shooter’s actions, and even if they were to find one, it doesn’t really explain or justify amassing an arsenal to slaughter 58 people and wound countless more. There’s no good reason or justification for doing this. Welcome to the world that our first ancestors’ sin unleashed.

But God was never going to let his good creation be corrupted permanently and so God called Abraham and his descendants to bring God’s healing love to God’s sin-sick and corrupted world. You can read about that starting in Genesis 12. If you do, you will find that Abraham and his descendants were every bit as flawed as the people to which they were called to bring God’s love and blessing. It wasn’t that God didn’t know or anticipate this happening. After all, God is eternal and all-knowing. God knew this was going to be the case before God ever created Abraham in his mother’s womb. But God in his great love and graciousness for his called-out people Israel stuck with them, and now we are ready to understand why God gave Moses the Commandments. Given the sin-sickness of the human race, Israel included, God was showing Moses and God’s people what it would take to flourish as fully human beings. It all starts by us recognizing there is only one true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to align ourselves with that God in choosing how we live our lives. Think about it. If we worship false gods, we learn false and dehumanizing ways to live. If, for example, money is our false god or idol, we will align our living around it. Given our brokenness, we will likely do whatever it takes to procure more of this idol, falsely believing that being rich will make our lives infinitely better and that money will give us life. But a second’s thought reveals how ludicrous this thinking is. Are rich people immune from the problems of the poor? Materially, the answer is probably yes. But wealth doesn’t keep us mentally, physically, or spiritually healthy. Money doesn’t guarantee we will have satisfying relationships or be anxiety-free. Money does nothing for us but give us a false sense of security and increase our innate sense of pride.

Or think of the destructive power pornography has on a marriage. Porn is more addictive than crack cocaine so that it literally enslaves us. And it sets up a false reality and expectations about what true love and sex are all about, thus sowing the seed for the destruction of an important basis for marriage between a husband and wife. Likewise with lying, gossiping, and coveting. How many times have we heard stories about people who pursue these false gods, only to leave a trail of destruction and anger and betrayal and disillusionment, to name but a few. No, if we follow any god other than the real God, we are assured of a life that is temporary and unreal, a life that will steadily wipe out God’s image in us and ultimately make us sub-human creatures. That’s what Sin does to us. It dehumanizes us and makes it impossible for us to flourish. I am persuaded that this is at the heart of what is happening in our country today with all of its alienation and polarization.

So here we see God, our Creator—and who knows better about what it takes for God’s creatures to flourish than their Creator—giving Moses and his people concrete guidelines to help them flourish and spread the goodness, love, and blessing of our good Creator throughout the world, and to help them be real humans. If you understand this about the Commandments, they will no longer seem like an odious burden, unless of course you think your ability to get and remain right with God depends on your ability to keep them. This is exactly what many Israelites believed, and for those who could keep the Commandments better than most (like St. Paul), it became a source of pride. This, of course, meant that any good law keeper was already defeated because pride does not come from God. It comes from the power of Sin.

And we Christians are not immune to this phenomenon. We all know folks who call themselves Christian, but who go about life grimly or arrogantly, struggling to keep the Commandments or having a false sense of pride and superiority when they manage to keep a majority of them or to keep them better than they perceive others doing. These folks self-righteously proclaim that they have “good news” because they see themselves as being able to keep the Commandments better than most, thereby improving their standing before God.

But as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 7, unless we are able to keep all the Command-ments, and not just some of them, we are utterly lost. And so instead of seeing the Commandments as a framework to allow us to flourish as fully human beings, we elevate keeping the Commandments and make them our own idol. Yes, we are that profoundly broken, my beloved.

Now don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that keeping the Commandments is not important. Of course it is, but not in terms of determining whether we are right before God. Those Christians who end up making their faith all about keeping the Commandments will inevitably end up gritting their teeth while they grimly deal with increasing levels of anxiety because none of us can keep the Commandments perfectly, hard as we may try. To make matters worse, many of us resent the notion that we need help from an outside power to help us get right before God. At its essence this is what is going on in our gospel lesson. Jesus had called out the lie that we can save ourselves by following the rules and had announced in word and deed that he was the true Messiah, the only hope the world had to really get right with God. This infuriated the religious leaders of his day, as it does many of us in our day, and it ended up getting Jesus killed.

But thanks be to God that in Jesus’ death we find and gain our life. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is not about our ability to follow the rules. None of us can. We are too sin-sick to do so and unless God does something about it, it means that we have no share in God’s present world or the world to come, despite the material blessings and relative power most of us enjoy. When Jesus returns to finish the work he started in his life, death, and resurrection, there will be no room for evil in God’s new world, and that is for our good. Who wants to live an eternity being bedeviled by Sin and Evil? The new heavens and earth is the culmination of the biblical story of God’s plan to rescue his world from the ravages of Sin, Death, and Evil, and the powers behind them (cf. Revelation 21-22). At first it involved God calling out a people to do this and culminated in the one true Israelite, Jesus, the Son of God, who came to die for us and break the power of Sin over us. In Jesus’ death, God condemned our Sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us, the real perps. Instead, on the cross Jesus bore God’s wrath against our Sin. We did, and can do, nothing to earn this gift of life. It flows from God’s very heart and love for us. This is the same God who swore to Abraham in that strange ancient covenant ratification ritual we read about earlier this year in Genesis 15.12-21, where God in his actions unilaterally vowed to bear the curse himself if either God or Abraham broke the Covenant the two had made. This is the same God who astonishingly consigned all to disobedience so that he could have mercy on us all (Romans 11.32). This is the God who sent his own Son to die for us while we were still God’s enemies to reconcile us to himself (Romans 5.6-11). And what must we do in return? Believe the story. Believe the promise and begin, with the help of the Spirit, to reorient our lives back toward Jesus, God become human, so that we can flourish and not die. If you understand this whole story of salvation, however imperfectly, it is a sign that you have God’s Spirit in you because without his presence, it is impossible for humans to understand.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, my beloved. Is it your Good News? Do you understand that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us so that we can live? Do you understand that as one of Christ’s own beloved, your ultimate future is new creation, a new bodily reality, where you will live as a fully human image-bearing creature who is once again charged with running God’s world on God’s behalf as you enjoy living in God’s direct presence forever? Do you understand this is so because of Jesus’ own resurrection? Do you realize that you are totally unworthy of such a great love and salvation but that it is yours anyway because of who God is, not because of how you try to live your sin-stained life? If you do, thank God right now for the gift of his Spirit who lives in you and sets you free to be fully human again. With this kind of humble knowledge, you will inevitably be filled with a joy that does not originate in you, a joy that has the power to transcend the worst the dark powers can throw at you, and you will be prepared to imitate our Lord Jesus in his life and in his death, in his suffering and in his victory, because that is what it means to follow Christ. Of course you cannot do this on your own power or strength and you will be tempted to balk at that, just like any good proud and self-righteous person would do. But God’s love and power is greater than our weakness. Amen?

In closing, I appeal to you to reject the false gospel that so many of us want to follow because of our folly and pride, the gospel of Pulling Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps, which will inevitably fail and cause you to fall into despair over your inability to live a good and right life before the living God. Please don’t choose to proclaim and live that false gospel in what you do and say. Instead, take heart and hope and remember that the God who loves you and who has claimed you from all eternity is stronger than the dark forces who are at work inside and outside of you. That same God sent his Son to die and rise for you, and to destroy the grip the forces of Evil have on this world and us, death being the ultimate evil. This is the Good News we are called to both embrace and proclaim, now and for all eternity. No wonder St. Paul considered everything in his life before he met the risen Christ to be caca. May we also be blessed with the same grace and privilege. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Father Ric Bowser: Spiritual Warfare

Sermon delivered on Trinity 16A, Sunday, October 1, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Because Fr. Bowser still has not learned how to write, there is no written text for today’s sermon. Click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46.