Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 19B, October 7, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Job 1.1, 2.1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-12; Mark 10.2-16.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we begin our preaching and teaching series on the letter to the Hebrews, a massively important but often-neglected book in the NT. We will be focusing on the assigned readings from Hebrews through Christ the King Sunday at the end of November. October is also stewardship month, where we will be encouraging you to reflect on your favorite topic—giving your money to advance the Lord’s kingdom work on earth. This will culminate on Pledge Sunday on October 28, where we will offer our pledges for the coming fiscal year starting in January. There’s a lot to do and reflect on in the coming weeks!
We begin our study of Hebrews by way of Job. What are we to make of that strange story about God assembling an angelic council, apparently to make policy for running creation, contrary to our epistle lesson’s bold claim that God subjected all creation to the control of humans? And since the Satan was among them, were those on the council actually rebellious angels? Is this an example of Scripture having a split personality and contradicting itself? Well no, because as the writer of Hebrews makes clear, humans do not exercise their God-given task of being in complete control over God’s good creation—that apparently has to wait until God’s new creation arrives—and we all know this to be painfully true. There are many things beyond our control that afflict creation and us: death, destruction, human nastiness, Sin, Evil and disasters of all kinds, to name just a few. The result? We see life riddled with anxiety and we experience disorientation and disruption. No, as the writer of Hebrews says in massive understatement, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to [humans]” and this is where the book of Job comes into play because it explores the riddle and mystery of what has happened now that we have abdicated our God-given responsibility to rule. Something or someone has to rule in our place and our abdication of that privilege by way of our sin and rebellion opened the door for the dark powers of Evil to usurp our rightful role as rulers. But how can an all-powerful God allow Evil to operate in his world so that even the innocent are afflicted by it? Why doesn’t God just fill the void? God clearly remains in charge. The Satan could only do to Job what God allowed. In presenting these mysteries, Job challenges the OT principle of retribution in this life, that God afflicts and punishes the wicked while rewarding the righteous with all kinds of spiritual and material prosperity.
In the story we see Job, who clearly was a righteous man in God’s eyes and had indeed enjoyed God’s blessings, being afflicted with God’s permission by the Satan—and please, let’s leave behind our childish concepts of Satan as looking like some bad cartoon character and grow up in our thinking about Evil so that we see it for what it is— to see whether he will curse God. We as readers are aware of this heavenly intrigue, i.e., of the dark powers usurping our role as rulers, but Job is not. This begs the real question, however: Why does God allow the forces of Evil to operate at all to corrupt God’s good creation? Nowhere do we find an answer to this existential question. We are told that God limits the destructive power of Evil but does not banish it in his creation. Why not? Clearly God’s creative purposes for both his creation and image-bearing creatures are being thwarted, so why would God allow that? Scripture doesn’t say. To be sure, Scripture does offer us partial answers to questions about Evil. As we have seen, human sin allowed Evil to get a toehold in God’s good world so that now we and all creation live under God’s curse. A cursed world can account for a good deal of the evil in God’s creation but not all of it. Nor are we told why the serpent was present in the garden in the first place to work his evil. Further, we are told that human sin and folly are directly responsible for all kinds of evil and suffering. But we are not told why God allows the forces of Evil behind our sin to continue to operate to corrupt and destroy God’s good world and people’s lives. What the NT does answer is what God is doing about this resident Evil and we are expected to live with all the riddles, ambiguity, and unanswered questions and trust God’s good plan for the redemption of all creation and our own. Enter the letter to the Hebrews and more precisely, enter Jesus.
The writer of Hebrews starts by reminding us of a breath-taking reality, that God the Father, God the Creator of this vast universe, has acted decisively and lovingly on behalf of his weak and rebellious image-bearing creatures to rescue us from our predicament. To be sure, our ongoing sin and rebellion grieves God’s heart to its very core. But God did not give up on his creation or us. Instead God became human in the person of Jesus and entered human history, something I fear we Christians have heard so often that we’ve lost the awesome wonder of this claim, to act decisively against the outside powers of Evil, Sin, and Death. God did not act outside history to defeat these dark powers. Instead, God became human (or in NT language, God the Father sent his only begotten Son) to suffer and die for us to free us from the terrible and deadly consequences of our sin and folly, and to break the power of Evil in our lives so that we are no longer its slaves. God did this in Christ’s death and resurrection and then by sending the Holy Spirit to live in each of us to make our risen and ascended Lord’s presence real and known to us, thereby enabling us to overcome our fallen human nature and the forces of Evil who hate us and assail us on a regular basis. None of this plays out in an easy or straightforward manner as we all can attest. Sometimes we miss the mark and fall off the proverbial wagon. Sometimes we choose to be willfully stubborn and rebellious toward God. Sometimes we are just plain stupid. Despite all this, however, the writer of Hebrews makes the stunning and audacious claim that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we not only find forgiveness of our sins but real power to resist and overcome evil. That is one of the underlying points in our gospel lesson this morning. If there weren’t power available for our hard hearts to be remade into human ones, Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce would be hopelessly idealistic. But the fact remains that while some (many?) of us have succumbed to divorce, many more have struggled and succeeded in remaining faithful to their marriage vows despite great obstacles and odds. This fact alone attests to the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in God’s people.
Moreover, the writer of Hebrews makes clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection was God’s decisive action against the dark powers and the power of Sin that corrupts us and causes death to reign. But the war is not over as we all know. Final victory awaits Jesus’ return. Until then, we won’t see humans fulfilling their God-given commission to rule God’s world, but we do see Jesus paving the way for that to happen by casting out demons, ruling over the forces of nature, bringing healing of all kinds, and finally dying a God-forsaken and terrible death for us and taking on himself all the awful consequences of our sin and rebellion so that we can ultimately live in God’s new world to fulfill God’s original creative purposes for us as human beings. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees the promise to be valid and true.
What does all this mean to us as Christians who struggle to live faithful lives? First, as we are buffeted by darkness and suffering in God’s world and our lives, we are tempted to believe that God has given up on his world and us. The reality of Jesus reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. God has not abandoned us. Neither does God hate us. The existence of Jesus Christ reveals to us the great love the Father has for his rebellious creatures and the length and depth he will go to reclaim us and his world so that we can one day enjoy creation as God always intended for us. It’s a free gift offered to us and we better have the wisdom to accept the gift of God’s good grace. If Jesus really is God, and we know him to be, then we have received the definitive revelation about who God is and what God’s intentions are for his world and us. No further revelation is needed and we are called to embrace God’s offer to us to accept his forgiveness and love made known to us in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
This, in turn, means we must make a decision to accept or reject the healing and forgiving love of Christ. In reality we do both simultaneously in our lives because none of us loves God perfectly like Jesus did as a human. But we see Jesus and that means we don’t bury our head in the sand or wring our hands in despair. It means that when the forces of darkness threaten to overwhelm us we look to Jesus for strength, refreshment, and encouragement. When we do, it must change us, especially when we remember that we have God’s very Spirit living in us, testifying to us the truth about God’s love and rescue of us from Evil, Sin, and Death in Jesus. So we continue to move forward, following Jesus, learning to give our lives to him completely. This means we choose to love and forgive our enemies and those who revile us. It means we are implacably opposed to evil and injustice and are resolved in the power of the Spirit to be agents of God’s goodness, love, mercy, and justice. It means that we go to Scripture to learn and be reminded of the story of the Good News of our salvation, and we struggle with God in prayer. It means we are given the power to sometimes just endure, but always with hope because if we really do see Jesus, we must be people of hope. And it means we give our financial resources to help advance the Kingdom work. God has given generously to us. Are we not to respond likewise to God? Given the importance of money in our culture, this is perhaps the best litmus test of our love for and faith in God. Of course, Kingdom work does not take place exclusively in the confines of parish ministry, although that is important. Sound preaching, administering the sacraments, and godly fellowship are critical components of worship and worship is critical if we ever hope to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. But Kingdom work goes on outside our parish and is an important part of our stewardship. So, for example, in addition to giving ten percent of our income to St. Augustine’s, the Maneys give regularly to the ASCPA and to Faith Mission because we believe they engage in good and holy work. How we spend our money will give us a keen insight into the state of our faith in Jesus. I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on you. I say it to remind you that Kingdom work involves every dimension of our lives from worship to fellowship to service to giving. Everything we have comes from God who has an egregiously generous heart. Seeing Jesus in our lives and the life of the world produces hearts that are also egregiously generous and willing to share God’s abundance to help those in need.
Therefore, my beloved, be intentional in seeing Jesus so that you will not lose heart or hope. Be intentional in seeing Jesus so he can transform your own hard heart into a truly human one. Seeing Jesus is a sometimes challenging and difficult task that requires our constant attention along with our regular worship, persistence in prayer, and engaging in fellowship with God’s people, both inside and outside our parish family. But seeing Jesus is the only real answer to our fears and anxieties about our purpose for living as well as our own fate and the fate of this good world of God’s gone bad. It is a story with a happy and healing ending and it is offered to everyone who has the good sense to accept it as well as the One who is the main character of the story. Ask God to give you the grace and power to see Jesus and follow him more completely. Doing so will affirm or reaffirm to you that you really are participating in the Good News of Jesus Christ who has rescued you from the dark powers, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.