The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018—Day 7 (2)

Our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the Word himself at God’s command. God wished to win us back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce us to slavery but by addressing to our free will a call to liberty.

Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own humanity as the firstfruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity…We shall enter the kingdom of heaven, because while we lived on earth we acknowledged heaven’s King.

—Hippolytus, On the Refutation of All Heresies 10, 33-34

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018—Day 7

How could he have given himself if he had not worn flesh? He offered his flesh and gave himself for us, in order that undergoing death in it, “He might bring to nothing the one who held the power of death, that is, the devil.” For this reason we continually give thanks in the name of Jesus Christ. We do not bring to nothing the grace which came to us through him. For the coming of the Savior in the flesh has been the ransom and salvation of all creation.

—Athanasius, Letter to Adelphus

Christmastide 2018: Meditations on the Incarnation by Select Church Fathers and Doctors

Meditations read on Christmas 1C, Sunday, December 30, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

The following sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom is the first extant Christmas sermon we have. It was preached in Antioch in 386, the same year Augustine of Hippo became a Christian. Source:

Behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed; He had the power; He descended; He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He who is, is Born; and He who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation [being born of a virgin] I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.  

For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works. 

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. 

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, who is before all ages, who cannot be touched or be perceived, who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that [humans] cannot see. For since [humans] believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature. 

For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker. 

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He who cannot be touched, who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of [humans]. He who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness. 

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. 

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with [humans] without fear, and [humans] now hold speech with angels. 

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infants food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen. 

—John Chrysostom (d. 407), priest at Antioch and later Archbishop of Constantinople 

Now hear this word from St. Athanasius.

The Word of God did not abandon the human race, his creatures, who are hurtling to their own ruin. By the offering of his body, the Word of God destroyed death which had united itself to them; by his teaching, he corrected their negligences; and by his power, he restored the human race.

Why was it necessary for the Word of God to become incarnate and not some other? Scripture indicates the reason by these words: “It was fitting that when bringing many heirs to glory, God, for whom and through whom all things exist, should make their leader in the work of salvation perfect through suffering.” This signifies that the work of raising human beings from the ruin into which they had fallen pertained to none other than the Word of God, who had made them in the beginning.

By the sacrifice of his body, he put an end to the law which weighed upon them, and he renewed in us the principle of life by giving us the hope of the resurrection. For if it is through ourselves that death attained dominance over us, conversely, it is through the incarnation of the Word of God that death has been destroyed and that life has been resurrected, as indicated by the Apostle filled with Christ: “Death came through one person; hence the resurrection of the dead comes through another person also. Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again.”

It is no longer as condemned that we die. Rather, we die with the hope of rising again from the dead, awaiting the universal resurrection which God will manifest to us in his own time, since he is both the author of it and gives us the grace for it.

—Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 373), On the Incarnation 10.14

A reading from St. Gregory of Nazianzus.

Christ is born: glorify him. Christ comes from heaven: go out to meet him. Christ descends to earth: let us be raised on high. Let all the world sing to the Lord; let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad, for his sake who was first in heaven and then on earth. Christ is here in the flesh: let us exult with fear and joy—with fear, because of our sins; with joy, because of the hope that he brings us.

Once more the darkness is dispersed; once more the light is created. Let the people that sat in the darkness of ignorance now look upon the light of knowledge. The things of old have passed away; behold, all things are made new. He who has no mother in heaven is now born without father on earth. The laws of nature are overthrown, for the upper world must be filled with citizens. He who is without flesh becomes incarnate; the Word puts on a body; the Invisible is seen; he whom no hand can touch is handled; the Timeless has a beginning; the Son of God becomes Son of Man—Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever.

Light from light, the Word of the Father comes to his own image, in the human race. For the sake of my flesh he takes flesh; for the sake of my soul he is united to a rational soul, purifying like by like. In every way he becomes human, except for sin. O strange conjunction! The Self-existent comes into being; the Uncreated is created. He shares in the poverty of my flesh, that I may share in the riches of his Godhead.

—Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople (d. 389), Oration 38

Next is this reading from Hippolytus, a very early bishop of Rome. Notice the strong connection between Christmas and Easter in his sermon. This is exactly right because without Easter, Christmas would mean nothing.

Our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the power of God, spoken by the Word himself at God’s command. God wished to win us back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce us to slavery but by addressing to our free will a call to liberty.

The Word spoke first of all through the prophets, but because the message was couched in such obscure language that it could be only dimly apprehended, in the last days the Father sent the Word in person, commanding him to show himself openly so that the world could see him and be saved.

We know that by taking a body from the Virgin he refashioned our fallen nature. We know that his humanity was of the same clay as our own; if this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. If he were of a different substance from me, he would surely not have ordered me to do as he did, when by my very nature I am so weak. Such a demand could not be reconciled with his goodness and justice.

No. He wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves, and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept. Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own humanity as the firstfruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity.

When we have come to know the true God, both our bodies and our souls will be immortal and incorruptible. We shall enter the kingdom of heaven, because while we lived on earth we acknowledged heaven’s King. Friends of God and co-heirs with Christ, we shall be subject to no evil desires or inclinations, or to any affliction of body or soul, for we shall have become divine. It was because of our human condition that God allowed us to endure these things, but when we have been dei?ed and made immortal, God has promised us a share in his‘ own attributes.

The saying “Know yourself” means therefore that we should recognize and acknowledge in ourselves the God who made us in his own image, for if we do this, we in turn will be recognized and acknowledged by our Maker. So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. “For Christ who is God, exalted above all creation,” has taken away our sin and has refashioned our fallen nature. In the beginning God made us in his image and so gave proof of his love for us. If we obey his holy commands and learn to imitate his goodness, we shall be like him and he will honor us. God is not beggarly, and for the sake of his own glory he has given us a share in his divinity.

—Hippolytus, Bishop of Rome (d. 236), On the Refutation of All Heresies, 10.33-34

And finally, a word from our own St. Augustine of Hippo. 

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, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this 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.

…Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but by sheer grace.

—Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (d. 430), Sermon 185

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018—Day 6 (2)

It is as if God the Father sent upon the earth a purse full of his mercy. This purse was burst open during the Lord’s passion to pour forth its hidden contents—the price of our redemption. It was only a small purse, but it was very full. As the Scriptures tell us: “A little child has been given to us, but in him who dwells with the fullness of the divine nature.” The fullness of time brought with it the fullness of divinity. God’s Son came in the flesh so that mortals could see and recognize God’s kindness. When God reveals his humanity, his goodness cannot possibly remain hidden…How could he have shown his mercy more clearly than by taking on himself our condition? We should stop thinking of our own sufferings and remember what he has suffered. The lesser he became through his human nature, the greater was his goodness; the more he lowered himself for me, the dearer he is to me…He has given us a most wonderful proof of his goodness by adding humanity to his own divine nature.

—Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 1 for Epiphany

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018—Day 6

When Isaac himself carried the wood for the sacrifice of himself, in this, too, he prefigured Christ our Lord, who carried his own cross to the place of his passion. On this mystery much had already been foretold by the prophets: “And his government shall be upon his shoulders.” Christ, then, had the government upon his shoulders when he carried his cross with wonderful humility. Not unfittingly does Christ’s cross signify government: by it the devil is conquered and the whole world recalled to the knowledge and grace of Christ.

—Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 84.3

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018—Day 4

He chose to lack for himself, that he may abound for all. The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins. Therefore, Lord Jesus, I owe more to your suffereings because I was redeemed than I do to works for which I was created. You see that he is in swaddling clothes. You do not see that he is in heaven. You hear the cries of an infant, you do not hear the lowing of an ox recognizing its Master, for the ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib.

—Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke: 2:41-42

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018—Day 3

He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death. He was in a manger, that you may be at the altar. He was on earth that you may be in the stars. He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens. He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you may be rich. Therefore his poverty is our inheritance, and the Lord’s weakness is our virtue.

—Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2:41-42

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2018—Day 1

Once again this year, as my Christmas gift to you, I am going to post excerpts from the wisdom of the ancient commentators on the Incarnation of God. I will be posting each day until January 5. May you find them as edifying as I have. Merry Christmas!

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness. No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all.

—Prayer from Leo the Great

Christmas: God’s Power Introduced

Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; The Song of God’s Chosen One; 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 the birth of our Lord Jesus and I want us to look at why that matters and why we shouldn’t dismiss the heavenly host’s announcement of Christ’s birth as airy sentiment or nonsense.

In our OT lesson, the prophet Isaiah declares that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and we know something about the darkness because we’ve all been afflicted by it. Being the proud and self-sufficient people that we are, we’ll go to almost any length to produce our own light to counter the darkness. We decorate our houses, buy loads of presents, go to endless Christmas parties, sing our favorite Christmas carols, get ready for Santa Claus and a host of other things. Try as we might, however, our light simply doesn’t cut it. I remember my first significant encounter with the darkness of personal loss and grief when I was a young man. It was Christmas Eve 1976 and earlier that year I had lost both of my beloved grandmothers in the span of a month. It rocked my world. Christmas Eve was always my favorite night of the year but when my extended family met that Christmas to celebrate and exchange gifts, it just wasn’t the same. To be sure, the lights were blazing, the same food was served, we were dressed in our best Christmas duds, and there were loads of presents under the tree for and from me. In other words, all should have been right with the world—at least as our culture defines it—but it was not. I missed my grandmas terribly and I hurt inside. Although I never talked about it with my parents, I’m sure they were hurting too. Losing one’s parents is a hard thing and our family’s Christmas Eve was never the same after that. The years passed and the pain has subsided. The scars are there but they no longer hurt. My parents’ generation died in the following decades and family members moved out of town. Now we don’t even gather as an extended family on Christmas Eve. Our divergent lives and responsibilities prevent it and I am left with bittersweet memories of ghosts of Christmas Eves past when my family was intact and together, never to return in this mortal life. I am thankful that I had my entire extended family living in one town and that we were a pretty healthy family. Some folks don’t even get to experience that blessing, which creates a whole different kind of darkness for them to deal with.

Isaiah’s people also knew what it meant to live in fear and darkness and if you are old enough, which most of us here tonight are, so do you. We carry our hurts, heartaches, fears, and angers with us. Just this past weekend we buried a beloved member of our parish and we grieve with her family as they try to make sense of her untimely and tragic death ten days before Christmas. And we grieve with Christopher as he mourns his brother’s death in Kenya on Saturday. What we all have in common—folks who live in the past, present, and future until the Lord returns—is this. Try as we might to generate some human light and solutions to the darkness that afflicts us, we are utterly powerless to do so. Our dead remain dead. Our hurts and sorrows and fears remain with us, mitigated only slightly by the passing of time and perhaps therapy. We deal with illnesses, maladies, and addictions of all kinds. We see our society tearing itself apart. We witness all kinds of injustice and evil being committed and devise various solutions to address the darkness that afflicts us. But our solutions deal with symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself. We are utterly incapable of healing ourselves and this only adds to our frustration and sorrow. If we are humble enough and truly honest about the darkness that dwells within us and around us, we are forced to admit that our best efforts to make each Christmas “merry and bright” are contingent on our current life circumstances and we are essentially powerless to do much, if anything, about it. 

To add insult to injury, the Church over the years has not always been helpful in addressing the human condition and our response to it. We’ve sometimes been afflicted with bad theology and preaching—never from this pulpit, of course, especially when I occupy it—that focuses on the punitive aspects of God’s wrath and declares this world to be intrinsically evil, without hope of redemption. Like their gnostic forebears, they preach that being human is all about how “spiritual” one is because one day God in his rage is going to destroy this world and all but a few elect whom he has rescued to enjoy a disembodied existence in heaven for all eternity. How perfectly dreadful. Others don’t even believe their own story and in their arrogance are proud that they don’t. After all, in our enlightenment who has time for angels, virgin births, etc.? This kind of baloney (I would use a stronger noun but I am mindful I’m preaching) has inflicted great harm on God’s people and caused us to devalue God’s good creation, especially the pinnacle of God’s creation—human beings, God’s image-bearing creatures. This in turn creates all kinds of catastrophic darkness and causes us to miss the point of Christmas if we are not careful.

And what is the point of Christmas? It is to announce that our good and faithful Creator loves his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing creatures. Christmas announces that God has not given up on his good world gone bad or us, despite our proud and haughty arrogance and our incessant and stubborn rebellion. Christmas announces that God knows the darkness that all of us deal with. He knows our hurts and heartaches and sorrows and sicknesses and sighing and cares about them and us. He knows that we are but dust and are terrified by that fact. More importantly for our purposes tonight, God knows we are powerless to overcome the darkness on our own and has entered this world as a human being to be with us to set us free from the power of Sin, Evil, and Death and to one day recreate this sad old world to vanquish all forms of evil and darkness so that we can live in the perfect light of Christ forever, free from all forms of darkness, and reunited with those in Christ whom we have loved but lost for a season. When that day comes, as tonight’s canticle attests, perfect justice will reign and death will be no more. In other words, God, the only person who has the power to really deal with the darkness that afflicts us, has declared that he has seen our plight and has acted decisively on our behalf to end it by entering our history to deal with the darkness once and for all. No wonder all creation rejoices tonight!

The imagery in our gospel lesson is full of this glorious announcement of God’s light piercing the darkness. The shepherds are working in darkness, only to be confronted by the light of heaven’s armies announcing their liberation from the darkness. We hear this wondrous story read in the darkness of a December evening, a darkness pierced by the candles and light of Christ in this chapel. If we were to extinguish this light, we would sit in total darkness, not unlike how the world and our lives would be had not Christ been born into them. Savor the light, my beloved, on all levels. Later we will read the dismissal gospel from St. John with its bold announcement that the Word became human, the light of God, to overcome the darkness despite the latter’s attempt to overcome God’s light. Christ came to destroy the dark power of Sin and Evil over his people, something St. Paul addresses in our epistle tonight. Oh not completely in this mortal life, to be sure. We all know that. But Christmas announces that God has entered his world to live with his people and to heal and redeem it and us. Only God can do this because only God is more powerful than the forces of darkness that hate us and afflict us. Christmas announces that God sees our afflictions and has acted decisively to change our condition. Is that not reason for us to rejoice?

And how did God do this? By becoming human, or to use NT language, by sending his one and only Son to die for us so that we could live. As St. Paul proclaims in Romans, God condemned our sin in the flesh by bearing his own good and righteous condemnation of our evil so that we will be spared and set free from Sin and Death (Romans 8.3-4). We didn’t expect God to destroy the darkness in this way and none of us understand the full meaning of the Cross. But we accept it by faith because by his wounds we, along with countless others, find healing and renewal in the power of the Spirit. God had to have flesh to condemn our sin in the flesh and set us free from the grip of Sin’s power and this is what the heavenly host announced to the shepherds in Bethlehem that night. As the old song proclaims, “Jesus our Savior did come for to die.”

As we have seen during Advent, we must await our Lord’s return for the promise of perfect freedom and release from the darkness to be consummated. But along the way we are not left without glimpses and signposts of our future life in God’s new heavens and earth. The Son of God has died a cruel death for our sake and was raised from the dead to destroy the power of Death over us. Without Christmas, none of this would have happened. And now the Father and the Son have given us the Holy Spirit to mediate Christ’s presence among us and begin to heal us, sometimes partially, sometimes fully. But we are never abandoned. The result? God calls a people to himself in Jesus Christ, Israel reconstituted, to be his signs in a world afflicted by darkness. I could give you hundreds of examples but I will give you just one. Look at how this little parish has rallied around Ken and his family in their darkest hour. We are not the only folks to do that, of course, but the outpouring of love for this grieving family is simply remarkable. In doing so we are signs of God’s promise to be Immanuel, God with us, as well as his love, to help mediate God’s presence to those who need it the most this Christmas, and we have the promise that one day God will finish his work started at the announcement of the birth of his Son. This dynamic illustrates perfectly the contrast between human and divine power. The former, while effective, is only partial. We don’t bring in the Kingdom fully on earth as in heaven; only God can do that because only God’s power can overcome the darkness. Contemplate that hope and promise this Christmas Eve, my beloved. Savor the light shining in the darkness. Be content to put your hope and trust in the One who loves you and gave himself for you so that you might one day be free of the darkness that is within you and surrounds you. As you do, you just may find that the lights of Christmas give you reason to rejoice as well as a new-found power to imitate Christ, whose birth we celebrate tonight. There is no darkness that can overcome this great light, dear people of God, and that’s Good News for all of us, 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. 

Dr. Jonathon Wylie: The Four Last Things: Hell

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Advent 4C, December 23, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

There is no audio podcast for today’s sermon. Dr. Wylie has got to learn to be smarter than the recorder he uses.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.1-7; Ephesians 5.1-4; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43.

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

During the four weeks of Advent we have been focusing in our sermons on the traditional 4 last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. I guess it was 6-7 weeks ago that Fr Kevin asked me to give you hell, so here I am to give you hell. That’s actually not the task for myself at all. My task, rather, is to elevate your joy and to remind you that hell is not for you and that you are not for hell. Or at any rate, that hell doesn’t have to be for you.

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption (Psalm 16.10).

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16.11)

We don’t much like to think about hell, do we? Why should we? In our minds, hell is the destination of the wicked, a place than which no worse can be imagined. We imagine a lake of fire, an eternal torture chamber, slithering worms and horn-headed demons, smells of sulfur and screeches of torment. Actually, this image owes more to Dante and Milton than to the Bible. Jesus does talk at a humber of points about a fiery judgment and a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But these images usually appear in parables, and parables really aren’t meant to be interpreted literalistically. When the word “hell” appears in ETs, the word behind that translation is “Gehenna,” which was essentially a landfill on the south side of Jerusalem. When Jesus said people would go there, it isn’t clear that he meant people would spend eternity burning in a lake of fire.

But don’t for a second think that I am denying hell’s existence, or that it isn’t horrific. Because starting in Gen 12 and continuing throughout the OT, the NT, and all the way to the Glorious Return, God has been unwaveringly committed to setting the world right. And this must mean removing everything that pollutes and defiles his good creation. That’s why the OT andthe NT alike speak of God pronouncing (or promising to pronounce) judgment on wickedness. God must judge us, unless we conclude (and it would be wrong to do so) that he doesn’t care very much about sin or holiness. And judgment implies a set of dichotomous outcomes: guilty / not guilty, wicked / righteous, damnation / salvation. Not only that, we also know from Scripture and from our own experience that we live in a world of evil – of evil people and evil deeds. There is a force of evil in the world that cannot be denied.

Our readings this morning from Isaiah 5 and Matt 13 both emphasize that God created a good world and that he set it up to prosper with good fruit. According to Isa 5, God everything he could to make his vineyard produce good grapes: he cleared the ground and removed rocks, set up a watchtower and fence, dug out a vat, planted the choicest of vines. But Israel was overcome with wickedness, and failed to fulfill its purpose. And God’s response is judgment.

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it (Isaiah 5.5-6).

God is done. He’s washing his hands of this disaster. Everything God did to set it up for fruitfulness, he is taking away. This is an un-creation. Why?

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry (Isaiah 5.7)!

The Hebrew has a play on words to drive the point home: “He looked for justice (mishpat), but behold, bloodshed (mispach); for righteousness (tsedaqah), but behold, an outcry (tse‘aqah). The prophet sears the point into our minds with that wordplay.

Of course, the “love song” of the vineyard is an allegory –“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting” (v. 7a) – and it is an indictment of Israel and Judah for their failure to do what God had created it, ordained it, and prepared it to do. Judah was called to shine God’s light in the world, so that all peoples of the world might say to one another, “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD” (Isa 2:1-5). The people of God were to be the image bearers of God, reflecting him out into the world. And in this they failed, overcome as they were with evil and injustice. And so God casts judgment, and in Isa 5, the verdict is to hand the vineyard over to the forces of chaos. If you choose to do the work of evil and chaos, then God will turn you over to evil and chaos in judgment.

Lest we think this is just an OT problem, the situation gets even bleaker, in some ways, in our Gospel reading because here we learn that even the Kingdom of Heaven has bad weeds growing in it. Once again, the parable begins by affirming the original purity of what was created: “The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matt 13:24). That man, we learn later in the chapter, is Jesus (13:27). But at an opportune time, in the middle of the night, the master’s enemy – whom Jesus later identifies as the devil – came and sowed poisonous weeds. Notice he didn’t sow the weeds in another field or next to the good seed or around the good seed. The devil sows his seed right here in the midst of the good seed. The devil’s seed sprouts up right up in the middle of the church. And as alarming as that is, it doesn’t surprise us when we think of the evils the church has sponsored and in some cases continues to sponsor – the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, schisms past and present, and all manner of calling what is evil good and what is good evil.

As with the vineyard, so with the weeds – they are destined for judgment: “Gather the wheat into bundles to be burned with fire.” God will remove evil from the world.

My point in all this is that while we tend to think of hell as some far off place where the wicked go when they die, the reaches of hell, the effects and curses of hell, are right here and right now. There is an evil empire on the earth, and it is run by an enemy, the devil. Of course there is! We can see it everywhere we look. The devil’s work is all over the place: in school shootings, car bombings, and other acts of violence; in acts of exploitation and abuse, greed, corruption; in acts of debauchery, idolatry, drunkenness; in racism, sexism, and all forms of injustice; in the grave evil of disease and decay and death. And here’s where it gets really bleak. The problem isn’t just that there are weeds in the world, or that there are weeds growing in the kingdom of heaven, or that there are weeds sitting next to me in church. The most unnerving problem is that there are weeds growing in me, and there are weeds growing in you. The devil’s work appears in my life, just as it appears in yours.

Apart from the cross of Christ, I and you and all the world would be weeds destined for judgment, to be burned in the fire. We are one life, one man, one cross, one empty tomb away from hopeless eternal corruption. For if Christ has not been raised, you are still dead in your sins.

What does all this have to do with Advent?

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” And that light is Christ, the Savior of all, the Lamb of God, coming into the world to take away the sins of the world. Jesus was born to die. He is the offering from God, the offering for God, the offering who is God. He is the once and for all perfect sacrifice and oblation, and on him God has placed the sin of all the world. In him we are offered forgiveness, atonement, redemption, hope, salvation.

There’s more. In his life, death, and especially resurrection, Christ has brought the kingdom of heaven to earth and launched a New and Redeemed Creation. In his death he paid the penalty of sin; in his resurrection he broke the devil’s grip on the world and swallowed up the devil’s favorite weapon, which is death. The Devil is vanquished, death is defeated, hell is conquered, a New Creation is born. It is a kingdom of true shalom, in which everything is as it should be. There is peace, justice, righteousness, and human beings finally and fully live up to their calling to bear the image of God.

And this is the best news that has ever been preached to people who are weeds because weeds like you and me can lay claim to it, can enter in, can participate, if we become citizens of the New Creation through faith and baptism.

Are you baptized? Good news! You went down into the waters one thing and came up another. You went down a weed, you died a weed; you came up, resurrected as grain to be fruitful in the Kingdom of God. You died a weed and rose as wheat.

“If anyone is in Christ he/she is a new creation.” You are not just in the New Creation, you are a new creation! “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:17-19).

That all sounds good, but let’s be real. While all Christians would affirm the truth of what I have just said, we also know there are ways in which it is not true. Or maybe a better way to say it is that it isn’t fully actualized. God is putting all things right, and he will finish the task, but at the moment we aren’t fully there. However much we hope in the Resurrection, the fact is disease is  still widespread, our bodies decay, and people still die. Our little parish has felt the sting of death twice this week. The New Creation is now but not yet. Christ has died and Christ has risen. I believe that and so do you, I hope. I was baptized and so were you – or you could be. And that means that we are New Creatures. But, in fact, we’re actually not fully New Creatures, are we? “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7). I’m certain that the New Creation flashes in us from time to time, maybe even often. But I’m just as certain that the the old creature still isn’t completely dead. We’re all a hybrid of weed and grain. Even we who are in Christ are in need of continual grace and transformation.

St. Paul acknowledges this throughout his letters. In Ephesians, immediately after stating that Christ loved us and gave himself for us, Paul urges the young church to have nothing to do with sexual immorality or impurity or covetousness, nothing to do with filthiness or foolish talk or crude joking, because these things are not proper for the people of God. But the fact that he urges them away from these things implies that it still needs to be said. “You used to be involved with all that nonsense,” Paul says, “for at one time you were darkness. But now, you are in the Lord! Walk as children of light!” Now that you set your hand to the plow, don’t look back. You are something new – or at least the seed of something new is in you – so be the new thing. Live up to it. Bear good fruit.

Meanwhile, the world remains full of evil doers who work against against God rather than with him, who oppose his mission, and refuse to bear his image in the world. We know that there are people who, rather than fulfill God’s command to steward the earth, destroy it and its resources. There are people who, rather than cultivate life, exploit fellow human beings and treat them as commodities. There are people who, rather than live in God’s world as peacemakers, foster strife and promote violence.

The war is won but the battle rages on. It’s not for nothing that Jesus urges us to pray for deliverance from evil.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with hope. Advent is not only a time for remembering the birth of Christ, it is also a time for anticipating his return. We rejoice in the first coming; we hope in the second one. We have hope that Christ will return and that he will judge the earth. We have hope that there will be justice – the righteous will be vindicated and the wicked condemned. As Christians we pray “Come quickly Lord Jesus” because we want the world to be put right. We agree with God that evil must be rooted out. We want it rooted out of the world, and we want it rooted out of us.

This is one reason we gather every Sunday (or more) to re-enact the drama of the Eucharist. We don’t just re-enact it, actually, we renew our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. We come in a weed, and we acknowledge that in the confession, the prayer of humble access, and elsewhere. Then, receiving the body and blood of Christ, we are renewed, we become one body with him and heirs of his eternal kingdom. To what end? To love him and serve him faithfully as his witnesses.

Dear friends, hell is not for you. God does not desire that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life. The road to eternal life goes through the cross of Christ. There is no life, no escape from judgment, that doesn’t go through the cross. Cling to Christ. Cling to him. And doing so, know that though you once were darkness, now you are light. Live in the light of Christ. Live in the joy of the first advent, and in hopeful anticipation of the second.

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