Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Advent C, November 17, 2019 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: Isaiah 65.17-25; Song of Deliverance (Isaiah 12); 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During the Sundays between All-Saints and Advent, we celebrate Christ and his kingdom, a period of time we call kingdomtide. But why should we celebrate this when it appears that anyone (or anything) but Jesus rules this world? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
It is no secret that we live in a world corrupted by human sin and the forces of Evil. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of a cosmic battle being waged both in heaven and on earth (3.10, 6.2), and our Lord himself enigmatically refers to Satan as the ruler of this world (John 12.31, 14.30, 16.11). This is contrary to God’s original creative purposes because we know that God created humans in his image to run his good creation on God’s behalf (Genesis 1-2). And our readings from this morning, each in its own way, speak of a world gone terribly wrong.
In his breathtaking vision of new creation, unique to the prophet Isaiah and the OT, the prophet tells us of a world devoid of crying and full of joy and celebration, peace and harmony, and abundant life. Implicit in this spectacular vision is the acknowledgement that in God’s original creation there is crying and disorder and calamity, and we all get that. We weep over sickness and the death of our loved ones. We all know what it is like to be afflicted with any number of calamities that can beset us. The chaos going on in our nation makes many of us want to scream and pull our hair out (or maybe the hair of those who cause such great chaos—insert your favorite villain here).
In our canticle we echoed Isaiah’s proclamation that we will trust God and not be afraid. In fact, “don’t be afraid” is the most common phrase in all of Scripture, indicating that there is plenty in our world and lives that can make us afraid. And if we lived in a world devoid of sin and evil, why would we need God to be our salvation? This all suggests things are not as God intended.
Our Lord himself even acknowledges that all is not right with God’s world, despite the fact that Christ himself was God’s agent of creation. In our gospel lesson Jesus warns his disciples of the cataclysm about to be inflicted on Jerusalem for its impending rejection of the Son of God (this, BTW, does not give us license to be antisemitic; Christ is simply speaking of God’s awful judgment on his people’s rebellion against God and his Messiah). Moreover, Jesus warns his followers of future persecution for being his disciples and proclaiming him to be the Son of God. Rarely have Christ’s true followers enjoyed peace and goodwill because they are Christians. To the contrary, because the dark powers and their human minions have usurped God’s rightful rule of his creation, Christians more often than not experience persecution and suffering for their faith, not the accolades of a fallen world. This is one way we can measure our faithfulness to Christ. Are we suffering for his name’s sake? If not, there’s a good chance we are not engaging the forces of evil by acting in Christlike ways and/or proclaiming his gospel to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
The fact that Satan and his minions are in control of God’s world and actively rebel against God in God’s own space (heaven), can leave us even more baffled and discouraged. How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, totally good God allow this to happen we wonder? Why does God allow this? We know a small part of the answer. When our first ancestors sinned in paradise and got thrown out, it allowed the forces of Evil to usurp the role God reserved for humans. Nature abhors a vacuum and when we rebelled against God we allowed forces eager to control and corrupt God’s world to take our place. But there are other greater questions for which we have no answers. Why did God allow evil to exist in the first place? Why would God allow evil forces to step in and fill the void left by his image-bearers? Why does God allow the powers to operate and rebel against him when he has the power to destroy them forever? And how can the forces of Evil even exist in heaven, let alone rebel against the Almighty God? On a matter closer to home, in a few minutes we will hold our quarterly healing service. So why doesn’t God answer our prayers and bring about immediate healing and relief as we ask and desire? We aren’t told. Nowhere does Scripture give us answers to our questions and this can make us wonder what kind of King Jesus really is.
Instead, Scripture tells us that God is in control and has done something about Sin and Evil, despite appearances to the contrary and the evil with which we all must deal on a regular basis. For example, in our OT lesson, God tells Isaiah that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth, a breathtaking promise echoed powerfully in the Revelation to St. John (21-22). If there is no more crying or sounds of distress or chaos or war or lives cut tragically short, then the promise signals that God must have defeated all that corrupts his good world and creatures, especially his image-bearing ones. In our canticle from Isaiah 12, the prophet tells us to sing God’s praises because he has triumphed gloriously over the forces that have corrupted and harmed God’s people. When OT prophets spoke of salvation, they typically meant being rescued from the forces that made this mortal life an awful experience, things like famine and foreign invaders. Because God has rescued his people from the powers of Evil, they could now enjoy God’s presence among them once again. After all, the dark powers had no shot at harming God’s people as long as God remained with them.
Even in our gospel, Christ speaks a reassuring word to us. You will be persecuted but hang on. Persevere and you will reap the reward of eternal salvation. For his immediate followers, Jesus also reminded them that even when they were arrested, he would be with them in the power of the Spirit to guide their speaking and testimony about him so that his Name would become known and honored throughout the world (think the promise and blessing of Abraham). There is an awesome mystery in all this. We aren’t told how it all works and often we can’t see that it does. Despite this, Scripture urges us to be content to mind our own business and trust that God is good to his word and promises to us. In short, we are called to be humble and trust God’s wisdom and power.
But how has God defeated the powers? And what about human sin and the death it causes? While none of our lessons address these questions directly, the NT certainly does. Its writers all proclaim that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the powers of Evil and Sin were defeated on the cross and the ultimate evil of Death was dealt with in Christ’s resurrection. The first witnesses to Christ all proclaimed that somehow and in some way God dealt with and defeated Evil and Sin in and through the death of his Son. St. Paul proclaims this boldly in his letter to the Colossians. Hear him now:
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15, NLT).
Elsewhere, St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere (Ephesians 6.10-18, NLT).
We want to shake our heads in disbelief and say to St. Paul, “Are you out of your blooming mind? Has Father Bowser finally gotten to you? Look around you! Nothing’s changed! In fact, things seem to be getting worse by the day!” But here’s what we need to remember. St. Paul wrote these letters while languishing in a prison for Christ’s sake! He knew the power of evil first hand. He knew the world hadn’t suddenly become an idyllic place to live! Yet St. Paul knew that what he wrote was true because he had seen and experienced the risen Christ. When God raised Christ from the dead, everything changed for St. Paul and the rest of the NT writers, not to mention the early Church. To be sure, the victory has not been consummated nor has Death been defeated as St. Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 15.50-57, but that’s only because our Lord Jesus has not returned to finish his saving work and consummate his victory over all that oppose God. Again, St. Paul knew this promise to be true because Christ is raised from the dead and rules over all creation as well as in heaven until the mysterious plan of God calls for the end of all that ruins and corrupts. This obviously takes faith on our part because we are regularly subjected to Evil and Sin, often of our own making. But if you believe Christ is raised from the dead, then you too must believe that God has won the victory and accomplished for us that which you and I cannot accomplish for ourselves: the defeat of Evil and the end of our slavery to the power of Sin and the Death sin causes. Do you believe this? If you do, then you have at your disposal the weapons to engage in the mop-up battle in this mortal life, enigmatic as life can be at times, i.e., you have the full Armor of God: prayer, God’s righteousness, the power of the gospel, and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to make Christ available to you, among others. This is not a conventional war, my beloved, nor are we called to be the principal combatants. God has already fought the war on our behalf and won it. When the resurrection comes in full, justice and goodness will be fully restored. What we are called to do in the interim is to live faithfully and in ways that proclaim we believe Christ’s victory is ours (think baptism for starters).
Like the monumental battle of D-Day signaled the inevitable defeat of the Nazis in Europe during WWII, so Christ’s cross signals the inevitable defeat of all the forces that hate us and want to destroy us. This victory is for the entire people of God, the Church; it is not simply an issue of “me and my salvation.” As St. Paul makes clear in Ephesians 3.6-11, those who follow Christ are promised a share in his rule and that means the Church, not just a motley crew of individuals, and that means together we are called to live in certain ways that are befitting of God’s new world. In other words, we are to live in ways that proclaim we really do believe the battle is won on our behalf. We are to persevere. We are to let love and charity guide our behavior toward each other. We are to care for one another and put up with each other’s respective idiosyncrasies, even to the EGRs among us—extra grace required folks (you know who you are). In our epistle lesson this morning, St. Paul has some harsh things to say about loafers. But we miss the point if we focus on this. What the apostle is telling us is this. You have to care for each other and when you don’t do your fair share, you proclaim by your actions that you matter more than your brothers and sisters in Christ do and that dog won’t hunt in God’s new world. So instead of using food, let me use the examples of time and money. It is a well known phenomenon that about 20 percent of parishioners do all the work. For the 80 percent who let them do that, what are you proclaiming to the ones who do the work? Do you mean to tell them that your time and energy are more important than theirs or that your other commitments are more pressing than theirs? Is this how rulers in God’s new world will rule? Christ didn’t think so because he told us that rulers who follow him will act like slaves and serve, instead of being served as the world’s rulers are (Mark 10.35-45). When you let others do the work or give of their money to fill in your parsimony, this is the message you proclaim to them and the world, and Christ’s name is dishonored, just like when those who do the work get all haughty and self-righteous with those who fail to pitch in and help and/or give of their resources.
So part of living as beneficiaries of Christ’s victory is to show our awareness that we are part of his body and we are part of that body because of his great love for us, not that we deserve his grace and gifts. Another part of being members of Christ’s body is to live with hope and to persevere, to endure. St. Paul is telling us, among other things, that we are not to get tired of doing what is right. It is very easy to become tired when we see, all around, people who are living in a different way, including some of our own number stepping out of line. But the dance of new creation must go on (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.58). St. Paul can say this because he knew God had won the victory for him and us, undeserving as he was and we are to receive it. Let us therefore live like resurrection peeps and proclaim to each other and the world that unlikely as it seems, God has won the victory for us. How do we know this? Because Christ is raised from the dead, thanks be to God, and this is what we proclaim as we persevere in our humble and righteous words and deeds! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.