More Than We Can Hope For or Imagine

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 2C, Sunday, January 16, 2022 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 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; St. John 2.1-11.

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

What are we to make of that strange but compelling story about Christ changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana? What might we learn from it as Christians who seek to be faithful disciples of our Lord in a world going increasingly mad? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We come to our gospel lesson by way of our OT lesson. In it we note the desperation in the prophet’s voice as he resolves to give God no rest until God makes good on his promise to restore his people. In last week’s OT lesson—which Tucker ignored because he’s a Loser and likes to make my preaching job more difficult, but I digress—God himself had promised to end his people’s exile in Babylon and restore them to the promised land (Is 43.1-7). Now here we are, several chapters later in Isaiah, and God had apparently not fulfilled his promise to Israel to end their exile. And we all get what this is about because we too are waiting for God to consummate his promises to us in Jesus Christ. Simply put, between the pandemic, the strident language coming from our leaders, and the ever-increasing division, rancor, and lawlessness in this nation, we are flat worn out. Now depending on how we view God—whether we think God is fundamentally for or against us—this waiting can cause us to lose hope and/or stop believing that the promises of God to liberate us and his good creation from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death are true. Neither is a good choice for us as Christians because then we are effectively calling God a liar. Others of us want to roll up our sleeves and work harder to bring in the Kingdom on earth as in heaven to get things moving in the right direction. Notice carefully that Isaiah did none of these things. Instead, he resolved to persevere in prayer like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable (Lk 18.1-8).

Why am I spending time with this? Because if we lose hope or stop believing the promises of God or attempt to take matters into our own hands, we will eventually be defeated by the dark powers and/or our own fallen nature. If in the end we do not have a vision of God’s new heavens and earth that is robust enough and extravagant enough to help motivate us to keep our eyes on the prize, our faith will always be in danger of being broken by the next setback or catastrophe that strikes us or the world in which we live. And we all get why this is a problem. Think about that prize in your life on which you set your sights, be it work or school or athletics or love or fame or whatever. It was/is big enough and compelling enough for you to do whatever you had/have to do to achieve it. You probably were/are wiling to endure any setback, persevere against all odds, and sacrifice mightily to achieve your prized goal. We need to strive likewise in our faith journey to help keep it strong and vibrant. As our Lord Jesus was fond of reminding us in many of his parables, if we are content to pursue the lesser things of life, how much more should we pursue the greater things of life, like eternal life in God’s new creation? 

And now we are ready to turn to our gospel lesson today because it is the prize on which every Christian should set his/her sights, a foretaste of what is in store for us as God’s beloved and redeemed children in Christ. Before we begin, I want to clarify that when I just talked about pursuing a prized goal, I was certainly not suggesting that we are responsible for our salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth as we saw last week when we looked at the grace of baptism. Salvation comes solely from the Lord, but it does require a response—after all, faith is more than a set of convictions, it demands a response—and if we stop believing the promises of salvation in Jesus Christ, we no longer have the ultimate prize to look forward to because without Christ we are no longer God’s redeemed children. 

In our gospel lesson, then, we see the first of seven “signs” in St. John’s gospel, seven being the biblical number for completeness. Signs in St. John’s gospel refer to Jesus’ miracles, but they are not just supernatural acts. They are significant acts that point us to something greater. Here we see the astonishing extravagance of God manifested in Christ at this wedding in Cana. The wine has run out, a social catastrophe that could have serious legal consequences for the host, and the mother of our Lord asks him to rectify the situation. Please observe carefully that nothing happened until the servants obeyed Mary’s command to, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). Remember that. At first our Lord apparently rebuffs his mother’s request (more about that later), but ultimately he delivers a whopper, producing the equivalent of 600-900 bottles of the finest wine! 

So what is St. John trying to tell us? Among the many things we could talk about, first we note the theme of the wedding/marriage covenant, a biblical theme that denotes the gracious call of God to his people Israel in the OT and ultimately to all people in and through Jesus Christ. Of course this covenant also describes the intimate relationship between God and his people, a relationship broken by Israel’s sins and ours. No relationship in all creation is more intimate than the relationship between a husband and wife at its best. It is the restoration of this relationship that the prophet sees as the fulfillment of God’s promises for his people in our OT lesson (Isaiah 62.4-5). What could be better news for hurting and broken people who are alienated from God and each other, then and now, than to hear that God loves us as his spouse despite our infidelity? In this wedding/marriage theme we find security, belonging, protection, forgiveness, and healing, among others. And we are encouraged to embrace the love of God for us made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ and to be made new again in our relationship with Christ in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, the wedding feast is an integral part of a wedding where we celebrate the newly-formed union of husband and wife because weddings are meant to be public affairs. Scripture celebrates likewise with its various images of the wedding feast or Messianic banquet where God’s people will celebrate their union with their rescuer and savior, the Messiah, whom Christians know to be Jesus of Nazareth. This theme is by no means an exclusive NT theme. Listen to this description of God’s great future banquet from an earlier chapter of Isaiah, a passage that is frequently read at funerals:

In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken! In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us! This is the Lord, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25.6-9, NLT)

We note here the extravagance of God’s grace and generous heart on display like it was when Jesus turned the water into wine. People of the world will gather at God’s banquet to celebrate their liberation from all the darkness of this world and to feast on the finest, well-aged wine and choicest meat, symbols of God’s good creation. None of us deserve an invitation but God invites us anyway. And those who have the good sense to accept the invitation will celebrate the end of their exile and enjoy no second-rate food and drink—we are not talking metaphor here—but the finest food and drink from God’s storehouse of grace. St. John is pointing us to the same promise in our gospel lesson this morning, thus he calls Jesus’ action a “sign.” As the psalmist proclaimed in our lesson, God gives us drink from the river of his delights (Ps 36.8)!

Second, we note that in providing this finest wine Jesus tacitly approves things that make life meaningful and pleasant: relationships, sexual fidelity in the context of marriage, community, hospitality, meals, family, and celebration, to name a few. Contra to those who look for every reason to make our relationship with Christ a lifeless, dour, and grim experience, our Lord will have none of that nonsense in this story. When we are redeemed and healed by Christ, we have no reason to be dour and stingy. Christ gives our mortal life meaning and purpose, even as we live in the darkness of a fallen world and our sinful desires. When we love each other and work at developing healthy and wholesome relationships with all kinds of people, especially the people of God, the promise of this story is that we will find abundance and delight in doing so because we obey Christ. Engaging in the above activities is part of living the abundant life our Lord told us he came to bring (Jn 10.10). Nothing else will do it for us. No one other than Christ can give us the joy of love and the delight found in giving generously of our time, talents, and resources for the sake of others. To be sure, there is plenty in this world to make us sad and beat us down. But the hope and promise of having a real and lively relationship with our risen Lord can overcome the darkest darkness because it reminds us that life, wholeness, health, goodness, and abundance are the reality, not scarcity, sickness, alienation, hurt, or death, thanks be to God! Can I hear an Amen??

Last, the foretaste of the Messianic banquet that will be ongoing in God’s new creation reminds us to keep our eyes on Jesus the prize because the ordinary things of this life will be transformed when he returns and made more beautiful and abundant than we can ever imagine, just like the new wine Jesus made. Think about the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen—husbands, this is a good time to turn to your wife and tell her she is that most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, it’s a good old-creation, anti-doghouse practice—and then try to imagine things more beautiful and abundant than that, i.e., try to imagine the unimaginable. This will give you a clue as to what awaits us in God’s new heavens and earth. I don’t know all that that entails, but I do know that our resurrected bodies will be inexpressively beautiful and without defect or sickness or any kind of malady. We will drink the finest wines without becoming intoxicated and we won’t desire to become intoxicated because we will be enjoying unbroken communion and fellowship with God the Father and the Lamb. There won’t be an addictive or lonely bone in our new body. The intimacy we enjoy only partly now, we will enjoy in full then. We won’t worry about being unloved or abandoned by God or others because we will be living in the light of God’s presence and the Lamb’s forever! I’m sure my puny imagination does not do justice to God’s new heavens and earth in trying to describe our future life. But one thing is certain, we get a glimpse and foretaste of the extravagant love and generosity of God in this first sign at Cana. 

Our future, of course, is made possible by the final sign in St. John’s gospel. Spectacular as this first sign is, the most powerful sign of Jesus is his death and resurrection, where the dark powers are broken and our slavery to Sin with its attendant sickness and alienation are forever destroyed. When Jesus told his mother that his hour had not yet come, he wasn’t pointing to his death, but later in the gospel this was the hour about which he consistently spoke, the hour that couldn’t happen before its time. Without Christ and his sacrificial death and resurrection, we have no future on which to keep our eyes focused because we would still be living in our sin and death would therefore remain unconquered (it’s no coincidence that St. John tells us this creation of new wine happened on the third day). Without Christ’s death and resurrection we would have no motivation to live in the manner he calls us to live. Thankfully, because of God’s extravagant love for us, we do have a real future and hope to sustain us in the midst of our darkness and sorrow (cf. Jeremiah 29.11). When we obey Christ, we allow ourselves to live life and live it in the abundance of God’s extravagant love and grace first revealed by our Lord at Cana. 

So what’s this all mean for us at St. Auggie’s? First, as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we are to celebrate in ongoing and diverse ways the gifts of healing, wholeness, and life given us by God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no reason for any Christian to live a joyless life, even in the midst of sorrow. Having a joy that is not contingent on the circumstances of life will go a long way in helping us deal with our sorrows when they come. 

Second, we get a taste of the future real deal (new creation) each week when we come to the Table and feast on our Lord. That’s why we serve you fine port wine and bread. It mirrors imperfectly Christ’s banquet in the new creation where bitterness is no more. When you take in Jesus at the eucharist, he should be sweet to your palate and leave you wanting more because of Who he is and what he has done for you. And here’s a little self-check to help you assess your hope in Christ: As you return from the Lord’s Table and/or when you leave worship, would people mistake you for wedding guests or party goers? If not, I challenge you to examine your new creation theology because chances are it is lacking in significant ways. 

Last, it means we are to take our relationship with each other seriously and celebrate those relationships, along with our relationship with God, whenever we can. How we treat each other as family members matters to our Lord and it should matter to us. Next Sunday we take partial possession of our new parish home and we need to make it a sign and foretaste of the extravagant abundance of God’s promised new world. There is no better way to do this than by using our new home as a base of operation for us as God’s people in Christ to shine the light of his abundant love and goodness on the community around us by living and proclaiming our new creation promise in our worship, our fellowship, and our service to Christ and his world. 

Let us therefore continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come in full on earth as it is in heaven and for Christ to give us the grace to be obedient to him so that we will never turn his extravagant wine into water on our watch. After all, the only reason we have to celebrate is God’s extravagant and gracious love for us made known supremely in Christ and him crucified. And that, my beloved, is Good News, extravagantly so, now and for all eternity. So go celebrate and make others wonder what is your secret so you can explain it to them. Maybe even invite them to have a glass of the finest wine with you at the wedding feast of which you are a part so that they too can experience the new eschatological joy you do. In doing so you will also find it to be the needed balm for your soul to help you transcend the death-dealing and soul-destroying business as usual of this world as well as this wicked pandemic that wears us all out. Keep your eyes on the prize who is Jesus and dare to imagine the unimaginable world he promises to usher in, God’s new world that defies and transcends our deepest longings. To Christ be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Chaplain Tucker Messamore: Jesus’ Baptism (And Ours)

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1C, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 9, 2022 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: Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; St. Luke 3.15-17, 21-22.

Let the words of my mouth & the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock our redeemer. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have to begin this morning with a confession: I have always found the baptism of Jesus to be a bit perplexing. This is probably not something I should admit as I’m opening up a sermon about Christ’s baptism, but it’s the truth. It’s always been puzzling to me. I am sure you can all see the look of panic in Fr. Kevin’s eyes as he’s perhaps beginning to regret giving me the task of preaching on this text.

In my defense, Father, I think I am in good company. I’m not the only one who has struggled to understand why Jesus would be baptized. Even John the Baptist, the very man who presided over Jesus’ baptism, could not make sense of it. In St. Matthew’s account of this event, we’re told that when “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him, John would have prevented him” (Matthew 3:14). John made his objection known: He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14b).

It’s understandable that John would be confused. After all, John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, a call for people to turn from their sinful ways. At the beginning of Luke 3, we’re told that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). People from all over Judea came to be baptized by John, and he exhorted them, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). In Matthew 3:2, John’s message is summarized like this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

This presents a problem: if Jesus is who the Church confesses Him to be—the sinless Son of God—why would He need to participate in a baptism of repentance? He did nothing of which he should repent. He had no sins to confess. And yet, Jesus insisted that John must baptize Him, saying, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Somehow, in some way, baptism was an integral part of Jesus’ mission.

So what do we make of Jesus’ baptism? How are we to understand it, and what does it mean for us as believers today? This morning, as we examine St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, I hope that we will see two related truths: First, that in His baptism, Jesus identifies with us. And second, that in baptism, we are identified with Jesus.

Let’s start with the first of those statements: in His baptism, Jesus identifies with us. More specifically, we could say Jesus identifies with sinful humanity.

To begin to unravel the mystery of Jesus’ baptism, we should take note of a detail that is easy to overlook: the location of His baptism. Luke 3:3 tells us that John “went into tall the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance of forgiveness of sins.” For John, the Jordan River was more than just a water source. Pools for used for ritual cleansing were readily available in the city of Jerusalem, but John chose to operate in a remote place. It would seem that John was intentional in choosing this location for his ministry. The Jordan River was the boundary that God’s people had crossed to enter the land of Canaan, the land that He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It’s near the banks of the Jordan that an important event takes place, an event that is recorded in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. God’s people were encamped on the Eastern side of the Jordan River, and at long last, after many years of wandering in the wilderness, they were about to cross over into the Promised Land. But before they did, Moses reminded Israel of the Law God had given them after He delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. Moses urges them to obey God’s commands once they enter the Promised Land. “When you cross the Jordan to go in to occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and when you occupy it and live in it, you must diligently observe all the statutes and ordinances that I am setting before you today” (Deut. 11:31-32).

Moses repeatedly warns the people that he is setting before them a blessing and a curse, good and evil, life and death. If they lived according to God’s Law, they would experience God’s blessings, but if they chose disobedience, they would reap disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, despite these warnings, soon after they take possession of Canaan, God’s people defy Him. They worship false gods and adopt the pagan practices of their neighbors. 

In a heartbreaking passage from Hosea 11, God recounts the tragic choices of His beloved people: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). God had graciously freed His people from slavery in Egypt. He had lovingly guided them through the wilderness. He provided them with everything they needed and instructed them about how life works best. Yet sadly, like a rebellious child, the people of Israel spurned the loving guidance of their Father and chose to go their own way: “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:2). 

As a result of their unfaithfulness, the people of Israel experienced all of the curses that Moses predicted: famines, plagues, attacks from their enemies, and ultimately, exile from the land. These consequences reverberated into the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. Even though some of God’s people had been able to return to Judea, they were still under the rule of a foreign power.

With all this in mind, it is no accident that John calls people to a baptism of repentance on the Eastern shore of the Jordan River, the very place where Moses had called Israel to keep God’s Law in the land. Theologian Scott McKnight explains this well: “John is saying that if Israel wants to enjoy the blessings of God, they need to go back to the Jordan and begin again . . . John’s prophetic drama is a reenactment of the entry into the Land.” (Scott McKnight, The Jesus Creed, 67).

But John’s ministry was ultimately about more than just pointing people to repentance. It was about pointing them to a Rescuer. It would not be enough for God’s people to resolve themselves to live according to God’s ways. They had made this commitment many times before and failed to live up to it. And this is where Jesus shows up, the one that John said would come after him would be greater than him (v. 16).

It’s here that we should pay attention to another detail from Luke’s account: the words God the Father speaks to Jesus after His baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). We just saw that God referred to Israel in the same way—as His son—in Hosea 11:1. Interestingly, St. Matthew quotes this same verse in His gospel and tells us it applies to Jesus. After the visit from the wise men, Jesus and His family flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s schemes, and St. Matthew tells us that these things took place “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” (Matthew 2:15).

The writers of the New Testament are endeavoring to show us that Jesus is the True Israel, that is, that Jesus came to what the people of Israel could not do themselves. We see Jesus as the New Israel right after His baptism when he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. While the people of Israel grumbled and rebelled against God during their wilderness wonderings, when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He resists the devil and remains perfectly obedient to the will of His Father.

If we put all these pieces together, we get an idea of what was happening at Jesus’ baptism. Why would Jesus participate in a baptism of repentance if he has no sin of His own? Jesus is standing in for His people Israel—and not just for ethnic Israel, but for all sinners, ourselves included. In His baptism, Jesus is acting as our representative, our substitute, by doing what Israel did not do and what we can’t do: perfectly repenting—not of His own sins, but of ours—and completely submitting to God’s will. N.T. Wright explains that this is how Jesus ushers in God’s kingdom on earth: “By humbly identifying Himself with God’s people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life, and ultimately dying their death” (Wright, Advent for Everyone: Matthew, 38). Jesus lived perfectly, died, and rose again so that anyone who is united with Him can experience all the benefits of His perfect obedience and His saving work.

This brings us to our second truth: in baptism, we are identified with Christ. It’s only those who are united to Christ who can experience the blessings He has secured through His life, death, and resurrection. In Romans 6:3, St. Paul teaches that baptism is the means by which, through faith, we are united with Christ. He says that those who are baptized “have been baptized into Christ Jesus.” He goes on to say, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). 

In baptism, as Scott McKnight explains, “the grace of God [is] set loose in the life of the baptized” (McKnight, It Takes a Church to Baptize, 51). Christ’s saving work is personally applied to us. In baptism, both a drowning and a cleansing take place. We die to our sinful nature, which is buried with Christ, and we are also washed clean of our guilt and sin and are raised to walk in new life in Christ.

These are not the only blessings God offers us through baptism. In our gospel reading, John teaches that Jesus, the one who would come after him, would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (v. 16). Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism, so Scripture connects our baptism with the indwelling of the God’s Spirit. In Acts 2:38, St. Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit enables us to do what we cannot do on our own: to say no to sin and to walk according to God’s ways (Phil 2;13, Ez. 36:27).

Finally, remember how God the Father says after Jesus is baptized? “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 22). Scripture tells us that this blessing is ours as well. Romans 8:14 says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” In baptism, God claims us as His own. We are adopted into His family, and we have a glorious inheritance awaiting us—not the Promised Land, but the new heavens and a new earth, a place where we’ll be free from sin, death, evil, pain, and suffering once and for all (c.f. Rev. 21:4). These are the blessings that are ours in Christ, blessings that God extends to us in baptism.

This morning, as I close, I want to leave us with an often repeated but ever important admonition: remember your baptism.

If you had given this advice as a young Christian growing up in Baptist church, it would have been just as perplexing to me as Jesus’ baptism was. But this is exactly the advice I needed in moments when I questioned, “Did I really understand what I was doing when I prayed for Jesus to save me? Was I sincere in my commitment to Christ?”

Remembering your baptism points you away from yourself and what you have done and points you to Jesus, and what He has done for you. As one theologian explains, “In times of doubt, fear, and even despair, those who worry about God’s love for them, and those who question their salvation or their participation in Christ, should not look inward where they will probably find even more reasons to doubt their salvation. Rather, they must look outside themselves . . . Christians in need of assurance should understand that their salvation is an objective fact, sealed in an event in space and time, as tangible as water . . . Instead of building our hope on the shifting sands of our own works or inner lives, we can have confidence that what Christ did for us is a fact” (Gene Veith, Jr., The Spirituality of the Cross, 59, 43-44).

So, if you begin to doubt God’s love for you, remember your baptism. Remember that God has claimed you as His own. When Satan tempts you to despair over your sin, remember your baptism. Remember that your sin has been nailed to the cross and that you have been washed clean by the blood of Christ. When your body is plagued by sickness and disease, when you grow weary amidst the pain and suffering of this world, remember your baptism. Remember that God has given you His Spirit to guide you, and look with hope to the glorious inheritance that awaits you.

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

The “Epiphany Proclamation” for 2022

In the days when few people had calendars, it was customary at the Liturgy on Epiphany to proclaim the date of Easter for the coming year, along with other major feasts that hinge on the date of Easter. We honor that custom here at St. Augustine’s.

“Dear brothers and sisters, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return.

“Let us recall the year’s central feast, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: His last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising, celebrated between the evening of the 14th day of April and the evening of the 16th day of April, Easter Sunday being on the 17th day of April. Each Easter—as on each Sunday—the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has forever conquered sin and death.

“From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the 2nd day of March. Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the 5th day of June. And this year the First Sunday of Advent will be on the 27th day of November.

“To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, forever and ever. Amen.”

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2022 (3)

Christ is God, for he has given all things their being out of nothing. Yet he is born as one of us by taking to himself our nature, flesh-endowed with intelligent spirit. A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and the Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses, and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.

For surely the word of the Law and the Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate.

The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery for ever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature entirely human without lacking either nature, neither the divine by which he is God nor the human by which he became one of us? Faith alone grasps these mysteries.

—Maximus the Confessor, Five Hundred Chapters 1, 8-13

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2022 (2)

Matthew 2:1-12

Let us now observe how glorious was the dignity that attended the King after his birth, after the magi in their journey remained obedient to the star. For immediately the magi fell to their knees and adored the one born as Lord. There in his very cradle they venerated him with offerings of gifts, though Jesus was merely a whimpering infant. They perceived one thing with the eyes of their bodies but another with the eyes of the mind. The lowliness of the body he assumed was discerned, but the glory of his divinity was now made manifest. A boy he is, but it is God who is adored. How inexpressible is the mystery of this divine honor! The invisible and eternal nature did not hesitate to take on the weaknesses of the flesh on our behalf. The Son of God, who is God of the universe, is born a human being in the flesh. He permits himself to be placed in a manger, and the heavens are within the manger. He is kept in a cradle, a cradle the world cannot hold. He is heard in the voice of a crying infant. This is the same one for whose voice the whole world would tremble in the hour of his passion. Thus he is the One, the God of glory and the Lord of majesty, whom as a tiny infant the magi would recognize. It is he who while a child was truly God and King eternal. To him Isaiah pointed, saying, “For a boy has been born to you; a son has been given to you, a son whose empire has been forged on his shoulders (Isaiah 9:6).

—Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 5.1

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2022

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

—Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

In this way marvel was linked to marvel: the magi were worshiping, the star was going before them. All this is enough to captivate a heart made of stone. If it had been only the wise men or only the prophets or only the angels who had said these things, they might have been disbelieved. But now with all this confluence of varied evidence, even the most skeptical mouths are stopped.

Moreover, the star, when it stood over the child, held still. This itself demonstrates a power greater than any star: first to hide itself, then to appear, then to stand still. From this all who beheld were encouraged to believe. This is why the magi rejoiced. They found what they were seeking. They had proved to be messengers of truth. Their long journey was not without fruit. Their longing for the Anointed One was fulfilled. He who was born was divine. They recognized this in their worship.

—Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 7.4

Father Philip Sang: Arise and Shine the Light of Christ

Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Epiphany (transferred), Sunday, January 2, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Sang gets all whiny when we ask for a written manuscript. Nobody’s got time for a whiny priest, especially to start the new year, so click here to listen to the audio podcast of his sermon.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; St. Matthew 2.1-12.

Christmas 2021: St. John Chrysostom: The First Extant Christmas Sermon

Whether the first sermon preached, it is the first extant Christmas sermon we have. Preached in Antioch in 386 AD, the year St. Augustine of Hippo converted to Christianity, and recited to St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH on Christmas 1C, Sunday, December 26, 2021. Enjoy.

Notice the theological richness and depth of this sermon. It is clear that the early Church had done a tremendous amount of theological reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation and the nature and person of Jesus Christ.

From the The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

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 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.

Source: http://antiochian.org/node/21955

Why “Rejoice and be Merry” at Christmas?

Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Isaiah 11; Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14.

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

Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! During this past Advent season we encouraged you to look into the darkness of this world and your lives with the eyes of faith. We preached on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, and also invited you to meditate on these things with faith in the goodness of God’s justice and power to act on our behalf. Tonight we begin the great Christmas celebration. But why do we celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent? Why “rejoice and be merry”? This is what I want us to look at this evening.

We celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent because Christmas announces definitively what the prophets proclaimed long ago: That God would come into the world to rescue all creation from the Curse, and us from his terrible but just judgment on our sins, that although we all must endure death and stand before the judgment seat of Christ because of our sins, eternal separation from God the Father, i.e. Hell, is no longer our destination because we are covered by the Blood of the Lamb shed for us. Christmas announces in no uncertain terms what Isaiah and the writer of Hebrews proclaim in our OT and epistle lessons tonight: God’s salvation has begun in the birth of our Savior. This is God’s light and power shining in the darkness of our lives, not human power that inevitably must fail. This is God coming to rescue us from Death, Judgment, and Hell so that we can live with him forever in heaven, the promised new creation. Christmas announces that creation matters to God our Creator, that humans are supremely important to God because God became human to rescue us from all that seeks to destroy us. Christmas begins to reveal in ways the OT prophets could not the character and heart of God the Father because God chose to reveal himself to us in ways our puny and fallible minds could finally understand so that we could begin to obey him and love him in ways we simply couldn’t before Christ was born. This too is the light shining in the darkness as St. John announces in his gospel, and try as the dark powers will to snuff out Christ’s light, they will fail utterly because nothing is more powerful than the power of God.

But the birth of Christ this night at Bethlehem is not what we really celebrate, lovely and sentimental as we have made it. No, Christmas points us inevitably to Good Friday and Easter, because on Calvary Evil was defeated and our sins dealt with forever, and the empty tomb proclaims that Death is shattered, one day to be abolished permanently when our Lord Jesus returns to finish his saving work. This is the light shining in the darkness, the power of God at work, but in ways we never expected or even wanted. Being the proud, fallen creatures we are, we would have preferred that God left us alone so that we could fix ourselves. But since we know in our heart of hearts that is not possible, we instead preferred God to defeat our enemies in ways we are used to, with shock and awe (while sparing us in the process, of course). But this is not God’s way of salvation because to save us by shock and awe would be to participate in evil itself by imitating its ways. Christmas announces that our God has indeed come to bare his mighty arm so that all the nations will see God’s salvation. But because it is God and because of the Father’s eternal love for us, God chose to defeat Sin, Death, and Evil without using the weapons preferred by the world and the dark powers and principalities. Instead, God chose to take on our flesh and die a most foul and shameful death so as to condemn our sin in the flesh without having to condemn us. God continually surprises by giving us so much more than we can ask or desire. Why should we not rejoice and be merry, even in the face of darkness?

This requires faith, of course, but not a blind faith. It requires a faith that is informed by the overarching story of God’s rescue plan, a plan announced when God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people to bring God’s healing to the world, and ultimately in the coming of God himself as a human being to seal the deal. And because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead we have no good reason to doubt God’s narrative contained in Scripture and proclaimed by Christ’s body the Church. God’s rescue is not yet consummated but it is complete because it is God himself who is the chief actor and agent of salvation. This is why we light candles and sing God’s praises. This is why a weary world rejoices and can find merriment in the midst of desolation. God himself has announced his mighty rescue by becoming a baby born of a Virgin in fulfillment of ancient prophecy that God is with us, Emmanuel, in any and every circumstance of this mortal life, especially in the darkness of our lives.

In this dark age heightened by fear and uncertainty due to COVID, increased strife, crime, inflation and other economic woes, we need to pause and set our minds on the light, on things that matter most. Of course our problems are concerning as are the various sicknesses, isolation, alienation, and other problems we all face. But Christmas announces that the darkness does not have the final say. We remember the promises of God we looked at during Advent, that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and destroy Death forever, that God will end all strife and alienation and every form of evil forever. None of this would be possible had God not chosen to insert himself into our history as a human being to deal with the darkness on his own terms. We look forward to the new heavens and earth but we also celebrate tonight that we have been given a preview of heaven touching earth. Jesus Christ was born to die for us so that we no longer have to fear Death and Judgment and Hell. God has declared in his actions that he loves us despite the fact that we are essentially unlovable because of our sin-sickness and ongoing rebellion against God. Christmas proclaims that we no longer have to be afraid despite the darkness that swirls around and in us. In Christ, God has conquered the darkness for us so that we have a legitimate chance to live in God’s light, now in this mortal life and in the age to come when we will enjoy unimaginably sweet and ecstatic fellowship with God by being granted the privilege of living in God’s direct presence forever. Christmas invites us anew to remember our baptismal vows and put on our Lord Jesus Christ, i.e., to imitate Christ in all our thinking, speaking, and doing, shedding our own filthy rags in the process because we come to realize those rags lead us to poverty, sickness, alienation, loneliness, death, and judgment. Christmas invites us to walk with the risen Christ all our days and in doing so to find joy and purpose and meaning that are based not on the circumstances and chances of life but on the tender love of God the Father for us. We believe all this because we believe Christ really is risen from the dead and therefore we also believe he is busy putting his fallen world and creatures to rights, even as he is available to each of us in the power of the Spirit, just as the NT promises.

In practical terms, then, how might we live in the light of Christ so that the darkness does not overcome it? As we have seen, to learn to live in the light of Christ we must first and most importantly learn to recognize its (or more precisely his) presence and power in our life. We learn this chiefly by engaging the Scriptures regularly, studying them and listening to faithful preaching, regular worship, and partaking in the sacraments of the Church, especially holy Eucharist. When we do these things regularly and intentionally we are trained by the Spirit to recognize, for example, that Christ was born even as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Herod, sought to exterminate his life almost immediately after he was born but failed. Children tragically were slaughtered but the evil of this world did not end Christ’s life before its time and so the world had a chance to live. The darkness could not overcome the light because God the Father is in charge. This in turn helps us deal with the darkness in our lives equipped with the eyes and heart and mind of faith that have been trained for spiritual warfare that inevitably is waged against us. Without a firm conviction that Christ’s light and power shines brightly in his world to heal and rescue it (and us) from the iron grip of Sin, Evil, and Death, we will never be able to imitate him on a regular and ongoing basis because we will lose heart and hope. 

But when we are equipped with a life-changing faith that is centered on Christ we are able to imitate his light. Every time we refuse to submit to the zeitgeist and disordered values of this age that dehumanize and destroy people’s lives in the name of “liberty” or identity, Christ’s light shines through us, even when we are called haters and bigots (how wanting people to give themselves to God’s order, i.e., to the light of Christ, is hatred while insisting that we follow our own disordered desires to our eternal destruction is never explained to us; funny how the darkness sometimes works). Every time we choose to forgive rather than retaliate when we are wronged or spoken about harshly or unfairly, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we are willing to forgive ourselves, refusing the darkness’s invitation and our own fallen inclination to self-condemn, instead repenting and going forward convinced that Christ still loves us no matter how egregious our sin or failure [insert the sin over which you most despair here], Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we continue to confess Christ as our Lord and remain convinced that he still is in charge, no matter how great the darkness that swirls in and around us, Christ light shines through us. Every time we seek to imitate God’s generous heart and share ourselves, our time, and our resources with those in need or who suffer for various reasons, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we talk to others about our faith in Christ and how it makes a difference for us, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we grieve as people with hope rather than in hopelessness, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we choose to love instead of hate, to be selfless rather than selfish, to seek to honor Christ in all we do, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we love each other as a real and true parish family despite our mutual annoyances and fallibilities—things that have the ability to separate and alienate and destroy relationships—Christ’s light shines through us and the darkness that inevitably arises to crush us will never succeed. We may lose our life for the sake of Christ but even then we gain it, and eternally. None of this is for the faint of heart, but it is for those of us who realize that without Christ’s light we are dead men and women walking and we are therefore willing to give ourselves and way of living to Christ.

This is why we celebrate Christmas and can rejoice and be merry. God became human to die for us. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of St. Paul’s bold and astonishing claim in Romans 11.32 that, “God imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone”! If that is not worthy of our highest praise and thanksgiving, not to mention our best celebration, I don’t know what is. This is the light of Christ shining in our darkness, healing us and promising to make all things new and right, ambiguous and mysterious and messy as it looks in this mortal life, but ours fully, clearly, and unambiguously in the age to come. It is the only light that can truly heal and satisfy. Nothing else can, not our bright lights or money or gift-giving or parties or power or toys. Only the light of Christ can truly save us from the darkness of this world and give us real purpose for living. Let us therefore resolve to rejoice tonight in the midst of our darkness, thanking God our Father for the great gift of himself so that we can be his forever. It is a precious and immeasurably valuable gift from our loving Creator and Father. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. May the light of Christ always shine brightly in our darkness. Merry Christmas, my beloved. 

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

Advent Antiphons—December 23, 2021

From The Book of Common Worship’s Times and Seasons (p.58).

These antiphons, or refrains, all beginning ‘O …’, were sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers, according to the Roman use, on the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (17–23 December). They are addressed to God, calling for him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a tapestry of scriptural titles and pictures that describe his saving work in Christ. In the medieval rite of Salisbury Cathedral that was widely followed in England before the Reformation, the antiphons began on 16 December and there was an additional antiphon (‘O Virgin of virgins’) on 23 December; this is reflected in the Calendar of The Book of Common Prayer, where 16 December is designated O Sapientia (O Wisdom). The Common Worship Calendar has adopted the more widely used form. It is not known when and by whom the antiphons were composed, but they were already in use by the eighth century.

23 December – O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

—cf Isaiah 7.14