Holy Week 2024: Saint John Chrysostom Reflects on the Power of the Cross

The cross used to denote punishment but it has now become a focus of glory. It was formerly a symbol of condemnation but it is now seen as a principle of salvation. For it has now become the source of innumerable blessings: it has delivered us from error, enlightened our darkness, and reconciled us to God; we had become God’s enemies and were foreigners afar off, and it has given us his friendship and brought us close to him. For us it has become the destruction of enmity, the token of peace, the treasury of a thousand blessings.

Thanks to the cross we are no longer wandering in the wilderness, because we know the right road; we are no longer outside the royal palace, because we have found the way in; we are not afraid of the devil’s fiery darts, because we have discovered the fountain. Thanks to the cross we are no longer in a state of widowhood, for we are reunited to the Bridegroom; we are not afraid of the wolf, because we have the good shepherd: “I am the good shepherd,” he said. Thanks to the cross we dread no usurper, since we are sitting beside the King. That is why we keep festival as we celebrate the memory of the cross.

…Now do you see why [Saint Paul] appoints a festival in honor of the cross? It is because Christ was immolated on the cross. And where he was sacrificed, there is found abolition of sins and reconciliation with the Lord; and there, too, festivity and happiness are found: “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed.”

Where was he sacrificed? On a gibbet. The altar of this sacrifice is a new one because the sacrifice himself is new and extraordinary. For he is at one and the same time both victim and priest; victim according to the flesh and priest according to the spirit.

This sacrifice was offered outside the camp to teach us that it is a universal sacrifice, for the offering was made for the whole world; and to teach us that it effected a general purification and not just that of the Jews. …For us [then], since Christ has now come and purified the whole world, every place has become an oratory.

Saint John Chrysostom, The Cross and the Thief

Palm Sunday 2024: From the Sermon Archives—Palm Sunday and Holy Week: God’s Word for the Weary

Sermon originally delivered on Passion (Palm) Sunday, April 9, 2017.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 21.1-11. Passion narrative: Matthew 26.14-27.66.

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

In our OT lesson this morning, the so-called Servant—widely held by Christians to be Jesus—desires to faithfully preach the word of God to sustain the weary. But what does that look like and what does it have to do with our celebration of Passion Sunday today? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

To help us understand what we’re dealing with, listen to this short list of news stories compiled from the past couple of days. Father Says Goodbye to His Baby Twins Killed in Syrian Attack. MIT Grad Arrested on Terror, WMD Charges. US Launches Missile Strikes on Syria Base Over Chemical Attack. 1 Dead, 2 Wounded After Shooting at Fitness Center in South Florida Mall. Terror in Stockholm: Four Dead as Hijacked Truck Plows Into Shoppers. Palm Sunday Bombings at Two Egyptian Churches kill at least 32. 11 Year-Old Boy Kills Himself in Response to Girlfriend’s Fake Suicide Prank on Social Media. I have to tell you. These stories and countless more like them make me weary. How about you? And they don’t even begin to address the things in our own lives that make us weary: life-threatening health issues with which we and/or our loved ones struggle, job and career struggles and uncertainties, chronic financial struggles that some of us face, fear of loneliness and broken relationships that don’t seem to get better. The list goes on and on. We see a world seemingly becoming more insane by the hour, not to mention parts of our lives that spin out of control with little or nothing we can do about it, and it makes us weary and afraid. When we get to this point in life—and all of us eventually do—we want to cry out to God for help. You’re all-powerful, God, so help us out here. Do something about the craziness in your world and in our lives and in ourselves!

Like us, God’s people Israel in Jesus’ day knew what it was like to be weary from evil and oppression and disorder in their lives. Their beloved land was occupied by hated foreigners. And while Solomon’s Temple, the very place where God chose to dwell with his people on earth, had been rebuilt, God had not returned to his people to live among them as promised. Neither had God’s promised Anointed One, God’s Messiah (or Christ) returned to lead God’s people. To top it all off, God’s people were assembling in Jerusalem for the great Passover festival that celebrated God’s mighty act of deliverance on behalf of his enslaved people in Egypt. Passover always raised people’s hopes and expectations that God would soon act on their behalf to expel the foreigners and restore right religious order in the land in preparation for God’s return to it.

St. Matthew wants us to see all this, of course, and like a good story teller, he lets the story itself convey his message. Jesus clearly saw himself as God’s Messiah, God’s anointed, who would lead God’s people and be their king. But not in the way the people expected. We see this in his choice to ride on a donkey and colt as he entered Jerusalem. As St. Matthew explains, this was to fulfill what the prophet Zechariah had written about how God’s promised Messiah would return to his people ahead of God’s return. In effect, God was promising his people that when his Messiah showed up, God wouldn’t be far behind, so it was time to get ready! And the people’s response clearly showed they understood the symbolism behind Jesus’s mode of entry into Jerusalem, or at least that he was proclaiming himself to be God’s Messiah. Their shouts of Hosanna to the Son of David (i.e., for the new king to save them from their occupiers), coupled with throwing their cloaks on the road and waving (presumably palm) branches, indicated that they understood something very special was happening. But did they really?

By choosing a donkey on which to enter Jerusalem instead of a warhorse, Jesus was proclaiming that he was not a Messiah who would be a conquering warrior. To be sure, Jesus did conquer Israel’s enemies that week, not to mention the world’s, but not in the way most of them or us expected. He conquered our enemies by shedding his blood for us in a way that helped fulfill the prophesy in our OT lesson this morning (cf. Isaiah 52.13-53.12). More about that in a moment. And while Jesus would clear the Temple later in the week, it was not for the reasons many of his contemporaries expected. As St. John makes clear in his gospel, this was the Word made flesh, God himself, returning to his people to announce that Jesus, instead of the Temple, would be the place to meet and know the One True and Living God. Astonishingly, God and Messiah were apparently one and the same! By his actions, Jesus was telling God’s people Israel that the Romans were not the real enemies. There were powers far more evil and sinister that had to be dealt with, and only he could do it because only he was God. Suffice it to say that this would not have been the word God’s weary people wanted to hear or what they were willing to believe. It would have violated their hopes and expectations to their very core.

Now if you want to have folks turn on you, and ferociously, all you need to do is to violate their deeply-held expectations. Do this and you can be assured that you will go from hero to villain in no time flat, and this is exactly what happened to Jesus. But violated expectations about Jesus are not unique to first-century Jews. They also apply to us. Like Jesus’ contemporaries, we cry out to the Lord to save us and our world and we expect him to answer in the way we want and demand because, well, we know better than Jesus. This is the challenge of Palm Sunday and Holy Week for us. Can we worship and follow a God and his Christ who constantly violate our expectations in how they should act to rescue us from the chaos and evil in God’s world, our lives, and ourselves? Will we let God’s word to us, spoken through an unfolding story, a story that reached its climax with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the subsequent events of Holy Week, be sufficient to relieve and sustain us in our weariness?

We would prefer God to bring in the tanks and destroy the forces of evil and their human minions, but God knows better because he knows evil runs through all of us. To destroy evil means God would have to destroy us and his entire creation because we are all that radically infected, and God simply won’t do that. So bringing in the tanks just won’t do. There has to be another way, a better way that shows God’s love for his world and its creatures, especially God’s image-bearing creatures. The better way, of course, was through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one way or another, the NT writers all insist that on the cross, God broke the power of Sin and Evil. As we have seen this Lent, the power of Sin—the outside, alien force that is greater than and hostile toward us—had to be broken and God did that by condemning Sin in the flesh through his Son (Romans 8.3-4), who willingly obeyed his Father’s will because both love us and hate what Sin and Evil have done to us. So God acted on our behalf in and through Christ to free us from the power of Sin and Evil, and to take his own good and just judgment of our individual sins on himself, thereby enacting the justice that is so necessary, thanks be to God!

But this is hard for us to believe because as our headlines scream out (not to mention the turmoil in our lives) the power of Evil, while broken, is not yet fully vanquished. That will have to wait until our Lord’s Second Coming. But the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death have been broken and defeated as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection (more about that next Sunday), and we are called to imitate our Lord in his suffering and humble obedience to the Father as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. We are to empty ourselves of our own false glory and live our lives in ways that show God’s glory revealed in his great love, mercy, compassion, and justice. In other words, we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow our Lord Jesus. Only then can we reflect God’s glory out into God’s world as we await our Lord’s return. It is a daunting task, precisely because it seems so counterintuitive to the ways of the world, and if we do not have real faith that begins to appropriate God’s strange and beautiful Truth contained in the events of Holy Week, we’ll never have the needed motivation to want to live this kind of life in the power of the Spirit.

This is why I appeal to you and exhort you to make the story of Holy Week your story first-hand. Come with our Lord to the Upper Room Thursday night where he will give his disciples a meal as the means to help them understand what his impending passion and death is all about. Watch with him in the garden as he struggles and shrinks from the gigantic task of allowing the powers of evil to do their worst to him, and the prospect of having to bear the judgment of God for the sins of the entire world, your sins and mine. Our own personal sins can be a terrible burden to us. Try to imagine having to bear the sins of the entire world. Come, therefore, and venerate the cross on Good Friday as you ponder and contemplate the death of the Son of God for your sake and the sake of the world. Such contemplation demands silence, desolation, and humility. Was there ever any suffering like our Lord’s (and if you answer yes to this question, there’s a good chance you don’t really understand the magnitude of what happened on Good Friday)? Grieve with his first followers as they laid his tortured and crucified body in the tomb with no expectation of Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is the time to do just that, culminating with the Easter Vigil and the reading of the story of God’s salvation on Saturday evening. It simply won’t do to observe any of this from afar. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Father Gatwood’s sermons. No, if you really love your Lord and have even an inkling as to what great love has effected your salvation and changed the course of history forever, how can you possibly stay away from our Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services? Easter Sunday will come with its great joy. But let none of us be too hasty to celebrate the great Paschal Feast without first pondering and agonizing and reflecting on the great and astonishing love of God that flows from God’s very heart as it was pierced by a Roman soldier’s spear. To be sure, it isn’t a pretty or fun thing to do. But if you commit yourself to walking with Jesus this Holy Week it will change you in ways you cannot imagine or envision, and for the good. It will change you because it is the Good News of our salvation, now and for all eternity. May we all observe a holy and blessed Holy Week together as God’s people at St. Augustine’s. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Lent 2024: From the Sermon Archives: Dare We Party During Lent?

Sermon originally preached on Laetare Sunday, March 27, 2022.

Lectionary texts: Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; St. Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32.

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

Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent (thus our fashionable pink/rose colored vestments). Laetare is the Latin word meaning to rejoice and our readings today all point us to reasons why as Christians we should. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

So why do we dare party during Lent? Well, because there is good reason to do so as all our readings attest. It is also consistent with the season of Lent. Does that surprise you? It likely will if you see Lent as a grim time where we are supposed to follow a bunch of rules we don’t really like or understand, but are told to follow them anyhow, things like much fasting and prayer, doing acts of mercy and being extra generous with our resources for the sake of others. But to think like this misses the entire point of Lent. We don’t observe Lent for its own sake. We observe Lent because it is precisely the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, repentance, and doing acts of mercy and charity that prepare us to live as the Easter people God calls us to be as followers of Christ, holy people! And as we shall see, the fifty days of Eastertide call for a continual party like no other party.

We start with our OT lesson. The geniuses who choose the texts for the RCL inexplicably leave off God’s command to Joshua to have all the males of Israel circumcised, the children of those whom the Lord had brought out of Egypt and who had died during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering. This is important because in so commanding Joshua to have the Israelite males circumcised, the Lord effectively commanded Joshua to renew Israel’s covenant with him so that they could enjoy the fruits of the covenant, the Promised Land. And in commanding Israel to renew its covenant with the Lord, God was also effectively commanding Israel to remember all the Lord had done for them and what the Lord was about to do for them. The old had passed away—freedom from their slavery in Egypt and God’s care for them in the wilderness so that his promise to them would be fulfilled—and the new was about to begin—life in the Promised Land, even before Israel had entered it! Israel’s shame, whatever the Lord meant by that, was now gone. They had escaped Egypt, a world power, and had survived forty years in the wilderness despite their rebellion against God. They had renewed their ancient covenants with God and were now in the position to claim God’s promise in full. No wonder the manna stopped. That was of the old order. From now on the Israelites would live off the fat of the land!

And we can relate to ancient Israel’s story because it is our own. While we have not had to endure a literal wilderness for forty years we know what it is like to live in the wilderness of our mortal life with its joys and sorrows, alienation and fear, and loneliness even within community. Like ancient Israel we have been both faithful and faithless in our lives and we know what it feels like to sense God’s absence even as God remains near to us. We too have seen our loved ones die. We too have experienced frustration of all kinds as well as broken relationships in our quest to find fidelity and relationships that are real and enduring. Yet even in the midst of our wilderness, we know God is merciful and faithful, quick and even eager to forgive us, especially when we confess our sins and faithlessness and rebellion to him as our psalm this morning attests. God is always faithful and just and right. God cares for us as his image-bearing creatures and wants to bless us with a future and a hope. When we remember God’s faithfulness and his love for us, even in the midst of our faithlessness and wilderness wanderings, and when we consider our resurrection hope (more about that anon), is this not a compelling reason for us to party, even during this season of Lent?

But our hope as Christians is even more remarkable and breathtaking than God’s promise of land to the Israelites and we see this hope powerfully expressed in our gospel lesson this morning. The pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Christ was hanging around sinners and the low-lifes of his day. How can anyone who claims to be righteous do a thing like that?? Why do you party so much?? Our Lord responded with three parables, only one of which we read today. Again the RCL geniuses chose to omit key passages because the first two parables were about things lost: a sheep and a coin, and more importantly, heaven’s response to those things being found. What was that response? A party of course! Then Christ tells the most powerful of the three parables: the story of the lost son. Before we look at this we need to disabuse ourselves of the lie that some in our day have attempted to foist on us. Christ is emphatically not saying that sinners and low-lifes are simply to be accepted as they are. The lost sheep and coin are found after all. The prodigal comes to his senses and returns home. In other words, sinners must repent. But that is not the point of the parables. The point is that God in Christ loves a party that celebrates the restoration of life to the dead and a relationship with the lost. And because God celebrates this, so do all who dwell in his heavenly domain. As Christians we should take our cue from God our Father and the heavenly host.

The parable of the prodigal son is powerful enough and memorable enough that it needs little exposition. I would only add the following points to help us appreciate the depth of God’s love and mercy for us sinners expressed in the parable. When the prodigal son asked his father for his inheritance while the father was still alive, it was tantamount to the son telling his father that he wished his father were dead. If you are looking to see how cruel words can blow up a relationship, try telling that to someone near and dear to you and see what happens. The wounds had to have cut deep. Despite this the father honored his wayward son’s request and the boy promptly went out and wasted it on ruinous living. Finding himself in literally a life-threatening situation, the boy came to his senses and realized what an utter fool he had become. He had despised his father and his birthright as son. He had fed his pearls to the pigs and so decided to return home. Even here the boy’s motives for repentance were not exactly pure. He was trying not to starve to death in utter loneliness. But the son’s motives for repentance really didn’t matter to his father, who apparently never gave up hope that his wayward son would return home one day because he saw the boy returning and ran out to meet him. In first-century Israel’s culture, for a father to run in public to meet his son would bring utter humiliation on the father. They just didn’t do such a thing. But so deep was the father’s love for his son that none of that mattered. He ran to his boy and took him back unconditionally. All that mattered now was that the son was back home. The father’s dead son had been restored to life through repentance and a love that refused to let the rebellion and wickedness of the son stand in the way of the son being restored to his father. My beloved, in a nutshell is that not our story, yours and mine? And when we understand that the father’s actions would have brought on humiliation to him, this scene must also surely evoke for us an image of Christ’s utter humiliation of being crucified naked on the cross so that we might be reconciled to God. Great is the Father’s love for us! Yet how many of us like the older brother refuse to see and/or accept the Father’s great love for us made known in Christ? I don’t have time to deal with the older brother this morning but we dare not ignore the self-righteousness (and perhaps self-loathing) that prevented the older brother from celebrating the love and mercy and goodness of their father that restored a good-as-dead family member. Let us resolve not to do likewise in living out our faith in Christ!

But how do we make this parable our own? We aren’t part of ancient Israel looking for God to return to end our exile that this parable addresses in part. Or are we? Is there anyone here today, if you are old enough, who does not long for God to rescue us and those we love from our exile to Sin and Death? St. Paul in our epistle lesson has answers for us. We can make Christ’s parable about the prodigal son our own precisely because of what Christ has done for us in his Death and Resurrection. We have the hope of being rescued from Sin and Death because of Christ’s death on the cross, a Death that atoned for our sins, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and restored us to a right relationship with God starting right now and lasting for all eternity. As we have seen before there is a great mystery in all this because all of us still sin in this mortal life, despite the NT’s claim that Sin’s power has been broken in us. Neither are we told how this all works, presumably because such knowledge is well above our pay grade and our salvation isn’t contingent on us having that knowledge. The NT simply insists that it is true and calls us to have faith to believe it despite its mystery and ambiguity and our unanswered questions. Like the ancient Israelites on the verge of entering the promised land, St. Paul calls us to look back to Christ’s Death so that we are able to look forward to the promise of Resurrection and new creation that Christ’s Resurrection signals. 

Note carefully that St. Paul is telling us exactly what Christ tells us in today’s parable. We are to come to our senses, i.e., we are to have faith that on the cross God has really dealt with our sins and the power of Sin decisively forever so that we have a future and a hope. That is why repentance is always in order. We look around at the emptiness of our lives and our vacuous thinking and rebellious living, all in the name of unbridled freedom and independence, just like the prodigal son. And God being God and our Creator knows we are helpless to right our own ship when it comes to our sin and the alienation it creates. Like the prodigal’s father, our Father longs for us to be restored to him, a restoration that is only possible through Christ’s Death on the cross. And so God desires our repentance, our turning away from ourselves and our own disordered agendas, so that we return to him to receive and accept his unconditional forgiveness. Our motives do not need to be pure (are they ever in this mortal life?). We need only to believe the promise is true and accept God’s forgiveness won through the Death of his Son for our sake. 

And because we are baptized Christians, we know by faith that we are joined with Christ in his Death and Resurrection. Like the ancient Israelites in our OT lesson, we stand on this side of the river that separates God’s fallen creation from his new creation by virtue of Christ’s Death. But we look forward to a future of new embodied life living in God’s promised new world without a trace of evil or sin or loneliness or sorrow or death or sickness or sighing, all because God is faithful to us and his creation. St. Paul had already experienced a foretaste of this reality. That is why he could no longer look at Christ from a human point of view with the possibility of mistaking Christ to be something lesser and other than he actually is—the crucified and risen Son of God who has rescued us from our exile to Sin and Death, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and reconciled us once and for all to God our Father, the one and only Source of all life. God longs to enjoy the sweet intimacy he enjoyed with us in the garden before the Fall and promises to bring that reality about one day; that’s why he became human. Like ancient Israel before they crossed the River Jorden, we too wait with eager anticipation for our entrance into God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, to live there in God’s direct presence forever. This is why we can rejoice and party during Lent. We are on the right side of history (a favorite phrase of those today who definitely are not but who sadly think they are because they are enjoying momentary success; anyone without Christ is on the wrong side of history). We are counted among the redeemed, not because of who we are but because of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. We have a real and eternal hope and future, the only hope and future there is, my beloved. Is that not the best reason of all to throw a party??

As we head toward Pascha, the Great Easter Feast, let us therefore resolve to live as our Savior Christ commands us and to have the humility of our Lord, a humility that is the only antidote to self-righteousness, a humility based on the knowledge that without Christ and his saving Death, we are a people without a future and with no hope. Let us also use the remainder of Lent to do the things that will help us increase our faith, hope, and love in Christ’s power. Let us resolve to allow Christ rule to grow in our lives each day through prayer, fasting, self-examination, acts of mercy and charity, and repentance so that we may be ambassadors for Christ, engaging in the ministry of reconciliation with both humans and God, taking our cue from our crucified and risen Lord, so that those who do not know or believe in Christ may share in his brilliant hope and future. 

But let us also resolve to throw a fifty-day party starting on Easter Sunday. Now is the time to start planning for such a party. We should celebrate the power of the Gospel and plan activities that might cause the folks around us to ask why we are partying like we do, much like the naysayers asked Christ why he partied the way he did. There will be those who scoff at us and mock us. May God have mercy on them and forgive them their hard-heartedness. But there will be those who want to join the party with us, a party that celebrates both our lives here now and forever in God’s new world. Let us therefore resolve and plan how to honor Christ’s name during Eastertide and beyond and to celebrate with the host of heaven all that he has done for us to reconcile us to God the Father, to bring us from death to life for his love and mercy’s sake. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Lent 2024: Saint Cyril Waxes Eloquent on the Cross

The Catholic Church[‘s]… supreme glory is the cross. Well aware of this, Paul says: “God forbid that I glory in anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

At Siloam, there was a sense of wonder, and rightly so. A man born blind recovered his sight. But of what importance is this, when there are so many blind people in the world? Lazarus rose from the dead, but even this only affected Lazarus. What of those countless numbers who have died because of their sins? Those five miraculous loaves fed five thousand people. Yet this is a small number compared to those all over the world who were starved by ignorance. After eighteen years a woman was freed from the bondage of Satan. But are we not all shackled by the chains of our Own sins?

For us [Christians], however, the cross is the crown of victory! It has brought light to those blinded by ignorance. It has released those enslaved by sin. Indeed, it has redeemed the whole of humankind!

Do not, then, be ashamed of the cross of Christ; rather, glory in it.

In the Mosaic law a sacrificial lamb banished the destroyer. The blood of an animal, a sheep, brought salvation. Will not the blood of the only-begotten Son bring us greater salvation?

[Jesus] did not blush at the cross for by it he was to save the world. No, it was not a lowly human being who suffered, but God incarnate.

Certainly in times of tranquillity the cross should give you joy. But maintain the same faith in times of persecution. Otherwise you will be a friend of Jesus in times of peace and his enemy during war. Now you receive the forgiveness of your sins and the generous gift of grace from your king. When war comes, fight courageously for him.

Jesus never sinned; yet he was crucified for you. Will you refuse to be crucified for him, who for your sake was nailed to the cross? You are not the one who gives the favor; you have received one first. For your sake he was crucified on Golgotha. Now you are returning his favor; you are fulfilling your debt to him.

Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem [d. 386], Catechesis 13, 1, 3, 6, 23

Lent 2024: An Ancient Christian Theologian Muses on Prayer

Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. “What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices?” asks God. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?” 

What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. “The hour will come,” he says: “when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit,” and so he looks for worshipers who are like himself. 

We are true worshipers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own. 

We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God. 

Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe. 

Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armor of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may know what it is gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.

In the past prayer was able to bring down punishment, rout armies, withhold the blessing of rain. Now, however, the prayer of the just turns aside the whole anger of God, keeps vigil for its enemies, pleads for persecutors. Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.

Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the faint-hearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.

All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more needs be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever. 

—Tertullian (d. ca. 225 AD), On Prayer, 28-29

Ash Wednesday 2024: From the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday

President: Brothers and sisters in Christ, since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection and prepared for this by a season of penitence and fasting.

By carefully keeping these days, Christians take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

All: Holy God,
holy and mighty
holy immortal one
have mercy on us.

Silence is kept.

President: Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Confession
All: Father eternal, giver of light and grace,
we have sinned against you and against our neighbor,
in what we have thought,
in what we have said and done,
through ignorance, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
We have wounded your love,
and marred your image in us.
We are sorry and ashamed,
and repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
who died for us,
forgive us all that is past; and lead us out from darkness
to walk as children of light. Amen.

President: Dear friends in Christ,
I invite you to receive these ashes
as a sign of the spirit of penitence with which we shall keep this season of Lent.

Let us pray.

God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth:
grant that these ashes may be for us
a sign of our penitence
and a symbol of our mortality;
for it is by your grace alone
that we receive eternal life
in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

At the imposition the minister says to each person

Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and give your life totally to Christ.

After the imposition of ashes the President prays

God our Father,
the strength of all who put their trust in you,
mercifully accept our prayers;
and because, in our weakness,
we can do nothing good without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in keeping your commandments we may please you,
both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

From the Sermon Archives: Grace, Guilt, Gratitude: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2024

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, 2021

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; John 8.1-11.

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

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter. Our Commination Service earlier today reminded us that something is terribly amiss in God’s world and our lives, that without the love, mercy, goodness, justice, and power of God, we remain hopelessly alienated from God and each other because we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that outside and malevolent power that is too strong for any of us to resist on our own power. And if we are not reconciled to God, we are undone forever in ways too terrible for us to imagine. Lent therefore is a time for us to focus not so much on ourselves but on the power of God manifested most clearly in the cross of our Lord Jesus. So tonight I want us to look at the dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation that God the Father makes available to all through the work of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, the interaction of grace, guilt, and gratitude. Until we understand this dynamic and what we are up against, we can never hope to observe a holy Lent (and beyond).

If we ever hope to be reconciled to God our Father so that we can live with him forever, we must first acknowledge our utter helplessness to fix ourselves so that we are no longer alienated from God. This means that we must first have the wisdom and humility (signs of God’s grace) to acknowledge the fact that we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that malevolent power that was unleashed in God’s good world when our first human ancestors rebelled in paradise. Too often we speak of our sins and think of them as misdeeds or acts of wrongdoing, the root cause of our alienation to God. This diminishes the problem of Sin to an absurdly reductionist level. This thinking implies that we can get right with God by simply adjusting our behavior or changing our thinking on certain things or making better choices—the current darling of excuses for our feel good culture. This is a fatal mistake on our part, however, because it implies that we can fix ourselves and our problems, that if we repent of our bad choices or thinking or behavior, our sin problem with God goes away. But the whole of Scripture makes very clear that there is something vastly more sinister going on. There is something desperately wrong in the world and our lives and we know it in our bones if we have the courage to be honest with ourselves. We don’t have the ability to defeat the power of Sin in our lives and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. Don’t believe me? How are you doing with your new year’s resolutions seven weeks on? Or how about those sins you confess? I bet you never do them again after you confess them, do you? Or how about your resolution to do better in your life? How is that working out for you? Try as we may, if we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts matter very little when it comes to turning away from our sins. Why? Because we are up against a power that is far greater than us, a power that seeks our destruction and undoing as God’s image-bearers, a power that must ultimately lead to our permanent death. The sins that we focus on are not the root cause of our alienation from God. Rather, just as a fever is a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem itself, our sins reflect our slavery to the power of Sin, again defined as an outside and malevolent force that has enslaved us. We acknowledged this very starkly in our Commination Service this noon when we acknowledged that without the cross of Jesus Christ and his presence in our lives, we are condemned to utter and complete destruction forever. This should both humble us and scare the hell out of us—literally. Until we get our thinking straight on this, we will surely have and live out a half-hearted faith (at best) because we live under the delusion that we can fix ourselves so that we are pleasing to God and set ourselves up for a self-righteousness complex. When we think like this, we inevitably dismiss the cross of Jesus Christ and the life-saving gift God the Father offers us all in and through his Son. But when we understand that Sin is a power we cannot overcome on our power and there is nothing we can do or say that will change our status before God, we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead.

This calls for us to be sober in our thinking about the power of Sin and see it as God sees it—a force that corrupts and destroys God’s precious image-bearers and good creation. This is why God hates Sin and this is why we can expect to receive God’s wrath on our sins: they are symptoms of the problem that God hates. God is first and foremost a God of love and if that is true, God must also be a God of justice. Why? Because God cannot and will not ultimately allow anything or anyone in his creation to continue corrupting it and his image-bearing creatures. God loves us too much to allow us to be victims of injustice and all the evil that flows from the power of Sin. Since we are powerless to break Sin’s grip on us, and since God is the only person who can free us from our slavery to it, God must intervene to destroy Sin and set things right, the very essence of justice. Otherwise, we would be doomed to be forever in Sin’s grip, catastrophically and permanently separated from God’s eternal love for us and excluded from God’s great heavenly banquet he has prepared for us so that we can enjoy him forever. It means that we would forever be trapped in our worst selves and that violence, greed, selfishness, cruelty, rapacity, suffering, hurt, brokenness, and alienation would continue to rule unchecked in our lives and God’s world. If God really is love, God cannot let this state of affairs go on forever, and when we understand this we can begin to see God’s justice as a positive thing. If we are going to follow God, we have to be sure that God loves us enough and has the requisite power to put all things to rights. To be sure, punishment is involved in this making-right process, but the overall thrust of God’s justice is restorative and healing because the heart of God is merciful, kind, generous, and loving. God does not create us to destroy us (What parent looks at his/her newborn baby for the first time with the intent of destroying it? The notion is absurd. If we fallen humans don’t think like this, why would God? Makes no sense!!); God created us so that we can enjoy him and rule his world faithfully and wisely on his behalf. 

This knowledge will also help us think clearly about the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. As we have seen, because we are helpless to free ourselves from our slavery to the power of Sin, our repentance is not enough to reconcile us to God because we will continue to sin even with repentance. Repent or not, unless our slavery to Sin is broken, we are doomed to continue living in the power of Sin. This is the guilt part of the dynamic or repentance and forgiveness. We see this clearly in our OT and gospel lessons tonight. The prophet calls God’s people together to collectively repent of their sin of idolatry, the worship of false gods that inevitably leads to all kinds of sins that will provoke God’s anger and wrath (idolatry is a primary sin because sooner or later we become what we worship). If God’s people turn away from (or repent of) worshiping false gods and turn to the one true God, then there was hope that God might relent on executing his wrath on his sinful people. Here we are reminded that we dare not presume God’s mercy on us, that God is free to show us wrath or mercy quite independently of what we resolve to do (or not do). In other words, God’s mercy is not contingent on repentance. The prophet believes God will be merciful because God has revealed his character to his people: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. If God relents on punishing his people for their idolatry, it will be because of who God is, not because God’s people have repented. 

Likewise in our gospel lesson. Notice that our Lord forgives the adulterous woman before calling her to repentance (go and sin no more). In this case God the Son showed mercy before the woman changed her behavior, reflecting the heart and character of his Father. This is the grace part of the grace, guilt, and gratitude dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation between God and humans. Grace—God’s undeserved blessing, goodness, bounty, mercy, and forgiveness on us—precedes our awareness of sin, not vice-versa. This is because God’s character is eternal, preceding our slavery to Sin. In fact, without God tugging at our heart and mind, we would be unaware that we are alienated from God and stand under God’s just condemnation of our sin. Why? Because sin is a theological concept. People whose lives are devoid of God have no awareness that their behavior is offensive to God and that they are slaves to Sin’s power. Don’t believe me? Just check out Twitter or listen to the extreme rhetoric of self-righteousness that accompanies the sense of warped justice that invariably accompanies human thinking and behavior without the intervention of God. Simply put, if the Holy Spirit is at work in us he will make us aware of our awful unmediated state before God and our own sinfulness, our awareness of his Presence not withstanding. But here’s the thing. The moment we become aware of our sin captivity, we are already standing in God’s grace, ready to receive God’s healing love, mercy, and forgiveness because of God’s eternal nature! We see this dynamic expressed powerfully in the old favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. John Newton, who wrote the hymn, was a slave trader whose eyes were opened to the wickedness of his sin by God’s grace. He was a wretch who was saved, a man lost but now found, by the grace of God that preceded his evil deeds, a grace that called him to repentance. God’s grace always precedes our repentance because God and God’s character always precede us. God makes us aware of our slavery to Sin and the chasm it creates so that we will turn to him and let him heal and rescue us from our slavery.

And how did/does God do this? In the cross of Jesus Christ as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. Here is the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. God became human to suffer his own just and right punishment on our sin and wickedness himself so that God could spare us from suffering his wrath and eternal condemnation that would lead to our destruction. In the process the power of Sin is broken in us, only partially in this life but fully in the next (a topic for a different day and sermon). Our knowledge of the power of Sin and our slavery to it makes us realize that we don’t deserve this kindness and mercy. None of us do. But it is ours for the taking if we only have the humility and wisdom to believe it to be true, despite the fact that we cannot fully explain how God accomplished this all in the cross of Christ. But because we believe that Scripture is the word of God, we believe the promise to be true. God’s undeserved mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness lead us to a sense of profound and deep relief and gratitude because we realize we are no longer under God’s just condemnation and there is not a thing we did to deserve it. This is the gratitude part of the dynamic of God reconciling us to himself in Christ. We see it powerfully illustrated in our gospel lesson and we should take our cue from it. Imagine you are the woman who was dragged before Christ. You know your sin because you know God’s law; God has made himself known to you through it. And so you expect the worst, a death sentence for your sin of adultery. You are braced to feel the stones strike your body, slowly and painfully killing you (not unlike our sin does to us over the course of time). And then comes a remarkable surprise. Jesus pronounces you not guilty, despite that fact the he and you both know you are guilty of an awful sin. You have experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness, not because of who you are, but because of who God is. How would you feel? Stunned? Relieved? Grateful? All of the above and more, no doubt! He tells you to go and sin no more (he calls you to repent of your adultery), but his forgiveness is not contingent on that. Certainly the vast majority of us would be grateful for this reprieve and our gratitude would likely serve as ongoing motivation for leaving the adulterous life. She, like us, would certainly have to recall her sin and the great gift of forgiveness because life, well, gets in our way and distracts us so that we forget. That’s why we recall our sins and God’s mercy shown to us in Christ, not to make us feel bad (although that is really unavoidable on occasion), but to make us remember the love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness of God applied to our wickedness. When the woman remembered Christ’s intervention on her behalf, was she grateful? Did her gratitude help motivate her to repentance? We aren’t told, but our own experience suggests that it can and does, and this is what God desires from us. In this story, Christ does not tell us to suspend moral judgment by challenging those who brought the woman to him. Instead, he was exposing their hypocrisy and evil intent to trap him. In doing so, he was able to show mercy to the woman caught in adultery, calling her to repentance and giving her the motivation we all need to live our lives in imitation of our Lord and Savior, the essence of repentance and faithful living. 

This is what it means to observe a holy Lent and beyond, my beloved. We are called to reflect on the fruit of the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness in our lives. We are called to understand that to be reconciled to God means trusting in the power, mercy, love, and character of God revealed supremely in Jesus Christ and not our own perceived (and often delusional) abilities to make ourselves right with God. It means we see clearly the truth about the human condition and our standing before God without the intervention of Christ. We needn’t fear the truth because the truth always sets us free to love and serve the Lord, thanking him for his love and kindness and justice, and asking his mercy and forgiveness when we miss the mark as we attempt to imitate him in the power of the Spirit as we live out our lives together. May we all observe a holy Lent and sing God’s praises with grateful hearts forever and ever. 

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

A Sermon for Epiphanytide 2024: More Than We Can Hope For or Imagine

From the sermon archives. Originally preached on Sunday, January 16, 2022.

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 increasingly insane demands and lies of wokery, 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 inexpressibly 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 as Christians? 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. The relationships we enjoy are part of God’s extravagant love for us and we are called to both celebrate them and take them seriously. They help us flourish as God’s human image-bearers!

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. So go celebrate God’s Good News in Christ 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 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.

Pope Benedict XVI Muses on the Temptations of Christ

Writing on the Temptations of Christ, specifically the Devil’s challenge to our Lord to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, Pope Benedict XVI writes [emphasis mine]:

The devil proves to be a Bible expert who can quote the Psalm exactly. The fact is that scriptural exegesis [the explanation of a biblical text] can become a tool of the Antichrist. The alleged findings of scholarly exegesis have been used to put together the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Jesus and dismantle the faith.

The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history—that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity. And so the Bible no longer speaks of God, the living God; no, now we alone speak and decide what God can do and what we will and should do. And the Antichrist, with an air of scholarly excellence, tells us that any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism; he wants to convince us that only his kind of exegesis, the supposedly purely scientific kind, in which God says nothing and has nothing to say, is able to keep abreast of the times.

The theological debate between Jesus and the devil is a dispute over the correct interpretation of Scripture, and it is relevant to every period of history. The hermeneutical question lying at the basis of proper scriptural exegesis is this: What picture of God are we working with? The dispute about interpretation is ultimately a dispute about who God is. Yet in practice, the struggle over the image of God, which underlies the debate about valid biblical interpretation, is decided by the picture we form of Christ: Is he, who remained without worldly power, really the Son of the living God?

The point at issue is revealed in Jesus’ answer, which is also taken from Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut 6:16), This passage from Deuteronomy alludes to the story of how Israel almost perished of thirst in the desert. Israel rebels against Moses, and in so doing rebels against God. God has to prove that he is God. The issue, then, is the one we have already encountered: God has to submit to experiment. He is “tested,” just as products are tested. He must submit to the conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty. If he doesn’t grant us now the protection he promises in Psalm 91, then he is simply not God. He will have shown his own word, and himself too, to be false.

We are dealing here with the vast question as to how we can and cannot know God, how we are related to God and how we can lose him. The arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him is incapable of finding him. For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening; by no longer acknowledging as real anything but what we can experimentally test and grasp. To think like that is to make oneself God. And to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself, too.

From this scene on the pinnacle of the Temple, though, we can look out and see the Cross. Christ did not cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. He did not leap into the abyss. He did not tempt God. But he did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless. He ventured this leap as an act of God’s love for men.This brings to light the real meaning of Psalm 91, which has to do with the right to the ultimate and unlimited trust of which the Psalm speaks: If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you. Yet this trust, which we cultivate on the authority of Scripture and at the invitation of the risen Lord, is something quite different from the reckless defiance of God that would make God our servant.

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, pp. 35-38

I cannot stress adequately enough how true this is and how wonderfully rich is Benedict’s theology and interpretation of this particular temptation of Christ. In a nutshell this is why the Church still struggles. It is burdened in part by the arrogance and pride of some scholars in the academy (and theologians within the Church), who seek to place themselves over the Word of God rather than submit to it in humility and faith. Only when the latter occurs can biblical exegesis ever be faithful, nourishing, and truly edifying. Lord have mercy on us.

For those with ears to hear, listen and understand. 

The Baptism of Christ 2024—Dying and Rising with Christ: Why Your Baptism Matters

In celebration of the Feast of Christ’s Baptism (and our own). Read the lectionary texts below before the sermon. From the sermon archives.

Lectionary texts: Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 118.19-24; Romans 6.3-11; St. Matthew 28.16-20.

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

Today is a huge day in the life of our parish family. Not only do we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine’s and receive and confirm several new family members, we will baptize our newest baby terrorist and beloved in Christ, Maggie May, into his family, (sorry Sweet Baby James, there’s a new kid in town) and I want to direct my sermon primarily to her. Yes, yes, I know she is only almost three and I regularly confuse you adults when I preach. But any child who tells her parents at that age that she needs to be baptized knows the Lord, and probably better than most of us. So I will trust the Lord, along with her parents, godparents, and the rest of you, to compensate for my, um, awesomeness to bring about needed understanding in the years to come. I’ll try to make it so easy to understand that even a bishop will get it! Of course the rest of you ragamuffins are welcome to soak up the great wisdom I impart along the way. Now that I have insulted everyone here, I can proceed with the sermon forthwith.

Maggie May, your parents have made the wisest and best decision of your young life. Ever. On your behalf, they have declared that you will reject what St. Paul called the first Adam—the old person living in you despite your young age—and like new clothes, put on the second Adam, Jesus Christ himself. But what does that mean? It means that the power of Sin will not control you, that you will choose life over death and will not want to live your life in ways that demonstrate you don’t like God by acting in ways that are contrary to his will for you as his image-bearing creature. Instead, your parents are declaring for you that you will choose to follow Christ and be where he is because you believe him to be God become human, the only true reality and Source of life, and that you want to live with God forever, starting right now. In biblical terms we call this repentance: where you will choose to turn from a life lived for yourself to a life lived for God. You will choose to kill off in you all that makes you God’s enemy, or as St. Paul puts it, you will crucify your sinful nature (a lifelong practice), but you will realize you cannot do this in your own power or strength. When you are baptized your parents are declaring for you that you will realize you must rely on the power of God working in your life in and through the Holy Spirit to help you do all this so that you can live as a fully human being and that your life orientation will point to something (or more precisely Someone) greater than yourself. They are also declaring for you that you will realize this is a free gift from God despite your unworthiness to receive it, but receive it you will because it pleases God the Father to give it to you out of his great love for you. That’s what dying and rising with Christ means. It means you know Jesus and are reconnected to your Source of life. It means you understand that only in Christ’s power can you overcome Death. I am fully confident that all this will happen as you come of age because you know Jesus.

But here’s the thing. If you are like me, you will also at times find what St. Paul says to be a real head scratcher. Perhaps you will want to say to him with me, “St. Paul, are you crazy? I still do things that don’t please God. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. How can you say I’ve died to sin?” To which St. Paul would reply, “It’s not about you Maggie May, it’s about the power of God at work in you.” That’s the key. The power of God working in you, invisible to our senses but there nonetheless. And I know you understand this at some level already, even at your tender age.

St. Paul knew very well that being united with Christ does not make one a perfect person. But that is not what St. Paul is talking about. He is echoing what he wrote to the Colossians when he said that “[The Father] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness [where we are separated from God and without real life] and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom [from the power of Sin] and forgave our sins” (Col 1.13-14). This is the power of God at work in us to rescue us from sin and death and bring us into the kingdom of his promised new creation that one day will come in full at Christ’s return. God did this for us out of his great love for us. We did nothing to deserve this gift nor can we earn it. In our own right we are hopelessly broken, unworthy and incapable of living as God’s true image-bearers. This is what the power of Sin has done to us and unfortunately you will understand this all too well one day. But God loves us too much to let us go the way of death that never ends and so God has acted decisively in Christ to break Sin’s power over us on the cross and transfer us into his new world via Christ’s resurrection. This is what God’s grace and power look like; and your baptism signals, in part, your acceptance of that grace and power, even you don’t fully understand it. We can’t earn God’s grace but it is ours for the taking because of the power and love of God. And what God wants, God gets; and nothing, not even the power of Sin or the dark powers, can overcome God’s power made known and available to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s a done deal, even if it may not always feel like that to us. 

But Christ’s death and resurrection were not feelings. They were and are the real events that made known supremely the power of God to intervene in our lives on our behalf to rescue us from ourselves, our foolishness, our folly, and our slavery to the power of Sin and Death. We don’t create a new reality; rather we believe the reality exists. Christ has died for us and been raised from the dead to proclaim God’s victory over Sin and Death, and when we are united with Christ in a living relationship with him at our baptism, St. Paul promises in our epistle lesson that we too share in Christ’s reality, whether it feels like we do or not. Again, notice nothing is required of us except an informed faith. In other words, we look at the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and know it to be true so that we learn to trust the promise that has not yet been fulfilled in us to also be true. 

How does this all happen? St. Paul doesn’t tell us how, only that it does happen beginning with our baptism. When we are baptized we share in Christ’s death and are buried with him so that Sin’s power over us is broken (not to be confused with living a sin-free life, something that is not mortally possible because as St. Paul reminds us in verses 6-7, we are not totally free from sin until death). We reject sin and can no longer live like we hate God because we have been transferred into a new reality, God’s new world that started when God raised Christ from the dead. So in our baptism we begin our new life with Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5.17), flawed as that will look at times. You have been given a great gift in the death and resurrection of Christ and will be joined together with him in a new and different way at your baptism. And where Christ is, there you will be with him. If this isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is. And how do I know all that I have told you is true? Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, Maggie May, and I know you know his risen Presence! Alleluia!

So you have died with Christ and are raised with him, even at your ripe young age! You have been delivered from the dark empire of slavery to the empire of freedom and life and light, the Father’s kingdom. Now what? Well, for starters it means you no longer need to be afraid as you grow older. You have peace with God, real peace, a peace that was terribly costly to God, and you also have life that cannot be taken from you. Sure your mortal body will die, and you’ll understand what that means when you grow older, but that’s nothing more than a transition until the Lord returns and raises you from the dead and gives you a new body to live in his new world. As a baptized Christian you have no reason to fear death because you know Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25) and you know that where he is, there you will be with him by virtue of your baptism that signals his great love for you and his power to rescue you from Sin and Death! It means you will reject living your life in ways that tell God you don’t want anything to do with him. It means you will reject false realities and will be willing to speak out boldly against them. It means you will be willing to love even the most unloveable people (and unfortunately you will come to know your fair share of them), starting with yourself. It means you will be willing to speak out against injustices of all kinds. It means you will have compassion for people, realizing they are without a Good Shepherd who will love and heal them just like he is loving and healing you, and so you will be willing to share your baptismal faith with them. There’s more to this reality, but certainly not less. 

Your baptism also means you are welcomed into and will agree to become part of the family of God in Christ (the Church), because you understand God created you for relationships and that you cannot live out your Christian faith by yourself because that is how the world, the flesh, and the devil get together to pick Christians off and get them to reject God’s free gift of life won through Christ. The power of God living in you right now is often made known in and through other people, and just as we rely on family to help us when things go bad in our life, so too must you rely on your parish family to help you stay the course. That means you will agree to worship with us, study Scripture with us, feed on our Lord’s body and blood each week to have Christ himself nourish you, weep with us, rejoice with us, and everything in between. I think you already understand this at some level and You’ll grow in your understanding of what this means as you grow older. Your baptism is a tangible reminder that God the Father has claimed you in and through God the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to make you Christ’s own forever. Like any healthy relationship, Maggie May, God will never force you to love him and gives you the freedom to choose whom you will serve. Today your parents declare for you that you are choosing to serve Life and not Death and all that that entails, even if you don’t fully understand right now. Who among us does? Congratulations, my dear one. I couldn’t be happier for you. Glory to him whose power working in you is infinitely more than you can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Alleluia!

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

Christmas 2023: Meditations on the Incarnation by Select Church Fathers and Doctors

Below is a sermon from Saint John Chrysostom, believed to be the first Christmas sermon ever preached. Whether it was, this sermon is the first extant Christmas sermon we have. Preached in Antioch in 386 AD, the year St. Augustine of Hippo converted to Christianity.

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. Enjoy. Merry Christmas!

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

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 [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

Next we have this reflection on the Incarnation 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

And finally, a word from 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

Christmas Eve Sermon 2023: Why “Rejoice and be Merry” at Christmas?

From the sermon archives.

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 my beloved! During this past Advent season we looked 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 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 the rapid breakdown of our culture with its increased strife, crime, inflation and other economic woes, as well as personal loss and hurts many of us have suffered and/or continue to suffer, we need to pause and set our minds on the light, on things that matter most. Christmas allows us to do just that. 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 your sin], 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.