Lectionary texts: Nehemiah 2.17-20; Psalm 8; Ephesians 3.14-21; St. Matthew 16.13-19.
Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday before Lent C, February 13, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Cor 15.12-20, 35-38, 42-58; St. Luke 6.17-26.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week we began a two-part preaching series on the Death and Resurrection of Christ based on 1 Cor 15, St. Paul’s massive treatise on the Resurrection of Christ. You recall that last week we focused on Christ’s sacrificial and saving Death. We saw that the problem of Sin, that outside and hostile power that has enslaved us thoroughly, requires more than just human repentance to be defeated; it requires the power of God to intervene on our behalf to offer an atoning sacrifice for our sins so that we could be reconciled to God the Father and thus healed of our sin-sickness so that its power is defeated once and for all. We saw that there is great mystery in all this and that the NT never explains fully how it all works, only that it does. If you don’t remember anything else from last week’s sermon—and being the brilliant teacher/preacher I am, I would be shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, if you didn’t remember every word I spoke—remember this. Christ died to reconcile you to the Father so that you can be fully healed of your sin-sickness. Christ, God become human, did this for you because he loves you and you are precious in his sight, even while you were still his enemy. There is nothing in all creation that can separate you from his love and there is no sin you have committed that has not been fully covered by the Blood of the Lamb shed for you on the cross. There is therefore no need or reason for any Christian to suffer debilitating, crushing guilt or despair.
We also noted that without the Resurrection, Christ’s death would have been just another utterly humiliating and degrading criminal’s death, lost forever in the vast sea of history and without significance. But Christ was and is raised from the dead, forever alive, never to die again. The Resurrection vindicated Christ’s claim that he was indeed Israel’s Messiah and the eternal Son of God and therefore the cross accomplished what the early Church claimed it did. So this morning in part 2 of this series I want us to look at exactly what is the Christian hope of the Resurrection. I want us to do so primarily for two reasons: 1) as St. Paul proclaimed last week, the Resurrection is of first importance. Without it we are still dead in our slavery to Sin’s power and without hope. Death really does have the final say, a terrible reality made worse by the fact that all of us must endure suffering and hardship in this life to one extent or the other; and 2) we are baptizing two new members into Christ’s Body today, God be thanked and praised! As we will see, resurrection has definite implications for any who are baptized into Christ. Resurrection remains of first importance and needs Christ’s saving Death as much as Christ’s saving Death needs the Resurrection. Without both there would be no Christianity, no Good News, no turning point in human history.
One more preliminary note before we begin our discussion. This sermon presumes the historicity of Christ’s Resurrection, i.e., Christ’s Resurrection really did happen in history. It is emphatically not some made up hokum or wishful thinking. To give a basic defense of the Resurrection’s historicity would require a separate sermon in itself and ain’t nobody got time for that this morning. Coffee hour and Super Bowl are a-waiting and we need to get on with our order of business! Suffice it to say here that from the beginning the Church proclaimed Christ’s Death and Resurrection as historical fact and we have no good reason to doubt this Central Christian Proclamation 2000 years later!
I begin by asking you a question. How many of you find the vision of heaven where you live for all eternity without a body and float on a cloud playing your harp compelling?
I ask this question because this vision (or derivatives of it) seems to be the prevailing Christian understanding in the West of what happens to us when we die. Our souls are separated from our bodies and go to heaven to enjoy God’s company, forever as a disembodied spirit, freed from the woes and weaknesses of our mortal body. Is that compelling to you? It’s more than just a philosophical question because as Christians we are exhorted to keep our eyes on the prize—Jesus. Why is Jesus the prize? Because Christ is the only way to the Father because only his death atones for our sins and makes us fit to live forever in the Father’s Holy Presence so that we are not destroyed by God’s perfect Holiness and justice. That’s why the Resurrection needs the Cross (in case you were wondering). But is the vision I just described to you a compelling one? Is it the prize above all prizes for you that motivates your living? I’ll be honest. The vision I just described leaves me cold and I find little to no motivation to follow Christ because of it. I suspect I am probably not alone in my thinking.
But thanks be to God that this vision is emphatically not the Christian vision contained in the NT, the vision of new creation that Christ’s Resurrection launched and proclaimed. It is a platonic and corrupted version of the Real Thing because resurrection never was about dying and going to heaven; it is instead about life in God’s new world, the new creation, God’s new heavens and earth. The former kind of teaching is the product of creeping gnosticism that believes in part that all things material are bad and all things spiritual are good. And I suspect if truth be told, it stems in part from inherent human disbelief and skepticism regarding the power of God and the utterly fantastic nature of the vision itself. Who among us has the power to imagine such a world so as to give it justice?
So what does the Church mean when it talks about the Resurrection and eternal life? Resurrection and eternal life are first and foremost—and I cannot be emphatic enough and exhort you strongly enough short of yelling and cussing at you, much as I would like that—about bodily reanimation on a permanent basis so that bodies are made fit to live in a radically new creation. When the first followers of Jesus proclaimed his Resurrection they were emphatically not saying that he had died and gone to heaven. They were proclaiming that God had raised his body from the dead and reanimated it by transforming it. This gets at what St. Paul is telling us in his very dense writing from our epistle lesson when he uses the analogy of seed and plant to compare our mortal body with our new spiritual body. St. Paul is telling that there will be radical change (a body that is impervious to death) within basic continuity (we are still talking about bodies, not spirits). We have a mortal body in this life and will have an immortal body patterned after the risen Christ’s body in God’s new creation.
And when we put this radical new teaching about a two-stage resurrection (Christ first and then later us when he returns to finish his saving work) within the overarching story of Scripture, this should make perfect sense to us. Think about it. The creation narratives in Genesis proclaim very clearly that God created creation good (very good after he created humans to run God’s world on his behalf; that’s why God created us in his image in the first place). And God continues to value his creation, creatures included. Only human sin and rebellion corrupted it and the rest of Scripture tells us about how God is going about rescuing his good creation gone bad and reclaiming it and us from the dark powers that usurped God’s rule in the first place, enigmatic and puzzling as that might be to us. God refused to totally destroy creation and start over because God loves and values us. That’s why he spared Noah et al. in the Great Flood. That’s why God called Abraham to be God’s blessing to his broken and hurting world and its creatures, a blessing ultimately achieved in Jesus Christ, the one true Israelite and descendant of Abraham. It makes no sense, therefore, that God would suddenly be uninterested in reclaiming the bodies of his image-bearing creatures, consigning us instead to an eternity of being disembodied spirits. How does that honor God’s faithfulness and love for his creation? Read in this manner, the Revelation to St. John, chapters 21-22, is seen as the successful climax of God’s redemptive project launched through Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection. Heaven comes down to earth (we aren’t raptured so get that lousy theology out of your head). Heaven and earth, God’s space and humans’ space respectively, are fused together in a mighty act of new creation. Our mortal bodies are raised from the dead and transformed into immortal bodies, fit to live in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, with new ways of working and living as God’s faithful, obedient, image-bearers. Death and illness and hurt and suffering and loneliness and alienation and all the rest that weigh us down and kill us are abolished forever, all by and through the power of God the Father who loves us and remains faithful to us as essential parts of his good creation. Seen in this light, resurrection makes perfect sense.
St. Paul also talks about the fulfillment of God’s creative purposes in Romans 8. Hear him now.
Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us (Romans 8.18-23).
Notice there’s nothing about dying and going to heaven here! No, St. Paul speaks of God’s curse on his current creation, a curse that was in response to human sin and rebellion, reminding us in no uncertain terms that God cannot and will not tolerate any form of evil in his promised new world. Notice too that St. Paul speaks unabashedly about the prize worth seeking above all prizes. This is about radical and total healing and transformation, the kind that can only be brought about by God the Father, and it speaks of a created future, not a spiritual or disembodied one. It is about being fully human, living in the created (or recreated) manner that God always intended for us.
But what about St. Paul’s comparison of the physical body and spiritual body? Doesn’t having a spiritual body mean we really don’t have a body? Not at all. The Greek for physical body, psychikon soma, and spiritual body, pneumatikon soma, both describe a body. In Greek and in the context of this pericope, when an adjective ends with -ikon, it refers not to the nature of the body (what the body is made of) but rather what powers or animates the body. So St. Paul is telling us that our new bodies will be powered not by flesh and blood or our soul, but by the Holy Spirit himself, thus making them indestructible. The reason flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God is not because God hates our bodies. That is ridiculous! God created our bodies and declared them good! No, flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom is imperishable and immortal whereas our mortal bodies are not. Our bodies die and we are separated from them for a season. When Christ returns, however, our bodies will be raised from the dead and transformed and reanimated in a way that abolishes death forever. The NT has very little to say about what happens to our souls when we die other than a few oblique references (see, e.g., Phil 1.20-26). As we have seen, it has a lot to say about God’s new world, a world launched when God raised Christ from the dead and come in full upon Christ’s return.
This is a vision that is compelling and worthy of all our striving. It proclaims a new world reclaimed by God, a world in which we get to live directly in God’s presence forever, a world therefore devoid of suffering, sorrow, sickness, and death, a world in which we are finally and perfectly healed forever, a world where we can finally be free to be God’s image-bearers who go about their business of tending to God’s new world with God’s blessing. It is a world where we will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ, never to be separated again. And after our bodies are raised, death will be abolished forever as St. Paul tells us in today’s lesson. Death cannot be abolished until then, even for Christians, because death involves our bodies and souls, and until we receive our new bodies, death still reigns. While our loved ones who died in Christ are safely in his care as they await their new resurrection or spiritual bodies, they are still dead because they do not yet enjoy new bodily existence where their souls are reunited to their bodies. So we can remember them and miss them and find comfort that they are safe in Christ, but we can’t touch them or see them or hear them or feel them or smell them like we did when they were alive in their mortal bodies. The resurrection promises that this will all change one day when we and they are given new bodies. Whatever that looks like it is worthy of our highest calling and striving because it is a vision that exalts both God and humans, a vision beyond our wildest longings and desires and hopes. If what I have described does not stir you to want to give your ultimate allegiance to Christ, the One who makes it all possible because only Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, blame my inability to cast the vision for all it’s worth, not the vision itself with its incomprehensible richness and beauty that point to the power and fathomless love of God the Father for us as his human image-bearers. When it comes in full, whatever it looks like, God’s new creation will fully honor human beings and consummate our life-giving relationship with God the Father, our Creator.
So what do we take from this? Two things. For our about-to-be newly-baptized, it means they are about to become part of this promise because they are about to become united to Christ in his Death and Resurrection, sharing in both. In other words, they are about to tap into the power of God at work in them in and through the Spirit to make them part of God’s family forever. That’s why we can baptize infants and those who cannot speak for themselves. Baptism, like resurrection, is not about human responsibility but about the power of God at work to heal, redeem, and give life in full. It is a powerful and tangible sign of God’s extravagantly generous and gracious love for us.
Second, for those of us who are baptized, this truth reminds us to remember our own baptism and be thankful. The promise of resurrection and new creation also has the power to help us see life clearly now. Resurrection and new creation are our future and our hope, and both give us a real and appropriate vision of how life is to be lived. If you get this, reread Jesus’ woes and blessings in light of living in the resurrection reality. Both are remarkably appropriate because they encourage and warn us respectively what it is like to live as Christ’s true people. We will make judgments based on what is to come, not what currently is with all of its corruption and false values. We have a promised eternity to live in this manner and it is a sure and certain expectation, based not on wishful thinking but on the historical reality that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. That is why I can preach it. If we find the vision of resurrection and new creation compelling, we’d better get busy and practice living like the resurrection peeps we are, no matter how imperfectly we live it. What better hope for us than to be perfectly healed of all that weighs us down and kills us, death included, never to be afraid again, always to enjoy perfect health and relationships? That, my beloved, is a prize worth all our strivings and it is only made possible by the amazing love and power of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered on the 4th Sunday before Lent C, February 6, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 6.1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; St. Luke 5.1-11.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Since this is my first sermon in our new home I will try to make it at least as long as Fathers Sang and Wylie’s were the past two weeks; I know how much you enjoy long sermons from us. Once every three years, provided Easter falls late enough on the calendar, the RCL offers an opportunity to preach on St. Paul’s massive treatise on Christ’s resurrection contained in 1 Cor 15. This year we have that opportunity and so I begin a three part preaching series on Christ’s Death and Resurrection. But already I have a problem because in two weeks our bishop is coming here to consecrate our new home and insists on preaching from different texts for the occasion, bless his pointy little hat. Bishops. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t function without ‘em. Teasing aside, the three part preaching series on 1 Cor 15 I had planned to preach has to be reduced to two parts and next week we will combine the next two epistle lessons and read them as one. Confused? Good! So am I. On the up side this will actually serve us well (at least it will the preacher) because as we shall see, Christ’s Death and Resurrection have to be viewed as two sides of the same saving coin. It is a mistake for Christians to see them as separate events or functions and this morning I want us to focus on Christ’s Death. Why is it essential to our faith to have a robust theology of the cross?
St. Paul tells us right out of the blocks. “…I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15.3). This is a central NT proclamation and this is where many of us start to get uncomfortable because we don’t like talking about Sin, especially our own. The Church in the West over the last 150 or so years has worked very hard to decouple the cross from human sin but the NT writers will have none of it and so we must look at the problem of Sin if we ever hope to have a theology of the cross that will sustain us even in our darkest hours.
But first some operational definitions. Sin is not so much a collection of misdeeds as it is an active, malevolent force bent on utterly undoing God’s good creation and purposes—living to reflect God’s glory and goodness. Sin enslaves and kills us. It makes us sick and hostile and alienated toward each other and God. And when we are alienated from God and our relationship with him is totally disrupted as only Sin can do, we die because life is only found in God. Sin is emphatically not about making bad choices as many have falsely asserted. Misdeeds and bad choices are more symptoms of the real evil of Sin and any such talk serves only to confuse our thinking about the seriousness of human sin and our bondage to its power. Sin is a universal human affliction, enslaving us as the result of our first ancestors’ Fall. It has so completely enslaved us that we are powerless to break its grip on us, hard as we might try. If you doubt that, how are your new year’s resolutions going, five weeks into the new year? If we can break free from Sin’s power over us on our own, then why are there so many gluttons and drunks and addicts of all kinds and adulterers and dishonest and unhappy people? Yet over and over we return to the filth of our sin, demonstrating its death grip on us. But here’s the thing. Despite being a universal human affliction, Sin is a theological concept so that only those who have an awareness of God can be aware of their sinfulness. We see it all the time from the self-righteousness of the godless who help make up the social media lynch mobs. We see it in the lunacy of sexual or racial identity. We see it in the celebration of unbridled greed and all kinds of hardheartedness. Anyone who does not know or believe in God has no concept of sin because he/she has little to no knowledge of the Holy. This is not to say that these folks are sin-free. They most certainly are not. They simply aren’t aware of their predicament and deadly peril.
We see this notion of sin as a theological concept at work in our OT and gospel lessons this morning. When the prophet and St. Peter become aware that they are standing in the presence of the Holy, they immediately become aware of their own sinfulness, a sinfulness that their enslavement to Sin’s power has produced. It is almost as if this awareness was built into their very being. They knew instinctively that they were standing in the presence of the Holy and their sin stain was made painfully obvious to them as it will be to us when we stand before Christ’s judgment seat, if not sooner. As we saw several weeks ago, this was the whole purpose of the Tabernacle/Temple system—to allow the profane to enter into the Holy’s Presence without it becoming fatal.
Finally, sin always produces guilt in terms of breaking God’s law and/or violating the created order. It is not the same as “feeling guilty” nor does that guilt necessarily coincide with personal feelings of guilt which are determined mainly by our own awareness of God and his holiness; the more aware we are of who God is and God’s desire for us, the more our personal sense of guilt will likely be and vice versa. And because we are powerless to break free from our enslavement to Sin’s power, we must understand—and this is critical for our faith—that only God can supply the remedy to Sin to end our guilty status before him because only God is more powerful that Sin’s power. In other words, we must be liberated from Sin’s power by an even greater power, the power of God. And now we are ready to talk about why it is essential for us to have a robust theology of the cross, that it both atones for our sin so we can be healed and reconciled to God our Father and is seen as the sign of Christ’s victory of over the powers of Sin and Death.
Up to this point we have only been talking about bad news and if you are feeling depressed by what we have said that is understandable. The human condition is a depressing situation without the help and mercy of God. We need to look no further than the madness and lunacy that swirls around us and within us in our increasingly unhinged and godless society. But it is to the glory of God that the bad news will not have the final say. The dark powers that have enslaved us to the power of Sin—an impenetrable mystery itself—have already been defeated on Calvary. That is why we call it Good Friday, not Bad Friday! We will never be ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ if we do not understand and accept the bad news of the human condition left unaided, hard as that is to hear. It is a terrible thing to live in a cursed world and the gospel is our only real hope and solution for our predicament. The gospel is not a good idea or a good theory. It’s Good News because something happened that changed the world in which we live and if you do not believe that, you have no gospel at all and are much to be pitied. When St. Paul talks about Christ dying for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he probably has more in mind than just Isaiah 53 and a handful of other OT proof-texts. He is talking about the strange power of God (to us ) at work to free his originally good creation from the corrupting and death-dealing powers of Evil and Sin. Of course consistent with his creative purposes, God chose to do this primarily through human agency, first in his call to Israel and then through Christ, the one faithful Israelite. God did and does this for us because God loves us. That is the essence of the meaning of Christ dying for sin. God could have chosen to utterly destroy us because of our sins. Instead, God chose to become human and die for us to to bear his own wrath on our sins to spare us and reconcile us to himself so that we could be reconnected to our life support system again. St. Paul describes this in various ways throughout his letters. He tells the Romans that despite our universal rebellion against God, God in his grace (undeserved mercy) freely makes us right in his sight through Christ’s Death, freeing us from God’s penalty for our sins. St. Paul also tells us that God did this for us while we were still God’s enemies or sinners (Rom 3.24-25, 5.8-10). He tells the Galatians that Christ gave his life for our sins just as God our Father had planned to rescue us from this evil world in which we live (Gal 1.4). And St. Paul told the Thessalonians that God chose to save us through Christ’s death, choosing not to pour out his anger on us. Christ died for us, so that whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever (1 Thess 5.9-10). Clearly St. Paul and the rest of the NT writers saw Christ’s death as truly sacrificial, atoning for our sins and thus sparing us from God’s terrible but deserved wrath. And this of course is for our own good. How can a loving God ignore the evil and sin and the suffering it produces in his world? How can we ever hope to enjoy life eternal in a world blighted by sin? But by dying for sin to spare us, Christ demonstrated God’s amazing love for us. We see this hope reflected in the following prayer on Christ’s passion by St. Brigit:
O JESUS, unfathomed depth of mercy, call to mind your grievous wounds that penetrated to the marrow of your bones and the depths of your soul. In memory of your piercings, O my Savior, turn the face of your anger from me and hide me in your wounds as wrath and judgment pass over me. Amen.
Christ’s Death helps us see clearly the terrible cost of our sin, but it also helps us see equally clearly the love, mercy, and power of God for us his image-bearers.
Not only did Christ’s sacrificial death spare us from suffering permanent death, it also broke sin’s power over us as St. Paul affirms in Colossians:
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Col 2.13-15).
Here we are confronted with an enigmatic truth we are called to believe by faith. Christ’s sacrificial death (dying for sin) is the vehicle God used to free us from our sins. St. Paul and the rest of the NT writers never explain how this works, only that it does. And we all know it isn’t quite as simple as that as Romans 7 with its profound introspection and lament over sin indicates (and our own life experience confirms). Many believe this is an autobiographical testimony from St. Paul himself. Whether that’s true, the fact remains Romans 7 is a reality for many, if not most, Christians if we are honest with ourselves. Even though freed from Sin’s power by Christ’s death we all continue to struggle with sin to one extent or another. St. Paul acknowledges this further in Romans 6.7, telling us that no one is finished entirely with sin until we die. It is a testimony to the awful power of sin in our lives, even with Christ’s even more powerful help. Perhaps John Wesley sums it up best when he proclaimed that while sin remains in Christians, it no longer reigns as it did before we believed in Christ. Regardless of our difficulties and struggles with the residual of Sin’s power, we still must take heart and hope because it is the undivided testimony of the NT that Christ’s death on the cross both saved us from utter destruction and freed us forever from Sin’s power, although not completely in this mortal life. What wondrous love is this, my beloved? Is it a wondrous love you possess?
Of course, none of this would be possible if Christ were not raised from the dead. We will speak more about the resurrection next week in part two of this sermon series, but here we note simply that if Christ had not been raised from the dead, he would have died a criminal’s death in utter shame, dishonor, and horror, never to be heard of again, let alone remembered past those who knew him in his mortal life. St. Paul will tell us as much in our epistle lesson next week. The resurrection validated Christ for who he claimed to be: God’s Messiah and Son, who atoned for our sins and freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power. And because he is raised from the dead and rules from God’s throne room (heaven), we can have utter confidence that his cross is what the Church has always proclaimed it to be: an instrument of God’s saving love, grace, mercy, justice, and power.
So what should we do with this information? First, we should use it to put to death all the guilt that we carry with us. If we have confessed our sins and asked God’s forgiveness on them, we can have full confidence that God has forgiven us and we have the cross as tangible evidence if we need reminded of this astonishing love, grace, and mercy. There is no sin from which Christ’s blood cannot cleanse and heal us, God be thanked and praised. Second, Christ’s cross reminds us that sin is universal and all are enslaved to its power save for the blood of Christ shed for us. This exposes lies like CRT that posit only a segment of the population is guilty of sin, whether or not sin language is used. Before we are quick to condemn others, let us first look in the mirror and then kneel at the foot of the cross, seeking the Father’s humility and wisdom before we unleash our own “wisdom” and wrath on others. Last, the cross proclaims the astonishing love of God to us in no uncertain terms. God loves us and cherishes us. We dishonor him when we refuse to do the same, both to ourselves and to others, or when we refuse to accept God’s grace offered unconditionally to us through Christ’s Death. God’s love should always produce glad and grateful hearts in us, full of wonderment as to how God can love us at all given the human condition. The cross is God’s eternal witness to us that nothing in all creation can separate us from his great love made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us embrace this love and remain firm in our faith and hope in it, rejoicing always, even in the most difficult of times. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered on the Feast of Candlemas (transferred), Sunday, January 30, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Father Wylie gets all whiny in a PhD kinda way when we ask for a written manuscript. Nobody’s got time for a whiny priest with a PhD so click here to listen to the audio podcast of his sermon.
Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24; Hebrews 2.14-18; St. Luke 2.22-40.
Sermon delivered on Epiphany 3C, Sunday, January 23, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Father Sang gets all whiny when we ask for a written manuscript. Nobody’s got time for a whiny priest, especially in the new year, so click here to listen to the audio podcast of his sermon.
Lectionary texts: Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; St. Luke 4.14-21.
Sermon delivered on Epiphany 2C, Sunday, January 16, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; St. John 2.1-11.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What are we to make of that strange but compelling story about Christ changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana? What might we learn from it as Christians who seek to be faithful disciples of our Lord in a world going increasingly mad? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
We come to our gospel lesson by way of our OT lesson. In it we note the desperation in the prophet’s voice as he resolves to give God no rest until God makes good on his promise to restore his people. In last week’s OT lesson—which Tucker ignored because he’s a Loser and likes to make my preaching job more difficult, but I digress—God himself had promised to end his people’s exile in Babylon and restore them to the promised land (Is 43.1-7). Now here we are, several chapters later in Isaiah, and God had apparently not fulfilled his promise to Israel to end their exile. And we all get what this is about because we too are waiting for God to consummate his promises to us in Jesus Christ. Simply put, between the pandemic, the strident language coming from our leaders, and the ever-increasing division, rancor, and lawlessness in this nation, we are flat worn out. Now depending on how we view God—whether we think God is fundamentally for or against us—this waiting can cause us to lose hope and/or stop believing that the promises of God to liberate us and his good creation from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death are true. Neither is a good choice for us as Christians because then we are effectively calling God a liar. Others of us want to roll up our sleeves and work harder to bring in the Kingdom on earth as in heaven to get things moving in the right direction. Notice carefully that Isaiah did none of these things. Instead, he resolved to persevere in prayer like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable (Lk 18.1-8).
Why am I spending time with this? Because if we lose hope or stop believing the promises of God or attempt to take matters into our own hands, we will eventually be defeated by the dark powers and/or our own fallen nature. If in the end we do not have a vision of God’s new heavens and earth that is robust enough and extravagant enough to help motivate us to keep our eyes on the prize, our faith will always be in danger of being broken by the next setback or catastrophe that strikes us or the world in which we live. And we all get why this is a problem. Think about that prize in your life on which you set your sights, be it work or school or athletics or love or fame or whatever. It was/is big enough and compelling enough for you to do whatever you had/have to do to achieve it. You probably were/are wiling to endure any setback, persevere against all odds, and sacrifice mightily to achieve your prized goal. We need to strive likewise in our faith journey to help keep it strong and vibrant. As our Lord Jesus was fond of reminding us in many of his parables, if we are content to pursue the lesser things of life, how much more should we pursue the greater things of life, like eternal life in God’s new creation?
And now we are ready to turn to our gospel lesson today because it is the prize on which every Christian should set his/her sights, a foretaste of what is in store for us as God’s beloved and redeemed children in Christ. Before we begin, I want to clarify that when I just talked about pursuing a prized goal, I was certainly not suggesting that we are responsible for our salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth as we saw last week when we looked at the grace of baptism. Salvation comes solely from the Lord, but it does require a response—after all, faith is more than a set of convictions, it demands a response—and if we stop believing the promises of salvation in Jesus Christ, we no longer have the ultimate prize to look forward to because without Christ we are no longer God’s redeemed children.
In our gospel lesson, then, we see the first of seven “signs” in St. John’s gospel, seven being the biblical number for completeness. Signs in St. John’s gospel refer to Jesus’ miracles, but they are not just supernatural acts. They are significant acts that point us to something greater. Here we see the astonishing extravagance of God manifested in Christ at this wedding in Cana. The wine has run out, a social catastrophe that could have serious legal consequences for the host, and the mother of our Lord asks him to rectify the situation. Please observe carefully that nothing happened until the servants obeyed Mary’s command to, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). Remember that. At first our Lord apparently rebuffs his mother’s request (more about that later), but ultimately he delivers a whopper, producing the equivalent of 600-900 bottles of the finest wine!
So what is St. John trying to tell us? Among the many things we could talk about, first we note the theme of the wedding/marriage covenant, a biblical theme that denotes the gracious call of God to his people Israel in the OT and ultimately to all people in and through Jesus Christ. Of course this covenant also describes the intimate relationship between God and his people, a relationship broken by Israel’s sins and ours. No relationship in all creation is more intimate than the relationship between a husband and wife at its best. It is the restoration of this relationship that the prophet sees as the fulfillment of God’s promises for his people in our OT lesson (Isaiah 62.4-5). What could be better news for hurting and broken people who are alienated from God and each other, then and now, than to hear that God loves us as his spouse despite our infidelity? In this wedding/marriage theme we find security, belonging, protection, forgiveness, and healing, among others. And we are encouraged to embrace the love of God for us made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ and to be made new again in our relationship with Christ in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, the wedding feast is an integral part of a wedding where we celebrate the newly-formed union of husband and wife because weddings are meant to be public affairs. Scripture celebrates likewise with its various images of the wedding feast or Messianic banquet where God’s people will celebrate their union with their rescuer and savior, the Messiah, whom Christians know to be Jesus of Nazareth. This theme is by no means an exclusive NT theme. Listen to this description of God’s great future banquet from an earlier chapter of Isaiah, a passage that is frequently read at funerals:
In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken! In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us! This is the Lord, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25.6-9, NLT)
We note here the extravagance of God’s grace and generous heart on display like it was when Jesus turned the water into wine. People of the world will gather at God’s banquet to celebrate their liberation from all the darkness of this world and to feast on the finest, well-aged wine and choicest meat, symbols of God’s good creation. None of us deserve an invitation but God invites us anyway. And those who have the good sense to accept the invitation will celebrate the end of their exile and enjoy no second-rate food and drink—we are not talking metaphor here—but the finest food and drink from God’s storehouse of grace. St. John is pointing us to the same promise in our gospel lesson this morning, thus he calls Jesus’ action a “sign.” As the psalmist proclaimed in our lesson, God gives us drink from the river of his delights (Ps 36.8)!
Second, we note that in providing this finest wine Jesus tacitly approves things that make life meaningful and pleasant: relationships, sexual fidelity in the context of marriage, community, hospitality, meals, family, and celebration, to name a few. Contra to those who look for every reason to make our relationship with Christ a lifeless, dour, and grim experience, our Lord will have none of that nonsense in this story. When we are redeemed and healed by Christ, we have no reason to be dour and stingy. Christ gives our mortal life meaning and purpose, even as we live in the darkness of a fallen world and our sinful desires. When we love each other and work at developing healthy and wholesome relationships with all kinds of people, especially the people of God, the promise of this story is that we will find abundance and delight in doing so because we obey Christ. Engaging in the above activities is part of living the abundant life our Lord told us he came to bring (Jn 10.10). Nothing else will do it for us. No one other than Christ can give us the joy of love and the delight found in giving generously of our time, talents, and resources for the sake of others. To be sure, there is plenty in this world to make us sad and beat us down. But the hope and promise of having a real and lively relationship with our risen Lord can overcome the darkest darkness because it reminds us that life, wholeness, health, goodness, and abundance are the reality, not scarcity, sickness, alienation, hurt, or death, thanks be to God! Can I hear an Amen??
Last, the foretaste of the Messianic banquet that will be ongoing in God’s new creation reminds us to keep our eyes on Jesus the prize because the ordinary things of this life will be transformed when he returns and made more beautiful and abundant than we can ever imagine, just like the new wine Jesus made. Think about the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen—husbands, this is a good time to turn to your wife and tell her she is that most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, it’s a good old-creation, anti-doghouse practice—and then try to imagine things more beautiful and abundant than that, i.e., try to imagine the unimaginable. This will give you a clue as to what awaits us in God’s new heavens and earth. I don’t know all that that entails, but I do know that our resurrected bodies will be inexpressively beautiful and without defect or sickness or any kind of malady. We will drink the finest wines without becoming intoxicated and we won’t desire to become intoxicated because we will be enjoying unbroken communion and fellowship with God the Father and the Lamb. There won’t be an addictive or lonely bone in our new body. The intimacy we enjoy only partly now, we will enjoy in full then. We won’t worry about being unloved or abandoned by God or others because we will be living in the light of God’s presence and the Lamb’s forever! I’m sure my puny imagination does not do justice to God’s new heavens and earth in trying to describe our future life. But one thing is certain, we get a glimpse and foretaste of the extravagant love and generosity of God in this first sign at Cana.
Our future, of course, is made possible by the final sign in St. John’s gospel. Spectacular as this first sign is, the most powerful sign of Jesus is his death and resurrection, where the dark powers are broken and our slavery to Sin with its attendant sickness and alienation are forever destroyed. When Jesus told his mother that his hour had not yet come, he wasn’t pointing to his death, but later in the gospel this was the hour about which he consistently spoke, the hour that couldn’t happen before its time. Without Christ and his sacrificial death and resurrection, we have no future on which to keep our eyes focused because we would still be living in our sin and death would therefore remain unconquered (it’s no coincidence that St. John tells us this creation of new wine happened on the third day). Without Christ’s death and resurrection we would have no motivation to live in the manner he calls us to live. Thankfully, because of God’s extravagant love for us, we do have a real future and hope to sustain us in the midst of our darkness and sorrow (cf. Jeremiah 29.11). When we obey Christ, we allow ourselves to live life and live it in the abundance of God’s extravagant love and grace first revealed by our Lord at Cana.
So what’s this all mean for us at St. Auggie’s? First, as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we are to celebrate in ongoing and diverse ways the gifts of healing, wholeness, and life given us by God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no reason for any Christian to live a joyless life, even in the midst of sorrow. Having a joy that is not contingent on the circumstances of life will go a long way in helping us deal with our sorrows when they come.
Second, we get a taste of the future real deal (new creation) each week when we come to the Table and feast on our Lord. That’s why we serve you fine port wine and bread. It mirrors imperfectly Christ’s banquet in the new creation where bitterness is no more. When you take in Jesus at the eucharist, he should be sweet to your palate and leave you wanting more because of Who he is and what he has done for you. And here’s a little self-check to help you assess your hope in Christ: As you return from the Lord’s Table and/or when you leave worship, would people mistake you for wedding guests or party goers? If not, I challenge you to examine your new creation theology because chances are it is lacking in significant ways.
Last, it means we are to take our relationship with each other seriously and celebrate those relationships, along with our relationship with God, whenever we can. How we treat each other as family members matters to our Lord and it should matter to us. Next Sunday we take partial possession of our new parish home and we need to make it a sign and foretaste of the extravagant abundance of God’s promised new world. There is no better way to do this than by using our new home as a base of operation for us as God’s people in Christ to shine the light of his abundant love and goodness on the community around us by living and proclaiming our new creation promise in our worship, our fellowship, and our service to Christ and his world.
Let us therefore continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come in full on earth as it is in heaven and for Christ to give us the grace to be obedient to him so that we will never turn his extravagant wine into water on our watch. After all, the only reason we have to celebrate is God’s extravagant and gracious love for us made known supremely in Christ and him crucified. And that, my beloved, is Good News, extravagantly so, now and for all eternity. So go celebrate and make others wonder what is your secret so you can explain it to them. Maybe even invite them to have a glass of the finest wine with you at the wedding feast of which you are a part so that they too can experience the new eschatological joy you do. In doing so you will also find it to be the needed balm for your soul to help you transcend the death-dealing and soul-destroying business as usual of this world as well as this wicked pandemic that wears us all out. Keep your eyes on the prize who is Jesus and dare to imagine the unimaginable world he promises to usher in, God’s new world that defies and transcends our deepest longings. To Christ be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1C, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 9, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; St. Luke 3.15-17, 21-22.
Let the words of my mouth & the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock our redeemer. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have to begin this morning with a confession: I have always found the baptism of Jesus to be a bit perplexing. This is probably not something I should admit as I’m opening up a sermon about Christ’s baptism, but it’s the truth. It’s always been puzzling to me. I am sure you can all see the look of panic in Fr. Kevin’s eyes as he’s perhaps beginning to regret giving me the task of preaching on this text.
In my defense, Father, I think I am in good company. I’m not the only one who has struggled to understand why Jesus would be baptized. Even John the Baptist, the very man who presided over Jesus’ baptism, could not make sense of it. In St. Matthew’s account of this event, we’re told that when “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him, John would have prevented him” (Matthew 3:14). John made his objection known: He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14b).
It’s understandable that John would be confused. After all, John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, a call for people to turn from their sinful ways. At the beginning of Luke 3, we’re told that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). People from all over Judea came to be baptized by John, and he exhorted them, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). In Matthew 3:2, John’s message is summarized like this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This presents a problem: if Jesus is who the Church confesses Him to be—the sinless Son of God—why would He need to participate in a baptism of repentance? He did nothing of which he should repent. He had no sins to confess. And yet, Jesus insisted that John must baptize Him, saying, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Somehow, in some way, baptism was an integral part of Jesus’ mission.
So what do we make of Jesus’ baptism? How are we to understand it, and what does it mean for us as believers today? This morning, as we examine St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, I hope that we will see two related truths: First, that in His baptism, Jesus identifies with us. And second, that in baptism, we are identified with Jesus.
Let’s start with the first of those statements: in His baptism, Jesus identifies with us. More specifically, we could say Jesus identifies with sinful humanity.
To begin to unravel the mystery of Jesus’ baptism, we should take note of a detail that is easy to overlook: the location of His baptism. Luke 3:3 tells us that John “went into tall the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance of forgiveness of sins.” For John, the Jordan River was more than just a water source. Pools for used for ritual cleansing were readily available in the city of Jerusalem, but John chose to operate in a remote place. It would seem that John was intentional in choosing this location for his ministry. The Jordan River was the boundary that God’s people had crossed to enter the land of Canaan, the land that He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It’s near the banks of the Jordan that an important event takes place, an event that is recorded in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. God’s people were encamped on the Eastern side of the Jordan River, and at long last, after many years of wandering in the wilderness, they were about to cross over into the Promised Land. But before they did, Moses reminded Israel of the Law God had given them after He delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. Moses urges them to obey God’s commands once they enter the Promised Land. “When you cross the Jordan to go in to occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and when you occupy it and live in it, you must diligently observe all the statutes and ordinances that I am setting before you today” (Deut. 11:31-32).
Moses repeatedly warns the people that he is setting before them a blessing and a curse, good and evil, life and death. If they lived according to God’s Law, they would experience God’s blessings, but if they chose disobedience, they would reap disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, despite these warnings, soon after they take possession of Canaan, God’s people defy Him. They worship false gods and adopt the pagan practices of their neighbors.
In a heartbreaking passage from Hosea 11, God recounts the tragic choices of His beloved people: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). God had graciously freed His people from slavery in Egypt. He had lovingly guided them through the wilderness. He provided them with everything they needed and instructed them about how life works best. Yet sadly, like a rebellious child, the people of Israel spurned the loving guidance of their Father and chose to go their own way: “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:2).
As a result of their unfaithfulness, the people of Israel experienced all of the curses that Moses predicted: famines, plagues, attacks from their enemies, and ultimately, exile from the land. These consequences reverberated into the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. Even though some of God’s people had been able to return to Judea, they were still under the rule of a foreign power.
With all this in mind, it is no accident that John calls people to a baptism of repentance on the Eastern shore of the Jordan River, the very place where Moses had called Israel to keep God’s Law in the land. Theologian Scott McKnight explains this well: “John is saying that if Israel wants to enjoy the blessings of God, they need to go back to the Jordan and begin again . . . John’s prophetic drama is a reenactment of the entry into the Land.” (Scott McKnight, The Jesus Creed, 67).
But John’s ministry was ultimately about more than just pointing people to repentance. It was about pointing them to a Rescuer. It would not be enough for God’s people to resolve themselves to live according to God’s ways. They had made this commitment many times before and failed to live up to it. And this is where Jesus shows up, the one that John said would come after him would be greater than him (v. 16).
It’s here that we should pay attention to another detail from Luke’s account: the words God the Father speaks to Jesus after His baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). We just saw that God referred to Israel in the same way—as His son—in Hosea 11:1. Interestingly, St. Matthew quotes this same verse in His gospel and tells us it applies to Jesus. After the visit from the wise men, Jesus and His family flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s schemes, and St. Matthew tells us that these things took place “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” (Matthew 2:15).
The writers of the New Testament are endeavoring to show us that Jesus is the True Israel, that is, that Jesus came to what the people of Israel could not do themselves. We see Jesus as the New Israel right after His baptism when he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. While the people of Israel grumbled and rebelled against God during their wilderness wonderings, when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He resists the devil and remains perfectly obedient to the will of His Father.
If we put all these pieces together, we get an idea of what was happening at Jesus’ baptism. Why would Jesus participate in a baptism of repentance if he has no sin of His own? Jesus is standing in for His people Israel—and not just for ethnic Israel, but for all sinners, ourselves included. In His baptism, Jesus is acting as our representative, our substitute, by doing what Israel did not do and what we can’t do: perfectly repenting—not of His own sins, but of ours—and completely submitting to God’s will. N.T. Wright explains that this is how Jesus ushers in God’s kingdom on earth: “By humbly identifying Himself with God’s people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life, and ultimately dying their death” (Wright, Advent for Everyone: Matthew, 38). Jesus lived perfectly, died, and rose again so that anyone who is united with Him can experience all the benefits of His perfect obedience and His saving work.
This brings us to our second truth: in baptism, we are identified with Christ. It’s only those who are united to Christ who can experience the blessings He has secured through His life, death, and resurrection. In Romans 6:3, St. Paul teaches that baptism is the means by which, through faith, we are united with Christ. He says that those who are baptized “have been baptized into Christ Jesus.” He goes on to say, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
In baptism, as Scott McKnight explains, “the grace of God [is] set loose in the life of the baptized” (McKnight, It Takes a Church to Baptize, 51). Christ’s saving work is personally applied to us. In baptism, both a drowning and a cleansing take place. We die to our sinful nature, which is buried with Christ, and we are also washed clean of our guilt and sin and are raised to walk in new life in Christ.
These are not the only blessings God offers us through baptism. In our gospel reading, John teaches that Jesus, the one who would come after him, would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (v. 16). Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism, so Scripture connects our baptism with the indwelling of the God’s Spirit. In Acts 2:38, St. Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit enables us to do what we cannot do on our own: to say no to sin and to walk according to God’s ways (Phil 2;13, Ez. 36:27).
Finally, remember how God the Father says after Jesus is baptized? “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 22). Scripture tells us that this blessing is ours as well. Romans 8:14 says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” In baptism, God claims us as His own. We are adopted into His family, and we have a glorious inheritance awaiting us—not the Promised Land, but the new heavens and a new earth, a place where we’ll be free from sin, death, evil, pain, and suffering once and for all (c.f. Rev. 21:4). These are the blessings that are ours in Christ, blessings that God extends to us in baptism.
This morning, as I close, I want to leave us with an often repeated but ever important admonition: remember your baptism.
If you had given this advice as a young Christian growing up in Baptist church, it would have been just as perplexing to me as Jesus’ baptism was. But this is exactly the advice I needed in moments when I questioned, “Did I really understand what I was doing when I prayed for Jesus to save me? Was I sincere in my commitment to Christ?”
Remembering your baptism points you away from yourself and what you have done and points you to Jesus, and what He has done for you. As one theologian explains, “In times of doubt, fear, and even despair, those who worry about God’s love for them, and those who question their salvation or their participation in Christ, should not look inward where they will probably find even more reasons to doubt their salvation. Rather, they must look outside themselves . . . Christians in need of assurance should understand that their salvation is an objective fact, sealed in an event in space and time, as tangible as water . . . Instead of building our hope on the shifting sands of our own works or inner lives, we can have confidence that what Christ did for us is a fact” (Gene Veith, Jr., The Spirituality of the Cross, 59, 43-44).
So, if you begin to doubt God’s love for you, remember your baptism. Remember that God has claimed you as His own. When Satan tempts you to despair over your sin, remember your baptism. Remember that your sin has been nailed to the cross and that you have been washed clean by the blood of Christ. When your body is plagued by sickness and disease, when you grow weary amidst the pain and suffering of this world, remember your baptism. Remember that God has given you His Spirit to guide you, and look with hope to the glorious inheritance that awaits you.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Epiphany (transferred), Sunday, January 2, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Father Sang gets all whiny when we ask for a written manuscript. Nobody’s got time for a whiny priest, especially to start the new year, so click here to listen to the audio podcast of his sermon.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; St. Matthew 2.1-12.
Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Isaiah 11; Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! During this past Advent season we encouraged you to look into the darkness of this world and your lives with the eyes of faith. We preached on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, and also invited you to meditate on these things with faith in the goodness of God’s justice and power to act on our behalf. Tonight we begin the great Christmas celebration. But why do we celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent? Why “rejoice and be merry”? This is what I want us to look at this evening.
We celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent because Christmas announces definitively what the prophets proclaimed long ago: That God would come into the world to rescue all creation from the Curse, and us from his terrible but just judgment on our sins, that although we all must endure death and stand before the judgment seat of Christ because of our sins, eternal separation from God the Father, i.e. Hell, is no longer our destination because we are covered by the Blood of the Lamb shed for us. Christmas announces in no uncertain terms what Isaiah and the writer of Hebrews proclaim in our OT and epistle lessons tonight: God’s salvation has begun in the birth of our Savior. This is God’s light and power shining in the darkness of our lives, not human power that inevitably must fail. This is God coming to rescue us from Death, Judgment, and Hell so that we can live with him forever in heaven, the promised new creation. Christmas announces that creation matters to God our Creator, that humans are supremely important to God because God became human to rescue us from all that seeks to destroy us. Christmas begins to reveal in ways the OT prophets could not the character and heart of God the Father because God chose to reveal himself to us in ways our puny and fallible minds could finally understand so that we could begin to obey him and love him in ways we simply couldn’t before Christ was born. This too is the light shining in the darkness as St. John announces in his gospel, and try as the dark powers will to snuff out Christ’s light, they will fail utterly because nothing is more powerful than the power of God.
But the birth of Christ this night at Bethlehem is not what we really celebrate, lovely and sentimental as we have made it. No, Christmas points us inevitably to Good Friday and Easter, because on Calvary Evil was defeated and our sins dealt with forever, and the empty tomb proclaims that Death is shattered, one day to be abolished permanently when our Lord Jesus returns to finish his saving work. This is the light shining in the darkness, the power of God at work, but in ways we never expected or even wanted. Being the proud, fallen creatures we are, we would have preferred that God left us alone so that we could fix ourselves. But since we know in our heart of hearts that is not possible, we instead preferred God to defeat our enemies in ways we are used to, with shock and awe (while sparing us in the process, of course). But this is not God’s way of salvation because to save us by shock and awe would be to participate in evil itself by imitating its ways. Christmas announces that our God has indeed come to bare his mighty arm so that all the nations will see God’s salvation. But because it is God and because of the Father’s eternal love for us, God chose to defeat Sin, Death, and Evil without using the weapons preferred by the world and the dark powers and principalities. Instead, God chose to take on our flesh and die a most foul and shameful death so as to condemn our sin in the flesh without having to condemn us. God continually surprises by giving us so much more than we can ask or desire. Why should we not rejoice and be merry, even in the face of darkness?
This requires faith, of course, but not a blind faith. It requires a faith that is informed by the overarching story of God’s rescue plan, a plan announced when God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people to bring God’s healing to the world, and ultimately in the coming of God himself as a human being to seal the deal. And because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead we have no good reason to doubt God’s narrative contained in Scripture and proclaimed by Christ’s body the Church. God’s rescue is not yet consummated but it is complete because it is God himself who is the chief actor and agent of salvation. This is why we light candles and sing God’s praises. This is why a weary world rejoices and can find merriment in the midst of desolation. God himself has announced his mighty rescue by becoming a baby born of a Virgin in fulfillment of ancient prophecy that God is with us, Emmanuel, in any and every circumstance of this mortal life, especially in the darkness of our lives.
In this dark age heightened by fear and uncertainty due to COVID, increased strife, crime, inflation and other economic woes, we need to pause and set our minds on the light, on things that matter most. Of course our problems are concerning as are the various sicknesses, isolation, alienation, and other problems we all face. But Christmas announces that the darkness does not have the final say. We remember the promises of God we looked at during Advent, that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and destroy Death forever, that God will end all strife and alienation and every form of evil forever. None of this would be possible had God not chosen to insert himself into our history as a human being to deal with the darkness on his own terms. We look forward to the new heavens and earth but we also celebrate tonight that we have been given a preview of heaven touching earth. Jesus Christ was born to die for us so that we no longer have to fear Death and Judgment and Hell. God has declared in his actions that he loves us despite the fact that we are essentially unlovable because of our sin-sickness and ongoing rebellion against God. Christmas proclaims that we no longer have to be afraid despite the darkness that swirls around and in us. In Christ, God has conquered the darkness for us so that we have a legitimate chance to live in God’s light, now in this mortal life and in the age to come when we will enjoy unimaginably sweet and ecstatic fellowship with God by being granted the privilege of living in God’s direct presence forever. Christmas invites us anew to remember our baptismal vows and put on our Lord Jesus Christ, i.e., to imitate Christ in all our thinking, speaking, and doing, shedding our own filthy rags in the process because we come to realize those rags lead us to poverty, sickness, alienation, loneliness, death, and judgment. Christmas invites us to walk with the risen Christ all our days and in doing so to find joy and purpose and meaning that are based not on the circumstances and chances of life but on the tender love of God the Father for us. We believe all this because we believe Christ really is risen from the dead and therefore we also believe he is busy putting his fallen world and creatures to rights, even as he is available to each of us in the power of the Spirit, just as the NT promises.
In practical terms, then, how might we live in the light of Christ so that the darkness does not overcome it? As we have seen, to learn to live in the light of Christ we must first and most importantly learn to recognize its (or more precisely his) presence and power in our life. We learn this chiefly by engaging the Scriptures regularly, studying them and listening to faithful preaching, regular worship, and partaking in the sacraments of the Church, especially holy Eucharist. When we do these things regularly and intentionally we are trained by the Spirit to recognize, for example, that Christ was born even as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Herod, sought to exterminate his life almost immediately after he was born but failed. Children tragically were slaughtered but the evil of this world did not end Christ’s life before its time and so the world had a chance to live. The darkness could not overcome the light because God the Father is in charge. This in turn helps us deal with the darkness in our lives equipped with the eyes and heart and mind of faith that have been trained for spiritual warfare that inevitably is waged against us. Without a firm conviction that Christ’s light and power shines brightly in his world to heal and rescue it (and us) from the iron grip of Sin, Evil, and Death, we will never be able to imitate him on a regular and ongoing basis because we will lose heart and hope.
But when we are equipped with a life-changing faith that is centered on Christ we are able to imitate his light. Every time we refuse to submit to the zeitgeist and disordered values of this age that dehumanize and destroy people’s lives in the name of “liberty” or identity, Christ’s light shines through us, even when we are called haters and bigots (how wanting people to give themselves to God’s order, i.e., to the light of Christ, is hatred while insisting that we follow our own disordered desires to our eternal destruction is never explained to us; funny how the darkness sometimes works). Every time we choose to forgive rather than retaliate when we are wronged or spoken about harshly or unfairly, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we are willing to forgive ourselves, refusing the darkness’s invitation and our own fallen inclination to self-condemn, instead repenting and going forward convinced that Christ still loves us no matter how egregious our sin or failure [insert the sin over which you most despair here], Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we continue to confess Christ as our Lord and remain convinced that he still is in charge, no matter how great the darkness that swirls in and around us, Christ light shines through us. Every time we seek to imitate God’s generous heart and share ourselves, our time, and our resources with those in need or who suffer for various reasons, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we talk to others about our faith in Christ and how it makes a difference for us, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we grieve as people with hope rather than in hopelessness, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we choose to love instead of hate, to be selfless rather than selfish, to seek to honor Christ in all we do, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we love each other as a real and true parish family despite our mutual annoyances and fallibilities—things that have the ability to separate and alienate and destroy relationships—Christ’s light shines through us and the darkness that inevitably arises to crush us will never succeed. We may lose our life for the sake of Christ but even then we gain it, and eternally. None of this is for the faint of heart, but it is for those of us who realize that without Christ’s light we are dead men and women walking and we are therefore willing to give ourselves and way of living to Christ.
This is why we celebrate Christmas and can rejoice and be merry. God became human to die for us. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of St. Paul’s bold and astonishing claim in Romans 11.32 that, “God imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone”! If that is not worthy of our highest praise and thanksgiving, not to mention our best celebration, I don’t know what is. This is the light of Christ shining in our darkness, healing us and promising to make all things new and right, ambiguous and mysterious and messy as it looks in this mortal life, but ours fully, clearly, and unambiguously in the age to come. It is the only light that can truly heal and satisfy. Nothing else can, not our bright lights or money or gift-giving or parties or power or toys. Only the light of Christ can truly save us from the darkness of this world and give us real purpose for living. Let us therefore resolve to rejoice tonight in the midst of our darkness, thanking God our Father for the great gift of himself so that we can be his forever. It is a precious and immeasurably valuable gift from our loving Creator and Father. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. May the light of Christ always shine brightly in our darkness. Merry Christmas, my beloved.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Advent preaching series on the Four Last Things Concludes today. Sermon delivered on Advent 4C, Sunday, December 19, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Micah 5.2-5a; Psalm 16; 2 Thessalonians 1.5-12; St Matthew 25.31-46.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we are continuing our focus during this Advent season on the Four Last Things. So far, we have discussed death, judgment, and Heaven. And now, on this final Sunday of Advent, I have the dubious distinction of getting to talk with you about Hell.
Hell is a difficult subject about which to preach. The doctrine of Hell is one of the most controversial tenets of the Christian faith, and delivering a sermon about Hell presents some serious pitfalls to preachers (these twin errors were famously identified by C.S. Lewis in his Preface to The Screwtape Letters, p. 3)
On the one hand, there is the danger of minimizing the doctrine of Hell. In fact, there are some who dismiss it completely. They contend that the concept of Hell is antiquated and the notion of God consigning human beings to eternal judgment is barbaric—better to dispense with it altogether, they’d say. But this simply won’t do. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, the doctrine of Hell “has the full support of Scripture and, specifically, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason” (p. 22). As difficult as the doctrine of Hell may be to reckon with, orthodox Christians can’t just write it off.
But then there’s an opposite yet equally dangerous error that preachers can fall prey to, and that’s overemphasizingthe doctrine of Hell. It’s possible for preachers to become so fixated on the terrors of Hell that the message of the gospel itself is overshadowed by vivid (and often speculative) descriptions of eternal suffering and torture. Those who are converted under such preaching nay come away with a shallow faith based solely on escaping the fires of Hell. Believers who are fed a steady of diet of “fire and brimstone” preaching may question their status before God and be fearful about their eternal destination.
This morning, as we look at what Scripture teaches about Hell, I hope that we can avoid these two pitfalls by both acknowledging the reality and horror of Hell while also holding forth the hope that the Advent of our Lord brings to hell-bound sinners.
As our readings for today illustrate, Scripture affirms both the existence and the horror of Hell. In our gospel lesson (Mt. 25:31-46), Jesus teaches that at the end of the age, He will separate the peoples of the earth into two groups—the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous, the blessed and the accursed. These two different groups have two distinct destinations: the righteous will enter “into eternal life” (v. 46) while the unrighteous will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). This “eternal fire” is Hell, a place of punishment that our epistle reading tells us is set apart for “those who do not know God” and who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8).
Elsewhere, in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes it clear that all of us in our natural condition fall into this category. He tells us, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks God” (Rom. 3:11). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Through both the created order and through His Word, God has clearly revealed what is right and wrong, and yet, left to our own devices, we defiantly choose evil rather than good, sin instead of obedience. Because God is righteous and perfectly just, He cannot and will not allow sin to go unpunished. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages”—the consequences we have earned—for our “sin is death,” and not just physical death, but eternal death in Hell.
While Scripture does not provide us with a detailed account of the ins and outs of Hell, it gives us numerous images that convey its horrors. Throughout the New Testament, Hell is described as a place of “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12), a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42), a place of “torment” (Luke 16:23), “destruction” (Matt. 10:28), and “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46). We get enough of a glimpse of Hell to know that it is a place of immense, ongoing suffering. I think this typically how we view Hell: as a place that God sends unrepentant evildoers as punishment for their sin.
But notice that our readings depict Hell through another lens as well. Jesus describes the final judgment not just as a separation of people form one another (into “sheep” and “goats”) but also as separation from Him, from God: “Depart from me into the eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41) and “these will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). Similarly, in our epistle lesson, Hell is described not just as “flaming fire” and “eternal destruction,” but also as “separat[ion] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might” (2 Thess. 1:9). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The chief punishment of Hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”
Yes, Hell is indeed a sentence imposed by God, the just judge, but when we think of Hell as separation from God, it becomes clear that Hell is also a choice—the natural conclusion of a life lived apart from God. John 3:19 frames Hell in this manner: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Any time we sin, we are choosing to separate ourselves from God. We are choosing darkness over light; we are choosing to go our own way rather than following God’s ways.
This is the decision that Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden. Instead of living in obedience to God, they chose to go their own way and ate the forbidden fruit. On that day, all Hell broke loose on earth. We human beings have been following in their footsteps ever since. We chart our own courses thinking that we can find meaning, fulfillment, and joy through sinful pleasures and selfish pursuits. These things may bring temporary pleasure, they can never satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. Ultimately, following our own way will bring us misery, heartache, and pain; it makes our lives a living hell. So Eternal Hell—separation from God forever—is not just the punishment for our sin, but it’s one’s logical destination after a lifetime of distancing oneself from God through sinful choices.
This is sorry state of humanity after the Fall: a hellish existence here on earth, and as we look toward eternity, all we have is “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” of God (Hebrews 10:27).
But thanks be to God that He does not abandon us to this miserable fate. Instead, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son [to be] born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). In the Advent of Christ, we have a hope that is far more powerful than Hell.
Since the Fall, as we’ve seen, humans have been looking for meaning and fulfillment in all the wrong places, creating a kind of hell on earth. So what did God do? He entered into His creation! Heaven came down to us! St. Athanasius puts it like this in his classic work On the Incarnation: “Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His Great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their sense, so to speak, halfway. He became Himself an object for the sense, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God did in the body.” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 43). Through His life, ministry, and teaching, Jesus pointed people back to God the Father. He showed that abundant life—true meaning, joy, and fulfillment—could only be found in Him (John 10:10).
But Jesus came not just to save us from hell on earth, but from eternal Hell, the judgment we deserve for our sin. As the angel said when telling Joseph that Mary was with child, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus would ultimately accomplish this through His Passion.
We confess in the Apostles Creed that Christ “descended into Hell.” There are different ways that believers interpret this article of the creed, but as Timothy George explains, “In essence, it means that in the sending and self-sacrifice of his Son, God himself has absorbed not only the penalty of sin but also its eternal consequences, the ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth.’” We could say that on the cross, Jesus experienced Hell for us. He was separated from God the Father—crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)—so that those who belong to Him wouldn’t have to be. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake He [became] sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” We who belong to Christ are clothed with His righteousness. This gives us the assurance that one day, “when the Son of Man comes in His glory” (Matt. 25:31), we will enter not into “eternal punishment,” but instead into “eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46).
Brothers and sisters, the Advent of Christ has changed everything. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again! And when He does, we need not fear a fiery judgment, for Christ has taken captive death and Hell. In Him, our hope for eternal life is secure. We can boldly proclaim with St. Paul, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Advent preaching series on the Four Last Things continues today. Sermon delivered on Advent 3C, Sunday, December 12, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Isaiah 12.2-6; Philippians 4.4-7; St. Luke 3.7-18.
May the words of my mouth and Meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you oh Lord our Rock and our Redeemer, in the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen
Christ has gone before us to prepare a dwelling place for us in heaven. He has made the arrangements for us. The apostle John writes that all these truths have been written in Scripture so that: “You may know that you have eternal life”.
A story is told of a missionary couple. After having served for decades in Africa, Mr. & Mrs. Henry Morrison, were returning to New York to retire.
After years of service, they had no pension, and their health was failing. They were worried and discouraged.
They happened to be on the same ship as Theodore Roosevelt, who was returning from one of his African hunting expeditions.
No one paid any attention to the missionary couple. They watched the fanfare that accompanied the President and his entourage.
During the voyage, the missionary said to his wife, “Something is wrong. We have given our lives in service to God in Africa for all these years and no one cares a thing about us. Here this man comes back from a hunting trip and everybody makes much over him, but nobody cares about us.”
When the ship docked in New York, a band was waiting to greet the President. The mayor and other dignitaries were there. The papers were full of news concerning the President’s arrival. Yet, No one was there for the missionary couple. They slipped off the ship and found a cheap flat on the East side.
That night the man said to his wife, “I can’t take this, God is not treating us fairly.” His wife replied, “Why don’t you go into the other room and tell that to the Lord? He did just that and returned some time later but his face was different.
His wife asked him what happened. “The Lord settled it with me,” he said. “I told Him how bitter I was that the President should receive this tremendous homecoming, when not one person met us at the dock.
And when I finished complaining, it seemed as though the Lord put His hand on my shoulder and simply said “You’re not Home Yet.”
Brothers and sisters, This earth is not our home.
Our fleeting years on this planet are but a small portion of our journey. There is another realm of life beyond this sphere. It is a place where we will know life in all its richness, in all its fullness.
As believers, and followers of Christ we are just pilgrims journeying to our heavenly home.
The Scriptures refer to us on this Earth as Strangers, Ambassadors, and Pilgrims!
Writing to the Church in Philippi, Paul said, “Our citizenship is in Heaven” (Philippians 3:20) Now Philippi was a Roman Colony and in these Colonies the citizens were predominantly soldiers who had served sometime in the service of the Empire and were rewarded with full citizenship. The great characteristics of these colonies was that, wherever you went in the empire, there remained fragments of the great capital of Rome.
A Roman dress was worn; Roman justice was administered; Roman magistrates governed; and Roman morals were observed.
In a political sense, the Philippians knew what it was to be citizens of a far-off city, a place where most of them had never even been.
On an immeasurably higher plane, believers belong to a “Heavenly City”. Through the use of this analogy, Paul was saying to the believers: Just as the Roman colonists never forget that they belong to Rome, you must never forget that you are citizens of heaven.
Therefore your conduct must match your citizenship.
Just before His impending death, Jesus spoke to His disciples about this place called heaven.
He left them with these reassuring words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And I go and prepare a place for you, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)
When Jesus shared that there was a dwelling place being prepared for us, “in my Father’s house,” it changed forever the whole character of the abode of the dead. No longer was death to be viewed as a journey to an unknown and frightening destination.
For the first-time, people were able to see death as a going home. Going home to the Heavenly City. Going Home to their Heavenly Father. Going Home and entering into the presence of their Creator where all would be joy, where all would be peace, where all would be love”.
It was seen by these believers as the place where they would be reunited once again with loved ones and friends who had died in Christ.
“In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.”
The Greek word translated ‘dwelling places’ also means ‘abiding places.’
And this was a very familiar image for the people of this time.
It was customary for traveling dignitaries in those days to send some of their party on, in advance to find lodging and make arrangements for them in the distant cities.
Many times, a disciple went ahead of Jesus to make arrangements before He arrived for a gathering. And that is exactly what happened on the night of Supper in the Upper Room. Two of the disciples at Christ’s bidding, went before Him to make the arrangement for them to gather in the upper Room. The meaning of our Gospel passage is so wonderful, and it is clear Christ has gone before us to prepare an abiding place for us in heaven. He has made the arrangements for us. Sadly there are many who seem to believe that life on this planet is all that there is, that there is no abiding place.
This story may be helpful if I may share with us today:
In a mother’s womb were twin babies.
The first baby asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The second baby replied, “Why, of course.
There has to be something after delivery.
Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense,” said the first.
“There is no life after delivery.
What would that life be?” “I don’t know, but there will be more light than in here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths.”
The doubting one laughed. “That is absurd! Walking is impossible.
And eat with our mouths? Ridiculous.
The umbilical cord supplies nutrition.
Life after delivery just can’t be. The umbilical cord is too short.”
The second baby held his ground. “I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here.”
The first baby replied, “No one has ever come back from there.
Delivery is the end of life, and in after-delivery it is nothing but darkness.” “Well, I don’t know,” said the twin, “but certainly we will see mother and she will take care of us.”
“Mother?” The first baby guffawed.
“You believe in mother? Where is she now?” The second baby calmly and patiently tried to explain. “She is all around us.
It is in her that we live.
Without her there would be no life.”
“Well. I don’t see her, so she doesn’t exist.”
To which the other replied, “Sometimes when you’re in silence you can hear her, you can perceive her.
I believe there is even a greater life after delivery and we are here to prepare ourselves for that reality when it comes….”
Beloved We can be confident that heaven is our final destination.
That Heaven is our true home.
The apostle John writes in the gospel that: all these truths have been written in Scripture so that Quote “You may know that you have eternal life” (John 20:31) Not a hope of eternal life, not a wish of eternal life, but to KNOW that you have eternal life!
My Beloved, Please hear me on this!
Since we are assured of heaven, we need not fear death, we need not fear dying. Physical death is for the believer a triumphant gateway to the glory and to the splendors of our heavenly home.
And We cannot help at times but to wonder what heaven is like.
The only place we can go to find out what heaven is like is God’s Word.
In the letter to the Believers gathered in Corinth we are told this: “No eye has seen, No ear has heard, No mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9 Beloved, whatever we can imagine heaven to be like, it isn’t!
Praise God! It is much more.
It is vastly superior to anything our minds could ever imagine.
Nevertheless, there are some things about heaven that we do know.
God has revealed to us some very important truths about our heavenly home. Hear God’s Promise to those that die in Christ: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”.” Revelation 21:4 Heaven is our ultimate dwelling place our eternal home. Heaven is the place where there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more sorrow.
Beloved, we cannot even imagine the glories of Heaven.
Remember what the Scriptures tell us, “… now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” 1 Corinthians 13:12 This is to say, Here on earth we see things imperfectly.”We know in part’ and our knowledge is in part.
Yet for those who know Christ as their Savior and Lord, these truths have been written in Scripture that you may know that you have eternal life.
Brothers and sisters let’s yield to the saving grace of Jesus and you will know where you are going.
Do you know where you are going, when you leave this life. When you leave this side of eternity?
You can know you can know with certainty.
Heaven is a gift that is freely bestowed upon those who are trusting Jesus Christ to save them. If you are trusting, then Jesus is preparing a place for you. My Beloved, for those in Christ, a new and beautiful day will dawn, when we close our eyes in death. Those who know Christ as their Savior and Lord can have assurance. Assurance that He is preparing a place for you.
Remember, Your citizenship is in Heaven and You’re not Home yet.
In the name of God, the Father, the son and the Holy Spririt. Amen.
Sermon delivered on Advent 2C, Sunday, December 5, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 1.68-79; Philippians 1.3-11; St. Luke 3.1-6.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning we observe the second Sunday of Advent, a season of watchful waiting and anticipation. Our preaching theme continues on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell—and this morning I want us to focus on Judgment.
Advent begins in the dark, literally and metaphorically. We are rapidly approaching the shortest day of the year and the extended darkness wears us down. It is especially hard if you suffer SAD like I do. Advent is the season for Christians to take stock of the world in which we live, a world filled with the beauty of God’s creation but also blighted by the darkness of Evil, Sin, and Death. Advent asks the hard but real questions about God’s justice and care for his world and us. Its hope is rooted in the power of God, not human window dressing, and this requires sober thinking on our part about our past, present, and future. Advent is based on the promise of God contained in the overarching narrative of Scripture to put all things right in this desperately wrong world of his, a good and beautiful world marred by human sin and the evil our sin ushered in, Death being the ultimate evil. This is why observing Advent isn’t for the faint of heart—it forces us to confront the reality of Evil and our part in it—and often takes folks by surprise who come from traditions that don’t observe Advent because we don’t play the Christmas game the way our culture does. That’s why I know, e.g., that there are some of you out there this morning—your music director being one of them—already grumbling that we are not singing Christmas carols during Advent. That’s value-added for me, of course (I live to irritate), but off point. While the secular world rushes about putting up lights and decorations, hoping that all things shiny and bright will make it all better in the morning (it won’t), the Church spends its time during Advent reflecting on the promises and power of God to bring real justice to his creation and allows us to hear afresh the Good News of Christ. Don’t misunderstand. I love the lights and decorations and sounds of Christmas. Our house is a veritable Christmas wonderland. But much as I enjoy the light and beauty of Christmas decorations, they do not address the darkness of our world and therefore cannot provide any real comfort to those who need it most. No, if we want to find real comfort, a comfort based on the love and power of God rather than ourselves, we will find it here as the gathered people of God—even if we are gathered in the darkness of exile on the virtual island of Patmos (Zoom) as we await entry into our new home.
So what comes to mind when you think of the judgment of God? If you are like many, if not most, folks you equate God’s judgment with punishment and that’s understandable. In our OT lesson, e.g., the prophet Malachi wonders who can endure the Lord’s terrible judgment and both St. Paul and St. Matthew warn us indirectly that we had better repent lest we face that judgment. And of course a quick survey of the OT reminds us that indeed when fallen humans try to live in the holy presence of God on their own terms, it never turns out well for us; that was the whole reason for the tabernacle/temple system. God’s holy perfection simply cannot tolerate any form of corruption and/or evil, no matter how small it is. And who among us does not tremble a bit when we hear the writer of the letter to the Hebrews declare that, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10.31)? The punitive dimension of God’s judgment leads many of us to believe—incorrectly—that God is a constant, angry ogre, eager to strike us down at the first opportunity because we all miss God’s desired mark as his image-bearers whom God created to be wise and good stewards on God’s behalf over God’s good creation.
But this view of God’s judgment is skewed at best because it really impugns God’s character as a loving and just God and it fails to recognize the positive dimension of God’s judgment that Scripture celebrates throughout. What’s that you say? How can God’s judgment be positive? Hear the psalmist now:
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise! / Let the earth and all living things join in. Let the rivers clap their hands in glee! / Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the Lord, / for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with justice, / and the nations with fairness (Ps 98.7-9; cf. Ps 96).NLT
If God’s judgment were strictly punitive and the result of a mean, vindictive Creator, why would the psalmist tell the nations and all creation to rejoice over its coming? I don’t know too many people who rejoice over being punished and the ones who do need our prayers and help more than anything! No, the psalmist tells all creation and us to rejoice because God’s judgment, while bringing punishment to the forces of Evil and their minions, also makes all things right! This is the essence of real justice and only God is capable of executing it. At its core, justice restores all things to their rightful state in the created order and brings balance/order out of chaos. And we get this at the deepest level of our being. Who among us in their right mind doesn’t long for all the wrongs in this world to be put to rights? Human systems of justice, even the best of them, cannot fully achieve these goals. We might try murderers, e.g., but even just sentences will not bring their victims back to life. Or what about those individuals who contract terrible diseases that rob them of their health and inflict terrible suffering on them and their families/friends? What about victims of war or natural disaster? What about the terrorist who ran down those innocents at the Christmas parade in WI or the child mass murderer in MI? What about the slaughter of the innocents that St. Matthew reports or the unjust death of John the Baptist? What about babies who are aborted before ever seeing the light of day or all the social and economic injustices that are being perpetrated against people around the world? What about children who grow up in fatherless, loveless families who eventually seek out gangs to fulfill their needs and become sociopaths? Or what about victims of car accidents or other acts of human failure/folly? Where is the justice for them? We hear and see and experience stories like these (and much more)—every one of us today carries an awful burden—and we know in our heart of hearts that something needs to be done about all these terrible injustices and needless, senseless suffering. Enter the judgment/justice of God. If God really is a loving God—and we believe him to be exactly that—he must also be a just God who loves his creation and creatures enough to one day put everything to rights and restore all things to their original goodness. And only God has the power to do this because only God can raise the dead and call things into existence (or back into existence) that did or do not exist. So at the last day, the great and terrible day of the Lord about which Malachi speaks, when God’s judgment will be finally and fully executed, God will restore the lives of those who had them unjustly and/or cruelly ended by whatever means. Relationships will be healed and restored. Loneliness and alienation will be a thing of the past. So will sickness and sorrow and anxiety and all that bedevils us, especially Death. This will happen because God is a just and loving God, not a cruel, angry tyrant. Advent with its fading light and darkness is the perfect time for us to reflect on all this, not only the darkness of this current age but the hope and promise of the time when Christ returns to put all things back to rights when he brings in full the promised new heavens and earth. Hear St. John announce this promise in his Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea [symbolic of Evil] was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars [evildoers]—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev 21.1-8).NLT
Ponder this vision carefully, my beloved, and read it everyday during Advent along with its OT equivalent in Is 25.6-9 because it has the power to encourage, strengthen, and heal. Besides the breathtaking hope and beauty found in St. John’s vision, this passage reminds us that history is going somewhere really good and God is in control of things, whether it appears so to us or not. The New Jerusalem, NT code for God’s space or heaven, only arrives after Satan and all the dark powers and their human minions are judged and the resurrection of the dead occurs (Rev 19-20). Of course you and I cannot fully imagine the perfect beauty of such an existence because none of us have ever experienced it. But we all have gotten glimpses of the promised day contained in the passage above. This hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—has the power to sustain us as we walk through the darkness of this age and our lives. This is our Advent hope, my beloved, and this is why Advent is so important to us as Christians—it is Good News. And if this vision is not Good News to you, I don’t know what possibly could be because there is no greater promise than the promise to end all traces of Evil, Sin, and Death, all made possible only by the power, love, and justice of God our Father, thanks be to God! Amen?
Contrast this with the hopelessness of our current age where God is dead and/or incapable of bringing about real justice and history is spinning hopelessly out of control because the human race is incapable of fixing itself despite all the programs, indoctrination, and money spent to solve the perpetual evils that plague this world. No wonder there is great anxiety in any society that progressively loses its faith and hope in God. Being on the “right side of history” depends on who is in power, not on God! If there really is no God or God is not really willing or able to bring about real justice that will produce a world envisioned in St. John’s Revelation above, we are most of all to be pitied because we have no basis for real hope, only pipe-dreams and futile, incomplete thinking.
But what about the punitive dimension of God’s judgment? Doesn’t St. Paul echo the OT in declaring that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rm 3.23), thereby making us liable to the just punishment of God when God deals with evildoers about which Malachi warns in our OT lesson? This is where our faith in Jesus Christ becomes an integral part of the biblical idea of God’s good and right judgment/justice because on the cross, God condemned our sin in the flesh so that he would not have to condemn us. God the Son willingly agreed to humble himself and take on our flesh so that God the Father would not ultimately have to condemn us, and that is why Christians no longer have to fear God’s condemnation because God has born it himself by becoming human to die for us (Rom 8.1-11). The cross of Jesus Christ proclaims that God’s justice is also tempered by his love and mercy for us because none of us deserve this gift of God’s offered freely to us. None of us deserve the second or third or millionth chance God offers us through Christ, but it is ours for the taking because God is a God of love and justice, two sides of the same coin. When we have faith to believe this Good News, we no longer have a reason to fear God or God’s judgment because we believe our sins have been dealt with once and for all on the cross; we are covered by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. We who are baptized are promised that where Christ is, there too shall we be; and because Christ is raised from the dead, we will share in the full future inheritance of God’s new creation. Death no longer has any power over us, even though our mortal bodies die, short of the Lord’s return in our lifetime. When we have real faith in Christ, it is reflected in our thinking, speaking, and doing. We focus on doing good works on behalf of our crucified and risen Savior who gave his life for us. We are firm advocates of justice, but always tempered with mercy because we have desired and been the recipients of God’s mercy. That means we are generous in spirit, willing to forgive, slow to anger, humble in spirit. None of us are very good at this because we are all thoroughly sin-sick and corrupted. But by the grace and power of God working in us through the Holy Spirit, we become new creations one tiny step at a time (and sometimes one or two giant leaps backward) before God restores us to holy equilibrium. That is the point of having faith in Christ: to become his holy saints who imitate him as faithfully as we can with the help and power of the Spirit.
The cross of Jesus Christ also reminds us that the judgment of God is a serious and terrible thing, and since we are all sin-stained we must leave the ultimate judgment of people and things to God. This doesn’t mean we suspend our moral judgment where we call good things good and evil things evil. It simply means that we commend our enemies and evildoers to God, asking God to turn hearts and minds to Christ so that they too can escape God’s terrible but good justice.
In closing, then, I urge us all not to be faint of heart or people who have no hope, but rather to focus this Advent on the return of Christ with its great hope and promise that God will restore all things to at least their original goodness and in judging the world will put all things to rights, i.e., to long for God’s judgment with its perfect justice. Let each of us do this with great humility, realizing that none will escape the judgment of Christ and all are worthy of eternal separation from him—the very definition of Hell—except by the mercy and grace of God. Let this holy fear lead us not to despair over our own sins because we know our sins have been dealt with once and for all, but rather let this holy fear strengthen our resolve to lead lives that are worthy of the Name we love and honor: Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. He is our merciful Savior and just Judge, and he calls us to follow him each day, imitating his love and goodness and mercy and justice in all we encounter. Let us therefore be people known for proclaiming and living out the hope and promise of God’s judgment with its promise of God’s perfect justice. Advent is a time of darkness, symbolic of the darkness of this sin-stained world. But fear not! The light has come into the world and by it we are promised a spectacular future and purposeful present. Therefore let us all keep our lamps burning brightly for Christ, lamps powered by the very love of God, as we await our just and merciful Savior’s return to finish his saving work and bring about the promised new heavens and earth. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.