Christmas 2022: Meditations on the Incarnation by Select Church Fathers and Doctors

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

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

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

From the The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

Behold a new and wondrous mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next we have this reflection on the Incarnation from St. Athanasius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awake! For your sake God has become human. “Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” I tell you again: for your sake, God became human.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

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

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

Grieving at Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I suspect many who have lost loved ones to death or alienation or suffered from illness or other kinds of brokenness or loss will struggle with this greeting/sentiment. I’m one of those people and know first-hand (again) that our emotions and grief don’t always put us in sync with a happy and festive holiday spirit. If you too are one of those folks who are dealing with grief or loss or brokenness this Christmas I would like to offer you my sincere condolences because I know something of your pain and sorrow. But I also want to offer you some real Christian (Christmas) cheer to help you grieve as those who have hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—this Christmastide.

The Church has just finished observing the season of Advent with its hope and promise of the Lord’s return to finish the saving/reclaiming work he started at his First Coming (think Christ’s mighty works, teaching, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension). When that day arrives and our Lord Jesus returns with great power and glory, we believe that God’s perfect justice will finally be fulfilled, including most importantly the abolition of death. What can be a more just solution to the massive injustice of death than resurrection and eternal bodily life lived directly in God’s loving Presence? Living in God’s direct Presence ensures that we will enjoy perfect communion with God, which means complete bliss, free from sorrow or separation or illness or brokenness or death, the likes of which we have never experienced before because the human race (with the exception of Christ) has not lived directly in God’s Presence since our first ancestors got expelled from Paradise (Genesis 2-3). Nothing in all creation can ever produce the kind of healing God’s Presence produces.

And of course tonight we begin to celebrate the 12 days of Christmastide. Christmas, among its many promises, reminds us that we humans—body, mind, and spirit, the whole package—matter to God. We know this because God became one of us to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death. Without Christ’s birth we would be people with no future and ultimately no hope. But Christmas announces the historical reality of God’s intervention in human history for our sake and thus announces that we who believe in Christ ARE people with a hope and a future (cp. Jeremiah 29.11). Christmas is the visible and historical manifestation of God’s love for us his image-bearing creatures and indeed all of creation.

So if you are one who struggles to be merry this Christmastide because you are dealing with significant loss or brokenness in your life, remember this: As you simultaneously celebrate Christmas and grieve your own loss, whatever that loss may be, please remember the above promises and take hope in the midst of your grief. By all means grieve, but grieve as one who has real hope because you belong to Christ. I can tell you all this with confidence because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. You can stake your life (and joys and sorrows) on that and I urge you to do so if you haven’t already.

Listen and understand if you have ears to hear. Merry Christmas!

All Saints’ Day 2022: St. Augustine Muses on the Saints of God

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”— Matthew 19.25-26

The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.

—Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14

One of the reasons I love Augustine is that he was never afraid to be real. As you read his description of the saints, you cannot help but wonder how these folks can be enjoying their rest with their Lord. I mean, look at their flaws Augustine is pointing out!

Here’s the answer. They have died with Christ and so are raised with him (Romans 6.8) They were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism so that they might rise with him in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And when they were alive in this mortal life, this treasure of life eternal was hidden with Christ in heaven (Colossians 3.3-4), i.e., this hope and promise of resurrection and eternal life is based on their relationship with the risen Christ, who remains hidden from us in this mortal life from his abode in heaven, God’s space.

For you see, it is not about the saints or our worthiness. None of us is worthy to stand before God in God’s perfect holiness! Rather, it is about what God has done for us in Christ so that through his death we might enjoy real peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5.1, 11). In Christ, God condemned sin in the flesh so that we might be equipped to live with God forever, both here on earth in the power of the Spirit and in God’s promised new creation (Romans 8.3-4, 18-25, Revelation 21.1-7). This is what Jesus reminds us of in the passage above from Saint Matthew and that’s why we have hope for the Christian dead and ourselves on All Saints’ Day. Jesus is Lord, even over death!

Is this your hope or are you clinging to something less which is bound to fail? On this All Saints’ Day may God grant you the grace, wisdom, and courage to embrace the hope offered to you in Christ. 

Gavin Ashenden: Mourning the Loss of Our Queen and All that She Embodied

Before his conversion to Roman Catholicism Gavin Ashenden was an Anglican priest and bishop as well as former Chaplain to the Queen. I fear his concerns are real and true. From Christian Today:

Queen Elizabeth listening to speeches by others at the Home Office last month.

It used to be the fashion to address a monarch as His or Her ‘Most Christian Majesty’. In the case of Elizabeth II, that was the most appropriate description. People have discussed her longevity, her family, her good judgement; but behind the length of her reign, and the reason why she found herself so dearly loved, was her Christian character.

Alongside a life constructed and sculpted by faith is the congruence that the demise of Christian faith in the public sphere may take place in parallel to her own personal demise…

As the society she ruled over constitutionally grew more heterodox and hedonistic, the dignity and integrity that she embodied both personally and constitutionally resonated with a contrasting moral and existential value which was nurtured by her relationship with God – her sense of vocation as his servant, placed within the royal family to serve both him and her nation – and her love of Christ, whose Spirit renewed her daily.

The mourning that will accompany her passing will be a grief not only for a remarkable woman, a treasured mother, a dignified grandmother and a much-loved Queen, it will also include a sorrow for the passing of a Christianised culture whose deepest and most noble virtues she represented and embodied. In every sense it is true to say of her, we shall not see her like again.

Read it all.

Augustine Longs for God

Beautiful.

Where did I find you, that I came to know you? You were not within my memory before I learned of you. Where, then, did I find you before I came to know you, if not within yourself, far above me? We come to you and go from you, but no place is involved in this process. In every place, O Truth, you are present to those who seek your help, and at one and the same time you answer all, though they seek your counsel on different matters.

You respond clearly, but not everyone hears clearly. All ask what they wish, but do not always hear the answer they wish. Your best servant is he who is intent not so much on hearing his petition answered, as rather on willing whatever he hears from you. 

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

When once I shall be united to you with my whole being, I shall at last be free of sorrow and toil. Then my life will be alive, filled entirely with you. When you fill someone, you relieve him of his burden, but because I am not yet filled with you, I am a burden to myself. My joy when I should be weeping struggles with my sorrows when I should be rejoicing. I know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy on me! My evil sorrows and good joys are at war with one another, | know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy! Woe is me! I make no effort to conceal my wounds. You are my physician, I your patient. You are merciful; I stand in need of mercy. 

Is not the life of man upon earth a trial? Who would want troubles and difficulties? You command us to endure them, not to love them. No person loves what he endures, though he may love the act of enduring. For even if he is happy to endure his own burden, he would still prefer that the burden not exist. I long for prosperity in times of adversity, and I fear adversity when times are good. Yet what middle ground is there between these two extremes where the life of man would be other than trial? Pity the prosperity of this world, pity it once and again, for it corrupts joy and brings the fear of adversity. Pity the adversity of this world, pity it again, then a third time; for it fills men with a longing for prosperity, and because adversity itself is hard for them to bear and can even break their endurance. Is not the life of man upon earth a trial, a continuous trial?

All my hope lies only in your great mercy.

Responsory
Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you.
—You called, you shouted,
and you broke through my deafness.

The Son of Man came to seek out the lost
and lead them to salvation.
—You called, you shouted,
and you broke through my deafness.

Confessions

Occasional Reflection, July 19, 2022: Entering God’s Holy Presence

1 Then David again gathered all the elite troops in Israel, 30,000 in all. He led them to Baalah of Judah to bring back the Ark of God, which bears the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who is enthroned between the cherubim. They placed the Ark of God on a new cart and brought it from Abinadab’s house, which was on a hill. Uzzah and Ahio, Abinadab’s sons, were guiding the cart that carried the Ark of God. Ahio walked in front of the Ark. David and all the people of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, singing songs and playing all kinds of musical instruments—lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals.

But when they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand and steadied the Ark of God. Then the Lord’s anger was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him dead because of this. So Uzzah died right there beside the Ark of God.

David was angry because the Lord’s anger had burst out against Uzzah. He named that place Perez-uzzah (which means “to burst out against Uzzah”), as it is still called today.

David was now afraid of the Lord, and he asked, “How can I ever bring the Ark of the Lord back into my care?” 10 So David decided not to move the Ark of the Lord into the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-edom of Gath. 11 The Ark of the Lord remained there in Obed-edom’s house for three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and his entire household.

12 Then King David was told, “The Lord has blessed Obed-edom’s household and everything he has because of the Ark of God.” So David went there and brought the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the City of David with a great celebration.

—2 Samuel 6.1-12

How do sin-stained humans approach a Holy and morally perfect God, a God whose holiness can tolerate not one hint of evil or imperfection in his direct Presence? Very carefully if we are to believe the old and new testaments. Take today’s story for example. King David had decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant, the very place where God chose to dwell with God’s people, the very place ancient Israel believed heaven and earth intersected, to Jerusalem even though no ark could contain God. Touching the Ark meant entering the Presence of a Holy God. God had given Moses very specific instructions on how to handle and transport this Ark. Only Levites were authorized to carry the Ark and handle it. You can read about that in Numbers 1.50-51 if you’re interested.

Now here we are with David leading the procession to bring the Ark of God to Jerusalem. But the oxen pulling the cart with the Ark stumbled and the Ark was about to be thrown off. One of men guiding the Ark instinctively reached to catch it before it fell. Surely he did so with the best intentions. And what happened? In great understatement the writer tells us that this act aroused God’s anger and God struck him dead. Talk about the ultimate buzz-kill to spoil a perfectly good party!

God’s seemingly heartless and merciless action made David angry, and why wouldn’t it? At first blush it would make anyone angry. Isn’t God supposed to be kind and merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? What kind of cruel God would strike someone dead over a seemingly innocent behavior like this?

God is indeed loving and merciful and gracious, but God is first and foremost a holy God, separate and apart from creation and God’s creatures, and God in his holiness can brook no act of disobedience or sin or evil. Nothing but good can dwell in God’s presence and that is for our ultimate good if we ever hope to live with him throughout eternity. Who wants to live forever with evil or brokenness or sickness or incompleteness?

So why did God strike this man dead? The answer is straightforward. Uzzah was not a Levite. Obed-edom was (we learn that from 1 Chronicles 15.14-18). David and Uzzah did not follow God’s strict instructions to his people about how to handle the Ark of his Presence and awful consequences ensued. But when David finally followed God’s instructions, God’s blessing ensued. God blessed Obed-edom and his household.

If all the above is true, how can sinful mortals like you and me ever hope to live in God’s holy Presence forever, the same Presence that can tolerate nothing but perfection? Even the best of us are far from morally perfect as this story powerfully and frighteningly shows! No wonder David was angry and afraid. Who in his or her right mind wouldn’t be afraid if this is true? It would seem none of us will get to go to heaven or live in God’s direct Presence forever in the new heavens and earth. And this isn’t the only story of its kind in Scripture. Any time sinful mortals approach God’s holy Presence in ways not prescribed by God, it never turns out well for us. What to do?

Some will dismiss this story as pure fiction. It’s too terrifying to actually believe. But there is a better, life-giving way. Thankfully God has given us a way to approach him without fear. Enter the Cross of Jesus Christ. The only way we can approach God’s Presence is through Christ’s Death. In Christ’s holy Death, God took away our deserved punishment for our sins and made us spotless and without blemish in God’s sight. We aren’t told how this all works, only that it does. And those who put their faith in Christ and act accordingly can have every expectation and confidence that their present and future are with God, not separated from him. We have God’s very word on that contained in the NT and the tradition of the Church. God did not have to do that for us. In the Cross of Christ, in becoming human and dying our death and suffering God’s terrible separation on our behalf, God found a most unexpected way to make us holy and acceptable in God’s sight while satisfying God’s sense of real justice so that we could not only approach God but also get to live with God forever, God be thanked and praised!

This is the God we worship. This is the God we are called to love. Resolve today to stop serving the ways and gods of this broken and sinful world with its destructive and death-dealing systems and beliefs and give yourself entirely to this God who loves you so much he became human (or as the Church has traditionally stated, sent his only Son, Christ) to die for you to make you holy so you are worthy to stand in God’s Presence forever. This is the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is what real love is always all about. Real love never enables sin and brokenness or anything else that dehumanizes us and therefore is not always easy to give or be recognized because the world loves its sin and brokenness. Real love shows us the way to receive real healing, real hope, real mercy, the kind that only God the Father can give us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Real love always shows us Jesus, the only Way to the Father.

—Mark 4:9

Occasional Reflection, July 16, 2022: Where’s God?

13 O Lord, I cry out to you.
    I will keep on pleading day by day.
14 O Lord, why do you reject me?
    Why do you turn your face from me?

15 I have been sick and close to death since my youth.
    I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors.
16 Your fierce anger has overwhelmed me.
    Your terrors have paralyzed me.
17 They swirl around me like floodwaters all day long.
    They have engulfed me completely.
18 You have taken away my companions and loved ones.
    Darkness is my closest friend. —Psalm 88.13-18

As the war between the house of Saul and the house of David went on, Abner became a powerful leader among those loyal to Saul. One day Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, accused Abner of sleeping with one of his father’s concubines, a woman named Rizpah, daughter of Aiah.

Abner was furious. “Am I some Judean dog to be kicked around like this?” he shouted. “After all I have done for your father, Saul, and his family and friends by not handing you over to David, is this my reward—that you find fault with me about this woman? May God strike me and even kill me if I don’t do everything I can to help David get what the Lord has promised him!10 I’m going to take Saul’s kingdom and give it to David. I will establish the throne of David over Israel as well as Judah, all the way from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south.” 11 Ishbosheth didn’t dare say another word because he was afraid of what Abner might do.

12 Then Abner sent messengers to David, saying, “Doesn’t the entire land belong to you? Make a solemn pact with me, and I will help turn over all of Israel to you.” —2 Samuel 3.6-12

If you have had a relationship with God for long enough, you will surely have experienced a feeling similar to the psalmist’s above. You are rocking along and then all of a sudden disaster of some kind strikes. You cry out to God for help and relief, but hear and experience nothing but darkness.

Our psalm appointed for yesterday reflects the terror we feel when that happens. We accuse God of abandoning us and/or rejecting us. We tell ourselves that God does this because God is angry at us. In the psalmist’s day it was a commonly held belief that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Many of us still cling to that belief despite the warning of Job that that might not necessarily be the case in every instance. Because God allows bad things to happen to us doesn’t necessarily mean that God is punishing us. Unless we hear clearly from the Lord that he is indeed punishing us, we need to be very circumspect in our thinking about this.

All that notwithstanding, the fact remains that the psalmist despairs God has abandoned and rejected him forever. For those who believe in God, this is a terrifying prospect. And yet, the psalmist continues to reach out to God in prayer. Like St. Peter asked Christ, “Lord where else can we go? To whom can we turn?”

And then we read today’s OT lesson. Surely the players involved in this sad story would have been tempted to believe God had abandoned and rejected them. God had indeed rejected Saul and his line. There was prophetic confirmation of that reality. So why hadn’t Abner and Israel submitted to David’s kingly rule? Was Samuel really a false prophet?

The point is this. God’s will didn’t magically come about by God snapping his fingers and making it so, much as many of us expect God to act in this manner. God didn’t cause chaos for Ishbosheth, Ishbosheth caused his own chaos. Whether his accusations against Abner were true we are not told, but if they were it would have been a clear attempt by Abner to usurp Ishbosheth. Neither was Abner’s murder or Ishbosheth’s murder caused by God. Human agents were responsible for both treacherous acts. You can read about them later in the story above.

What God did do was use these evil acts to help accomplish his purpose of making David King over all Israel. The point here is that even in the midst of treachery, murder, duplicity, and chaos God was at work accomplishing his purposes. Unless the players and those surrounding the players were tuned firmly into God, God’s hand at work would have been hard to see. The psalmist surely would have understood this dynamic.

And so do we. I look at the chaos and lawlessness running rampant in many of our nation’s cities. I see the wicked fruits of the the sexual revolution coming to full fruition and making otherwise reasonable people act and talk like lunatics. I see green politics causing all kinds of suffering and hunger and want and I wonder if this nation will survive me. How can humans flourish with all this darkness swirling around us? Where are you God? Why are you not making things right? Why are the patients running the asylum??

So what to do? For Christians, the answer is to come together as God’s people in Christ and keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ’s cross. As we saw on Thursday, that is the answer. As the NT audaciously proclaims, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. It didn’t look that way to Christ’s followers that first Good Friday. It took a mighty act of God the Father raising Christ from the dead that first Easter Sunday to show them that God was still in control and the promises and proclamations of Christ were true. That hasn’t changed over the course of history.

But let’s be honest here. Many of us increasingly feel like the psalmist who wrote Psalm 88 above, and with good reason. But that isn’t the last word. God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Christ rules, even in the midst of chaos to accomplish God’s will. That takes a good bit of faith, the kind you only develop by having a real relationship with the living Lord and studying his word contained in Scripture to learn how God has set about to rescue his good creation and creatures from ourselves and the Evil we have unleashed in our foolishness. We need to do this together as a family in Christ and to support each other because seeing Christ’s hand at work in our lives and his world is not always easy to see. Sometimes it is impossible. But his Death and Resurrection remind us in no uncertain terms that God is in charge and works through suffering and injustice to accomplish God’s will. Christ is the supreme exemplar of that dynamic and truth. And because it is true, one day those who put their hope and faith in Christ will see the reward for their faith and suffering in this mortal life. When that blessed day comes and Christ returns to finish his saving and healing work, these momentary trials and tribulations, awful and real as they were and are, will seem as nothing compared to the beauty, health, and life that will be part and parcel of God’s new heavens and earth.

—Mark 4.9

Occasional Reflection, July 14, 2022: God’s Justice

Today begins an occasional series of reflections based on assigned readings from the Daily Office. May God bless you in your reading and reflection of them.

How long, O Lord?
    How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?
How long will they speak with arrogance?
    How long will these evil people boast?
They crush your people, Lord,
    hurting those you claim as your own.
They kill widows and foreigners
    and murder orphans.
“The Lord isn’t looking,” they say,
    “and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care.”

Think again, you fools!
    When will you finally catch on?
Is he deaf—the one who made your ears?
    Is he blind—the one who formed your eyes?
10 He punishes the nations—won’t he also punish you?
    He knows everything—doesn’t he also know what you are doing?
11 The Lord knows people’s thoughts;
    he knows they are worthless!

20 Can unjust leaders claim that God is on their side—
    leaders whose decrees permit injustice?
21 They gang up against the righteous
    and condemn the innocent to death.
22 But the Lord is my fortress;
    my God is the mighty rock where I hide.
23 God will turn the sins of evil people back on them.
    He will destroy them for their sins.
    The Lord our God will destroy them.

—Psalm 92.3-11, 20-23

Strong language from one of the psalms assigned for today. The psalmist sees massive injustices all around him and calls on the Lord God to do something about it. Doesn’t God see what’s going on? Doesn’t God care about his people? But how can that be? After all, God punishes the nations. God punishes evildoers. God knows human thinking on its own is worthless, leading to no good, and God will not let it stand. The psalmist finally concludes that God will act on behalf of God’s people. He will punish evildoers and actually destroy them. Strong words. Troubling words. Nobody likes to think about God punishing humans because in our heart of hearts (if we have not totally deluded ourselves or lost our minds completely) we all know we are candidates for God’s punishment. Every one of us has missed the mark of God’s moral perfection.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t the only one who had trouble with these words. Apparently many deep thinkers of the church had trouble with these words too because there was a lot of scrambling to rationalize them and to convince us God wasn’t really that way.

Right.

And their efforts trickled down into the pulpits and ministers who were supposed to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ totally and faithfully. After all, look at Jesus. He never had strong words for evildoers. Gentle Jesus meek and mild and all that.

Right.

Apparently texts like St. Matthew 23 (and many more) held and hold no weight to these deep thinkers and those they influenced. Or maybe these texts are later insertions by the church.

Right.

This is why Christian denominations that have rejected strong words like these and drunk the culture’s Kool-aid in an attempt to fit into today’s bizarre new world are dying. They deny their own story in the name of relevance. Nobody likes or respects someone who denies or disrespects his or her own story.

At one point in my life I almost drank the Kool-aid. But by the grace of God as I grew older I came to realize with the help of God and some true deep Christian thinkers how beautiful, real and hopeful these troubling words actually are. If God is truly a good, just, and loving God, how can God have any other reaction to evil and evildoers, human or otherwise? Why would God not be angry at things that dehumanize and ultimately destroy humans, God’s image-bearing creatures? Why would God not act on our behalf to rescue us from real injustices and wrongs, not the made-up, distorted ones we humans love to devise in our worthless thinking?

Think about it. We see folks attempting to foist critical race theory—a hateful, distorted, and inherently racist viewpoint—and apparently succeeding. We see DAs who refuse to prosecute criminals or uphold the law and we hear all kinds of angry rhetoric aimed at dehumanizing and delegitimizing law enforcement. As a result crime is skyrocketing in our cities as lawlessness and chaos ensue. How can humans flourish in that kind of environment? We hear angry voices denouncing our nation’s cherished institutions like the Supreme Court because it had the audacity to do the right thing in overthrowing Roe v Wade and put the decision back on the states as to whether to legitimize the murder of innocents. Let us pray that by the grace of God the states are wiser and more courageous than the 1973 Supreme Court who gave us Roe v Wade. How can humans flourish, especially the unborn, if they aren’t?

I can’t speak for anyone else but all these things and others make me angry because all these movements at their very core advocate lawlessness, the very essence of sin, and I hate sin, both my own and the sin of others. Sin is evil, wicked, harmful, and it has our destruction as its goal. If broken and fallible people like me can get angry over sin and injustice, how much more will God—the only perfectly good and moral being, our Creator who created things to run according to his good and perfect will—get angry at such doing and thinking?

I hope and pray God will make all things right. I also hope and pray that all men and women, even the worst of us, even those who make me angry, will be saved by God’s grace, justice, and mercy. I can have such a hope, even as a sinful man deserving God’s just punishment, because I have put my whole hope and trust in Christ crucified, the God-man who bore the punishment I deserved out of love for me, a sinner and evildoer. That same God-man loves and died for you to spare you of God’s just punishment for your sins if you will only believe God’s promise in Christ (the gospel) contained in holy Scripture. This is God’s merciful, righteous, just, and surprising justice. It has the power to heal you, but it won’t if you do not accept the gift and live by it in faith. Without Christ I could not pray for all to be saved. Neither would I have any hope for myself because I am part of the human race. The same goes for you too. Without Christ and his Death and Resurrection no one has the basis for any real or legitimate hope.

So the next time you read or hear about hard things in holy Scripture like God’s punishment and anger toward evil and evildoers, stop and remind yourself about the end game, God’s promised new creation, the new heavens and earth, a creation utterly devoid of human sin and evil and the suffering and brokenness it all causes. Who in their right mind would not want to live in such a world forever? This is the unique hope (the sure and certain expectation) of the Christian faith, a hope and expectation made possible only by the terrible sacrifice of Christ himself, God become human, offered on our behalf to spare us from God’s anger and punishment for our sins by bearing that anger and punishment himself, not because we deserve it (we absolutely deserve nothing of the kind), but because of the astonishing and breathtaking love of God the Father for us his wayward and rebellious creatures. God did this for us because God loves us and wants us to have a real relationship with him so that we can live with him both in this world and in God’s promised new world. Try reading the whole of Scripture through that lens, the lens of God working to make all things right through his surprising love, grace, and power, the power of crucified and resurrected love. Resolve to make this love your own and start (or continue) to live accordingly. It has the power to heal you.

—Mark 4.9

Feast of the Ascension 2022: N.T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism.

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

— N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Feast of the Ascension 2022: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

—Understanding the Bible, 103.

Feast of the Ascension 2022: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)

Holy Week 2022: An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his Cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.”

And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

“l am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

“I command you: Awake, sleeper, | have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; | am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and | in you, together we are one undivided person.

“For you, | your God became your son; for you, | the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, | who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, | became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, | was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

“Look at the spittle on my face, which | received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which | accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

“See the scourging of my back, which | accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

“| slept on the Cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

“But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; | will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. | denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now | myself am united to you, | who am life. | posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now | make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”