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

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; St. John 2.1-11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last, it means we are to take our relationship with each other seriously and celebrate those relationships, along with our relationship with God, whenever we can. How we treat each other as family members matters to our Lord and it should matter to us. The relationships we enjoy are part of God’s extravagant love for us and we are called to both celebrate them and take them seriously. They help us flourish as God’s human image-bearers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

Behold a new and wondrous mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the sermon archives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent 2023—The Four Last Things: Judgment

From the sermon archives. Originally preached on December 5, 2021.

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. 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, NLT; cf. Ps 96).

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 is 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. 

Advent 2023 Funeral Sermon: The Resurrection: The Abolition of Death

Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; John 11.17-27.

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

I knew Alan well and loved him like a brother. He and Kathy were members of our beloved small group for a lot of years and we shared both good times and bad together—and everything in between. His death is deeply personal and my heart aches as I grieve the loss of my good friend. I therefore do not come here today as an impartial preacher. But neither do I come to eulogize the dead because even the most eloquent eulogies will not bring the dead back to life, no matter how well the life was lived. Instead I come to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead because only Christ can and will restore the dead to new life. We all need to be reminded of our Resurrection hope because as we shall see, it is the only real balm for our grieving hearts.

Death under any circumstance is hard, isn’t it? But death from cancer—a disease that can only charitably be called wicked—is especially odious because it can strike us down at any time and produce terrible and prolonged suffering for the victim and his/her loved ones. Death is the ultimate form of evil because it robs us of our human dignity as God’s image-bearers and can leave survivors stunned and angry. Death ends permanently the relationships we cherish most about being human in this mortal life. We can no longer see our beloved, hear them, touch them, smell them or interact with them as we did before they died. Our Lord Jesus also knew this about the evil of Death because he snorted in anger at his friend Lazarus’ tomb just before raising him to life (John 11.38). Death is our ultimate enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15.26). It entered God’s good world as the result of human sin and has inflicted its evil on us ever since. Like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air in desperation and ask why God allows this to happen.

But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you heard Jesus talk about a breathtaking hope—hope defined as the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—as he gave Martha and us an ultimately more satisfactory answer to her “why” question about Evil and Death. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, echoing Psalm 23, he acknowledged that while Evil and Death still exist in God’s good but fallen world, he had come to destroy their power over us, which he did, at least preliminarily, in his death and resurrection.

That is why Christian funerals are so important. They serve to remind us that for those who are in Christ, Evil and Death do not have the final say because of God’s great love for us expressed in the death and resurrection of Christ. As Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson, resurrection isn’t a concept, it’s a person, and those like Alan who are united with Christ are promised a share in his resurrection when he returns to raise the dead and usher in God’s new world. Jesus’ new bodily existence attests to the fact that we as humans—body, mind, and spirit, the total package—matter to God, and that new bodily existence, not death, is our final destiny for all eternity. This is what resurrection is about. This is what we celebrate today and why we can.

St. Paul talks about the nature of our promised resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. St. Paul tells us that unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be a body animated and powered by God’s Spirit instead of being animated and powered by flesh and blood. This means that our new body will no longer be subject to all the nasty illnesses, addictions, and decay to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever our new body looks like—and surely it will be more beautiful and wonderful than our minds can comprehend or imagine—it will be impervious to death and suited to live in God’s promised new world, the new heavens and earth. 

When Christ returns to raise the dead and usher in the new creation, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively, and which currently only intersect. Instead, as Revelation 21.1-7 promises, the new Jerusalem, NT code for God’s space or heaven, will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that all forms of darkness and evil will be banished and we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever, just like our first ancestors did before the Fall, only infinitely better. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or suffering or pain or death or evil of any kind. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and get to live forever with our new body and limitless new opportunities to be the humans God created and always intended for us to be. To be sure, this promise of new heavens and earth has not yet been fully realized and so we must wait in hope and faith for our Lord Jesus to return to usher it in. But even if we must wait, the promise of new creation is the only solution that will ultimately satisfy our hunger for justice and life because only in God’s new creation will all the injustices and hurts be made right and evil vanquished. In this case, Alan’s life will be fully restored (what better justice for the injustice of Alan’s suffering and death from cancer?) and severed relationships caused by death will made whole and complete again, a life of perfect health and happiness that will last forever, thanks be to God! What can be more just and awesome than that?

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense. You don’t love a person for an entire lifetime and then not grieve his loss when he dies. But as St. Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all. It is this resurrection hope, the promise of new bodily life in God’s new heavens and earth, that we claim and proclaim today. Our resurrection hope is the only real basis we have for celebrating Alan’s life, because without union with Christ, none of us have life in this world or the next.

I want to close by telling you a story that powerfully sums up God’s love, mercy, and grace contained our Christian hope. 

In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.  

And so we return to Jesus’ question to Martha and us in our gospel lesson. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? If you do, then act like the resurrection people you are! Let the Lord offer you real consolation in your grief and live and proclaim his gospel boldly and faithfully in your life. I don’t know why God allows all the suffering and bad things that happen in this world. I don’t know why Alan was afflicted with cancer. I don’t know why he and his family had to endure it all as it unfolded. None of it had to go that way, yet it did. 

But I do know this. Alan has been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for him on the cross and made fit to stand in God’s holy presence forever. He will be clothed one day with a new body patterned after the body of his Lord Jesus and set free to love and use his talents in spectacular new and old ways that honor God and others forever. I know that on the cross, his sin, along with ours, has been dealt with once and for all. I know that Death will be abolished in God’s new world because Sin will be abolished and Death is the result of Sin. Both will be absent in the new heavens and earth. I know all of this because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. 

The promise is mind-boggling. But the God we worship is mind-boggling. After all, we worship the God who has the power to raise the dead and call into existence things that don’t exist (Romans 4.17). Jesus’ promise that he is the resurrection and the life is ours, not because we are deserving, but because of who God is, the God who created us to have life with him forever, and who is embodied in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. That is why we can rejoice today, even in the midst of our grief and sorrow. Because of his faith in Christ who loves him and who has claimed him from all eternity, the doors of heaven have swung wide open for Alan and he is enjoying his rest in heaven with his Lord Jesus until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies come in full. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for ADS, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity. 

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

From the Sermon Archives: The Four Last Things: Death

Sermon originally preached on December 2, 2018.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.

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

Happy new year, St. Augustine’s! Today is Advent Sunday. We begin a new calendar year, a new lectionary cycle, and have lighted the first purple candle on our wreath that represents the patriarchs. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus (parousia in Greek), and means coming or arrival. Advent begins in the dark. It is a time for us as Christians to take stock of the darkness of a sin-sick and evil-infested world, a world truly gone mad, as well as the darkness of our own lives as we await God’s final defeat of the powers of Sin and Evil that sorely afflict us. Advent is a time for us to ask hard questions such as where is God in the middle of the darkness that afflicts us or why isn’t God acting to end the suffering and injustice and evil that exists in his world? But we must always ask these questions in light of our Christian hope that insists God actually is in the midst of our darkness and suffering and will come again to finally make all things right. Advent is therefore a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church focuses primarily on Christ’s Second Coming or his final advent as judge at the end of history to judge all that is wrong with the world and us. Advent is not part of the Christmas season but rather a preparation for it. Without Advent and its invitation for us to peer into the darkness, the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point, disappearing in the lights and other trappings of Christmas as secular society celebrates it, all designed to provide sentimental and festive good cheer, the kind that is false and will ultimately fail us because it is based on unreality.

But why look into the darkness when you can have such pretty music and lights and decorations associated with the preparation for Christmas in our culture? Because if we don’t it misses the meaning and purpose of both Christmas and Advent with the latter’s call for us as Christians to live faithfully and with hope in the darkness of a sin-marred world, trusting in the only One who has the power to make all things new and right. In reality, of course, most Christians are torn between the two seasons. I confess that outside of church I am a Christmas junkie as secular society likes to play it. Our house, thanks to the Herculean efforts of my wife, is bursting with the gaiety of Christmas and my collection of Santa Clauses. But inside these walls [of church], I am chastened to remember that all that glitters isn’t gold, and reminded that I need to focus on the hope and power of God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom God has promised to end our suffering and darkness forever. This focus on the end times makes Advent an appropriate time for us to reflect on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. While none of us really want to talk about these things, talk about them we must because they remind us of the reality of our standing before God without his merciful and gracious intervention on our behalf, and no amount of denial or discomfort on our part is going to change that fact. Better for us to think clearly and soberly about the human condition and our relationship with Almighty God than to whistle through the graveyard hoping everything will turn out all right in the end. So today we begin our preaching series on the Four Last Things by looking at Death.

Death is the greatest of humankind’s enemies, a relentless Grim Reaper that shows no respect for age or wealth. It robs parents of a precious child, leaving them to mourn their loss for the rest of their lives. I have been ministering to a woman afflicted in this way and it is heartbreaking to watch. It deprives wives and children of their breadwinner and protector, leaving them vulnerable in a hostile world. It takes away an aging spouse, leaving a senior citizen without a lifelong companion and closest friend when he/she needs that companionship and friendship the most. Sometimes it arrives suddenly and unannounced like it did with the recent wildfires in California. At other times it approaches slowly like it does with many diseases, stalking or taunting its helpless victim. Sometimes it hauls away its victims en masse like it does in the spate of mass shootings we’ve had to endure with disturbingly increasing frequency. On other occasions it targets individuals. It uses a variety of methods and weapons, but only rarely does it capture its prey without inflicting pain and terror. Power, beauty, and wealth can usually overcome any obstacle, but in death they meet their match. As the eighteenth-century poet Thomas Gray wrote, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike the inevitable hour; The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Scripture personifies death as being a hungry and crafty enemy (Isaiah 5.14; Habakkuk 2.5a) that uses snares to trap victims (Psalm 18.4–5) and sneaks through windows to grab children (Jeremiah 9.21). In Ecclesiastes the old Preacher declares that death renders everything in life meaningless. St. Paul called death the last enemy to be defeated whose fatal sting is caused by sin (1 Corinthians 15.28, 55–56; cf. Hosea 13.14), an inescapable (Ps 89.48; Ecclesiastes 8.8), terrifying (Hebrews 2:15) and relentless (Song 8.6) foe with which no one can strike a lasting bargain (Is 28:15,18). Ironically, death finds its origin in God, the giver of life, who decreed that death would be the ultimate penalty for disobedience to his revealed command (Genesis 2.17, 3.19; Psalm 90.3–11). When the first couple ate the forbidden fruit and rebelled against God, death accompanied sin into the world and has reigned over humankind ever since (Rom 5.12–21, 6.23; James 1.15).

Clearly then, death is a terrifying part of God’s judgment on our sin and all forms of evil that corrupt us and God’s good creation, and this makes us very afraid. We hear it in this morning’s psalm with the psalmist’s desperate cry to God to forgive and rescue him. This is a classic Advent theme because it is a prayer of waiting that contains a mixture of desperation and hope. The psalmist doesn’t tell us what his sins and transgressions are that he fears his enemies will discover. Like us, he keeps his sins secret. But they aren’t hidden from God and the psalmist knows it. And so he pleads for God to act on his behalf in mercy and grace. If we understand this dynamic, we are close to understanding the meaning of Advent.

Likewise, our fears about death are heightened when we read Jesus’ warnings about the trials and tribulations that would one day beset Jerusalem because of its rejection of him as God’s true Messiah. We are afraid of trials and tribulations, in part, because in the context of our gospel lesson, Jesus clearly saw them as being part of God’s judgment on our sin, and we know we are not immune to that judgment. As we contemplate this, we know that death with its power to sweep us and our loved ones away is part of that judgment. An honest admission of our standing before God without his gracious intervention on our behalf is also part of observing a true Advent because we know we are powerless to prevent our own death. We can exercise like crazy, eat right, and take great care of ourselves, but we will still die, and no amount of facelifts, tummy tucks, boob-jobs, vitamin regimens, miracle drugs or anything else, including the Christmas cheer we attempt to create to distract us from this grim reality, is going to change that fact.

But we are Christians and so we have real hope, the sure and certain expectation that God has acted and will finally act to rescue us from his fierce judgment on our sins and the death that results. We see it in our gospel lesson where our Lord tells us not to cower in fear when we hear or experience great trials and tribulations, but rather to stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is near. Why is our redemption near? Is it because we find special favor in God’s sight or are exempt from God’s judgment and death because we are somehow deserving of God’s favor? Of course not. We are sinners like everyone else. What is different is that we have seen the power of God at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus and we believe it is the only power under heaven that has the power to rescue us from God’s wrath on our sins. We see this promise echoed in our OT lesson with God’s promise to send his people a Messiah to rescue them from the exile their sins have caused and to rescue us from our exile to death that our sins have caused. And so God in his great mercy and love promises to set all things right and rescue us in the process so that we do not suffer ultimate destruction. God did this, of course, by sending his Son to die for us and absorb God’s terrible wrath that was reserved for us, thus freeing us from having to suffer it and removing any reason for us to fear God’s wrath and death anymore. We don’t fear death because we know its power over us has been broken forever in our Lord’s resurrection that gives us a glimpse of what awaits us. 

And what awaits us as Christians? Resurrection and new creation. Because we have been freed from Sin’s tyranny by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and because we know the power of death has been broken by Christ’s resurrection, we no longer need to be afraid. Of course, God’s victory over the power of Sin and its partner death has not yet been fully realized. We must wait for the Master’s return for that to happen (Mark 13.35). But Advent proclaims the Master will return and God’s initial victory will be fully consummated so that we can live in this life as people with real joy and hope that is not contingent on the circumstances of this world. It is contingent on the love and power of God. When that day comes, our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead and reanimated by the power of the Spirit, not by flesh and blood. God the Son will judge all things on behalf of God the Father and bring into existence a new world, the new heavens and earth, that will be suitable for our new bodies to live in forever, and where there will be no more sighing, sorrow, sickness, death, tears, alienation, loneliness, or disease. Ever. To be sure, this is a future promise and expectation, and that can drive us crazy in a world that demands instant gratification. But think of a future without this hope, where death and eternal destruction is your destiny. See how that works out for you as you live out your mortal days. 

So what are we to do in the interim? Does our future hope and promise mean that we have to wait to have a real relationship with God? Of course not. Eternal life starts right now because God hasn’t given up on us or his creation. It involves living our lives together in righteousness and faith based on a real hope that God is good to his word. God gives us his Spirit to live and love each other as a renewed family, the people of God formed around his eternal Son Jesus Christ, who is our only life and hope. This is what St. Paul is getting at in our epistle lesson today. Loving God and each other, engaging in God’s word and the sacraments, all allow us to peer into the darkness and realize that the night will not last forever, that the forces of evil, including death, have been defeated and will one day be vanquished at the last judgment. This is what Advent is about. It means living with a lively and real faith in Christ, realizing that God could have chucked us and his entire creation and started over but didn’t because God loves us and wants us to live, not die. Let that knowledge heal and transform you as you peer into the darkness this Advent. Let it heal you because you know that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. That’s the hope and anticipation of Advent, my beloved, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Christ the King Sunday 2023: From the Sermon Archives

Sermon originally delivered on Christ the King Sunday B, November 21 , 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Lectionary texts: Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1.4-8; St. John 18.33-37.

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

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a feast relatively new to the Church’s calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 as a way to resist the rise of totalitarianism and secularism of his day. How appropriate for our day as well, even if it is misplaced on our calendar. It marks the last Sunday of the Church’s calendar year and as its name implies, today is a day when we culminate the season of Kingdomtide where we proclaim Christ as King, Messiah, and Lord of all God’s creation. I’m going to cut right to the chase. Do you believe any of this? If not, here’s why you can.

We start by acknowledging that God’s world is occupied by an alien, malevolent power—Satan and his minions, both human and spiritual. Why God has allowed this, no one can say nor should we spend much time on the question because the answer is not ours to know, at least in this mortal life. What is important for our discussion is that the ubiquitous presence of Evil in this world has caused many, Christians included, to not believe Christ is really king. What kind of king allows Evil to be so awfully present? And frankly, that is just what the dark powers want us to believe! When we see evil run apparently unchecked (the key word being apparently) and have doubts about Christ’s ability to rule over his creation, despite the NT declarations that he does reign as king (e.g., Col 1.15-19, Christ’s ascension or any of his exorcisms), the dark powers celebrate because doubt seeds despair and unbelief and can lead to the abandonment of the faith once delivered to the saints, to you and me, made saints by virtue of the blood of the Lamb shed for us. 

However, the mere existence of Evil cannot fully explain why many of us fail to believe Christ is really king. Part of it involves human pride. We think we know better than God. We forget that we are finite, fragile, and mortal, prone to erroneous thinking and sinful behavior. We forget that God is omnipotent, eternal, and omniscient, that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. To one extent or another we are all products of “enlightened thinking,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, where we limit reality to what our senses can perceive and what we can measure. This creates in us a skepticism about some of the things we read in the Bible, like today’s OT passage, e.g., or Christ’s healings and exorcisms. The Enlightenment, for all the good it has produced, has also produced the Holocaust, Communism, two disastrous world wars, and the woke lunacy that is attempting to impose itself on us today to name just a few. The Enlightenment reveals human pride at work, determined to use one of God’s gifts, reason, to replace superstition and religion, the two sources most enlightened thinkers believed (and still believe) were/are the cause of all the evils of the world. Of course this is utter nonsense and we can see the results of thinking that excludes God from the equation all around us. Contrary to popular belief, when humans actually take God seriously and act according to God’s holy ways and laws, the results are always positive. 

Whatever the reason for our doubts and fears about God’s sovereignty—and let’s be clear, Kingdomtide season is all about God’s sovereignty—as all our lessons this morning testify, lessons that represent the whole of Scripture, Christ really is king and we can live confidently in that knowledge and reality. We must therefore learn what to look for concerning the signs of God’s rule in his world. In our OT lesson, Daniel shares the vision given to to him in response to the previous visions he received. In it we see the Ancient of Days, the Ancient One, God himself, preparing to judge the evil in his world as well as the powers behind it, both human and spiritual. The vivid imagery suggests purity and power, with God’s fiery judgment on all evil and those who perpetrate it. We humans need to be exposed to scenes like this, hidden from our senses, because they remind us God is in control of things, chaotic as our times and lives may be, mysterious as it all is to us. 

And then we see the Son of Man, who interpreted through the lens of the NT is Christ himself, coming on the clouds—biblical language attributing God’s presence and power to him—ready to be God’s agent of justice and judgment. This scene should make sense to us because until the time evil and evildoers are judged, there can be no real peace, no perfect world. Like the blood of righteous Abel, the blood of the martyrs and those murdered and killed unjustly will continue to cry out to God until God finally acts decisively to give them full justice. As Christians, we believe that day will come when Christ returns to finish his saving work and raise his saints to everlasting life. We may not like the fact that we have to wait for this day. Being children of instant gratification we may grow impatient and angry over Christ’s promised delayed gratification, but the fact remains that this promise and hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come—are necessary if we are to thrive in this mortal life where we live in the already of God’s victory over Sin, Death, and Evil and the not yet of its consummation. As St. John the Elder reminds us in our epistle lesson, the blood of the Lamb has conquered Evil in a surprising and totally unexpected way. God’s victory is accomplished by the power of God himself, the only power strong enough to defeat Evil and Sin and Death.

In our gospel lesson, St. John the Evangelist also proclaims that Christ is God become human, that by going to the cross he will fulfill the prophecy and promise of Daniel that God will bring about God’s perfect justice to rid the world of all evil and evildoers. St. John proclaims this in part by telling us the story of Christ’s confrontation with Pilate, i.e., in telling us the story of God’s kingdom and justice confronting worldly power and justice. In this confrontation, St. John in effect proclaims that here is the Son of Man, coming on the clouds, i.e., coming in God’s power, to confront and deal with the evil and corruption of the world’s systems and beliefs. In this deeply ironic story, we see Pilate, who represents corrupt human notions of power and justice, mistakenly thinking that he is in charge and judging Christ as a political enemy when in fact it is Christ who is judging him—by going to the cross. For St. John, the cross is where Christ is crowned King and his kingdom’s rule begins. Again, in a deeply ironic moment, Christ’s crown consists not of gold but of thorns and most who are confronted by the story fail to understand this reality.

Notice carefully that Christ does not tell Pilate his kingdom is not of this world, but rather not from it, meaning the source of his power and authority emanate from God’s power and not human’s. Our Savior’s prayer that appeals for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven makes little sense if Christ’s kingdom is some kind of spiritual kingdom rather than God’s power finally reasserting itself to heal a broken and corrupt world and its people. Pilate, ever caustic and cynical doesn’t get this. Neither do many of us in our cynicism. But our Lord tells him (and us) that he had come to testify to the truth, the truth being that God will not allow alien and hostile forces represented by Satan and his minions, Pilate among them, to go on causing havoc and pain and destruction and injustice and death forever. God in his loving goodness can never ultimately allow Evil to win the day as our OT lesson testifies. Pilate, of course, has no conception of truth because he retorted with the famous question, “What is truth?” Here we see St. John testifying that truth is not of our making. Pilate in his cynicism, a cynicism that is increasingly popular today, cannot fathom this. Truth in his economy is something each of us holds. It is ours for the making so to speak. Not so, says Christ. Only God is the owner of truth and that truth never changes or varies. We can’t bend it or invent it according to our needs and whims. But only by Christ dying for us would the world have the chance to learn this truth and start to live by it. This in part is what it means to submit to Christ’s rule. Because we do not like the truth does not give us the license to change it. We are to obey God’s truth in how we live our lives and that means we are to pattern our lives after Christ. What is truth? God’s great love for sinners like you and me, a love so great that God was willing to become human and shed his blood to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and to conquer Evil by the self-giving power of love. And in so conquering Sin, Death, and Evil, God has pronounced judgment on it all and those who commit and perpetrate it. Evildoers may seem to win the day, but their victory is pyrrhic and short-lived. Their day of destruction and judgment is coming and what a terrible day that will be. That is the truth. If you believe it, you will treat it like the eternal treasure it is and live accordingly.

So what does that look like? What does that mean for you and me? First, when we realize that Christ is our crucified king who has defeated and judged Evil by taking it on himself, we have reason to believe the NT’s promise that on the day of his return, his cruciform victory will be consummated and we will finally be freed from all that has the power to harm and destroy us, including and especially the power of Death. And when we learn to recognize what Christ’s reign looks like, we learn to have confidence in its truth and reality. That means we have real hope for the present and future. No matter how bad things get for us, we persevere in the power of the Spirit as we await the final redemption of our body and soul. Hope is a great blessing, my beloved. Don’t ever abandon it, especially when its source is God himself.

Second, our lessons invite us to learn and live by the truth, not the fiction of our own making, but God’s truth. As we have seen, despite appearances to the contrary, the truth is that God calls us to live according to his laws and created order and when we refuse to do so, we can expect God’s judgment. I will have much more to say about this topic in two weeks, but for right now I would simply point out that God’s judgment always leads to God’s justice and is motivated by God’s love for us. God created us in his image to represent his presence in the world. When we do that, things go swimmingly well for us and we find wholeness and contentment, despite the corrupting influence of living in an evil-infested world. As followers of Christ this means that we choose not to be partakers in evil and to confront evil with love and good after the manner of our Lord Jesus, even when it appears that our efforts are defeated or go for nothing. Let me give you a quick example of what this looks like in real life. Recently the Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore J. Cordileone, confronted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over her support for abortion. Unlike the powers of the world who use vitriol and anger and all the rest, the Archbishop instead called for prayer and fasting on behalf of Speaker Pelosi, asking God to convert her “maternal heart” away from supporting abortion. ++Cordileone also asked Catholic Christians to sign up for a “Rose and Rosary for Nancy,” where a rose would be sent to the Speaker for every Christian who signed up. As of Nov 15, 15,728 roses had been purchased, one of which were mine, and 1000 have been delivered, God be praised! This is how Christ the King’s reign works. In marked contrast to the nasty political business and name-calling (business as usual), we see God’s people praying for the repentance of one who denies the truth and supports murder. There was no name calling, just prayer and fasting and roses. Whether the Speaker repents is not the issue here. Rather, it is God’s people in Christ, working in loving obedience to him and appealing to his power to change hearts, minds, and lives. It is born out of a deep faith in the reality and efficacy of that power to conquer Sin and Evil and it confronts an unholy reality in a way that the person might actually be able to hear it without condemning her because we know that judgment is ultimately left to God and God alone. The world does not expect this and cannot recognize God’s power at work (one critic called the Archbishop “nutty,” for example). Therefore the world has misplaced or no hope, a terrible judgment in its own right. Not so with us. We have seen our crucified and risen Lord and we know his healing love and presence. On his behalf we dare to love each other enough despite our differences to support each other in our trials, tribulations, and suffering because we know that our trials are only temporary and the hope of glory, the new heavens and earth where we live in God’s direct presence forever, await us. And in doing so, we make known his love and presence among us. There is nothing better in all creation. This is why we can believe in Christ the King and his reign despite all the ambiguities, unanswered questions, and chaos that swirl around us. My beloved, I appeal to you to give (or continue to give) your lives and ultimate allegiance to Christ the King because in him, and only in him, will you find the strength and power for the living of your days and the blessed hope of eternal life awaiting you after you have finished running your race. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

From the Sermon Archives for Trinity Sunday 2023: The Trinity: Comprehending the Incomprehensible

Sermon delivered on Trinity Sunday C, June 16, 2019.

Play the video before you read the sermon.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-15.

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

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the day when we focus on the triune nature of God, i.e., God in three persons. But as our video pointed out, this is no easy task for mere mortals, especially for someone with a peabrain like mine, and I will leave it to the Great Thinkers, the Church Fathers and Doctors, to explain the nature of the Trinity. For Small Thinkers like me, I have found it helpful to understand our triune God by looking at how God has chosen to reveal himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we look at each, we must always remember that while we are talking about three different persons, we are also talking about One indivisible God. Clear as mud? Wonderful. We’re off to a good start.

Before we look at how God has chosen to reveal himself to us, let us keep in mind that while there is no formal doctrine of the Trinity articulated in the NT, a formal doctrine would eventually have to be formulated by the Church based on the writings of St. Paul and others. Take, for instance, these introductory verses found in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

This letter is from Paul, Silas, and Timothy. We are writing to the church in Thessalonica, to you who belong to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. May God give you grace and peace. We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know, dear brothers and sisters, that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own people. For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true (1 Thessalonians 1.1-5a, NLT).

Notice carefully how St. Paul describes the nature and work of God in three persons. He speaks of the Father’s great love for us made known in and through the work of the Son, mediated by the work and power of the Holy Spirit. So let us not fall for the baloney that the doctrine of the Trinity was some unnecessary and overly-complicated human invention. It’s not. It comes directly from God, who chooses to reveal himself to us as such.

Especially appropriate for Father’s Day we begin with God the Father, the ultimate Progenitor, Creator of all that is and Source of all life. As Genesis 1-2 tell us, God created the heavens and earth, himself existing from all eternity (try wrapping your mind around that little nugget!). Genesis tells us that God created this vast cosmos out of nothing, giving us a glimpse of God’s awesome power. As St. Paul would tell the Romans, we worship a God who creates new things out of nothing and who raises the dead (Romans 4.17). So we can have confidence in God to accomplish his purposes. Because God is good, God created all things good and then enigmatically created humans in his image to bring God’s goodness and wisdom to bear to run God’s creation on God’s behalf (Gen 1.26-28; Ps 8). As Genesis 1-2 also tell us, before our first ancestors rebelled against God, they lived in perfect communion with God the Father, obeying his creative intentions (bearing his image faithfully) and enjoying the perfect health, peace, and happiness that accompanies perfect communion with the Father. This poignant picture of the Father communing with his human image-bearers reminds us that God created us to share in his glory and to enjoy perfect happiness, health, and freedom, the kind that comes only in obeying God’s good and creative intentions for us. If you are interested at all in obeying the general will of God the Father, pay attention to the creation narratives.

But if we are going to have any kind of relationship with God the Father, we have to know more about him than his creative work. We have to have some idea of the Father’s nature as well. Is God really lovable? Is he worthy of our first loyalty and ultimate obedience? Before the Fall, our first human ancestors instinctively and consciously knew the answers to these questions because they enjoyed perfect communion with their Father, and God chose to reveal himself to them in ways they could comprehend. After the Fall, this knowledge was lost (Gen 3.8-10) and as a result, the power of Evil and Sin ushered in madness, Death, alienation, and chaos into God’s good world, corrupting it and causing God to curse it and us. Why the curse? Was it because God just doesn’t know how to have a good time? Is it because the Father is a divine child abuser as some have arrogantly charged (a charge so ludicrous that it illustrates unhappily how our sin-caused alienation from God has caused us to no longer know God our Father)? Certainly not! God cursed his good creation and creatures because God can tolerate no evil or injustice in his world, and that is ultimately for our good. As we shall see, if we hope to spend an eternity in the Father’s direct presence, who wants to be bedeviled by the Evil, folly, chaos, madness, and alienation we experience in our fallen state?

But if we only look at God’s justice, we miss huge parts of God’s nature. For despite our attempts to usurp God’s power and our ongoing hostility and rebellion against God, the heart of the Father beats love for his wayward children. Hear what Scripture has to say about the love of God: Saint John tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16), and that anyone who does not love does not know God because God is love (1 John 4.8). The psalmist characterizes the Father as “merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation” (Ps. 145.7-8). Jesus tells us likewise when he tells us to imitate the Father by loving our enemies as well as our friends (Matthew 5.43-48). Elsewhere, the psalmist declares how precious the Father’s love for us is because God saves both humans and animals, providing us with much-needed shelter from the storms of life (Ps 36.6b-7). 

Scripture also declares God’s patient, steadfast love for us, despite our ongoing rebellion. As you listen to these gracious words, imagine your heavenly Father speaking them to you and take heart.

But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I gave Egypt as a ransom for your freedom; I gave Ethiopia and Seba in your place. Others were given in exchange for you. I traded their lives for yours because you are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will gather you and your children from east and west. I will say to the north and south, ‘Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel from the distant corners of the earth. Bring all who claim me as their God, for I have made them for my glory. It was I who created them’” (Isaiah 43.1-7, NLT)

My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like [my enemies]? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy [Israel]; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath (Hosea 11.7-9).

Do you hear the tenderness and compassion in these verses? Israel had indeed been intent on running away from their God, but the Father’s generous heart would not give up on his wayward children. This is the love and compassion and mercy and tenderness we give up when we thumb our noses at God and refuse his gracious overtures. This is what causes us to live in darkness and chaos, feeling alone and afraid. This is the cost of human sin and rebellion against God the Father.

But as these OT passages attest, God is not put off so easily because God the Father is good and faithful, even in the face of our unfaithfulness as St. Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim 2.13). And so at just the right time, God the Father took on our human flesh (or in NT parlance, the Father sent the Son) to free us from our slavery to Sin and Death and to establish the basis for restoring God’s good creation gone bad. St. Paul summarizes it best in his letter to the Galatians. Pay careful attention to the trinitarian nature of this passage and the role of each:

But when the right time came, God sent his Son [God became human], born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba, Father.” Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir (Galatians 4.4-7, NLT).

Why did the Father do this? Because he desires life and goodness and health, not death and destruction and chaos. And so the Father’s love for us was and is made known supremely in Jesus, the Son of God. The coeternal Son who existed with God from all eternity (Jn 1.1-5) took on our flesh to destroy Sin’s power over us and to bear the Father’s just wrath on our sins to spare us and make us fit to stand in God’s direct presence forever (Rom 5.6-11, 8.1-4; Rev 7.9-17). All who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to be a sacrifice for our sins, and who was raised by God from the dead, are washed clean by his blood shed for us on the cross. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson this morning, this was an act of pure grace on the Father’s part. None of us deserve this mercy because before Christ’s Incarnation, we were still God’s enemies. But those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and only those who believe Jesus is the Son of God, are no longer God’s enemies. Instead, we are God’s children (Jn 1.12) and therefore we have a future hope and inheritance: God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. In Christ, we see the very heart and face of the Father healing the sick, casting out the demonic, and defeating Evil and the powers behind it. And because of the resurrection, those of us who are united to Christ by faith are promised a share in God’s new world. As St. Paul reminds us in Rom 6.3-5, those who have a relationship with Christ, i.e., who are in Christ, share in both Christ’s death and resurrection (and if we love God and others as he loves us we definitely are “in Christ”). I don’t have time to develop this today. Suffice it to say that St. Paul proclaims to us that eternal life, bodily life in God’s new world where we live directly in God’s presence, unlike we do right now, is our destiny (1 Cor 15), i.e., we are resurrection peeps. Christ’s resurrection also validates the unlikely claim by the NT writers that on the cross God defeated the dark powers (Col. 2.13-15) who have invaded his world and corrupted it, wreaking havoc and pain and misery and suffering on anyone and everyone. If you do not see the Father’s love for you made known in the Son’s work and love, you are truly to be most pitied.

God the Father makes all this known in and through the power of his Holy Spirit, who reveals God’s truth to us, makes Christ known and present to us, and equips us to live like the truly human image-bearers God created and wants us to be. In other words, he makes us living stones in God’s new Temple built on Christ (1 Peter 2.1-6). Without the Spirit, we cannot possibly know God or Christ. We cannot possibly know the Truth. We cannot possibly love or forgive or be gracious or merciful or kind or compassionate. As our Creed proclaims, he is the Lord, the giver of life. Even when you hear lousy sermons on the Trinity like this one, the Holy Spirit will overcome and make God in three persons known to you. He makes your prayers efficacious and gives you power to serve and be humble, to be genuine people of God. There’s much more, but I’m out of time.

So why should knowing God in three persons matter to us? Just this. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have overcome our sin and rebellion, restoring us as truly human image-bearers of our Father. If you want to live life with meaning, purpose, and power, the only way you can do that is to know and worship our triune God because this is the real God, not some false or incomplete imitation of the Real Deal. This one God wants to heal us and equip us to be real children who bring to bear God’s love and goodness to his broken and hurting creation. How can we do that if we don’t know the Father’s love made known supremely through the Son and imparted to us in and through the Spirit? If you seek wholeness and healing and blessing in the midst of a chaotic world, if you seek to love as you have been loved, if you seek real comfort for your grief, if you are aware of the Father’s great love for you despite your sins and rebellion, you are already in his loving grasp. We cannot imitate him who we do not know and we come to know our triune God through prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist, tradition, and fellowship, all in and through the power of the Spirit. Most of all, we know we worship the real God if we are resurrection peeps who claim for our own the promise of Christ’s resurrection because only in his resurrection will we know completely the love, mercy, kindness, and justice of God to heal us and make us entirely whole again. Of course we’ll schlep along in this mortal life and get it wrong at times. Many of us will get it wrong more than we’ll get it right. But despite this, we don’t lose hope. Because we know God our Father, we dare believe in his great promises to heal, redeem, and restore us, promises validated in the Son of God’s death and resurrection. We know it because we are God’s people who have the Holy Spirit living in us. Let us therefore live as people with power and hope and love, with charity and great grace, daring to allow the Father to make himself known in and through us by faithfully imitating Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity, not only today but every day, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

From the Archives for Ascension Sunday 2023—The Ascension: God’s Power Play

Sermon delivered on Ascension Sunday, May 13, 2018.

Lectionary texts: Acts 1.1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53.

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

Today we celebrate our Lord’s ascension into heaven. But what’s that all about? Is St. Luke trying to tell us that Jesus was the first astronaut, zooming up into space? Not at all, and if we understand our Lord Jesus’  ascension in this literalist and linear way, we miss the point and are robbed of the vital power we need to live as Christians in a broken world. What does it mean for us to participate in God’s power play? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

If we are ever to understand by the grace of God what it means to be God’s people in Jesus, i.e., people with power, we must first understand what St. Luke is telling us about the Ascension in our NT and gospel lessons. He is not trying to suggest that Jesus was the first astronaut who gives his disciples one last glimpse of him by allowing them to see the soles of his feet. No, for St. Luke and the rest of the NT writers, Jesus’ ascension into heaven (God’s space) meant that Jesus was going to assume his rightful place as ruler of the cosmos. When St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson that God seated our ascended Lord at his right hand, he is telling us that Jesus is now Lord over both the visible and invisible powers, i.e., over all creation. Jesus is Lord precisely because on the cross, God defeated the forces of evil and transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins, thanks be to God. This is the wisdom and power of God: the suffering and self-giving love that rescued us from utter destruction and our slavery to the dark powers that hate us and want to see us destroyed. But none of us would ever have known the power of crucified love had it not been for God raising Jesus from the dead that first Easter Sunday. As we have seen during this Eastertide, the cross needs the resurrection and the resurrection needs the cross. Without the resurrection, the cross would have meant that Jesus was just another failed Messiah wannabe. Without the cross, the resurrection would have been nothing more than a spectacular act of power on God’s part because we would remain in our sins and unreconciled with God so that death would be our destiny, not eternal life

Based on God’s power in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, St. Luke and St. Paul both remind us that now Jesus has returned to God’s space (heaven) to assume his rightful role as Lord of all creation and to rule until all God’s enemies have been defeated, death being the last and greatest of these enemies (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.26, 51-55). Can any of us think of a greater power than being able to destroy the power of death forever when the dead are finally raised to life? And who among us has the power to be reconciled to God given the desperately sick hearts with which we are all burdened (Jeremiah 17.9)? The answer, of course, is that none of us has this power, only God does. 

So in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see the penultimate chapter in the story of God’s plan to rescue his good creation and its creatures gone bad, corrupted by human sin and rebellion and the evil it unleashed in the world. Now that the forces of evil had been defeated on the cross and Jesus validated as the Son of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Son returned to the Father to assume his rightful role as Lord of all and to build on the work he had accomplished in his death and resurrection. In other words, Jesus’ ascension signaled to his followers and the world that God is in control of things in a new and definitive way. For those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts and minds to believe, God is again demonstrating his power to save and reminding us that the good guys are in charge, not the bad ones.

But the Ascension also meant that Jesus would no longer be available to his followers in the way he had been during his mortal life. He had to return to heaven to continue the work he started on his Father’s behalf. So why does St. Luke report that after Jesus’ Ascension his disciples were filled with joy? If we knew our loved one was going to be absent from us for a period of time, wouldn’t we be filled with sadness and anxiety? So why weren’t the disciples? The answer, of course, is that Jesus promised them the power of his presence with them in the coming of the Holy Spirit. While Jesus would be strangely absent from his followers, he would also be strangely present because he was going to send the Holy Spirit to mediate his presence with us. Father Bowser will presumably take up this theme next week. Or not. 

And now we are getting ready to understand what it means for us as Jesus’ followers to be part of God’s power play and what that might look like. Being part of God’s power play means we are people who have been forgiven our sins and equipped with the power to reorient our lives away from ourselves, which would mean death, to God, which means life. Don’t misunderstand. This process is not automatic or neat and clean. We are a profoundly broken people, but God’s healing power and love for us is far greater. To be part of God’s power play means we have the power and person of Jesus always available to us, even in our darkest moments of anxiety and fear, healing us, loving us, and equipping us to lead the cross-shaped lives he calls us to lead. He gives us this power because he calls us to continue his kingdom work by announcing repentance and the forgiveness of sins and bringing Christ’s love and presence to his sin-sick world. We are tempted to shake our heads about all this, of course. If Jesus is Lord, he is doing a really lousy job of it. Look at the mess this world is in! But this misses the point of the Ascension. The first Christians knew the world was in bad shape. St. Paul, after all, wrote about the dark powers being defeated while he was in prison! He certainly knew the reality of evil, but because he knew the risen Christ present to him both on the road to Damascus and in the power of the Spirit, he also knew that evil had been ultimately defeated. 

What the Ascension means for us in terms of power is that we are given the tremendous privilege of being real human beings again and doing the work that God always intended and called us to do. We are to rule the world by reflecting God’s love and goodness into it. That God did not put the world to rights with the wave of God’s hand is a testimony to the worth God assigns us as his image-bearers. In and through Christ, God did what was impossible for us to do: rescue us from ourselves and our slavery to sin and evil. Now God calls us to continue the work of bringing in God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. That’s a mighty tall order and it is impossible for us to do this on our own. We simply don’t have the power to get the job done. 

But we are not called to bring in the Kingdom on our own nor are we given the task of bringing in the Kingdom in full so that all the darkness in our lives and God’s world are totally vanquished. Only God can do that when Jesus returns to consummate his saving work started in his earthly ministry. No, the kind of power we wield is the kind of power Jesus wielded and if we get this right, it will help us better understand how the power of God works and why quest-ions about the ability of Jesus to rule as Lord of all creation miss the point of the Ascension. The kingdom will come on earth as in heaven as the Church—you, me, and all other Christians—engage the world as Christ did. It means we go out as vulnerable, suffering, praying, praising, misunderstood, misjudged, and even hated people. But we are people of power, God’s power, and that means we go out into the world as forgiven and beloved people, and therefore as people with real hope. Consequently we are always celebrating despite our setbacks and failures because we know how the story ends. As God’s people, then, we are given power to forgive where no forgiveness is warranted. We are given power to bless when cursed. We are given power to love instead of hate and to offer the same crucified love to others that Christ offered to us. We are given power to have a tender and compassionate heart, especially to those who least deserve it. We are given power to be patient and kind and gentle, even when we know this makes us vulnerable to exploitation. We are given power to resist temptation and to refuse to make and worship our own idols like the world does. It means we have power to heal all kinds of disorders and to celebrate even when confronted by death because we know we bear in us both the scars and the life of our crucified, risen, and ascended Savior. And when by God’s grace we know that we share both in Christ’s death and risen life because we are forgiven and redeemed, we have power over anxiety that the world simply cannot possess or understand because the world neither recognizes or acknowledges this kind of power.

None of this is easy or straightforward. We don’t get to waltz through life without hassles, heartaches, and defeats. It just doesn’t work that way. Therefore we have to read and study the Scriptures, and learn how to pray, worship, and engage in real fellowship with each other, all the while trusting God’s grace to produce in us the needed faith and knowledge about these things we cannot understand on our own. And when we finally start to grapple with the realization we are people who possess God’s power to love, forgive, bless, and redeem, it can make all the difference in the world for us. We should therefore never be timid about sharing with all and sundry the Good News of which the Ascension is a part, precisely because we know God’s power to heal and restore in our own lives, however imperfectly that might look. After all, God is a God who calls into existence things that do not exist and raises the dead to life. So nothing in our life is too hard for God, even if it is too hard for us when we rely on our own power. The Ascension reminds us of this reality. Despite our doubts and fears, despite the messiness of our lives and the world in which we live, we are reminded of the dignity and nobility of being human in the eyes of God and God’s promise to rescue us and all creation from all that is evil and opposed to God’s good will and purposes for us. Because we are people of power who enjoy Christ’s love and presence with us in the power of the Spirit, we can learn to find real joy in the people and events and opportunities that the Spirit puts in our path. Because Jesus is Lord we know that nothing in our lives is ever coincidental or serendipitous. We are all connected and therefore have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the love and power of God. And because Jesus is Lord and we are not, we never have to despair when our best efforts and intentions apparently do not bear any results: We pray and our prayers are not answered in the manner we hoped. We offer forgiveness but it is not reciprocated. We are bedeviled by besetting sins. We offer Truth and receive shame and derision in return. Without the power of the Lord Jesus who is with us in the presence of the Spirit, we would surely be overcome with despair. But we are crucified and resurrected people who share the King’s power, and who enjoy his real presence in the power of the Spirit given to us. And because we have this power, we are not overcome because we know even the gates of hell cannot overcome the Risen and Ascended Lord of all creation, thanks be to God! Alleluia! Christos Anesti! Christ is risen and ascended! The Lord is risen and ascended indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Easter 2023: From the Sermon Archives—What’s the Resurrection to You?

Lectionary texts: Acts 10.34-43; Easter Anthems; Colossians 3.1-4; St. Matthew 28.1-10.

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

Today we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. But what should it mean to us Christians? What does it mean to you? This is what I want us to look at this morning. In St. Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, we find a chaotic scene, one mixed with fear and shock and joy. St. Matthew tells us of a dazzling angelic presence and earthquakes, of guards passing out from fear, of a strange command given, and of women running to and fro. A strange story indeed! What is going on here? Before we look at these questions, let us be clear that this story would have been no less strange to first century ears than it is to ours. We needn’t look any further than the women’s reaction to understand this. Contrary to what many seem to think, the women had come to Jesus’ tomb, not expecting him to be raised from the dead but to visit his grave and mourn his death, just like we do when we visit the graves of our loved ones. Instead, they got something quite different. While many Jews in the first century believed in a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, nobody believed or expected a one-off event would happen in the midst of it. But this is exactly what they were told had happened with Jesus and it was terrifying and incomprehensible to them, at least initially. In reporting these events, St. Matthew surely was aware that he was reporting strange things indeed and that his report would be met with skepticism by many, especially because it was based on the testimony of women who had little cred as witnesses. So if you are one this morning who cannot imagine these things happening as St. Matthew reported them, he would surely understand.

But he might also say this to you. Don’t worry if you can’t imagine Jesus being raised from the dead because the resurrection is not of human origin; it is from God. The earthquake and angelic presence announced it. So did the tombs that were split open and the dead being raised at Christ’s death that I reported. These things are beyond the scope of human imagination and reasoning, just like a crucified God is beyond human imagination and understanding. But that doesn’t make the events I reported any less historical or true. In reporting all these fantastic and highly unusual events to you, I am inviting you to consider by faith what Christ’s resurrection is all about. 

St. Matthew surely wants us to see the mighty hand of God at work in the death and resurrection of Christ to change the course of history by inaugurating God’s promised new creation to heal and restore the old order, a world marred and corrupted by human sin, evil, and death (the unholy triumvirate). As with all the gospel writers, St. Matthew doesn’t tell us this in so many words, he tells us this brilliantly in story, not as in a made up story, but a story that is based on historical reality and reliable eyewitness testimony, a story rehearsed and believed in by the Church over the last two thousand years in Word and Sacrament and in the sacred fellowship of believers whose lives have been healed and transformed by the power of our crucified and risen Lord. And because of this, it is a story that has far more cred than trendy, arrogant, and closed-minded “scholars” who just can’t imagine the power of God made known in this way, or by caustic outsiders who snipe at the sins of the Church from afar, unwilling to invest their lives in Christ to see if his claims on them are true. They, like the guards who fainted in terror at the presence of an angel of the Lord, are most to be pitied because their minds and hearts are closed off to God’s power in the life of his world.

So how are we to plumb the depths of God’s story of resurrection and new life? For starters, let us be clear about what all the NT writers, St. Matthew included, meant when they spoke of resurrection. For the NT writers, resurrection meant new bodily existence. It did not mean life after death or going to heaven or the immortality of the soul or some kind of spiritual existence after death. No, resurrection meant bodily existence and it was consistent with the Jewish belief in the importance of creation found in the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2. There we see that God created everything good and humans were created in God’s image to run God’s good world on his behalf. But human sin and the evil it introduced into God’s good world profoundly corrupted both the created order and human lives, death being the ultimate evil. We all know this first hand. We are gathered here today virtually to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are no lilies and flowers or spectacular music or sweet in-person fellowship. Our worship is devoid of many of the things that make our Easter celebration so joyous. We aren’t lighting candles or swinging incense or any of that. We’re not saying prayers in the Easter garden or enjoying a magnificently decorated altar, resplendent in its Easter glory. Instead we are huddled in our respective homes, looking at a makeshift altar that is not exactly resplendent, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So yeah, we don’t need to be reminded that the old order of creation has gone terribly wrong. 

But in the midst of this old order with its decay and darkness and death, St. Matthew reports that Christ is raised from the dead, to new bodily existence that conforms to God’s promised new world or new age. How does he announce this? St. Matthew starts by telling us the women came to mourn on the first day of the week, the eighth day, the day after God’s sabbath rest, i.e., the beginning of new creation. Like the guards who passed out, the women were terrified at God’s power and presence manifested in angelic form. The angel didn’t roll the stone away to let Jesus out of the tomb. Christ was already gone, raised by the power of God! No, the angel rolled away the stone to let them see the tomb was empty! And when Jesus appeared suddenly to the women (he had a habit of doing that during the forty days before his ascension), they were able to see him, hear him, speak to him, and hold him, all the things we cherish in our human relationships that death ends permanently.

But there’s more. As we saw last week in the reading of his passion narrative, St. Matthew reports that in the aftermath of Christ’s death tombs were split open and many of the godly dead were raised to life. In telling us this fantastic story that stretches our imagination, St. Matthew is telling us that in Christ’s death, our greatest enemy, Death, is defeated. Together, these two stories proclaim the defeat of Death and the inauguration of God’s new creation, a world in which sin and all forms of evil are abolished, a physical world where our dead or dying bodies are restored and death is no more, a world where we are reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ so that we can hold them, talk to them, hear them, and see them, a world devoid of sickness, sorrow, plague, fear, rejection, alienation, heartache, broken dreams, disordered desires, and all the rest that beat us down and dehumanize us. It is a world hard to imagine because it is of God and comes from God’s loving heart and power (cf. Rev 21.1-7). In telling us these stories St. Matthew is telling us that Christ’s resurrection was a history- and life-changing event for the women and Christ’s first followers. How else to explain the transformation of his disciples from sniveling cowards who denied and failed their Lord in his hour of greatest need to bold proclaimers of the gospel who willingly and gladly faced death to proclaim the love and power of Jesus Christ and him crucified?

And here is where we must revisit our place in the story of Christ’s crucifixion that we looked at last Sunday because when God raised Jesus from the dead, he declared that whatever our place was in the story of Christ’s death, God loves us and has forgiven us, just like Christ forgave his disciples by telling them to meet him in Galilee instead of denying them publicly as he said he would do to followers who denied him publicly (Matt 10.32-33). By Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross, we are healed and made fit to live in God’s promised new world. To be sure, we won’t be full participants in the new heavens and earth until Christ returns to finish the work he started in his death and resurrection, but we are citizens right now. Everything has changed. Is this what the Resurrection is to you? Is it for you the turning point in history where God declares the Old Order in which we live with its decay, its brokenness, its sorrow and suffering, and its death is finished? Is it the turning point in history where Death is swallowed up in life, or is it something else? If it is something else for you, then nothing in your world has changed. You still live in a world where fear and uncertainty and decay and death reign, where covid19 paralyzes you with fear and robs you of your hope, where cruelty, injustice, chaos, and the burdens you bear in your own life reign supreme with no hope of relief or healing or redemption. If it is anything less for you than St. Matthew describes it, then you should frankly say to hell with it and quit living the lie that you are a Christian in any real sense of the word because you have no real hope or future. You are settling for a lie and something much less to sustain and guide you in the living of your mortal days. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Fr. Bowser’s sermons or being a Michigan or BGSU fan. Why would you do that to yourself?

But if the Resurrection is real for you in the sense that St. Matthew and the other NT writers present it, and in the life-changing way the first followers of Jesus experienced it, then there is no reason for you to fear because you know that come what may, Death and all that is evil in this world have been defeated, and that new hope, new bodily life in God’s direct presence is your future. 

I do not claim that having this kind of faith is easy and here is where we can profit by listening to what St. Paul has to say to us in our epistle lesson. When we believe that Christ’s resurrection is the game-changing cosmic event that the NT writers proclaim it is and that we are greatly loved and forgiven, despite our sins and brokenness, we realize that resurrection isn’t given indiscriminately. It is given only through the death of Christ in whom our life and being are inextricably bound in the power of the Spirit. Therefore, says St. Paul, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

What is St. Paul telling us? That heaven really is our destination and that our eternal life will be as a disembodied spirit? Not at all. He is telling us that when we put our faith in Christ, we share in his death and resurrection. But the risen Christ currently reigns from heaven and is invisible to us as sometimes is his power and influence on us. That can be terribly frustrating. We know we are called to pattern our lives after him and we desire to do so. But we can struggle in living out our faith or do so badly. Our failures, however, do not necessarily signal that we are cut off from Christ and his citizenship in God’s promised new world because our citizenship there is based on his power and love, not ours, or our worthiness to be with him. His death and resurrection proclaim that reality!

And so we continue to live our lives after him in the power of the Spirit (or set our minds on things that are above). What are those things? St. Paul has laid them out elsewhere in his letters. Whenever we focus on that which is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, we are setting our minds on things above. Whenever we love as Christ loved us, whenever we are tenderhearted toward each other and forgive each other, whenever we bear each other’s burdens, whenever we display the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, whenever we reject our old death-dealing ways and desires (remember Christ died for our sins), we are setting our minds on things above. We do these things because we believe we belong to God’s new world—despite our flaws and failures and the baggage we just can’t seem to shake—because Christ belongs to it and we share in his crucified and risen life by our baptism that unites us to him. In other words, St. Paul is telling us that our resurrection faith and hope is the starting point, not the result of, our relationship with Christ. So we must continue to focus on imitating our Lord in his love, mercy, goodness, generosity, et al., despite how imperfectly we imitate him. 

Here’s a quick example of how this works. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of this pandemic. We hear of people dying alone—a prospect that personally terrifies me—and about economic loss and suffering. We are forced to celebrate Easter today online. We wonder if this darkness will ever end. That is setting our mind on this age with its trajectory toward decay and death. Instead, St. Paul tells us to focus on Christ and his death and resurrection. So we focus on the fact that our sins are forgiven, that we are greatly loved by God the Father and redeemed by God the Son, and therefore promised a place in his new creation starting right now, however imperfectly that looks, so that life and health and wholeness are our destiny. Why then should we be afraid? But this takes a concentrated effort together. We have to be brave enough and humble enough to ask each other for help and encouragement until our thinking leads to our experiencing Christ’s love, presence, and strength in our lives. So turn off the TV or other news sources. Pick up your Bible and read together the stories of Christ’s death and resurrection or St. Paul’s great tract on the resurrection found in 1 Cor 15 to be reminded of the reality of things as well as your future. Worship regularly and be healed and transformed by God’s word and sacraments. If you come away from worship feeling refreshed and renewed or encouraged and strengthened, this is what St. Paul is talking about. You are refreshed and renewed because you have set your mind on Christ who reigns from heaven and who currently is invisible to you. So don’t go back into the world and focus on it so that it beats you down. Keep returning to Christ. Things are rarely straightforward in this life. We have to work at relationships if we want them to grow and worthwhile things in life rarely come easily. So we do the hard work to grow in our relationship with Christ. It’s called Christian maturity. That is what St. Paul is telling us we must do to live a Christian life and manifest our resurrection faith.

But it all starts with what the Resurrection means to us. And so this Easter morning I close by asking you again, what is the Resurrection to you? If you believe Christ’s death and resurrection to be the turning point in history you will learn to know that your destiny is new embodied life in God’s new world and that knowledge will help you overcome the travails of this world. Christ’s death and resurrection have set us free: free from doubt and despair, free from sin and guilt, free from darkness and everlasting death. The world, the flesh, and the devil will try their best to persuade us otherwise and they will succeed if we set our minds on them rather than on Christ and the things above. Don’t do that to yourselves, my beloved. The stakes are far too great. Let us embrace the gift of life offered to us out of the great love the Father has for us and be set free to love and serve him all our days, confident that come what may, the promise is true. We really are New Word Men (and Women)—apologies to Rush. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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