Good Friday 2024: N.T. Wright on the Seven Signs in Saint John’s Gospel

From John for Everyone, Part 2. Simply Beautiful.

The changing of water to wine was, as he told us clearly, the first in the sequence of ‘signs’ by which Jesus revealed his glory. The second was the healing of the nobleman’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54). From then on he leaves us to count up the ‘signs’, and different readers have reckoned them differently. I think the most convincing sequence goes like this. The third ‘sign’ is the healing of the paralysed man at the pool (5:1–9). The fourth is the multiplication of loaves and fishes (6:1–14). The fifth is the healing of the man born blind (9:1–12). And the sixth is the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44).

John cannot have intended the sequence to stop at six. With Genesis 1 in the back of his mind from the very start, the sequence of seven signs, completing the accomplishment of the new creation, has an inevitability about it. Now here we are, at the foot of the cross. John has told us throughout his gospel that when Jesus is ‘lifted up’, this will be the moment of God’s glory shining through him in full strength. And the ‘signs’ are the things that reveal God’s glory. I regard it as more or less certain that he intends the crucifixion itself to function as the seventh ‘sign’.

As though to confirm this, Jesus gives one last cry. ‘It’s finished!’ ‘It’s all done!’ ‘It’s complete!’ He has finished the work that the father had given him to do (17:4). He has loved ‘to the very end’ his own who were in the world (13:1). He has accomplished the full and final task.

The word that I’ve translated ‘It’s all done!’ is actually a single word in the original language. It’s the word that people would write on a bill after it had been paid. The bill is dealt with. It’s finished. The price has been paid. Yes, says John: and Jesus’ work is now complete, in that sense as in every other. It is upon this finished, complete work that his people from that day to this can stake their lives [emphasis mine]. (pp. 131-32)

Holy Week 2024: Good Friday

One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”

But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23.39-43).

NLT

Today is Good Friday, the most sacred day of the year and the turning point in history. Yet here we are, living in a world gone mad, and it certainly doesn’t feel like today is the turning point of anything. Why is it the turning point? Because God himself has moved to redeem us from our slavery to the power of Sin. Our sin got us booted from paradise as our first ancestors arrogantly sought to be equal to God. Today the Son of God makes our reentrance into paradise possible. He does so in complete agreement and perfect obedience to God the Father’s will, and by giving up his equality with God in utter humility so that we might be saved.

On the cross, Jesus, God become human, is giving himself for us in self-sacrificial love to end our alienation from God and deal a decisive blow to the dark powers. This has always been enigmatic and paradoxical to us. It doesn’t look like Jesus is reigning as king from the cross. It doesn’t look like the evil powers have been defeated. It looks just the opposite! And it often looks that way in our lives and the world in which we live. With the powers of Evil so active, how can our Christian faith proclaim the defeat of these dark powers? We aren’t told how it all works, just that the powers of Evil have been defeated. Listen to St. Paul:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins.  He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15).

NLT

St. Paul wrote these words while he was languishing in a prison dungeon because he was an apostle for Christ! He of all people knew the evil and suffering the dark powers could inflict on the saints of God. Yet he still maintained that on the cross our slavery to Sin had been broken. Certainly not completely during this mortal life as we all can attest, but we believe that despite the darkness around us and within us, we are truly free because we believe that the cross of Christ is the power of God, the only power that can free us from our slavery. Reality isn’t always perceived by our senses and the world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. May God be gracious to us and give us the wisdom and humility to have ears to hear and hearts/minds believe this astonishing truth.

At the foot of the cross, we also find God’s forgiveness for the evil and folly we have committed in our lives. Like the repentant criminal dying next to Jesus, we believe that in Christ’s death we see the love of God being poured out for us so that we are spared God’s perfect justice and judgment on our sins, and we dare cry out to our Lord, asking him to remember us. Remember me, Jesus. Because if you don’t, my mortal life will be over before I know it and I will return to dust, desolate and bereft in my grave, and unremembered after only a few short years, perhaps a fate as awful as your judgment on my sins.

We cry to our merciful Lord to save us and remember us even though we don’t deserve such love and grace because we believe in the love of God shown us today. Like the repentant criminal, we dare believe that we will hear Christ’s promise to us that on the day of our death we will be with him in paradise to await our new bodies to live in God’s new world. St. Paul boldly proclaims this above. St. Luke tells us this in the exchange between Jesus and the repentant criminal and in the larger story of Christ’s passion. Earlier he tells us that Pilate had released Barabbas, a known terrorist, instead of Jesus. The innocent is condemned and the guilty go free. That sounds about right, but in telling us this, St. Luke reminds us that even in the darkness, God’s saving power is at work. Christ has stepped into the breach to die for us so that we can live. We may not be terrorists like Barabbas was, but none of us on our own merits is able to live in the perfect holiness of God’s presence—until today, until Christ’s death, thanks be to God!

During this time of utter chaos where the patients appear to be running the asylum, this is worthy of our best contemplation, our deepest mourning, and our most joyful and profound thanks to God the Father, whose great love for us in Christ surpasses our own poor expectations, hopes, and fears. This is why we call this particular Friday “Good.”

Maundy Thursday 2024: Saint Thomas Offers a Reflection on the Eucharist

The happy commemoration of today’s feast with its immense concourse of people invites us to prolong fervently our praises of the Most Holy Body of Christ. What could be sweeter, what more pleasing to the heart of the faithful than to exalt the abyss of his divine charity, and to glorify the overflowing torrent of his love! At the table of the new grace the hand of the priest distributes ceaselessly his Flesh as food and his precious Blood as drink, to those who are his children and heirs of the kingdom promised by God to those who love him.

O endless Emanation of the goodness of God and of his immense love for us, admirable and worthy of all praise! In this sacrament, where all former sacrifices are done away with, he remains with us to the end of the world; he feeds the children of adoption with the bread of angels and inebriates them with filial love.

This is the food and drink for the elect, living bread and spiritual nourishment, remedy for daily weaknesses! It is the table which Christ has prepared for his friends and guests, like the one the father prepared for his son on the day of his return, to replace the symbolic lamb. This is the Passover in which the victim immolated is Christ; 0 Christ our Passover, you want us too to pass over from vice to virtue; as once you delivered the Jews, so now you set us free in spirit. You are the food that satisfies all but the most hardened; food that is eaten by faith, tasted by fervor, assimilated by charity. 0 viaticum of our pilgrimage, you lead travelers to the height of virtue. Confirm my heart in good, assure it in the paths of life, give joy to my soul, purify my thoughts.

The Eucharist is bread, real bread; we eat it without consuming or dividing it; it converts butitself is not changed; it gives strength without ever losing it; it gives perfection and suffices for salvation; it gives life, it confers grace, it remits sins. It is the food of souls, a food which enlightens the intelligence of the faithful, inflames their hearts, purifies them from their shortcomings, elevates their desires.

O chalice that holy souls love to drink of, chalice of fervor, chalice changed into the Blood of Christ, to seal the new Alliance, withdraw us the old leaven, fill our souls with yourself, that we may become a new paste and that we may go to the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. For the Lamb without spot, who knows no touch or stain of any sin, ought to be eaten with unleavened bread. We should not approach without being cleansed by confession, without having a solid foundation of faith, without being in charity.

Come to the Lord’s supper, if you wish to come to the nuptials of the Lamb; there, we shall be inebriated with the riches of the house of God we shall see the King of glory and the God of hosts in all his beauty, shall eat this bread in the kingdom of the Father.

Thomas Aquinas, Lectionary and Martyrology, 288-289

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent 2024: Saint Cyril Waxes Eloquent on the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday 2024: From the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Silence is kept.

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

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

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

Let us pray.

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

At the imposition the minister says to each person

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

After the imposition of ashes the President prays

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

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

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope Benedict XVI Muses on the Temptations of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those with ears to hear, listen and understand. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

Behold a new and wondrous mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.