Lessons: 2 Chronicles 36:14-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; St. John 6:4-15
One of Beth’s hobbies is genealogy and it is not an overstatement to say that it has had a profound affect on our lives. This stronger connection to the past has given us a greater context for our present lives. It’s like discovering your role in a grand play.
We visited the town in Ireland where her people lived before immigrating to America. We found them in the parish records and visited their graves. She discovered that I had an ancestor who was the Archbishop of Dublin and was one of the designers of the beautiful Anglican Cathedral, Christ Church in Dublin. You can imagine the sense of destiny that I felt as an Anglican priest when I visited his side chapel in that magnificent cathedral. It has been my experience that knowing where you come from gives you a better understanding of where you are and where you are going.
I certainly believe that is true about our spiritual genealogy and so it saddens me when I hear Christians all but reject the Old Testament, or when they talk about the God of the Old Testament as if He was not the same God of the New Testament who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church Fathers certainly rejected this notion. One of the earliest of heresies named by the Church Fathers, was created by a man named Marcion. He was a heretic in part because he rejected the Old Testament. The Fathers understood that ignorance of the Old would inevitably lead to heresies about the New.
Thus it is important to see the story of the Old Testament as the story of our spiritual ancestors. Their story is really our story and as we better understand their story, and how God worked within their story, we will better understand our story and how God is working within in our lives as well.
Last week the Old Testament lesson was the giving of the 10 Commandments. Contrary to popular notions, these were not a random set of rules given to be certain that no one had a good time. Much like the vows that a man and woman exchange at their wedding, these were the vows or laws that identified Israel as a people who would walk in covenant with God.
Today’s lesson from the Old Testament tells us how they were doing as a covenant people and is this lesson we see that things are bad, very bad. In fact in this brief lesson we see a pattern that repeats itself many times in the Old Testament. The pattern is God’s people being unfaithful, God creating a plan to redeem His people and God giving them a vision of making all things new. Now remember, this is not just about the Jews of the Old Testament who have nothing to do with us Gentiles. These are our spiritual ancestors. Their story is our story.
This story begins on a very sour note. “All the leading priests and the people also were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations; and they polluted the house of God….” When the Lord sent the people of Israel into the Promised Land He ordered them to remove the people who possessed the land but they failed to do so. The result was that they were tempted by the idolatrous ways of the pagan people and they began to compromise and even syncretize the ways of God with the ways of idols. Believing that they were still followers of YHWY they would engage in fertility cults and worship at high places and even make child sacrifices.
Lest you think that compromise and syncretism was just a problem of our spiritual ancestors, listen to this piece from a Florida News Station that I came across last week about a pastor named Marcus Bishop. You will appreciate the irony of his last name when you hear the story.
“Bishop lead a mega church in Panama City Beach, but two bitter divorces, a bankruptcy and a court battle to keep from paying taxes on his multimillion dollar parsonage changed his outlook on life. (He said)
“It’s not about what label you wear or title you carry, it’s about what goes on inside you, Bishop said. “I am a follower of Jesus. I practice of Buddhism. I am a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and I am a student in miracles and more than anything I am passionate about a path of reality that manifests in love and peace.”Bishop has a new church, called The Life Center, where he says there are no rules, no religion, just love.” (WJHG.COM, March 13, 2015)
A related story told of Bishop’s new church being investigated by the Sheriff’s office because he turned his new church into a nightclub for spring break college kids where one night was promoted as a “clothing optional night.”
Is there a substantial difference between this and the ancients with their fertility cults? Is there a substantial difference between child sacrifice and the abominable work of Planned Parenthood that is a component of such immorality? If there is, I don’t see it.
In this season of Lent the Church calls on us to have a heightened sense of where, like our spiritual ancestors, we have been or are being unfaithful. It does not have to be in such blatant ways as the so-called church that I just described. It is helpful to ask ourselves if there ways in our own lives that we have, as it says in Chronicles, followed the abominations of the nations or have polluted the house of God? But what would that look like in today’s world beyond what I just described?
We may not have literal idols that we bow down to, but when we give the control of our lives over to things other than the Lord, then that I would submit to you that is a form of idolatry. There are the obvious things like alcohol and drugs but what about food and sex and even sports? What about the pursuit of what we even call, “the almighty dollar?” None of these things are inherently wrong but if these things are controlling us, if they are demanding too much of our attention, if our lives are wrapped around them, if they have won our hearts, then we are following the abominations of the nations. Of such things we are called to repent.
But how would we pollute the house of God in today’s world? In an overt way we pollute the house of God when we turn the worship of a holy God into a rock concert, or a comedy show or become so concerned about offending anyone that, as Fr. Chris pointed out last week, we fail to call sin, sin. We pollute the house of God when tickle the ears of people so that they will give more money to the church.
In a more subtle way we pollute the house of God when we forget it is the house of God and make it all about ourselves; when it becomes a temple for ME. Billy Crain hit it on the head the other day when he said to me, “The mistake people make is when they come to church asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ rather than asking ‘what can I bring to God?’” We come to His temple to bring him the offering of our life and labor and the sacrifices of our praise and thanksgiving. If we leave feeling blessed that is icing on the cake, but that is not the goal, at least not for a mature Christian. The true blessing comes from the privilege of being invited into God’s presence. The true blessing comes from being united with Christ by Word and Sacrament and that reality far surpasses having a certain feeling.
The next part of the story for Israel is that God creates a plan to redeem His people. It is not a plan that they would have expected. The people are taken into captivity to Babylon. This is a form of judgment but it is also the means of their ultimate redemption because they will return to the land after the land has the Sabbath rest that the Lord had ordained. It is a way for the Lord to make things right.
As their spiritual ancestors, St. Paul tells us in the lesson from Ephesians that the Lord has created a way to make things right for us as well. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace have you been saved.”
What a great parallel we can see here and in both cases it was all about grace. Just as Israel was in captivity in Babylon, so we are in bondage to sin. Just as Israel was helpless in their captivity so we are unable to help ourselves because we are “dead through our trespasses.” In this helpless state God does for Israel, and for us, what neither of us could do for ourselves. For Israel, God raises up the King of Persia to free His people and return them to the land. For us God raises up a King, Jesus the son of David, to free us and to bring us into His kingdom.
Why does He do this? Because we have worked for it? No. Because we are deserving? No. Because He needs us? No. St. Paul says that He did this, “so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” It is to the glory of His grace that God shows us His kindness. It is His kindness and not our goodness that is the cause of our salvation and for that He deserves all the glory that we can offer.
Allow me to go back to my earlier point about worship. It is the knowledge of “the immeasurable riches” of God’s grace that makes us mature worshippers rather than selfish seekers. Here is His plan to make things right for us. He sacrificed His only Son on our behalf. He washed us clean in the Blood of the Lamb. He baptized us into His Body and sealed us with His Holy Spirit. He invites us here to offer us His Body and Blood so that we may dwell in us and we in Him. If that is not enough because we are expecting a certain feeling then we are not really grasping the meaning of grace. We come to worship not in order to receive something but because we have ALREADY received it and so we come to give praise and thanksgiving. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is a gift from God….” We come to say “thank you” for such an undeserved gift.
But the story does not stop there. Israel was not just freed to return to the land to resume their lives as before. Through the King of Persia they were commissioned to rebuild the temple. Their story involved more than simply gaining their freedom. They were commissioned to build the house of God.
And so our story does not stop with being saved by the grace of God. Like Israel, we too our given a commission. St. Paul says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS, which God prepared beforehand TO BE OUR WAY OF LIFE.” Did you catch that? Good works is to be our way of life.
If you have been raised in a fundamentalist of strict evangelical tradition, your blood pressure just went up and you may even get a tick in your eye before the end of this sermon. I can hear someone say, “I thought it was all about grace…what are you bringing in this stuff about good works for? What are you some kind of crypto-papist?”
Please don’t shoot the messenger. I am simply repeating what St. Paul said. If you don’t like St. Paul then what about St. James? “But someone will say ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works….Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart form works is useless?…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
The grave mistake of too much of orthodox Christianity is that it has created a false division between faith and works, as if they can only have one or the other. And since we know that we are not saved by works, then we choose the former. This has resulted in many thinking that as long as they are baptized, or said the sinner’s prayer or walked the isle or joined the church, or whatever other form of getting their ticket to heaven, and then they are good to go. But that is a false confidence created by a false dichotomy. Listen again to Jesus words. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’….‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Mt 25)
There is a great saying that confronts this false dichotomy between faith and works. “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” This is why I have been placing each week in the bulletin, under the heading 4HS & 4SO (for His sake and for the sake of others), brief comments about the good works that members of our parish are doing. I do it not to focus on them but to encourage all of us to love and good deeds. And I do this not as a new program of the Church but to challenge each of us to answer our call from God. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS, which God prepared beforehand TO BE OUR WAY OF LIFE.”
One last quick point. Notice our position in Christ as we serve. We not groveling peasants in an oppressive feudalistic system. St. Paul says that the Father has raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in heavenly places.
Don’t miss the contrast. Jesus humbled Himself to become a servant but then we are exalted to heavenly places so that we too can serve. Service is not an oppressive duty it is a heavenly reward. It is a heavenly reward because in our good works we glorify our Father and others see these good works and glorify Him as well. Jesus taught us this.
Their story is our story. The story continues with you. By learning their story you will better understand who you are and what God has called you to do. The question before each of us is will we answer His call? “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS, which God prepared beforehand TO BE OUR WAY OF LIFE.” Amen.