Full of Grace and Truth

Christ the King Crucifix

Around the Christ figure on the cross above our altar are the four creatures mentioned in the Book of Revelation. These are the creatures that surround the throne of God. They are a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle. The Lindesfarne Gospels of the 7th century depicted these four creatures as symbols for the four Gospels but the concept first appears in the writings of St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century. Matthew is the man because that book begins with Jesus’ genealogy. Mark is the lion because it has a distinct Jewish tone and Jesus is the Lion of Judah. Luke is the Ox because of his details of the passion of our Lord, the ox being an animal of sacrifice. And John is given the eagle because he begins his Gospel not with a genealogy nor with a birth narrative but with the soaringly beautiful theology of Christ before the Incarnation. It is a stunning piece of work.

Martin Luther was famous for telling a student who asked what God was doing before He created the heavens and the earth, that God was making switches to beat people who ask stupid questions. But here John actually tells us what the Son of God was doing before He became Jesus of Nazareth and it is astonishing.

John intentionally begins his book as Moses did with Genesis. “In the beginning….” This is a clue that just as God is before all things, that is eternal, so the Word is before all things, also eternal. As St. Athanasius put it, “There was NOT when He was not.” Then John tells us that the Eternal Word was WITH God, therefore a distinct Person, and yet the Eternal Word WAS God, therefore divine. Declaring that the Eternal Word was both WITH God and WAS God shows us why the early Church was forced to formulate a precise definition of the Trinity. It wasn’t that they were looking for ways to confuse the rest of us, rather they had to find a way to accept and declare this profound mystery. The Word was with God and the Word was God.

Then John tells us that everything came into being through the Word. We already saw that in Genesis. How did God create the heavens and the earth? He spoke them into existence. John says without the Word, “not one thing came into being.” 

Our Sun is massive. In cubic meters it is 1.4 x 10 to the power of 27. To give you an idea of how large that is about 1.3 million of our planet Earth could fit into the Sun. That’s enormous. It’s a good thing that we orbit around it because it would get terrible gas mileage. But they have discovered another sun named Alpha Scorpii A that is 690 million times larger than our Sun. And another named VY Canis Majoris that is 2.9 billion times larger than our Sun.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is so large that it would take a particle 100,000 years, traveling at the speed of light, to cross through the entire galaxy. They have discovered another galaxy named IC 1011 that would take that same particle 6 million years to cross also at the speed of light. Hubble has taken a picture of only a small part of the sky and it has shown thousands of such galaxies, each with billions of suns all with their own planets. The Eternal Word made and sustains it all. We cannot even begin to comprehend the majesty and power of the Eternal Word and yet it is this Eternal Word that will be wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger.

“Without Him not one thing has come into being.” Let me go in another direction. I am a beekeeper and have learned that every bee in the hive has a specific job. Well not the men bees. They just mate, eat and die. But the women bees all have specific jobs. Some are little undertaker bees. Their job is to drag the dead bees out of hive and push them away. I have seen it many times. Some search for food. They even have a dance that tells the distance and quantity of food so that the Queen knows how many workers to send out. Some are nursing bees that care for the brood. Others are engineers that build the hives. Others are scouts that look for new places to take the hive. Although they are insects they work together to form a working community. Tens of thousands of creatures operating like one organism. It’s a fascinating little world. And John tells us that the same One who made galaxies that take 6 million light years to cross also made the honey bees in my back yard. With one hand He touches the end of the universe and with the other hand He touches the smallest of His creatures and one day He will stretch out both hands on the hard wood of the cross. For this He was born.

John goes on to tell us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That, of course, is the truth that we celebrate today. You have likely heard that the Greek word that John chose for “dwelt” is “tabernacle.” Doesn’t that word produce some important images? It was God Himself who gave Moses the plans for the tabernacle. It was essentially a tent that was set up in the midst of the people. It was a holy place where God chose to dwell even though the Universe could not contain Him. The symbolism is powerful. He is not a distant god on Olympus playing games with the lives of the mortals below. Nor is He a god of a tree or a stone that man can fashion and use as he wills. He is the Holy One who out of love has chosen to be with His people providing them the bread of angels in the wilderness. He guides them with a cloud by day and a fire by night. He meets with His servant Moses in order to instruct and care for His people. He is the Shepherd of His people Israel and in Jesus God will live and walk among us.

As wonderful as it would have been to have actually met the Word when He tabernacle among us in the flesh, we must not think that He does not tabernacle with us still. He continues to dwell with us in very real ways although differently than when He walked among us.

For example the Word continues to dwell with us through His Word. I have heard of the Bible being called “a love letter from God” and while that is a nice thought, there is so much more to it than that. The Scripture says of itself that it is “living and active and sharper than a two edged sword” and so more than a dead letter, it is His living voice to us. Through it He instructs and guides and corrects us. It’s not a voice from the past it is a phone call in the present.

He continues to tabernacle among us through His Church. He promised the Apostles that He would be with them to the end of the ages and He promised that whenever two or three would be gathered together in His Name that He would be in their midst. You may not be able to see Him with your physical eyes but if you look carefully you will see Him with the eyes of your heart. He is all around us. You can see Him in a child praying the Lord’s prayer. You can see Him enthroned among His people when we come here to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. You can see Him caring for the hurting as the Church reaches out to others in His Name, when we “go out in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Of course it is our belief as Anglicans is that the most profound way that the Word continues to tabernacle among us is through the Sacraments. We believe that not only are they means of grace but they are sure and certain means of conveying that grace.

During the Jesus movement days it was typical to have people declare rather or not they felt the presence of God. Sometimes meetings were actually stopped because someone in the room no longer felt the presence of God. That kind of subjectivity was unhealthy because it made the rest of us hostage to someone else’s spiritual Geiger counter.

But when it comes to Holy Communion we don’t need someone to feel rather or not God is present. He said that He would be and so He is. We rely on His promises not on our feelers. And because this Sacrament is the work of the Holy Spirit we are not only promised that He will be present but that through His Spirit He will dwell in us and we in him. Again, He will dwell in us and we in Him. I’m not sure that you can get any more “tabernacally” than that!

John ends this soaring introduction to his Gospel by telling us that “we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” What a beautiful picture this paints of Jesus. He is full of grace and truth. Why is that important?

It is important because grace without truth quickly ceases to be grace. For example it is believed today by many to be more loving to declare that all roads lead to God. I saw this thinking referred to as “The Church of Oprah.” But just before John declared that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he said, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or the will of man but of God.” To become a child of God we must receive Christ by believing in His Name. So all roads don’t lead to God. How is it more loving to tell someone something that is so wrong? The call to repent and believe was the message that Jesus gave to the Apostles and He sent them out to the ends of the earth to proclaim it. Their deaths as martyrs would have been made utterly pointless if it did not matter which road you take. So grace without truth ceases to be grace.

It is equally true that truth without grace ceases being truth. Truth is what the Scribes and Pharisees thought that they were preaching but since it lacked grace they only increased the burdens of the people rather than setting them free as truth does. And Jesus did not have kind words for them. He said Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” So to avoid a similar rebuke we must marry grace with truth.

And Jesus surely is the incarnation of both. He said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” and He also said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He is full of grace and truth. He showed us a good and beautiful God that loves us even when we were His enemies. He showed us a heavenly Father that waits at the edge of His property to celebrate the return of His prodigal son. He showed us a King who would leave majestic glory to take the form of a servant in order to bring us “out of error into the truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”

John as the eagle invites us to soar with him. He invites us to believe in a God, as I heard a country preacher once say, who “is greater and gooder than we can ever imagine.” To believe that the Eternal Word, who spoke galaxies into existence, can set our lives in their proper orbit. John invites us to believe and receive the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peace On Earth

Peace on Earth

Christmas is a season of songs both sacred and secular. Of all of the songs of Christmas there is one that I kept returning to this year and it is at the same time very strange and hauntingly beautiful. I’m sure that you’ve seen it. It is strange because it is a counterpoint duet with rocker David Bowie and crooner Bing Crosby singing Peace on Earth and Little Drummer Boy. It was the last thing that Bing Crosby recorded before his death and one article I read said that Crosby wasn’t even sure who David Bowie was at the time. And yet these two different men who lived in two very different worlds came together at the birth of Christ with a common hope for peace.

I suppose that I was drawn to find that video on YouTube once again because of all the chaos in our world today. I wanted to hear that simple beautiful message of peace because this has been a troubling Advent. We have witnessed the attacks of Paris and San Bernardino. The news barely even covers it but the genocides in Africa are ongoing. Last week three towns in Sweden woke up to leaflets, supposedly from ISIS, declaring that they had three days to convert or die. Also last week North Korea declared that are now “a powerful nuclear state ready to detonate self reliant A bombs and H bombs.” Add that the US just sold over a $1 billion worth of arms to Taiwan that has raised the ire of Communist China, which has the largest military on the planet. So if there was ever a time that the world needed to hear the message of peace it is now, and gratefully the message of peace comes from more than just a couple of singers. It was the song of the angels to the shepherds as they declared the birth of the Messiah. He as the Prince of Peace will bring peace on earth, so welcome Lord Jesus.

But how do we realize true peace and make it more than just a wish or a prayer in a song? First we must understand that the peace that Jesus offers as the Prince of Peace is different from what is commonly understood as peace. Jesus put it this way, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

The peace of the world is seen as an absence of conflict, but the peace of Jesus is a peace of heart and mind in the midst of conflict. That is where true peace begins. The peace that the world offers is a wonderful concept but no one knows how to make it a reality. Do you remember the TV commercial that suggested if we could just give everyone a bottle of Coke that we could teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? Or John Lennon suggested that all we have to do is imagine the right things and peace would come about.

We talked a lot about peace in the last half of last century and even had some great role models but in the end the peace and love movement spiraled into a self absorbed sex and drug culture followed by what has been called “the decade of greed.”

So it is very good news that Jesus offers us a peace that is not as the world gives. One song from last century that did get it right was written by Jill Jackson. She wrote “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” She had been suicidal and wrote the song after she discovered what she called the “life-saving joy of God’s peace and unconditional love.”

She discovered the peace of Jesus and with that peace she found the wisdom, as she wrote in her song, that if there is going to be peace on earth it must begin with me. And she also realized that I must first call God my Father before I can call you my brother. Until we are reconciled with our Creator, we will always be at war with our fellow creatures. The forces that drive war, like power and greed and covetousness, are problems of the heart and so the end of war begins by ending the war in our own hearts.

I had an epiphany of this when I was in high school and we lived in Scotland. We lived close to the town of Glasgow, which at the time was famous for what the Scots called hoolagans. These were some very mean and brutal boys some of whom had divided themselves into protestant gangs and catholic gangs. But as I learned more about them I realized that it had nothing to do with religion at all. They were all white kids so they were of the same race. They were all Scots so they were of the same nationality. They were all from the same part of Scotland so there were no regional differences like northerner versus southerner. There was so little to actually divide them from one another that they had to latch on to religion to justify their hate. It was like that Star Trek episode where two guys were at war with each other, both were half white and half black, but they were half black and half white on opposite sides, so the other guy had to die. That is the condition of the human heart and that is why it takes the Prince of Peace to enter it and stop the war.

The peace of Christ comes to us as abide in Him, as we put our trust in Him, as we see ourselves in utter dependence upon Him. Rather then constraining us, this relationship frees us to see God as He truly is and to live life as He intends. We see, as one author called Him, “the good and beautiful God,” from whose love nothing can separate us, and who invites us to walk in His kingdom, a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

But the peace of Christ is not limited to the individual heart. It begins there but it does not stop there. When Jill Jackson discovered the life-saving joy of God’s peace and unconditional love, she raised her sites to see that same peace for the world and so her song matched the song of the angels. The same peace that reaches a person’s heart flows next to the family. A Christian husband who cherishes his wife, and following Jesus’ example, lays down his life for his wife and children, brings a deep peace to his family. The same is true for the Christian wife who lays down her life for her family. And since families are the building blocks of communities and communities make up states and nations, this peace can truly flow to peace on earth.

But again as we see the problems plaguing our world it is easy to lose hope and yet hope is exactly what we need. Let me suggest how we have already had a foretaste of how the peace of God can go beyond the individual heart.

One generation ago, with my father’s generation, our world was on fire with war. The Allied forces were united against the Axis powers that made up of the Germans and Italians in the west and the Japanese in the east. Of course at the time there was no assurance that the Allied forces would be victorious and so there was a possibility that my father’s world, as he knew it, would come to an end. So I have no doubt that when my father entered that war as a young man that he expected to be enemies with those people for the rest of his life.

There is no way at the time that my father could have possibly imagined that just a few years after the war that I and my sister would be born and then just a few years later we would be living in Naples Italy, loving the Italian people and loving their culture. My father had no way of knowing that he would pop up into Germany, buy a Volkswagon station wagon and drive us all over Europe without fear or hesitation. Think about it….from all out war with a nation to vacationing in that same nation in less than one generation!

A few years later we toured Coventry Cathedral. The medieval cathedral was bombed by the Germans and a new cathedral stands in its place, but they have left the ruins of the old cathedral as a grand entrance. It is among those ruins that the ministry of reconciliation began called The Cross of Nails. A priest told me that some of the very German pilots who had bombed the cathedral helped the English built the new one. And some years later the English raised funds to help rebuild a beautiful church in Dresden, named Church of Our Lady, that was bombed by the Allies. Again this all happened in less than a generation!

If you think that it was the wisdom and might of man that ended that war and healed the nations, then you have way more faith in man than I do in God. It is the way of God to bring peace to His world and it is the way of man to keep breaking that peace. But as the old preacher once said, “I read the back of the book and God wins.”

And God winning in the end is where we especially find our hope for peace on earth. From the prophets of the Old Testament to John in the Book of Revelation we are given a vision of peace. It is a vision of nations beating their swords into plowshares and nations healed by God and by the Lamb. The promise is of nations participating in a new heaven and a new earth as the kingdom of God comes in its fullness. It is this kingdom that we can experience now with the peace of Christ and it is this kingdom to come in its fullness for which we now work and pray. Having such a hope does not mean that we have a childish naiveté and ignore how real those dangers are in our world. The peace on earth of which the angels sing is among those with whom God is well pleased. There will be no peace for demonic forces or for men who live under demonic rule As John said in Revelation they will know wrath of the Lamb.

Living under the threat of terrorism today is like living under the threat of the bomb yesterday. We don’t pretend that it’s not there, but we know that God is greater still and we live accordingly. Here is how the famous Anglican C.S. Lewis put it when he wrote in 1948 about living in an atomic age. He said,“The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.” It is knowing that the kingdom of God will come in its fullness and that God wins in the end that allows us to live with hope and without fear.

There is something else we can do in the meantime. It occurred to me as I was watching the Crosby/Bowie video for the umpteenth time that the two songs not only went together beautifully musically but they also fit together theologically. What should I be doing while I hope and pray for peace on earth? Like the little drummer boy I can bring to Jesus what I have. I may not have much to give but I can offer Him what I have and I can use it for His glory. It is this humble and simple approach to life that will help us to accomplish what we heard in the Epistle reading. In this present age we are to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, godly and zealous for good deeds. It is this simple approach to life that will have me take an important step towards letting there be peace on earth and letting it begin with me. “Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace good will toward men.”   Amen.

 

Yosemite the Baptist Pt 2

Brood of Vipers

Lesson: Luke 3:7-18

Today is Gaudete Sunday, which is from the Latin to “rejoice.” We are to rejoice and look up because our salvation draweth nigh.

Also today is part two of Yosemite the Baptist’s sermon and it is a scorcher. Not many preachers start their sermons with “You brood of vipers….” But before we write him off as a religious fanatic we need to remember what Jesus said about him. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist….” That is high praise indeed and it certainly gives us reason to heed John’s words.

I think it is important for us to realize that John has not shifted his sermon from a call to repentance last week to a call to social justice this week. Rather this week’s sermon is a continuation of a call to repentance and it instructs us further about the nature of repentance. It shows us that true repentance is far more than simply telling God that we are sorry. In this sermon we can see two realizations a person needs to move them to repentance and then two qualities of a person who is truly repentant.

The first realization that moves us to repentance is when it dawns on us that we have been resting on our laurels. That realization is what the people lacked that John rebuked. It’s not that John did not want them to flee from the wrath to come rather he wanted them to do so God’s way and not their way.

What was their way? They thought that they were right with God simply because they were descendants of Abraham, but salvation does not work that way. Pedigrees don’t work with God because, to paraphrase St. Paul, “all of us are mutts and have fallen short of the glory of God.” If you were to ask me if I was going to heaven and my answer was “Of course, I am priest ordained in apostolic succession” you would have some danger bells go off, right? John had those same bells go off with his crowd.

But it is when by the grace of God you realize that you cannot claim righteousness based on your family or your upbringing or your denomination or your knowledge or even your piety, it is then that you move toward God in repentance.

Dr. James Bryan Smith describes a dangerous false narrative in the Church today and it is believing that what matters is having faith in Jesus rather than an ongoing relationship with Him. This is a dangerous narrative because it is all too easy to end up having faith in your faith rather than abiding in Jesus who is the Vine and apart from whom we can do nothing. We must not rest on our laurels because in reality we don’t have any.

The second realization that moves us toward repentance is awareness, as John puts it, that “the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” We need to be careful here because fear is not a good motive for repentance. The Bible says that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4). But we also must not be naïve and fail to understand that we will be held accountable for what we have done with this life that God has given us.

Remember Jesus’ parable of the talents. It was the guy who was afraid that buried his talent and ended up being rebuked and losing what he had. But the other two guys understood that there would be a day of reckoning and so cognizant of the fact they wisely invested their talents and were able to return to the Master what He gave to them and more. So the realization that there will be a day of reckoning should make us not fearful but wise and lead us to repentance.

Next John describes what a repentant person looks like. They are those who, as he says, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and he illustrates what that means by telling them to share food and clothing with those in need and he tells tax collectors to not collect more than they should and he tells soldiers to not abuse their authority.

I want to come back to his advice but first I want to address this idea of bearing fruit worthy of repentance. I have learned that theology that is done in reaction is far more vulnerable to distortion than theology that comes from illumination of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit. I am thinking of parts of the Continental Reformation that led to what scholars call the Radical Reformation. These guys so reacted against the Roman Catholic Church that they not only threw out the baby with the bathwater, they threw out the bathtub just in case.

In particular they rejected the Sacraments as means of grace and they distorted the idea salvation by faith. They so removed faith from works that they ignored St. James’ admonition in his epistle that faith without works is dead. This thinking took root in parts of Protestantism and so to this day people have a knee jerk reaction against any idea of doing good works, fearing it as some form of works righteousness heresy. But in fact everything that John tells his listeners complies with the teaching of St. James. John is not calling on them to save themselves by doing good works. Rather what he is telling them is very muck like I heard a country preacher say one time, “If you’re saved you ought to act like it.”

You have probably either read the book or seen the play or movie Les Miserables. As you recall, Jean Valjean is the lead character that was sent to prison for stealing bread for his sister’s starving children. After being released he has difficulty finding a place to stay. The local bishop takes him in but Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silver is caught by the police. The bishop however tells him that he forgot the silver candlesticks and has him released, treating it as a gift rather than stolen property. The bishop tells Jean Valjean that God has spared his life for a reason and that he is to use the silver to make an honest man of himself. Jean Valjean does so and becomes a very wealthy man who helps the poor and goes on to save several lives including the life of his archenemy, the rigid policeman Jarvet.

Jean Valjean is an icon of how we should live out our faith. We have been forgiven much so we should forgive much. We have been loved so we should love. We have received compassion so we should give compassion. And we do this not out of fear of what God would do to us if we don’t, nor in an attempt to earn spiritual merit badges. We live out our faith in this manner because it flows naturally from a life of gratitude for grace received.

So when the people ask John what they should do, John points out a couple of things that should flow naturally from someone who is repentant. The first is compassion. If you have two coats, share with those who don’t have one. If you have extra food, share it with those who don’t have any. Compassion. I heard a comedian who claimed to be agnostic say, “If you are an atheist, until there are atheist soup kitchens, you just need to shut up.”

Compassion is not just a mark of repentance it is a hallmark of our faith and what a powerful hallmark it is. Wherever Christianity spread it was a natural consequence to build hospitals and orphanages, to visit the prisoner, to care for the widows. Some of the ministries of compassion came at great personal expense. Families had to be left behind and diseases and enemies took the lives of very faithful servants of God. I read of English missionaries to Africa who packed their belongings in their own coffins because they knew that their life expectancy at the time was less than two years.

We are doing some good things here at St. Patrick’s with our care for the Burmese Refugees and Charter Group providing housing for the disabled. We support the local Food Bank and our offerings to Food for the Poor and the Anglican Relief and Development Fund make our help go international. I am grateful for all of these but I also believe that God wants to do even more through us to impact more lives in our community. The Vestry has been praying and trying to discern what else the Lord is calling us to do in His Name. Someone once said that you don’t ask God to bless your programs, you find out what God is doing and join Him. I ask you to pray with us to discern what God is doing and to let us know what you hear.

The other thing to which John calls those who are to bring forth fruit of repentance is integrity. Isn’t it interesting that he spoke to these two groups in particular, to tax collectors and soldiers? Tax collectors were hated because they were seen as agents of Rome and the soldiers were likely Jewish and Gentile mercenaries who also were not on the top of invitation lists to dinner parties. We can tell by John’s answer that the soldiers were even used to extorting money by force. So it is fascinating that John did not tell them to quit their jobs, rather he called on them to act with integrity within their jobs.

I mentioned last week that true repentance involves amendment of life and this call to integrity certainly fits that bill. I read a quote, “Wisdom is knowing the right path to take. Integrity is taking it.” And I would add, “no matter the cost.” As a nation we used to uphold the virtue of honesty such that we had a story of George Washington not telling a lie about the cherry tree. And yet today we no longer have any expectation at all of our leaders being honest with us. They don’t even tell the truth when they appear before their own committees. But we must not allow this loss of integrity in our nation to invade the Church.

Part of our call as people who live in the kingdom of God is to be salt and light. And one way of doing that, as Jesus taught, is to be people of our word. He said that our “yes” needs to be “yes” and our “no” needs to be “no” Integrity is when there does not need to be some external force like a vow or a contract to make it so. We are to have an inner moral compass that is informed by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount and not be driven by feelings and circumstances. When situational ethics is the rule of the day, we are to be led by truth. We cannot accept ever that the ends justify the means. Ex 23:2 says “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong…” and it is integrity that gives us the strength to stand up to the crowd and take the path less traveled.

It is also noteworthy that when compassion and integrity are yoked together that it creates a wonderful balance. Compassion without integrity can end up doing more harm than good. It can be paternalistic, it can be motivated by guilt, and it can enable rather than empower the person that you are trying to help. Compassion without integrity can create some very unhealthy relationships.

But integrity without compassion is also problematic. Back to Les Miserables. This was the problem that Jarvet, the rigid policeman, encountered. He had a very high view of the law but he didn’t have a heart. After Jean Valjean saved Jarvet’s life an untenable conflict arose within him. He knew that he should arrest Jean Valjean for a petty crime done years ago, but it was also obvious that Jean Valjean was a reformed man who, as John the Baptist would say, brought forth the fruit of repentance. This high sense of duty but his lack of compassion resulted in an internal conflict so great that Jarvet killed himself by jumping into the river. Having both integrity and compassion means that we will do the right thing and we do it with love.

I love how this Gospel lesson ends. Even as John points the crowd to Jesus, who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire, he paints a picture of Jesus as a harvester with a winnowing fork in his hand, clearing the threshing floor and putting wheat into the granary and burning the chaff with an unquenchable fire. This is not exactly a picture of Jesus that you want to put in a Sunday School classroom is it? And yet the text says, “So with these and many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.” He starts out by calling them snakes and he ends up talking about burning in an unquenchable fire and yet Luke calls this “good news”. Surely this is another example of how His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways.

Perhaps the problem here is that we have not fully understood the Gospel. The modern Church has made the Gospel about being inclusive and having everyone feel accepted or promising that life will be unicorns and rainbows if we have enough faith. And yet St. Matthew and St. Mark both record that Jesus’ first sermon was “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This puts Him right in line with John the Baptist does it not?

The Gospel is that the kingdom of God is breaking into human history and we need to repent and get on board. The Gospel is that the King has come and we are being called to align our lives under His rule and will. The Gospel is that He divides the people into two groups, those who are His subjects and those that are in rebellion against Him. We are either wheat or chaff. The Gospel is that through repentance we get on the right side. The Gospel is God telling us what we need to hear and not always what we want to hear. So as harsh as John the Baptist and even Jesus may sound to us we can know that the motive here is the love of the Father who did not spare His only Son for us. It is this love that calls us to repentance. It is this love that calls us to be people of compassion and integrity. It is this love in which we rejoice on this Gaudete Sunday. Amen.

 

 

Yosemite the Baptist

Yosemite Sam

2 Advent 2015                                                                   Lesson Luke 3:1-6

When I was a kid I loved Saturday morning cartoons and among my favorite characters was Yosemite Sam. He was a tiny redheaded character with a large mustache and a loud powerful voice that claimed to be “the roughest, toughest, root’nest, toot’nest, fastest gun-slinger west of the Pecos!”

I may regret saying this when I meet him in glory but whenever this season rolls around and we are once again introduced to John the Baptist, I picture Yosemite Sam in camel hair clothing eating locust and honey. I can hear him cry out, “Say your prayers you brood of vipers.”

But more than the person of John the Baptist, I want to draw your attention to his message this morning. As you can tell from our reading in Baruch and from quotes from Isaiah that John’s message is not original. He never claimed it to be. He was repeating Isaiah’s message but in a different way. While Isaiah was using the geography of the land as a metaphor for Israel’s return from bondage, John the Baptist is speaking about the geography of the heart and he is speaking to a people who are in spiritual bondage. And it is precisely because he is speaking about the geography of the heart that he is speaking not only to those first century listeners but he is speaking to us as well. In spite of all of our advances technologically, human nature remains human nature.

First he speaks of every valley being filled. The valley represents those whose hearts are downcast, those who are broken, those who have even lost hope. It is easy to imagine that many in his audience knew the valley. They had been conquered by the Romans and were living under the evil rule of Herod. A strong cast system existed that separated male from female, slave from free and Jew from Greek. Unless you were on the top of the heap it would have been a time in history when it would have been very easy to feel beaten down.

If you have never been there it is difficult to imagine what that is like but it is so important not to underestimate the power hopelessness. I once heard an interview of a World War II veteran who had survived the Bataan Death March. If you are not familiar with that, it was a forced march of about 70,000 allied prisoners by the Japanese forces for about 60 miles. The march was so filled with brutality that one estimate is that about 10,000 died along the way. What struck me as this veteran was telling his story was how he saw man after man lose hope and literally roll over will themselves to die. The loss of hope can be that debilitating.

So the last thing a person who is broken and downcast needs to hear is that they need to buck up or to get more faith. The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” This is especially true of those in the valley. What they need is to be given hope again and John gives them that by pointing them to the coming Messiah.

What we see throughout Jesus’ ministry, in the many healings that He performed, in the demons that He cast out, in the times He pronounced forgiveness (to the consternation of His enemies) is that He has come to heal and restore. That is why the text of Isaiah from which Jesus quoted in the Synagogue at the beginning of His ministry was so appropriate. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” (KJV).

And Jesus continues that ministry to this day, which makes this time of waiting in Advent is a time of hope. We have not been abandoned. We are not alone. God Himself will take on flesh and tabernacle among us, and when He returns we will forever be with the Lord. So this is a time of joyful expectation as we look forward not only to His birth but also to His coming again when all things will be made new. And when we see things like the events of Paris and San Bernardino we know that He cannot come soon enough. We need to be praying with the saints in heaven, “How long O Lord?”

The second geography of the heart that Yosemite the Baptist mentions is that every mountain and hill will be brought low. When Jesus is born Blessed Mary sings in her song “He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats….” (Lk 1:51,52).

The Scripture is quite clear that as surly as God gives grace to the humble so also He opposes the proud. Proverbs tells us that pride is one of the seven things that God hates. Why does God single out pride in this manner? Perhaps because pride seeks to rob God of His glory and inevitably leads to idolatry. In our Thanksgiving lessons God gave the children of Israel a stern warning once they entered the Promised Land not to become prideful. God warned them saying. “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.

The damnable thing about pride is that it comes in so many forms and can be so subtle. We can have pride in everything from our ancestry, to our accomplishments, to even our religion. 19th Century South African pastor Andrew Murray wrote, “There is not pride so dangerous, so subtle and insidious as the pride of holiness.” That is what both John the Baptist and Jesus ran into with the Scribes and Pharisees and they are fairly easy to find in the Church to this day. And I would argue there is even more of them outside of the Church, who stand in judgment of the Church because in their eyes it fails to meet their expectations.

The cure for this sin of pride is to live for the glory of God just as Jesus did. It is to be like John the Baptist and know that I must decrease while He must increase. It is to be the servant that Jesus modeled for us when He washed the feet of the disciples and we have to know that it’s pretty difficult to be filled with self-importance when you are washing stinky feet.

But here is a wonderful thing about the Gospel. Rather than being made miserable or made weak by the loss of pride, just the opposite happens. This is how one writer describes a people who are free from pride. “They live from the strong foundation of the kingdom and are not interested in being consoled, understood or loved by people because they already are by God. Instead they console, understand and love others. Paradoxically people who learn to do this are the happiest of all.” (The Good and Beautiful Live, p. 149)

The third geography of the heart, to prepare the way of the Lord, is the crooked being made straight and the rough places made smooth. These refer to areas of our lives that are not as they should be.

At Synod last month Archbishop Foley gave a very convicting talk to the clergy about keeping our consciences clear. He was not condemning nor was he calling on us to become a bunch of Pharisees, but he did strike a nerve. It caused me to pause and reflect on areas of my life where I have been ignoring that still small voice. You know that voice. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit that does not threaten or cajole but loving warns. To use John’s language the Bishop’s talk made me take a closer look at the crooked paths in my life that need to be straightened and the rough places in my life that need to be smoothed.

And John even tells us how to do that. It is through repentance. I love the 1928 version of the call to confession because it is so instructive about how we go about offering to God true repentance. First it instructs us that we are to truly and earnestly repent of our sins. We are not to be flippant about them. We are not to offer excuses. We are not to shift blame. We are not to candy coat them by calling them mistakes. We are to admit them to God because, as we pray in the 1928 confession, the burden of our sins is intolerable.

But the next step is equally important for true repentance. It is that we “…intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking henceforth in His holy ways….” I believe that this is why John the Baptist was so hard on the Pharisees when they came to him. He knew that they had no intention of amending their life and walking in God’s holy ways. He knew they were just coming to add another bead on their rosaries and repentance doesn’t work that way. It is godly sorrow AND amendment of life. That is how the crooked is made straight and the rough places planed.

But that is not where the process stops. Godly sorrow and intent to lead a new life must be met by the grace of God or we are just engaging in a self-improvement course. As we turn from our sin we must, must, must turn to the mercies of Jesus and know and believe that through His acceptance of our repentance that we are loved, forgiven, and free.

It also occurred to me as I was studying that while I have so far described John’s sermon as addressing three different types of people, it is also very likely that all three of those conditions can be possible within just one heart. I know that if I am willing to be brutally honest with myself that I can admit to areas of brokenness, areas of pride or vainglory and areas of straying like lost sheep. Because I am in Christ, none of these areas define who I am, but as St. John says in his epistle, if I were to say that I did not have these sins, the truth would not be in me. Admitting this puts me in the need of a Savior and that is what John promises us.

John’s sermon ends on a high note. He says that when we have prepared a way for the Lord that “all flesh will see the salvation of God.” This will happen like His coming as a first and a second advent. When we prepare a way for Him in our hearts then He comes to us bringing His salvation as He did at His first coming. This is when we know personal redemption. This is when we know that we have been accepted in the beloved. This is whey we realize that we are no longer under condemnation and that nothing can now separate us from His love.

But when He comes a second time then all flesh will see the salvation of God, even those who will not share in His salvation. But at that point it will be too late to make preparation. This brings to mind Jesus’ many parables about being alert and always being prepared. So let’s hear John’s sermon, and address the geography of our hearts today and every day. Let’s deal with our brokenness, deal with our pride and deal with our waywardness by taking it all to Him. Let’s do this in order to prepare the way of the Lord. Oh, and one more thing….“say your prayers you brood of vipers!” Amen.